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Friday, January 31, 2014

Big Black: The Hammer Party

BIG BLACK: THE HAMMER PARTY (1982-1984/1986)

1) Steelworker; 2) Live In A Hole; 3) Dead Billy; 4) I Can Be Killed; 5) The Crack; 6) Rip; 7) Cables; 8) Pigeon Kill; 9) I'm A Mess; 10) Texas; 11) Seth; 12) Jump The Climb; 13) Racer-X; 14) Shotgun; 15) The Ugly American; 16) Deep Six; 17) Sleep!; 18) Big Payback.

No question about it, Steve Albini is one sick puppy. As far as I can tell, there are no credible re­cords of his going through any serious childhood traumas — unless, of course, the move from Pasadena, California to Missoula, Montana at the tender age of 12 counts as one, which may be possible — so blame it on a rogue gene or something. Of course, it is a natural thing for artists of all types to focus on the underbelly of society, but some go farther, stay longer, and breathe louder than others, and Albini is most definitely on the short list here.  

I have to confess that, as a rule, I do not experience any pleasure at getting my face stuffed in a toilet bowl, metaphorically speaking — not to mention that it happens all too often in real life (metaphorically speaking again!) for me to want to come home and get even more of that out of my stereo system. I do believe in freedom of expression, and think that the presence of people like G. G. Allin is a sign of healthy society / art scene, rather than the opposite (well, at least as long as the guy does not take his laxative on my front porch, that is) — but that does not mean I would ever want to waste time listening to a G. G. Allin record, God rest his soul; the guy is just an extreme example of a social activist, and has about as much to do with «music» or «art» in ge­neral as «Pussy Riot», or Abbie Hoffman, or the Holy Roman Emperor.

Steve Albini, on the other hand, is definitely an artist, and the «Big Black» project was founded by him in 1981 with a definite aim of producing art — socially relevant art, that is, rather than artistically irrelevant social activity. By his own account, he enjoyed the brutality and viscerality of both heavy metal and hardcore punk, but ultimately found both genres laughable, a feeling that many of us could probably empathize with: in my own case, I have to always remember to put myself in a particular frame of mind when listening either to Iron Maiden or the Dead Kennedys, otherwise it all ends in a facepalm barrage.

Thus, the idea behind Big Black was to make music that sounded equally loud, furious, and vis­ceral, but at the same time could really kick the shit out of the listener. Something that would be very painful, from a musical angle, but would also look real, would make sure that you are suf­fering from an actual cause, something that could turn your insides out and bulldoze them on the spot, and make you feel enlightened and grateful rather than simply offended for the sake of be­ing offended. In other words, the kind of stuff that the Nick Cave-led Birthday Party were doing at the same time — except that the Birthday Party had freakier, more abstract lyrics, and depen­ded all too much on the «musical epilepsy» of their frontman, whereas Albini placed his bet on far more straightforward, accessible lyrical imagery and a clearer, sterner head.

The Hammer Party, released in 1986, was not a proper album, but a compilation of Big Black's first two EPs: Lungs (1982) and Bulldozer (1983) — subsequent CD re-releases would also in­clude a third EP, Racer-X from 1984. All three, however, are essential building blocks of the Big Black legend, and nothing could be more natural than starting the story right from where it be­gins. In 1982, «Big Black» was really a one-man project, with Albini recording all the guitar, bass, and vocal parts himself, entrusting the percussion duties to a drum machine (credited as a full-time band member by the name of «Roland»!), and only occasionally letting his college friend John Bohnen help him out with saxophone parts (or, rather, «bleats»). A year later, on Bulldozer, Big Black was already a band, with Jeff Pezzati on bass and Santiago Durango on second guitar — and this was also the breaking point where Albini arrived at his trademark guitar sound, «inven­ting industrial music in the process», as some say, although, of course, a more correct answer would have been «merging industrial music with hardcore punk» (Einstürzende Neubauten had their first «industrial» album out in 1980, and the roots of the genre go way back). Thus, any nar­rative on Big Black that kicks off with Atomizer would be somewhat... headless.

Already on Lungs, Albini shows himself to be a master of tone, above everything else. He him­self was modest enough to all but disown the songs, either because he found the lyrics too crude or the «search process for best tone ever» far from complete, but most of the songs sound fairly great to my ears, at least. ʽSteelworkerʼ opens with a guitar part that I could only describe as «syphilitic funk» — a melody that would rather be expected on a heavy metal album, but pitched all the way to high heaven, shrill, trebly, pulling the nerves right out of your teeth, as Albini cheerfully informs us that "the only good policeman is a dead one / the only good laws aren't en­forced" and then goes on examining his deepest murder instincts. It's not exactly scary, but the experience is more disturbing, indeed, than any random heavy metal tune of the year, or decade.

Subsequent topics do not stray far away from the commonly unfathomable — exploring the lower depths on ʽLive In A Holeʼ, dabbling in Vietnam zombie trash on ʽDead Billyʼ, inviting suicide on ʽI Can Be Killedʼ, and so on. Melodically, the songs all follow the New Wave aesthetics, but seem more influenced by acts like Pere Ubu, Wire, Joy Division, etc., rather than Albini's punk scene competitors — which is already enough to make whatever the guy is doing more interesting for the modern listener, and that is not yet mentioning all the different guitar tones (where the «white lightning» of songs like ʽSteelworkerʼ and ʽI Can Be Killedʼ is opposed quite radically to the «black terror» of bass-heavy songs like ʽRipʼ and ʽLive In A Holeʼ).

The «textbook» Albini, however, only arrives on Bulldozer — for ʽCablesʼ, he invents his «clan­ky» sound by sticking sheet metal clips in his guitar picks, so that every note now sounds like the clang of a weapon against a metal shield. ʽCablesʼ still remains one of the best exponents of that sound, with a brief «teaser» introduction as a lesson on how it works (of sorts), and the cruel lyrics (inspired by personal experience with a Montana abattoir) perfectly matching the cruelty of the new sound. Not that the other lyrics lag anywhere behind — the entire EP is taken over by such delicious subjects as poisoning pigeons and buying knives, and populated by colorful cha­racters with hick, racist, and bigoted backgrounds. Just the kind of thing, in other words, that de­serves a special manner of guitar playing invented in special honor of it.

ʽCablesʼ has the meanest and ugliest sound, but Albini can also throw «hilarious» in the can, too, as is the case with ʽTexasʼ, which is sort of an «avant-hardcore» freakout, a series of speedy buildups and comedowns serving as a freaky background for one of the most laconic and the most vicious putdowns of the Lone Star in history — the only reason why Dallas never made a persona non grata out of Albini in return is that nobody in Dallas probably heard the record in the first place, except those few like-minded fellows who hate their own state anyway. ʽSethʼ is much darker in tone, beginning with a taped phone hotline chock-full of eloquent racial slurs bordering on the absurdist (where else will you hear Martin Luther King called a "doubly-dege­nerate, Jew-led, Red jungle bunny"? Priceless!) and building its protest rage from there. But musically, my favourite tune is ʽI'm A Messʼ, if only for the utterly terrific bass-guitar duo that unintentionally ends up sounding like a hardcore take on ʽThe Hut Of Baba Yagaʼ — in addition to everything else, let us not forget that Big Black actually cared about their melodies, rarely letting themselves get too carried away with just the rage, just the lyrics, or even just the guitar tone. There is all that, yes, but there are also interesting and serious musical ideas scattered all over the place, although they only become noticeable once the overall impression stops clouding the brain and it becomes interested in the compositional process as well.

Racer-X, in comparison, is not that much of a big leap forward, since the basic formula has been established on Bulldozer and the band members remain the same. Nevertheless, the title track, ʽThe Ugly Americanʼ (with John Bohnen returning on «sax bleats» to make it all sound like an early precursor to John Zorn's Bad City), and ʽSleep!ʼ are all treasurable highlights, particularly ʽRacer-Xʼ with its alternating soundscapes of grim lonesome drum machine and all-out guitar nightmare — most of the other songs have their moments, too, even if, on the whole, this third EP seems to be more of a «breather» in between Bulldozer as the moment of Big Black's true arrival and Atomizer as its first full-scale LP-length statement. But who cares about particularities? The whole package, taken together, deserves its certified thumbs up, and, to this day, remains one of the strongest musical indictments of retrograde darkness ever recorded. Yeah, yeah, I know, in reality Albini is merely exorcising his own personal demons, but there's no harm in driving them through certain areas of the American landscape along the way.

Check "The Hammer Party" (CD) on Amazon

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Big Star: Keep An Eye On The Sky

BIG STAR: KEEP AN EYE ON THE SKY (2009)

[Track listing limited to titles that do not appear on regular Big Star albums.]
CD I: 1) Psychedelic Stuff [Chris Bell]; 2) All I See Is You [Icewater]; 3) Every Day As We Grow Closer [Alex Chilton]; 4) Try Again [Rock City]; 7) In The Street (alt. mix); 8) Thirteen (alt. mix); 10) The India Song (alt. mix); 11) When My Baby's Beside Me (alt. mix); 12) My Life Is Right (alt. mix); 13) Give Me Another Chance (alt. mix); 15) Gone With The Light; 16) Watch The Sunrise (single version); 17) ST 100/6 (alt. mix); 18) The Preacher (Rock City); 19) In The Street (alt. single mix); 20) Feel (alt. mix); 21) The Ballad Of El Goodo (alt. lyrics); 22) The India Song (alt. version); 23) Country Morn; 24) I Got Kinda Lost (demo); 25) Back Of A Car (demo); 26) Motel Blues (demo).
CD II: 1) There Was A Light (demo); 2) Life Is White (demo); 3) What's Going Ahn (demo); 9) Mod Lang (alt. mix); 10) Back Of A Car (alt. mix); 14) Morpha Too (alt. mix); 16) O My Soul (alt. version); 17) She's A Mover (alt. ver­sion); 18) Daisy Glaze (rehearsal version); 19) I Am The Cosmos (Chris Bell); 20) You And Your Sister (Chris Bell); 21) Blue Moon (demo); 22) Femme Fatale (demo); 23) Thank You Friends (demo); 24) Nightime (demo); 25) Take Care (demo); 26) You Get What You Deserve (demo).
CD III: 1) Lovely Day (demo); 2) Downs (demo); 3) Jesus Christ (demo); 4) Holocaust (demo); 5) Big Black Car (alt. demo); 6) Mañana; 25) Till The End Of The Day (alt. mix); 26) Nature Boy (alt. mix).
CD IV: 1) When My Baby's Beside Me; 2) My Life Is Right; 3) She's A Mover; 4) Way Out West; 5) The Ballad Of El Goodo; 6) In The Street; 7) Back Of A Car; 8) Thirteen; 9) The India Song; 10) Try Again; 11) Watch The Sun­rise; 12) Don't Lie To Me; 13) Hot Burrito #2; 14) I Got Kinda Lost; 15) Baby Strange; 16) Slut; 17) There Was A Light; 18) ST 100/6; 19) Come On Now; 20) O My Soul.

A short-lived band like Big Star is an ideal proposition for a comprehensive boxset — 3 or 4 CDs can easily digest everything that it has released officially, as well as offer an exhaustive tour through the vaults of demos, alternate versions, outtakes, and even samples of «band-related» work that was not officially credited to it upon release. Keep An Eye On The Sky, released just a year before Chilton's death (nice to know he was able to take one last look at his collected le­gacy before finally heading out to his Big Star), proclaims to be doing just that. The perfect box, right? «Drop everything and run», right?

Well, not quite. First and foremost, if you think that buying this boxset eliminates the need to buy the albums, pay closer attention. It does include all of the completed recordings for all three clas­sic Big Star records (and completely ignores the embarrassment of In Space, which is a plus as far as I'm concerned), but at least a third part of them comes in «alternate mixes», which some­times include a few extra seconds of studio talk or noise before the song comes in (not necessa­rily a good idea) and do, indeed, mix the tracks slightly differently. Whether the old mixes or the new mixes sound better is a debatable issue which you could easily debate without my participation (I am definitely no «Mr. Mix Guy»), but the fact is, if you are a dedicated fan, this means you will have to have the boxset and the separate albums as well. In fact, I am fairly sure that the «alter­nate mixes» were little other than an intentional bait to raise interest on the part of fans who, na­turally, already owned all the CDs.

Suppose, though, that you are a newcomer to Big Star, and that you do not own any of their al­bums — would it make sense, then, to go straight for the box? I do not think it would, no. All three albums put together are cheaper, and the bonuses... well, this is where the interesting part begins, though, frankly speaking, it is not that interesting.

Truthfully, one may Keep An Eye On The Sky for as long as it plays on, but the sky hardly seems to hold a lot of surprises in store. Arguably the best additions here are Chilton's acoustic demos, particularly of songs recorded for Radio City and Third. Most of them work very well on their own, with solid, inspired playing and singing, although, frankly speaking, only a few of them are actual «demos» — in the case of Third, we generally hear just the basic tracks laid down in preparation for the overdubs. Even so, ʽHolocaustʼ has its own eerie minimalistic charm when it's just Alex and his piano.

As for the small bunch of previously unavailable songs, they are no big deal. Early pre-Big Star tracks from the solo careers of Chilton and Bell are basically the work of inexperienced Beatles apprentices. Thus, ʽAll I See Is Youʼ by Icewater (one of Bell's early bands) is nothing that you won't hear in a much better rendering by Badfinger; actually, the chorus sounds suspiciously close to Lennon's "all I want is you" from ʽDig A Ponyʼ, but since the song was admittedly recorded in 1969, when Let It Be had not yet come out, I have to assume a bizarre coincidence. (On the other hand, ʽGone With The Lightʼ, an outtake from Big Star's early sessions, does rip off ʽGood Nightʼ, which, as I assume, they realized just in time to keep it off the album). Bell's ʽPsy­chedelic Stuffʼ, which opens the chronology, predicts nothing particularly enlightening with its title, and, sure enough, it is psychedelic, but nothing else.

Later outtakes also include ʽMotel Bluesʼ, of whose existence we were already aware through its inclusion on the Live album — this version is neither better nor worse; ʽGot Kinda Lostʼ, a rather grayish pop-rocker in the style of Rubber Soul, but without much passion; and several alternate versions of well-known songs with different sets of lyrics (ʽCountry Mornʼ is really ʽWatch The Sun­riseʼ). Furthermore, there are also two singles from Chris Bell's solo album, I Am The Cos­mos, which, in 2009, acted as a «teaser» for the upcoming re-release on CD — showcasing his own journey into the realm of ambitious art-pop, far more disciplined than the paranoid ramble of Third, but also somewhat less haunting, and making one regret even more that Bell and Chilton only had the space of one LP to work on with each other.

Disc 4 of the package is probably the one that might have the fans salivating: a complete recor­ding of a live show played at Lafayette's Music Room in Memphis in January '73, right after Bell's departure, but with Hummel still in the band. The show is most notable for the setlist — predictable entries from #1 Record and previews of Radio City numbers are then followed by an interesting set of covers, as the boys promote the Kinks (ʽCome On Nowʼ), Todd Rundgren (ʽSlutʼ), T. Rex (ʽBaby Strangeʼ), and even The Flying Burrito Brothers (ʽHot Burrito #2ʼ) — in­structive, since Gram Parsons is probably not the first person one would associate with Big Star's sound, image, and atmosphere, but now that they bring it on themselves, there most certainly has to be an influence. Unfortunately, the downside of the recording is poor quality: audience noise does not interfere for the simple reason that there were probably something like ten or twelve people present altogether, but the equipment must have been piss-poor. And as for those covers, well, you've heard them once for educational reasons, you probably won't feel any need to hear them again. (Unless you simply want to show your admiration for a band that can cover the Kinks, Todd Rundgren, T. Rex, and Gram Parsons in one gig, and I do admit that bands like these are not always easy to localize in one's neighborhood).

All in all, this is simultaneously a great boxset (with particular care given to packaging and liner notes) — and a serious disappointment. If anything, it would have made better sense if the whole shenanigan was just put together as the three original albums, cleaned up and remastered, each CD accompanied by a large set of bonus tracks, plus the Live album with bonus performances of the Kinks / Rundgren / Bolan / Parsons tunes from the Memphis show. In this particular form, Big Star's legacy looks somewhat fussy, chaotic, and «gappy». Then again, who knows? A band as fussy and chaotic as Big Star might actually look more adequate with a fussy and chaotic box­set to go along. It's up to you to decide.

Check "Keep An Eye On The Sky" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Keep An Eye On The Sky" (MP3) on Amazon

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Blue Cheer: Dining With The Sharks

BLUE CHEER: DINING WITH THE SHARKS (1991)

1) Big Noise; 2) Outrider; 3) Sweet Child Of The Reeperbahn; 4) Gunfight; 5) Audio Whore; 6) Cut The Costs; 7) Sex Soldier; 8) When Two Spirits Touch; 9) Pull The Trigger; 10) Foxy Lady.

A rather prophetic title for an album, since, to the best of my knowledge, this is exactly what this particular LP, along with this particular incarnation of the band, is busy doing at the moment. By the early 1990s, «Blue Cheer» had completed their relocation to Germany, where their new sound unexpectedly found just a tad more acclaim than elsewhere — a fact that Peterson acknowledged and honored by not only hiring a German guitarist (Dieter Saller) to play on the record, but also by writing songs with titles like ʽSweet Child Of The Reeperbahnʼ. Which might or might not also contain an intentional nod to Guns N' Roses, but in general, the Peterson/Saller sound rather continues the «Accept-ization» of Blue Cheer's legacy begun on the previous album, much to the delight of all those sons of rowdy Hamburg sailors whose fathers, thirty years back, used to get equally aroused to the merry sounds of The Silver Beetles.

That said, even the least inspired Accept albums are still preferable to this tremendously boring piece of sludgy-muck. The only thing that could be briefly admired is Peterson's consistency of character — other than the acoustic / steel guitar-driven folk-blues of ʽWhen Two Spirits Touchʼ (still sounds dirty) there is not a single nod here towards «sentimentality», «softness», «depth of feeling», and whatever other silly qualities could distract The Beast from grinding its axe, strut­ting its stuff, rolling its dough, and porking its chops. The problem, however, is that The Beast got old, stupefied, and unadaptable to modern world conditions.

Everything that could go wrong, goes wrong. With Peterson, who has never shown signs of melodic genius, being credited for most of the songwriting, the majority of the riffs are clichéd reruns of The Hard Rock Textbook, with echoes of Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and those German bands all over the place — in fact, some of that stuff has to be heard to be believed. If you did not think, for instance, that it was humanly possible to rip off the Kinks and ZZ Top on the exact same song, take a peek at ʽPull The Triggerʼ, whose verse riff copies ʽI Got The Sixʼ and whose chorus riff copies ʽ(Wish I Could Fly Like) Supermanʼ (and all the while the bass gui­tar keeps on playing the old pattern from ʽSummertime Bluesʼ!). This is just the most obvious example (to me), but I'm fairly sure most of the songs could be analyzed the same way.

To this one should add the exact same leaden guitar tone on each track, and the complete inabi­lity of the new German player to raise any interest in his solos — he just seems like a well-meaning kid with lots of reverence for Wolf Hoffmann, but no particular talent of his own, and maybe that is why his leads are usually mixed in so deep in the production, which makes the experience of listening to the whole album comparable to the experience of crossing a mile-long cesspool with a light, but constant electrical charge running through it. The dubious «delight» of having it all capped off with a similar-sounding cover of Jimi's ʽFoxy Ladyʼ is comparable to scooping out a piece of Turkish Delight at the end of the crossing — bon appetit.

Finally, as if that wasn't enough, Peterson must have been struck down with laryngitis on that particular day — his vocals were never a huge gift of Fortune, but here he sounds like a lite ver­sion of Motörhead's Lemmy and AC/DC's throat-problem-era Brian Johnson rolled in one: hoarse, gurgling, and completely unadapted for the «macho» spirit of his own compositions. Then again, given titles like ʽAudio Whoreʼ and ʽSex Soldierʼ, I guess it all fits, on some particularly depra­ved level, into the typical Reeperbahn aesthetics. But still, even something like ʽWhat Do You Do For Money Honeyʼ seems chic and stylish compared to this miserable sludge.

If this were at least «comically» bad, I could have found it in me to say a few kind words — but since it is «boringly bad», which is really the worst kind of bad there is, the final verdict is an as­serted thumbs down all the way; you'd have to be one of Peterson's groupies-for-life to enjoy this, I think, or a Hamburg slum native or something. As it is, just do yourself a favor and get an Accept record instead.

Check "Dining With The Sharks" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Bob Dylan: Real Live

BOB DYLAN: REAL LIVE (1984)

1) Highway 61 Revisited; 2) Maggie's Farm; 3) I And I; 4) License To Kill; 5) It Ain't Me Babe; 6) Tangled Up In Blue; 7) Masters Of War; 8) Ballad Of A Thin Man; 9) Girl From The North Country; 10) Tombstone Blues.

Although Dylan's touring activity did not slow down from his usual 1970s rate — in fact, with the beginning of the «Never Ending Tour» in 1988 it only kept accelerating — the same cannot be said about the verve with which he would continue to release live albums. In fact, Real Live is, in a sense, his last «proper» live offer: Dylan & The Dead should rather count as a misguided me­mento of a star-crossed event, Unplugged was all but forced upon the man by MTV, and all other subsequent live releases would be culled from the archives for the «Bootleg Series».

As one of the many who actually had a chance to catch one of Bob's live acts (Albuquerque 2007, if my memory serves me right), I kind of understand this decision. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Dylan kept experimenting with the live format, switching from acoustic to electric, there and back again, sometimes leaning towards a harsher rock'n'roll sound (Before The Flood), sometimes trying out a «symphonic roots» approach (Rolling Thunder), even taking risks with a glitzy big band sound (Budokan) or, of course, adding gospel elements to his Christian-era tou­ring. However, once his «hardcore Christian» days were over, the live Dylan sound became, on the whole, more streamlined and typical. The backing bands (including the one I saw) are never anything less than pro­fessional, but most of the time they tend to gravitate towards well-estab­lished, predictable forms, with limited opportunities for spontaneity. Thus, Real Live may sound seriously differently from everything that came before it, but it does not radically differ from any­thing that came after it (granted, I am nowhere near an expert on the extensive field of Dylan bootleg studies, but those few dots that I know of are connected in a rather straight line).

Of course, sonic streamlining has never prevented Dylan from continuing to experiment with his songs, whose original incarnations he has always regarded as experimental material rather than sacred cows — all fans know that going to a Dylan show, be it 1984 or 2014, always presumes taking part in the «guess-what's-playing» game. But the downside has been the progressive dete­rioration of his voice, already well evident on Real Live, as it converts much of its former color into a high-pitched whine, and, more importantly, as Bob seems to be losing much of his control over it. It is almost as if his voice problems took him by surprise, and he never really learned to cope with them (unlike, say, Tom Waits, who gave us all a lesson in capitalizing on his guttural issues). Many people have learned to disregard the issue and keep insisting that Dylan continues to be a «vocal master» both in his «whiny» period and even later, when his frequencies took one more somersault and landed in «deep pharyngeal croak» territory — I cannot share this opinion and pretend that I have any love at all for Dylan's live vocal performance after his turning 40-45. (Studio records are a different matter, since he seems to be paying more attention to his limits and capacities there, and attunes his new songs respectively).

So that is what Real Live is: a tolerable, mediocre, middle-of-the-road live rock'n'roll album, with old hits and newer compositions alike all reduced to a single common invariant and «gra­ced» by a singer who seems a little lost and confused — he'd like to roar like a lion, perhaps, but all he can is yelp like a jackal. His backing band would like to help, perhaps, but they gel fairly mechanically, and although Mick Taylor is given plenty of opportunities to shine on lead guitar, he does so without letting his hair down, and comes across as competent, but boring (he really needs a Keith Richard around for both to profit from the contrastive effect — on his own, he's just another careful, politely groomed, not-too-inspiring blues-rock guitarist). You really get to know that there is a big problem, though, when the guest star on one of the tracks (ʽTombstone Bluesʼ) turns out to be Carlos Santana, and when his leads on that track turn out to be stylistically undistinguishable from Taylor's on all the others.

As usual, Bob has a little acoustic set in the middle, with ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ to have the entire audience subtly glorify their male chauvinism (I wonder if the girls, too, are always singing along to "it ain't me you're looking for, babe"?), and a newly revised version of ʽTangled Up In Blueʼ with alternate lyrics, a serious collectible for fans, but not something I'd like to pay attention to because the vocal delivery sucks anyway. Of the new songs, ʽI And Iʼ, as befits its Rastafari title, is slightly reggaeified as compared to the studio version, but the results are crude, and the song is simply stripped of its moody atmosphere; and why they preferred to perform / include ʽLicense To Killʼ instead of ʽJokermanʼ is beyond me.

In the end, the only «interesting» bit of the album is in how ʽMasters Of Warʼ became radically reinterpreted as an «ominous-apocalyptic» rock song, now closer in spirit to (and even partially bor­rowing the riff of) ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ than ʽNottamun Townʼ which it originally copied — and maybe Taylor was reminded of his past glories playing on ʽGimme Shelterʼ under those conditions, so there is a little extra heat and freedom of expression in the several solos he takes on that particular song (not to mention length). But one song is not enough to revert the trend, and the verdict should be a grim one: Real Live marks the breaking point at which Dylan's live legacy generally becomes expendable. It ain't bad, but it ain't something you should be loo­king for, babe. A thumbs down here, in loving memory of all those other live albums.

Check "Real Live" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, January 27, 2014

Buddy Holly: Reminiscing

BUDDY HOLLY: REMINISCING (1963)

1) Reminiscing; 2) Slippin' And Slidin'; 3) Bo Diddley; 4) Wait Till The Sun Shines, Nellie; 5) Baby, Won't You Come Out Tonight; 6) Brown Eyed Handsome Man; 7) Because I Love You; 8) It's Not My Fault; 9) I'm Gonna Set My Foot Down; 10) Changing All Those Changes; 11) Rock-A-Bye-Rock.

I do not know why it took Norman Petty almost three years to realize the benefits that could be gained from continuing to milk Buddy's archives. However, since Reminiscing came out in Feb­ruary '63, it certainly was not tied in to the British Invasion, which had not yet begun, and could not have caused additional interest in the dead man behind it all. More likely, it was caused by a growing deficit in Petty's own pockets.

In any case, neither this particular record, nor any of its three or four follow-ups, released through the 1960s, have any reason to exist these days, what with all of Buddy's undubbed demos, out­takes, rehearsals etc. now legally available on various boxsets and rarities collections. But just for the sake of history, and also for the sake of letting you know that these overdubbed recordings were never quite as terrible as devoted fans often proclaim them to be, I suppose that a word or two is in order at least about the first few of these mutants.

So, the story as it stands: Reminiscing is a set of eleven Holly / Crickets tunes, originally re­corded from 1956 to 1958, then left in the can until 1962, when Petty hired the Fireballs, a now-forgotten but then-modestly-popular rockabilly band, to bring the tapes to completion. Unlike «The Apartment Tapes», which were just Buddy and his acoustic, these songs, however, ranged from acoustic demos to semi-completed tracks that already had the Crickets playing on them, so Petty basically had one band play on top of the other every now and then — no wonder the sound is, mildly speaking, a bit messy in places.

That said, the Fireballs were a bona fide rock band like any other, and, at the very least, these overdubs make sense. The main problem of Reminiscing is not the tampering — it is the lack of high quality material. For sure, Buddy was a prolific recorder, but he wasn't that good of a song­writer to strike out a new great tune every day. After the «Apartment Tunes» had all made their appearance, in one form or another, on Story, the majority of what was left in the vaults turned out to be covers of other people's stuff — and given that Buddy's covers of other people on his regular LPs were rarely the focus of attention, what could one expect to find at the bottom of the barrel? I wouldn't go as far as to say that Petty was doing Buddy a huge reputational disservice, but there is not a single song here that could count as a lost gem (okay, maybe one).

About half of the tracks are well-known standards by Buddy's rock'n'roller competitors or imita­tions of these competitors (ʽI'm Gonna Set My Foot Downʼ is a transparent copy of Roy Orbi­son's ʽOoby Doobyʼ with a little bit of ʽEverybody's Trying To Be My Baby / Blue Suede Shoesʼ thrown in for good measure). Sometimes the arrangements are drastically experimental, but not to a reasonable effect — the attempt to reinvent Little Richard's ʽSlippin' And Slidin'ʼ as a slow «shuffle», with heavy emphasis on voice modulation, is sort of weird for weirdness sake, and was, I believe, rightfully abandoned by the artist because the song ceased to make sense. Elsewhere, we have Buddy trying on the shoes of Bo Diddley (ʽBo Diddleyʼ) and Chuck Berry (ʽBrown Eyed Handsome Manʼ) — decent homages, but completely unnecessary.

That one song which could qualify for posterity gave the album itself its title: a leftover from a session where Buddy was backed by sax master King Curtis. Although ʽReminiscingʼ is formally credited to the sax guy, it is reported that Buddy was the author, and that he handed the credit over to Curtis in acknowledgement of the man agreeing to play for him. Not that the composition is particularly original, but the Buddy/Curtis combination is, and it kind of makes one sad that the same combination was not tried out on some of Buddy's better songs.

Of the other originals, ʽBecause I Love Youʼ is a bit too draggy, monotonous, and simplistic to influence me with its tenderness, and the rest is rather generic rockabilly that might or might not date back to Buddy's earliest, not particularly adventurous sessions — all in all, if you were truly «reminiscing» about the man back in 1963, just hearing his voice on yet another bunch of tunes must have been an extraordinary experience, but now that it's all one for the newer generations, Reminiscing is understandably easier associated with Petty's pettiness than with Holly's holiness, if you get my drift. Therefore, a thumbs down here, even if the title track is well worth a spin or two in the playlist of your choice.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Beyoncé: B'Day

BEYONCÉ: B'DAY (2006)

1) Beautiful Liar; 2) Irreplaceable; 3) Green Light; 4) Kitty Kat; 5) Welcome To Hollywood; 6) Upgrade U; 7) Flaws And All; 8) If; 9) Get Me Bodied; 10) Freakum Dress; 11) Suga Mama; 12) Déjà Vu; 13) Ring The Alarm; 14) Resentment; 15) Listen; 16) World Wide Woman; 17) Check On It; 18) Amor Gitano; 19) Beautiful Liar (remix).

At a certain molecular juncture, I almost caught myself liking this album — a grave error, since «liking» supposes some sort of complex emotional / intellectual reaction, whereas the proper res­ponse to B'Day should probably be purely physiological. For sure, mainstream commercial music may have completely crapped out in the 21st century, but at the same time, it is constantly stri­ving for new ways to conquer the human body, if not the human spirit, and from that point of view, B'Day is a tremen­dous success. No small coincidence that one of the songs bears the up-to-now ungrammatical title of ʽGet Me Bodiedʼ. There is no place for the human spirit on this re­cord, but it seems tailor-made for everything that goes one notch below the spirit.

As usual, there has been a boatload of various releases of B'Day in various forms, so that the fans could spend as much money on it as they desired; I am reviewing the «deluxe» version, or one of several «deluxe» versions, whatever, that has 19 instead of 10 tracks on it — and no, that's quite okay, most of this stuff is listenable, and the extra tracks, whatever they are, do provide better in­sight into the masterplan behind this concoction. There are very few ballads (ʽFlaws And Allʼ, ʽIfʼ) and even fewer power ballads — just one, actually (ʽListenʼ), and none of them were even released as singles, because this is not what the whole thing is about. The whole thing is about "giving it to mama" (ʽGreen Lightʼ, which was one of the singles).

Exclude the few pieces of hokum, and B'Day is simply one unstoppable groove after another — tenaciously catchy chorus mantras fired over impeccably glued samples of whatever it is that awakens and powers up one's internal epicycles. There is enough diversity in these grooves to please just about everybody: for instance, the classic funk fan will be quickly drawn to ʽSugar Mamaʼ with its guitar samples from an obscure song by Jake Wade & The Soul Searchers, over which Ms. Knowles plasters her "come sit on mama lap hey" in a tone that is all but impossible to disobey (except it's fairly hard to keep still while the groove is on). ʽBeautiful Liarʼ is a duet with Shakira, and thus expectedly combining elements of R&B and Latin styles. ʽFreakum Dressʼ is influenced by go-go, but also adds almost Queen-style vocal crescendos in the middle. ʽGreen Lightʼ moves through like three or four different sections (funk, ska, ballad, jazz?..), and so on.

Behind all these grooves lies a big, grinning nothing — curled up and ready to be materialized into some Big Feminist / Materialist / Modernist / Humanist Statement by mainstream criticism, although, frankly speaking, Beyoncé herself gives very little opportunity to overestimate or over­analyze her lyrics and attitudes. Her singing, as usual, is always adequate: she neither rejects her own sexuality and body drive, nor over-emphasizes it, so that even a straightforward dancefloor anthem like ʽGet Me Bodiedʼ is just a song about dancing, not some sort of religious epiphany about how you only come to properly know your inner self through the dancefloor. At least Be­yoncé is smart enough to know that trying to seem smarter than she is will only lead to confusion, and there is nothing as cretinous here as, say, Alicia Keys' ʽSuperwomanʼ. (But don't worry, it will get worse — multiplatinum superstars always end up the same way).

In the meantime, «hollow hooks» abound. ʽIrreplaceableʼ is a half-groove, half-ballad that gene­rally sucks, but has an unbeatable chorus of "you must not know 'bout me" that should have re­ceived more songwriting polish. ʽUpgrade Uʼ is the record's best propped-up hip-hop arrange­ment (although, as usual, I could easily do without the Jay-Z part). The four-song stretch of ʽFreakum Dressʼ, ʽSuga Mamaʼ, ʽDéjà Vuʼ, and the siren-driven ʽRing The Alarmʼ is possibly the best four-song stretch ever on a Beyoncé record — on their own, each of these songs is only so-so, but when placed together on the «deluxe» edition, they generate the impression of almost un­bridled creativity. (Besides playing off each other like four distinct, but connected parts of the same musical soap opera where the lady begins by wooing the gentleman, goes on to be hung up on the gentleman, and ends by worrying about the chinchilla coats and houses off the coast that she's going to get if the gentleman happens to dumps her. Uh, okay — we all know Beyoncé is a lady of relatively simple tastes and needs).

Eventually, you come to your senses and realize that it's all plastic (ʽDéjà Vuʼ almost takes pride in its featuring real instrumentation, but this is really laughable — who could really be ex­pecting a natural band to be playing on a Beyoncé album, and who could believe that band to be worthy of competition with «old school» R&B outfits?), but it's pretty damn high quality plastic. Wi­thin the framework of a social experiment, I give it a thumbs up, being only human and, sometimes, unable to resist a pretty bit of packaging if it is not too schlocky. B'Day is perfectly safe and saniti­zed, a high-quality product of The Human Robotics Corporation, yet I do recommend it for fans of human robotics worldwide.

Check "B'Day" (CD) on Amazon
Check "B'Day" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Belle And Sebastian: Push Barman To Open Old Wounds

BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: PUSH BARMAN TO OPEN OLD WOUNDS (1997-2001/2005)

CD I: 1) Dog On Wheels; 2) The State I Am In; 3) String Bean Jean; 4) Belle & Sebastian; 5) Lazy Line Painter Jane; 6) You Made Me Forget My Dreams; 7) A Century Of Elvis; 8) Photo Jenny; 9) A Century Of Fakers; 10) Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie; 11) Beautiful; 12) Put The Book Back On The Shelf/Songs For Children.
CD II: 1) This Is Just A Modern Rock Song; 2) I Know Where The Summer Goes; 3) The Gate; 4) Slow Graffiti; 5) Legal Man; 6) Judy Is A Dick Slap; 7) Winter Wooskie; 8) Jonathan David; 9) Take Your Carriage Clock And Shove It; 10) The Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner; 11) I'm Waking Up To Us; 12) I Love My Car; 13) Marx And Engels.

From an inevitably Beatlish perspective, this lengthy 2-CD retrospective is Belle & Sebastian's Past Masters Vol. 1: a compilation that does not add much to one's understanding of the band's essence if you already got all the regular LPs, but a quintessential artefact all the same if you are enough of a fan to want to own everything «important». The discs neatly and meticulously collect almost everything that Murdoch and Co. released in between the regular LPs: four EPs recorded and published in 1997-98 and three singles released in 2000-2001. In other words, the album ele­gantly reflects the first period of the band's existence — the «introspective folk-pop years», stop­ping right before the transition to the louder, more colorful pop-rock sound of Dear Catastrophe Waitress and Life Pursuit.

To own such a well-assembled collection is always pleasant for a reviewer, providing the oppor­tunity to avoid reviewing each little EP under its own title or ignoring them altogether — but it also makes life tough at the same time, since there is so much material here that picking out the highlights and striving not to forget to pat the «hidden gems» on the back can be a real headache. The problem is, Murdoch took as much care of and pride in his EPs and singles as everything else, and none of these songs could be described as «filler»: everything shows the same attention to detail, focus on taste, and lyrical insight as the best songs on Tigermilk and whatever followed. And just as well, at the same time, everything sounds «the same» — permeated with the mellow-morose vibe, pretty, smart, and relatively hookless.

So as not to get lost myself and not to lose anybody else in the process, I will offer a brief-run­down — listing each of the individual components of the retrospective and highlighting what looks like one potential highlight off each one. First on our list is Dog On Wheels, a four-song EP from May 1997, thematically linked to Tigermilk (both records even have the same Joanne Kenney on the photo, this time with a toy animal instead of a real one). The title track, with its unusually (for Murdoch) bluesy acoustic melody appeals to me on a special level, but «objective­ly» the EP is more notable for containing a song that is actually titled ʽBelle & Sebastianʼ — its lyrics finally providing the curious fans with an artistic motivation behind the choice of the band's name, rather than just the dry technical facts. Other than Murdoch singing about an octave higher than his normal range allows him without straining, it is quite a touching experience.

Next, we have Lazy Line Painter Jane, another 4-song EP where the highlight is clearly the title track, recorded in a church hall (too bad the organ employed is clearly not the church organ) as a duet between Murdoch and guest vocalist Monica Queen — a dense, fully arranged number ma­king good use of the echoey acoustics when it comes to the climactic crescendo, and sarcastically assassinating a «sexually liberated» protagonist along the way. The lyrics may be just a little too silly and a little too vile, but musically, the song is one of their more interesting productions of 1997, before the sonic ambitions were toned down once again.

Following this up with 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds Of Light, another EP where I was initially seduced by the fast-moving, wildly agitated ʽLe Pastie De La Bourgeoisieʼ, but eventually decided that it is trumped by ʽBeautifulʼ, which rolls along at a slower pace, leisurely takes its time to build up, and eventually unfurls into a majestic, but incredibly sad allegoric anthem to all the silly people, deluded by society and themselves, with strings, brass, organ, and vocal harmonies gracefully assembled together in one polyphonic lament. Again, this sort of arrangement is not at all typical of the band's early studio LPs, showing that Murdoch regarded LP expression and EP expression as two significantly different kinds of activity.

The fourth EP, This Is Just A Modern Rock Song, released late in 1998, does not particularly impress me with anything. Its title track drags on for seven minutes and mainly depends on its autobiographical flavor — beginning with an account of some of Stuart's girl relations and then going on to comment on the entire band ("we're four boys in corduroys, we're not terrific but we're competent"), name-dropping Dostoyevsky and ending with self-irony ("I count three, four and then we start to slow, because a song has got to stop somewhere"), but really, melodically the whole thing is too bit of a drag. Murdoch is a man of many talents, but it is not in his power to come up with his own ʽDesolation Rowʼ — his metabolism rate is too slow for that.

The second disc is almost completely devoted to the single format, and the songs there progres­sively keep sliding into smoother, more lethargic territory, although ʽLegal Manʼ is a psychedelic dance number, on the surface — retro-oriented at recapturing the «sunshine» of hippie happiness, under the surface — most likely, an ironic look at the ongoing revivalism of Sixties idealism, with its fairy chants of "L-O-V-E love, it's coming back, it's coming back" and appeals to the lis­tener to "get out of the city and into the sunshine". I do not think the song works at all — it is too dazed and melancholic to imitate stark raving happiness, and too stark ravingly happy to match the usual melancholic standards. Stuck somewhere in the middle with no particular place to go, and I'd rather listen to ʽJudy Is A Dick Slapʼ, which (thank God!) is actually an instrumental dri­ven by what sounds like a Moog solo (in the 2000s? Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson ahoy!).

Still, some of the B-sides have their little pings and clinks: ʽThe Loneliness Of A Middle Dis­tance Runnerʼ has a cool flanging effect on the guitar solo, and ʽI Love My Carʼ is quite a hila­rious martial-pop Kinkophile dream that also finds space to accommodate the Beach Boys, as "I love my car" eventually becomes "I love my Carl" and the verse is tolerantly concluded with the line "...I could even find it in my head to love Mike Love". Okay, so I admit that I always try to measure my feelings for Murdoch art without taking lyrics into consideration, but I also have to admit that the man has a good feel for phonetics, allowing sound similarity to lead him in all sorts of unpredictable directions — good bribery material for any writer with a linguistic background, that. On this note, I have no choice but to give the compilation a thumbs up and state that its first disc at least is a strong pretender to «best B&S album of the 20th century», whereas the second one, dispensing its highs and lows with a little less energy, still has its fair share of pleasures for the experienced fan. And yes, these are «old wounds» indeed, but enough of them have a significantly unusual shape for the experienced sadomasochist not to get bored.

Check "Push Barman To Open Old Wounds" (CD) on Amazon
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Friday, January 24, 2014

Bauhaus: Swing The Heartache - The BBC Sessions

BAUHAUS: SWING THE HEARTACHE: THE BBC SESSIONS (1980-1983/1989)

1) God In An Alcove; 2) Telegram Sam; 3) Double Dare; 4) The Spy In The Cab; 5) In The Flat Field; 6) St. Vitus Dance; 7) In Fear Of Fear; 8) Poison Pen; 9) Party Of The First Part; 10) Departure; 11) The Three Shadows, Pt. 2; 12) Silent Hedges; 13) Swing The Heartache; 14) Third Uncle; 15) Ziggy Stardust; 16) Terror Couple Kill Colonel; 17) Night Time; 18) She's In Parties.

As a minor bonus to all the faithful fans, Bauhaus were honored by this archival release from the BBC — originally issued as early as 1989, when this tradition was still relatively fresh and the officially released BBC recordings were still regarded as a gap-filling remedy for those artists whose live catalog left a lot to be desired. These particular sessions, mostly recorded for John Peel's and David Jensen's broadcasts, cover the chronological entirety of Bauhaus' classic career, from 1980 to 1983, and work very well as a basic introduction to the band's work and image — pleasantly concentrating on whatever was relevant for the band at the time of performing rather than just on reproducing the commercial hits.

This means that the package may not pretend at being a «comprehensive anthology» (how could one have a comprehensive anthology without ʽBela Lugosi's Deadʼ or ʽHollow Hillsʼ?), but it provides several impressive snapshots of particular moments in time — for instance, on a 1982 session they play the second (waltzing) part of ʽThe Three Shadowsʼ and the non-album oddity ʽParty Of The First Partʼ, where parts of the dialog soundtrack to the cartoon ʽThe Devil And Daniel Mouseʼ (it­self a send-up of The Devil And Daniel Webster) are backed by an eerie lounge jazz exercise, a fairly atypical achievement for Bauhaus, but with an effect that is just as comical­ly creepy as their straightforward «Goth» business.

One does, however, have to be careful, because a few of these tracks turn out to be exactly the same as already present on studio albums — ʽThird Uncleʼ, for instance, is not a real live take, as might have been hoped, but the exact studio mix of the song as first heard on The Sky's Gone Out, and the same applies to ʽZiggy Stardustʼ (the single version). A bit of a cheat there, but at least it is compensated for by featuring the only live version of ʽSwing The Heartacheʼ in official existence — no wonder they named the entire album after it, as it is clearly the major highlight of the package, with Ash doing his best to retain and, if possible, enhance the industrial sonic night­mare of the original.

Other minor surprises include ʽPoison Penʼ, a muscular dark funk workout almost completely de­pendent on bass/drum interplay as Haskins and David J box each other to death in a sweaty three-minute match; and a cover of the old garage classic ʽNight Timeʼ by The Strangeloves — neither suited too well for Bauhaus' usual image nor giving them an adequate opportunity to change it, but raising the bar on unpredictability, which is always good for any band locked into a stereo­type. As for the predictable inclusions, everything is played with the expected verve, but nothing is superior to the studio versions, for reasons already discussed previously. But at least the sound quality is better than on the «regular» live albums.

Serious fans will need to own this if only for all the «rarities» — casual ones might want to give it an uninterrupted spin or two if only to marvel at how a band, over such a short period, can sound in so many different ways, yet always remain the same at heart. We have basic rock'n'roll, funk, lounge jazz, glam rock, post-punk, industrial, even some acoustic waltzing and old-time garage, but all of these things are given the Murphy/Ash treatment of implosive vocals and ex­plosive guitars, and it neutralizes the whole package into three years from the life of an obnoxious, but impossibly smart and perversely attractive Evil Clown. The very fact that the album offers such a perspective (well, at least I've been able to formulate it somehow) leaves me no choice but to give it a thumbs up, skeptical as I usually am about all those BBC packages. But then again, the magic may not work tomorrow. It's a quantum kind of thing.

Check "Swing The Heartache" (CD) on Amazon

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Big Star: Live

BIG STAR: LIVE (1974/1992)

1) September Gurls; 2) Way Out West; 3) Mod Lang; 4) Don't Lie To Me; 5) O My Soul; 6) Interview; 7) The Ballad Of El Goodo; 8) Thirteen; 9) I'm In Love With A Girl; 10) Motel Blues; 11) In The Street; 12) You Get What You Deserve; 13) Daisy Glaze; 14) Back Of A Car; 15) She's A Mover.

Arguably the most symbolic, and the saddest, moment of this album is when, in a short interview that links the two parts of the radio concert (recorded at Ultrasonic Studios in NYC), the an­nouncer/interviewer says, "...I just came across a review of your new album called Radio City, and the guy started off the review by saying, ʽhere it is only January, and we already have the album of yearʼ... you're getting an awful lot of critical acclaim for your new album, it's really good!". "Yeah, that's, uh, nice", replies a quite transparently lemon-faced Chilton, "I hope it sells. We've had critical acclaim before".

Whether this internal panic is somehow reflected in the band's actual live performance is deba­table, but it is hard not to perceive this archival release from that particular point of view — a tense, nervous Chilton, having to cope with the recent loss of yet another band member (Hummel quit right after the recording of Radio City, briefly replaced by John Lightman, who is captured live on this album) and with worried anticipation of whether they might be able to make it this time around. Nowhere does this tension show as strong as on the solo acoustic performance of ʽThe Ballad Of El Goodoʼ, a song that I'd never have thought could work without all the psy­chedelic-gospel harmo­nies and cool flanging guitar effects, but it does work very well, with just a slight extra drop of desperation in each of Alex's "ain't no one going to turn me round", as the man slowly comes to realize that, soon enough, he might be facing a choice of agreeing to be turned round — or to be turned down by circumstances beyond his control and determination.

On the whole, this is not one of those great lost live albums of all time, since Big Star was first and foremost a studio band, only as perfect as the harmonies, the overdubs, and the mixing on each of their songs. But it is still well worth hearing, if only to admire how closely their «mini­malist» lineup (one guitar, bass, drums) comes to recapturing all the essence of their best songs. Even the short acoustic set that Alex generates all on his own in the middle of the performance is fully adequate — I have already mentioned ʽEl Goodoʼ, but ʽThirteenʼ with just a six-string is every bit as gorgeous as the fuller arrangement on #1 Record. (ʽMotel Bluesʼ, a rather whiny folk ramble, is not as good, a song written more for its plaintive lyrics than anything else, and wisely left off the original albums).

A few of the numbers are somewhat botched: I am speaking particularly of the very disappoin­ting choice of ʽSeptember Gurlsʼ for the opening number, since Alex was not able to reproduce that caramelly tone of the original which constitutes about 50% of the song's success, and that is one song that really cannot work with just one guitar and no harmonies. But ʽO My Soulʼ, on the other hand, is terrific, with Lightman in full control of Hummel's quirky bass zoops, Alex playing the funky rhythm parts with perfect precision, and Stephens firing away with as much excitement as he displayed in the studio. Most of the rock-oriented material from Radio City is, in fact, be­yond complaining, particularly when the original songs themselves were good (because no amount of raw live rock'n'roll energy can save something as pointless as ʽMod Langʼ).

My only sorrow is that the material focuses too much on Radio City rather than #1 Record, but this is predictable — with Bell long since out of the band, and the whole radio concert basically serving as a promotional spot, and the «rockier» material of Radio City being altogether more suitable for a live performance, complaining is futile. And who would dare to complain, really, when listening to an obviously troubled musician who can still play his fairly complex guitar lines and sing on key and in tune at the same time? Unless you are a Big Star maniac or some­thing, you probably will not find yourself listening to this all the time, but even one listen may generate some serious extra respect for Chilton both as a human being and as a master craftsman, and from that point of view, Live is an essential archive release, fully deserving of a thumbs up.

Check "Live" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Blue Cheer: Highlights And Lowlives

BLUE CHEER: HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIVES (1990)

1) Urban Soldiers; 2) Hunter Of Love; 3) Girl From London; 4) Blue Steel Dues; 5) Big Trouble In Paradise; 6) Flight Of The Enola Gay; 7) Hoochie Coochie Man; 8) Down And Dirty; 9) Blues Cadillac.

In order to better prove that they are not «glam metal», and that they use their heaviness for dar­ker and deeper purposes than attenuating their sexiness, Blue Cheer hire Jack Endino to produce their next album — the same Jack Endino that had just produced Nirvana's Bleach and enginee­red LPs by Mudhoney and Soundgarden. Clearly, Dickie was still hip to whatever was happening musically (at least, as far as heavy stuff was concerned) on the West Coast, and it is only natural that his heart and soul would be drifting towards the emerging grunge scene rather than the hedo­nistic and glossy-commercial style of the hair metal crowds.

Unfortunately, it does not help. Endino probably agreed to work with those guys out of a basic sense of respect — after all, one can trace a fairly credible line from the original stoner rock of Vincebus Eruptum to the Seattle grunge bands — but there was nothing he could do about rec­tifying their sound or modernizing their attitudes. Duck MacDonald, a faithful supporter of Tony Rainier's legacy, keeps pushing on with «muscle riffs» and «lightning solos»; Peterson's primary points of lyrical and atmospheric interest remain in the territory of girls, hot rods, and glorifying wasted lifestyles; and altogether, there is no other point to this record than proving they can still push it all the way to eleven.

Now I couldn't even say that the riffs are «bad»: if you look at a song like ʽFlight Of The Enola Gayʼ outside of any sort of context, its pop metal lines are somewhat catchy. It is only when you realize that this sounds like an early rehearsal tape for Judas Priest that the desire to hear it one more time completely evaporates. I mean, if you are writing a heavy metal song about the bom­bing of Hiroshima, you want to make your listeners' hair stand on end, right? You want them to feel the terror, the heat, the megadeath in their very bones, right? So how are you going to achi­eve that effect by relying exclusively on decade-old heavy metal clichés? And no, «low-register guitar riff» does not automatically result in an allegory of a nuclear explosion, you have to work just a little bit more for that.

Conversely, much of the album does not stray too far away from old school 12-bar territory — ʽBlue Steel Duesʼ is nothing but your basic slow blues-rock jam, and the metallized cover of ʽHoochie Coochie Manʼ speaks for itself (granted, it is probably one of the heaviest versions of the song I have ever heard, and Peterson plays the protagonist with gusto, getting way more into character than on any other song here, but still, just how many different hoochie coochie men do you really need in one lifetime?). And what does stray away sometimes borders on the ridiculous: ʽGirl From Londonʼ is a sentimental-cum-metal attempt to conquer the heights of impressionistic romanticism à la ʽLittle Wingʼ — Peterson and MacDonald start off quiet and «deep», with nos­talgically gallant-psychedelic imagery conveyed by bad lyrics ("She wears a diamond beneath the moon / We bring her flowers in the afternoon"), then gradually unwind and crank it up to high heaven, but the guitar tones and melodic structure are so predictable it's not even funny.

Maybe the best thing that can, and should, be said about the album is that it avoids power ballads: ʽGirl From Londonʼ is the only ballad as such, and it reminds far more of the early successes of Hendrix and Led Zeppelin than the pompous anthems of the hairy heroes of the Eighties. At the very least, Peterson is true to his past and consistent in his approach to music-making. But this does not make Highlights And Lowlives any less unnecessary — it just makes it a little more palatable if you do have to listen to it, for reviewing purposes, for instance. Without even a single point of genuine interest, it's a thumbs down all the way: plenty of lowlives all right, but good luck trying to pick out the highlights.

Check "Highlights And Lowlives" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bob Dylan: Infidels

BOB DYLAN: INFIDELS (1983)

1) Jokerman; 2) Sweetheart Like You; 3) Neighborhood Bully; 4) License To Kill; 5) Man Of Peace; 6) Union Sun­down; 7) I And I; 8) Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight.

And now, welcome to the Eighties — says the opening percussion roll by Sly Dunbar, resonating with an electronic echo that announces Dylan's first encounter with the wonderful world of hi-tech. It is actually a little ironic that, while gradually recovering from the Jesus haze and trying to reconnect with the modern world, Dylan ended up hiring Mark Knopfler as his producer: the one guy, out of all that crowd of new arrivals, that did not give a damn about all that «New Wave» crapola, sticking to the tried and true. And it remains unclear to me just how much Knopfler is actually responsible for the production, since he had to leave his post midway through in order to go on tour — then, when he came back, it turned out that Dylan himself had wrapped up produc­tion in his absence, too impatient about waiting.

In any case, Infidels is far from the most transparent case of bad production marring a Dylan re­cord (that «honor» would probably have to go to Empire Burlesque), but it does not have a par­ticularly vibrant vibe, either. As we know, except for those rare cases in his life where Dylan would come up with a genuinely wonderful melody, the musical success of his albums would al­ways depend on that vibrancy — in the 1960s and 1970s alike, the man had an acute sense of smell and always knew when and how the ball was rolling, but by 1983, he was either showing signs of getting too old for that stuff, or perhaps his brainwaves were seriously affected by too much zealous Christianity. Whatever be the cause, Infidels simply does not have a good sound; it is an album that might have been infinitely better, had all the songs been recorded at a different time, in different conditions.

First and foremost, the rhythm section of «Sly and Robbie» is a joke. Nothing against Jamaica, but there isn't even a trace of reggae on this album anyway, and the electronic coloring of the drums and non-descript character of the bass just gives the record a plastic backbone, nothing more. Over this rhythm, Bob invites not one, but two famous and fairly incompatible gui­tarists to back him up: Knopfler himself, and Mick Taylor, who would also back Bob on the subsequent tour. But neither of the two shows much interest — Knopfler's licks and leads show but half of the passion that he had earlier infused in his playing on Slow Train, and Mick Taylor seems so thrilled about simply sharing the honor of playing with Bob that, throughout the record, he plays nothing but the simplest and boringest of old stockpiled Stonesy and Chicago blues riffs, usually of a rather predictable and monotonous nature. Complete the picture with Dire Straits' keyboard­ist Alan Clark and his penchant for adult contemporary soundscapes, and in terms of liveliness of the music, Infidels is trumped by any previous Dylan record, Saved included.

Which is especially pitiful since, by all accounts, Bob was actually on a songwriting roll. «Lost gems» like ʽFoot Of Prideʼ and ʽBlind Willie McTellʼ, later to be fished out for the Bootleg Se­ries, all hail from this period, and, with just a few unfortunate exceptions, most of the songs here are potential masterpieces as well — strong lyrics, well-designed chorus hooks, intelligence and inspiration all present. But the rote, stagnant musical backing simply does not allow the hooks to properly blossom — and in addition, there is way too much echo on Bob's voice to preserve the «singer vs. listener intimacy» that was so important on his masterpieces.

ʽJokermanʼ, which opens the album, could very well apply for the ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ of the 1980s — same reference to a mysterious character, same barrages of sometimes nonsensical, sometimes epiphanic imagery, same impression of some visionary musical announcement that opens some sort of door to some sort of previously unseen destination, except that the celebratory spirit of ʽJokermanʼ is bitter and ironic, where ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ used to simmer with dreamy idea­lism. (Well, then again, it is fairly hard to write a song that is so much inspired by browsing through the Old Testament and have it dreamily idealistic). Could, yes, but the lyrics are easily the best thing about it — hearing them gently float atop a sanitized, chlorine-smelling seascape is one hell of a disappointment. Besides, couldn't he have found anything even slightly more impressive as the song's main hookline than "oh-oh, whoa-whoa, Jokerman!"? So many words for the verses — and such odd neglect for the chorus.

And so much for the best song on the album, even though ʽI And Iʼ comes spiritually close: the most Dire Straits-sounding track of the lot (Knopfler must have sensed the connection and saved his best world-weary licks for the proceedings), it is also curious in how Bob suddenly embraces the tenets of Judaism ("took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice's beautiful face / and to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth") — and makes it sound convincing, now finding his answer in the Father where it used to be the Son just a short while back. Then again, Bob him­self is as much of a walking contradiction as the Holy Trinity, and after Infidels, nobody would pro­bably be surprised to find the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavadgita, or the works of L. Ron Hub­bard among his sources of inspiration. And if it helped him to make good records — heck, I say, here's to switching churches every six months. Unfortunately, there is also this small matter of production... and playing... and singing...

...and exercising better quality control over the songwriting. One thing that pissed off many a critic at the time, and I somewhat concur, is that several songs here were too overtly and bluntly politicized. A prime example is ʽNeighborhood Bullyʼ, musically riding all the way on a primi­tive blues-rock riff that only serves to provide a rhythmic base to Bob's allegorical endorsement of the State of Israel in its military conflict. Now even in his early days as a protest singer, the man was too smart to allow himself to be boxed in one corner: he may have rallied against war and injustice, but he never aligned himself with the Communist party or anything like that — and here we have a song that was all but adopted by the Zionist camp as their personal anthem, which is pushing things a bit too far. Nothing against anybody's right to share or even promote a pro-Israeli / anti-Palestine agenda (or vice versa), but not in the form of art, please. This is crude, misguided, and has far less reason to exist than ʽJoeyʼ or even ʽI Believe In Youʼ; it might have been simpler for the man to simply shout "I'm with you guys" from the stage during his subse­quent short tour of Israel.

Another, less blatant, but fairly similar example is ʽUnion Sundownʼ, another political statement about the decline of U.S. industry and constantly growing dependance on foreign production. Well, first of all, the same subject had already been successfully (and with much more humor) tackled on John Entwistle's ʽMade In Japanʼ exactly one decade earlier, and that is just off the top of my head. Second, once again, the message is pinned to a deconstructed Chicago riff (Mick plays something that closely resembles a shortened version of the melody of ʽRollin' And Tum­blin'ʼ), the echo effects are unbearable, and nobody is even given a proper chance to solo. Who needs to listen to clichés about how "democracy don't rule the world" set to minimalistic, repeti­tive, deeply familiar melody? Okay, millions of Bad Religion fans around the world do that on a daily basis, but there used to be a fundamental qualitative difference between Bad Religion and Bob Dylan... not any more?

Likewise, ʽMan Of Peaceʼ is basically a re-write of ʽFrom A Buick 6ʼ for the next decade, but where there used to be organ-and-guitar fury a-plenty, we now have a mechanical backing and a vapid acoustic solo where it seems that the guitarist (be it Mark or Mick, I honestly don't know) was still figuring out the notes, quite surprised to find out that he has just performed on the mas­ter take. The electric solos (definitely Mick) are much better, but they do not do much to remedy the impression — and Bob's re-adoption of «the yell» for the sakes of denouncing Satan is unfor­tunate when compared to the much subtler ways of delivery of said message on Slow Train.

All of which goes to say that Infidels generally rides on the strength of its softer rather than ro­ckier numbers — ʽJokermanʼ, ʽI And Iʼ, possibly ʽSweetheart Like Youʼ which also sounds so eerily like a Knopfler composition, I think it might have worked better with Mark taking lead vo­cal and Dylan reduced to harmonica blowing for a change. The country-tinged ʽDon't Fall Apart On Me Tonightʼ seems to want to close the album on a John Wesley Harding / Nashville Sky­line note, but the electronic drums murder the slide guitars, and the vocals create no atmosphere whatsoever. It all sounds like he's trying to do something which he already did several times be­fore, and failing to be even as good as it used to, let alone being better.

So is this all reason enough for a thumbs down? I'd probably stop just a few degrees short of it. As «bad» as the record is, in terms of overall context, it was a creative step forward for Bob — surreptitiously and without warning, he broke out of his religious seclusion and showed that he still had something to say, even if he did not quite manage to figure out how to say it properly, and sometimes said it too bluntly and crudely. ʽJokermanʼ alone, as the opening track, screams "REVIVAL!" so loudly that it becomes one of his most important songs of the decade, and no man shall see the face of ʽI And Iʼ and live to claim that Infidels has no redeeming qualities. Of course, today we know that Infidels marked the start of a lengthy decline rather than revival — all of the problems evident here would come to fruition on Bob's subsequent series of releases. But the one really big difference between Infidels and all that followed is that on Infidels, Bob generally does not whine: he barks, growls, yells, does whatever he can to come across as his usual «strong», lively, provocative character. The music may be lifeless, yes, due to some unfor­tunate decisions, but the man behind the music is definitely alive, even if it now takes the Old rather than New Testament to provide the necessary life support.

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