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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Brainiac: Hissing Prigs In Static Couture

BRAINIAC: HISSING PRIGS IN STATIC COUTURE (1996)

1) Indian Poker (part 3); 2) Pussyfootin'; 3) Vincent Come On Down; 4) This Little Piggy; 5) Strung; 6) Hot Seat Can't Sit Down; 7) The Vulgar Trade; 8) Beekeepers Maxim; 9) Kiss Me, U Jacked Up Jerk; 10) 70 Kg Man; 11) Indian Poker (part 2); 12) Nothing Ever Changes; 13) I Am A Cracked Machine.

I seriously dislike the title of this album — sounds like four unrelated words joined together through random selection. If anything, it should have been named after one of its tracks — ʽHot Seat Can't Sit Downʼ is a near-perfect description for its overall sound. Which has not changed all that much since Bonsai Superstar — but now it is even wilder, faster, uglier, and crazier, so if you liked Superstar for all these reasons, you are almost legally bound to develop an even higher appreciation for Hissing Prigs.

Unless you already are an experienced consumer of various sorts of noise, some of the small arch-experimental links may be hard to fathom — if the industrially distorted «pan-fried» electric guitar duo on ʽIndian Poker (part 3)ʼ does not kill you on the spot, just wait until you get to the high-pitched electronic sirens on ʽIndian Poker (part 2)ʼ (boy, am I glad they declined to end the album with ʽIndian Poker (part 1)ʼ — that would probably have been the sonic torture to out­shame all other sorts of sonic torture). Even before that, the already major crazy ʽ70 Kg Manʼ, running along at top speed to the sound of fizzed-out punk guitars and dissonant overdubbed vocal harmonies of the chorus, is interrupted midway through by a «bridge» of electronically treated barking hounds — let me tell you, there's absolutely no fun in hearing this at top volume in headphones, and oh, my name is Peter Townshend, by the way.

But do not make the mistake that it's all about ugliness, either. Brainiac's chief influences are still the same — main cues taken from the Pixies and, through them, from the Ramones and other punkers who value fun, catchiness, and entertainment at least as much as they value rebellious­ness, schizophrenia, and social message. Once the initiation of ʽIndian Pokerʼ has diligently driven out all the «wusses» and «pussies», ʽPussyfootinʼ really turns out to be quite a conserva­tive rock track, oddly adorned only with Tim Taylor's inimitably screechy vocal style and a series of slightly deranged babbling interludes. And no amount of hysterical electronic effects can dis­guise the fact that ʽVincent Come On Downʼ is essentially just a solid slice of classic punk-rock, with nothing particularly «avantgarde» about its basic chord structure.

But do not make the mistake that it's really all so simplistic. The above-mentioned ʽHot Seatʼ, for instance, starts off with quite a tricky guitar riff and an even trickier time signature, well worthy of King Crimson — matters get simplified once Tim starts to sing, but the song switches gears several times and is, on the whole, far more complex than anything ever produced by, say, Nir­vana (not that it automatically makes it better — I am merely making a case here for Brainiac as a «musician's band» rather than a «general public band»). And the guitar melodies on ʽThis Little Piggyʼ, despite the relative simplicity of each, remain ever so slightly, but steadily and intentio­nally out of sync with each other, which means they are taking their clues from the avantgarde artists, after all. There's nothing like mapping craziness through intelligence.

But do not make the mistake that it's really all so esoteric. Once most of this stuff has properly sunken in, the professional headbanger will headbang to it all the way through to ʽNothing Ever Changesʼ, whose combination of galloping rock rhythm with catchy electronic pulse could make it into a ʽRock Lobsterʼ for the 1990s, and the closing ʽI Am A Cracked Machineʼ, which is also a damn good title — the whole song, heck, the whole album, dammit, this whole band has made a career out of portraying the daily routine events in the life of a «cracked machine», one that might be expected to churn out «normal» electronic music, but, due to its being cracked, turns out every­thing but normal — and loves every moment of it.

Even if your mind will not get attached to specific songs, it would be hard not to get involved in Brainiac's rusty robotic carnival as a whole. I hold no illusions for Brainiac's future — there is no guarantee that, had Tim Taylor not perished in an unfortunate auto accident a year later, they would have retained their edginess and freshness. The several songs they still had time to record and put out as an EP (Electro-Shock For President) show that the plan for the next stage was to relinquish guitars altogether and go completely electronic for a while — not the best idea, per­haps, because the songs became completely depersonalized and were unable to capitalize on Tim's eccentric individuality. Still, that's hardly a polite pretext to say that nobody will miss Tim Taylor — over those brief, but eventful several years, he did help out to make the decade a little more colorful and crazy, and Hissing Prigs is arguably the highest point of that color-add-on, so it gets yet another thumbs up from me, and with that, the story of Brainiac is over.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Box Tops: Non-Stop

THE BOX TOPS: NON-STOP (1968)

1) Choo Choo Train; 2) I'm Movin' On; 3) Sandman; 4) She Shot A Hole In My Soul; 5) People Gonna Talk; 6) I Met Her In Church; 7) Rock Me Baby; 8) Rollin' In My Sleep; 9) I Can Dig It; 10) Yesterday Where's My Mind; 11) If I Had Let You In.

Maybe this one was rushed out a little too quickly after Cry Like A Baby, because even repeated listens with an extra spoonful of attention do not do much in the way of excitement. Two things are immediately noticeable, neither of them auspicious — first, the Penn/Oldham partnership only contributes two songs, and second, there are way too many horns here, as if somebody were intentionally pulling The Box Tops away from their dabblings in the «baroque» and the «psyche­delic» and urging them to compete with the newly formed Blood, Sweat & Tears (or the not-yet-formed Chicago, in an act of artistic prevention).

I would not say that this latter move is completely wrong — sometimes the results are amusing, for instance, on their cover of Hank Snow's ʽI'm Movin' Onʼ. That one used to be a no-frills country song (which The Rolling Stones had already managed to transform into an ass-kickin' rhythm'n'blues killer machine in their early live shows), and here, too, it starts out all country-like, but then midway through the horns kick in, the bass zoops move closer to hard rock territory, the vocals disappear altogether, and we witness a smooth, natural-sounding transformation from quiet country to loud, anthemic, gritty R&B.

Unfortunately, surprises like these are fairly rare throughout the album. The same horns can sound pedestrian and formulaic just as often as they can sound useful and inspiring, and on the whole, it seems as if once again they were using Chilton here as their main attraction — on some of the songs, his voice is even more wild and gravelley than before, so much so that if I did not know how smooth and clean Tom Waits sounded in his early youth, I'd easily have mistaken Alex for a young Tom on his own ʽI Can Dig Itʼ and particularly on the dark folk ballad ʽYes­terday Where's My Mindʼ, written by Jon Reid and Bill Soden. For this song, the Box Tops earned numerous comparisons with the Doors that came one album too late — musically, this one is very much rooted in traditional Britfolk, which the Doors didn't play much, and is more in line with the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane; also, Chilton's vocal impersonation is much more «earthy» than Jim Morrison's not-of-this-world lizard-king promenades.

(Sidenote: for a really, really bizarre version of ʽYesterday Where's My Mindʼ, check out the recently uncovered Paint A Lady album by odd-folk singerine Susan Christie, shelved in 1970 and critically savored only around 2006. She doesn't necessarily do a better job than Chilton, but her tacked-on three-minute free-form introduction gotta rank as one of the most bizarre perfor­mances of its epoch).

None of these songs were considered for release as singles: instead, that honor fell to ʽChoo Choo Trainʼ, a fairly ordinary tune of longing for one's baby. Apparently, they were once again trying to recreate the «yearning / travel» theme of ʽThe Letterʼ, replacing the aeroplane with a more grounded form of transportation, but for some reason, decided to give the song a slightly «vulga­rized», pub-rock atmosphere. The trick did not work — the single charted much lower than ʽCry Like A Babyʼ, and then it all went further downhill when they tried to remedy the situation with ʽI Met Her In Churchʼ: not only was the title of the song probably not the most appropriate thing to capture the hearts of the single-buying market, but the song itself, though technically ambitious (with a little «mini-serenade» in the place of the instrumental break), brings them into the sphere of anthemic «gospel pop», in which sphere you usually get your ass kicked by the likes of Maha­lia Jackson unless you do something totally mad and unpredictable. In this case, though, Chilton just does not sound as if he's all that into it.

Throw on all sorts of stuff that is just plain boring — for instance, these guys have no business whatsoever covering ʽRock Me Babyʼ (nobody really has, not after Jimi), and ʽRollin' In My Sleepʼ actually puts me to sleep, despite being superficially pretty — and the lack of anything truly outstanding, and there remains little mystery about why this is indeed the beginning of the end. That said, Non-Stop is not a «bad» record: it is simply too self-conscious for its own good, trying way too hard to «do it right» by looking at what everybody else around is doing, comple­tely forgetting the need to cobble together its own face. In this, it is far from being alone, and it is still much better than a lot of the competition — the «Neanderthal model of Alex Chilton» alone is worth a couple visits. But probably not much more than a couple.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: Melting Pot

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: MELTING POT (1971)

1) Melting Pot; 2) Back Home; 3) Chicken Pox; 4) Fuquawi; 5) Kinda Easy Like; 6) Hi Ride; 7) L.A. Jazz Song; 8) Sunny Monday.

For those who doubted if Booker T. & The M.G.'s could make a credible and efficient transition to the sound of the Seventies — here is your answer. The issue is not whether Melting Pot is or is not the band's «best album», as is often claimed. The issue is that, with those new funky sounds on the rise, the Seventies gave us the last wave of great Afro-American instrumental music, be­fore electronics and sampling swooped it all away, and as it often happens in between waves, not everybody riding one could easily hop on to the next one. The M.G.'s could — even if one could say, in light of the consequences, that the leap ultimately broke their back.

Following McLemore Avenue, the band grew dissatisfied with the conservatism of Stax and relocated to New York City in order to record their next album — where, as Booker T. was convinced, things were really happening at the time. Keeping in mind that Soul Dressing was really a collection of scattered singles, and that Up Tight was really a movie soundtrack, Melting Pot may claim the distinction of being the really first M.G.'s album to be conceived as an album, with all original compositions — not to mention that two of the compositions go over eight minu­tes, which was perfectly alright for an autonomous, self-sufficient funk outfit, but certainly out of the ordinary for a band that used to make a living by covering hit singles of the day.

The difference is immediately felt in the title track, opening with a bona fide funk groove — syn­copated bass, scratch guitar, the works — and yet, at the heart of the track we still find the same old melodicity, characteristic of Booker T., as he and Cropper lay on several melodic solos. Steve's part is quite traditionally bluesy, Booker T.'s is traditionally jazzy, but the funky groove provokes them into action, so the playing is a little more «red hot» than usual. The usual «grim­ness» of the music that originally made them their name is still fully retained, though — this is a dark, brooding take on funk, a stimulus for «brain-dancing» rather than «body-dancing».

The second large track, ʽKinda Easy Likeʼ, is a little more gimmicky and a little less sensible. First, it starts off totally in ʽGreen Onionsʼ mode — not a good sign for a band whose purpose here is to clearly put some miles between this and their past. Second, several minutes into the track they add some semi-scat, semi-doo-wop vocalizing from «The Pepper Singers», a move whose purpose I fail to com­prehend. Imagine a ʽGreen Onionsʼ with some girls going "doo-dah-doo-dah-day!" all over the place. Kinda spoils the fun by trying to add up to it, doesn't it?

Fortunately, the short tracks more than compensate for one strange misgiving. The one that is probably going to stick forever is ʽFuquawiʼ, because the organ riff is of the ʽIron Manʼ variety — you'll be whistling it for days, cursing yourself for being so easily impressionable, but in reality just falling for a standard trick that your wired brain plays on you. The good news is that on top of that «nursery» riff, the band honestly builds up a good groove, and Cropper plays some mean, stinging guitar. It's the coolest, sweatiest strut they ever took since the days of ʽHip Hug-Herʼ, a mean mother-huggin' sound that manages to make them sound more «nasty» (in line with the general tendency) without using any specifically «nasty» effects.

In terms of funkiness, do not miss out on ʽChicken Poxʼ, with a monster bass riff from Dunn and an amusing guitar-organ dialog, and on ʽL. A. Jazz Songʼ, where the Pepper Singers' vocals sound much more natural, as the tune itself sort of follows the formula of the typical blacksploita­tion movie soundtrack — seriously rhythmic, moderately fast, extremely tense, and perhaps ever so slightly «apocalyptic», all of which is only natural if we want associations with strenuous life conditions of the underprivileged population on the streets of American big cities. The doubled guitar-organ riff of the tune is particularly effective in its «hit-and-run» delivery.

But the album still ends on a lighter note — I think that the title of ʽSunny Mondayʼ was delibe­rately chosen to contrast with the well-known ʽStormy Mondayʼ; it is probably the first song in the band's catalog to open with an acoustic guitar part (and the chord sequences, by the way, show a clear influence on the part of the recently covered ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ), and one of the very few to feature some romantic orchestration towards the end. Ultimately, everything's well, they tell us, even if this transition to a harsher, funkier sound may originally give the impression that life has become more gloomy, gritty, whatever. Hmm, guess the same could be said about Sticky Fingers, if you remember the opening and the closing tracks on that album. A scary thing, that associative power of the brain's.

Ironically, this album, so very different from the «classic» M.G.'s sound, was to become their last one before the original split, after which the band was never the same again — their own Abbey Road, in a hilarious twist of fate in which their «proper» Abbey Road (McLemore Avenue) was really their confused Let It Be, and this here was when they regrouped, cleared their heads, and pointed the way to the future. On the grand scale of things, Melting Pot ain't no masterpiece (not in the era of Bitches Brew it ain't), but by the self-imposed «humble» standards of these guys, it blows them right through the roof, and deserves a thumbs up like no other.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Brenda Holloway: Hurtin' And Cryin'

BRENDA HOLLOWAY: HURTIN' AND CRYIN' (1967?)

1) When I'm Gone; 2) Just Look What You've Done; 3) You've Made Me So Very Happy; 4) I Don't Want Nobody's Gonna Make Me Cry; 5) Till Johnny Comes; 6) Hurt A Little Everyday; 7) Starting The Hurt All Over; 8) You Can Cry On My Shoulder; 9) A World Without You; 10) I'll Be Alright; 11) Everybody Knows; 12) Make Him Come To You.

Frankly speaking, Brenda Holloway's discography becomes a nightmare immediately after her first album. She was found to be less cooperative at Motown than her chief female competitors, beginning with Mary Wells and ending with the Supremes, and largely spent the next three or four years in their shadow, occasionally releasing singles, sometimes even minor hit ones, but as far as I can understand, not a single «original» LP by Brenda Holloway ever appeared on the la­bel. You will occasionally find two additional entries in the discographies, but both are deceptive: Hurtin' And Cryin' was (or, rather, «may have been», as I have learned not to trust anything in this business) an LP that was recorded, assembled, and then indefinitely shelved by the label, and The Artistry Of Brenda Holloway, released in 1968, was actually a UK-only compilation that included a bit of everything, from old singles to some newer, then-unreleased material.

Turning first to Hurtin' And Cryin', we find that the album was supposedly released — even­tually — as part of the sprawling, well put together Motown Anthology, a 2-CD collection from 2005 that seems to claim to contain everything that Brenda recorded for the label. That does not quite solve the enigma, though, because sources vary tremendously on when the album was origi­nally scheduled for release. I have found conflicting reports that said «rejected in 1964» (too early, it seems), «rejected in 1968» (too late, I'd say) and «rejected in 1967», which sounds just about right, but then the track list also includes ʽYou've Made Me So Very Happyʼ, a single which, to the best of my knowledge, did not come out until 1968. Clearly, a little confusion is in order here. This is what happens to underdogs, you know.

Anyway, regardless of technicalities, had it been given proper birth, Hurtin' And Cryin' would have been a large improvement over Brenda's debut. This time, the tracks are grouped around not just one hit single, but three hit singles — and none of them sound like each other, or like one more bunch of inferior rewrites of ʽEvery Little Bit Hurtsʼ! ʽWhen I'm Goneʼ, a song that Mo­town reassigned to Brenda from Mary Wells just as the latter made her exit from the label, shows that the lady can do sexy irony and sarcasm just as fine as she does loss and tragedy; besides, Brenda's version is far more loud, bombastic, and all-over-the-place than Mary's original, belying her «subtly sensitive» image and showing how thunderstormy she can be when put to the task. Then there's ʽJust Look What You've Doneʼ, where the rhythm and brass section put the melody into gallop mode — a far cry from the snail paces of 1964 — and although Holloway certainly pales in this respect compared to either Diana Ross' squeaky sexiness or Martha Reeves' street brawniness, she does not let the song down.

As to ʽYou've Made Me So Very Happyʼ, this song was actually written by Brenda herself, in collaboration with her sister Patrice and songwriter Frank Wilson — then, at the last moment, Berry Gordy Jr. himself, understanding they had a hit on their hands, «changed a few notes» as they say and became co-author of the tune. Later on, it made them all a ton of dough when the song became a major hit for Blood, Sweat & Tears — but I actually like the original better, or, at least, I do not think that BS&T, aside from smothering it in horns, managed to uncover some sort of hidden meaning that was not already revealed in Brenda's own performance. And who do you really think makes the tune more justice, David Clayton-Thomas or one of Motown's most legen­dary (if underrated) vocalists? It's actually quite joyful to hear Brenda take her mind off negative emotions for a while and sing a happy song for a change, and she does it with style; gotta love her «cloudy vibrato» in the chorus.

The other nine songs are mostly filler, sure enough, but since she was actually trying to expand in several subdirections of R&B, it is nowhere near as monotonous as on the 1964 album. There are a few more slow tempo «hurting songs» (ʽHurt A Little Everydayʼ, ʽEverybody Knowsʼ), but there's also a pretty effective «consolation song» (ʽYou Can Cry On My Shoulderʼ, with a heart-tugging couple of Roy Orbison-worthy chord changes in the chorus) and a few more of these rousing gallops, sometimes titled quite deceptively — ʽStarting The Hurt All Over Againʼ is far more playful and aggressive than I'd dare to derive from that name. At the very least, the way these tracks are sequenced never conveys the impression that we are only watching a mediocre artist and a bunch of obliging record executives fill up empty vinyl space.

On the whole, I'd like to give the record a thumbs up, but I am not even sure if it really ever existed the way it is presented here — and you'll never find it anyway except as an integral part of Motown Anthology. But it is logistically useful to keep it as a separate building block in Bren­da's discography, if only to stress that there was life after ʽEvery Little Bit Hurtsʼ, and not even just life, but actual evolution and development. At the very least, let this review be my little contri­bution towards the «International Movement To Declare Brenda Holloway Not A One-Hit Wonder, But A Two-Hit Wonder» and the «International Movement To Demote Blood, Sweat & Tears And Promote Brenda Holloway In The Name Of Justice, Equality, And Awesome Critical Ratings».

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Björk: Homogenic Live

BJÖRK: HOMOGENIC LIVE (1997-98; 2003)

1) Vísur Vatnsenda Rósu; 2) Hunter; 3) You've Been Flirting Again; 4) Isobel; 5) All Neon Like; 6) Possibly Maybe; 7) 5 Years; 8) Come To Me; 9) Immature; 10) I Go Humble; 11) Bachelorette; 12) Human Behaviour; 13) Pluto; 14) Jóga; 15) So Broken; 16) Anchor Song.

With the Homogenic project all set to promote Björk as The Great Mother of All, it was obvious that the live show had to make the appropriate adjustments — and so she did, and I don't just mean a bigger light show and more costume changes, but also the musical backing. The Icelandic String Octet followed her on the tour whenever she went, and although I have no idea if the Ice­landic String Octet is a real octet (I mean, of the kind that can do Schubert's D.803 and stuff), it is real enough to work out the appropriately grand chamber backing (bordering on symphonic) to songs that were, in the studio, largely dependent on electronics.

This is a terrific move, and although the perfect balance between electronics, strings, and Ice­landic pixie voice would not really be reached until Vespertine (both studio and live), it can be argued that the Homogenic songs do not need such perfection in the first place. They are loud, brash, violent songs, after all, where energy and pathos are more important than subtle finesse. And it works: look, for instance, how well the slightly discordant strings compensate for the lack of Vocoder on Björk's «roaring» part in ʽPlutoʼ. There's no roar at all, but the climactic part of the song blows your mind anyway, largely due to the strings.

The actual performances here are culled from numerous shows, geographically stretching from Washington to Prague, and once again covering the Jools Holland show on their way, including a version of ʽJogaʼ with only strings (no beats) that, believe it or not, is every bit as powerful as the studio version — with little to detract you from the monster voice singing about how beautiful it is to be in this state of emergency. The same performance also gives us the rarity ʽSo Brokenʼ, originally the B-side to ʽJogaʼ, where instead of strings we have flamenco guitar — it's probably the closest thing to a wild Spanish ballad that the Icelandic lady has ever produced in her career, not a masterpiece, but a fun curio to hear if you ever wondered how Björk would function in «gypsy mode».

Even the older songs benefit from new touring conditions — for instance, ʽIsobelʼ works much better with strings than with the rather silly accordeon on the preceding tour, and ʽPossibly May­beʼ has an almost magical sound, just because the cellos add an extra psychedelic dimension to the already enchanting «musical-box» keyboards. ʽCome To Meʼ opens with a solo violin part in the style of 19th century romanticism, which would be cheesy in anybody else's hands, but not in Björk's, who knows very well how to combine «banal» elements with «controversial» ones; as long as she still sings that way, she can quote from Mendelssohn underneath her vocals, beats, and loops as long as she considers necessary.

Overall, this is a total success — most of the songs are at least slightly different from the studio versions, just enough to warrant an extra listen, and on top of that, Björk herself is in peak vocal form, screaming, howling, roaring, crooning, and praying her way through without a single glitch (okay, so these selections were handpicked from a vast number of tapes, so I have no idea how good she could be throughout the entire show — also, her voice does occasionally crack on ʽSo Brokenʼ, but I guess it's a predictable part of the program, given the song's title). There's an occa­sional touch of humor, too (check out the endearing "tsk-tsk-tsk" ending to the "silly girl, so silly" coda of ʽImmatureʼ), and then there's the final note she takes on the still-obligatory show closer ʽAnchor Songʼ — something utterly inhuman, causing a near-riot in the audience. A natural thumbs up — this is some prime quality live Björk at the peak of her powers.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bon Jovi: Inside Out

BON JOVI: INSIDE OUT (2012)

1) Blood On Blood; 2) Lost Highway; 3) Born To Be My Baby; 4) You Give Love A Bad Name; 5) Whole Lot Of Leaving; 6) Raise Your Hands; 7) We Got It Going On; 8) Have A Nice Day; 9) It's My Life; 10) I'll Be There For You; 11) Wanted Dead Or Alive; 12) Livin' On A Prayer; 13) Keep The Faith.

Yes, it is 2012 and Bon Jovi can still afford a live album. No, they are not going to put any songs from their latest studio record, The Circle, on it because that album sucked and they know it, even if you have to really get them in a ditch in order to admit it. Yes, it has lots of titles that you will most likely recognize; in fact, you can probably predict two thirds of the setlist with your eyes closed. No, there is not a single reason in the world to own this record, listen to this record, or remain aware of this record's existence.

Let me, therefore, be very brief here and say that the «Bon Jovi spectacle» is really nothing like the «Rolling Stones spectacle», despite both of them being spectacles. At his old age, Mick Jagger may prance around the stage so much that keeping in tune becomes an impossibility, and Keith Richards may be forgetting more and more chords and harmonic rules with each passing year — a 50-year old Jon Bon Jovi and his lead guitar pal are doing their jobs far more properly, singing and playing in tune, diligently working their asses out without their superstar halos getting the better of them. But nothing can save us from the fact that Bon Jovi are boring. The band is just... no fun. They are standing there, playing their boring songs in their predictable ways. They are boring when they are serious and they are even more boring when they try to be funny. They are boring when they do stage banter, they are boring when they interact with the audience. They are professional, they are tuneful, they are pretentious, they are irritating — but first and foremost, they just make your milk curdle.

It may be just me, but it also seems as if they are now reducing all their songs from all their peri­ods to exactly the same «alt-rock» formula. You couldn't really tell here that ʽBorn To Me My Babyʼ or ʽLivin' On A Prayerʼ were written in the Eighties, that ʽKeep The Faithʼ used to be so very Nineties, or that ʽLost Highwayʼ is from their short-lived neo-country period in the 2000s. It's just the same old gray grind all over the place. No mistakes, nothing out of tune, just a bunch of experienced rockers giving a good time to some friendly folks in an arena or two. This is how they live now — beginning ʽLivin' On A Prayerʼ with an actual «prayer» in an act of trans­cendent spiritual unity between the Artist and the Audience. It's all very emotional, really. You can also get an accompanying DVD (Live At Madison Square Garden) where there are many more songs and you can actually see the heroes being... uh... heroic.

Anyway, better for Bon Jovi to go on ʽLivin' On A Prayerʼ than ʽLiving In Sinʼ, right?..

... I don't think it's a good idea to attempt to continue this review.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Boris: Boris At Last: Feedbacker

BORIS: BORIS AT LAST: FEEDBACKER (2003)

1) Feedbacker I; 2) Feedbacker II; 3) Feedbacker III; 4) Feedbacker IV; 5) Feedbacker V.

I do not understand what «at last» is supposed to mean here. «At last» an album truly worthy of Boris? «At last» an album on which Boris have properly mastered the art of feedback? «At last» an album with Wata on the front sleeve? And, for that matter, what is the symbolic meaning of the «pool of blood» in which she is reclining? Getting you to confess that yes indeed, one does occasionally get the urge to shoot the guitarist through the head in the middle of a Boris album, but if she already did that herself, so much for the better?..

Anyway, this is actually Boris' third continuous «suite», and their second one where the body is split in several parts, corresponding to feed-phonic «movements» that illustrate several different stages of... uh, feedback. Or something. Actually, not all of Feedbacker consists exclusively of feedback — there's some «feedfront», too, particularly in the second part which is almost melodic by Boris standards, and in the fifth part, which is basically just a brief reprise of the second. Oh, and in the third part, much of which sounds like an outtake from Heavy Rocks. But do not expect any of these parts to be a celebration of traditional harmonic values: whatever happens, Boris stick to their well-oiled guns, or they wouldn't be able to release two or three albums per year.

Anyway, Part I is really all feedback, wave upon wave of it, stylistically reminiscent of what Neil Young did on Dead Man — get the blast going, then step back and experience it seeping away from your body like a tidal wave while waiting in apprehension for the next one. Cool tone, but I always felt Neil's feedback solos had more thought behind them than this «ooh, I so love what I can do with electricity» schtick. Besides, if you asked me how this one is different from anything on Absolutego or Amplifier Worship... hmm...

Part II is probably the main reason this album exists — it is a slow «ambient blues», gradually strolling through your living room for about eight minutes, after which a massive wah-wah solo takes over and the composition reaches a «drony climax». Aside from the solo, any melodic con­tent here is purely minimalistic, and the tempo eventually gets very irritating when combined with the minimalism of the melody. Clearly, if there is a heart in this LP, it is somewhere in the middle of this 15-minute brew, but on the whole I'd say that somebody like Bardo Pond are much more impressive with this kind of heavy moody melancholia. Perhaps somebody would like to argue that Wata's gauze-like «countermelodies», little droplets of electric guitar finely sprinkled over the repetitive rhythm chords, express impressionistic beauty like a modern day Debussy or some­thing, but I don't feel much subtlety in these droplets. Besides, the album is called Feedbacker, so there is no sense pretending that anything here that doesn't have anything to do with feedback will be the album's main achievement, really.

So we're not really after the heart, we're after the brawn, and most of the brawn can be found in Parts I and IV — IV being the most abrasive and vomit-inducing part of the experience, with the listener tied up to a malfunctioning electric chair for about ten minutes. If you feel like you haven't lived without being tied up to a malfunctioning electric chair for about ten minutes, then Boris At Last: Feedbacker will correct that omission for you. If you feel like you could pass, Feedbacker is probably not the best starting place to get into Boris. Unless you're seriously into guro and just want to scoop this up for the album cover.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Brainiac: Bonsai Superstar

BRAINIAC: BONSAI SUPERSTAR (1994)

1) Hot Metal Dobermans; 2) Hands Of The Genius; 3) Fucking With The Altimiter; 4) Radio Apeshot; 5) Trans­missions After Zero; 6) Juicy (On A Cadillac); 7) Flypaper; 8) Sexual Frustration; 9) To The Baby-Counter; 10) You Wrecked My Hair; 11) Meathook Manicure; 12) Status: Choke; 13) Collide.

With the arrival of guitarist John Schmersal in the place of Michelle Bodine, the classic Brainiac lineup falls into place... wait, no, actually, I am not sure I would have noticed the replacement without additional info. Sure there are no female vocals now, and sure no two musicians play their instrument in the exact same way, but on the whole, this is still Tim Taylor running the whole show and others are playing what they are being told, or at least the way they are being told to play. The main difference is not in the change of style, but rather in its tightening up, so much so that guitars and electronics fuse even more seamlessly, and it gets harder and harder to simply view Brainiac as a «guitar rock band with Moogs».

For one thing, they get more heavily involved with sampling, and pretty creatively: ʽFucking With The Altimeterʼ builds a rhythmic pattern out of spooky whispered vocals, and in several other places they play around with radio static, using it as a greasy paste from which one can mold just about anything, given patience and time. For another thing, guitars and keyboards now often either play the same melody or play small, splintered melodic bits that are tightly inter­woven around each other. Throw in Taylor's now-permanent operation in the mode of «total mu­sical madness», and here's a sound that's pretty damn hard to confuse with anything.

The bad news is that, the more they solidify around this thing they do best, the more one-dimen­sional they become. Although some of these songs are fast and some are slow, some are punkier and some are bluesier, some are lighter and some are heavier, the basic message of each tune is more or less the same — «the modern world and modern technology has made us nutty as hell, and we love love love it!». This is, indeed, like one particular angle borrowed from the Pixies and magnified to the proportions of a grand hall, but this is also why Brainiac could never hope to achieve the kind of recognition and popularity that the Pixies have: too focused on one single theme, too radical in their exploration of it. I really like the record, yet I cannot even write a pro­per review, because the songs leave few possibilities for individual analysis.

I will simply state, then, that Bonsai Superstar is one of the most credible «mad albums» of the post-punk epoch that would not be done from a sociopathic standpoint, but rather from a «harm­less» angle. One big mistake that so many «mad» artists make is that, for some rea­son, they usually think that «madness» always has to be aggressive — which it does not. Here, even when Taylor drives himself up the wall and the guitars and keyboards begin locking into a paranoid, dissonant howling (ʽYou Wrecked My Hairʼ), the feeling is that the anger is mostly internalised, that the singer is trying to knock out his demons without expectorating them. More often, though, he is simply just being playful — like on the hilarious ʽJuicy (On A Cadillac)ʼ, a basic rock'n'roll number offset by hiccupy «rubbed-glass» noises that might equally well be synthesizer tones or treated samplings of scratched records, but, regardless of this, add a touch of «dynamic idiocy» to whatever is going on. Or he is being explicitly androgynous, as on ʽFlypaperʼ, where his near-fal­setto vocals are driven so high up in the mix, it's as if he were making a pass at you or something. Okay, that might be dangerous... but nah, not really.

One thing to add is that, from a technical angle, I think that lovers of guitar experimentation will find plenty of interesting stuff going on here — Schmersal's passages often presage «math-rock» as we know it in the 21st century, though, of course, they are nowhere near as technically accom­plished as the average «math-rock» product these days. But they do not need to be, since the melody, as such, is always subdued here to atmosphere and energy, by definition. Had they had a Robert Fripp in the band, he would surely have introduced a tighter level of «discipline»; but then, I suppose that any band that would have Robert Fripp and Tim Taylor in it at the same time would have decayed faster than a mendelevium isotope. So let us be content with what we have here, a maniacal celebration of electronic insanity without any harmful repercussions for progres­sive humanity. In other words, a thumbs up.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Box Tops: Cry Like A Baby

THE BOX TOPS: CRY LIKE A BABY (1968)

1) Cry Like A Baby; 2) Deep In Kentucky; 3) I'm The One For You; 4) Weeping Analeah; 5) Every Time; 6) Fields Of Clover; 7) Trouble With Sam; 8) Lost; 9) Good Morning Dear; 10) 727; 11) You Keep Me Hangin' On.

This is a rather typical example of the «sophomore» approach: a record that is intentionally (and also rather hastily) designed to follow up on the preceding success, formula-wise, and almost inevitably one small or one large notch below its predecessor, depending on the amount of talent and resources involved. Here, we have the same players (or the same «non-players»; I am not sure how much was left to session musicians this time around), the same focus on the lead singer, the same team of songwriters, the same styles, the same mechanisms to prolong the band's com­mercial success. So — minus the «freshness» of 1967. Any pluses?

No «special» pluses, but some good songs. The title track, written by the Dan Penn / Spooner Oldham team in a rather tense brainstorming session, was right on target and almost ended up re­turning The Box Tops to the top of the charts, stalling at #2; today, it is often considered a blue-eyed soul classic, and even veteran R&B artists like Arthur Alexander would later cover it with verve and admiration. It is undeniably catchy and has a fun electric sitar lead part, but the match between lyrics and melody does not seem to be nearly as perfect as in the case of ʽThe Letterʼ — its main chorus hook triggers the «happy» nerve with its resolution, whereas the words are un­deniably tragic (and the song would sound even «happier» in Alexander's rendition; at least Chil­ton does everything in his power to impersonate a broken-down human being despite the melodic odds being so seriously against him). I do believe it would have worked much better if the «cry like a baby» chorus were to imply tears of joy and happiness rather than tears of loss and loneli­ness — but then, that might be the very reason why ʽCry Like A Babyʼ would ultimately be a tad less popular than the perfectly self-adequate ʽLetterʼ.

Then again, this raises the chances for the rest of the tracks — what with the quality gap between the lead single and everything else diminishing and all, I actually like the second track, Bill Davidson's ʽDeep In Kentuckyʼ, more than the first one: a subtly and eerily arranged folk-pop gem, thoughtfully stuffed with oboes, trumpets, chimes, electric pianos, strings, ghostly hushed backing vocals — far more complex, actually, than ʽCry Like A Babyʼ, and with all of its ele­ments working in coordinated tandem to convey a general feeling of gloomy rejection. And the third one, ʽI'm The One For Youʼ, is one of those perfectly executed «consolation tunes» ("I'll come running to you", etc.), with a wonderful series of epic-tragic "no, no, no, no" flourishes winding up each chorus — unfortunately, the authors of the tune failed to fully capitalize on this «now I'm being so protective and chivalrous... and now I'm being so paranoid and desperate» mood shift, and ultimately the "no no no"'s do not go anywhere. Still, really good song.

Eventually, the tunes do begin to merge together, as it often happens with blue-eyed soul records, and the moods, chords, and bags-o'-tricks begin repeating themselves: there is even another «aeroplane song», ʽ727ʼ, clearly written by Penn and Oldham as a «sequel» to ʽThe Letterʼ, but this time a much fluffier and happier one. As a rule, they are pulled out, one by one, mainly through the charisma of Chilton's voice, but even that one only goes up to a certain limit.

So it is quite a shock when the band finishes its pleasant, but tiring program with a surprisingly heavy-rocking ʽYou Keep Me Hangin' Onʼ, adapted from the Vanilla Fudge version rather than the Supremes original. Chilton goes all-out Gargantuan on the track, and I'd say he pulls it off fairly well, but the key moment comes at the end — as the band braces itself for the frantic noisy coda, Alex drops off a single ad-libbed phrase, "and he walked on down the hall", which, perhaps, was not immediately understood by the recording supervisors, but in this context, worked like a sign of allegiance: they may be covering Vanilla Fudge all right, but Chilton's real heart lies with Jim Morrison, as would later be reconfirmed time and time again with Alex whenever he'd be in one of his dark periods, and this surreptitious quote from ʽThe Endʼ (confirmed moments later with a chaotic raga-like guitar solo which, too, sounds suspiciously influenced by ʽThe Endʼ) is one of these first quirky signs.

In any case, on the whole it's a good record, perhaps deserving of a slightly less enthusiastic thumbs up than the first one, but as you can see, at least there's enough going on here to hold detailed discussions on several of the songs — not every «sophomore effort» by a band that does not write its own songs has that kind of good luck. And don't you forget that Alex Chilton was still only 17 years old! (They told me that every mention of the Box Tops in a popular source has to have at least one reference to Alex Chilton's age, until he gets old enough to drink).

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: McLemore Avenue

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: McLEMORE AVENUE (1970)

1) Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight / The End / Here Comes The Sun / Come Together; 2) Something; 3) Because / You Never Give Me Your Money; 4) Sun King / Mean Mr. Mustard / Polythene Pam / She Came In Through The Bathroom Window / I Want You (She's So Heavy).

There are good records and bad records, exciting records and boring records, «straight» records and «freakout» records, and then there's McLemore Avenue — a record whose only purpose is to stress the greatness of a different record. In a «where-did-that-idea-come-from?» fit of bizarre brain impulse attack, Booker T. puts together what must have been the first authentic case of musical cosplay in pop/rock history, and I do mean the visuals as well, because one look at the album cover shows that this is one album that couldn't have appeared on store shelves prior to 1970 (or, at least, very very late 1969).

It is cozy for me to know that, of all Beatles albums, it was Abbey Road that struck Booker T. as such an otherworldly experience that he fell into a «must cover Abbey Road!» sort of trance, because it is totally in line with my own perception of Abbey Road. However, it is also obvious that the man could hardly hold any false hopes of improving upon the tunes by covering them, or even of uncovering any hidden potential of the songs that was not already revealed (immediately or gradually) on the original LP. The only rational purpose of putting out a record like this would be to get people to say to each other: «Say, that Abbey Road must be really special, eh? I mean, did you ever hear of any American band covering any Brit band record in its entirety? Should be real good if people worship it that much!» Plus, there may be irrational purposes at work, but we're not gonna talk about those.

Recreation of the songs was not achieved in a «carbon copy» manner. First, as if to over-stress the importance of Abbey Road's «medley principle», almost all of the tunes here are arranged in medleys, with ʽI Want Youʼ stuck as a long spasmodic tail to the end of ʽShe Came In Through...ʼ and ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ glued with ʽCome Togetherʼ either because they both have the verb «come» in the title or because, for some reason, Booker thought that such a sequencing would be «natural» (I am not at all sure). Second, not all of the songs are covered — actually, Booker short­changes not only Ringo (with the lack of ʽOctopus' Gardenʼ, which is understandable, if not very forgivable), but also Paul, omitting both ʽMaxwell's Silver Hammerʼ (which he may have thought too juvenile) and ʽOh Darlingʼ (which is really hard to explain, considering that ʽOh Darlingʼ was easily the most R&B-ish song on the album, heavily influenced by the Louisiana sound — then again, maybe it was that very closeness that prompted Booker to reject it).

Nor are the remaining songs done all that close to the originals, either. Plenty of variations are introduced, what with ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ largely redone as a jazz number and with the instrumental break in ʽSomethingʼ replaced with a surprisingly aggressive blues-rock jam section as Cropper breaks out the deck of nasty swamp-blues slide licks. And, of course, as Booker T. loyally continues the tradition of imitating vocal melodies with his organ, you will note that some stuff works better than other — for instance, the opening religiously-solemn lead part on ʽGolden Slumbersʼ is fabulous, but as they make the transition into ʽCarry That Weightʼ, the same sub­dued tone fails to clearly mark the contrast between the «lullaby» and the «work chorus» parts of the medley. But then, is there any use in such dissection, when McLemore Avenue was never meant to be treated as a number of distinct parts in the first place?

It is quite probable that, provided you have not heard of this album before, you will be tempted into hearing it at least once, at least out of sheer curiosity — and that one listen it certainly de­serves, because, after all, there is no way that the leading instrumental R&B outfit of its time would be covering the leading rock band of its time without the results being at least somewhat entertaining. The problem is, it is impossible to judge McLemore Avenue on its own merits or by its own standards — and as much as I can respect all the solos that Booker T. and Steve Crop­per are playing here, every time they're on, I'm like «God, it's so cool the Beatles didn't use this chord sequence in 1969!» Even on ʽI Want Youʼ, where you'd think there'd be a good chance of Cropper blowing John Lennon's lead guitar out of the water... well, no, he doesn't. Why? Not his song. Not his idea. Not that kind of guy. It's just a Booker T. thing, you know. A hunch, and everybody had to follow up on it.

I'd like to give this one a thumbs up, just because of the awesome craziness of the idea, but I can­not. It's a curio — certainly more memorable because of the idea itself rather than its actual exe­cution. It certainly isn't executed any worse than any other Booker T. album: it's just that this time around, they set themselves an unbeatable standard, and, uh, they didn't beat it. Then again, I'd guess we'd rather have them select Abbey Road and be left beaten by it than have them select, say, The Archies, and beat it.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Brenda Holloway: Every Little Bit Hurts

BRENDA HOLLOWAY: EVERY LITTLE BIT HURTS (1964)

1) I've Been Good To You; 2) Sad Song; 3) Every Little Bit Hurts; 4) Too Proud To Cry; 5) Who's Loving You; 6) Land Of A Thousand Boys; 7) Suddenly; 8) Embraceable You; 9) Unchained Melody; 10) A Favor For A Girl (With A Love Sick Heart); 11) (You Can) Depend On Me; 12) Can I.

As much as this «torch ballad» style is generally not my cup of musical tea at all, I cannot deny that ʽEvery Little Bit Hurtsʼ is a great song, and that even with all these other versions around, nobody has done it more justice than its original performance. This Motown recording from 1964 was actually her second recorded version — the original was produced two years earlier for Del-Fi Records — but apparently the people at Motown, having just signed their first West Coast artist, knew what they were doing, and made Brenda re-do the tune with higher production values and, naturally, with a stronger promotion agenda.

Her own gift is in understanding that the song works primarily as an «aria», and depends crucially on mood interchange — the way it bounces back and forth from tragic weeping to determined screaming, breaking down, picking up, breaking down again, with unbelievably authentic dyna­mic tension: the bridge section, with its punchy, almost threatening "come back to me, darling you'll see..." beginning and then smoothly, fluently morphing into pleading — "I can give you all the things that you wanted before" still starting out determined and proud, but descending into submission and pleading tenderness by the time it's over. No wonder that Steve Winwood and a host of other performers were so enthralled: this is one hell of a vocal delivery, a three-minute spectacle of emotional bliss the likes of which are pretty dang hard to find in the rest of Motown's catalog — certainly not off the top of my head.

The downside of this, however, becomes obvious as we listen to the rest of Brenda's debut LP for the label — and realize that, in a more-than-stupid attempt to capitalize on the brilliance of the title track, Motown made her record eleven more songs that all sound the same. Okay, ten: ʽA Favor For A Girl (With A Love Sick Heart)ʼ is taken at a sprightlier tempo and groomed to sound a little more sly, sexy, and seductive, much in line with the leading brand of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles' style (although, ironically, although Smokey did contribute some songs for this album, ʽA Favor For A Girlʼ is credited to producer Clarence Paul instead).

Everything else, though, shares the same tempo, the same tragic-love mood, and even more or less the same basic chord progression as ʽEvery Little Bit Hurtsʼ. Everything! Ten completely interchangeable songs that all try to be ʽEvery Little Bit Hurtsʼ — and all fail, because none of these writers, intentionally striving to write something exactly like Ed Cobb's masterpiece, arrive at matching the original's perfect flow. The only good thing about them all is that Ms. Holloway honestly tries her best to make them come alive — and she did have one of Motown's best female voices: deeper and more «mature» than the average chirp of their teenage starlets (not that Brenda wasn't in her teens herself, but she sounded far more grown-up than anybody), capable of all sorts of modulation, combining «clean» tenderness with «raspy» excitement or irony within the same verse or chorus like a perfect natural.

The songs, alas, have about as much interesting going on about them here as does your average Celine Dion record — the only difference being that the generic Motown sound is always prefe­rable to the generic Celine Dion Columbia sound — but that is not really Brenda's fault: in 1964, she was nobody's top priority, and Motown's resident songwriters simply fed her with scraps and leftovers (besides, just how many great LPs did Motown artists record anyway in 1964, when the LP was a strictly hardcore-fan-oriented artefact?).

Basically, it all boils down to this: if you really happen to madly fall in love with the voice and the personality behind the voice, do track this album down (as far as I know, it was never issued on CD by itself, but all the songs have been included on the 2-CD Motown Anthology). If you value the song much more than the voice, though, and especially if you think the Spencer Davis Group with Stevie Winwood is better or something like that, you will be perfectly fine just owning the track on any reasonable sampler of Motown's greatness. As the future would show, there would be much more (well, not much, but maybe a little more — as much as the powers-that-be would mercifully allocate) to Brenda Holloway than ʽEvery Little Bit Hurtsʼ, but if you were to judge the artist on the strength of this one album, «fluke» and «one-hit wonder» would be the most appropriate associations.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Björk: Post Live

BJÖRK: POST LIVE (1995-97; 2003)

1) Headphones; 2) Army Of Me; 3) One Day; 4) The Modern Things; 5) Isobel; 6) Possibly Maybe; 7) Hyperballad; 8) I Go Humble; 9) Big Time Sensuality; 10) Enjoy; 11) I Miss You; 12) It's Oh So Quiet; 13) Anchor Song.

This one was mostly recorded at Shepherds Bush on February 27, 1997, not too far away from the release of Homogenic, meaning that all these Post songs had plenty of time to stew and settle down in the repertoire. The only exceptions are ʽPossibly Maybeʼ and ʽHyperballadʼ, recorded more than a year earlier on the Jools Holland show. As you can see, the album is indeed covered almost in its entirety, with the exception of ʽYou've Been Flirting Againʼ and ʽCover Meʼ, for unknown reasons (perhaps they didn't have a harp on tour, without which ʽCover Meʼ would be hard to imagine); in their place we have the obscure B-side ʽI Go Humbleʼ and a re-run through three tunes from Debut (ʽOne Dayʼ, ʽBig Time Sensualityʼ, and ʽAnchor Songʼ).

Frankly speaking, there isn't much to say here: the spectacle, at this point, still seems to have been relatively low key, and unlike the «unplugged» version of Debut, here the dame generally sticks to the original arrangements — and what changes there are do not necessarily work for the best, like way too much accordeon (or accordeon-like synthesizer, whatever). The Michel Legrand Orchestra is brought out for ʽIt's Oh So Quietʼ, which is every bit as fun as the studio arrange­ment, but this is just one of those cases of «gee, isn't it wonderful how they really managed to save all the complexities and subtleties of this song for the audience, so cool and all, and now I think I'll forget all about it and go back to my studio version».

Amusingly, it is the old chestnuts ʽOne Dayʼ and ʽBig Time Sensualityʼ that are given the most transformational treatment. The former, stripped of almost everything but electronic percussion, it becomes a «tribal-industrial» blend against which Björk is fighting rather than singing. I cannot call this a great idea, but at least they also had the good sense to make it twice as short as it used to be — six minutes of this clanging would have been overkill. ʽBig Time Sensualityʼ is slowed down, seriously tampered with in terms of electronic percussions and «astral» overlays, and is pinned to a nagging not-seen-there-before five-note riff that is more repetitive than awesome. As for ʽI Go Humbleʼ, it's got a quirky time signature that I'd call «limping-funk», but other than that, it's not a highlight of the show.

On the whole, I find myself agreeing, much to my discontent, with the Pitchforkmedia reviewer who singled this one out as the least interesting set of the four. Well-played, well-produced, en­gaging if you want to, but skippable on the whole. Which is just a little sad, since Post is one of my favorite Björk albums — then again, maybe she just didn't have the gall to mess around with perfection. Who knows.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Bon Jovi: The Circle

BON JOVI: THE CIRCLE (2009)

1) We Weren't Born To Follow; 2) When We Were Beautiful; 3) Work For The Working Man; 4) Superman Tonight; 5) Bullet; 6) Thorn In My Side; 7) Live Before You Die; 8) Brokenpromiseland; 9) Love's The Only Rule; 10) Fast Cars; 11) Happy Now; 12) Learn To Love.

The best I can say here is that at least they had the good sense to swerve off that cheeky country road. The Circle is, without a doubt, a «rock» album again, with bluesy electric riffs reclaiming their territory back from twangy slides, and lyrics about the world and its problems stealing our attention away from lyrics about traveling on lost highways, breaking up, patching up, breaking up again, and romancing the local ranch lady 'til the cows come home. So, at the very least, Jon and Richie are back on their natural turf where they are theoretically capable of doing something as good as... well, at least as good as a whole album of ʽWe Got It Going Onʼ.

Unfortunately, theory and practice rarely go hand in hand when you deal with aging rockers who were never all that awesome to begin with. In general, The Circle follows the same standards as Have A Nice Day — lots of stale rock'n'roll with worn-out hooks, lots of self-repetition and not a lot of energy. I mean, if the album really "sounds fresh", as Richie claimed in an interview (and what else could he have claimed?), why is it that the foundational bass line of ʽWork For The Working Manʼ is taken directly from ʽLivin' On A Prayerʼ? Or why is it that the lead single, ʽWe Weren't Born To Followʼ, sounds like ʽBorn To Be My Babyʼ and ʽIt's My Lifeʼ at the exact same time? Whatever be the general case, The Circle, as an LP, was certainly born to follow; it is very hard for me to name even one single outstanding moment on the entire record.

Here is one funny bit of brainwork: I thought that, although the song itself was totally formulaic and dull, Sambora's guitar solo on ʽThorn In My Sideʼ somehow did stand out, and even managed to set the jaded spirit on fire for a few bars. How and why remained unclear, but then it dawned upon me, as that important third listen came around, that it was really simple — all he had to do was lift a few licks from Lindsey Buckingham's guitar solo on ʽGo Your Own Wayʼ. Subcon­sci­ously, perhaps, but the songs do have similar chorus beats, so it may have triggered some special mechanism. And in this way, what officially looks like a third-rate Fleetwood Mac imitation be­comes the best moment on The Circle.

Of course, we also have ourselves some talkbox, because a Bon Jovi album just ain't a proper Bon Jovi without some legitimate pig grunting (the completely unremarkable otherwise ʽBulletʼ); we have ourselves some de-lovely ballads (ʽLearn To Loveʼ, in case you still haven't after de­cades of professional scholarship under the guidance of Jon Bon Jovi, Ph. D.); and we do have one or two attempts at «modernizing» their sound — ʽLove's The Only Ruleʼ, with its dutifully «electronized» lead guitar, is probably the best example. I forget, though, who they are imitating here... U2? Must be U2, I guess. They probably wouldn't have heard of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Besides, they weren't born to follow, at least not those who were born after them. Following U2, chronology-wise, does not violate the rules of filial piety.

It's not as if they seem totally incapable of putting out another record that would at least be on the level of Crush and Bounce — they just don't seem to care all that much, or perhaps they just leave it all in the hands of the producer. On Bounce, they had the good luck of having David Campbell, a musician ten times the size of anyone in the band, write orchestrations for them; on The Circle, they put themselves at the mercy of John Shanks, whose past credits include Miley Cyrus, Take That, Jessica Simpson, the Backstreet Boys, Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, and, uh, Lindsey Lohan (remember her?). (Admittedly, he also co-produced Fleetwood Mac's Say You Will, which was a fine recording, but it is hard to imagine Lindsey Buckingham not supervising his work every inch of the way). All very safe, predictable, glossy à la 2009, and completely without any surprises — hence, a natural thumbs down.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Boris: Akuma-no Uta

BORIS: AKUMA-NO UTA (2003)

1) Introduction; 2) Ibitsu; 3) Furi; 4) Naki Kyoku; 5) Ano Onna-no Onryu; 6) Akuma-no Uta.

So, may you ask, what may be the hidden meaning behind making the album's front sleeve into a transparent imitation of Nick Drake's Bryter Layter, with Takeshi and his double-neck replacing Nick and his acoustic? My guess is that not only is there no hidden meaning, but there is simply no meaning, period. They just liked the cover, and wanted to have one just like it. Alternately, you might think that the symbolism of the action is precisely in the fact that it is hard to think of two more dissimilar albums, in just about everything, than Nick Drake's Bryter Layter and Boris' Akuma-no Uta. So you have the full spectrum of possibilities where you have one at the utmost left end of the axis and the other at the utmost right, and they come around full circle and one opposite becomes the other in a symbolic visual merger...

...nah, they probably just loved the shoes. (Although I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere deep in this mess they actually hid some brief musical quotation from Nick's textbook, transposed to sludgy electric guitar — you never can tell with these whackos). Also, for that matter the original album cover was different: white surface with a minimalistically sketched silly four-legged bug in the top right angle. Not that any of this matters in the least, but such is the price of weirdness: make yourself too weird and your listeners will never really know what does matter and what absolutely does not.

Anyway, finally arriving at the music, the two obvious — in my understanding — virtues of the album is that it is short, and that it has a good balance of slowness and speed. Conspiring against them are the two equally obvious shortcomings: the album does not reveal any progression over Heavy Rocks, and the album's melodies are on the expected usual level of boredom. Once again, other than Wata's bonecrushing guitar tones, almost everything sounds like a hastily produced amalgamation of elements from Sabbath, Rush, and, this time around, perhaps also Can — the longest track on the record, ʽNaki Kyokuʼ, in certain parts sounds heavily influenced by the clas­sic jam style of Can (which, after all, is only natural if one remembers the Japanese origins of Can's most classic vocalist). It is not so much the vocals, though, on that track that sound uncan­nily-Cannily, but rather the drums — Atsuo's complex, steady, unflinchingly executed drum pattern is eerily reminiscent of Jaki Liebezeit. Not that it helps all that much.

The title track, which closes the album, is probably supposed to represent the climax of its Omi­nous Evilishness — it ain't called The Demon's Song for nothing, right? (Amusingly, the word Akuma ʽevil demonʼ, when re-transcribed to its modern day Chinese equivalent, will be latinized as Emo — not that I have any idea why I mentioned that). But in reality, it is simply four minutes of sludge taken at two different tempos. For the first two minutes, you tread through the sludge, cursing everything in your path, and then for the next two minutes the sludge treads over you, so that you never get the idea to badmouth sludge again. This particular demon is sure a messy, dirty, drippy one, but not in the least scary — more like a local trickster, perfectly content to merely fling its own faeces at you from behind a tree.

Uh... what else to say? No idea, really. Last time I checked Pitchforkmedia to get an alternate informed opinion on the album, all I got was «charging, smoke-filled, and raw» (you betcha), «fuzzy riffs and heavy rhythms» (you don't say!), «deployed in long, shivering drones or fiery, chugging blasts» (too true, too true, except that I wouldn't describe any of these drones as «shi­vering» — how can something so thick and so deep be «shivering»?). Aye, this is Boris, all right, but is this specifically Akuma-no Uta? These descriptions are applicable to the vast majority of this band's output. This album's specificity seems to be stored largely in its front sleeve. At best, ʽNaki Kyokuʼ, with its soft, arpeggiated (but rather typically doom-metal) intro and Can-style beats, might have half a face of its own. At worst, all is forgiven if you are a major fan of the Boris crunch — then you'll be only too happy to swallow whatever it is they have just crunched for your enjoyment.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Brainiac: Smack Bunny Baby

BRAINIAC: SMACK BUNNY BABY (1993)

1) I, Fuzzbot; 2) Ride; 3) Smack Bunny Baby; 4) Martian Dance Invasion; 5) Cultural Zero; 6) Brat Girl; 7) Hurting Me; 8) I Could Own You; 9) Anesthesize; 10) Draag; 11) Get Away.

All right, so despite their name, Brainiac weren't exactly the most original band to come out of the whole underground-indie-alternative bouillon of the early 1990s. There may be a good reason, or even more than one, why their three albums have been relegated to the «connaisseur» shelf, pardon my French again, and why the memory of Sonic Youth, Pixies, Nirvana, and Radiohead will linger long after the last real brainiac has emptied his recycle bin containing Smack Bunny Baby, Bonsai Superstar, and Hissing Prigs In Static Couture. After all, not everybody can be so lucky — wherever that bus is going, the number of seats is always limited.

But none of that prevents me from actually liking these guys: I think their records are fun, and their creative angle is actually quite unique, even if it does not make a lot of sense. Basically, they were surrealistically aggressive punkers with an electronic coating — but a retro electronic coating at that, with the band's leader Tim Taylor playing a Moog as his instrument of choice. Now, quickly, off the top of your head, how many punk bands with Moog synths can you name? (I mean, other than Emerson, Lake & Palmer, of course?) Not too many — even though, come to think of it, the Moog can be as in-yer-face punk as any stringed electric instrument.

So, as the album kicks out the door, for the first twenty-five seconds you feel like you're listening to a Pixies clone — a little introductory noise and a droney guitar riff played at full throttle. But as the vocals make their appearance, they are accompanied with a series of fussy electronic noises that sound as if they've been taken from some arcade experience — hilariously deconstructing any «authentic» anger and aggression that may have been placed in the song. ʽI, Fuzzbotʼ could have worked even without these quasi-Pacman bleeps and bloops, but its frantic "GET OUT OF MY MIND!" chorus just sounds way too much like Black Francis for the band to escape being branded as copycats. Add some of these ridiculous electronics, though, and you get something seriously different — and bizarrely intriguing.

Most of the songs here work at the intersection of energetic and inspired, but utterly unoriginal alt-rock guitar riffage; Tim Taylor's vocal hooks in the choruses, which can be catchy, but do not differ that much from any other repetitive, screamy choruses in punk history; and the use of elec­tronics, formally «superfluous», never truly essential to the songs' basic structures, but always serving as their main identificator — after a brief period of initiation, you will never mistake a Brainiac song for anything else, because the bleeping, howling, wheezing, wailing Moogs give them away at a moment's notice.

Lyrically, Brainiac are also not too different from the usual punk/alt-rock territories — their songs are mostly about pain, confusion, insanity, lack/loss of self-identity, most of the topics revolving somewhere in between the dangerous anguish of Kurt Cobain and the surrealist para­noia of Black Francis. But since the tempos are consistently fast, the guitars are consistently loud, and the vocals consistently rise to a scream, you probably won't be able to make out most of the lyrics anyway, and why should you? This band is all about finding out how cool a punk-rock guitar can sound in a formerly alien context — sort of a «Mini-Sonatas for Pissed-Off Electric Guitar and Moog Synth» experiment, and quite a successful one, in my opinion, even if most of the songs seem so similar, if you discount occasional individualistic vocal gimmicks (like the creative use of the "nah-nah nah nah-nah-nah" teaser in ʽCultural Zeroʼ or the horrorific voice-and-synth sonic meld in ʽDraagʼ which gives me awful visions of a person mutating into a syn­thesizer — quite a productive idea for a musical video, I'd say).

Other than Tim Taylor, the band does not have any creative quasi-geniuses at this point, but guitarist Michelle Bodine ain't half-bad (since Taylor is also credited for guitar playing, I have no idea how many of the riffs are actually played by her, but she must have been the primary guitar player during the band's live shows anyway) and she has a strong Riot Grrrl-type voice as well — too bad they only let her sing lead on one track (the aptly titled ʽMartian Dance Invasionʼ, since nobody would be surprised if the Martians chose Brainiac as their favorite dance music). On the whole, definitely not bad for a first try for someone hailing from Dayton, Ohio — they may not be bursting with creativity, but their one fresh idea works well enough for 36 minutes (and do thank God that they respect the punk aesthetics enough not to let it run for 70, despite living in an age when the new CD format was poisoning everybody's brains). Thumbs up for sure.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Box Tops: The Letter/Neon Rainbow

THE BOX TOPS: THE LETTER/NEON RAINBOW (1967)

1) The Letter; 2) She Knows How; 3) Trains & Boats & Planes; 4) Break My Mind; 5) A Whiter Shade Of Pale; 6) Everything I Am; 7) Neon Rainbow; 8) People Make The World; 9) I'm Your Puppet; 10) Happy Times; 11) Gonna Find Somebody; 12) I Pray For Rain.

In late 1967, The Box Tops consisted of Alex Chilton on vocals and guitar, Danny Smythe on drums, John Evans on keyboards, Bill Cunnigham on bass... actually, I am not even sure if any­one on that list other than Chilton actually matters, since on most of these tracks The Box Tops did not even play their instruments, but were replaced in the studio with unknown professional players, courtesy of producer Dan Penn who, apparently, had little trust in the playing skills of these white youngsters from Memphis.

The only trust, so it seems, was placed in the vocal gift of Alex Chilton, who was only sixteen years old when he got to record Wayne Carson Thompson's ʽThe Letterʼ during his band's first recording session at American Sound Studio in Memphis. Now if your first genuine exposure to Alex Chilton has been via his later, more revered band Big Star, and if you have somehow missed out on the ubiquitousness of ʽThe Letterʼ in its original version, you might very well be stricken by the difference in vocal styles. For Big Star, Alex would sing clearly and cleanly, putting the same youthful gloss on his vocal chords as he would on his guitar sound. But here, despite being five years younger, he sings as if he were fifty years older — there's a rasp and a gurgle in his throat that implies «soulful world-weariness», and it certainly does not sound like he's faking it: by all means, this is not the kind of voice that would be naturally associated with 16 years of age. (Unless you start smoking at age four and catch your first STD at age twelve, of course).

I do not count myself as a big fan of Chilton's «blue-eyed soul» voice, but the very fact that a 16-year old white kid was so readily accepted in the heart of the soul kingdom of Memphis sort of speaks for itself. As a song, ʽThe Letterʼ is quite a moving composition, but perhaps not as nearly deserving of its sky-high reputation as the immense number of succeeding cover versions would have us believe — after all, it is a very short, simple, and straightforward number that accurately conveys the link between love and insanity, but that's about it. Mad props to Thompson and Chilton, though, for being able to turn the line "my baby wrote me a letter" into a haunting hook for generations to come.

Actually, I might be even more partial to the band's second single, also written by Thompson: ʽNeon Rainbowʼ does a great job taking a verse melody reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel, one of those quiet, boppy, slightly childish folk-pop ditties, and letting it effortlessly flow into a full-fledged R&B chorus, with optimistic brass backing and Alex really belting it out. The difference is that ʽThe Letterʼ is a dark and paranoid song, while ʽNeon Rainbowʼ is a light, colorful, opti­mistic song — and people tend to remember darkness and paranoia for longer periods of time, especially musical critics. But on their respective scales, both tunes, I think, should occupy com­paratively respectable spots in the busy ledgers of 1967.

Of course, by late 1967 the «LP era» was not yet properly recognized in the USA — and so, in­stead of giving The Box Tops and their songwriting partners enough time to put together a pro­per, cohesive record, their label made them quickly scramble together a full-fledged follow-up, for which they did not even dare suggest a more interesting title than the names of the two hit singles (the same tasteless strategy that also marred The Left Banke's debut album from the same year, and God knows what else). Since the songwriting partners weren't total hacks, and since, if you had any talent at all, it was pretty damn hard to put out a complete suckjob in 1967, The Letter / Neon Rainbow came out much better than it could have been — still, it certainly ain't The Doors or any other such 1967 debut that had a cohesive «plan» behind it, let alone «concept».

The main contributing team for the album were Dan Penn himself (who, other than producing, was a major songwriter and even singer in his own rights) and his partner Spooner Oldham — in between the two, they place no less than four originals in the hands of Chilton here, including one catchy, fast, prickly soul-pop number (ʽHappy Timesʼ — and by «prickly» I mean that its main hook, the vocal-call-brass-response of "times!.. times!" makes some of your brain neurons jump in excitement) and three slower, bleeding-heart-mode soul confessions, of which ʽI'm Your Pup­petʼ is probably the best known one, since it had already been an earlier hit for the duo of James & Bobby Purify — and it works better for The Box Tops, since it makes more sense for one guy to sing "I'm your puppet" than two guys at the same time (not to mention that Chilton slurs the words a bit as if in a druggy haze — getting into the puppet character, no doubt).

These are good songs in good hands, mostly. More questionable is the inclusion of ʽA Whiter Shade Of Paleʼ, a great song with which, however, Alex cannot do anything that Gary Brooker has not already done — other than, perhaps, popularize early British prog-rock and J. S. Bach a little bit among the local Memphis crowds. Then there are some truly questionable inclusions, such as the laid-back country-rock ditty ʽBreak My Mindʼ, in a style to which Chilton's voice is not suited at all, or Burt Bacharach's ʽTrains & Boats & Planesʼ, which has the misfortune of finding itself way too close to ʽThe Letterʼ to count as an equally mind-blowing song about one's means of travel. But even the questionable inclusions aren't cringeworthy as such, it's just that they do not exploit the band's (actually, the lead singer's) talents to full capacity.

On the whole, the album ain't no masterpiece, and I can even picture myself a serious Big Star fan who could be seriously disappointed in these first steps of Alex Chilton's career — no original material, a distinctly different vocal style, rather perfunctory musical backing from anonymous session guys, etc. But the presence of two strong singles, the lack of anything particularly dread­ful, a generally sensible taste in covers, and the auxiliary fact that THIS IS 1967!! altogether make it well worth a friendly thumbs up.