Search This Blog

Loading...

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bon Jovi: These Days

BON JOVI: THESE DAYS (1995)

1) Hey God; 2) Something For The Pain; 3) This Ain't A Love Song; 4) These Days; 5) Lie To Me; 6) Damned; 7) My Guitar Lies Bleeding In My Arms; 8) (It's Hard) Letting You Go; 9) Hearts Breaking Even; 10) Something To Believe In; 11) If That's What It Takes; 12) Diamond Ring; 13) All I Want Is Everything; 14) Bitter Wine.

By the mid-1990s, they took it way too far. At least Keep The Faith still retained some features typical of a rock'n'roll album — These Days took its formula of ecstatic power ballads and foam-at-the-mouth social anthems to such a hardcore conclusion that even Richie Sambora's electric guitar sounds like a superfluous addition, used mainly to control the high volume levels rather than melodic potential and rock'n'roll energy. The goddamn thing is long, too — fourteen tracks that go on forever, one demonstrative stab of one's own heart after another until you just can't help but wonder, how much soul can one heart contain, physically?

Every song on this album is soaked in sentimentality of the most blatant order: not even ol' Bruce himself probably could cram that much in 73 minutes. The band did say that they were under heavy influence from old soul and R&B records at the time, but stylistically, they sound as if they were probably just trading influences between themselves and Aerosmith: if Permanent Vaca­tion sounded totally modelled on Slippery When Wet, then These Days takes its lessons from Get A Grip — ʽThis Ain't A Love Songʼ and ʽHearts Breaking Evenʼ in particular sound like carbon copies of ʽCrazyʼ and ʽCryingʼ, even borrowing some of Tyler's vocal moves, let alone the total similarity in arrangement and mood. Consequently, all of this sounds well tested, unimagi­native, and supported only by the sheer physical strength of these guys, as if making music were in the same department as pumping iron.

As always, I make no claim about tracks like ʽHey Godʼ or ʽSomething To Believe Inʼ lacking sincerity. Sincerity is so much in the eye of the beholder that it is useless to speculate on how much Jon Bon Jovi was really worried about all the evil in the world, or on whether it is at all ethical for a millionnaire rock star to sing songs about poverty and social injustice (it is hardly a coincidence though, I guess, that both These Days and Get A Grip begin with such a song: first and foremost, the world must be shown that they really care). It is not the lack of sincerity that bothers me — it is the «overcooking» of these products, whose instrumental melodies never stray away from tattered alt-rock clichés, but whose vocal execution taxes Jon's voice to an extent where he cannot pay these taxes, yet still makes us believe that he can; check out his attempt to «gurgle» and stay in key at the same time on one of the "somethiiiiiing... to believe in!" of the «climactic» chorus — anything goes to show us just how much he cares. Who gives a damn if you're a poor songwriter? Just beat your working class breast like nobody else.

On the other flank of the love front, the band is now trying out an additional formula: stripped-down acoustic balladry with Jon in weeping troubadour mode (ʽLetting You Goʼ, ʽDiamond Ringʼ). Its effect is exactly the same, though: the songs could pass for inoffensive, unimpressive filler if not for the DRAMA in the singer's voice that immediately converts them into unlistenable crap. Maybe somebody like Willie Nelson could uncover the true potential of ʽLetting You Goʼ, but this rendition carries an instantly lethal overdose of sweetness. Just as a song with a title as pretentious as ʽMy Guitar Lies Bleeding In My Armsʼ (a monster hybrid of ʽWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsʼ and ʽLove Lies Bleeding In My Handsʼ, I suppose) carries an instantly lethal overdose of TRAGEDY GLOOM DESPERATION KILL YOURSELF NOW NOW NOW. Also, "I can't write a love song the way I feel today", he says, but then apparently today turns into tomor­row, because the very next song is a love song. Oh well.

Occasional catchiness is the only redeeming factor for this wreck of a record, but this time it is not enough to get it off the hook — These Days pretends to more seriousness than any other preceding Bon Jovi album without any musical development whatsoever. Give me a straight, no-frills, no-pretense song like ʽBad Medicineʼ over ʽSomething For The Painʼ any time of day: as I already said, New Jersey had the optimal balance between ambition and potential that these guys could ever establish for themselves, and since then it's all been downhill, and These Days is the first Bon Jovi album where I cannot fix myself a positive outlook even on one single song. Total­ly thumbs down to a band that should have never outlived its big hair, really.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Boo Radleys: Wake Up!

THE BOO RADLEYS: WAKE UP! (1995)

1) Wake Up Boo!; 2) Fairfax Scene; 3) It's Lulu; 4) Joel; 5) Find The Answer Within; 6) Reaching Out From Here; 7) Martin, Doom! It's Seven O'Clock; 8) Stuck On Amber; 9) Charles Bukowski Is Dead; 10) 4AM Conversation; 11) Twinside; 12) Wilder.

The commercial success of this album was largely associated with the rise of «Britpop», even though Carr had gone on record many times claiming that The Boo Radleys had nothing to do with «Britpop» and never tried to jump on anybody's wagon at all. As far as the early Boo Rad­leys sound is concerned, he would be deluding himself and the public, but Wake Up!, indeed, has very little to do with either Blur or Oasis. Instead, it has everything to do with the Beatles: this is as close as the band has ever come to a fanatical show of worship, and even if the results are, as usual, much less than spectacular, the strength of the drive is so ferocious that... well, imagine if the real Beatles would have put out something in 1995... come to think of it, they did, didn't they? well, ʽFree As A Birdʼ got to No. 2 on the UK charts, and ʽWake Up Boo!ʼ got to No. 9, and that's sort of about right, numerically and aesthetically.

For this record, almost every trace of the band's shoegazing past has been carefully removed. While some of the tracks still feature noisy distorted guitars, they are almost never at the center of attention — it is merely to let us know that the band does not have a special intention of «going soft», and besides, it's not as if the Beatles hadn't used any noisy distorted guitars in their life, you know. But the true ambition of these guys is indeed to make you Wake Up! — to offer an album full of beautiful, optimistic, idealistic, life-asserting psychedelic pop songs, recapturing the warm colorful vibe of the 1966-69 period, when it was vibrating all the way from Revolver to Abbey Road (the latter album is even structurally alluded to, either intentionally or subconsciously, on the last track, which cuts away as unexpectedly as ʽI Want Youʼ and is then quickly followed up by an unpredictable-unrelated closing acoustic snippet like ʽHer Majestyʼ).

Like every single attempt to directly «cop the Beatles» that I have ever heard, be it XTC or Ad­rian Belew or Apples In Stereo, Wake Up! is ultimately a failure — predictedly and expectedly a failure, I'd add, for reasons of personal and collective psychology. But like most of these attempts, that does not render the «copies» completely useless or unenjoyable or lacking a sub-identity of their own. Nor am I saying that the «copies» actually rip off any of the Beatles' melodies — that would be much too much of an oversimplification (although there certainly are some direct quo­tations, e. g. the piano chords of ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ on ʽWilderʼ). No, the Boos are certainly capable of writing their own songs — and that is where the problem lies: their schooling in songwriting does not agree too well with the Sixties' vibe, or, at the very least, they often have trouble finding the right bits of that vibe to insert in their compositions.

Case in point: ʽFind The Answer Withinʼ is a pretty good upbeat pop song, but for some reason, they find it a good idea to load the last minute and a half with overdubs of backward-recorded vocals. You can almost imagine the studio reasoning: «hey, great tune we get going here, but not enough of that Sixties' flavor!» — «But we've already borrowed everything!» — «Well, you can never borrow everything, really, just give another spin to your copy of Past Masters!» — «Say! What about those backward vocals on ʽRainʼ, did we ever have that?» Honestly, there is no need whatsoever for such a gimmick on this track, not after its encouraging message of "The world is at your feet / Try and make something happen", but no, they had to go out and do it.

Beatlisms are kept to a relative miminum on the album's most commercially successful single, ʽWake Up Boo!ʼ, where they opted for a rousing, almost Eurodance-like, rhythm and a large brass section to complement the impetus of "wake up it's a beautiful morning, the sun shining for your eyes". However, its romantic joy and innocence feels a little too contrived and calculated for me — even despite being lyrically tempered with the less immediately obvious verbal conclusion of "wake up it's so beautiful, for what could be the very last time", it's really a rather silly song, you know, at least for 1995; I feel unable to give in to its mechanical happiness, even if it is very hard to explain why, for instance, ʽGood Day Sunshineʼ feels so natural and easy-going, while this sunny day anthem feels so contrived.

I much prefer ʽMartin, Doom! It's Seven O'Clockʼ, which also stimulates its protagonist to "get out of bed", "the world is waiting just for you", etc., but does that at a slower, more thoughtful tempo and without hammering the repetitive hook into your head. It's a gradual six-minute build-up that could have been better arranged (for one thing, the fake synthesized horns and strings at the end really deserved to be real — as it is, the wall-of-sound approach seems misplaced), but on the symbolic level at least it does a really good job of representing a person's gradual awakening (in all senses of the word), and if any track on the album ever approaches «epic» status, it would be ʽMartinʼ. Also because it is uncluttered with vocal gimmicks: so many tracks here place their complete faith in aah-aah and ooh-ooh overdubs (some of them multi-layered, some of them phased, some of them reversed etc.) that eventually it just becomes boring.

Where they really get their stuff together is the very last song, and even then, not from the begin­ning: for the first few minutes, ʽWilderʼ just rides on a quasi-McCartney piano melody that mimics the form but misses the spirit. However, at around 3:30 into the song, it is transformed into a calm, unhurried, «introspective» jam that unexpectedly reveals a major talent in bassist Tim Brown — ironically, if there is one good thing here that they truly managed to snatch out of the Beatles' backpack and develop further, it is McCartney's bass melodicity, which Brown un­derstands perfectly well and capitalizes upon. Technically and emotionally, the jam is remini­scent of what the Beatles did on ʽDon't Let Me Downʼ — a thoughtful, seriously-playful bass groove against which the guitars and keyboards lay down some stately, economic lines, creating a feel of some sort of «mature serenity» — but here, despite being so derivative, they are also being highly successful.

It is rather weird to talk about an album's existence being essentially justified by its three-minute coda, but that's just the way it is; at least it is a major argument in support of a thumbs up, because otherwise we could get seriously irritated by the inadequacy of the «wake up!» ideology of the album. I mean, it pretends to be giving you a major ʽHey Judeʼ-an kick in the butt, but it just doesn't have enough calories to make it feel like a kick, if you know what I mean. Real admi­rable intention, though, no questions about it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Boards Of Canada: Tomorrow's Harvest

BOARDS OF CANADA: TOMORROW'S HARVEST (2013)

1) Gemini; 2) Reach For The Dead; 3) White Cyclosa; 4) Jacquard Causeway; 5) Telepath; 6) Cold Earth; 7) Trans­misiones Ferox; 8) Sick Times; 9) Collapse; 10) Palace Posy; 11) Split Your Infinities; 12) Uritual; 13) Nothing Is Real; 14) Sundown; 15) New Seeds; 16) Come To Dust; 17) Semena Mertvykh.

The first full-length album from Boards Of Canada in eight years — no wonder the electronic world went almost as crazy for this one as it would do for Aphex Twin's Syro a year later. Over­rated or not, Boards Of Canada are «official giants» from the Radiohead era, and just like Radio­head, even if they go on releasing dull crap for the rest of their lives, the hype machine has been set in such major action that the important question of «what it is, exactly, that separates great art from dull crap, particularly in the 21st century?» will seem irrelevant to the majority.

Alas, I remain in the minority that does give a damn, and I have to confess that I find Tomor­row's Harvest to be the duo's least impressive and most overreaching offering to date. Not that I have ever been a major fan, but at least in the past, these guys would look for odd targets to shoot at, and you could spend more time pondering over the meaning of the target than over whether they managed to hit it or not. This time, however, the target is pretty clear — as is, to me, the understanding that they missed it completely. In fact, they missed it so completely that I am even beginning to wonder if these guys really had any genuine talent to begin with.

The album's title, the song titles, the general atmospherics, even the hazy, ominous silhouette of Manhattan on the front cover all speak of dangerous premonitions. From the sounds of childhood and campfires, Boards Of Canada advance to the state where they, too, want to make their «post-apo­calyptic» soundscape of coldness, devastation, loneliness, and organic degradation. Which is perfectly alright: almost every electronic artist wishes to make one sooner or later. The only ques­tion is — will mine work better than yours?

My answer is that this is one of the least convincing, most instantly forgettable post-apocalyptic albums I have ever had the displeasure of hearing. It builds up the atmosphere based on careful selection of tones, yes, so that the sound is very consistent (and many of the tracks virtually in­distinguishable from each other), but that's about it. Just like before, the duo does not care about causing any sharp sensations: everything is smooth and glossy — elevator muzak for the last working elevator in the world left after the last World War. There is not a single track here, not one, for which I could offer any meaningful comment, because I have a distinct feeling I'd heard it all before, in better versions, worse versions, equally dull versions — not a single emotional response above the usual «well, I guess I'd rather hear this in an elevator/supermarket than Katy Perry, but then, on second thought...».

If we can have a specific point of counter-reference, the theme and mood of the album reminded me of certain tracks on the instrumental sides of David Bowie's Low and Heroes — stuff like ʽWarszawaʼ, ʽSubterraneansʼ, ʽSense Of Doubtʼ, compositions that used similar (even if compa­ratively «antique») techniques to create a feeling of lonely cockroach-style survival among the devastation and dreariness, but actually employed some brilliant minimalistic melodic moves to enhance and really drive home that feeling. And I no longer buy the whole «well, with Boards Of Canada it's all about continuous atmosphere, not about melodic potential» stuff — because Bowie and Eno somehow managed to have both, and now that I know that you can have atmosphere and melody at the same time, why should I settle for anything less?

All I can say is this: if an album like Tomorrow's Harvest, with its grand critical reception and all, is considered by anyone to represent the «state-of-the-art» of electronic music in the early 2010s, then «Electronica» must be as creatively dead as «Rock» or any other such labels, and this particular thumbs down that I am vehemently issuing for this «oh-no-not-another-dust-and-cock­roaches-art-piece» of an album turns out to be something far more serious than just a thumbs down. I do hope that is not the case here, though, and what we are really dealing with is a stereo­typical case of self-bullshitting due to somebody's legendary status. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bonnie Raitt: Longing In Their Hearts

BONNIE RAITT: LONGING IN THEIR HEARTS (1994)

1) Love Sneakin' Up On You; 2) Longing In Their Hearts; 3) You; 4) Cool, Clear Water; 5) Circle Dance; 6) I Sho Do; 7) Dimming Of The Day; 8) Feeling Of Falling; 9) Steal Your Heart Away; 10) Storm Warning; 11) Hell To Pay; 12) Shadow Of Doubt.

By the mid-1990s, Bonnie's sound gradually returned into the river bed of «straight» country-blues and blues-rock, cleaned up from the excesses of «synthetic» production. In fact, the only song on Longing In Their Hearts, her third album with Don Was, that would adequately fit the bill of «adult contemporary» is ʽYouʼ — for some reason, her biggest hit in the UK. Silky jazz-fusion bass and a hazy screen of synthesizers are responsible for this, even though the song would have sounded much better if things were kept down to just the acoustic guitar and accordeon; as a matter of fact, it does have quite a lovely vocal part, with Bonnie dropping her trademark rasp on the chorus and showing that she could have become quite an impressive falsetto crooner, had she wanted to. Fortunately, she did not, but nobody minds a little bit of falsetto.

Everything else is kept clean, tasteful, professional, and as for excitement, well, you now know very well what you are going to get. Surprisingly, it is not the fully arranged, rhythmic, «ener­getic-aggressive» blues-rockers this time that attract most of the attention, but the stripped-down balladeering stuff: as Bonnie ages, her vocal style becomes more and more sensitive and even sensual on the tender songs, whereas the «don't-mess-around-with-me» schtick gets less and less convincing. The best track on the album is arguably her cover of Richard Thompson's ʽDimming Of The Dayʼ — just a couple of acoustic guitars (some keyboards still make their way into the song midway through, but are kept down), some backing vocals, and wonderfully dramatic modulation throughout. The second best track is the swamp-blues ʽShadow Of Doubtʼ that closes the record — nothing extraordinary, but a nice enough synchronization of her voice with the slide guitar and harmonica overtones.

As soon as the band steps in, though, the whole thing becomes just another routine country-rock experience, the kind that you can get plenty of in just about any big or small American town that can allow itself to wine and dine some well-trained musicians. The title track; ʽI Sho Doʼ; ʽHell To Payʼ; and the record's biggest hit, ʽLove Sneakin' Up On Youʼ, all follow the same formula. ʽLoveʼ has the catchiest chorus of 'em all, but "it ain't nothing new", and, worse than that, it ain't nothing particularly credible. Everybody sounds professional, nobody sounds particularly in­spired — the message is delivered with the tone of a very boring college professor, completely disinterested in explaining a potentially exciting subject.

As usual, most of the mainstream reviews raved on about this one, though — and I guess that if you're in business for this kind of album, it would be hard to think of a better one. Everything is so perfectly in its right place and so perfectly «normal», one is either bound to love this silly or be bored to death. As much as certain people hate the solo career of Eric Clapton, at least that guy had it somehow going up and falling down, switching from relatively exciting highs to abysmal lows: with Bonnie, we have this technically unimpeachable formula where, at a certain point, you actually begin secretly wishing for an embarrassment — a techno beat with Autotune? a lengthy rap interlude? a duet with Montserrat Caballé? anything, just to keep the boredom away. Then you come back to your senses, of course, but that does not make the record any friendlier. Or, rather, it is already way too friendly to be any good.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: And Now!

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: AND NOW! (1966)

1) My Sweet Potato; 2) Jericho; 3) No Matter What Shape; 4) One Mint Julep; 5) In The Midnight Hour; 6) Summer­time; 7) Working In The Coal Mine; 8) Don't Mess Up A Good Thing; 9) Think; 10) Taboo; 11) Soul Jam; 12) Sen­timental Journey.

The band's first complete LP with ʽDuckʼ Dunn handling bass duties, but in other respects, sort of a step backwards, since once again, most of the tunes are covers, with but two exceptions: ʽMy Sweet Potatoʼ, a showcase for Booker T.'s mastery of the electric piano, and ʽSoul Jamʼ, featuring some cool guitar/organ interplay taken at a reasonably fast tempo. Actually, ʽPotatoʼ is a pretty damn fine tune that somehow combines the «sentimental strut» of Atlantic's piano-based tunes (the opening bass melody is quite reminiscent of ʽUnder The Boardwalkʼ) with the grittier sounds of the British Invasion (some of the chords openly mimic ʽSatisfactionʼ), and should not be over­looked because of its inadequately silly title.

Covers or no covers, though, at this point in time, whenever the band gathered together in the studio they were «unstoppably listenable», so that everything here is at least as nice, tasteful, and professional as always. Every once in a while, though, there are some startling surprises — I count at least three. First, as if to poke self-conscious fun at their own self-plagiarizing, they take the old Clovers classic ʽOne Mint Julepʼ and turn it into ʽGreen Onionsʼ, with yet another small touch of ʽSatisfactionʼ serving as the mint leaf. Second, the old "walls came tumbling down" bit of ʽJerichoʼ is perfectly rendered on guitar and organ, whereupon the tune becomes an even more passionate «soul jam» than ʽSoul Jamʼ itself.

Third and most importantly, there is a really haunting, practically unique cover of ʽSummertimeʼ here, with Booker T.'s organ scaling psychedelic heights of tone, milking the tune's deep mystical potential for all its worth, while Cropper adds brief, ghostly, wailing electric licks. Of all the non-jazz, non-vocal-centered versions of this composition this one just might be the best, or at least one of the top candidates — not to mention that it is probably one of the best places to understand the totality of Booker T.'s symbiosis with his preferred instrument (at about 0:48 he almost flies away into the realm of ultra-sound with the melody).

That said, the problem remains that a lot of the tunes they cover are melodically insufficient with­out vocals: ʽIn The Midnight Hourʼ, for instance, was still fresh in everyone's memory as a major hit for Wilson Pickett, and without Pickett, they are unable to make it similarly exciting. Neither do they have the superb ability of an expert jazz band to take an old standard and use it as a launchpad for exploring uncharted territory — the short, concise tunes rarely stray off base, and honestly, I have little interest in hearing ʽSentimental Journeyʼ diligently played by-the-book, no matter how overall-good the Cropper/Jones sound may be.

Still, the presence of ʽJerichoʼ, ʽMy Sweet Potatoʼ, and ʽSummertimeʼ is the necessary catalyst to guarantee the record a modest thumbs up — these songs clearly indicate that the band is not «coasting», but simply suffers from preset limitations of their format, while at the same time re­taining creativity and inspiration. Which is hardly surprising, seeing how Stax and Atlantic in ge­neral were so nicely adapting to the musical changes of the mid-Sixties, and entering their second (third?) wave of artistic greatness, for which the skeletal team of Booker T. & The M.G.'s was so heavily responsible when it came to supporting vocal artists.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Bonzo Dog Band: Anthropology: The Beast Within

THE BONZO DOG BAND: ANTHROPOLOGY: THE BEAST WITHIN (1967-69/1998)

1) Tent; 2) Busted; 3) I'm The Urban Spaceman I; 4) Mr. Slater's Parrot; 5) Canyons Of Your Mind (intro); 6) Can­yons Of Your Mind; 7) Canyons Of Your Mind I; 8) The Equestrian Statue; 9) Tragic Magic; 10) Quiet Talks And Summer Walks; 11) What Do You Do?; 12) Give Booze A Chance; 13) And 3/4; 14) National Beer; 15) Canyons Of Your Mind II; 16) Joke Shop Man; 17) A Wonderful Day Like Today; 18) Mr. Hyde In Me; 19) Look At Me, I'm Wonderful; 20) We Were Wrong; 21) Sofa Head; 22) By A Waterfall; 23) Boiled Ham Rhumba; 24) Intro; 25) The Monster Mash; 26) Humanoid Boogie; 27) I'm The Urban Spaceman II; 28) The Sound Of Music; 29) Little Sir Echo; 30) You Done My Brain In.

Save yourself the trouble, I guess. There is a rather disproportionate amount of various Bonzo Dog Band compilations on the market, some lightly peppered with otherwise unavailable goodies and some not at all — but there is no such thing as «a magic vault» for these guys, as this parti­cular collection of outtakes and rarities clearly shows. Released in 1998 and proclaiming to re­present «rehearsal material» from around 1967-68, Anthropology, out of its 30 tracks, has maybe 4 or 5 «true surprises» in stock for the casual Bonzo Dog fan (that is, if the word «casual» is at all applicable to any Bonzo Dog fan), and not all of them nice surprises at that.

In fact, only Stanshall's ʽMr. Hyde In Meʼ could probably pass for a valuable addition — a pretty hilarious impersonation of a guy's «sexual transformation», unfortunately a bit spoiled by some of those annoying high-pitched mock-doo-wop backing harmonies. The demented waltz of ʽLittle Sir Echoʼ is also silly-funny, although its major hook (the "hello! — hello!" echo in question) would eventually be borrowed for ʽMr. Slater's Parrotʼ and the rest discarded. And those who respect the Bonzos for their musical experimentation will probably want to be exposed to ʽSofa Headʼ, a fairly wild free-style romp through the world of jungle jazz, cosmic rock, and chime-led nursery rhymes, well in line with any typical bit of Doughnut-era material.

On the other hand, off-the-cuff novelty material like ʽGive Booze A Chanceʼ (yes, a very straight­forward parody of ʽGive Peace A Chanceʼ) is simply not funny, and only exists as a symbolic showcase for the Bonzos' already well-known «irreverence»; nor is it easy to get won over by half-baked piano exercises such as ʽBoiled Ham Rhumbaʼ, which honestly sounds like Neil Innes sitting down at the piano and nonsensically improvising for a couple of minutes. (On the AMG side, somebody supposed that this could be a parody on John Lennon — really? Does the re­viewer know something we don't know?).

Even so, all of these «new» songs are swept away by the ocean waves of all-too-familiar material, presented in alternative versions — as a rule, inferior ones either in arrangement, or in sound quality, or both. You do get to see how songs like ʽBustedʼ or ʽMr. Slater's Parrotʼ evolved, and no number of different versions of ʽUrban Spacemanʼ can be too huge for such a jolly tune, but on the whole, there is little to discuss unless one has really, truly, loyally worn out his faithful copies of the original studio albums. Which, not coincidentally, could also be said about the Beatles' Anthologies — which, not coincidentally, must have served as the obvious model for this CD. Indeed — back in 1967-69, the Bonzos were like the Beatles' comic twins (no wonder the two had a bit of a symbiotic relationship at the height of the flower power era), so it comes as no surprise that they would choose this particular timing, just two years since the wrapping-up of the Anthology project, to review the raw edges of their own career. However, that is the fate of all comical twins — their sketches and leftovers inevitably pale in comparison with their more serious brethren. Besides, these are not even sketches, more like «rehearsal versions» indeed: too close to the final variants to become interesting — too different from the final variants to become «alternatively perfect». In other words, for completists only.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Arthur Brown: Zim Zam Zim

ARTHUR BROWN: ZIM ZAM ZIM (2014)

1) Zim Zam Zim; 2) Want To Love; 3) Jungle Fever; 4) The Unknown; 5) Assun; 6) Muscle Of Love; 7) Junkyard King; 8) Light Your Light; 9) Touched By All; 10) The Formless Depths.

One thing at least we know: as of the 2010s, Arthur Brown remains remembered and admired enough to successfully conduct a crowdfunding pledge campaign in order to raise the money for his next album. A very nice thing to know — especially considering that the album itself, despite having been recorded and issued as promised, has probably received 1,000,000th share of atten­tion compared to any recent release by any of the day's moronic «superstars». Yes, Arthur Brown has been relegated to the top back shelves of the musical world, but as long as he has a small bunch of people offering support, this will not prevent him from putting out good art.

Once again credited to The Crazy (rather than The Amazing) World of Arthur Brown, Zim Zam Zim continues Arthur's surprisingly consistent streak of records that nobody ever listens to. In fact, it might even be his most consistent set of tunes in the 21st century — no mean feat for a 72-year old guy. The fact that he's been so crazy and isolated all these years actually helps, because the songs, once again, are timeless, paying no heed whatsoever to any modern developments (he does mention his iPod in one song, but then even Steve Jobs invented the iPod so that he could put himself some Bob Dylan and some Bach on it), and all for the better.

The title of the album already suggests a phantasmagoric circus experience (the normal way of life for Arthur Brown, that is), as does the eerie album cover, as does the opening track with its grumbly brass fanfares, deep harmonies, and booming message by the maniacal herald himself. Apparently, Zim Zam Zim is a state of being that preceded even The Big Bang, to which we are being invited or, at the very least, of which we are going to be informed. Big news for most people, table talk for Mr. Brown.

However, if you think that the album is going to be wildly psychedelic and ultra-other-worldly-dimensional, that is not the case. All the songs are a little whacky as far as Arthur's singing is concerned, and many of the tracks feature unconventional arrangements, but the chief point here, I think, was on integrating a wide variety of different styles — to put it philosophically, explore the amazing diversity of forms postdating the solitary state of Zim Zam Zim. "In my heart all forms of life are joined", quoth Mr. Brown, and that includes such forms of musical life as ska, rumba, blues, folk, rock, jazz, and noise. Above all of that, his voice still rings out loud and clear, and it can be sentimental, aggressive, or just plain crazy whenever he wants — and he sure as hell don't sound like a 72-year old. Must be all these mystical mushrooms.

Melodically, most of the tunes are fairly traditional, but it helps makes them more memorable, and then there are all the different angles. ʽWant To Loveʼ has a basic ska bounce to it, bu the percussion sounds like the Nibelung anvils, and the brass, strings, and accordeon cobwebs in the background are quite a wond'rous combination. ʽJungle Feverʼ is a minimalistic boogie-blues piece that echoes back to John Lee Hooker, but the guitar is processed in a way that makes it sound closer to a Jew's harp, and the accompanying wildlife sounds truly give the impression of a crazy old man lost in the jungle, strumming his instrument and going more and more ga-ga with each passing moment. ʽThe Unknownʼ sounds like a long-lost outtake from Tom Waits' Rain Dogs (Brown even gets a credible rasp-and-gurgle going for the chorus, although he probably has to live for 72 more years to catch up with Mr. Tom), but far more densely arranged (background vocals, whistles, very busy and melodic piano line, etc.).

If you are on the lookout for a good strong punch, ʽMuscle Of Loveʼ offers an opportunity — nothing to do with the Alice Cooper song or album of the same name, in particulars, but just as dark, sarcastic, and glammy as Alice at his most theatrical. The chorus ("don't wear no hat, don't wear no gloves, all you wear is your muscle of love") should probably have a sexual interpreta­tion (Brown's Tantric practices are never obsolete), but it is the song's nagging brass riff that offers the most sexual imagery of it all — and the track's complex, sense-thrashing, somewhat jungle-like percussion arrangement heats things up even further.

There are occasional moments of heartwarming beauty (ʽLight Your Lightʼ), occasional moments of surprising musical complexity, hearkening back to the old Journey days (ʽTouched By Allʼ), and a chaotic, percussion-wild conclusion (ʽThe Formless Depthsʼ) that might, perhaps, have been more formally impressive with a larger budget, but even so, it is curious to learn how one may paint the be-all-end-all state of the universe with nothing but tribal percussion, a little elec­tronic grunting, and some primeval yodeling. I probably wouldn't have imagined it like that myself, but I do tip my hat to the effort — and to the album in general, which really gets the easi­est thumbs up I remember giving to Brown since Requiem. Highly recommended if you can find it, and reason enough, I guess, to keep sending in those pledges as long as the old «muscle of love» still retains a modicum of potential energy.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Bon Jovi: Keep The Faith

BON JOVI: KEEP THE FAITH (1992)

1) I Believe; 2) Keep The Faith; 3) I'll Sleep When I'm Dead; 4) In These Arms; 5) Bed Of Roses; 6) If I Was Your Mother; 7) Dry Country; 8) Woman In Love; 9) Fear; 10) I Want You; 11) Blame It On The Love Of Rock'n'Roll; 12) Little Bit Of Soul; 13*) Save A Prayer.

One thing you gotta give to these guys: they sure know how to adapt to the changing times. Or, perhaps, somebody knew how to adapt them to the changing times. The majority of hair metal bands could come and go and leave no trace whatsoever, but Bon Jovi were the major hostages of the system par excellence: the biggest band in the world, or something close to that, does not just come and go at will. They had to reinvent themselves and come out on top as usual, or something would be revealed as wrong with the business model.

In other words, in this era of triumphant grunge and «alt-rock» values, as rock'n'roll music once again seemed to be entering a «serious» age, Bon Jovi had to get serious, too. That entire "bad medicine is what I need!" schtick had to go, although there are still some traces of it here, in the form of the oh-so-flat barroom rocker ʽBlame It On The Love Of Rock'n'Rollʼ, for instance. Not that this was any sort of problem for Jon Bon Jovi, who had always, more than anything in the world, be Mr. Bono Springsteen the Third, and now it's as if Father Time himself was knocking on his door: "Two minutes to Big Social Statement Ball, Mr. Bon Jovi!"

The change of producer was accidental: they wanted Bruce Fairbairn on the job again, but he was busy producing guess what? — Aerosmith's Get A Grip, of course! — and so they had to settle for the next best thing: Bob Rock, who helped Mötley Crüe become a household name with Dr. Feelgood. The overall production values or sound type have not changed much, actually, except for one obvious thing — the album is much more bass-heavy, both in the guitar and keyboards department, symbolically reflecting an increase in Depth. As for the songs, the good old «power ballad» is not going anywhere, what with it already having had Depth from the beginning; but the «cock rocker» is thoroughly replaced by the «heart rocker».

I would guess that anybody who first saw the track listing on the new Bon Jovi album would have to go, «oh no, they're Christian rockers now!» But in fact, calling the songs ʽI Believeʼ and ʽKeep The Faithʼ was just a cozy trick to attract a part of the religious audience — lyrically, it is never made clear what it is exactly that we have to believe in, and what sort of faith should we keep: both tunes are just vague-and-vapid «spiritual anthems» of the «life-is-shit-but-we-will-pull-through» variety. There's also a song with the word «soul» in the title, and if you get the bonus-tracked edition, the last song is called ʽSave A Prayerʼ. Well — only natural, now that you have probably made love to every single young female on the planet, to save a little prayer for desert, and make us all think about our souls, if only for a little bit.

Now here comes the strange part: many, if not most, of these songs are fairly catchy — no matter how much more pomp they pump, the vocal hooks are still there. ʽI Believeʼ is a slavish imitation of U2, and Jon's Bono-influenced wail is wailed at just the right climactic moment in just the right intonation to convince a hundred thousand-strong stadium to sing along. ʽKeep The Faithʼ, the band's first experience with that new, trendy, funk-poppy, Madchester-style sound that keeps your body so busy, also does a good job of gradually climbing up towards the explosion. And I will even put down the grin for a moment and admit that ʽFearʼ is a good song — notwithstan­ding the open theft of the main chorus riff from Michael Jackson's ʽBeat Itʼ, its paranoid buildup has something really scary about it (it doesn't hurt, either, that the song is not as mercilessly stretched out as everything else on here, clocking in at 3:05 like a good lad).

Even so, they manage to overdo it every now and then. The most obvious case is ʽDry Countyʼ, a song squeezed out to Epic Proportions because Epic Points need to be justified by Epic Length. How do you know which one is a record's major artistic statement? — by the size, of course. Building up, falling down, stopping for breath, kicking the shit out of that drumstand, unwinding the most frickin' ecstatic guitar solo of your life — all of this going hand in hand with lyrics about the failure of The American Dream, be it for one person in particular or for all mankind. Are you game enough to join Jon and Richie in their eulogy for idealism? I'm not. The whole experience is way too artificial and calculated, and who really needs it if you can have Neil Young's ʽRockin' In The Free Worldʼ instead of this combination of gloss with primitivism?

Yet on the whole, despite all the predictably calculated aspects and despite the rather irritating length, Keep The Faith is probably the last Bon Jovi album that is consistently listenable. The songs keep their «tough» musculature and frequently rock, the choruses are well thought out, and you could trim these 70 minutes down to a reasonable 40 if you pruned out some of the power ballads (ʽBed Of Rosesʼ is just awful, and would be just as awful even if it did not contain the hilariously-unintentionally-blasphemous line "I wanna be just as close as your holy ghost is") and removed some of the verses and/or bridges from others. And yes, ʽDry Countyʼ would have to go — not because it is the worst song on the album, but simply out of principle. Quod licet Iovi, non licet Bon Jovi, as the Romans said, which freely translates into English as: «What the hell is a nine-minute song doing on a Bon Jovi record, of all possible places?»

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Boo Radleys: Giant Steps

THE BOO RADLEYS: GIANT STEPS (1993)

1) I Hang Suspended; 2) Upon 9th And Fairchild; 3) Wish I Was Skinny; 4) Leaves And Sand; 5) Butterfly McQueen; 6) Rodney King (Song For Lenny Bruce); 7) Thinking Of Ways; 8) Barney (...And Me); 9) Spun Around; 10) If You Want It, Take It; 11) Best Lose The Fear; 12) Take The Time Around; 13) Lazarus; 14) One Is For; 15) Run My Way Runway; 16) I've Lost The Reason; 17) The White Noise Revisited.

A little presumptuous, wouldn't you think, to name your LP «in honor» of a genuinely trail­blazing record by one of your predecessors, especially one whose vision, professionalism, and artistic depth you have very little hope of matching. All the more strange since the music of The Boo Radleys owes fairly little to John Coltrane, at least not in any direct way. Of course, if you wanted, you could always trace a credible line of development from Coltrane-era modal and free jazz to the shoegaze movement, but, ironically, Giant Steps is The Boo Radleys' first venture well away from the canons of shoegazing and into the territory of more dynamic, concisely structured, catchy psychedelic pop. A giant step for the Boos, perhaps — a fairly tiny blip for mankind, though, I'm afraid.

Technically speaking, Giant Steps satisfies all the conditions for establishing an intelligent pop lover's paradise. Lovely vocal harmonies, a clever balance between acoustic and electric guitars, an even more clever balance between «melodic» and «noise» components, a delirious mishmash of Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties' influences, enough creativity to fill more than one whole hour of music, and a nice cosmopolitan flavour — no traces of the embryonic «Britpop» with its arrogant accents and hip cockiness. How could this not be recommended? You'd have to be tasteless, heartless, and illiterate not to recommend it.

Yet at the same time, even as Martin Carr and Sice move deeper and deeper into the spicefield of vocal and instrumental hooks, I have a nasty impression that they have relatively little talent for these hooks. Giant Steps sounds good, but the songs do not hang around for long, and it is not really a matter of the album's excessive length (though some have complained) as it seems to be their inability to come up with something that would really truly be «the Boo Radleys sound» and nobody else's. A song like ʽWish I Was Skinnyʼ sounds lovely, with its wooing fusion of acoustic rhythm, «tinkling» electric lead, atmospheric brass and organ doubling and tripling of the rhythm, Sice's seductive crooning, and a busy, steady tempo — but that's about it: «lovely», without getting under the skin by means of some truly striking device.

I almost feel ashamed writing this, because I really want to love Giant Steps: the lack of «theo­retical» innovation should not bother us at all, as long as the songs properly hit the proper emo­tional centers. But they do only twice, at the very beginning and then again right at the end. ʽI Hang Suspendedʼ, lyrically conceived as some sort of answer to some sort of antagonist ("ain't that just you know the facts, but you haven't got a clue about me or my life") and instrumentally presented as an energetic funk-pop rocker, is quite a rousing introduction — and ʽThe White Noise Revisitedʼ, closing the album on a gentle farewell note, has a sentimental mantra for a coda ("hey! what's that noise? do you remember?"), lushly arranged and making for a stately conclu­sion, although you eventually begin to wonder if its stateliness does not come exclusively from its repetitiveness... well, hopefully not.

The basic agenda of The Boo Radleys, now that the noise clouds have dissipated a bit, is clear: they are dreamers, escapists, big fans of Sgt. Pepper, and, like all those Elephant 6 bands on the other side of the ocean, they want to restore its original fifth-dimensional colours to pop music. Their basic failure is also exactly the same as in the case of most such bands — they love their influences so much, they want to make that kind of music, but everything that comes out is spi­ritually, if not technically or intellectually, inferior. As an experiment, I have listened to the song ʽBest Lose The Fearʼ, which seemed like a worthy candidate, three times in a row — all I hear is half-hearted McCartnyisms without any real understanding of how it should really work. For one thing, Sice has a beautiful vocal tone, but he doesn't do anything with it — generally staying on the exact same «pretty» frequency, almost as if such a thing as «vocal modulation» never existed. For another thing, the accompanying colorfully distorted lead guitar part never seems to pretend to anything but colorful accompaniment — the humble Martin Carr never lets it develop into a proper solo or even into a particularly flashy, noticeable riff. It's simply there for the color. It's a nice color, but the real nicety of the color always reveals itself when it's organized into a shape.

The big single from the album was ʽLazarusʼ, a densely arranged, epic track into which they really must have put a lot of work — but behind all the overwhelming layers of electronic noise, solemn brass, and roaring guitars, lies a very simple and not specifically attractive or innovative folk-pop melody from God knows back when. They put enough makeup on it to make it into a cosmic anthem, and sometimes, this might work, but for me, ʽLazarusʼ does not work. It seems to be trying to make some big point, and it comes out sounding as heavy psycho muzak.

Despite all these criticisms, I respect sincere craft as much as I worship authentic genius, and be­cause of that, Giant Steps gets a thumbs up. At the very least, it gives us a band that has mana­ged to go beyond the obvious trends and fads of its time and either decide to boldly pursue some eclectic ambitions, or discover its own true colors — or both. In my opinion, The Boo Radleys are mediocre songwriters and unimpressive visionaries, but that does not prevent them from de­veloping a potentially great, colorful, friendly sound, which must have sounded even greater, friendlier, more colorful back in 1993 than it does today, and which still remains well worth revisiting for every serious lover of «psycho-pop».

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Boards Of Canada: Trans Canada Highway

BOARDS OF CANADA: TRANS CANADA HIGHWAY (2006)

1) Dayvan Cowboy; 2) Left Side Drive; 3) Heard From Telegraph Lines; 4) Skyliner; 5) Under The Coke Sign; 6) Dayvan Cowboy (Odd Nosdam remix).

Originally, I managed to mistake this for an actual album, even though it is really a stop-gap EP (or «maxi-single», whatever): 28 minutes, 5 of which is ʽDayvan Cowboyʼ (already included in Campfire Headphase and discussed above), 5 more of which is a remix of ʽDayvan Cowboyʼ by trendy producer Odd Nosdam, and only about 15 minutes of which actually consists of material unavailable elsewhere. Nevertheless, on the whole it is still pretty long, and a brief comment may be in order (besides, Twoism and Hi Scores were EPs, too, formally speaking).

The remix of ʽCowboyʼ seems like a crapola exercise to me: the major point was to take the composition's sonic subtleties and convert them to jarring, distorted noise, so that the «Link Wray guitar» parts of it now sound more like «Sonic Youth guitar» parts. Artistic license is always welcome, but Boards Of Canada have never been a «noise»-oriented band, and I do not see the point in trying to reinvent their art as some sort of «neo-shoegazing» project. That said, there's no accounting for taste, really — any combinations, reinventions, or deconstructions in this densely populated world of ours will always find some audience.

The two new large tracks, ʽLeft Side Driveʼ and ʽSkylinerʼ, seem to pre-announce the duo's transition to the next stage of their career, to be fully explored on Tomorrow's Harvest several years later — a return to a completely electronic sound (no acoustic guitars or any other «folk» accoutrements), but more dynamic and multi-layered than the early style: chill-out muzak for people who just want to be chilled out, rather than «symbolically stimulated». The former em­ploys digital tones that I'd call «cloudy», the latter relies on tones I'd name «steamy», but the overriding ideology is pretty much the same, and so is the general effect (lazy psychedelia — light trance — breezy hallucinations — don't drink and drive — that sort of thing). Okay, but nothing special whatsoever.

Finally, the short tracks are just atmospheric humming interludes: ʽHeard From Telegraph Linesʼ (and subsequently amplified, bottled, and sold) pretty much describes the essence of this minute-long bit in a nutshell, and if ʽUnder The Coke Signʼ genuinely describes whatever is happening down there, I'm pretty sure the owner is not doing a good business at all. Or maybe they just mean a billboard along some lonely highway — the Trans Canada Highway, that is. Arguably the best way to assess this EP is simply to take the highway and plop this in your stereo. Be warned, though — according to Wikipedia, the highway is approximately 4,860 miles long, so you'll have a lot of replaying to do. But if there's anything we can learn from Boards Of Canada at all, it's that the world need be in no hurry, and that slow and repetitive digestion beats fussy and varied digestion on all counts.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Bonnie Raitt: Luck Of The Draw

BONNIE RAITT: LUCK OF THE DRAW (1991)

1) Something To Talk About; 2) Good Man, Good Woman; 3) I Can't Make You Love Me; 4) Tangled And Dark; 5) Come To Me; 6) No Business; 7) One Part Be My Lover; 8) Not The Only One; 9) Papa Come Quick; 10) Slow Ride; 11) Luck Of The Draw; 12) All At Once.

I will wholeheartedly admit that Luck Of The Draw, building up on the commercial success of Nick Of Time and managing to sell even more copies (as more and more baby boomers passed a certain age limit?), is a better album, and probably holds up a little better after all this time. How­ever, the only reason for this is us passing into the next decade — gradually wringing ourselves out of the clutches of truly bad, suffocating production. This time, everything is handled more smoothly, and has a much more «natural»-looking superficial flavor. Whether this lack of obvious ugliness makes for extra depth, not to mention entertainment, is a different thing.

I will even admit that ʽI Can't Make You Love Meʼ, one of those pillars of adult contemporary (yet also a song fully and completely rooted in early 1970s soft-rock / country-pop / whatever), is a song that operates efficiently on gut level. As much as I perversely expect, every single time, her to rhyme the line "here in the dark, in these final hours" with something ending in "golden showers" (admit it, it's such a natural rhyme, isn't it?), there is a real tug there on the "I can't make you love me" bit that Bonnie nails just right. She does have a knack for capturing that entire "two meters away from happiness, but no way we're gonna make it" vibe, and if only a little bit more effort went into the music...

...the problem, of course, being that the music is completely uninteresting. Blues, ballads, full arrangements, sparse arrangements, fast tempos, slow tempos — there is not a single guitar lick or piano chord to be found here that would step one inch out of the ordinary. Not one inch! As in, you know, you just don't want to mess up a good formula — no need to upset your potential audience. Consequently, the best track on the album is probably the one where little upsetting could be done in the first place, due to format limitations — the little acoustic ditty ʽPapa Come Quickʼ, with a New Orleanian accordeon overdub for company, sounding like something out of The Band's Cahoots stage, though less ambitious. It's traditional, predictable, enjoyable, forget­table, and unregrettable — everybody does just what they can do. In almost every case, much more could be done. But wasn't.

Where it can still get offensive is in the «message» area. For instance, ʽSomething To Talk Aboutʼ, written by Canadian songwriter Shirley Eikhard, is about — imagine that! — two repre­sentatives of the opposite sex wrongly assumed to be having an affair by the outside world and wishing to — you don't say! — capitalize on this. This almost TITILLATING, nearly ADULTE­ROUS subject should have probably been set to a nasty, sleazy, Stonesy soundtrack, but instead, all we get is some bland keyboards, some weak soul harmonies, and a shamefully lazy slide gui­tar solo that probably took three minutes to figure out. Not convincing!

A bit of atmosphere is injected in Bonnie's own ʽTangled And Darkʼ, although both the melody and the atmosphere have triggered an association with The Grateful Dead's ʽWest L. A. Fade­awayʼ in my mind — and probably not just in mine. (One thing that is special to this track is a set of brass overdubs that give it extra nocturnal, slightly spooky flavor.) On the other hand, the mix of «jello-wobble keyboards» and «ethnic» whistles on ʽOne Part Be My Loverʼ feels like an at­tempt to ride that New Age wave — not something that can, or should, be ever done in a half-assed manner: if you want to be Enya, you should go all the way and farther than that, or else you're simply channelling a new route for boredom and an inferiority complex.

In short, as we get to the title track, written by Paul Brady, there's a nagging suspicion that she means it: "Forget those movies you saw / It's in the luck of the draw / The natural law". That this album and its predecessor managed to enjoy such a huge success — out of literally hundreds of such releases — has very much to do with «the luck of the draw», and I am not even beginning to search for any scientific explanation. At the same time, if it's really luck and not well-program­med calculation, I guess that this eliminates the need to plant seeds of hatred for either Bonnie or her producer. Except for some of the really slow ballads and that whole inescapable sensation of «why-the-heck-am-I-listening-to-this-when-I-could-be-Superman», Luck Of The Draw is com­pletely inoffensive and perfectly listenable for all those who appreciate clean, smooth, professio­nal roots-rock, sometimes bordering on «adult contemporary». Comestible enough circa 1991, but who really wants to drag it along into the next century?

Except for Adele, perhaps, who has frequently covered ʽI Can't Make You Love Meʼ in live performance. But then again, with all due respect, Adele and her voice could make Bonnie Raitt's diary come alive, let alone one of her glossy ballads that does accidentally feature a pre-set wor­king hook from the very beginning. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band: Pour L'Amour Des Chiens

THE BONZO DOG DOO-DAH BAND: POUR L'AMOUR DES CHIENS (2007)

1) Pour L'Amour Des Chiens; 2) Let's All Go To Mary's House; 3) Hawkeye The Gnu; 4) Making Faces At The Man In The Moon; 5) Fiasco; 6) Purple Sprouting Broccoli; 7) Old Tige; 8) Wire People; 9) Salmon Proust; 10) Demo­cracy; 11) I Predict A Riot; 12) Scarlet Ribbons; 13) Paws; 14) And We're Back; 15) Stadium Love; 16) Mornington Crescent; 17) L'Essence D'Hooligan; 18) Early Morning Train; 19) My Friends Outside; 20) For The Benefit Of Mankind; 21) Beautiful People; 22) Ego Warriors; 23) Cockadoodle Tato; 24) Tiptoe Through The Tulips; 25) Sweet Memories; 26) Sudoku Forecast; 27) Now You're Asleep; 28) Jean Baudrillard.

A proper reunion of the (mostly) original Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. In 2007. No Viv Stanshall to come down from the sky, even if only for a moment, but most of the rest somehow cuddled together. Do you really want to hear that? A relic so inextricably associated with the Sixties. It is certainly one thing to see a brief glimpse of them in a nostalgia-oriented show, but to actually subject ourselves to new material from these guys, in the iPhone and YouTube age and all? Who in his right mind would want to do that, unless out of some twisted understanding of «pity»?

Apparently, nobody did: the album was barely noted upon release, and you can count the online-available reactions to it on the fingers of both hands, be it professional critical reviews or average music fan assessments — and the reaction, mostly, was as expected: «kinda fun, but why should this ever exist in this age?» And from a purely logical standpoint, this is absolutely correct: it should not. Fortunately, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band never operated on Aristotelian logic, or else they wouldn't have any right to the title of «Doo-Dah».

Once logic has been politely asked out the door, Pour L'Amour Des Chiens is an excellent album — nostalgic, futuristic, whatever, it is bursting with all sorts of ideas, some good, some bad, some exquisitely tasteful, some disgustingly (or delightfully) distasteful, and all of them sounding as if The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band never really went away. Well, they might have climbed into a refrigerator for a while, but it's not even as if they were frozen unconscious all that time: at the very least, they know who Gary Numan is.

For the most part, the record relies on musical (and comical) structures and gimmicks that do not, indeed, transgress the human experience accumulated by around 1969. For the most part, yes — but that does not prevent them from certain intentional anachronisms. For instance, around the middle of the album there is a track called ʽPawsʼ, in which you are advocated to press the pause button on your player and go have a snack or something, since this is the way LP records were designed in the 1960s. However, what they do not warn you about is that back in the 1960s, few, if any, record sides could run for about 32-35 minutes — whereas Pour L'Amour Des Chiens makes full use of the CD format, running for over 70 minutes, almost enough for a double LP, come to think of it, and certainly the most sprawling record in the entire life of the Bonzos.

Fortunately, with not a single track running over five minutes, and lots of small spoken-word, faux-commercial, and general-goofy interludes, the album does not truly seem overlong — not to mention that, in solid Bonzo tradition, the amount of different styles is truly staggering. Only twice do they seriously venture outside the comfy zone of «the Sixties and everything beyond that back in time»: ʽMy Friends Outsideʼ is a rather sneery send-up of artsy synth-pop (the one with the explicit Gary Numan references and a hilarious discussion on the emotional implications of various electronic effects at the end), and the ʽLegsʼ Larry Smith spotlight number ʽSweet Memo­riesʼ, despite being one of the album's most explicit nostalgia-oriented song, is «perversely» arranged as a late Seventies disco dance number — indeed, it would be too boring for these guys to set their memories to a soundtrack from the same time as those memories, wouldn't it?

Wait, actually, I'm wrong: another all-too obvious piece of evidence for the Bonzos knowing what time of day it is is their cover of the Kaiser Chiefs' ʽI Predict A Riotʼ; it's just that the Kaiser Chiefs themselves are such a blatantly retro-looking band that, in a way, it is not quite clear who exactly is covering who. Well, so the Bonzos, if my memory serves me right, did not actually try their hand at straightforward garage rock back in 1967-69, but they do now, and do it in their expected manner, taking the word «riot» a little too literally and then taking a look at what fol­lows (no spoilers). In any case, a good choice and yet another bit of success.

Highlights on the whole are too numerous to mention everything. Just a few random quick notes, then. ʽLet's All Go To Mary's Houseʼ is a piece of crackling vaudeville that belongs equally well in 1925 and on Gorilla. ʽPurple Sprouting Broccoliʼ gives us a merry banjo-led country spoof; additionally, ʽOld Tigeʼ then kicks the bucket even further by covering an old Jim Reeves tune (one of those sentimental «me and my dog» narratives) and winding its spoken narrative up to truly absurdist highs. ʽWire Peopleʼ should be read "why are people..." and included in a Sesame Street episode. On ʽDemocracyʼ, Neil Innes fumbles around with a little reggae and offers a little bit of supposedly-serious insight in the issue of human rights. And my personal favorite at the moment is probably ʽEgo Warriorsʼ, which not only rocks harder than everything else, but also probably makes the most biting — nay, the most annihilating — lyrical point of all (which point can be already well seen from the title, but do check it out for the rest of the words).

The album seems to be dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased Jean Baudrillard, who gets namechecked in a French version of the opening ditty — appropriately so, considering the Bonzos' post-structuralist pedigree: whatever nasty counter-arguments one might fling at the theoretical skeleton of post-modernism, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band is one of its happy side effects, and Pour L'Amour Des Chiens, with its boatload of catchy, funny, inventive tunes, is quite a happy side effect of the Bonzos. A comeback? As far as eternity is concerned, the mighty Doo-Dah has never really gone away, so the term hardly applies. In fact, new guests like Stephen Fry (who plays a fully appropriate Jeeves-type role on ʽHawkeye The Gnuʼ) carry on the old spirit in full understanding, so, apparently, as long as Great Britain, humor, intellect, and a lack of fear of offending too many people still exist, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band still has a future. Try to find the album if you can — a timeless delight, really. Thumbs up.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: Soul Dressing

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: SOUL DRESSING (1965)

1) Soul Dressing; 2) Tic-Tac-Toe; 3) Big Train; 4) Jellybread; 5) Aw' Mercy; 6) Outrage; 7) Night Owl Walk; 8) Chinese Checkers; 9) Home Grown; 10) Mercy Mercy; 11) Plum Nellie; 12) Can't Be Still.

Unlike Green Onions, this one does not seriously pretend to be a genuine, much less «concep­tual» LP — like so many others, it largely consists of a string of singles recorded by the band from 1963 to 1965, in the process of which they eventually lost original bass player Lewie Stein­berg and replaced him with Donald ʽDuckʼ Dunn, thus completing the «classic» Stax lineup, res­ponsible for so much of that mid-to-late 1960s Atlantic greatness. On the other hand, also unlike Green Onions, Soul Dressing largely consists of original compositions — with the exception of Don Covay's ʽMercy Mercyʼ, all the songs are now credited to the band members.

The question of originality does not exactly disappear, since many of the compositions sound like variations on all too familiar themes (ʽBig Trainʼ = Howlin' Wolf's ʽLittle Babyʼ, to name but one), including some of their own (ʽJellybreadʼ, for instance, re­cycles the main organ groove of ʽGreen Onionsʼ once too many), but in any case, this is not a very relevant issue for the boys, whose goal was never to push forward musical boundaries in  blinding flashes of inspiration, but to make professional, reliable, cool-sounding mini-sound­tracks to stimulate the body without insulting the mind. To that end, Soul Dressing is just the right kind of dressing, as would be many of its follow-ups.

And it's not as if there weren't lots of cute minor touches that keep reminding us — these guys had, on the average, one notch more of class than most competition. There's the tricky, confusing percussion groove on ʽTic-Tac-Toeʼ, for instance, stuck somewhere in between regular rock'n'roll and syncopated funk — and they also experiment with fade-outs, bringing the tune back for an extra thirty seconds out of nowhere even as you think it was over all too quickly. There's ʽChi­nese Checkersʼ, whose main organ/guitar riff builds on the already mentioned ʽMercy Mercyʼ, but competes for attention with Hugh Masekela-style horns, and plays on the title by having somebody cue Booker T. for his electric piano solo with a juicy "your move!"

And then there's ʽPlum Nellieʼ, where they finally succeed in coming up with something just as gritty and threa­tening as ʽGreen Onionsʼ, even if this time they have to abandon «minimalism» and add a brash brass part to the recording, as well as have Steve Cropper intersperse his concise riffage with more complex soloing techniques (trills, ʽMisirlouʼ-style surf guitar passages, etc. — no feedback, though: for all their experimentation, these guys were «clean» as a whistle). A track as sharp and crisp as that could not be forgotten, and, in fact, the Small Faces later covered it, probably out of reluctance to be good lads and play the usual ʽGreen Onionsʼ like everybody else. Now those guys threw in quite a bit of juicy feedback, though — throwing out the horns and probably wrecking a complete drum kit in the process. Not sure if Booker T. would have appre­ciated that. Too much ruckus and chaos.

Although some of the tracks could probably be labelled as «filler» if we were in the mood for labelling, the M.G.'s in their prime were always a delight to hear, and even if the basic grooves are often similar, neither Booker T. nor Steve Cropper ever play the same solo twice; also, pro­ceedings are kept at a certain level of diversity, alternating between strict blues, poppier blues, gospellier blues (by the way, on a random note — Ray Manzarek's organ solo on ʽLight My Fireʼ owes quite a bit to ʽSoul Dressingʼ, doesn't it?), and midnight jazz (ʽNight Owl Walkʼ, which is all soft and hushed and premonition-filled, but just as you succeed in getting lulled, they pull you out with a stop-and-start punchline — the classic sense-baiter). All the goals here being fairly humble, and all of them being met with the usual touch of class, I see no reason not to give Soul Dressing a proper thumbs up rating. At the very least, you simply won't be getting this kind of guitar and organ solos on the absolute majority of vocal R&B records of that time — reason enough to be interested in the M.G.'s on their own terms.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Angra: Secret Garden

ANGRA: SECRET GARDEN (2014)

1) Newborn Me; 2) Black Hearted Soul; 3) Final Light; 4) Storm Of Emotions; 5) Violet Sky; 6) Secret Garden; 7) Upper Levels; 8) Crushing Room; 9) Perfect Symmetry; 10) Silent Call.

Another four years, another «Angra» album, and again, the only remaining original members are the guitar duo of Loureiro and Bettencourt, and now they have even gone as far as to change the lead vocalist again — instead of Edu Falaschi, welcome Fabio Lione, a native of the fair town of Pisa who now shares lead vocalist duties in no less than three different prog-metal bands, in­cluding the Italian outfits Rhapsody Of Fire and Vision Divine, though, of course, Angra must be his biggest gambit so far. The guy must be in serious demand — frankly, however, I do not notice any crucial difference between his and Falaschi's singing. His pitch is a little shriller and higher, perhaps bringing the style a bit closer to the original Matos «lyricism», but do not take this as a nostalgic sing — Secret Garden ain't no Holy Land and never will be.

Instead, it continues the modest revival of Aqua, drifting a bit closer to «symphonic» and «progressive» metal, as is evident by the band's choice of producer (Jens Bogren, who has previously worked with everyone from Opeth to Symphony X) and additional guest vocalists. Excellent production values, inspired playing, serious care for melody and harmony, an emphasis on sheer power, as every second riff strives to imitate a minor earthquake — technically, Secret Garden is beyond reproach. Substan­tially, I have long since given up on Angra's possibility to amaze and delight anyone outside the regular heavy metal legion of fans, but as long as they keep up this level of energy and this high quality of sound, it will not make any sense whatsoever to condemn this music.

Once again, it seems as if there exists some sort of concept here — perhaps having to do with «the other world» and the passing from one plane of existence into the other, judging by the song titles and some of the lyrics — but do not waste your time trying to ascertain the details, it's not as if Bittencourt, who wrote most of the songs, could really enlighten you in this respect with any fascinating new insights. (The bonus track on some of the editions, by the way, is the band's cover of ʽSynchronicity IIʼ, which sort of upholds this idea of different worlds). More important is the fact that the heavy metal core of the album is now heavily interspersed with everything from flamenco to dark folk to progressive balladry (the title track, written by Finnish keyboardist Maria Ilmoniemi, is here sung by guest vocalist Simone Simons, normally with Dutch symph-metal band Epica — and it is sort of pretty, actually).

There is a jazzy touch every now and then, too — for instance, ʽUpper Levelsʼ starts out with some heavily busy basslines and scattered piano improvisations, before eventually gorging itself on these sounds so as to grow up into another power metal outing, and then, midway through, some of the guitar solos are played in a decidedly «fusion» manner, invoking memories of John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth more than any regular power metal stylistics. In brief, when Loureiro said that the new album «would be different», he wasn't merely bullshitting us like they all tend to do — they are really trying to explore different side alleys, though without losing the classic Angra flavor, of course.

I give the album a thumbs up without any second thoughts. Angra's attempts at scaring the day­lights out of us with horrific sonic pictures (ʽCrushing Roomʼ, with Doro Pesch of Warlock featured as yet another guest star) or at inspiring me with optimistic power choruses (ʽStorm Of Emotionsʼ) do not work too well, relying as they do on well-tested musical methods, but they are handled with enough restraint, technicality, and respectable work ethics that even at its worst, Secret Garden may be tolerated, and at its best, shows that the pool of power metal ideas, even if you can now clearly see all the way to the bottom, is not yet com­pletely exhausted. Well, something like that. Big thank you to producer Jens Bogren, too, for bringing out the best in these guys' guitar sound.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Bon Jovi: New Jersey

BON JOVI: NEW JERSEY (1988)

1) Lay Your Hands On Me; 2) Bad Medicine; 3) Born To Be My Baby; 4) Living In Sin; 5) Blood On Blood; 6) Homebound Train; 7) Wild Is The Wind; 8) Ride Cowboy Ride; 9) Stick To Your Guns; 10) I'll Be There For You; 11) 99 In The Shade; 12) Love For Sale.

Scrutinizing the million shades of awful is kind of an ungrateful affair, but such is our trade, and therefore, I have to state that the concept of «Bon Jovi as decadent superstars» somehow feels more forgivable to me than the concept of «Bon Jovi vying for decadent superstardom». There's just something hilarious about seeing these guys work out of the understanding that they are the biggest band in the world (and have to uphold that image), rather than just diligently push for­ward in the faint, but prophetic hope of gaining that title. More than once, I have seen the word «confidence» spring up in the discussion of New Jersey — and indeed, this is Bon Jovi at their most self-confident, hairiest, glammiest, narcissistic ever. It's just that the album has no talkbox, but in every other respect it outbellies its predecessor.

I mean, you can hardly get any more arrogant than naming your album New Jersey (naturally, to remind your fair country that you come from the same place as The Boss, and, incidentally, would not mind claiming the same title), and you can hardly get more blasphemous than calling your first song ʽLay Your Hands On Meʼ, as if you imagined yourself to be... well, you know. With overdubbed crowd noises, overwhelming drums, martial vocal harmonies — the intro to the song states the fact that Bon Jovi are now very, very, very big and they like it that way. Throw in a church organ-imitating synthesizer and a clearly gospel chorus, and what you get is a double metaphor: evangelical clichés as a substitute for a love serenade, and a love serenade as a sub­stitute for letting you know that Bon Jovi are now bigger than Jesus Christ. (Well, at least that hair sure beats the Son of God in most of the cultural depictions.)

Then there's ʽBad Medicineʼ — written according to the usual hit formula, but arguably with far more swagger than any of their previous hits, as the boys feel completely loose and totally self-confident, as if the results of clinical analysis had just come in and it were now medically con­firmed that the collective length of their virility organs could girdle the Taj Mahal three times over, and not even Mötley Crüe could beat this achievement. It isn't even a particularly smutty song, lyrics-wise — it just rains so much testosterone that the effect becomes comical, especially at the end, when Jon «urges the band on» with one last chorus: "I'm not done! One more time! WITH FEELIN'!" I'd like to hate this song for the usual melodically primitive, intellectually offensive piece of glam-pop tripe that it is, but I'm just a bit too busy laughing to do that.

In fact, there is only one song on this album that is seriously offensive — its main offense being in taking itself too seriously. ʽBlood On Bloodʼ, a brawny sentimental reminiscence on Bon Jovi's childhood friendships, once again intrudes on Springsteen territory, as all the band members take their cues directly from the corresponding members of the E Street Band, but interpret them according to their own limited musical vision, which places loudness, pathos, and emotional simplicity above everything else. I can see myself getting entertained by Bon Jovi in an uncom­fortable dream — I could see myself getting inspired over a passionate epic anthem by Bon Jovi only in the worst of nightmares.

Fortunately, the next song is ʽHomebound Trainʼ, which takes us from Springsteen into the tenets of Southern rock-cum-pop-metal, toying around with a bit of me-and-the-devil imagery, but ulti­mately just a vehicle for some head-spinning sleazy-funky jamming, with a fairly long instru­mental section that may or may not have been the inspiration for Aerosmith's ʽLove In An Ele­vatorʼ (the two songs are quite similar in tone, although ʽTrainʼ is faster and more aggressive in spirit). Together with ʽBad Medicineʼ, ʽ99 In The Shadeʼ, and the closing acoustic ditty ʽLove For Saleʼ (allegedly recorded at a drunken party, but with some pretty nifty acoustic solos played out for a drunk guitarist), this all forms the «cock rock» basis for New Jersey, around which you see sprinkled the occasional bad social statement like ʽBlood On Bloodʼ and a bunch of by now inescapable power ballads like ʽI'll Be There For Youʼ that you have to be ready for in any situa­tion — nobody wants to deliberately lower his odds of getting laid, after all.

In brief, this is that one perfect juncture in Bon Jovi's career when they had already «gone pro», but did not yet feel the need or pressure to «mature»: New Jersey is mostly about having fun, and succeeds even better simply because by now, the band has no nervous obligation to «prove itself» (apart from demonstrating that their success was not a fluke, which is not that difficult if you keep Desmond Child and Bruce Fairbairn by your side). There is still no talk, nor will there ever be, of the band putting out a genuinely «good» record, but it only made me puke once or twice, and that's certainly something to remember.