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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

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

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: SOUL LIMBO (1968)

1) Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy; 2) La La Means I Love You; 3) Hang 'Em High; 4) Willow Weep For Me; 5) Over Easy; 6) Soul Limbo; 7) Eleanor Rigby; 8) Heads Or Tails; 9) (Sweet, Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone; 10) Born Under A Bad Sign; 11) Foxy Lady.

I have no idea if this was in any way connected with the separation of the Stax label from Atlantic Records, but Soul Limbo is the first record in ages on which Booker T. & The M.G.'s show at least a few signs of wanting to «keep up with the times», as they cover such «daring» material as ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ (already two years old at the time, but certainly more «relevant» than any song called ʽLa La Means I Love Youʼ) and Jimi's ʽFoxy Ladyʼ (supposedly, that's one out there on the front cover, as the four M.G.'s calculate various competitive scenarios while staring at her assets). Although Soul Limbo is still uneven and its existence not completely justified, there is some life here, and some justification for the continuing presence of Booker T. Jones in a world where the electric organ as a musical instrument would soon rather be associated with white progressive rock artists than black soulsters and R&B'ers.

First and foremost, I really like this ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ cover — at the very least, it makes much more sense than Aretha's version, which left little of the original and replaced it with something rather incomprehensible. Here, the strings are replaced with a steady beat, and the vocal part is being played on an organ heavily loaded with a tremolo effect, so that it sounds suitably psyche­delic and weepy at the same time, adding a pinch of deep dark mystery to what used to be a de­vastatingly sad, but ultimately «light» arrangement. Throw in some variations on the basic theme, a few technically challenging flourishes, and you get an adventurous and challenging homage to a great composition that re-channels, rather than loses, the spirit of the original.

It does not work nearly as well with ʽFoxy Ladyʼ, and on the whole, surprising as it may seem, Booker T. does a better job with the Beatles than with Jimi — most likely because the Beatles are not a band oriented at any single instrument, and while hearing Booker T.'s organ play the role of Paul McCartney's pipes is amusing, listening to him imitating Hendrix's guitar is rather a disap­pointment; even more of a disappointment is hearing Steve Cropper actually play a guitar on that track — with all due respect to Cropper, he ain't Jimi, nor does he have any non-Jimi musical vision that would be comparable in scope. Still, it is curious to see them try, and it may be in­struc­tive to see how close in texture their result is to the preceding ʽBorn Under A Bad Signʼ — just so we all remember how deeply himself Jimi was rooted in the blues.

There are a few other highlights here as well, equally unpredictable — for instance, the spaghetti-western theme from the Clint Eastwood movie ʽHang 'Em Highʼ where Booker T. does an admi­rable job transferring the theme's pseudo-Morricone-like «heroic» orchestral hook onto the organ, so much so that I think I like the band's version more; or Aretha's ʽSince You've Been Goneʼ, where the organ almost jumps out of its case to recreate or replace all the nuances and over­tones of the human (or, more correctly, the superhuman — we're talking Aretha here) voice. On the other hand, the band's originals suffer in comparison: the title track is a light-headed Caribbean romp with too much percussion and too little depth, and ʽOver Easyʼ is an overlong jazzy jam where our main hero fussily fumbles on the piano without much focus.

Ultimately I would probably select ʽHang 'Em Highʼ, ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ and possibly ʽSince You've Been Goneʼ as honorable mentions, well fit for inclusion on any representative anthology, and disregard the rest of the tracks — admitting, at the same time, that with Soul Limbo, our Silent Heroes of the Golden Age of R&B make a brave, if not wholly successful, attempt to prolong that Golden Age by intelligently adapting to changing fashions.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Boston: Walk On

BOSTON: WALK ON (1994)

1) I Need Your Love; 2) Surrender To Me; 3) Livin' For You; 4) Walkin' At Night; 5) Walk On; 6) Get Organ-ized; 7) Walk On (Some More); 8) What's Your Name; 9) Magdalene; 10) We Can Make It.

The temporary replacement of Brad Delp with Fran Cosmo (who, ironically enough, started out as a vocalist on Barry Goudreau's debut solo album in 1980) should not be much of a worry. Brad Delp is a deep-lung screamer, Fran Cosmo is a deep-lung screamer, the two are pretty much inter­changeable, and Boston have never been much about vocals anyway — powerful, but persona­lity-deprived arena-rock singers have never been a rarity ever since arena-rock came into exis­tence, no matter where and when you locate this moment in time.

What is worrying is the lack of good songs. As usual, Walk On is a collection of brawny arena-rockers and equally brawny power ballads; not as usual, I believe that this time around, not a single song has managed to stick in my mind, a fairly amazing feat for a record that's been eight years in the making. I mean, it's as if the fine art of songwriting never existed in the first place. Look at the title track — it is just a common, generic piece of ʽLa Grangeʼ-ian fast boogie. If ZZ Top played this, though, at least they'd do it with humor and snappiness: Scholz, however, with his «bigger than everybody else» attitude, just drowns it in his Gargantuan ambitions.

For the single, they chose a song with a truly brilliant title — ʽI Need Your Loveʼ — and an ope­ratic riff that sounds surprisingly muddy when it cuts through your speakers around 0:38, certain­ly a far cry from the immediately captivating riffage of ʽMore Than A Feelingʼ and very sur­prising in light of Scholz's usual perfectionism. The song in general is just a very basic power ballad, not as «intimate» as ʽAmandaʼ but even less memorable, apart from the rather annoyingly dumb chorus ("I NEED YOUR LOVE! I WANT YOU EVERY WAY!" — I don't even want to know what that last exhortation is supposed to mean). Most importantly, it was simply not the kind of sound to make any headlines in 1994, so the single stuck at No. 51, and for once, I guess, the public was right: 51 is a good number in this context.

Not that there is anything on the album that could have made a better choice. The riff of ʽSur­render To Meʼ sounds like mediocre Judas Priest with Scholz production. ʽLivin' For Youʼ is a sentimental ballad that is actually driven by electronic keyboards — so much for the old resis­tance against synthesizers — and sounds like any other generic adult contemporary ballad ever written. The lengthy ʽWalk Onʼ suite has a few moments, such as Scholz's «guitar Godzilla» experiment on ʽWalkin' At Nightʼ and bits of Emerson-ian organ hooliganry on ʽGet Organ-izedʼ, but overall, it is just too lumbering and ponderous for its own good. And there is nothing I could say about the last three songs that I have not already said about the first four.

The only thing to admire about Walk On is Scholz's stubborn decision to follow his own per­sonal muse, completely oblivious to everything that goes on around, which is why this «1990s» album sounds not at all different from the band's «1980s» album, despite a completely changed musical atmosphere. And I am saying this without a hint of irony — ignoring trends and fads is always a noble quality; however, it works so much better when you actually have something in­teresting to say in your fossilized style — and I am quite surprised to see this man completely concentrating on the style and forgetting that, if you're dabbling in hard rock and all, you're kinda supposed to bring along at least a handful of good riffs. Thumbs down.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Björk: Vulnicura

BJÖRK: VULNICURA (2015)

1) Stonemilker; 2) Lionsong; 3) History Of Touches; 4) Black Lake; 5) Family; 6) Notget; 7) Atom Dance; 8) Mouth Mantra; 9) Quicksand.

In recent years, I have adopted a very harsh rating strategy towards «breakup albums» that seem to be more than simply «all the rage» in the modern world — no, really, these days, whatever passes for a «serious» work of popular art almost necessarily has to be about The Magnificent Art Of Breaking Up. People come together, so it seems, merely for the sake of falling apart and then chronicling their suffering in their own, highly individual way. I mean, goddammit, what about starving children in Africa? The evils of offshore drilling? The questions of our purpose on this planet? The verification of the Big Bang Theory? Does it all have to be judged through the prism of «me and him/her, we're no longer together and boy does it hurt»? Additionally, if it does hurt, why the heck did you have to break up in the first place? Couldn't it be, you know, just because you're both arrogant idiots who value personality clashes and «turf battles» over compromises? And now you're using this as a pretext to paint awesome vagina-shaped wounds on your chests? Gimme a fuckin' break, already.

To be fair, there is no reason even in 2015 why a breakup should not be painful, or why it should not be possible to write a heartbreaking song or even an entire album about a breakup. But with breakup stories now coming at a dime a dozen (almost literally so), I am finding myself, for in­stance, more and more desensitized towards these works unless they happen to contain some truly stunning melodic inventions (Adele's 21, for instance, counts as a happy exception from the rule). And it is hardly a coincidence that Björk's personal breakup album just happens to be her least musically interesting album in ages. Where Medúlla was at least arrogantly adventurous, Volta was at least moderately catchy, and Biophilia was at least a curious exercise in «scientific music-making», Vulnicura is simply «Björk's breakup album», no more, no less.

With nine tracks stretched out to a whole hour's length, the lady is busy here telling us her story, using a standard form of Old Literary Björkese: lush, brooding, slightly dissonant string arrange­ments, fussy-fuzzy electronic beats, and her own trademark «operatic» singing that eschews conventional verse/chorus structures and removes any structural limitations on rhythm, rhyme, and harmonic coordination — a style that originally emerged on Homogenic but arguably reached its apex with Medúlla and, since then, pretty much became the «default» form of Björkese, a respectable establishment that no longer holds any major surprises.

Mood-wise, the only thing that differentiates these tracks from each other are (a) the length and (b) the occasional gimmick, such as the use of Björk's old musical friend, a vocally chopped-up Antony Hegarty, on ʽAtom Danceʼ. People have called this album «dark» and «depressing» and «brutally honest» and all sorts of other nice clichés, almost as if implying that here, first time in years if not ever, we finally get to see The Real Björk (who, as it incidentally turns out, just hap­pens to be vagina-chested as a genetic birth defect), but this is just bullshit: first, all of these songs taken together do not have a tenth part of the darkness of ʽHunterʼ or ʽBacheloretteʼ, and second, how is this «the real Björk» when this is so stylistically undistinguishable from her earlier work? Compare ʽCome Togetherʼ with ʽWorking Class Heroʼ and see «the real Lennon», or ʽJust Like Tom Thumb's Bluesʼ and ʽSimple Twist Of Fateʼ and see «the real Dylan» — these compa­risons could at least be understandable. Vulnicura is just as much of a grand symbolist spectacle as anything else the Icelandic national heroine ever put out. The question is not whether she is being «real» or not (oh, but come on now, it's a breakup album, how can a breakup album not be real, have a frickin' heart, Mr. Reviewer!): the question is — how attractive, how seductive, how captivating, how breathtaking can that spectacle be, regardless of how «real» it is?

For many people, so it seems, including miriads of slobbering reviewers and admiring fans, it can be all of these things and more — pages after pages of glowing discussions are dedicated to descriptions of how dissonant strings and electronics can so perfectly convey the process of «emotional healing». Maybe all these people have recently gone through breakups as well, and are able to better empathize than myself. Maybe I have really been too desensitized and biased to let the magic of musical healing flow through my own veins. But the fact of the matter is that, at best, I perceive this all as a monotonous atmospheric current of tolerable, occasionally pleasant (for those ears that had already become accustomed to Björkese), but completely unmemorable and, worse, unimpressive music, without dynamics, but with lots of pseudo-subtle subtleties that may create an illusion of «depth» and «complexity» that is really not there at all.

For those reasons, I will not be talking about any individual tracks. Formally, their melodies are different, their tempos have a certain range (usually from «slow» to «very slow»), their instru­mentation has some variety, but I know few words to describe these nuances, and my senses are not sharp enough to immediately and actively pick up on these varieties once they arise. You may, if you happen to «love» this album rather than just «like» it, criticize me for being too shallow and stubbornly refusing to give it a chance, but I think I know what I am talking about here — the difference between Vulnicura and, say, Homogenic for me symbolizes all the difference be­tween «quality music» in the 1990s, when intelligence, complexity, and subtlety could still carry real intellectual and emotional meaning, and «quality music» in the 2010s, where «form», as a rule, replaces «substance», and all we get are hollow, formalistic re-runs of past grandeur.

Ironically, I cannot even say that Björk fails here because she is now an «old fart», or because she has lost her genius, ran out of creative steam etc. etc. On the contrary, Vulnicura reflects her amazing capacity to adapt — like Madonna for the world of «cheap entertainment», Björk is very well aware of the changing surroundings, and almost every new product of hers (Volta might be a bit of an exception) is totally en vogue. No, she fails exactly because she is doing here what she is expected to be doing in 2015, as mannerisms and lack of substance are supposed to be taking the place of genuinely deep, sharp-cutting music. And everything here counts as mannerism, right down to the unforgettable "every single fuck we had together" on ʽHistory Of Touchesʼ — a sen­sual exhortation that is really as hollow and meaningless as everything else on here.

Naturally, this is all my personal opinion, and naturally, I cannot exclude that sometime in the future, something on this record will click — as it happens now, each subsequent listen only ended up irritating me more and more. How did that one go? "I've seen what I was and I know what I'll be, I've seen it all, there is no more to see...". Total thumbs down — I have no time, interest, or patience for such generic, by-the-book Björkese.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Bon Jovi: This Left Feels Right

BON JOVI: THIS LEFT FEELS RIGHT (2003)

1) Livin' On A Prayer; 2) Bad Medicine; 3) It's My Life; 4) Lay Your Hands On Me; 5) You Give Love A Bad Name; 6) Bed Of Roses; 7) Everyday; 8) Born To Be My Baby; 9) Keep The Faith; 10) I'll Be There For You; 11) Always; 12) The Distance.

Oh my sweet Jesus. I get shivers all over trying to reconstruct, step by step, the abominable logic behind this album. Because the optimal reconstruction goes something like this:

«I (we) feel tremendously dissatisfied with myself (ourselves), the way the world thinks about me (us) and my (our) music. Yes, the superstardom, yes, the money, yes, the admiring fans, yes, the ability to make it onto the front cover of Rolling Stone without sarcasm. But does the world really get Bon Jovi? Does the world really feel the depth, really suck in all the potential concealed in those Bon Jovi songs? Can't it simply be that the world loves a steady rock'n'roll beat and loud distorted electric guitars? Could it be that the world dances like crazy to ʽLivin' On A Prayerʼ just because it is being seduced by the talkbox effects? What about the message? The bitter inner truth? The emotional angst? The religious connotations? That ain't a world livin' on a prayer — it's a world livin' on a talkbox and a chuggy bassline. No, really, it's high time that something should be done about this! So maybe we have cut our long hair and began dressing in T-shirts and wor­king class jackets — that ain't enough. Too superficial. Something from the heart!»

This Left Feels Right is a wicked affair — a complete deconstruction and reconstruction of most of the band's major hits in what could only be called «Heart-On-Sleeve Remixes». Not really «unplugged» as such (although many of the guitar parts are, indeed, acoustic), the album stakes it all on the «melodicity», «emotionality», and «spirituality» of these songs, as they are rearranged with soft, sometimes electronic, drumming, folk/country guitar overdubs, mellow keyboards, and almost angelic vocal harmonies (ʽLivin' On A Prayerʼ is reconceived as a Tommy/Gina duet with Mike d'Abo's daughter Olivia — curious that Jon was not able to find anybody of higher stature, but perhaps the addition of a superstar was thought of as incompatible with the «humble» ideo­logy of the project).

One has to admit that a lot of work went into the project: most of the time, the rearrangements are truly drastic, making the songs completely unrecognizable, especially the old-time rock hits like ʽBad Medicineʼ and ʽYou Give Love A Bad Nameʼ, both of which are redone as «country-blues-pop» numbers with slide guitars that either weep like George Harrison or go all swampy on us. The ballads, just by being ballads, stay closer to what they used to be, but with most of the elec­tricity going out of them, emphasis is also fully transferred onto the vocal harmonies.

The results are predictable: This Left Feels Right sets out to seduce you and leave you in a pool of sentimental tears, as the personal charisma of Jon Bon Jovi and the band's «heavenly» hooks climb into your brain and take control. If it works, it works; but with the overall triviality of the band's melodies and lyrics, if any of these songs made sense in the first place, it was only when they went over the top. Simply put, there is no other setting than its original drunken-swaggery hair-metal arrogance in which a song like ʽBad Medicineʼ would be acceptable. Whether you do it in this stripped-acoustic-bluesy manner, or whether you hire a full Wagnerian orchestra to per­form it, or whether you do an instrumental didgeridoo-only version, this left won't ever feel right to anybody who knows right from left.

Ultimately, This Left feels as if all the banality inherently present in Bon Jovi's work has been carefully distilled, filtered out, pressed, folded, and re-packaged for universal consumption. The basic hooks still remain (sometimes), but they have been stripped of their rocking power and relative fun quotient, and forcefully converted into «spiritual anthems». In other words — I could hardly think of a more stupid career move, that is, of course, if Bon Jovi's career ever had «musi­cally intelligent people» as part of its target audience. Much to people's honor, This Left Feels Right sold quite poorly, compared to the band's regular albums — still, the total number of sold copies is said to approximate something like a million and a half, and if this reflects the number of music buyers who are willing to take Jon Bon Jovi as their soul brother and spiritual guru, well, it may not be such a large figure, but still, walk carefully out there, and don't let just about any­body know that you, too, would award the record a thumbs down.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Boris: Amplifier Worship

BORIS: AMPLIFIER WORSHIP (1998)

1) Huge; 2) Ganbou-Ki; 3) Hama; 4) Kuruimizu; 5) Vomitself.

Well, the band's second album is like an ocean of diversity compared to their first — which, of course, does not say much and could even be construed as a direct insult, because diversity is the last thing which Boris care about. Do not worry too much, though: the very first track (ʽHugeʼ), going on for nine minutes, basically sounds like a small handful of samples taken from the first albums of Black Sabbath and looped into an endless serpent-monster of a «composition». Ever wished, enchanted by Tony Iommi's tone, that any of the songs on Master Of Reality could go on forever and ever and ever, just pummeling and pummeling your senses with that merciless hellish roar? Your wish has been granted.

Somewhere around the middle of the second track, though, the band sort of wakes up and begins crawling out of its shell — the tempo picks up, the drums gain in complexity of pattern, and the guitar gains in color, adding some light to darkness and switching from a «psycho-metal» mood into «astral» mood, eventually quieting down and beginning to explore the benefits of subtlety. In fact, by the time we get to ʽKuruimizuʼ, Wata's multi-tracked guitars have been realigned to a «peaceful», «becalmed» way of droning, a lullaby-like mode of functioning where the listener is gently rocked to and fro in a cradle of softly gurgling guitars, suspended on a friendly, reliable bassline. Do not make the mistake of going to sleep, though, or the suitably titled ʽVomitselfʼ will wake you up with quite a bit of a nasty shock — the 17-minute «grand finale» that completes everything that ʽHugeʼ left promised, but unfulfilled, and does indeed sound like 17 minutes of a guitar that tries to «vomit itself». Not a pleasant experience, but if you let your ears get adjusted to this, the wildest of Jimi Hendrix improvisations will sound like Johann Strauss Jr. in compari­son. Always leave some space for heavy aural exercise, and you'll be war-trained in no time, ready to take on the sonics of the world like a real man.

Musically speaking, there is nothing whatsoever going on here that deserves specific attention: most of these feedback tricks and minimalistic guitar riffs had been in active use since the early 1970s. But since we're talking musical minimalism here, this is not relevant — what matters is that they take these little bits of Black Sabbath and Hawkwind and God knows who else, put them under the microscope, dissect them, recombine them, and stretch them out for miles and miles, assuming that it is only like that that one can really assess their true potential. Take ʽSweet Leafʼ, chop out everything but its main riff, slow it down a bit, then loop it for 15 minutes, and what you get is Boris. (Oh, they also have some screamed vocals here, but they are totally unne­cessary — every track here would work better without voices). Yes, I can actually see where it could make a certain sense.

On the positive side, there is a little less high-pitched metallic feedback here — only the last two minutes or so make my ears bleed, compared with about 15 minutes at the end of Absolutego, so you could say they are now taking it less heavy on the listeners. On the negative side, any attempt to compromise, even the slightest one, threatens to turn Boris from a bunch of weirdo iconoclasts into a bunch of boring wankers (who they are, deep down in essence, but the aggressively mini­malistic approach helps take the focus away from that fact). I have no idea which choice suits me better, but since I can hardly expect any particularly elevated emotional response to this band's brand of elastic psychedelia altogether, I am not exactly losing sleep over the issue.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Boomtown Rats: Mondo Bongo

THE BOOMTOWN RATS: MONDO BONGO (1981)

1) Mood Mambo; 2) Straight Up; 3) This Is My Room; 4) Another Piece Of Red; 5) Go Man Go; 6) Under Their Thumb... Is Under My Thumb; 7) Please Don't Go; 8) The Elephants Graveyard; 9) Banana Republic; 10) Don't Talk To Me; 11) Hurt Hurts; 12) Up All Night; 13) Cheerio.

Somewhere along the line, the Boomtown Rats just... lost it. The seams were showing already on The Fine Art Of Surfacing, but the big hit singles somehow wobbled the perspective and made the seams seem fuzzy enough to allow us to think that these were just temporary direction prob­lems. Not so with Mondo Bongo, which shares all the problems of its predecessor, but this time, without much compensation in the way of big hits: ʽBanana Republicʼ did chart high enough, yet it is obviously no ʽI Don't Like Mondaysʼ and definitely no ʽRat Trapʼ. In fact, it is a song that might as well have been done by UB40 — or a couple dozen more New Wave acts — and no­body would feel the difference.

Perhaps Geldof's sensitivity towards the world at large finally prevailed over his musical instinct, but Mondo Bongo feels like a ferociously intentional attempt to completely distance oneself from the «rock'n'roll mentality» that fueled the Rats' first couple of albums. Tribal African rhythms and cod-reggae almost totally replace guitar-based rock melodicity — and in those few spots where the band does not try to be «ethnic», this melodicity is replaced with trendy synth-pop. Most of it is done in good taste and with plenty of energy, yet somehow, most of it simply does not click. As a matter of fact, this album is just plain boring, I'm afraid.

Something like ʽMood Mamboʼ may seem sympathetic if any white kid attempt to sound like a bunch of nature-happy Africans seems sympathetic by definition — but it is difficult for me to grasp any other motivation behind the song, which just sounds like a bunch of congas and whoo­pees thrown together, and it doesn't help, either, that in the context of 1981 comparisons with Remain In Light are inescapable and clearly not in favor of Geldof and his boys, who have no understanding of how a proper synthesis of «world beats» and old-fashioned rock music should work. The results are neither too exciting, nor too funny, nor emotionally relevant in any way. They don't even sound «bongo crazy», those guys — just following a trend.

Songs like ʽStraight Upʼ are generally more successful, but putting the guitar out of the picture is not a good decision — the song is not catchy enough to be so completely governed by pianos and synthesizers, and neither is ʽGo Man Goʼ or anything else. There is a logical reason why history has been so much more benevolent to The Cars when they were doing it than The Boomtown Rats, and that reason is simple enough — The Cars paid more attention to the hooks and less attention to the seriousness of the message, whereas Geldof always try to inject «Meaning», with a capital M, into whatever he is doing. Fine and dandy, but these are goddamn pop songs, so where's the pop? (For the record — I happen to have the same problem with David Bowie quite often, but nowhere near this extent, for sure).

Case in point: Bob takes the Stones' classic ʽUnder My Thumbʼ, rearranges it as a modernistic electro-ska number, and replaces the song's original «misogynistic» lyrics with «social message», as the song becomes ʽUnder Their Thumbʼ and the «they» in question are... well, you know who they are. "Under their thumb / Kicked and beaten like an angry rabid dog". The reinvention is kinda fun, but also kinda self-contradictory and confusing: too happy-sounding to justify the mes­sage, too message-driven to justify the happy sound. By refusing to concentrate on one aspect over the other, Mondo Bongo becomes unsatisfactory either way.

The sole exception is the accidentally quite catchy ʽElephants Graveyardʼ, which shares the sty­listic makeup of all its brethren (a fast-paced keyboard-based song, almost bordering on ABBA-like Euro-pop — actually, more like Elvis Costello on the ABBA-influenced ʽOliver's Armyʼ) but redeems itself with an emotionally tugging chorus: the "you're guilty 'til proven guilty" line is surprisingly efficient, where, for once, I feel like we're riding on the same wave. Perhaps it is because of the plaintive-pleading intonation. Perhaps, come to think of it, one of Mondo's biggest flaws is not having any of those big-open songs where Geldof sings his heart out — everything is drowned in irony, but he does not know how to be properly ironic. On the other hand, I also prefer Bob Geldof in any of his aggressive moods rather than romantic ones — but on the third hand, Mondo Bongo could hardly be called an aggressive album, either, due to the already men­tioned lack of a properly attuned guitar sound.

In the end, the sacred heart of Mondo Bongo probably lies in the short piano piece ʽAnother Piece Of Redʼ, Geldof's passionate reflections on the disintegration of the British Empire, trig­gered by the news of the retirement of Rhodesia's Ian Smith. More of a leftist declaration than a «song» as such, it shows clearly that striving for good over evil was far more important for Bob than spending a lot of time in the world of notes, chords, and harmonies. Strictly formally, Mondo Bongo is a musical departure from — some might even say, an advance on — the Rats' previous sound; substantially, though, nobody really gave a damn. Which explains why the album could and should work, but does not.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bonnie Raitt: Souls Alike

BONNIE RAITT: SOULS ALIKE (2005)

1) I Will Not Be Broken; 2) God Was In The Water; 3) Love On One Condition; 4) So Close; 5) Trinkets; 6) Crooked Crown; 7) Unnecessarily Mercenary; 8) I Don't Want Anything To Change; 9) Deep Water; 10) Two Lights In The Nighttime; 11) The Bed I Made.

There's a little less tepid funk and wishy-washy adult contemporary on Souls Alike than on Sil­ver Lining — and a little bit more blues and jazz; consequently, it marks a (at least temporary) return to Dullsville from Offensivetown. There might even be a small handful of relatively decent songs for those who normally despise all forms of «soft rock». The problem is, 2005 is not the kind of year where anybody could have a «change of heart» concerning anything that might be done by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, and a detailed discussion of any such album could only be of interest to hardcore fans with a penchant for distinguishing between the «fifty shades of grey».

Not addressing that category, we shall keep it very brief here. Randall Bramblett's ʽGod Was In The Waterʼ is a pretty good song — dark, unsettling country-blues, well adorned here with bitter­ly, but rather unsentimentally weeping organs, wah-wahs, and swampy slides, and even the lyrics are good, finding a fresh angle for the old perspective: "God was in the water that day... / Castin' out a line to the darkness / Castin' out a line but no one's biting". And Bonnie's bitterish vocal tone is practically perfect for this particular setting.

Emory Joseph's ʽTrinketsʼ is another standout: introspective nostalgia without the obligatory sappiness, sort of a «talking blues» (at times, coming close to «rapping blues») with a bit of musi­cal muscle, not particularly catchy, but each of Bonnie's bitter dry "when I was a kid..." verses has a whiff of intrigue. I mean, with a little bit of imagination you could see Lou Reed doing a song like this, and it's a rare Bonnie Raitt song that allows you to cast such a projection. Nicely fluent piano and slide dialog in the outro, too.

Finally, there is Jon Cleary's ʽUnnecessarily Mercenaryʼ, a sly, but big-hearted New Orleanian romp that could actually benefit from a brass section — but the well-worded chorus remains memorable even without any extra support. Cleary himself plays the piano solo, and he pretty much owns the song (as well as any other song here where he is prominent enough), being a well schooled disciple of the Professor Longhair / Dr. John school of Mardi Gras Keyboards. As usual, just a tad more energy and wildness couldn't have hurt, but it's still fun.

The rest is hardly worth a mention — blues and ballads, gently rippling through the air without generating much excitement. The trip-hop beats on ʽDeep Waterʼ are an intentional «modernis­tic» nod that fails for that exact reason (do it because it's good, not because it's a special gesture that puts a chronological seal on the album). The final number, ʽThe Bed I Madeʼ, is a moody jazz ballad written by David Batteau where Bonnie tries to be Madeleine Peyroux, but she doesn't have the voice or the knack for it — so at least there's more going on here than on ʽWounded Heartʼ, but it is still a very (appropriately) sleepy conclusion for an overall sleepy album. So just borrow ʽGod Was In The Waterʼ for your «Contemporary Roots-Rock Nuggets» compilation and ʽUnnecessarily Mercenaryʼ for your «New Orleans Lives!» compilation and feel free to forget the rest if you feel like forgetting the rest.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: Doin' Our Thing

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: DOIN' OUR THING (1968)

1) I Can Dig It; 2) Expressway (To Your Heart); 3) Doin' Our Thing; 4) You Don't Love Me; 5) Never My Love; 6) The Exodus Song; 7) The Beat Goes On; 8) Ode To Billie Joe; 9) Blue On Green; 10) You Keep Me Hanging On; 11) Let's Go Get Stoned.

Okay, try as I might, it is really hard to get excited about anything on here. For the first time, a Booker T. album does not accompany a hit single — or a non-hit single — actually, there were no singles whatsoever from this album, almost as if in recognition of the increased role of the LP in popular life and culture. Unfortunately, the recognition does not translate to the music-making: like before, the record consists of short instrumentals, either made on the spot by the M.G.'s or interpreting other people's achievements.

The covered material is kinda lame for 1968, ranging from The Soul Survivors (a very pedantic organ recreation of the melodic structure of ʽExpressway To Your Heartʼ) to Sonny & Cher (a very pedantic organ recreation of the melodic structure of ʽThe Beat Goes Onʼ). The major high­light is probably the tight, snappy, mean and lean cover of ʽYou Don't Love Meʼ, a blues-rock tune whose overall catchiness and conciseness was much appreciated at the time — of course, in a matter of a couple of years all other versions would be rendered obsolete with the Allman Bro­thers appropriating the tune, and Cropper's guitar solo here looking like a student work next to the flashing duels of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts.

Of the originals, one would expect the opening track to be the most precious one, but in all actu­ality, ʽI Can Dig Itʼ just sounds like a merry warm-up for better things to come — the tempo is rousing, the organ and guitar solos are friendly, but hardly worth memorizing on their own. Too bad that the better things never really come: all over the place, it seems like the band is going through the motions, or perhaps just stupidly sticks to the old guns in defiance of all the wonder­ful musical progress going on in 1968.

In the end, the only positive effect the album had on me was to remind me that ʽLet's Go Get Stonedʼ, when you take Ray Charles and/or Joe Cocker out of it, is simply ʽNobody Loves You When You're Down And Outʼ — not such a big surprise, but you do keep forgetting how easy it is for a song to com­pletely change face with just a «motivation shift». Other than that, this is just Booker T. & the M.G.'s «doin' their thing» and not giving a damn about anything else. As usual, it all sounds cool, but already sort of «retro-cool» by the standards of 1968.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Boston: Third Stage

BOSTON: THIRD STAGE (1986)

1) Amanda; 2) We're Ready; 3) The Launch; 4) Cool The Engines; 5) My Destination; 6) A New World; 7) To Be A Man; 8) I Think I Like It; 9) Can'tcha Say / Still In Love; 10) Hollyann.

With all his perfectionism, delayism, disrespect for deadlines, and contempt for record labels, Tom Scholz ended up waiting for the most uncomfortable time to release Boston's third album — 1986, the Doom Year for Classic Rockers (just to remind you, Alice Cooper's Constrictor and Chicago 18 came out in the exact same month). Not that this should have derailed Scholz, who rarely trusted anybody's nose but his own: yes, you can sense that the Eighties are upon us from the production, but Scholz himself was responsible for the production in many ways, not the least of which was his own self-designed Rockman guitar processor.

So the bad news about Third Stage is not really its year of release, but rather the stylistic choice of its maker. As some of the old guys, such as second guitarist Barry Goudreau and bass player Fran Sheehan, eventually quit because they couldn't take the waiting any more, Scholz began sliding further and further into lyricism and sentimentality — the typical song on Third Stage is not a revved-up power-pop-rocker, but rather a heartfelt ballad, power or no power. In the place of ʽMore Than A Feelingʼ and ʽDon't Look Backʼ, songs that had an aura of cheapness but could still be a great way to kick-start your day, we now have ʽAmandaʼ — a song that must have per­manently ruined the life of every single Amanda on US soil. Just imagine yourself being a 12-year or so old girl called Amanda in 1986 and having to walk to school while all the radio stations for miles around blast "I'm gonna take you by surprise and make you realize, Amanda..."... oh, the horror. Hope they all hid in the basements while the heat was on.

Not only ʽAmandaʼ, though, but just about every other of these ballads is almost unbelievably lame — without the thunderous riff-blasts of his rockers, Scholz is reduced on the spot to pom­pous schlock where even the trademark Boston guitar tones do not redeem the material that rides on exhausted balladeering clichés all the way through. ʽMy Destinationʼ, ʽTo Be A Manʼ, ʽHolly­annʼ — I am not even sure I can properly distinguish one from the other. The only good thing about them is the band's stubborn reluctance to use synthesizers or strings, which does give them a Boston-exclusive flavor. But the contrast between the primitively uninventive melodies and the immense atmospheric pomp is just too much to bear.

Unfortunately, the few rockers on the record do not redeem the situation. The album's loudest and brawniest track, ʽCool The Enginesʼ (formally the last part of a space-related trilogy), is a glam extravaganza, with Brad Delp screaming his head off and Scholz getting to play Zeus the Thun­derer. Is it my fault, though, that the final result sounds stylistically similar to Aerosmith's ʽLove In An Elevatorʼ? With the same overloud, sleazy guitar assault as everything gets driven to ele­ven? Hilariously, even if Scholz never wanted to make a pop-metal anthem, he unintentionally produced one along the same stylistic lines as Aerosmith or Bon Jovi in their big hair days. I ad­mit that it is catchy — but it is also rather silly, adding this «macho» edge to their cosmic music (yes, I know that «cooling the engines» is just a metaphor, but I don't even want to remember explicitly what for). At least ʽI Think I Like Itʼ manages to combine the album's lyrical sensitivity with a strong, but delicate pop-rock rhythm, and arguably comes out as the best track and the only one that I can currently imagine myself wanting to revisit.

Bottomline: tech savviness is one thing, understanding of how to juice up an already catchy hook is another thing, and a good sense of taste and measure is the little devil whose absence can mess you up even if you got the other two quite right. With Third Stage, Scholz shows us one and one thing only — namely, that he himself does not seem to quite understand what it is that used to make him so good. Yes, there are quite a few things in common between ʽMore Than A Feelingʼ and ʽAmandaʼ, but there is also a wide gap. For Scholz, what really matters is what they have in common. For myself — and I hope to be speaking for quite a few other people, too — what really matters is the gap, and I hate this particular gap. Thumbs down with a vengeance, even if, on the whole, this is quite far from the worst record of 1986.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Blind Guardian: Beyond The Red Mirror

BLIND GUARDIAN: BEYOND THE RED MIRROR (2015)

1) The Ninth Wave; 2) Twilight Of The Gods; 3) Prophecies; 4) At The Edge Of Time; 5) Ashes Of Eternity; 6) The Holy Grail; 7) The Throne; 8) Sacred Mind; 9) Miracle Machine; 10) Grand Parade.

Now look, this isn't even funny any more. Not only have they already used the word «beyond» in at least one of their album titles and the word «mirror» in at least several of their songs ("mirror mirror on the wall..."), but I think that every word and idiomatic combination in these titles, if not in the entire lyrics, had already been commissioned by our fantasy friends sometime in the past. Unsurprisingly, pretty much the same can be said about the music. And it took them, what, a whole five years? To come up with an album that, maybe more than anything they did in their career, sounds like a barely noticeable rearrangement of the same jigsaw puzzle?..

At the very, very least, they could have followed up on the success of ʽSacred Worldsʼ and ʽWheel Of Timeʼ, two tracks where the mix of guitar metal and orchestration seemed to open up a whole new world of possibilities to explore and exploit. But with Beyond The Red Mirror, it's as if those two songs were never written — as if they admitted to themselves that this was a failed experiment. What happened? Did the money run out? No, it did not, because there is an orchestra here — in fact, there are two: Hungarian Studio Orchestra Budapest and FILMHarmonic Orches­tra Prague (the latter is the same one that was used for ʽSacred Worldsʼ). Did they commission research on fanboard opinions, and come to the conclusion that use of the orchestra was «lame» and that it «sissified» their sound or something?

I have no idea, but the fact is, that we are generally back to square here: vocals, guitars, key­boards, pound pound pound, stern martial chorus of Elven warriors who prefer their battles over their ladies, everything mega-powerful, ultra-melodic, algorithmically predictable, and immedi­ately forgettable. If there is at least a shadow of some new idea here, it is the use of a baroque choir on the introduction to ʽThe Ninth Waveʼ — I think that previously, all of the harmonies were done by the band members themselves, but here they went for a fuller approach. Not that the use of such choirs in metal should come as a surprise, either, and with the song itself so unremar­kable on the whole, the stern religious harmonies hardly add any awesomeness.

According to what my ears tell me, this album does not contain a single memorable riff or a single truly impressive vocal chorus. The reasons for this could be technical: for instance, when they finally get to ʽGrand Paradeʼ, obviously intended as a grand finale, the chorus is completely ruined by flat production where the vocals, the orches­tration, and the choir merge together in a muffled, sloppy mush that feels completely mechanical and soulless, neither tragic nor joyful nor endowed with any emotion, just big-big-big. So, perhaps, bad production and dynamic overcom­pression are to blame. But this hardly settles things: even without the poor production, this is a sleepwalker's album, riding along on years and decades of accumulated experience and professio­nalism and not a drop of actual inspiration.

But then, who cares? I have seen so many rave re­views by newly fascinated fans that it is quite clear — they can remake the same record fifty more times and still not worry about their not-particularly-demanding fanbase. And I really al­most literally mean «remake the same record»: this here regurgitation is worse than yer basic AC/DC, because at least with the Young brothers, it is the riffs that count, and every time they set out to make a new album, they know they have to present some new «skeletal structures» (and if there are too many recycled riffs on an AC/DC album, it is by definition an unsatisfactory AC/DC album) — whereas with these Blind Guardian records, the denseness of the arrangements, the orchestrations, Hansi's mammoth vocals all mask the «skeletal structure» and make it look insignificant next to the overall style of the presentation. And that style never changes. And these are the rules of the game, I know, but I also know that not every metal band is necessarily supposed to abide by these rules, and if you do not know how to bend them or at least how to make them serve a good purpose, too bad. Thumbs down.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Bon Jovi: Bounce

BON JOVI: BOUNCE (2002)

1) Undivided; 2) Everyday; 3) The Distance; 4) Joey; 5) Misunderstood; 6) All About Lovin' You; 7) Hook Me Up; 8) Right Side Of Wrong; 9) Love Me Back To Life; 10) You Had Me From Hello; 11) Bounce; 12) Open All Night.

After the «crush», comes the «bounce»... if we were talking predators, I guess the two should have been turned around, but first, Bon Jovi are no predators, and second, Bounce is supposed to deal with the issue of «bouncing back» from 9/11. Since the music business logically supposed that the American people were now in more need of spiritual guidance from established artists than ever before, there was no way Bon Jovi could not write their country an album about it — after all, Bruce Springsteen did, and even Neil Young did, even being from a different country and all, and I suppose Billy Joel would have done one, too, had he still been interested in writing pop songs rather than recasting himself as a 21st century reincarnation of Chopin.

In all honesty, 9/11 was a pretty clumsy pretext for writing topical anthems — perhaps because so many people rushed to use it for inspiration, and, as it often happens in such cases, most, if not all, of the results felt flat, or, at least, have not outlived their momentum (anybody still remember Paul McCartney's ʽFreedomʼ? Even ʽGive Ireland Back To The Irishʼ had more lasting value...). The Bon Jovi album is hardly an exception, but on the whole, Bounce has more or less the same feel as Crush — not knowing its context and not listening to the lyrics, you'd hardly get the im­pression that something particularly awful and life-changing had inspired its appearance. ʽUndi­videdʼ opens the record with a song of dread, hope and unity, but essentially it is just a common-sounding alt-rocker whose best part is Sambora's short and elegantly constructed guitar solo; the harmonies on the "one for love, one for truth" chorus come together in a muddy howl, singing along to which is not much fun, although, of course, if any of the band's fans want to pretend that doing so really makes them feel "united" and "undivided", it's their Jove-given right.

Much more efficient is the lead single that preceded the album itself — ʽEverydayʼ consists of all the same ingredients (plus a little bit of the talkbox to immediately let you know who's been slee­ping here), but it's got a credible paranoid pulse to it, with a solidly doubled bass-guitar riff and a respectable verse-bridge-chorus buildup, one of the boys' most successful pop-rock concoctions from the last millennium (and another good guitar solo, too). And it's not the only such song here: ʽHook Me Upʼ and the title track are also energetic, catchy, and not particularly suffering from overproduction. Jon's good-boyishness certainly shines through in how he does not dare go all the way with the "me, I just don't give a f-f-f-f-f..." of the bridge, but when you are dominated by the rules of the game of much of your established audience (at least, the hypocritical part of it), I guess there ain't much to do but to follow the rules.

In between these few rockers comes a lot of softer stuff that mostly just flies out of the window right away. As Jon grows older, he gradually turns away from imitating Springsteen to imitating Billy Joel — ʽJoeyʼ and especially ʽRight Side Of Wrongʼ sound almost note-for-note tributes to Piano Man: grand epics where pianos and strings matter more than guitars, and pathos matters more than pianos and strings. I do, however, have to admit that the orchestral arrangements on these and other songs immediately struck me as the best thing about them, so it was no surprise to learn that they were at least partially handled by David Campbell (the father of Beck and, not co­incidentally, probably the best orchestral arranger in pop of the past thirty years). The strings at least make life less miserable when you are forced to give in to the «spiritual majesty» of these tunes. Nothing, however, redeems the band's excourses into neo-country such as ʽYou Had Me From Helloʼ and ʽMisunderstoodʼ which could just as well be performed by Taylor Swift or somebody else in a sexy red dress.

Bottomline: once again, not «awful» — the pluses and minuses outbalance each other fairly well to come together in a «neutral» assessment — but still not enough to raise Jon and Richie to the level of «artist who actually has something worth hearing to say». I mean, okay, it begins with a few songs about 9/11, but it still ends with a song about Jon Bon Jovi's role in Ally McBeal and how it should have turned out. Far be it from me to pass judgement upon whether it is ʽUndivi­dedʼ or ʽOpen All Nightʼ that encapsulates a greater part of the man's spirit. But it could be argu­ed that the album's construction is still symbolical — no matter how horrendous the scope of your latest catastrophe may ne, when it all ends you are still going back to your soap operas, want it or not. Maybe that's what the proverbial «bounce» is all about.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Boris: Absolutego

BORIS: ABSOLUTEGO (1996)

1) Absolutego.

Western musical culture sure has sown some mighty bizarre seeds on Japanese soil (I'm sure every one of us has some favorite, particularly kinky, example), and it is perhaps no accident that some of the best recognized names in the «noise» and «drone» categories, like Merzbow (Masami Akita), come from the Land of the Hallucinatory Rising Sun, where East and West meet like crazy and produce mindblowing fusion reactions. Whether you like it, hate it, admire it, or de­spise it, there is no denying the uniqueness of it, which might spring upon you in unpredictable ways — and even damage your senses beyond repair, so let's be careful here.

The relative uniqueness of the first album by Boris, a three-part musical (sort of) monster who may or may not take their name from that of Russia's first president, lies first and foremost in the ratio of its sheer musical content to its length. The total number of chords «played» by the band probably does not exceed three or four, while the album's single, unbroken track clocks in around the 60 minute mark (and, apparently, they thought it too brief, so that the next CD release, called Absolutego+, dragged it up to 65 — by artificially slowing down the already superslow piece). Take that length away and you have nothing: just a bit of heavy, feedback-drenched droning which, like all kinds of heavy, feedback-drenched droning, owes its existence to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, the mother-drone, without proving that the offspring has anything to add to what the mother already stated quite «expressively».

But oh, the length. When you have sixty minutes to set yourself up, blow it all to hell, and then step back and let the electricity run out on its own, you have no reason to compromise, do you? First, you have yourself three minutes of pure feedback — no hands, ma. Then you have your buildup: from one guitar, plucked only long enough to generate another mini-wave of feedback, to adding a second guitar that sounds like an electric box on the verge of exploding, to scattered percussion effects — the drums proper do not kick in until the twenty-fourth minute or so, where they are also joined by a little bit of mock-death metal screaming. The central part constitutes about twenty minutes of sonic whirlwinding, and finally, as the drums and one of the guitars gra­dually die out, we are left with about fifteen minutes of high-pitched looping feedback that cut off abruptly — if you have the strength to endure it, there's no better way for you to learn to appreci­ate the blessed gift of Silence.

I have to admit that this uncompromisingly Gargantuan approach does give the album a certain «pull». Play one chord and suck in the feedback it generates for ten seconds, and it will be cool. Do the same thing for one minute and it will get boring. Do the same thing for three minutes and it will get very boring. Do the same thing for five minutes and it will become excruciating, tortu­rous, insufferable. Do it for nine minutes and you have lost touch with surrounding reality: you now exist on a different plane, where there is just you, Boris, and a bunch of busy frequencies in between. Suddenly you realize that you are now living and breathing them, and you dimly realize that some sort of world exists somewhere far away, where the Beatles sing ob-la-di-bla-da and people talk in natural languages, but you no longer know if you will be capable of re-adapting once you get back there, and perhaps it is not safe to get back there at all... but luckily, we are still only on the eleventh minute, and there's fifty more to go, and you feed yourself on feedback like the Man From Mars who eats guitars, cars, and bars, and the howling drones are your life, and the high-pitched sheetmetal feedback is your oxygen, and then it gets cut off... NOOOOOO!

In other words, Absolutego is a dangerous experiment that may forever change your life if you are willing to go all the way, so do be careful. But if you are not willing to go all the way, alas, nothing will change the fact that (a) there is very little that actually gets done here, (b) most of it, if not all of it, has already been done before, and (c) electric guitar feedback simply is not the most pleasant sound ever invented by man, and unless it is properly harnessed, it can be almost as painful as a badly played violin. Not that I am saying that the chaps in Boris do not know how to harness feedback — but they ride it like a wild mustang, hanging on for sixty desperate minutes before it finally shakes them off.

That said, this is also only the very first album by Boris, and, like many experimental bands around the world, they, too, share the approach of making their earliest records look like hooli­ganish pranks before moving on to somewhat more complex projects — many of which would look totally conventional and mainstream next to the big brown splat of Absolutego. In the mean­time, though, here we are with what might look like the sonic equivalent of a sixty-minute long earth­quake — which is kind of a gruesome analogy, now that I think of it, considering how the album was released less than a year after the Kobe earthquake. Fortunately, this one is nowhere near as lethal — it will simply melt down your ears, and those can always be reforged.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Boomtown Rats: The Fine Art Of Surfacing

THE BOOMTOWN RATS: THE FINE ART OF SURFACING (1979)

1) Someone's Looking At You; 2) Diamond Smiles; 3) Wind Chill Factor; 4) Having My Picture Taken; 5) Sleep (Fingers' Lullaby); 6) I Don't Like Mondays; 7) Nothing Happened Today; 8) Keep It Up; 9) Nice 'n' Neat; 10) When The Night Comes.

The Boomtown Rats' third album is often looked at as the highest point in their career, but it seems fairly obvious that the reputation is mainly due to the mega-success of ʽI Don't Like Mondaysʼ — which isn't even Geldof's best song, really, but there is no denying the nerve it must have hit in mid-1979, when the US and, apparently, the Western world in general were still re­cuperating from the shock caused by the Brenda Spencer shooting spree and, most importantly, her explanation of the shootings (the song title).

Ironically, ʽI Don't Like Mondaysʼ is as far from the original Rats sound as possible — a piano-and-strings-driven pop song that stylistically belongs in a Broadway musical rather than in a rock'n'roll album. It also gets a little creepy when you think about its stadium-level popularity and how the entire world sang along to "tell me why I don't like Mondays, I want to shoot the whole day down" during Live Aid (I wonder whether the imprisoned Brenda Spencer had a chance to watch the show from her cell?). But if you manage to disassociate the song from the context, it is hard to deny that the sound is real good — usually, when you get yourself a piano-and-strings arrangement, it results in a mushy ballad sound, whereas ʽI Don't Like Mondaysʼ is really a very rowdy, dynamic thing, an ironic-romantic explosion which is much more Springsteen in spirit than Carole King or the Carpenters. In any case, it is at least certain that the song's enduring po­pularity is due to much more than just its «shock» appeal.

Unfortunately, it also marks a certain turning point beyond which Geldof would start taking things way too seriously — and both the Boomtown Rats' and his own solo output would begin suffering from too little humor and too much anthemic pomp. Fortunately, this does not yet show up so much on The Fine Art Of Surfacing, whose problem lies elsewhere: in an attempt to catch up with the times, they have stuffed way too many of these shrill Cars-type synthesizers at the expense of rock'n'roll guitar. This is not good, because The Boomtown Rats are not The Cars, and they are even less Talking Heads (whose sound they attempt to rip off head-on in ʽNothing Hap­pened Todayʼ, with Geldof going for an all-out David Byrne imitation). Their hooks are best supported by rowdy classic rock posturing, not keyboard experimentation and theatrical vocal parts — at least, this is how my gut feeling explains it when the album is over and, other than ʽMondaysʼ, I have a serious problem remembering any of the other songs.

From a rational point of view, they are still being interestingly clever, though. ʽSomeone's Look­ing At Youʼ, echoing both the glam and the Berlin period of David Bowie, could be initially thought of as a picture of a love-confused teen punk, but the lyrics make it clear that it is really a song about Big Brother — it's just that it has been initially set up as a caressing, tender number, with cozy mood-setting "na-na-na's" and the first line going "on a night like this I deserve to get kissed at least once or twice" and the background synthesizers serenading you with an optimistic lead melody. Then, giving you no time to get over it, Geldof hits you over the head — gently, gently! — with a song about a glamor girl's suicide (ʽDiamond Eyesʼ), another New Wave rocker once again almost completely driven by cheery keyboards.

Eventually, the model gets a bit predictable — informing the listeners about the evils of the world we're living in through the medium of the world's best-crafted and most widely reaching informa­tion machine, the pop song. It all gets to the point where you start looking for a rebellious mes­sage even in an innocent complaint against insomnia (ʽSleepʼ) — I mean, no doubt about it, it must be the insane energy-sucking world of capitalist pressure that drives the protagonist to "counting fences" and "jumping sheep" and still to no avail. But on a purely emotional level, the song does not succeed very well in constructing an atmosphere of insomnia / paranoia / depres­sion / whatever, unlike, say, John Lennon's ʽI'm So Tiredʼ — it's just a moderately catchy key­board-driven pop rocker.

The only song that tries to recapture their original rocking sound is ʽNice 'n' Neatʼ, a speedy num­ber that brings back full guitar throttle for three minutes — good, but a little too late, and hardly supported by the closing ʽWhen The Night Comesʼ, one of their most blatant Springsteen imita­tions that could have been easily slipped inside Greetings From Asbury Park without anyone noticing. Still, much to their credits, at least they pull these imitations off convincingly — Geldof lacks the «technical endowments» of The Boss (meaning that he is not as vocally powerful, of course — I have no further basis for a physical comparison of the two), but he can set his soul on fire just as directly and unflinchingly whenever the need arises.

On the whole, this is a good album — ultimately, one can forget the criticism and just enjoy its still fairly tasteful and energetic sound, and I should probably add that at least the vocal harmo­nies on most of these here songs are the best on any given Rats album. Make this their «pop mas­terpiece», if you will, as compared to the «rock goodness» of the preceding two records, and think of it as a masterpiece indeed — for a band that was not at all cut out for a good «pop» album in the first place. Thumbs up.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bonnie Raitt: Silver Lining

BONNIE RAITT: SILVER LINING (2002)

1) Fools Game; 2) I Can't Help You Now; 3) Silver Lining; 4) Time Of Our Lives; 5) Gnawin' On It; 6) Monkey Business; 7) Wherever You May Be; 8) Valley Of Pain; 9) Hear Me Lord; 10) No Gettin' Over You; 11) Back Around; 12) Wounded Heart.

«Raitt's singing has never been more finely tuned, especially on... the final track, ʽWounded Heartʼ, a breathtaking duet recorded in one take with keyboardist Benmont Tench; after nailing it, Raitt reportedly fled the studio, moved to tears; any second attempt proved both undoable and unnecessary» (Robert L. Doerschuk, All-Music Guide; I have not been able to find additional confirmation, but no clear reason to disbelieve the story).

This pretty much tells us all we need to know, because ʽWounded Heartʼ, a piano ballad written by contemporary singer-songwriter Jude Johnstone (who also included it on her own debut album which came out twenty days after Silver Lining), is the very definition of «trivial»: the entire song rides on exactly one endlessly repeated and not particularly fresh (to say the least) musical phrase, and the lyrics go like this: "If you listen you can hear the angels' wings / Up above our heads so near they are hovering / Waiting to reach out for love when it falls apart / When it can­not rise above a wounded heart". You could pardon bad wording if it were set to glorious music, or you could pardon the boring music if it were accompanying brilliantly stringed verbal phrasing, but damn, this is bad — generic, corny singer-songwriter fluff that doesn't even begin to ap­proach the level of some of Bonnie's old ballads like ʽLouiseʼ, let alone any really high standards of ballad writing. ʽWounded Heartʼ? More like ʽWooden Heartʼ if you ask me.

In other words, the relative «comeback» that she had with Fundamental has pretty much ended, as we see Ms. Raitt return to the comfortable territory of soft-rock / adult contemporary. The entire album consists of bland ballads, limp rockers with a funky underbelly but no energy what­soever, and somnambulant folk-pop, completely devoid of hooks, fresh ideas, or individuality. The miriad of players and contributing songwriters are completely unrecognizable to me — seeing as how I have little interest in this particular marketline — and not a single song here stimulates me into getting to know any one of them better (I did skim through a couple tracks off that debut album by Jude Johnston — my bad).

In the middle of it all, though, unexpectedly comes ʽGnawin' On Itʼ, a blues-rocker with a dirty, distorted rhythm track reminiscent of Paul Burlison's playing in the Johnny Burnette trio — in other words, a real good sound as compared to everything else on this flaccid affair, and in order to match it, Bonnie digs deep and recovers some of her trademark gritty huskiness. The slide work on the track is also good and merges fine with Steve Berlin's sax — what I'm a-guessin' is that Los Lobos had their hand here, as well as Roy Rogers, a fine guitar player who had first made his name with John Lee Hooker in the 1980s... well, all right, some people with a sense of taste actually were involved in the making of this record. Too bad they only made one track sound like it had a decent pair of musical balls attached.

Do not get me wrong: softness, tenderness, emotionality, sensitivity, vulnerability are all very much welcome on a Bonnie Raitt record, or on anybody else's record — as long as they go hand in hand with some melodic or vocal move that is at least remotely interesting, unlike the dissipa­ted atmospheric phrasing of, say, the title track, which combines a hell of a lot of different string, keyboard, and percussion ins­truments into a melting pot where they never come together into anything coherent or more-than-superficially-pretty. Worse still, many of these songs try to rock (ʽFools Gameʼ, ʽMonkey Businessʼ) — but why would you want to listen to Bonnie Raitt going middle-of-the-road funky, when you can listen to, say, Prince going all the way? What would you be — afraid to enjoy somebody going all the way? Maybe that is what «adult contemporary» is all about — people too scared to turn their emotional stove up all the way, or it might, you know, blow up and hurt somebody.

Total thumbs down — and I am not taking that pun-based hint from the match between the album title and the «silver lining» foxily flashing out of the ongoing general redness of the lady's hair. If this is her way of communicating to us that one need not be afraid of aging, and that aging only brings on more wisdom and a sharpened sense of responsibility (towards one's fans, for in­stance), I'll opt for a whole load of irresponsible stupidity instead.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: Back To Back

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: BACK TO BACK (1967)

1) Green Onions; 2) Red Beans And Rice; 3) Tic-Tac-Toe; 4) Hip Hug-Her; 5) Philly Dog; 6) Grab This Thing; 7) Last Night; 8) Gimme Some Lovin'; 9) Booker Loo; 10) Outrage.

The Stax-Volt Revue circa 1967 was a pretty hot affair, largely due to some of its megastars such as Otis Redding — popular enough for the label to graciously allow even the instrumental backing bands to leave behind some musical documentation. Technically, Back To Back is a split album between Booker T. & The M.G.'s and The Mar-Keys. However, The Mar-Keys are featured only on three numbers out of ten, and they are actually piled above the other band — being represented by the horn section of Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson, and Joe Arnold who just play on top of the Booker T. rhythm section, so essentially it's all Booker T., really.

As a document, it's okay: the bands play their biggest hits, a few obscure tracks, and a bit of con­temporary material (such as ʽGimme Some Lovin'ʼ by the Spencer Davis Group). As something to enjoy, it is certainly disappointing, particularly for the standards of 1967, by which time pop bands who knew how to stretch it out on stage were already beginning to be expected to stretch it out all right. Granted, the world was only just warming up to the sounds of Cream and Jimi Hen­drix in March 1967, but there is not even the tiniest hint here that a muscular R&B outfit could do something else on stage than just faithfully reproduce its studio sound.

They do extend ʽGreen Onionsʼ for about one minute, that is for sure, but merely to add a small, playful, quiet pre-coda movement — nice, but nothing special. Everything else is similar, but slightly inferior to the studio versions, as the band does not have the benefit of choosing the perfect take or canceling out unnecessary noise (although, to be fair, the sound quality is quite high, and the audiences at the Olympia Theater are politely listening to the players without ripping stuff up — ain't no hurly-burly Rolling Stones messing up the local morals here). The tempos are sped up just a very tiny bit, so that it is really hard to say if they did it to raise the excitement level or simply to cramp more tunes into the half-hour slot allocated to them. Possibly the latter, since the entire performance is also completely banter-free, bar a short introduction.

The three numbers where the M.G.'s and the Mar-Keys play together are arguably the most ex­citing part of the show, because the M.G.'s thrive on a «stern» attitude where the brass-crazy Mar-Keys are a little more wild and eccentric, and it is fun to watch the two different attitudes collide and collate for about ten minutes. Other than that, the release is completely inessential, although it would probably make much more sense as a brief instrumental interlude in a large multi-volume retrospective of the Stax-Volt Revue (and, as far as I understand, something of the sort is actually available, except all the individual performances have been cut short on the col­lective Stax-Volt CD releases).

Monday, March 16, 2015

Boston: Don't Look Back

BOSTON: DON'T LOOK BACK (1978)

1) Don't Look Back; 2) The Journey; 3) It's Easy; 4) A Man I'll Never Be; 5) Feelin' Satisfied; 6) Party; 7) Used To Bad News; 8) Don't Be Afraid.

A man like Tom Scholz I'll never be, because it is really hard to understand what all the fuss was about — Scholz lashed out at Epic Records for pressing him into releasing the next album too soon, way before he was fully ready to amaze the world for a second time, but listening to Don't Look Back gives nary a hint of any idea of how it was supposed to be anything but a slightly in­ferior carbon copy of Boston. Of course, there is nothing wrong with repeating a winning formula if it works, but other than some additional feats of technical ingenuity, most of these songs really sound as if they were written at exactly the same time as the stuff on Boston, and left out in the sun to dry, waiting for another day.

Or maybe not, because there is exactly one important difference: Don't Look Back is an album produced by accomplished arena-rock superstars. Most of the songs on Boston featured huge, bombastic arrangements, but at heart they were relatively personal tunes — love serenades or personal confessions. You were invited to sing along and join in the emotional turbulence all right, but they weren't really written with the collective you, our lovely stadium audience, in mind. By the time it was time to put out a sequel, the band's status had changed, and now Scholz was making songs «for the people». Again, there is nothing wrong with this in principle, but a mind­set like that can sometimes result in extra seriousness at the expense of melodicity.

It is hardly coincidental that the record begins and ends with prohibitive invocations — at the start, we are told not to look back, and for the finish, we are invited not to be afraid. It is definite­ly not coincidental that ʽFeelin' Satisfiedʼ informs us that "the time has come to get together" and begs us to "come on, put your hands together" and "take a chance on rock'n'roll" (as if any Boston concert goer had not already taken a chance — probably much more than one — on rock'n'roll). Throughout, the choruses get louder and louder and more repetitive, and even the most intro­spective song of them all, ʽA Man I'll Never Beʼ, has its last chorus line specially singled out so that the entire stadium could brace itself for it.

These are the little details that pick up my attention. As to the actual musical advances, well, I should say that Scholz's musical perfectionism refers more to the sphere of subtle overtones and frequencies than finding new sources of inspiration for his melody-making. Like Boston, this record, too, features a brief instrumental interlude (ʽThe Journeyʼ) that merges elements of folk and cosmic psychedelia, but other than that, Boston's flying saucer shows no signs of wanting to preserve its outer space identity — being perfectly happy to churn out one power-pop anthem after another for the earthly entertainment of Earthlings. Epic Records say — assimilate or perish, oh you strange aliens from the faraway planet of Boston.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with most of these power pop anthems. The title track has a cool funky riff (later stolen by Michael Jackson for ʽBlack And Whiteʼ, as I have only just rea­lized) that somehow agrees well enough with the song's straightforward 4/4 beat. ʽIt's Easyʼ, ʽFeelin' Satisfiedʼ, ʽPartyʼ, and ʽUsed To Bad Newsʼ are all catchy and fun pop-rockers, although rather non-descript in impressionistic terms. And although I used to seriously dislike the power balladry of ʽA Man I'll Never Beʼ, I have grown accustomed to its clever trickery of successively piling up one layer of guitars upon another until, with one triumphant thunderclash, it turns into something on a truly Gargantuan scale. (And do not miss or misjudge the piano quote from Paul McCartney's ʽMaybe I'm Amazedʼ, the wise mother of all such power ballads).

With all these considerations in mind and impressions in the heart, there is no reason to condemn Don't Look Back — it earns its thumbs up by not letting down our expectations if we wanted more of the same. If we didn't — if we expected this band to top Boston and push its musical boundaries further forward — Don't Look Back could only be described as disappointing, as it neither pushes forward nor takes any «sideward» risks (like, for instance, Fleetwood Mac did with Tusk around the same time). But why should we have expected anything like that? Tom Scholz has his own vision of a perfect brand of pop-rock, and he is not interested in straying too far away from it. If only his head weren't so turned with his own and the band's own «bigness», Don't Look Back could probably have been as much fun as its predecessor. As it is, it is slightly less fun and a little more stadium-preachy, but only a tad so. And the staidum audiences did bite, sending the album to the top of the charts and certifying it seven times platinum. It is, however, rather telling that ʽDon't Look Backʼ never managed to earn itself such an assured place on classic rock radio as ʽMore Than A Feelingʼ — no accident, I'd say.