Search This Blog

Loading...

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bobby Womack: B. W. Goes C & W

BOBBY WOMACK: B. W. GOES C&W (1976)

1) Don't Make This The Last Date For You And Me; 2) Behind Closed Doors; 3) Bouquet Of Roses; 4) Tired Of Living In The Country; 5) Tarnished Rings; 6) Big Bayou; 7) Song Of The Mockingbird; 8) I'd Be Ahead If I Could Quit While I'm Behind; 9) You; 10) I Take It On Home.

The album that singlehandedly brought Bobby's career to a standstill. At the height of the disco era, for an R&B artist to come up with an album that consisted exclusively of covers of country songs — well, you gotta give the man some respect. After all those years and years of enduring compromises between the will to experiment and commercial expectations (even saving up space on his own records to explain the situation), Bobby suddenly comes up with this mighty torpedo, blowing his ship to bits: he almost shoved the record down the throats of United Artists executi­ves, but after it predictably bombed, they had no choice but to let him go, and, from a business point of view, that was probably the only reasonable solution.

What is really depressing about the situation is that the circumstances surrounding this record are far more curious and amusing than the record itself (for instance, when first asked to come up with a suitable title, Bobby suggested Step Aside Charley Pride, Give Another Nigger A Try). The actual songs recorded for the album, ten of them, all covers of old country standards by Charlie Rich, Eddy Arnold, Jimmy Newman, etc., might appeal to really big fans of the genre, but it's not as if Bobby were doing anything surprising with them. The material does get a little funkified and decorated with the appropriate synthesizers and wah-wah guitars, typical of the mid-1970s, but other than that, I am not even sure of what to say.

Ironically, the only song that Sam Cooke ever wrote about the country was ʽTired Of Living In The Countryʼ ("gonna get me a fine apartment, where the water runs hot and cold"), and, of course, Bobby had to do that one as well, addicted as he was to having at least one Sam cover per album (or, at least, per every couple of albums). It generates a little more excitement than every­thing else, even ʽTarnished Ringsʼ where Bobby drags out his own father, Friendly Womack, to sing a family duet (in authentic country-western fashion, I guess).

It isn't as if Bobby couldn't have done anything with the songs — the man who could turn ʽNo­body Knows Youʼ into a red-hot funk workout, and ʽSomething You've Gotʼ into ska comedy, could probably come up with some hilarious transformations for regular country stuff as well. But it seems as if he thought that the very gesture was enough — that, perhaps, the very fact of em­barking on this enterprise could turn him into the Ray Charles of 1976. And in thinking that, he forgot to introduce any spice into the arrangements: even the guitars are bland and mechanic throughout the sessions. The singing tries to be passionate, but Bobby's singing is always passio­nate: like with so many first-rate R&B / soul singers, there is abso­lu­tely no telling when he is exactly «getting into it» and when he is just being professional.

Even though the album only runs for less than half an hour, it is still less than half an hour of excruciating boredom, unless you worship the power of the waltz tempo, the slide guitar, and the sentimental strings in all their doings. A ridiculous decision if there ever was one (and, if I read Bobby's own memories of that correctly, drugs had some say at least in the matter). Thumbs up for the audacity, perhaps, but the music is clearly thumbs down worthy, even if it is a very dif­ferent thumbs-down in nature from all the usual thumbs down circa 1976-77.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bob Dylan: Together Through Life

BOB DYLAN: TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE (2009)

1) Beyond Here Lies Nothin'; 2) Life Is Hard; 3) My Wife's Home Town; 4) If You Ever Go To Houston; 5) Forget­ful Heart; 6) Jolene; 7) This Dream Of You; 8) Shake Shake Mama; 9) I Feel A Change Comin' On; 10) It's All Good.

None of us should have anything against Los Lobos — they're a great band and all — but I am still not altogether sure whether it was such a good idea to use David Hidalgo as a key player on Dylan's third album of the new millennium, and relegate him to accordion at that. Together Through Life continues in the same general direction as its predecessors, but there is one major difference: this time around, it flat out refuses to rock. There's lots of blues, a little folk, some jugband dance stuff, but no rock. Polite old-timey muzak for dem old folks.

Naturally, the very fact itself that «Dylan refuses to rock» shouldn't be mentioned as an ac­cu­sa­tion. First, Dylan is Dylan, and he only rocks when he wants to. Second, Dylan is not a young boy no more, and an old boy can certainly be excused for wanting to sit on his porch and play a little rusty accordion instead of playing the Rolling Stones game. Third, the word «rock» itself sounds so passé circa 2009, no?

The problem is, this not-so-unexpected dropoff in energy cannot but focus our attention on the obvious: way too often, these new projects of Dylan's end up sounding like unimaginative tri­butes to the past, rather than an inventive singer-songwriter's upgrading of the past. As long as he kept a certain sharpness to the sound, this was forgivable — ʽTweedle Dee & Tweedle Dumʼ was so snappy and sneery that it remained a fun listen from first to last second. But now, with this transition to a more laid-back, relaxed, even «friendly» sound, Together Through Life runs a much higher risk of boring the average listener — and annoying the listener who is able to pick out all of its stolen parts.

Because this time around, the stealing issue really gets irritating. At least ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ and ʽThe Levee's Gonna Breakʼ started out like covers, then veered off into a different lyrical world under the banner of «this belongs to no one man /or woman/, we all add and subtract what we like as the inexhaustible human spirit flows». But a song like ʽBeyond Here Lies Nothinʼ — well, all it does is simply appropriate the melody of Otis Rush's ʽAll Your Love (I Miss Loving)ʼ (a song that many of us know through the famous Clapton / Mayall cover on the Bluesbreakers' 1966 album), without a single hint that there might be an actual source. For what it's worth, though, the Otis Rush song was one of the most desperate soul-blues explosions of its time — the Dylan song is quite routine in comparison.

ʽIf You Ever Go To Houstonʼ is a transparent «deconstruction» of ʽThe Midnight Specialʼ, ex­tracting one of its lines, attaching it to a pervasive two-note accordion riff and dragging the re­sults through a lazy six minute rant, inspired by the lovely state of Texas. It's nice, in a way, yet I cannot get rid of the feeling that I am really listening here to the protagonist of ʽJust Like Tom Thumb's Bluesʼ, forty years older, flabbier, smellier, and, worst of all, not made particularly wiser by all the passing years. Just a little less attractive to the ladies, that's all.

Cutting it short, I am not in awe of this vibe. The lack of «darkness» does not bother me, because if Dylan does not feel the need to convey darkness, this probably means he is relatively happy, and a relatively happy Dylan can be a wonderful thing (remember New Morning?). In fact, the happiest song on the album, ʽI Feel A Change Comin' Onʼ, is easily my favorite on the album: it is one of the few that does not sound like a straightforward rip-off and has a personal, inspired ring to it. But what does bother me is that the music is so somnambulant — as if that goddamn accordion got everybody off the track. ʽMy Wife's Home Townʼ sounds like Muddy Waters on tranquilizers, for Christ's sake!

As Bob himself slyly remarks on the last track, "whatever's going down, it's all good". If you relax, put a smile on your face, and put your signature under that philosophy, Together Through Life with Bob Dylan at your side is simply going to be one more healthy, fun-filled joyride through the pleasures of old-timey music in a post-post-modern world. (A sparingly short ride, too, since the songs are cut down to reasonable length and the entire record runs for the good old 45 minutes). You might even be wooed over and swept off your feet by some of them charming old-fashioned ballads like ʽLife Is Hardʼ (not too hard, by the sound of it) or ʽThis Dream Of Youʼ. For some other people I know, Together Through Life was an unpleasant jolt, even leading them to re-evaluate their feelings towards the other two albums — on a sort of «looks like there ain't that much depth to this style, after all» platform.

I wouldn't go that far, of course, but I do agree that, third time around, the same formula does not work that well, and it isn't even the fault of the accordion — the accordion is just a side effect, as is the ever-increasing gurgle ratio of the voice. The real problem might be that, at this advanced age, Dylan has largely lost his gift for «genius spontaneity», and needs to spend more time working on his songs, and his sound, than he used to.

Check "Together Through Life" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Together Through Life" (MP3) on Amazon

Monday, April 28, 2014

Carl Perkins: The Essential Sun Collection

CARL PERKINS: THE ESSENTIAL SUN COLLECTION (1999; 1955-1958)

CD I: 1) Movie Magg; 2) Turn Around; 3) Let The Jukebox Keep On Playing; 4) Gone, Gone, Gone; 5) Blue Suede Shoes; 6) Honey Don't; 7) Sure To Fall; 8) Tennessee; 9) Boppin' The Blues; 10) All Mama's Children; 11) Dixie Fried; 12) I'm Sorry I'm Not Sorry; 13) Your True Love; 14) Matchbox; 15) That's Right; 16) Forever Yours; 17) Glad All Over; 18) Lend Me Your Comb.
CD II: 1) Honky Tonk Gal; 2) Perkins Wiggle; 3) You Can't Make Love To Somebody; 4) That Don't Move Me; 5) Lonely Street; 6) Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby; 7) Somebody Tell Me; 8) Sweethearts Or Strangers; 9) Kee­per Of The Key; 10) Be Honest With Me; 11) Caldonia; 12) Her Love Rubbed Off; 13) You Can Do No Wrong; 14) Put Your Cat Clothes On; 15) Roll Over Beethoven; 16) Only You; 17) Pink Pedal Pushers; 18) Right String Baby, Wrong Yo-Yo.

Sun Records' limited capacities were only enough to allow one LP record for Carl, right at the end of his tenure — everything else that he did for the label only came out as singles. Fortunate­ly, the CD era has allowed for some convenient packaging: the double-disc Essential Sun Collec­tion puts together approximately 90% of the officially released stuff (and, for that matter, works much better than the deceptively titled single-disc Complete Sun Singles, which actually omits at least three or four essential A-sides). All of Dance Album is here, along with most of the A-sides, B-sides, and some obscurities that never made it onto that LP — essential indeed, and more or less all the Carl Perkins that a regular rockabilly admirer would need to have.

In fact, maybe even a little more than necessary. With just a few exceptions, all of the songs here are fun, but if you rearrange them in approximate chronological order, there is very little develop­ment going on once the man hits his peak — never managing to go beyond the golden summit of the ʽBlue Suede Shoes / Honey Don'tʼ single from early 1956. Sam Phillips was a good guy, but once his protegés reached relative perfection with a certain formula, he showed little interest in pushing them to new heights, and thus, there is hardly any wonder in the fact that Carl's records sold less and less after the initial ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ boom.

At some point, Carl even got stuck with a «songs about clothes» formula: ʽPut Your Cat Clothes Onʼ and ʽPink Pedal Pushersʼ are both thematically related to ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ (the former even namedrops the shoes in question), but neither manages to hit as hard. ʽPut Your Cat Clothes Onʼ, with an unmistakable Jerry Lee Lewis sitting at the piano, is the fastest Carl ever played, but as fun as the song is, it is just fun — lacking the parent-scary swagger and defiance of ʽShoesʼ. ʽPink Pedal Pushersʼ goes in a completely different direction, trying to be sexy and even a little salacious, but the truth is, Carl Perkins has too much of that «innocent country boy» spirit within him to sound fully believable when singing mid-tempo rockabilly about a girl who "comes strut­ting down the street in her sophisticated style" and going "ooh woppa doo-dah" as if he himself were one of the cats who "started gazing and called her out". Again — fun stuff, but hardly a genuine knockover of the kind that Elvis or Jerry Lee could do in their sleep.

But do not get me wrong: I am only trying to put the tip of the finger on some of the reasons why Carl's luck ran out so quickly, even way before the first wave of rock'n'roll started getting thin around 1959-60. Other than that, his Sun records are quite consistent, although I am not a big fan of the country ballads like ʽForever Yoursʼ: they are done in Carl's usual «rough» style, with shoddy Sun-style production, but do not have the oddly minimalistic «from-the-bottom-of-a-well» feel of the same type of songs on Elvis' early singles.

Some of the lesser known oddities include ʽHer Love Rubbed Offʼ, an interesting, even some­what innovative attempt at crossing rockabilly with a mambo beat and seeing what happens (the seams show, but the song still cooks up a voodooistic aura that is quite unusual for our country boy); ʽThat's Rightʼ, co-written with Johnny Cash around a nagging little riff whose repetitive ring works on the brain with an almost drone-style effect; and ʽSomebody Tell Meʼ, a previously unreleased outtake (I think) whose very length is staggering — 4:22! (other than that, it is a con­servative piece of blues boogie).

Of course, each and every one of these songs features one or more guitar solos from the man, and they are almost always the main point of attraction: instead of fluent, uninterrupted lines, Perkins likes playing these ragged, broken-up series of licks that sound like flurry dialogs or trialogs, never repeating each other — no wonder he became one of Harrison's favorite players, even if George's playing style eventually drifted far away from this approach (not on the early Beatles records, though, where George's «Perkins licks» are easily recognizable even on quite a few non-Perkins covers — something like ʽCan't Buy Me Loveʼ, for instance). To the modern listener's ear, like most guitar solos from the classic rockabilly era, they could sound clumsy and feeble, but they do have that unbeatable advantage of an almost child-like, giddy exploration of the capaci­ties of the instrument — which makes the whole experience far more precious than listening to many a modern player who has already had those capacities presented to him on a platter.

Overall, this is just another hour and a half of Sun Records greatness, with Sam Phillips' echoey, downhome, «lo-fi» production as an added bonus — in a sense, everything sounds like crap, but it's healthy, fresh, nutritious crap straight from the oven, a much better proposition than the glossy, synthetic, orchestrated pop crap of the big studios. And it was, after all, the only environment in which Carl Perkins actually found himself thriving, even if his records did not sell, so thumbs up all the way.

Check "The Essential Sun Collection" (CD) on Amazon

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Camera Obscura: Underachievers Please Try Harder

CAMERA OBSCURA: UNDERACHIEVERS PLEASE TRY HARDER (2003)

1) Suspended From Class; 2) Keep It Clean; 3) A Sisters Social Agony; 4) Teenager; 5) Before You Cry; 6) Your Picture; 7) Number One Son; 8) Let Me Go Home; 9) Books Written For Girls; 10) Knee Deep At The NPL; 11) Lunar Sea.

Posing for a stereotype is one thing, but the front sleeve photo on Camera Obscura's second al­bum is something else: with all the hipster paraphernalia in the picture, it reminds me of the famous bit where Bruce Willis is busy choosing a suitable weapon in Pulp Fiction. That said, the photo totally matches the music, so why complain?

And anyway, ʽSuspended From Classʼ is easily the best song Belle & Sebastian never wrote in their life, because they kind of missed that window — Murdoch used to have great skill in writing songs from the point of view of an «anti-nostalgizing» school graduate, but Tracyanne Campbell can still write songs from the point of view of an authentic schoolgirl. It's fairly easy to make fun of the song, but I do not know how it would be possible to feel disgusted or irritated by it. Yes, it fits into the stereotypical image («lonesome autistic girl develops an intellectual crush on a poten­tial soulmate»), but she gets into that character so well — and, for what it's worth, the "I don't know my elbow from my arse" chorus is quite catchy.

It never gets any better than the opening number, since the ironic ring of the album title finds com­plete confirmation in the music — the band is pulling the exact same strings as on their first record, and if they try harder at anything at all, it might only be letting all of their influences even more out in the open. Motown, surf-rock, the Beach Boys, early singer-songwriters, Marianne Faithful, whatever, if it's soft, sensitive, and old-fashioned, it all goes as long as it can be put to the sound of a guitar ring or jangle. And who needs «songwriting» if you can simply follow the recipe of dusting off all those loyal chord sequences and putting Tracyanne's lovely melancholia on top of the excellent hi-fi production?

Where it really gets annoying is when they let Kenny McKeeve sing Tracyanne's stuff. Among other things, she comes up with an acoustic ballad that Kenny interprets by taking a straightahead cue from Songs Of Leonard Cohen — extremely lovable if you do not have the faintest idea of who the hell is Leonard Cohen, but a rather inane rip-off if you do, not to mention that Kenny has a perfectly clean, bland, forgettable vocal tone: he might even be a better singer (technically) than Leonard ever was, but he has nothing on that guy's lazy, earthy, lovable little rasp that he'd use to such great advantage in his prime. Anyway, I think it is almost unethical for people to record a song like that without at least dedicating it to the imitated artist.

Another song, ʽLet Me Go Homeʼ, also sung by Kenny, is at least careful to namedrop its primary influences ("the room goes boom to the sound of temptations and more...", "supremes in our dreams...") as the bassline plays like a variation on ʽYou Can't Hurry Loveʼ and Tracyanne's backing vocals expressly borrow the vocal hook from ʽBaby Loveʼ. Despite that, this song at least feels more like a nostalgic tribute than a direct imitation, and it has a certain unique charm of its own, trying to cross the exuberant happiness of classic Motown with the frosty blue-eyed melan­cholia of the self-isolating hipster crew.

Of the rest, I particularly like those songs that have at least a faint whiff of a vocal hookline (instrumental hooklines are almost like a fairytale wish for this band): ʽKeep It Cleanʼ has a nice buildup and «suspended» resolution, and maybe ʽNumber One Sonʼ could eventually qualify for that group as well, after about half a dozen listens. But on the whole, analyzing or trying to be charmed by this record's melodic achievements seems useless — its thumbs up are completely due to the atmosphere. Tracyanne Campbell may be the ultimate hipster, yet she's got that odd femme-fatale (or should we say, fille-fatale?) mystique of Astrud Gilberto's caliber, and the band's music does its best to attenuate that feature. It will probably be a boring album if you try to focus on it. But if you don't, it's first-rate background muzak for a quiet evening that you'd like to share with a melancholic ghost figure.

Check "Underachievers Please Try Harder" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Ben Folds: Lonely Avenue

BEN FOLDS: LONELY AVENUE (2010)

1) A Working Day; 2) Picture Window; 3) Levi Johnston's Blues; 4) Doc Pomus; 5) Your Dogs; 6) Practical Amanda; 7) Claire's Ninth; 8) Password; 9) From Above; 10) Saskia Hamilton; 11) Belinda.

"Some guy on the net thinks I suck and he should know / He's got his own blog". Do you happen to have an idea whom he is referring to? I mean, surely guys with blogs have so much more im­portant things to write about than whether or not Ben Folds sucks... oh wait a minute.

Actually, I really hate how he put that line in the very first song on the album, because now I am confused and I do not properly understand whether this album sucks because it sucks, or whether it sucks because he just happened to piss off the reviewer right away. Well, okay, maybe not «sucks» as such, but as Ben Folds grows older, it seems to be taking more and more and more time to warm up to every next album, and time has just went up from gold to platinum these days, so I will just say this: Lonely Avenue, the result of Ben's productive collaboration with novelist Nick Hornby, is strictly one for the fans, rather than for guys with blogs.

First of all, the idea of pulling the author of About A Boy into the world of Ben Folds seems about as strange an idea as, say, Bob Dylan's collaboration with Jacques Levy on Desire — Folds may not be an undeniably super-great lyricist, but there was never anything particularly wrong with his lyrical expression, either, and if you weren't informed, or an analytical expert on Folds' syn­tactic preferences, you might not detect an «outsider»'s lyrical presence on here in the first place — we still get the same old slices of everyday life dragged through the same impressionist / exis­tentialist poetic filters. So it is really Nick Hornby complaining about the anonymous blogger, but it could have easily been Ben himself. So it is Nick who pokes fun at the name ʽSaskia Hamiltonʼ (I wonder if the real Saskia Hamilton, who had only just won the Guggenheim Fellowship, took any offense?), but how would an idea like that not be capable of being generated in the already corrupt, degenerate, and deeply offensive brain of Ben Folds?..

Although the point of this collaboration is sort of obscure, in itself, this is certainly not a problem. The problem is that the music seems to be lacking; even more than that, it seems to be somewhat lifeless. Maybe, having agreed to write the music to a different person's words, Ben was simply unable to find the right match. Maybe he wanted to have himself an «Elton and Bernie» kind of an affair that was a long time coming, but if so, he forgot that Elton never had any lyrical talent from the very beginning, and that the whole «Elton and Bernie» thing started off and developed as a coherent two-headed hybrid. Here, it's more like, «oh, another batch of words, let me quickly generate some backing for it and get into character».

Naturally, the overall sound is quintessential Ben Folds — the poppy piano, the soft vocals, the harmony overdubs, the occasional orchestration (and as if they needed yet another argument for my «Elton and Bernie» theory, no less than Paul Buckmaster himself, Elton's old orchestral guru, is credited for conducting and arranging strings). But most of this stuff is very by-the-book Ben Folds — sentimental ballads that range from weakly dynamic (ʽPicture Windowʼ, where string crescendos do help out some) to utterly generic and forgettable (ʽClaire's Ninthʼ — generic hook­less indie pap whose dynamics, in contrast, only help it get more mushy). Sometimes it even bor­ders on atmospheric adult contemporary (ʽPasswordʼ, whose words, or, rather, spellings sound more interesting than the lazy music).

In the end, the only two good things on the record are Buckmaster's orchestrations, which, ama­zingly, still sound inspiring after all those years (the album closer ʽBelindaʼ almost justifies its personal-epic pretense because of those), and ʽDoc Pomusʼ, a touching tribute to the man, one of whose songs gave name to the entire album — although I would much rather hear Ben do a cover of ʽLonely Avenueʼ than sing about half of these romantic puddles. In its defense, I can only bring up the obvious — apart from the spoiled-brat pissed-off opener, Lonely Avenue is a kind, humanistic, introspective, caressing work that will please the underdog and may offer some light additional psychotherapy to fans of Badly Drawn Boy and the like. Unfortunately, I happen to be pinching myself from falling asleep — which, in this case, is sufficient reason for a thumbs down, since it never happened before with any other Ben Folds album so far.

Check "Lonely Avenue" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Lonely Avenue" (MP3) on Amazon

Friday, April 25, 2014

Black Flag: Family Man

BLACK FLAG: FAMILY MAN (1984)

1) Family Man; 2) Salt On A Slug; 3) Hollywood Diary; 4) Let Your Fingers Do The Walking; 5) Shed Reading (Rattus Norvegicus); 6) No Deposit – No Return; 7) Armageddon Man; 8) Long Lost Dog Of It; 9) I Won't Stick Any Of You; 10) Account For What.

Black Flag's project-number-two for the prolific year of 1984 happens to be the most universally despised Rollins-era Black Flag album, and for quite an objective reason: this is not really «Black Flag» as such, but rather two brief solo mission statements from Henry and Greg, the former re­citing unaccompanied examples of his spoken-word poetry, and the latter playing a bunch of his avantgarde punk improvisations. The two cross paths in the middle of the record with ʽArma­geddon Manʼ, but in an almost accidental manner — with Henry overdubbing his texts across Greg's «noodling» without any idea of voice-melody unity.

Defending Family Man would be indeed a hard task; whether you are able to like it or not will really depend on how much you like «opening your mind» to pretentious, self-consciously arro­gant «groundbreaking artistic ideas» that choose shock value, provocation, and minimalism over hard work and traditional lines of inspiration. The title track quickly sets up the scene: after Rol­lins has informed us that "I come to infect, I come to rape your women, I come to take your children into the street, I come for you, family man!", there is little left to do other than join the man in his crusade against petty bourgeois morality — or yawn in a «oh no, not another crusade against petty bourgeois morality!» kind of way. Personally, I have nothing against such crusades in general, when it comes to artistic expression; but Henry Rollins simply does not strike me as a person who has any particularly great way with words. I mean, for that matter, didn't Patti Smith already say it all almost ten years earlier?

Out of all the other spoken-word exercises, I vaguely remember ʽSalt On A Slugʼ (where the «slug» in question, of course, is yet another metaphor for the ugly, smelly, bloated underbelly of the bourgeois society), recorded in worse quality than everything else since it seems to have been taken from some public reading (and, consequently, accompanied by rather silly laughter out­bursts from the small audience present), and ʽLet Your Fingers Do The Walkingʼ, which largely consists of the title repeated over and over. Is this important? I have no idea.

As for the instrumental parts, my only comparison could be that of a headless chicken running in the yard. Many of these riffs and solos sound like they totally belong in any number of classic Black Flag tunes, but without a specific focus, usually provided by the frontman, they simply make no sense. At least the last two tracks are fast, which makes listening to them slightly less excruciating than sitting through the entire nine minutes of ʽArmageddon Manʼ (if that is what the Armageddon is supposed to look like, I am totally retiring my financial support for the Antichrist this very instant).

Of course, Family Man is yet another self-conscious «experiment» in the endless war against artistic stagnation, and could be partially redeemed by the good old «well, at least they're trying» argument. But the bottomline is that I cannot imagine anybody wanting to give the record a se­cond spin of their own free will — in the place of, say, giving a third spin to Damaged — and if such people do exist, it is only because they probably feel themselves wronged by the family man, and take exquisite sadistic pleasure from pouring salt on slugs, be they only metaphorical ones. My own level of bourgeoiserie still allows me full well to enjoy Damaged, but sort of starts boiling over with Family Man — if you want to poke fun at conservative conventions, at least have the intelligence to poke it in an unconventional manner. As it is, I consider the experiment a failure, and give it a retrograde thumbs down.

Check "Family Man" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Family Man" (MP3) on Amazon

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Billy Joel: The Bridge

BILLY JOEL: THE BRIDGE (1986)

1) Running On Ice; 2) This Is The Time; 3) A Matter Of Trust; 4) Modern Woman; 5) Baby Grand; 6) Big Man On Mulberry Street; 7) Temptation; 8) Code Of Silence; 9) Getting Closer.

Once again, a pound of respect to be handed over to Billy Joel for recording a very-much-not-1986 album in 1986. With the dark star rising for the absolute majority of «rock veterans» that year, Billy Joel, of all people, could be expected to participate in the championship as a major contender. But while The Bridge does indeed show a significant drop-off in quality, lucky for Billy, by that time he had so much solidified in his «retro» mentality that a full embrace of all the trappings of 1986 was out of the question.

Yes, we do have some plastic synthesizers, some electronic drums, a bit of power ballad atmo­spherics, even a couple of Rambo-style pop metal riffs, but at the heart of it all we still have the same old Broadway show — a big ball of vaudeville and jazz-pop and old time balladry, lightly seasoned with some production elements that do land the album in the 1980s, but do not disqua­lify it as a victim of the 1980s. On an important sidenote, The Bridge marks the last time Billy worked with Phil Ramone, and it is clear that Phil was as adverse to submitting to those global suffocating trends as his regular client.

The opening number of the record is rather oddball, though: ʽRunning On Iceʼ is an unmistakable tribute to Sting and The Police circa 1979-80 (yes, even when Mr. Joel is emulating modern acts, he still can't help being a little retro with it!), with Liberty DeVitto impersonating Stewart Cope­land and Billy himself adopting Sting's vocal modulation. The fussy, syncopated-paranoid verses could really be mistaken for a forgotten Police outtake — it is only when we get around to the happier-sounding ska chorus that a certain «it's really Billy» feeling starts creeping in, because The Police would never choose an ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ chord sequence for the hook. Still, as a homage, ʽRunning On Iceʼ is a great showcase for Billy's chameleonesque abilities, and in the overall context of the album, it probably packs more fun than any other number here.

After that deceptive opening, though, The Bridge slowly starts creaking and collapsing. The songs are not particularly awful, they are simply not too well written. Somehow, over those three years that separate the intentionally hook-laden Innocent Man from Joel's next public statement, the emphasis has shifted from «instrumental hook» to «soulful vocal expression», and too many of these songs focus on «Billy the passionate singer» rather than «Billy the creator of interesting piano and guitar melodic lines». Consequently, in order to like The Bridge, you have to really like Billy Joel as an artistic personality and a sensitive soul. And that can be tough.

The double faux-punch of ʽThis Is The Timeʼ and ʽA Matter Of Trustʼ, in particular, seems tre­mendously anticlimactic after the opening number. The former is an adult contemporary ballad with a Diane Warren-worthy chorus and probably the most dated production values on the entire album; the latter is one of those «steroid-muscular» pop songs, pinned to a boringly distorted pop-metal riff, that everybody was trying at the time, hoping to become Springsteen (including Springsteen himself) — in fact, Billy's epic-hero 1-2-3-4 count-off at the beginning is already enough to curdle fresh milk.

Eventually, as the artist begins going backwards in time, the atmosphere gets more tolerable. Stuff like ʽBaby Grandʼ, a soul duet with Ray Charles himself, and the big-band style ʽBig Man On Mulberry Streetʼ, is completely free of cringeworthy moments — the latter may be more at­mosphere than melody, and the former may be way longer than its basic theme requires (actually, the basic theme probably requires some instrumental improvised parts, but Billy imprudently saved all of them up for the live shows), but stylistically, I'd say they are both beyond reproach, and, together with ʽRunning On Iceʼ, are the only songs on here worth remembering. The rest is a mixed bag of rootsiness, poppiness, and schmaltz that ranges from blandly forgettable (ʽGetting Closerʼ; ʽCode Of Silenceʼ, with wasted backing vocals from Cyndi Lauper) to overcooked in the vocal department (ʽTemptationʼ, with a bit too much heart on that sleeve, as if he were offering a little bit of it to every person in the arena).

Still, simply in recognition of the fact that this is, truly and verily, a 1986 Billy Joel album that sucks nowhere near as bad as a 1986 Billy Joel album could have sucked in a logically structured parallel world — I refrain from a thumbs down. The Bridge is well worth owning by any legit fan of Billy's, and well worth hearing at least once for anyone who is merely «tolerant» of the man. It is almost an objective fact that The Bridge marks the beginning of the slide, but we do have to admit that it was a slide like no other slide: unlike so many of his peers, Billy seems de­railed not so much by the changing standards in recording and production, as he is by finally overrating himself as a «soul serenader».

Check "The Bridge" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Bridge" (MP3) on Amazon

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bobby Womack: Safety Zone

BOBBY WOMACK: SAFETY ZONE (1975)

1) Everything's Gonna Be Alright; 2) I Wish It Would Rain; 3) Trust Me; 4) Where There's A Will There's A Way; 5) Love Ain't Something You Can Get For Free; 6) Something You Got; 7) Daylight; 8) I Feel A Groove Comin' On.

Ironic title, considering that this was Bobby's first serious plunge into disco waters — the last track is a ferociously non-stop eight-minutes-on-the-floor workout, and ʽEverything's Gonna Be Alrightʼ and ʽWhere There's A Will...ʼ do their best to keep up with the hotness as well. For the first time in his life, alas, it seems like Bobby is giving in to outside pressure, with a loss of face. When it comes to straightforward disco, he has no way of «womackizing» it.

Seriously, ʽI Feel A Groove Comin' Onʼ, despite preceding ʽDisco Infernoʼ for about three years, already sounds like an embarrassing parody on The Trammps (a gruesome conclusion, conside­ring that much of the time, The Trammps themselves sounded like an endless self-parody). Eight minutes of a totally mind-boggling, robotic groove, with one ska-derived brass figure repeated over and over with no extra coloring — my only hypothesis is that this was Bobby's way of snap­ping back, «oh, you want real red hot? I'll give you real red hot, you brainless idiots!» There is an odd surprise — at 6:30 into the song, there is an unexpectedly classy piano break that pushes the song sky high for about one minute, and no wonder: check the liner notes and you will see that the piano player is no less than Herbie Hancock himself (!). A beautiful reward, no doubt, for those who have been patient enough to suffer through the rest of the song, but is it really adequate relative to the overall cruelty?

ʽWhere There's A Will, There's A Wayʼ is actually less embarrassing if you like that sort of jumpy mid-1970s vaudeville (of which Billy Preston was a particular master) — at the very least, it has an intricate, non-trivial brass-pop arrangement that Blood, Sweat & Tears would probably kill for (just the kind of sound they needed to fortify the dance-oriented part of their reputation). And the seven minutes of ʽEverything...ʼ actually try to balance between darker, funkier verses and the lighter, bouncier, more discoish chorus — an interesting, unusual attempt to merge the two facets, but it does not seem to work well: the «seams» are too crude and artificial for the mood transitions to become believable. One minute you are standing in a spooky swamp of wah-wah riffage, faraway ghostly-echoey guitar shrieks and warlike brass blasts, then the next minute you are happily dancing your head off to a merry disco beat — sounds intriguing on paper, per­haps, but not so much in real life.

The remaining half of the album is still occupied by examples of the more traditional Womack sound: highlights include ʽTrust Meʼ, written half a decade ago for Janis Joplin and revisited here under a more modernistic coating — but even so, the plastic synthesizer sound is not enough to wipe out traces of genuine soulfulness — and ʽDaylightʼ, a dance ballad with an ironic flavor, sung by Bobby from the viewpoint of a «nightlife addict» who treats «daylight» as «the only time when I can unwind». Could be hilarious if Bobby didn't succeed in making it sound a little tragic. As for the trademark «oddity number», this time around it is the old Chris Kenner chestnut ʽSomething You Gotʼ, redone as a comical reggae number: too self-consciously cute for its own good, but at least showing that the old style of cerebral gymnastics is still very much alive.

All in all, this round of the battle is still being won by Bobby, but when you start counting tro­phies and casualties, the former only barely exceed the latter. It is clear enough that, at this point, the man finds himself forced to engage in something that he obviously does not like too much, and that it gets harder and harder to find an acceptable compromise between «soul» and «com­merce». The solutions that he offers on Safety Zone — such as merging the dark and the light on the lead-in track, or subtly mocking the values of disco on the lead-off number — betray a con­cealed cry for help and may be read as the Morse code equivalent for «I'm as irritated with this crap as you are, guys and girls», but that does not automatically redeem an album where Herbie Hancock is invited to contribute just one minute of piano playing on a generic eight-minute disco track. Whose idea of a pleasant surprise was that, anyway?

Check "Safety Zone" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bob Dylan: Modern Times

BOB DYLAN: MODERN TIMES (2006)

1) Thunder On The Mountain; 2) Spirit On The Water; 3) Rollin' And Tumblin'; 4) When The Deal Goes Down; 5) Someday Baby; 6) Workingman's Blues #2; 7) Beyond The Horizon; 8) Nettie Moore; 9) The Levee's Gonna Break; 10) Ain't Talkin'.

Nothing more or less than Love And Theft, Vol. 2, and by now, we should have already gotten the idea of what the title meant (for Dylan, that is): he loves those old blues tunes so much that he is only too happy to steal them, and not feel guilty about it. Then again, if Muddy Waters in the 1950s put his name on a song that he clearly did not write, why couldn't Bob Dylan do the same fifty years later? From that point of view, this album's title is a condescending joke — you sort of expect to turn the CD over and find the first part of the title on the back cover: This Is What I Think Of Your..., yes, and maybe the finger as well. Because these days, you're not expected to infringe on copyright. In the old days of folk tradition — now that's a different story. These days, «all copyrights reserved for that nameless old guy in the backwoods and his progeny».

Anyway, there we have it: ten more songs in Ye Olde Style, same topics, same cracked voice, same «Jack Frost» production style. The backing band has evolved (only Tony Garnier on bass re­mains over from the Love And Theft sessions), but the sonic essentials remain completely the same. In fact, much as I hate to admit it, the album as a whole is not even deserving of an indivi­dual review. On the whole, the songs roll along a little smoother this time, with fewer «rocking» moments and respectively more «soft blues-rock», but it takes a long time to figure out the subtle differences, and even if there are any, they seem accidental. It's not as if Bob finally lost his potential to rock out — he just happened to be in the mood for quieter guitars and drums.

And it's not as if I'm complaining, because the sound remains efficient. The upbeat, «soft-rock­ing» grooves now take on a J. J. Cale not-give-a-damn aura about them: ʽThunder On The Moun­tainʼ and ʽThe Levee's Gonna Breakʼ both make reference to natural disasters, but the attitude of the protagonist is like, «I'm 66 years old already, what do I care about the whole world going down in flames?», and the rest of the band sounds correspondingly hip and nonchalant, churning the groove out like a biorobot, only occasionally deviating for a muffled guitar solo. Naturally, once you hear "if it keeps on rainin', levee's gonna break", you will be remembering Led Zeppelin (rather than Memphis Minnie, unless you're a seasoned blues snob), and the apocalyptic hysterics of Page and Plant will look tremendously fussy and vain next to this cool-calm-collected view on the turbulent side of life.

Clearly, it is the «coolness» of it all, this effortless transition to a state in which basic emotion is completely suppressed, that attracted critics and fans alike to this «bronze age renaissance» in Dylan's career. On the more officially sentimental, jazzier numbers Bob seems to get accordingly more sentimental and tender (ʽSpirit On The Waterʼ), but exactly how «sincere» is that sentimen­tality? It might be just another tip of the hat to the trappings of a goneby era. ʽWorkingman's Blues #2ʼ, a stately piece of soul-blues, formally written from the point of view of a member of the «proletariat», whatever that word might mean today, is a piece of sad romance that a Bruce Springsteen could easily fill up with genuine affection — in Bob's current rendition it sounds a little hollow and formalistic. But that is the point — to deliver all these messages the way they are delivered, in a detached, introvert manner. It helps to play these songs interspersed with stuff from Highway 61 Revisited: where Bob once used to sound like he was hurling bolts of light­ning at his listeners, now he sounds as if he is directing all the singing right inside his own guts.

The last song on the album, ʽAin't Talkin'ʼ, seems to be a throwback to the vibe of Time Out Of Mind. It is long, dark, pessimistic, it has a naggingly depressing violin part crawling all over it, and its (and the whole album's) last words are, suitably, "the world's end". But even so, compare it with, let's say, ʽShot Of Loveʼ (a suitable comparison, actually, given the wealth of Biblical imagery in ʽAin't Talkin'ʼ), and see the difference — where we once saw the man near-lite­rally pulling out his hair and rolling in the ashes, here is a man completely resigned to his fate. Not at all happy about it, but accepting it as something inevitable. He ain't talkin', just walkin'. If Nick Cave were to sing this song, we'd already be scraping a major percentage of his internal organs off our clothes and faces. Bob and his band just put out the bare facts. No acting, no exaggerating, no self-whipping into frenzy, no trying to change the world through the music, no trying to do anything, in fact. A perfect album for a certified Taoist.

However, although there is no reason to deprive Modern Times of its thumbs up rating, I must say that it sounds overreaching, and that, in particular, I do find the running lengths of most of these songs inadequate — even understanding that Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, takes orders from no one, and has every right to try my patience in asserting his rights to do whatever he wants. Love And Theft had 12 songs rather than 10, and still ran about five minutes shorter than Modern Times, and that was a good balance; here, unless you really, really, really crave for extra and extra modernist lyrical variations on ancient blues themes (for instance, think that namedropping Alicia Keyes in the context of ʽThunder On The Mountainʼ really works), almost each of these songs could be at least one or two verses shorter without any harm to the business, particularly since there is no development whatsoever happening on any of the songs.

Unless, of course, we are supposed to understand this philosophically — for Bob Dylan, such a silly thing as «time» no longer exists. The end of the world presupposes no need for time, so you cannot even physically complain of having «wasted time» on the extra verses of these songs, be­cause you wouldn't be making much sense. Which, of course, puts the album title in an even more ironic light. Modern times? There are no modern times. They say that Rolling Stone, a magazine that has long since lost touch with true reality, put this record up at No. 204 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Silly people, not realizing how absurd it must feel for Modern Times to be on that list, when it so clearly belongs on The Divided By Zero Greatest Albums of No Time list instead.

Check "Modern Times" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Modern Times" (MP3) on Amazon

Monday, April 21, 2014

Carl Perkins: Dance Album Of Carl Perkins

CARL PERKINS: DANCE ALBUM OF CARL PERKINS (1958)

1) Blue Suede Shoes; 2) Movie Magg; 3) Sure To Fall; 4) Gone, Gone, Gone; 5) Honey Don't; 6) Only You; 7) Ten­nessee; 8) Right String, Wrong Yo-Yo; 9) Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby; 10) Matchbox; 11) Your True Love; 12) Boppin' The Blues; 13*) All Mama's Children.

Carl Perkins' only «original» LP from his four-year tenure with Sun Records, like most LPs from that period, is really just a chaotic compilation of A-side, B-side, and outtake material. But even in this form, or, actually, because of this form, it still counts as one of the most impressive and fun-filled LPs from the rockabilly era. Influential, too — which other single LP from the era could boast a whole three songs to be officially covered by the Beatles?

The important thing about Carl Perkins is that, of all the notorious rockabilly people of the era, he was the one to most tightly preserve the «simple country boy» essence in his music. Bill Haley probably came close, but Haley didn't have much of an individual personality, and his backing band, The Comets, was at least as important as its frontman, blending a touch of country-western with a Louis Jordan-esque big-band jump-blues entertainment approach. Perkins, on the other hand, wrote his own songs (or radically reinvented traditional ones), sang his own melodies, played his own lead guitar, and, overall, made it so that we rarely ever remember anything about his sidemen during the recording sessions. Quick, name the bass player and the drummer on ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ without googling! Yeah, right. Not even Google can help that easily.

Thus, Carl is essentially a «loner», and in that status, gets the right to his own influences and no other's — and chief among those influences is The Grand Ole Opry, with Bill Monroe, Gene Autry, and Hank Williams as his major idols. The good news for those who, like me, feel a bit iffy when it comes to «pure» country music, is that Carl obviously preferred his country with a sharper edge, and if anything, his rockabilly style is a direct continuation of Hank's faster-paced, boogie-based material like ʽMove It On Overʼ. Although Carl's own spirit was never as tempes­tuous or torturous as Hank's (not a single Perkins song shows any signs of acute bitterness), he always had a thing for raw excitement, energy, speed, humor, good-natured irony — anything that would put a smile on your face and an itch in your feet.

Most importantly, Carl's «lonerism» is responsible for making ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ into one of the coolest songs of its era — and the lyrics had a lot to do with it: "Don't you step on MY blue suede shoes...", sung in a friendly enough tone but with a very clear hint of a threat. This is really where all the Gene Vincents of this world come from: the «rebels» were inspired by the individualistic cockiness of a plain, harmless, friendly «country bumpkin» who inadvertently tapped right into the spinal cord of his era. ʽRock Around The Clockʼ was a good enough count-off for the rock revolution, but it was a general fun party song. ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ takes us into one particular corner of that party, where one particularly self-consciously hip guy is busy protecting his own particular interests against the whole world, and backing them with sharp bluesy lead guitar licks that sound like a bunch of slaps in the face of whoever has been unlucky enough to step on the protagonist's lucky footwear.

There is a myth going around that Elvis «stole» the song from Carl while the latter was recupera­ting in the hospital after a car accident, and that this effectively put an end to Carl's career as a pop star. In reality, Carl never had the makings of a star, and the image of a «teen idol» would have probably never sat too well with him in the first place — he was, first and foremost, a song­writer and a guitar player — none of which, however, prevented ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ from going all the way to the top of the charts, while Presley's version (a classic in its own right, no doubt about that) stuck at No. 20 (admittedly, RCA people agreed to hold back the release until Carl's version lost its original freshness — see, there was a time when record industry people could occasionally show signs of gentlemanly conduct).

Already ʽBoppin' The Bluesʼ, the folow-up to ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ, did not chart as high (No. 7 was its peak) — and it wasn't Elvis that had anything to do with it, but rather the fact that the song was comparatively toothless in comparison, a fairly formulaic rockabilly creation describing the simple joys of rock'n'roll dancing with little challenge or defiance. In the hot, tense competi­tive air of early 1956, Carl soon lost the lead, and although the next three years would see him reeling between inspiration and repetition, the record-buying public pretty much wrote him off as a one-hit wonder and focused on Elvis instead. In addition, Carl loyally stuck with Sun Records through those years, meaning that he couldn't even begin to hope for the kind of promotion that Elvis got (on the positive side, Carl never got to have his own Colonel Parker).

It is a doggone shame, though, that such fate also prevented a great tune like ʽMatchboxʼ from charting — without the Beatles' support, it might have altogether sunk into oblivion, but really, few pop songs sounded as harshly serious and deep-reaching in 1957 as that particular reincarna­tion of an old, old, old blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson. When those echoing, distant-thun­der-like boogie chords start rattling around the room, it's as if you were being prepared for some important social statement, and, in a way, you are, since Carl preserves many of the original ly­rics, infusing the song with a blues-based sense of outcast loneliness instead of the usual get-up-and-dance stuff. In a way, «socially conscious rock'n'roll music» starts somewhere around this bend, even if Carl himself probably never intended it to be this way.

On a personal note, I must say that ʽHoney Don'tʼ feels to me as one of the very few rock and pop songs by other artists that the Beatles did not manage to improve upon — and not because Ringo is a worse singer than Carl (he actually did a fine job to preserve the tune's humor), but because George Harrison never really got around to learning all the tricks in Carl's playing bag: as rough as the production is on the original, Perkins compensates for it with a series of improvised «muffled» licks that George did not even try to copy, playing in a «cleaner» style that left less room for rock'n'roll excitement. (On the other hand, George did get the upper hand on ʽEvery­body's Trying To Be My Babyʼ by managing to raise the tension on the lengthy second instru­mental break, whereas in Carl's version it pretty much stays the same throughout).

Of the twelve songs assembled here, only a couple are relative clunkers; ʽTennesseeʼ, in particu­lar, sounds as silly as it is sincere, a heartfelt tribute to Carl's native state with a hillbillyish cho­rus and somewhat uncomfortable lyrics that, among other things, urge us to give credit to the fact that "they made the first atomic tomb in Tennessee" (a somewhat inaccurate reference to Oak Ridge, but even if it were accurate, I'm not sure I would want to boast about it even at the height of the Cold War). Pompous, vocally demanding ballads are also not one of Carl's fortes (ʽOnly Youʼ), but he can come up with a highly catchy homely, simple country ballad when he puts his heart into it — ʽSure To Fallʼ, with its melody almost completely based on serenading trills, is quite a beautiful little piece.

One of the most interesting things about comparing old rockabilly records from the mid-to-late 1950s is the relative proportion of their ingredients. Some veer closer to R&B, some to electric blues, some to «whitebread» pop, some are jazzier, some vaudevillian. From that point of view, Dance Album Of Carl Perkins is a curious mix of something very highly conservative with an explosive energy that is nevertheless kept under strict control, like a fire burning steady and brightly, but only within a rigidly set limit. Had all rock'n'roll looked like Carl Perkins in the 1950s, it would probably have taken us a much, much longer way to get where we are right now — but, on the other hand, maybe we wouldn't already be wondering where exactly is it possible to go from here. Ah well, enough speculation; here is the expectable thumbs up, and we will be moving on.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Camera Obscura: Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi

CAMERA OBSCURA: BIGGEST BLUEST HI-FI (2001)

1) Happy New Year; 2) Eighties Fan; 3) Houseboat; 4) Shine Like A New Pin; 5) Pen And Notebook; 6) Swimming Pool; 7) Anti-Western; 8) Let's Go Bowling; 9) I Don't Do Crowds; 10) The Sun On His Back; 11) Double Feature; 12) Arrangements Of Shapes And Space.

Although Camera Obscura got their cozy little break largely through the endorsement of Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch, to whose music they have been compared ever since, the band itself actually formed in the exact same year as Belle & Sebastian — they just had to wait five years be­fore being offered a record contract. Maybe the formation was a direct consequence of the ef­fect that Tigermilk had on fellow Glaswegians, or maybe it just so happened that in 1996, Glas­gow was hit by a melancholia-radiating beam from outer space, but, whatever the circumstances, here we are with yet another sweet, sad, and fragile indie pop outfit on our hands.

If anything, you could think of it as the time-required female counterpart response to Belle & Se­bastian. In the place of Stuart Murdoch, we have Tracyanne Campbell, a slightly autistic / som­nambulist soul with a sweet, instantaneously likable voice, a hipster-approved penchant for all things retro, and a deep love for cleanly produced guitar sounds (everything from acoustic strum to electric jangle) and chamber music string arrangements, which Murdoch is only too happy to help her arrange. She writes all the songs, sings on most of them, and plays rhythm guitar, which more or less saves us the trouble of memorizing the names of five other people in the band, but for the sake of fairness, let us also mention second guitarist Kenny McKeeve, whose plinking Fenders and minstrelish mandolins are just as responsible for the overall effect.

First things first: there may actually be a substantial reason why Camera Obscura had to search so long for a record contract — unlike Murdoch, Campbell is not a naturally gifted songwriter. She is quite good at expressing her feelings, but not at converting them into exceptional chord se­quences or vocal hooks. Three or four listens into the album, and I was still unable to tell any of the songs apart, even if the actual melodies, tempos, and arrangements do have slight differences. Everything seems centered around the lyrics — the words seem well thought-out, whereas most of the melodies sound like they were quickly tossed off on the spot (rather odd for a band who had spent five years working out their schtick before finally crossing the studio threshold).

Second, the atmosphere is certainly not unique. The Belle & Sebastian comparison naturally comes to mind first, even without knowing how tight the real connection is; but really, there are dozens of twee-pop outfits out there that sound very close to Camera Obscura, and unless you are able to figure out that particularly subtle special something that makes the art of Tracyanne Campbell hit its very own nerve, this music will never be worth a second replay to you. (As a ready-made example, the arrival of Allo Darlin' in 2010, with its own retro-favoring, graciously fragile lead­ing lady Elizabeth Morris, put the reputational future of Camera Obscura in dire straits — at least, I have stumbled upon a few comparisons that were not particularly favorable towards the Glaswegian as pitted against the Australian).

But unique or not unique, I find the atmosphere all but impossible to dislike. Everything passes by like separate similar-themed movements of a single soundtrack to a forty-five minute early autumn walk through the park. Fresh breeze, chirping birdies, golden leaves, occasional joggers, carps in the pond, headphones, the works. Not a single «rough» moment on the album to pinch your emotions too hard, but that would only disrupt the pleasure of walking. Even the drummer makes sure to use as many brushes and soft cymbal tapping as possible so as not to make even the fastest songs on here «rock» in any possible manner: Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi is a gentle mood shot for all those who aren't too much in a hurry.

Campbell's style is certainly melancholic, but still, much lighter than that of Murdoch — prima­rily because the music of Camera Obscura is generally free of the bitterness and poorly concealed anger at the world that permeates Murdoch's art. The lyrics, naturally, are mostly about relation­ships, failed or holding, but they never get judgemental or out-of-hand. The singing shows no range whatsoever (sometimes it feels as if she's packing everything into one note, let alone one octave), but whatever tone there is, it feels completely natural, a special sort of «cool, but warm» intonation that suggests friendliness and loneliness at the same time. And McKeeve's little lead melodies, ringing out in the background, suit that tone perfectly.

Individual songs are not worth discussing; the only thing I can say is that the music is very much improved when there is a steady mid-tempo rhythm section pushing it forward (ʽShine Like A New Pinʼ, ʽSwimming Poolʼ, ʽI Don't Do Crowdsʼ, etc.), and tends to get very boring on slow-moving acoustic ballads like ʽLet's Go Bowlingʼ, no matter how many cool references to Clark Gable she inserts in those lyrics (although, of course, if the song helped even one fan to go see a Clark Gable movie, the album's rating has to be pushed up for educational value). The final num­ber is a waltzing instrumental that tries to go out with a bang, adding an unexpected outburst of colorfully distorted «acid» guitars — bit of a cherry on the tart for those who like their indie pop with a psychedelic flavor, but, of course, much too late to drag the record out of its «background muzak» state, and besides, who of us could be overwhelmed with a simple spiralling psychedelic waltz in 2001, when it'd been thirty years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play?

To conclude this with a brief title discussion, the album is indeed hi-fi (fortunately for us all, Camera Obscura care about sonic hygiene), but the «biggest» and «bluest» bits are self-ag­gran­dizing hyperbolic tricks — this music isn't particularly blue («autumn gold» is much more like it), and it certainly isn't big. And these are the good points, because big and blue tend to sound fake these days, whereas Camera Obscura sound sincere and likeable. I do not remember how even a single song goes on the album, but I still give it a thumbs up for sheer therapy effect. A pretty good record to play if you're in the mood of killing someone.

Check "Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ben Folds: Way To Normal

BEN FOLDS: WAY TO NORMAL (2008)

1) Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head); 2) Dr Yang; 3) The Frown Song; 4) You Don't Know Me; 5) Before Cologne; 6) Cologne; 7) Errant Dog; 8) Free Coffee; 9) Bitch Went Nuts; 10) Brainwascht; 11) Effington; 12) Kylie From Connecticut.

Really bad album title here. The lack of a second ʽoʼ in ʽtooʼ would never deter the skeptics from sneering «You don't say!», which they really do in their two-star and C+ reviews. But it's even worse if you prefer not to notice the pun — because who of us would want a «normal» Ben Folds? Any more «normal» and he'd be Vanessa Carlton. An immediate turn-off, and a particularly ridi­culous one, considering that it is also deceptive: Way To Normal is not really any more or less «normal» than any other Ben Folds record. In fact, considering its overall lightweight nature and the abundance of openly clownish moments, it might even be less normal than usual. Maybe he should have come up with that title earlier — I think that Rockin' The Suburbs is more deser­ving of it than this particular batch of tunes.

There is nothing surprising about the fact that Way To Normal was greeted with relative cold­ness, and the reasons behind this probably go deeper than a simple «oh no, not another forty minutes of this guy bitching about his problems» gut reaction. One of them is that thirty-five years earlier, a bespectacled eccentric called Reginald Kenneth Dwight recorded ʽBennie And The Jetsʼ, a stomping, fireworks-laden, piano-on-parade glam rocker that became one of the most symbolic and unforgettable anthems of its era — a giddy celebration of excess, decadence, and showbiz razzle-dazzle, spiced with self-irony that you could savor or ignore at your whim. Now, thirty-five years later, Ben Folds, a successful, but still somewhat aspiring singer-songwriter, opens his new album with an intentional tribute to that particular song, subtitled ʽB B B Benny Hit His Headʼ just so there would be no way whatsoever you could leave that fact unnoticed — and the song is about... falling on his head off the stage at the start of a Japanese show. "Oh oh oh, they're watching me fall", goes the chorus. Does that make you happy or what?

Oh, it's not a bad song at all — the chorus is suitably anthemic and catchy, and Ben pounds the keys with no less physical energy than Elton. It's a funny parody, except it came out about thirty years too late for us to properly get the joke, and, worse than that, it is one more reminder — as if we really needed one! — of why Elton John is Elton John, and Ben Folds, all pros and cons con­sidered, is still only Ben Folds. And I am not even raising the issue of how convenient it is to get this sort of song under the title ʽHiroshimaʼ, which would normally have us expect something completely different. (Then again, it might be a politically incorrect plus rather than minus — fuck atomic bombs, let's just sing about falling on our heads instead).

A very similar piano-punching pattern constitutes the spine of the album's lead-off single and best-known track, ʽYou Don't Know Meʼ, for which Ben enlists the help of a chamber string sec­tion and Regina Spektor, who had only just graduated from Soviet kitsch to Begin To Hope, and whose whimsical style was in perfect agreement with this song, written by Ben as a mutually ac­cusing dialog between the bastard and one of his bitches (and yes, most of the imaginary or not so imaginary protagonists on this album come across as certified bastards and bitches). The percep­tive effect of ʽYou Don't Know Meʼ, however, is different from ʽHiroshimaʼ — the whole song, both instrumentally and vocally, is built on brief stop-and-start bits of melody, which gives it a robotic feel; Ben's and Regina's vocal interaction on all the "you-don't-know-me"s, in particular, sounds so intentionally rigid and mechanical as if it were computer-generated. But both singers are so «wimpy» that, in the end, they sound like baby robots having a baby battle of the wits, and while the effect is genuinely hard to forget, you do feel like you're sitting in the middle of a cute­sy cartoon while it's on.

«Fluffy» moments like these abound on the record. ʽDr Yangʼ, ʽThe Frown Songʼ, ʽFree Coffeeʼ, and, of course, the infamously titled ʽBitch Went Nutsʼ — all of them giddy, lightweight, ironic, sometimes parodic pop-rockers; some of them are melodically impressive (ʽDr Yangʼ is a head-spinning piece of piano-based rock'n'roll with one of Ben's best piano tones ever captured on the instrumental solo part), but some do not seem to be making much of a point, or, worse still, are making a debatable point — the lyrics of ʽBitch Went Nutsʼ carry the «strained relationship» topic a little too far, right into the sphere of personal meanness, and the breakneck tempo of the piano melody does not allow Ben to redeem himself through efficient composition.

All the more surprising is the fact that, sandwiched in between these numerous samples of «storms in teacups», we do find some of Ben's most soulful ballads in ages — ʽCologneʼ and ʽKylie From Connecticutʼ both work on the most basic gut level, the former with its melancholic desperation (featuring the loneliest way to say the words "my hotel room" since Ray Davies), and the latter with its desperate melancholia, if you get the difference between the two. Both are far more emotionally loaded than ʽBrickʼ, even if their respective choruses are nowhere near that loud — apparently, as time (and more divorces) go by, it becomes easier for Folds to wallow in his misery and convert the results to heart-tugging vocal lines.

Overall, this is frankly a mess — but then again, so was a heavy chunk of, say, Paul McCartney's solo catalog (an analogy that probably came to my mind because both artists like to write silly songs about dogs — check ʽ3 Legsʼ against ʽErrant Dogʼ!). So, for consistency's sake, I couldn't dare condemn Way To Normal based on any «ideological» grounds, if the individual songs range from cutesy-funny to subtly-heart-wrenching. Diverse, creative, funny, and, as usual, ho­nestly fulfilling Ben Folds' destiny — converting his life experience into friendly musical anec­dotes. If, this time around, the results seem «fluffy», I guess it also merely reflects a particular piece of life experience. No problems with a thumbs up here.

On a side note, one year later Ben actually re-released the album as Stems And Seeds, changing the running order, adding some extra overdubs (notably additional orchestrated parts for ʽCo­logneʼ), and, most importantly, remixing all the tracks with less compression — acting on fan complaints about the poor sound quality of Way To Nor­mal, as he explained before other fans who complained about the rip-off effect. I have heard both versions, and testify that Stems does sound a wee bit fresher and «ringier», so certified audiophiles might want to go along with the new ver­sion; but on the other hand, it is not as if they were so significantly different that you could get bored with the old one and then get redeemed with the new one. However, it is worth noting that, in the authentic tradition of the «nutty artist», the actual song ʽWay To Normalʼ only makes its appearance on Stems And Seeds, but not on Way To Normal itself. Fortunately for us all, it's not a particularly good song.

Check "Way To Normal" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Way To Normal" (MP3) on Amazon