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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bo Hansson: Magician's Hat

BO HANSSON: MAGICIAN'S HAT (1973)

1) Big City; 2) Divided Reality; 3) Elidor; 4) Before The Rain; 5) Fylke; 6) Playing Downhill Into The Downs; 7) Findhorn's Song; 8) The Awakening; 9) Wandering Song; 10) The Sun (Parallel Or 90 Degrees); 11) Excursion With Complications.

This is one of those classic situations where one tries to correct the balance between accessibility / entertainment and complexity / intellectualism and may end up pushing the slider too far in the opposite direction. On one hand, Magician's Hat, Bo's second foray into the world of progres­sive instrumental exploration, takes reasonable precautions to protect itself from the vicious sarcasm of critics crusading against starry-eyed idealism and fanboyism — namely, although quite a few of its tunes could have easily been slipped onto the previous record without anybody noticing, there are no direct references to Lord Of The Rings, and the compositions are open to any sort of unrestricted personal interpretations. That is probably good.

What is probably not so good is that Magician's Hat sounds awfully scattered and even less focused than its predecessor. Some of the reviewers define it as a «folk-prog» album, others de­scribe it as moving away from folk influences and more into jazz-fusion territory, still others just say that «this is great music that takes you to another dimension» without even trying to specify what sort of dimension that might be. The logical truth is that Magician's Hat is all these things — «folksy», «fusionesque», «otherworldly» — and more; and also, unfortunately, that this is not the kind of diversity that makes a whole lot of sense. As pretty as these soundscapes are, the album has not managed to override the «pleasant background music» tag that my subconscience has slapped on it during the very first listen.

Case in point: the epic-length ʽBig Cityʼ which, in its original form as ʽStorstadʼ on the Swedish edition, ran for 11 minutes, then was cut down to 7 on the international market release, then, finally, was restored back to full duration on the CD edition. I'd like to call the track «epic», but that would mostly refer to the sheer running length and the number of different «movements» — if that is enough, so be it, but normally, «epic» also surmises the idea of power, rising and falling dynamics, build-ups, crescendos, climaxes, etc., whereas ʽBig Cityʼ just sort of... trots along, sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower, mutating from blues-rock to choral folk chant to bossa nova to samba to fusion to a bit of avantgarde, being all over the place but fairly low-key most of the time. Not only does it not give out the impression of a ʽBig Cityʼ (more like a bunch of very small ones that you pass by in an old car at half-speed), but there are also next to no memorable themes — it is like a mediocre jazz album, with professionally set grooves and com­petent, but never too enlightening solo improvisations.

As we move away from the lengthy suite and into the realm of shorter tracks, things do not get better — because giving the short tracks separate names does not change the fact that the rest of the album is essentially just more of the same stuff. Every now and then, you do meet up with an interesting theme (ʽPlaying Downhillʼ has a curiously constructed brass/organ jazz melody that seems almost mathematically explorative), but, like fireflies, the interesting ones light up and fade away just as quickly as the uninteresting ones. Hansson has a ton of ideas in store for the album, but he gives poor ones as much space as rich ones, and almost never takes the time to prove that melody so-and-so actually needed inventing.

Some might see this as a challenge, and set themselves a worthy goal of learning to hum all the 20+ melodies of Magician's Hat, so as to easier win friends and influence people. I, however, seem to suffer from attention deficit syndrome in this situation, and keep on seeing all this as the result of dissipation of focus — professional instrumental noodling whose lack of conceptual purpose strips the music of the necessary energy. You know it's not really a good sign when the album's most memorable moment is basically a musical joke  — in this case, ʽExcursion With Complicationsʼ, which begins as a somber bluesy march, dominated by doomy organs and stern, electronically treated solo guitar, and then transforms into a New Orleanian piece of carniva­lesque boogie-woogie, thus ending the album with the author's tongue sticking out.

The album may hold up to repeated listens, I guess, if one deals with the fact that this is «prog-rock» with the «rock» component surgically extracted and dissolved in acid — as was the case with its predecessor, you'd better get yourself all comfortably relaxed to enjoy its smooth, inob­trusive hooks, atmospheric echoes, and tasteful, but uneventful soloing (including lots of guitar parts, which are now at least as prominent as the keyboards). Unfortunately, few of us will pro­bably have the time to determine just how much Magician's Hat reflects subtlety of vision rather than lack of vision. And it goes without saying that, having originally come out in 1972 (under the Swedish title Ur Trollkarlens Hatt), the album would be very quickly quenched by Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells — where most of the pieces of the puzzle would logically come to­gether, instead of being lazily scattered around, as they are here.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Agents Of Fortune

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: AGENTS OF FORTUNE (1976)

1) This Ain't The Summer Of Love; 2) True Confessions; 3) (Don't Fear) The Reaper; 4) E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence); 5) The Revenge Of Vera Gemini; 6) Sinful Love; 7) Tattoo Vampire; 8) Morning Final; 9) Tenderloin; 10) Debbie Denise.

Sometimes live albums are just live albums, and sometimes live albums mark off, or summarize a certain period — been there, done that, recapitulate, draw a line, time to move on. This is one of those cases: the Blue Öyster Cult of Agents Of Fortune is not the Blue Öyster Cult of Secret Treaties or any previous records. Goodbye, heavy metal — hello, pop rock.

Of course, it's not as if the band had always been a stranger to «softer» forms of music: from ʽRedeemedʼ to ʽWings Wetted Downʼ to ʽAstronomyʼ, their repertoire had frequently had its nods to folk, art-pop, and «progressive» styles. Nor is Agents Of Fortune completely devoid of riff-based tunes: ʽTattoo Vampireʼ has a riff as gritty as anything they'd done previously. But it would be futile to deny that the accents have seriously shifted — with the band being more pre­occupied with melody and harmony now, rather than the good old kick-ass routine.

Case in point: if there is one logical predecessor to the album's big hit song and the one number that is today most commonly associated with Blue Öyster Cult — ʽ(Don't Fear) The Reaperʼ — it would hardly be any of the hard rock bands, but rather The Byrds circa 1966-67. Buck Dharma's famous «jangly» riff is like a minor variation on the riff that opens ʽSo You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Starʼ, and the gentle folksy harmonies, culminating in the simplistic la-la-las of the chorus, sound as if coming straight out of sunny California, rather than the twisted, post-modern alleys of New York City. Add to this that Roeser envisioned the song as a fairly straightforward invitation to get rid of the fear of death — nothing ironic in that — and the "seasons don't fear the reaper" line, with its associations with ʽTurn! Turn! Turn!ʼ, and there you have it. Oh, and don't forget all the raga influences in the guitar break, too, which just about clinches it.

Why the song became such a big hit and such a ubiquitous staple is hard to tell — it was popular way before Will Ferrell and co. immortalized it for the hip crowds in the «more cowbell» SNL sketch, but I am not altogether sure that the cowbell itself could have had such a hypnotic effect on the public. Maybe its «optimistic melancholy», embodied in Roeser's unusually tender singing, filled in some sort of spiritual niche that was empty in 1976, or something. It is a good enough folk rock song, for sure, but hardly a classic example of «The BÖC Special» — knowing the band through this tune is a bit like knowing The Rolling Stones through ʽMiss Youʼ (which, I guess, could also be quite an option for a young person circa 1978).

Now if we take ʽThis Ain't The Summer Of Loveʼ, now we're talking: for all the difference that Agents Of Fortune makes, it opens in classic-traditional fashion, with heavy distorted guitars, eerie grinning vocals ("this is the night we ride!"), and a mock-apocalyptic message that is only a little bit set back by the raucous barroom-rock abandon of the chorus — the hookline is delivered by a bunch of bozos who've had one too many, rather than the Four Horsemen in their prime. You should not read too much profundity into the song — by 1976, everyone in the world knew fair well that «the summer of love» had ended with Altamont seven years back, or so they said — but this is not to say that the song has no snap, or has that snap misplaced. Most importantly, they can still generate that snap through music rather than words: the heavy riffage on ʽTattoo Vampireʼ, for instance, is so much more engaging than the silly lyrics about the protagonist's adventures in a tattoo parlor that the song may have worked better as a mean, fast-paced, athletic instrumental. (On the other hand, the endless references to vampires, daggers, demons, and flying skulls do a good job of directing one's mind to various «dark» associations for the music — otherwise, it might just as well be a modernistic tribute to Link Wray).

But the bulk of the record is far softer than that — you have your Band-style ʽTrue Confessionsʼ, dominated by honky-tonk piano and oddly plaintive vocal harmonies resolving in a falsetto hook; your arena-rock-oriented ʽExtra Terrestrial Intelligenceʼ, with bombastic guitars and anthemic choruses (all that's missing is a stadium and a neon-lit flying saucer landing in the middle); more falsetto harmonies on ʽSinful Loveʼ, mostly memorable for its bizarre refrain ("I love you like sin, but I won't be your pigeon"); more cowbell on ʽTenderloinʼ, where Eric Bloom suddenly decides to introduce a little bit of croon into his vocals and the whole thing ends up sounding like a slightly toughened up Billy Joel rocker; and ʽDebbie Deniseʼ, which is their softest album closer since ʽRedeemedʼ — pop harmonies all around and a chorus that, from my perspective, borders on sea shanty (or maybe it is just because I keep mishearing the "where I was out rolling with my band" line as "where I was a-rowin' with my band").

This should not, however, be taken as a criticism, for one simple reason: most of these songs are fun. They are imaginative, intriguing, (sometimes) lyrically challenging, memorable, and, most importantly, they come alive — it's almost as if the band were temporarily rejuvenated by gaining the right to step away from the hard rock formula and explore some contiguous territory. I mean, they even get Patti Smith to not only continue supplying some of the lyrics, but — now that her own musical career had kicked off with Horses a year ago — actually acquiring the right to duet with them on one of the tracks (the vampire anthem ʽRevenge Of Vera Geminiʼ): regardless of whether you are partial or not to the idea of Patti's warbling voice echoing Bloom, this is evi­dence of the band frantically searching for new solutions.

It all smells of a little campiness, where even ʽThe Reaperʼ might eventually begin to look like a parody on the «serious life-and-death message» song than the real thing, but ideologically, the album is not all that different from the early «meta-rock», «post-modern», «intertextual» etc. BÖC — most of the songs really work whichever way you want them to work, so that ʽVera Geminiʼ may look creepy one moment and hilarious the next one. In any case, ʽReaperʼ or no ʽReaperʼ, the record as a whole is a success, hard as it is to understand exactly what is so special about it. Maybe it's just that whole aura, a mix of sleaze, sarcasm, and «modernist spirituality», and the amazing discovery that it still stays relevant and involving even as the band rejects the gritty hard rock stomp as the primary means for conveying it. Thumbs up.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida): Shine

FRIDA: SHINE (1984)

1) Shine; 2) One Little Lie; 3) The Face; 4) Twist In The Dark; 5) Slowly; 6) Heart Of The Country; 7) Come To Me (I Am A Woman); 8) Chemistry Tonight; 9) Don't Do It; 10) Comfort Me; 11*) That's Tough.

If you manage to disregard the cheeky album cover (okay, so the world was living in the era of ʽPhy­sicalʼ back then), Shine is actually a very strong, engaging, even «experimental» pop album. Why it bombed on the charts, turning Frida off recording for more than a decade and off English-language recording almost forever, is unclear. One guess is that the world was shaking off the «ABBA cobwebs», setting the band aside as obsolete fluff until the 1990s revival — thus, even though only one song on Shine really sounds like classic ABBA, Frida got the boot simply for being Frida. Another guess is the opposite one: Shine is so different from ABBA that Frida's veteran supporters, constituting the bulk of the buyers, were turned off by the sound.

And no wonder: this time around, the producer is Steve Lillywhite, who was, back then, one of the hottest things in town, masterminding cutting-edge albums by Peter Gabriel, U2, and whoever else wanted to make use of the latest developments in studio technology in order to record some­thing dark, freaky, unsettling, or futuristic. The assembled musicians also represented «the new breed» and had already made big names for themselves: Tony Levin of King Crimson fame is on bass, Mark Brzezicki of Big Country fame is on drums, and singer-songwriter Kirsty McCall supplies much of the material, often co-written with Simon Climie, the man who'd later become known for the «Climie Fisher» duo (and then for the next stage of ruining Eric Clapton's solo career with atrocious albums like Pilgrim, trying to modernize the unmodernisable — but that would be a long, long time away: here, the guy just plays synthesizers).

The result is a bona fide synth-pop album (with very limited guitar presence) that takes the already dark overtones of its predecessor and compacts them into something even more emotio­nally disturbing. The title track's release as a single must have confused audiences, because it is not at all clear what it is — a simple love ballad, or a tale of an unhealthy psychoaddiction? The "you give me love, you make me shine" chorus, with its high uplifting harmonies seems to sug­gest the former, but the unexpectedly dissonant bass chords, the ghostly harmonies, the aggres­sive drum patterns, the sickly "you give me love, you give me love, you give me love..." repe­titions, it all suggests probing certain subconscious depths that are way below «fluffy lightweight romance» levels. This fluctuation between the light and the dark throws you off balance and prevents easy pigeonholing — hence, perhaps, the hesitation to buy up extra copies.

The one small «giveaway» to ABBA fans was certainly not enough to compensate. ʽSlowlyʼ, which Frida actually accepted from Benny and Björn (so, for all purposes, one might count it as a legitimate ABBA song), is awash in typically ABBA vocal hooks, tailored to Frida's abilities: a «multi-movement» ballad going through several layers of the emotional spectrum (the way she brings it all around with her velvety delivery of the title is gorgeous), and, for that matter, showing that the ABBA pool was anything but spent in the early 1980s. Still, just one song, and it comes on after the album's «creepiest» number: ʽTwist In The Darkʼ, contributed by songwriter Andy Leek, is like a slightly more accessible Melt-era Peter Gabriel track — big booming drums, ghostly keyboards and backing harmonies, and a menacing hookline. Now it's never really as threateningly Freudist as the description makes it out, but it's still fairly serious: if you liked the «darker» elements of The Visitors, this is a logical development.

Less stunning, but still catchy highlights include ʽOne Little Lieʼ, a lively synth-rocker with a rather gratuitous, but harmless, Beethoven lick in the intro, and ʽHeart Of The Countryʼ, contributed by Big Country's own Stuart Adamson. Individual disappointments would be limited to ʽDon't Do Itʼ, a rather shapeless ballad with nowhere-going echoey guitar used purely for at­mosphere — written by Frida herself, and maybe she shouldn't; and ʽCome To Me (I Am A Woman)ʼ, another ballad, this time, an even gentler and adult-contemporarier one, but it wouldn't be as embarrassing, I guess, if only Frida did not sing the chorus as "come to me, I am woman" (without the article!), which, if your English is on an okay level, gives the oddly dumb impression of "me Tarzan, you Jane" and dumbs down any hopes at romance.

Still, in terms of our general expectations, Shine is a relative masterpiece — nobody would demand a genuine Peter Gabriel-level record from an ABBA singer, no matter who the producer is, if the songwriting remains in the hands of a bunch of pop-oriented outsiders, but they come as close to this result as physically possible, and with a rather natural grace. Many people have floundered in the transition from «typically 1970s» to «typically 1980s» music: Frida clearly understood how not to flounder, and thus, it is actually a little distressing that she had all but severed her relations with the music industry from then on — unlike Agnetha, who eventually succumbed to DianeWarren-itis, Frida seems like the type who could have preserved a modicum of good taste throughout the decade (yes, sometimes my inner optimist does manage to beat up my inner pessimist).

But then, it does not make much sense to talk in «ifs»: the truth is that Shine was Frida's last internationally-oriented album, and she only made brief occasional returns to the public eye since then. One more Swedish-language album followed in 1996, and that was it. Should we lament the missed opportunities or appraise the humbleness and modesty? I guess we'd need to at least be close friends or something to answer that question. In the meantime, Shine gets an expected thumbs up rating — if you like tasteful synth-pop, and can stand the idea of it being slightly blemished by superficial sentimentalism, this record is made for you. Additionally, it is the last ever album to feature a song written by Benny and Björn and sung by one of the ABBA girls — most likely, this should wrench a commitment out of some people at least. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Blackmore's Night: Fires At Midnight

BLACKMORE'S NIGHT: FIRES AT MIDNIGHT (2001)

1) Written In The Stars; 2) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 3) I Still Remember; 4) Home Again; 5) Crowning Of The King; 6) Fayre Thee Well; 7) Fires At Midnight; 8) Hanging Tree; 9) The Storm; 10) Mid-Winter's Night; 11) All Because Of You; 12) Waiting Just For You; 13) Praetorius (Courante); 14) Benzai-Ten; 15) Village On The Sand; 16) Again Someday.

This is probably as good as it gets — or, at least, as diagnostic as it gets, so if you want to give Lord R. and Lady C. one lucky chance, Fires At Midnight might be your best bet. Not only is it as stylistically diverse as the duo would ever get, but it also achieves a stable balance between the «folk» and the «rock» visions of Blackmore as applied to his dabblings in past times with good companies. Which, simply speaking, translates to «it's still cheesy, but not as boringly cheesy as it used to be». There's even some bark-and-snap to it now.

Most importantly, Blackmore seems to have finally adapted the art of writing faux-medieval ballads to his trademark fiery style: almost as if he were a little tired of the exaggerated courteous gallantry of his previous two efforts, quite a few of these new compositions put their trust (and their thrust) in «power». ʽWritten In The Starsʼ opens the album deceptively, with some nearly accappella singing from Candice — but that is just the intro: at 1:05 into the song, the electric guitar kicks in with some heraldic chords, the martial drums and horns join in the attack, and the whole thing becomes a darkly romantic gallop, highlighted by ecstatic electric leads. No huge surprises on the whole, but this hint at «hidden menace», tragedy, and toughness is definitely something that neither ʽShadow Of The Moonʼ nor ʽUnder A Violet Moonʼ possessed.

Where royalty was earlier represented by Britain (Henry VIII), we now turn to Spain: the title track is credited as a reworking of a composition originally by Alfonso X of Castile, although we may safely assume that the guy was not quite as skilled at the electric guitar as Mr. Blackmore, his disciple, who turns most of the song's second part into a polygon for unleashing some long-missed amplified pyrotechnics at the listener. I am also quite unsure if Alfonso el Sabio actually made a provision for shawms in his original composition, but whatever be the case, they fit in well with this rather paganistic pandemonium. As simple and repetitive as the main melody is (which is not very surprising for a 13th century dance melody), they handle the build-up pretty well, and it does inspire Blackmore to go fairly wild on the guitar, though, of course, not full-out wild — even in a moment of ecstasy, the medieval minstrel should never forget that he does not have proper access to the whammy bar, since it has not been invented yet.

Other medieval heroes honored on the record include the obscure Dutch legend Tielman Susato, honored with renditions of the lyrical dance ballad ʽI Still Rememberʼ and the ceremonial, horns-driven ʽCrowning Of The Kingʼ (a little too pastoral, atmosphere-wise, but then again, we're talking 16th century here, when «pastoral» and «court» were not always that far removed); Jeremiah Clarke, whose famous ʽPrince Of Denmark's Marchʼ is adapted for a more lyrical pur­pose as ʽWaiting Just For Youʼ; the already previously honored Michael Praetorius, whose ʽCouranteʼ is played by Ritchie on basic acoustic guitar; and the long-forgotten medieval Jewish klezmer Hrodebert Zimbarman, whose woodwind-heavy gallant dance melody ʽDie Zeiten, Sie Ändern Sichʼ is usually better known to modern audiences through a corrupted neo-folk perfor­mance by one of his immigrant descendants; fortunately, we have Lord R. and Lady C. to thank for restoring the courteous authenticity of this fine, fine composition.

That said, unless you dig deep into the credits, it is quite impossible to distinguish the «authentic» material from the Blackmore/Night «originals» — the former pieces are always rearranged for the duo's usual style, and the latter are probably only «original» in the sense that they do not directly transpose the chord structures of the old musical pieces they are based upon... then again, con­sidering that Blackmore's collection is said to consist of about 2000 CDs of Renaissance music, I think that the man himself would not be able to tell whether a particular «original» of his has been directly lifted from somebody or influenced. So, for instance, the up-on-your-feet and dance-in-joy ʽHome Againʼ, containing either the catchiest or simply the most repetitive refrain melody on the album, is marked as a «Blackmore/Night» composition, but I couldn't believe for one moment that that melody was invented by Ritchie — it just sounds like a melody that must have been in good use in village dance traditions for at least half a millennium or so.

Anyway, this is not the point. The point is that, despite some inevitable filler (again, it runs over an hour, when some of the more same-sounding tracks could have been trimmed), Fires At Midnight crackle with more enthusiasm than the previous two records, and some of that enthu­siasm even rubs off on Lady C. — she sounds positively glowing on the weird Anglo-Japanese hybrid ʽBenzai-Tenʼ, an ode to a Buddhist goddess sung with Sherwood Forest harmonies (I count this as Blackmore's personal revenge on the world of J-Pop). While it would be too much to talk of stylistic revolutions or uncovered musico-semantic depths, Fires At Midnight finally fulfills the original promise, and honestly, professionally, and creatively delivers «Ersatz Enter­tainment», an embarrassingly guilty pleasure if there ever was one. Thumbs up and an overall recommendation — but do promise to at least check out Gryphon as a proper antidote for the cheap thrills offered by our little travelin' minstrel show. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Black Crowes: Lions

THE BLACK CROWES: LIONS (2001)

1) Midnight From The Inside Out; 2) Lickin'; 3) Come On; 4) No Use Lying; 5) Losing My Mind; 6) Ozone Mama; 7) Greasy Grass River; 8) Soul Singing; 9) Miracle To Me; 10) Young Man, Old Man; 11) Cosmic Friend; 12) Cypress Tree; 13) Lay It All On Me.

By Your Side was good enough to try out a sequel, but still not robust enough to inspire the Crowes for a sequel that would be just as good. It looks like they learned a few things — how to be more tight and snappy, how to give more care to hooklines, how to cultivate a macho image without being too disgusting — but it doesn't look like they had a particularly strong memory for any of them. If the album title is supposed to refer to the Robinsons themselves, well, this is a fairly sluggish pair of lions that we have here for observation.

Trouble begins almost immediately, as the major attractive force of ʽMidnight From The Inside Outʼ is concentrated in its guitar tone — fat, nasty, poisonously distorted — but little else. Slow, cumbersome, tied to a really irksome, meaningless blues-rock riff and not even remotely as «dangerous» as its production should lead you to believe, it is, well, everything that the previous album opener (ʽGo Fasterʼ) was not. And with a stylistically limited band like the Black Crowes, your initial impres­sion of the first song usually colors your impression of everything else.

Granted, the second song and the album's first single, unscrupulously called ʽLickin'ʼ, is an im­provement: a little faster, a little lower, a little sharper, with a guitar tone that almost borders on «industrial» this time — oh, if only brother Chris didn't sound like an ugly moron on the chorus! But he does, and he does it, exercising his capacity for free will (because he can sing normally — he just consciously wants to sound «nasty», like an authentic rock'n'roll hero). As a result, the song sounds gross, stupid, and unfunny. With some good riffage wasted.

Amazingly, as much as I thought I'd never have to say this, Lions is the first Crowes album where the ballads are better than the rockers. ʽMiracle To Meʼ, borrowing some of its acoustic chords from both ʽStairway To Heavenʼ (intro) and ʽWish You Were Hereʼ (main melody), gradually builds up to a sensitive, sentimental chorus whose "be my lover, be my friend, be a miracle to me" seems to work better on a gut level than any of their previous efforts, ʽShe Talks To Angelsʼ included. Even better is the album closer ʽLay It All On Meʼ, whose "come on down crooked man..." finally manages to approach the lazy, post-suffering, seen-it-all, friendly power of the Stones' ballads from 1971-72 — not that it'd seriously stand competition with ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, but perhaps it could stand a few rounds. Chris modulates his voice so that it really gives the impression of a comforting shoulder, and the piano/orchestral backing multiplies the impact and provides the necessary «epic» flavor.

The rockers, in comparison, all tend to lose face once again. Too slow, too generically written, and too fussy — perhaps some of the blame lies with producer Don Was, to whom they may have sucked up after he'd restored the Rolling Stones to their former glory with Voodoo Lounge and Bridges To Babylon. Apparently, though, what worked for the Stones did not work so well for their followers. On By Your Side, the guitar sound was more upfront and more raw; here, the guitars are usually too smooth, too polite, and too overshadowed by the band's unimpressive vocal harmonies and the band's equally unimpressive rhythm section. Only on ʽLickin'ʼ does brother Rich's guitar immediately assault your senses — elsewhere, it tends to limp and hobble rather than directly put the meat in your fridge, if you know what I mean.

I would not call the album «really bad», since the ballads work all right and the songwriting does show that a lot of work went into it (if it didn't, most of this review could be spent mentioning the titles of old blues-rock numbers that the brothers are ripping off, and it wasn't), but ultimately, Lions is unrewarding, and once again makes me forget why it is exactly that somebody could still be interested in hearing the Black Crowes play as late as the 21st century. Oh, and, for that matter, one thing I really hate — other than Chris' singing on the chorus of ʽLickin'ʼ — is the fly buzzing on ʽCosmic Friendʼ: not only is it really annoying (what else would you expect from a buzzing fly?), but it is also gratuitously unnecessary. Come to think of it, «gratuitously unnecessary» is as much of a pleonastic description as the Black Crowes are a pleonastic band. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Björk: Vespertine

BJÖRK: VESPERTINE (2001)

1) Hidden Place; 2) Cocoon; 3) It's Not Up To You; 4) Undo; 5) Pagan Poetry; 6) Frosti; 7) Aurora; 8) An Echo, A Stain; 9) Sun In My Mouth; 10) Heirloom; 11) Harm Of Will; 12) Unison.

A paradox here — I am in the camp that generally thinks Björk was at her best as long as she still maintained some touch with reality, and that it all started going downhill with Homogenic. And yet, every once in a while I cannot get rid of the feeling that Vespertine might be her greatest album, because it captures her quintessence so damn well. It is vastly experimental, it has nothing resembling a «pop single», it has its serious detractors who correlate the album with the «swan dress» appearance and dismiss it as written at a time when the lady had already went completely gaga — but I totally «get it», and love it, despite any potential flaws.

One thing is for certain: Vespertine is an ideological anti-thesis to Homogenic. Where that album went on a cosmic sprawl, its sonic panoramas extended deep and wide, and its protagonist almost equating herself with The Universal Mother or something, Vespertine should have really borne the title reserved for its second track: ʽCocoonʼ. Or for its first track, for that matter: ʽHid­den Placeʼ. No, it does not matter that the album still has plenty of swooping orchestral passages, or that the entire St. Paul's Cathedral Choir is engaged to add support to the grand finale of ʽUni­sonʼ. Even these elements all fall in with the artist's masterplan: now that she's emulated the macrospirit, it is the turn of the microspirit. If Homogenic was her tribute to the Big Bang, then Vespertine is her tribute to the Miracle of the Womb.

"Through the warmthest cord of care your love was sent to me" — ʽHidden Placeʼ begins fairly unambiguously, accompanied by electronic heartbeat-imitating pulsation and a swarm of over­dubs, all of them mimicking the «bio-music» as could be perceived by an embryo (provided an embryo can perceive any of it... but hey, this is art, not Autechre). You could call this «preten­tious» or «silly», but the thing is, it works for Björk, and it really works for her much better than the Homogenic approach. In fact, there are obvious links to Selmasongs as well: «cocoons», «hiding», «isolation», «beauty in solitude and seclusion», «idiosyncrasies of one's inner world» — all of this fits in much more naturally with Björk's vocal style and twisted fairy-tale hero image than her attempts to embrace the whole universe with her little hands. As wrong as I might be, I think Vespertine is the album that she'd been waiting for a chance to produce all of her life; and if we have von Trier to thank for this (not very likely, but possible), well, thank you.

The potential downside is that the record is much less scattered and diverse than it used to be — Björk's first proverbially «conceptual» album, if you wish, and, as it usually happens with proper conceptual albums, every now and then you have to accept hooks being sacrificed for atmosphere and «ideology». But this is not to say that Vespertine is a hookless record. Gripping choruses are present on several songs like ʽHidden Placeʼ, ʽIt's Not Up To Youʼ, and ʽUnisonʼ — arguably the most immediately accessible pieces on the album. The rest run on hypnotic fuel that takes a bit of time to sink in. Texture, ambience, intonation — a song like ʽCocoonʼ has nothing in addition to these components, but doesn't it actually sound like a «musical cocoon» of sorts, where the soft electronic keyboards play the part of silk threads, subtly wrapping around the singer's voice as she equates physical romance with the «art of shutting in»? Special mention should be made of the quivering falsetto — so fragile and so determined at the same time. I wouldn't go as far as choosing the simple way and calling it «vulnerable», because Björk is not vulnerable — when she gets hurt, she just retreats back in her shell, leaving an ink jet behind — more like the content equivalent of a cat purr after a good mouse hunt, but unforgettable, really, regardless of whatever interpretation you'd care to offer.

Further on down the line, there is ʽUndoʼ, which is probably the closest to her own ʽSong Of The Sirenʼ that she ever got: "It's not meant to be a strife / It's not meant to be a struggle uphill" is another cat purr that injects itself surreptitiously under your skin, until you fall under its spell or, if you're a strong one, realize that it's meant to be a spell and, like Ulysses, start desperately searching for some wax to plug your ears. With its multiple vocal overdubs and wild dissonances, ʽUndoʼ is sort of like a blueprint for Björk's entire next album, but since it actually has a point ("I'm praying to be in a generous mode", she says, and that is exactly what the song is about), it is more captivating than all of Medúlla put together.

One of the most beautiful, and slightly overlooked, things on here is ʽAuroraʼ, featuring some of Björk's loveliest vocal moves ever — you could argue against my point, saying that here she actually breaks out of the «cocoon» to sing a solemn prayer to the goddess of the dawn, but it is a quiet, intimate prayer all the same, propped up by soft keyboards and a harp melody (speaking of which, the harp is consistently the most prominent instrument on all these songs, as if it represen­ted the delicate internal humming of the silken cocoon support — the harp and chimes, that is, which play an equally delicate role on ʽSun In My Mouthʼ, ʽHarm Of Willʼ, and elsewhere). No sprawl, no bombast, just humble beauty, delicacy, and intimacy.

On the other hand, Vespertine is not a hymn to isolation and narcissism: as Carole King once said, "there's room enough for two in the cocoon" (or something like that, anyway), and quite a few of these tunes are essentially love songs — including the solemn coda of ʽUnisonʼ, where she states directly that "I thrive best hermit style / With a beard and a pipe / But now I can't do this without you", and urges her counterpart to "let's unite tonight, we shouldn't fight". I mean, all of that description could make Vespertine sound like one of those depressed, masochistic odes to loneliness, which it isn't in the slightest — it is a very happy, life-asserting, even extravert album, it just shows that all of this is equally possible to achieve inside a closed space. There is no bom­bastic "tear down the wall!", uh, I mean "cocoon", conclusion to this record because it does not need one. ʽHidden Placeʼ may start out with a tinge of insecurity, even paranoia perhaps, but by the time we get to ʽUnisonʼ, everything is just handy-dandy.

If you consciously seek a good turn to jump off the Björk train, do not make the mistake of doing it too early and dismissing Vespertine. Even if you believe that it puts the concept before the music, you will be smart enough to understand that it is one hell of a concept, and later on, that the music isn't too bad, either. Most importantly, this is the perfect compromise between «sym­bolist artistry» and «human behavior» that you will ever hear on a Björk record. Smarter-than-thou she may be here, but she ain't holier-than-thou, and it is arguably the last time that she's sounded so alive, all these vocal parts so befitting a human being rather than an android. An un­questionable artistic peak, a respectful thumbs up, and heavily recommended for professional silkworm breeders worldwide.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Black Sabbath: Headless Cross

BLACK SABBATH: HEADLESS CROSS (1989)

1) The Gates Of Hell / Headless Cross; 2) Devil And Daughter; 3) When Death Calls; 4) Kill In The Spirit World; 5) Call Of The Wild; 6) Black Moon; 7) Nightwing.

Hello Cozy Powell, goodbye good riffs. Many fans actually view Headless Cross as the second, and sometimes even the superior part of Tony's massive Martin-era «comeback» — freed both from the craziness of the Gillan-led Born Again and the pop metal gloss of Seventh Star, here is this new version of Black Sabbath doing exactly what Black Sabbath is supposed to do: writing and performing dark, dreary, doom-laden epics about the devil, dying, killing, going to hell, and never coming back. Tony Martin, say the fans, is the new incarnation of Dio, and now that they have legendary Cozy Powell with them on drums, they are ready to pummel us into the ground with Thor's hammer like never before.

Indeed, I think I know why Headless Cross is so popular. In all of its superficial qualities, it is the album that the more, shall we say, «occult-oriented» fans of Sabbath had been waiting ever since Heaven And Hell. Many of these songs were made to be sung at your local crossroads at midnight — and there is not a single speedy headbanger here like ʽHard Life To Loveʼ. Genre-wise, Headless Cross is a mix between power metal and doom metal, everything about it being sprawling, epic, with both Tonys trying to be as theatrically phantasmagoric as possible. No «fun» allowed as such: we are being deadly serious, as the first track already recalls the legend of the Headless Cross and Satan is always round the bend now. In fact, he's right there every time that Tony Martin sends his pitch sky high, and that's a lot of times.

Basically, Headless Cross picks up right from where ʽThe Eternal Idolʼ (the song, not the album) left off, intending to overload your senses with dark-tinged supernatural imagery. ʽThe Gates Of Hellʼ opens like the soundtrack to some creepy video game — synthesized moans, groans, and yawns of ghosts, wraiths, and demons greeting you for about a minute until Cozy kicks in with some mighty Cozy kicks, and in case you don't know it, the late Cozy Powell didn't have a lot of swing, but he did have more bada-boom than anybody else around. In a way, the fact that the music begins with a few bars of drums, before the guitar comes in, is symbolic — placing the accent on «power» over «melody» right from the start.

Actually, the title track isn't all that bad, if you overlook the fact that they subconsciously dupli­cated the rhythmic structure of ʽHeaven And Hellʼ — but at least it's got a couple of brand new Iommi riffs, not the best, perhaps, but memorable. Martin's efforts at getting into the character of a thunder-and-lightning heavy metal prophet of doom are not very convincing (he's still being a second-rate Dio and there is nothing anybody can do about it), and the main riff that drives the chorus sounds more like AC/DC in structure and effect than Sabbath, but I guess it might be fun to think of the song as a sort of (headless) cross between ʽHeaven And Hellʼ and ʽHells Bellsʼ. If all the album followed suit, it wouldn't be so tragic.

Alas, already on ʽDevil And Daughterʼ, with flat pomp dominating the speakers and the key­boards almost drowning out the feeble attempts at a guitar melody, Headless Cross begins its descent into total mediocrity — melody-wise, that is, because «taste-wise», mediocre power metal can be a seriously miserable experience. Bombastic mid-tempo or slow-tempo anthems with laughable lyrics, unmemorable riffs, and a singer who seems to seriously believe he can spook people into cowering and freaking out with his pathetic choruses ("WHEN DEATH CALLS!" "IT'S THE CALL OF THE WILD!" "NIGHTWING FLIES AGAIN!") — a complete victory of style over substance, which is certainly not what we usually expect of Tony.

It's not that there aren't any riffs at all, but what there is gets bogged down in bad production (Tony and Cozy are listed as co-producers) — for instance, the chorus riff of ʽNightwingʼ could have been handled in a much more distinctive way — and every once in a while, there does come along a song like ʽCall Of The Wildʼ where most of the melody is reduced to just yer basic power chords, while the chorus is dominated by Geoff Nicholls' keyboards. The melody of ʽKill In The Spirit Worldʼ could be written by just about any pop metal band at the time — or, even worse, fit like a glove on something like Yes' Big Generator. ʽBlack Moonʼ, for a change, begins with a great Iommi tone, fat and grumbly, the way we like it, but a few seconds into the song it is already obvious that we will have to do with a generic heavy blues-rocker, nailed to the ground with Cozy's bada-boom patterns. Queen's Brian May makes a guest appearance on ʽWhen Death Callsʼ, but this only counts as a bit of useless trivia — not even Frank Zappa could have saved the song from soaking in its own pathos.

Recapitulating: take Heaven And Hell, add late Eighties glossy, bombastic production, replace Dio's «roar» with Martin's «whine», throw in lots of cheesy keyboards, dumb down the riffs, and what you get is Headless Cross, an album doomed by way too much doom. You'd never think that a time would come when somebody'd pray for Tony Iommi to start boogieing, but maybe a bit of boogie could save this record — it is exactly this «ultra-serious» tone adopted by everyone involved that makes it so disastrous. Thumbs down.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bo Hansson: Music Inspired By Lord Of The Rings

BO HANSSON: MUSIC INSPIRED BY LORD OF THE RINGS (1972)

1) Leaving Shire; 2) The Old Forest & Tom Bombadil; 3) Fog On The Barrow-Downs; 4) The Black Riders & Flight To The Ford; 5) At The House Of Elrond & The Ring Goes South; 6) A Journey In The Dark; 7) Lothlorien; 8) Shadowfax; 9) The Horns Of Rohan & The Battle Of The Pelennor Fields; 10) Dreams In The House Of Healing; 11) Homeward Bound & The Scouring Of The Shire; 12) The Grey Havens.

«Inspired» is the right word. If all of these compositions pretended to the status of an actual sound­track to Lord Of The Rings, it'd be a Lord Of The Rings in which Frodo would be a som­nambulant lunatic, Tom Bombadil would be a decrepit old organ player, stoned out of his mind in a basement, Lothlorien would be the name of an opium den, The Battle of the Pelennor Fields would be carried out by Grateful Dead fans in a mosh pit, and «leaving for the Grey Havens» would be a euphemism for a heroin injection. But as it is, the music does not pretend to anything — it simply happens to be inspired by LOTR. And some elvendust and magic mushrooms.

In all honesty, these pieces of music that the Swedish multi-instrumentalist Bo Hansson put together for his first solo album do not have much to do with Tolkien, and the title might even be a little misleading: for one thing, people who have never joined the club of J. R. R. admirers, or people who actually find Tolkien's significant influence on 1960s-1970s music somewhat embar­rassing (remember Plant's lyrics for ʽRamble Onʼ, eh?) are quite likely to be turned off by the title, thinking that this is just some silly slobbering fanboy tribute. Tribute it might be, in name, but in actuality Hansson is too busy concocting his own magical mystical world to grovel and kowtow before somebody else's.

The world is not characterised by a staggering amount of diversity. It most closely resembles the efforts of Pink Floyd circa 1970-72, when they were already out of their wildest psychedelic / avantgarde phase, but were not yet ready to flood the world with their newly awakened social conscience, and were mostly content with exploring the possibilities for strange ambient beauty. Hansson, playing most of the instruments himself (Rune Carlsson is handling the drums, and a couple of additional sax and flute players are also available from time to time), sees himself as a mood-brewer: these are smooth, quiet, repetitive instrumentals that invite the listener to relax and soak in the atmosphere. The actual melodies are so straightforward and simple that you will be humming them in no time if you set your mind to it — much like Floyd's melodies, come to think of it — but the simplicity is meaningful and seductive enough to forgive the lack of flash.

Hansson's keyboards are the essential link: originally, he was a major Hammond player (as part of the late-Sixties duo Hansson & Carlsson), and here, too, the organ remains his instrument of choice, although he's also added the Moog to his inventory (whose first notable appearance is impersonating a nasty wight in ʽFog On The Barrow-Downsʼ). Whatever simple melody is play­ing at any given moment, there is almost always a quiet baroque (or pseudo-baroque?) keyboard «floor» under it, and together with Hansson's respect for the echo effect, these are his major world-building ingredients. He does not manage a sound as vast as Floyd do on their better tunes (like ʽEchoesʼ), but he is not hunting for that — his space is fairly well shut in, so if you want my Lord Of The Rings association, I'd say that the majority of these tracks should be stripped of their titles, sewn together and renamed «The Crossing Of Mirkwood, Pts. I-X», because that is exactly how it all feels to me — an endless, monotonous journey on a narrow forest path, barely looked over by some feeble rays of light: boring, perhaps, but also hypnotic in some strange, undescri­bable way.

Every now and then the music picks up the pace a little, but really, even ʽThe Battle Of The Pelennor Fieldsʼ, despite the quirky «treated» electric guitar part that presages Mike Oldfield, sounds more like a merry Celtic dance than a fierce combat between the forces of good and evil. «Evil», in fact, tends rather to be impersonated by «scary» fiddling with the Moog, from the already mentioned ʽFogʼ to ʽA Journey In The Darkʼ, while «beauty», be it ʽLothlorienʼ or the romantic gallop of ʽShadowfaxʼ, is associated with simple, clean, sometimes slightly jazzy electric guitar licks. All of it is very homebrewn and not a wee bit «epic»: as we get to ʽGrey Havensʼ, for the Grand Finale we are offered nothing but a stern couple of sliding electric licks (to mirror the movement of oars?), some quietly bubbling organ parts, and Carlsson's usual «muffled» percussion, to avoid any direct references to a «rock sound», if possible.

Considering how unassuming the music is, it is curious that it even managed to reach the ears of a large audience in the first place. Hansson originally recorded and released it as Sagan Om Ringen in Sweden in 1970, but later on, it caught the attention of Tony Stratton-Smith (the guy behind the success of Genesis), and by the time it hit the UK and US shelves in 1972, Hansson was already a minor celebrity in the prog-rock ranks. Maybe it is this quiet, ascetic nature of the album that made it stand out even back then, when most people were being so flashy and bom­bastic — anyway, it is a good thing that Tolkien's agents never let him carry on with the idea of adding voices to the record, because I believe that any singing here would have spoilt the overall effect. As it is, this is just one of those albums that will go down easy with a cup of camomile tea — not «stunningly beautiful», but «quietly becalming» in much the same way as something like Brian Eno's Another Green World, just on a less radical level. Thumbs up

Monday, September 22, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: On Your Feet Or On Your Knees

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: ON YOUR FEET OR ON YOUR KNEES (1975)

1) The Subhuman; 2) Harvester Of Eyes; 3) Hot Rails To Hell; 4) The Red & The Black; 5) 7 Screaming Diz-Busters; 8) Buck's Boogie; 9) Last Days Of May; 10) Cities On Flame; 11) ME 262; 12) Before The Kiss (A Redcap); 13) Maserati GT (I Ain't Got You); 14) Born To Be Wild.

I guess we all saw that coming — a double live album, the ultimate prooftest for all of the era's art rock and hard rock performers. Even if the basic image and substance of Blue Öyster Cult was of the «meta-...» nature, and most of the music was sharply tongue-in-cheek, one should not forget that there was still a serious dividing line between the band's ideological gurus (Pearlman, Meltzer, the occasional Patti Smith, etc.) and the actual boys in the band, most of whom had authentic rock'n'roll hearts; in fact, were it otherwise, the band would have never made it so good. Behind all the irony, there was a real beast out there, and On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, culled from several performances from their 1974 tour in support of Secret Treaties, was clearly supposed to focus on the beast rather than the irony.

Not that «the beast», unleashed on the audience, is completely free of the irony. The biggest difference of these performances from their studio equivalents is that some of the songs are seriously stretched out — most notably, ʽME 262ʼ and ʽDiz-Bustersʼ — and by «stretching out», Blue Öyster Cult usually mean «engaging in ridiculously overdone guitar pyrotechnics», like the ʽFreebirdʼ solo or the sonic acrobatics that Mick Ronson would perform before the front rows of bedazzled screa­ming kids during a Ziggy Stardust show. Some of the time the stage show focuses on Buck Dharma's soloing, at other times Bloom joins him with «stun guitar», creating a high-wailing, sense-overloading wall of sound that plays up to the «rock hero» image about as much as it sends it up — anyway, whatever happens out there in the middle of ʽME 262ʼ isn't really «rock and roll» in its purest form (like at a Stones concert or something), more like a consciously staged behaviorist experiment. Not a criticism — just a statement.

The actual songs are not changed all that much from the studio versions, except for the tempos, dutifully sped up for extra excitement at some expense of playing precision — sometimes it is for the better (ʽThe Red & The Blackʼ), but sometimes it hurts: ʽCities On Flameʼ loses much of its demonic sheen by not allowing the guitar riff to fully realize its grin — the timing is off, and the main body of the song is over much too quickly. Unfortunately, the mix is not ideal, either, with the vocals suffering throughout and some of the subtleties of the rhythm guitar probably lost due to technicalities. It wouldn't matter if the losses were compensated for with added rock'n'roll excitement, but... see above on rock'n'roll excitement.

The setlist, while omitting several obvious highlights of the first three albums, is still quite strong, and features three further additions to the catalog. ʽBuck's Boogieʼ is a lengthy instrumental, most of it happening at breakneck speed and featuring the personal talents of Mr. Donald Roeser (as far as live performance goes, it was actually quite an oldie by 1974, and a studio version is now available as a bonus track on Tyranny And Mutation). ʽMaserati GTʼ is a reimagined version of the old Jimmy Reed tune ʽI Ain't Got Youʼ with lotsa extra jamming; and ʽBorn To Be Wildʼ is the band trying to be Steppenwolf — I suspect that it is actually a studio track thrown on at the last moment, maybe as a friendly gesture or because they had it lying around and didn't know what else to do with it. It's all passable, the only question being: why did they have to throw an excerpt from ʽCat's Squirrelʼ into both ʽBuck's Boogieʼ and ʽMaserati GTʼ? Is that an unpleasant hint at the paucity of improvisational imagination — or just an unfortunate coincidence?

In any case, while you can tell that I am not head-over-heels in love with the album, it would be useless to insist that the Blue Öyster Cult Machine is not a real machine, but just an imitation. They do pack a good punch; the problem is that there is too much «show» here and not nearly enough «spirit». When we're talking bands like the Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, or Deep Purple, in all those cases their classic live shows, different as they are from the studio activities, will rank at least as high as the studio activities. Blue Öyster Cult, on the other hand, seem to be primarily a studio-oriented band, even despite all the hard rock muscle that would seem so natu­rally geared towards live performance. But live, they are more of a «glam» act than a «rock» act, and this is why, like Bowie or T. Rex, no matter how much of a hell of a live show they could put on, and no matter how much their live records sold (and they did sell), they are more likely to be remembered for what they did in the studio. Still, thumbs up for all that hard work, and for featuring Buck Dharma in full flashy capacity for a change. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida): Something's Going On

FRIDA: SOMETHING'S GOING ON (1982)

1) Tell Me It's Over; 2) I See Red; 3) I Got Something; 4) Strangers; 5) To Turn The Stone; 6) I Know There's Something Going On; 7) Threnody; 8) Baby Don't You Cry No More; 9) The Way You Do; 10) You Know What I Mean; 11) Here We'll Stay.

Because of all the casual stereotypes, Agnetha was always cast as the «dumb blonde» part of the female ABBA component where Frida was, if not exactly the «dark-haired intellectual», still sort of regarded as the brainier element of the two. To be fair, Agnetha did get most of the solo parts on ABBA's lyrically shallowest love ballads, while Frida, with her deeper voice, accordingly got the parts that tried to probe a little further, but still, that ain't really sufficient ground for proper discrimination — at best, it shows that Benny and Björn were in on the «dumb blonde» game as well, because even songwriting genius does not save one from stereotype attack.

Much more diagnostic would be the kind of situation where both dames were finally completely independent and had the freedom of asserting their own identities — Something's Going On came out approximately at the same time as Wrap Your Arms Around Me, and although both albums consisted almost entirely of covers (Agnetha, unlike Frida, did write a couple of her own, but there'd hardly be any difference if she didn't), the difference in tone was striking. Agnetha's performances were predominantly songs of passionate love and romance — Frida's were darker (like the hair!), concentrating much more on paranoia, breakup, loss, and only occasional conso­lation — romance as antidote against grief. Roughing it up, we have here the classic opposition between comedy and tragedy, where you can take your own pick.

It wasn't all Frida's own invention though. For her first post-ABBA solo album (like Agnetha, she had a few Swedish-only solo albums before and during ABBA), she teamed up with Phil Collins, being tremendously inspired and impressed with the freshly published Face Value — a record that was all about paranoia, breakup, and loss, and, incidentally, was also the first (and best) Phil Collins solo album, so somehow the two turned out to be sympathetic souls, and Phil not only produced Frida's record for her, but also contributed one of the songs and even sang with Frida on the closing duet. Touching!

Naturally, Phil's production style is not for everybody. We have here the same «gigantic» drum sound as on Face Value, much, though not all, of it programmed; and all the electronic keyboards / pop metal guitars / echoey effects on the vocals that were so trendy at the time — the ironic thing is, no matter how hard Frida tries to distance herself from her ABBA past here, in the end it all still sounds ABBA-esque, not just because of the familiar voice, but also because the assem­bled songs must have been subconsciously filtered. None of them were written by Benny or Björn, but just try to imagine how it all might have sounded without Phil in the producer's seat, and you will have yourself a smooth and natural transition from The Visitors to here. (Whereas with Wrap Your Arms Around Me, the transition would probably be from 1975's ABBA — ʽThe Heat Is Onʼ is kinda sorta the natural successor to ʽTropical Lovelandʼ, isn't it?.. on the other hand, it was Frida who sang ʽTropical Lovelandʼ... oh, never mind).

The big single was ʽI Know There's Something Going Onʼ (with you and her, not with the world today), written by Russ Ballard, who, as it turns out, was happy to serve both the red and the white queen at the same time (ʽCan't Shake Looseʼ, written for Agnetha, did not manage to have quite the same chart success, though). Behind its production gloss there is a genuinely ominous vibe, greatly added by Daryl Stuermer's acid guitar solo, although the song is still too repetitive and dependent on the endlessly looped chorus hook to be considered an atmospheric masterpiece — so, in an unpredictable contrasting move, I'd like to declare it melodically inferior to the non-hit, non-single ʽBaby Don't You Cry No Moreʼ, a nostalgic jazz-pop ditty contributed by Bal­lard's former colleague, Rod Argent in person. It may seem shallow in comparison, but it's got a luvverly piano melody, a cool vocal resolution, and it reminds you of Paul McCartney's ʽBaby's Requestʼ with extra vocal flourishes, so who's to complain?

Other highlights include: ʽI See Redʼ, a disturbingly introspective song written by Jim Rafferty — one year later, it would turn into a minor pop hit for the chart-hungry Clannad, whose version was a bit more creepy compared to this reggae-influenced recording, but Frida, too, is able to sense the paranoid potential of the song, and even the echo effect on the vocals, normally a bad thing for such an expressive singer, is in its perfect place, conveying insecurity and uncertainty; the opening pop-rocker ʽTell Me It's Overʼ, written by Stephen Bishop and as rousing as any average ABBA pop-rocker; and Per Gessle's melodisation of Dorothy Parker's ʽThrenodyʼ, very sweetly and lightly arranged — a tight beat supporting a largely acoustic melody, with mandolins and chimes and just a short sweet touch of the synth around the edges.

In fact, the only serious disappointment is that last duet with Phil — ʽHere We'll Stayʼ is, of all things, a Xanadu-tinged romantic disco number, with Frida being cast in the Olivia Newton-John part and the happy duo even making a run for the falsetto register during the climactic bits: at the very least, this is a fairly tacky ending that they came up with, in poor taste overall, not to men­tion seriously at odds with the general tone of the album. They did release it as a single, which is understandable (Frida and Phil, together for the first time!), but it didn't chart, so the effort was wasted and the reputation sullied (of course, now that many people are reevaluating that entire stylistics from a completely different angle, the whole thing may even seem stylish!). So you just might want to hit that stop button one track ahead of its time — or suffer the insufferable.

On the whole, though, this is a decent, sufficiently moody pop album, not pretending to any huge depth, but not too dumbed down, either. I cannot say for sure that Phil's production did Frida a lot of good — but what she obviously wanted was to make a «non-ABBA» album, so this decision can be respected. What really matters is that Anni-Frid's vocals are at the heart of each song —  and, really, what else should one expect from an Anni-Frid solo album? Thumbs up.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Blackmore's Night: Under A Violet Moon

BLACKMORE'S NIGHT: UNDER A VIOLET MOON (1999)

1) Under A Violet Moon; 2) Castles And Dreams; 3) Past Time With Good Company; 4) Morning Star; 5) Avalon; 6) Possum Goes To Prague; 7) Wind In The Willows; 8) Gone With The Wind; 9) Beyond The Sunset; 10) March The Heroes Home; 11) Spanish Nights (I Remember It Well); 12) Catherine Howard's Fate; 13) Fool's Gold; 14) Durch Den Wald Zum Bach Haus; 15) Now And Then; 16) Self Portrait.

For some reason, Ritchie likes to make these records rather long — around an hour in duration, sometimes more, taking full advantage of the CD format at a time when other performers were already getting past that stage, and slowly realizing that you don't have to stretch your record out to 70 minutes just because you can fit that much length on your current medium of choice. Be­cause of that, all of these Blackmore's Night recordings necessarily have monotonous streaks to them even if it would be wrong to say that Blackmore always purposefully sounds the same.

On the contrary, if you put it all together, an album like Under A Violet Moon (several points off, though, for two LPs in a row with the word «moon» in the title) features plenty of diversity. There's some medieval English music, some medieval German music, some medieval Spanish music, an acoustic reinvention of an old Rainbow song, and even a bit of Russian folk music, which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be pseudo-folk music (ʽGone With The Windʼ incor­porates the melody of Polyushko-polye, Lev Knipper's most famous contribution to his country, written in 1934), but who's supposed to know?

In some ways, this is a serious improvement: the production, featuring many more «authentic» instruments than before (with twice as many musicians credited in the liner notes), is fairly well cleaned from that feeling of «cheapness» — and there are no downright embarrassments like the disco pandering of ʽWriting On The Wallʼ. That's on the traditional-conservative side, but on the «fusion» side, Blackmore's fans will also like the fact that he is playing more electric guitar, in­cluding a trademark flashy solo during the coda of ʽGone With The Windʼ (very clean, though: no distortion or whammy bar hooliganry) — and that Rainbow cover, too, is a nice enough gesture, showing that Ritchie has not completely disavowed his past, but is rather willing to re­think it. After all, some of those songs did have good melodies, and ʽSelf Portraitʼ works fine in an acoustic setting.

Unfortunately, nothing will help Candice Night to become a more interesting singer than her inborn gift allows her to, and no matter how they try, all of these songs are, at best, «pretty» rather than «beautiful». When they come up with catchy vocal hooks, as they do on the title track, they are worth relistening — but even then, the magic that they sincerely try to work on that song is rather trite. Pretty girl singing, «mystical» echoey male harmonies flanking, gradual quickening of the tempo to turn the whole thing into a magical dance ritual, we've pretty much sat through all that in high school already: can you show us something we don't know? Okay, even if you can, you just don't want to. It's your fantasy, and you don't care just how original or individualistic it is. Fair enough. "Past time with good company / I love, and shall until I die" — what serious objec­tion could there be against ol' King Henry VIII and his still-actual credo?

Seriously, none at all, and there is not a single track on this album that would not be at least tepidly likable. Some have said that the album is more «poppy» where its predecessor was more «folky», but this is a matter of personal impression, I guess, especially if by «poppy» one means «catchier and/or happier tunes», which are more or less equally interspersed here with darker stuff — and it is interesting that the bleak ʽSelf Portraitʼ, with its "going down, down, down, down, down" chorus was chosen as the coda, leading the album from the collective ritualistic happiness of the opening to the personal depressed gloom of the closing. Other than that, I guess ʽGone With The Windʼ with its Russian folk backing harmonies is the most «outstanding» number here, but there is something hokey about crossing fake Russian mouzhiks with passionate Blackmore electric soloing, so there is hardly anything cathartic about the song.

I'd give the album a thumbs up and recommend it to Blackmore's fans as a suitable introduction into his world, populated with idealistic projections of King Henry VIIIth, Michael Praetorius, and J. S. Bach, as they all join hands and dance around the fire under a violet moon shining over a Spanish night somewhere in Avalon. But remember that, essentially, this is just a musical form of cosplay, so, instead of expecting Fairport Convention quality, just bring along your Robin Hood garments and a longbow, and on that level, it will be fairly easy to connect with the old grey minstrel and his golden-locked protegée.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Black Crowes: By Your Side

THE BLACK CROWES: BY YOUR SIDE (1999)

1) Go Faster; 2) Kicking My Heart Around; 3) By Your Side; 4) Horsehead; 5) Only A Fool; 6) Heavy; 7) Welcome To The Goodtimes; 8) Go Tell The Congregation; 9) Diamond Ring; 10) Then She Said My Name; 11) Virtue And Vice.

This is the first ever Black Crowes album that I can enjoy through and through. One of the critical viewpoints has somehow managed to brand it as a «return to roots», successfully recapturing the vibe of the band's first two records after the temporary slump of Three Snakes — an opinion much dissipated through the critical community, but one that could have only come by traditional rock'n'roll analogy. I mean, every band has got to have something like an early peak, a mid-term slump, a «comeback», and all sorts of dynamics that create the illusion of an adventurous and intriguing career. And no shit: prior to recording By Your Side, the band actually fired their second guitarist, Marc Ford, and for what? Heroin addiction! It's like the mid-Seventies all over again. Juicy stuff for rock tabloids and all.

As far as my own, fairly insignificant in comparison, opinion is concerned, most of those dif­ferences are fairly cosmetic anyway. A small extra brass part in here, a bit of extra production gloss in there — really, any sort of «progress» or «development» from one Crowes album to ano­ther is negligible even in comparison to classic Aerosmith, let alone someone bigger. But while the overall style is always comparable, the substance and energy level may vary enough to make some of the songs kick ass where others simply scratch balls. So who knows, maybe those lineup changes, with a new second guitarist and a new bass player (Sven Pipien), had their beneficial effect after all? Even if the new guitarist did not play a single note on the album?..

Whatever be the case, By Your Side somewhat reduces the band's usual obsession with mega-over-dubbing and sonic messiness. Instead, what we have is the Crowes' most barroom-rock-oriented collection of songs to-date — with Stones, Aerosmith, and Faces/Rod Stewart influence all over the place, but strengthened up with some really thick, sticky, crunchy guitar tones; if you throw a wah-wah effect on top (ʽHorseheadʼ), the macho aura of the song becomes strong enough to melt down windows and pulverize doors. Silly, but lovable. The overall emphasis is on crunch, crunch, crunch, with repetitive chorus lines to generate some catchiness and brother Chris wailing so loud that he even manages to overcome the usual blandness of his vocal tone: still no match for Steven Tyler, but at least now he actually sounds authentically drunk, which is already something — prior to this, the Crowes almost always sounded like they were faking it, and there is nothing worse than pretending to be drunk when you've barely touched the stuff at all.

One of the band's main mottos now is stated right in the title of the first song — ʽGo Fasterʼ — and this is what they do on several other songs as well: ʽKicking My Heart Aroundʼ propels that anthemic slide riff forward at a respectable tempo, instead of spreading it all over the timeline, while ʽGo Tell The Congregationʼ adds moderate speed to a funky foundation, and suddenly the band's usual lumpiness fades away and out pops a really tight, but fluent outfit that allows the music to fly — not just sink into the ground. But even when they remain strictly mid-tempo, the vibe is good. The title track begins like a variational tribute to the Stones' ʽTumbling Diceʼ, but then quickly moves into Faces territory instead and does the right thing: the extra crudeness and the sheer force with which they punch, pummel, and tear at the instruments compensates for the lack of anything instantaneously memorable in melodic terms.

In other words, it ain't so much the songwriting (although there are a couple more riffs around the place worth collecting) as the focus that has improved. I may be wrong, but I think that a song like ʽHeavyʼ would have been unthinkable on any of the earlier records — its leaden swing would have been coated with slide guitars and keyboards, dissipated and wasted. Here, though, as un­spectacular as the melodies might be, the songs are allowed to capitalize on their potential strength; and, for the record, it also helps that balladry is kept to a minimum — in fact, there are no ballads whatsoever in the conventional sense, just a couple of these soulful R&B numbers that all gravitate towards pop-rock anyway, like ʽOnly A Foolʼ and ʽDiamond Ringʼ.

The wah-wah ruckus on ʽHorseheadʼ might sound like they're grossly overloading it, but that is just the point — this band only begins to make sense when they go for overload, because they sure as hell can't get break through with subtlety. This is why ʽHorseheadʼ is my favorite song off the album, a massive headbanger, tongue hanging out and saliva dripping all over the place, the musical equivalent of the thickest, most calory-choked burger on Earth — and there are other songs here that go in the same direction, too, the more, the better. To put it bluntly, the Black Crowes almost manage to be as sleazy as they are usually advertised on this record, and for this reason and no other, I give it a big greasy thumbs up, and take the liberty of saying that the band never ever got any better — or sicker, or filthier, etc. — than this. Never.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Björk: Selmasongs

BJÖRK: SELMASONGS (2000)

1) Overture; 2) Cvalda; 3) I've Seen It All; 4) Scatterheart; 5) In The Musicals; 6) 107 Steps; 7) New World.

First and foremost, this review offers a great pretext for giving a good smacking to Lars von Trier, whom I have always admired for his talent and his audacity, and have always hated for all the wrong directions in which he has applied both. Dancer In The Dark, even more so than Breaking The Waves, and just about the same as Dogville, was a ridiculously staged study in personal manipulation — whose most unconventional and groundbreaking facet was its utter ridiculous­ness. I like the story about how, allegedly, Björk would begin her filming every day by saying "I despise you, Mr. von Trier", and spitting at the gent, which is probably what every intelligent person should have done in her place, were he/she under an obligation of some sort. The only question, of course, being «what the hell was she thinking in the first place?», and a possible answer being that, in the first place, she didn't think about anything, and in the second place, it was too late to back out already.

Not that the movie is bad in all respects: technically speaking, it's fine... other than the disgusting storyline (sort of like «Charles Dickens meets modern anti-American stereotypes») and, sub­sequently, the corny, incredibly artificial over- or under-acting of everyone involved. If you are into movies for different reasons (camera work, lighting, editing, etc.), Dancer In The Dark deserves to be seen. But mostly it just deserves to be seen in order to get a better context for Selma Songs, its accompanying soundtrack — a mini-album whose quality stands miles above the movie, so never make the mistake of bypassing it in your exploration of Björk's discography. This small bunch of songs is the finest thing to have come out of the entire project.

If anything, Selma Songs serves as a wonderful antidote for the distant and over-reaching effect of Homogenic — for a short time, it gives us back our Björk as a human being. Warped, crazy, totally idiosyncratic, but a human being nevertheless. The movie character, «Selma» — a helpless im­migrant mother matching near-complete blindness with a Dostoyevsky heart — may look caricaturesque in the movie (at least, the script does its best to present her as a caricature), but when it comes to painting that image with musical colors, von Trier is out of the picture and Björk is allowed complete creative freedom, and things like these are right up her alley, so she sort of transforms herself into the Who's Tommy and proceeds from there.

Actually, the Tommy connection can be extended: ʽOvertureʼ opens the small set with its musical theme played on the same French horn that was one of the key instruments on Tommy, courtesy of John Entwistle, setting much the same «epic / longago-and-faraway» rock-opera mood. There the superficial similarities end, and we proceed to join «Selma» in her amazing musifications of the sounds of the outside world. Selma, unlike Tommy, does not play pinball, but she likes to dance, and she constructs herself dance soundtracks out of the noises of the factory where she works (ʽCvaldaʼ), of the sounds of trains that pass her by on her way home (ʽI've Seen It Allʼ), of her personal tribulations (ʽScatterheartʼ, ʽIn The Musicalsʼ), and even out of her final moments on Earth (ʽNew Worldʼ). Most importantly, while it makes sense to be aware of the movie to under­stand what's going on, it all works much better as a song-set, without any visuals.

The «factory» and «train» arrangements actually happen to be some of the most reasonable and impressive justifications of the «industrial» style that I have ever heard — far more accessible than your average Einstürzende Neubauten and, for that reason, far more difficult to get right: anyone can base a musical composition upon «factory clanging», but not anyone can get the clanging to form a properly danceable skeleton, on top of which Selma's imagination then throws chimes, brass, strings, and whatever else comes into her head. And Björk's vocal style, the whole «little girl with a lion's roar and avantgarde ambitions» schtick, is perfect for the character — «little girl» agreeing with its helplessness, «lion's roar» agreeing with its determination, and «avantgarde ambitions» agreeing with its sensory uniqueness.

Since the movie had to be seen by, like, ordinary people (some of these still occasionally watched von Trier movies in 2000), the avantgarde ambitions are not quite so avantgarde as to completely neglect catchiness — and Björk's duet with long-time fan Thom Yorke on ʽI've Seen It Allʼ gua­rantees additional popularity, to which should be added the good news that Thom actually sings like a human being on the track, rather than in his «subterranean homesick alien» voice that he'd invented on OK Computer and which I honestly cannot stand one bit: consequently, their mournful dialog generates strange beauty and is a great illustration of «passion in the dark», ex­pressing strong feelings in muffled, semi-implied ways. ʽIn The Musicalsʼ is truly what you get when you cross Björk-style songwriting with the old cliché of «bright lights, big city gone to my baby's head» — orchestral excitement crossed with truly wild sequencing and capped off with a brilliant lyrical/vocal hook ("...and you were always there to catch me... when I'd fall").

The brief crescendo of ʽ107 Stepsʼ could be thought of as an unintentional answer to the ʽ39 Lashesʼ of Jesus Christ Superstar — the protagonist cruelly wound-up towards martyrdom — but, rather than being something self-sufficient, works more like an appetizing introduction to ʽNew Worldʼ, which finally realizes the theme previewed in ʽOvertureʼ and is one of the stateliest anthems to «death as liberation» in existence, and — get this — it is totally warm, friendly, and presents the «New World» as a much more familiar and cozy place than any of the «Icelandic» soundscapes of Homogenic. So if you ever needed an excuse to say "I'd rather die than go to Iceland", there you have it, clear as daylight.

In the end, I guess, Lars von Trier does deserve our gratitude for offering his lead such a perfect opportunity. Who knows, maybe he should have also let her handle the script — and the cast — and the directing — and the editing — and we might have a really good movie to go along with all the great music. Of course, most of the user reviews of Dancer In The Dark that I have read wrong the movie for all the wrong reasons ("such a potentially great movie about human wicked­ness and injustice, but why cast this loonie imp in the title role?"), so this could never happen, and Björk herself has said that acting is not one of her forte's, and that she only did this for the money because it was a matter of special interest. But whatever — the important thing is that we do have the soundtrack album, and that it is perfectly legitimate to simply treat it as a mini-rock opera, and give it a thumbs up, and be happily done with it.