Search This Blog

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bon Jovi: 7800° Fahrenheit

BON JOVI: 7800° FAHRENHEIT (1985)

1) In And Out Of Love; 2) Price Of Love; 3) Only Lonely; 4) King Of The Mountain; 5) Silent Night; 6) Tokyo Road; 7) The Hardest Part Is The Night; 8) Always Run To You; 9) (I Don't Wanna Fall) To The Fire; 10) Secret Dreams.

IN AND OUT OF LOVE!

IN AND OUT OF LOVE!

IN AND OUT OF LOVE!

IN AND OUT OF LOVE!

This here is, like, one of the most blatant uses of the word «love» as a metonymical euphemism for «snatch», which is itself a euphemism for... oh, never mind. Anyway, it's sort of reassuring to know that on their second album, the boys from Bon Jovi are feeling more and more at home with the next stage of sexual revolution (i. e. the infamous Eighties progression from «fuck your part­ner in the name of peace, love, and understanding» to «fuck everything that moves in the name of GOING WILD!»). If the first song on the first album (ʽRunawayʼ) was a Serious Social State­ment on parent-offspring relationships, then the first song on the second album has the prota­gonist getting to business with the little runaway in question — "she's here to make my night complete". From ʽShe's Leaving Homeʼ to ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ in a jiffy.

The bad news is that Bon Jovi as a dick-waving band are just about as unimpressive as they are in their «serious message carrier» capacity. ʽIn And Out Of Loveʼ never evolves much beyond its opening lines, or even simply beyond the five syllables of its title, a dumb hook so blatantly ob­vious that I cannot even understand where they nicked it from — probably most other songwriters were just too ashamed to make something that simple into the be-all-end-all for a pop song (and even record buyers were sort of bashful about taking it to the top of the charts). And even so, it is arguably the best song on the album.

In a bout of bad news, 7800° Fahrenheit adds power ballads to the Bon Jovi setlist: ʽSilent Nightʼ, thoroughly soaked in power chords and keyboards, slows down the tempo and shifts the balance from «muscle» to «sentimentality»: an anthem to lost love that puts forward Jon Bon Jovi's vocals as the major point of attraction. While we are on it, I do have to admit that I'd rather have Jon's «street-wise», hushed, slightly croaky troubadour pipes than the mock-operatic postu­ring of power-pop-metal singers like Glenn Hughes or Dave Coverdale — meaning that even a song like ʽSilent Nightʼ would rather be described as «pointless» and «boring» rather than «utterly disgusting» and «intolerable». And, for that matter, I find Richie Sambora's guitar tone and approach to the construction of the solo on that song somewhat interesting — not altogether predictable as far as «power solos» go. But none of that justifies the very fact that, whatever «integrity» Bon Jovi had with their first album, with ʽSilent Nightʼ they have compromised it, once and for all — and now there is no turning back.

Besides ʽSilent Nightʼ, «muscular sentimentality» also ruins ʽOnly Lonelyʼ, ʽThe Hardest Part Is The Nightʼ, and ʽSecret Dreamsʼ, even though their tempos are quicker and the I'm-the-loneliest-guy-in-the-world vocals are not so totally upstaging everything else — not that there's much of anything else, just the same uninteresting riffs and predictable bluesy solos. Of the other tracks, ʽKing Of The Mountainʼ and ʽTokyo Roadʼ are the only ones worth some mention — ʽTokyo Roadʼ is at least unusual in its selection of a quote from a Japanese folk song for the introduction, while ʽKing Of The Mountainʼ is so ridiculously bulgy and sludgy that it stands out for that very reason, with all of its heavily accentuated beats. But yet again, «standing out» does not neces­sarily make a good song.

According to reports, the band itself was dissatisfied with the final results, and used that dis­satisfaction as a pretext to break up with its original producer Lance Quinn. Other than a heavier dependence on keyboards, though, I do not hear that much crucial difference between this style and Slippery When Wet — why this album was a relative flop where its successor would be a mega-million-seller remains a bit of a mystery to me. Perhaps it was due to the general dete­rioration of public taste that reached its apogee in 1986. Or perhaps it was due to the use of the talk box. Yeah, that must be it, it's all about the talk box. A little pig grunting on a hard rock track can work wonders — just ask Peter Frampton. Thumbs down, by the way.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Boo Radleys: Ichabod And I

THE BOO RADLEYS: ICHABOD AND I (1990)

1) Eleanor Everything; 2) Bodenheim Jr.; 3) Catweazle; 4) Sweet Salad Birth; 5) Hip Clown Rag; 6) Walking 5th Carnival; 7) Kaleidoscope; 8) Happens To Us All.

Listening to and looking at the Boo Radleys' not-too-promising debut album — shorter than half an hour and only ever released in LP format — one can hardly get rid of the feeling that these well-meaning English lads are far more literate than they are talented. Quite possibly, some kid, or maybe several kids, may have looked at the album cover and asked themselves the question: «What is a Boo Radley?» and «What the heck is an ichabod?» and consequently discover Harper Lee and Washington Irving. (Nothing wrong about a little idealistic dreaming! and I am not be­ing condescending here — hell, I should probably confess that I had no idea who was Bodenheim before stumbling upon the second track here, either).

The songs, however, do not offer much of interest, and the band themselves have tagged these 28 minutes as a purely formative stage, way too much influenced by contemporary noise and grunge bands to have anything close to its own identity. Lo-fi, overloud, and looking as if most of the melodies were thrown together in about two minutes each, Ichabod And I simply does not stand a chance against... well, anything, but most importantly, it explores the same territory that was already thoroughly explored by My Bloody Valentine on their debut and would be explored even more thoroughly on Loveless next year — namely, the idea of marrying «dirt» with «beauty» and turning them into an unseparable Holy Duality where one does not exist without the other.

The idea of combining tenderly lyrical «flower power» vocals of Sice Rowbottom with the jar­ring, crushing guitar drone of Martin Carr is not at all original, but it could work — provided they had discovered how to make the experience memorable, or at least engineered the right balance between these two extremes in the studio. The latter task is tremendously hard (and constitutes, for instance, my biggest issue with the already mentioned Loveless), but it doesn't seem as if they even began worrying about it. The guitars simply stomp in, killing everything that moves (ʽEleanor Everythingʼ and ʽHappens To Us Allʼ, bookmarking the record, are extreme examples of this approach), and the vocals are buried so deep that, by the time you have finally dug them out, your shovels will be dented and your interest dissipated. It does not help that the guitars do not play any interesting melodies and are, at best, sloppified variations on classic Black Sabbath riffs (e.g. ʽBodenheim Jr.ʼ = ʽAfter Foreverʼ, much tortured and disfigured).

Even if the song starts out with a nice little Sixties-style jangle-pop riff (ʽCatweazleʼ), within a matter of seconds it gets drowned in sludge; only ʽWalking 5th Carnivalʼ escapes this cruel fate by reaching a compromise — there will be a nasty-sounding, but distinctive wah-wah riff here, as well as several acoustic-based sections, apart from the regular distorted stuff; ironically, it is also the song with the most boring vocal part on the album...

To put it bluntly, Ichabod And I largely sucks, and the band's decision to bury it right there in Sleepy Hollow is understandable. Now that the era of the Holy Download is upon us, it is not a big problem to bring back the ghost, but there is really no need to hunt for this obscurity unless you happen to be a really big fan of the band and have a scientific interest in their roots. Well, this is one of those «roots-obsessed» high school-level debuts that deserves all the severity of a thumbs down; fortunately, the band's CD-era output would soon prove that the Boo Radleys were ready to work hard on their image, until that whole «scary on the outside / beautiful on the inside» thing actually became real.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boards Of Canada: Music Has The Right To Children

BOARDS OF CANADA: MUSIC HAS THE RIGHT TO CHILDREN (1998)

1) Wildlife Analysis; 2) An Eagle In Your Mind; 3) The Color Of The Fire; 4) Telephasic Workshop; 5) Triangles & Rhombuses; 6) Sixtyten; 7) Turquoise Hexagon Sun; 8) Kaini Industries; 9) Bocuma; 10) Roygbiv; 11) Rue The Whirl; 12) Aquarius; 13) Olson; 14) Pete Standing Alone; 15) Smokes Quantity; 16) Open The Light; 17) One Very Important Thought.

The title of Boards Of Canada's first full-length LP, finally released on a major label and soon made famous around the world, is not just a clever twist of phrase, as is the case with so many «experimental» releases — indeed, this is an electronic concept album, revolving around the idea of child­hood and even actual children, plenty of whom are captured here in field recordings and exploited for sinister Scottish purposes. Ambient synthesizers + soft dance grooves + kid vocal samples = Major Breakthrough in Modern Art, or something of that sort, as most fans and critics will be happy to tell you.

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to share the exuberant joy (of which there is much — I have seen plenty of reactions from people who declare Music... or its follow-up to be the best electro­nic album ever recorded, or, at least, their absolute personal favorite). The problems that were already evident with Twoism remain here exactly the way they were — spicing the grooves up with field samples does little in the way of making them more meaningful or aurally impressive. The landscape is still dominated by soft, inobtrusive, repetitive loops, sometimes reasonably short but often going on for 5-6 minutes without much in the way of development — and they aren't even «beautiful» loops, they seem more like «trance-inducing» loops, but most of the time they just put me to sleep (if I try to concentrate on them) or flush by unnoticed (if I do not).

In terms of musical innovation, I have not been able to spot anything that would make the re­cord seem «progressive» compared to Aphex Twin or Autechre or late-period Eno — sure, the bro­thers make their own loops and mix in their own samples, and sometimes they are pretty, but other than this vaguely original idea of making «static, paysage-ly ambient music that you can dance to» (and not all ideas of this kind are necessarily supposed to work — just look at Vanessa Mae putting technobeats on Vivaldi), the «theoretical» achievements of Boards of Canada are nothing much to write home about.

In terms of the «who cares for innovation when the music's so great?» line of thought, I just do not find the music so great. It is uniformly pleasant and almost never irritating (already a big plus for an experimental electronic release), but Michael and Marcus are not minimalist geniuses like Eno, and even when they declare open season on «beauty», with tracks like ʽOpen The Lightʼ whose several keyboard layers strive to create an «angelic» atmosphere, it still sounds more like a brain-manipulator gadget than a thing of sheer sensual purity.

On the other hand, we must also admit the possibility that it is that very quality — the fact that the band rejects «excesses», «build-ups», «prominent hooks», «cathartic moments» — which gives Music... its own advantage. If their aim was to construct a maximally relastic soundscape, they may well have fulfilled it to the max. Let's face it, if you find yourself walking through a snowy forest at night, or crossing some cooled-off desert sands, or floating on an iceberg through the Arctic ocean, most of the time (when you are not pursued by hailstorms, getting bitten by un­expectedly awakened rattlesnakes, or drowning in a storm) things are going to be fairly calm, uneventful, boring, and not particularly cathartic or epiphanic, despite all of nature's beauty. Same stuff here — ʽAn Eagle In Your Mindʼ simply moves from one icy synth tone to another, as the beats snort and scuffle around like a pack of busy rodents. As one reviewer wrote about the track's basic emotion, it's "somewhere on the border between anxiety, happiness, control, and evil" — even if I were to agree, it is precisely this border thing that makes it a little bit of every­thing, but not enough of anything. If this is a conscious artistic stance, I can understand it, but I cannot understand how it can make for great art. Not this way, at least.

I do like some of their sampling ideas — probably the most memorable track on the entire album for me was ʽThe Color Of The Fireʼ, where they take what seems to be a sample of a little kid diligently trying to spell out the phrase "I love you" and distort it in psychedelic fashion, while a set of chiming overdubs further enhances the «magic» aura of the proceedings. For some reason, this turns out to be quite charming and endearing: some have found the experience disturbing and frightening (because the treated voices sound like ghosts?), but I think it takes an intellectual leap to come to that conclusion — no matter how much you distort an originally natural vocal, it won't really sound frightening unless its intent was to frighten you in the first place. In any case, it is a pity that only a very small portion of the record is given over to that sort of experimentation, although, of course, much more of that would turn it into a pure performance act rather than a musical offering.

I have most likely missed out on some of the intended meanings behind these tracks — it's always easy to catch up on these by reading interviews with the brothers — but it is unlikely that any «explanation» will influence anybody's amount of love for the record. Likewise, it is easy to recognize the sheer amount of work that went into its construction (for instance, the tricky rhythms of ʽTelephasic Workshopʼ, combined from all sorts of natural sounds, including finger-poppin' and voice bits), but if the work does not translate into an instinctive marvel-for-the-senses effect, that work is simply wasted, period. My final judgement is that it's all okay, but the «special» status that this record is endowed with among so many fans remains incomprehensible; give me some Massive Attack over this stuff any time of day.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Bonnie Raitt: Green Light

BONNIE RAITT: GREEN LIGHT (1982)

1) Keep This Heart In Mind; 2) River Of Tears; 3) Can't Get Enough; 4) Willya Wontcha; 5) Let's Keep It Between Us; 6) Me And The Boys; 7) I Can't Help Myself; 8) Baby Come Back; 9) Talk To Me; 10) Green Lights.

Another interesting change of pace here — reflecting the end of the Seventies and, in a way, the end of the singer-songwriter era, Green Light is a simple, ballsy, and ever so slightly New Wave-influenced rock'n'roll album. Once again, the entire songwriting and recording team has been shifted. The new producer is Rob Fraboni, best known for working on various roots-rock projects of the previous decade (such as The Band's Last Waltz and Eric Clapton's No Reason To Cry; not coincidentally, The Band's own Richard Manuel gets credited in the liner notes for background vocals), and the most notorious instrumentalist on the album is Faces' veteran Ian McLagan, who, I think, is chiefly responsible for the somewhat nonchalant, barroom-boogie attitude that rules on Green Light.

For all of Bonnie's «excesses» of that era, brought about by heavy drinking, and for all of her desire to let it all hang down for a bit, the record is still quite reserved and delicately polished — no use expecting sloppiness or high levels of distortion and fuzz from the lady. However, as you can easily see from the title track, she is not above allowing modern production techniques (in­cluding a little bit of electronic treatment), so that today, ʽGreen Lightsʼ is quite easily datable back to the early 1980s. This is not a problem, though — the whole album pretends to little more than casual lightweight entertainment, for which aims the production is adequate.

There are almost no ballads on the album: the closest thing is probably ʽRiver Of Tearsʼ, contri­buted by long-term partner Eric Kaz, but even that song's melodic base is blues-rockish — in fact, the opening guitar lines sound like they were lifted directly off some alternate version of ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ, open G-tuning and all; it is only the overall broken-hearted sentimentality of the lyrics and the slight whiff of angry tragedy in Raitt's vocals that would allow to classify the song as a «heartstring-puller», if there were any need for such a classification. Everything else just ranges from straightahead rock'n'roll to dynamic Motown-style R&B (ʽI Can't Help Myselfʼ).

Interestingly, one of the exceptions from that formula, ʽLet's Keep It Between Usʼ is a Bob Dylan reject that he occasionally performed in concert but never recorded in the studio — no idea if he could be able to flesh it out into some­thing more exciting than the slow 12-bar blues on this album, but before I took a look at the liner notes, I had not the smallest inkling to associate the song with Bob: clearly, Bonnie is much better at capturing the spirit of pre-war black female blues singers than nailing the Zimmerman essence (it may be a good thing, after all, that they never got her involved in the 30th anniversary show in 1992 even if, on the surface, she'd make a far more natural choice than Sinead O'Connor). It's just boring.

The speedy numbers, though, like ʽMe And The Boysʼ or ʽTalk To Meʼ, are catchy, harmless fun. Curiously, ʽTalk To Meʼ, opening with a couple of chords nicked from Blondie's ʽOne Way Or Anotherʼ and then quickly turning into a «post-disco dance-rock» number, was written by Jerry Lynn Williams, the same guy who wrote hit songs for Clapton in the mid-1980s (ʽForever Manʼ, ʽPretendingʼ, ʽRunning On Faithʼ — the latter one was actually quite good), but ʽTalk To Meʼ sounds most closely to the one song that Williams did not write for Clapton, namely, ʽTearing Us Apartʼ, from which I conclude that Williams not only wrote songs for Clapton, but also inspired Clapton to write songs in the style of Williams. It's a pretty complicated network out there in the world of show-biz, as you can tell.

Considering that the band behind Bonnie's back is competent and tasteful, and that Bonnie's own vocal style is perfectly compatible with barroom rock (strictly reserved to those barrooms that do not let their clients throw up on the counter and pass out on the floor), I have no problems about a friendly thumbs up for the album, despite its expectable problems — the four lines from ʽMe And The Boysʼ pretty much sum up everything about what's right and what's wrong here: "Me and my buddies just like to go / We'll have fun, everybody knows / We don't fuss and we never cry / We just groove, taking in the sights". No fuss and no crying, indeed. Very cautious groove, too, but some new sights are definitely taken in. And — no doubt about it — any relations with the boys are restricted to the purely platonic sphere. But then, you don't always have to imitate Lemmy in order to play good rock'n'roll.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Bob Marley: Talkin' Blues

BOB MARLEY: TALKIN' BLUES (1973-75/1991)

1) Talkin'; 2) Talkin' Blues; 3) Talkin'; 4) Burnin' And Lootin'; 5) Talkin'; 6) Kinky Reggae; 7) Get Up Stand Up; 8) Talkin'; 9) Slave Driver; 10) Talkin'; 11) Walk The Proud Land; 12) Talkin'; 13) You Can't Blame The Youth; 14) Talkin'; 15) Rastaman Chant; 16) Talkin'; 17) Am-A-Do; 18) Talkin'; 19) Bend Down Low; 20) Talkin'; 21) I Shot The Sheriff.

Although the format of this album is rather strange, yet in a way, Talkin' Blues may be the most important live record by the Wailers ever put out. Essentially, this is the complete or near-com­plete show that the band played for a San Francisco radio station on October 31, 1973, with the original lineup still in place — interspersed with cut-up segments of an interview that Bob recorded for Jamaican radio in 1975, and throwing on, as a bonus, some alternate studio cuts and a lengthy, bombastic performance of ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ from a London show, also in 1975: not a trivial way of sequencing your data, by any means.

The interview bits are a tough nut for anyone not used to Jamaican English — about 70% of the time I have absolutely no idea what the man is saying, although you can generally guess the topics (music, spirituality, communication with people, relationships with Peter Tosh, etc.) and then you probably have some vague idea about what is being said even without making out the particular words. Not that any of it is particularly important — in fact, I'd say that the very sound of Marley's voice earns him far more sympathy and admiration than whatever semantic content is concealed in that sound. Like most modern-day «prophets», he was never particularly deep or innovative in his message, and as for the deep meaning of his music, well, I'd always prefer to somehow infer it from the music on my own than strain myself to understand his verbal explana­tion. But hey, at least these spoken bits substantiate the «punny» album title.

The performances are an entirely different matter. These are the young Wailers here, unspoiled by fame or fortune, still earning their «musical Messiah» credentials, captured live in the studio in pristine sound quality, not having to toy or fool around with their audiences, but having some­thing to prove in the way of musicianship. As they launch into ʽBurnin' And Lootin'ʼ, the degree of internal coordination between all five involved musicians is awesome — they are already way past the «minimalistic» Lee Perry stage, when the bass was all that really mattered, but quite far away from the stage when the music began to matter less than the Exultation / Exorcism ritual. All of these performances, without exception, are at least as good as their studio analogs, and sometimes may be even better — for instance, the guitar duet on ʽGet Up, Stand Upʼ is much more lively (extra scratch, bark, and snap) than it was in the studio.

For those who want something more than a set of alternate versions, no matter how flawlessly executed, there are also some rarities — including Tosh's ʽYou Can't Blame The Youthʼ, a song that is quite questionable as to its lyrical content (all reservations applied, Christopher Columbus was a very great man, and so was Marco Polo — not so sure about the pirates Hawkins and Morgan — and this is just not a very convincing example of why the elders, rather than the youth, are to be blamed for current problems, even if they really are), but quite admirable by way of its basic groove and lively workin'-team harmonies. The previously unreleased outtake ʽAm-A-Doʼ is nothing too special, but any outtake from Marley's most important period is... important? Whatever be the case, you will not leave here empty-handed.

To be fair, the talking and singing are actually integrated rather than interspersed randomly. For instance, at one point they have a short conversation with the interviewer about Bob's playing the flute, and this is followed by an alternate take of ʽBend Down Lowʼ that does indeed have a flute lead scattered all over the place — never made it to the final runthrough, and it is somewhat of a pity, since the extra touch of pastoral tenderness is quite appropriate. But in the end, it really does not matter — if the talking bugs you, it is extremely simple just to edit it out and still have a re­spectably lengthy live album, worthy of an assured thumbs up. For obvious reasons, Talkin' Blues will never be anybody's first choice for a live Marley album (the man is too strongly asso­ciated with the «shepherd-and-the-flock» imagery to make one believe to try him out first in a radio studio environment), but that's alright as long as you do not forget about its existence: an essential acquirement, really.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Bonzo Dog Band: Keynsham

THE BONZO DOG BAND: KEYNSHAM (1969)

1) You Done My Brain In; 2) Keynsham; 3) Quiet Talks And Summer Walks; 4) Tent; 5) We Were Wrong; 6) Joke Shop Man; 7) The Bride Stripped Bare By 'Bachelors'; 8) Look At Me, I'm Wonderful; 9) What Do You Do?; 10) Mr. Slater's Parrot; 11) Sport (The Odd Boy); 12) I Want To Be With You; 13) Noises For The Leg; 14) Busted.

You can use Wikipedia or a million other sources to learn why the album was called Keynsham, and it might even help you to form a more informative, complete, and systematic picture of the universe, but it will probably not provide you with an extra key to enjoying, admiring, or even «understanding» the fourth LP by The Bonzo Dog Band, so we will not dwell too long on the trivia and instead, will skip right on to the generalization — Keynsham is their second most com­plex record after Doughnut, but still a little less complex, sort of a partial compromise be­tween the experimentation of Doughnut and the accessible silliness of Tadpoles. Let it not be said that the Bonzos made even two albums that sounded completely alike — their menu items all share the same core, but are varied enough to fit quite a plethora of different tastes.

One thing that is hard not to notice is how quite a few tracks here either parody or deconstruct the «art pop» thing — where Doughnut was more obsessed with fooling around with blues-rock and rock'n'roll, Keynsham seems to take note of the increase in popularity of such bands as the Bee Gees or the Moody Blues or any of their other competitors: songs like ʽQuiet Talks And Summer Walksʼ and ʽWhat Do You Do?ʼ combine elements of vocal crooning, pastoral flutes, swooping strings, heavenly harmonies, etc., and end up sounding like authentic «artsy» compositions of their age — until you start concentrating on the lyrics: ʽWhat Do You Do?ʼ parodies the «Serious Philosophical Question Song» movement, and ʽQuiet Talks And Summer Walksʼ depicts a couple's romantic relations as seen through the somewhat bleek perspective of the protagonist, only to become suddenly deflated by the sound of a dentist's drill.

At the same time, the boys are not at all past their usual «slap-schtick»: ʽTentʼ is brassy Sha-Na-Na style pop with a brawny caveman angle, ʽWe Were Wrongʼ is romantic Zombies-style pop with a corny joke angle (ʽThis Will Be Our Yearʼ may have served as the musical inspiration, provided the Bonzos actually did have access to the not-so-popular Odessey And Oracle), and then there's material like ʽMr. Slater's Parrotʼ that sounds as if it were taken straight from the Benny Hill Show soundtrack. Naturally, there is no coherence whatsoever between the «serious-sounding» stuff and the directly comedic numbers, but that is something you either have to take or leave: the Bonzos declared war on coherence before they were born.

In terms of sheer inventiveness, we should tip our hats as usual: the mix of melodies, hilarious lyrics, recitatives, mini-stories, and sound effects is as dazzling and delirious as ever — speaking of sound effects, ʽBustedʼ probably has the single best example of a cow's mooing sampled in the history of all cow moo samples, and ʽNoises For The Legʼ probably has the most irritating ever example of the use of a Theremin on record (one that was actually installed inside the leg of a mannequin, which explains the song's title).

On the other hand, somehow you can tell that, by intentionally avoiding all elements of «formula», the band has driven itself into a rut — now that they know they can handle it all, and now that they have already handled it all on Doughnut, Keynsham feels a little bit... predictable. Like their TV brothers Monty Python, who only lasted a few years before their romance with intellectualized absurdity became boring, the Bonzos were unable to settle their awesome initial explosion into a pleasantly useful routine.

As an incidental introduction to the band's sound, Keynsham is as good as any other Bonzo album — but if taken in chronological order, it does not seem to fulfill its assigned task to stick a wise-cracking knife under the ribs of 1969 the same way that Doughnut did for 1968. The simple pop parodies are a little late, and the art pop exercises do not work very well as «serious» Lieder for the masses (the Bonzos could mime to the Moodies and the Bee Gees, but their songwriting relative to these guys was more or less like the Rutles / Beatles relationship) and do not properly fulfill the task of desecrating these temples of romanticism, either. They're a little bit pretty and a little bit funny, but sort of «midway» in both categories.

The record deserves a strong thumbs up in any case — these criticisms are relative, not absolute, and repeated listens do bring out both the melodic hooks and the pockets of intellectual depth in the material. But the decision to split, which the band took around the same time the LP was issued, was utterly wise: in their current incarnation, they found it hard to keep up with the rapidly changing times — as a 1969 album, Keynsham is simply nowhere near as impressive as Doughnut was for a 1968 album. Perhaps if they had a real Frank Zappa in their ranks, things would turn out different, but neither Stanshall nor Innes could lay claim to anything like that.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Adverts: Live At The Roxy Club

THE ADVERTS: LIVE AT THE ROXY CLUB (1977; 1990)

1) Safety In Numbers; 2) Newboys; 3) One Chord Wonders; 4) On The Roof; 5) New Day Dawning; 6) Great British Mistake; 7) Bombsite Boy; 8) No Time To Be 21; 9) Quick Step; 10) New Church; 11) Bored Teenagers; 12) Gary Gilmore's Eyes.

Given the legendary (cult) status of The Adverts, it is almost surprising that the number of post­mortem releases on their part is so embarrassingly small — just this one live album, released on the Receiver label, and a bunch of radio performances or something. The Adverts were quite well known for the ferocity of their live shows, true to the core of the punk spirit and all, so it makes total sense to have them commemorated with this early and relatively intimate (but wild) club session that took place at the Roxy Club before the first album was even recorded. Fortunately, the sound quality, while far from perfect, is satisfactory enough to both enjoy the show in its «totality» and to pay attention to all the individual contributions.

Setlist-wise, you can predict that this is going to be Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts Live, and it is — they play 11 out of 13 songs live, adding the B-side ʽQuick Stepʼ and offering no particularly new melodic insights into the legend. However, you can also very easily see that they still share the old rock aesthetics of keeping it «dirtier» on stage and «cleaning it up» in the studio. The studio recordings, underneath all the heaviness, could have an acoustic underbelly, or at least some colorful electric «jangle» — live in 1977, everything is plastered with chainsaw buzz. Understandably, this undermines the songs' melodic potential, but adds tons of power, and if even subtle artists like The Who understood the payoffs, why shouldn't The Adverts? Howard Pickup, Gaye Black, and T. V. Smith are seen here as a simple, straightforward, and totally focu­sed three-head beast who know exactly what they want — state that they do not know what they want in a laconic set of bash-your-head-over movements.

I do not really have much to say here except that this is one of the best live documents from the early punk era — raw, lo-fi (but listenable), replete with the idealism of 1977 when certain young people once again got the idea that they could somehow change the world, or at least shake it out of its general indifference and somnambulance. For all the notes that T. V. Smith flubs in this performance (compared to the much better rehearsed and engineered singing on the studio record), there is that spontaneous, taken-over-by-spirits yearning in his voice that convinces you even today — this whole enterprise may be futile, but it certainly is not fake. Nor is his reluctance to communicate with the audience, as all the songs are introduced with a brief "this is..." and some­times concluded with an even briefer "yeah!" (not a single «thank you», I believe, even though the audience sounds quite enthusiastic throughout).

It does have to be remarked that, for a band that almost prided itself on knowing exactly one chord (figuratively speaking), The Adverts are remarkably tight live; the drummer may be their weakest spot on the whole (though he's at least competent enough not to let the rhythm slide), but the bass/guitar duo always keep up the tempos and are well coordinated with each other, leaving the singer free to roam on his own. Nothing exceptional, but once again, the legend of proper punk bands «not knowing how to play» is put to rest — restricting yourself to the bare musical minimum is certainly not the equivalent of not knowing how to play that minimum. Check out ʽNo Time To Be 21ʼ as proof — there's a relatively lengthy instrumental part there where Gaye and Howard are musically flirting with each other, she playing simple, but fun bass figures around his sea of distortion and he eventually leading his guitar towards a set of orgasmic scree­ches (okay, this reads sexier than it sounds, but now that I wrote it, I am beginning to feel that it is actually starting to sound sexier than it reads).

On the whole, a well-assured thumbs up here — if the studio albums convinced you that The Adverts were much more than a mere footnote in the early punk movement, Live At The Roxy is an essential addition to the legacy, rather than a footnote to a footnote. From what I read, its title may be an unfortunate lie (as the album is now said to have been recorded at Nottingham's Rock City), but everything else is the truth, and a good source of youthful inspiration even when you're listening to it at the age of 50.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bon Jovi: Bon Jovi

BON JOVI: BON JOVI (1984)

1) Runaway; 2) Roulette; 3) She Don't Know Me; 4) Shot Through The Heart; 5) Love Lies; 6) Breakout; 7) Burning For Love; 8) Come Back; 9) Get Ready.

We often tend to define the different genres of popular music through both form and meaning — for instance, The Clash play speedy, distorted, simplistic electric guitar riffs and sing about social injustice and rebellion, so they're «punks»; Black Sabbath play more complex, lower-pitched riffs and sing about Satan, so they're «metal». Every once in a while, though, along comes such a drastic incongruity that all rules and assumptions have to be revised, or even rejected. Sometimes this is done intentionally, as an understanding «mockery» of established tradition; sometimes it is simply done, because it just seems like the times were calling for it.

Few bands in the history of mankind, I think, have from the very beginning put so much of every­thing on «fake» as Bon Jovi — and did it with such a natural ease at that. Normally, when we hear «pop metal» and remember The Big Hair Decade, we would think of all those bands that carried on the tradition of shocking and grossing out their audiences: Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, Poison, etc. Much, if not most, of the music that they produced sucked, but at least it kind of agreed with the image — «break all rules», «fuck everything that moves», that sort of thing. In comparison, Bon Jovi continuously produced music whose lyrical and emotional content was completely tame: unimaginative romantic love songs, mostly, with just a wee bit of animal sexual passion thrown in occasionally (on their debut album, ʽGet Readyʼ is the only song that explicitly deals with humping — placed right at the end, too, as if to say, «okay, getting a little tired with all that schmaltzy stuff, let's get down to some real business for a change»).

Tame, yes, but still retaining all the superficial «metal» trappings, starting from the band's visual image and ending with the musical arrangements — booming drums, grumbly distorted riffs, gang choruses, screechy high-pitched solos, the works. Keyboardist David Bryan is very much at the center of the sound (no small coincidence that the album opens with his nasty, primitive syn­thesizer clunking), but the guitar duo of Jon Bon Jovi (rhythm) and Richie Sambora (lead) never let the listener forget that this is Metal here, or, at least, Heavy Rock. In fact, they do not want you to think of them as soft-hearted pussies so much that there isn't even a proper «power ballad» anywhere on the album: all the songs are taken at mid- or fast tempos, and the sentimentality is restricted to Jon's (and sometimes to backup) vocals and to David's keyboards — they can wail and weep all they want, but the guitars will still sound harsh and brutal.

This seems like a rather jarring stylistic contradiction, but on a certain level, it works. For in­stance, people who had an instinctive attraction to the new «heavy» sounds, but were repelled by the «shock» image of the usual glam rockers, would probably see Bon Jovi as a guiding light — you can headbang to this music all you want, but you don't have to cuss, and you don't have to be afraid of embarrassing your God-fearing friends from the PMRC. And it works the other way round, too — if you come to Bon Jovi, merely out of scientific curiosity, expecting to hear the most godawful shite ever recorded, this lack of power ballads, for one thing, will be an almost pleasant surprise.

Still, even with all the pleasant surprises, this is some of the most godawful shite ever recorded, and the reason is simple enough: TEH DRAMA! You can almost literally feel the veins and arte­ries all over the well-exercised body of Jon Bon Jovi puff up and explode from being overworked as he piles up tons upon tons of sympathy for the protagonists of his songs (usually himself, but sometimes outsiders, too — ʽRunawayʼ is the ʽShe's Leaving Homeʼ of the hair metal world, and the poor thing has become addicted to steroids since 1967). The general focus is not on how to make these primitive, if sometimes catchy, pop melodies more interesting, but on how to convey the agony and the suffering — because, you see, he's ʽBurning For Loveʼ as he calls upon her to ʽCome Backʼ, but ʽLove Liesʼ that ʽShe Don't Know Meʼ, so he's ʽShot Through The Heartʼ in an always-losing game of Russian ʽRouletteʼ. Figuratively speaking, of course. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. (Not that there's much danger of anything here bearing resemblance to any activity by a real person, of course).

This is why, even acknowledging the pop hooks of the band's choruses, I find them ineffective. You can find yourself out on the street, distractedly humming "ooooooh, she's a little runaway" if you are not too careful, but it's a crude, blunt, shallow chorus, devoid of any subtlety or musical point of interest, relying on the power of the "oooooh" and the stop-and-start bit of the chorus to win over the hearts of undemanding fans. Oh, and the speed, of course — the speed at which these choruses are delivered are an integral part of the album's success. And then there's more drama in group vocalizations (ʽBreakoutʼ), gang shouts ("SHOT! SHOT! SHOT!"), and, of course, Sambora's ecstatic solos all over the place.

Interestingly enough, the album's only (still rather minor) hit was ʽShe Don't Know Meʼ — the only song in Bon Jovi's discography not written or co-written by a member of Bon Jovi; I guess their record label, at this point, did not yet trust Jon and Ritchie's hitmaking capacities, relying on outside songwriters. Indeed, the song is the least «metal» thing on the album and the closest thing here to a power ballad (though still taken at a much faster tempo for that) — more accurately, this is the closest Jon Bon Jovi comes to sounding as if he'd been having a crying fit on the album, always a big winner for all them lady fans.

Everything else follows pretty much the same formula — and, to be fair, we must state that Bon Jovi pretty much invented that formula, or at least became its absolute dominators: the «Keep It Simple, Serious» formula. In other words, their music is similar to Van Halen, but composition- and realisation-wise, it is much simpler, and attitude-wise, it takes itself far more seriously, with not an ounce of humor or sarcasm in sight. An atrocious formula, to be sure, but there's also some­thing perversely attractive in its atrociousness, at least for the first time around — enough to suggest at least giving a single spin to ʽRouletteʼ or ʽShot Through The Heartʼ, probably the two best examples of Bon Jovi's «heavy metal broken heart» schtick on here. Despite the massive re­putation of Slippery When Wet, it really doesn't get much better in the future — in fact, there wouldn't be a future Bon Jovi album where they'd play so fast on the average, and speedy Bon Jovi, warts and all, is always preferable to slow Bon Jovi, no exceptions.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Blondie: Ghosts Of Download

BLONDIE: GHOSTS OF DOWNLOAD (2014)

1) Sugar On The Side; 2) Rave; 3) A Rose By Any Name; 4) Winter; 5) I Want To Drag You Around; 6) I Screwed Up; 7) Relax; 8) Take Me In The Night; 9) Make A Way; 10) Mile High; 11) Euphoria; 12) Take It Back; 13) Back­room; 14*) Put Some Color On You; 15*) Can't Stop Wanting; 16*) Prism.

The release of this album was accompanied by a most strange marketing move: it was issued only as an integral part of a 2-CD package, collectively called Blondie 4(0) Ever and containing, in addition to the main disc with 13 new songs, a Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux disc with new studio re-recordings of 11 «classic» songs, «to commemorate the band's 40th anniversary», so it was stated in press releases. Weird way to go about it, if you ask me, but then marketing does often work in weird ways — who am I, next to an experienced marketologist, to measure the degree of weirdness to which the average buyer's mind can be professionally attuned?

Anyway, we will not be concentrating on these re-recordings: based on brief snippets that I have heard, they are all technically very close to the originals, Debbie's aged voice being the main differentiating factor, and I assume they just did this out of sheer fun, to check whether they still could or could not recreate their old schtick in a bookish manner. And still another possible factor is the effect of contrast — because with Ghosts Of Download, they have now moved away as far from the old schtick as is humanly possible. The only link is that they are still a pop ensemble (as opposed to, say, Napalm Death or Tokyo String Quartet), on a mission to churn out catchy pop songs. Everything else is different.

Logically continuing the line that was barely hinted at on The Curse and had very much solidi­fied with Panic, Ghosts Of Download is almost completely dependent on electronics; in genrist terms, it is one of those «electropop» records (I believe that «techno» is now considered uncool) that trade live instrumentation for programmed loops and beats because it shows how modern, trendy, and advanced you are (well, at least it used to — I am not that sure about the situation as of 2014). Not surprisingly, upon first listen I hated it with all the instinctive passion I could muster: everything sounded tasteless, stupid, and annoying to the max.

As the first nasty impressions clear away, though, I have to admit that the songs here are not really «bad» as such. The lyrics, the basic melodic hooks, the relative levels of complexity and diversity — a lot of work, and perhaps even a little inspiration, must have certainly been involved in the construction of the album. At the very least, it is incomparably more interesting than, say, Britney Spears' Femme Fatale, just as an example off the top of my head — even though it is rather a sad state of affairs when you find yourself inclined to draw a comparison between Blondie and Britney Spears in the first place.

Again, most of the songs feature outside songwriters, although either Harry or Stein or, usually, both of them, share the credits with outsiders. There are also plenty of guest appearances by trendy hip-hop, R&B, and LGBT people (Los Rakas, Miss Guy, Beth Ditto — thank you, Ms. Harrie, for introducing us to so many here-today-gone-tomorrow personalities!), which some­times makes sense (ʽA Rose By Any Nameʼ, featuring Beth Ditto, is a pro-gay anthem) and sometimes does not (the Spanish rap on ʽI Screwed Upʼ feels quite out of place to me), but, in any case, they are not there to make or not to make sense, but to establish a link between the older and the newer generations. Do they? Perhaps they do — the only problem is, in 50 years people will still be returning to those Blondie albums, but whether they will still be interested in Los Rakas seems much more questionable to me.

Only one tune on the entire record feels completely «authentic» to me: ʽWinterʼ, relatively free of the electronic coating, is a mid-tempo introspective rocker with Harrie's vocals mixed properly upfront and moving gracefully up the scale from verse to bridge to chorus as she picks on some poor soul for being too cold. It was not a single, it did not get any airplay, it does not feature any guest stars or particularly noticeable gimmicks, but to me, it feels like the absolute best that Ghosts Of Download have to offer me.

Still, I have no intentions of badmouthing the rest of the songs: I just don't feel like talking about them. Many of them do have the «Blondie sneer» alright, and after two or three listens, most of the choruses get properly stuck in your head — but I do not feel the ability to connect to these not-too-inventive electronic grooves. Perhaps they have been regretting, through all these years, about having disbanded way too early in the Eighties to give the world a proper synth-pop album, and now seek that extra profit, by way of the «Eighties' nostalgia wave» that seems to have swept over the population and still not dissipated? If so, how wonderful it is that they had missed that window — first, reunion albums are always easier to ignore than non-reunion albums, second, at least Ghosts has the added benefits of improved technology and a more complexly layered approach to integrating electronics with real instruments. For instance, ʽI Want To Drag You Aroundʼ has some sitars interacting with the shit-synths — probably synthesized as well, but if they went synth-pop in the Eighties, there would hardly have been a sitar break on this song at all.

Their retro kick still occasionally flares up in the strangest places: for instance, there is a long, multi-part version of the old hit ʽRelaxʼ (Frankie Goes To Hollywood!) — more famous for its controversial, free-all-inhibitions music video, if I remember right, than anything else. But musi­cally, the song is so trivial and repetitive (I'd even say «manipulative» if there was anything to manipulate) that the purpose of reviving it escapes me. Unless, of course, it is accompanied by a video of Chris Stein and Matt Katz-Bohen engaging in simulated anal sex, while a leather-clad Harrie puts the whip to both ("relax, don't do it, when you wanna come" is a pretty good tagline for such a special occasion).

On the whole, not even the hooks will prevent me from a thumbs down here. Fact is, I have always loved my Blondie for their moods — punkish and arrogant, sarcastically sexy, romanti­cally gloomy, whatever — and Ghosts Of Download have too much of a plastic coating to re­veal those moods to me. They are there, but you have to «tolerate» many elements of the production in order to enjoy them properly — elements that add nothing of significance and are really only there so that the band members can point to them and state, «see, we are not old farts, and we have some documental evidence for that». But really, Debbie and Chris, you do not need to take lessons from Lady Gaga to prove that you're still savvy about the 21st century. There's plenty of better teachers around, honest. Provided you need teachers in the first place. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Boards Of Canada: Hi Scores

BOARDS OF CANADA: HI SCORES (1996)

1) Hi Scores; 2) Turquoise Hexagon Sun; 3) Nlogax; 4) June 9th; 5) Seeya Later; 6) Everything You Do Is A Balloon.

I'd like to say that Hi Scores is not «simply more of the same» as Twoism, but then I could probably create the distorted impression that Hi Scores is not simply more of the same as Two­ism, and since I do not work in the field of electronica, I am not used to creating distorted im­pressions. On the factual plain, however, Hi Scores is definitely distinct because it was the duo's first release on a real music label (Skam Records) — and from that point of view, we can most certainly excuse them for not advancing significantly, given that most people had never heard Twoism, or any of their other limited-edition releases, anyway. In fact, most of the compositions here were not particularly «new»: ʽSeeya Laterʼ is taken directly from Twoism, and others were featured on homemade records with titles like Boc Maxima prior to the label shift.

Even so, a thorough comparison with Twoism does show some subtle shifts. Although Hi Scores is bookmarked by some of the duo's most «becalmed» numbers in existence, the mid-part, in contrast, is harsher: ʽNlogaxʼ and ʽJune 9thʼ constitute a fairly gritty sequence, the former with its hard, harsh, metronomic beat, thumping bass, and schizophrenic vocal overdubs, and the latter with its fussy, space-objects-alert arrangement. This is not necessarily a good thing, because mo­ving away from that calm ambient atmosphere puts them in danger of losing their identity: if you played me ʽJune 9thʼ without a warning, for instance, I'd have said «Aphex Twin?» without blinking. On the other hand, if you don't feel like gently falling asleep to your electronica, Hi Scores is less «lulling» in that aspect than Twoism.

And even so, I have very little to say about the compositions in general. The two first ones have the same ideology as most of Twoism (ambient textures pinned to dance beats, or is that dance beats pinned to ambient textures?), then there's the two dynamic and flurry ones, and then there's ʽSeeya Laterʼ. And then, at the end, there's what probably counts as the magnum opus here, ʽEverything You Do Is A Balloonʼ, if only because it is longer than everything else, it has got a special two-minute beatless introduction, and it shows some melodic development as an additional «lead» melody gradually creeps up on us from out of the shadows. If you want me to admit that the tune may give an impressionist's impression of a balloon gracefully soaring in mid-air, well, it can, but usually for those occasions I tend to pull out my AIR albums instead.

On the whole, this is a nice enough demonstration of creativity, but these days, it is not easy to understand how come Boards of Canada managed to earn the trust of a real record label with this stuff — you'd have to remember that back in the mid-1990s, not a lot of people engaged in these activities, and I guess every label dealing with electronica was more than happy to have their own young, local, and gifted equivalent of Richard D. James on hand. Unfortunately, some of the «formative» stage records tend to date quicker than others, so if you want to understand the continuing reverence for BoC, I would not recommend these early EPs as a starting point; we are really not even properly beginning to get where we're going at this stage. Probably still works as random chillout fodder, though.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Bonnie Raitt: The Glow

BONNIE RAITT: THE GLOW (1979)

1) I Thank You; 2) Your Good Thing (Is About To End); 3) Standin' By The Same Old Love; 4) Sleep's Dark And Silent Gate; 5) The Glow; 6) Bye Bye Baby; 7) The Boy Can't Help It; 8) (I Could Have Been Your) Best Old Friend; 9) You're Gonna Get What's Coming; 10) (Goin') Wild For You Baby.

Whenever we are dealing with more than one stage in the career of the illustrious Bonnie Raitt, we are dealing with nuances within nuances and subtleties within subtleties — but speaking in terms of nuanced nuances and subtle subtleties, I think I like The Glow one subtle nuance more than I like Sweet Forgiveness. Perhaps because it's got a bit more of that «sandpaper» edge to it. Or maybe the leading lady just got me covered and trapped with that reproaching stare on the front cover — looking every bit the same at thirty as she'd later look at sixty, and communicating a «what the heck do you want from me, anyway?» kind of message, as if I ever wanted anything from her in the first place — or anybody else, for that matter.

A more serious reason might be a better playlist: unlike Sweet Forgiveness, The Glow tempora­rily returns us to a better balance between contemporary songwriting and the old classics — no, no Victoria Spivey covers, but some good old-fashioned soul, rock'n'roll, and Motown pop here, nestled among the obligatory James Taylorisms (actually, Jackson Brownisms and Robert Palmerisms, to be much more precise). Still another factor may be a near-complete change of the playing team — trimmed down to about 12 people (that ain't much for Bonnie) and consisting almost entirely of first-rate players on the market: Danny Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel on guitars, Paul Butterfield on harmonica, guys from Little Feat, and even David Sanborn comes along to contribute a sax solo or two.

There are only three ballads out of ten, and all three are decent. Browne's ʽSleep's Dark And Silent Gateʼ begins to redeem itself already with its title and ends with an inspired, tasteful and highly lyrical guitar break from I don't-know-who (Danny? Waddy? Diddy Wah Diddy?). The lengthy title track, dealing with the perils of drinking (all too actual for Bonnie at the time) is nothing to really write home about in ecstasy, but it is nice that they arrange it as smooth mid­night jazz rather than orchestrated schlock, so that the most prominent thing about the song are its wobbly basslines — always a cool thing in ballads. And the closing ʽWild For You Babyʼ, as poor as it is as an original composition, has that slightly distorted guitar lead improvising various figures around Bonnie's croon, again, adding some much-needed «earthiness».

The punchy stuff includes a quirky gender twist as Bonnie remakes ʽThe Girl Can't Help Itʼ into ʽThe Boy Can't Help Itʼ, grinning at her male audience with sarcastic slide guitar runs ("you know the boy can't help it, he was born to please" must have been particularly humiliating for all them male chauvinists), but overall, the punchy stuff is there just to be punchy — with the ope­ning drum roll for the old Sam & Dave hit ʽI Thank Youʼ, Raitt springs immediately into action, and this «cut the crap, let's get right down to business» attitude is well felt throughout the record, whether she is putting the 1970s rock stamp on Mary Wells' ʽBye Bye Babyʼ or asserting some lean 'n' mean personality on ʽBest Old Friendʼ. Most importantly, she is now milking that slide guitar sound with a tight grip, and adjusting her own singing voice to it — together, they form a very natural-sounding sneery duo, much better united than anytime in the past.

On the whole, this one earns a much more assured thumbs up from me than its predecessor, but, of course, far be it from me to fool anybody: The Glow is not a «great» album by any means, just as fine a record as it ever gets in the vicinity of the middle of the road, and only really recommen­dable if you are a big sucker for that clean, smoothly engineered, technically precise and humbly soulful roots-rock sound of the 1970s. It is somewhat of a miracle, though, in a way, how they manage to be so completely dismissive of all the musical and technological innovations of the New Wave era — so get it if you are a certified conservative in life, too.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Bob Marley: Confrontation

BOB MARLEY: CONFRONTATION (1983)

1) Chant Down Babylon; 2) Buffalo Soldier; 3) Jump Nyabinghi; 4) Mix Up, Mix Up; 5) Give Thanks & Praises; 6) Blackman Redemption; 7) Trench Town; 8) Stiff Necked Fools; 9) I Know; 10) Rastaman Live Up!.

As an equally-righted Bob Marley album, Confrontation is nothing special, and it certainly does not stand out that much against the background of the similarly-titled Survival and Uprising. But as an album released posthumously, worked up by Rita Marley and friends and colleagues from a set of raw demos left over from Bob's 1979-80 sessions, this is an excellent job: most chances are that you won't even be able to guess that the final record was released without Bob's explicit consent — although, who knows, maybe Rita did feel the presence of such a consent, transmitted directly into her conscience from the lower levels of Jah heaven.

The songs mostly go back to the Survival sessions, so the album feels a bit less «poppy» and innovative than Uprising, once more going back to the rather stern, stiff, anthemic style of the fight-for-your-rights propaganda of 1979, with some inevitable lyrical failures — for instance, ʽBuffalo Soldierʼ uses the image of the enlisted black man in late 19th century US army as a sym­bol of fighting for freedom and independence, when in reality the «Negro Cavalry», formed already after the conclusion of the Civil War, was regularly used to mop up natives in the Indian Wars, or at least clean up after the whites had mopped up the Indians, so using that particular image as a symbol for all things good and progressive is rather questionable. Then again, poetic licence and all, and the phrase ʽbuffalo soldierʼ has got such an empowering ring to it, who could really resist temptation to use it in a freedom-loving context?

Anyway, one more word on that and we will be falling into the trap of placing the words before the music. The problem is, there is not much I, or any other reviewer, could say about the music, other than just re-stating the fact that all the post-Marley overbuds, applied to his demos, are quite consistent with the Marley spirit — synthesizers, horns, backing vocals, which is not all that surprising, considering that they have been applied by the same people who'd worked with him through the last half-decade of his life. The horns, by the way, are the only thing that adds a little distinctiveness to such tunes as ʽTrenchtownʼ, which they Latinize a little bit; and the synthesi­zers help transform ʽI Knowʼ into the closest thing to a «dance-pop hit» that Bob could ever have (I know that he expressly wanted the song to be turned into a single, but I do not know if that was before or after the pseudo-orchestral synths had been added to it).

Probably the single best song is ʽJump Nyabinghiʼ, referring to one of the oldest Mansion of Rastafari and featuring here more as a positive, light-headed, celebration of life and love than an anthemic call-to-vigilance. Just due to that, it stands out in a bright light against the rest, not to mention a funny reference to smokin' it ("we've got the herb! we've got the herb!") the likes of which, I believe, we have not heard since Kaya hit the stores. Its chorus may not be as catchy as the one on ʽRastaman Live Up!ʼ, ending the album on one final sloganeering note, but it sounds more wild and tribal than anything else on here, the only time where Bob comes close to briefly losing his head and giving in to the ancestral spirit inside.

All of this is harmless fun, yet upon hearing Confrontation, I have to say that I am somewhat relieved that Marley did not leave enough stuff in the vaults to last Rita and the boys for another half of a lifetime. Whichever direction he was planning to take (if he was planning anything at all) after Uprising, we can only guess about — the problem is that, after all has been said and done and all the homages have been paid, Bob Marley was essentially a one-trick pony (okay, two-trick, if you succeed in separating his romantic troubadour side from his hero of the people side), and Exodus took that trick to levels that could not have possibly been outdone: just like no classical opera can surpass The Ring on the 1-11 scale of «grandiose regality», so no record that subscribes to the reggae idiom can trump «Movement of Jah People!». Could he have moved out into other areas? Would he want to? Certainly Confrontation is not the right kind of record to address that question to — but if your demands towards the man's art are reasonable, it is quite the right kind of record to own and enjoy, in loving memory of Haile Selassie's most loyal servant. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Bonzo Dog Band: Tadpoles

THE BONZO DOG BAND: TADPOLES (1969)

1) Hunting Tigers Out In Indiah; 2) Shirt; 3) Tubas In The Moonlight; 4) Dr. Jazz; 5) The Monster Mash; 6) I'm The Urban Spaceman; 7) Ali Baba's Camel; 8) Laughing Blues; 9) By A Waterfall; 10) Mr. Apollo; 11) Canyons Of Your Mind; 12*) Boo!; 13*) Readymades; 14*) Look At Me I'm Wonderful; 15*) We Were Wrong; 16*) The Craig Torso Christmas Show.

The Bonzos' third album is much closer in spirit and form to Gorilla — a creative retread, some might say, but only depending on whether you revere these guys more in their «surrealist-kiddie-comic» mood or their «surrealist-Zappa-like» mood. The heart of the matter is that most of these particular songs were culled from Do Not Adjust Your Set, the proto-Python TV show that re­gularly featured the Bonzos and was originally intended for kids, before Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and others decided they'd still target it towards mixed audiences and see what happens. So, naturally, the proper-accurate way to enjoy these tunes is to see them in the context of the show (something that can be easily done these days with a little help from Youtube), especially consi­dering that many of the tracks feature integrated bits of dialog (ʽShirtʼ) or implied theatrical per­formance (ʽAli Baba's Camelʼ).

That said, there is nothing like Tadpoles, really, when it comes to averaging out the number of tightly composed, insanely catchy, delightfully funny Bonzo Dog Band songs per record. This is their one UK album, for starters, that's got ʽUrban Spacemanʼ on it — produced by good friend Paul McCartney, it's a piece of genius vaudeville and an amusing assault on the concept of the fantasy superhero at the same time (the final «twist» is simple, predictable, and unforgettable), so unbeatable that it became the band's highest charting single ever: I have to guess that even some of the seri­ously-minded people, generally well above the Bonzos' level of humor (or so they thought), had no power to resist.

Equally sharp and up to the point are such songs as ʽMr. Apolloʼ (jubilant folk-pop that describes the «wonders» of body-building exactly the way somebody else would be describing the «won­ders» of turning on and tuning in) and ʽCanyons Of Your Mindʼ (yet another Vegas-Elvis imper­sonation, crossed with a ridiculously «inept», out-of-tune guitar solo and some of the grossest misuses of the echo effect in recorded history). Then there's the «Britishness» thing, which pops out at the very beginning (ʽHunting Tigers Out In Indiahʼ, with the band members impersonating old-school British army officers, even if the song as a whole sounds as it belongs more with the Soviet than the British army) but is not too abused on the whole — most of the time, they are too busy professing their sarcastic admiration for old-timey jazz (Jelly Roll Morton's ʽDr. Jazzʼ gets covered), blues (ʽLaughing Bluesʼ is «authentically» lo-fi, croaky and creeky, like something from Louis Armstrong's ʽSt. Louis Bluesʼ days), and pop standards (ʽTubas In The Moonlightʼ is... Bing Crosby? Whatever).

Some of the inventions are less inventive than others, or, at least, less appropriate — I could do without the proto-Python conversations on ʽShirtʼ, and their cover of the old comic tune ʽMonster Mashʼ is expendable when you know that they are capable of much better writing on their own (I'm perfectly happy with the old performance from the Beach Boys' Concert), but one cannot expect even a genius comedy act to act with 100% accuracy, and besides, these nuances reflect personal tastes more than anything else. Plus, the reissue throws on a bunch of satisfactory bonus tracks, almost any of which can be used to replace any perceivable flaw.

Strong thumbs up here, but the warning has to be repeated: Tadpoles is mostly about comic ditties, and not recommended to anyone who finds himself disgusted with the likes of ʽMaxwell's Silver Hammerʼ and suchlike. At the same time, I cannot qualify it as a «letdown»: the Bonzos were simply pursuing different activities and trying on different faces, like many other people at the time — Manfred Mann, for instance, who could be seriouz jazzmen one minute and teenybop propagandists the other. Count Tadpoles as just another high point in the Bonzos' «teenybop» service book, then, but do not put down the idiom as such — not before you are able to write a song as maddeningly catchy as ʽUrban Spacemanʼ, at least. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

AC/DC: Rock Or Bust

AC/DC: ROCK OR BUST (2014)

1) Rock Or Bust; 2) Play Ball; 3) Rock The Blues Away; 4) Miss Adventure; 5) Dogs Of War; 6) Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder; 7) Hard Times; 8) Baptism By Fire; 9) Rock The House; 10) Sweet Candy; 11) Emission Control.

The album cover looks suspiciously reminiscent of Back In Black, and this may be no coinci­dence: just like its more than thirty-year old predecessor, Rock Or Bust comes with the loss of a crucial member — not nearly as lethal, but equally gruesome, since brother Malcolm, suffering from severe dementia, was unable to continue working with the band, and had to be replaced. His riffs and «anchoring presence» had been every bit as vital to the AC/DC sound as the surface flashiness of brother Angus, so, in theory, this could have been a crippling loss. In keeping with the family spirit, though, they now enlist nephew Stevie Young to fill in his shoes — and, sur­prisingly (or not too surprisingly: a Young is a Young, after all), we end up not feeling a lot of difference at all: Stevie keeps the famous tone and the equally famous metronomic precision of Malcolm right there in the family.

That said, Rock Or Bust ain't no Back In Black. If we are talking on the nuanced level, where not every AC/DC album actually sounds the same, remember that Back In Black was tremen­dously energized by the desire to show the world that «we're back, we're kicking more ass than ever before, we own this motherfuckin' universe, and we laugh Death, Hell, and good taste right in the face». In comparison, Rock Or Bust only tells us that «we're still here, and we're holding our positions steady enough». Where Black Ice still had at least one or two novel ideas to it, Rock Or Bust, in its entirety, consists of re-assembled and slightly re-tweaked / re-constructed songs from the past two decades. In fact, you could probably make a case that it is almost com­pletely derivable from Black Ice itself — most notably, ʽRock The Blues Awayʼ is a near-total clone of the «poppy» ʽAnything Goesʼ from that record.

The album is also worryingly short — for most reviewers, 34 minutes seemed like a blessing and one of its major high points (because AC/DC should be taken in small dosages?), but to me, this feels so unusual that I cannot get rid of the subconscious feeling: Rock Or Bust exists only to assert that they «still exist», and serves no other purpose. They might just as well have put out a single with two songs on it, like the Rolling Stones have occasionally done in the past decade, to keep the infospace and the public warmed up a bit. At this point, numbers have no significance — two, twelve, twenty, two hundred, whatever.

In terms of sound, Rock Or Bust leaves no questions: this is still AC/DC alright. Angus has not lost anything in terms of energy, precision, or madness, the rhythm section ticks and tocks away with the usual gruff determination, Brian Johnson's voice is still at the same «late-period top level» as it has been ever since Stiff Upper Lip, and nephew Stevie shows that the Young gene­tic pool is one of the most stable things in the universe. (If there are any more Youngs in the family, and if Brian has a promising relative as well, we could probably keep the band well up into the 2050s and beyond). Thematic subjects also remain the same: sex (#1), rock'n'roll (#2), and what's-the-world-coming-to (#3), not necessarily, but very preferably in that order. Select bits of lyrical wisdom, one per each thematic direction, include "Let's play ball / Shoot down the walls", "In rock we trust / It's rock or bust", and "We'll be the dogs of war / Send me with dogs of war" (I think they were not able to find a proper rhyme for this last one).

In all honesty, the band commands respect and even provides some intrigue — now that we know that they can, at least formally, get it on when they are all past sixty and suffered such a heavy blow, there is again no telling when they are going to finally fail. With Rock Or Bust, Angus Young remains the only «founding father» of the band, so I guess that there is no replacing him, at least, but until he joins his brother in the shadows, I guess we can all say that AC/DC's future still looks secure. Not in terms of composing, though — with all these tunes being derivatives of derivatives of derivatives in the n-th degree, I don't even want to waste any time focusing on their riffs or choruses; for historical/chronological reasons, the title track may deserve a corner spot on some future anthology, but that's about it. Nice to hear the old guys can still get it up, though. "Emission control / It's good for the soul" and all that. Who knows how it goes in real life, of course, but whatever is coming from those speakers still has the good old orgasmic effects for their female (and not only female) fans.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Blur: Live In Hyde Park

BLUR: LIVE IN HYDE PARK (2009)

1) She's So High; 2) Girls And Boys; 3) Tracy Jacks; 4) There's No Other Way; 5) Jubilee; 6) Badhead; 7) Beetle­bum; 8) Out Of Time; 9) Trimm Trabb; 10) Coffee And TV; 11) Tender; 12) Country House; 13) Oily Water; 14) Chemical World; 15) Sunday Sunday; 16) Parklife; 17) End Of A Century; 18) To The End; 19) This Is A Low; 20) Popscene; 21) Advert; 22) Song 2; 23) Death Of A Party; 24) For Tomorrow; 25) The Universal.

In their heyday, Blur never got around to releasing a live album, except for a highly limited issue of a Live At Budokan thing that has since become a discographic rarity. Once, however, the rift between Albarn and Coxon got partially remedied and the reunited band started delighting fans with occasional gigs at the end of the 2000s, a whole series of live albums ensued — most of them, surprisingly or not, recorded in the exact same spot: Hyde Park, London. Granted, this is probably the hipper one of the two centers of the world (the other one being Madison Square Garden, but that be Bruce Springsteen's and Billy Joel's royal domain, after all), but still, kind of weird to see not one, but two live albums from Hyde Park appear in mid-2009 (the July 2 and July 3 shows, respectively), and then Parklive follow up on them in 2012; the first two albums have completely identical setlists, and the one on Parklive is only slightly different.

I have the slightly easier available July 3 show available, and have also seen the Parklive DVD, which probably empowers me not to separate this text into three different reviews. Most impor­tantly, Blur ain't no Rolling Stones or Grateful Dead when it comes to live shows — in fact, I am that close to saying that they pretty much suck as a live band, or at least as a provider of live albums. For starters, I think they make very poor choices in mixing engineers, or perhaps this is just the inevitable curse of a huge open venue like Hyde Park: the sound is godawful on both the older audio and the newer video album. The guitar is too noisy, and the voice is drowning in the noise — what used to be brilliantly produced and packaged pop-rock songs is regularly reduced to unappealing, sloppy noise-rock, with all the hooks covered in sonic rubble, and the crowd noises placed way too high in the mix. Being one with the crowd is great and all, but I kinda sorta would like to hear my ʽGirls And Boysʼ and ʽTenderʼ from the mouth of their creator rather than 500,000 ecstatic English people.

On the other hand, it's not as if the mouth of their creator worked so efficiently in a live setting. Albarn does not look like a perfect natural when it comes to singing — in the studio, it seems as if he had to work hard to combine the necessary degree of emotionality with technique, and when he does not have that opportunity, things are not good. He can get off key, flub some key lines, and, most importantly, he can lose that cool-as-heck London sneer and replace it with a punkish power brawl, making the songs sound far more ordinary and boring than they really are. Coxon does a much better job, very loyally reproducing most of the guitar melodies and effects, but since he hardly ever tries to explore new possibilities, it all ultimately comes down to «how well has he nailed that?», and it's always well enough, but not perfect enough.

In the end, it all simply becomes a massive celebration of The Realm of Blur: we are supposed to kowtow and acknowledge their historic mission and spiritual value for dozens of thousands of people in the UK. I kowtow, and I acknowledge, and I am happy for everybody at Hyde Park in 2009 and in 2012, but the fact remains that there is not a single song here that I would either (a) enjoy more than the original studio version or (b) start perceiving from a slightly different angle from the original. Had this been my introduction to Blur, I would have remained totally unim­pressed, no matter how spectacular the setlist might look on paper. And speaking of the setlist, The Great Escape gets mighty snubbed once again. That is not cool: I want to hear live versions of ʽCharmless Manʼ and ʽStereotypesʼ, even if they will probably suck like everything else.

In addition, there are such issues as tremendously long pauses at the end of the show (usually edited out on non-bootlegs, but apparently they needed to justify two CDs), silly audience baits (when they get them to woo-hoo during the extended drum intro to ʽSong 2ʼ — I mean, seeing as how it has become their signature song and all, it'd at least be fun to see them turn it live into an extended jam polygon or something, like the Who did with ʽMy Generationʼ, but no dice), and an occasional enigmatic bit of Albarn banter: apparently, "Vote Dave! Vote Dave!" refers not to David Cameron (thank God!), but to Dave Rowntree, the drummer, who was trying to run for Parliament at the time (and no, it didn't help).

To sum it up: Blur are a great pop-rock band, but only a passable live band. Live playing is not one of their major strengths (not that the same criticism doesn't apply to the vast majo­rity of pop-rock bands from the last two decades, of course), and since, up to this point, their half-hearted reunions have only resulted in live albums, there has not really been a lot of sense in that reunion, other than heat Hyde Park up a couple degrees on a nice summer day. No thumbs down (there's so many great songs here, and they manage not to murder at least half of them), but no serious excitement, either. See them if you ever have the chance — a legend is a legend, after all — but for the ideal moving picture, choose a set of lip-synced videos instead.