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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bob Dylan: Slow Train Coming

BOB DYLAN: SLOW TRAIN COMING (1979)

1) Gotta Serve Somebody; 2) Precious Angel; 3) I Believe In You; 4) Slow Train; 5) Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking; 6) Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others); 7) When You Gonna Wake Up; 8) Man Gave Names To All The Animals; 9) When He Returns.

Truly and verily the match between Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler must have been made in Hea­ven, even though Mark did find it somewhat embarrassing when he discovered that he had been recruited to play on a bona fide Christian rock album. So was Jerry Wexler, for that matter, who produced the album, all the while having to fight back Dylan's incessant proselytizing. According to Bob's own confession, he had seen the light after Jesus himself visited the old sinner in his sleep — and judging by objective evidence at least, Bob's conversion must have been quite sin­cere, since it involved schooling, training, and missionary activity. The fact that he dropped all of his secular material from the concert setlists is, in comparison, not such good evidence, since this could be ascribed primarily to the man's general fondness for controversy and prankishness; but on the whole, his entire life during those three strange years seems to have indeed been domina­ted by J. C. and his teachings.

As a rule, the term «Christian rock» does not stimulate too many positive emotions among people with «good taste», so to speak — which is really due not so much to the fact that a practising Christian may not have good taste (he certainly may) as to the fact that the term has largely been privatized by scores of dull, talentless artists who seem to think that any music is all right as long as it explicitly glorifies Jesus, the Church, and the Christian life. From which, of course, it does not logically follow that any music that glorifies Jesus is automatically bad — nor is the very fact of singing praise for the Christian lifestyle by itself worth condemnation, because, well, on the whole this is just another way of singing about the battle between good and evil, right?

Which means that I cannot side with John Lennon's famous fury when he heard ʽGotta Serve Somebodyʼ and it pissed him off so much that he could not resist the temptation of writing an unofficial response (the furious and melodically awful ʽServe Yourselfʼ; fortunately, he had the good commercial sense not to polish it for inclusion on Double Fantasy). If you take the song on its own value, out of the general Jesus context, its only message is a simple one — whatever you do, and no matter how complicated life seems to be, there will always be a black-and-white per­spective to it as well, and your very existence in this world will force you to choose one side over the other. Put it that way, and it's not too different from the naïve philosophies of John and Yoko themselves, the way they were practised and propagated in the era of «Bagism».

Indeed, of all the three albums of Bob's «Christian» period, Slow Train Coming is the least dri­ven by ritual and formula — only about half of the songs deal directly with Jesus and the «born again» thing — and, more importantly, much of it is about the music, not about the words. With Wexler in the producer's seat, the album has a strong Muscle Shoals atmosphere about it, repla­cing the «big band» sound of Street Legal with a tougher, more stripped and economic, but still dense 1970s R&B atmosphere, which Knopfler then personalizes with his shrill-and-somber Glasgow blues guitar tone. The atmosphere, however, is anything but celebratory: Dylan does not glorify or praise so much as condemn, and that's some mighty fine condemning, I must say.

Christian rock or not, ʽSlow Trainʼ is one of Bob's greatest songs of the 1970s, if not ever — an inspiring combination of critical lyrics, sincerely angered vocal delivery, viciously lashing licks from Knopfler, and perfectly placed backing vocals: each of the "...there's a slow... slow train coming... up around the bend" choruses really does create the illusion of an approaching train (okay, so it passes you by and fades away in the distance with each chorus, so that after a while it gets a little repetitive, but the arrangement compensates for that by gradually adding extra layers of brass and keyboards). Bob's way with words is quite impressive as well — the fire-and-brim­stone thing never gets old if you populate it with new imagery, such as backwards girls from Ala­bama, «masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition» (the last time we heard of «masters» was on ʽMasters Of Warʼ, and this might be the first time since then that the old preacher from Hibbing comes out with so much direct thrashing). Plus, as of 2013, the thrashing seems to be ever and ever more relevant than it was in 1979 ("they talk about a life of brotherly love, show me someone who knows how to live it") — although my favorite quote still comes from ʽWhen You Gonna Wake Upʼ ("they tell you ʽtime is moneyʼ as if your life was worth its weight in gold"). This sort of preaching is quite all right with me, you know.

On the whole, he may have broken up with his fanbase, but Slow Train Coming is a typical — and typically good — Dylan album all the way. Long, verbose songs, with repetitive, but hooky choruses: whatever one might say, the transition from slow shuffly tempo verse to sped-up boo­gie chorus on ʽWhen You Gonna Wake Upʼ gets me every time (a good word must be put in for Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers), and the brass groove of ʽGonna Change My Way Of Thin­kingʼ (which, come to think of it, borrows a part from ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ) is powerful and makes good use of its stop-and-start structure. Oh, and there is even some lightweight humor in the picture — ʽMan Gave Names To All The Animalsʼ is really one for the kiddos (you'd hardly expect a reasonable grown-up to feel happy about filling in that last line, which also gets you a-thinkin': what, suppose Adam did not notice the snake and give it its name, maybe things would have turned out quite different?..).

In any case, there may be no doubt about it: Slow Train Coming did rejuvenate Dylan and pull him out, if only temporarily, of the personal crisis so masochistically displayed on Street Legal. The solution may seem too crude, too simple, too undeserving of someone who used to take pride in out-of-the-ordinary sophistication, but it seems that, at the time, a crude, simple solution was exactly the kind of solution that the doctor ordered — and as long as it did not interfere with Dy­lan's strengths and values as a musician, there was no problem.

Well, come to think of it, there may have been signs of a problem: songs like ʽWhen He Returnsʼ really show Bob drifting towards formulaic spiritual mush, and on the whole, Slow Train succeeds much better when he is condemning violators of brotherly love than when he is trying to spread brotherly love as such. Want it or not, Dylan's most personal and beloved God is the God of Vengeance, not the God of Compassion, and this is why ʽGotta Serve Somebodyʼ and ʽSlow Trainʼ have a strong chance of being remembered when stuff like ʽPrecious Angelʼ and ʽI Believe In Youʼ is long forgotten. Fortunately, it is these songs that set the overall tone for the entire al­bum — along with Knopfler, still at the peak of his «inner punk flame» period — and guarantee it an assured thumbs up. Fun fact: Nick Cave himself has gone on record proclaiming Slow Train to be his favorite Dylan album (of all time, no less!), and even if it is hard to believe the sincerity of this statement, I can certainly understand his motivation. At the very least, this may have earned the album a bunch of extra listeners — pretty strong publicity.  

Check "Slow Train Coming" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, December 30, 2013

Buddy Holly: The "Chirping" Crickets

BUDDY HOLLY: THE «CHIRPING» CRICKETS (1957)

1) Oh Boy; 2) Not Fade Away; 3) You've Got Love; 4) Maybe Baby; 5) It's Too Late; 6) Tell Me How; 7) That'll Be The Day; 8) I'm Lookin' For Someone To Love; 9) An Empty Cup (And A Broken Date); 10) Send Me Some Lovin'; 11) Last Night; 12) Rock Me My Baby.

If you listen to all of the Beatles' officially released recordings in chronological order, the very first song you are going to hear will be ʽThat'll Be The Dayʼ, pressed by the Quarrymen in 1958, approximately one year after the song had appeared on the Brunswick label as the first official single by The Crickets. Naturally, this is no matter of coincidence since, by all accounts, Buddy Holly was the single greatest influence (out of many) on the Beatles, at least up until the band's «musical globalization» in 1965.

At first, it might even seem a little bizarre. When Buddy made the world aware of his ex­istence, in mid-1957, «rock and roll» had already been firmly established — Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Elvis, even Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis were all recognized stars, with a bunch of hit singles safely tucked under their belts; Buddy was a relative latecomer to this parade of flashy, rebellious personalities. Compared to each of them separately, he did not seem to stand much of a competitive chance. Never a technically great singer; never a particularly gifted or fluent instrumental player; definitely nowhere near an «onstage volcano» in terms of performance — just a normal, quiet Texas kid, happy enough to wear a neatly pressed tuxedo and bowtie, with a proper haircut and with those silly thick glasses that really made him look more like an aspiring Ivy League freshman than a rock'n'roller.

So what exactly did Buddy Holly bring to the table that was not already on it? Hope, I'd say. For all those thousands of kids who were not blessed with the vocal cords of an Elvis, or the natural dynamism of a Jerry Lee, or the cool looks of a Gene Vincent, it was Buddy who conveyed the message — what matters is not the flashiness of style, what matters is substance. Buddy's major achievements all lie in the field of songwriting. Had he mostly stuck to covering other people's material, he would have remained but a small footnote in the history of popular music, as his first LP proves without a doubt: out of the 12 numbers on Chirping Crickets, the ones that stay with you are almost always those where Buddy is credited as chief songwriter.

I will not shy away from saying that I almost always prefer other people's covers of Buddy's material to the originals. Even that early Quarrymen cover of ʽThat'll Be The Dayʼ sounds almost as good as Buddy's (and would have sounded even better had the lads had access to better studio equipment). ʽNot Fade Awayʼ would eventually be expropriated, toughened up, and set for early anthemic status by the Stones. And when John Lennon later covered Buddy's interpretation of ʽSend Me Some Lovin'ʼ on his Rock And Roll album, he raised the bar tenfold in the vocal de­partment, adding explicit emotional torment where Holly only hinted at it.

But none of that mattered back in 1957 — and even though it matters today, it is also a pretext to try and figure out why, in the long run, these early songs have survived and are still listenable to­day. Sure enough, there is some stuff on this Crickets debut that is not all that listenable. In par­ticular, «The Picks», a New Mexican family vocal outfit, provide a rather awful doo-wop-style backing, spoiling much of the ballad component of the album (ʽLast Nightʼ, etc.) — not that Buddy Holly himself was ever made for doo-wop, of course, but it also has to be kept in mind that, like everything else at the time, The Chirping Crickets was really just a bunch of cool singles surrounded by obligatory filler.

We will disregard the filler, then, and focus all the attention on the classics: ʽThat'll Be The Dayʼ and ʽNot Fade Awayʼ as the best known; ʽMaybe Babyʼ, ʽTell Me Howʼ, ʽI'm Looking For Someone To Loveʼ as their lesser worthy brethren. First and foremost, this is not «threatening» music: Buddy was not a «rebel», he had a thoroughly «pop» conscience through and through, and the music avoids dark bass lines, distortion, aggression, etc., as much as possible (just look at how the «spooky», «tribal» Bo Diddley beat is niftily transformed into a happy celebration of love and fidelity on ʽNot Fade Awayʼ). At the same time, it is not «cheesy» pop — it is jangly, guitar-based pop, no strings, pianos, or production slickness attached, something that even the rough'n'tough garage-rock crowds of the early 1960s would find easy to appreciate. Most importantly, it all just sounds natural and realistic. Where Ricky Nelson (whose public image appeared the same year as Buddy) gave the impression of «glossy manufacture» from the start, Buddy simply is as buddy does.

What I really mean to say is that Holly compensates for his technical flaws with evident charisma — present everywhere, not just in his looks (always clean, never glossy), but also in his sweet, shaky, naturally-stuttery vocals, and in his guitar playing, with delicate, memorable phrasing that sometimes mimicks Carl Perkins or Scotty Moore, but just as frequently consists of original lines (unfortunately, «The Picks» too often overshadow them — ʽMaybe Babyʼ could have been so much better without all the waah-waahs and the pa-da-dams). The songwriting ideas might have been replicated and enhanced, but the personality could not: Buddy Holly offers that perfect compro­mise between the «gruff rocker» and the «teen idol» that is actually much harder to attain than it might look upon first sight.

As for the rating, The Chirping Crickets has way too much filler on it for a regular thumbs up, but if we introduce «The Fifties' Correction» and only rate it in accordance with the quality of the singles, which we should, things will obviously change. That said, unlike the self-titled follow-up, Chirping Crickets is hardly worth hunting for if you already have all the best stuff on a com­pilation — filler is filler, and nobody should be obliged to associate Buddy with doo-wop ballads (or hear him sing songs written by Roy Orbison, for that matter).

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Blood Brothers: Burn, Piano Island, Burn!

THE BLOOD BROTHERS: BURN, PIANO ISLAND, BURN! (2003)

1) Guitarmy; 2) Fucking's Greatest Hits; 3) Burn, Piano Island, Burn; 4) Every Breath Is A Bomb; 5) Ambulance Vs. Ambulance; 6) USA Nails; 7) Cecilia And The Silhouette Saloon; 8) Six Nightmares At The Pinball Masquerade; 9) The Salesman, Denver Max; 10) I Know Where The Canaries And The Crows Go; 11) God Bless You, Blood Thir­sty Zeppelins; 12) The Shame.

Moving into the big leagues — this album was produced by no less than Ross Robertson, the «Godfather of Nu-Metal» (a title earned with his production of the first Korn album) as well as a towering figure in «post-hardcore» (At The Drive-In, Glassjaw, etc.); and it takes itself far more seriously than the previous two records, being nearly twice as long and featuring an even weirder and more obfuscated concept than March On. For all that, as well as for being the band's first major label album, Burn, Piano Island, Burn! has earned the average critical consensus of being their masterpiece — although, it must be said, for most critics this was their first exposure to the ritual aural torture that is The Blood Brothers, and few of them had the painful responsibility to understand and describe what it is, exactly, that distinguishes Burn from its predecessors, let alone makes it so much better.

To be sure, there are some tiny differences. For instance, ʽThe Salesmanʼ is, I believe, the first song in the band's catalog to begin with an acoustic guitar part — not a particularly good one, sounding a bit like some second-rate country-pop composer trying to figure out a new melody, but certainly shocking enough for a Blood Brothers record (don't worry, though, it all reverts back to normal in about a minute's time). ʽCecilia And The Silhouette Saloonʼ starts out with a gloomy-grinning two-note bass riff that brings to mind Deep Purple's ʽDemon's Eyeʼ, then, ten seconds later, dissolves the subtlety of the intro in the usual sea of screamo noise. And ʽThe Shameʼ, closing out the album, is this band's idea of an anthemic ballad — for once, they are willing to dispense with pure anger, rage, and saliva in favor of a more desperate, maybe even «crying» kind of sound, expressing their negative views of modern civilization in «punk prayer» rather than «punk bonfire» mode. So far, so good.

Beyond that, however, nothing much has changed, except that the «songs» have grown longer and there are now more of them — playing these 47 minutes of sound at full volume is going to be a psychic challenge even for experienced listeners, mainly because, with each new release, The Blood Brothers manage to inject ever more and more venom into their voices. It's bad enough to just have people screaming at you for forty minutes, but when they do this in the ugli­est, nastiest, shrillest ways possible, well... then again, supposedly the whole point is that this is the kind of record you usually play not so much to enjoy it yourself but as to spook away your boring neighbors. Blast this out your window at top volume and prepare to get evicted (if your neighbors are brave enough to call the police) or to acquire the status of the local Phantom of the Opera (if they are not).

If you do wish to spend a bit of extra time with the album, the lyrics sheet may be worth consul­ting. Most of the lines come across as «pissed nonsense», but whoever wishes to see it all as one big rambling condemnation of the silly excesses of industrial / commercial society will have plenty of evidence in favor of that interpretation. Plenty of references to doctors and ambulances, too, because the Brothers are still playing their «restricted area mental ward» game. Typical quote: "Unfortunately this Marilyn Monroe is a secret Zeppelin / Set on a crash course with your cum­shot museum / With the blowjob bunny mansion". From a certain angle, this might even be con­sidered as worthy poetry. From another angle, though, these «shocking» lines have no true shock­ing potential in the year 2003.

That said, the Brothers are capable of thought-provoking lyrical twists — they not only borrow from early Dylan, they may even repay him back: "How many chords till this song vomits out real love? / How many feathers to pluck naked the soiled dove? / How many whores till you send away for that trophy? / How many punches till you give yourself away for free?" Not a bad way to innovatively celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Freewheelin', and it's not even that the two albums' primary messages were all that incompatible (and, for that matter, back in 1963 quite a few people felt much the same way about Dylan's voice as one could feel about the Brothers now — «truth hurts!»).

The problem is that, even when taken all together, the advantages of Burn, Piano Island, Burn — such as lyrical cleverness, instrumental prowess, and, above all, glorification of all things Extreme-and-Radical — do not suffice to overcome the simple question of «So what?..» which I ask myself when writing each single review. I mean, say what you want, there is no possible way in human history (not at present, at least) to get more Extreme-and-Radical than G. G. Allin or Anal Cunt. The Blood Brothers know this, and accordingly shift the agenda: they want to get all Extreme-and-Radical on our asses while at the same time retaining an intellectual approach with both the music and the lyrics. But then they punch themselves into a corner, because, when you get to the bottom of it, «intellectualism» and «radicalism» are poor cousins — it's a bit like trying to become the chess champion of the world while bungee jumping naked, because playing chess at the chess table is boring and stereotypical, whereas bungee jumping per se is stupid. Combine these two activities — and you pretty much get the real world equivalent of Burn, Piano Island, Burn, an album to which I could probably give a thumbs up if I had no knowledge whatsoever of pre-2000 music; but, the way things actually are, I can at most give it an encouraging (or «con­descending», if you'd like to call it that) pat on the back.

Check "Burn, Piano Island, Burn!" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Burn, Piano Island, Burn!" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Belle And Sebastian: Storytelling

BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: STORYTELLING (2002)

1) Fiction; 2) Freak; 3) Dialogue: Conan, Early Letterman; 4) Fuck This Shit; 5) Night Walk; 6) Dialogue: Jersey's Where It's At; 7) Black And White Unite; 8) Consuelo; 9) Dialogue: Toby; 10) Storytelling; 11) Dialogue: Class Rank; 12) I Don't Want To Play Football; 13) Consuelo Leaving; 14) Wandering Alone; 15) Dialogue: Mandingo Cliche; 16) Scooby Driver; 17) Fiction Reprise; 18) Big John Shaft.

Although this album is essentially a side project, it does have its own importance in the Belle & Sebastian story. Formally, this is a soundtrack for a movie of the same name by US indie director Todd Solondz — not at all an unexpected development, as indie cinema and indie pop are so na­turally tied in together with the ubiquitous «outcast loser» mentality. However, due to various is­sues of personal communication as well as forced edits to the final version of the movie, most of the actual music composed for the project was never heard in the theater. So, big deal, Murdoch and Co. just went ahead and released all of it as a separate album, together with isolated frag­ments of movie dialog for «authenticity».

The occasional advantage of such an album is that soundtracks tend to be partially or mostly ins­trumental, and this makes it easier to assess the «musicality» of the artist without it getting too obscured by the frontman's personality. No matter how talented, or untalented, the members of Belle & Sebastian may be in the composing department, most of the songs were completely domi­nated by Murdoch's personal charisma. Here, the singing is kept to a minimum, and it helps answer the question — is the «Belle & Sebastian» brand actually viable when stripped of its sen­timental tales of highland loneliness?

And the answer is an immediate «yes», on the strength of the album's opening track: the piano theme to ʽFictionʼ, simple and unassuming as it is, is instantaneously charming, memorable, and completely true to the Belle & Sebastian ethical code without a single spoken word — fragile, delicate, tasteful, and friendly. For admirers, other than the reprise at the end of the album, there is also a special «night version» of the same theme (ʽNight Walkʼ), played at higher octaves and sending out a sharper contrast with the dark bassline. It may not be a phenomenal composing feat, but, well, at least it is a more complex bit of piano phrasing than most of Paul McCartney's feats, and every bit as catchy.

The ʽFictionʼ theme may be the best there is on the record (it ain't repeated thrice for nothing), but most of the other melodies have their own charm as well. ʽFreakʼ is an attractive shadowy mix of minimalist acoustic guitar, piano, Mellotron, and «ghost vocals»; ʽFuck This Shitʼ, de­fying its title, is a little romantic harmonica-driven ditty (the harmonica does keep repeating a three-note sequence that intonationally mimicks the title, though); and ʽConsueloʼ cleverly syn­the­sizes Spanish-style trumpet with «Celtic» harp.

Of the vocal numbers, ʽScooby Driverʼ finds the band in quite an unusual mood — playing a fast, almost raunchy Sixties-style pop-rocker, invading the turf of The Apples In Stereo or some other such band in full confidence (too bad it's only a minute-long snippet); but the title track is also upbeat, alternating friendly male / female vocals, pianos, flutes, and trombones in a Kinks-deri­ved way that was only hinted at on Fold Your Hands, but never became the norm for that album; and ʽI Don't Want To Play Footballʼ is a brief solo Murdoch-and-the-piano piece that is so inten­tionally «wimpy» it could just as well be upgraded to the state of the National Belle-And-Sebas­tian Fan Club Anthem: "I'd rather play a different sort of game / The girls are just as good as boys at playing". (One can only imagine how the poor boy must have suffered in school — this is a fifty-seven second snippet of his nerdy revenge).

The only full-length, fully-fledged vocal tune on the entire album is ʽBig John Shaftʼ, and it, too, shows a departure from the usual stylistics by being built around a funk-pop electric rhythm — which the band still dresses up in Christmasy pianos and strings, so as, God forbid, not to invite any accusations of a «transition to a roughness of sound». And yet, everything shows that there is some sort of transition on here — that they took up the offer, among other things, in order to get try and get themselves out of the self-imposed stylistic rut. And on here at least, the transition works: short and snippety as the record is, it is pleasantly diverse and dynamic without having to sacrifice any part of the band's artistic credo. Thumbs up, and for those in doubt, the only nega­tive side effects of the album's «soundtrack» status are (a) its shortness (some of the snippets could have easily been promoted to full-length songs) and (b) the tiny bits of dialog that are in­comprehensible without the movie and do not really make that much of a difference. Without them, the album's even shorter — but still a worthy addition to the catalog.

Check "Storytelling" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Storytelling" (MP3) on Amazon

Friday, December 27, 2013

Bauhaus: Burning From The Inside

BAUHAUS: BURNING FROM THE INSIDE (1983)

1) She's In Parties; 2) Antonin Artaud; 3) Wasp; 4) King Volcano; 5) Who Killed Mr. Moonlight; 6) Slice Of Life; 7) Honeymoon Croon; 8) Kingdom's Coming; 9) Burning From The Inside; 10) Hope.

Considering who we are talking about here, the phrase «nothing predicted a bleak future for Bauhaus in 1983» sounds rather silly — this is one band that could always do with some bleak future, the bleaker the better. Let me try and rephrase that: by early 1983, Bauhaus were going stronger than ever, and there is no telling how many successful results this Murphy/Ash colla­boration could yield throughout the decade. But fate commanded that, just as the band entered the studio to begin sessions for their fourth LP, Murphy fell ill with a real heavy (some say life-threa­tening) case of pneumonia — and the remaining members actually had the nerve to carry on re­cording without him, even to the point of Ash and David J singing lead vocals on several tracks. Whatever tensions between the vocalist and the instrumentalists there were up to that point were instantly magnified tenfold, and the band played their last show at the Hammersmith on July 5, one week prior to the release of Burning From The Inside.

Tension, dissent, and various forms of cracks within a band are not always detrimental — quite often, this actually stirs and freshens creative juices, and there is nothing like a heavy splash of healthy hatred to produce great art, anyway. Unfortunately, this is not what happened here — with the partial absence of Murphy, Bauhaus... well, it just isn't Bauhaus any more. Apart from a few trademark songs, Ash and David J push the band into softer, more «melodic» territory that draws its inspiration from dark folk and Kurt Weill rather than Joy Division. It may be tasteful and relatively interesting territory, but it puts The Bauhaus Beast to sleep (and it sometimes puts me to sleep, which is not good at all).

There is really only one classic number here, which accordingly opens the album and was also released as its only single — ʽShe's In Partiesʼ has everything you could expect from a Bauhaus song: dark «glam-hellish» delivery from Peter, going into a nostalgic trance for the glitz, the vanity, and the noir of the classic age of Hollywood; a simple, nasty, unforgettable riff from Ash, even­tually mutating into a series of heavily treated swoops and meltdowns, as if somebody were pouring acid on the amps; and a gloomy solo dance by the bassline for a coda. The song is so good that its very presence already sort of redeems the album, so that the ensuing disappointment is not so disappointing — then again, it is hard not to be disappointed when you slowly under­stand that nothing else here comes close to matching the dark power of its opening number.

Most of the Murphy-less stuff is what I'd call «for the fans». The boys mean well and have no in­tention of simply pelting us with filler: ʽWho Killed Mr. Moonlightʼ, for instance, is a carefully thought-out epitaphy to starry-eyed romance, a piano / organ-dominated melancholic ballad on how "someone shot nostalgia in the back, someone shot our innocence". Problem is... it's boring. They do not seem to be able to do anything interesting with these instruments, let alone the saxo­phone doodling that Ash is quietly arranging in the background. It's basically just five minutes of fluffy atmospheric wallowing that is neither too pretty nor too sad to activate the emotions. It's just something that is not-theirs-to-do.

Nor am I too impressed with the half-drunk, half-tribal waltzing of ʽKing Volcanoʼ (tries to achieve a phantasmagoric effect but fails), or with the acoustic folk balladry of ʽKingdom's Co­mingʼ (monotonous, instantly forgettable); ʽSlice Of Lifeʼ is a little better because Ash's vocals at least match the nervous tension of the instrumental melody, and this is the only track on which he succeeds in building up some maniacal paranoia — still, Murphy would have handled that so much better. Really, none of these songs has any genuine staying power. In addition, it is a little weird that, all of a sudden, without Murphy in the studio, Ash so abruptly decided to place his faith in the acoustic guitar: he is not a master picker, and his greatest talent was always in the sheer number of different effects and impressions he could derive from electricity.

Things do not always work out fine with Murphy, either: case in point is the title track, which starts out nice enough, with cruel, brain-melting riffs and pleasantly extremist abrupt jumps from dirge-goth to «punk-funk» and convenient lyrics about "razor weeds" that reach up to one's knees, but then somehow gets stuck in a five-minute repetitive coda that annoys rather than enchants, as if your vinyl got caught in the groove for some purely mechanical reason. Those five minutes, I doubt it not for a second, were clearly thrown in to fill up space: there must be more atmospheric ways of getting the message of "I don't see you anymore" into your listeners' heads than this.

Finally, what sort of a Bauhaus record finishes with a song called ʽHopeʼ? Uplifting acoustic gui­tars? Hippie-style choral vocals? "Your mornings will be brighter, break the line, tear up rules, make the most of a million times no"? Who do they think they are — Jefferson Airplane? Time to call it a day, boys; I have no more interest in hearing this from my Bauhaus than in listening to the Beach Boys doing hip-hop or to Elton John singing opera arias.

Of course, the album is not really a «sell out»: it is simply plagued by circumstances beyond ar­tistic control, and a failed attempt to compensate for these circumstances with a series of experi­ments that downplay the band's traditional strengths and lay open their weaknesses. Many fans are still willing to accept it, particularly since ʽShe's In Partiesʼ is such a strong opener that it does set the tone for the entire record, and that's quite alright. My point is simply that Burning From The Inside is «diluted Bauhaus», and that I'd rather go listen to R.E.M. than to ʽKingdom's Co­mingʼ, or to Peter Hammill rather than to ʽWho Killed Mr. Moonlightʼ — why settle for anything but the best, after all, when history has already provided you with such an ample choice?

Check "Burning From The Inside" (MP3) on Amazon

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Big Star: #1 Record

BIG STAR: #1 RECORD (1972)

1) Feel; 2) The Ballad Of El Goodo; 3) In The Street; 4) Thirteen; 5) Don't Lie To Me; 6) The India Song; 7) When My Baby's Beside Me; 8) My Life Is Right; 9) Give Me Another Chance; 10) Try Again; 11) Watch The Sunrise; 12) ST100/6.

The legend of Big Star, the proverbial «out-of-time underdog», radiates such a strong field that for each of Big Star's three «classic» albums, there is its own group of champions — and then there is a fourth one that claims all three are equally great, but my understanding is that these guys are mostly poseurs, because there is no way one could have equally strong feelings for #1 Record, Radio City, and Sister Lovers, so different are they in terms of songwriting, production, attitude, and cohesiveness. Personally, I have always belonged to the #1 Record camp, and the more I listen to this album, the more I feel that the band's legendary status may be fully justified by it and it alone. Speaking of Big Star in clichéd terms of «the greatest band you have never heard of» is an uninteresting occupation, but, fortunately, one does not need to do that in order to just sit back and enjoy some of this wonderful music.

The actual «wonder» is generated by a brief, happy collaboration period between two talented songwriters — Alex Chilton, formerly of the Memphis-based blue-eyed soul combo The Box Tops; and Chris Bell, formerly of Rock City and Icewater, also Memphis-based but incomparable to The Box Tops in terms of chart success or overall notoriety. Chilton's original idea was to es­tablish a Simon & Garfunkel type of partnership, but Bell convinced him to retain the rock'n'roll band format, and, fortunately, good sense prevailed, or else we'd have no power-pop aesthetics and millions of aspiring indie kids and hipsters would be deprived of their biggest idols.

Of course, «power pop» is an extremely vague term, and if you think of it in purely musical terms («pop songs with hard rock guitar riffs» or something like that), #1 Record hardly even qualifies. There might be, like, just two or three «power pop» songs like that on the entire album — ʽFeelʼ, ʽIn The Streetʼ, probably ʽWhen My Baby's Beside Meʼ (ʽDon't Lie To Meʼ has more of a blues-rock feel to it, not a proper «pop» tune). Most of the songs are quite soft, with acoustic founda­tions, owing much more to the folkie idioms of the West and East coasts than to the Kinks, the Small Faces, or Cream. This, by the way, is the source of much misguided disappointment: plenty of people come to #1 Record, expecting «power», and come away disappointed because all they got was some sissy acoustic strumming and whiny vocals.

But the real trick of #1 Record is not «power». Its real trick is a mix of emotional simplicity, naïve idealism, musical honesty, and melodic talent. Chilton and Bell sounded just as passionate and convinced about what they were doing as the craziest prog rock stars of the time, but saw no need for infusing that passion into ever-more-complicated musical formats. On the other hand, they saw no need to pander to ongoing trends and fashions, either, eschewing excessive sentimen­talism or artificial sweetness à la Carpenters — everything on #1 Record sounds totally healthy and organic, no sappy strings or cheap Broadway inference allowed.

The second side of the album has been especially frequently subject to criticism by «power pop fans» — a silly thing to do, really, because, to my ears, it contains one of the finest sequences of beautiful ballads ever committed to tape. How they managed it is something I cannot understand, and can only ascribe to a great big positive influence that Chilton and Bell had on each other, and which neither of them could subsequently recreate on their own. ʽGive Me Another Chanceʼ deals with a fairly simple and well-studied topic — guy gets mad at girl, girl throws guy out, guy repents and begs forgive­ness — but each and every line of the vocal melody is so totally realistic (this may be the sorriest "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" I've ever heard) that one cannot help but be remin­ded of all those Lennon ballads, late in his Beatles or early in his solo career, that operated along the same lines: take a simple theme of love / repentance / sadness / anger, etc., and strive to make it sound like you really mean it.

Or ʽTry Againʼ — isn't it a wonder how its melodic twists so meaningfully echo its lyrics? "Lord, I've been trying to be what I should...", done in a slightly lazy, twangy, hammocky country mode (so you already get a feeling that maybe the hero hasn't been trying that hard). Chord change, a touch of tenseness and darkness, "but each time it gets a little harder", a Harrison-esque "I feel the pain" (and he does, he does), "but I'll try again" — loop, revert back to the beginning. ABC-level simple, 100% efficient. Then the vocal melody is lended over to the guitar, and they repeat the same stuff without words — to exactly the same effect. Chillin'.

When it comes to loudness and, well, «power», Chilton and Bell are equally capable. Look at how ʽFeelʼ is all based on descending chord patterns — echoing the «personal apocalypse» mood of lines like "you're driving me to ruin" and "I feel like I'm dying, I'm never gonna live again" — even though, in general, the song is so loud and rock'n'rollish and even has a brawny brass section during the instrumental breaks. Conversely, the main riff of ʽIn The Streetʼ is always rising and going in circles, well adapted to the song's «cruising anthem» stylistics. And ʽWhen My Baby's Be­side Meʼ is their equivalent of ʽI Want To Hold Your Handʼ — repetitive, triumphant, obli­vious to everything other than that overwhelming love wave.

But the album's magnum opus, no doubt about it, is ʽThe Ballad Of El Goodoʼ. A young pop boy's impression of a deep gospel-soul anthem — a song about standing up for oneself, with just a little help from God — it sounds particularly ironic in the overall context of Big Star's misfor­tunes, yet at the time it was written, the future did look promising, and Chilton's performance here is totally credible. The hooks are actually very simple: the song does not «properly» pick up until the chorus / bridge part, and, basically, all they do is hammer the same two-part message in your subconscious — "ain't no one going to turn me round" and "hold on" — but the first part is determination incarnate, and the second part gets by not through shouting, but through stretching out the "hold" part so as to actually convey the impression of hooooooolding on to something. So simple, so clever, so unforgettable. If ʽFeelʼ does not succeed in making you a lifelong friend of this band, ʽEl Goodoʼ will complete the task with a flourish.

Even though I have not mentioned all the greatness of this album (ʽThirteenʼ and ʽMy Life Is Rightʼ deserve their own extended kowtows), the things that have been said probably suffice — #1 Record is a product of spontaneously, perhaps even accidentally, generated melodic genius, and the first in a never-ending, though slowly dwindling, series of great records that kept the simplistic pop idealism of the Sixties alive and kicking through the following decades. From that point of view, there was no competition whatsoever for this sort of style in 1972, since the other two ends of the «holy power pop» triangle of the early 1970s, Badfinger and The Raspberries, did not have Big Star's ambitions. Chilton and Bell were «pretentious», yes, and it shows up not only in their chosen band name or their chosen album title, but in their playing style, in their vocal harmonies, in their quasi-religious attitudes, but all of that, when coupled with said melodic genius, is to their advantage. Pretentious, but simple; trivial, but bombastic; always accessible, but never «fluffy», #1 Record is certainly not an album that could be brushed off as mere light entertainment — it does lay a serious claim to the status of #1 record for the year 1972, at least in the «simple pop» department. (Although, for the record, I do wish they would have kept bassist Andy Hummel's ʽThe India Songʼ off the album — it is superficially pretty, but not only does it have nothing to do with India, being all acoustic guitars and flutes, it actually sounds like a se­cond-rate flower power era outtake from some long forgotten Frisco hippie band).

On a historical note, rumors saying that #1 Record was either ignored or maligned at the time are grossly exaggerated: most of the critical reviews recognized the album's genius (and how could anybody with ears not recognize it?), and, with proper marketing strategies, at least its rocking numbers, such as ʽIn The Streetʼ or ʽWhen My Baby's Beside Meʼ, could have been major hit singles like anything else at the time. Unfortunately, Stax Records, responsible for the distribu­tion, somehow flunked at it, and even though the record got sufficient airplay, it was simply un­available for purchase throughout the States, or so it has been said — a proverbial tale of bad luck and the importance of good management for great art to find its way. On the other hand, really great art will always find its way, eventually, even without proper management, so I am happy to know that #1 Record does not need my thumbs up endorsement in the slightest to help it achie­ve «classic» status: like the even less-selling Velvet Underground's debut, it is one of those al­bums that launched a thousand ships anyway.

Check "#1 Record" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Blue Cheer: The Original Human Being

BLUE CHEER: THE ORIGINAL HUMAN BEING (1970)

1) Good Times Are So Hard To Find; 2) Love Of A Woman; 3) Make Me Laugh; 4) Pilot; 5) Babaji (Twilight Raga); 6) Preacher; 7) Black Sun; 8) Tears In My Bed; 9) Man On The Run; 10) Sandwich; 11) Rest At Ease.

It seems reasonable to suggest that Gary Lee Yoder, officially replacing Bruce Stephens as Blue Cheer's resident guitar player, was a better proposition for this band altogether than his predeces­sor. Not only did he contribute Blue Cheer's funniest song, but somehow, his permanent pre­sence put the band back on track, so that their fifth album is an acceptable compromise between the chaotic wildness of old, the established hard rock standards of the day, and a little bit of chart-oriented pop sensibility in between (The Original Human Being even got the band back into the lower ranges of the album charts for a brief while).

There is nothing particularly great or awesome here, but the very attempt to stir up some creative juices is admirable. All of the members are involved in the songwriting process now, even the drummer, with Peterson and Yoder veering towards heavy blues, piano guy Burns Kellogg drif­ting towards roots-rock, and the drummer actually contributing the weirdest number of all — ʽBa­baji (Twilight Raga)ʼ, which is, so far, the only instrumental composition I know whose central point is a duet between sitar and Moog synthesizer: an unlikely combination in general, let alone on a Blue Cheer album! The most amazing thing about it is that it actually works, a pretty, cloudy piece of simplistic, but effective lite-psychedelia.

Genrist exercises are, in fact, the talk of the day. We have some shiny, uplifting, brass-loaded, and catchy jazz-pop (ʽLove Of A Womanʼ); a rough, partially out-of-tune, but sincere-sounding country waltz (ʽTears In My Bedʼ); a sleazy, snappy, and quite exciting white-funk jam that sug­gests somebody in the camp must have been wooed over by The James Gang (ʽSandwichʼ); and a sentimental, idealistic, bombastic, gospel-influenced coda (ʽRest At Easeʼ) that — dare I say it? — sounds suspiciously similar to Dylan's ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ, which would only come three years later. Okay, coincidence. The important thing is: Blue Cheer, the local cavemen of San Francisco, are telling you to "rest at ease today" and "be redeemed today", because "all my love is on the way" and "my heart is open to you, slow down, we can make it". Actually, it seems that those lyrics are mostly improvised, consisting of «soul clichés» hastily scrapped together, but there is something haunting to that piano / organ / French horn mix. The beast done got soul, and it ain't always cringeworthy or laughable to look at.

On the other hand, The Original Human Being also succeeds in getting back some of the wild vibe — mainly on dark blues-rock numbers such as ʽGood Times Are Hard To Findʼ (indeed) and ʽPreacherʼ; more generic 12-bar stuff like ʽPilotʼ or ʽMan Of The Sunʼ also recovers some extra grit-and-gravel that was missing on the last two records, although these are probably the most expendable numbers of the lot. Everything is still quite polished when compared to the original chaos (short, jam-less, structured), but «nasty» guitar tones, «evil» vocalizing, distortion and fuzz are all present — the songs are fun to listen to, and warrant a thumbs up. Altogether, the album is more than the sum of its parts: diversity, and this curious struggle for survival in an increasing­ly competitive context, make it a small chapter worth reading in the musical history of 1970.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bob Dylan: At Budokan

BOB DYLAN: AT BUDOKAN (1979)

1) Mr. Tambourine Man; 2) Shelter From The Storm; 3) Love Minus Zero/No Limit; 4) Ballad Of A Thin Man; 5) Don't Think Twice, It's All Right; 6) Maggie's Farm; 7) One More Cup Of Coffee; 8) Like A Rolling Stone; 9) I Shall Be Released; 10) Is Your Love In Vain?; 11) Going, Going, Gone; 12) Blowin' In The Wind; 13) Just Like A Woman; 14) Oh Sister; 15) Simple Twist Of Fate; 16) All Along The Watchtower; 17) I Want You; 18) All I Really Want To Do; 19) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 20) It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding); 21) Forever Young; 22) The Times They Are A-Changin'.

Certainly not the best live album in Dylan's career, but just as certainly the most unusual — and, together with Before The Flood and Hard Rain, At Budokan completes a trinity that might be reasonably called «the most sensible live trilogy to be released over just five consecutive years of touring». Not a single one of these albums sounds close to its predecessor, but it is At Bu­dokan that confounds all possible expectations. A one-of-a-kind experiment here, so viciously trashed by the majority of the musical press that you just know it's gotta be good...

...but all in due time. Fact is, this is where Bob took his Street Legal band on the road — to­gether with the violins, the mandolins, the saxophones, and the gospel lady choir. In fact, the ac­tual performances here were recorded on February 28 and March 1, preceding the bulk of studio sessions for Street Legal rather than following them, and this means that Bob's «big band style» rearrangements of his classic hits were invented and rehearsed before the same style was applied to newer material, not after.

Essentially, the tour was an experiment, carried out in order to answer a simple question: what would happen if Bob Dylan were to pass himself for a «normal», «accessible» artist? Practise some singing in tone. Calculate, compose, rehearse, play in pre-planned mode. Eschew mini­malism for large, complex, bombastic arrangements with diverse, polyphonic instrumentation. Exchange rock'n'roll spontaneity for lush pop professionalism. In other words — go on a Dylan tour and make a Dylan album that would seem to go against everything that a Dylan tour / album is «supposed» to stand for. How does that sound?

Critics like Christgau fell for this lock, stock and barrel: some people were so stupid as to state that Dylan had gone the «Vegas route», comparing him to Neil Diamond or late-period Elvis. Gi­ven that this here was the age of «rock revitalization» by the punk movement, albums like Budo­kan must have sounded particularly cringeworthy — and to make matters worse, Cheap Trick had only just released their own Budokan experience, so, even if on an everyday basis you'd never imagine the possibility of comparing Bob Dylan with Cheap Trick, in this particular case such comparisons were inevitable. A power-pop guitar band making some of the loudest and fiercest rock'n'roll ruckus in recent years — and a washed-up, prematurely senile has-been tar­nishing his legacy with «gratuitous sax and senseless violins», to borrow a Sparks album title for an adequate description.

However, just as it happened with Self Portrait and not a few other Dylan albums that clashed with people's expectations, the reputation of the Budokan shows has seriously improved in recent decades. Looking back, and assessing it all in the proper context, it is perfectly clear that Dylan was not «pandering» or «selling out» to anybody or anything — it is just that there is a time for everything, and every once in a while the man felt a need to shed the «rock'n'roll rebel» image and settle for a more relaxed, easy-going attitude. Yes, the downside of Budokan is that, unlike almost anything else in the Dylan catalog, it lacks his trademark spontaneity. The music runs on a captured, bottled and canned spirit here, rather than inspiration generated on-the-spot as the band hits the stage. But there is also an upside to that downside — at the very least, it is curious, and I would say fun, and maybe even exciting, to hear a pre-planned, carefully rehearsed, so openly «music-oriented» Dylan show. If what they mean by «Vegas» is «enhancing the melodic com­ponent in both the musical instruments and the singing», I'm game.

And it isn't just the enhancement of the melody — what we have here is a near-total reinvention of the classic numbers, to an extent that Dylan, famous for his reinventions, would never ever replicate. The arrangements are so recklessly experimental that, most likely, nobody will like all of them, but an unbiased listen, free from the local superstitions of 1979, will most likely result in liking at least some of them, depending on the listener. Some of the rearrangements preserve the general message and emotional atmosphere of the originals; just as many of them do not, opening up dimensions that you'd never suspect to have previously existed in these numbers — and even if some of these dimensions sound silly, well, silly or not, they're all there, and the inventiveness and hard work that Bob put into them seriously belies the image of a broken down, depressed, mid-age-crisis-bound artist that had just been created by Street Legal. In other words, the frus­trating Dylan enigma strikes again.

For those in doubt, I will list and laud some of my favorites. First and foremost, a big thank you to Steve Douglas (who, by the way, used to be one of the session players on Pet Sounds)  when­ever he picks up the flute, particularly on ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ and ʽLove Minus Zero/No Li­mitʼ, both of which, big band style or small band style, had never sounded lovelier — the ar­range­ment of ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ, in particular, turns it from a beautiful early morning sere­nade into an equally beautiful early morning symphony, a great, uplifting introduction to the whole album. And the transposition of the three descending chords of ʽLove Minus Zeroʼ to flute was an equally inspired choice (additional kudos to David Mansfield for the great violin solo, which sounds particularly life-asserting in tandem with the flute).

Many darts have been launched at ʽMaggie's Farmʼ for its evolution from an almost «proto-punk» statement into a mastodon of R&B bombast — what has been lost on the critics is that the rear­ranged melody, now sewn into a steady sequence of symmetrically ascending / descending lines, simultaneously played on sax, violin, and guitar, still bears an air of defiance and determination, and just as, back in 1965, one used to interpret the song as Dylan's refusal to conform to the ex­pectations of the «folkies», so here it could be interpreted as his refusal to conform to the expec­tations of the «rockies». As in, "it's my Neil Diamond interpretation and I'm ready to sock it to anyone!" And for those who used to complain that the «fire and brimstone» had gone out of Dylan, well, they probably did not have the patience to sit all the way through to the new avatar of ʽIt's Alright Maʼ — done big-band hard-rock style, with as much fire and brimstone as could be seen necessary in Bob's voice. Yes, the song used to work perfectly as a dark, creepy soli­loquoy, and it works all right as a brash, pre-apocalyptic dark gospel anthem, too.

Other rearrangements that I am quite fond of include: the «generic country-pop», but still lovable, take on ʽI Shall Be Releasedʼ, with tasteful slide guitars and a completely redone chorus hook; ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ, redone as a piano pop ballad; ʽOh Sisterʼ, shorn of its melancholic tender­ness and now performed almost «cold turkey-style», with not just the singer, but the entire band behaving as if they were suffering from virtual (spiritual!) constipation; and ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ, redone as a cheery, bouncy, martial Brit-pop song, closer to Sonny & Cher's version than anything else but with even more rhythm and energy.

Speaking of Sonny & Cher, several other songs, too, are done closer to cover versions than ori­ginals — ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ traditionally incorporates scorching heavy rock guitar solos, in honor of Jimi, and ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ is done reggae-style à la Clapton ver­sion (not a particularly wise decision, but understandable). But applying the same reggae groove to ʽDon't Think Twiceʼ was, of course, unprecedented, and so was the reinvention of ʽI Want Youʼ as a slow, rhythmless, quasi-accappella number; I am still undecided about either of those.

Still, particular preferences and dislikes aside, on the whole I insist that the tour, commemorated with this Budokan album, was a triumphant success, and really the last time that a live Dylan experience «mattered» as an artistic experience, not just an excuse to go have a good time or go see that Zimmerman guy before he takes Highway 61. For those who dislike the «tunelessness» of Dylan as a singer or a guitar player, the album could even be a good introduction — in a way, it's a classic case of «Dylan for the anti-Dylanites», and one would have to be quite tonedeaf, I think, to continue to deny the man's gift for melody or mood after sitting through it. For those who condemn At Budokan for «betraying» some thing or other, dispensing with artistic integrity, etc. — just get a life. And for those who simply think that the whole experience is kinda boring and lifeless, even despite all the hard work that went into the rearrangements and rehearsals, well, I'd only say that, after sixteen years of seeing and hearing too much life and excitement from the artist, it is quite a lively and exciting experience to hear him sound so boring and lifeless. Give me the boredom of At Budokan over the liveliness of, say, 1984's Real Live any time of day — the album was a firm thumbs up when I first reviewed it about ten years before this, and my ad­miration of it has only grown since then.

Check "At Budokan" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, December 23, 2013

Brownie McGhee: Blues Is Truth

BROWNIE McGHEE: BLUES IS TRUTH (1976)

1) The Blues Had A Baby; 2) I'm Going To Keep On Loving; 3) Walk On; 4) Rainy Day; 5) Christina; 6) Don't Dog Your Woman; 7) Mean And Evil; 8) Wine Sporty Orty; 9) Blues Is Truth; 10) Bunkhouse; 11) Key To The Highway; 12) Blues On Parade.

Formally speaking, Brownie McGhee had a veritable shitload of albums released for the listening pleasures of Greenwich Village crusaders in the last four decades of his life, but most of them were released as part of the «Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee» duo act, where Sonny was usu­ally billed first and Brownie humbly came second (although there were multiple exceptions, too). In any case, we will use this as a loophole to postpone reviews of some of these albums (talking separately about each of them would be cruel and unwarranted punishment, considering that, as ru­mor has it, almost every show that the two played together in any club or cafeteria had been captured on tape, not to mention studio sessions).

As for Brownie solo, he had considerably few sessions in comparison, and most of those are not altogether easy to find or not particularly worth finding. I will limit myself to this one album, recor­ded in May 1976 with a bunch of friends at Minot Sound Studios in White Plains, NY; friends included Bobby Foster and Louisiana Red on guitars, Sugar Blue on harmonica, Sammy Price on piano, Alex Blake on bass, and Brian Brake on drums — actually, one hell of a band, when you start researching all of these guys' pedigrees, and, since Brownie himself only plays acoustic guitar and sings, his presence here is more of a «guiding hand» than of a legendary do­minator — he conducts, gives orders on soloing, but his personal role in this friendly get-together is limited; then again, when you got such a great band playing for you, keeping a low profile might just be the most sensible thing to do anyway.

As easily as I usually get bored with generic electric blues albums, these twelve songs keep the fun quotient high and the friendly atmosphere dense throughout. There is a sensible level of di­versity as they pay tribute to multiple blues styles (Chicago, Delta, New Orleans; even jump blues is covered with a version of Stick McGhee's ʽDrinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Deeʼ, here retitled as ʽWine Sporty Ortyʼ), and almost everybody gets to shine one way or another — Louisiana Red and his slinky slide leads are the obvious number one pretender, but the real musical superhero of the album is Alex Blake, whose bass parts are completely individual and independent, and often have much more to say than the guitars of his colleagues.

Curiously, the album kicks off with a newly written tune, ʽThe Blues Had A Babyʼ ("and they named it rock­'n'roll"), which would fairly soon be appropriated by Muddy Waters for his come­back LP, Hard Again — considering that there is fairly little rock'n'roll on this record, but I guess that this was just a subtle reminder of sorts, Brownie's message to the kids about how there is more to life than rock'n'roll, and Blues Is Truth in general is not a bad way to prove that.

It is interesting, however, that there are no signs here whatsoever of Brownie's original vibe, the entertainment-oriented, bluesman-meets-hillbilly-style «Piedmont blues»; above everything else, Brownie knew very well who the buying clientele would be — white college kids — and what the clientele would want to hear (Chicago teachers of white electric bluesmen). I am not going as far as to suggest that ʽKey To The Highwayʼ was included due to the song's popularization by Eric Clapton, but this could have been one of the factors, too. Not that this is a complaint or any­thing — with Blake's basslines and Red's guitar playing, the album goes down easily and plea­santly, and anybody who'd try to put down a 1915-born popular entertainer for «giving the people exactly what they want» would have to have no sensibility whatsoever. In any case, for an album of this kind, Blues Is Truth is seriously above average level, and clearly deserves a thumbs up.

Check "Blues Is Truth" (MP3) on Amazon

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Blood Brothers: March On Electric Children

BLOOD BROTHERS: MARCH ON ELECTRIC CHILDREN (2002)

1) Birth Skin/Death Leather; 2) Meet Me At The Water Front After The Social; 3) March On Electric Children!; 4) New York Slave; 5) Kiss Of The Octopus; 6) Siamese Gun; 7) Mr. Electric Ocean; 8) Junkyard J. Vs. The Skin Army Girlz/High Fives, LA Hives; 9) American Vultures.

Apparently, this stylistically similar follow-up to Adultery is based around some sort of allegori­cal «story», probably influenced in equal parts by the local comic book department and listening to way too many schizophrenia-oriented records of the avantgarde persuasion. There is a ʽMr. Electric Oceanʼ who personifies media and exploitation, a ʽSkin Armyʼ consisting of zombified nincompoops, and other equally colorful personages and collectives that are impossible to pro­perly assess without consulting the liner notes, because not even Professor Higgins would be able to decode a single word by simply listening to these «songs».

Musically, the band members themselves insisted that the album was altogether a little more complex than its predecessor, but this is hard to confirm outside of the fact that many songs make better use of the «quiet / loud» alternation this time — for instance, ʽJunkyardʼ and especially ʽSiamese Gunʼ let you fully appreciate the talents of Morgan Henderson on bass (they are not unique, but you do acknowledge that he is quite professional), while ʽMr. Electric Oceanʼ, first time in the band's career, opens with a pop-punk riff that is quite easily and quickly imprintable in one's brains (fortunately, the start of the screaming is delayed until that happens).

Other than these «cosmetic» differences, pretty much nothing can be said about the record that would not also apply to its predecessor — same hyper-energetic, crazyass tempos, same mix of hardcore, math-rock, and thrash-metal elements, same madhouse-style vocals, same moods and attitudes on each single song. The only exception is ʽAmerican Vulturesʼ: apparently, the idea was to include something «different» for the album coda at least, so the band divert themselves by hauling out a piano and gruesomely sodomizing it, which is fairly consistent with the mad­house image — most likely, this is exactly what the patients of a heavy-security asylum would have done with the unfortunate instrument, too. Oddly enough, the chorus to ʽVulturesʼ, screamed out in unison as if the «singers» were all part of some Clockwork Orange universe, is the catchi­est thing on the entire record — there is something sadistically seductive about the lines "you're married to the vultures, I don't want to laugh until you're dead".

But on the whole, the flaws here remain the same as the virtues: the addition of «quiet» passages is a welcome move, yet there are still too few of them to save the poor layman's ears from the incessant wall of noise and the never-ending screamo vocals that always obscure, never empha­size the band's technical prowess and instrumental creativity. Only a very select few listeners, possibly with unique peculiarities of their hearing nerve channels, will be able to easily look past this obstacle — I am unable to do that, and, despite acknowledging the musical merits, cannot honestly reward the guys with a thumbs up. At least Adultery had the additional value of a «no­velty» project; but turning the «novelty» into a repetitive «formula» is hardly a good idea.

Curiously, the reviewer over at AMG called the album «something you'll find yourself singing over and over again as you plan to throw yourself out a window» — a thoroughly misguided description, the way I see it, since (a) singing even a few songs here just once will, most likely, cause irrepairable damage to your vocal cords, so do at least make sure you have some Strepsils lying around; (b) these guys ain't no Cure or Joy Division, so the only thing you might be planning to throw out the window would be your stereo system — actually, quite an appropriate gesture to commemorate the end of these 24 minutes.

Check "March On Electric Children" (CD) on Amazon
Check "March On Electric Children" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Belle And Sebastian: Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant

BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: FOLD YOUR HANDS CHILD, YOU WALK LIKE A PEASANT (2000)

1) I Fought In A War; 2) The Model; 3) Beyond The Sunrise; 4) Waiting For The Moon To Rise; 5) Don't Leave The Light On Baby; 6) The Wrong Girl; 7) The Chalet Lines; 8) Nice Day For A Sulk; 9) Women's Realm; 10) Family Tree; 11) There's Too Much Love.

If the title «music in a doll's house» hadn't already been occupied by Family thirty years earlier, it would have suited Belle and Sebastian's fourth studio LP much better than this overlong and ra­ther politically incorrect moniker. Because if you thought that the band's earliest records were the very definition of the term «mellow», you'd be downright wrong, or, at least, seriously off the mark. In a strong effort to beat their own record, the band has doubled the stakes, and now you are listening to music of such tender frailty that you feel like being inside a cleanroom.

The effect is achieved not only by giving ever more and more vocal parts to the ladies of the band (Sarah Martin is now singing lead along with Isobel Campbell), but also by giving more and more space to instruments other than the guitar — harpsichords, pianos, flutes, strings, anything that works towards putting the «chamber» back in «chamber pop». Everything is laid on in very thin layers, though, usually with one dominant instrument playing some hyper-tender melo­dy with a «nursery» or pastoral flair and the others gradually rallying behind the leader to add some wispy angelic atmosphere. In other words, everything so lovely you could almost puke, that is, if you ever decided to take a look at this «from the outside» — in reality, unless you are a heavy rocker who got here through some traumatic accident, you will most probably be caught up in the autistic trance and cuddling your inner child within minutes.

Even when Isobel Campbell sings that "I'd rather be fat than be confused / Than be me in a cage / With a bottle of rage / And a family like the mafia" (ʽFamily Treeʼ), she seems to be doing so wi­thin the confines of some alternate universe where personal conflicts are conducted in whispers and teen angst is always internalized rather than flashed at innocent bystanders. From a song like that — piano, flute, and softer-than-silk, cuddly-hushy little girl vocals — you'd rather expect an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of message than one of disappointment, disillusionment, and angry self-seclusion. When she adds that "they threw me out of school / 'Cause I swore at all the tea­chers", well, this has to be heard to be disbelieved.

Overall, the songs are at the same level of consistency as they used to be — maybe even with a slight increase in the overall number of hooks, because their exploration of the possibilities of various instruments seems like a big step up from the primarily acoustic guitar-based nature of what used to be. I really enjoy the harpsichord/piano/strings combination on ʽThe Modelʼ; the eerie electric piano of ʽDon't Leave The Light On, Babyʼ (a little reminiscent of Joni Mitchell's ʽWoodstockʼ and other such tunes by Murdoch's singer-songwriting idols — nothing like a tre­moloed Wurlitzer to convey a feeling of bottomless depth); the minimalistic piano/cello duet on ʽThe Chalet Linesʼ; the pretty pop violin melody of ʽWomen's Realmʼ, and other little things that give each of the songs here plenty of individuality.

That said, it won't be much of an understatement to say that, even if they have found some mode­rately new ways to express their feelings, the feelings themselves stay absolutely the same — the song title ʽNice Day For A Sulkʼ summarizing them perfectly, as the song itself is a «nice» piece of piano art-pop that does little other than sulk, sulk, sulk. It borrows a few of its musical moves from Kinks songs such as ʽAutumn Almanacʼ, but Ray Davies could never have written anything like this — melancholia is one thing, but this whole «dazed and stupefied» attitude would have been too much for ol' Ray. Sooner or later, you'd expect that guy to snap and throw out a ʽDead End Streetʼ or a ʽBrainwashedʼ, whereas Murdoch seems to have that particular pathway amputa­ted at birth. Ironically, the last song begins with the words "I could hang about and burn my fin­gers / I've been hanging out there waiting for something to start" — hey, so have we, and from an overall point of view, we have spent fourty minutes waiting in vain. (Not that we haven't been warned or anything.)

The most energetic song here is ʽI Fought In A Warʼ: a little faster than the rest, slightly anthe­mic and even «pretentious» (inasmuch as Murdoch did not actually fight in no wars, so don't pass this around to actual veterans unless they have a good ear for creative metaphor), but, unfortunately, it does not move me all that much — maybe because, being arranged as a rhythm-heavy, dynami­cally built-up «folk-rock» song, it is still too cuddly, and lacks a crucial something, whatever that crucial something might be. Maybe a different vocal approach, a stronger singer? An electric gui­tar solo? The possibility to go an octave higher in the climax? I know what a «musical dream» is, and I have some understanding of anthems, but the song never seems to make up its mind whe­ther it wants to be a dream or an anthem, and a «dreamy anthem», want it or not, is an oxymoron. Or, rather, as the song shows, you can try to make one, but it has every chance to fall on deaf ears (mine) that would rather go for something more straightforward.

That was just a single example of many tiny problems that constantly seem to accompany Mur­doch's music, along with equally tiny victories. They shouldn't prevent me from issuing another thumbs up in a never-ending series, though, because as long as the formula is being faithfully preserved, it has about as many chances of failure as an AC/DC album.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Bauhaus: Press The Eject And Give Me The Tape

BAUHAUS: PRESS THE EJECT AND GIVE ME THE TAPE (1982)

1) In The Flat Field; 2) Rose Garden Funeral Of Sores; 3) Dancing; 4) The Man With The X-Ray Eyes; 5) Bela Lu­gosi's Dead; 6) The Spy In The Cab; 7) Kick In The Eye; 8) In Fear Of Fear; 9) Hollow Hills; 10) Stigmata Martyr; 11) Dark Entries; 12) Terror Couple Kill Colonel*; 13) Double Dare*; 14*) In The Flat Field; 15*) Hair Of The Dog; 16*) Of Lillies And Remains; 17*) Waiting For The Man.

Visually, Bauhaus live were not vastly different from any other punk / post-punk act of the era — their act was much less theatrical than the music would suggest — but in terms of sound, it was primarily on the stage that they played out their «goth rock» reputation in earnest. The setlist con­centrates on the darkest songs in the catalog, and the towering centerpiece is ʽBela Lugosi's Deadʼ, longer, grander, and weightier than anything else on here — nine minutes of grave macabrity that Alice Cooper would probably have rejected for being too pretentious and humorless, but for Bauhaus, it is their life, as Murphy gets to get so heavily into character and Ash gets to scatter round his entire bag of guitar tricks, imitating every single variation of a bat wing flap on his in­strument and feeling quite at home.

On the whole, the live Bauhaus experience has little reason to be experienced outside an actual theater — the songs are not significantly modified from their studio bases, usually retaining the structures, the tempos, and the general dynamics. But yes, if you need to hear it from me, both Murphy and Ash do behave more wildly on stage: Murphy becomes a bit more of a screamer, and Ash allows himself to fool around with even more feedback effects. So if you decide that songs like ʽStigmata Martyrʼ rock harder and blow up more nerve cells here than in the studio version, I am not going to argue — I just happen to find the difference sort of negligible, and even more negligible on the short dance-oriented stuff from Mask, such as ʽDancingʼ or ʽIn Fear Of Fearʼ, where I was almost afraid at once that they'd simply put some audience noises over studio takes (well, you can't blame me for not memorizing every studio nuance of those tracks).

Technical notes: most of these songs were recorded in October 1981 and February 1982 in Lon­don and Liverpool, so there is predictably nothing included from The Sky's Gone Out; and, in fact, the live album itself was originally released as a bonus addition to Sky, only later gai­n­ing the status of an «autonomous» LP — initiating a rather strange tradition which eventually resul­ted in Bauhaus having as many live albums out as they have studio ones. Furthermore, the CD re-release added a bunch of extra tracks recorded at a December 1981 show in Paris, with ʽDouble Dareʼ as a particular highlight for those who love the Murphy scream, but the tracks also have significantly poorer sound quality. The most curious, and the least professionally recorded, inc­lusion is that of a Manchester performance where they join forces with Nico on a delightfully (atrociously?) chaotic rendition of the VU's ʽWaiting For The Manʼ.

On the whole, I would probably recommend skipping this, but apparently, the Old Vic London show from 1982 had also been videotaped, so this is a good bet to check out the young Murphy in his prime, belly-dancing and all, while Ash and his supercool mohawk are weaving guitar rings around him (really piss-poor lighting job, though, based on the bits I have seen). But as for me, I do not care much for that early 1980s visual stylistics anyway, and for those who think that Bau­haus are better heard than seen, Press The Eject will not be of much use.

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