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Monday, March 31, 2014

Bukka White: Memphis Hot Shots

BUKKA WHITE: MEMPHIS HOT SHOTS (1968)

1) Bed Spring Blues; 2) Aberdeen Mississippi Blues; 3) Drifting Blues; 4) (Brand New) Decoration Blues; 5) Baby Please Don't Go; 6) Give Me An Old, Old Lady; 7) Got Sick And Tired; 8) World Boogie; 9) School Learning; 10) Old Man Tom; 11) Gibson Town.

A major misstep here. As the 1960s wore on and Bukka made more and more public appearances, he saw that the «proper» way to go for most folks was with a backing band, and opted for one of his own. The results, released on Mike Vernon's blues-oriented Blue Horizon label, were not too good — nowhere near as ridiculous as the album cover (we do not even know if it is Bukka him­self in the space suit, but who cares? would it cease to be ridiculous if we knew for sure it ain't him?), but fairly dull all the same.

I do not know any of the players — no big surprise, considering that some of them are hiding behind pseudonyms, such as «Anchor» on bass and «Harmonica Boy» on guess-what, and that the actual level of musicianship is utterly pedestrian, slightly above high school level, perhaps, but not even on the level of a third-rate British Invasion R&B band. Apparently, the intent is to try and recreate some sort of Chicago blues atmosphere, with a suitably swampy studio attitude, to match the achievements of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, but the only person who'd want to seriously compare «Harmonica Boy» with Little Walter would be a person who never heard one note played by Little Walter.

Worse still, Bukka himself is trying to get into the same pattern — howling, screaming, and roar­ing in prime Chicago fashion instead of retaining his trademark cotton field mumble that he inhe­rited from Charley Patton. It's okay, but it just ain't him: it's a rather pale copy of the Howlin' Wolf approach. It's as if John Lennon suddenly decided to become Bruce Springsteen, or Mick Jagger suddenly decided to become Sting, just because they happened to sell more at the time. The plus side here is that this also brings about a huge change of the repertoire: other than a couple perennial oldies, most of the songs here are new, with titles that I do not recognize (were they actually made up on the spot?) and melodies mostly taken from classic Chicago blues re­cordings. The minus side is — why exactly do I need to hear this?

The best material here is strictly solo: the band takes a break on ʽDrifting Bluesʼ and several other tunes, leaving Bukka alone (or, at most, with a second acoustic guitarist) to exorcise his demons. The vocals are still somewhat inadequate, with too much forced Wolf-style gargling, but at least the lack of inferior musical backing is refreshing, and it becomes easier to assess the amount of sincerity and genuine passion in the man's presence. And, honestly, he just does not seem to be in the right state of mind doing this thang — I count this as a misguided experiment from top to bot­tom and give it a thumbs down, although blues historians will probably want to own Memphis Hot Shots all the same, if only as an example of a curious, one-of-a-kind configuration. Not that old bluesmen didn't have their fair share of embarrassing misses, but they were all embarrassing in their own idiosyncratic embarrassing ways. At the very least, I don't recall Mississippi John Hurt or Skip James dressing in space suits, that's for sure.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

British Sea Power: Machineries Of Joy

BRITISH SEA POWER: MACHINERIES OF JOY (2013)

1) Machineries Of Joy; 2) K Hole; 3) Hail Holy Queen; 4) Loving Animals; 5) What You Need The Most; 6) Mon­sters Of Sunderland; 7) Spring Has Sprung; 8) Radio Goddard; 8) A Light Above Descending; 9) When A Warm Wind Blows Through The Grass.

I like the first song here a lot — make sure you catch at least a glimpse of it before this next British Sea Power album falls into oblivion like all the rest. The atmospheric buildup, the glim­mering folk-pop electric riff that eventually merges with the vocals, the psychedelic string over­dubs, the stately optimistic atmosphere, all of this working towards the anthemic chorus in such a subtle, but tightly focused manner that when Yan finally reaches the conclusion — "we are mag­nificent machineries of joy, and then some" — how could we not believe him?

It is only later, once you read deeper into the lyrics, that the song's irony begins to emerge: first, the title itself comes from Bradbury, a guy who wasn't exactly the epitome of optimism, and second, the grand, solemn, soothing music with its mind-melding psychedelic overtones is really a mesmerizing drug, against whose background you slowly get «brainwashed»: "So tell me what he said... it doesn't really matter... tell me what he said... though I don't really care... it's only what he said... and we can make it better... help is on the way...". Once you get through to this level, Machineries Of Joy, with its Bradburian / Orwellian overtones, becomes a much more interes­ting concept than the first superficial listen could suggest.

The problem, as usual, is that the concept soon becomes and ultimately remains more interesting than the music. The band tones down their approach a bit, going for a «quiet majestic feel» this time, hushed vocals, muffled guitars and all, but too many of the songs sound exactly the same, mood-wise, and the band's decision that they will never «go all the way» (reasonable, actually, since they could get confused with U2 otherwise) has a negative influence on the songs' hooking power. Machineries Of Joy stands up fairly well to repeated listens, but the first couple of them might be so underwhelming that you simply might not get tempted to go for more.

Still, attentive perception will probably show that the songs are well written, the arrangements are cleverly chosen, the lyrics are expertly written, and that there is enough data here to feed your in­tellectual centers, even if the emotional ones remain relatively unaffected. For instance, ʽLoving Animalsʼ, a song about... well, about the wrongness of violence (not just towards animals), cle­ver­ly moves between «harsh» verses, with distorted rhythm guitar, siren-style lead guitar, and tense vocals, and a «soft» bridge / chorus section where the voice of God, or at least one of God's henchmen, riding on an angelic slide guitar part, tells you that "I want you to know that it's wrong man". (Although, fairly speaking, since the preceding mantra goes "loving animals, loving ani­mals", it is not exactly clear what is wrong — maybe God is really letting you know that loving animals is wrong? Whatever you think of BSP, lack of ambiguousness is not possibly considered as an accusation in their case).

Of the «rocking» songs, ʽMonsters Of Sunderlandʼ is the most notable, although its point is a little obscure — sort of like a parody on a regional anthem, the song was inspired by the band's visit to Sunderland (Tyne and Wear) and features heavy brass fanfares, buzzing-vibrating guitar riffs, choral harmonies, and lyrics that should make the citizens of Sunderland scratch their heads in confusion. It's one thing to get a song written about you by a popular band when most of the world has no idea of the place you live in — but it's quite another thing to be referred to as a «monster» and be accused of «Darwinian animosity», whatever that means. Are they being reve­rential or are they being mean? Maybe you have to be a Sunderland resident to know the definite answer to that. But the song does sound great at any rate.

When they quiet down, however, it does not always work equally well. On one hand, there are beautifully sounding songs like ʽA Light Above Descendingʼ, with its highly obscure sci-fi refe­rences («Aelita» should probably refer to the title character of Alexei Tolstoy's novel from 1923, of which I was not even sure until now that it had ever been translated to English, but apparently, there are at least three different translations, and it seems like the BSP boys are pretty avid rea­ders when it comes to fantasy) — cool romantic atmosphere, brought on mainly by slide guitar overdubs. On the other hand, the repetitive minimalism of ʽWhen A Warm Wind Blows Through The Grassʼ hardly warrants a five-minute loop: that acoustic pattern is not that original and/or haunting to merit serving as the album's coda.

Still, «samey», «hookless», and «pretentious» arguments can be sufficiently breached and bru­shed aside here to make space for a well-deserved thumbs up. Like all BSP albums, the lyrics and attitudes make this one very «elitist», inaccessible and impenetrable for the average consumer despite its fairly traditional musical values; and its accent on the «muffled» part of «muffled ma­jesty» will also leave potential fan crowds disoriented — it's like stadium rock without a stadium to play it in. But I am definitely putting this one on the «replay in ten years, see how it works» list. Who knows, maybe from that perspective British Sea Power will be perceived as embracing the Zeitgeist of 2013 after all.

Check "Machineries Of Joy" (CD) on Amazon
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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ben Folds: Supersunnyspeedgraphic

BEN FOLDS: SUPERSUNNYSPEEDGRAPHIC (2003-2004; 2006)

[Speed Graphic]: 1) In Between Days; 2) Give Judy My Notice; 3) Protection; 4) Dog; 5) Wandering; [Sunny 16]: 1) There's Always Someone Cooler Than You; 2) Learn To Live With What You Are; 3) All U Can Eat; 4) Rockstar; 5) Songs Of Love; [Super D]: 1) Get Your Hands Off My Woman; 2) Kalamazoo; 3) Adelaide; 4) Rent A Cop; 5) Them That Got (live); [The LP]: 1*) Bitches Ain't Shit; 2*) Bruised; 3*) Still.

This is really a trick review. Instead of talking about Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP, re­leased in 2006, I would rather talk about the three individual EPs that provide the bulk of mate­rial for this album. Some of the tracks were remixed and even received new instrumental parts, but many were lopped off in the process, and three extra tracks that were not part of the original EP series were introduced. As a result, the poor fans had to scoop up everything in order to keep track of things — but we will hang on to the original EPs and nonchalantly dismiss the «LP» as superfluous self-indulgence. It does add Ben's (in)famous cover of Dr. Dre's foul-mouthed ʽBit­ches Ain't Shitʼ, redone as a sentimental piano ballad, but if you've heard it once, I have no idea why you'd want to hear it again. (Admittedly, quite a few fans liked it so much that Ben had to do it for years onstage before making a man's decision to retire the gimmick — just goes to show that popularity ain't shit).

Anyway, the three EPs (Speed Graphic, Sunny 16, Super D) were originally planned as such because the majority of the tunes were «throwaways» — covers of old and contemporary artists; collaborations with pals; completed versions of old (sometimes very old) demos; or, vice versa, incomplete demos that would later resurface in more polished versions (ʽGive Judy My Noticeʼ). Only a few songs do not fit in any of these categories, making it impossible to generate some­thing self-consciously important out of this mix. And perhaps for the better, because at this point in his solo career, Ben tended to drift a bit too close to «adult contemporary» standards when in the mood for something very serious. These three EPs, on the contrary, are relatively light, have a high share of simple-fun moments, and generally qualify.

Speed Graphic opens with a spirited cover of The Cure's ʽIn Between Daysʼ, a perfect Cure song to get re-interpreted by Ben (it's one of those rare romantic moments from Robert Smith, like ʽFriday I'm In Loveʼ, rather than his usual Goth gloom); includes ʽDogʼ, built on a fast spiralling piano riff that is at the very least one of Ben's flashiest, if not necessarily his best; and ends with ʽWanderingʼ, which takes itself very seriously and, like I just said, subsequently runs the risk of sounding too boringly self-important, but somehow he seems to get the ice-cold melancholia mood just right on that one — or maybe it's simply that the song's relaxed piano walk, fished out of the same chord can as ʽLet It Beʼ, agrees so well with the word "wandering".

Sunny 16, true to its title, generally sounds even more relaxed and party-oriented. The songs are fairly moralistic, but upbeat and «sunny» — ʽThere's Always Someone Cooler Than Youʼ and ʽYou've Got To Learn To Live With What You Gotʼ give their message away in the title, hammer it inside your head with the catchy chorus, but never for once let their moralizing get the best of the artist, who presents the songs as fun piano pop rockers rather than parables. Incidentally, the latter tune bears a remote resemblance to Nicky Hopkins' piano on the Stones' ʽSalt Of The Earthʼ — I won­der just how coincidental this was, especially since a couple other «rocking» passages here also bring to mind Nicky's classic style. For that matter, the melody of ʽRock Starʼ seems to quote a bit from George Harrison's ʽI Me Mineʼ (the "...baby the truth is, you need their ap­proval..." bit), one coincidence too many. That's what you get by being raised on Sixties classics, subconscious inserts a-plenty.

The third EP is the slightest of all, with a hilariously hysterical cover of The Darkness' ʽGet Your Hands Off My Womanʼ, a polite two-minute live tribute to Ray Charles (ʽThem That Gotʼ), a surprisingly vicious anti-police rant (ʽRent A Copʼ — now Ben only has to pray that the next cop to write him out a speeding ticket has never listened to Super D), and what could possibly be the best song on this whole mix if I ever get around to listening to it another couple hundred times: ʽKalamazooʼ has a highly non-trivial, fairly «progressive», structure, with jazz chords, stops-and-starts, tempo changes, psychedelic orchestral breaks, whatever. (Allegedly, the man wrote it at the tender age of 19, but it must have acquired some additional layers since then).

Because of all this diversity, the resulting package, though much longer than Rockin' The Sub­urbs, is surprisingly easier to sit through. It also helps that Ben hired some real drummers to help with the recordings (bass duties seem to have been mostly handled by himself), so much of this stuff regains the liveliness and fussiness of the Ben Folds Five days, even if we could always use some more fat distorted bass on the rockers. All in all, I would well advise to concentrate on the original EPs rather than the «best-of» single album version — particularly since the bonus songs there aren't particularly great (the six-minute epic ʽStillʼ, taken from the soundtrack to the cartoon Over The Hedge, is really just an orchestrated bore); consider these here thumbs up as a recom­mendation for ʽWanderingʼ and ʽKalamazooʼ, which were inexplicably left off the LP, over ʽBitches Ain't Shitʼ, which is really not that funny, once you've had your fun.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Birthday Party: Mutiny / The Bad Seed

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY: MUTINY / THE BAD SEED (1982-1983; 1989)

1) Sonny's Burning; 2) Wildworld; 3) Fears Of Gun; 4) Deep In The Woods; 5) Jennifers Veil; 6) Six Strings That Drew Blood; 7) Say A Spell; 8) Swampland; 9) Pleasure Avalanche; 10) Mutiny In Heaven.

After Junkyard, The Birthday Party had no place left to go. They'd taken the formula to its abso­lute extreme — one more step in the same direction and the band would have exploded in its own madness. On the other hand, there could be no talk of stopping and stagnating, either: Nick Cave was not about to let his band turn into an endlessly self-repeating hardcore-goth-mix machine, forever releasing inferior sequels to Junkyard. There had to be some changes made, but this meant running into internal creative conflicts. Throw in some trouble with the rhythm section (drummer Phil Calvert was fired for alleged loss of competence, and bassist Tracy Pew had tem­porarily vanished from the radar due to law troubles), and the end becomes predictable.

The Bad Seed, an Evangelical title that Nick would eventually appropriate for his next band's name, and Mutiny were two EPs that the band released over their last troubled year of existence, later to be put together on one CD and now seen as the Birthday Party's last testament. It is very tempting to call them «transitional», a bridge between classic Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds, but that would depend on how one actually perceives the difference between B.P. and B.S. As far as I can see, the arrival of Blixa Bargeld to replace Rowland S. Howard as Nick's principal spar­ring partner was the principal change from one to the other — Howard's flashy, psychotic style of playing always took a lot of emphasis off Nick's performance, whereas Bargeld would rather play off Cave, adapting his guitar parts to attenuate the man's self-expression.

From that point of view, Mutiny/The Bad Seed is still a bona fide Birthday Party record, even despite the fact that Bargeld already appears on ʽMutiny In Heavenʼ, adding a distant wall of industrial clang in the background. On the general scale of «intensity», these EPs, I'd say, fall way below Junkyard, but still remain above Prayers On Fire. Only a couple of songs, like ʽSwamplandʼ, sound like they could have been outtakes from the Birthday Party's aggressive peak — the rest are either slower than usual, or more disciplined than usual, or, sometimes, more subtle and quietly spooky than usual (not in a «Bad Seeds» way, though).

Nothing is radically new, but the songs, particularly on the Bad Seed EP, are still perfectly written and executed. Nick's "HANDS UP WHO WANTS TO DIE?" at the beginning of ʽSon­ny's Burningʼ is as classic a Birthday Party moment as anything, and the rest of the song gallops along like a mix of hardcore epic with old style psychedelia, with the chainsaw buzz replaced by (catchy!) acid guitar riffs and mind-twirling «astral» leads. ʽFears Of Gunʼ is only a tad slower, more in a jazz/blues-rock vein, but a viciously murderous one, as bits of guitar shrapnel fly in all directions while Mr. Cave is running down the street, loudly announcing that "the fears of Gun are the fears of everyone" («Gun» is animated and personalized in this song).

On the opposite side of the business, ʽWildworldʼ and ʽDeep In The Woodsʼ lean towards the Goth angle, particularly the latter, all of it hanging upon a cruel descending bassline, each bar taking us deeper and deeper in the woods where "the woods eats the woman and dumps her ho­ney body in the mud", well, you can imagine the rest. I do have to say, though, that after Junk­yard, these spooky horror shows come across as a little too grotesque and theatrical: way too many DIEs, DEATHs, and DEADs rolled up in gravel for the hyperbole to work in a properly intimidating (rather than black-humorous) manner. Of course, once Rowland S. Howard cuts in with all of his «wounded mammoth» might, everything is forgiven.

As for the last EP, it sounds a bit too fussy and disorganised, with fairly strange rockers like ʽSix Strings That Drew Bloodʼ that never seem to properly understand whether they are headed for musical coherence or musical chaos. ʽJennifer's Veilʼ and ʽSay A Spellʼ tread the same turd as ʽWildworldʼ, but with less interesting results. Only ʽSwamplandʼ, a convict-on-the-run perfor­mance that initiates Nick's decades-long series of scum-of-the-earth impersonations, truly stands out in its relentless punch — Cave seems invigorated by the very idea that his «madman» image can be put to more realistic use, and if you thought you could do without any more throat-tearing screaming after the entirety of Junkyard, you might at least make an exception for his "down in swampland...!", delivered as if the hound dogs were already tearing at his calves, pulling him down in the filthy muck.

On their own, the songs are strong enough to merit an unquestionable thumbs up — in terms of the global curve, though, these EPs mark relative stagnation. Nobody questions the ability of Cave and Howard to come up with «hook after hook», vocal-wise or guitar-wise, but emotion-wise, they all sound now like variations on themes fully explored before, and while that might have kept old veteran fans of the band happy, it sure didn't keep the band members happy. New configurations were necessary, so it is only natural that ʽMutiny In Heavenʼ concludes the al­bum on a note of new partnership: Nick Cave and Blixa Bargeld, meeting up in Berlin after the Birth­day Party relocated there in 1982, disappointed with the London scene. And really, we should all be happy: The Birthday Party lived the exact amount of time it was supposed to live, reaching its absolute peak and breaking up at the first signs of stagnation, its members re-emerging in fresh new formats. Good lesson for too many people who refuse to learn.

Check "Mutiny / The Bad Seed" (CD) on Amazon

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Billy Joel: Glass Houses

BILLY JOEL: GLASS HOUSES (1980)

1) You May Be Right; 2) Sometimes A Fantasy; 3) Don't Ask Me Why; 4) It's Still Rock And Roll To Me; 5) All For Leyna; 6) I Don't Want To Be Alone; 7) Sleeping With The Television On; 8) C'Etait Toi; 9) Close To The Border­line; 10) Through The Long Night.

Another step in the right direction. This album is usually tagged as Billy's «hard rock record» — not simply for harboring more distorted guitar-driven pop rockers than usual, but for a general toughening-up of the attitude. Oh look out there, he's really gonna crash that glass house on the album sleeve, isn't he? He did crash it, didn't he? We all heard the breaking glass at the beginning of ʽYou May Be Rightʼ, and we all saw the resulting hole on the back sleeve photo. What an angry young man! What a punk, eh?

In reality, there is at best one or two «socially relevant» tracks here, and that is very, very good news. The «toughness» helps as long as it keeps Billy away from one too many lounge jazz bal­lads, but Billy Joel as a public agitator, particularly in the age of punk and New Wave, would not be a good idea at all. What Glass Houses really is is a good old-fashioned pop rock record, reaso­nably well written, almost completely free of ambitions/pretentions (maybe even more so than 52nd Street), and containing exactly one corny tune with sickening potential — ʽYou Were The Oneʼ, an attempt to imitate the sentimental vibe of the French pop scene (even including some actual singing in French, with a fairly bad accent, as one can guess). But it's all right, too. A Billy Joel album without a single bad Billy Joel song would be too much of a mindshaker.

ʽYou May Be Rightʼ is really just an old-fashioned pub rocker, walking an assured line between cockiness and catchiness, putting back the rock'n'roll ecstasy in its guitar and saxophone solos, and, most fun of all, setting it to an electric folk-rock rhythm pattern that recalls the Beatles circa 1965-66. ʽSometimes A Fantasyʼ follows it up with echoey guitar and vocals that either pay tri­bute to the man's rockabilly idols, or show that he has been paying attention to New Wave, after all; on second thought, it does sound more like the Cars than Gene Vincent. But attention or no attention, "it's still rock'n'roll to me", the man says on the album's most anthemic track. Three minutes of brisk guitar trot that slightly recalls the Shadows — and proclaims that the more it changes, the more it rests the same. Cool sax solo, nice bounce, and only a slight touch of self-righteousness at that.

The album also contains what might possibly be Billy's finest ever stab at being Paul McCartney — the bouncy (sorry for that word again, but Glass Houses really keeps up this non-stop bounce for almost unreasonable periods of time!), yes, the bouncy acoustic pop song ʽDon't Ask Me Whyʼ, which could have easily fit on... on... well, I'm not exactly sure on what particular Mc­Cartney album it would fit best of all (Flaming Pie?), but it's got all the right McCartney moves. All it needs is a Paul-style falsetto to complete the picture, but Billy no like falsetto. Oh, and the Latin piano interlude in the middle is a little out of place, too. Still, excellent try.

Everything else is all right, I guess. There really isn't a lot one could write about songs like ʽAll For Leynaʼ (power-piano-pop with a mildly desperate edge), or ʽSleeping With The Television Onʼ (Elton strikes again on the verses, but the "all night long, all night long" chorus is a bit too bland and smooth even for Elton's mid-1970s standards), or the album closer ʽThrough The Long Nightʼ whose intent is to finally put you to sleep with the aid of suitably lullabyish vocal har­monies. Not a lot, but they are all decent, adequate compositions, well produced, as usual, by Phil Ramone and mostly concentrating on thinly disguised stories of relationships.

Thus, another thumbs up here: nothing truly stands out in particular (other than ʽC'Etait Toiʼ, in a bad way), but the album still forms an integral part of Billy's winning streak, particularly now that the man has learned the secret to true success — with his strong, but limited talents, the less important he sounds, the better it is. The best thing about Glass Houses is that he never really threw that stone, you know. He never even planned to. What, did you think Billy Joel capable of something as stupid as that? He's just doing it all for Leyna.

Check "Glass Houses" (CD) on Amazon
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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bobby Womack: Across 110th Street

BOBBY WOMACK: ACROSS 110TH STREET (1972)

1) Across 110th Street; 2) Harlem Clavinette; 3) If You Don't Want My Love; 4) Hang On In There (instrumental); 5) Quicksand; 6) Harlem Love Theme; 7) Across 110th Street (instrumental); 8) Do It Right; 9) Hang On In There; 10) If You Don't Want My Love (instrumental); 11) Across 110th Street (part 2).

Nice little soundtrack here to a mostly forgotten «blaxploitation» movie (come to think of it, are there any «blaxploitation» movies that have not been mostly forgotten?), starring Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn. The soundtrack was mostly forgotten, too, until Tarantino acted on the urge to revive the title track for Jackie Brown, which is where the average pop culture fan is most like­ly to get his first taste of ʽAcross 110th Streetʼ.

It is somewhat unfortunate, though, that the song never made it to a regular LP: it is good enough to transcend soundtrack quality, a tempestuous tale of «gotta-get-out-of-this-place» ghetto suffering with a formulaic, but terrific arrangement and one of Bobby's most soulful vocal deliveries ever — you won't find much of that sort of ominous, disturbing fury even on a Stevie Wonder or a Marvin Gaye record. Sure, the brass fan­fares and howling pre-disco strings sound dated not only to their epoch, but even to their movie genre, yet in this case, they actually work in full unison with the escapist message of the song. And this is without even mentioning the reprise of the theme at the end, where the vocals quickly give way to a nightmarish mix of wailing gui­tars, electronic keyboard effects, and occasional ghoulish screaming — the thickest, densest ar­rangement on a Womack album so far, with a heavy psychedelic effect if played at top volume.

The rest of the album wanders between several other vocal numbers, masterminded by Bobby, and several instrumental themes, directed and conducted by Jay Jay Johnson «and his Orchestra»: Jay Jay, formerly a bebop trombonist, had only recently moved to film score composing, and his work here is quite outstanding in its own way — ʽHarlem Clavinetteʼ is swaggerishly funky and polyphonic, with predictable wah-wah guitar passages alternating with far less predictable flute solos; ʽHarlem Love Themeʼ is a good example of early 1970s «fusionistic» take on the late night jazz standard of the 1950s (provided you can stand the ultra-high frequencies of those opening keyboards — Jay Jay must have been appealing to the bat segment of his audience); and his in­strumental reworkings of Bobby's own compositions always bring out the best in their melodies (the brass substitution of the vocal melody in ʽAcross 110th Streetʼ fully preserves the tension and decisiveness in Womack's delivery).

As for Bobby, he contributes a new, slower, more romantic reworking of ʽIf You Don't Want My Loveʼ, and a couple extra funk numbers: ʽQuicksandʼ goes by too fast to be memorable, but ʽDo It Rightʼ is a pretty hot rocker, set to a rhythm that will be familiar to everybody who knows The Who's live rendition of ʽSpoonfulʼ (though I'm sure it must have had an even earlier precedent) and featuring some smoking guitar and Moog solos. On a curious note, most of these numbers also feature Bobby in «totally loose» mode, repeatedly screaming his head off like he'd never al­lowed himself earlier on any of his proper LPs — talk about the liberating powers of blaxploita­tion filmmaking!

For technical reasons, Across 110th Street has no chance to remain as culturally significant and thoroughly enjoyable as Curtis Mayfield's Superfly, still arguably the definitive blaxploitation soundtrack of its era — too many instrumentals, too many reprises, too many rewrites — but in the overall context of Womack's artistic travelog, it is not to be overlooked, and if you are a major fan of orchestrated funk experiments of the decade, Jay Jay Johnson's work here also makes it a must-have. Thumbs up.

Check "Across 110th Street" (CD) on Amazon
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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bob Dylan: World Gone Wrong

BOB DYLAN: WORLD GONE WRONG (1993)

1) World Gone Wrong; 2) Love Henry; 3) Ragged & Dirty; 4) Blood In My Eyes; 5) Broke Down Engine; 6) Delia; 7) Stack A Lee; 8) Two Soldiers; 9) Jack-A-Roe; 10) Lone Pilgrim.

Dylan has never been an enemy to sequels, and many of his finest records come in «pairs» or «trios», be they acoustic folk, electric rock'n'roll, or Jesusfests — and since Good As I Been To You got such good reviews, a quick follow-up along the same lines would appear quite natural. But it wouldn't be true Dylan, either, if the follow-up were observing exactly the same angle. One more page had to be turned, so, for World Gone Wrong, Dylan chose a «long black cloak» to wrap it in. Where the first record was essentially the soundtrack to an old, ragged traveling min­strel show, with women and children all equally welcome to sing along to ʽFroggie Went A-Cou­rtin'ʼ, World Gone Wrong takes a more serious, and usually, quite deadly view of the world.

Bob himself, clean-shaven now and well-trimmed, is posing on the front cover in the guise of an undertaker — sharing a quiet moment with a cup of coffee and a candle right after the services have been held. Sure enough, the title track, if taken literally, only documents a nasty breakup between the man and his gal, but there are so many other nasty things happening later on that no­body will want to take it literally: «world gone wrong» does refer to the whole world, not just the protagonist's own personal world.

Once again, all the songs are traditional oldies, some fairly well known (like Blind Willie Mc­Tell's ʽBroke Down Engineʼ), some excavated by Bob from fairly obscure sources, but given a thorough explanation in the liner notes, which he wrote himself, almost as if he really really wanted us to digest and enjoy these songs on their own exclusive terms, rather than in the form of «yet another Bob Dylan album». Of course, that would be impossible, and people still ended up writing about how Bob really managed to breathe new life into them old tunes, and you can't blame them: even if he truly wanted to perform ʽWorld Gone Wrongʼ and ʽBlood In My Eyesʼ the same way they were done by the Mississippi Sheiks sixty years earlier, he couldn't have done it. But then the Mississippi Sheiks, after all, were playing for popular entertainment, hiding the songs' grieving heart behind a wall of lively, upbeat fiddles and guitars. Bob Dylan, at best, is playing for popular education rather than popular entertainment — and he has no obligation, to his record label or to his audience, to whitewash any of the feelings.

Consequently, World Gone Wrong is one of Dylan's bleakest albums, full to the brim with murder ballads and depressed blues, and, in its own way, paving the road to Time Out Of Mind, whose artistic success was, beyond any doubt, at least partly the result of inspiration drawn from recording these covers. With one or two exceptions, there is hardly even any harmonica on here: harmonica is known to liven up the atmosphere, and Dylan does not need that for his current pur­pose. Instead, he invests it all in his guitar playing, choosing the saddest chord sequences in his repertoire to match the lyrics and vocal intonations. And if there might have been occasional que­stions as to whether his voice was really suitable to sing stuff like ʽTomorrow Nightʼ, no such problem is evident here.

With the themes and moods so consistent, highlights vs. lowlights are impossible to discuss, so we shall bypass any song-by-song comments and get out the general judgement: World Gone Wrong is a more important album than Good As I Been To You, since it is more conceptual, and the concept is carried out in the spirit of Bob Dylan, not in the spirit of those old folk guys, God bless 'em, who had preserved those songs for us, on tape and shellac, back when the spirit of Bob Dylan was not just non-existent, but pretty much unthinkable. It is tempting to compare it with Nick Cave's Murder Ballads, which came out three years later and were quite obviously inspired by this album (two of the songs, ʽStagger Leeʼ and ʽHenry Leeʼ, are the same as ʽStack A Leeʼ and ʽLove Henryʼ) — but Cave, when it comes to such matters, usually goes all the way, building up a heavy-hitting atmosphere of doom and gloom; Bob wouldn't have been able to do it if just for the reason of not having Nick's vocal capacities, and his delivery is far more under­stated, and takes more time to sink in if you are in the mood for acute depression.

The record ends on a spiritual note — ʽLone Pilgrimʼ, an anthem pulled out of The Sacred Harp, calms us down after all the tales of grief and woe, once again reminding, in a traditional way now, that «death is not the end», because all the good pilgrims simply go home when they die. Whether this could be any consolation to a non-religious person is unclear, but Dylan has constructed this whole album from an obviously religious point of view (and, for that matter, he had never offi­cially rebuked his Christianity), and if he wants this emotional flourish — the world may have gone wrong, but not Heaven — he's got every right to have it, and still get his thumbs up rating.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Bukka White: Mississippi Blues

BUKKA WHITE: MISSISSIPPI BLUES (1964)

1) Aberdeen Mississippi Blues; 2) Parchman Farm Blues; 3) Shake 'Em On Down; 4) I Am The Heavenly Way; 5) Atlanta Special; 6) Drunk Man Blues; 7) Army Blues; 8) Remembrance Of Charlie Patton; 9) New Orleans Stream­line; 10) Poor Boy Long Ways From Home; 11) Baby Please Don't Go.

Like so many of his blues pals, Booker T. «Bukka» White was rediscovered in 1963 (by John Fahey, a notorious musician in his own right), and with the acoustic blues boom revival in full swing, almost immediately landed a small contract with Fahey's Takoma Records, who got him a recor­ding session in Memphis and released the results under the laconic title of Mississippi Blues (on CD, this record usually goes under the title of The Sonet Blues Story, since, apparently, the European distribution rights were handed over to the Swedish Sonet label).

Bukka is completely alone for this session — no second guitarist, no harmonica, no backup sin­gers, not even a washboard — which is probably the main reason to hear and own it if you alrea­dy have his pre-war recordings (a secondary reason is the expectedly improved sound quality, but the old stuff really wasn't that bad, compared to some of Blind Lemon Jefferson's or Charley Pat­ton's records, for instance). The songs, with but a few exceptions, also cover the same repertoire, although some of the titles are new: ʽThe New 'Frisco Trainʼ becomes ʽThe Atlanta Specialʼ, and ʽPo' Boyʼ becomes a lengthier ʽPoor Boy, Long Ways From Homeʼ. Weirdest of all, ʽParchman Farm Bluesʼ is not really ʽParchman Farm Bluesʼ, but rather ʽWhen Can I Change My Clothesʼ — a blatant mistake that has, nevertheless, steadily persisted on all subsequent releases (just goes to show you how much people actually listen to these things).

It is hard to tell whether the man was in top form while making these recordings (some have suggested a bit of a tired strain to at least some of the tracks), but he does make an effort to pass this off as an evening of public entertainment — regularly interspersing sung parts with snippets of talkin' blues to cheer up the audience, and creating the illusion of a band by sometimes ad lib­bing stuff like "play it while I get me a cigarette!" before launching into a solo passage, even though there really ain't nobody but us chickens in the studio. One of the tracks is completely non-musical: four minutes of small anecdotes about Charley Patton, Bukka's personal idol and greatest influence (although there has been some speculation that he was merely thinking these stories all up to please Fahey, who was a big fan of Patton).

Other than that, the session does not open up a lot of previously unknown sides to Mr. White. He plays piano instead of guitar on one track (ʽDrunk Man Bluesʼ), not particularly well or anything, and covers Big Joe Williams' ʽBaby Please Don't Goʼ — credibly, but not embettering the origi­nal or, for that matter, the Muddy Waters Chicago version. His old standards show that twenty five years outside the studio have not diminished his guitar skills in the slightest, nor has there been any strain on the vocals, but neither has he thought of any additional ways to reinvent or embellish those tunes. Still, the album is well worth a thumbs up at least for the tastes of those who worry too much about the rusty quality of pre-war blues recordings. For Bukka, these songs still remained his lifeblood in 1963 — this is much more than a nostalgic facsimile — and from a technical point, his rough, but effective playing style should be much easier to study based on this session than on anything from the early days.

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Blitzen Trapper: VII

BLITZEN TRAPPER: VII (2013)

1) Feel The Chill; 2) Shine On; 3) Ever Loved Once; 4) Thirsty Man; 5) Valley Of Death; 6) Oregon Geography; 7) Neck Tatts, Cadillacs; 8) Earth (Fever Called Love); 9) Drive On Up; 10) Heart Attack; 11) Faces Of You; 12) Don't Be A Stranger.

Yes, we can: two years into the disappointing disaster of American Goldwing, Blitzen Trapper once again redo their image, and come out with an album that honestly sounds nothing like any of its predecessors — confirming our trust in Eric Earley as a musical force to be reckoned with, at least on a formal level. However, the change is somewhat bizarre. Without abandoning their roots-rock orientation, the band now crosses it with modernistic elements of hip-hop, trip-hop, and various electronic sub-styles. The result? Now they sound like lately-discovered children of Beck, which begs the question — are we finally past Eighties nostalgia, and advancing now into the age of Nineties nostalgia?

Seriously, at least half of these tracks might have been accepted as filler on Odelay or Midnite Vultures: swamp guitars crossed with dance beats, rapped vocals crossed with bluesy harmonicas, earthy country moods crossed with urban swagger. Most of the instrumentation remains live, and the album is hardly ever burdened with the stuffy digital overload of mainstream production, which is why the Beck analogy springs to mind before anything else — he, too, would always take time to bother that the songs sounded like advanced-updated variations on all their predeces­sors. The standard problem, however, remains: on individual levels, the tunes are not particularly memorable; not on a level, at least, where I could single out highlights and lowlights.

The overall sound is beyond complaint: even at his worst, Earley would always retain profes­sionalism, and now that he's found a new old way to fool around, the band seems re-energized from the slackness of American Goldwing. On ʽFeel The Chillʼ, stinging electric guitars, tasty slides, banjos, organs, harmonicas, and whistling synthesizers generate an impressive polyphony, over which Eric's rapped verse vocals and nursery-rhyme chorus resonate with irony and humor. There may be a bit too much happening here to successfully latch on to a distinct hook, but this feeling of overwhelmed ear canals is quite strong in itself.

Then the second song, ʽShine Onʼ, comes on, and it's like... uh, okay. The time signature is ever so slightly changed, but other than that, we have the same electric riffs, slides, organs, harmoni­cas, rapped vocals... the song hardly ever makes its own point. ʽEver Loved Onceʼ follows at a slower pace, in a more sentimental mood, but other than fewer synthesizers and more slides, the difference is not that big, either, and seems to become less and less as the song becomes louder and Eric's singing gradually slides towards the same rapping style.

There is no need whatsoever to mention any of the other tracks until we get to ʽHeart Attackʼ: the last three tracks somehow manage to dispense with the «retro-modernistic» sheen and simply plunge us into pure archaic retro — ʽHeart Attackʼ is like an old-fashioned glam-rocker crossed with country elements, sort of a cross between T. Rex and the Flying Burrito Brothers; ʽFaces Of Youʼ is a gloomy keyboard-dominated blues-rocker; and ʽDon't Be A Strangerʼ ends the album with a bit of friendly fast-tempo acoustic bluegrass (the Avett Brothers do this kind of stuff some­times, although this one does not quite have enough heart on its sleeve for Avett level).

Still, I give the album a light thumbs up. It is much less innovative than it seems to think it is, and the hooks take ages to sink in, if they ever do, and the «trendy-hopping on your country house front porch» vibe is already fully disclosed on the first couple of minutes — but at least they got some energy, some tact, some humor, and sorting out all these endless overdubs can also be fun, in a technical way at least. Rest assured, though, Blitzen Trapper VII is in no way poised to displace Beck from his properly guaranteed position of king of this particular mountain.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ben Folds: Ben Folds Live

BEN FOLDS: BEN FOLDS LIVE (2002)

1) One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces; 2) Zak And Sara; 3) Silver Street; 4) Best Imitation Of Myself; 5) Not The Same; 6) Jane; 7) One Down; 8) Fred Jones, Pt. 2; 9) Brick; 10) Narcolepsy; 11) Army; 12) The Last Polka; 13) Tiny Dancer; 14) Rock This Bitch; 15) Philosophy; 16) The Luckiest; 17) Emaline.

Given the good reputation of Ben Folds Five as a live performing unit, it seems a wee bit strange that Ben procrastinated so long with an official live album — long enough for the band to dis­perse. On the other hand, putting out a predictable live album is sort of a routine affair; Ben Folds Live opts for the harsher scenario, presenting Ben Folds as a very literally solo artist — just the man and his piano. With the exception of John McCrea stepping out on the stage for a sec to sing the additional vocal part on ʽFred Jonesʼ (reprising his role on the studio album), Ben and only Ben is here to hold your attention for about seventy minutes.

The related question seems obvious, and if you can answer it in the positive, this alone justifies the existence of the album. Few pop artists dare to venture out in the cold with nothing but their piano (even Carole King prefers to have at least a bass player and an acoustic guitarist at her side), seeing as how their audiences prefer to get a little something extra as well for their money. And, after all, Ben Folds is no Horowitz when it comes to making piano magic, so the potential for boredom could be quite high even if he only concentrated on the hooky highlights.

It does get a bit boring from time to time, for sure; the good news is that Ben's studio charisma freely spills over onto the stage, and he does his best to provide intelligent entertainment, mixed with enough friendliness and humor to make it all seem like a house party — one where the invi­ted piano player quite unexpectedly turned out to be so much better you'd think he'd be, he imme­diately becomes the focus of attention for the entire evening. Not only does he play and sing every bit as good as on the studio records (no slacking allowed whatsoever), but he finds time and strength to improvise, to tell stories, to lead the audience in rather non-trivial singalongs, to pay tribute to some of his idols, and even to torture his piano a little bit (fortunately, not on the brutal level of Keith Emerson, but in a more overtly melodic manner).

When necessary, he can rock his piano hard enough for us to forget the lack of extra stage hands — ʽOne Angry Dwarfʼ goes off like a hot set of firecrackers, and so does ʽArmyʼ in the middle of the set. But he can also be less-than-serious about it: ʽRock This Bitchʼ is a one-minute long im­provisation, taking as its base the possibly-drunk yelling of one of the fans — you can either take it as a silly, failed joke, or as a thinly veiled hint at what Ben Folds really thinks about the stereo­typical «rock'n'roll mentality». Since the joke stuck (Ben went on to improvies various versions of ʽRock This Bitchʼ on subsequent tours), he probably thought it was coolly ironic, although, much to his honor, he eventually got bored with having to go through the same stupid ritual over and over again.

Other non-standard points of interest include: (a) Ben leading the people in some fairly complex sing-along activities on ʽArmyʼ, where he does need someone to fill in for the brass section; (b) Ben covering Elton John's ʽTiny Dancerʼ — great song, faithful and inspired performance, but, unfortunately, it also reminds very acutely of what it is that separates a fabulous singer from a merely competent one (referring, of course, to Elton's original singing voice); (c) Ben adding a lengthy improvised section to ʽPhilosophyʼ, including using the piano as a percussive instrument, playing the piano strings directly, throwing in a bit of ʽMisirlouʼ, and culminating with a touch of ʽRhapsody In Blueʼ; (d) Ben finishing the show with ʽEmalineʼ, an obscure — but, frankly spea­king, not too memorable — tune from his early songwriting days as the leader of «Majosha», a short-lived band from 1988-89 that only managed one short album.

In between, you get a solid share of Ben Folds Five classics, interspersed with songs from Rockin' The Suburbs, a couple rarities, and a few anecdotes dealing with the origins of ʽNot The Sameʼ, ʽBrickʼ, and others. If you are real lucky, you can also end up with the limited edition that comes with a small DVD — where you can see for yourself that Ben Folds wears a bowler hat, plays a Baldwin, and does somewhat resemble a young Elton John (the latter point makes me a little uneasy about the future, but at least the man seems to lead a healthier lifestyle). All in all, it's not a must-have or anything, but the general quality is quite high, and there are enough of those little extra touches that guarantee a little intrigue. Thumbs up.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Birthday Party: Junkyard

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY: JUNKYARD (1982)

1) Blast Off; 2) She's Hit; 3) Dead Joe; 4) The Dim Locator; 5) Hamlet; 6) Several Sins; 7) Big-Jesus-Trash-Can; 8) Kiss Me Black; 9) 6" Gold Blade; 10) Kewpie Doll; 11) Junkyard; 12*) Dead Joe; 13*) Release The Bats.

This is a monster record if there ever was one. Okay, there was one: Fun House by the Stooges, released twelve years earlier. But in a whole twelve years, during which dozens of genres had come and gone, the world hadn't truly seen another monster record. Punk, post-punk, heavy metal, Goth, sheer sonic hooliganry Throbbing Gristle-style, the world had it all, but nothing really came close to the blazing, genuinely frightening musical hell of Fun House. Somebody had to match that achievement in the Eighties, and why are we not surprised that the «somebody» would be Mr. Nicholas Edward Cave from Australia?

The nightmarish fun begins already on the album sleeve — look at the picture closely and yes, this is more or less what the music sounds like. The color palette is a little too... colorful, perhaps (I'd rather see this in black and white), but other than that, the diversity of elements, their absur­dity, their energized appearance, and their sheer ugliness, everything driven to hyperbolic heights, totally fits in with the songs, or, rather, the nightmarish rituals that The Birthday Party has chosen to perform. And I'm assuming that the album sleeve pictures their sacred altar.

Interestingly enough, the original LP, which only contained ten tracks, did not start with ʽBlast Off!ʼ — it was the B-side to a concurrent single. When the album was released on CD, however, the song was not simply tacked on as a bonus track (like its A-side, ʽRelease The Batsʼ, notable for being the «Goth»-est number released by the band and allegedly much favored by Bauhaus fans); instead, they put it on top as the album's flagman, for reasons so obvious that it is now hard for me to imagine how Junkyard would have ever fared without it. Briefly put, ʽBlast Off!ʼ is a loud and proud signal for that thingamabob on the album sleeve to... blast off. This is Captain Beefheart gone berserk, a flurry of avantgarde-influenced drum rolls, bass runs, and dissonant guitar shrieks, on top of which Crazy Captain Cave announces that the band is finally moving out. Prayers On Fire showed us the mustering of the forces inside the asylum; Junkyard flings the asylum doors open, and out pours the scary army of Lunacy, Epilepsy, and Maniac Behavior.

Viewed from that angle, the first side of Junkyard is pretty much flawless. Most of the tunes deal with violence and death; only one, ʽThe Dim Locatorʼ, focuses primarily on pure insanity as such — the melody can be traced all the way back to Kurt Weill, but the mood is «square root of Jim Morrison multiplied by Iggy Pop», and now they have this disgustingly dirty, swampy, lo-fi, echoey production, too, that makes it all sound like it was recorded in a particularly filthy sewer. One in which a zombie-faced Nick Cave is wading, knee-dip in muck and shit, grumbling and snarling: "They call me Dim, I am the Dim Locator, loco-lomo-loco-lomo-wow-wow-wow". It ain't a pretty sight, but it sure looks realistic enough to want to take cover.

But a bigger bet is staked on sheer visceral brutality: ʽDead Joeʼ jackhammers your guts into your spine with Motörhead intensity, as the song tries to recreate the impression of a «car crash apoca­lypse» and the ensuing panic ("you can't tell the girls from the boys anymore"), and ʽHamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow!)ʼ does the same thing, but sadistically takes extra time to arrive at the desired effect — the «Hamlet» in question, transferred to modern times, is now the equivalent of a reli­gious psychopath ("Hamlet got a gun now, he wears a crucifix"), a hidden menace that trots around at a brisk jazzy tempo before exploding, every once in a while, in a series of snarling pow-pow-pows as «Hamlet» gets carried away.

On the other side of the street, ʽShe's Hitʼ andʽSeveral Sinsʼ move slowly and refrain from des­cen­ding into sheer utter epileptic madness, but then again, even the maddest madmen should take a break from rolling on the floor foaming at the mouth from time to time. And there is some genuine emotional depth here — behind all the discordant jazz-punk wailing of ʽShe's Hitʼ Nick manages to put down an atmosphere of tragic sadness, while ʽSeveral Sinsʼ counts off the begin­ning of his fire-and-brimstone streak ("I forgot to tell you several things, Ma, I forgot to tell you 'bout the seven sins"). The song is also interesting in that it announces the arrival of Barry Adam­son, temporarily replacing Tracy Pew on bass while the latter was doing a two-month term for drunk driving — Adamson would later go on to become one of the Bad Seeds. Not that ʽSeveral Sinsʼ is a particularly complex track, bass-wise, but Barry quickly gets in the general gloomy groove of the band, and helps make the song a true «dead letter tale» as it promises in its opening line. The only question is, how in the world could they all turn in such a credible performance when they barely had something like twenty-five years or so to indulge in the seven sins?

If there is one general flaw on Junkyard, it is the length: forty minutes may be a bit too much even for the veteran listener, especially considering that Side B of the disc does not stray too far from the same territory, and may give the impression of the band getting a little tired, or maybe it's just the listener who got tired. ʽBig Jesus Trash Canʼ walks pretty much the same turf as ʽBlast Off!ʼ, ʽKiss Me Blackʼ raises the same ruckus as ʽDead Joeʼ, the title track is a slow-bur­ning dirge that does not exceed the effects of ʽShe's Hitʼ, and so on. Individually, each song is strong, but collectively, it does begin to get a bit samey after a while, and this, I am afraid to say, cheapens the overall experience: being shocked to the bone at the sight of an epileptic shaking in convulsions is one thing — having to watch him do it for half an hour and slowly getting used to it, let alone getting bored with it, is another. Consequently, it might make sense to listen to Junk­yard one side at a time.

No matter what your particular preference might be, though, Junkyard remains the album that The Birthday Party was sent into this world to leave us with. Some might find it too far out, too violent, too messy, and prefer the slightly more subtle and, if I may say so, slightly more «poppy» Prayers On Fire instead, but the way I see it, if you are born into this world to be a gut-puller, then the harder you pull on those guts, the better you are fulfilling your destiny. On Junkyard, Nick and his friends are not merely engaging in senseless musical hooliganry — they are engine­ering an avantgarde masterpiece that may not be as inventive and revolutionary as Trout Mask Replica, but sounds much more meaningful to my ears. This is more than just a regular thumbs up: Junkyard should, by all means, end up on all the representative top lists for the decade.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Billy Joel: 52nd Street

BILLY JOEL: 52ND STREET (1978)

1) Big Shot; 2) Honesty; 3) My Life; 4) Zanzibar; 5) Stiletto; 6) Rosalinda's Eyes; 7) Half A Mile Away; 8) Until The Night; 9) 52nd Street.

This follow-up to The Stranger does not seriously mess with the formula and even retains the same golden-egg-laying producer, but the general layout, nevertheless, has somewhat changed, possibly reflecting Billy's awareness of the market's increased demand for shorter, less ambitious musical pieces. To say that 52nd Street, in any way whatsoever, acknowledges the arrival of punk and New Wave, would be a tremendous overstatement (although I guess that the dirtiness of the wall on the album sleeve could be taken as «punkish», in some manner), but it does acknow­ledge the arrival of disco (ʽMy Lifeʼ), and the lack of multi-part suites like ʽScenes From An Ita­lian Restaurantʼ is quite telling.

The album title formally refers to the location of both Billy's record label and the studio where the sessions were held, but, since 52nd Street is commonly known as the center of NYC's jazz life, 52nd Street is sometimes referred to as «Billy's jazzy album» — even though its seriously jazzy bits only come through every once in a while, most notably on Freddie Hubbard's flugelhorn and trumpet ins­trumental breaks on ʽZanzibarʼ. In reality, the album, like its predecessor, goes for an all-en­com­passing, diverse approach. There is no single theme or style that dominates over the others, but there are also no true standouts. It's just a solid Billy Joel record, by Billy Joel's own, not particu­larly demanding, standards.

The big hit single was ʽMy Lifeʼ — the disco song — and I have no idea why it was so big in the first place, but the keyboard riff at its melodic base is indeed quite catchy, and the arrangement is a bouncy fun generator, although Billy's lyrical message is once again much too overtly serious ("go ahead with your own life, leave me alone") to go along with the fun. Come on now, Mr. Joel! How come you can write funny music without learning how to be funny? How can we leave you alone when you are making millions on such an inadequate approach to art?...

The nearly-as-big hit was ʽBig Shotʼ, whose opening riff sounds decisively brutal before you un­derstand that the man really nicked it from Ray Charles' ʽSticks And Stonesʼ. But that's all right, he put it to good use, as long as, once again, you manage to ignore the lyrics that viciously lam­bast some poor spoiled socialite victim of Joel's verbal cruelty (some have speculated about Bian­ca Jagger, no less) — and, speaking of Bianca Jagger, her soon-to-be-ex-husband would pretty soon treat her no less malignantly in ʽRespectableʼ, but the big difference is, Mick always had a perfectly clear sense of humor about such things (which showed up first and foremost in his thea­trical-style delivery), whereas Billy here, and there, and everywhere, sounds deadpan serious, as if he really hates Halston dresses, Elaine's, and Dom Perignon (but in that case, how is it that he knows so much about all this stuff?). Anyway, like I said, ignore the lyrics, and the tune is a de­cent pop rocker with a slightly hard edge to it — no more, no less.

But enough with the hit singles, or I will have to say something about the ballad ʽHonestyʼ when I'd much rather talk about ʽZanzibarʼ, whose Steely Dan vibe with a light touch of mysticism seems to fare much better than Billy's «angry» songs. Freddie Hubbard's parts are indeed the ob­vious highlight, but there is something about the entire tune that makes it sound genuine. In fact, it seems as if Billy is always at his most natural when he's not doing much except sit at the bar — the closer he is to that particular stand, the more convincing his self-expression. "I've got a tab at Zanzibar, tonight that's where I'll be" — this is, like, the most believable statement on the entire album. No wonder Hubbard is being so enthusiastic with his support.

I also happen to like the quiet Latin ballad ʽRosalinda's Eyesʼ, with elements of jazz fusion woven in and a top-level chorus resolution (although I sure hope he'd find something less clichéd to rhyme the title with than "Cuban skies"), and ʽHalf A Mile Awayʼ, which is a blatant rip-off of Elton John circa ʽLove Lies Bleedingʼ, but a skilled one. The only true stinker on the entire re­cord is ʽUntil The Nightʼ, a corny folk ballad that, for some reason, was awarded the dubious honor of the album's most bombastic style of production — not Phil Spector style, but rather a proto-power ballad style that could have easily influenced Bryan Adams. (Actually, Billy says the song was influenced by The Righteous Brothers... but why?).

In short, life is fairly routine, but diversified and relatively easy-going on 52nd Street. ʽZanzibarʼ, in particular, shows that Billy could have thrived, sucking on that Steely Dan vibe à la Aja; his mistake, the way I see it, was in putting just as much emphasis on his «hard rocker» and «anthe­mic balladeer» sides, where ambitions overwhelmed talent. Still, the album is pretty well-balan­ced between the relative highs and the relative lows, and I would even feel justified to mark it with another thumbs up — the difference with The Stranger is that the former took some risks that unexpectedly paid off, whereas this one hardly ever takes any, but it still pays off.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bobby Womack: Understanding

BOBBY WOMACK: UNDERSTANDING (1972)

1) I Can Understand It; 2) Woman Got To Have It; 3) And I Love Her; 4) Got To Get You Back; 5) Simple Man; 6) Ruby Dean; 7) Thing Called Love; 8) Sweet Caroline; 9) Harry Hippie.

If a record called Communication is quickly followed up by a record called Understanding, this already suggests that there is not going to be a hell of a lot of difference between the two. And indeed, they have more or less the same length, more or less the same message, more or less the same stylistic and emotional variety, more or less the same players, and more or less the same balance between original songwriting by Bobby, original songwriting by his partners (Joe Hicks), and covers of contemporary material and oldies. The only objective difference is that Under­standing was a much bigger hit — selling far more than its predecessor, as well as yielding ano­ther Top 50 single for Bobby (ʽHarry Hippieʼ).

The LP sales were actually bolstered by the radio popularity of the lead-in track, ʽI Can Under­stand Itʼ, which never made it onto a legit single, but became a club favorite nevertheless. Tech­nically, it is not disco, but the combination of steady dance rhythmics, brass, and «lush» strings makes it the perfect accompaniment for nightlife in 1972 — loud, romantic, intoxicating, and calling for peace, love, and mutual understanding. My only complaint is that Bobby's sensuous lead lines are buried so deep in the mix, making the brass/strings combination the focal point of the tune and, consequently, somewhat dating its continued impact.

At the time, though, the track was extremely «commercial», and the rest of the album shows that Bobby was not at all interested in aligning himself with the likes of either Sly (for extra psyche­delia or «social rebelliousness») or Funkadelic (for extra experimentation and a more aggressive sound). He got some teeth to chomp, for sure, but he does it only once: ʽSimple Manʼ is a nasty funky groove with an appropriately simple, but nagging bass line around which Bobby parades distorted guitar riffs, screechy blues leads, dark electric piano rolls, brass fanfare, and even some relatively primitive Moog synth solos. A simple man he may be, but so much less the reason to fool around with the simple man who can growl and snarl alongside the best of 'em.

But this is actually rare. More commonly, Bobby is content with covering Neil Diamond (ʽSweet Carolineʼ — finally, a cover that sticks relatively close to the original and, in some ways, trans­cends it) — and the Beatles (ʽAnd I Love Herʼ, not as good because the song predictably loses much of its uniqueness by being given a full-blown early 1970s soul arrangement), or co-writing, with either Joe Hicks or other Womacks, soft «dance-soul» numbers, such as ʽWoman Got To Have Itʼ, the first single for the album whose most memorable aspect is probably its jumpy bass­line, tense, boppy, and fidgety in comparison to the relatively stable groove of the rest of the song. Meanwhile, ʽRuby Deanʼ is notable for some fine acoustic riffage, which goes along fine with harmonica solos and Bobby's melancholic howling.

Still, the most striking song on the album is probably ʽHarry Hippieʼ — written by songwriter Jim Ford. The song acquired additional poignancy two years later, when Bobby's brother, Harry Womack, was killed by his jealous girlfriend, upon which the tune became re-dedicated to him; but the original lyrics seem to have been referring to an abstract-collective Harry, summarizing the artist's feelings towards the hippie stereotype — "I'd like to help a man when he's down / But I can't help him much when he's sleeping on the ground". You can feel Bobby really getting into the spirit here, trying to rub up as much sympathy towards the character as possible, but put it all in a tragic context all the same. For Bobby Womack, who was always careful to walk the thin line between «manufactured, well-paid, stable entertainment» and «artistic recklessness», the song must have been a particularly important manifesto at the time. And its choice for the album's coda has its own meaning — letting us know that Understanding is not that easy to come by if your mental languages differ so much.

I would not rip Understanding out of its context and award it with a much more enthusiastic thumbs up than usual just because it incidentally happened to be more popular than usual. But its spirit burns just as brightly as that of Communication, and together, they represent early 1970s «dance-oriented soul» at its average finest. It isn't «great art», but it is perfectly crafted, meaning­ful, and highly tasteful entertainment.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bob Dylan: Good As I Been To You

BOB DYLAN: GOOD AS I BEEN TO YOU (1992)

1) Frankie & Albert; 2) Jim Jones; 3) Black Jack Davey; 4) Canadee-I-O; 5) Sitting On Top Of The World; 6) Little Maggie; 7) Hard Times; 8) Step It Up And Go; 9) Tomorrow Night; 10) Arthur McBride; 11) You're Gonna Quit Me; 12) Diamond Joe; 13) Froggie Went A-Courtin'.

«Going back to one's roots» is a trick that's tried and true, but, to be perfectly honest, Dylan never really strayed too far away from his roots in the first place — that solid foundation of folk, blues, and country styles had always remained at the core of every «original» song the man went on to write. From that point of view, the stylistic and emotional distance between the much reviled Under The Red Sky and the much lauded Good As I Been To You is not really that far. But yes indeed, on a formal basis, here we have Dylan going back to his roots in a way he'd never gone back before — thirty years on, revisiting the exact same territory he'd started out upon, with his self-titled debut of old blues and folk covers.

It does make sense to play those two albums back-to-back and see the difference. In 1962, Bob Dylan was an inexperienced Jewish kid from Minnesota, arrogantly challenging himself to rival old weathered black bluesmen. The only way he could rise to that challenge was by radically re­inventing the songs, recasting them in his own new image, with a little extra irony and an already strong beatnik flavor. Time goes by, and now, in the early 1990s, he goes back to that same well, digging in the archives and selecting even more tracks from the past for publication as part of The Bootleg Series — but by now, he is fairly weathered and battered himself, and a little washed up and low on ideas, and the solution presents itself: why not try it again, but this time in a perfectly «authentic» manner? Given that he really really loves those old melodies and all? Wouldn't thirty years be a sufficient learning period?

Totally stripped down and reduced once again to pure acoustic guitar and harmonica, dumping everything that could be dumped, Bob handpicks himself thirteen oldies from the depths of the folk and blues tradition — a few of which will be easily recognized even by amateurs (ʽSittin' On Top Of The Worldʼ, for instance, or the old jazz ballad ʽTomorrow Nightʼ, done by Lonnie John­son, LaVern Baker, Elvis, and probably a dozen other artists), but many of the rest are relatively obscure sea shanties or jug band dance numbers where the listener would have to do some serious digging to uncover the prototypes. This is quite easy in the Internet era, of course, but in 1992, access to golden oldies was still limited, so for many a Bob Dylan fan, Good As I Been To You must have contained plenty of revelations.

There is no serious point in discussing individual highlights or lowlights here. Any review of an album like this begs for an answer to just one question — does it or doesn't it? Most critics have agreed that it does, and I sort of agree as well. «Sort of», because nowadays we can all scrutinize these acoustic monuments of popular genius the way they were recorded by various artists in pre-war times — cleaned up, remastered, still a bit crackly, but preserving some of that old spirit for us all. Whether we really need them so faithfully redone by Bob Dylan is a complex question.

Naturally, it all sounds great. It's been a long time since Bob rode the old six-string with so much verve and passion — his technicality hasn't improved all that much since 1962, but it wasn't too bad to begin with, and most of the time he is being well in tune and throwing around inspired lead lines every now and then. His voice, having played such a mean trick with him around the time of Under The Red Sky, is now perfectly suited to these shanties and nursery rhymes — grandpa music, played round the fire for the grandchildren to frolick around to. And there is enough sty­listic and emotional diversity, from the unvarnished dark balladry of ʽFrankie & Albertʼ to the medieval kiddie folktale stuff of ʽFroggie Went A-Courtin'ʼ.

Whether it would have significant replay value, though, is a different matter. Like Bob's born-again stuff, this is something that had to be done, and it could be argued that without this album or its sequel, we would not have seen and enjoyed the true late period revival of Bob Dylan. It is also well worth studying for all those who only have a vague idea of where all those wonderful Bob Dylan songs are coming from — he even went all the way to include several prototypes of his own classics, e. g. ʽBlack Jack Daveyʼ is the true father of ʽBoots Of Spanish Leatherʼ, and ʽJim Jonesʼ would eventually become ʽDesolation Rowʼ. But the record is really more of a well-meaning lesson in folk musical history, now given by a seasoned pro, than an original musical creation in its own right.

No question about it — on the general curve, Good As I Been To You was a great improvement over the previous album, and in terms of its minimalistic production and intimacy, probably the best-sounding Dylan record since at least his Christian period. Yet I do not see myself coming back to it very often: its impact is really at its highest if it is taken in the strict context of Dylan's entire career. In that context, it gets an assured thumbs up; out of that context, it is merely a curiosity. But on a positive note, if you memorize all the verses to ʽFroggie Went A-Courtin'ʼ, that's at least one hell of a useful mental exercise.

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