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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Bonnie Raitt: Streetlights

BONNIE RAITT: STREETLIGHTS (1974)

1) That Song About The Midway; 2) Rainy Day Man; 3) Angel From Montgomery; 4) I Got Plenty; 5) Streetlights; 6) What Is Success; 8) Ain't Nobody Home; 9) Everything That Touches You; 10) Got You On My Mind; 11) You Got To Be Ready For Love.

Listen to Takin' My Time and Streetlights back to back and you get a valuable lesson in what was deemed «more commercial» and «less commercial» circa 1974. While some of the songs on Takin' My Time sound just like the songs on Streetlights, the big difference is that everything that constituted Bonnie Raitt's own artistic sauce has pretty much been ditched — her guitar play­ing skills, her diversity in selecting other people's material, her very important feel for pre-war blues and vaudeville music, and even her own humble attempts at writing songs.

None of that matters, thought Bonnie's new producer Jerry Ragovoy, and pushed her towards becoming a «normal» artist — singing soft orchestrated acoustic ballads, collected from outside contemporary songwriters. Apparently, the new idea was to market Ms. Raitt as a singer: Warner Bros.' answer to Karen Carpenter, or something of the sort. Although her career was slowly gaining traction, with Takin' My Time finally making it into the Top 100, apparently, they succeeded in convincing her that a slight image change was necessary in order to attract larger audiences — and that this image change necessitated dropping Sippie Wallace covers from her repertoire, for one thing, and replacing them with something more «relevant».

Okay, says Bonnie, and starts things off with a cover of Joni Mitchell's ʽThat Song About The Midwayʼ. She nails the sentiment of the original pretty darn well, but then comes the inevitable: what's the goddamn point? The arrangement has been made a little more «user-friendly» as we add some bottom, in the form of a delicate bassline and some soft congas, and later on, some inobtrusive strings and woodwinds — and you could say that the vocals also make the song more «user-friendly», since Bonnie's voice is higher than Joni's, not to mention free from the pecu­li­arities of Joni's irregular jaw structure, so the average listener might deem Ms. Raitt's rendition «nicer» than Ms. Mitchell's. But in a different lingo, that same thing is called «watering down», and I, for one, have no need whatsoever of anybody watering down Joni Mitchell. Radical trans­formations are one thing (e. g. ʽThis Flight Tonightʼ in the hands of Nazareth), but this sort of treatment adds nothing whatsoever to the original.

Adding almost an insult to almost an injury, the second track is a cover of James Taylor's ʽRainy Day Manʼ — this time, the arrangement adds some jazzy electric guitar licks, louder drums, and a heavily muffled brass and string section, all of them superimposed in such a polite manner that the song becomes boring almost before it has started. Again, Bonnie does a good job, but there is no «edge» to the material, and whatever sentiments James Taylor himself had conveyed through the song, there ain't even a single extra one here.

The rest does not stray too far away from the path: songs are reduced to more or less the same soft, «shallow-introspective» register, regardless of whether they have been penned by overrated superstars (Taylor) or semi-obscure cult legends (John Prine's ʽAngel From Montgomeryʼ). By the time we get to the second side, things start heating up a little, as Bonnie includes several R&B numbers, relatively higher on energy level (Allen Toussaint's ʽWhat Is Successʼ, with a hilarious­ly «ominous» string arrangement; Ragovoy's own ʽAin't Nobody Homeʼ, where the brass section is finally given free reins), but even that idea is discredited on the last track — ʽYou Got To Be Ready For Loveʼ is a campy proto-disco number that is as far removed from Bonnie's artistic inclinations as possible (as they hop through the chorus, I cannot help imagining the lady in ABBA-like glitter, grooving along to the good vibe, and thinking back on how far people are ready to go for vague «image demand» purposes).

Nothing, except for that last track, is properly «bad» — the ballads have occasional hooks, the material has been chosen with intelligence (after all, covering Joni Mitchell and John Prine can hardly get one accused of bad taste, right?), and Raitt still has at least the distinctive feature of being able to make a transition to «rough blueswoman snap» mode whenever she feels the song might demand it: an important footnote, because neither a Joni Mitchell nor a Karen Carpenter could have managed this trick. Unfortunately, she does not resort to it too often, not to mention that sometimes, due to the nature of the material, it just makes her seem like a Nashville cowgirl, and that ain't nothing special, either. In the end, Streetlights simply streamlines her talent, instead of allowing it to develop into something truly outstanding — and that, woe and alas, is pretty much the way it would generally stay throughout the rest of her career. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bob Marley: Babylon By Bus

BOB MARLEY: BABYLON BY BUS (1978)

1) Positive Vibration; 2) Punky Reggae Party; 3) Exodus; 4) Stir It Up; 5) Rat Race; 6) Concrete Jungle; 7) Kinky Reggae; 8) Lively Up Yourself; 9) Rebel Music; 10) War/No More Trouble; 11) Is This Love; 12) Heathen; 13) Jamming.

It is interesting that, although the tracks for Marley's second live album were all recorded in mid-1978 on the Kaya tour, only one song on the setlist is from Kaya itself, although quite a few more were actually played as a regular part of the show. Clearly, the resulting live album had to expand and deepen the image of the Wailers as cutting-edge «social» artists with a message — no wonder that the record begins with a Rastafari greeting in the name of Haile Selassie and all his living-godly splendor. And then there's that whole «spiritual party» aspect, where the performer and the audience join souls and dissolve in the universal conscience on a sub-atomic level. Not so easy to do with Kaya songs, which are typically more individualistic.

As far as I can figure out, fans generally prefer the earlier Live! to this one, and I cannot quite understand why — maybe they find that Babylon By Bus is a bit too megalomaniac an exercise to properly convey the humble reggae spirit. It also makes a point of not repeating any tracks from Live! (with the notable exception of ʽLively Up Yourselfʼ), meaning that neither ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ nor ʽNo Woman No Cryʼ, two of the most iconic Marley songs, appear here, but it's not as if the man had nothing to offer in their place. So, instead of ʽSheriffʼ you can take the plaintive stateliness of ʽConcrete Jungleʼ, and instead of ʽNo Woman No Cryʼ, you can relax a few minutes to the tender rocking of ʽStir It Upʼ.

There also seems to be significantly more difference between the originals and the live versions now than there used to. Many of the songs are extended, sometimes simply to give the groove more time to soak in, but sometimes also to place the spotlight on individual players — most notably on ʽHeathenʼ, where Junior Marvin gets to play an incendiary blues guitar solo in the best tradition of blues-rock (the studio version was twice as short and had no solos). Some of the tempos are sped up, and some of the production gloss that could be a source of irritation on the studio albums has also been shed (inevitably). This is not always an advantage: ʽExodusʼ and ʽRebel Musicʼ, for instance, are inferior to the originals — the former is a tad more loose and less rigorously mobilized, dissipating the required feel, and the latter suffers because the "aaaaah, re­bel music!" backing vocals are less well coordinated. But as a general tactic to «lively up your­self» and add some extra energy and volume to the live show, it works.

That said, I am once again at a loss when it comes to commenting on specific performances — everybody is having a good time, and that's about it. Just because the album is longer (and more Marley is better Marley), and because it does a better job of showing off Junior's talents, I'd rate it very slightly over Live! and give it a minor thumbs up — oh, actually, there is one more reason: the audience reaction is better captured on tape this time around (maybe because there is simply more audience, period), so if you really want to suck on the vibe, Babylon By Bus is your most obvious audio ticket to the spiritual unity between the shepherd and the flock. Too bad the she­pherd, free as he was to tour Babylon by bus, remained altogether unable to properly lead the flock out of Babylon — maybe that Haile Selassie guy is not, after all, nearly as powerful (or empowering) as they make him seem, eh?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: A Long Day's Night

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: A LONG DAY'S NIGHT (2002)

1) Stairway To The Stars; 2) Burning For You; 3) OD'd On Life Itself; 4) Dance On Stilts; 5) Buck's Boogie; 6) Quicktime Girl; 7) Harvest Moon; 8) Astronomy; 9) Cities On Flame; 10) Perfect Water; 11) Lips In The Hills; 12) Godzilla; 13) Don't Fear The Reaper.

Okay, one more encore — just because you asked for it so nicely and persistently and obsessive­ly, here is yet another live Blue Öyster Cult album. Everybody knows by now that each cohesive period of this band's existence has to be summarized by a live document, and just because we have moved into a new millennium does not mean that the principle warrants an exception. This one was recorded in Chicago on June 21, 2002 (solstice day!), and came out on CD and DVD; I have not seen the DVD in its completeness, but it is longer by six tracks, all of them from the band's most classic period, so, reasonably, the DVD release is the one you should be more inte­rested in. For marketing purposes, though, the DVD lacks the 10-minute version of ʽAstronomyʼ, including Roeser's most gut-wrenching guitar solo of the entire evening, so if you are a true fan of the salmon salt, you have no choice but to get both.

With Bobby Rondinelli on drums and Danny Miranda on bass as a perfectly reliable and well-involved rhythm section, there is little reason to doubt that the whole thing will be professional and suitably spirited, but what can be said about yet another bunch of live performances of ʽGod­zillaʼ, ʽReaperʼ, ʽCities On Flameʼ etc.? Setlist-wise, much more curious is the inclusion of ʽPerfect Waterʼ from Club Ninja — apparently, the band takes this «retrospective show» concept seriously, leaving no stone unturned; but, as you might have guessed, the live version eschews the evils of Eighties production, and sounds much more like a normal sentimental hard-rocker in Buck Dharma's usual style than a bad reminiscence of 1986. Another surprise is the long-forgot­ten ʽLips In The Hillsʼ from Cultosaurus, with all of its frenzied arpeggiation intact. And the two songs from the band's latest record, while not on the classic level, still align pretty damn well with the classics in style and mood.

Still, all this professionalism can be a bit tiresome — the Rolling Stones, for instance, whose live performances from around 1975 to 1982 had turned into a sometimes exciting and hilarious, but persistently drugged-drunken sloppy mess, later tightened up their act significantly and made the contrast between their «early», «mid-life», and «late» live albums so interesting that most of them are worth owning, for one reason or other. In comparison, these guys just evolved from a tightly professional hard-rock act to a tightly professional arena-rock act to a tightly professional oldies act. Compare the original live performance of ʽBuck's Boogieʼ from 1975 with this one — gene­rally the same stuff, but just a wee bit more «formal» on the 21st century side of the business. Rondinelli gives it a much steadier, but also less youthfully exciting rhythmic base, and Roeser sounds ever so slightly by-the-bookish on it.

In any case, we should not take the record for anything other than what it is — a document of the entertainment potential of this band circa 2002. If you were wondering, back then, whether to attend or not a BÖC show, A Long Day's Night would have suggested «yes» (these days, more than a decade later, with further lineup changes and Lanier dead, I really have no idea). If you have any special personal memories of your own of a late-period BÖC show, here be a memento status, obviously. But other than that, A Long Day's Night is probably not turning into your favorite live album from these guys any time soon — it's got plenty of worthy competition from past decades to render itself superfluous after just one listen. Oh well, at least they keep the silly audience teasing bits in ʽGodzillaʼ on a tight leash this time.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Aretha Franklin: Sings The Great Diva Classics

ARETHA FRANKLIN: SINGS THE GREAT DIVA CLASSICS (2014)

1) At Last; 2) Rolling In The Deep; 3) Midnight Train To Georgia; 4) I Will Survive; 5) People; 6) No One; 7) I'm Every Woman / Respect; 8) Teach Me Tonight; 9) You Keep Me Hangin' On; 10) Nothing Compares 2 U.

The less said about this abomination, the more honor we pay to what used to be the greatest soul singer in the world. Quoth Clive Davis, executive producer of the album: «She's on fire and vocally in ab­solutely peak form. What a thrill to see this peerless artist still showing the way, still sending shivers up your spine...» In defense of Mr. Davis' questionable marketing strategy, I will admit that, every now and then, listening to this album did send shivers up my spine, but probably not quite the kind of shivers that Mr. Davis would surmise; and the peerless artist did occasio­nally show me the way — to the bathroom. I am almost not exaggerating here, mind you.

What is so utmostly horrible about albums like these is not merely discovering that a formerly great artist has lost all greatness. Yes, Ms. Franklin is well over 70, and her voice has become a shadow of what it once used to be, and she probably should retire, but if she really really wants to still linger in the studio, if it helps her get along in life to do these sessions every once in a while, then okay, and besides, that Christmas album wasn't that bad, on the whole. As long as we all, and the lady herself in the first place, come to terms with the fact that there will not be another Spirit In The Dark anytime soon, who are we not to let her have her fun?

No, what is really atrocious is the utmost fakeness of it all. Starting from the sickeningly made up (and probably Photoshopped, too) old dollface on the album sleeve (is she trying to compete with Nicki Minaj or what?), going on to the album title that once again brings up the horrifyingly per­verted word «diva», and ending with this whole idea — to remind humanity of her Supreme Rule as the Supreme Ruler of All Things Soul, the incomparable Ms. Aretha Franklin will offer, for everyone to see and kowtow, a brief run through old school and contemporary soul classics in order to show that ʽNothing Compares 2 Herʼ. Move along, Beyoncé, Adele, and Alicia Keys — Mama's in the kitchen now, and she's gonna show y'all how to cook those ribs.

Pull the wool from Clive Davis' eyes, though, and it is pretty clear that the production on all these songs ranges from unimaginatively retro to tastelessly modern (technobeats on ʽYou Keep Me Hangin' Onʼ? Ooh, now we're talking!), that the musicianship is non-existent, that the song choices are either all too predictable or completely baffling, and that Aretha walks through this entire session in a totally somnambulant state. Her voice, at this point, is incapable of rendering proper emotionality; still capable of technically smooth modulation, yes, but all the songs are de­livered in the same mode — «generally poetic», let's call it — and the delivery is so robotic that the question «why?», appearing in our minds in bloody huge red letters as the lady takes the first note, will most probably turn into such an irritating headache by the middle of the album that, hopefully, you will not have the strength to endure the lady butchering her own ʽRespectʼ, let alone becoming Prince's involuntary comical sidekick on ʽNothing Compares 2 Uʼ.

The cream of the crop is ʽRolling In The Deepʼ, the lyrics of which she delivers with all the neo­phyte fervor of someone so proud to have learned them phonetically — and later on down the line, the backing singers intersperse them with the chorus of ʽAin't No Mountain High Enoughʼ, even if the two songs are virtually antonymous in meaning (perhaps that was the original plan, but if so, they never went far enough to convince us that it was a good plan in the first place). I am sure that Adele herself would be happy to know that The Queen Mother of Soul herself sends her that much of a blessing, but why should we, the befuddled listeners, be involved in their royalty games? And you know something is wrong when there is an Alicia Keys tune in the setlist, and even wronger when the best thing about it are the backing vocals (the "o-wo-wo-oh-oh" bits on ʽNo Oneʼ are done expertly — well, they were the best thing on the original, too — and provide a bit of relief from listening to Aretha's caterwauling).

It could take well over a fortnight to think of all the exciting ways of poking mean fun at this al­bum, but let me just pretend to be sure that Aretha Franklin herself was only a tool here. The lady is old, weak-willed, maybe a little weak-minded, the lady can be excused for wanting to relive her stardom, Sunset Boulevard complex and all. The real criminal here, the one who bears full res­ponsibility for making laughing stock out of a formerly great artist, is Mr. Clive Davis — I have no interest in how many great artists he had signed to Columbia in the 1960s; whatever he is doing these days generally counts as severe crimes against music as an art form, whether it be producing Santana's Supernatural or signing fishy deals at RCA. This whole venture is his idea, a big stinking musical lie that should be wiped from memory or, at least, condemned to the sewer parts of it. Thumbs down with a vengeance — sorry, Ms. Franklin.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Blur: Blur

BLUR: BLUR (1997)

1) Beetlebum; 2) Song 2; 3) Country Sad Ballad Man; 4) M.O.R.; 5) On Your Own; 6) Theme From Retro; 7) You're So Great; 8) Death Of A Party; 9) Chinese Bombs; 10) I'm Just A Killer For Your Love; 11) Look Inside America; 12) Strange News From Another Star; 13) Movin' On; 14) Essex Dogs.

An album called Blur, released (seemingly) by a band named Blur and featuring (obviously) an authentic «blur» on the front sleeve, could be easily perceived as a debut — and, indeed, for Coxon and Albarn alike this was a career reboot. Having lost the popularity battle to Oasis, they cooled down towards «Britpop», and instead, decided to pursue what seemed like a more adven­turous road at the time, taking their new cues from contemporary American indie / lo-fi / avant­garde rock scene, with Sonic Youth and particularly Pavement usually namechecked as Coxon's primary influences at the time.

Since that whole scene has become a bit more jaded with the passing of time, and, I'd guess, far more praised by conservative critics than listened to by current audiences, this fact alone can cause plenty of skepticism. I mean, substituting Ray Davies for Stephen Malkmus as your chief musical guru? Not necessarily the wisest of choices and all. However, Blur do have two advan­tages on their hands. First, they are a pop band, and, regardless of whoever they choose to be their guiding light, be it Mantovani or Throbbing Gristle, they have no intention to stop being a pop band. Second, they are a good pop band — with a knack for catchy and meaningful pop melodies, so, regardless of what sort of tone, effect, or feedback they soak them in, the album is not going to be «over-the-top» experimental. (Check: Nothing against boldness, experimentation, and inno­vation — unless they are exclusively for boldness' and experimentation's own sake, which is a defect I have frequently associated with Pavement).

Anyway, few things in the Blur catalog are as awesomely cool as the beginning of ʽBeetlebumʼ, where Graham's guitar plays the part of a weird car engine, stalling at first, then revving up at a steady tempo. But whoever that «CHUNK-chook-chook-chook-CHUNK-chook-chook-chook» pattern was pilfered from, Albarn's vocal parts are pure Lennon — in one of his lazy-sleepy, yet wittily perceptive moods. The lyrics refer to sex, drugs, and not all that much rock'n'roll, as the arrangement eventually becomes more and more psychedelic and the song finally sort of explodes in a sonic kaleidoscope. The funny thing is, all of this is not as far removed from the values of Parklife and Great Escape as the album's descriptions so often make it seem — there is still something very much «British» about it all, not just Damon's vocals.

The story of ʽSong 2ʼ is well known: a brief musical joke that intended to parody the «grunge / alt-rock craze» of the 1990s, but was lost on most listeners, who embraced it seriously and turned it into Blur's signature song — «that ʽwoo-hoo!ʼ tune». In defense of the listeners', I am also always tempted to embrace it seriously, because it is one of the few examples of «happy grunge» that I know of. I mean, moshing along to ʽSmells Like Teen Spiritʼ is sort of a downer, when you really get down to it — being blown about the room as Albarn screams "WHEN I FEEL HEAVY METAL!..." is a completely different sensation. It's as if they were Ramonifying the genre, ma­king this heavy music as friendly as possible, and the feeling is contagious.

It is only after this opening one-two punch that Blur truly begins to intrude into some «weird» territory: ʽCountry Sad Ballad Manʼ is a fairly straightforward blues-pop tune in essence, but its production is lo-fi (making Albarn sound like a wretched bum from outer space) and its lead gui­tar parts are crooked and twisted, as Coxon tries to free himself from conventional chord sequen­ces and wants to become somebody like Marc Ribot, playing minimalistic dissonant bursts of notes that would seem normal for a wretched bum from outer space. It's not the epitome of catchi­ness, but it makes sense — an impressionistic musical portrait of an individual battered about by life one too many times.

From there on, they may go in any direction as long as there is something crooked and twisted about the chosen path. Some of the tracks rock out loud (ʽM.O.R.ʼ, ʽChinese Bombsʼ, ʽMovin' Onʼ), some reach out for the stars in a new coming of Syd Barrett (ʽTheme From Retroʼ, ʽStrange News From Another Starʼ), some continue the Lennon vibe (ʽYou're So Greatʼ sounds every bit like one of those heavily bootlegged «home tapes» that feature John strumming his guitar and trying out some freshly generated, raw-as-heck melody), some invoke a woozy drugged-out party spirit (ʽOn Your Ownʼ — hilariously, the drugged-out party is waved goodbye three tracks down the line, with ʽDeath Of A Partyʼ), some put on dark glasses, black leather, and descend into a smelly basement somewhere close to St. Marks' Place, in order to be tougher-than-tough and cooler-than-cool (ʽI'm Just A Killer For Your Loveʼ — doesn't that title alone make you shake in your boots?). There are no great melodic breakthroughs here, but on the whole, this is a classy way to refresh and reload the old Blur vibe.

The biggest uncertainty lies with the final track, ʽEssex Dogsʼ, an eight-minute piece of genuine avantgarde — ostensibly this record's ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ (or, rather, a condensed, slightly more melodic, version of Metal Machine Music), prudently tacked on to the end so that even if you dismiss it as a pretentious piece of unlistenable shit, you are still left with a perfectly legit, uninterrupted 48-minute album. Actually, I like some of the stuff that Coxon does with his guitar, particularly that opening riff which once again sounds like a vehicle winding up and down, stub­bornly refusing to start up properly — but on the whole, eight minutes of this stuff does look like overkill, especially coming from a band that had never properly specialized in the legacy of Lou Reed and John Cale. On the other hand, I guess that if something like ʽSong 2ʼ makes you a big star, you gotta have a nifty antidote like ʽEssex Dogsʼ on hand — play it for thirty minutes unin­terrupted at your stadium shows and nobody is going to confuse you with the Stone Temple Pilots any more. It's a dog-eat-dog world, you gotta be prepared for anything.

Honestly, I think this is a pretty damn good album poised for greatness, and that it still holds up very well after all those years — in fact, it might even hold up better than some of its influences, because, just like the Beatles, Blur have the capacity of «taming» those influences and adapting them to accessible purposes without compromising them. On Parklife and Great Escape, they sang catchy songs about the underbelly of society; on Blur, they make us sense that underbelly through the «ugly» musical moves, dissonance, and well-orchestrated chaos rather than the lyrics (which are often transformed into Joycian stream-of-consciousness rants) or the singing (which is often intentionally «downgraded» with lo-fi production). The shift was a gamble that could have very well failed, but it did not fail, and still deserves its strong thumbs up.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Blondie: No Exit

BLONDIE: NO EXIT (1999)

1) Screaming Skin; 2) Forgive And Forget; 3) Maria; 4) No Exit; 5) Double Take; 6) Nothing Is Real But The Girl; 7) Boom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Room; 8) Night Wind Sent; 9) Under The Gun; 10) Out In The Streets; 11) Happy Dog; 12) The Dream's Lost On Me; 13) Divine; 14) Dig Up The Conjo.

I must confess that, to my ears, the worst thing about post-reunion Blondie is not the quality of the music (inconsistent, but can be gotten used to), not the gloss of the production (they'd turned into a «gloss-oriented» band as early as 1978), not the questionability of the reunion itself (in an age that has essentially stopped producing musical revolutions, veteran reunions should be valued every bit as high as aspiring «new» bands — and, actually, they are) — the saddest thing is the deterioration of Debbie Harry's voice, which is just... well, sad.

I mean, we all age, and we all have to come to terms with the fact that only singers like Tom Waits gain in awesomeness with aging, but some of us age worse than others, and some of us adjust to aging worse than others. In those 17 years that separate The Hunter from No Exit, as one can actually witness in more detail by scrutinizing Debbie's solo career, her voice has sunk, losing a very important part of its higher range and acquiring a late-age «breathiness» — which certainly does not prevent the singer from singing on key, or even singing reasonably well, but a huge chunk of the original appeal was in the sexiness, and this loss makes it painfully obvious that here, in 1999, is a performer struggling to be «sexy», where in the past it all came so natu­rally. An aging diva throwing a pointless challenge to the unyielding hand of time.

Again, this is a problem that could be circumvented if they tried to make the music suitably dif­ferent (Marianne Faithfull's Broken English immediately comes to mind under such circum­stances) — but nooooo, they are Blondie, they are the supreme royalty of 1970s pop music and they want it to stay that way, besides, they never really fell apart, they just took a long break, right? They want to be picking up from exactly where they left with The Hunter, no, with Auto­american, because The Hunter was a closing-gap throwaway piece. They want to make a true Blondie album. Loud, arrogant, stylistically diverse, only technically-formally modernized for the new age, but otherwise true to the band's essence.

In many ways, they are still qualified. Not all of the old guys are aboard for the continuation of the ride (Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante either refused to take part or were not involved at all, and even tried to sue the others for using the «Blondie» tag — honestly, though, I don't think it makes much sense to sue Debbie Harry for the use of the word «Blondie», not until she dyes her hair pitch black), but Chris Stein, Jim Destri, and Clem Burke are, and they can still play all their instruments as good as new, and they can still write songs in different styles, covering the usual eclectic grounds: straightforward old school pop rock, mostly, but extending their reach to areas both older than that (lounge jazz and even country-pop) and younger than that (some adult con­temporary, some hip-hop).

Yet I have never been properly fascinated by ʽMariaʼ, the big hit single from the album that had the power to throw the band into the spotlight once again — just how many comebacks from veteran bands are accompanied with a #1 single? — but while the melody is undoubtedly catchy and infectious, the «joyful» atmosphere of the song is completely spoiled for me by Debbie's «mother­ly» tone. The tune's proper intention might simply be to describe the visionary beauty of an unnamed protagonist, but whenever the singer inquires "don't you wanna take her? wanna make her all your own?", I cannot help picturing Debbie Harry as the imposing, self-confident matron in a whorehouse, offering us some appetizing love for sale. Where this «sexiness» thing worked like a charm circa 1976-78, this time there is some sort of awful mismatch between voice, lyrics, and melody that harshly stings the brain on an instinctive level. Good pop song, sure, but it simply should be sung by somebody else.

At this point, I'd say Debbie comes off much better when she is singing sad songs rather than happy ones — which is why I much prefer the second single, ʽNothing Is Real But The Girlʼ. It is just as old-school-catchy as ʽMariaʼ, every single bit, but it has a deeply melancholic spirit in­stead, with vocal and instrumental melody alike targeted at «ice» rather than «fire», and in this case, the changes in Debbie's voice actually work to her advantage. Likewise, she's still great when singing songs of defiance and self-confidence — the country waltz ʽThe Dream's Lost On Meʼ, as much as I am always skeptical of country waltzes, actually turns out to be the record's most arrogant, gravity-defying number: the lady's "I come out shootin' when trouble comes kno­ckin', I greet bad news by sending it walkin'" sounds totally believable, and if you thought that the last thing you'd ever want to see was a Debbie Harry in a Nashville mood, you might rethink that thought upon hearing the song — regular, conformist, conventional country it ain't.

Some of the «foxy» songs are so cool anyway that the voice factor does not bother me too much — ʽHappy Dogʼ, for instance, a swaggery syncopated blues-rocker with awesome triple-guitar interplay (swampy slide tone + dry distorted «woman tone» + funky rhythm = pure awesomeness indeed!), feels a bit uneasy when she sings "I wanna wag for you baby", and the Stooges re­ference ("I wanna be your dog") is way too obvious, but the musical arrangement is just so juicy that I always want to look past the voice, to where those guitars are battling each other (way to go, Chris Stein and session guy Paul Carbonara). On the other hand, when she invites you to go ʽBoom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Roomʼ (the lounge jazz song), the results are once again... nervous, to put it mildly.

But anyway, personal impressions aside, a more objective judgement would say that the music on No Exit, as a rule, is quite good. Without pretending to any particular «innovations» (except on the title track, where they try to fuse Toccata In D Minor with nu-metal and a rap part from Coolio — sounds as bizarre as it reads, yes, but it might get your attention), the tracks, one by one, deliver instrumental and vocal hooks, moods, and textures. And this is not really a «Blon­die In The 1990s» album — it's just a Blonide album, period. A few of the tracks are fillerish, and the cover of the Shangri-La's ʽOut In The Streetsʼ (a song they'd originally recorded as early as 1975, so this is hyper-nostalgia catching up) is also unnecessary, and the grotesque ska pumping of ʽScreaming Skinʼ lasts about two minutes longer than it should, but leave it to Blondie to end the album on a fascinating mix of tribal music, pop melodies, and Eastern psychedelia and make you suspect that this band still «matters», after all these years (ʽDig Up The Conjoʼ — an unsuspected tribute to ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ, perhaps?).

In fact, I would go as far as state that Harry's, Stein's, and Destri's songwriting talents, on the whole, have managed to retain all of their original sharpness — a rare case for a comeback, and the thumbs up rating is only slightly marred by the fact that, well, they are not young any more, yet they still make music predominantly targeted at a young audience, or, perhaps, at their old audi­ence who want to feel themselves as young as the band members do. Nothing illegitimate or immoral about that, just a tiny whiff of routine fakery that I am sure we can all live with. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Blind Guardian: Live

BLIND GUARDIAN: LIVE (2003)

1) War Of Wrath; 2) Into The Storm; 3) Welcome To Dying; 4) Nightfall; 5) The Script For My Requiem; 6) Harvest Of Sorrow; 7) The Soulforged; 8) Valhalla; 9) Majesty; 10) Mordred's Song; 11) Born In A Mourning Hall; 12) Under The Ice; 13) Bright Eyes; 14) Punishment Divine; 15) The Bard's Song; 16) Imaginations From The Other Side; 17) Lost In The Twilight Hall; 18) A Past And Future Secret; 19) Time Stands Still; 20) Journey Through The Dark; 21) Lord Of The Rings; 22) Mirror Mirror.

Tokyo Tales were clearly not enough. Released way back when (at a time when Blind Guardian were still more of a «metal» band than the resplendent kings of musical fantasy), clocking in at a measly 72 minutes, long out of print (in fact, even its original distribution was mostly limited to Japan itself and the band's native Germany)... all in all, no way to reflect the glorious legacy of the most majestic minstrels of Middle-Earth.

So, I guess we all saw this one coming: a mega-arch-sprawling (over 130 minutes of sound!), hyper-poly-bombastic double live album that summarizes all of Blind Guardian's best and worst sides. Actually, since Blind Guardian only really have one side, this makes it their best and worst at the same time — and there is no need to tell you that all of these performances are fairly pre­dic­table, and that the album is mainly for the fans. In fact, it is very much for the fans: in its ar­dor to loyally represent the atmosphere at a Blind Guardian, a large chunk of the content (I'd say, not less than 15-20 minutes out of 130) consists of nothing but audience noises — applause, cheering, chanting, olé-olé-ing, and singing along. Yes, you too will be impressed by the level of adoration these guys hold for Blind Guardian when you will hear them loudly echoing every single word of the Morgoth/Sauron dialog that opens the show over loudspeakers (ʽWar Of Wrathʼ) — "I RE­LEASE THEE, GO! MY SERVANT YOU'LL BE FOR ALL TIME!" Quite staggering publicity for The Silmarillion, in fact.

Naturally, there is also a lot of fan interaction, conducted by Hansi in different languages, since the album was recorded all over the place (Italy, Spain, Germany, Japan again, etc.), which ex­plains why he keeps confusingly switching from Italian to English and then to German for the last big chunk of the show. Other than that, the tracks are tacked together quite coherently — the al­bum does not have a particularly disjointed feel, as some other hastily cobbled together live re­cords sometimes have — but this coherence may, of course, be also explained by the simple fact that... shh... come closer... all the songs sound the same, don't they?

If you feel bad about orchestration on Blind Guardian studio records, you are in for a pleasant treat: other than Michael Schüren on keyboards, the band is on too limited a budget to drag a whole orchestra around the world, which forces them to concentrate more on performing their songs as tight, compact metal anthems. Additionally, back-to-back comparison shows that, in a live setting, Olbrich consistently chooses more shrill, sharp, aggressive lead guitar tones than the comparatively smoother, glossier equivalents in the studio. So I do admit that the sound is, indeed, more «raw» on the stage: for old-school fans who had pretty much given up on Blind Guardian for their betrayal of «metal roots», this can be a stimulating boost to check out the record.

Setlist-wise, only the band's first two albums are side-stepped (with the usual exception of setlist mainstays ʽMajestyʼ and ʽValhallaʼ, respectively) — everything else is represented quite demo­cratically, with no special emphasis on the then-currently-promoted Night At The Opera (for­tunately for us all, since I am still not convinced, even with all the extra rawness, that there is anything worth remembering about ʽPunishment Divineʼ). Of course, they could have easily crammed in two or three extra highlights at the expense of some lengthy periods of crowd noise, but it is quite likely that they included their entire setlist for the tour anyway.

Hansi, now free from his bass-playing duties (Oliver Holzwarth covers those, just as he now does in the studio), is in perfect vocal form throughout, although I would not say that being liberated from the extra weight of bass guitar has significantly improved his ability to stay on key or any­thing — perhaps he had simply decided that proper impersonations of Morgoth, Mordred, and More Morbid Morons come off better when the impersonator is free from the obligation to fiddle about with a musical instrument. (Then again, what kind of an instrument would the real Morgoth have played if he had to choose? Bass guitar seems like the obvious answer). Olbrich, as I said, shines throughout, free to flash his instrument high in the mix whenever he gets the chance, and the rhythm section is expectably impeccable.

All this is enough to hand out a surefire thumbs up rating, despite a few weak songs and these irritatingly long periods of having to listen to all them fans chant "Guar-dian! Guar-dian! Guar-dian!", as if they were a bunch of hungry prison inmates or something. But even that irritation, I guess, is in the line of duty when it comes to «metal royalty» like Blind Guardian.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Bonnie Raitt: Takin' My Time

BONNIE RAITT: TAKIN' MY TIME (1973)

1) You've Been In Love Too Long; 2) I Gave My Love A Candle; 3) Let Me In; 4) Everybody's Crying Mercy; 5) Cry Like A Rainstorm; 6) Wah She Go Do; 7) I Feel The Same; 8) I Thought I Was A Child; 9) Write Me A Few Of Your Lines/Kokomo Blues; 10) Guilty.

Third time's a charm? Actually, all three times had their charm: Takin' My Time is the last piece of the «original Bonnie Raitt trilogy», stylistically and ideologically continuing the old trend and, in some people's opinions, perfecting it to the highest possible degree. (In Bonnie's own opinion, too, as far as I know, although she has her own personal reasons — at the time, she was roman­tically involved with Lowell George of Little Feat, who is also contributing to this record and was even considered for primary producer at one time).

The credit list for this record is even longer than for Give It Up, and involves some stellar players: besides Lowell George and some of the old regulars like Freebo, we have Taj Mahal on guitar, Ernie Watts (mostly known to the layman for his Rolling Stones association in the early 1980s) on sax, both Jim Keltner and Earl Palmer on drums, and even Van Dyke Parks, the creative soul behind the Beach Boys' SMiLe project, on keyboards; as usual, I am not exactly sure who is playing on which of the tracks, but on the whole, Takin' My Time does indeed sound awesome much of the time — as far as «regular» early 1970s roots-rock records with a soft edge go, you would be hard pressed to find anything more tasteful than this.

However, the chief virtue of the album, once again, is its excellent eclecticism and stylistic balance. Although pre-war material is no longer present (unless you technically count the Missis­sippi Fred McDowell cover as «pre-war style», even though Fred himself was a post-war artist), Bonnie's Motown vibe is still active, as is evident from the opening number, a brashly swinging, funky version of Martha and the Vandellas' ʽYou've Been In Love Too Longʼ. To this, she adds a brief flirtation with Pete Townshend's favorite, Mose Allison (ʽEverybody's Crying Mercyʼ, here arranged as a slightly threatening «midnight blues» number with creepy harmonica lines from Taj Mahal); a quick affair with the calypso groove, in the guise of a suitably arrogant and amusing take on Calypso Rose's ʽWah She Go Doʼ; and a rejuvenation of the old fast tempo doo-wop hit ʽLet Me Inʼ, which must have been all the rage when The Sensations first introduced it in 1962, but had, of course, been completely forgotten since.

And these are not «just» covers, mind you — they have all been reworked, in a good way, actual­ly, in different, not always predictable, ways. The Martha and the Vandellas song is seriously funkified, getting an extra snappy edge that the original, fairly formulaic, Motown arrangement never had. The Mose Allison song gets this serious dark boost from the thick bassline and Taj Mahal's harmonica — Bonnie understands the «eerie» vibe of Mr. Allison and does her best to enhance it. As for ʽLet Me Inʼ, this is where she really unlocks her pre-war vaudeville closet, letting out a whole merry brass section to cheer up the speakeasy atmosphere: again, the song gets a whole new layer of meaning that the original never sought.

As for the more contemporary material, a few of the songs unpleasantly point the way to the commercial blandness of albums to come, but this is rather an accidental development: on the other hand, you have stuff like Chris Smither's ʽI Feel The Sameʼ, a «modern blues» with a ter­rific arrangement — particularly the screechy, angry, but tastefully reserved slide guitar lead parts, which I really hope were played by Bonnie herself. Eventually, the song develops into one of those late-night jams, with several acoustic and electric guitars trading gruff short phrases — not exactly Crosby, Stills, & Young level, but fairly comparable if you make the necessary adjust­ments for «soft mode» rather than «hard mode».

So when the album ends with a slightly-more-serious-than-necessary reading of Randy Newman's ʽGuiltyʼ (Bonnie has no chance of preserving the author's sense of irony and deeply ensconced «Jewish sarcasm», but she does good about preserving the world-weary attitude), it's almost like, «yeah, she finally drove her point all the way home»; the point in question, of course, being the ability to come out as conservative (or, rather, «preservationist» in a Kinksy sense of the word) and innovative at the same time — «new skin for the old ceremony», as the title of a certain Leo­nard Cohen album goes. Oh well, I guess it never hurt anybody to have an affair with a guy as classy as Lowell George, but never mind whether this consideration has any impact on the strength of this here thumbs up evaluation. Just enjoy the music while you can, because this would be the last time that it would be so tastefully enjoyable.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Bob Marley: Kaya

BOB MARLEY: KAYA (1978)

1) Easy Skanking; 2) Kaya; 3) Is This Love; 4) Sun Is Shining; 5) Satisfy My Soul; 6) She's Gone; 7) Misty Morning; 8) Crisis; 9) Running Away; 10) Time Will Tell.

Look no further than Kaya for a good argument why records may mean different things when taken on their own and when taken in context. The level on which Kaya works best is the level of contrast with Exodus — the Wailers' most bombastic, exuberant, quasi-messianic statement to date quickly followed up by Marley at his most peaceful and mellow, with nary a single song carrying a sharp political message (with the possible exception of ʽCrisisʼ and ʽTime Will Tellʼ) and most of them simply inviting you to quiet down, relax, share a joint, and strive for inner peace rather than actively pursue the issue of human rights. Well, let's face it, even Moses could have hardly en­dured forty years in the desert without taking a well-deserved break every now and then.

Not only that, but Bob even falls back upon the idea of digging into his past, resuscitating at least two oldies here (the title track and ʽSun Is Shiningʼ), as if he were a bit lazy to come up with a whole album of original tunes — on the other hand, the arrangements are completely different now, so this is not so much laziness as nostalgia, a throwback to the good old days when the Wailers were quite far from embarking on a world-level mission, and were fully content to enjoy the bare necessities and complain in allegory, or, at least, in a hushed voice.

Many people dislike the new arrangements, implying, once again, that the «raw» originals work better. They do have a point — when we compare the original melody of ʽKayaʼ, carried by bass vocal harmonies, with its new incarnation, where the human voice is replaced with a not-too-em­pathetic synthesizer tone, it must be hard on one's conscience to take a stand near the synthesizer rather than the original Wailers. But somehow, when this new production gloss is being sanc­tioned by Bob himself, and when his vocal delivery on the new version is just as life-asserting and uplifting as it used to be, I can easily disregard the lack of rawness, and enjoy Bob in all of his hi-fi rather than lo-fi glory. As for ʽSun Is Shiningʼ, it is given almost three extra minutes to let the groove soak in deeper, and give Junior Marvin enough space to seduce us with his nerve-tingling bluesy licks (many of which he probably lifted from Clapton, but who's complaining?).

As is now usual with Bob, there are no bad songs on the album — repetitive, obsessive vocal hooks are all over the place, Kaya really being a fine pop record, thinly masked as another exer­cise in reggae grooving. ʽIs This Love?ʼ asks the obvious question in the same way in which a melodic, sensitive, romantic Californian singer-songwriter would have asked the same thing. ʽShe's Goneʼ actually has elements of crooning to it — yes, putting a traditional melodic spin on that vocal delivery bit. And on ʽRunning Awayʼ, the singing duties are largely relegated to back vocalists, while Bob moves amusingly close to scat singing, and the entire arrangement pays serious tribute to lite-jazz entertainment.

None of these songs really sweep you off your feet, but together, they combine into a very pretty, very pleasant relaxation package — this is not Bob Marley «losing steam», this is Bob Marley turning down the temperature a bit, wooing you over with his sentimental side, and it goes without saying that he is doing a much better job about it than the average professional crooner with his predictable pathos. However, as I already said, context is key: a whole string of Kaya-like records, had this turned into a mission to cross reggae grooves with sweet sentimentality, would have quickly become routine and unbearable. As it is, this particular dish is really best served after the inspirational, hyper-stimulating main course of Exodus, a sweet, refreshing lull after the big storm, and it is mainly in this context that I give it a certified thumbs up.

P.S. And, just for the record, if you can find a sweeter, more emotionally calming way to sing the line "think you're in heaven but you're really in hell" (ʽTime Will Tellʼ) without losing the seri­ous­ness of this message, let me know. Kaya places its bet to win — even the harshest truths on this record are unequivocally delivered in the soothing-est of possible tones.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Curse Of The Hidden Mirror

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: CURSE OF THE HIDDEN MIRROR (2001)

1) Dance On Stilts; 2) Showtime; 3) The Old Gods Return; 4) Pocket; 5) One Step Ahead Of The Devil; 6) I Just Like To Be Bad; 7) Here Comes That Feeling; 8) Out Of The Darkness; 9) Stone Of Love; 10) Eye Of The Hurricane; 11) Good To Feel Hungry.

This is, fundamentally and spiritually, as close to a legitimate «comeback» as the aging remnants of (Rotten-)Blue Öyster Cult could ever hope to get. Everything, beginning from the title of the record (which echoes Mirrors and just generally sounds like a good title for a BÖC-related some­thing — indeed, it was taken from an old unreleased song going all the way back to 1970), going on to the stylish album cover, and ending with the unexpected return of Meltzer as a lyricist on one of the tracks, just screams that they want to be the real Blue Öyster Cult just this one more time, and make some music that is, if not worthy of their legacy, then at least consistent with that legacy. And in some respects, they succeed.

Where Heaven Forbid made a big point of being loud, heavy, and brutal, this quasi-follow-up is more subtle. The songs still rock, but there is very little stuff here like ʽDamagedʼ or ʽSee You In Blackʼ, because the emphasis tries to be on dark, brooding atmosphere. They continue their asso­ciation with John Shirley, who keeps on supplying them with lyrics that fluctuate between mysti­cism and psychoanalytics, yet the lyrics take second and third place to melodies, harmonies, and dark, cavernous production when it comes to justifying the record's existence. Exciting freshness and instantly gripping melodies are the only things that do not let you forget that this is, after all, «just one of those comebacks», and not a proper follow-up to the band's classic stretch.

Individual missteps are an occasional pest, but they'd always had some of these, even on the best of days, so let us forgive them when, every once in a while, they accidentally slide into bland adult «hard-pop» while trying to pen another sentimental rocker in the vein of ʽBurnin' For Youʼ (ʽHere Comes That Feelingʼ). And let us even disregard the fact that the Meltzer-aided song ʽStone Of Loveʼ begins with the lines "There is a box that I have shown / And in the box / There is a fox that I have known" (swear to God, these are the exact words, and this is the only song I know of that has actually dared to rhyme ʽboxʼ with ʽfoxʼ). Really, none of it matters.

What matters is that the best songs on this record (a) take some getting used to and (b) even when you get used to them, they still sound like songs written and performed by old men, who are really more tired than they let you see, and are way too preoccupied about glancing back at their past, and maybe even idealizing it a little. Is this bad? It certainly ain't unpredictable, and it is much better than it could be — in fact, from that angle, Curse Of The Hidden Mirror is a pretty damn good last word, addressed by BÖC to themselves and their veteran fans. ʽThe Old Gods Returnʼ, all by itself, is a frickin' anthem to the past: Shirley may have written the lyrics about something completely different, but when Bloom sings lead vocals on that song, culminating in a series of ecstatic "forever! forever!"s, and Roeser whips out the ol' axe, there is no doubt who they actually mean under «old gods».

Once the songs do sink in, there are some nice riffs and choruses, though — even if they now seem a bit too dangerously close to other people's: ʽOne Steap Ahead Of The Devilʼ could be easily mistaken for a late-period Aerosmith rocker, with its «glossy-swampy» main blues riff, and the verses of ʽDance On Stiltsʼ sound rather leaden and lumpy, like a Black Crowes song, and I am still trying to figure out what the hell that dancey funky bass figure on ʽGood To Feel Hungryʼ reminded me of. More Aerosmith? Oh well, all the better than emulating «Rambo metal», which they were sometimes guilty of in the past, but not here.

Although Bloom still hasn't lost his caveman growl (I suppose the man is on a steady raw meat diet three times a day, right?), the most pinching moments still come from Buck Dharma — where ʽHere Comes That Feelingʼ fails, the power-pop anthem ʽPocketʼ that could just as well have been done by the Bangles (sorry, couldn't help it) succeeds, with a bit of a heartfelt tug, and if you can distance yourself from the hilariously abysmal words of ʽStone Of Loveʼ, that one, too, is a pretty emotional tune. In fact, now that everything has been laid so bare, it is funny to see Bloom and Roeser so vividly illustrate the two faces of Blue Öyster Cult — the «Alien Nean­derthal» of the former and the «Alien New Romantic» of the latter, happy as the latter occa­sionally is to pour some additional kerosene on the former's bonfire. Their musical faces may have become wrinkled and a tad ugly, but they have not melted away.

Unfortunately, by 2001 most of the veteran fans of the band seem to have faded away, and the young ones were not interested — the album failed, and, consequently, their record label (Sanc­tuary) unflinchingly gave them the boot (ironically, since Sanctuary used to specialize on jaded-faded rock stars of the past), meaning no new attempts at studio production. On the other hand, why unfortunately? Further clones of Curse Of The Hidden Mirror would have been just that (clones), and this record really works much better as The Godfather Part III than as anything that supposedly has a future. It is good that they were able to say goodbye to us in this-a-way, much more fitting than Heaven Forbid or any of those awful Eighties' records — Curse comes full circle, reminding us of the band's original purpose and mission and pretty much saying «mission accomplished, thank you, beddy-bye now». So just a modest thumbs up here to a fitting career conclusion (not too disappointing, not too uplifting), and all in all, it's been a fun ride, despite a few bumps every now and then, particularly on those last circles.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Adolescents: La Vendetta...

ADOLESCENTS: LA VENDETTA... (2014)

1) Monolith At The Mountlake Terrace; 2) A Dish Best Served Cold; 3) Bulletproof; 4) Double Down; 5) Fukushima Lemon Twist; 6) The Last Laugh; 7) 30 Seconds To Malibu; 8) Silent Water; 9) Talking To Myself; 10) Formula 13; 11) Rinse Cycle; 12) Ricochet Heart; 13) Nothing Left To Say; 14) Sludge; 15) Sanctuary & The High Cost Of Misery; 16) Let It Go.

They're speeding up in their old age — only about a year's difference now between Presumed Insolent and its follow-up: sixteen more songs, all of which not only sound completely alike, but also sound completely like the previous thirteen songs. This means that everything from the pre­vious review applies to this album as well, and we might just as well leave it at that, but crappy old blasted «reviewer's honor» demands at least one or two observations off the top of my head (if only to prove that I have actually listened to the record, which I did), so here we go:

— first, with a song like ʽFukushima Lemon Twistʼ they put themselves at serious risk of losing their Japanese audience (do they have a Japanese audience? actually, doesn't everybody have a Japanese audience?); the tune is ostensibly about the misuse and abuse of atomic power, but some sensitive souls with a poor understanding of Tony Cadena's pronunciation might take it the wrong way, and start nostalgizing about the days of Pearl Harbor;

— second, when they slow down the tempo for the first time on ʽSilent Waterʼ, it seriously helps: against the usual background, its unhurrying lead guitar growl and transition from verse to chorus are positively memorable and emotionally impressive. Just add better production that does not reduce the rhythm guitar to concrete fodder, and you get yourself a humble retro-classic;

— third, the same principle miraculously works on the album's second slow song, appropriately titled ʽSludgeʼ, where there is a really cool «guitar thunderbolt» thrown in during each chorus, and it makes me think the sacrilegious thought that, perhaps, the thing that most roughly prevents these late period Adolescents albums from being good is speed as such;

— fourth, it took me way more time to think of these three than this album deserves, so I am going to end this right here with a rigorous thumbs down, much as I respect the religious dedi­cation of the band and even enjoy their overall sound as cool background muzak.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Blur: The Great Escape

BLUR: THE GREAT ESCAPE (1995)

1) Stereotypes; 2) Country House; 3) Best Days; 4) Charmless Man; 5) Fade Away; 6) Top Man; 7) The Universal; 8) Mr. Robinson's Quango; 9) He Thought Of Cars; 10) It Could Be You; 11) Ernold Same; 12) Globe Alone; 13) Dan Abnormal; 14) Entertain Me; 15) Yuko & Hiro.

Sometimes Englishmen blame themselves a bit too much for being Englishmen, which might look downright odd to an outsider. In early 1967, Mick Jagger made Between The Buttons, an album largely influenced by the Kinks, delving into pure pop, music hall, and stereotypical por­trayals of London society — of which, in less than two years, he deeply repented, and shifted his focus once again to faraway American influences, with good, but very different, results. No mat­ter how many Stones fans keep demonstrating their love for that record, he still won't budge about performing its songs live. He really be ol' Delta bluesman, see.

Fast forward almost twenty years, and Blur hammers out The Great Escape, their most quint­essentially «English-esque» album to-date. Unlike the Rolling Stones, Blur already had been tightly associated with the Britpop revival, so you'd probably expect the band to be deeply satis­fied with the results. But no — Damon Albarn told everybody that it was «messy», and in less than two years, Blur would shift their focus to... faraway American influences. No matter how many Blur fans kept demonstrating their love for that record, Albarn still won't budge about per­forming its songs live (except maybe ʽThe Universalʼ). He really be hip-cool American indie rocker, see. Not to be stereotyped, no.

Of course, the band has some tough memories to shed about the record — released at the climax of the ridiculous «battle of the bands» between Oasis and Blur, which was really little more than a clever marketing strategy, designed to heat up interest in both groups, but some of the punches were real, and when The Great Escape lost in popularity and recognition to Oasis' Morning Glory (which does not mean that it was not popular on its own — it broke all the way to the top of the charts, and Blur still won the «singles battle» with ʽCountry Houseʼ), the band emerged from this somewhat depressed and feeling the need for a big change.

But really, we do not need to know all that history, do we? Twenty years on, The Great Escape, cleansed from its silly marketologist context, re-emerges simply as another fine collection of oh-so-British songs, engineered by a bunch of snub-nosed, delightfully evil, er, I mean, ironic kids with a great knack for powerful hooks, if not necessarily for masterful psychological insights. Let's face it, for all of Albarn's lyrical trickery, the words of songs like ʽCharmless Manʼ or ʽStereotypesʼ sound a bit silly — he is portraying caricatures, not real people — then again, that is the way of artistic licence, all the way from Charles Dickens to Ray Davies and then way be­yond the British Isles, too. Anyway, we are not here for the words.

Instead, we are here to admire the sheer craftsmanship in a song like ʽStereotypesʼ, which, to my ears, contains the most kick-ass intro on a Blur record ever (and Blur are quite the masters of the kick-ass intro) — Coxon's opening two-chord bang is like a stone smashing through your living-room window, soon followed by a steady hail of similar ones as the rest of the band joins in, and Albarn's even-intoned "the suburbs they are dreaming they're a twinkle in her eye..." sounds even more arrogantly poised than his opening lines on ʽGirls & Boysʼ. The entire song, guitars, key­boards, vocals, drums even, is just one big friggin' sneer at people who believe that "there must be more to life than stereotypes" (or at people who do not believe that, whatever), and although there are, of course, musically far more heavy songs in the Blur catalog, few match the sheer vitriolity of ʽStereotypesʼ, which might explain, of course, why the band, in their stadium age, has preferred not to perform it any more.

A few tracks down the line, they almost repeat the same formula with ʽCharmless Manʼ. By now, Blur know their la-la-las and na-na-nas well enough to know how much they matter in tying a certain song to your brain, but I think that the biggest melodic accomplishment of the song is still its rather tricky chorus, with the necessity of switching to and back from falsetto in one-syllable turns, and the climactic buildup towards the resolution, which then cascades away into the na-na-nas. The message here is utterly insignificant in light of the form — this is really pop mastery of the highest order, far higher, in my opinion, than anything Oasis ever had to offer. And then there is that same cockiness, of course, and all those mockney diphthongs employed in the pro­nun­ciation of the word «Beaujolais» — irritating to some, perversely charming to others.

There's lots more stuff like that on The Great Escape, even if most of the other «character-driven» songs do not seem to quite reach the same level of sharpness. ʽCountry Houseʼ, the big hit single, is, of course, immaculate, with its slightly off-beat, drunken, carnivalesque attitude. ʽTop Manʼ has those deep gravelly backing vocals (as if a bunch of Tibetan monks suddenly opted for British citizenship), and the echoes and the whistles and the mock-paranoia. Somewhat worse, ʽDan Abnormalʼ, describing either a random victim of the TV virus or Damon Albarn him­self (the title is an anagram), or Damon Albarn himself as a random victim, is written in the psycho-cool electric pop style of Revolver, and once again channels our attention through (somewhat less distinctive) na-na-nahs. Even more worsier, ʽMr. Robinson's Quangoʼ condemns big bosses in a rather mish-mashy, non-descript manner, with lots of punch but little in the way of actual hooks (with its rapid melodic changes, trumpets and jazzy keyboard parts, it seems more influenced by Zappa than the Kinks or the Beatles, but why should this band be influenced by Zappa in the first place?).

Thus we smoothly make the transition from admiration into the gray zone — truth of the matter is, The Great Escape, like most Blur albums, is just too damn long, and could easily have four or five songs hacked off for integrity's sake. I will not publish my ideal track list and/or sequencing here, but will simply note that the album, on the whole, gets more and more boring as it progres­ses, with a particularly sharp quality drop-off after ʽThe Universalʼ. Blame it on the 1990s and their drive for «CD-length» records, but it's not as if these records can shed off the extra weight all by themselves in the iCloud era — you will still have to do the trimming on your own.

Fortunately, there is still some stylistic diversity. ʽBest Daysʼ is a beautiful melancholic ballad, with a slightly late-night jazzy feel at first, later resolving into the album's most emotionally com­plex chorus (love, pity, and irony all meshed in one as Albarn warns that "other people wouldn't like to hear you if you said that these are the best days of our lives"). ʽThe Universalʼ, not really a personal favorite of mine, is still rightfully admired for its epic character — this is Blur at their most «progressive», with symphonic orchestration, glorious choirs, far-reaching lyrics, and a grand climax that, once it is over, gives the impression of having just resolved all the most im­portant problems of the universe, so it is a little weird that there are eight more songs after that. It should have certainly replaced ʽYuko & Hiroʼ as the last track, or, at least, should have been placed right before ʽYuko & Hiroʼ — the latter, with its humble homebrewn pseudo-Japanese charm, would then have functioned as a complementary «piccolo finale» after the «gran finale», like a ʽHer Majestyʼ or something.

In any case, I can never really decide about which Blur album is better than others, because they all have their great moments and their share of filler, obligatory by some unwritten Blur law, so in the end, this is just another big thumbs up with certain reservations. People sometimes oppose Parklife as «the happy, upbeat Britpop album» to Great Escape as «the vitriolic, disconsolate Britpop album», but this is a gross simplification: Blur are not a «radiant» band by definition, and even their happiest songs are infused with gall, if you peer sharply enough. Okay, so I guess there are more songs here about loneliness than on Parklife, but that's all relative.

Perhaps the barbs are a little sharper and a little more poisonous here — this is merely a matter of nuance; anyway, I am not really interested in Albarn and Coxon so much for their skills at social comment as I am interested in their songwriting, and from that point of view, The Great Escape is every bit as consistent (and every bit as sometimes inconsistent) as Parklife in peppering you with cool, sti­mulating «Britpop hooks», whatever that might ever mean in musical terms. Only the album title is incomprehensible — where is the escape in question? Who is escaping, and whatever from? If we are to take the «loneliness album» judgement at face value, No Escape would have made more sense.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Blondie: The Hunter

BLONDIE: THE HUNTER (1982)

1) Orchid Club; 2) Island Of Lost Souls; 3) Dragonfly; 4) For Your Eyes Only; 5) The Beast; 6) War Child; 7) Little Caesar; 8) Danceway; 9) (Can I) Find The Right Words (To Say); 10) English Boys; 11) The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game.

Blondie's last album (before the reunion) continuously gets a very bad rap from fans and critics alike, and I am pretty sure that a lot of this has to do with Debbie's wig on the front cover (yes, please relax, that is not real hair, she would'nt have had enough time to grow so much since the cover of Autoamerican) — everything about that front cover screams Eighties, and then so does the music, and not altogether in a good way, you understand.

Objectivity seems to be on the fans' and critics' side, too: nobody wanted all that much to do the album, plagued as the band was with all sorts of personal troubles (not the least of which were Chris Stein's health problems), but they were still contractually obligated to get one more record out to Chrysalis, so, almost over their dead bodies, they had to get back to the studio, summon Mike Chapman to the rescue, and deliver something as «contemporary» and «relevant» as that trashy collective sci-fi look on the front sleeve.

On its own, The Hunter is indeed rather disastrous. Too many synthesizers, too much modernis­tic production, too many moments of meandering mushiness weighted against too few song­writing ideas. In the context of Blondie's usual output, it looks even worse — the more you think about this being the same band that did ʽOne Way Or Anotherʼ or ʽDreamingʼ just a few years ago, the easier that old cliché about the fall of the once mighty springs to mind. However, in the context of «Blondie's age curve» — the childhood of Blondie, the adolescence of Plastic Letters, the glorious youth of Parallel Lines, the ripe maturity of Eat To The Beat, the woe-from-wit old age premonitions of Autoamerican — the last record logically corresponds to respectable seni­lity, with a pessimistic nudge to it, and that is exactly the kind of expectation I have for it, and I am not at all being disappointed.

The Hunter is a moody, dark, dense album, with a bit of a «sonic jungle» feel to it, and a very natural one — you can easily tell things were not well, and there are no songs here that would try and mask this, presenting the band as something that they were not, at the time. One possible exception is ʽIsland Of Lost Soulsʼ, a superficially «happy» calypso dance tune that was released as a single, because, you know, it's frickin' Blondie, they need a «happy» single for all the happy people out there. Never mind that on the cover of the single they look just as gloomy and depres­sed as on the cover of the album (and Debbie sports a different wig), the single has to appeal to the average idiot dancer, whatever the problems. If you read deeply into the lyrics, you will see that they represent a troubled state of mind ("In Babylon / On the boulevard of broken dreams / My will power at the lowest ebb..."), but that percussion and that friendly brass section and the rambunctious whoop-whooping, that'll get you going anyway.

Outside of that, though, it is one picture of nightmarish decadence or anti-utopian futurism after another. On ʽOrchid Clubʼ, Debbie is cooing "where are you, where are you?" from under a dense thicket of tribal percussion, church-organ-imitating synthesizers, and groaning Fripp-style guitars; this is the first time we see the band so deeply depressed. ʽDragonflyʼ is a New Romantic-era epic rocker about some sort of futuristic drag race, with some clever guitar interplay between Chris Stein and Frank Infante as they impersonate the sci-fi racers, although the song is quite clearly stretched way beyond rational limits. And ʽFor Your Eyes Onlyʼ, following in the steps of Alice Cooper's ʽMan With The Golden Gunʼ, joins the league of «Bond Themes Rejected for Being Too Scary for the Average Idiot Viewer /Courtesy of Motion Picture Association's Opinion/» — not that it is very scary or anything, but its life-defying moody arrogance and lack of lyrical trans­parency do make it a rather suspicious choice for inclusion in the Bond spectacle.

All these songs really have their moments, but the two definite highlights on the album are ʽWar­childʼ and ʽEnglish Boysʼ — autobiographical tunes that might have felt more at home on any of Harry's solo albums, but ultimately, who cares? ʽEnglish Boysʼ, a nostalgic mind trip back into Debbie's adolescence, is simple, sweet, and tender, with a totally endearing chorus ("does it feel the same to you?..." is Debbie at her most seductively sentimental), whereas ʽWar Childʼ, pinned to a futuristic synth loop and electropop dance groove, turns to anger and self-defense as its basic emotional undercurrent — "I'm a war child, I'm a war baby / And that's the difference between you and me", as performed by the 1945-born Debbie Harry, sounds as authentic as it could have sounded in any type of heated argument between the protagonist and her imaginary antagonists (including, as the lyrics unflinchingly suggest, fans of the Khmer Rouge and «PLO lovers courting after the curfew» who «have the West Bank blues» — oh, what is this, rightist senti­ments in one of America's most progressive bands? crucify 'em!).

Additionally, the album ends on a moodier-than-moodiness-itself cover version of the Marve­lettes' ʽThe Hunter Gets Captured By The Gameʼ — as Blondie's final song for the next two de­cades, I'd like, of course, to take it double-metaphorically, reflecting not merely the imaginary story of a vamp falling in love with her victim, but the whole story of Blondie, a band catapulted by fate into an unlikely whirlwind of commercial success and public acclaim, and ultimately de­stroyed by their very own fortune. Maybe they had that additional meaning, too, which is why the song sounds so sad and poignant, clearly more important here to Debbie than it ever was for the Marvelettes themselves, or Smokey Robinson, who never dreamed about any such third layer of semantics when he wrote it.

Of course, there are throwaway songs here as well, like ʽThe Beastʼ or ʽDancewayʼ, of which I cannot tell you anything interesting, except that they, too, good or bad, are permeated with a sense of dreariness, tiredness, and uncertainty of where to go from here. This «dark gray» atmo­sphere, best correlated with some ugly late autumnal panorama of dirty skies and sickly slushy rain, is, I think, what turns people off this record even more than its lack of quality melodies. But in reality this musical ugliness has every reason to exist alongside the colorful rainbows of Blon­die's past — in fact, has a somewhat perversely thrilling reason to exist that-a-way — and there are still enough quality melodies here to guarantee a low, but honest thumbs up from me, im­plying that the original Blondie were so talented that they never really made a bad record per se, they just made a final one that seriously smells of antidepressants. And do not even try judging it objectively before you hit your midlife crisis or something like that.