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Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Bears: Car Caught Fire

THE BEARS: CAR CAUGHT FIRE (2001)

1) Life In A Nutshell; 2) Under The Volcano; 3) When She Moves; 4) Mr. Bonaparte; 5) What's The Good Of Knowing; 6) Dave; 7) Caveman; 8) Waiting Room; 9) 117 Valley Drive; 10) Safe In Hell; 11) Success; 12) Sooner Or Later; 13) As You Are.

As Adrian's solo career finally took off and he found himself enjoying moderate success on his own, The Bears were put on hold while he was too busy dividing most of his time between his solo status and King Crimson. However, the split was not inimical, and throughout the 1990s, members of The Bears would frequently back him on his records and solo tours, while at the same time pursuing their own lines of work (for instance, dubbing themselves «the psychodots», with lowercase p, and even releasing an album with the same title).

By the time the 2000s rolled about, though, Adrian either got bored playing on his own, or he decided that, after all, «pure pop» was something that could be better created and enjoyed in the company of friends, whereas his solo ventures should be more experimental and «whacko». This hypothesis is indirectly supported by the fact that his Side One, etc. projects of 2004-05 would all be seriously avantgarde — whereas the resuscitated Bears' third album, Car Caught Fire, is every bit as pop-based as the first two. More interestingly, it is also better than the first two: in fact, it is easily the one Bears album to own if you want to quickly learn everything that this band is capable of.

Car Caught Fire does not sound very much like the Bears' first two albums with their «New Wave pop» sheen, «King-Crimson-made-accessible-to-the-masses» approach. Nor does it sound much like Belew's solo pop career from Mr. Music Head to Here, which was seriously retro-oriented. Instead, it sounds a little timeless (as, indeed, do quite a few, if not most, albums from the last decade and a half), borrowing a little from every decade and every style as long as it allows to write and record a decent, catchy, pretty pop song.

ʽLife In A Nutshellʼ, for instance, opens the album with a typically Belew-style twangy guitar riff, only to have it backed, within a few seconds, by an out-of-nowhere «swampy» harmonica part, and then sweetened up with an old-fashioned pop vocal melody. ʽUnder The Volcanoʼ, with Fet­ters (I think) on lead vocals, sounds like something Phil Collins could have done if he were into steady, rhythmic, guitar-based pop instead of drum machines and synthesizers, and, in addition, Belew wrings out a screechy, scratchy guitar solo that sounds more like John Cale's viola experi­ments on the Velvet Underground's first album than anything more human in nature. ʽWhen She Movesʼ sounds like... Tom Petty? All except the song's main seven-note riff, which seems taken from some quirky New Wave-era keyboard rock hit or something. And so on.

In other words, eclecticism is the norm — Car Caught Fire is as diverse as Rise And Shine was monotonous, and a detailed analysis of these songs would have me listing their possible influen­ces from dawn till dusk. At the same time, it is all expertly and contemporarily produced, so that the album sounds no less modern than at least your Strokes or your Ash or whatever was popular in those days. Even if you want yourself some basic rock'n'roll with just a small touch of weird­ness, you have your ʽCavemanʼ — a song about how we all really behave like cavemen (Belew's favorite subject) appropriately set to a grumbly, distorted hard rock riff, and with a specially designed chorus so we could all gleefully join the band singing "I'm a caveman, I'm a caveman!" without realising that the joke is on us.

It should probably be noted that Belew is by no means the primary songwriter: ʽCavemanʼ, for instance, is credited to Nyswonger, and on the whole, songwriting is more or less equally split between all of the band's members — and almost all of the songs have something to offer. It is hard to speak about individual styles: ʽLife In A Nutshellʼ, ʽMr. Bonaparteʼ, and ʽ117 Valley Driveʼ are probably identifiable as Belew songs by being based on unorthodox riffs, but the rest trade their various influences and quotations quite freely between different songwriters, which is absolutely no problem at all. Well, maybe a little bit of a problem, when acoustically based songs such as ʽDaveʼ bring their sound too perilously close to the sentimental side of the Barenaked Ladies — then again, this is almost inevitable with «nerdy» music like this when the authors decide that it is time for a little sentimentality.

That said, it is not much easier to write up a meaningful assessment of Car Caught Fire than it was the case for the previous albums — even while raising the stakes so high in terms of intel­ligence and pure entertainment, it still feels a little «empty». You cannot blame the lyrics, which are consistently decent and deal with real problems (internal and external), and you cannot blame the players, who seem genuinely driven by a desire to say something, and, formally speaking, they do. Still, something seems to be missing, and I cannot for the life of me determine what it is. Maybe it's some sort of «willingness to go all the way» or something: with all their variety and creativity, the songs seem to be holding themselves back, as if there were some kind of conflict here between the will to entertain and the will to do it in a cliché-avoiding manner. This may also be responsible for the fact that I have no idea what would be the «highlights» on here — not able to pinpoint even one absolute «favorite». Maybe ʽCavemanʼ, but that would be just because its hard rock riff separates it from the rest.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter, because the same kind of complaint could be addressed at just about anybody (hell, some people accuse The White Album of being a soulless mish-mash, too). As a pop album, it is at least better than any single Barenaked Ladies record, so that alone guaran­tees a thumbs up rating already (and I do like the Ladies when they are being fun and quirky, rather than trying to pump up seriousness).

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Blur: Leisure

BLUR: LEISURE (1991)

1) She's So High; 2) Bang; 3) Slow Down; 4) Repetition; 5) Bad Day; 6) Sing; 7) There's No Other Way; 8) Fool; 9) Come Together; 10) High Cool; 11) Birthday; 12) Wear Me Down.

Blur's debut seems to have been firmly written down in history as one of those «early disaster» type records — like David Bowie's self-titled debut, or Genesis' From Genesis To Revelation: collections of tentative writings that «show promise», but are so utterly derivative in comparison with later, more self-assured and individualistic creations, that nobody except the most forgiving or the most analytical fans should really bother.

Indeed, Leisure is quite derivative, no objections here. The young London band «Seymour», formed in the late 1980s, naturally admired the latest in hip developments — primarily the «Mad­chester» scene and the «shoegazing» movement, anything that could combine intelligence, psychedelia, and dancing (replete with funky syncopation if possible) in the same package. As of 1991, they had no serious inclination to become special flag-bearers for their home country — in fact, Leisure sounds as if all they wanted to do was to become the latest incarnation of The Stone Roses, in slightly poppier and more immediately accessible clothing. With a small pinch of My Bloody Valentine added, if possible, for extra-artsy flavor. Something like that.

Given such a setting, it is no wonder that Damon Albarn himself had more or less disowned Leisure, and most fans and critics alike consider Modern Life Is Rubbish to have been the «proper» debut for Blur. The two singles, ʽShe's So Highʼ and ʽThere's No Other Wayʼ, are often excused from this anathema, since they were recorded earlier than the album, while the album sessions were fussy, hurried, and left no time for Albarn to properly care about the lyrics. But on a grand scale, there is nothing stylistically special about these songs that separates them from the overall mood of the LP — ʽShe's So Highʼ is the accurate son of Shoegaze, ʽThere's No Other Wayʼ is the pretty daughter of Madchester, and then there's all the rest.

Nevertheless, I have always been a moderate fan of Leisure, because even with all of its «second hand» nature (and who, really, is to say that all of the ensuing «Brit-pop» was not second hand, when you have all that lengthy line of predecessors, from the Kinks to the Jam, stretched over the previous three decades?), even with all of that, the album is already doing a good job at show­casing Blur's greatest skill: pop hooks. Call me crazy, but in terms of instant memorability, I actually count more hooklines on Leisure than on The Stone Roses — that doesn't necessarily make it the greater album, but I sure wouldn't mind if Ian Brown and his lads had included at least a couple of short, tight, snappy, catchy tunes like ʽBangʼ or ʽHigh Coolʼ on that record.

Not only that, but the individual trademarks of Blur's two most prominent members are also well on display: Damon Albarn's snubby-sounding, velar-inclined Luhnduhn style vocal delivery, and guitarist Graham Coxon's penchant for playing it rough and dirty, but very precise and distinct at the same time, with a terrific balance between «tone» and «melody» that the generic alt-rocker would always topple in favor of «tone». A great example is the funk-pop riff that opens and controls the majority of ʽThere's No Other Wayʼ — just the right amount of crackly distortion to add some «masculinity», but playful and colorful on the whole. Or that song that nobody ever talks about, ʽRepetitionʼ (maybe because the song title instantaneously puts everybody off) — there's some fantastic guitar work there, even if it is, indeed, repetitive, but that wailing, strained riff that goes from a viciously sustained note to a series of desperately shortened ones, is a perfect companion for Albarn's "all things remain the same, so why try again? try, try, try again" chorus (or vice versa, if the melody was written before the lyrics).

Already ʽShe's So Highʼ shows that Blur are perfectly natural when it comes to keeping it simple and stupid — a couple distorted guitar overdubs, an echo effect on double-tracked vocals singing "she's so high, she's so high, I want to crawl all over her", and suddenly you get yourself a bona fide contemporary psychedelic classic. You don't even need that mid-section break with Beatlesy backward solos and cloud-riding harmonies — that chorus alone is worth the ride. It is a little unusual to hear Albarn so utterly «spaced out», as if he were under chemical influences when recording his part, but that is the attitude that the song needs. He's just being spaced out by this girl, you see. She's so high, he wants to crawl all over her. Let's hope it doesn't work in real life.

There is filler, sure enough. ʽSlow Downʼ, for instance, has some really boring, uninspired grunge guitar work, a song that must have taken three minutes to write. The same goes for ʽFoolʼ and ʽCome Togetherʼ which sound like raw demos for My Bloody Valentine's Loveless without any of the atmospheric arrangement components that made that record so special. But for a 50-minute record, three or four filler tunes are nothing to be afraid of. It would have been worse if the longest track on the album were also filler — however, ʽSingʼ is anything but; instead, it is a beautifully morose, hypnotic mantra, one of the most expressive songs based on a one-note pattern ever written, like a dirge for one's mind, frozen numb and incapable of activity. Maybe it's their impression of the sort of music that must be playing on constant repeat in the cerebrum of comatose patients — anyway, it's better than most shoegaze I have heard.

By the time the album winds down with ʽWear Me Downʼ, another track whose title is perfectly suited to its leaden guitar riff and «stone tired» vocals, Leisure has done a fine job introducing Blur as a band that, while not being terribly original (yet), feels perfectly at home with currently cutting-edge pop styles — their Please Please Me, if you wish, a record that nobody has any reason to be ashamed of, fully deserving an assured thumbs up. As far as I'm concerned, easily the worst thing about it is the front sleeve. If I were a paid musical critic and had to endure looking at that tacky bathing cap, I'd probably feel forced to shoot it down, too. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Blondie: Parallel Lines

BLONDIE: PARALLEL LINES (1978)

1) Hanging On The Telephone; 2) One Way Or Another; 3) Picture This; 4) Fade Away And Radiate; 5) Pretty Baby; 6) I Know But I Don't Know; 7) 11:59; 8) Will Anything Happen?; 9) Sunday Girl; 10) Heart Of Glass; 11) I'm Gonna Love You Too; 12) Just Go Away; 13*) Once I Had A Love; 14*) Bang A Gong (Get It On) (live); 15*) I Know But I Don't Know (live); 16*) Hanging On The Telephone (live).

In which Blondie go professional, and now there is no turning back — no more «young and inno­cent days» for you once you've passed through the skilled hands of Mike Chapman, master of glossy candy packaging whose previous clients included Sweet, Smokie, Suzi Quatro, and various other acts, intensely groomed and pampered for stronger commercial effect (Sweet were actually the best of the lot — most of the rest were like 100% unlistenable). Blondie's manager convinced them to team up with Chapman, probably hoping that he would be able to hone their best pop instincts without making them completely reject their identity — and on the whole, he was right: Parallel Lines is very commercial, but it does not betray the general spirit that the band had concocted already with its very first songs.

Still, there may be such a thing as «too much perfection», and this complaint does apply to Parallel Lines, as the guys, the girl, and the glossy LA producer so ardently hunt for the ideal sound and forget about some of the band's legacy. Unlike Plastic Letters, Parallel Lines is all about the simple things — girl-and-guys relations, with gender roles accordingly reversed (Deb­bie as the hunter and guys as the game — hell, look at the album cover alone, where they all look like identical dorks and she looks ready to bitchslap you in a moment). That's all very well and suitable and Blondie-compatible, but I do miss all those stories of kung fu girls and giant ants and Red Square spies and youths nabbed as snipers. Where did they go? Well, it's not that easy to make hits out of such ideas, so let us turn to more basic hormonal stuff instead.

But how is it possible to resist temptation when the first two songs on the album are ʽHanging On The Telephoneʼ and ʽOne Way Or Anotherʼ — one of the fiercest, most stunning guitar-pop attacks on the senses since the days when the Beatles roamed the planet? Debbie's a little funny in her attempt to be as sexually aggressive as possible, even going all the way to gather a little phlegm so as to roar out certain lines in both of these songs like some thunder-and-lightning black diva à la Tina Turner — but we can forgive her, because on the whole, she is being very convincing about it (or «about It», to be more accurate. Or «about Id», to be more Freudist). And then there is the music — the mad rush simulation of ʽTelephoneʼ, a perfect musical equivalent of blood boiling, and the unforgettable guitar riff of ʽOne Wayʼ, apparently written by the band's bass player, Nigel Harrison. ʽOne Wayʼ may, in fact, be one of the greatest blends of a typically hard rock riff with a typically pop structure — and, accordingly, the greatest emulation of sexual aggression paired with «pretty looks». Madonna got nothing on this, not even close — then again, who'd ever write a riff like that for the likes of Madonna?

The greatness never stops coming, because ʽPicture Thisʼ, while playing for the third time in a row on the same ideas (if she ain't gonna get this one, she'll get that one, or that one, or that one over there...), adopts a slightly different approach — a bit more lyrical, only gradually revving itself into overdrive, and it is every bit as effective, because sometimes subtlety works better than a straightforward assault. I've never really understood the temporal connection of the lines "I will give you my finest hour..." (future tense) "...the one I spent watching you shower" (past tense), but what sort of a regular male could resist Debbie Harry purring so tenderly reminiscing about watching him shower? Oh, yeah, well, uhm, the melody's quite catchy too, I guess.

All of which brings us a little bit fast-forward-style to ʽHeart Of Glassʼ, a song that actually began life as ʽOnce I Had A Loveʼ way back in 1975 or so, and which Chapman, from its early syncopated funky beginnings, developed to immaculate disco gloss. In retrospect, the song pretty much destroyed Blondie's reputation — most people who «don't care all that much» probably only associate the band with this song now, and while it certainly does capture some of the essence of Blondie fairly well, there is no way it could make you understand the whole story, or at least prevent you from mistakenly putting Blondie in the same boat with Donna Summer or any of those gazillion Eurodisco bands. But in the general context of all things Blondie-related, ʽHeart Of Glassʼ is, of course, still a masterpiece.

One word of warning to the neophyte, though — do avoid the relatively crappy 5:50 «disco version» with which the bandits at Chrysalis had replaced the original 3:45 cut on quite a few reprints, starting with a vinyl pressing in 1979 and ending with the remastered CD version, be­cause this is a clear case of «longer» not being «better»: all you get is a never-ending repetitive loop of na-na-na's at the end, instead of the fabulous fade-out coda of the original — fabulous, because it featured a set of Clem Burke's most inventive drumrolls in history, as if the man wanted to show us that it was, after all, possible to be an expressive, musically-talkative drummer within a disco setting. That bit is just not there in the longer version, which is a travesty. At least they do not use the bubbly keyboards to hide the guitar riff, which is in itself a masterful blend of funk and pop — and, again, a perfect match for Debbie's vocals in terms of atmosphere: cynical disillusionment at its most light-hearted and «superficially superficial» (but really quite deep).

These mega-monster pop hits tend to swallow up the rest of the record, which is almost a shame, but that's the way life goes — only gradually you come to realize that ʽPretty Babyʼ and ʽSunday Girlʼ may be a little lighter and wussier in style, but are really just as strong melodically as every­thing else; that ʽFade Away And Radiateʼ, with its slow tempo, psychedelic keyboards, enigmatic drum beat, acid guitar solos, and somnambulic vocals, is not the «black sheep», but rather the «white swan» of this record, a moody masterpiece that is every bit the worthy successor to ʽCautious Lipʼ; that the Buddy Holly cover injects young punk venom into the old, somewhat limp rockabilly vein; and that, ultimately, at the very end Debbie gets so sick and tired of all her male counterparts that the only natural conclusion for the album is to tell them all ʽJust Go Awayʼ — when you come to think of it, a hilariously antithetical conclusion to ʽHanging On The Tele­phoneʼ. You mean to say, all that effort wasn't really worth it? I'm speechless...

Comparatively, I cannot say that Parallel Lines is more «consistent» than the other Blondie albums — the one thing that it is, it is more consistently aggressive. Louder, prouder, more force­ful than the rest, with a small bunch of particularly flashy, irresistible highlights, a special chap­ter in Blondie history, but not necessarily «that one Blondie album you have to get if you only get one», because, well, just don't be stupid and get all of them. Major thumbs up, of course, and a major turning point, but Blondie existed before it and would go on to exist after it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Blind Guardian: Imaginations From The Other Side

BLIND GUARDIAN: IMAGINATIONS FROM THE OTHER SIDE (1995)

1) Imaginations From The Other Side; 2) I'm Alive; 3) A Past And Future Secret; 4) The Script For My Requiem; 5) Mordred's Song; 6) Born In A Mourning Hall; 7) Bright Eyes; 8) Another Holy War; 9) And The Story Ends.

If you are not deeply entrenched in the intricacies of the various sub-varieties of heavy metal, you will probably feel that what separates Imaginations from earlier Blind Guardian can be summed up as «small details, shades, and nuances». A bit of a slower tempo here, a bit of a choral over­dub there, same old story on the larger scale. But go visit a Blind Guardian discussion board, and every now and then you will be able to come across a flame war between «speed metal fans» and «power metal fans», extolling the relative crimes against taste or leaps forward in creativity that the band has committed while making the transition to a whole new era.

As far as I am concerned, «ideologically» this new outburst of creative energy from the world's most ardent «don't-mess-with-my-fantasy-world» musical sect is as orthodox as orthodox can be. Nine more epic tunes, brimming with power and arrogance, each based on the already fami­liar artistic strengths of Kürsch and Olbrich, and each dealing with a fantasy theme (sometimes a thick mish-mash of fantasy themes, like the title track). Regarding the factor of speed, only three of the songs are relatively slow in their entirety: the largely acoustic ʽA Past And Future Secretʼ is more «epic folk» than metal altogether, and ʽBright Eyesʼ, along with the grand finale of ʽAnd The Story Endsʼ, could not technically be ascribed to the «speed metal» bin, unless you were cheating and playing them at 78 rpm. The rest, while they do accumulate stylistic «ruffles» that make them more palatable for the «artsy-minded» people, are quite conservative in essence.

If there is any serious change at all, it is to be sought in the melodic structures: even the speedier parts are getting more complex, like the brilliant introduction to ʽBorn In A Mourning Hallʼ that preserves the tempo, but replaces the usual «amelodic» chugga-chugga with a series of riffs that, you know, play actual notes and stuff. I am not quite sure that this represents compositional genius — despite increased complexity, the individual melodies are not specifically evocative — but at least it represents hard work, which, when combined with an energetic punch and sincerity of execution, should be respected.

Perhaps it is also to be sought out in increased ambitions. The title track may have been inten­tionally conceived to be the «ultimate» Blind Guardian visit card — lyrically, it summarizes just about every single one of the band numerous fetishes, and offers an explicit justification for their brand of escapism: "Come follow me to wonderland / And see the tale that never ends... But still I know / There is another world... / I'll break down the walls around my heart / Imaginations from the other side" — an optimistic-nostalgic ode to the «never grow up» mindset. It's like a slightly delayed explanation that they feel they owe the world — delivered to the sounds of one of their most bombastic arrangements up to date. Swirling, swooshing, wailing spirits, church bells, gothic keyboards, monstrous metal riff, operatic vocals with ghostly answers — way too heavy, one could remark, for a song whose primary points of reference are Peter Pan, Alice in Wonder­land, and the Wizard of Oz, but then, nobody said childhood was supposed to be a rose garden, and all these books have their classic moments of brutality.

Another super-bombastic tune is ʽThe Script For My Requiemʼ, where grandiosity begins already with the title and never lets go — "Returning of the miracles / It's my own requiem" is even more solemn than the chorus of ʽQuest For Tanelornʼ, and there is even a quick subtle quotation from Jesus Christ Superstar ("crucify, crucify!") that further raises the stakes. In most people's hands, the song would be totally laughable, but Blind Guardian are the AC/DC of power metal — if you cannot override the clichés of this genre, you can at least ride them faster, louder, and brassier than everybody else in the market, which in itself can be considered overriding.

The rest of the songs, as usual, are too stylistically monotonous to deserve extensive comment, so, instead of that, I will just remark that, on an interesting note, the album was produced by Flem­ming Rasmussen, the co-producer on several of Metallica's classic records of the Eighties — not that Imaginations sounds any more like Metallica than any other Blind Guardian record, but it is curious that the increase in complexity does somewhat parallel Metallica's development from bare-bones thrash to «art-metal». I am not necessarily overjoyed by this, because at a certain level, once you start putting too much «intellect» into heavy metal music, you begin killing off its vitality (Black Sabbath is and will always be the ultimate benchmark for me), but, fortunately for Kürsch and company, they are expanding their musical horizons without sacrificing their inner child — indeed, they glorify their inner child, as is obvious from the title track — and this com­bination of increased compositional smartness with endearing, seemingly honest kiddie silliness works well for Imaginations. Respectfully, a thumbs up. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bobby Fuller: KRLA King Of The Wheels

BOBBY FULLER: KRLA KING OF THE WHEELS (1965)

1) Never To Be Forgotten; 2) Another Sad And Lonely Night; 3) She's My Girl; 4) Take My Word; 5) Fool Of Love; 6) Let Her Dance; 7) King Of The Wheels; 8) The Lonely Dragster; 9) Little Annie Lou; 10) The Phantom Dragster; 11) Saturday Night; 12) KRLA Top Eliminator.

Unless you were there and paid attention, chances are that the only association that the words «Bobby Fuller» could kick up from the depths of your conscience should be "...I fought the law, and the LAW WON!", delivered in a very British rather than American accent by Joe Strummer circa 1979. The song was a hit for Bobby Fuller, but it wasn't even written by Bobby (credits go to Sonny Curtis of the Crickets), and it may convey a very, very wrong idea of Bobby Fuller — namely, that the man was some sort of long-forgotten proto-punk, anti-establishment hero, some kind of a Marlon-Brando-meets-James-Dean-tags-Gene-Vincent phenomenon to which it was only natural that Britain's greatest working-class-hero-band of the punk movement pay tribute, or something like that. At least, it did convey that idea to me, originally.

But nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Bobby Fuller was a nice, clean, well-meaning all-American lad from El Paso, Texas, who, like so many others, caught the rock'n'roll bug from Elvis in his early teens and then developed a passion for electric guitar-based pop-rock. Without any «working class hero» ambitions whatsoever, he merely wished to be the next Buddy Holly — and then, when The Beach Boys and then The Beatles appeared on the scene, he also wished to be a Beach Boy and then a Beatle, too. Is that too much for a simple Texan guy to ask God for — just to be a Beach Boy and a Beatle at the same time?

Bobby's first recordings were made independently as early as 1961, when he was only 19 years old. He recorded with a revolving-door cast of personages, commonly dubbed as «The Bobby Fuller Four» (even though there may have been periods with larger or smaller numbers), the only other constant presence among which was his brother Randy Fuller on bass, and eventually gained a little notoriety after teaming up with Bob Keane's Del-Fi (later Mustang) Records. His first LP was, however, only released in late 1965, after some of the singles began getting serious airplay and slowly ascending up the charts.

Although some of these songs actually date from earlier sessions (circa 1964), and some of the originals had been written even earlier, it is quite clear already from the title that KRLA King Of The Wheels was, for the standards of late 1965, a «nostalgic-conservative» record. Bobby hardly ever shies away from promoting his influences on his sleeve, and the themes of the album are strictly limited to the classic surf-era recipé — Girls and Cars, not necessarily in that order of preference. And not the Girls of ʽGirlʼ fame or the Cars of ʽDrive My Carʼ fame, either (to be accurate, Rubber Soul had not yet been released, but it would probably have made no difference if it were): the emotional / verbal content of the songs is all about those stereotypical «teen sensa­tions». The Beach Boys were no longer writing songs about their little 409 or Little Deuce Coupe by the end of 1965, but Bobby Fuller was, and he was not ashamed.

Whatever. If you are a fan of innocent early-to-mid Sixties pop, there is no way that you will not appreciate at least the first two songs on here — ʽNever To Be Forgottenʼ is an Orbison-worthy little gem (although Bobby's vocals are nowhere near as special), showing how well acquainted the man was with Phil Spector's wall-of-sound technique, and ʽAnother Sad And Lonely Nightʼ seems far more influenced by the Merseybeat scene: more Billy J. Kramer than the Beatles, in that the sound is not very sharp and the hooks are not as piercing, but still friendly and catchy enough for the "another sad and lonely night, another sad and lonely day" hookline to get stuck in your head for no apparent reason.

The band's biggest success from this era was with ʽLet Her Danceʼ, a reworked version of Bob­by's earlier ʽKeep On Dancingʼ (a 1961 Buddy Holly-style composition) that Keane obviously suggested redoing in the style of the Beach Boys' «grand dance» numbers, most notably their recently released upgrade of ʽDo You Want To Danceʼ. Echo on the guitars, echo on the vocals, a bottle-tapping gimmick, heavy use of back vocals — reportedly, Bobby hated the final version, yet it is ultimately more gripping than the original, if only for the non-trivial vocal arrangements (the repetitive "let her dance, let her dance, let her dance, dance, dance..." echoey response that seems to bounce off the instruments in all directions). Almost shamelessly «second-hand», but melodically distinct enough to act as a loving little brother to ʽDo You Want To Danceʼ rather than just a useless rip-off.

Other cute imitations include ʽShe's My Girlʼ (with a ʽHelp Me Rhondaʼ-like key change from verse to chorus), ʽTake My Wordʼ (with handclaps coming straight from the Beatles' ʽI'll Get Youʼ), and ʽFool Of Loveʼ (also sounds as if the Beatles wrote this circa 1959 and donated it to any­one hungry enough to eat it up). The second side of the LP, however, is almost completely dedicated to the «Cars» side of the business, and since «Cars» are generally inferior to «Girls» as a major source of melodic creativity, this is where Bobby falls way too often on direct borrowing (stealing) — ʽKing Of The Wheelsʼ is really little more than a slightly sped up version of ʽLittle Deuce Coupeʼ, and ʽThe Phantom Dragsterʼ is merely an attempt to apply the Bo Diddley beat to the same thematical subject, but can this really work? I mean, «car songs» are supposed to bring on musical associations with car racing, and if I ever had to car-race to a Bo Diddley beat, I'd probably be throwing up most of the way.

A few of the songs on that side are instrumentals in the classic vein of The Ventures (ʽThe Lonely Dragsterʼ, ʽKRLA Top Eliminatorʼ), which gives you the chance to assess Bobby's skills as a guitar player — not bad at all compared with his surf-rock competitors, fluent and expressive, but not enough to push him over into the «greatness» range: the same bluesy chops had already been brought over to a new level by the likes of Clapton, anyway.

Still, on the strength of the simple-and-innocent pop hooks on Side A, the album as a whole qualifies for a mild thumbs up, I think — though not high enough to recommend anybody to search for the entire contents of this LP rather than head straight for a best-of compilation: the fact is that Bobby Fuller simply did not live long enough to show us whether he had a real album brewing inside his head or not.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bob Marley: Natty Dread

BOB MARLEY: NATTY DREAD (1974)

1) Lively Up Yourself; 2) No Woman, No Cry; 3) Them Belly Full (But We Hungry); 4) Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock); 5) So Jah Say; 6) Natty Dread; 7) Bend Down Low; 8) Talkin' Blues; 9) Revolution; 10*) Am-A-Do.

And so Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer split off, and the band becomes «Bob Marley and The Wailers» — forever splitting the fans, too, as some hardcore veterans accused Marley of exer­cising too much of his «I», while others pointed out that this was simply a wise move that helped spread the word of Jah far wider into the world than could have ever been foreseen. Who knows who's right and who's wrong? In the end, all we should care about is the music.

Naturally, Natty Dread is completely different from everything that came before it. While reg­gae rhythms are still its foundation, there is a whole lot of other stuff here — catchy pop choruses, pleasant female backing harmonies, complicated brass overdubs, relatively loud guitar solos from the band's newest member Al Anderson, in short, a whole lot of stuff to take your attention away from the bare groove and draw it to the same elements that, in 1974, you'd be attracted to on various «rock» albums. But the recompense is that almost each and every song here has its own separate face — try and accuse this record of being monotonous; you might just as well apply the same accusation to The White Album.

Interesting enough, only two songs on the album are credited to Bob himself, of which at least one (ʽBend Down Lowʼ) is a playful bit of filler, catchy in a nursery-rhyme way (its main opening theme is somewhat of a cross between Mother Goose and ʽLet It Beʼ), but nothing more. The other one does set a good tone for the rest of the album — ʽLively Up Yourselfʼ opens the proceedings on a «lively», jumpy note, while at the same time being driven by a slightly scary bassline: once the brass section starts doubling the bass, the atmosphere becomes downright threatening, or, at least, solemn to the point that the recommendation to lively up yourself becomes a stern order. "You rock so, you rock so" — yes sir, whatever you say sir.

There are all sorts of speculations as to whether «Vincent Ford», a little-known Jamaican perso­nage, actually wrote ʽNo Woman No Cryʼ or if that was just an act of generosity on Bob's part, giving away a song to the needy (although, in retrospect, it wouldn't become all that famous until next year's Live! version). Its popular appeal is easily crackable — where Marley's lyrics are often obscure to those not well versed in Jamaican cultural or linguistic realities, everybody, including non-English speakers, easily understands what "no woman no cry" and "everything's gonna be alright" is supposed to mean. But singling it out from the rest of the album would be absurd — as good as that organ melody is, its overall emotional power is neither weaker nor stronger than the power of the more overtly political material here.

At the very least, the Barrett brothers and Rita Marley show that they can be every bit as cool at songwriting as Mr. I-And-I himself. My personal favorite on the album is actually Rita's ʽSo Jah Sayʼ, a song whose stern bass and Mount-Sinaic brass simply breathe the Old Testament down our backs — every time I hear that introduction, it makes me want to prostrate myself before His Presence, whoever He might be (the Great God of the Left Speaker, or was it the Right one?). On that one, genre considerations simply melt away, and you are no longer aware of what you are listening to — reggae? R&B? soul? gospel? Essentially, it is the genre of «solemn musical pro­phecy». You can shake your body to these sounds, sure, but it will be a shamanistic kind of shaking, not just a fun dance kind of thing.

Another good one is Aston Barrett's ʽRebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock)ʼ, a lengthy song that knows how to gain in intensity by rising the pitch on every next chorus of "aaaaaaaaah, rebel music!", reaching new levels of desperation while the harmonica blasts add a «swampy» atmos­phere to the proceedings. Better than most songs on here, it manages to convey the impression of a world where danger might be around every corner, and where people's brief moments of happi­ness are constantly interspersed with a «watch-your-back» sense of vigilance. Every now and then, we are told to "forget your troubles and dance" (ʽThem Belly Fullʼ), and we do, but "I've been down on the rock for so long / I seem to wear a permanent screw" (ʽTalkin' Bluesʼ).

This idea of a «permanent screw» is actually important in that Natty Dread, even despite taking good care of its individual components, still works better as a whole entity. Now that Bob has the full weight of the band on his shoulders, as well as the responsibility to bring The Message to every new-fangled fan of ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ, he has to uphold a thematic unity and maintain a serious tone throughout the album on a whole new level, and he totally rises to the occasion: other than ʽBend Down Lowʼ, each song is tied to the ones around it with one uniting idea — end the suffering. Other than the man's conviction that Heaven can be found on Earth, the rest is so totally in line with early Christianity that sooner or later, you'll figuratively begin looking for figurative traces of stigmata on the man's figurative hands. Is that emotional manipulation? If it is, it's one of the highest order — bring it on, I like to be manipulated that way, even if there's no chance convincing me of the Second Advent where I have enough trouble with the First already.

Anyway, a great record whose total is so much more than its parts. One can only wonder what it would have sounded like if Tosh and Bunny decided not to split — but something tells me they would have objected against all the colorful overdubs, and I cannot imagine these songs without Al's weeping-and-wailing lead guitar, or without those brass parts that add a symphonic compo­nent. So, cutting it short, just put your hardcore worries behind your hardcore back, all you great lovers of Lee ʽNo­thing But Scratchʼ Perry, and join Mr. Marley on his last and grandest ride through the mid- and late Seventies as reggae's, Jamaica's, Haile Selassie's, and all the oppressed and suffering people's messenger to the world. Thumbs up.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Club Ninja

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: CLUB NINJA (1986)

1) White Flags; 2) Dancing In The Ruins; 3) Make Rock Not War; 4) Perfect Water; 5) Spy In The House Of The Night; 6) Beat 'Em Up; 7) When The War Comes; 8) Shadow Warrior; 9) Madness To The Method.

Hello, I'm Leonard Pinth-Garnell, and welcome to «Bad Rock Music». As I throw a sideways glance at the calendar, I happen to notice that we are, indeed, right in the middle of 1986, and as every true connaisseur of rock music is liable to knowing, 1986 is a year well famous for pro­ducing — indeed, festering, as some might say — some of the absolutely worst rock music ever known to man, woman, kitten, or door-to-door salesman. As we have only just found out, the year was no exception for once popular and creative, ever so slightly post-modern rock act «Blue Öyster Cult», who have confirmed the rule with their newest LP, one that sports no less than one of the absolutely worst LP titles in the business — Club Ninja — and contains some very, very, very bad songs that seem almost custom made for our show.

To begin with, it must be noted that, while this band had previously been known to write the majority of their material themselves, and harvest some verbal help from the likes of acclaimed celebrities and pop-culture-intellectuals such as Richard Meltzer, Sandy Pearlman, Patti Smith, and Michael Moorcock, Club Ninja is their first record to have a mind-blowing four songs pro­vided by completely outside songwriters — corporate songwriters, one might add. With contri­butions by Larry Gottlieb (who had also written songs for Marie Osmond and Kenny Rogers that very year), Bob Halligan Jr. (a hard rock singer who'd written a couple of tunes for Judas Priest), and another song taken over from the Leggat Bros., there is little reason to doubt that Columbia Records played the usual trick on the poor fellows — saddled them with «commercial» material in order to have a hit on their hands. Unfortunately, what worked for Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, and even Eric Clapton (in terms of popularity, not artistry) backfired for Blue Öyster Cult, who simply lost their reputation without any financial gains to compensate for the shame.

In the midst of this utter travesty, it remains almost unnoticed that the band also lacks their keyboardist, Allen Lanier, now, temporarily replaced by Tommy Zvonchek. This might even be for the better, because the keyboards are not so much at the center of the sound now as they were on the previous albums — but what is at that center? Rotten, faceless pop metal guitar, for the most part, acting primarily as a monotonous background for the band's pop metal gang choruses. If you thought "B-O-C! You can be whatever you want to be!" was bad enough, wait until you hear "ROCK NOT WAR! Make ROCK NOT WAR!" or "BEAT 'EM UP! BEAT 'EM UP!" (the latter song, courtesy of Bob Halligan Jr., also features probably the worst verse in BOC history, which simply must be quoted: "You take a lickin', keep on kickin' / This fight we both can win / We'll stop sockin' when you stop rockin' / You don't give up, you just give in" — the idea, of course, is that you are supposed to deliver these words while keeping a straight face, which was probably only possible circa 1986).

The biggest disappointment is Roeser, who finds himself very much a part of this travesty — for instance, handling the lead vocals on ʽDancing In The Ruinsʼ, the Larry Gottlieb song that was supposed to become a hit for the band but did not, perhaps because the song never manages to properly let us know if it is «romantic» (Roeser sings it that way) or «apocalyptic». In any case, the great American nation much preferred to be ʽDancing In The Darkʼ at the time, so Buck Dharma's effort to make this boring piece of schlock come to life was doomed artistically and wasted commercially. The problem is, his own contributions are not much better: ʽSpy In The House Of The Nightʼ does not even reach the catchiness of ʽBurnin' For Youʼ, and I really hate the way he drawls out the word "rendez-vous", as if he were a Vegasy crooner for a second.

Arguably the only song on the entire record to merit somebody's attention is ʽMadness To The Methodʼ, a seven-minute final epic where the band suddenly remembers that their «bad boys of rock and roll image» is supposed to be an ironic front, after all. Had the album been a commercial success instead of a flop, the P.M.R.C. would probably have had a thing or two to say about such totally gross lines as "it's the time in the season for a maniac at night" or "there's a lot to be said for a blow to the head", but, of course, the song really just pokes bitter fun at the «violence men­tality» of rock music, or, at least, it definitely reads that way when it is not «drunk caveman» Eric Bloom taking lead vocals, but «quiet melancholic» Donald Roeser. Even so, the song never truly grips the senses — musically, it is a rather generic, monotonous New Wave-style rocker that sounds tired rather than inspired. Ironically, it is Mr. Zvonchek, the band's new keyboardist, who provides the best bit with a beautiful piano solo at the end — probably wanted to make a real good impression for his first time.

After all this, minor questionable trivia (such as the infamous Howard Stern reciting the spoken-word introduction to ʽWhen The War Comesʼ) are of no importance, and all that remains is to issue the predictable thumbs down and deposit the unfortunate LP in the specially designed trash bin. The worst thing about this, though, is that we cannot even say «This is no longer Blue Öyster Cult», because it is — the band's fascination with all things BÖC-ish is still very much in place, you know, darkness, vampirism, sci-fi, heaviness, «rock warriors in po-mo garb», whatever. It has simply mutated into a totally gross, grotesque, faceless form. And, ironically, it is also their first record in a while for which Sandy Pearlman has returned as a producer. Boy, did he ever produce a mess. Bad, bad rock music.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Bears: Rise And Shine

THE BEARS: RISE AND SHINE (1988)

1) Aches And Pains; 2) Save Me; 3) Robobo's Beef; 4) Not Worlds Apart; 5) Nobody's Fool; 6) Highway 2; 7) Little Blue River; 8) Rabbit Manor; 9) Holy Mack; 10) Complicated Potatoes; 11) You Can Buy Friends; 12) Best Laid Plans; 13) Old Fat Cadillac; 14) Girl With Clouds.

Although this album is a little longer than the first one, it gives the impression of being even more formulaic. No attempts at walls of sound, no brass section anywhere, just a very basic, very tight pop-rock sound. Two guitars, one bass, and a drumset. Of course, with Adrian Belew con­stantly honing his skills as a «guitar-orchestra person», this means that there will be numerous overdubs where his six-string will sound like a one-string, a two-string, a no-string, or a little bird twirping away high up in a tree, but eventually, you get used to the predictability of it, too.

The first five songs here really just go past through me like a knife through warm butter — mood-wise, there is nothing to tell them apart, and when all of your hooks look like they've been passed out from the assembly line, there is no reason to call them «hooks» as such. Pleasant, same-sounding midtempo pop with buzzing or meaouwing guitars (sometimes buzzing and meaouwing at the same time, courtesy of Adrian's never-ending tone variation effects) and friendly choruses. The album does not even try to begin to steer a different course until ʽLittle Blue Riverʼ, which slows down the tempo, adds a pinch of tender folksy harmonies, and tops it off with a psychede­lic coloring for the lead guitar part.

Further on, things become more interesting with ʽRabbit Manorʼ, a quirky avantgarde-funk work­out with a feel of not-too-dangerous suspense and a touch of classic Belew paranoia; ʽComplica­ted Potatoesʼ, with Belew (or is that Fetters?) adding some distortion to his sound; and ʽBest Laid Plansʼ, with a mystical-hypnotic guitar line dominating the verse (for the chorus with its ques­tionable pun — "the best laid plans never get laid" — they shift to the usual power-pop mood). But arguably the best song, and the only one that made it over to Adrian's solo career (you can find a live version on 1993's The Acoustic Adrian Belew) is ʽOld Fat Cadillacʼ, for which he came up with a more «New Wave»-y guitar pattern and a memorable riff.

The overall arrange­ment and performance of ʽCadillacʼ does suggest that this is more of an «intimate Adrian Belew moment» than a collective Bears tune, and this, in turn, suggests that there was a certain reason why The Bears were put on hold after Rise And Shine, like its pre­decessor, failed to interest the public: namely, because the most interesting songs on here are the ones where «the band» is not intentionally striving to sound like «a band», but more like «a back­ing band» for the chief personality. When it's de-personalized rhythm guitar and group harmonies, they are neither the epitome of heavenly beauty nor a wallop of unstoppable energy — but on ʽOld Fat Cadillacʼ, Belew's individual emotionalism comes shining through.

Besides, the original novelty and excitement of it all had worn off, and now they sound a bit too much like a relatively mindless pop factory (good taste and all) where songs like ʽMeet Me In The Darkʼ and ʽNone Of The Aboveʼ were honestly more fun. Style-wise, I have no problem with the record, but it just feels too much like one of those «let us get together and make a guitar-based pop-rock album with no purpose other than showing how much we like guitar-based pop-rock» ventures, and we've probably all had our fair share of these already. And what's up with that big old hinomaru on the album cover? Was that a surreptitious attempt at sucking up to the Japanese market? Bizarre, but I'm not even sure the album got a Japanese release in the first place (much as the Japanese love to release and re-release everything, especially if it got bonus tracks).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Blackmore's Night: Dancer And The Moon

BLACKMORE'S NIGHT: DANCER AND THE MOON (2013)

1) I Think It's Going To Rain Today; 2) Troika; 3) The Last Leaf; 4) Lady In Black; 5) Minstrels In The Hall; 6) The Temple Of The King; 7) Dancer And The Moon; 8) Galliard; 9) The Ashgrove; 10) Somewhere Over The Sea; 11) The Moon Is Shining; 12) The Spinner's Tale; 13) Carry On... Jon.

The truth is slowly oozing out: Blackmore's Night are going to keep on releasing albums until they have rearranged and re-recorded every single Rainbow song. And since they only do one old Rainbow song per album, on the average, their program seems to be fully set up until 2050, by which time Ritchie will be one hundred and five years old and little children will be calling him Gandalf. Candice Night, of course, will stay young and pretty forever, and be revered as yer average local elf-maiden: beautiful, stately, and boring.

In the meantime, Dancer And The Moon is fifty-three more minutes of treated medievalistic schmaltz, completely obedient to the formula. Just check the song titles — all the keywords are in place: "dance", "moon", "sea", "minstrel", "lady", and even "troika", continuing Ritchie's and Candice's love with a pedestrian-legendary vision of Russia, as thoroughly fake and corny if you even begin to mistake it for «the real thing» as everything else about this duo. "Where the snow lies so deep you can't even see the sun, run, my troika, run". Yeah right. When they incorporated elements of "Polyushko-pole" in their compositions, it was at least imaginative — this approach, however, warrants a giggle at best.

Victims of plunder now include Randy Newman (ʽI Think It's Going To Rain Todayʼ, replete with plastic synth riffage) and Uriah Heep (ʽLady In Blackʼ) — my attitude towards those guys is well known, so I don't mind them using material that was quite corny in the first place, but still, «tell me your choice in covers and I'll tell who you are». There is also a final moody «Euro-blues» instrumental called ʽCarry On... Jonʼ, whose title looks suspiciously similar to Bob Dy­lan's ʽRoll On Johnʼ from the previous year's Tempest — although this particular instrumental, melody-wise, sounds not so much as a potential tribute to John Lennon as, rather, like a poten­tial tribute to the much more recently departed Gary Moore. And it probably goes to show just how stale Ritchie has become in his choice of chords that I find myself far more interested in the brief grumbly organ solo than in Blackmore's guitar work.

Ultimately, the focus here is on the title track — another anthemic gypsy-dance number in the vein of ʽHome Againʼ, modestly catchy, but very clichéd with its hey-hey-heys and perusal of the same light-up-your-senses cuddle that has long since lost all taste — and on ʽSomewhere Over The Seaʼ, taken first as a slow, gallantly waltzing ballad and then immediately redone as an electronic dance number (ʽThe Moon Is Shiningʼ), so as to please grandfathers and grandchildren alike: another cheap, tasteless move on the part of a duo that seems to be losing the last shreds of decency and credibility.

Perhaps these paragraphs have given you the impression that Dancer And The Moon is a total embarrassing disaster next to the relative success of Shadow Of The Moon and other early records — well, not really, because that impression is much exacerbated if you listen to them all in chronological order. Taken on their own, all these albums follow more or less the same musi­cal / artistic philosophy: ultimately, they pander to the «novice attitude» of the pseudo-seeker who pretends, perhaps subconsciously, to be interested in «roots» and «history» and «world culture», but whose ideal understanding of such things is the movie 300. It used to be that, as long as we understood this, Blackmore's Night could occasionally be fun. But now it comes to the point that they have worn out their image, thinned out their ideas, and give us far more of this cheap ersatz than actual hooks, emotions, or viable syntheses of different traditions. The approach was questionable from the start, but it could work — and now it no longer can. Perhaps it is time to pack it in, and as an appropriate remedy, I suggest that Ritchie Blackmore become the resident guitar player for Lady Gaga, whereas Candice Night can earn an honest living singing backup vocals for the likes of Lana del Rey. In the meantime, this album gets a thumbs down — and, most likely, the same will apply to everything that comes next.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Blondie: Plastic Letters

BLONDIE: PLASTIC LETTERS (1977)

1) Fan Mail; 2) Denis; 3) Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45); 4) Youth Nabbed As Sniper; 5) Contact In Red Square; 6) (I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear; 7) I'm On E; 8) I Didn't Have The Nerve To Say No; 9) Love At The Pier; 10) No Imagination; 11) Kidnapper; 12) Detroit 442; 13) Cautious Lip; 14*) Once I Had A Love; 15*) Scenery; 16*) Poets Problem; 17*) Detroit 442 (live).

Sometimes identified as a «transitional» album, wedged in between the sheer shockin' novelty of the self-titled debut and the stunning pop gloss of Parallel Lines, Blondie's sophomore effort tends to be a little overlooked these days, although back in 1977, it was a much bigger commer­cial success than Blondie, and landed the band their first big chart hit all over Europe. Ironically, that big hit was fairly atypical of the album — ʽDenisʼ was the band's cover of Randy & The Rain­bows' ʽDeniseʼ, a 1963 pop song with elements of doo-wop and Buddy Holly: Blondie more or less drop the whole doo-wop aspect and enforce the Buddy Holly aspect by freely quoting from ʽPeggy Sueʼ where the original had no such thing. The song's popularity, so it seems, was more of an American Graffitti-type of event, except it happened to be more popular in Europe than in Blondie's native US of A — go figure.

Anyway, even tossing ʽDenisʼ aside, had we wanted to, we could build up a very strong case for Plastic Letters as the «definitive» Blondie album, or maybe even the «best» one where these notions are correlated. Here they are still essentially a raw, untamed, unspoiled semi-underground outfit, hanging around NYC's «advanced» musical establishments, but showing an ever-increa­sing level of diversity and wildness of imagination. Arguably, some of the songs aren't quite as catchy as the ones on Blondie, but this is well compensated for by the band coming up with all sorts of «stories» and «situations» — lyrical and atmospheric subjects include mysteries, sus­pense, spy tales, catastrophes, femme fatales, and, of course, lots of character assassinations. At the same time they also stretch out and expand their musical boundaries: due largely to Jim Destri's complex keyboard palette, Plastic Letters, one way or another, covers the whole history of pop music from the late Fifties up to modern times. Doo-wop, rockabilly, Motown, and Mer­seybeat are here in symbiosis with modernistic punk, electronica, and even a bit of the «progres­sive» genre, and it all feels natural, because one thing that ties it all together is fun.

Well, that and Debbie Harry's hormonal activities, I guess — which take up a significant chunk of the album, ʽFan Mailʼ, ʽ(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dearʼ and ʽI Didn't Have The Nerve To Say Noʼ being the ultimate highlights. ʽPresenceʼ is the best realized of the three, and all the more fun when you understand that what they really do here is take that classic Byrds sound and turn it on its head, shedding the solemnity and stately beauty of Roger McGuinn's company and replacing it with sexy playfulness. Then again, I guess Debbie Harry could sing ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ and make it sound exactly the same way — this is simply in their inborn nature, they can't help being playful. Even when the love thing goes drastically bad, they still deliver the news swiftly and merrily (ʽLove At The Pierʼ, not the catchiest song on the album, but who else but Blondie would finish the song with lines like "Now I go to beaches with my girlfriend / No more love splinters in my rear end"?).

But the Byrds are far from the only musical reference / influence on the album. ʽBermuda Triangle Bluesʼ, in contrast, takes it slow and careful, with a delicate, yet stern-and-solemn guitar weave pattern that might recall stuff in the «epic folk» vein, anything from Neil Young to Van Morrison. It feels unfinished — cutting out just as Destri really begins picking up the heat on that organ and you start thinking that maybe Chris Stein will want to join him in a furious jam or something, just to illustrate the atmospheric pressure over the Bermuda Triangle — yet I would say that a certain portion of the charm of Plastic Letters is that so many things on here sound unfinished: «we saw, we conquered, we moved on without completing». The incipient spy epic ʽContact In Red Squareʼ, for instance — had that song been conceived by such experimental jokers as 10cc (and it could), they would have turned it into a six- or seven-minute mini-opera; for Blondie, two minutes of that experiment (which, if you listen close enough, includes some elements of Russian folk dance muzak for comfort) is firmly enough.

As consistent as the album already is, it actually seems to be getting stronger and stronger as it moves towards its conclusion. The last three songs, in particular, sound nothing like each other, but I don't even know which of the three I like the better — ʽKidnapperʼ, with its «Debbie-as-Elvis» bit, references to Norman Bates and Ray Milland, blues-rock harmonica, and garage guitar solo; ʽDetroit 442ʼ, the heaviest song in the band's catalog (imagine what a ʽLet There Be Rockʼ-era AC/DC song would sound like with one of the Young brothers switching to piano instead of guitar!); or ʽCautious Lipʼ, the album's longest, most heavily nuanced tune that I have no idea whatsoever how to categorize — is it «electronic blues»? «psychedelic swamp-rock»? what sort of mind effect are they going for, anyway? All I know is that the song wouldn't have sounded out of place on Their Satanic Majesties' Request, you know, one of those records.

All in all, Plastic Letters is that one Blondie album I can never see myself getting tired of — there is simply so much going on here, in all directions, that every time you put it on, you will discover yet another splatter of creativity on your jacket. Smart, hip, playful, diverse, stimulating, not particularly profound, perhaps, but never as dumb as an unexperienced novice's first listen to ʽDenisʼ could make the band seem for a moment, either. Like all great artists growing up on «pop trash», Blondie could take that slice of culture and viciously send it up for all of its clichés, while at the same time declaring undying love for it — as expressed in the energy, inventiveness, and wild combinatorics of the music. Their pop hooks would only become genuine weapons of mass destruction with the next two albums, but they'd never again make a record as, well, witty as Plastic Letters, and for this it deserves a thumbs up rating every bit as enthusiastic.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Blind Guardian: Tokyo Tales

BLIND GUARDIAN: TOKYO TALES (1993)

1) Inquisition; 2) Banish From Sanctuary; 3) Journey Through The Dark; 4) Traveler In Time; 5) The Quest For Tanelorn; 6) Goodbye My Friend; 7) Time What Is Time; 8) Majesty; 9) Valhalla; 10) Welcome To Dying; 11) Lost In The Twilight Hall; 12) Barbara Ann.

Blind Guardian's first live album is exactly what you'd probably expect of Blind Guardian's first live album — terrific, powerful, energetic, ripping, and completely expendable unless you are capable of putting it on, turning the volume all the way up, closing your eyes, and mentally trans­porting yourself to Koseinenkin Hall in Tokyo, Japan, on the fateful night of December 4, 1992. With several thousand stark-raving-mad Japanese fans accosting you from all sides, singing all of your favorite anthemic choruses in complete unison. Power!!!

But my problem is predictable: there is just no way these here songs could sound more powerful played live than when recorded in the studio. So you get the same mad tempos, the same metal hero vocals, the same super-fluent, intelligently constructed metal-Paganini solos from Olbrich — yes, amazing how they can recreate all that so perfectly-flawlessly on stage and all, but hardly warranting more than one listen. Serious fans will, no doubt, discern and cling on to minor vari­a­tions, yet I have only noticed that they offer a much louder rendition of ʽLord Of The Ringsʼ — electric, with a big drum sound in the climactic finale, and it hardly makes the song any better, though, of course, it is more suitable for an arena setting that way.

The setlist mainly draws upon Tales and Somewhere Far Beyond, with only ʽMajestyʼ retained from the debut album and only ʽBanish From Sanctuaryʼ and ʽValhallaʼ from the second one; it's all okay, although I sort of miss ʽAshes To Ashesʼ and ʽThe Last Candleʼ. Hansi is playing the Big Barbarian Boss for the audience, occasionally encouraging them to join him in his pagan chest vocalising — the effect can be irritating, but that's how you play this game, and at the very least, he does sound like he drinks his enemies' brains right from their freshly cracked skulls at breakfast, so he's a winner at that game regardless of whether you play or not. Nothing to com­plain about in any of those departments, really.

Technically, the album was sewn together from bits of two different shows, so it's a little patchy with all the fade-ins and fade-outs; and the decision to include ʽBarbara Annʼ in their live show might irritate genre purists (I am not irritated, but I do have to remark that if this was a gesture of the «we are really not that serious» variety, it was still a little misplaced — I mean, normally, you either have a sense of humor, in which case it shows up rather regularly in many of the things you do, or you do not have a sense of humor: this «two extra minutes of fun for the sake of proving we can be fun» feels somewhat contrived. Anyway, somehow it worked better in the studio). So these may be minor flaws if you need any. Sound quality, however, is perfect (Tokyo factor strikes again, those Japanese accept nothing less), no flaws here. Oh, and, for the record, if I am not mistaken, the band likes double-tracking their guitars in the studio, so if you dislike that simple trick, here's at least one minor reason to seek out the live versions instead. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Black Sabbath: Past Lives

BLACK SABBATH: PAST LIVES (1970-1975; 2002)

CD I: 1) Tomorrow's Dream; 2) Sweet Leaf; 3) Killing Yourself To Live; 4) Cornucopia; 5) Snowblind; 6) Children Of The Grave; 7) War Pigs; 8) Wicked World; 9) Paranoid;
CD II: 1) Hand Of Doom; 2) Hole In The Sky; 3) Symptom Of The Universe; 4) Megalomania; 5) Iron Man; 6) Black Sabbath; 7) N.I.B.; 8) Behind The Wall Of Sleep; 9) Fairies Wear Boots.

Unlike its closest compadres in the early days of heavy metal, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, Black Sabbath were never a «great» live band — they pretty much gave it their all in the studio, where they sounded every bit as heavy, raw, and «Satanic» as they could sound on stage, and even more so (for instance, that genuinely mind-melting guitar tone that Iommi had himself for Master Of Reality was never properly recreated live). They were also limited by their skills: Ozzy's vocal flexibility, unlike Plant's or Gillan's, was mainly restricted to ad-libbing stuff like "come on you fuckin' fuckers, I wanna see that fucking roof come fuckin' down!", and Tony's «iron fingers», while empowering him in his regular Sabbath schtick, prevented him from fully exploring the capacities of his guitar.

Nevertheless, it goes without saying that such a legendary band has to have a proper live docu­ment to its name — and up until the 21st century, the only such document to capture Black Sab­bath in their alleged prime was Live At Last, a record released without the band's consent in 1980. They'd recorded the tapes themselves during several UK shows in March 1973, but even­tually left them lying around, unhappy with the results; its eventual release was really more like an act of revenge on the part of their former manager, Patrick Meehan. Sound quality was bad, the performances were no great shakes as such, and everybody was unhappy except for the buying public, who still managed to send it up the charts.

Fast forward to 2002, and lo and behold, past wounds have been healed, and now the band mem­bers have no problems with the album as long as it's been cleaned up and remastered. Not only that, but half of the second disc is filled up with tracks from yet a second aborted attempt at a live album, this time, recorded in August 1975 in Asbury Park — and then, to round things out, five more tracks are added from an early show (December 1970) in Paris, which had also been filmed and is these days available as the earliest detailed glimpse of a very young, very heavy, very ex­uberant heavy metal band in their prime.

Naturally, the recommended order of listening would be chronological — start off in the head-spinning era of Paranoid, then leap forward to the drug-heavy, artistically confused period of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and finally make the transition to the last days of Black Sabbath as a seriously creative, trend-setting unit in the era of Sabotage. There won't be too much difference (technically, the sound on the 1970 tracks is noticeably muddier, but we can live with that): you'd expect Ozzy to gradually deteriorate through these years, but I wouldn't bet my money saying that these particular recordings can be used as proof of that. There is only one song here where he comes close to completely losing it — the fast part of ʽMegalomaniaʼ; but this is really not so much due to his being high or anything as it is simply due to the fact that it is, on the whole, a pretty hard song to sing for a singer as «lumpy» as Ozzy. He flounders on the high notes of the chorus, struggles with them bravely, then mentally says «fuck it» and finally just shifts to a much lower range. No wonder ʽMegalomaniaʼ only lasted for, like, several weeks in their setlist, before being jettisoned once and for all.

That said, in the historical and basic-emotional sense the tracks from 1970 are the best of the lot: just as Led Zeppelin's early concerts are usually preferable to their «jet set» period from 1973 on, so it is that Sabbath, in 1970, was not yet spoiled by stardom (not to mention drugs) and certainly not yet bored by the necessity to reproduce the same old hits over and over again. Ozzy, in particular, only begins to display the first signs of his irritable stage antics, and Bill Ward is playing like a madman rather than an experienced professional. It is only the wise Tony Iommi, keeping cool and distanced, for whom time has been beneficial rather than detrimental, as his guitar playing skills only improved through the Seventies (alas, the same cannot be said about his riff-generating genius).

In the Live At Last set, the most interesting piece is an eighteen-minute jam centered around the old song ʽWicked Worldʼ, where, instead of mere improvisation, Tony is weaving in parts of other compositions, for instance, the opening riff of ʽInto The Voidʼ, or a large chunk of ʽSuper­nautʼ. Apparently, after a brief period of toying with «getting musical ideas out of thin air» in the early 1970s, he'd finally settled upon the simple truth — some people are born to improvise, and some people are born to deliberate, and who's to tell who's wrong and who's right? This way, at least, you get to be thrilled by trying to guess what will come next. Or, for instance, trying to guess whether the coda to ʽHand Of Doomʼ will include all of ʽRat Saladʼ, together with Ward's drum solo, or just the cool riff part? (Answer: just the cool riff part. But they may have edited out the drum solo — besides, there is a drum solo in ʽWicked Worldʼ already).

The 1975 set is interesting in that Sabotage had not yet been released, and thus, they are «pre­viewing» the songs — for instance, only the speedy proto-thrash part of ʽSymptom Of The Uni­verseʼ is played, and despite the obvious inconveniences for both Ozzy and Tony (the song really demands two guitars for the coda at least, and do we actually hear backing tapes with recorded synthesizers? Talk about the Quadrophenia effect), I am sure glad they got to include ʽMegalo­maniaʼ with its Gothic atmosphere, so cool and refreshing next to all the basic metal monsters.

In its current status as the only official live Sabbath release from the «prime» era, could this whole thing be better? Perhaps. Hardcore fans, well educated in bootleg studies, tend to point out various small flaws in the Live At Last section and, sometimes, to heavily put down the Asbury Park recordings as well. But I seriously doubt that the «live magic of Sabbath» could be pushed up to a significantly higher level than this. Setlists and sound quality could be better (in theory; not sure about how much we have in practice), but not the overall presentation style. From that point of view, Past Lives deserves a modest thumbs up — yet I can still recommend it, like any other Black Sabbath live album from any other period, only to very serious fans of the band.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bob Marley: Burnin'

BOB MARLEY: BURNIN' (1973)

1) Get Up, Stand Up; 2) Hallelujah Time; 3) I Shot The Sheriff; 4) Burnin' And Lootin'; 5) Put It On; 6) Small Axe; 7) Pass It On; 8) Duppy Conqueror; 9) One Foundation; 10) Rastaman Chant.

Once something has caught fire, it then usually proceeds to burn — a simple truth that, until 1973, found no expression in a succeeding line-up of album titles, though. But clearly, the underlying idea of Burnin' was to dispel the popular myth of the Rastafari movement as just some local Jamaican version of the hippie wave. As per Bob Marley, reggae people may be friendly and pacifist, but that does not mean that they completely reject forceful activity or even violence in their behaviour and their music. Branding and condemning Babylon is noble enough, but there's nothing like watching Babylon burn, really.

The sociopolitical ferocity of Burnin', reaching such levels of energy, passion, and explicitness that all of the Wailers' previous efforts seem like Tiny Tim in comparison, has arguably led all the politically correct people to somehow overrate the album. Technically, it was recorded in a bit of a rush, forcing the Wailers to fall back once more on their back-stock from Kingston (at least three tracks are re-recorded from earlier times), and this time, there are no overdubs from addi­tional session players, so the sound returns to Spartan standards. (Still, there is no Lee Perry any­where in sight to rev up that bass: the Wailers would never again return to the same «skeletal» type of sound they'd been awarded on Soul Revolution).

Most commonly, Burnin' is known and revered for its rebellious classics — ʽGet Up, Stand Upʼ, ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ, ʽBurnin' And Lootin'ʼ, to a lesser extent ʽSmall Axeʼ as well — and almost certainly, much of that knowledge and reverence has been stimulated by the Eric Clapton cover of ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ, which became a major hit in 1974 and probably made millions more people aware of Marley and reggae in general. To be fair, Eric Clapton singing ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ, a song very much rooted in the realities of Jamaican life, is as awkward as if Jimi Hen­drix decided to put his stamp on ʽLa Donna E Mobileʼ, but he does always play a mean guitar on that song, so let us not be too harsh on the «white boy perversion» that did help bring reggae to a larger audience, and ended up making the world a better place (we hope!).

ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ is not so much rebellious, though, as it is fatalistic: the gradually descending melody of the verse is like the grim pull of destiny, swirling and spiralling and eventually cutting the thread in one final desperate flash. The lyrical matter is pretty much the same kind of stuff you can find in so many folk, blues, and country-western songs, but Bob sings it in the first per­son (Clapton once pressed the man into telling him whether the story was true or not, and Marley said that parts of it were, but he wasn't going to say which ones), and the effect is intimately haunting. It's all simple and accessible and unforgettable — the falsetto harmonies on the chorus may take some getting used to (mainly because that kind of voice has become so firmly associa­ted with disco, post-factum), but they do provide the important hookline that helps draw your attention towards the rest of it (and, come to think of it, the verse part of this song is far more emotionally resonant than the catchy chorus).

Likewise, ʽBurnin' And Lootin'ʼ is more of a philosophical mourning, or a bitter justification of Jamaican violence, than a direct call to action. As if to enhance the understanding that the chorus is not to be taken too literally, the Wailers expand upon the initial "that's why we gonna be bur­nin' and a-lootin' tonight" with the metaphorical "burnin' all pollution tonight, burnin' all illusion tonight" — for those who want to hear it, of course. The slow, gently swaying groove is nowhere near «aggressive», either: the chorus sounds more like a cross between a lullaby and a funeral march than anything «punkish» or genuinely violent in nature. At the same time, you do have your "how many rivers do we have to cross / before we can talk to the boss?", which, as has been previously noted, is like a clever retort to Jimmy Cliff's ʽMany Rivers To Crossʼ, and implies that real burnin' and real lootin' is not a totally excluded solution, either.

The most aggressive and militant song on the album, of course, is ʽGet Up, Stand Upʼ — one of the few songs in the Wailers' catalog that could really be called a revolutionary anthem, and one that would certainly have rallied plenty of troops around the banner of Jah in case of need. For the first time, Bob is properly and intentionally feeding upon negative energy, learning how to throw thunderbolts, and even Peter Tosh, replacing him for one of the verses, is adding an angry vibe to his formerly epic, but peaceful tone. It is more of a sermon than a song, instructing people to search for Heaven on Earth rather than wait for a time when "Great God will come from the skies, take away everything and make everybody feel high". But it is set to one of their most tightly focused, clenched-teeth grooves ever — just as lyrically it disbands the myth about Rastaman people «feeling high» all the time and not giving a damn about much of anything else, so, musi­cally, it can dispel the myth of reggae being «relaxed», «lazy-sounding» music. ʽGet Up, Stand Upʼ has as much rocking power as ʽSuperstitionʼ or ʽSatisfactionʼ, if «rocking power» is to be understood as the impulse that shoots extra adrenaline into your brain and makes you feel as if you could take on the world with your bare fists.

In between these particular landmarks of class struggle reflected in music, the rest of the tracks on Burnin' veers between hit and miss. Side B, in particular, has always felt like a relative letdown to me: the «socially relevant» material there seems to lose some of the energy and focus, either degenerating into too much monotonousness (ʽRastaman Chantʼ — with its ʽLouie Louieʼ-ish musical attitude, this one does feel like everybody finally got high at the end of the sessions) or swerving into too much pleasantness (Tosh's ʽOne Foundationʼ is way too friendly in comparison with the first side's barn-burners). On the other hand, Side A reaches near-perfection with the addition of the gospel-reggae chant ʽHallelujah Timeʼ and the hypnotic feel-them-spirit mantra of ʽPut It Onʼ — also monotonous, but it does convey a good impression of somebody being taken over by a benevolent spirit and busily merging the manly and the godly in one's own person.

It is hard to tell whether the legend of Burnin' owes more to the quality of the music or the loud­ness of the expressed social feeling — I would personally suggest that, from a sheerly musical point of view, Catch A Fire contains more original and exciting ideas, but about half of the songs on that one are love songs, whereas Burnin' is completely dominated by tunes «with a message». But then again, this is reggae we are talking about, where the power of the groove is always more important than any melodic hook, and in terms of power, the first side of this album easily trumps Catch A Fire and would not, in fact, be matched until the appearance of Exodus. So let us just call this another relative triumph, give it a thumbs up and, just in case somebody stupid lands on this page, remind one more time that Bob Marley and The Wailers are not advocating violence, and that they'd rather you burn up your illusions than anything physically flammable.