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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: The River

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: THE RIVER (1980)

1) The Ties That Bind; 2) Sherry Darling; 3) Jackson Cage; 4) Two Hearts; 5) Independence Day; 6) Hungry Heart; 7) Out In The Street; 8) Crush On You; 9) You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch); 10) I Wanna Marry You; 11) The River; 12) Point Blank; 13) Cadillac Ranch; 14) I'm A Rocker; 15) Fade Away; 16) Stolen Car; 17) Ramrod; 18) The Price You Pay; 19) Drive All Night; 20) Wreck On The Highway.

How do I put this right? Basically, with this album Bruce Springsteen was pretty much over as a major artistic force. He himself admitted that The River more or less shaped out and defined his song­writing style for the rest of his career, and there is indeed a bigger barrier between Darkness On The Edge Of Town and The River than between any other two subsequent albums in his life, including all the great ones and all the real shitty ones.

As the «album rock» era drew to a close and the hit single (and, fairly soon, the hit video) re­claimed its positions in the early Eighties, Springsteen and Landau chose the «top» road over the «bottom» road — which meant intentionally dumbing it down in search of mass appeal. There are still patches of uncomfortable darkness on The River, and a few clever songwriting ideas, but for the most part, this is by far the least musically interesting record he'd done to date. Never mind that it is a double LP and that we should expect some filler on a double LP — from a purely song­writing perspective, I would dare say that most of these tunes are filler. Remember all those Roy Bittan piano riffs on Darkness that could be perceived as intelligently composed and ins­pired? Not a single one like that here. Instead, all we get is variations on all sorts of classic rock­abilly, folk rock, and Phil Spector progressions — very blatant variations at that, because The River is not about music-making, it is all about image codification.

This time, we are ʽOut In The Streetʼ again, with the «blue collar life philosophy» thrown right in our face by the simplest, straightforwardest, brawniest of means. ʽI'm A Rockerʼ, the Boss tells us in his cockiest track so far, which sounds like an Eddie Cochran number updated Eighties-style, with a triumphant, exuberant, over-the-top-joyful delivery that basically screams out, "this, boys and girls, is how real rock'n'roll is supposed to be done today!"... well, guess some people are entitled to a different opinion. And this is not even the over-the-top exuberance of ʽBorn To Runʼ: it is something... cheaper. In all respects — the lyrics, the vocals, the instrumentation, the rene­wed application of the same formula with more predictability and less trepidation. And these joyous «rockers» come one after another, one after another, and they're all pretty much the same. Is there really any big difference between ʽCrush On Youʼ and ʽCadillac Ranchʼ, or between ʽTwo Heartsʼ and ʽYou Can Lookʼ, or between ʽThe Ties That Bind and ʽJackson Cageʼ?..

Nor does the «dark» stuff offer that much redemption. Lyrically, there's too much open manipu­lation — the title track, with its sad, but clichéd tale of innocence-lost, is a slightly over-arranged folk ballad which could have worked a little better in «stark naked» form (in two years' time, Bruce would realise the dignity of such an approach himself), but the way it is presented here, crumbles down very quickly under its own pathos. The same can be said about ʽPoint Blankʼ, which tries to melt our sympathetic hearts down merely on the strength of its lyrics and atmos­phere, created at the intersection of Bittan's and Federici's soft, romantic jazzy playing — but no real hooks in sight. And why did ʽDrive All Nightʼ have to be eight minutes long? Why not eight hours then — so that the title could reflect reality? Particularly since there is nothing going on at this relaxed tempo, other than some basic dull atmospherics.

So much for the disgruntled moping. But then, once we have gotten that off our chests, let us also admit that in some ways, particularly in certain primal and straightforward ways, The River is... a lot of fun. Yes, these are clichéd, well-worn hooks, but... I can complain about ʽCadillac Ranchʼ all I want and write pages on how this stuff only pretends to be rock'n'roll and how it ain't got the truly authentic spirit, but do I deny the catchiness and the energy and the dedication of the E Street Band and its leader? Or even the rough sense of humor displayed in ʽYou Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)ʼ, where the protagonist is prevented by a stringent society from indulging in his friendly animal instincts, all set to another one of these neo-rockabilly melodies and en­hanced with a garage-style lead guitar part? Or the efficiency of the basic hook of ʽHungry Heartʼ, with a Supertramp-ish keyboard melody and Beach Boy harmonies combined to render the idea of unfulfilled emotional yearning as simply as it gets?

Basically, I would not want anyone to think that I am scornful of The River's vibe in the same way that I would be dismissive of, say, Bon Jovi (who would take quite a few lessons from their New Jersey neighbor, but never to good effect). These here are safe, simple, über-accessible tunes that directly pander to the lowest common denominator, but what saves them from constituting an anti-musical / anti-intellectual criminal act is that they are written and performed in the spirit of youthful innocence. Although the instrumentation is already smelling a bit of the Eighties' tech­no­logical boom, The River is anything but a New Wave album — its melodic and atmospheric carcass is almost completely construed from Eddie Cochran rockabilly, Ricky Nelson teen pop, Johnny Cash country folk, and Phil Spec­tor grand pop elements from the late Fifties/early Sixties, and this surmises an atmosphere of total inno­cence and directness.

If there is a problem as such, it lies not with Bruce, but with the way this album has been treated in «mainstream» musical criticism — like some sort of sprawling, majestic, all-out-American panorama, with endless five-star ratings and continued admiration for how well the songs depict «the small victories and large compromises of ordinary joes and janies whose need to understand as well as celebrate is as restless as his own» (guess who). Relax, people! The more serious you get about The River, the less respect you have to pay to your own intellect. The best way to treat it is just to regard it as two hours of simple headbanging fun, with occasional patches of theatrical darkness thrown in for diversity's sake. Then at least you don't have to bother about «filler» — because there is really no filler here as such, everything is more or less on the same level of musi­cality and intensity.

So is this a thumbs up or what? Ultimately, yes. An unambitious Springsteen is not nearly as impressive as the successfully ambitious Springsteen of Darkness, but he still seems more agree­able here than the way-too-uncomfortably ambitious Springsteen of Born To Run. And as for the record being too long, I respectfully disagree. I do not at all see any «great single LP» hidden in­side this «merely good double LP», and since most of the songs do not outlast their welcome and the general vibe is acceptable, it could have been a triple or quadruple one, for all I know (in fact, it really could have, considering how many outtakes from the Darkness sessions ended up here and how many more songs were written in 1979-80). And you can turn this opinion both ways — on one hand, the songwriting formulae of The River work so well that they would indeed be reused by The Boss on a regular basis for the next thirty-five years, on the other hand, it ensures that from now on, Bruce would forever remain in this «kinda okay artist with lotsa mass appeal» role, permanently locked out from more interesting or, dare I say it, experimental artistic inspi­rations. So, if you're one of these «looking for extra character development» types, The River might just be the last Springsteen album to look out for (well, you could also use Nebraska for a nice post-scriptum flourish, but that's about it).

Monday, June 29, 2015

Brian Wilson: Pet Sounds Live

BRIAN WILSON: PET SOUNDS LIVE (2002)

1) Show Intro; 2) Wouldn't It Be Nice; 3) You Still Believe In Me; 4) That's Not Me; 5) Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder); 6) I'm Waiting For The Day; 7) Let's Go Away For Awhile; 8) Sloop John B; 9) God Only Knows; 10) I Know There's An Answer; 11) Here Today; 12) I Just Wasn't Made For These Times; 13) Pet Sounds; 14) Caroline No.

Every single review of this album inevitably asks the question «why?». Five of these tunes had only just recently been heard on the Live At The Roxy album. There was no question in the minds of anyone who cared that Brian's backing band was awesome and inspired enough to re­produce the musical magic of Pet Sounds on stage. The shows were warmly received, the people were thrilled. But Pet Sounds Live in their entirety, as a special separate CD? Is this an acute case of «hanging on to your ego» or what?

It is true that the band is excellent, yes. The album was played and recorded over three different nights at the Royal Festival Hall in London, with probably the best particular versions picked from the three shows, and the musicians do a fabulous job — I think that even a diehard Pet Sounds fanaticist who has every single frequency memorised to a tee will not find much to com­plain about or to cringe at. As for Brian, who now has the task of regularly stepping in not just for brother Carl, who at least had a somewhat similar vocal timbre, but also for cousin Mike, he does everything as best he can — changing the tonality where it has to be changed, but never getting off-key and never once sounding uninspired (well, after all, why should he? it's not as if anyone was forcing him to go through his own masterpiece).

The emphasis, however, is on reproducing the sacred original as closely as possible: the band has so meticulously dissected and thoroughly studied all the parts that I wouldn't be surprised to learn they also featured those empty Coke bottles for percussion right on stage. This can occasionally be instructive — for instance, some parts that were intentionally lowered deep in the mix, when played live, come out much louder (the trilling guitar parts on ʽDon't Talkʼ, for instance), so that the adoring fan of the album might pick on some nuances that he/she may have missed earlier. But if you are not that awed over Brian's original mastery of texture, you will be, like me, rather disappointed that not a single song gets any extra «twists» where we could see it open up to any new dimensions or perspectives. Only on the instrumentals, where the band is showcased per se, without the lead singer stealing away attention, do they occasionally stretch out beyond the ori­ginal limitations — like on the extended percussion jam on ʽPet Soundsʼ — but then it was exact­ly those instrumentals that we already had the pleasure of enjoying on Roxy just two years ago.

Additionally, there is something vaguely embarrassing about Brian's stage behaviour this time: we can hardly blame him for preserving that «innocent child» mentality, but it is somewhat dif­ferent when the entire audience gets mistaken for little kids as well. Here are some typical intro­ductions from the horse's mouth: "Track number TWO!" (ʽYou Still Believe In Meʼ — what is this, a foreign language audio course? fortunately, he drops this schtick very quickly, but still...); "You can close your eyes if you want to for this song!" (ʽDon't Talkʼ — thank you, Mr. Wilson, we can decide for ourselves); "Here's an instrumental with no voices, okay?" (ʽLet's Go Away For Awhileʼ — sure we know what an instrumental is, and did somebody warn you of potential audience disturbances at the perspective of hearing a song with «no voices»?); "This next song, my friend Paul McCartney told me it was his favorite song" (gee, this guy is friends with Paul McCartney himself? like, no shit!); "this next one sounds like a Bob Dylan lyrics' tune, I think you'll like it" (ʽI Know There's An Answerʼ — actually, no, it doesn't); "now we have another instrumental... NO VOICES JUST INSTRUMENTS!!!" (uhh... okaaaay...), and so on.

Honestly, that is annoying. I would advise anyone who does develop an odd taste for this perfor­mance to just cut those intros out in their digital versions (there is also a particularly ridiculous section where the old guy decides to have a shouting match with the audience, as if he were Bruce Dickinson or someone like that). Or, better still, just leave the record for what it is — a his­torical curio that may have had some personal importance for Brian at a particular juncture in his life. Or get the video (you can currently watch it on YouTube for free) — the band is quite hot to watch in many senses of the word, including sexist ones (ah, that Taylor Mills!). But if you miss out on this one altogether, that will hardly be a tragedy. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Birthday Party: Live 1981-82

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY: LIVE 1981-82 (1999; 1981-1982)

1) Junkyard; 2) A Dead Song; 3) The Dim Locator; 4) Zoo-Music Girl; 5) Nick The Stripper; 6) Blast Off!; 7) Release The Bats; 8) Bully Bones; 9) King Ink; 10) (Sometimes) Pleasure Heads Must Burn; 11) Big-Jesus-Trash-Can; 12) Dead Joe; 13) The Friend Catcher; 14) 6" Gold Blade; 15) Hamlet; 16) She's Hit; 17) Funhouse.

Although The Birthday Party pretty much built up their reputation through live performance, they never released a live album while the band was still active — possibly because they felt no need, what with the studio records already letting off as much steam as any live performance could accumulate. The first «semi-official» Birthday Party live LP only came out about two years after the split — It's Still Living, capturing an Australian show from 1982, was released by their former manager without anybody's consent, and is usually chastised for vastly inferior sound quality and other problems.

It took almost two more decades before an archival Birthday Party live release finally appeared that could sort of serve as a proper «benchmark» for evaluating and enjoying the band's sound. Here, everything was improved — courtesy of the respectable 4AD label, the performances are well-recorded and nicely cleaned up, and the setlists offer a fine retrospective of the Party's career, focusing primarily on Prayers On Fire and Junkyard, unquestionably their two finest offerings, but also featuring some rarities and oddities. Most of the material was culled from two shows in London and Bremen; a historically important bonus piece is the recording of ʽFunhouseʼ by their spiritual forefathers, The Stooges, in Athens from September 1982, although, unfortunately, it is also the one track that suffers the most from near-bootleg sound quality.

I should emphatically stress, though, that The Birthday Party live do not get much wilder than The Birthday Party in the studio — frankly speaking, it would be hard to imagine how they could get much wilder than that, unless it meant dragging out random audience members on stage and cutting their hearts out in black voodoo rituals (and even then, you'd have to get this on DVD to genuinely enjoy the proceedings). But on the other hand, The Birthday Party live do not get any less wild than The Birthday Party in the studio — if this was really typical of their live sound, it means they could work themselves to exhaustion every night, and still come back for more. From the first track and right down to the last one, each single member of the band is playing at the top of his powers, and Nick's devil roar never sags, not even for a second.

From an audiophile point of view, these recordings could actually be preferable to some of the original takes — in the studio, the band went for too much echo and lo-fi, whereas here all the instruments are completely out front: the vicious lead guitar parts on ʽDim Locatorʼ, for instance, shoot at point blank range into your ears here, whereas on the original version they sounded rather remote. You may like or dislike it, but it does make the listening experience significantly different — a rare case of an underground band's archival live release sounding «cleaner» than what they did in the studio, and one that may offer additional insight into the art of Mick Har­vey's and Rowland Howard's guitar playing. Or compare Tracy Pew's bass on the original ʽShe's Hitʼ and the almost ʽDazed And Confusedʼ-style thick doom sounds on this version — it's like he's tugging at these strings from inside your own head. On the other hand, that studio echo did account for some extra eeriness, so that it is impossible to objectively prefer one over the other.

The final performance of ʽFunhouseʼ, adding guest player Jim Thirlwell on saxophone, would be a more than perfect conclusion here if the sound quality were reasonable, but even as such it is still a noisy sensation — every time the guitar, the sax, and the singer lock forces in a hysterical outburst, on the illusionary verge of totally losing control, we have Bedlam incarnate, though it is interesting to go back and listen, for comparative purposes, to Iggy doing this stuff on the original Funhouse. The Stooges were summoning the flames of Hell — the Birthday Party sound much more like your local madhouse band, celebrating the joys of clinical insanity rather than demonic possession. It may simply have something to do with Nick's «mooing» voice not having as much guttural power as Iggy, but you could also say this about Ron Asheton vs. Rowland Howland (the former makes his instrument sound like a spray hose of hellflames, the latter prefers to evoke the atmosphere of a serious nervous breakdown), so yeah, similar intentions, different spirits.

Finally, we are offered occasional glimpses of Nick Cave's tender side — through bits of stage banter like "thank you, I love your haircut as well", casually, but respectfully cast off towards somebody in the audience right before launching into a fiery version of ʽZoo-Music Girlʼ. As few as they are, they are important — seventy minutes of this unending assault and battery might make you feel that we are dealing with a bunch of psychopaths beyond salvation (an alternate version of GG Allin and friends), so even a single nicely spoken sentence of sanity, dropped in casually like that, can be reassuring, and further confirming the obvious thumbs up and the ob­vious recommendation to pick this up and never let it go.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: THEIR SATANIC MAJESTIES' SECOND REQUEST (1996)

1) All Around You (intro); 2) Cold To The Touch; 3) Donovan Said; 4) In India You; 5) No Come Down; 6) (Around You) Everywhere; 7) Jesus; 8) Before You; 9) Miss June '75; 10) Anemone; 11) Baby (Prepraise); 12) Fee­lers; 13) Bad Baby; 14) Cause, I Lover; 15) (Baby) Love Of My Life; 16) Slowdown (Fuck Tomorrow)/Here It Comes; 17) All Around You (outro).

Well, they asked for it. It always takes a concentrated effort to discuss BJM music on its own merits, without necessarily looking back on Newcombe's idols and dragging in the comparative aspect — but with an album title like this, ignoring the comparative aspect is like ignoring a pub­lic slap in the face. Clearly, this is a legacy claim. I actually know a few people whose favorite Stones album is Their Satanic Majesties' Request, just because they find the combination of the band's usual sneery/rebellious arrogance with cosmic/psychedelic ambience so decidedly one-of-a-kind, and it seems that Newcombe is one of these people — he likes his transcendental inspi­ration to come along with some snap, or vice versa. And here we are being told that it is this par­ticular vibe that he wants to cherish and develop. Well, I guess we already knew that before, but we weren't told about it so explicitly.

The problem is, I am neither at all sure that that particular vibe could be developed further, nor that Anton Newcombe, Matt Hollywood, and their temporary partners are the perfect team to try out this development. That the album, once again, is insanely long is only part of the problem — after all, if it works, it works, and if it succeeds in unlocking your cosmic conscience, it no longer matters how long it is because «time» as a concept becomes relative and all that. A much bigger part of the problem is that this particular mojo doesn't seem to work on me, and if I succeed in explaining why, it might become obvious that it also wouldn't work on many other people.

First and foremost, the record only remotely sounds like Satanic, and its differences are usually of the negative kind. It is rich in instrumentation, yes, with lots of Indian sitars and percussion, and some odd old-fashioned keyboards, but it is nowhere near as rich in melodic ideas. The majo­rity of these seventy-two minutes are almost literally spent crawling — monotonous acoustic drones, on top of which Newcombe and friends pile up all the overdubs and effects. Not even ʽSing This All Togetherʼ or ʽGomperʼ were that slow, and underneath all of its trippiness Satanic was really just a very strong pop/rock album — with great riffs (ʽCitadelʼ), stern basslines (ʽ2000 Light Years From Homeʼ), beautiful piano melodies (ʽShe's A Rainbowʼ), inventive structural shifts (ʽ2000 Manʼ), and widely varying atmospheres for different songs. In comparison — yes, in obligatory, self-triggered comparison — this «second» Request is just one dreary drone after another, where one melody usually suffices per song. If you ever wondered how in the world Newcombe could pull three albums in one year — well, I can offer a few unpleasant suggestions on where exactly he pulled them from.

If there is one proper way to enjoy this album, it must probably be handled on a very, very hot summer day somewhere out in the country, when your brain is already half turned to mush through climatic conditions, and you can do nothing whatsoever except suck on ice cubes and wander around or lie around in a near-vegetative state. (Alternately, there's artificial substances, but I'm hardly an expert on those). Under these conditions, the limp stroll of these tunes, one by one, one by one, might perfectly fit the environment, and help your struggling brain readapt to the circumstances, or just forget about them altogether. But do NOT make the mistake — like I did — of listening to this in a perfectly brisk and vigorous state, because it will drag you down merci­lessly, and not in a good, depressing sort of manner, either: it will just mush you up all over.

To understand what I am talking about, it is perfectly sufficient to listen to the first track: ʽAll Around Youʼ greets you with a slo-o-o-o-w jangle-drone, group harmonies that sound like dazed mantras, and a spoken lead vocal part where Newcombe basically just welcomes you to chill out and enjoy the experience (thus, a song that pays tribute to the opening ʽSing This All Togetherʼ and the closing ʽOn With The Showʼ at the same time, except BJM take special care to purge out any possible traces of «energy»). Gradually, there will be more guitars, keyboards, and back vocals piling up on you, but the energy level will be constantly kept at near-zero, and this is all you are going to get not just from this song — from the entire album. Nothing here, not a single song, sounds significantly different from the opener.

As it happens, despite the title, the Stones are not really the major influence on the album — I would probably have to say that Donovan is a bigger presence (ʽDonovan Saidʼ is actually a re­write of ʽThe Fat Angelʼ), his not-too-catchy summer psycho-folk vibe reflected here as precisely as anything; as for the melodies, Newcombe draws on the Beatles at least as much as he does on the Stones (the short acoustic ballad ʽLove Of My Lifeʼ borrows the chord progression from the beginning of ʽI'm Looking Through Youʼ, and also has a Kinks vibe to it, I think), but since most of these melodies are taken at such ridiculously slow tempos, they do not so much feel as «melo­dies» as they do as «mind-melting note sequences», and since they melt my mind rather than stick to it, how could I even begin describing this stuff?

I do admit there is some «songly» potential at least in those tracks where Newcombe turns to the little devil inside him, and succumbs to his blasphemous instigations — ʽJesusʼ is a desperate Jobian plea because "I gave you my love but you tore me to pieces, have mercy please Jesus", and ʽAnemoneʼ puts the blame on his girl because "you should be picking me up, instead you're dragging me down", and both are steadily and very lightly simmering with anxiety and paranoia, but neither of the two dares bring up the tempo or kick it up otherwise in the energy department, because, well, you know, it might just spoil that hot summer mood. Everything has to be slow, quiet, implied rather than felt directly, or it won't fit the rules of the game. Don't believe me? The next-to-last track is called ʽSlowdown (Fuck Tomorrow)ʼ, and it sounds like Syd Barrett had a twin brother who was even more incapacitated.

Despite all this, no thumbs down from me. I understand that the record has a certain purpose and a certain style, and that there are certain people and certain circumstances for which it could be much more useful than the first Satanic Majesties' Request. I do believe that the grooves could be made more interesting and less derivative, but this is, after all, an album that openly celebrates the idea of «laziness», and such an album should consist of nothing but «lazy» melodies with «lazy» arrangements, to which lazy people would listen on lazy days, hanging out their lazy tongues and staring at static skies with lazy eyes. That purpose is definitely fulfilled to some ex­tent, and so, from an objective stance, I couldn't honestly say this is a «bad» record. I could honestly say, though, that it relates to the original Satanic Majesties — as well as most of its other influences — much like Psycho II relates to the original Psycho, so do not fall for that type of legacy-claiming arrogance.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Boris: New Album

BORIS: NEW ALBUM (2011)

1) Flare; 2) Hope; 3) Party Boy; 4) Black Original; 5) Pardon; 6) Spoon; 7) Jackson Head; 8) Dark Guitar; 9) Tu, La La; 10) Looprider.

A band like Boris is not programmed to sell out, but it is programmed to shock, and what could be more shocking than selling out? There's a paradox for you. For almost three years, the former­ly prolific band kept quiet in the shadows, then blasted back into existence with a vengeance — three records in a row — and the first one of those was... a J-Pop album.

Okay, so it's a Boris-style J-Pop album, which means that it will be noisier and heavier than the average product on the market. But all the ingredients are there — energetic dance rhythms, elec­tronic robot loops, simplistic and repetitive earworm-type chord sequences, and over-excited, over-exuberant vocals, including, for the first time ever (or, at least, for the first time in such prominent lead quality), Wata herself providing the lead on several songs. Yes they can. In fact, they prove they can even come up with a few nagging vocal hooks, though, as in all such cases, the emotional meaning of these hooks is so dubious that eventually you begin to suspect that their only grappling power comes from being repeated so many times.

Seeing as how I already hate J-pop and K-pop with a vengeance (it's a long story on which we shall dwell in more detail somewhere else some day), and how my tolerance level for Boris is already quite low, the first reaction to New Album on my part was abysmal — a band with a very specific, very limited sort of talent intentionally going in the direction of utmost dreck? It's, like, drilling your thumbs down all the way into the floor or something. Later on, it dawned on me that the album may, and probably should, be taken as a cute musical joke — that the very idea of an underground psychodrone band switching to a near-degenerate style cannot be anything but a diligent exercise in post-modern synthesis. That made things easier, but still, there's only so much distance one can cover with sardonic «joining of the unjoinable» without annoying the crap out of the listener. At least, the listener who has not yet become an adept of the Temple of Kawaii.

Speaking of earworms, ʽParty Boyʼ, pre-released before the album, most definitely has a catchy techno chorus; shows that Wata has a nice, soft singing voice; and has a very interesting and totally unpredictable instrumental break, where, all of a sudden, they decide to play a slightly dis­sonant piano melody, clashing against the chugging beat. Alas, this is insufficient for me to be able to call it a «good song» — any good song has to have some sense of purpose, and ʽParty Boyʼ just baffles me. Other than being danceable, is it a love song? Is it a parody? Is it a psyche­delic experience? Is it sad? Is it joyful? Is it sarcastic? Is it earthly? Otherworldly? The lyrics, referring to «strobe lights», «mysterious nights», and «riding on the stardust», seem to suggest a club atmosphere that is metamorphing into some transcendental experience, but the melody and arrangement are way too sparse and formulaic to truly blow you away — after all, Boris are not known for being experienced masters of electronic arrangements.

The «darker» tunes here, like ʽBlack Originalʼ, work better, with cold, distorted electronic vocals that mesh aggressively with guitar and keyboard overdubs in what sounds like an endless sea of police sirens and warning signs. But they are relatively few. More often, we get odd tributes to old school synth-pop (ʽJackson Headʼ), straightahead fast pop (ʽFlareʼ) or dream-pop (ʽHopeʼ) songs, and something that probably owes its existence to classic shoegaze (ʽSpoonʼ), only sped up to a tempo that no legitimate shoegazer would probably endorse. All of them feel decidedly secondary, unsure of themselves, unclear as to their purpose, too dance-oriented to feel magical, yet too self-consciously artsy to pass for pure dance fodder. And even despite the relative loveli­ness of Wata's tone, the other singer is still crappy, and Wata herself conveys no sense of depth beyond the glam-artificial tenderness.

Finding myself completely disinterested in coming up with things to say about these songs, I'll just say that it is probably sort of a «fun» page in Boris history, and it will certainly leave the ave­rage Boris fan thinking about a thing or two — yet I will still take regular straight-faced techno, shoe­gaze, or electro-pop over this incoherent mess, and I have a hard time realizing why somebody with a good knowledge of these genres would want to give New Album more than one passing listen with a smirk on his face. Or perhaps this is simply a case of me being completely out of touch with modern übercoolness.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Brand X: XCommunication

BRAND X: XCOMMUNICATION (1992)

1) Xanax Taxi; 2) Liquid Time; 3) Kluzinski Period; 4) Healing Dream; 5) Mental Floss; 6) Strangeness; 7) A Duck Exploding; 8) Message To You; 9) Church Of Hope; 10) Kluzinski Reprise.

Say what you want, but there are dumb careers and there are smart careers, and even if you hap­pen to be instinctively bored by any sort of jazz fusion, you will still have to admit that Brand X had an almost unusually smart career for a band that was once started by Phil Collins. For in­stance, they totally sat out the Eighties, a most unfortunate decade for old-timers as a whole, and only once its excesses were over, Goodsall revived the old brand once again — this time, envi­sioning Brand X as a lean and mean «power trio». The only old veterans here are Goodsall him­self and Percy Jones (the two guys who were most important in the first place), with new drum­mer Frank Katz perfectly adequate to the task ahead. As for the keyboard layers, they are all being taken care of by means of new technologies — namely, Goodsall's MIDI-guitar.

The result is a very solid record whose fanbase will probably count up to a few hundred people, as it happens with most jazz teams on the planet these days — nothing groundbreaking, just a tasteful and intelligent application of the formula with a few quirky, amusing, and/or memorable nuances. No toying around with dance pop, adult contemporary, stadium rock, or New Age motives — just forty-five minutes of good old fusion where your ear only tells you that we are way past 1976 because of those MIDI guitar tones (hence, occasional flashes of Belew-era King Crimson before your eyes).

Another more modern association might be with Steve Vai, except Goodsall never goes for the gusto with distortion, special effects, or shredding — but he does now occasionally integrate monster heavy riffs into tricky time signatures, alternating them with softer jazzier passages, as it happens on the opening ʽXanax Taxiʼ, where the first half is jackhammered inside your head and the second half lightly tap-dances on the crushed dust of your skull. Also, on the suitably titled ʽChurch Of Hypeʼ he has a few «rock god» flashes where he turns his guitar into a Harley-David­son for a brief while, but, like Vai, there's a reasonable sense of irony there if you can feel it.

More often, though, what makes this album stand out a wee bit above the rest are the little things — for instance, the way Goodsall sustains that intense vibrato on the main theme riff of ʽLiquid Timeʼ; or the little «pseudo-orchestral» interludes on ʽKluzinski Periodʼ (who the heck is Kluzin­ski, I wonder?) where the man's MIDI guitars occasionally break in like a strictly disciplined army of business-meaning cellos, before we go back to «sloppy» free jazz mode; or Percy Jones' predictable, but still-fun-after-all-these-years bass showcase on ʽStrangenessʼ; or all the weird noises on ʽA Duck Explodingʼ (there might be something exploding there, but how can a duck explode for seven minutes?).

Most importantly, there is enough musical diversity in these tracks to make them distinguishable from each other, which, as far as I am concerned, is the key thing in distinguishing good fusion from bad fusion — there's even an acoustic guitar interlude in the middle (ʽHealing Dreamʼ), and none of the pieces are there simply as excuses for jamming. Again, this does not make them great as such, but it does assure you that XCommunication is more than just a «nostalgic comeback»: it is a bona fide attempt to push the Brand X sound into further territory from where it was stan­ding a decade ago. If the results are not overwhelming, it is solely because it is hard to think how they could be overwhelming at this juncture (you don't exactly see, say, John McLaughlin revo­lutionising the world of music circa 1992, and John Goodsall ain't him). Other than that, though, it's all certainly worth a thumbs up, for the fans at least.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Brian Eno & Robert Fripp: Evening Star

BRIAN ENO: EVENING STAR (w. Robert Fripp) (1975)

1) Wind On Water; 2) Evening Star; 3) Evensong; 4) Wind On Wind; 5) An Index Of Metals.

Eno's second collaboration with King Frippson is often described as more precisely pre-planned and more explicitly artistic than No Pussyfooting, and I think it is easy to hear that even without reading anything about it — besides, even from a purely logical stance, Fripp and Eno had been working together for three years already, and what was an almost completely «experimental», «let's-press-this-button-and-see-what-happens» approach in 1973 had become an established working technique by 1975. Also, by this time Eno's «ambient fetish» was out of the closet, and it is no coincidence that the album has so many nature references — the album cover, the track titles (ʽWind On Waterʼ, ʽWind On Windʼ) — where No Pussyfooting was essentially a pure psychedelic experience, with few visible ties to the natural world.

Which all basically translates to this: although both albums are credited to «Fripp & Eno» and were recorded just several years apart, they are so different in scope and purpose that it is hard to make a useful opinion on which one's the better of the two. Evening Star, or at least its A-side, is definitely more accessible, in that both players concentrate on «prettiness» or even «beauty» as opposed to experimental «ugliness» in which they both used to delight just a short while back. You could even say that the dudes are mellowing out here — chillin', in fact, paying a techno­logical tribute to Mother Nature, and temporarily fed up with feedback and «ugly» instrumental tones. Which may have come across as a surprise for Fripp fans, what with the harsh, aggressive King Crimson sound of the 1973-74 lineup.

The first three tracks consist of typical minimalistic Eno loops, over which Fripp applies his Frippertronics, but this time, with grace and gentleness — his soloing on the title track sounds like the approximate aural equivalent of a sweet violin part on some romantic sonata. He is much less visible on ʽWind On Waterʼ and ʽEvensongʼ, preferring to blend his parts in with the elec­tronics, and completely absent on ʽWind On Windʼ (which is actually an unused part of Discreet Music that was originally intended to serve as a backdrop for Fripp's soloing), but that's all part of the plan — this is, after all, supposed to be an impressionist album, not a dynamic plot-based one, and most of the time, Robert is merely content to add one more layer to Eno's stately, repe­titive, evocative, pantheistic melodies.

It does get very different on the second side, which returns us to the world of twenty-minute (in this case, almost thirty-minute) long compositions, and, more importantly, to the world of uneasy sonic nightmares. ʽAn Index Of Metalsʼ, in stark contrast to the lovely naturalistic soundscapes of the first side, is a mess of grim electronic hum, gradually building up in intensity until it begins sounding like a nuclear reactor just about to blow, and Fripp solos that are technically quite simi­lar to the ones on ʽEvening Starʼ, but in a different tonality, this time, much closer to Crimsonian improvisation circa 1973, though still nowhere near as jarring and demanding on the listener. Per­haps the word «nightmare» is too strong — especially since the noisy crescendos are deliberately restrained, again, so that the tune would not have too many blatant «peaks» and «dives» — but the impression is definitely unsettling compared to the lush beauty that was unfurling here before our ears just a few minutes ago. And, well, yes, you might say that thirty minutes is pushing it a bit too far. Who knows how symbolic that is, though? Beauty is discrete and brief — ugliness is continuous and lengthy. Something like that.

Other than ʽIndexʼ being overlong, though, I really appreciate the idea of this «light / peaceful» vs. «dark / unnerving» contrast — meaning that on the whole, the album succeeds more than it fails. Maybe from an ideal point of view, both sides would have to be more symmetrical: throwing in a couple more «scary» tracks like these and reducing the length of ʽIndexʼ could have rounded out the experience to perfection. But then, symmetry like this can seem boring to some, and doesn't the very concept of «Frippertronics» somewhat defy or even mock symmetry? Any­way, an assured thumbs up for the album here, even if only for the sake of a near-perfect first side. Be sure to enjoy it in its proper setting, though. It most certainly works best when you get to play it against some natural background that looks like its front cover. You might have to move to Mars for that, though, or something.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: Darkness On The Edge Of Town

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN (1978)

1) Badlands; 2) Adam Raised A Cain; 3) Something In The Night; 4) Candy's Room; 5) Racing In The Street; 6) The Promised Land; 7) Factory; 8) Streets Of Fire; 9) Prove It All Night; 10) Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

Three years of litigation with his former manager kept the people in frenzied suspense over the sequel to Born To Run — over this period, Springsteen wrote a veritable shitload of songs, some of which would later spill over to The River and others would surface much later on Tracks and The Promise. As the legal troubles finally wound down and it came to deciding which of the songs should be finally given the green light, Bruce made the correct decision — instead of going the «Formula Lockdown» routine like a B-grade entertainer, he chose the «Artistic Sabotage Route» like a proper A-grade artist. Sure enough, Born To Run wrote him into history, but it was Darkness On The Edge Of Town that ensured his perspectives for longevity.

I guess there may have been a bit of «punk» influence reflected here, not in the music as such which is very decidedly traditionalistic and features not a single nod to punk or New Wave, but in the overall spirit (including the album cover, where we certainly have a much «punkier» mugshot of Bruce than the bearded guitar-hero posturing of Born To Run). But if so, that is more of a chronological coincidence than a deliberate exploitation of the prevailing mood — you really do not need to dig in much into the musical context of 1977-78 to understand the stylistic shift from Born To Run to Darkness; this has much more to do with the artist's internal reshaping (or, at least, the happenings in his personal life) than any social context.

Ironically, the song that Bruce selected to open the album, ʽBadlandsʼ, is somewhat misleading — its opening piano riff is actually taken from the Animals' version of ʽDon't Let Me Be Misunderstoodʼ, but the song is transposed from B minor into E major, and the mood is shifted from tragic to uplifting-optimistic, with a message that is fairly close to ʽBorn To Runʼ: "We'll keep pushin' till it's understood / And these badlands start treating us good". The arrangement is nowhere near as pompous, though: technically, all the ingredients are the same, but the band is tighter, «poppier», and a little less wild — the «drunken fervor» days are over, and here we get a more sober protagonist who "got my facts learned real good right now". Yes indeed, but ultimately the song should still be classified under «optimistic anthem», and it gives you the impression that this is going to be a similarly-styled sequel to Born To Run, if a little bit more grown-up and restrained.

But then we have ʽAdam Raised A Cainʼ, and all expectations are shattered — the single blackest song in the Boss' catalog that far, and in some ways, maybe the single blackest song in his catalog altogether. I still find myself surprised that, for some reason, very few people ever single it out from the rest of the tunes here, and that quite a few people completely misinterpret it as a failed attempt at playing a «wild guitar hero» or even at «cock rock» (!!; yes, I've actually seen it called that by at least one or two persons). The only explanation I can offer is that it is too unsettling, too unusual for the average Bruce fan. But as for myself, this is the only song by the man that almost literally makes my hair stand on end if I'm in the right mood.

Melody-wise, it is just a decently written blues-rock number, but its strength is in the perfect combination of lyrics, vocals, and guitar playing — few, if any, other songs convey so well the idea of it being impossible to escape the chains that bind one to one's past. Formally, it's just about the relation between the singer and his father (Douglas Springsteen was alive and well at the time, and probably felt a bit miffed upon hearing this), but it applies equally well to any other blood or non-blood ties, and the use of Biblical imagery in the title is justified because this is the first time when Bruce does get all Old Testamental on our asses — the solemnity, the darkness, the cruelness of the situation. The guitar solo on the song is his best ever — simplicity itself, but blind rage incarnate as the man throws his entire weight on those couple of strings, now in fast tremolo mode, now in slo-mo, now alternating low-pitched groans with high-pitched wails. And the «overscreaming» for which he is sometimes blamed has nothing here to do with the usual melodrama — it's aggressive, violent, deadly serious and deeply personal overscreaming, compa­rable with anything Lennon did on Plastic Ono Band. This here is really a man channelling some of his deep childhood traumas you don't want to know about, but to which many of us could probably relate one way or the other. As he works those muscles at the very bottom of the vocal tract on the final "Lost but not forgotten, from the dark heart of a dream!...", it is like a final blast of self-damnation — no escape! — and the final «tribal» harmonies, slowly fading out, are escorting our hero straight away to Hell because "you inherit the sins, you inherit the flames". No matter what you do, no matter who you are, it all ends the same.

Clearly, there was nothing even remotely like this kind of vision on any of the preceding three albums — and once the album derails from ʽBadlandsʼ and establishes this tone, it casts its shadow on everything else, though no other tune quite matches the intensity level of ʽAdam Raised A Cainʼ. It does come close on ʽStreets Of Fireʼ, where we have ourselves more screa­ming and more of those ecstatic guitar solos and more of that existentialist desperation — even without the blood ties aspect, we are still "stranded on the wire across streets of fire", which is a pretty nerve-wrecking experience, and I think that it is musically supported by something like two chords on the organ and an equally minimalistic bass line, and the Boss giving his best «Ne­anderthal ancestor of Van Morrison» impression. Again, compare something like ʽBackstreetsʼ — the former barked a lot, but this one bites, snaps, and spits out. Just compare how the ecstasy is handled on "hiding out on the backstreets!" and how the inner rage is externalized on "streets of fire, streets of fire!". Yes, I sure prefer the aggressive Springsteen to the romantic Springsteen. If this is what they call «maturity», I'll take it.

Even ʽRacing In The Streetʼ, which once again returns us to the territory of Bruce's «epic stories of the working class», has a darker sheen here than ʽJunglelandʼ or ʽBackstreetsʼ — we will for­get for a minute that its main piano/vocal melody pilfers Neil Young's ʽAfter The Gold Rushʼ, will agree that the "summer's here and the time is right for racin' in the street" line is an intelligent rephrasing of Martha & The Vandellas in a brand new context, and will take this for an honest-sounding late night drunk moment of self-introspection by the guy who used to think that he was «born to run» but now finds out that «racin' in the street» is all he's really capable of. Is the song better written than anything on Born To Run? Hell no. There ain't that much «composing» in­volved on either of the two albums. But grimness and subtlety agree much better with this guy than grandiosity and that old on-top-of-the-world feel.

The record still smells of «teen drama» every now and then — for instance, the highly unusual spoken word intro to ʽCandy's Roomʼ is most reminiscent of the old style of the Shangri-Las, the uncrowned proto-emo queens of Sixties' suicidal teen-pop. It has its lyrical drawbacks — ʽThe Factoryʼ is just way too blatant even for Bruce, who, after all, never pretended to be Woody Guthrie in the past and has no reason to begin pretending now. It has its uncomfortable outbursts of brutal masculinity (if any song actually comes close to real «cock rock» on the album, it is ʽProve It All Nightʼ, but I guess there should have been at least a little something for Bruce's adoring lady fans on the record, or they'd all desert him for Lou Gramm). It ain't perfect, because Bruce Springsteen never made a perfect album — he couldn't have, by definition.

But of all the albums that Bruce Springsteen churned out in his career, this one is my favorite. Not because I automatically prefer «dark» over «light» (hey, I'm a big McCartney fan, after all), but because Bruce's «dark» always feels more natural, less contrived/theatrical to me. Born To Run was an explosive escapist blast, all power and volume and energy and extrovertness; Dark­ness On The Edge Of Town im-plodes rather than ex-plodes, and sends out probes into the darkest corners of the soul — sometimes they just shoot by, but sometimes they hit right in the middle, and this makes me convinced that Bruce Springsteen does have creepy magical powers, except he is always being careful about not relying on them too much. I mean, yes, I do believe that ʽAdam Raised A Cainʼ is the best song he ever came up with, but good luck trying to turn that one into a popular megahit — you might as well try and do it with a Swans song.

I should probably also add that the record has a great big share of memorable piano riffs — if Clarence Clemons was the Boss' main guy on Born To Run, here the key player is unquestionab­ly Roy Bittan, whose phrasing dominates all but two or three of the tunes (ʽStreets Of Fireʼ with its Federici organ is the major exception), and although the riffs are simple and, as has already been hinted at, frequently unoriginal, they are memorable and somewhat easier to pin to your brain cells (well, my brain cells at least) than anything off Born To Run. This, of course, is a natural precursor to the even more simplified and streamlined keyboard pop of Born In The USA, but as long as it is done in an emotionally meaningful manner, it's more of a blessing than a problem. I mean, it is clear that at this point the «jazz-funk» experiments of ye olde E Street Band are no longer a viable proposition anyway, so we might just relax and wish The Boss a successful career of developing sharp pop instincts instead. Here, he's really doing a good job.

Some day, perhaps, when «revisionists» like me get the upper hand and Truth triumphs over Circumstance-Triggered Critical and Commercial Success, Darkness On The Edge Of Town will become regarded by the mainstream as this man's finest hour. Until then, I'll just be holding my thumbs up a little longer than usual and hope for the corresponding cumulative magical effect. Then again, most people don't care that much for bleakness and pessimism, and upon second thought, that's probably more of a blessing than a curse in the long run.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Brian Wilson: Live At The Roxy Theatre

BRIAN WILSON: LIVE AT THE ROXY THEATRE (2000)

1) Little Girl Intro; 2) The Little Girl I Once Knew; 3) This Whole World; 4) Don't Worry Baby; 5) Kiss Me Baby; 6) Do It Again; 7) California Girls; 8) I Get Around; 9) Back Home; 10) In My Room; 11) Surfer Girl; 12) The First Time; 13) This Isn't Love; 14) Add Some Music To Your Day; 15) Please Let Me Wonder; 16) Band Intro; 17) Brian Wilson; 18) 'Til I Die; 19) Darlin'; 20) Let's Go Away For Awhile; 21) Pet Sounds; 22) God Only Knows; 23) Lay Down Burden; 24) Be My Baby; 25) Good Vibrations; 26) Caroline No; 27) All Summer Long; 28) Love & Mercy; 29) Sloop John B; 30) Barbara Ann; 31) Interview With Brian.

This record has quite a bit of historical importance — as is well known, Brian had largely abhor­red live performing since 1965, and even after he reluctantly agreed to return to the stage in his «full beard» period in the mid-Seventies, that stage presence had largely been limited to absent-mindedly picking at a keyboard and singing occasional harmonies. A confident return to the stage was, therefore, an essential move in the quest to overcome his reclusiveness — and it actually worked: after the Imagination tour got off on the right foot, Brian apparently found his stage fright largely gone, at least, as long as the majority of the shows took place in relatively small venues with friendly and adoring audiences to establish some intimacy with.

It may have even gone too well: the most uncomfortable thing about Live At The Roxy is that Brian seems to feel himself a little too loose, taking on the role of nonchalant entertainer without a care in the world. As you listen to him making jokes (usually silly ones — that cigarette lighter bit is kind of kindergartenish, don't you think so?), winding up the audience like a jaded stadium rock hero ("you want some vibes? you want some good vibes? YOU WANT SOME GOOD VIBRATIONS?.."), or putting some forcefully concocted roar into the words "rock" and "rock and roll" ("we'll do some pretty songs... and then maybe later on we can ROCK OUT or some­thing!"), you can sort of see that this role is relatively new for him, and that — even worse! — he may be basing some of this new frontman image on memories of how Mike Love used to do it. That may be a little embarrassing at times. But certainly forgivable.

Besides, we are not here for the stage banter anyway: we are here to witness three good pieces of news. First, the man continues to be in good voice, nowhere near as angelic as it used to be or as brother Carl's (whose shoes in ʽPlease Let Me Wonderʼ and ʽGod Only Knowsʼ Brian has to step into) used to be, but perfectly in tune (sometimes in downtune, but still in tune) and perfectly in spirit. Second, the backing band is thoroughly respectful of the classic Beach Boys sound and, definitely unlike the backing band on Imagination, makes sure that the original playing styles, instrumentation, and harmonies are reproduced as fine as possible. (In order to showcase just how much the band can get in the old spirit, Brian has them run through both of the instrumentals from Pet Sounds — thus presaging the next live album).

Third, the playlist is almost too perfect: a well-balanced mix of radio hits, personal favorites, art-pop masterpieces, and rarities/oddities to fit the tastes of just about everybody. Well, clearly, everybody will also be miffed at some glaring omissions (like, gimme some ʽSurf's Upʼ or some ʽHeroes And Villainsʼ instead of ʽBack Homeʼ from 15 Big Ones!), but with a backlog the size of Brian's, he'd have to spend the whole night at the Roxy to satisfy all of us 100%, and he's not that strong yet. On the other hand, you have a couple surprises, such as a leftover from 1983 which, as Brian claims, he unexpectedly "found in his briefcase" (ʽThe First Timeʼ — a nice piano ballad, though slightly contaminated with that Eighties' adult contemporary vibe), and ʽThis Isn't Loveʼ, a somewhat ABBA-esque/Disney-esque collaboration with old lyrical pal Tony Asher that would later be featured in The Flintstones In Viva Rock Vegas — a crap movie, and, let's be honest, the tune is pretty saccharine and campy itself, but still, it bears the Wilson seal, doesn't it?

Concerning the classics, I wouldn't know where to begin with recommendations: like I said, most of them are performed very faithfully to the originals (including ʽGood Vibrationsʼ, which omits the audience interaction and clap-your-hands sections that the Beach Boys used to have in their performances, and returns the intimate prayer feel of the theremin-powered "gotta keep these lovin' good vibrations a-happenin' with her..." section) or to the way the originals used to be per­formed (ʽDo It Againʼ has a «rockier» feel here than it used to have on 20/20, but that's how it always went live). ʽCalifornia Girlsʼ, with its extended coda, may be the relative highlight — you can just feel how delighted Brian is to be ruling all over those life-asserting harmonies, feeling young again and all that. Against such a rich background, the new songs obviously cannot com­pete — so the only tune played from Imagination is ʽLay Down Burdenʼ, now dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased Carl Wilson and "all those here who had a loss in their family". Of course, it is a much gentler and subtler rendition than the overproduced original.

Funniest moment of the show is probably when Brian's band, and then Brian himself, launch into a brief snippet of the Barenaked Ladies' ʽBrian Wilsonʼ — a moment of either subtle irony or forgivable vanity, depending on your own subjective judgement. It is true that Brian holds a high opinion of himself, to which he is most certainly entitled — reminding the people here that he wrote ʽSurfer Girlʼ while riding in his car, "without a piano!", or that ʽGod Only Knowsʼ was the first song with the word "God" in its title. It's all within the range of politeness, though, and be­sides, he still has the mind of a small child in many respects, so whenever he «brags» like that, it comes across as sweet rather than annoying. God bless the old guy — and kudos for pulling off such a long and diverse setlist without a glitch. You probably will not be returning to it all that often, but as a one-time solid chunk of good vibrations, it is highly recommendable, so a solitary thumbs up is the way to go about it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Agnostic Front: The American Dream Died

AGNOSTIC FRONT: THE AMERICAN DREAM DIED (2015)

1) Intro; 2) The American Dream Died; 3) Police Violence; 4) Only In America; 5) Test Of Time; 6) We Walk The Line; 7) Never Walk Alone; 8) Enough Is Enough; 9) I Can't Relate; 10) Old New York; 11) Social Justice; 12) Reasonable Doubt; 13) No War Fuck You; 14) Attack!; 15) A Wise Man; 16) Just Like Yesterday.

Yes, in case you weren't aware, the American dream just died, but you probably wouldn't believe this anyway unless you were told about this by someone who sounds exactly like a 300-pound Neanderthal who just sat down with his bare ass on a hornets nest. In other words, yes, ten years after the fact, Roger Miret still shows no signs of getting weary from his Another Voice — may­be the idea is that in a few decades we will finally get used to it, and once that happens, Agnostic Front will finally get a chance to rule the world. All you have to do is be tenacious.

I do respect that attitude, but I think that I respect the idea of keeping it short (this record barely goes over 27 minutes) even more. If I understand this right, the album once again moves away from metal and towards the good old hardcore — not just because of the song lengths (several of these are well under one minute in duration), but also due to another lineup shift, with Craig Sil­verman replacing Joseph James on second guitar and the music embracing «noise» and «grind» over relatively complex metal riffs or solos. What with all the nostalgia and everything,  they may think they are channelling the spirit of Victim In Pain here. But not with that «gorilla in heat» voice they aren't, never in a million years.

As usual, there are no problems with the overall energy level or the conviction with which the testosteronic riffs and the anti-establishment lyrics are delivered. Just as usual, there is nothing whatsoever worth discussing in the melody department, and the «gimmicks» this time around con­sist of a two-minute intro with police sirens and news flashes on the crimes of and ruptures within the evil capitalist system, and of a brief quotation from Taxi Driver at the beginning of ʽOld New Yorkʼ, in which Miret complains about "the Bowery slums turned into fashion bou­tiques" and the lack of drug dealers and freaks on the street. Uh... okay. I'm not sure I really want to comment on that particular attitude.

Other than this brief piece of information, all you really need to do is to look closely at the song titles — then understand for yourself whether you may or may not need this in your life (depen­ding, among other things, on whether you have «occupation of Wall Street» coming up on your calendar any time soon). The best I can do is not give the album a thumbs down — because, somehow, I am marginally impressed at how those old punkers seem to draw even more energy out of their frustration at growing old (and irrelevant) than they used to. I mean, the music is shit in any case, but as they get older, they learn to fling it with increased force and accuracy, even if nobody seems to care any more. Besides, it's not as if a whole lot of young artists these days cared much singing about social problems — so, perhaps, there is still some niche space left for the good old hardcore warriors.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Take It From The Man!

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: TAKE IT FROM THE MAN! (1996)

1) Vacuum Boots; 2) Who?; 3) Oh Lord; 4) Caress; 5) (David Bowie I Love You) Since I Was Six; 6) Straight Up And Down; 7) Monster; 8) Take It From The Man; 9) B.S.A.; 10) Mary, Please; 11) Monkey Puzzle; 12) Fucker; 13) Dawn; 14) Cabin Fever; 15) In My Life; 16) The Be Song; 17) My Man Syd; 18) Straight Up And Down.

In 1996 alone, The Brian Jonestown Massacre released three LPs — one in May, one in June, and one in October. Avantgarde schizos and jazz wankers aside, the last time I can remember a thing like that was Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969, and even then the albums were shorter and the intervals were longer. So does this mean that Anton Newcombe is the Miracle Man and the Creative Superboss of the decade?

Well... see, the trick is that the man takes really good care of each musical idea he comes up with. Where a «traditional» pop-rock songwriter, were he diligent enough, would make three-minute long songs where he would have to have at least one melody for the verse/chorus and one for the bridge section, Newcombe makes four-minute long songs that have one melody for everything, then slightly tweaks it around to create two or three more melodies out of it, which are then re­used for three or four other songs. As for the lengths, it is usually no problem to take care of these since the typical tempo for Brian Jonestown Massacre is «slow trot», almost literally so because the rhythm guitars are strummed over one or two chords, giving you the feel of a leisurely carriage ride through some endless English valley. Optionally — with Brian Jones himself in his fur coat riding in the back.

The album itself is as much influenced by the Stones as it is by the Beatles, or the Byrds, or any other mid-Sixties band with a penchant for folk, drone, jangle, and psychedelia. Produced by Larry Thrasher of Psychic TV and featuring now no less than four different guitar players, it com­pletely dispenses with the funky dance influences of Methodrone and almost completely dis­penses with the band's shoegazing past, leaving only the «repetitiveness» principle as a key stra­tagem to follow. In the meantime, Newcombe is trying to develop a garage sneer for his singing voice, which is somewhat hard for him to do — he does not look like a natural barker, snarler, or screamer, just a regular smart guy who is either incapable of or afraid of «pushing too hard».

The one song from here that many people may be aware of without knowing it is ʽStraight Up And Downʼ, which was chosen by Terence Winter as the main theme track for Boardwalk Em­pire — cutting out the vocal part and just retaining the intro, the guitar solo, and the coda. As far as patterns go, it is tremendously typical of the classic BJM sound — the jangle, the drone, the slow trot, the sparseness of ideas, the Sixties-style guitar tones, the little feedback howl that puts an end to the tune. But, as most of the classic BJM tunes, it is not particularly mind-blowing: just a nice, slightly manneristic, exercise in jangling that does not seem to demand any strong emo­tional reaction — or if it does, I'm not sure which one to choose.

If I were to choose one verse that summarizes the spirit of the album, I'd currently go with this one: "I know the difference between right and wrong / I pooled them all together and I made this song / I know the difference between night and day / Doesn't really matter what I think or say" (ʽCaressʼ). Incidentally, ʽCaressʼ is the fastest song (the only fast song) on the album, with a ner­vous tempo and freak-out blues guitar solos that remind one of Dylan's early electric sound circa Bringing It All Back Home, and the lyrics and music convey well enough the chief mood of Newcombe and BJM — confusion in the face of an alien world that is impossible to understand, decipher, or adapt to. There may be yet another link with Brian Jones here, regarding New­combe's own history of drug intake, but where drugs had destroyed Brian's originally strong (if not entirely sane) mind, in Anton's case, they seem to be just sort of a natural friend to an already deranged, or at least disoriented and heavily warped conscience.

Three themes, or, rather, three questions are running rampant through the record — (a) "Who the fuck am I?", (b) "What the heck have they done to me?", and (c) "gee, you're like beautiful or something, but aren't we both too batshit crazy to behave like two normal people in love?". Each of the songs addresses at least one of these questions, but sometimes two or even all three at the same time. You will very quickly get used to that and judge the songs not by their message, but by whether they have a cherry on top, in the form of a distinguishable hook — like the rather ridi­culous, but memorable falsetto holler of the title of ʽWho?ʼ, maybe the best song the actual Who never wrote, though it does ask the same question that they did. Or the gruff twangy resolution of ʽCaressʼ. Or the swampy blues vamp of the title track — which is probably the single most con­vincingly Stonesiest song on the album.

The not-so-sly references to additional heroes, usually wedged in the titles rather than the lyrics, may be an additional bait for reviewers, but do not think too much of them — ʽMy Man Sydʼ does have a few vocal lines that are reminiscent of Barrett, yet the song is way too «normal» for a genuine Barrett tribute, and ʽ(David Bowie I Love You) Since I Was Sixʼ does borrow the verse melody from ʽSpace Oddityʼ ("does she love you, you suppose..." = "ground control to Major Tom..."), but that's about all it does, in toto (remember about the sparseness of ideas — having two different chord sequences in the same song to Newcombe is the epitome of extravagance). It is, however, important to be able to call out all these spirits from the past, since both Bowie in his Major Tom days and Barrett in his fruitcake days are like natural brothers to Mr. Newcombe.

Likewise, there is no better way to prove his "pool them all together" approach in action than to offer a coda for the second, much longer and much limper version of ʽStraight Up And Downʼ, in which the man superimposes the "whoo-hoo's!" of ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ on top of the "da, da, da-da da-da da's" of ʽHey Judeʼ. Outside of context, this makes no sense, but as a symbolic gesture, it's kinda cool — a forceful, but rational merger of «good» and «evil» where one may not properly exist without the other (as well as, perhaps, an ironic answer to the stupid «Beatles or Stones?» debate in popular culture).

Like all BJM albums, this one, too, may have been more efficient, had it been sensibly trimmed down — after a while, the songs start to get way too repetitive not only in mood, but also in melody (I originally mistook ʽThe Be Songʼ for yet another take on ʽStraight Up And Downʼ, for instance, and it does not help that the laid-back, druggy-hazy tempos of the songs make your brains a little mushy after the first thirty or forty minutes). But taken on the level of «wholesome experience» rather than individual songs, it succeeds in letting you in on this ragged, confused vision; most importantly, no matter how transparent all the influences are, it is clearly seen that Newcombe is his own master, and that he merely uses «ancient» forms to express his own prob­lems — ultimately, they may be the same problems that Brian Jones used to have, but the trick is that Brian Jones never had the time or the capacity to express them himself. In any case, Brian Jones is more like a «spearhead» figure here, a tribal mascot, a lost twin soul, rather than a source for meaningless copy-cat activity, and this adds enough extra intrigue and suspense to a flawed, but interesting record to guarantee a thumbs up.

PS. I do have to add this, though: style-wise, this and the following two albums have some of the most ugly, cringeworthy covers I have ever had the misfortune of seeing — largely because of the Godawful ugly font work. I mean, what the heck is this, Microsoft Office '95 or something? Was Bomp! Records so utterly broke they couldn't hire these guys a half-decent artist?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Boris: Smile

BORIS: SMILE (2008)

1) Messeeji; 2) Buzz-In; 3) Hanate!; 4) Hana, Taiyou, Ame; 5) Tonari-no Sataan; 6) Kare Hateta Saki; 7) Kimi-wa Kasa-o Sashiteita; 8) Untitled.

As usual, there are about a million different versions of this album — Japanese, American, Euro­pean, CD versions, vinyl versions, orange vinyl versions, yellow vinyl versions, limited edition gift-packed 8-track polka-dot versions with sugar on top, in short, just about anything possible to emphasize the creative freedom, psychedelic spirit, and unique individuality of the music and the artistic process behind it. As far as I understand, the American editions, distributed by the Southern Lord label, are significantly different in terms of tracks, running lengths, and mixes from the Japanese Diwphalanx editions. But guess what? I'm wasting enough time already on one version (Diwphalanx); I have no desire whatsoever to learn whether the Southern Lord version improves on it in any way, or, at least, I have a certain premonition that is much stronger than any such desire.

This is where Boris kinda sorta «go pop», in that they use drum machines, samples, and, most importantly, sing on every track — and while Wata's guitars are still very much recognizable, the focus is never so much on noise and drone as it is on melody, or, at least, painful attempts to create something by way of melody. The band members themselves called it their «sell-out al­bum» and went on to tell everybody how it is supposed to be taken ironically, because, well, if you name one of your tracks ʽMy Neighbor Satanʼ and everybody starts thinking of it seriously, you might get in some trouble, at least once you set foot outside Japan, where cajoling around with demons is not looked upon with as much prejudice as in Christian territories.

Unfortunately, the «irony» is largely confined to the lyrics, which are in Japanese, and are largely devoted to in-jokes, such as describing the contents of an old live concert video by the Melvins (ʽBuzz-Inʼ). Outside of any specific context, Smile just sounds like an odd mix of styles (electro-pop, hardcore punk, industrial metal, atmospheric post-rock), all of which, in one way or other, had already been tasted by Boris before, and now they are back with this strange attempt to put it all together and make something comprehensive, cohesive, and ambitious.

The result is a meandering, directionless, and utterly useless mess that fails this particular re­viewer's «bullshit test» on just about any count imaginable. The only track that makes any sense is ʽMessageʼ (ʽStatementʼ) that opens the album — its combination of a «huge typewriter»-type drum machine, a scary bassline, and ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ-style falsetto ooh-oohs sets up a tense anticipation for Wata's shrieking wah-wah leads, and even though the track is still spoiled with bad singing, it takes up seven genuinely nightmarish minutes and it could point the way to something even more nightmarish, but...

...this is where the mess starts for real. ʽBuzz-Inʼ is two and a half minutes of boring metalcore. ʽHanate!ʼ is four minutes of ear-destructive industrial metal, followed by one minute of boring acoustic psycho-folk. ʽFlower, Sun, Rainʼ is a «beautiful» ballad that seems to be an attempt to write something in the old San Francisco vein, with phased acoustic power chords and Big Brother & The Holding Company-style passionately ugly feedback solos — all of it sounding like some particularly stupid pastiche. ʽMy Neighbor Satanʼ tries to cross Sigur Rós vocals with noise and psychedelic rock, but the singer sounds like an American Idol loser and the music sounds like all the individual instrument parts were randomly pulled out from a samples library and super­imposed over each other without any plan whatsoever. And then, as the tracks get longer and longer (culminating in the 20-minute untitled finale), the «post-rock adoration syndrome» gets wilder and wilder as they relocate from Japan to Iceland — only to find out that a tourist is still a tourist, and that Takeshi's chances at becoming Jónsi are slim at best.

Most importantly, it just seems to me much of the time that these guys have totally no idea of what it is that they do, what it is that they want, and what it is that they can. Quite possibly, that is the idea: get in the spirit (at least, formally) of styles and artists they like, and then just get carried away by the moment. But liking industrial music, or ambient-style post-rock, or hardcore punk, is not quite the same as understanding it, so that you can then add something of your own to it, and these guys, so it seems, understand nothing. This is not the way it's all supposed to be sung, or be played, or be combined together — it's like taking a coherent book and rearranging all the words so they no longer form grammatically correct, or at least stylistically engaging sentences. Be it in­tended as serious or ironic, an album like Smile ultimately has no meaning, and trying to «relate» to it is like trying to adapt to a useless genetic mutation. Thumbs down, of course.