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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Alice In Chains: The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here

ALICE IN CHAINS: THE DEVIL PUT DINOSAURS HERE (2013)

1) Hollow; 2) Pretty Done; 3) Stone; 4) Voices; 5) The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here; 6) Lab Monkey; 7) Low Ceiling; 8) Breath On A Window; 9) Scalpel; 10) Phantom Limb; 11) Hung On A Hook; 12) Choke.

Well, so much for naïve optimism. Maybe if more critics were more critical, and more fanatics less fanatical, Cantrell would take heed and correct the formalistic mistake of the band's last al­bum — as it happens, not only is nothing corrected, but everything is worsened to the point of nauseating. Where Black Gives Way To Blue was a misstep, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is an unfunny joke. It might have been a modestly funny joke, if it weren't so goddamn long, but at over sixty minutes, the whole damn thing is just excruciating.

You see, once upon a time, there was a star-struck alliance between two people — a searcher and a sufferer. The searcher was totally sincere and dedicated in his search for new types of sounds, acoustic and electric; the sufferer was equally sincere about his suffering and had a knack for credibly conveying that suffering to the people around him. The alliance produced some of the finest music of the 1990s, still every bit as impressive and resonating today, if not more so. Then the sufferer finally had his suffering cut short, and with this, it's almost as if the searcher totally lost the stimulus for continuing with his search. Honestly, the closest analogy to this situation that comes to mind is The Doors continuing without Jim Morrison. Remember Other Voices? No? Good. Most likely, you won't be remembering The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here in a couple yea... uh, weeks from now on, either.

There are twelve new songs on this album, running for about five-six minutes on the average. Each of the songs features a brand new Jerry Cantrell riff, usually one of the grumbly, distorted, lower-than-low ones. Each of the songs is sung by lead singer William DuVall, very frequently in dual harmony with Cantrell (actually, I think Cantrell may have some lead parts as well, but at this point, their singing tones are almost impossible to tell apart). Each of the songs sets the exact same «brooding» mood — very dark, very unhappy, very misanthropic. And not a single song has got a distinct personality of its own. The whole damn package could just as well have been computer-generated. Brutal intro, stiff verse, stiff chorus, repeat, solo, long repetitive outro, next. Sixty minutes on, when the music is finally over, you feel like you have just emerged from under a pile of rock sediments. Hopefully, the sun is shining.

Now none of this would be quite as painful if it weren't for two facts. First, this «give the people what they want» principle has completely ruined Cantrell as a riff-writer. Every once in a while, through a happy accident, he is still able to fall upon an auspicious note/tone combination — like the riff of ʽStoneʼ, where there is a strategically placed Iommi-style bend that gives the whole thing a «giant-from-under-the-mountain» feel. But most of the time, we have to tolerate meaning­less strings of heavy notes that are neither emotionally loaded nor technically complex (ʽPhantom Limbʼ, ʽPretty Doneʼ, title track, you name it). If you feel like disagreeing, just put this back to back with ʽRain When I Dieʼ or ʽRoosterʼ to remind yourself how low the once mighty has fallen. And the reason? Simple enough, I think — the man goes to work with the set goal of «writing yet another Alice In Chains song». The most assured way to ruin potentially good art. Just ask The Rolling Stones for confirmation.

Second — sorry, but this DuVall person is a complete sham. The man sings every bit of this material as if he were a pre-programmed robot. Layne may have been a somewhat «typical» sin­ger for the grunge era, but he actually sang like a human being. A permanently depressed human being, sure, but still one capable of emotional range, quiet, loud, brooding, angry, sentimental, offensive, whatever. The vocals on this album are totally blurry. Just some random guy mum­bling «dark» stuff, sometimes raising or lowering his voice when the algorithm tells him to. No personality whatsoever. We may be happy for him that he doesn't do drugs (well, at least I think he doesn't), but he pretty much relates to Staley like an authentic Gucci bag or something like that relates to a cheap counterfeit. I feel really baffled when reading anonymous Internet assessments like: «...William DuVall's vocals don't necessarily deliver the same sort of pained, shuddering punch that Staley's were able to give, but he continues to prove himself as a worthy successor as the band's new singer...» ...what? And who the heck needs this self-conscious attempt to synthe­size another Alice In Chains album without the «pained, shuddering punch»? I want the «pained, shuddering punch», goddammit. If you cannot deliver — get the hell out of here.

Or, alternately, deliver some­thing else and don't call yourself Alice In Chains. Because, frankly, if we forget all about the prehistory of this particular band, The Devil has even fewer reasons to exist. When twelve draggy, overlong, gray-toned, poorly-riffed, emotionally monotonous com­positions irritate your senses instead of penetrating them, nor is there a single bit of innovative thinking anywhere in sight, just droning sludge for the sake of being sludgy, what in the world could motivate you to defend this music other than nostalgic fandom? All right, if Cantrell ma­nages to make a profit on this sludge, I'm happy for him — for his immense contribution to the world of music, he deserves everything he can get — but that does not make the record any less of a cheap rip-off. There's just too much of a «big lie» aura around it — they make this «formally depressing» music without actually feeling depressed. A fake, phoney album, and it makes me sad that quite a few people still ended up mistaking it for the real thing. Out of love and respect for «classic era» Alice In Chains, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here gets as low a thumbs down as it can possibly get, and here's hoping the guys just stick to touring from now on.

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Black Flag: Who's Got The 10 1/2?

BLACK FLAG: WHO'S GOT THE 10½? (1986)

1) Loose Nut; 2) I'm The One; 3) Annihilate This Week; 4) Wasted; 5) Bastard In Love; 6) Modern Man; 7) This Is Good; 8) In My Head; 9) Sinking; 10) Jam; 11) The Best One Yet; 12) My War; 13) Slip It In / Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie; 14) Drinking And Driving; 15) Louie Louie.

At the time when this live album was released (March 1986; the actual show was played in Port­land in August 1985), Black Flag were still a functional unit, and would remain that way until August 1986, when Ginn broke up the band: as it seems, he was simply fed up with stuff, and de­cided to explode it before genuine stagnation would set in. The scenario is well confirmed by this live album — in terms of production, energy, and tightness, if not necessarily the setlist material, it is arguably their most successful statement of live power.

The original single LP was later expanded to include most, if not all, of the show, so that the latest CD edition includes over an hour of material. The setlist includes nearly all of Loose Nut, with the exception of ʽNow She's Blackʼ — not because of political correctness, of course, but because the song's author, drummer Bill Stevenson, was no longer with the band at the time, re­placed by the less «brutal», but more polished Anthony Martinez. There are also a few previews from the yet unreleased In My Head (including some of its best tracks, such as ʽDrinking And Drivingʼ); a few scattered reminiscences from the 1984 albums; and virtually nothing from Da­maged, except for ʽGimmie Gimmie Gimmieʼ, reworked into a rather silly «comical» sex-based performance in which we learn that, of all people, it is Kira who got the 10½ — gender discourse in a hardcore paradigm can be a terrifying thing.

Not having a huge lot to say about the studio counterparts of these songs, I certainly have even less to say about the live renditions — except that the band is tight, playing most of the songs at slightly speedier tempos, with the new drummer keeping everything in good shape and Henry trying to actually sing wherever some singing is required. On a whim, I'd also say that there is a little less «sludge» to Ginn's guitar playing live than there was in the studio; this means that, if any of those albums gave you a headache, there is no harm in trying out the live equivalent with its ever so «thinner» guitar sound, if only a little bit. There is a four-minute ʽJamʼ there which is quite skippable (just Ginn trying out a bunch of ideas or what looks like ideas), but other than that and the dubious inch-measuring game played by Henry, it's just song after song of solid late pe­riod Black Flag material. And, for dessert, a Black Flag-style ʽLouie Louieʼ which you can pro­bably imagine how it goes even without hearing it.

In short, it isn't exactly like Loose Nut — the new drummer kicks tighter ass, and the guitars buzz and squeal instead of growling and howling, so there's no harm in comparing the two and deci­ding for yourself what kind of sound you like best. Personally, I might even prefer the live stuff, but even if not, it still deserves a thumbs up, simply for the sake of being the tightest, most fo­cused, clenched-teeth-disciplined live album from these guys ever. This is as «un-sloppy» a hard­core record as hardcore ever gets. No wonder they exploded after that — too much discipline tends to overload the engine.

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Billy Joel: Fantasies & Delusions

BILLY JOEL: FANTASIES & DELUSIONS (2001)

1) Opus 3. Reverie (Villa D'Este); 2) Opus 2. Waltz # 1 (Nunley's Carousel); 3) Opus 7. Aria (Grand Canal); 4) Opus 6. Invention In C Minor; 5) Opus 1. Soliloquy (On A Separation); 6) Opus 8. Suite For Piano (Star-Crossed); 7) Opus 5. Waltz # 2 (Steinway Hall); 8) Opus 9. Waltz # 3 (For Lola); 9) Opus 4. Fantasy (Film Noir); 10) Opus 10. Air (Dublinesque).

Try and make a hit record out of this. Seven years into doing nothing much of anything, Billy finally decided that it was time to branch out. If Paul McCartney can do this — and Paul McCart­ney hasn't even been much of a «piano man» anytime in his life — why not Billy Joel? Going classical should be a natural thing for an artist who'd already explored so many different roads (in fact, he'd already experimented with the classical format a long time ago — remember ʽNocturneʼ from his solo debut?); and if you are a piano player by trade, it is only natural that you should begin diligently and humbly, with a set of piano pieces rather than anything as bombastic and pretentious as an oratorio (eat that, Sir Paul).

As a champion of the simple folks, Billy does not set his sights particularly high or cast his net particularly wide. This is certainly not «modern classical», nor does it show any influences of old-school innovators like Debussy, nor does it attempt to cover too much technically challenging ground — although even the way those pieces were written, Billy did not dare play them himself, and passed this honor to his friend, Richard Hyung-ki Joo, a British-Korean pianist specializing in shows that combine classical music with comedy. Not that there is any attempt at comedy on Fantasies & Delusions (unless you think that Billy Joel going classical is in itself sufficient rea­son for comedy). There is simply an attempt to write a bunch of waltzes, ballads, scherzos, and nocturnes (no mazurkas detected, though), largely in the style of Chopin — the best combination of exquisiteness with accessibility imaginable — with maybe just a little bit of Liszt and Rach­maninoff thrown in for good measure. Oh, and just one brief quasi-Bach piece (ʽInvention In C Minorʼ), over in just a minute.

Now, how could I ever rate this? I do not review classical music, unless bits of it happen to be incorporated into progressive rock albums, since any music that is properly «composed», that is, put down in sheetnote form (Tin Pan Alley notwithstanding), requires a very different writing approach, and from that point of view, Billy Joel is no exception. It is the easiest thing in the world to say that Chopin rules and Billy Joel sucks (and it is highly probable that it would be true), but you'd need to say why, and this requires serious musicological analysis that I would not be capable of providing.

On a layman level, I would just say this. The pieces sound «accomplished» — I think they would have earned a reasonably high score on any music school graduation test. The general rules of mid-19th century music making are adhered to fairly well; at the very least, it's not as if Billy were occasionally hopping into Broadway territory or anything. (Well, maybe once or twice he does, but then, it's always possible to count that as artistic license). He understands Chopin and the other romantics — that much, I think, we can all admit. Whether he can replicate them, how­ever, not to mention add something of his own to this replication, is a different matter.

In the case of Chopin, at least, Chopin's best piano pieces are extremely catchy, even for the untrained ear — we all recognize the waltz in C sharp minor well enough even without being able to identify the piece — due to wondrously well worked out and strategically repeated main themes. The most surprising element about Billy's exercises, however, is that «catchiness» does not even begin to enter the picture — and this coming from one of pop music's greatest master of sheer «hookery»! The pieces sound «nice», but the themes lack individuality and character, never take any musical risks, and, overall, simply consist of playing various scales in different tempos and at different volumes. Some of the pieces are more dynamic than others, but certainly not enough to generate «drama». Enough, perhaps, to be used for a soundtrack to a quiet evening in a local (Italian?) restaurant. Hardly more than that.

Which begs for the question: why? In interviews, Billy himself has admitted that it was just an experiment, nothing too serious or ambitious about it, and that he himself was surprised that it managed to sell more than a few copies. Nothing too surprising, I'd say, considering the huge army of Joel fanaticists who'd probably buy anything associated with the man, even if he decided to sing Wagner arias to an accompaniment of Jew's harp and washboard. (On second thought, I'd definitely buy that, too). But what would be the posterior use of this product? If it managed to fulfill an educational purpose — for instance, increase the interest of at least a small chunk of these buyers in classic romantic piano pieces — more power to Billy. More likely, however, it just prompted some of these buyers to rave about how «Billy's towering genius allows him to create highbrow music along with the best of 'em!», a reaction that Billy himself would explicitly distance himself from (but secretly might enjoy).

Consequently, upon deliberating, even though I do not actively «hate» what I have heard, I still give the record a thumbs down. It is humble and vain at the same time: humble, since the chosen musical style is devoid of formal bombast, and vain, since, want it or not, it triggers comparison with the «academic greats», and, consequently, still has a bit of that «I want to be the greatest sorcerer in all the world» spirit to it. Of course, this is ironically reflected in the album's title — and the compositions are more «delusions» than «fantasies» by definition. Nobody needs to hear this, really; nor are the late Artur Rubinstein or Vladimir Horowitz shaking in their graves at the glorious Steinway sound coming from under the fingers of Mr. Joo here. Oh, and, to add injury to insult, this whole damn thing runs for seventy-five minutes — which is more than all of Chopin's Etudes put together, so, in a highly improbable situation where you might be tempted... just do yourself a favor and do not fall for bland facsimiles. Or at least consult your local musicologist.

PS. I especially like how exquisitely they labeled all of Billy's compositions as opera, and then shuffled them around so that the track listing looks like a genuine recital. Yes, ladies and gentle­men, Waltz No. 2 was chronologically written after ʽFantasyʼ, not right after Waltz No. 1, and we have to reflect that, or else we will be disrespectful to the composer with our inaccurate listing. Even if the entire catalog is not too likely to be expanded in the future... then again, just recast all of his previous compositions as Lieder and you have yourself a friggin' Schubert in the works.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Bobby Womack: The Poet

BOBBY WOMACK: THE POET (1981)

1) So Many Sides Of You; 2) Lay Your Lovin' On Me; 3) Secrets; 4) Just My Imagination; 5) Stand Up; 6) Games; 7) If You Think You're Lonely Now; 8) Where Do We Go From Here.

By 1981, Bobby was stuck with Beverly Glen Music, a record label so insignificant that it does not even have its own Wikipedia page. Amazingly, this did not impede the man from undergoing a brief revival of sorts: ʽIf You Think You're Lonely Nowʼ, a romantic «new style R&B» ballad, unexpectedly became a huge hit, and helped pull the album up the charts as well — higher, in fact, than any previous Bobby Womack album. Of course, the well-chosen title and the cool sleeve photo (nice match between guitar and suit color, among other things) helped a lot, but on the whole, this dazzling commercial success requires some effort to understand.

It is definitely true that The Poet reflected a certain shake-up. With disco dead and gone, and R&B beginning to undergo the next stage of transformation — with synthesizers and electronic drums replacing live bands — it was only natural that Bobby, who had already kowtowed to cur­rent trends on his previous two albums, would not be above kowtowing to the latest change in fashion. From that point of view, The Poet sounds more or less like any normal R&B album circa 1981. We do have the synthesizers, and the treated drums, and the echoey backing vocals, and every production aspect typical of those years.

But it is also true that these songs, unlike anything on Roads Of Life, carry some actual meaning. To appreciate the album, it helps a lot if one listens to the acoustic demos for two of its key tracks (ʽGamesʼ and ʽSecretsʼ), appended as bonus tracks to one of the CD issues. They are actually so good that I cannot help wondering how much stronger would the entire album have been if it were just Bobby and his acoustic guitar — naturally, an album like this wouldn't be much of a chart contender, but a legend contender, for sure. ʽGamesʼ, in particular, comes across as a tragic plea for humanity, punctuated by mournful chords and plaintive vocals. When you listen to it in its final incarnation, the mournful chords are gone, replaced by completely expressionless key­boards, and the plaintive vocals are diminished in power by the rest of the arrangement.

Still, that fact alone is enough to realize that at least Bobby is back on an «artistic» track. A few songs dealing with spiritual matters, most of them still dealing with his favorite topic (dissatis­faction with his latest object of desire), but all of them conceived as actual songs and not simply launchpads for mindless (and toothless) grooving. Even the openly dance-oriented tracks like ʽLay Your Lovin' On Meʼ are sung with a level of passion that exceeds any of his disco numbers; and musically, there is a strong soft-jazz streak to them, with pianos and saxophones sometimes rising over the synthesizers and introducing a moody, living vibe that redeems some of these ar­rangements. There may not be any particular masterpieces — or, at least, the arrangements al­most never succeed in bringing out the best in these melodies — but this stuff is not «fodder».

Of course, the album's best known song, as it frequently happens, is arguably one of its worst tracks — ʽIf You Think You're Lonely Nowʼ, a midnight ballad about Bobby dumping his bit­chin' girlfriend (again), is mostly memorable for the endless repetition of its chorus hook and little else (well, Bobby does play some nice jazzy electric licks in the background, but, as usual, they are few and far in between and when I say «background», I really mean it). But if you hear it on the radio and fail to pay attention to its never-ending monotonous coda and then learn with surprise that it was a huge hit for Bobby Womack, do not let it fool you: there is more to The Poet than that one song. The big question is, would you actually care to go back in time and re­cover the soul of this album from under the crappy generic arrangements?

If anything, Bobby should have done the record with a small jazz combo — acoustic guitar, bass, piano, maybe just a little sax, maybe no drums at all — and it would have been a beautiful, oc­casionally deep-reaching experience (do look for these acoustic demos, they are far worthier than the finished product). As it is, The Poet is badly dated through generic misproduction, the songs suffocated by plastic treatment. But even so, I still give the album a thumbs up, since its inten­tions are clearly good — and wherever they are not hampered too much by extra gloss, carried out brilliantly: for instance, ʽJust My Imaginationʼ (not a Temptations cover!) may have been one of the most gorgeous songs recorded by the man.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1

BOB DYLAN: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 1: RARE & UNRELEASED (1961-1963; 1991)

1) Hard Times In New York Town; 2) He Was A Friend Of Mine; 3) Man On The Street; 4) No More Auction Block; 5) House Carpenter; 6) Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues; 7) Let Me Die In My Footsteps; 8) Rambling, Gambling Willie; 9) Talkin' Hava Negeilah Blues; 10) Quit Your Low Down Ways; 11) Worried Blues; 12) Kings­port Town; 13) Walkin' Down The Line; 14) Walls Of Red Wing; 15) Paths Of Victory; 16) Talkin' John Birch Para­noid Blues; 17) Who Killed Davey Moore?; 18) Only A Hobo; 19) Moonshiner; 20) When The Ship Comes In; 21) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 22) Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie.

With three CDs worth of material, recovered from the vaults in surprisingly pristine condition, The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 should arguably count as the best, quality- and quantity-wise, ar­chival release of all time, setting a standard that no artist, to the best of my knowledge, has mana­ged to beat so far, and is not too likely to beat in the visible future, especially since these days, artists tend to leave nothing in the vaults, piling all their goodies and crap on «deluxe» editions of their albums (and perhaps they're right — who the heck will want to bother with their leftovers twenty years from now?).

In the light of this, it makes sense to split the expected single review of this 3-CD compilation into three shorter reviews, one for each of the three volumes, particularly since all of them make good use of CD space, clocking in at just under 80 minutes each = the size of a respectable double LP. And if not double, perhaps, then at least each of these CDs potentially holds a single LP of a quality that would make it a worthwhile contender for anything that Dylan had officially re­leased in his first prime, second prime, and post-prime periods, respectively.

Vol. 1 represents the early years — Dylan's acoustic period, from his first assured recordings made in 1961 and right down to the sessions held for his last and most «formalistic» folk/protest-era album (technically, this also comprises the first three songs off Vol. 2, but they did have to make adjustments for the CD format). Most of the tracks are studio outtakes and demos, with a few live performances of songs that did not make it onto the studio LPs (for political reasons, mostly) thrown in for good measure. Some were quite well known previously, since Dylan never shyed away from displaying all of his work publicly — ʽWalls Of Red Wingʼ, for instance, was given away to Joan Baez, and there is also a brief taste here of the 1962-64 Witmark demos that he recorded for other artists to cover — but most were probably only known to avid bootleggers, whereas the «simple» record-buying public was in for a pleasant shock. As acceptable as Oh Mercy was for 1989, what could it really have on gems like ʽLet Me Die In My Footstepsʼ or ʽQuit Your Low Down Waysʼ?

On a song-by-song basis, Vol. 1 might not stand competition with The Freewheelin', but you could easily split it into an «old-fashioned» half that would be every bit the equal of Bob Dylan and an «anthemic / satirical» half that might, perhaps, even be stronger than The Times They Are A-Changin'. ʽHard Times In New York Townʼ thematically covers the same ground as ʽTalkin' New Yorkʼ, and, although its musical form is even more derivative than the latter's, has the same teen-folksy cockiness — the man's first impression of the big city, conveyed from the provintial point of view: "...it's hard times from the country, livin' down in New York town". ʽHe Was A Friend Of Mineʼ already shows how this rather manipulative and sometimes downright cruel little guy could stir up the most humane emotions with just his guitar and vocal — the song is even more touching in its humbleness and loneliness than the so much better known Byrds cover. And from there on, the highlights just keep coming, too numerous to discuss 'em all.

It is impressive how just about every facet of classic acoustic Bob Dylan that we know and love finds some sort of equivalent here, and how they all work so well despite more or less following the same formulae. Bob's humorous/satirical side is represented by ʽTalkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Bluesʼ, a true story of an excursion boat gone horrendously wrong, and ʽTalkin' John Birch Paranoid Bluesʼ, a funny account of Bob's hunting for commies whose gag may be a little over­done, but is still well worth a chuckle. Then there is Bob the protector of the underprivileged — ʽOnly A Hoboʼ and ʽMan On The Streetʼ are poignant little tales of no-name Joes whose quiet tragism matches the best stuff on Bob Dylan. And, of course, Bob the flag-carrier for the oppres­sed against the system — ʽWho Killed Davey Moore?ʼ — and Bob the anthemic optimist (ʽPaths Of Victoryʼ), and Bob the rover (ʽKingsport Townʼ, ʽWorried Bluesʼ), and Bob the visionary — ʽLet Me Die In My Footstepsʼ is as powerful an anti-war, pro-freedom tune as anything he wrote back then. There is even a bit of Bob the joker (ʽTalkin' Hava Negeilah Bluesʼ — "here's a fo­reign song I learned in U-tah!..."), and a long, long, long bit of Bob the graphomaniac (ʽLast Thoughts On Woody Guthrieʼ — a poem recited live that has very little to do with Woody Guth­rie but very much to do with us wondering how long that guy can keep it up).

Now, if you look at most of these songs long enough, you can probably figure out why most of them, for one reason or another, were left off the original official records. ʽTalkin' John Birch Paranoid Bluesʼ was said to have been left off for legal reasons (Columbia lawyers were afraid of libel suits from the John Birch Society), but, truth be told, it is less sparklingly funny than ʽTal­kin' World War III Bluesʼ that ended up taking its place. ʽLet Me Die In My Footstepsʼ is proud and grand, but still not nearly as monumental as ʽHard Rainʼ, which also ended up replacing it — and so on. Since most of these songs have their counterparts, they will not provide you with sig­nificant additional insight into Dylan, although you will learn lots of interesting new trivia (such as what was the John Birch Society and who really kived Davey Moore and where the hell really is Bear Mountain). But they will give you lots and lots of extra emotional punch if you are at all into early acoustic Dylan. Furthermore, of the three volumes this is the one to contain the largest number of previously unheard songs as opposed to alternate versions — thus, its artistic worth clearly outruns its historical value, and earns it a very natural thumbs up.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Carl Perkins: My Kind Of Country

CARL PERKINS: MY KIND OF COUNTRY (1974)

1) Help Me Dream; 2) You Tore My Heaven To Hell; 3) One More Loser Going Home; 4) Goin' To Memphis; 5) Lord I Sinned Again Last Night; 6) Just As Long; 7) (Let's Get) Dixiefried; 8) Honky Tonk Song; 9) Love Sweet Love; 10) Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town; 11) Never Look Back.

I am not too sure precisely what this title is supposed to mean. If this is really his kind of country, then what exactly would be not his kind of country? A proper logical reading would suggest that, by 1974, the genre of country was dishonored and spoiled beyond recognition, and that Carl's honorable mission, undertaken against all odds, was to restore it to the glory that it used to be. Another, equally justified, logical reading would be that it really was Carl's and nobody else's kind of country — that he himself was reinventing the genre, like Hank Williams or, say, Willie Nelson, and promoting this reinvention in a not-so-humble manner.

Unfortunately, one single listen to this rather uninspiring set of songs is quite enough to let you know that neither of these readings applies, the title simply being a hollow PR gesture, probably imposed on Carl by the label (he was briefly hooked up with Mercury at the time) rather than his own invention. Yes, this is country music, played and arranged rather typically for the early 1970s. Yes, there is not a lot of fiddle or banjo here; slide guitars, keyboards, and subtle orches­tration take their place, meaning that the sound leans more towards the roots-/folk-rock fashion of the epoch than «classic» «old style» country. But that does not make the songs more interesting.

The only thing that redeems the record is that several decades of performance have shaped Carl into a highly expressive, «mature» singer. His voice has deepened a little, gained more thickness and power, so that he fares much better now with sustaining notes and modulating the pitch in mid-air — singing these generic country tunes expertly, with feeling, and, most importantly, in a completely natural manner (no exaggerated Southern drawl or manneristic yodelling). In other words, the songs are generic country, but without any «arch-generic» country trademarks — perhaps from that point of view, after all, this is his kind of country.

Not all of this is sentimental mid-tempo / slow-tempo balladry, either. There is a fairly gritty rendition of ʽGoin' To Memphisʼ by Johnny Cash (arranged as if it were an R'n'B standard by the likes of Jimmy Reed), a rollicking, if rather superfluous, re-recording of Carl's own ʽDixie Friedʼ, and a fun resurrection of the old ʽHonky Tonk Songʼ. The covers do not add a lot to the originals, but it definitely makes more sense to hear these songs sung by Carl than, say, ʽWhole Lotta Sha­kin' Goin' Onʼ, since they do not require letting your hair down and Carl has always had that problem about letting his hair down (not having that much of it to begin with).

Still, compared to the genuinely promising self-reinvention of On Top, My Kind Of Country is a relative disaster — showing that the man was neither able nor willing to capitalize on that new sound, and preferred to retreat back to the tried and true. Lack of ambition is nothing to sneer at, of course, but art without ambition is usually boring (unless one is able to turn «lack of ambition» itself into the biggest ambition the world has ever seen, like J. J. Cale), and My Kind Of Coun­try is a textbook example of that kind of boredom.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Architecture In Helsinki: Now + 4EVA

ARCHITECTURE IN HELSINKI: NOW + 4EVA (2014)

1) In The Future; 2) When You Walk In The Room; 3) I Might Survive; 4) Dream A Little Crazy; 5) (Boom) 4EVA; 6) U Tell Me; 7) Echo; 8) Born To Convince You; 9) 2 Time; 10) April; 11) Before Tomorrow.

Okay, even I have to admit that the idea of crossing indie twee-pop with Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez sounds «totally batshit crazy» rather than «disgustingly commercial». But, in fact, this is exactly what Architecture In Helsinki goes after on their fifth album. Almost any of its songs could have been released by any of today's electropopping teen idols — the idea here being some­thing like, «say, what will happen if we take that glossy dance stuff and deconstruct it a bit, with fewer effects and overdubs, maybe even an occasional touch of lo-fi?..»

Consequently, guitars and non-electronic instruments are almost completely left out of the picture (with but one or two exceptions that I will touch upon later), but the vocal melodies are improved upon — at the risk of losing it, I'd say that the record probably has a higher percentage of catchy chorus hooks than any previous release by the band. However, it is way too late for this circum­stance to be of much help: these songs are catchy in a «Britney» manner, i. e. silly, vapid hooks devoid of humor, intelligence, or human emotion. On my third listen, I was already distinctively getting the feeling of sitting in a sanitized playground designed for little robot kids. If that was the band's intention, they succeeded admirably, but then this is one of those cases where «total adequacy of intent to realization» does not even begin to equal «good music».

Only two of the songs sound like they have anything to do with organic flesh and blood. ʽDream A Little Crazyʼ is an amusing party-oriented «drinking song», melodically a variation on ʽLouie Louieʼ (!) but successfully adding a carnivalesque touch to it. And the closing number ʽBefore Tomorrowʼ is a throwback to the 1970s funk-pop / disco scene that actually features ringing funky guitar riffs, a few lively brass parts, and a credible romantic-optimistic atmosphere that may suck you in without causing any permanent brain damage.

Everything else is... well... synthesizers, drum machines, digital soul distilled to the most primi­tive algorithms, and even Autotune-a-plenty. Everything in «homebrewn» indie mode, but that really don't make it «intertextual», «ironic», or «allegoric» unless you are a big, big friend of these guys and feel yourself obliged to come up with some sort of complex justification. ʽAprilʼ is easily one of the worst songs I have ever had the mispleasure of listening to for reviewing pur­poses — at least on their regular material they do not usually go beyond silly hopping, but this here is a faux-ecstatic autotuned electro-ballad. If it is supposed to be a parody on faux-ecstatic autotuned electro-ballads, they forgot to tell. Sounds pretty sincere to me, even coming from a band still named «Architecture In Helsinki».

In short, this is just one more example — but this time, one of the most obvious and outrageous — of «Eighties' nostalgia» laid on thick on the already relatively barren musical scene of the 2010s. At least when this kind of crappy dance-pop was made in the Eighties, it was celebrating fresh breakthroughs in technology, production, and cultural style: hicky, vapid, silly, but «pro­gressive» in their own way. But nostalgizing for idiocy? No thank you. Thumbs down. This is simply not fun any more, no matter how much they pretend to be having it.

Check "Now + 4EVA" (CD) on Amazon

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Aimee Mann & Ted Leo: The Both

AIMEE MANN: THE BOTH (w. Ted Leo) (2014)

1) The Gambler; 2) Milwaukee; 3) No Sir; 4) Volunteers Of America; 5) Pay For It; 6) You Can't Help Me Now; 7) The Prisoner; 8) Hummingbird; 9) Honesty Is No Excuse; 10) Bedtime Stories; 11) The Inevitable Shove.

Although, technically, this is not at all an «Aimee Mann» album, exactly one half of it does be­long to Aimee Mann, and the Aimee Mann spirit is so pervasive throughout that the record begs being reviewed in this section — especially because it is not highly likely that I will ever get around to writing about its second creative force, the indie rocker Ted Leo, formerly of Citizens Arrest, Chisel, The Sin-Eaters, The Spinanes, The Pharmacists, and The Whatchamacallit (a.k.a. «Gee, I've Been In So Many Bands Now, I Couldn't Remember Their Fucking Names, What Am I, Fucking Bob Dylan Or Something»)?

Anyway, «The Both» is indeed a 50-50 collaborative project between Aimee and Mr. Leo, who had begun with a joint concert tour in 2012, and eventually ended up in the recording studio with each other, pooling their respective talents to generate forty minutes of previously non-existent musical vibes. And I do mean pooling: both artists worked together on every bit of the material, rather than just doing it Abbey Road-style, right down to singing together on each song (in com­plete unison or, more frequently, in lead / backup mode). And it shows: while I am not too fa­miliar with Ted Leo's usual style, there is definitely an Aimee Mann musical presence inside each of the tracks. Even in the unexpected choice of ʽHonesty Is No Excuseʼ, an obscure track from Thin Lizzy's self-titled debut of 1971, as the album's only cover version.

Ted Leo's main role, as it seems, is in making The Both Aimee's «rockiest» album since God knows when — maybe since the days of her early solo albums, before Magnolia forever locked her in a state of introspective maturity. The arrangements are classic «indie rock» — crunchy, distorted, but not particularly heavy electric guitars playing time-honored folk-rock chord sequen­ces, with practically nothing standing between them, the vocals, and the rhythm section. The re­sult is a little monotonous, but those fans of Aimee who'd spent the last fifteen years complaining about her losing power might think of it as one big ball of compensation for all those years.

The songs, unfortunately, are far from spectacularly written or innovative. Emotionally, all is drenched in Aimee's usual intellectual-melancholic juices, which Leo is only too happy to share — whenever he joins her in a duet or a slice of harmony, it's like two old lovers grumbling about whether their past was any good and whether they still have a future to live out. If anything, The Both is really close in spirit to The Forgotten Arm, which, if you remember, told the story of two unhappy people, but was sung only by one of them — now that mistake has been corrected, and Leo is the out-of-luck boxer, and Aimee is his girlfriend. Something like ʽNo Sirʼ even borrows some of the chords and much of the atmosphere from ʽKing Of The Jailhouseʼ, although the final result is much more timid and less openly cathartic. And a song title like ʽYou Can't Help Me Nowʼ — well, remember ʽI Can't Help You Anymoreʼ? Quiet desperation is no longer just the English way. The bitch has spread over to the States, and is catching quickly.

Only one moment stands out for me: ʽHummingbirdʼ, a song that mostly sticks true to its title, leisurely humming its one-phrase way through the time passages, culminates in an ear-splitting psychedelic chord right after the final refrain ("I got a message from the hummingbird...") that suddenly, for a brief moment, pushes the song into breathtaking «astral» mode. But then it ends — instead of exploring that move further, following the hummingbird to the stars, they just sort of let it out of their hands, gone in a flash: a great moody idea cut too short for comfort.

Other than that, it's just a decent enough album for fans of Aimee (no idea how enjoyable it would be for fans of the other guy). We could simply admit that she is old and spent, but Char­mer had just shown that this was far from the case. More likely, it is simply that these two people are not a particularly good match for each other, and each of them should probably do his/her own schtick, without trying to work out some sort of compromised average. In my case, I'd like to hear more Aimee and less Leo (who sounds absolutely colorless as a singer to me, though I'm sure he is a good pal and a sentient human being, if the two took up together so well); others might wish for the opposite. I'd also like to have elegant melodic resolutions instead of choruses that simply run themselves into the ground to make way for memorability (ʽInevitable Shoveʼ, ʽPay For Itʼ, etc.). I do give the album a weak thumbs up, since it is honest and it was fun to hear Aimee pick up the basic dirty rock'n'roll guitar after such a long break. But it certainly isn't even close to «essential Aimee Mann» — way too lazy songwriting.

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

Friday, May 23, 2014

Black Flag: In My Head

BLACK FLAG: IN MY HEAD (1985)

1) Paralyzed; 2) The Crazy Girl; 3) Black Love; 4) White Hot; 5) In My Head; 6) Out Of This World; 7) I Can See You; 8) Drinking And Driving; 9) Retired At 21; 10) Society's Tease; 11) It's All Up To You; 12) You Let Me Down.

Surprise — for the first time... ever?, here is a Black Flag album that does not sound significantly different from its predecessor. For once, the band has sort of «agreed» to the sound they had got­ten going for themselves, and settled upon refining and perfecting it rather than coming up with some new radical reinvention of image. And it works: In My Head reaches a tight, well-kept balance between jazz, pop, punk, and metal, or, if you wish, between free-form experimentation, pleasant catchiness, pissed-off frustration, and brutal crunch.

The album shows Rollins receding ever farther in the dark, uncomfortable corners of his subcon­scious: long gone are the days when this band still used to remember that some of the world's troubles may be directly ascribed to «The System», and now Henry is busy full-time exorcising his, my, and your demons, one by one, exposing Man (the species, that is) for the inherently ag­gressive, sexually imbalanced, mentally challenged nature freak that he (or she) has no way of not being. Curiously, the album is occasionally said to have begun life as an instrumental venture, in­tended by Ginn to be released as his first solo album. But then Henry came along, listened to the tracks, and wrote a bunch of lyrics for them — and they fit in so well that the solo career was postponed. Not for long, but we do have ourselves one more Black Flag classic.

Case in point: the title track, a mix of stern martial metal with sadistic experimental soloing — Ginn trying to cross Tony Iommi with Ornette Coleman one more time — over which Henry's "I WAN-na BE the BUL-let that goes RIP-ping through your SKULL..." flies like a bunch of bullets that go ripping through your skull. It's one of those songs on which everything comes together in its right place. Yes, Rollins can be an irritating personality, and Ginn's music often comes across as meaningless noise, but every once in a while, when they put their minds and not just their guts to it, they lock together like nothing else.

Maybe the most obvious place here where they lock together like this is ʽDrinking And Drivingʼ, probably the album's most easily noticeable song — simple, repetitive, nagging riff and a chorus of provocative imperatives help it rise above everything else, at least on first listen. They had a video done for it, too, full of car crash images and other chaotic bits, so that the song can function both as a tremendous piece of anti-drunk-driving propaganda and, if you wish, a larger metaphor for the perils brought about by erratic anti-social behavior (not exactly a prime time topic for a «hardcore punk» band, but what sort of asshole would want to pigeonhole Black Flag together with, say, Agnostic Front?). The best thing about it, though, is that Ginn's twisted, atonal solos, which he usually inserts in every song regardless of its nature and purpose, are directly symbolic in this case — musically recreating chaos and catastrophe — and work in full tandem with Henry's iron-voiced "drink! drink! don't think! drive! kill!...".

Some of the songs go down really deep: ʽThe Crazy Girlʼ is stuck somewhere between nympho­mania and homicidal urges as Henry fantasizes on circa-Jack the Ripper topics, and ʽBlack Loveʼ sure ain't about an innocent flirt with an Afro-American passion. Then again, you'd probably think of Jack the Ripper or even worse things, too, had you been exposed to these nasty riffs and gotten the urge to set them to appropriate lyrics. But there are also faster, simpler, «brighter» numbers that recall the old-school Black Flag of Damaged — most importantly, ʽRetired At 21ʼ, as good a slice of catchy «pop-punk» (in the good sense of the word) as the band ever came up with, and ʽIt's All Up To Youʼ, a surprisingly tight piece of production on which Bill Stevenson uses a sharper, thinner, cracklier drum tone than he usually does, making the whole thing sound atmospherically closer to classic Ramones; fans of old school punk might very well find this song to be the major highlight on the album.

There is still a small bunch of rather yawn-inducing duds (ʽWhite Hotʼ, I think, is five wasted minutes of pointless sludge), and, with a couple of exceptions, the individual songs are not ama­zing enough to make us forget the general black monotonousness — yet the album meets and exceeds its goals, and, on the whole, is probably the best proof that Black Flag's continued exis­tence post-Damaged was not at all meaningless. It might have been too outrageously experimen­tal, or too unnecessarily provocative, but meaningless, no. Thumbs up.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Billy Joel: 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert

BILLY JOEL: 2000 YEARS: THE MILLENNIUM CONCERT (2000)

1) Beethoven's Ninth; 2) Big Shot; 3) Movin' Out; 4) Summer Highland Falls; 5) The Ballad Of Billy The Kid; 6) Don't Ask Me Why; 7) New York State Of Mind; 8) I've Loved These Days; 9) My Life; 10) Allentown; 11) Prelude / Angry Young Man; 12) Only The Good Die Young; 13) I Go To Extremes; 14) Goodnight Saigon; 15) We Didn't Start The Fire; 16) Big Man On Mulberry Street; 17) 2000 Years; 18) Auld Lang Syne; 19) River Of Dreams; 20) Scenes From An Italian Restaurant; 21) Dance To The Music; 22) Honky Tonk Women; 23) It's Still Rock And Roll To Me; 24) You May Be Right; 25) This Night.

While River Of Dreams was slowly running dry into oblivion, Billy Joel was not doing much of anything — divorcing his next wife, putting on a little weight, growing himself a bit of a wise old man beard, losing some hair off the top of his head for compensation, and collecting enough ro­yalties to eventually become an institution. And who but a whole institution should have had the honor of welcoming in the new millennium at Madison Square Garden, NYC? It's been a long, hard, excruciating road all the way from JC to BJ, but here we are at last. At the center of the Uni­verse is Earth, and at the center of the Earth is New York City, and at the center of New York City stands Madison Square Garden, and in the center of Madison Square Garden sits Billy Joel, playing his piano and telling us that science and poetry rule in the new world to come, and what an amazing future there will be.

Naturally, it would not have been in line with Billy's usual modesty to appropriate this entire important mission all to himself, and the stage at MSG that night was shared by multiple guests, reflecting large, notorious parts of musical history. As you can see from the track listing, we also have here The Rolling Stones (brilliantly impersonated by Billy Joel on ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ), Sly & The Family Stone (with Billy Joel subtly sitting in for the band on ʽDance To The Musicʼ), Robert Burns (impressively recreated by Billy Joel with a couple verses from ʽAuld Lang Syneʼ), and no less than Ludwig van Beethoven himself (I am not sure if Billy Joel himself is playing all the orchestra parts and singing all the choral parts on the intro sections of the 9th Symphony, but I certainly wouldn't be surprised if he were). A little extra research on the cuts that did not make it onto the 2-CD edition shows that Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin were there on that night, too, transforming the already unforgettable event into a completely supernatural phan­tasmagoria, but the No. 1 Recording Company in Heaven, for selfish reasons, would not release them from their Doomsday contract, so their contributions had to be scrapped from the official album. You can, however, ascertain their presence through various bootleg versions (beware, though, as they do not bear God's official seal of approval).

Needless to say, it would have been very surprising if all that star presence and the grandiosity of the occasion itself did not go just a teensy-weensy bit over Billy's head. And, as a matter of fact, it's a good thing they do, because The Millennium Concert can be quite hilarious in places. It is not up to me to guess the amounts of alcohol consumed prior to the show (and no matter what the amount, I would never blame the man for needing a little stimulation to overcome the nerves), but Billy's banter with the audience should probably be taken as a hint. «First of all, I wanna thank all of you for paying those ridiculously expensive ticket prices... I don't know who bought those $999 jobs, I might have gone for that if Hendrix came back, you know?.. How many people here are rich?... [boo boo boo]... Oh, so you paid, like, those scalper prices? Well, I'm sorry...» Allow me to refrain from further comments.

Oh yes, the music. Well, Billy's voice has deepened a little, which probably empowers him to do more of that «rock and roll stuff», or to sing some of the older tunes in a more hard-rock manner (the opening ʽBig Shotʼ, for instance), but every once in a while, champagne literally or figura­tively goes to his head, and he turns a certain song into an over-drawn, over-sung showpiece of the drunk variety — ʽNew York State Of Mindʼ was never a subtle masterpiece to begin with, but here it is turned into a screamfest, and then culminates in a grossly overdone coda where the man literally sounds as if he is taking a really painful dump, suffering from a serious constipation problem. Is that a typical thing for New Yorkers? Hopefully not. Does that mean that a «New York state of mind» is really just a bowel problem? Not a nice thing to suggest when you're sitting at the center of the Universe, surrounded by rich New Yorkers who'd just bought a bunch of $999 tickets for scalper prices.

Questions, questions, questions. Why does ʽDon't Ask Me Whyʼ become ʽDon't Axe Me Whyʼ? It's not as if we were in the deep South or anything. Why does ʽMy Lifeʼ open up with a bass-heavy, quasi-hard-rock introduction, when the song itself has nothing to do with this stylistics? Why is there only one song from Billy's pre-1976 period? (Apparently, ʽSouvenirʼ and ʽPiano Manʼ were cut from the final release, but that does not eliminate the question). And, most impor­tantly, did Billy really write ʽ2000 Yearsʼ seven years before the show with the secret goal of performing that particular song right before the clock struck twelve and the date changed to 2000? (And even more importantly, was he aware that only 1999 years had passed up to that point and, strictly speaking, we were still living in the old millennium?).

But questions aside, the show itself wasn't too bad. Even the «guest spots» were done professio­nally enough to carry their «symbolic» value, regardless of the general stiffness with which the band launches into Sly & The Family Stone's funky groove, or of the fact that Billy's guitar play­er for the evening, Tommy Byrnes, does not seem to get which particular licks make the guitar solo on ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ into more than just another guitar solo. The setlist, or what of it made onto the album, is hardly problematic, predictably skewed in favor of classic hits, but what else are you expected to play before people who bought tickets for scalper prices? Play it wrong and they just might want to scalp you on their way out. The important thing is that the audience does seem to feel like they're getting their money's worth, and Billy sounds so drunk that he seems to believe he is having himself a good time as well, so everybody's happy, and the con­jured benevolent spirits were just enough in quantity to help us overcome the Y2K problem, and — get this — Billy Joel actually remembers all the lyrics to ʽWe Didn't Start The Fireʼ in the correct order even under intoxication, which might just be the major Herculean feat of the past 2000 years. How do you get to Madison Square Garden on the eve of the new millennium? Prac­tice... your history trivia.  

Check "2000 Years: The Millennium Concert" (CD) on Amazon
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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bobby Womack: Roads Of Life

BOBBY WOMACK: ROADS OF LIFE (1979)

1) The Roads Of Life; 2) How Could You Break My Heart; 3) Honey Dripper Boogie; 4) The Roots In Me; 5) What Are You Doin'; 6) Give It Up; 7) Mr. D.J., Don't Stop The Music; 8) I Honestly Love You.

Bobby's label-hopping begins in earnest here: no longer welcome at Columbia, he is switching over to Arista, for which he only made this one album before getting the sack. And do we even need to wonder why? Bland, hookless, run-of-the-mill disco grooves and sentimental ballads that pick up right where Pieces left off and downgrade the artist one or two more notches. This time around, old-school «funky grit» is eliminated completely, so that the entire album flows by with­out demanding any of your attention. Just fourty minutes of unnoticeable background muzak for healthy clubbing. You go on the floor to stretch out your limbs during the fast ones, then back to the table for a drink and a chat during the slow ones. You don't even remember the dude's name, not even if ʽMr. DJʼ has taken the time to announce it.

The most dreadful thing to realize is that all of the songs, except for the last one, are self-penned this time. The only choice for a cover is quite telling: ʽI Honestly Love Youʼ, a 1974 hit for Olivia Newton-John, a pretty awful song when it came out, and Bobby's attempt to inject some «genuine soul» in it is about as successful as trying to force-feed amphetamines to someone who's been paralyzed from head to toes. In reality, this can only mean one thing: by 1979, lost and confused in the whirlwind of musical change and personal troubles, Bobby had become com­pletely separated from good taste. Oh well; it's not as if he was the only one.

The less said about the «originals», the better. Deep lovers of soul in all of its varieties might find something enjoyable about ʽHow Could You Break My Heartʼ (easily done, Bobby, as long as you keep seducing your ladies with this sort of material; the tacky «phone conversation» alone at the beginning of the track makes it unpalatable), or about ʽThe Roots In Meʼ, a romantic duet with singing lady Melissa Manchester, but probably even those who are ready to forgive almost everything will find it very hard to become inspired by the interminably boring disco grooves that take themselves too seriously to generate the required fun quotient — ʽMr. DJ, Don't Stop The Musicʼ is almost like a philosophical piece in itself, even if there is absolutely nothing going on in the song. As in, you know, somebody told us that there has to be this four-on-the-floor thing, and some wah-wah guitar, and some strings, and some chicks singing backup in the background, and that's, uh, the way it goes. Hey, how come Mr. DJ stopped the music after all? What do you mean, he never even began it? What's wrong with the way we're doing it?

What is wrong is that it's all deadly dull. Disco works if you really agree to stoop to its level — make it raunchy, or at least make it catchy, and there's a guilty pleasure for you all right. But on Roads Of Life, just like on Pieces, Bobby still works from an essentially «polite» point of view, incapable of crossing the line. And he ain't the Gibb brothers, either, having always placed his faith in the groove and the soulfulness rather than melody, so there is no chance of any of these songs attaining the level of a ʽNight Feverʼ. In the end, it's just another forgettable embarrassment, and a thumbs down without any regret.

Check "Roads Of Life" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Bob Dylan: Biograph

BOB DYLAN: BIOGRAPH (1985)

CD I: 1) Lay Lady Lay; 2) Baby Let Me Follow You Down; 3) If Not For You; 4) I'll Be Your Baby Tonight; 5) I'll Keep It With Mine*; 6) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 7) Blowin' In The Wind; 8) Masters Of War; 9) Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; 10) Percy's Song*; 11) Mixed-Up Confusion*; 12) Tombstone Blues; 13) Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar; 14) Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine; 15) Like A Rolling Stone; 16) Lay Down Your Weary Tune*; 17) Subterranean Homesick Blues; 18) I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)*.
CD II: 1) Visions Of Johanna*; 2) Every Grain Of Sand; 3) Quinn The Eskimo*; 4) Mr. Tambourine Man; 5) Dear Landlord; 6) It Ain't Me Babe; 7) You Angel You; 8) Million Dollar Bash; 9) To Ramona; 10) You're A Big Girl Now*; 11) Abandoned Love*; 12) Tangled Up In Blue; 13) It's All Over Now, Baby Blue; 14) Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?*; 15) Positively 4th Street*; 16) Isis*; 17) Jet Pilot*.
CD III: 1) Caribeean Wind*; 2) Up To Me*; 3) Baby, I'm In The Mood For You*; 4) I Wanna Be Your Lover*; 5) I Want You; 6) Heart Of Mine*; 7) On A Night Like This; 8) Just Like A Woman; 9) Romance In Durango*; 10) Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power); 11) Gotta Serve Somebody; 12) I Believe In You; 13) Time Passes Slowly; 14) I Shall Be Released*; 15) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 16) All Along The Watchtower; 17) Solid Rock; 18) Forever Young*.

Our long journey through The Amazing World of Dylan's Vaults begins here, as early as 1985, when the people at Columbia, possibly suspecting that Bobby has finally outlived his greatness, decided to summarize it like no other greatness had been summarized before — with a sprawling, pompously packaged, multi-disc package: five vinyl LPs, and then, a year later, three CDs in the then still brand-new and expensive format. Apparently, this was one of the first, if not the first, «boxset», starting off a trend that will never die until there is still at least a small army of diehard fans in the world to make the expenses pay off.

Usually, I begin every review of this kind by saying how much I dislike the idea of the «boxset both for the casual and the serious fan», and Biograph is no exception. It is certainly capable of giving you a very good idea of who is Bob Dylan, why he matters, and how much of an exciting artistic journey he has had in twenty years. Yet certainly, casual fans and neophytes have no rea­son to listen to most of the rarities included here — especially if the rarities are included at the ex­pense of such seminal tracks as ʽA Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fallʼ, ʽIt's Alright Maʼ, ʽDesolation Rowʼ, ʽHurricaneʼ, among but a few. And the serious fans — why in the world would they want to pay for three CDs' worth of music when they really only get one, at the very best?

Perhaps it would have made better sense if the album(s) were at least properly sequenced, to present a logical musical history (as it would later be done on The Bootleg Series). But the se­quencing is deliberately messy. Statistically, it does look like the first CD is a bit more on the early acoustic side, the second one concentrates a bit more on the mid- and late Sixties, and the third one has a bit more material from the 1970s and 1980s, but that is, at best, still just a limp tendency. Placing the studio version of ʽI Want Youʼ next to a live rendition of ʽHeart Of Mineʼ hardly seems like the right thing to do — perhaps it reflects somebody's personal philosophy of Dylan's music, but whose? And why?..

Probably for historical reasons, and also because no better alternative has been presented so far, Biograph has never gone out of print. But its main value today still remains in the approximately ninety minutes of music that are either unavailable elsewhere, or remain scattered on various compilations. The real bad news is that it ties together most of the pre-Bootleg Series rarities, but not all of them: the most glaring omission arguably being ʽWhen I Paint My Masterpieceʼ, the single version of which was originally released in 1971 and still remains openly available only on various greatest hits compilations. Meaning that Biograph won't even be able to solve the basic demands of the quintessential completist.

Still, none of this is arguably Dylan's fault (I am not sure of how much the man himself was in­volved in the project — most of the time, Columbia made all these decisions without him), and there is no question that most of these ninety minutes of single A-sides, outtakes, demos, alter­nate versions, and live performances are outstanding. Just a few highlights here to tickle the fancy:

— no Dylan portrait circa 1965 may be complete without access to ʽCan You Please Crawl Out Your Window?ʼ and especially ʽPositively 4th Streetʼ, which so belongs on Highway 61 Revisi­ted that it's not even funny: unquestionably the angriest, most vitriolic song ever written by the man, just a lengthy, monotonous, unstoppable, exhilarating spew of venom set to an unforgettable folk-rock organ riff that most resembles a triumphant, self-confident whistle — as the artist takes a step back and surveys with pleasure the hacked and mutilated limbs of his enemies' bodies. (Bob would, of course, later deny that ʽPositively 4th Streetʼ was about the folk purists who thought themselves betrayed by his going electric — but, as rare as it is for Dylan, the lyrics speak for themselves in a most straightforward manner: "you say I let you down...", "you say you lost your faith...", "I used to be among the crowd you're in with...", etc.).;

— ʽMixed-Up Confusionʼ is the man's first ever single, and it's... well, not electric, but it is re­corded with a complete rhythm section and at breakneck speed. Think any of the songs on Bob Dylan with added drums, bass, and piano and sped up to a decent rockabilly tempo. Fascinating? Perhaps not that much. Fun? Definitely. Remember, Bobby Zimmerman started out as a rock-and-roller in his early teens, and maybe his early folk career wouldn't have been nearly as exci­ting if it didn't have some of that «rock'n'roll rebel» essence left over in it;

— at least two electric-era outtakes, ʽI'll Keep It With Mineʼ and ʽI Wanna Be Your Loverʼ, are also classic 1965 songs in their own rights; the latter was probably shelved because of extreme variational dependency on the Beatles' ʽI Wanna Be Your Manʼ, although, of course, the Beatles' repetitive chorus is only taken here as a jump-off point (most likely, it just got stuck in Bob's mind one day and he decided to play ball). The musical arrangement, carried here by the Hawks, is a little less inventive than the usual standard of Highway 61, but I guess that, with a little more work, the song might have carved out its own strong identity;

— from the latter days, ʽAbandoned Loveʼ is a lively violin-carried tune from the Desire sessions that was hacked off to make way for ʽJoeyʼ (!) — a sacrilegious decision in the eyes of some of the fans, I guess, although I do admit that the song is a little too close melodically to ʽBlack Dia­mond Bayʼ to satisfy the diversity requirements that Bob set for himself on that album. And then there is one of those famed outtakes from the 1981 sessions, ʽCaribbean Windʼ, a six-minute epic that never made it onto Shot Of Love for unclear reasons; an inspired, anthemic performance, even if not particularly heavy on hooks (its most «memorable» element is the imitation of the wind in question through a series of inhaling and exhaling noises, which is either funny or irrita­ting, but hardly an inspirational find).

Lesser finds involve some decent live recordings, alternate versions of which from the same tours would eventually be released in a better context through the Bootleg Series (ʽVisions Of Johan­naʼ and ʽI Don't Believe Youʼ from the 1966 tour; ʽIsisʼ and ʽRomance In Durangoʼ from the 1975 tour); an alternate version of ʽShelter From The Stormʼ with completely different and, I'd say, better lyrics (ʽUp To Meʼ); an early, repetitive, almost trance-inducing folk epic from 1963 (ʽPercy's Songʼ); and some other stuff that would take too much time and space to discuss. In any case, what has been listed is already enough to call this first batch of «Dylan rarities» an essential listen — and with our current digital possibilities, it is easy to extract and re-sequence it in your favorite order, although I sure wish Columbia would do it on an official level someday.

As a final trivia, the liner notes here were written by Cameron Crowe, who knows his Dylan fairly well — the essay is a fun and informative read, for the neophyte at least — but as for the song info, it could certainly have used more actual information (such as, for instance, the names of the players) and a little less rambling. Much to Crowe's honor, he lets Dylan himself do most of the rambling (almost every track is accompanied by some of Bob's thoughts on the subject), but one must always remember that Dylan's words usually only reflect Dylan's current state-of-mind, and it is quite likely that his stories on these songs circa 2014 would be completely dif­ferent (even where facts, not opinions, are concerned) from the same stories circa 1985. After all, the man has never had any stabilized center of gravity, so what can you expect?

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Carl Perkins: On Top

CARL PERKINS: ON TOP (1969)

1) Superfool; 2) I'm Gonna Set My Foot Down; 3) A Lion In The Jungle; 4) Baby, What You Want Me To Do; 5) Soul Beat; 6) Riverboat Annie; 7) Champaign, Illinois; 8) Power Of My Soul; 9) Brown Eyed Handsome Man; 10) C. C. Rider.

This is fun! In the wake of Elvis' «comeback» triumph in the late 1960s, record companies sud­denly decided that there may be some sort of market for the formerly out-of-fashion rockabilly veterans, after all, and few living rockabilly veterans were more out of fashion than Carl Perkins, so Carl Perkins was among the first ones to be given a chance to re-prove himself with a brand new LP. Titling it On Top was, perhaps, a bit of a stretch, but who knows? It might have helped it sell a few dozen more copies. Some people, as they walk into record stores, do feel themselves instinctively attracted to whatever seems to be «On Top», even if it really doesn't.

Top or bottom, though, the album is quite surprisingly good — and quite unpredictable, if you judge Carl's chances by the uneven and stylistically obsolete material he had been putting out for Columbia throughout the 1960s. The sound has been upgraded to match the times: you have elec­tric organs, fuzz effects, even wah-wah pedals, and, of course, the entire arsenal of late Sixties musical production to help Carl get along. But, much more importantly, On Top introduces sty­listic diversity and various modest elements of experimentation. In fact, apart from Carl's singing and some of his trademark guitar licks, the album is almost unrecognizable as coming from a «Perkins line of production» — and not at all in a bad way!

Original compositions here are few and far in between, but it does not matter: the idea here is not to prove that Carl Perkins can still dazzle the world with his songwriting, it is to prove that he can survive in the world of 1969, entertaining people by combining the usual fun Carl Perkins spirit with new forms of music-making. So he covers something like Chuck Berry's ʽBrown Eyed Handsome Manʼ, backed by a moody electric organ and playing a bunch of wah-wah solos, and it comes out all right — giving the song a gruffer, grumblier aura than the oh-so-happy original, but then, when you think of it, the lyrics of the song have always allowed for an «uncomfortable» interpretation of the message.

The true highlights of the album, however, are of a more recent origin. There is ʽChampaign, Il­linoisʼ, another wah-wah-driven blues-rocker, co-written by Carl with Bob Dylan during the lat­ter's Nashville phase; the hookline ("I certainly do enjoy / Champaign, Illinois") walks the line between silly, threatening, and phonetically irresistable, and may easily linger on in your head for weeks. There is Ronnie Self's obscure swamp-rocker ʽLion In The Jungleʼ, here adorned with an extra piano riff borrowed directly from the Beatles' ʽHey Bulldogʼ for extra «ferociousness», and sung by Carl in a delightfully insinuating tone. And then there is what could only be construed as Carl's own answer to Creedence's ʽProud Maryʼ — ʽRiverboat Annieʼ, which even uses some of the same chords, and packs every bit as much fun as the Fogerty song, though not as much of its stateliness and anthemic nature. ʽSuperfoolʼ, written by a friend of Carl's, is also a great rocker, once you get past its first-few-bars gimmick of incorporating the ʽEntry Of The Gladiatorsʼ theme into the organ accompaniment. And ʽPower Of My Soulʼ, an exercise in «minimalistic Memphis soul», as we might call it, is quite a touching number — much better, I'd say, than most of Carl's formulaic attempts at country balladeering throughout the decade.

All in all, these sharply restricted 25 minutes (and the people at Columbia are being generous!) are well worth your attention if you are at all interested in learning how all them 1950s rockers used to fare in the «past their prime» years, and why is it that we almost never know anything about those periods. Much of it has to do with non-musical reasons, such as lack of proper pro­motion and predictable prejudice — in all honesty, On Top, while nowhere near «cutting edge» for 1969, is still every bit as good as a whole swarm of second- and third-rate records by rock artists put out that year that we still remember. I mean, just off the top of my head, I'd take On Top any day over something like Steppenwolf's At Your Birthday Party or Mott The Hoople's self-titled debut. But who'd give it to me without my having to dig it out? Nobody. Which is why this particular thumbs up does really matter. Now you go and dig it out.

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