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Friday, February 28, 2014

Big Black: Pigpile

BIG BLACK: PIGPILE (1992)

1) Fists Of Love; 2) L Dopa; 3) Passing Complexion; 4) Dead Billy; 5) Cables; 6) Bad Penny; 7) Pavement Saw; 8) Kerosene; 9) Steelworker; 10) Pigeon Kill; 11) Fish Fry; 12) Jordan, Minnesota.

This is such a quintessential live Big Black recording that it is quite weird how it took them five years to release it — the actual gig was played on July 24, 1987, in London, during the band's farewell tour of Europe, and it was one of those farewell tours where the «farewell mindset» ac­tually adds to the general energy and excitement level rather than takes away from it. In addition to that, the setlist is constructed as a representative retrospective, covering all of Big Black's out­put with the exception of the Racer-X EP, and with the aid of superior sound quality, acts as a terrific and deserving conclusion to the band's career.

You do get the usual bad-taste jokes ("this is a song Jerry Lee Lewis wrote before he killed one of his wives"), and you also get Albini's trademark "one, two, FUCK YOU!" live intros (that were unexpectedly absent on Sound Of Impact), but none of these really matter next to, say, the com­plete recasting of ʽDead Billyʼ from its rather humble beginnings into a veritable wall of melodic white noise, or to ʽFists Of Loveʼ dropping its slightly «Gothic» production in favor of razor-blade sharp guitar playing and simulation of totally maniacal violence. As on Sound Of Impact, these live versions by no means outshine the originals or make them obsolete — they simply blast them away with heavy artillery, for better or worse.

The major kicker is astutely saved for last: a nearly seven-minute version of ʽJordan, Minnesotaʼ in which the unspeakable activities of the protagonists are «simulated» by the guitar in a feedback assault that yields some of the cruelest aural effects I've ever had the mispleasure of hearing. No, fortunately, this is not the audio equivalent of Salò or any such work of vomit-art, but the things Albini is doing on this track, in terms of my general barriers of tolerance, beat just about every­thing, from Throbbing Gristle to Ministry. Play it loud enough in headphones and see how much Real Man you really are — baptised through fire and brimstone rather than holy waters.

It is interesting that, having disbanded Big Black, Albini put the name to rest, even though the «band», from the very start, was his one-man project and he could have easily preserved the mo­niker for his future projects like Rapeman and Shellac. But all of these later incarnations are, in fact, substantially different from the «Big Black sound» that Steve had all but abandoned — the «drum machine vs. clang guitar» thing was buried for good, almost as if the man had realized that he'd taken the formula as far as it could go, and that it was high time for an image change. Much like Nick Cave on the other side of the planet, Albini would «soften» his approach (although he'd never «stoop» to soulfulness and sentimentality), but this was probably inevitable if he wanted to try and progress further — otherwise, subsequent Big Black-style albums would most likely soon degenerate into complete self-parody. As it is, the Pigpile memento provides a perfect final touch, well worth a thumbs up, both to the career of Big Black and the whole «noisy post-punk» thing, soon to be absorbed into the much more commercially successful, but nowhere near as provoca­tive, grunge and alt-rock scene.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Billy Joel: Streetlife Serenade

BILLY JOEL: STREETLIFE SERENADE (1974)

1) Streetlife Serenader; 2) Los Angelinos; 3) The Great Suburban Showdown; 4) Root Beer Rag; 5) Roberta; 6) The Entertainer; 7) Last Of The Big Time Spenders; 8) Weekend Song; 9) Souvenir; 10) The Mexican Connection.

Brace yourself for a serious statement — this is not just a «piano pop» album, but a sprawling panorama of California circa 1974. A couple of instrumental tunes and a couple of universally suitable ballads can be still tied in with the general concept, which revolves around the perceptive and insightful singer-songwriter sick and tired of the gay, nonchalant, sunny lifestyle on the West Coast that yields only superficial comfort and prevents the artist from aspiring to higher goals, because how can you ever aspire to higher goals with mountains of coke and hordes of bikini-clad beauties blocking the sun from you? "Such hot sweet schoolgirls, so educated", "going into garages for exotic massages" and all that. Tough, ungrateful life without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Damn all that hot sun and light sea breeze.

The music honestly reflects the darker, sterner processes in Billy's mind — it is now less oriented at a «rootsy» sound and seems more influenced by the progressive movement, as the man pro­cures himself some trendy synthesizers (most prominently heard on ʽThe Entertainerʼ), rolls out some dark piano colors, strengthened by hard rock guitars (most prominently heard on ʽLos An­gelenosʼ), and does everything in his power to come up with an album that would be traditionally «accessible», yet not too overtly «commercial» — the only single was ʽThe Entertainerʼ, a song that actually bashes the ideology of entertainment and the structure of the charts so explicitly that even the public seems to have gotten it: few people bought the single, even fewer people bought the album, and in the end, Streetlife Serenade cost him some public support without compensa­ting for any extra critical favor.

The basic problem remains the same as before: the ambitions of the artist are by no means mat­ched by artistic genius. ʽThe Entertainerʼ raves and rants about the cruel industry ("It was a beau­tiful song / But it ran too long / You're gonna have a hit / You gotta make it fit / So they cut it down to 3:05"), but if the lyrics do indeed refer directly to Billy's struggle with the record in­dustry people over the length of ʽPiano Manʼ — well, Billy, not everybody in the world agrees that ʽPiano Manʼ actually deserves a six-minute running time; it's just a generic waltz, for Christ's sake, not a Beethoven's 9th or even a ʽHey Judeʼ, for that matter. How about some modesty here? For that matter, without all the righteous anger ʽThe Entertainerʼ could have been a nifty little pop teaser, vocally catchy and with fun use of the synthesizer, but using that sort of melody for a Big Cultural Statement is off-putting.

If you «mentally delete» most of the lyrics and some of the heroic posturing, Streetlife Serenade isn't too bad, though, and should probably rank up there with «second-tier» Elton John albums (although, of all the songs, only ʽLast Of The Big Time Spendersʼ sounds directly like one of those semi-inspired Elton ballads). ʽStreetlife Serenaderʼ has an inoffensive, nicely flowing piano melody whose lack of dynamic flow is somewhat compensated by nuanced little flourishes that show Billy's romantic classical piano influences without compromising good taste. ʽThe Great Suburban Showdownʼ skilfully combines pedal steel with synthesizers and ends up sounding like a Bee Gees song circa Life In A Tin Can — yet another record with a brotherly spirit about how boring life can be in L.A., but ʽShowdownʼ would have probably been a highlight on it. ʽWeek­end Songʼ is a good one to enjoy on a lonesome evening when you'd like to get drunk and go on the town but lack the money, the spirit, and the real will to do so.

And then there are the instrumentals. ʽRoot Beer Ragʼ sounds pretty much the exact way as the title would suggest — with a few whiny whees from synthesizers that creep up behind your back every now and then, but mostly just relying on the good old honky tonk and Scott Joplin for in­spiration. ʽThe Mexican Connectionʼ begins like an incidental piece of elevator muzak, cuddled around a pretty, but repetitive pop riff, but then does break into a Mexican part, also justifying the title. In the end, both provide some harmless fun.

What totally kills off Streetlife Serenade, though, and opens up all sorts of possibilities for get­ting seriously irritated, is its — and Billy's in general — total lack of any sense of humor. So ʽRoot Beer Ragʼ is «funny», because, you know, it's ragtime played light and fast, that's always funny by definition, but we are not talking about that: we are talking about how deadpan serious this whole thing plays out, even if the man simply cannot handle «serious» on the same level with the truly «serious» performers. Even the irony is delivered with a vengeful attitude, but even when Billy Joel was playing Attila the Hun, he could never begin to hope to scare the shit out of you — much less now, when he is playing lyrical pianos and futuristic synthesizers.

The whole thing is about as huge a Social Artistic Statement as you'd expect from the average Miss North Carolina, memorizing answers to generic questions on family values and world peace from cue cards. And I sure wish I could forget about it and just enjoy the tunes, but the awful thing is, the tunes just aren't that great — decent, not great — to win over you on their own. They are served to you on the same platter with personality, and you can't really separate one from the other. The only reason I can sit through an album like this without cringing is that I honestly like Billy's voice and phrasing — even when he is splurging out banalities, he sounds more like a genuine human being than, say, Tom Jones or David Coverdale, and for that alone, Streetlife Serenade should be redeemed from the numerous accusations by professional «Joel haters» who could spend their time more wisely hating somebody else. Leo Sayer, for example. Why don't we all go hate Leo Sayer? He sold a lot of records, too.

Check "Streetlife Serenade" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Streetlife Serenade" (MP3) on Amazon

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bobby Womack: My Prescription

BOBBY WOMACK: MY PRESCRIPTION (1969)

1) How I Miss You Baby; 2) More Than I Can Stand; 3) It's Gonna Rain; 4) Everyone's Gone To The Moon; 5) I Can't Take It Like A Man; 6) I Left My Heart In San Francisco; 7) Arkansas State Prison; 8) I'm Gonna Forget About You; 9) Don't Look Back; 10) Tried And Convicted; 11) Thank You.

Pretty much the exact same formula here as on Fly Me To The Moon — not particularly sur­prising, seeing as how it was produced by the same producer, released on the same record label, and probably (I am not completely sure here) played by the same backing band, while the songs, evenly divided between covers and originals, cover the same soul/funk territory and work the same kinds of grooves. Thus, although the lead single, ʽHow I Miss You Babyʼ, fared decently on the R&B charts, on the whole, all three singles and the LP in general sold significantly less than Fly Me To The Moon — in 1969, I guess even R&B audiences expected innovation, and Bobby was much less interested in innovating here than in «solidifying».

But in retrospect, My Prescription holds up just as proudly as its predecessor. It is difficult to praise these tunes to high heaven, yet, on the other hand, it is just as hard to find any problems with them. I mean, if you just want to write a soulful song about missing your baby and you have no other ambitions, ʽHow I Miss You Babyʼ will show you the right way to sew together electric guitars, organs, brass, strings, and a yearning wail — nothing exceptional about it, just setting a humble goal and fulfilling it 100%. The same applies to everything else.

If there is one thing about these songs that makes them stand out, it is Bobby's own guitar parts: as a confident player believing in the importance of his instrument, he makes sure that the guitar is always heard loud and clear and never gets lost behind the fanfares. Considering also that the bass parts for the songs are consistently inventive, I wouldn't actually mind hearing ʽMore Than I Can Standʼ, ʽIt's Gonna Rainʼ and the other songs without that many overdubs — Bobby's funky riffs and the fretboard-roaming basslines create enough excitement between each other.

On the arranging front, Womack continues the practice of reinventing classics, turning ʽI Left My Heart In San Franciscoʼ into a charmingly tight slice of fast-groovin' funk-pop with jazzy over­tones à la George Benson (with whom Bobby spent some time working earlier that year), while his mentor Sam Cooke's ʽI'm Gonna Forget About Youʼ is, on the contrary, slowed down and turned into something that does not bear the slightest resemblance to the original — the original was «decisive, but melancholic», whereas Bobby throws in some wound-up righteous anger, playing the ball-of-fire to Sam's wall-of-ice. He is being more merciful to Jonathan King's starry-eyed, sentimentally-ironic pop hit ʽEveryone's Gone To The Moonʼ, keeping both the sentimen­tality and the irony, but substituting Southern soul for Britsy folk-pop, and the substitution works without a hitch, probably even better this time than on ʽCalifornia Dreamin'ʼ.

Ultimately, though, the album's one highlight probably got to be ʽArkansas State Prisonʼ, an ori­ginal in every sense of the word — the way Bobby integrates bluesy slide guitar licks and strange, deeply mixed, ominously atmospheric blasts of strings worthy of a Paul Buckmaster into an ove­rall R&B arrangement shows that the man was perfectly capable of pushing forward boundaries if he really put his mind to it. The lyrics, a daring tale of a prison break, were quite edgy for their time, too, but it is the musical meld that still holds up in an interesting way, not the social mes­sage. If Sam Cooke was first and foremost a wizard of vocal melodies, then Bobby was a master of guitar/voice grooves, but both of them saw their primary mission as entertainment, not solu­tion of the world's problems, although that, too, could occupy their minds from time to time. Anyway, My Prescription on the whole is not there to save the universe, but to give you a bit of a good time, and for that, it earns its thumbs up without any problems.

Check "My Prescription" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bob Dylan: Dylan & The Dead

BOB DYLAN: DYLAN & THE DEAD (1989)

1) Slow Train; 2) I Want You; 3) Gotta Serve Somebody; 4) Queen Jane Approximately; 5) Joey; 6) All Along The Watchtower; 7) Knockin' On Heaven's Door.

This album got such utterly vicious reviews when it came out that it seems to have forever turned Bob off further live albums — with the exception of Unplugged, where he was not really in con­trol of the situation, all subsequent stage experience would have to be experienced in front of the stage, or in the form of bootlegs that devoted fans would cherish anyway and critics would not take note of, unless they were professional dylanologists using those for research.

I cannot say that this decision makes me particularly sad, since listening and re-listening to Bob croak out his past glories with the voice of someone who's spent fourty years too much in the desert is indeed an occupation for the truly faithful (who can afford the time and resources for a bootleg hunt). However, to stay on the objective side, Bob's voice still had some ring to it in 1989, and the negative reaction to the album was overplayed — no doubt, fueled way too much by the disappointing effects of his concurrent studio albums. With at least two, or maybe four, or maybe seven if you hated the Christian stuff, or maybe even eight if you also despised Street Legal, consecutive reputational flops, who would want to be positively attuned towards a live album, even if that live album was announced as a collaboration with one of the few bands everybody could expect to be a great match for Bob — the Grateful Dead?

Actually, critics and fans alike could consider themselves duped: where Before The Flood was truly «Dylan and The Band», the setlist being proportionally divided between the two, Dylan & The Dead is really just Dylan being backed by the Dead. The Dead, of course, did play their own set on that joint 1987 tour, and played it well enough for 1987 (the year of their «comeback» with In The Dark), but there were no plans to release a joint album, and a couple years later some­body must have thought it a great idea to put out Dylan's part on its own — surely being backed by the Dead must be like promoting the Dylan songs to the next plane of existence?

But whoever had that idea, be it Bob himself or some one-dimensional financial manager at Co­lumbia, never realized one thing: the Dead are not «Booker T & The MGs» — they are well worth it when they play their own material, but they are not at all guaranteed to instantaneously add a hundred points to the power of any random song they are given to play. On their own al­bums, they often struggle with covers, unless the covers in question are traditional folk or country songs, and on Dylan & The Dead, they have a hard enough time just keeping up with Bob's basic needs, let alone add any serious creativity or wild energy. Jerry Garcia does add some nice, fluent and expressive solos to ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ, and the band harmonizes well on key on the finale of ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ (which they thankfully do in a non-reggae arrangement), and the rhythm section never really falls apart or anything, but that's about it.

Bob himself is still trying to sing from time to time, and it would be wrong to flat-out accuse him of being uninspired or somnambulant, particularly in retrospect when he's been sounding like that (only hoarser) through more than twenty years of the Never Ending Tour and doing fine. It is in­teresting that he is not giving up on the Christian stuff: with such a short running length, two songs from Slow Train Coming might seem like overkill, but they are the two best ones, and they are taken quite seriously, even if the repetitive codas to both seem hopelessly overextended. It is noteworthy that he insists on having ʽJoeyʼ in the set, as if provoking the critics (who had al­ways seen the song as the main flaw on Desire's multi-tissue body).

It is distressing that the once powerful, sneering, condescending aura of ʽQueen Jane Appro­ximatelyʼ has now turned into an old man's feeble whine, but it is also almost perversely funny — here is this guy who just spent twenty years waiting for Queen Jane to show up and finally see him, to the point of almost beg­ging her now, but no dice. Looks like the Queen still hasn't gotten sick of all this repetition, after all. And who is more «tired of yourself and all of your creations» now, in the end — Queen Jane or Robert Zimmerman? I cannot help but wonder if Bob himself felt the presence of this unintentional self-irony in his performance.

That said, it would not be correct of me to counteract critical opinion with a thumbs up, because there is certainly no way Dylan & The Dead would be anywhere close to the level of Bob's clas­sic live output — or, for that matter, any Bob Dylan live performance, including the one I've been to personally, dating from before the period when his voice first turned whiny, then wheezy, and then crackly like a bunch of dry firewood. It is particularly unbearable to hear him pull his usual vocal stunts with that voice — for instance, singing directly against the melody on the chorus of ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ; it takes superior intellectual effort to understand that he is «expe­rimenting» as usual, rather than simply forgetting that somebody is playing in a certain key be­hind his back, and why should we waste our intellectual efforts on Dylan & The Dead? It's just a late period live album, good enough for one listen. If you have never been to a Dylan show and are considering whether or not to go, give it a try — this is the closest official sound to a 21st century Dylan show you can get, although his current backing bands are certainly better suited to his needs than the Dead were in 1987 (but the voice now takes even more getting used to).

Check "Dylan & The Dead" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, February 24, 2014

Buddy Moss: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 2

BUDDY MOSS: COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 2 (1933-1934)

1) Broke Down Engine No. 2 (take 1); 2) Broke Down Engine No. 2 (take 2); 3) B & O Blues No. 2; 4) Some Lone­some Day (take 1); 5) Some Lone­some Day (take 2); 6) New Lovin' Blues; 7) Unkind Woman; 8) When The Hearse Roll Me From My Door; 9) Insane Blues; 10) Tricks Ain't Walking No More; 11) Stinging Bull Nettle; 12) Oh Lordy Mama; 13) Dough Rolling Papa; 14) Some Lonesome Day; 15) Misery Man Blues; 16) Jinx Man Blues; 17) Evil Hearted Woman; 18) Too Dog Gone Jealous; 19) Someday Baby (I'll Have Mine); 20) Love Me, Baby, Love Me; 21) Sleepless Night; 22) Shake It All Night Long.

The second volume of Buddy's complete oeuvres (to be precise, complete pre-war oeuvres) co­vers a one-year period from September 1933 to August 1934 and runs pretty much in a straight, unbroken line together with the first one, so it is not highly likely you will find any serious dif­ferences from the first volume, other than perhaps a larger percentage of completely solo (single guitar) tracks, and just a few scattered attempts to introduce syncopated «dance blues» patterns in the repertoire (ʽTricks Ain't Walking No Moreʼ) that broaden the range, but do not add extra in­sights that hadn't already been there with Blind Blake.

One song from these sessions that has managed to make a little history is ʽOh Lordy Mamaʼ, later known as ʽHey Lawdy Mamaʼ and remade by countless artists from Count Basie and Louis Arm­strong to Freddie King and even Cream (who played the song for the BBC and later merged it with Albert King's ʽCrosscut Sawʼ to make a ʽStrange Brewʼ indeed). Musically, it sounds exact­ly the same way as about a dozen other songs in Buddy's catalog (country-blues with a boogie bass line to it), but it goes to show how much fuss just a teensy-weensy bit of variety in the 12-bar world can make — here, inserting the «hookline» of "oh lordy mama..." after each first line of the verse, which gives a funny illusion of extra complexity and «progressiveness» compared to the more rigid three-line-verse formula. Just an illusion, really, but sometimes an illusion is all it takes to gain additional popularity.

On the other hand, Buddy is just too good a guitarist to be continuously recycling exactly the same ideas, and serious blues fans with a good ear for nuance will most certainly be able to single out unusual takes — for instance, ʽDough Rolling Papaʼ makes some interesting stop-and-starts between the regular bars, and the melody is played as if the bass strings and the higher strings were holding a busy dialog with each other rather than working in tandem; the opening notes of ʽSomeday Baby (I'll Have Mine)ʼ are quite pretty-poetic; and the final track from the 1934 ses­sions (ʽShake It All Night Longʼ) ends the period on a musically/lyrically joyful rather than me­lancholic note. If only half of the other songs did not begin with the exact same note sequence (the pre-proto-ʽDust My Broomʼ pattern), I'm sure Buddy's legacy would have enjoyed more at­tention today; as it is, admiring all of these twenty-two tracks in straight sequence is more of a business for fanatical connoisseurs or students of acoustic blues playing techniques.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Arcade Fire: Reflektor

ARCADE FIRE: REFLEKTOR (2013)

1) Reflektor; 2) We Exist; 3) Flashbulb Eyes; 4) Here Comes The Night Time; 5) Normal Person; 6) You Already Know; 7) Joan Of Arc; 8) Here Comes The Night Time II; 9) Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice); 10) It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus); 11) Porno; 12) Afterlife; 13) Supersymmetry.

First and foremost, let us get this straight. From my (current) perspective, Arcade Fire are the... no, not necessarily the «greatest band of the 2000s», but simply the band of the 2000s, par ex­cellence. Well, either that or Franz Ferdinand, I guess, but you can't really be the band of any par­ticular decade if you do not manage to rise above and beyond all the given subcultures of that particular decade. Funeral was a great album, Neon Bible and The Suburbs less so, but all three had what it takes to convince me, and maybe you as well — there is really something about these guys that says, summarizes, and wraps up it all. Is there any other song released in those ten years that is more deserving of a generational anthem status than ʽWake Upʼ? Is there a better call-to-action epic than ʽWe Used To Waitʼ? Is there a better band out there that could offer a more sa­tisfactory set of «Happy/Sad» packages where cynicism and idealism would be more elegantly and accurately settled next to one another? Individual flaws, filler issues, technical problems be damned, the 2000s belonged to Arcade Fire if they belonged to anyone at all.

But if there is one thing that I am almost certain about, it is that, with Reflektor, the 2010s no longer belong to Arcade Fire. This wouldn't be a big problem, of course (no band has been lucky enough to claim two decades of domination under its belt), if only we knew who exactly would claim the takeover — and if Arcade Fire had not released but its meager share of three albums in their decade of triumph, never landing another Funeral in terms of sheer gut impact. As it is, the change in style that they introduced here is quite likely to become permanent, and gradually trans­form them into an elitist esoteric act, which is, of course, better than transforming into a generic adult contemporary or New Age act (and, all things considered, is still better than having them break up, which is also a possibility), but...

If asked to come up with one quote from the album to describe my current feelings about it, that would, of course, be the refrain of the title track: "I thought I found the connector — it's just a reflector". There are good songs on the record, and some bad ones, and some that require a long time to de­cide, but one thing that it doesn't have is even a single tune of genuinely heartbreaking power, of which there were lots on Funeral, and at least two or three on each of its follow-ups. For Arcade Fire, Reflektor is that threshold which separates «meaningful accessibility» from «pretentious obscurity» — and while there is nothing inherently wrong with the latter as such, loving a record like this, for me, is out of the question. Recognizing its complexity and symbolism, recommen­ding it for musicological study, sure. Shedding tears over its convoluted storylines and abstract feelings — thank you very much, I'd rather leave it to arthouse junkies.

On the formal musical side, Reflektor picks up right where ʽSprawl IIʼ left us last time — in a tight electronic grip, with synthesized loops, atmospheric backgrounds, and even drum machines prominently featured throughout, giving the band a mock-futuristic feel where in the past they would, on the contrary, bring out various antiquated instruments. This is already not a good sign, because it shows a lack of immunity for the relatively common «Eighties nostalgia» virus that has already infected scores of other artists — and it is particularly strange to see it spread over to Arcade Fire, a band with so many people playing so many different things. (No wonder Sarah Neufeld has been «demoted» from full-time band member to «additional musician» status — she simply does not have as much to do on the record as she used to; synthesizers and violins do not usually need one another too badly).

On the formal «artistic» side, Reflektor is something much more bizarre than just «Arcade Fire with synths». Its conceptuality is influenced by Haitian rara music, Marcel Camus' Orfeu Negro, Søren Kierkegaard, and other aesthetic objects and personalities that are all tied up in the grand scheme of things, since, after all, everything is made up of just a small bunch of elementary par­ticles in the final run. Topping it off is the band's presentation of a split-off part of their persona­lity as «The Reflektors», a masked alter ego that they invented for themselves in September 2013 and exploited in a bunch of secret gigs and video clips. Well — you might like the album or hate it, but a lazy affair it certainly is not: quite on the contrary, it is the band's most ambitious, preten­tious, and (at least technically) complicated and multi-layered enterprise so far. That is more or less an objective assessment. Subjective assessment — this is one of those «off the deep end» albums where it never feels certain that the band itself knows what the hell it is doing.

Butler confesses that the original idea was to make a «short» album, so it is only natural that, in the end, it all turned into an unprecedented sprawl, stretched over two CDs without an adequate reason. The two parts, as many have noted, are stylistically filtered: Disc 1 is «rockier», concen­trating more on dance-oriented, drums-'n'-bass-heavy tracks, whereas Disc 2 enters the twilight zone of «atmosphere», slowing down and getting in the mood — no wonder, since this is where the bulk of the Orpheus/Eurydice storyline is concentrated. Consequently, the second part is less immediately accessible, and will probably appeal more (in the long run) to hardcore fans, while the first part will be more benevolent to newcomers; in keeping with the spirit, the two singles from the album were ʽReflektorʼ from Disc 1 and ʽAfterlifeʼ from Disc 2 (to be fair, ʽAfterlifeʼ is also quite danceable, but still shares the same shadowy shape with the rest of the disc).

Now far be it from me to deny the presence of some really great Arcade Fire tracks on this al­bum. ʽReflektorʼ itself is a good way to start off, using the somewhat corny dance-pop settings of the track as a background for human drama — after all, Black Orpheus, too, did pretty much the same with the somewhat corny Rio carnival settings — and the cold, mechanical drive of the song suits well its basic theme of the «inability to connect», with Win and Regine playing quite skil­fully against each other (greatest pair since Lindsey and Stevie, I guess, except they really have to act it out, since nobody has reported on any alienation issues between the two). However, even ʽReflektorʼ is not entirely free from «what-the-hell-was-that?» musical ideas: the bubbly synthesizer riff that comes in after each chorus, sounding like a memento of an Eighties' video game, is either unintentionally awful, in which case they must have been high when recording it, or intentionally awful, in which case it is a Major Artistic Decision that we can Respect, Tolerate, or Despise, but never Ignore. I choose «Despise», because I just can't help it, but fortunately, that does not affect my general feeling towards the entire track.

Two other great songs on Disc 1 are ʽNormal Personʼ and ʽJoan Of Arcʼ. The former arguably is the most «conservative», old-school-Arcade-Fire number on the entire album, a grizzly-grunt against common denominators with distorted guitars and dry saxes from the long-gone era of glam rock and one of those dreamy, but witty «multi-Regine» bridges that nobody really knows how to bake except for good old Arcade Fire. And Win's excited "I've never really ever met a normal person..." coda is a classic finale, though a bit too simple and repetitive to send off real sparks. ʽJoan Of Arcʼ may be even better, with a suitable martial punch and another cool ex­change between Win and Regine (for some reason, the call-and-response thing between the col­lective chorus of "Joan of Arc!" and Regine's «correcting» "Jeanne d'Arc" from the prompter's box is almost intensely cute) — that's the Arcade Fire we know and love.

But then there are the questions. ʽHere Comes The Night Timeʼ, for instance — is this really a good song? Is its electronic arrangement with a few piano chords sprinkled around really a good match for its poetry? Is the poetry itself worth your attention? "If there's no music up in heaven, then what's it for?" This sounds almost like a question I would like to re-address to the band: if there is no (well, almost no) music in this song, then what's it for? The piano bits are probably the best part of the song, and the noisy acceleration towards the end, which used to work so well on Funeral, does not work, because if the main part of the song does not wreck your emotions, no use counting on a mad frenetic coda for compensation. ʽYou Already Knowʼ reintroduces the stupid synth tones, moves along at top speed like a generic filler track on Neon Bible or Suburbs, and, judging by the sampled «glitzy» announcement of the band's entrance in the intro, should work as a piece of self-irony, but it really doesn't. It's all just... odd.

However, my biggest disappointment still concerns the second («moody») part. This is where the pretense takes over big time, and the band starts thinking of itself as disciples of some abstract Brian Eno — unfortunately, they never had Eno's musical genius, and while ʽAwful Sound (Oh Eurydice)ʼ thankfully does not totally justify its title, its electronic soundscapes are derivative and dull, and its attempts to mount a gargantuan ʽHey Judeʼ-esque coda are uninspiring: where the grand choral movement of ʽWake Upʼ came so naturally, this one sounds too forced, too self-con­scious — a failed attempt at grandioseness. Much better is the counterpart, ʽIt's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)ʼ, driven by a handsome U2-style bass riff and featuring an intriguing duet between Win as Orpheus and Regine as Eurydice; this is easily my favorite number on the entire disc.

But that's about it. Much as I hate to admit it, I have no love for ʽAfterlifeʼ, a song quite true to its title because it sounds so totally stiff in its electronic shell. Its basic message has potential, and it could work both as a part of the Orpheus/Eurydice oratorio and an independent rumination on life after death in its own right — but if it is a frickin' anthem, give me the full power of Arcade Fire, the band, instead of a bunch of synthesizers rolling out the tired old tapestries of yesteryear (in fact, to hell with yesteryear, it was all done decades ago and way better on Bowie's Berlin trilogy, among other things). And if I have no love for ʽAfterlifeʼ, there ain't no use even beginning to discuss inferior tracks like ʽPornoʼ or ʽSupersymmetryʼ (except to mention that the latter ends with six minutes of gratuitous electronic noise that either represents the afterlife, or the perfect and imperfect symmetries, or somebody's pet dog left in the studio by mistake after hours).

It would be too crude, of course, to say that Reflektor fails to be a great album just because the band decided to rely on electronics (although that is part of the mis-deal). Most of all, it fails to be a great album because this time, the band really decided to open its jaw much wider than usual, and ended up twisting it all over the place. Too much Kierkegaard, not enough violin. Too much Greek mythology, not enough Regine (there isn't a single song here where she'd sing a clear, dominating lead vocal part). Too much general arthouse attitude — we need more songs like ʽNormal Personʼ and ʽWe Existʼ, and fewer songs like ʽAwful Soundʼ or ʽHere Comes The Night Timeʼ (a title that sounds way too close to the old Beach Boys disco disaster, by the way, to sus­pect sheer coincidence). Too long, too beset with problems and issues, too full of itself, too — pardon the bluntness — mea­ningless (if they are able to explain the point of ʽSupersymmetryʼ, I'd prefer rather not hear it) even though it pretends to be going deeper than ever before, and that is what irritates me to no end.

I certainly would not want to nail the point further by giving the album a thumbs down: ambitious projects carried out by fabulous artists, even if they turn out to be grandiose failures, do not de­serve nasty slams. It was curious to hear this thing, and if I ever manage to get over the flaccid reac­tion to ʽAfterlifeʼ, trimming all the pompo-fat makes up for about thirty-five minutes of high quality late period (late period? we'll see about that) Arcade Fire music. But on the whole, it was simply wrong what they did here. If I want Orpheus and Eurydice, I'll take Monteverdi — here, it feels I've pretty much lost the connection. Much as I'd like to join the critical ooh la la, it'd just be dishonest. Instead, here's hoping the next album will be a «back to roots» revival, or else some­body is really going to get pissed.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ben Folds Five: Ben Folds Five

BEN FOLDS FIVE: BEN FOLDS FIVE (1995)

1) Jackson Cannery; 2) Philosophy; 3) Julianne; 4) Where's Summer B.; 5) Alice Childress; 6) Underground; 7) Sports & Wine; 8) Uncle Walter; 9) Best Imitation Of Myself; 10) Video; 11) The Last Polka; 12) Boxing.

It is usually said about Ben Folds that, during the young innocent days of his North Carolina child­hood, he was teaching himself the piano by learning Elton John and Billy Joel songs. Fast forward approximately twenty years into the future, and although the man himself bears a rather uncanny facial resemblance to a young Elton John, his musical style certainly veers closer to Billy Joel: think either of a subconscious patriotic tug, or maybe of Ben being a light, playful kind of guy, not particularly hungry for Elton's sweeping old school ambitions.

However, «closer» by no means signifies «identical». The first album by Ben Folds Five was re­leased in 1995, the middle of the «smart/ass/ decade» where emulating the relative intellectual simplicity of Billy Joel, no matter how much you liked him in the first place, would neither be a promising commercial move, nor a respectable artistic decision. Besides, Ben's interests and pre­ferences did extend to genres other than early 1970s piano pop — these songs show an equally strong influence of Sixties' pop, garage rock, and psychedelia, and it is no total coincidence that the album came out in the same year as the debut of The Apples In Stereo: both reflect the same de­mand for intelligent retro-pop with a modernistic update that seemed to emerge at the time as a healthy underground antidote to... well, whatever it was that irked and annoyed you about music in the early Nineties, I guess, be it Michael Jackson, Nirvana, or Mariah Carey.

«Ben Folds Five» is actually a trio (with Darren Jessee on drums and Robert Sledge on bass), al­though if you throw in the guest musicians (Ted Ehrhard on violin, Chris Eubank on cello), you can technically squeeze out a «five» all right, but the real reason is, Ben simply thought that «Folds Five» sounded more harmoniously than «Folds Three». Besides, when you fold, you do usually fold five, unless you're playing three card poker, but that's beyond the point. And the point is, there is no guitar whatsoever on the album — just piano, bass, and drums, with some ex­tra strings every now and then. This does not mean, however, that Ben Folds Five know not how to rock out — Sledge's distorted roaring bass, Jessee's maniacal pummeling, and Ben's aggressive punching of the keys occasionally come together in garagey barrages of rock noise that were quite unthinkable in the days of early Elton John, when he, too, still favored the piano/bass/drums «power trio» format, with optional orchestration.

Ben's individual talents, pulled out one by one and stretched out for all to see, are hardly jaw-dropping. As a piano player, he seems to be about as good as a self-taught hard-worker gets; as a singer, he's competent in mid-range but frequently gets off-key when climbing higher, with an ir­ritating indie knack of despising perfectionism; as a composer, he knows how to craft hooks but just as frequently leaves them frustratingly undercooked; as a lyricist, he is astute and always finds a way to get his ideas through, but not always a properly impressive literary way with words to express these ideas. But throw in a little bit of everything, and it is not difficult to understand how the man quickly got himself a reliable fanbase.

Actually, my biggest beef with the record is none of that, but rather the fact that the piano / bass / drums formula gets routine and predictable rather quickly. The piano melodies, regardless of whether they come from a music hall, torch ballad, or garage-rock mindset, do not have too great a range, and, anyway, the piano is really only there for Ben to provide a general backing for the voice — he does not solo all that much, and quite a few of the songs are introduced with accape­l­la singing, which immediately takes your attention off the instruments, or simply bury the piano under a vicious rhythm section onslaught altogether. In the end, while this is formally «piano pop», I did not get the impression of a love connection between Ben and his instrument — not something you could accuse either Elton or Billy of, regardless of your feelings for them.

But despite this, it is hard to dislike the album once you've gotten the hang of it. First, when the trio is on, they're on: the fast-flowing pop hooks of such songs as ʽJulianneʼ, ʽSports & Wineʼ, ʽUndergroundʼ are unbeatable, not to mention the intelligence. ʽUndergroundʼ has always been singled out in particular, with its derision of subcultures and stereotypes — "who's got the looks? who's got the brains? who's got everything? I've got this pain in my heart, that's all" is one of the simplest and truest send-ups of the «indie mentality» in the history of indie rock, adequately set to a completely «traditionalist», un-gimmicky melody. But a sucker for a sweet catchy chorus like me will probably put ʽJulianneʼ with its funny, catchy falsetto over its upbeat, fast tempo ahead of socially relevant thematics.

One thing Ben will try to seduce you with is his honesty-simplicity value complex. He bares it all already on the second track, called ʽPhilosophyʼ: "I see that there is evil / And I know that there is good / And the inbetweens I never understood / Won't you look at me, I'm crazy / But I get the job done". (Then, as if to prove that he does get the job done, he throws in a textbook Gershwin quotation in the outro). Although this is just an extract ripped from a denser, more ambiguous and allegorical context, this feeling of being relatively uncluttered by excessive, trumped-up com­ple­xity of feel and thought permeates the album — the songs are all either about personal relations with girls, friends, and the rest of the world, or little character portraits well in the old Brit-pop vein (ʽUncle Walterʼ; ʽBoxingʼ, a ballad written from the perspective of an aging Muhammad Ali that forms a surprisingly touching conclusion to the record). They are all coherent, ensuring that the album is more than just a sum of its parts, and make it easier to overlook particular problems with «under­cooking» of the melodies or occasional bum notes that Ben refuses to correct.

Anyway, the album does strive for a philosophy, and every time a new artist like that arrives, the correct question to ask is, «is this guy for real? should he be taken seriously?». And, well, it is difficult for me to imagine Ben Folds tugging at anybody's heart strings with the skill of a Ray Davies, or blowing anybody's mind with the weapon arsenal of a Todd Rundgren, but at least he is definitely for real, and making the best, and most graciously coordinated, use of all his talents that an «average smart Joe from North Carolina» could ever make. Quite a natural-coming thumbs up here — and, on a technical trivia note, this is probably the best ever pop debut album to be released at the not-so-tender age of twenty-nine. In a different age, the artist would only have room for one more before he'd be written off as irrelevant — that's one social disease that the Nineties, and the aging of rock music in general, have cured us from.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Big Black: Sound Of Impact

BIG BLACK: SOUND OF IMPACT (1987)

1) Ready Men; 2) Big Money; 3) Elephant Joke?; 4) Cables; 5) Yanomamo Indians; 6) Pigeon Kill; 7) Passing Complexion; 8) Crack Up; 9) RIP; 10) Jordan, Minnesota; 11) Firecrackers; 12) Cables; 13) Pigeon Kill; 14) Kero­sene; 15) Bad Penny; 16) Deep Six; 17) RIP; 18) Rama Rama.

An «un-unofficial bootleg»: the album was originally released on a UK indie label rather than Big Black's own Homestead Records, and whatever was the reason for that, legal trouble was avoided by leaving not only the band's name off the packaging (which consisted mainly of reprints of black box transcripts, hence the «title»), but even the song titles (currently restored, the 18 tracks were first denoted by completely different monikers, although retaining some con­nection with the originals — for instance, ʽCablesʼ was ʽKill The Cowʼ, and ʽPigeon Killʼ was ʽBird Thangʼ). Since then, however, the record has occasionally been re-released, and generally features as an integral part of Big Black's discography.

And for good reason, too, since Big Black are one of the few artists in the whole punk/post-punk pool that really deserve to be heard live. Pigpile gives a better general impression of a classic Albini show, but Sound Of Impact, recorded in two different locations (which is why some of the tracks double each other), is a bit more of a «glorious mess», a little less loud and a little more prominent on stupid, but memorable Albini jokes. Anyway, even despite the fact that they mostly play the same songs on both albums, owning both is not an exercise in redundancy.

The funny thing is that it takes a good listen to a live Big Black album to properly understand that the band does pay a lot of attention to proper mixing and even melodicity of sound on their studio records — in the live environment, Albini's and Durango's guitars omit or blur some of the subtle twists of the originals (e. g. ʽDeep Sixʼ), greedily going for more noise, power, and energy, just the way it befits a good old-fashioned rock'n'roll performer. But where they lose in complexity and subtlety, they expectedly gain in blowing your brains out. With a little extra distortion on the «clang» tone, the songs are transformed into walls of ferocious white fire — if the bass is at re­gular volume, as on ʽKeroseneʼ or ʽPassing Complexionʼ — or black fire, if the bass is turned all the way up, as on ʽBad Pennyʼ or the second of the two ʽPigeon Killsʼ.

In between the firethrower blasts, Steve entertains the not-too-grateful listeners with «shocking» stories, such as the one about the mouse with the BMW and the elephant with a big dick (ʽEle­phant Joke?ʼ), or one about certain violent and sexist customs of particular Indian tribes (ʽYano­mamo Indiansʼ), or introducing ʽBig Moneyʼ by saying "we stole it from Rush", or finding some other way to come across as a shock-oriented prankster. It does add some personality to the show, but what sort of personality is up to you to decide. I'm still trying to figure out why his unfunny jokes do not annoy me — whether it is a Monty Python sort of way, with absurdism compensa­ting for the occasional unfunniness, or maybe I'm just a covert fan of artistic rudeness.

Of the setlist, the only big surprise is the closing track, a cover of an obscure composition by the short-lived post-punk band Rema-Rema (mostly famous for its guitar player Marco Pirroni, who would later become a close associate of Adam Ant) — nothing special about it, and it was pro­bably played for an encore to confuse the audience even further; then again, like every respec­table indie prophet, Albini did have this hunch for dragging out obscurities (being as he was, to a large extent, an obscurity himself). But this record is not about surprises, it is about putting the «Big» back in «Black», if you get my drift, and it does that fairly well and it gets a thumbs up and you can't get it anywhere legally, not even on iTunes, so Steve Albini welcomes you to break the law in this particular case. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Billy Joel: Piano Man

BILLY JOEL: PIANO MAN (1973)

1) Travelin' Prayer; 2) Piano Man; 3) Ain't No Crime; 4) You're My Home; 5) The Ballad Of Billy The Kid; 6) Worse Comes To Worst; 7) Stop In Nevada; 8) If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You); 9) Somewhere Along The Line; 10) Captain Jack.

Third time's the charm: on Piano Man, Billy Joel finally found Billy Joel and confronted him face to face. The album title may have been a little arrogant, because by 1973, everybody knew who was the real piano man — Elton John; Billy, however, indirectly insinuated that the US of A should have its own piano man for its own patriotic reasons, and that he was perfectly willing, capable, and ready to be to Elton what the Monkees were to the Beatles. And for now, let us as­sume that this is a compliment for the Monkees, not a slur for Billy.

After a live Philadelphia radio broadcast of ʽCaptain Jackʼ garnered much interest, Billy got him­self a contract with Columbia, moved to Los Angeles, got himself a professional backing band, and finally recorded an album that managed to present him as a coherent artist without, however, having to pigeonhole himself directly in one image, be it a mad organ grinder or a sentimental serenader. Piano Man is a well-balanced mix of roots-rock, vaudeville, folksy singer-songwriting, orchestrated ballads, and a little bit of old-fashioned rock'n'roll — essentially the same formula as Elton's, but ever so slightly «Americanized» for local enjoyment. No coincidence, after all, that the very first song greets us with banjo, fiddle, and a general honky-tonk atmosphere.

One thing Billy never thought of was hiring a good lyricist: all the words to his songs come from his own mind, and neither depth of meaning nor complexity of expression were ever among his fortes — which, on one hand, helped him find mass appeal, but, on the other, exposed him to plenty of critical ridicule. He is a clumsy one, for sure: ʽThe Ballad Of Billy The Kidʼ, for ins­tance, takes great liberties with the historic facts on Billy The Kid (who was never hanged, for that matter), without ever letting us know why it does that, creating the impression that the author was either illiterate or had a warped understanding of the meaning of «artistic license». Or take the title track — «meaningless lives commemorated at the local bar stand» is a worn out theme that, nevertheless, can always use a little extra exploration, but Billy's «telling it like it is» ap­proach reeks of boredom and limited verbal talent rather than artistic realism.

None of which would be too bad if Piano Man were one of those albums where «the lyrics do not really matter», but they do, since Billy wires them up to his melodies; and just like his lyrics, his melodies are easily comprehensible, accessible, and even memorable, but not particularly in­teresting. On the «epic» tunes, such as the title track, ʽBilly The Kidʼ, and ʽCaptain Jackʼ, Joel seems to be more interested in telling a story, with predictable musical accompaniment through­out, playing the part of a «street poet-observer» (or, in the case of ʽKidʼ, «dirt road poet-obser­ver»), and your ability to enjoy these songs as a whole will surely depend on whether the guy manages to hook you up in the first few minutes, whether that stark, simple combination of voice, piano, and content will make you feel inspired, or cringe in disgust, or leave you utterly unaffec­ted in either direction. And that, in turn, will surely depend upon your previous experience. For instance: if you have heard Elton John's ʽBallad Of A Well-Known Gunʼ and Billy Joel's ʽThe Ballad Of Billy The Kidʼ, what would you prefer? And if you prefer the former, would it, in any way, bias you against the latter? In my case, it does.

The thing that works in Billy's favor is that it takes impoliteness and cruelty to shoot the piano man. His singing on the album is exceptional — powerful, ringing, well-ranged — and his play­ing fluent and fun as usual. He is neither being too humble or minimalistic so as to let anyone suspect unprofessionalism, nor trying to rise to particularly pretentious heights: ʽCaptain Jackʼ comes a little close, but it's about heroin addiction, after all, and when you are subtly campaign­ing against heroin addiction, anything goes. These songs aren't great, because great songs ought to have a mystery component, and my feelings detect no mystery here whatsoever — but they all sound «okay» where they could have sounded much worse, and maybe it's even for the better that Joel sets them to such basic, familiar melody patterns.

Actually, from a melodic standpoint, Billy's best compositions should probably be sought among the shorter tracks here — particularly ʽWorse Comes To Worstʼ, distinguished with a funky wah-wah guitar part that sounds highly unusual for this kind of album (and this is probably the only time in music history when somebody tried to marry funky wah-wah guitar to an accordeon!); and ʽSomewhere Along The Lineʼ, which might be the most blatantly Elton John-like tune on the entire record (echoes of ʽBorder Songʼ and ʽTake Me To The Pilotʼ all over the place), but it still takes talent to come up with such a good variation. The orchestrated coda to ʽBilly The Kidʼ is fairly good, too, come to think of it: Billy's take on what a «Billy Joel Piano Concerto No. 1» would probably look like.

If we are going to give any thumbs up to Billy at all, Piano Man is as good a record as any in his catalog to be our first choice. Of all the flaws to be found on Billy's records, it only shows those general flaws that are inherently wired in «Billy The Artist» as a concept — there is really no complaining about how the songs lack hooks, or how the production lacks taste, or how the singer lacks commitment, or how the lyricist is a stupid moralizer, etc. Like myself, you may feel no pressing need to ever hear a single one of these songs again — but that would be no reason to deny or condemn access to them for other people, because Piano Man, unlike, say, something like Aerosmith's Get A Grip or a late period Rod Stewart album, seems completely harmless for the central nervous system and the future paths of human evolution. Just as long as you don't spend too much time looking at the album sleeve, that is — I've heard rumors that Medusa look on the cover acts as a strong petrifier on people with low immunity levels.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bobby Womack: Fly Me To The Moon

BOBBY WOMACK: FLY ME TO THE MOON (1968)

1) Fly Me To The Moon; 2) Baby! You Oughta Think It Over; 3) I'm A Midnight Mover; 4) What Is This?; 5) Some­body Special; 6) Take Me; 7) Moonlight In Vermont; 8) Love, The Time Is Now; 9) I'm In Love; 10) California Dreamin'; 11) No Money In My Pocket; 12) Lillie Mae.

Although his first solo LP did not come out until 1968, by which time the world of popular music had changed beyond recognition, the name «Bobby Womack» must have already been well fa­miliar to every­one closely following both the black and the white R&B market — on the former, Bobby was a member of The Valentinos, a vocal group under the protection of Sam Cooke, and, upon Sam's passing, a resident songwriter for the likes of Wilson Pickett; on the latter, he was known as the author of ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ, which the Rolling Stones went on to transform from a fun variation on Chuck Berry's ʽMemphis Tennesseeʼ into something sharper and barkier, but Bobby's original vocal performance is still well worth checking out.

Anyway, for a variety of technical reasons Bobby's first proper recording contract was not signed until 1968, when he put himself under the wing of Minit Records and went to Memphis to work with Chips Moman, the guy who would, just one year later, help record the Elvis comeback al­bum (From Elvis In Memphis) and other stuff. The band assembled for the sessions was not particularly notorious, but Womack and Moman somehow managed to rev them up, so much so that people are sometimes surprised to find out that this was not, in fact, a «genuine Stax produc­tion». It wasn't, but it was quality production, fully adequate for a worthy soul/R&B album.

In fact, there is nothing here that would make the album any less of a «knockout» than any given Wilson Pickett album — the only difference being that Pickett had the Atlantic / Muscle Shoals «brands» on his side, while the guy who actually wrote the songs for Pickett had to settle with a lesser proposal. Yet when it comes, for instance, to deciding on the better singer, it is very much a matter of taste — Pickett has slightly more range and power, perhaps, but Bobby has a grittier rasp, and is sometimes able to pack more human drama into a short two-and-a-half minute explo­sion than his more famous predecessor.

Case in point: the title track, a 14-year old pop song that Bobby turns from a basic sentimental love declaration into a vocal tempest — as if all the "let me see what spring is like", "hold my hand, baby, kiss me", and "please be true" were not merely rhetoric questions and admonitions, but an honestly desperate outburst of pleading. Peggy Lee (and Brenda Lee, for that matter) sang that song with sexy security; Bobby gives it so much insecurity that one almost forgets about the sexiness in the first place. And it works so well that he goes on to apply the same approach to such a well-established standard as ʽMoonlight In Vermontʼ — given an entirely new face, with sped-up tempos, muscular brass overdubs, and a vocal delivery that eschews subtlety, nuance, nostalgia, and melancholy and goes for burning soul ecstasy all the way.

On the other end of the spectrum, the songs Bobby originally wrote for Pickett (ʽI'm In Loveʼ, ʽI'm A Midnight Moverʼ) are not one inch inferior to Pickett's own versions, but those who alrea­dy know the Pickett versions will probably be more interested in such minor gems as ʽWhat Is This?ʼ, a soul-funk hybrid that stands with one foot firmly in the Sixties and the other one alrea­dy in the next decade, presaging its penchant for moodily orchestrated funk and disco, or ʽLilly Maeʼ, with a concentrated bass / rhythm guitar / lead guitar / organ / brass attack that rocks as tough as any feedback-free song could rock in 1968. A little less successful, in my opinion, is Womack's reworking of ʽCalifornia Dreamin'ʼ, as it often happens with R&B covers of perfectly constructed pop hits whose magic was primarily due to vocal harmonies — but if you manage to put the idea of comparison out of your mind, Bobby's take is just another splash-o'-soul, fully credible and enjoyable, like everything else on here.

The album did not sell much, yielded no huge hits, and Bobby was still a long way from his crea­tive peak of the early 1970s, but sticking in, out, and around of the music business for ten years certainly helped — few R&B/soul debut albums of the decade sounded that self-assured, profes­sional and with the artist in full control of the vibe, and this means a certified thumbs up even if, from a purely technical viewpoint, the «creative-innovative» component was nothing to write home about. Nothing wrong with the «charismatic» component, though.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Bob Dylan: Down In The Groove

BOB DYLAN: DOWN IN THE GROOVE (1988)

1) Let's Stick Together; 2) When Did You Leave Heaven; 3) Sally Sue Brown; 4) Death Is Not The End; 5) Had A Dream About You, Baby; 6) Ugliest Girl In The World; 7) Silvio; 8) Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street); 9) Shenandoah; 10) Rank Strangers To Me.

A slightly delayed twin brother to Knocked Out Loaded in almost everything, beginning with the somewhat ironically self-deprecating title, not to mention the approximately same short run­ning time, the surprisingly low ratio of originals to covers, and the rag-taggy origins: the album was scrapped together from at least six different sessions, and chronologically, the songs reach all the way back to the Infidels period. Small wonder, then, that it was received with even more hos­tility than its predecessor — and this time, there isn't even a single pretentious eleven-minute epic to feed as a juicy soup bone to the critical hounds.

On general terms, the record is certainly expendable: with such similar birth conditions, there is just no way one could condemn Knocked Out Loaded while at the same time patting its follow-up on the back. On a more particular note, Down In The Groove has always seemed ever so sli­ghtly more listenable to me, mainly because the production has improved a bit, and those rather pedestrian rockers that sounded all muddled and flaccid two years back now get a little extra bark by way of a sharper electric guitar sound and cleaner vocal mixing. Let's admit it, when the guitar and harmonica kick in at the start of ʽLet's Stick Togetherʼ, this does induce a bit of a jolt, doesn't it? Definitely a more intense and immediate sound here than on ʽYou Wanna Rambleʼ.

Furthermore, although ʽWhen Did You Leave Heavenʼ does greet you with a «plastic heaven» synthesizer onslaught, this is rather an exception: for the most part, Down In The Groove avoids soft adult-contemporary and concentrates on rock'n'roll — much of it simple, unassuming, and sometimes even humorous rock'n'roll, as if Bob was intentionally trying here to produce a solo match for his Traveling Wilburys image (or, rather, the reverse is more likely: early Wilburys material was being written and recorded at the same time as the first copies of Down In The Groove were finding their accursed way to the store shelves). In a different age, this wouldn't be such a bad choice, but for 1988, it was still a disaster.

As these rockers fly past you, one by one, there is nothing to distinguish them from one another — you get no idea of how «dear» they are to Bob himself, who sings them in the exact same monotonous tone, you sense nothing but bored professionalism from the backing bands, and at times, you start to suspect self-parody: I mean, what is something like ʽThe Ugliest Girl In The Worldʼ but self-parody? Play it back to back with ʽFrom A Buick 6ʼ and remind yourself of the difference — both songs poke fun at the singer's imaginary and slightly caricaturesque lover, but the former was all turbulence and garage rage, whereas this one is just a flat out dumb joke; too bad that the talents of Robert Hunter, the loyal / royal lyricist of the Grateful Dead, had to be wasted on this unfunny tripe.

Like its predecessor, Down In The Groove is usually let off the hook for just one song: ʽDeath Is Not The Endʼ, for which Bob is inexplainably joined by Full Force on backing vocals, is a quiet, suggestively «optimistic» outtake from the Infidels sessions, presented as a minimalistic gospel ballad, quietly mumbled and humbly arranged, in a very sharp contrast to the louder-than-good-taste-recommends-it sound of the rest of the album. It is repetitive and very sparse on musical ideas, but you can't go wrong with the nostalgic harmonica part, or the mesmerizing vocals, still connected through an invisible feeding tube to Bob's cauldron of Christian inspiration — Nick Cave, a big fan of Bob's Christianity, would later cover the song for his own spiritual purposes, and Nick's usually got a good taste in covers, so take his word for it.

Everything else is, at worst, ridiculous (ʽUgliest Girlʼ) or very boring (ʽWhen Did You Leave Heavenʼ), and, at best, mildly-pleasantly-listenable, like the acoustic rocker ʽSilvioʼ, punctuated for the pleasure of your attention by an extra ukulele part, but still coming across as a flimsy trifle for some reason. Maybe it would have sounded better on a Traveling Wilburys album. Even the attempt to cap off the record with something more subtle and sentimental, namely, the cover of Albert Burmley's gospel tune ʽRank Strangers To Meʼ, is only halfway credible: lazy guitar strum + echo-laden voice + dull backup singing = why should we bother? Thumbs down in the groove; much as I like disagreeing with mainstream criticism on Bob's low points, defending this album would be a disreputable affair. Funny enough, it does confirm the usual trend — the more time Bob Dylan spends on making a record, the worse it usually comes out. It's a good thing he never tried auditioning for Pink Floyd.

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Monday, February 17, 2014

Buddy Moss: Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1

BUDDY MOSS: COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 1 (1933)

1) Bye Bye Mama; 2) Daddy Don't Care; 3) Red River Blues; 4) Cold Country Blues; 5) Prowling Woman; 6) TB's Killing Me; 7) When I'm Dead And Gone; 8) Hard Time Blues; 9) Prowlin' Gambler Blues; 10) Hard Road Blues; 11) Jealous Hearted Man; 12) Midnight Rambler; 13) Best Gal; 14) Restless Night Blues; 15) Married Man Blues; 16) Somebody Keeps Calling Me; 17) Back To My Used To Be; 18) Back To My Used To Be No. 2; 19) Can't Use You No More; 20) Can't Use You No More No. 2; 21) Travelin' Blues; 22) Bachelor's Blues; 23) Broke Down Engine.

Wherever Buddy Moss is not falling through the cracks of history, sources tend to present him as a sort of «missing link» between Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller — the inelegant part of this view being that Buddy Moss wasn't blind, and the elegant part of it being that his peak career period did fall on those exact years when Blind Blake was already gone, and Blind Boy Fuller did not yet start recording, namely, 1933-34. On the other hand, Buddy himself vehemently denied being influenced by anybody (liar liar), and his own influence on Fuller is debatable. Best stra­tegy would simply be to take the man on his own terms.

Actually, judging at least by Buddy's earliest recordings, his playing style, temperament, and musical attitude were quite different from both of these visually challenged gentlemen. In parti­cu­lar, he played very little of that «Piedmont», ragtime-oriented blues — Blind Blake's style was fast, jerky, entertaining, bodily-provocative, but Buddy strictly sticks to the slow 12-bar form, very canonical, very clean, mostly devoid of individualistic twists, yet with an extremely profes­sional and dexterously flowing sound. Modern listeners will find nothing particularly revealing about this form, but it seems to have been relatively rare on the streets of Atlanta in 1933, domi­nated as they were by Blind Willie McTell's ʽGeorgia Ragʼ and stuff.

On the whole, Buddy's sound should probably be considered as one of the closest predecessors of Chicago blues — even more so than Robert Johnson, who usually worked alone, whereas Buddy, on many, if not most, of his recordings is accompanied by a second guitarist (usually Curley Wea­ver), giving them a fuller, «band-like» sound: if you just added some electricity, you'd have yourself a 1953 as early as 1933. On the technical side, Buddy is a much more skilled lead player than Johnson: be it straight or slide, the best part of all these blues is invariably the solo, where he plays varied, fluent, expressive runs, very precise, very well put together, less imaginative and unpredictable than, say, Blind Lemon Jefferson's, but pretty much unmatched by any other for­malistic 12-bar guru in the business at the time. And if there was one guitarist from whom Elmore James was likely to cop his famous ʽDust My Broomʼ lick, Buddy is as good a candidate as any (ʽTB's Killing Meʼ, ʽWhen I'm Dead And Goneʼ).

The downside is obvious, too: of the 23 tracks on this first volume of his legacy that captures most of the 1933 experience, just about every single one is completely interchangeable with every other one. Occasionally, he switches from regular acoustic to slide, and from one backing guita­rist to another, but the tempos and basic structures stay consistently the same, and unless you are a maniacal 12-bar fanatic, there is no reason whatsoever why you should listen to more than two or three songs at a time (sound quality, by the way, shifts quite significantly from tune to tune, but about half of the songs have a very tolerable level of crackling — which is nice to know, con­sidering Columbia's typically less-than-royal quality treatment of its country blues artists).

On a trivia note, it is funny that one of the tracks here is called ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ — nothing to do with the Stones classic, but giving a rather precise indication as to how the bad boys came up with that title; Buddy's tune, in comparison, is quite harmless and inoffensive, infused with the regular blues yearning and moaning, but without any traces of psychopathology. In fact, as far as we know, Buddy himself was a fairly easy-going, friendly fellow, thoroughly uninterested in cul­tivating any mystical or «spiritually driven» image of himself — his singing is pleasant, but per­functory, his antics / gimmicks / special sonic tricks are non-existent, and his only real love / in­terest lies in making that guitar sing the blues. A completely one-trick pony here, but give the pony a break — it takes a little genius to perform that trick so well.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Beyoncé: Beyoncé

BEYONCÉ: BEYONCÉ (2013)

1) Pretty Hurts; 2) Ghost/Haunted; 3) Drunk In Love; 4) Blow; 5) No Angel; 6) Partition; 7) Jealous; 8) Rocket; 9) Mine; 10) XO; 11) Flawless; 12) Superpower; 13) Heaven; 14) Blue.

Here is a question. If the first three or four albums released by an entertainer like Beyoncé, despite having their «moments», never really made you believe in the entertainer as «artist», what would it take, then, to trigger that belief? Would it be downright impossible, or might there ever be a chance of her sliding into a different, more respectable paradigm? After all, people have managed to escape the machine before, or, at least, operate with their head slightly sticking out of the window. And now, with the money made and the fanbase established and the name in lights all over the world, why not go for a small push-up of your reputation among the «highbrows»? Not a bad idea at all — but how?..

Clearly, this was a subject of deep worry for Mrs. Carter herself, and she embarked on the task with plenty of verve. The self-titled record — «rebooting the franchise!» — came out without a single warning, unexpected and unpublicized, dropped as a package of 14 audio tracks and 17 accompanying videos on iTunes and sending a perfectly predicted shockwave through the fan­base. Physical copies of the album then arrived in an unusually minimalistic shape (the Kazimir Malevich Estate probably settled out of court), with none of the glamor that usually surrounds such releases (to be fair, there is plenty of glamor in some of the accompanying videos, but I guess the day we get to see Beyoncé without makeup is the day that her crypt is excavated by archaeologists, and it wouldn't be a pretty sight anyway). And, most importantly, the songs were almost «artsy» in their stubborn refusal to be dominated by dance grooves — dark, soul-probing exercises in emotional expression of the everyday cares, troubles, worries, comforts, and orgasms of a grown woman: wife, mother, and superstar all in one.

So we should all «buy» it, right? The final act of humanization, in which the blue-haired fairy comes down from the sky and gives Pinocchio his well-deserved emotions chip? Having already sat through a whole sack of five-star reviews beginning with constructions like «who would have thought that...» and exclamations like «HOLY COW!» and statements like «finally, Beyoncé comes up with an album worthy of her talent» and suchlike, and, more importantly, having pati­ently endu­red three complete listens to the record, I still would not want to be too hasty about that. Miracles do not happen, and the whole enterprise, to me, smacks of just another well-calculated move — «we got the average Joes hooked up, now let us conquer the demanding critics». Well, congratulations, Mrs. Bey, you and your team got really smart this time: save for a few renegade dis­senters, well within the statistical margin of error, congrats on a decisive victory.

In fact, I wouldn't mind joining the saluting crowds as well — the only problem is that, three lis­tens into the record, I still cannot remember a single tune. Removing the hot dance grooves also means removing the hooks, and removing the hooks means that the album is fueled exclusively by «soul» and «atmosphere», yet where are the musical innovations that make the «atmosphere» even marginally interesting? All I hear is same-old same-old: same programmed drums, same electronics, same adult contemporary sonic backgrounds, sometimes interspersed with same lone­some romantic piano pop melodies. «Sonically experimental», Pitchfork called this record, but where are these «experiments»? Oh, that's right, the proper context was «her most sonically ex­perimental to date». This puts stuff in a different light. Maybe twenty years ago this kind of re­cord, minus the benefits of cutting-edge production à la 2013, might have been called «experi­mental» — as it stands, its only braveness is in that it does, indeed, sound significantly different from the lady's previous albums. Different, for sure; but better? Not certain.

As far as my opinion is concerned, it is not with the music that Mrs. Carter has managed to sway the critics (who, as a rule, do not even begin to discuss the actual music, and I can empathize, since there is very little to be discussed in the first place), but with the attitude. For that, she must be given credit. Briefly stated, there are few records in the world that manage to share lines like "each day I feel so blessed to be looking at you / 'cause when you open your eyes, I feel alive" (explicitly addressed to her daughter) and "daddy what you gon' do with all this ass up in your face?" (explicitly addressed to her husband), fortunately, not within the same song, or she'd pro­bably have child protective service on her back in an instant.

Actually, some do, but very, very few make an active point of it. Beyoncé essentially comes across as a sort of concept album — an «honest» glimpse into the life of someone who has to combine several distinct personalities, not in an artificial Sasha Fierce-like way, but out of pure necessity. First, there remains the glamorous star personality (ʽFlawlessʼ); second, there is the lady of the family, committed to behaving like an angel in the spirit and like a slut in the body; third, there is the responsible loving mother; fourth, there's all sorts of interactions between the three (ʽPartitionʼ, which fuses the public star with the private slut and feels no remorse). I'd be lying through my teeth if I said that this whole concept were completely fake, primitive, and de­void of interest. I'd also be improperly insinuating if I said that Beyoncé's almost «salivating» depiction of sexual scenes with her husband (ʽRocketʼ is the quintessential example, but it's really all over the place) betrays an unhealthy fixation and should rather have been left in their bedroom — I mean, it's a world of free choice, and if you invite me in your bedroom, it'd probably be im­polite to refuse the invitation. I'd probably even fall into the perennial trap if I started doubting the album's feminist stance — since almost every second song here can be interpreted both as an anthem to the equality of the sexes or to sexual objectification of woman, that'd just lure us into another round of the never-ending, long-boring discussion.

All this, yes, and much more, but in the end, all it really does is distract us away from the musical qualities of the album. And the good musical qualities, as far as I can tell, are limited to a tiny handful of non-trivial vocal modulations (usually on the ballads: ʽHauntedʼ, ʽHeavenʼ, and ʽBlueʼ all have their moments), which are still heavily set back by unimaginative arrangements (usually confined to ideas like «okay, let's make the synth loops on ʽHauntedʼ sound real dark, bass-heavy, and distorted, it's a sound that's been used fifty billion times already, but we do need to focus on "dark", right?»). Say what you will, but Beyoncé is simply not enough interesting either as an «artist» or as a «human being» to save it all just on the strength of conceptuality and atmosphere. She is nowhere near «proverbially dumb», of course, but neither is she some sort of modern day Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, or even Lauryn Hill. In pitching for this sort of maturity, she over­stepped her boundaries, and made a record which, while striving to be «respectable», has ultima­tely landed in the area of «dull». As entertainment, this does not even begin holding a candle to B'Day; as «serious art», I have a hard time understanding why I should be spending my time trying to digest it as such.

Naturally, for someone whose musical world does not extend far beyond the likes of Beyoncé, The Black Album might be a spiritual revelation — more power to you if it helps you become a better human being, or solve your conjugal sex problems, or whatever else. But it'd be even better if it helped such people understand that there might be a better musical world out there some­where: like Amazon.com says, «if you liked this album, you might also like...» — not making any suggestions here, of course, just a small hint at the reason for which I am giving the album quite a violent thumbs down here. And this does not negate the fact that she does have a very cute, adorable daughter, or that having wild sex with Jay-Z cannot serve as a basis for writing exciting songs. It can! It just didn't, that's all.

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