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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Blood Ceremony: Blood Ceremony

BLOOD CEREMONY: BLOOD CEREMONY (2008)

1) Master Of Confusion; 2) I'm Coming With You; 3) Into The Coven; 4) A Wine Of Wizardry; 5) Rare Lord; 6) Return To Forever; 7) Hop Toad; 8) Children Of The Future; 9) Hymn To Pan.

Nobody could predict that, having hired Tony Iommi to replace Mick Abrahams in Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson pretty much signed his death warrant as a creative force. The entrepreneurial, quick-witted Iommi very quickly assumed command, placing his iron-fingered riffage above everybody and everything else. To ensure his dominance over the rest of the band, he brought in old pal Geezer Butler to play bass and write exclusive lyrics about witches, wizards, and warlocks, while at the same time relegating Ian Anderson to the only thing that, according to Tony's opinion, he really did well: play the flute.

Since, because of these changes, the newly reformed band needed a singer, Tony thought of bringing back his other pal, Ozzy Osbourne — seeing as how, though, the latter was just recently sentenced to three years of prison for stealing a broken radio set, they decided to go for a female touch instead and hired Sonja Kristina from Curved Air, and she, in turn, brought along her old pal, Ray Manzarek, from the Doors. The newly gathered supergroup then went on to call itself «Blood Ceremony» and became the chief competitor of Uriah Heep on the «demons & wizards» market, although their melting-pot approach never translated to much commercial or critical suc­cess. Eventually, the enthusiasm just fizzled out, and everybody went their own way. Iommi returned to his old sheet metal factory, Ian Anderson retired to raise Guernsey cows and mistletoe, Sonja Kristina got married to Ritchie Blackmore, Manzarek secured a job as gatekeeper at the Père Lachaise, and Geezer Butler got electrocuted onstage while playing a bass tritone.

Fast forward to 2008 and switch from this parallel universe to the one of whose reality we feel a little more certain (with undue arrogance, perhaps), and welcome the new Blood Ceremony, one of these specially designed «what if...?» bands if there ever was one. The settings are a little dif­ferent, but the essence is pretty much the same. They do hail from Toronto rather than England, and their lineup consists of Jeremy Finkelstein on drums, Chris Landon on bass, Sean Kennedy on guitars, and Alia O'Brien on vocals, keyboards, and, yes, flute (so she combines the Kristina, Manzarek, and Anderson parts all in one).

It is impossible to even begin to try to take this music seriously — doing so will immediately place this band in the Uriah Heep category. However, it is possible to be amused and even mildly stimulated by it as a contemporary retro-genre experiment. The Internet age exposure to all sorts of all sorts of things shows us that in the 2000s, there is a demand for everything: we are living in a poly-eclectic age the likes of which the world has never seen before, and existing demand for «heavy witchy music» of the early 1970s should come of as little surprise to us as demand for any other style of music that the human mind can imagine. In fact, this type of demand may even be higher than the average — off the top of my head, I can remember Black Mountain doing similar stuff and even getting away with it, critically and commercially.

Blood Ceremony, however, are much more «hardcore» than Black Mountain. Once they get their groove going, they do not strive all that much to change or diversify it, and their lyrical focus on «dark pagan practices» ensures that their popularity will forever be limited to a rather specific type of audience. Some critics have noticed them from a pat-pat-pat-her-on-the-butt angle of view, but none of the albums charted anywhere, because most people probably took one glance at the album cover and decided that this is one of those hardcore fan-only archival releases from yet another forgotten band circa 1970. Like Steamhammer or something.

Well — they wouldn't be totally off base, because it is only a good audiophile who immediately knows how to tell a 21st century guitar tone from a 20th century one that will quickly understand what period we are talking about here. Other than that, these guys observe the formalities right down to their visual image (robes, capes, long hair, you name it), and this religious devotion to such a special time and place in history should command respect. In fact, fuck respect, I actually admire what they're doing and the cool sound they're getting. Everything stated above is true: Iommi guitar + Anderson flute + Manzarek organ + stern female vocals, song after song after song. And oh, those titles! ʽMaster Of Confusionʼ. ʽInto The Covenʼ. ʽChildren Of The Futureʼ. ʽHymn To Panʼ. Classic stuff.

You do know what's coming up, though, right? You do know that the next thing I am going to say is that they have one fatal flaw — and that flaw is, of course, that the songs as such are boring and predictable. What Sean Kennedy, credited as the chief writer for these guys, is trying to do, as far as I can tell, is that he listens long and hard to several Black Sabbath songs, then mixes the different chords from their riffs (as a rule, this has to include the tritone, or else there wouldn't be that much blood in this ceremony), then puts them back together in different configurations. On top of this, Alia sings some nonsense that must have been digitally generated from a list of preset of key­words (typical example: "Worshippers have gathered under cover of dark / The sorceress is stroking her Aeolian harp / A magus seeks alignment of the stars / Coffin-shaped citadel a door to Mars" — I love this!) and adds her somewhat less-than-awesome organ and flute skills to the proceedings (I believe that a few more lessons from Mr. Ian wouldn't hurt — most of the time she sounds like a rather timid first-year student of the instrument).

In other words, they fall into the same trap as most of the retro-imitators do: their love for this kind of music is ten times larger than their talent for making this music. There is not a single riff on here that would have the same spine-chilling effect as ʽBlack Sabbathʼ or ʽNo Quarterʼ or even ʽLocomotive Breathʼ, despite the fact that all the songs are riff-based — rule number one for them: if there ain't no distinct heavy riff in the song, there ain't no song, period. But these riffs are... eh... well, I'd say they are on the level of Sabbath's latest (13), but what is excusable for a 65-year old Iommi, who has long since overworked his required quota of greatness anyway, is hardly excusable for a young ambitious pothead. Yes, and neither can these guys really solo — the lengthy organ solo passage that O'Brien plays on ʽMaster Of Confusionʼ Manzarek-style does not go anywhere beyond «atmospheric», and Kennedy's solos rely on the old-fashioned stock of blues licks that we all know by heart anyway.

They try to compensate for this by fiddling around with song structures, shifting tempos and tonalities at will, but that, too, is sort of a requirement of the trade, and soon enough you know that if a song begins by slowly going DOOM... DOOM... DOOM..., it will eventually speed up and go CHUG-CHUG-CHUG-CHUG for a while before settling down again. Or there will be a stop-and-start section where Alia is going to blow her flute and go a little crazy. For the record, though, I was almost absolutely sure that the song ʽHop Toadʼ would include a drum solo, in honor of yet another ʽToadʼ, but it didn't (instead, it had a very bad organ solo), so no, you can't predict every move. Also, if you thought that maybe they have a penchant for pastoralism in music, don't: ʽHymn To Panʼ is as dark and somber as everything else on here (other than the flute, I guess — maybe they thought that the presence of the flute obliges them to dedicate at least one song to Pan, something they would repeat on the second album as well).

Even so, all of this is such a hilarious experience that I am still tempted to give this time-defying effort a thumbs up. One might ask why, after all the scorn for, let's say, the unquestionably musically superior Uriah Heep — and I would say, «for the guts». The Heepsters were largely driven by fashion, and presented themselves and their music in much too serious a light for me to agree to succumb to its spell. These guys, on the other hand, are the designers and executors of a fancy musical costume ball, and they get all the ingredients just right. Even the relatively tame musicianship — not just by modern standards, but by 1970's standards as well — becomes an asset here, because it helps concentrate on their «time machine» instead of their egos. If only the formula weren't that limited (it even seems limited compared to the original Sabbath, let alone every other band from which they draw inspiration), but I guess branching out is just not something you are supposed to ask at all from an album recorded in 2008. So just relax, sit back, nibble on your mandrake root, sip on your toadstool essence, and welcome into the coven.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Breeders: Mountain Battles

THE BREEDERS: MOUNTAIN BATTLES (2008)

1) Overglazed; 2) Bang On; 3) Night Of Joy; 4) We're Gonna Rise; 5) German Studies; 6) Spark; 7) Istanbul; 8) Walk It Off; 9) Regalame Esta Noche; 10) Here No More; 11) No Way; 12) It's The Love; 13) Mountain Battles.

Well... no mistake about it, this is yet another Breeders album, and it still got that old Pod vibe. But it is also hard to get rid of the feeling that the Deal sisters sound either a little tired, or a little uninspired. The only more or less upbeat song has to be a cover (ʽIt's The Loveʼ by the Tasties), and the rest drag — not in the curse sense of the word, but literally so. Lots of slow dirges, craw­ling, stuttering, bleeding guitars, and vocals that already go beyond «somnambulant» and move into «deadly wounded» category. Really, it makes me depressed just to have to review this stuff, let alone listen to it one more time.

Not that the Deal sisters themselves would agree with me, and plenty of reviewers probably wouldn't, either: they just wrote something along the lines of «this is the best Breeders album since [insert random Breeders album here]» and told us lots of things about how the Breeders usually play and record their songs, which was of no use for Breeders fans and of little help for Breeders neophytes, because one million indie-rock bands that came since the Breeders played and recorded their songs like the Breeders did. Anyway, I may be totally confused here, but I sense pain, depression, and tiredness all over these songs — never mind that they were allegedly recorded over a period of five years, at different studios and with varying band lineups.

Do not be deceived by titles like ʽNight Of Joyʼ and ʽWe're Gonna Riseʼ. The former rides upon a quietly threatening bass line and is actually about a night of sorrow, with vocals that stop two steps short of weeping; and ʽWe're Gonna Riseʼ is so slow and plaintive, you kind of get the feeling that it will take a lot of calories (and time, and toil, and trouble) for «us» to rise, whoever «we» are (the Deal sisters, the Breeders, all the good people in general, all the bad people in gene­ral, etc.).

The title track is really something — an exercise in «gutter music» if there ever was one, most of it spent by Kim excreting loosely joined phrases that give the illusion of being completely free-form, over an array of electronic pulses and feedback blasts (yes, Steve Albini is at the production wheel again, and how did you guess that?). It's another impressive way to close an album, but it ain't nothing like the humorous-vivacious ʽHufferʼ or the pretty-dreamy ʽDrivin' On 9ʼ — this one just bleeds internally, with high fever, delirium, and everything that comes along. Nothing too overtly shocking (Kim Deal is no Courtney Love, and even her juvenile phase as Kim Deal is long gone), but certainly not a pretty experience.

The problem is, while I can certainly respect the vibe, Mountain Battles has a bit too much in the drab, drag, limp, and stutter department about it to be treated on par with the previous two albums, or even with Pod. This can have its positive effects — it may well be one of those records that grows and grows on you, biding its time and waiting for you to get sick, old, depres-sed, confused, broody, whatever, to appreciate its subtle anti-charms, and at the present time, I am not quite there yet, though I'm getting close. But then again, even this growth requires that the songs be able to work like a lens, gathering your vibes and focusing them with the music — and this doesn't really work with songs like ʽSparkʼ, which just meander between mindless strumming and short shrieking guitar blasts and sound like first-stage demos for classic Portishead («first stage» meaning just that — the stage where you have only just begun visualizing what your song will eventually sound like).

Sometimes Kim is just being cute without a well-understood reason, for instance, when out of the blue she covers a Mexican song (Roberto Cristobal's ʽRegalame Esta Nocheʼ), or creates a generic country tune in her sleepwalking stylistics (ʽHere No Moreʼ). Sometimes the sisters show off their knowledge — ʽIstanbulʼ, for instance, is a «novelty» number that will please lovers of popular etymology (if it so happens that you do not get the "where you're going?" - "to the city!" call-and-response hook of the song, look up the ʽIstanbulʼ page on Wikipedia). Most of the time, though, the experience just consists of the sisters morbidly trading stern chunks of dark vocal pop to equally morbid guitar phrasing (ʽGerman Studiesʼ, ʽSparkʼ, etc.), and you really have to get in the mood to «get» the attitude, or, rather, the necessity of getting the attitude.

I am positively sure that some people will want to defend Mountain Battles as an essential Breeders album — perhaps even go as far as to claim that this one has the deepest mystery of 'em all. And they may be right, but under one condition: that one regards the Breeders themselves as an essential band, worth exploring from their humble «Pixies offshoot» beginning and all the way down to that as-of-yet-to-come age when an 80-year old Kim Deal and a 110-year old Bob Dylan record a duet album of Cole Porter songs. I am not quite sure that Kim Deal is that important a character — I'll take her when she rocks and invents whacko pop hooks, but when she's sulking like this, demanding that we spend too much time on all her whims (including crooning in Spanish), it's a little different.

Thumbs up all the same — far be it from me to put down an ety­mologically relevant record — but if this is going to be the last full-length Breeders LP (which is far from certain, as the Deals tend to really enjoy their long breaks), it's definitely a low-key exit that offers no true resolution to the saga of the Breeders. Then again, maybe that is the best resolution.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Boris: The Thing Which Solomon Overlooked 2

BORIS: THE THING WHICH SOLOMON OVERLOOKED 2 (2006)

1) No Ones Grieve Part 2; 2) Dual Effusion; 3) Merciless; 4) An Another After Image.

The title of this and the next album should be enough to warn you that this is another experi... no, actually, let us not abuse the term, because this particular kind of art has long since ceased to be any more «experimental» than your average teen pop album. Rather, this is a warning that this is another collection of harsh, monotonous, repetitive, and not particularly ambitious noise tracks that should really be experienced under their proper Japanese titles, because the English transla­tions probably come from Wata herself (who is a notoriously bad English speaker).

That said, there may be something to like about ʽNo Ones Grieve Part 2ʼ: unlike everything else here, it's got some dynamics — after a ninety second pure feedback intro, the drums kick in and the music becomes a fast, wild, rip-it-to-shreds blast of psycho-metal-punk, like the Stooges' ʽL.A. Droneʼ, sped up and integrated with a weeping minor key folk guitar part on top. As hard as it is to endure the thing for six minutes, there is at least something here worth enduring. You could even visualize this as the equivalent of a funeral ritual by an alien civilization, as friends and relatives of the deceased roll around on the ground in hyperbolic despair, tearing their hair out, ripping their clothes, and howling in artificially induced anguish. Kinda cool.

ʽDual Effusionʼ and ʽMercilessʼ, unfortunately, are not cool — the former is a rather unima­ginative (for 2006) space drone that does nothing that has not already been done by the likes of classic Hawkwind, and ʽMercilessʼ is like ʽNo Ones Grievesʼ stripped to its feedback core, with­out the cool-sounding rock/folk guitar overdubs and the maniacal drumming, and, of course, it has to be the longest track here. Fourteen minutes of crunch for those who love nibbling the charcoal-burned tips off their French fries because if it ain't really cancerogenic, it ain't worth it. Anyone for fourteen more minutes of crispy, crunchy feedback? Help yourself, and you get a bonus reward — three minutes of lightly humming guitar ambience to patch up your ears with ʽAn Another After Imageʼ. One thing you can't say about these guys is that they're cruel to their listeners — on the contrary, they are always willing to offer you some silence as an antidote. Let's face it, they could have their CDs manufactured so that they get forever stuck in your player on tracks like ʽMercilessʼ — once you've popped it in, you might just as well start looking for another piece of hardware. This is the Land of the Rising Sun, goddammit, you gotta be ready for everything. But they're not really merciless, they just pretend to be. They're really more concerned about cleaning the mess up after Solomon. Unfortunately, they don't do a very good job here, so another thumbs down.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Brand X: Masques

BRAND X: MASQUES (1978)

1) The Poke; 2) Masques; 3) Black Moon; 4) Deadly Nightshade; 5) Earth Dance; 6) Access To Data; 7) The Ghost Of Mayfield Lodge.

Telling «bad fusion» from «good fusion» is a worthless, ungrateful task if you are not a fusion musician yourself. But there is no getting away from gut feelings, either, and mine tell me that somehow, in some way Brand X «lost it» with the loss of Phil Collins, yes indeed. Perhaps this is not really related, but it is a fact, or, rather, two facts, that (a) Masques is the first album not to feature Phil at all, and (b) the first Brand X album about which I genuinely do not feel at all thrilled. Could these facts be related? We'd need to waste a lifetime to find out.

Anyway, this here is a very straightahead, no bull, no deviation, highly formulaic fusion album. No Moroccan influences, vocals, or anything that would distract us from jazzy grooving. Only the first track, ʽThe Pokeʼ, is based on a steady rock beat, but what they do with it is not very interes­ting — it sounds a bit like Rush in places: gruff hard rock molded into a complex, «progressive» form that has more to do with dry musical geometry than spiritual excitement (not that Rush always sound unexciting or anything, but they do have a lot of filler passages like this one). Once ʽThe Pokeʼ is over, though, it's all about Percy Jones and his trademark «bass zoops» for the rest of the album. Even if he only wrote or co-wrote two tracks here, this album sounds like it belongs to the bass player almost exclusively.

The bad news is that this time, there are no particularly intriguing or moving themes. You'd think, for instance, that an 11-minute long track named ʽDeadly Nightshadeʼ should have a properly deadly sound, deserving of its name — instead, it just moves from slow to fast and back to slow sections without even trying to look like it were going somewhere. A lot of stuff is happening, but essentially it is just a meandering jam. Likewise, ʽThe Ghost Of Mayfield Lodgeʼ has a cool title, too, and is apparently based upon ghost stories about a real lodge in which Percy Jones used to dwell for a while, but apart from a minute-long rhythmless section that could be interpreted as «ghostly interplay» between keyboards, bass, and percussion, there is nothing I would regard as all that «ghostly» about the track — just another groove. In fact, you could transplant parts of ʽNightshadeʼ into ʽMayfield Lodgeʼ and vice versa and no one would probably take notice.

The only more or less memorable theme is discoverable in ʽEarth Danceʼ, but that one, too, once they move away from the theme into soloing, is interchangeable with ʽNightshadeʼ. And even the theme is not that awesome — a rather basic salsa variation. Apparently, there's no place like Cuba if you want to envision something as grandly universalist as an «Earth Dance». Kind of a light­weight atmosphere, I'd say, for such an ambitious venture.

All said, I'm almost tempted to put the thumbs down for this, but two things stop me from being so mean — first, there'd be much worse stuff on the way, and second, well, boring or not, it is clear that they were still working their asses off on these grooves. If I completely clear my mind from that «context» thing, Masques still provides almost fifty minutes of exemplary playing — on autopilot, perhaps, but not without the collective guardian angel from the Fusion Department guiding minds, hands, and plugs. As background music, this is still first-rate; I'm just disappoin­ted that the tunes are so completely association-free this time around. Or maybe we should read the title more literally, and agree that the band is indeed playing with their «masques» on, and then spend the next ten years of our life trying to peek behind them.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Brian Eno: Here Come The Warm Jets

BRIAN ENO: HERE COME THE WARM JETS (1973)

1) Needle In The Camel's Eye; 2) The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch; 3) Baby's On Fire; 4) Cindy Tells Me; 5) Driving Me Backwards; 6) On Some Faraway Beach; 7) Blank Frank; 8) Dead Finks Don't Talk; 9) Some Of Them Are Old; 10) Here Come The Warm Jets.

If you dissect Eno's proper debut album into its integral components and muss over each one separately, you will probably find nothing new under this particular sun. Brian's chief musical inspiration in terms of basic melody must have come from the Velvet Underground — references to the banana LP are in abundance here, and we will mention a few later on — and his use of crazy-looking and crazier-sounding electronic devices owes a lot to minimalists, Krauts, and maybe even Keith Emerson. His «affected» vocals are Marc Bolan and Tiny Tim at the same time, and his lyrics are... Captain Beefheart, perhaps? Whatever.

None of this prevents Here Come The Warm Jets from still being one of the most stunning and unusually striking debut albums in existence, because never before had there been such a brash, exciting, colorful amalgamation of catchy pop structures, weirdass studio trickery, surrealist lyrical and sonic imagery, intelligent humor, and heartfelt emotion at the same time. Above and beyond everything else, this is a pop album — it is totally accessible to those who have issues with staggering song lengths, off-putting time signatures, excessive noise, or jarring dissonance — but it is a pop album created by an experimentalist intellectual pretending to be the patient of the world's largest nuthouse. And he's got soul, too.

The busily droning three-chord guitars that usher in ʽNeedle In The Camel's Eyeʼ are exactly midway in be­tween the Velvets' ʽI'm Waiting For The Manʼ (which had two chords, I believe) and the Ramones' ʽBlitzkrieg Bopʼ (which also had three), but the accompanying vocal melody is actually sung rather than recited — in fact, if you dig it out from under the guitars that keep it buried as if in a tightly sealed sarcophagus, it's a perfectly catchy vocal melody that would feel right at home on any Beatles album: "Those who know / They don't let it show / They just give you one long life and you go...". Hmm, sounds like something Lennon could write, too. But then there comes this gruff bass solo, and it's like the one on the Velvets' ʽSunday Morningʼ — and then it makes an unexpected couple of pit stops, like on King Crimson's ʽSchizoid Manʼ — and then we reprise and fade away with da-da harmonies — and what you just heard was a relatively simple pop song, but very bizarrely produced.

It is probably because of the loud distorted guitars that people sometimes call this a «glam» album — which it certainly is not if by «glam» we mean «epic rock theater» like Bowie's Ziggy, or even if we just mean «rock'n'roll with a really, really loud and thick guitar sound», because the latter does not crop up here too often. But really, it is just for the lack of a specific term that the word «glam» is used, because Here Come The Warm Jets stubbornly defies pigeonholization: what is ʽThe Paw Paw Negro Blowtorchʼ, for instance? Seems to be a blues-pop number with a pubroom attitude and with vaudevillian vocals — that is, right before two or three synthesizers enter the room and start chatting with each other about their casual robotic problems of the day, and it all becomes some sort of a sci-fi freak show, and by the time we get back to the vocal part, it is too late because the backing guitars have completely gone off their rocker and now sound as if somebody put 100,000 volts through them.

The album's got a great feel for dynamic shift, too — if the first song is (technically) an optimis­tic anthem, then the second already moves in the direction of a deranged carnival, and by the time we get to the third one, the mood has shifted to positively mean: I mean, "Baby's on fire / Better throw her in the water / Look at her laughing / Like a heifer to the slaughter" isn't exactly a reas­suring view on personal relationships, and the extended solo by Robert Fripp here is much darker than his usual work, especially when it starts flashing and wobbling on the lower strings in an almost Black Sabbathy fashion. On the whole, it's a rare glimpse inside the «evil» part of Eno's mind, which he usually does not allow free access into the studio.

Then, once the evil has been properly exorcised, we get the tender heart of Eno — ʽCindy Tells Meʼ is another throwback to the Velvets, both in the lyrics ("Cindy tells me the rich girls are weeping..." — compare "Candy says I've come to hate my body...") and melody-wise (some of the chord changes are once again reminiscent of ʽSunday Morningʼ), but there is no misanthropy or reclusiveness here: Eno has a much more positive view on things than Lou Reed (I mean, even ʽBaby's On Fireʼ is more like the mock-evil grimacing of a mischievous imp than a blast of the devil's proper hellfire), and where the Velvets used their atmosphere to sing about femme fatales and Freudian matters, Eno uses it to sing about the unforeseen consequences of too much wo­men's lib ("they're saving their labour for insane reading", "perhaps they'll re-acquire those things they've all disposed of" — disgusting male chauvinist porn fan).

The show never ceases to amaze — these are just the four first songs, and then there is the out-of-tune paranoid insanity of ʽDriving Me Backwardsʼ, the epic piano-and-synth gorgeousness of ʽOn Some Faraway Beachʼ (presaging the peaks of ambient-pop that would be reached on Another Green World and Before And After Science), the «Bo Diddley goes New Wave» hooliganry of ʽBlank Frankʼ, the McCartney-esque piano pop of ʽDead Finks Don't Talkʼ (psychedelic back­wards guitars included), the choral harmonies of ʽSome Of Them Are Oldʼ, and the instrumental title track — which, as far as I'm concerned, could serve as the blueprint for a staggering amount of indie-rock creations of the 21st century, with its simple, repetitive, triumphant synth blare over propulsive tribal beats: British Sea Power and even Arcade Fire, eat your as-of-yet-unborn heart out, or at least acknowledge your debts. Not that it is all that easy to acknowledge one's debts to a song that, according to rumor, surreptitiously glorifies «golden showers», but since when has rock music been a stranger to kinky metaphors?

As you might have already guessed, Here Come The Warm Jets is quite a juicy album, but the thing I like the most about it is that it's really got a heart — some of the tracks are almost reli­giously beautiful (ʽFaraway Beachʼ) or inspiring (those synth blasts on the title track are pretty much welcoming you to a brand new world), or hilarious (the «chatting robots» on ʽBlowtorchʼ sound much more human to me than some actual humans from that particular era). No filler, plenty of creativity, even a touch of spontaneity (achieved by cramming tons of «incompatible», according to Eno, guest musicians in the studio), and there you go — one of the best «intelli-pop» albums ever released. It even managed to chart, very briefly, reaching #26 in the UK, a feat that no other Eno album managed to repeat (then again, Eno has never cared much for promotion campaigns, let alone touring). And it actually makes you feel great about the man's split-up with Roxy Music — which allowed for two masterpieces (this one and Roxy's Stranded) rather than one to be released the same year. In short, an exuberant thumbs up

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: That's The Way It Should Be

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: THAT'S THE WAY IT SHOULD BE (1994)

1) Slip Slidin'; 2) Mo' Greens; 3) Gotta Serve Somebody; 4) Let's Wait Awhile; 5) That's The Way It Should Be; 6) Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me); 7) Camel Ride; 8) Have A Heart; 9) Cruisin'; 10) I Can't Stand The Rain; 11) Sarasota Sunset; 12) I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.

Hey, they're back. Oh, technically speaking, Booker T. & the M.G.'s never went away for too long: throughout the Eighties and early Nineties, they occasionally reuinted in various configura­tions for various purposes — they did, however, sit the whole Eighties out without attempting to record any new albums, which was probably as wise a decision as they could possibly take. And it was not until 1992, when Bob Dylan asked them to back him for his «thirty years in the biz» anniversary, that the thought of making new music came back into their minds — by which time the retro-vibe had already set in, and they were free to return to their «classic» sound if they so desired, without having to go through the electronic filter.

Enlisting Steve Jordan on drums, the band relies on the trusty old formula: instrumental rendi­tions of a few classic tunes, a few (relatively) contemporary hits, and a bunch of originals thrown in. You can see that the running lengths are slightly extended, as they take advantage of the new CD format to stretch out — hardly necessary, in my opinion, but not tragic or anything; and you do notice the new drummer, because Jordan has a ponderous, hard-hitting style, quite far removed from the original funky lightness of Al Jackson's kit, but, again, not tragic.

And I do like the record — I think they did a good job answering that question for us, «what would Booker T. sound like if he had all the benefits of modern production?» This is your answer: they work here exactly the same way as they used to, but from the opening notes of ʽSlip Slidin'ʼ you can discern the «cleanness» of the sound that could not have been achieved thirty years back. Not that it really matters, of course — the M.G.'s always had the best of best sounds even way back when. What is much more important is their selection of the material, and it's fun.

The oldest tracks here are from the early 1970s: a suitably tender, organ-dominated cover of the Temptations' ʽJust My Imaginationʼ, and a harsher, heavier, bluesier, more guitar-oriented cover of Ann Peebles' ʽI Can't Stand The Rainʼ. Then they do Dylan's ʽGotta Serve Somebodyʼ which they'd already performed at the anniversary show (Booker takes the lead, but Cropper also throws in a stinging blues solo); Bonnie Raitt's ʽHave A Heartʼ (why? why? what's so goddamn good about that song?); and probably the least predictable choice — finishing the album off with U2's ʽI Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking Forʼ. Maybe that was their way of telling us "I'll be back", but if so, they still haven't capitalized on that promise as of 2015.

Oh, wait, no, the least predictable inclusion is a cover of Janet Jackson's ʽLet's Wait Awhileʼ. Yes, right, if you cannot release a record during the crappiest musical decade of the century, you should at least cover one of its crappiest hits. And even the way it is done by these guys, you can still understand that you're dealing with a corny adult contemporary ballad — but it is interesting, actually, to play this one back to back with ʽJust My Imaginationʼ and try to understand just what it is that so profoundly separates the former from the latter. Is it the use of the more «obvious» chord sequences in the JJ song? Their nagging repetitiveness? It certainly isn't just a matter of arrangements, which in this particular case are quite similar.

Of the new tunes, ʽMo' Greensʼ is... well, you guessed. But it's actually got a different groove from the original — a little slower, grizzlier, more ominous, and with a weeping solo from Cropper that tries to inject a little soul-and-sentiment into a franchise that used to concentrate on just biting and snapping. ʽCamel Rideʼ is funny, funky, and more than a little reminiscent in its basic theme of Zappa's ʽWillie The Pimpʼ (I keep expecting Captain Beefheart to step in at any minute); ʽCruisin'ʼ is based on the ʽMemphis Tennesseeʼ groove and is the most dansable number on the album; and ʽSarasota Sunsetʼ is a nice mid-tempo jam that could indeed go down well along with a well-earned sunset, though not much more.

Anyway, I have read a few disappointed reactions to the album and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why — I mean, who would ever want to expect any ambitions from a 30-year old instrumental R&B band that only, like, released one or two album's worth of ambitious material in its entire career? The organ tones are conservative and classy, Cropper's guitar solos only gain in depth and experience with the passage of time, and even though I have no idea why I should be enduring a Janet Jackson ballad from these guys, I'll take it as a man, in honor of all the good things they did for humanity (and it's not as if they haven't covered quite a few shitty tunes even way back when). Thumbs up, and thank God, actually, that this, rather than the unnatural-sound­ing Universal Language, is the (currently) last item in the band's discography. Yep, that's the way it should be, yes indeed sir. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Brian Wilson: Brian Wilson

BRIAN WILSON: BRIAN WILSON (1988)

1) Love And Mercy; 2) Walkin' The Line; 3) Melt Away; 4) Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long; 5) Little Children; 6) One For The Boys; 7) There's So Many; 8) Night Time; 9) Let It Shine; 10) Meet Me In My Dreams Tonight; 11) Rio Grande.

It is no big secret that if one wants to go on savoring the real taste of the real Beach Boys past their eponymous 1985 album (which wasn't all that hot, but at least involved Brian Wilson in some ways), one has to forget about the «Beach Boys» moniker altogether and simply go along with Brian Wilson's solo career. It is somehow a rather little-known fact, though, that the begin­ning of that solo career — the eponymous Brian Wilson from 1988 — is the last new album ever recorded by a Beach Boy that could lay a semi-successful claim to «masterpiece» status.

Of course, all sorts of technical circumstances prevented it from being one. For one thing, even in his psychically weakest condition (or, perhaps, especially in his psychically weakest condition) Brian tends to be aware of the current state of mainstream production, and always feels comfor­table about embracing contemporary trends, even those that seriously clash with his own vision. Being an Eighties album, Brian Wilson is therefore full of electronic drums and dinky MIDI effects (there are at least four people here credited with «synthesizer programming», and that's never a good thing — imagine how much conflicting code there must have been?), which is positively embarrassing for one of the biggest «humanists» in popular music.

It also goes without saying — and this is the first and last time I'm gonna say it, since it applies equally to every album in Brian's solo career — that all these songs would have benefited from a better singer. Brian's prematurely aged and croaky voice (which, admittedly, first came as a shock to us as early as on 1977's Love You) has an undeniable charm of its own, but yes, there used to be a time when the mellow timbre of his cords was a perfect fit for his musical palette, and now there is this unavoidable discrepancy between voice and music. You can get used to it, of course, but still, every once in a while I like to imagine his old self forming a musical duo with some younger, more «angelic» singer... then again, he might have gone along with some innocent melismatic horror like Mariah Carey, so maybe not.

Additional, little-felt problems, included Brian's being manipulated — primarily by his cunning therapist Eugene Landy and his wife Alexandra Morgan, who may or may not have contributed to Brian's getting well over the decade, but one thing they sure did was infiltrate themselves in all his doings, including getting songwriter credits for about half of these songs (which, according to certain sources, usually consisted of Morgan changing one of Brian's lyrical lines to something different). Of course, it's not as if you were going to listen to this and your first reaction would be like, «Oh, this album would be so much better if it weren't so obvious that it was completely de­railed by a sleazy psychotherapist masquerading as an amateur musician!» But still, there is a general sense of a lack of total freedom for Brian here — at that point, he was still convalescing, and much too susceptible to all sorts of interference.

And yet, despite all this, Brian Wilson is a wonderful collection of art-pop songs, the closest thing to a proper development of the man's artistic vision that we saw ever since Smile was abor­ted and chunks of its bleeding flesh scattered all across five or six different LPs. At least one chunk, by the way, made it all across the decades and ended up here, in the mid-section of the ʽRio Grandeʼ suite which includes a brief excerpt from the ʽFireʼ part of Smile — and altogether, ʽRio Grandeʼ is commonly acknowledged as a deliberate imitation of the complex approach of Smile. On the whole, though, Brian Wilson is decidedly more conventional and poppy, with a lot of dance-oriented material mixed in with introspective romanticism à la Pet Sounds, so you could say it's got a backwards nod to a little bit of everything — the infectious dance hook of 1965, the lush baroque romanticism of 1966, the insane surrealist whimsy of 1967 — and had all these ideas had a chance to be born, nurtured, and realized at least fifteen years earlier, we'd have us yet another classic. But, like David B. once wisely remarked, "time may bitch-slap me, but I can't fuck with time". Or something to that end, anyway.

The best known song here, though it failed to become a commercial hit, is ʽLove And Mercyʼ, and it was actually the first time that Brian sat down and wrote a straightforward public sermon — which, I guess, is alright when you've lived long enough and earned yourself the right to a bit of idealistic preaching, no matter how naïve or «trivialized» the idea(l) might be. The descending chord pattern on which the song is based is simple, solemn, and moving, the only problem being that it deserves far more than those electronic keyboards and processed choral vocals: in fact, early piano demos of the song, as well as later live performances convey the message far more effectively. In any case, ʽLove And Mercyʼ is kind of like Brian Wilson's equivalent of ʽLet It Beʼ, written much later than needed but better late than never.

It must be noted, though, that ʽLove And Mercyʼ is not sung from a pleading, or despairing point of view — on the contrary, the song and the album in general are sunny, optimistic, and spiritual­ly strong. If The Beach Boys Love You sounded like a record made by a deeply confused, if not totally deranged, person, Brian Wilson gives us a fairly self-assured Brian. God only knows (pardon the pun) what was going on behind the scenes, but the final result only betrays a slight quiver in his aged voice from time to time; other than that, he's perfectly all right to sing straight­forward upbeat love songs, such as ʽWalkin' The Lineʼ (whose chorus of "gimme gimme gimme gimme lovin' tonight" sounds like he might just gonna make it without resorting to medication) and ʽMeet Me In My Dreams Tonightʼ, the most martial song ever written about dreaming (it is also somewhat funny that when he raises his pitch so high on the verses, he ends up sounding like Ozzy Osbourne — not that Ozzy couldn't hold his own on a love song, of course).

But even if you have something against too many upbeat songs, including cutesy-cuddly-catchy stuff like ʽLittle Childrenʼ (which you shouldn't — exercises in nursery rhyming have always been an integral part of Wilsonism), the bulk of Brian Wilson still consists of lush, deeply felt love ballads: ʽMelt Awayʼ, ʽBaby Let Your Hair Grow Longʼ, ʽThere's So Manyʼ, ʽLet It Shineʼ, all this stuff basically picks up where we were temporarily left off with the second side of Today! twenty-three years earlier. Apart from production issues, I couldn't really say that these songs are unworthy of Brian's highest standards in the serenade genre. And even the production issues fade away when you realize that his harmony-arranging instincts are as strong as ever — just listen to all the choral overdubs on ʽThere's So Manyʼ (there is also an accappella track called ʽOne For The Boysʼ, perhaps ironically so — because it has Brian and several backers ably reproduce the Beach Boys' choral harmonies without actually employing any of the other Beach Boys; so it's more like «that's it boys, I don't really need you anymore»).

The biggest success on the album, though, is the closing suite — ʽRio Grandeʼ shows that after all these years and troubles, Brian still knows how to write an experimental suite based on the Smile approach and make it sound fresh, involving, and funny. Of course, it helps that several Smile motives were actively exploited in the making of the track (see the reference to ʽFireʼ mentioned above, as well as all the country-western touches that recall ʽHeroes And Villainsʼ), but on the whole, it is a new composition that consists of fairly distinct parts, yet has a thematic unity. A few of these parts actually began life as separate entities (ʽNight Bloomin' Jasmineʼ, for instance, can be found as an autonomous demo version on the deluxe edition of the album), then found their place inside this little epic about some guy who has to cross the Rio Grande to find his true love or something — okay, maybe I'm a little exaggerating about «thematic unity» (it is not at all clear how the nocturnal, slightly creepy ʽNight Bloomin' Jasmineʼ fits in with the idea of rolling, rolling, rolling on, but I'm sure one can always find an answer if one tries), but then the same question can always come up with the Abbey Road medley, yet somehow most of us ins­tinctively feel that it works, so... whatever.

Anyway, this sure is one of those records where you just have to dig your way past the uncom­fortable surface (bad lyrics, cheesy production, failing voice) to locate that heart of gold, because there is not a single bad song here as such — ultimately, everything is melodic, memorable, and deeply heartfelt. It is quite logical that the album's legacy would be honored with a deluxe edition, too: in 2000, it was expanded with about thirty minutes of extra tracks, including another upbeat pop rocker, the slyly self-referential B-side ʽHe Couldn't Get His Poor Old Body To Moveʼ that Brian co-wrote with Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham, one of his biggest fans (too bad the collaboration took place around the Tango In The Night era, when the synth-pop boom was messing up Lindsey's mind, too). There's also a new collaboration with old pal Gary Usher on ʽLet's Go To Heaven In My Carʼ (silly) and lots of demos that often sound better than the final versions, for obvious decade-related reasons. Not that the expanded version is worth wasting your life strength on to seek out — but it's always nice to see the greatness of a particular record honored by thirty minutes of surrounding extras. Almost as nice as acknowledge it with an enthu­siastic thumbs up and be able to recommend it to everyone over a Mike Love solo album.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color

ALABAMA SHAKES: SOUND & COLOR (2015)

1) Sound & Color; 2) Don't Wanna Fight; 3) Dunes; 4) Future People; 5) Gimme All Your Love; 6) This Feeling; 7) Guess Who; 8) The Greatest; 9) Shoegaze; 10) Miss You; 11) Gemini; 12) Over My Head.

On their second album, the Alabama Shakes seem to find themselves facing a choice — cast the net wider or drill deeper? (The option of «staying exactly the same» probably not being regarded seriously by anyone). While some reviewers have allegedly implied that they went for the former, I would rather say that they went for the latter. The record sounds differently from Boys & Girls, for sure, but not because they have seriously embraced any new styles — more because Brittany Howard seems more self-assured than ever, and has seriously prepared herself to embrace the regular responsibilities of «Soul Mama #1».

I mean, look at the lady — she's big, decidedly unglamorous, wears grandmother's dresses, and seems ready to crash the party at will (like they did in 2013 with a terrific cover of ʽAdam Raised A Cainʼ at the MusiCares tribute to the Boss — blowing most of the others off the stage, not the least due to their choice of the darkest-dreariest song in the man's catalog). She plays «grand­mother's music», too, even if it cannot help reflecting the spirit of the indie-rock era, and that sure ain't gonna help her none in the era of Taylor Swift's crossover. She does look, though, like the kind of person who takes those «Be Yourself!» slogans seriously — not in the usual sense of «Be like any of our leading brands of the day that we have laid out for you!», but literally. And the good news is — she still has talent to burn, too.

Subsequently, Sound & Color is filled with slow, bluesy tunes, often creating the illusion of depth with chiming, reverberating keyboards, loud bass, and echoey vocals — arranged in such a way that the emphasis is almost always on call-and-response interplay. Yes, we are intentionally entering this «deep soul» territory, as if Boys & Girls were this innocent brand of Southern rock played on your front porch, and now we are moving into a church hall — or, at least, into a sub­terranean cave, since much of the album does sound as if it were recorded in one. But «deep soul» requires a perfect balance between brawn and subtlety, since it is more character-based than hook-based, and the question is... well, you know.

If you want to know whether you need to bother at all, check out the fourth track, ʽFuture Peopleʼ. Opening with a brash, heavily syncopated funky riff, it paves the road to what might be the single most soulful delivery I have heard in a long time — the way she starts out shirll and high, gradu­ally falling down to lower octaves and then rebounding back at the end of the verse (without resorting to melismatics or anything) is just piercing to the skin. Some might find it annoying, of course, but let them go back to their Beyoncés and Rihannas: this is the real deal, and it's got some pretty decent lyrics to go along with as well, though nothing particularly special in that de­partment — it's just cool that a «futuristic anthem» should be delivered this way, with a howl that you'd think more suitable for a gospel-drenched ceremony at a funeral.

The first single from the album was ʽGimme All Your Loveʼ, melodically recognizable as.. well, as something that could have potentially been recorded by Otis Redding, although slightly Led Zeppelin-ized (big drums and heavy power chords included in spots), but again, it is Howard's «from-a-whisper-to-a-scream» vocals that take the place of melodic hooks, and she does sound like she means it at both ends. The second single was ʽDon't Wanna Fightʼ, which is not an anti-war song but might as well be one, what with the ambiguous nature of the lyrics — no, really, it is more of a lament over having to constantly battle for territory with her other one, with a repeti­tive falsetto chorus that does not bring on disco associations, because it's more like paranoid hys­terical falsetto than tender loving falsetto.

Sometimes they still let their hair down — ʽThe Greatestʼ sounds more like the Velvet Under­ground (ʽWaiting For The Manʼ, to be precise) than Otis, with a fast, churning, dirty garage sound and lots of hooliganish overdubs; and ʽShoegazeʼ is titled ʽShoegazeʼ, even though it has little to do with real shoegaze, but it is a power pop offering that tends to veer off into twin guitar drone territory from time to time. These two tracks, lodged as they are close to each other, turn the album towards loud, upbeat rock'n'roll territory for a while, but they are exceptions, two brief dynamic explosions in an album that should rather be listened to under torchlight.

Like I said, though, they are a modern band. Few people in the era of classic deep soul would have dreamed, after one of the songs has slowly, stately, gracefully, and somewhat mysteriously strolled over your living room for four minutes, to introduce a guitar solo that would constitute of little other than howling feedback, bleeding over your carpet for over a minute. Well, maybe Big Brother & Holding Company could, since their lead guitarists were poorly trained punks and had to compensate for lack of training with a lot of noise (and what a great noise that could be, too): but Howard and Heath Fogg are certainly doing that out of conceptual reasons. (That said, I could stand the presence of a few regular guitar solos every now and then — apparently, they're not big fans of those, both because the soul/R'n'B tradition was not that hot on them, either, and because guitar solos are out of fashion these days as well. Ah well, never mind).

So, am I saying that Sound & Color is a great collection of songs? Nope. Without Howard's presence, most of these songs would be just old-fashioned vamps. With her presence, though, it gives us one more glimpse at a genuinely lovable character. Maybe they could write «better songs», but they seem to be afraid to do it at the expense of losing that ol' feeling, which they express so well through her alterations of powerhouse / arch-subtle vocals and through their jagged, broken-up, bleeding tune structures. And that's perfectly okay by me — in fact, I certainly was not expecting this particular direction, believing that they would either stagnate (49.5% pro­bability) or commercialize (another 49.5%). However, they chose the thin remaining path be­tween the two obvious roads, and preferred to become only what might be the leading soul band in today's music. Not bad, I'd say — certainly deserving of a thumbs up.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Breeders: Title TK

THE BREEDERS: TITLE TK (2002)

1) Little Fury; 2) London Song; 3) Off You; 4) The She; 5) Too Alive; 6) Son Of Three; 7) Put On A Side; 8) Full On Idle; 9) Sinister Foxx; 10) Forced To Drive; 11) T And T; 12) Huffer.

Almost ten years separate this one from the last Breeders LP — ten years in which lots and lots of things happened to alt-rock and indie-rock, and over which both the Pixies and the Breeders had sort of become living, but somewhat outdated legends, and not even Kurt was alive any more to give Kim and Kelley's next offering the proper praise, though I'm fairly sure he would have loved Title TK to yet another death, had he had the chance.

Anyway, these Breeders have everything and nothing in common with those Breeders. Every­thing, because this is very much a Breeders record in design and execution; nothing, because the Deal sisters are the only Breeders left around — neither Richard Presley (guitar), nor Mando Lopez (bass, guitar), nor Jose Medeles (drums) had anything to do with Pod or Last Splash (in fact, the former two players were recruited by Kim from the then-current lineup of L.A. hardcore punk band Fear). But you know what? For all of this record's sparseness, it might as well have been recorded by the Deal sisters alone — that is, as long as old friend Steve Albini stayed behind the engineering console. After all, Kim is credited here for «guitar, organ, drums, bass, vocals», and it's not as if you're gonna hear any flutes or harpsichords — and, if you'll pardon me this one more pun, it's Kim and only Kim that is the right deal for the Breeders.

In a way, Title TK was Kim's «protest album». Technically, it is sort of a cross between the less accessible Pod and the more «poppy» Last Splash — the ascetic, bare-bones nature of the songs hearkens back to Pod, but the heavy infusion of the songs with hard-to-forget pop hooks shows that mystical spontaneity was far from the only force driving the songs. What is also important, though, is that Kim insisted on analog-only recording techniques — no, this is not lo-fi here (thankfully), but this is still as raw as it gets, flubs and accidents included. Had the songs been poor at the core, this approach could be judged as unnecessarily pretentious; but with such strong hooks, the occasional «what-the-heck-was-that?» reaction only spices up the proceedings.

And what are these strong hooks, may you ask? Well, they usually come in the form of very brief, but strongly emphasized «clippings» — vocal or instrumental. Considering how hard it has been  to come up with short, punchy, resonant hooks ever since half of the world's population enlisted in rock and roll bands, I feel half-amused, half-amazed at how many cool phrasings there are in these short blasts. Sometimes you have to wait for them, of course: ʽLittle Furyʼ opens the album with a generic mid-tempo beat and some expectedly somnambulant, nonsensical vocals, distribu­ted between the Deal sisters in a rather chaotic pattern... it is not until 2:08 that the nasty, teasing little four-note riff starts up, and it goes away after just a few bars, but that little is enough to get the back of your mind thinking — what was that? was that really necessary? was it really a tease, or a threat, or a warning? does it have any relation to the tender chorus admonition of "hold what you've got"?.. well — "it's a living thing", as Jeff Lynne would say.

ʽLondon Songʼ, on the other hand, is totally vocal-dependent — dependent, in fact, on one word: as devoid of direct interpretation as "slipping through the states to find the static, yeah there's something to believe" is, using the word "believe" for the final resolution of the chorus is a bril­liant move, because it turns the entire song into a sort of intimate, camouflaged «I'm holding on» anthem. But this vocal dependency becomes even more explicit on ʽOff Youʼ, which is a ballad (I think — with this approach, the difference between tender ballad and angry rocker seems to be blurred) that totally rides on Deal's personal charisma as filtered through her vocal cord modula­tion. The dry overtones, the ability to conjure some detached innocence and «infantile wisdom» through potentially over-pompous lines like ʽI am the autumn in the scarlet / I am the make-up on your eyesʼ, the stern, but tender conclusion of each chorus with a laconic "yeah we're movin' — yeah, we're movin'" (don't forget the rising rather than falling intonation on the second movin'), it's all ascetically beautiful in a way that's doggone hard to explain.

Most of the album sounds «broken» — short vocal lines consisting of incomplete sentences (often put together through phonetic associations rather than any logically meaningful purpose), short guitar bursts, lots of jagged, stop-and-start sequences. An uncomfortable flow, but you get used to it eventually — a good example is ʽThe Sheʼ, one of the verses of which goes "It's my death / My rhythm / My arithmetic / I got used to / Nobody ridin' in the back", so just don't ride in the back and you'll be okay with the song's clumsy, but effective funk beat, distorted growling organ, and more of those «nasty teaser» guitar mini-riffs that are so popular this season. When the song does have an uninterrupted flow, it might happen with the aid of a loudly mixed, simple, repetitive, eerie bassline — ʽPut On A Sideʼ does just that out of one simple note and one bit of glissando — or with the aid of a sped-up tempo, like the closing ʽHufferʼ, which says goodbye with a much-needed merry nursing rhyme: "Torn, toiled and troubled... toil toil toil till I get sick, I try reverse but I'm not that quick".

Not every song is great — in fact, I would hesitate to call any of these songs «great», because they simply do not trigger that kind of verbal association — but leave it to Ms. Deal and her ghostly shadow of a sister to come up with an indie-rock album that does not leave even the slightest tinge of a «oh no, not another indie-rock album» reaction. Not too catchy, not too friendly, not too enigmatic, but a perfect balance of all three to give you entertainment, enjoy­ment, and intrigue. And let us not forget to thank Mr. Albini one more time — after all, he is still one of the few people around to know how not to strip indie-rock electric guitar of its ability to thrill and hypnotize. In short, an all-around excellent comeback for the Breeders, but pardon me if I just end this with a regular thumbs up instead of a detailed amateur Freudian analysis, which I am sure it deserves from somebody who is much more qualified.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Boris: Pink

BORIS: PINK (2005)

1) Ketsubetsu; 2) Pink; 3) Sukuriin-no Onna; 4) Betsu-ni Nan Demo Nai; 5) Burakku Auto; 6) Electric; 7) Nise Bureddo; 8) Nurui Honoo; 9) Roku-o Mitsu; 10) My Machine; 11) Ore-o Sute-ta Tokoro.

Let us list all the references to other artists that veteran reviewer Thom Jurek has made in his review of Pink, Boris' first venture into the «accessible» territory of post-rock composition: Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Isis, Sigur Rós, Nadja, Jesu, Mono (we go to Japan now), Guitar Wolf, Iggy Pop (we go back into the past now), MC5, Sunn O)))) (okay, back to the present), and Acid Mothers Temple. That's 12. Okay, now the Pitchfork review by Brandon Stosuy, who do we have here? Sigur Rós, Isis, Jesu, Melvins, Motörhead, Olivia Tremor Control, Unwound, Drive Like Jehu... oh no, that's just 8, not counting additional historical references.

The question is, now that Boris have moved into this «normal» territory, cutting tracks that be­gin to re­semble «songs» every once in a while, are they still Boris, or are they merely a potpourri of all these influences, contemporary and archaic alike? Do they have an agenda, or are they just selling out? Unfortunately, as much as I would like to like Pink, if only for the usual awesome­ness of Wata's guitar tones, not even repeated listens can convince me that the record ever once rises above the level of kitsch. If this is ironic music, it is too boring to sink in deep. If it is dead serious music, it is just plain awful.

There's always that third possibility, of course — that this is simply fun music. Starting with the title track, it is music that bluntly invites you to headbang, and at least on one occasion it even invites you to dance (ʽElectricʼ, though, as if acknowledging the embarrassing nature of the pro­position, the track clocks in at a measly 1:45). Sludgy guitar tones, punkish tempos, screamed vocals — song after song is a mosher's paradise. Then they slow down and become your usual Black Sabbath... oh wait, I am falling into the namedropping trap myself.

Well then, here be the problems. First, there are more vocals here than ever before. They all seem to be delivered by Takeshi, and frankly, he is awful. His constant screeching sounds neither angry nor crazy — it is just irritating, like the nagging of a loudmouthed peddler on the street corner or something. (Actually, I believe that drummer Atsuo also has sing... er, vocalizing duties, and carries them out with approximately the same effect). Had all these songs been joined into a single track with all the vocals wiped off for good, that would have been a big plus.

Second, the introduction of short compositions does not mean the introduction of good riffs. Well, not entirely true. The machine-gun riff of ʽPinkʼ (belonging in what I call the ʽBreadfanʼ category for lack of a better term) is sort of mildly interesting. When you combine Wata's tone with speedy finger-flashing playing the results are fun, it would be useful to deny something as obvious. But apart from that, 99% of the riffs still sound as if they have an efficient software piece that de­constructs old Sabbath riffs and puts them back together, with predictably worse results because the software has no idea of the kind of chord sequences that really gets your goat. I mean, listen to ʽElectricʼ — it's like a cross between ʽSupernautʼ and ʽN.I.B.ʼ and... something else. Esnes on sekam ti tub looc sdnuos ti. If you know what I mean.

Supposedly the most important compositions on the album are the two longest numbers — ʽKetsubetsuʼ, a «regal» drone piece that really does conjure all these references in Jurek's review (yes, even Sigur Rós, with its choral harmonies and ringing rainbow-y guitar dubs over all the noise), and the closing ten-minute gallop piece which I would probably mistake for a lost And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead composition if not for the annoying Japanese vocals. On second thought, though, I probably wouldn't, because those guys would have chickened out when it came to basing a ten-minute track on exactly two musical ideas. In any case, both tracks are deadly dull — unfortunately, I cannot share the enthusiasm, so common among reviewers, over the mad fury of the opening minutes of ʽOre-o Sute...ʼ because it is hard for me to endorse something just because it is mad and furious. If it went on for sixty minutes, that would at least be an artistic statement. Since it only goes on for ten (I think there's also an extended version that throws on eight more minutes of feedback), it's just a bore.

On the whole, a drastic thumbs down and a radical disagreement here with tons of glowing reviews on RYM and other sites that often extol this as Boris' finest hour — much of which pro­bably has to do with the fact that it was the band's first widely distributed US album. In this humble reviewer's opinion, Pink simply shows that Boris are spiritually incapable of producing genuine «rock»-type material. One of the few dissonant reviews on RYM put it short and sweet: «Stick to drone guys». Couldn't agree more.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Brand X: Livestock

BRAND X: LIVESTOCK (1977)

1) Nightmare Patrol; 2) -Ish; 3) Euthanasia Waltz; 4) Isis Mourning, Pt. 1; 5) Isis Mourning, Pt. 2; 6) Malaga Virgen.

Live albums by fusion artists are somewhat of a puzzle — first, because fusion as such always tends to be associated with the «live-in-the-studio» principle, what with its being the rock-era inheritor to classic jazz and all; second, because jazz-rock musicians are simply not expected to wear different faces for their studio and live avatars. So, unless the live album consists entirely of new material, its only purpose would be to prove that the actual musicians in the band are, indeed, cunning and dexterous, and can keep a tight groove going in real time — and even so, that would be thin proof, since nobody knows to what extent the results could be doctored in the studio. Un­less you want to be real obnoxious about it and compare them with bootlegs. But are there really people in this world who are obsessed with hunting for Brand X bootlegs?

Anyway, Livestock was put together from recordings that cover a period of one whole year and two different drummers: three tracks were culled from London club gigs with Collins and two more — from an August 1977 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon with Kenwood Dennard, re­placing Collins who had only just completed his duties for Genesis' Wind & Wuthering tour. And it does have to be admitted that much of the material is new: ʽEuthanasia Waltzʼ and ʽMalaga Virgenʼ are the only tracks (though they do take up more than a third of the album) to have been previously available. Not that the new material sounds all that difficult from the old one, though — but then, nobody would expect it to.

As it happens, they could have omitted the references to «live» altogether. The tracks either fade in or fade out; the audience response is limited to maybe just a couple seconds of applause every now and then; and there is no stage banter whatsoever (according to the «if you don't sing, you don't speak, either» principle that is also rather typical of the instrumental jazz tradition). The two songs taken over from the studio catalog are almost totally identical to the studio versions (except for muddier production values in the live setting), and so the album's real worth lies in the new material — not because it is live, but because it is new.

From that point of view, the opening ʽNightmare Patrolʼ is one of their best compositions from that period — it does have a slightly ominous, nocturnal atmosphere to it, if not necessarily night­marish, as well as a dreamy-poetic guitar riff and an involving adventurous mid-section in which they show themselves able to build up suspense and then happily release it to everybody's relief and satisfaction. It is also the first track to feature the new drummer who shows himself quite worthy of the crown, although, for my money, his fills and rolls are not nearly as smooth and totally natural-sounding as Phil's.

The central composition on Side B is ʽIsis Mourningʼ, where they bring down the tempo and try to inject a little «soul» — lots of atmospheric synthesizers and weepy bluesy soloing, but the focus is still on group playing, so neither Lumley nor Goodsall get to properly show off just how passionate, loud, and overflowing with salty excretions Isis could be in mourning. So, instead of trying to be moved to tears ourselves, we should probably just enjoy the interplay instead — the way Goodsall and Jones trade licks, arpeggios, scales, and occasional dissonances around each other once the tempo slows down and they get a better chance to impress us with the musical dia­log. Hardly unique, but fun, and they never hang around one repetitive theme or gimmick for too long — Goodsall, in particular, has this knack for frequently changing the tones and effects within a short time, so once you get close to getting tired of hearing him do minimalistic jazz licks, he'll sense that and start spitting out funky wah-wah chords, before going into 12-bar terri­tory and back to jazz guitar again.

Still, the fact remains that as a composition, only ʽNightmare Patrolʼ seems to have stick-around potential — the rest are more like temporary vamps, enjoyable because of the players' professio­nalism and creativity, but hardly pretending to much else. Throwing in the album's slightly in­ferior sound quality (as compared to the studio albums, of course — on the whole, the recording is perfectly acceptable), I would certainly not recommend it as a point of entry. Once you have become a Brand X fan for life by assimilating Unorthodox Behaviour and Moroccan Roll, feel free to proceed. Or, at least, take additional advice from some genuine fusion expert, the kind of person who can actually offer a serious opinion on why one fusion album is «better» than another fusion album — my own opinions here are as innocently amateurish as any thoughts I might have on global warming or the Big Bang.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Brian Eno & Robert Fripp: No Pussyfooting

BRIAN ENO: NO PUSSYFOOTING (w. Robert Fripp) (1973)

1) The Heavenly Music Corporation; 2) Swastika Girls.

«Both of these compositions are terrific, or both are crap, I can't decide» — that's what I wrote ages ago about this album. So much time has passed, though, and now I believe I can.

In 1973, albums with just one track per side were nothing new, and neither were lengthy droning compositions that took ample time to explore a single musical groove, idea, chord sequence, believing that there was no better way to go totally transcendental. What did not happen yet was a fortuitous meeting between two musicians — one with a beyond-the-ordinary vision for electric guitar playing, another one with an above-the-common understanding of the possibilities of elec­tronic keyboards — who could pool their talents together and come up with a deeply intellectual conception for how The Perfect Psychedelic Record could sound.

Eno and Fripp began working on No Pussyfooting in 1972, back when the former was still an official member of Roxy Music, but already felt uncomfortable about having to compromise his vision for the sake of Bryan Ferry's flamboyance. The main pretext was to test out the tape-delay system commonly known as «Frippertronics», because nobody was ever able to figure out how it works except for Fripp himself. Actually, it shouldn't be all that complicated — essentially, it's just a special technique, requiring two tape-recorders trading signals back and forth so that your guitar sounds like it's being played in a deep, multi-sectioned cave with a great echo system. But, of course, you have to coordinate the recorders so that the delays and echos do not turn the whole thing into an atonal mess, and in order to do that, you probably have to be Robert Fripp.

Still, when it's just one guitar, even hallucinating like that, one can feel a little lonely, and this is where Eno really comes in. On both these tracks (which were, by the way, recorded almost a year apart of each other), it is his ambient loops that provide the foundation for Fripp's guitar. On ʽHeavenly Music Corporationʼ, the loops are mostly droning buzz, wobbling in amplitude and continuously yielding a cello-like sound, as if you were stuck in some fifteen-minute snippet from a particularly dark Wagner passage. On the much more merry sounding (and even more merrily titled!) ʽSwastika Girlsʼ the loops are completely different — high-pitched, ringing, more imita­tive of a fairy-tale harp sound than anything else.

Whether Fripp actually coordinates his guitar playing with Eno's loops or not is hard to say, especially since a lot of work was done by Eno at the mixing stage — apparently, he had himself a lot of fun with Robert's tapes, cutting and splicing at will. In any case, the best thing about both of his extended and transformed solos is that they are actually solos — not one-chord drones or anything, but thoughtful improvisations along the same lines as contemporary King Crimson. On the first track, the solos come quickly and are stern, dark, brooding, but not particularly angry or unhappy — sometimes they resolve themselves into majestic swoooooops that sound like birds of prey unleashed by the «heavenly corporation» upon the listener, but they don't cause any damage or anything. On the second track, there are many more overdubs, including what seems to be a droning acoustic guitar loop mixed with Eno's vibes, and the actual soloing arrives later, around the eighth minute — and it sounds a lot happier. In fact, I've got a hinch that they originally wanted to call the composition ʽRainbow Girlsʼ, but changed their minds at the last moment and called it ʽSwastika Girlsʼ instead. Not that much of a difference anyway.

So how good is it? Groundbreaking — for sure, but is this something that is still worth listening to? Personally, I now believe it all totally works as an emotional experience. On one hand, the pieces can be classified as «ambient», but on the other hand, they are not really «minimalist», since there is simply too much going on there. The first track is actually quite tempestuous in nature, and the second has this resplendent, kaleidoscopic nature that sort of celebrates diversity and singularity of everything at the same time. And if you can see the beauty in Fripp's guitar playing at all, then these fourty minutes will be anything but boring: inspiration and soul-seeking dominate both tracks.

Ultimately, it is the combination of these two powers that wins me over. Eno's dark-wobbly or shiny-clinky loops + Fripp's multi-layered «intellectual drones» are a perfect combination, it's a joy watching them making this «pseudo-conversation» with each other, and it does sound some­what transcendental. It would never be the same with just a regular keyboardist, who probably would have just played some Bach tribute instead of Eno's Terry Riley fetish. And best of all, there is not a single ounce of noise on the record — no feedback, no crunch, nobody trying to drown the proceedings in a sea of nasty distortion to mask the lack of talent. Nope, it's all clean and melodic in its own way, even humorous, as Fripp sometimes makes the guitar grumble, growl, or croak in laughter. Great record, totally worth a thumbs up after all these years.