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Monday, June 30, 2014

Bill Withers: Live At Carnegie Hall

BILL WITHERS: LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL (1973)

1) Use Me; 2) Friend Of Mine; 3) Ain't No Sunshine; 4) Grandma's Hands; 5) World Keeps Going Around; 6) Let Me In Your Life; 7) Better Off Dead; 8) For My Friend; 9) I Can't Write Left-Handed; 10) Lean On Me; 11) Lonely Town, Lonely Street; 12) Hope She'll Be Happier; 13) Let Us Love; 14) Harlem / Cold Baloney.

Well, apparently it does not take that much practice to get to Carnegie Hall — the bare minimum is to have yourself a No. 1 single with clap-along potential. Not that Bill Withers did not deserve a show at Carnegie Hall on October 6, 1972, or a live double album memorizing the event, but it is a little ironic how quickly he got there, especially keeping in mind that his two first albums easily convey the impression of an introvert loner, hardly fit for the large stage at all.

I must say that the concert performance, despite actually having happened, does not dispel that impression. Like a typical R&B show, it incorporates some lengthy groove-based workouts: ʽUse Meʼ, opening the proceedings, is stretched out from its original length to around eight minutes (could have been shorter, but Bill does a second re-run of the jam section at the crowd's request), and ʽHarlemʼ, closing the show, runs for about thirteen minutes, mutating into another funky jam, sarcastically titled ʽCold Baloneyʼ.

In a way, it is cold baloney: Bill's backing band is no James Brown Orchestra or Parliament, and Bill himself is not much of a crowd stimulant — he can cer­tainly lead the audience in an R&B ritual, entrancing them with a couple looped lines from ʽShake 'Em On Downʼ, but his talents in that sphere are nothing out of the ordinary; it's more like he is engaging in a genre-obliging con­vention here. In fact, even the main groove of ʽUse Meʼ, converted from clavinet to guitar, seems a bit limp and toothless when compared to the studio original. The audience, still under the fresh spell of the song, did not seem to mind, but in retrospect, I am not sure whether anybody would want to trade in the studio version for the live run.

The show's greatness certainly lies elsewhere — in between the obligatory dance-oriented book­marks, the material is gradually unwrapping like a multi-angled portrait of Bill Withers, «the thinking man's R&B artist» and an all-around interesting person. First, there's some incredibly cool stage banter, probably some of the best you'll ever get on a live R&B album, ranging from innocent, but funny jokes concerning members of the band ("on bass, we got cool Melvin Dun­lap... Melvin's so quiet, he said eight words last year, and six of those were 'airport'...") to fabu­lously worded accounts of his past, such as the one that introduces ʽGrandma's Handsʼ and, to­gether with the song itself, should now probably count as the coolest eulogy that anybody ever gave to his grannie in show business. Bill's feelings towards the ladies (ʽLet Me In Your Lifeʼ) and the Vietnam War (ʽI Can't Write Left-Handedʼ) are also made known in a manner that is sensitive, intelligent, and reasonably funny at the same time (well, «funny» in case of the ladies, that is, not the Vietnam War).

But, of course, the banter is still only secondary next to the songs themselves: we have faithful renditions of lots of classics, not particularly different from the studio versions but sung with the same combination of abandon, introspection, and technique (the extended "she's gone" bit at the end of ʽHope She'll Be Happier With Himʼ draws excited audience applause, as does the "I know I know..." trick on ʽAin't No Sunshineʼ), and then, most importantly, there is a bunch of new songs here that never made it onto any official studio LP. Of these, ʽWorld Keeps Going Aroundʼ is a dark confessional, sort of a personal exorcism set to a bubbling mid-tempo funk groove; ʽFor My Friendʼ is equally shivery, foreboding blues-rock with a particularly gloomy bassline and a wah-wah lead croaking in the darkness (a bit of an unsettling background for a tune that allegedly deals with the issue of making up among friends — unless the friend in question is Satan himself, of course); and the already mentioned ʽI Can't Write Left-Handedʼ is a repetitive, but haunting groove, supported by the band's collective graveyard harmonies. Subtle and moving tribute to the dead, with one leg in the old Afro-American tradition and the other one well in the present.

There is no evident reason for us to call this one of the greatest live albums of the decade: Bill's band is competent, but restrained (which is probably due more to the bandleader's conscious will than to lack of experience, since most of the members were professionals, recruited from the wreck of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band), the songs are mostly not «reinvented» live, and Bill's commitment to the performance is pretty much at the same high (but not «hyper-high») level in the studio and in the live hall. But the general atmosphere of the event, which cannot really be described in words, makes the experience as a whole very rewarding; there is a certain naturalness and completeness to Bill Withers here, in this long setting, that could be missed on the much shorter studio records.

My only gripe is that the long jam sections should have probably been sacrificed to make way for better songs (so much great stuff on Still Bill that is not featured here!) — I under­stand the decision to frame the «Bill Withers soliloquoy» with a few numbers that make the listener feel as one with the performer, it's just that this guy here is one performer who has a far better chance to get under your skin when he is singing dark odes to loneliness to the solitary sound of an acoustic guitar than when he gets you to clap his hands and stomp your feet along with the band. Oh well, standard laws of the world of entertainment, and, after all, Bill was never a self-conscious «rebel» against the laws, which only emphasizes his humbleness. Thumbs up.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Black Keys: Turn Blue

THE BLACK KEYS: TURN BLUE (2014)

1) Weight Of Love; 2) In Time; 3) Turn Blue; 4) Fever; 5) Year In Review; 6) Bullet In The Brain; 7) It's Up To You Now; 8) Waiting On Words; 9) 10 Lovers; 10) In Our Prime; 11) Gotta Get Away.

If, for some reason, you happened to miss out on Brothers and El Camino and have stumbled upon this record right after Rubber Factory, prepare yourself for a shock comparable with arri­ving at... well, let's say Genesis' We Can't Dance right after Foxtrot. Or try to imagine AC/DC doing a disco album. Not altogether impossible — with a little overworking of the fantasy machine, you could see Angus Young adapting his guitar style to the good old four-on-the-floor. (In fact, they almost came close to it on a couple songs off Highway To Hell).

Although it's not as if there were no going back altogether, Turn Blue sees the finalization of the transformation of the original Black Keys into something completely different. Many critics and fans alike have blamed this on the ever increasing influence of Danger Mouse, who they accuse of practically running this band now and adapting them to his own musical taste and vision. I have a hard time accepting that — unless he keeps Dan and Patrick on drugs or something, these guys don't really look like they could be so easily manipulated into sacrificing their identity and becoming the willing slaves of their producer. More grounded would be an accusation of «selling out»: the success of El Camino has brought The Black Keys to the attention of a much larger fanbase than the old blues-rock revival crowds, and so it could be expected that they might want to go on moving in that same «commercial» direction — and simply retain Danger Mouse as their good luck charm. «If he can get us to No. 2, surely he can get us to No. 1». And that he did.

But even so, «commercial» is such a vague term these days that there is little sense in trying to use it as an expletive. In the 1980s, for instance, if you went «commercial», this meant a very well defined style of production and musical values. In 2014, there is a range of «commercial» artists that covers all the vast space between Katy Perry and Lana del Rey, so what exactly would count as a «sellout»? And although Turn Blue does sound «modern» in its choice of production techniques, glossiness of sound, and electronic seasoning, its melodic backbone (like most of the melodic backbones of 2014, for that matter), hails from quite a chronologically different era.

In its relatively diverse array of styles, Turn Blue sounds like the band's declaration of love for the Seventies, a decade in which neither of the two band members spent any reasonable amount of time (Dan was born in 1979, and Patrick one year later), but which seems to have shaped most of their musical preferences anyway. Except where, earlier, they would be inspired primarily by the heavy blues-rock acts, now they pay their dues to the R&B, funk, art-pop, and even progres­sive rock corners of the scene. They do adapt all that baggage to the pulls and yearnings of their own soul, it's true — that unexplainable «blues feeling», the one which is so hard to fake when you get to know it, is all over this record. But then it was all over the records by their  predeces­sors just as well. So it does become a tad difficult to understand where the imitation ends and the real Danny Auerbach begins. It's even possible that he doesn't really begin at all.

As the album starts, with the multi-part epic ʽWeight Of Loveʼ, you might ask yourself the ques­tion: «Is this really The Black Keys, or is this a Pink Floyd outtake?» Those pensive guitar chords, those wailing keyboard effects sounding like lonely planets zooping by your window, they all seem conspiring to put you in a Dark Side Of The Moon (more exactly, ʽBreatheʼ) state of mind. Then the song changes its time signature, becomes funkier and gradually more violent, before erupting in a climactic solo — but throughout the song, it still retains some of that initial Floydishness, and that's... weird.

ʽIn Timeʼ and a couple other songs bring on memories of such recent «R&B» successes as Amy Winehouse, which were, of course, themselves revivals of something older. With a moody, catchy guitar riff but little else in the way of guitar work (most of the other non-percussive overlays are generated with Danger Mouse's array of keyboards), it is a moody «art-groove» that seems to warn us of something we are not sure of ("...you were having your fun, now you're un­der the gun...") in Dan's anguished falsetto (which he uses quite a bit on the album, despite the fact that they never really go into disco: ʽFeverʼ comes close, but it still sounds more like The Cars than Chic). None of it is bad, but none of it is terribly inspiring, either.

Sometimes it is downright bizarre: ʽWaiting On Wordsʼ begins in retro-romantic mode, so much so that Auerbach almost sounds like Robin Gibb: the brutal beast trying on some ruffled fabric for a change. As impeccably melodic as these songs are, they are just not too convincing. Wolves in sheep skins? Soulless experiments? Or is it just a case of hopelessly misplaced falsetto? Some­thing like the title track, for instance — to me, despite the paranoid bass line and minor moods, it just refuses to satisfy the «desperate tension» requirement of the lyrics. As The Black Keys «turn blue», there is a nagging suspicion that by «blue» they actually mean «half-frozen to death», and little else. As hard as it is to put my finger on what exactly went wrong here.

Something did go wrong, though, if I distinctly feel a sense of relief when it comes to the last track — ʽGotta Get Awayʼ opens with some crunchy Stones-like riffage, then quickly turns into a slightly softened up pub-rocker with a pop chorus. No pretense or ambition, no quirky production tricks... no «classic Black Keys» ambience, either, but somehow the song, even despite its repe­titiveness (before it is over, you will remember exactly how far Kalamazoo is from San Berdoo), feels more «real» than everything else on here.

To put it short and blunt, Turn Blue is not a bad album — but it intentionally forgets about what it was that made The Black Keys such an outstanding band; Turn Faceless would have been a more appropriate title. On the other hand, even as a faceless album, it is an interesting experiment in retro-genre-hopping, it sounds tasteful, it has some good songwriting, and in the end, after much deliberation, I still give it a thumbs up. Just do not even think of getting close to it if you come to the Black Keys section with definite expectations.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Beulah: When Your Heartstrings Break

BEULAH: WHEN YOUR HEARTSTRINGS BREAK (1999)

1) Score From Augusta; 2) Sunday Under Glass; 3) Matter Vs. Space; 4) Emma Blowgun's Last Stand; 5) Calm Go The Wild Seas; 6) Ballad Of The Lonely Argonaut; 7) Comrade's Twenty-Sixth; 8) The Aristocratic Swells; 9) Silverado Days; 10) Warmer; 11) If We Can Land A Man On The Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart.

The worst thing about this album is its title. Or, wait, maybe the best thing about this album is its title — depending on your brain's first reaction to it. If it strains you into expecting a sensitive, sentimental, depressed, or melancholic set of songs (under the «cure your own heartbreak with our own heartbreak» principle), you will be sorely disappointed. But if it is «when your heart­strings break... try something light and uplifting, like our second album», then that's a different matter. On the other hand, it is still a little difficult to see what exactly this kind of music has to do with «heartstrings» in any sort of traditional understanding.

Glancing at the song titles, you might suspect that Beulah are growing up, and trying to shed at least a little bit of that show-off-ey indie kid aesthetics where it is much more important to put yourself and your music on a different plane of existence than to write good songs. The music, meanwhile, has been aggrandized, with 18 different session musicians used in the recording pro­cess and Bill Evans on keyboards added to the band's «stable» lineup. Nobody, least of all the band leaders themselves, would dream of wasting all that pool of talent on an ordinary «gimmi­cky» record, right? But then the question is: what sort of record is this, then?

My best guess is that both here and on subsequent trys, Beulah's ambition was to create their own version of SMiLE for the raging Nineties. The whimsical attitude, where spiritual yearning and grand emotional tugs peep out every now and then from superficially «fluffy» musical structures, they already had, as well as an absurdist lyrical streak and an experimental mindset. All that was left was to broaden their technical base — and by bringing in all those extra players with their in­struments, they were free to try out a more symphonic approach. There'd be as much ambition as on a Radiohead record, only it would be sunny, poppy, and a tad silly. And if they got too tired of emulating the Beach Boys, they could always go back to emulating the Kinks.

In fact, melody-wise, the rhythmic skeletons of these songs are consistently closer to the Kinks than to the baroque fluctuations of Brian Wilson — but the overall atmosphere of romantic ab­surdity is not something that Ray Davies, who'd always refused to get his head too high up in the clouds, would have appreciated. And it lays open the possibilities for a fruitful, exciting synthesis, which works so well, technically, that with this album, Beulah ensured some serious popularity with seasoned fans of everything Sixties-related (particularly those people who, you know, thought that music died circa 1969, and that it took The Dukes of Stratosphear to revive it).

Like most of these projects, though (and I am not excluding XTC, either), synthesizing various strains of the Sixties in the Nineties still has that smarmy post-modernist ring to it, and ends up being more of a quirky tribute than an album showing off an autonomous and mind-blowing artis­tic vision. The problem is always the same: Kurosky and Swan are so intent on making music «in the same vein as» their idols that they forget to concentrate on the essentials of proper pop songwriting. Something like ʽScore From Augustaʼ has a cool retro sound to it, with a tasteful and energetic mix of live instruments and vocal harmonies, but the whole mix seems to be gallo­ping forward on one note, and the most melodically inventive thing about the song is Swan's trumpet part — which is really very simple, but catchy, but repetitive, but memorable, but could be seriously annoying, should your brain suggest that this mariachi-like style of trumpet playing is incompatible with Sixties retro-pop.

Then ʽSunday Under Glassʼ, all awash in brass, flute, and string overdubs, comes along to drag you away into a psychedelic paradise to the sounds of a nasal vocal melody which somehow reminds me of Mike Love. It is a song that has everything... except for a decent hook, that is. Too much of everything, in fact, quickly floating before your eyes and ears like a multi-colored cloud whose various hues are too dazzling for the senses to leave a lasting impression. Actually, it's one of those songs where there seems to be too much and too little going on at the same time — too much in terms of various overdubs, too little in terms of actual melodic dynamics.

That said, the band seems to fare significantly better, «heartstrings-wise», when they try to evoke tender sentiments rather than tickle our fancies with psycho colors. Already ʽCalm Go The Wild Seasʼ has a properly baroque aura to it, one of sincere gallantry and delicacy; but the album's emotional peak is reached on ʽSilverado Daysʼ, whose mercilessly encoded lyrics seemingly in­voke a nostalgic feel ("I was a kid and you were my hero..."), finely matched with the piano bal­lad melody whose chords remind of McCartney but whose vocals remind more of Lennon. In fact, I think the album gets better as it progresses, reaching its humble peak of sorts on the final num­bers: ʽWarmerʼ shows signs of adorable whimsical tenderness, and ʽIf You Can Land A Man On The Moon...ʼ is redeemed through its little baroque piano passages which could just as well have been played on harpsichord for the sake of extra authenticity.

As difficult as it is for me to «fall in love» with an album like this — it makes too little sense for me to do that — I can easily understand how others would, and also how such records pre­pared the ground for the Beach Boys-inspired indie art-pop explosion of the 21st century in a way that few other bands at the time were capable of. At any rate, the only reason to give it a thumbs down would be active hatred for the band and their «phony», «manneristic» attempts at recreating the form, but not the spirit of pop music's greatest decade. But even if there is something stiff and artificial about the way they are doing it, there is no need to doubt the purity and nobleness of the motive, or the earnestness of the work effort that went into it. One thing that I lack most of all, apart from the lack of hooks, is a more sharply pronounced sense of humor — then I catch myself understanding that if you add hooks and humor to this band, it will turn into Ween, and we already have ourselves a Ween. So just a basic respectful thumbs up as it is would suffice.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Bettie Serveert: Lamprey

BETTIE SERVEERT: LAMPREY (1995)

1) Keepsake; 2) Ray Ray Rain; 3) D. Feathers; 4) Re-Feel-It; 5) 21 Days; 6) Cybor *D; 7) Tell Me, Sad; 8) Crutches; 9) Something So Wild; 10) Totally Freaked Out; 11) Silent Spring.

Now this album, I am afraid to say, does not seem to have stood even a short time test at all. Po­sitively viewed upon release and still occasionally riding on the coattails of that first reputational burst, now it seems like a prime example of «generic mid-1990s indie» — lots of bravura, he­roic pos­turing, volume, distortion, and angry, self-righteous vocals, behind all of which there is no musical substance whatsoever. Reusing, perusing, and abusing musical baggage accumulated by their betters without putting their own distinct spin on it — Lamprey is the sort of album which you'd imagine a band like Sonic Youth capable of writing and recording on-the-spot, except they'd be too embarrassed to release it (and, for that matter, there is very little in this world that Sonic Youth would be embarrassed of releasing).

What is so much worse, through all of it Carol van Dijk wails, rants, and splutters as if she really had something to say, but all she really says is the same old "I can't explain", only dressed up in pseudo-metaphors and allegories whose sound is clumsy and whose meaning is zilch. Example: "Go down inside of me / There's still a part that sees the first time / You've opened up my eyes / Completely self absorbed / What are we waiting for / Ferociously, you never know just why" (ʽ21 Daysʼ). Feel free to correct me, but I happen to think that these are some really bad lyrics out there, don't you think? And there's more... so much more...

Unfortunately, this time around even Peter Visser does not help out, because way too much space is given over to verbal raving and ranting; most of the time he is just weaving his jangle or mini­malistic lead lines in and out of Carol's rhythm playing. There is an inspired guitar break at the end of ʽD. Feathersʼ, a song for which they also drag out the Mellotron (or, at least, something that imitates the Mellotron), so that its coda becomes sonically similar to early King Crimson, and a few other tracks as well feature maniacal leads from the man, so that the process of listen­ing eventually becomes the process of impatiently waiting around for whether or not Visser is given a chance to solo at the end — offering a chance at redemption — or not — condemning the song to immediate death at the stake.

ʽRay Ray Rainʼ is the only track here that indirectly points to a brighter and snappier future for the band: poorly produced (the vocals are muffled and strangled in between the guitar parts), but upbeat, poppy, and shiny in a cool mid-1960s fashion, as if somebody took a whiff on inspiration from Revolver in addition to all the Velvet Undergroundisms. I am also somewhat partial to the album closer ʽSilent Springʼ which is at least different — after a long string of those crunchy, but meaningless rock grinders its acoustic guitars and echoey vocals are a nice change of pace. It is also the only track on the album on which Carol actually sings in a traditional understanding of the term, and does so admirably well.

Everything else is pretty much awful, with the major culprits being ʽCrutchesʼ (the "let me down, let it bubble all around me!" part could succeed if the rest of the song actually worked towards that anguished emotional release, but it doesn't, and the protagonist just comes across as a phony, capricious whiner) and the interminable ʽTell Me, Sadʼ, which takes its cue from a not-so-obscure Beatles reference ("rocking horse people out on a limb..."), never really figures out what to do with it, and burdens our conscience with some sort of problem ("tell me, Sad, what's wrong with that...") whose very existence is never confirmed — five minutes of almost literally trying to pro­duce a meaningful something out of virtually nothing.

A more detailed scrutiny might be able to extract bits and pieces — a decent bassline here and there, a minor vocal hook somewhere on the periphery — but on the whole, Lamprey is just a waste of talent, and I have a really hard time thinking why anybody over 18 years old would ever want to listen to it once more. Then again, judging by the seemingly fading memories of it, no­body really does these days. Thumbs down.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Beth Orton: Trailer Park

BETH ORTON: TRAILER PARK (1996)

1) She Cries Your Name; 2) Tangent; 3) Don't Need A Reason; 4) Live As You Dream; 5) Sugar Boy; 6) Touch Me With Your Love; 7) Whenever; 8) How Fair; 9) Someone's Daughter; 10) I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine; 11) Galaxy Of Emptiness.

The «official authorized» debut album. After her stint with Orbit, followed by a collaboration with The Chemical Brothers on Exit Planet Dust, Beth Orton decides that, after all, she is a singer-songwriter first, and a publicity agent for modern electronic sounds only second. Let all those other guys come up with their silly club rhythms — Beth Orton is an artist, and you need to sit down and listen to her artistry. Blowing your mind is a nobler option than sweeping you off your feet. Besides, with all those Orbit-style noises and echoes, she was miscast way too strongly as the «mystery lady», when in reality she is so open and sentimental.

The new album, produced by Victor Van Vugt (formerly responsible for several Nick Cave LPs) and DJ-cum-remixer Andrew Weatherall, is not at all free from modern rhythms — it is seriously funky and, in places, trip-hoppy. It did, in fact, earn Beth's music the tag of «folktronica», al­though it must be acknowledged that there is a lot more «folk» here than «-tronica» where it used to be vice versa during Beth's stint with Orbit. But the basic idea, a combination of folk motives, singer-songwriter imagery, and contemporary production, could work very well, if...

...if, well, the major problem of all of Beth's post-PinkyMandy output weren't so irritatingly simple: it is, for lack of a more original word, boring. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but ul­timately, Beth Orton's musical and general artistic image from now on would lack «that one spe­cial ingredient» (or those several special ingredients) that is necessary for an artist with his or her own say in this world. The music has a little bit of everything — respectable songwriting ideas, acceptable lyrical agenda, enjoyable singing voice, understandable taste in arrangements — but unless you make a conscious effort, the songs do not really stick. There is nothing offensive about them (as in, say, an aggressively-feminist Ani di Franco way of constructing songs from knives instead of hooks and pretending to call it «music»), but if we're talking of ways to translate human and artistic personality into musical form, I think that, off the top of my head, Suzanne Vega, for instance, comes across soun­ding way more «deep» and «interesting».

The main problem, I guess, is that Orton's songs sound as if her chief influence were someone like Emmylou Harris — gallantly embroidered country-folk-pop with individual sensitivity — but without the true rootsy depth required to make the songs sound alive and natural. Something like ʽWheneverʼ, which completely eschews modern rhythms and relies entirely on acoustic gui­tars and vocal harmonies to achieve its goals — a song that could have been written by just about anybody circa 1971-72 and anytime later, pleasant and professional, but instantly forgettable. Or ʽDon't Need A Reasonʼ, quietly waltzing along to an unassuming lead fiddle and then to an equa­lly unassuming orchestrated background. Nice, life-asserting, and about as dull as its basic mes­sage: "So I've been calling angels down to Earth / Because I believe we need them". If I were an angel, I'd certainly think twice before responding to such a call.

The basic rule of thumb about Trailer Park, as well as most of the rest of Beth's catalog, is this: the less she concentrates on «soul», «message», and «humanism» and the more she concentrates on «technicalities», be it melodic hooks or sonic tapestry, the better she gets. Case in point: the new version of ʽShe Cries Your Nameʼ, completely recast from its early «cosmic trip-hop» image with Orbit into a slightly Eastern-tinged psycho-folk shape, where acoustic rhythms are comple­mented with a droning, sliding strings arrangement that, at times, sounds almost like a tribute to George Harrison's ʽWithin You Without Youʼ. I am afraid I still prefer the original and all of its hauntingly bubbling keyboard inventions, but the reinvention is no slouch, either, and it managed to crack the singles market and put the lady on the scene, after all.

The «meat» of the album clings to the ribs of the longer tracks — ʽTangentʼ, ʽTouch Me With Your Loveʼ, ʽGalaxy Of Emptinessʼ, stretched out grooves with dark bass lines whose melodies are just as influenced by country-pop as anything else on here, but whose atmospherics sort of offers an «easier» alternative to the disturbing soundscapes of Portishead, replacing «suicidal bleek» with «tolerably melancholic». The bass melodies at least fulfill the function of solid an­chors to root the song to a channel in your mind, and the electronic embellishments, though no­where near as wild as Orbit's, are still more inventive than the acoustic guitar work on the more traditionally-oriented material.

Other than that, Beth's little penchant for upbeat pop pays off on ʽLive As You Dreamʼ, which is probably, vocal-wise, the catchiest number here, and on ʽSomeone's Daughterʼ — the combina­tion of vocal hooks with friendly funky rhythms works well enough; surprisingly, Beth's «sunny» side can actually be more impressive than her melancholic side. She also does a nice cover of the Ronettes' ʽI Wish I Never Saw The Sunshineʼ, backed by just her acoustic playing, and... well, at least she is not able to spoil an already good song.

So, all in all, I cannot imagine how it would be possible to fall in love with Trailer Park, but it would also be impossible to deny it its own face. The material is unquestionably diverse, the songwriting is not without its moments, and the merger of several genres into one is definitely an ongoing thing. As for the lack of «sharpness» and «spiciness», well, I can also understand how some would consider it a good thing — the humbleness, the reluctance to be too gimmicky, the ho­nest refusal of exaggerating and artifically condensing one's feelings. In any case, one thing's for certain: there is no «adult contemporary» as such in the vicinity of Trailer Park, and the fact that she's avoided that pitfall while circling so dangerously close to the pit alone is well worth a respectable thumbs up. In short — a good record to savor after you've exhausted the «flashy» mood masterpieces of the 1990s.

Check "Trailer Park" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Trailer Park" (MP3) on Amazon

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Black Sabbath: Paranoid

BLACK SABBATH: PARANOID (1970)

1) War Pigs; 2) Paranoid; 3) Planet Caravan; 4) Iron Man; 5) Electric Funeral; 6) Hand Of Doom; 7) Rat Salad; 8) Fairies Wear Boots.

Funny as it is, Black Sabbath's unquestionably most popular album, and the one that the average listener probably associates the most with the band, was sort of a «fillerish» affair. Although it already took the band a whoppin' six days to record it, it was neither as image-establishing as Black Sabbath, nor as technically groundbreaking as Master Of Reality. Its best known song was, in fact, quickly thrown together at the last minute to occupy some empty space — and its actual musical innovations, such as the band toying around with acid jazz on ʽPlanet Caravanʼ, aren't usually listed as its really strong points. And yet, it's fuckin' Paranoid, the brilliant metal masterpiece to end all other masterpieces, and we're not worthy. Say what you will, but there was definitely something in the air around 1970 — some sort of spirit that was hunting for you, not vice versa. Sometimes all you had to do was just sit there and wait.

Anyway, Paranoid is as good as Black Sabbath and even better, because it rectifies that record's major mistake — this time, the band rarely, if ever, allows itself to just fool around, and Iommi comes up with enough individual compositions to stretch over both sides of vinyl. Of course, a few of the songs could have been cut down by a couple of minutes without much harm; I am tal­king specifically about the mid-section to ʽHand Of Doomʼ and maybe about a couple more «boo­gie interludes», such as the one that disrupts the eerie radioactive flow of ʽElectric Funeralʼ without making a lot of sense...

...yes, and then there is ʽRat Saladʼ — the obligatory tribute to Cream's ʽToadʼ and Led Zeppelin's ʽMoby Dickʼ with their introductory/coda riffs framing a drum solo. Now Bill Ward is a fairly good drummer for basic Sabbath purposes, but hardly a technically endowed madman of the Baker / Bonham caliber, and most people tend to view the track as pitiful filler. However, Iommi's riffage is good, and the solo itself lasts for less than a minute, so (a) how could it seriously be a bother? and (b) the short length suggests that the whole thing is more of a good-natured parody on the ʽToadʼ routine than a serious musical statement of the "I'm Bill Ward, drummer extraordinaire, I can take on any sucker!" variety.

Apart from those minor and easily quenchable quibbles, I cannot think of a single reason to dis­like Paranoid, an album where exciting musical ideas — sometimes so brutally simple that they border on «guilty pleasure» — start falling around you like ripe apples off a well-shook tree, or, to use a better analogy, like high-explosive bombs off a well-disciplined squadron. Because the band does show coordination, discipline, and a collective understanding — not just between Tony and Geezer, whose guitar/bass duo is responsible for the amazingly orchestrated heaviness, but also between the players and the singer, who has now learned to add extra shades to his voice: the protagonists of ʽWar Pigsʼ and ʽParanoidʼ are really two different persons now.

ʽWar Pigsʼ is actually an important Sabbath song in that it dispenses with the «Satanic» image­ry and shows the lads for what they really were — simple, generally well-meaning people. The classic Sabbath myth going around is that they were a mean, lean band that hated hippies and all that flower power crap, but they sang about the virtues of peace and love and the evils of war and hate as convincingly as anybody — so what if they downtuned their guitars a little bit? Ironically, the original title of ʽWar Pigsʼ was ʽWalpurgisʼ, and the song was to be more about actual «witches at black masses», but the record company insisted that ʽWalpurgisʼ was too Satanic, and the band easily changed the title to ʽWar Pigsʼ.

Anyway, if you want to properly understand the difference between an awesome «B-grade», «cartoonish» artist and an «A-grade», «serious» one, try listening to ʽWar Pigsʼ back to back with Hendrix's ʽMachine Gunʼ, both of them lengthy anti-war epics recorded at about the same time, both of them trying to use musical means to convey the dreadfulness of the modern battlefield. Jimi's composition, with its rat-a-tat gunfire and anguished guitar wail, penetrates such depths where Iommi's riffs and guitar tone have little hope of reaching. But that does not mean that ʽWar Pigsʼ is not a thrilling ride all by itself — it is simply more about anger and disgust than actual physical and emotional pain, and, of course, about the «hand of doom» that is best symbolized by Tony's monster riff that links the song's «accappella» verses to the bridge. Apart from that, ʽWar Pigsʼ is probably the best place to convince yourself that Ozzy was a capable singer — the way he is able to sustain those high notes at the end of each line without breaking is impressive (and even more impressively, he used to be able to replicate that onstage).

The two big singles, the ones that elevated the LP itself to its champion position, hardly deserve additional comment — what hasn't yet been said about ʽParanoidʼ and ʽIron Manʼ? I'll only say that I don't think I have ever heard a guitar tone quite like the one that Iommi uses for the chuggin' riff of ʽParanoidʼ. A little fuzz there, a little distortion, but there seems to be some addi­tional unknown part to that recipé which they never reproduced in concert, which is why the in­imitable stu­dio version will be always superior to any live performances (and, in any case, it is a three-minute single by definition, so no live performance would ever allow them to stretch out or improve on the song in any way). And if there is a riff out there that is able to better convey the impression of an iron giant strolling through the doomed city streets than the riff of ʽIron Manʼ, well, I'm open for suggestions.

But there are pleasures, subtle and non-subtle alike, to be tasted here well beyond the scope of the three best known songs. ʽFairies Wear Bootsʼ is one of the awesomest «anti-trippin' warnings» of all time, where Tony's melody — wobbling and threatening at the same time — could indeed be taken as an ironic lashing of the acid-happy side of «flower power». The wah-wah rumble of ʽElectric Funeralʼ tries to convey the atmosphere of a nuclear holocaust — honestly, it feels more like the flames of hell, but then the two are closely related anyway. The biggest surprise is their experiment with nocturnal jazz on ʽPlanet Caravanʼ, a hushed, moody interlude where Ozzy's vocals are filtered through a rotating Leslie speaker and Tony plays some simple, but tasteful jazzy improv lines over Bill Ward's congas. Down with flower power, eh? The song is as down­right «psychedelic» as Jefferson Airplane at their trippiest — and is the only place on the album where Black Sabbath actually go beyond «cartoonish» and almost end up in «haunting» territory, although maybe a few more overdubs would be necessary to complete the picture.

In short, Paranoid is where we first meet up with the band's «working class genius» in almost completely unbridled mode. Other than ʽRat Saladʼ (unless we treat the number as parody), they are doing their own thang here, totally and completely, aware, but utterly unafraid, of their limi­tations, and daring to tackle pop structures, jazz improvisation, and multi-part art-rock musical construction without any intellectual pretense or harsh musical training. For which they were understandably grilled in the musical press — and any lesser band in their place would have de­served that. But what lesser band could have come up with the riffs to ʽIron Manʼ or ʽFairies Wear Bootsʼ? Lesser bands are usually content to play it «simple and stupid», forgetting about the third necessary ingredient — «simple, stupid, and scorching», which is exactly what Para­noid is for most of its duration. Thumbs up, of course, although I probably have to put in the predictable request — dear «classic rock radio» programmers, how about playing some other songs except for ʽParanoidʼ and ʽIron Manʼ from time to time? I'd even settle for ʽRat Saladʼ, out of sheer propaedeutic purposes.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 (The Rolling Thunder Revue)

BOB DYLAN: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 5: THE ROLLING THUNDER REVIEW (1975; 2002)

1) Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You; 2) It Ain't Me Babe; 3) A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall; 4) The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; 5) Romance In Durango; 6) Isis; 7) Mr. Tambourine Man; 8) Simple Twist Of Fate; 9) Blowin' In The Wind; 10) Mama You Been On My Mind; 11) I Shall Be Released; 12) It's All Over Now Baby Blue; 13) Love Minus Zero/No Limit; 14) Tangled Up In Blue; 15) The Water Is Wide; 16) It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry; 17) Oh Sister; 18) Hurricane; 19) One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below); 20) Sara; 21) Just Like A Woman; 22) Knockin' On Heaven's Door.

With the predictably warm reception organised for Live 1966, it was only natural that the sub­sequent evolution of The Bootleg Series would focus on live Dylan some more. But what would be the right period? On stage, the man evolved and recreated himself in different images even more radically than in the studio, so it must have been a tough choice to make — yet the com­pilers of the series managed to make exactly the right one. An uplifted, hyper-energetic, crowd-defying Dylan in the 1960s could only be matched by an uplifted, hyper-energetic, crowd-defying Dylan in the 1970s, and no moment in time could be more right than the first leg of The Rolling Thunder Revue, played out in the last two months of 1975.

We already had us Hard Rain from the second leg of the tour — recorded and released in 1976, after Desire had already come out — and it was a live album that was nowhere near as bad as its original reputation goes, but for quite a long time, there was nothing to compare it to (unless you were there in the first place or collected bootlegs). Live 1975 set out to remedy that omission, putting together a coherent, but mixed set of 22 numbers from five different shows, played at various locations in New England and in Montreal.

Some people complained about the album being a mix rather than a single complete show, and it is true that multiple fadeouts are a turn-off for those who want to feel themselves as part of the audience — yet it is also true that the tour, due to its spontaneous and chaotic nature, was uneven, and the compilers obviously did not want us to sit through particularly sloppy stuff, choosing instead the best of the best. So yeah, there is a touch of «fakeness» to the album in its historical function, but then let us not forget that many «regular» live albums are sewn together just like that in the first place, and that most of the «regular» Dylan lovers have no need to hear inferior versions of Dylan classics when they can easily have superior versions.

Anyway, what's so special about Live 1975 and why have so many people hastened to declare it the greatest live Dylan album on Earth? (And I count myself among these people every now and then — although, since no two live Dylan albums sound the same way, making a choice here is only a good way to kill some time). In a way, The Rolling Thunder Revue was an attempt to fight time and fate itself. In an era that was beginning to be more and more dominated by corporate ventures, pre-planned, well-calculated commercial tours, meticulously worked out market strate­gies, etc., Bob suddenly felt tremendous nostalgia for the era of Woodstock and Festival Express — nostalgia all the more fueled by the fact that he himself had pretty much missed out on in its heyday — and decided to single-handedly «bring it all back home». Of course, in order to turn back time you had to be a Bob Dylan, and even then, you could reopen that door for only a few minutes, but, luckily, somebody had time to thrust a few mikes in the opening, and preserve that little time trip for posterity. At least in audio form. (Video footage was shot for Dylan's 4-hour experimental movie Renaldo And Clara, panned by the critics for its clumsy avantgarde preten­se and shelved for posterity, although a few bits have been mercifully released for viewers on a bonus DVD that came together with the first pressings of Live 1975).

The original atmosphere of the Revue is mostly felt in this music when you realize how many people there are onstage — approximately a dozen musicians playing together with Bob, inclu­ding not only understandable superstar choices like Roger McGuinn and Joan Baez (who, like in the old times, duets with Bob on four of the songs), but also completely out-of-the-blue characters like Mick Ronson: if you thought the former «Spider from Mars» would be the least likely choice for a Bob Dylan sideman, think again — there are no musicians who couldn't step into the shoes of a Bob Dylan sideman, period, because Bob Dylan is... well, adaptable. With a crowd like that, chaos is inevitable, and there is some, but not too much: Dylan's songs are so flexible, and so easily stretch in any direction, that messing them up is dang near impossible as long as Dylan himself is inspired and interested.

And he is clearly inspired. The choice of ʽTonight I'll Be Staying Here With Youʼ, formerly a pleasant, but minor country ditty on Nashville Skyline, as the album opener is perfect — not only do its lyrics perform a welcoming function in a most original manner, but the song itself is rein­vented as a loud, bombastic roots-rock anthem that promises a brand new start in life. The open­ing line — "throw my ticket in the wind!" — just cuts through the air like a samurai sword, prompting a cheerful response from the audience. Of course, Bob has completely rewritten the lyrics (more for fun than anything else — why the heck should "throw my suitcase out there too" become "throw my mattress out there too"?), restructured the melody, and turned the song from a settle-down decision into a ceremonial pledge of honor, but isn't that just what we mean by saying «the song lives on»? Let's hear it one more time for musical evolution.

Bob shouts a lot throughout the album, much like he did on his Before The Flood tour, but he does not do it all the time, so that the music is not reduced to a monotonous arena-rock buzz. The most questionable decision was probably to reinvent ʽHard Rainʼ as a martial rock stomper which is now more melodically similar to ʽHighway 61 Revisitedʼ than to its troubadourish origins — but it is still fun to hear it trod along that way. On the other hand, ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ works great in its sped up version, making Bob sound cooler than ever in his anti-heroic poise; and the resur­rected ʽLonesome Death Of Hattie Carrollʼ now laments the lonesome death in near-symphonic format without losing the mournful spirit of the song.

Most importantly, Live 1975 is probably the one live Dylan album on which his «human» side opens up to us better than anywhere else. Not only was he totally inspired by what he was doing, but he also happened to be going through some turbulent rough shit at the time (specifically with his marriage on the brink of collapsing), and while he is on that stage, it never feels like he is «playing a character», as he usually does. It may have been the one tour on which he was wearing a real physical mask (white clownish paint, probably to match the spirit of Children Of Paradise, a movie to which Renaldo And Clara paid heavy tribute), but, paradoxically, the singing seems to come straight from the heart this time around — and you can most clearly notice it on the acous­tic sub-set. Listen to this ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ: he sounds nervous, agitated, eager to let it all out without any stage mannerisms or specially conjured poetic trances. Listen to this ʽSimple Twist Of Fateʼ: it does not hold a candle to the studio original, but that is because in the studio original Bob played the part of a sympathetic wise onlooker, an experienced Buddhist master contemplating the young folks, whereas here he jumps right in the fray as if he were part of the story — losing subtlety, but gaining in urgence.

This intense combination — Dylan in his most disturbed and exuberant state, caught in a rare moment of opening up; and this huge band, fueled by the man's energy and buzzing around like a swarm of roots-rock-hungry bees with their slide guitars, dobros, mandolins, and violins — en­sures that the album never gets boring, not for a second. Echoes of the past pursue the performer in the guise of an occasional listener shouting «play a protest song!» («here's one for you», Bob replies as the band goes into ʽOh Sisterʼ), but then what else would you expect from an old fan who has just witnessed his idol crooning out ʽMama You Been On My Mindʼ with Joan Baez like it were 1964 all over again? And, actually, Bob does protest songs, old as well as new: ʽHurri­caneʼ, performed very close to the studio recording because the tune was brand new at the time, is presented together with a plea to the audience for help — "if you got any political pull at all, maybe you can help us get this man out of jail". So, in a way, we do go ten years back in the past here: never ever again would Bob sound so rejuvenated.

It does get darker towards the end, where there is a streak of four numbers in a row from Desire that culminate in a particularly sinister, bass-heavy rendition of ʽOne More Cup Of Coffeeʼ and a creepily personal rendition of ʽSaraʼ, a song that, as it turns out, Bob was not afraid to perform in front of a live audience. But the darkness is still chased away at the end, as all the band gathers round the campfire to sing a spirit-lifting rendition of ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ (one verse is gracefully given over to McGuinn, whose angelic vocal tone suits the song so well) — and then ends the show with a little happy country jig as Bob announces, traveling-circus-style, that "we'll be in the area for a few days, maybe we'll see you tomorrow night!" Yes, tension and trouble aside, it was quite a merry-go-round.

It was also the last time that Bob would get so friendly: for the tour, he got together with many old friends, only to part ways with them completely once depression and disillusionment got the better of him by early 1976, and never again would a live Bob Dylan show have this sort of cama­raderie attitude (certainly this was the last tour on which the Dylan/Baez connection was still seen to work — on the 1984 tour, Joan was only used as an opening act, and quit midway through in protest). In short, this was a unique event from just so many sides — technical, emo­tional, historical, cultural — and Live 1975 captures and bottles its essence to perfection. «Le­gendary» baggage aside, it deserves to be soaked in every bit as much as Live 1966, and as I am giving it out the obligatory thumbs up, I seem to understand that I have actually listened to it quite a few times more than to Live 1966. It might be, of course, that I am at heart just a bigger fan of Mick Ronson than of Robbie Robertson, but who knows?

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Bill Withers: Still Bill

BILL WITHERS: STILL BILL (1972)

1) Lonely Town, Lonely Street; 2) Let Me In Your Life; 3) Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?; 4) Use Me; 5) Lean On Me; 6) Kissin' My Love; 7) I Don't Know; 8) Another Day To Run; 9) I Don't Want You On My Mind; 10) Take It All In And Check It All Out.

More than anything, Bill's second album clearly demonstrated that the man's success was not a fluke one — and I certainly do not intend to prove that by adducing the example of ʽLean On Meʼ, which went on to become Bill's greatest commercial hit and probably the song that is most com­monly associated with the man due to ferocious radio rotation, innumerable cover versions, and other what-not. The funniest thing about it is that ʽLean On Meʼ, honestly good soul number as it is, is completely atypical of the album and of Bill's classic artistic personality as a whole. It is a well thought out, understandably manipulative musical remedy, uplifting and not uninteresting from a compositional point of view (especially in how it sews together its personal-sentimental and clap-your-hands-together-anthemic sections) — but there are no other songs like this on the album, and if there were, well, frankly speaking, they would completely eliminate the very reason for Bill Withers' existence. I mean, if you want uplifting gospel-rock, you have just about every­one from the Spinners to Earth, Wind & Fire to Aretha. Come on now.

What is really fascinating about the record is that, even with the near-complete removal of star power (this time, the album was recorded and produced by a bunch of relative unknowns), it still sounds fabulous and is full to the brim of perfectly written and convincingly played out little mu­sical «character studies». Still Bill is a perfect title, since Withers usually impersonates the same type of character here — an unbearably sensitive, touchy, jealous, paranoid, sarcastic guy who would love to enjoy life but feels like it's too much of a bitch to let him enjoy it. His philosophy is perfectly summarized in the first lines of ʽAnother Day To Runʼ: "If you don't look into your mind / And find out what you're running from / Tomorrow might just be another day to run". And he follows that philosophy to a tee — most of the album involves prying into his own mind and trying to find out what it is that he's running from.

Paranoia as the ruling force of the record is immediately established in the very first notes — when the acoustic rhythm, the electric lead, and the funky bass guitar all play the same «shaky» syncopated melody to stress the idea of uncertainty and insecurity. The Bee Gees, too, would later have a song about «Big City Stress» opening an album that praised the glamorous rhythms of the big city, but the difference is that people could enjoy the glam of Bee Gees' disco without smelling its dangerous underside, whereas Withers, writing songs that you can dance to, puts that underside up front — lyrically, musically, vocally ʽLonely Town, Lonely Streetʼ is a blinking warning, a groove that pulsates with nervous tension of the ʽGimme Shelterʼ variety.

Then there are some nifty tunes about jealousy and separation. ʽWho Is He (And What Is He To You)?ʼ is a small masterpiece of unresolved suspense, matching its threatening bass and lead lines to fit Bill's reserved, but on-the-brink vocal delivery, and the lyrics may just be the very best discrete psychological description of a jealous lover, peppered with classy lines like "you're too much for one man, but not enough for two". ʽUse Meʼ (which was the second single and was far more representative of the album's sound than ʽLean On Meʼ) is driven by a Stevie Wonder-wor­thy clavinet riff that «grumbles» its way through just like Bill himself grumbles about how "all you do is use me" — before admitting, grudgingly, that he doesn't mind.

Eventually, though, the lovers do separate, and then we have ʽI Don't Want You On My Mindʼ, trotting along at a mind-numbing tempo and punctuated by «ugly» wah-wah wails, illustrating brain pulsations: he doesn't want you on his mind all the time, but, of course, this is exactly what he has on his mind all the time. The song proper ends at around the three minute mark, but is then followed with a coda that could illustrate the painful process of trying to clear out the protago­nist's mind — unfortunately, it fades out too quickly to let us know how successful he was.

There is a bunch of more conventional songs here as well (the rather syrupy ballad ʽLet Me In Your Lifeʼ; the somewhat-too-happy funk-pop number ʽKissin' My Loveʼ), but they are not with­out their own hooks, either, and, ultimately, as much as I hate these «whole world is silly» rants, in this case I do feel like ʽLean On Meʼ is the weakest song on the album, and if it happens to be the only thing you know about Bill Withers, be sure not to jump to conclusions — that would be a bit like judging the Beatles on the strength of ʽYesterdayʼ (certainly not a «weak» song, but just imagine a "oh, so that's what those Beatles sound like" kind of reaction!). Instead, just get the whole album and brace yourself for Mr. Withers' fascinating world of wit, pain, and psycholo­gism on the dangerous edge of insanity. One more thumbs up like this and you'd really start to wonder how many girlfriends this individual has buried in his backyard.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Asia: Gravitas

ASIA: GRAVITAS (2014)

1) Valkyrie; 2) Gravitas; 3) The Closer I Get To You; 4) Nyctophobia; 5) Russian Dolls; 6) Heaven Help Me Now; 7) I Would Die For You; 8) Joe DiMaggio's Glove; 9) Till We Meet Again.

And this thing just flat out refuses to die. Even with Steve Howe out of the band again, the new old lineup of Asia carries on well beyond its 30th birthdate, replacing the founding father with Sam Coulton, whose age — 27 years — means that the band is well on its way to go on living forever, gradually replacing its grandfathers with their grandkids, as long as they honor and che­rish the big, brawny spirit of Asia. Like Sam Coulton does.

Is this a good album? Not really. Is this an Asia album? Very much so, and not in name only. One thing has gone again: the attempt to connect with the old «progressive» spirit, launched with Phoenix and pretty much dissipated already by the time of XXX. Gravitas consists of (super­ficially) catchy, chorus-driven pop rockers and sentimental pop ballads, almost every one of which could be a commercial hit single (except that Asia hasn't had a commercial hit single for over 20 years now, and the public is not likely to make that change). Sam Coulton is a competent player, and his fluent, melodic style of playing meets the requirements of Asia, but he is not willing to lead the band in any daring experiments (and, given the context, would probably be simply happy to apply his talents to whatever the «veterans» tell him to).

We do know, though, that Asia at their best can excel in the «arena-pop» sphere as well; unfor­tunately, the songs that Downes and Wetton wrote for this record are anything but excellent. Safe, predictable, and totally respectful of the «Asia formula», they are not even all that catchy, when you get down to it — numbers like ʽValkyrieʼ and ʽNyctophobiaʼ really only seem catchy because their hooks just consist of chanting the title over and over again for about five million times ("Val-kee-REEEEE! Val-kee-REEEEE!", like a drunk Wagnerian, or "NYC-TO-PHO-BEE-A! NYC-TO-PHO-BEE-A!" like a teacher at the local spelling bee). The only guitar riff worth of any note is on ʽI Would Die For Youʼ, and sources indicate that it was actually reworked from an old 1987 demo — and, frankly speaking, I think I understand why it was shelved, because the riff is so straightforward and simple that it should have been rather used as a flashy coda for some other song than as a backbone for an entire composition. But it is still better than the title track, which uses up two and a half minutes of «atmospheric» keyboards for the introduction and then becomes a sentimental bore, hopping along to the rhythm track of Judas Priest's ʽYou Got Ano­ther Thing Comingʼ.

The ballads, meanwhile, show a new low in the lyrics department: "How did my heart become so soft / Like Joe DiMaggio's glove?" is quite an excruciatingly extorted metaphor to use as the song's primary hook, I'd say, but it is nothing compared to the crude romance interspersed with memories of a night trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg on a track perversely called ʽRussian Dollsʼ (which really means Matryoshkas, but could just as well be taken to refer to certain ladies of the night that the band members might have picked up at the station — well, I'm sure they're all well-behaved gentlemen, but the lyrics are ambiguous). And these attempts to add an aura of depth and mystery to mundane experiences... well, it just doesn't work when all these tired old scales and production tricks have already been used a million times for that.

So what do we rate a record where the biggest surprise is a simple riff from 1987, and the biggest disappointment is a total lack of surprises? A thumbs down assessment seems like the obvious choice, yet, for some reason, I hesitate to think of Gravitas as a definitively «bad» record. Maybe as these guys get older, their pompous arrogance starts being perceived as some sort of melan­cholic nostalgia, one with which you could empathize easier than with youthful cockiness-à-la-synth. However cheesy and generic the arrangement for ʽValkyrieʼ may be, there is no doubt in my mind that Wetton takes his vocal part seriously and sincerely — "Peace at last, fade to grey / My war is over now / This is the price I gladly pay / Surrender to her light" is not the best verse ever written, but this is his clumsy attempt to convey some genuine feelings on aging and death (and, for that matter, it is quite easy to forget that the man is pushing 65, just because his singing voice does not seem to have aged one day since King Crimson's Lark's Tongues In Aspic), and as far as my senses tell me, they are conveyed.

In other words, while formally Gravitas is more «simple» and «pop-oriented» than the band's «Howe-adorned Renaissance period» albums, it is a simplicity that logically follows the departure of their most creative member, not a simplicity born out of an intentionally realised desire to be simple. There may have been slightly more sophisticated Asia albums in the past that I actually hated for their arena-oriented pretentious brutal dumbness — Gravitas, on the other hand, some­how justifies its title, being a little more «earthy», and also a little darker and bleeker-feeling, than before, and, at the very least, I am sure that old-time fans, who have aged together with the band, will find it easy to align with the band's feelings.

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Beulah: Handsome Western States

BEULAH: HANDSOME WESTERN STATES (1998)

1) Maroon Bible; 2) Lay Low For The Letdown; 3) Disco: The Secretaries Blues; 4) The Rise And Fall Or Our Hero's Reward; 5) I Love John, She Loves Paul; 6) Slo-Mo For The Masses; 7) I've Been Broken (I've Been Fixed); 8) Queen Of The Populists; 9) Shotgun Dedication; 10) Rust With Me; 11) Delta; 12) Dig The Subatomic Holdout #2.

Miles Kurosky and Bill Swan worked together in an office in a San Francisco security firm. Then they decided that they would start a band, because they both loved music. Then they wrote some songs, caught the attention of Rob Schneider from The Apples In Stereo, and got signed to The Elephant 6. Then they released an EP, and then they released an LP. Sounds simple enough when you look at this sequence of events, but look how many things had to turn out right for it — the office. The partnership. The audacity. The Schneider interest. (The elbow grease?). From this heap of accidents and incidents rose Beulah and smote the world.

Well, actually, their first LP smote no one. In relation to what would come afterwards, it feels like their Please Please Me — a record full of «beginner's spirit»: lively, energetic, exuberant, but showing no particular depth of insight or breadth of coverage, and only the first signs of a bur­geoning songwriting talent. Of course, when the Beatles did it in 1963, it was only natural; when Beulah did it in the Nineties, a decade when artists were generally expected to blow the roof off with their first album, it threatened to put a «shallow» tag on them once and for all, no matter how many gimmicky titles they would assign to their songs.

The best thing about early Beulah is their sound, and even that is not all that unique — just a re­gular «Elephant 6» kind of sound, that is, sunny pop music with loud, but colorful, distorted gui­tars; vocal harmonies that owe it all to the Beach Boys; and a tight, upbeat rhythm section that keeps the band from going mushy. Well, The Apples In Stereo themselves sound that way, and many others, too. Maybe Beulah are a little more hard-rocking. Or maybe they position them­selves as a «wittier» counterpart of their protectors — with even crazier song titles and stuffier lyrics: the very first track already mentions Gideon's Bible, Ecclesiastes, astronauts on TV, and Jack the Ripper over the span of two verses and a bridge.

And they do come across as a bit too smart for their own good, because the songs have no clear purpose — yet they do not come across as dazzling musical enigmas, either. The means at the band's disposal are fairly well known and traditional, but it is not well understood what exactly do they use them for. Tenderness and romance emerge only occasionally (like on ʽDeltaʼ, which shifts from McCartney-like acoustic ballad mode to fiddle-driven roots-rock and back), but usually they just hide around the corner, as the band tends to sing about relationships from a more cyni­cal point of view.

A quintessential early Beulah song would be something like ʽI Love John, She Loves Paulʼ — the title uses the two-headed image of a long-gone pop band to illustrate why the singer is good and why his love interest is bad; the distorted, but still melodic rhythm guitar and the vocals, masked with some re­verb for extra hip-cool effect, suggest the usual nostalgic throwback to sunny, irre­verent 1966; the lyrics are full of smartypants references to various idols, some of which I get ("hey, oh, let's go" clearly invokes the Ramones, and the sneery, drawn-out "so long, so long" may be invoking the Pixies' ʽHere Comes Your Manʼ) and most of which I probably don't. No guitar solo, because guitar solos aren't cool for indie kids (who spend too much time soaking in their cultural legacy to learn how to play guitar anyway), but some moody army trumpet accom­paniment throughout from Bill Swan (who likes this instrument about as much as the late John Entwistle used to like the French horn, but seems to have spent even less time practising). If it weren't for the mild catchiness of the chorus and, most importantly, the band's sense of light humor and irony, I'd probably hate the song — and the album.

But this sense of light humor and irony, coupled with the tastefulness of the unprofessional arran­gements, is what makes Handsome Western States, in the end, so handsome. When the music is too slow, it tends to drag, but when they pick up a cheery tempo, as in ʽI've Been Brokenʼ or the album closer ʽDig The Subatomic Holdout #2ʼ, everything is forgiven, including the unintentio­nal toe-tapping and air guitar playing, simplistic as these rhythms and chords may be. In addition, one aspect they really paid serious attention to is the vocal harmonies — some are three-part, amounting to a lightly head-spinning psychedelic effect (ʽShotgun Dedicationʼ). So «unprofes­sional», in this understanding, does not necessarily mean «not hard-working».

Still, despite all of its positive qualities, I do not think the album is worth an active «thumbs up» — it is way too «manneristic» and emotionally empty, or, if you wish, «emotionally masked» (which, to me, is pretty much the same thing) for me to click with on a sensory level, and too de­rivative and half-baked to be admired from a technical point of view. Reasonably well made, sure, but definitely not one of those amazing debuts that immediately justifies the sponsor's trust in the sponsored. Let's just say that, at this point in time, they were still «finding themselves», with oc­casional glimpses of the findings to come.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Bettie Serveert: Palomine

BETTIE SERVEERT: PALOMINE (1992)

1) Leg; 2) Palomine; 3) Kid's Alright; 4) Brain-Tag; 5) Tom Boy; 6) Under The Surface; 7) Balentine; 8) This Thing Nowhere; 9) Healthy Sick; 10) Sundazed To The Core; 11) Palomine (Small).

First things first: this band used to be quite heavily overrated by the indie community, since indie people tend to value bands for their fire, ferocity, and frustration rather than for their Pythagorean qualities, so to speak — and Bettie Serveert is a prime example of that. Nowadays, as the band's fire seems to have died down a bit, and as so many competitors with even less talent have occu­pied the same turf, that reverence has largely dissipated, yet in the early 1990s these intrepid Dutch pseudo-pioneers of post-grunge indie-rock were really hot stuff. But any band that chooses, of its own free will, at a certain point in their career to cover a Bright Eyes song (ʽLover I Don't Have To Loveʼ, in 2004), would already seem suspicious. And yes, one listen to their acclaimed debut is enough to make you understand — while the band is nowhere near as vile as the artistic persona of Conor Oberst, in theory, they are capable of empathizing with that artistic persona.

Bettie Serveert formed in Holland, although their lead singer and chief songwriter Carol van Dijk originally came from a Dutch family in Canada, hence her total lack of a Dutch accent (it is said, in fact, that she never managed to learn Dutch as a «second native» language after relocating to the Netherlands at the age of seven), nor are there any detectable «Hollandisms» in the lyrics or the music (and if there are, I probably wouldn't know what they would be, unless you start consi­dering «Indorock» people like Andy Tielman). The only Dutchism is contained in the band's name: «Betty serves» refers to Dutch tennis player Betty Stöve, who wrote a book with that title about her career. Apparently, judging by her record, she served all right, but won mostly in doubles — a hint at the band members' complete mutual interdependence? Nah, they probably just happened to fall upon the book title while trying to come up with a name.

Anyway, what is detectable is an almost slavish adoration of dirty distorted «avant-garage» rock — the three major pillars upon which Bettie Serveert try to erect their own little outpost are The Velvet Underground; Neil Young in his Crazy Horse incar­nation; and, from a more recent era, Sonic Youth. The lineup is simple and traditional. The rhythm section (Herman Bunskoeke on bass and Berend Dubbe on drums) is competent, but nothing special. The basic song structures are shaped by Carol herself, playing rhythmic patterns that she probably learned while listening to her idols — nothing special, either. The only member of the band who tries to be just a tad more creative is lead guitarist Peter Visser: his lead parts are thoroughly derivative of Lou Reed, Neil Young, and the Sonic Youth people in terms of style, but his is the responsibility for the melodic content of the songs, and every once in a while he comes up with some original ideas — thank God, or the whole thing would be a total drag.

Now what is it that made people actually fall in love with this bunch of slow / mid-tempo, rather sloppy, thoroughly uncatchy mixes of grungy grumble with hookless folksy chord sequences? As talented as Peter Visser is, the bulk of the band's charisma is generated by Carol — it is she, after all, who writes and delivers the lyrics, and classic-era Bettie Serveert is not a «pop» or a «hard rock» band; it is, first and foremost, a «singer-songwriter» outfit. Each song is a short (sometimes long) personal rant, usually of the «me and you» variety, full of obscure psychologism and veiled complexes — so thickly veiled, in fact, that it can be fairly hard to decode what the hell is that girl really singing about. However, my biggest problem with Carol is not her lyrics, but her per­sonality, which has so far failed to make me a convert. Her voice is fairly normal — neither too sweet-sappy-sentimental nor too arrogant-barking-punkish, just sort of a regular mezzo-soprano with a lot of mezzo and not so much soprano, if you get my drift. Her modulations and mood shifts are subtle and hard to notice, and even harder to interpret, much like the lyrics. But at the same time, there is also none of that crawl-under-your-skin mystique that sometimes infects you when listening to certain superficially unassuming vocalists.

At her worst (usually when she be­gins to rise up the scale in «climactic» emotional outsbursts, e.g. the "have I ever laid my hands on you before?" bit on ʽBrain-Tagʼ), she can be seriously annoy­ing. At her best, like when she gets into dreamy, subtly romantic mode on the title track, she can be mildly pleasant and listenable. But none of this, to me, seems like either great singing or even great «personality demonstration». Perhaps it just so happened that there was this acute demand for strong, intelligent female personalities emerging from behind walls of guitar distortion in the early 1990s, and Carol van Dijk happened to catch that wave — but I am willing to go on record saying that she's got nothing on Aimee Mann, and, totally sacrilegious as it may sound, I'd even say that Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill has more of that «intense female personality» than Palomine, not to mention catchier songs (admittedly far stupider lyrics, though — then again, since I do not understand most of van Dijk's lyrics, I have no way of telling exactly how stupid or intelligent they could appear to be).

Anyway, like I said, if it weren't for Visser, Palomine would be one of the draggiest albums I've ever heard. But already on the first track — ʽLegʼ, beginning as a rambling, directionless, irrita­tingly impressionist folk-rocker — he gradually manages to pull my attention away from Carol's ranting about "reflections in puddles and rain on the faces" and into his own world of trippy rock soloing that quotes freely from both Neil Young's and Robert Fripp's bag of tricks and eventually scales those heights of sonic ecstasy that Carol, on her own, would have no chance at even noti­cing from afar, making it well worth your while to sit through all of the song's six minutes rather than yawning off after the first couple of minutes.

This makes it easy for me to segregate the remaining songs — the more lead guitar they have, the better chance of survival. ʽKid's Allrightʼ is a fast rocker where even van Dijk pumps up a spoon­ful of anger, and Visser throws on lead lines and solos that are quite worthy of the annual Sonic Youth prize. ʽBalentineʼ sounds like a lost outtake from Neil Young's Ragged Glory (with a balance of idealistic romance and furious anger that recalls ʽLove And Only Loveʼ); and on ʽThis Thing Nowhereʼ, Visser thrusts his lead axe right under Carol's nose almost all the way through, and even if she has quite a pretty nose, guess who wins. On the other hand, the seven-minute epic ʽSundazed To The Coreʼ, most of it an unholy mess of distracted jangle, noise, and repetitive, hazy, half-hearted screeching, is so unbearable that I tend to end my listening experience with ʽHealthy Sickʼ (an equally sloppy noisefest, but only lasts for two minutes).

In short, you can see the reaction is pretty mixed here, but there is definitely no way that I could agree with the assessment of Palomine as a masterpiece of Nineties' indie-rock, or even as the band's own masterpiece. I could see where, like so many other albums, it could be embraced by «alternative»-minded college teens in search of a generational support that wouldn't be too trendy or too gimmicky, but, like most of these albums, I'd be surprised if it managed to stand the test of time. The funniest thing about this band, however, is that, the more musical they got, the less cri­tical respect they would earn for that — as if being even a pale copy of Sonic Youth was more of an achievement than trying to excel at, you know, actual songwriting. But all in due time.

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