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Friday, July 31, 2015

Boris: Urban Dance

BORIS: URBAN DANCE (2015)

1) Un, Deux, Trois; 2) Surrender; 3) Choreographer; 4) Endless; 5) Game Of Death.

On May 2, 2015, a nice spring day on which both Maya Plisetskaya and Ruth Rendell left this pathetic world, Boris released three albums at once — the best thing about which was that neither of the two ladies would have even the slightest possibility of ever being exposed to them during their lifetimes. Chalk up another personal record for Boris, but at this time I do not even have to mention that «the gesture» must have inevitably taken place at the expense of such nice things in life as listenability, originality, and emotional impact. If you have any doubts, let us give a brief run through the tracks on the first one of these, Urban Dance — it won't take long, as there are only five tracks in total.

ʽUn, Deux, Troisʼ is 4:30 minutes of feedback crackle, largely resembling static waves from your car radio, with the volume pushed all the way up for some masochist reason. ʽSurrenderʼ is yet another of this band's failed attempts to make their own post-rock statement — failed, because this time they seem to think that a good way to add impressive dynamics to their atmospheric soundscape is to... incorporate some MORE radio static right in the middle of the track! That's like wow, a symbolic marriage of organised beauty and freaky chaos. ʽChoreographerʼ is 8:45 minutes of... you guessed it, more radio static, except now the bass knob is also turned all the way up and you got some spooky post-Fripp whooshing guitar lines flying in the background from time to time to turn your experience into a truly volcanic one. ʽEndlessʼ only actually goes on for 9:43 minutes, over which it also tries to mesmerize you with several layers of feedback, electro­nic hum, loud percussion, and very deeply buried harmony vocals, but this time it does not even begin to meet the «post-rock challenge» because everything it does, it does during its first se­conds (no attempts at building anything up whatsoever).

Finally, at 11:18, ʽGame Of Deathʼ is not only the longest track on the album, but also the one with the most justified title — it does sound like the soundtrack to some particularly violent, bru­tally industrialized shooter, where you not only have to splatter as many brains of your enemies as possible, but you also have to do it working under extreme sonic conditions: nothing but feed­back, industrial grind, explosions, and machine-gun rattle to lead you to that final 100% kills vic­tory. Remember, though — if you survive this at top volume just once, you render yourself immune against Islamic State torture, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Justin Bieber ft. Nicki Minaj music videos. Sure beats cold showers anyway.

Summarizing: 1 attempt at an actual music piece (not highly competitive), 1 attempt at an ambi­ent conscience manipulation (does not work on me at all), 3 pieces of crap that might have worked a little better if they were all joined together — in Absolutego fashion — because one huge piece of crap is always more impressive by definition than several small pieces of crap. I mean, what would impress you more — a pile of dinosaur dung or scattered rabbit droppings over a dust road? To me, Absolutego was the musical equivalent of that dinosaur dung. Rabbit drop­pings, though, are a bit of a turndown in comparison, which is why Urban Dance, an album that, unsurprisingly, has nothing whatsoever to do with any sort of urban dancing, gets an assured thumbs down

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Billy Bragg: Brewing Up With Billy Bragg

BILLY BRAGG: BREWING UP WITH BILLY BRAGG (1984)

1) It Says Here; 2) Love Gets Dangerous; 3) The Myth Of Trust; 4) From A Vauxhall Velox; 5) The Saturday Boy; 6) Island Of No Return; 7) St. Swithin's Day; 8) Like Soldiers Do; 9) This Guitar Says Sorry; 10) Strange Things Hap­pen; 11) A Lover Sings; 12*) Between The Wars; 13*) The World Turned Upside Down; 14*) Which Side Are You On.

Compared with Life's A Riot, Billy's first full-length LP seems almost orchestrated — not only are there a few extra players spicing up the songs every now and then (Dave Woodhead on trum­pet, or Van Morrison's keyboard player Kenny Craddock on organ), but Billy's own guitar parts seem fuller, more fleshed out, more in line with the traditional understanding of what a «punk / garage rock song» should sound like. Still, I have to confess that, as much as his lonesome busker approach might have seemed revolutionary at the time, it is very hard for me to overcome the «rockist» attitude and appreciate these songs — be they well written or not — on the same emo­tional level as if they were full band productions.

Let's just face it, something like the bravado guitar intro to ʽFrom A Vauxhall Veloxʼ, for ins­tance, just begs for rhythm section support — it's one thing just doing this on a street corner or in your living room, but in the studio... well, on a purely intellectual-symbolic level, it's all under­standable, but on the level of pure instinct, it's all about «oh shit, too bad the guy was on such a tight budget, couldn't even afford himself a bass player». It just can't be helped, that's all, no mat­ter how much intoxicating London charisma he is sweating out while the tapes are running.

But yes, there are some dang good songs here — not John Lennon level, I guess, but definitely at least Elvis Costello level. Thematically, Billy goes on to develop his two major concerns: (a) fuck the system that is ruining our lives and (b) fuck the bitch that is ruining my life — and the two are so tightly intertwined that I can't help thinking, is it the system that is supposed to be responsible for the breakdown of human relationships, or is it the breakdown of human relationships that is responsible for the collapse of the system? One thing's for sure: Billy allocates the exact same amount of passion for both themes, which is ultimately good, I guess, because a two-track mind in art is always preferable to a one-track one.

And here comes another confession: at this point, I actually prefer Billy's love (or «anti-love») songs to his political statements. The reason might be very simple: they work better as stripped-down ballads, whereas the political songs are the ones that suffer the most from lack of additional musicians. (Although even there, once Billy starts to croon he begins to sound like Morrissey's ragged twin, and the songs start looking like early demos for Smiths ballads. But this problem is notably easier to overcome). ʽThe Myth Of Trustʼ, for instance, is not only lyrically smart (offer­ing its own interpretation of the allegory of Adam and Eve with the serpent left completely out of the picture), but also has a creepy «dark folk» twist to it — later on, Adam and Eve make a much happier comeback in the organ-backed ʽA Lover Singsʼ serenade, but they have to pass through some highly uncomfortable moments before they find out all about love.

Of course, though, the album will still be generally remembered not through its ruminations on the nature of sexual attraction, but through its political statements — the anti-Thatcherite ʽIt Says Hereʼ and the anti-war anthems ʽLike Soldiers Doʼ and ʽIsland Of No Returnʼ. Of these three, ʽIslandʼ packs the biggest punch and is probably the single most underworked song here: the arrogant lyrics, the furiously strummed power chords (with some funky syncopation thrown in for good measure), the way he massacres his not-too-inherently-strong voice on the line "...in his hand was a weapon that was made in Bir-ming-haaaaam!..." — these are all hallmarks of a good song... but yes, it could have been better.

Still, all in all there is definitely some progress. Billy's lyrics are thought-provoking both on the love front and on the social struggle front; his guitar playing skills, if anything, are demonstrated here even better; and the occasional guest instruments are selected with loving care (did I yet get a chance to mention the cute ʽPenny Laneʼ-like trumpet solos on ʽSaturday Boyʼ, placed there and nowhere else because this is, like, the tenderest song on the album?). For all these reasons, the thumbs up rating should never be placed under doubt — even if the final brew, alas, is just not strong enough for my tastes, and I cannot picture myself voluntarily returning to this record whenever I want to hear a love serenade (if we're talking about the same time period, I'll still predictably pick The Smiths) or a fuck-the-establishment state­ment (if we're talking about the same time period, I'll still predictably pick The Clash). Then again, who knows? Maybe in a few years' time rhythm sessions will become so passé, your spirit will realign to electric guitar bus­king without you knowing it, and then...

...anyway, on a technical note, these days this album also comes in a 2-CD edition with plenty of bonus tracks (including some Smiths and Stones covers with Johnny Marr himself guest-starring on second guitar), but I have only heard it as part of 1987's Back To Basics compilation, so my bonus tracks are three more songs from the 1985 EP Between The Wars — one of them an old cover of a pro-union song, and another one (ʽWorld Turned Upside Downʼ) is a Leon Rosselson song about the Diggers' Commune of 1649. Well... the EP was just too short a format to make space for any more love serenades, I guess.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Brian Eno: Music For Films

BRIAN ENO: MUSIC FOR FILMS (1978)

1) Aragon; 2) From The Same Hill; 3) Inland Sea; 4) Two Rapid Formations; 5) Slow Water; 6) Sparrowfall (1); 7) Sparrowfall (2); 8) Sparrowfall (3); 9) Alternative 3; 10) Quartz; 11) Events In Dense Fog; 12) There Is Nobody; 13) Patrolling Wire Borders; 14) A Measured Room; 15) Task Force; 16) M386; 17) Strange Light; 18) Final Sunset.

Nice choice here for those who'd like to own an Eno ambient album but feel stupid listening to the same 3-5 notes over and over again. This collection, where recordings span an almost four-year period, originally had a limited release, largely serving as a bunch of «promos» sent out to various studios and film directors — although, apparently, only very few of the pieces eventually found their way to celluloid (Derek Jarman, one of the greatest heroes of somber arthouse, used up as many as two of them, but most «normal» directors allegedly had a hard time synching the material to any of their own visuals), and it is not very likely that Brian actually believed that these bits would be used in actual films — much like it would be hard to suspect him of naïvely believing that Music For Airports would ever become a favorite theme in any actual airport, other than the platonically ideal airport of his own dreams.

Nevertheless, the illusiveness of the title by no means signifies the worthlessness of the music. As far as Enambient is concerned, these pieces are (a) short, (b) relatively diverse, (c) showing subtle dynamic elements, and (d) not always completely electronic — some of the tracks are, in fact, outtakes from the Another Green World and Before And After Science sessions, so you will find such guest stars as Robert Fripp, Fred Frith, John Cale, Phil Collins, and even Rhett Davies on trumpet scattered among the electronic jungle. Most importantly, while it is almost inevitable that 18 snippets like this (and on the early edition, the number ran all the way up to 27) will con­tain a share of filler, Music For Films still features the genius in, well, genius mode.

Thus, for instance, ʽEvents In Deep Fogʼ sounds exactly like one could expect from the title — there's not really all that much that could happen in dense fog, and there isn't a lot happening here, but what matters is the awesome haziness of the selected tones, and how the music completely dies down every few bars, and then resurfaces like a new shadow of some blurry object emerging from the haze, and also how the atmosphere feels so close to some of the tracks on David Bowie's Low, and yet there is no sense of dread, because the music here pursues — and accomplishes — different goals, with largely the same means.

The instrumental combinations here range from subtle (like the minimal acoustic guitar twangs on ʽFrom The Same Hillʼ, a lonesome expressive voice against the collective electronic hum) to quite tricky — like ʽTwo Rapid Formationsʼ, where Eno is joined by Fred Frith of Henry Cow, Bill MacCormick of Matching Mole, and Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention, and the four concoct a suspenseful, «cavernous» attitude where you get the feel of slowly making your way through some damp underground tunnel while occasional pairs of bats, or ghosts, or interstellar ambulance vehicles make their way past you at an alarmingly regular, but harmless, rate. Some­times there is even a whiff of aggressiveness: ʽPatrolling Wire Bordersʼ features John Cale almost literally biting into his viola, playing the same note over and over again as if sending out a dis­tress — or an attack — signal, which is then picked up and echoed in a metal-scrape manner by one of Eno's processors (I think; I'm not sure what actually goes on there, but the effect is very much «industrial», and where most of the tracks here have a «natural» or «transcendental» flavor to them, this one just grinds all over the place).

I am a little bit disappointed by the finale: ʽFinal Sunsetʼ, despite being the longest track of 'em all and clearly positioned as a conclusive coda, is not one of Eno's best statements of grand serene beauty — too light, perhaps, and way too inobtrusive, probably feeling like a real sunset all right, but hardly the «final» one. Still, this disappointment is relevant only if you decide that Music For Films should necessarily feel like a musical story, coherent from beginning to end, which it is not: it was never intended as anything other than a loosely tied together collection of electronic vig­net­tes — in fact, Eno might have done it a disservice by going over the original (lack of) sequen­cing and rearranging the tracks in a more «meaningful» order on the EG reissue, since, in a way, this is just a matter of useless tampering with the original artistic (lack of) intent. As a series of brief, ultimately forgettable, but instantaneously very pleasing impressions, this thing totally suc­ceeds. Although, if you are a young aspiring film director looking for a good soundtrack, I would advise staying away from this stuff — most likely, your movie already sucks, so why consider any additional ways to make it even more unwatchable?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: Human Touch

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: HUMAN TOUCH (1992)

1) Human Touch; 2) Soul Driver; 3) 57 Channels (And Nothin' On); 4) Cross My Heart; 5) Gloria's Eyes; 6) With Every Wish; 7) Roll Of The Dice; 8) Real World; 9) All Or Nothin' At All; 10) Man's Job; 11) I Wish I Were Blind; 12) The Long Goodbye; 13) Real Man; 14) Pony Boy.

There are some big problems here that even a topsy-turvy assessment of Springsteen's like mine could find hard to ignore. Four years in the making — so long, in fact, that the succeeding Lucky Town caught up with it and both were released on the same day — Human Touch finds the Boss jettisoning the E Street Band almost completely, retaining only Roy Bittan to go on playing the worst kind of synthesizers imaginable. Even worse, it also finds him moving to Los Angeles, of all places — recording in Los Angeles — and employing Jeff Porcaro from Toto to contribute percussion, the rest of his new band members being almost completely unknown.

Perhaps if this album were yet another moody brooding in the vein of Tunnel Of Love, where it was all about personality and very little about energy, the flaws of Human Touch might have been overlooked. But it is not — it is a very blatant attempt to return to the frenzied arena-rock style of Born In The USA, or, at least, it is simply a very distinctly pronounced rock album, peri­od. And playing rock without the E Street Band does make him feel a bit like a duck out of the baking oven... ten minutes earlier than it should be, that is. The playing throughout is stiff and very «professional» — just your usual session musicians getting paid for whatever it is that they are getting paid for. Bad keyboards, overprocessed guitars, and although Jeff Porcaro is quite well respected in musical circles, next to Springsteen he just doesn't have the same regal stature as Max Weinberg. This is not his native turf, anyway — why should he be doing anything other than, you know, drumming?

But the irony of it all is that the songs themselves, on the whole, are not that much better or that much worse than any randomly picked tune on Born In The USA (ʽDancing In The Darkʼ and its absurdly genius synth line excluded). Most of the time, this is uninventive, but still catchy pop-rock, not as «anthemic» as it used to be (though some of the songs, like ʽRoll The Diceʼ, unsuc­cessfully try to come across as inspiring anthems), just moderately exciting Bruce'n'roll that does not ask you to worship it but sort of tries to invite you to have a good time. Repeated listens will let you get over the weakass production, and then you will understand that very little has actually changed in Bruce's songwriting ever since he adopted the River formula. And since he's always been relatively content to go along with the general musical flow, never distancing himself from the current mainstream trends, well, no wonder that in 1992 he sounds like they all sound in 1992 (granted, maybe still a little worse: with the grunge explosion hitting hard and influencing even the veteran rockers, you'd think those guitars could use a little overdrive without spooking off the population — I mean, ʽMan's Jobʼ almost sounds like the frickin' Cure's ʽFriday I'm In Loveʼ! not that this would be bad for The Cure, but it is fairly weird for the Boss).

Thematically, everything here is quite simplistic — largely just love songs, though every once in a while Bruce still lashes out tangentially at those weird ways in which the world has developed: ʽ57 Channels (And Nothing On)ʼ is not the most intelligently written anti-TV song ever written, but it is a pretty funny satirical blurb for Bruce — a talkin'-blues musical joke, on which he even took up the bass guitar himself, and whose message, simple as it is, is unfortunately still relevant for a large part of the population worldwide. But even in that song, "home entertainment was my baby's wish", and most of the other songs are quite straightforwardly about his baby — kind of understandable, considering how Bruce managed to patch up his personal life after Tunnel Of Love and was several years into a happy marriage with Patti Scialfa.

The less said about individual songs, the better. Personally, I am still very much bored when he is getting soft and sentimental (the title track; ʽWith Every Wishʼ), but it gets much better when he lets in a little bluesy darkness and a little more hoarse-throated soul (ʽSoul Driverʼ, with a nice vocal journey from angry verse to pleading chorus), or when he is just raving and ranting about the fool he has been (ʽGloria's Eyesʼ, which, if I am not mistaken, borrows the guitar hook from Don Covay's ʽMercy Mercyʼ, but this is not an album where you're supposed to be noticing any guitar hooks anyway). Then it gets worse when he stoops to braggardly cock-rock (ʽAll Or No­thing At Allʼ, where one of the implied lines is "you'd slip me just a piece of ass", last word coyly masked as the neutral "it", but rhymes don't lie!), but again it gets better when he rises to purely romantic sexism ("lovin' you baby is a man's man's job" — even despite the song's message soun­ding so atavistic in the era of gay marriage, the catchiness of the chorus can't be denied; hopefully, we'll hear a George Michael cover some day).

Clearly, at 59 minutes this sucker's just plain overlong: when, towards the end, nearing exhaus­tion, you are forced to sit through the triumphantly moronic synth riff and the clichéd mascu­linity of ʽReal Manʼ, ideas of progressive taxes on bad songwriting start taking actual shape. But trim it down to a decent size, and Human Touch shows an artist who may be out of touch and a little out of shape, yet still essentially true to his formula. Lyrics, production, and energy all show signs of wear — but what about those of us who were never all that awed by his lyrics in the first place, and occasionally felt a little embarrassed about those levels of energy? To those people the deep gap that separates Human Touch from Born In The USA, or the allegedly even deeper gap that separates it from Born To Run might not feel that deep — nothing that can't be bridged with, you know, just a little of that human touch. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Brian Wilson: That Lucky Old Sun

BRIAN WILSON: THAT LUCKY OLD SUN (2008)

1) That Lucky Old Sun; 2) Morning Beat; 3) Room With A View; 4) Good Kind Of Love; 5) Forever My Surfer Girl; 6) Venice Beach; 7) Live Let Live; 8) Mexican Girl; 9) Cinco De Mayo; 10) California Role; 11) Between Pictures; 12) Oxygen To The Brain; 13) Been Too Long; 14) Midnight's Another Day; 15) Lucky Old Sun (reprise); 16) Going Home; 17) Southern California.

This one, I believe, is quite charming in the usual cuddly way, but only if you lower your expec­tations of it — something that most of the critics have not done, perhaps because they were so excited about the perspective of Brian and Van Dyke Parks working together once again on yet another conceptual album about the joys (and the occasional side effects) of that lazy old Califor­nia life. Odd, because Orange Crate Art already showed the world that the Wilson/Parks team is capable of pleasant pastiches that will never stand proper competition with the likes of Smile: and still, with every new Brian Wilson record that has an orange in the title or on the album sleeve, people hope and hope and hope for the return of the son of ʽGood Vibrationsʼ. Then again, the critical turnaround is so rapid these days, it is quite likely that most of the people that were disap­pointed by Lucky Old Sun never even heard Orange Crate Art.

This one may be just a tad more deceptive because it has a conceptual structure — one large suite that basically describes one day in the life of a veteran, but still impressionable Californian, from morning to midnight, with an intro, an outro, and a set of brief musical links where Brian recites, rather than sings, some of Parks' poetry. So, «suite» would automatically trigger the Smile con­nection, but the ambitions here are very humble — this is not a teenage symphony to God, this is just an old man's homage to his native place, and it is not always obligatory to invoke deep spiri­tuality under these conditions, even if the homage is idealized and about as «natural» as the eye-burning oranges on the front sleeve.

The songs here are generally very simple, highly derivative (of course) of Brian's past successes, but catchy and likeable all the same. (Many were co-written with Brian's band member Scott Bennett; I have no idea how much the latter was responsible for the words or melodies, but everything bears an easily recognizable Wilson stamp anyway). Production has occasionally been compared to the Beach Boys' work in the mid-1970s (15 Big Ones and whatever followed), but I do not believe that was intentional — most of the times when Brian goes retro (and he almost always goes retro), he ends up sounding like that just because it is easier these days to mimick that sound, with its loud drums and thick guitars, than something like ʽI Get Aroundʼ. And the biggest problem with 15 Big Ones  was not the production anyway, but rather Brian's general lack of involvement and interest — which is certainly not something you could suspect here, unless we eventually find out that his record company had him under strict contractual obligation to come out with a concept album about the state of California every ten years.

But yes, the songs are nothing special, very simple and casual for the «high» Brian standard. Most of the stuff here either observes the rules of early Sixties' rock'n'roll (ʽMorning Beatʼ and its ilk) or lightweight vaudeville (ʽGood Kind Of Loveʼ and its kin). The piano ballads are typically illustrated by ʽForever My Surfer Girlʼ, which borrows its title from you-know-what, but its hook from ʽDon't Worry Babyʼ for some reason, and simply does not exist outside of its nostalgic con­text — but inside this context, it's totally OK, just to verify that the old naïve romantic hasn't changed a bit in more than forty years. Actually, though, there are not too many ballads here: on the whole, the album is lively, filled with slow boogies and dance-oriented numbers, at least one of which is Latin (ʽMexican Girlʼ, which is so stereotypical in both its musical and lyrical ap­proaches that it probably would be unbearable if done by anybody else, but Brian is actually working on an album of stereotypes here, so let us forgive him the mariachi trumpets and the «bonita muchacha»'s — the man is happy to live in his dollhouse).

There is, however, at least one song here that — perhaps unintentionally — gives out a flash of greatness. ʽMidnight's Another Dayʼ begins inauspiciously enough, a quiet piano ballad whose hard-pumped chords are more Elton John than Brian, but eventually it is the only one of these tunes that transcends the «oh look at that, isn't it nice how much diversity we have in this state of California?» angle and delves into Brian's more personal and intimate emotions, because "all these people, they make me feel so alone": the crescendo on that line is this record's most defi­ning moment, and it makes your heart ache for the old guy who, at the end of the day, realises how most of his world has really passed away, and how what remains is confused and messed up, but then tries to reassure himself by softly purring in his own ears that "midnight's another day". The song may not be on the level of ʽ'Til I Dieʼ, but it's in the same territory, and if anything, it comes across as more personal because most of the vocals are not multi-tracked.

The two final tracks, particularly the brawny-braggardly ʽGoing Homeʼ (somewhat of a cross between the melodic side of ʽDo It Againʼ and the mood side of ʽBack Homeʼ), will probably seem anti-climactic after that, but somehow it feels right to me that the «deepest» song on the album should not conclude it, but rather be followed with some light silliness. We do not want to be left with the feeling that Brian is still beset by his old demons — it's important to know that the scars still hurt, and that deep down inside he still traps those fears without which most of the Beach Boys' masterpieces would never come to life, but a tragic conclusion for That Lucky Old Sun would have us worried, and we don't want another Dr. Landy in Brian's life. As it is, the record's status as a package of catchy, shallow entertainment with an unexpected (and slightly creepy) heart of gold is totally satisfactory, and calls for a routine thumbs up.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Brand New: The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me

BRAND NEW: THE DEVIL AND GOD ARE RAGING INSIDE ME (2006)

1) Sowing Season (Yeah); 2) Millstone; 3) Jesus Christ; 4) Degausser; 5) Limousine; 6) You Won't Know; 7) Wel­come To Bangkok; 8) Not The Sun; 9) Luca; 10) Untitled; 11) Archers; 12) Handcuffs.

Emotional pain. It's actually a real thing, and most of us have probably experienced it — but the more I listen to 21st century music that got critical acclaim for allegedly bottling and conveying waves of emotional pain to the appreciative audience, the more I get the feeling — and yes, may­be I am alone on this, but I don't care — the feeling that somehow, at some elusive moment in time, musicians have simply lost the ability to express their emotional pain in music in a convin­cing manner. Horribly, it even leads me to suspect that they might have lost the ability to feel emotional pain like a perfectly ordinary, reasonable, sensitive human being could feel emotional pain. Is it stupid on my part? George Harrison, Roger Waters, Robert Smith, Michael Stipe, Aimee Mann, Beth Gibbons — they feel and convey emotional pain. But I have not yet felt a single properly bleeding heart from anyone whose musical career would be separated by more than two thousand years from the alleged birth of the greatest emotional sufferer of 'em all (did that sound grossly pathetic? I thought it sounded grossly pathetic).

Case study: The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, a pretentious title that suggests bracing yourself as you push play — surely, with a statement like this, you can expect to be propelled head forward into the scary turbulence of the Greatest Emotional Drama ever. The light and the dark! The sin and the redemption! The suffering and the deliverance! The crime and the punish­ment! Jesse Lacey has grown up, matured, became initiated into the real serious issues of this world, and this is his take on the grim plight of the human race. The stakes are higher than ever before, and please expect a complete refund if you do not walk away from this experience a deep­ly changed man, with your whole life to rethink and brand new goals and promises to be made.

Unquestionably, in terms of overall development this album rises high above Your Favorite Weapon, and corrects some of the problems of Déjà Entendu. It is occasionally intriguing, far from always predictable, and sufficiently restrained in that the band does not come across as a bunch of annoying poseurs when you are forced to inhale their tragic psychologism. But the main issue remains the same: they just do not know. That is, according to my perspective: you will, of course, find plenty of dissenting opinions on how they totally blew the mind of some listener or other. I just wonder, in each such case, where and how exactly our emotional receptors have par­ted ways — finding it unimaginable that one could, for instance, experience the same kind of strong, heartfelt response for this album as one could for, say, The Cure's Disintegration.

So let us take a look at the singles first. ʽSowing Season (Yeah)ʼ, opening with a rather tedious minute-long section of overlapping phone chat recordings, is a nicely constructed alt-rock track that teaches us about the difficulties of building your life anew after it had been blown to pieces by some unimaginably horrific experiences. But the fact that Jesse Lacey did not, in fact, have all his relatives killed off in World War Two does not bother me as much as the fact that the transi­tion from the quiet verse section into the bombastic-climactic chorus simply does not have the (obviously intended) cathartic effect. The guitar riff that dominates the chorus is well constructed, but it is more math-rockish than emotionally involving, and the «wild» "yeah yeah"s that accom­pany it are puny and superficial compared to, say, Kurt Cobain's — now there was a guy who could crack a good "yeaaaaah" in such a way that you'd want to quickly call 911 to his place. La­cey's "yeah"s, on the other hand, can't help implying that... well, he'll get over it eventually.

The second single was ʽJesus Christʼ — and, well, even with atheism on a steady rise everywhere, you'd still want to think that choosing such a title imposes certain artistic obligations. And it is actually a good song — until they start to scream, that is. The little ringing guitar pattern, unori­ginal as it is, can mesmerize you a little with its steadiness, and the quiet atmosphere of the music goes very well with Jesse's tense, confessional singing, and there is a pretty restrained guitar solo, and the lyrics, dealing with insanity, death, and the afterlife, are intelligent... but then they just can't handle that crescendo — they just begin to scream, and it gets ugly without getting scary, and by the time they chant "we all got wood and nails and we turn out hate in factories", I have stopped being interested in the song. So sad, it started out so well.

On the non-singles material, they sometimes do better: top prize here goes to the nearly eight-minute epic ʽLimousineʼ, where the much lengthier crescendo fortunately succeeds — after a few rather mediocre minutes, they grasp a good groove, settle into a nice melancholic tonality, and work it out by adding layer after layer of guitars, keyboards, and even strings, rather than simply resorting to more of that ugly screaming. The "I love you so much / But do me a favor, baby, don't reply" bit and its development shows that they are at least randomly capable of gold mining, because there is romanticism here and tragedy and determination, regardless of whatever the actual message might be (actually, the song is about the accidental murder of a 7-year girl by a drunk driver), and plenty of subtlety and accuracy and thoroughness of arrangement. If it weren't for moments like these, the tables would have turned completely against the band — but the likes of ʽLimousineʼ show that they do have to be taken seriously, and that they do mature further and further with each new record. And that makes the numerous flaws of Devil And God even more infuriating against this background.

The hooky numbers, for instance, still tend to be spoiled by overemoting: thus, ʽNot The Sunʼ is designed as a somewhat «apocalyptic» rocker (its spirited intro, echoey produc­tion, and overall tone remind me, for some reason, of Hendrix's ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ) and even has some excellent guitar parts and a frantically tight rhythm section, but there's just too much emphasis on screaming again — an area in which Lacey is rarely convincing. ʽDegausserʼ sounds like a bad parody on Arcade Fire, replete with droning guitars, anthemic, but lackluster choir vocals, and soul­ful echoes — until the screaming comes in and drowns out all the associations in head-split­ting, but still boring loudness. And so on, and on, and on.

Honestly speaking, I would really like to love this album. At least, unlike quite a few other lazy hipsters who think that an understanding of «soul» excuses you from understanding the obsolete notion of «work», these guys are clearly trying — exploring many more types of textures here than they used to, writing complex lyrics that tend to avoid clichés, even displaying a healthy penchant for self-irony ("You're shouting so loud, you barely joyous broken thing / You're a voice that never sings" must be a self-reference, right?). It's just that almost everywhere they stop just one or two important steps away from greatness. Why not flesh out the hooks more? Why not work out the guitar figures better? Why not refrain from screaming in favor of a more subtle ap­proach (especially if they are capable of subtlety)? Is it because they are unable to have feelings that can be transposed to such kinds of hooks, or do they just not know how to transpose?

In the end, no matter how much I listen, the only thing that stays with me is the repetitive, mildly hypnotizing coda to ʽLimousineʼ, and I have but to constatate that the ambitiousness, although it does not destroy the record as a whole, does not pay off. I cannot agree that the Devil and God are raging anywhere inside this album — at best, they may have sent a couple of their lesser de­puties. Nice level of cultural erudition, but that's hardly sufficient foundation for an emotional masterpiece. Then again, who knows, maybe it's just my grumpy bias speaking up.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Bravery, Repetition And Noise

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: BRAVERY, REPETITION AND NOISE (2001)

1) Just For Today; 2) Telegram; 3) Stolen; 4) Open Heart Surgery; 5) Nevertheless; 6) Sailor; 7) You Have Been Disconnected; 8) Leave Nothing For Sancho; 9) Let Me Stand Next To Your Flower; 10) If I Love You?; 11) (I Love You) Always; 12) If I Love You? (New European Gold Standard Secret Babylonian Brotherhood Cinema Mix).

Repetition — by all means. Noise — not all that much, compared to what commonly passes for «noise» in 2001. Bravery — well, I would guess that if Anton Newcombe were capable of writing better songs than these, then preferring to release this album instead would require some bravery. As it is, I don't see much bravery here. Certainly dismissing long-time partner Matt Hollywood from the band after some onstage argument does not count as «bravery». Maybe the stubborn way of sticking to the same dronified formula counts as «bravery», from some point of view. But is there any other formula to which Newcombe could switch over without saying good­bye to Brian Jonestown? Did he even have a choice at that point?..

The album feels like a rather natural follow-up to Strung Out In Heaven, largely avoiding lengthy spaced-out jams in favor of shorter pop tunes — and, as already predicted by the model, they are typically slow, folksy, dependent on monotonously strummed chords, and go easier than easy on the hooks. The mood is almost completely fixed in place: no fast rockers, no psychedelic freak­outs, just one slow, drowsy, dark-folk shuffle after another. The three chords that open the album (ʽJust For Todayʼ) perfectly capture the bleakness and somberness of everything that follows, but the song itself never goes anywhere once its main rhythm line is established, and that droning pattern on its own offers little redemption — and not only is Newcombe's singing mumbled as usual, but it is also awfully mixed-in this time, as if he were trying to correlate his troubled state of mind with the shittiest possible way his troubled voice could reach your troubled ears out of the troubled speakers. In short, we're in trouble.

I like the song ʽYou Have Been Disconnectedʼ. Once the obligatory jangly pattern has set in, the band adds a nice, memorable organ riff to it — nothing too phenomenal, but just the right touch on the way of transforming the proceedings into solid pop music, where even Newcombe's ghostly singing seems well aligned with the phantasmagoric organ tone. The organ on ʽOpen Heart Sur­geryʼ, another relative success, also sharpens and enhances the mood, and the song itself is largely free from droning, being totally focused on that organ and a gloomy bass riff. It is one of the few times, also, that Anton tries to overclock himself, which led to some reviewers happily comparing the track's style to The Cure — the big difference, of course, being that Robert Smith would probably have somebody's head on a platter for that sort of arrangement and sloppy production, and he would just keep on layering instrument after instrument so that the depth of the tragedy would be increased every several bars. But Newcombe — you know that guy, he says it all right from the start: «building up» is for pussies.

There is one cover here, of a predictably obscure oldie (ʽSailorʼ by The Cryan' Shames), a good song in its own right but completely lost in this general context — leave it to Anton to transform potential gorgeousness into stoned-out-of-your-mind monotonousness. ʽLet Me Stand Next To Your Flowerʼ may be a pun on the Hendrix line, but the song has nothing to do with Jimi — it is just another monotonous, martial-style pop tune that fundamentally sounds like the Beatles' ʽGood Day Sun­shineʼ with all the joy (and sunshine) surgically removed and replaced with drugged-out numbness. Same goes for ʽIf I Love You?ʼ in both its versions (a stripped-down acoustic rendi­tion) and then a much lengthier, «epic» rendition at the end of the album — a song delivered in such a frozen tone, at such a somnambulant pace, that the answer to the rhetorical question cannot be anything other than "please define love first, and we'll talk later".

Not that any of these tunes are artistically insincere: as usual, they seem to reflect Newcombe's proper state of mind at the time really well. The problem is that we have already known that state of mind for quite some years now, and it is hardly the most fascinating or stimulating state of mind in the world. Nor does it make much sense to woo us over by focusing on the dark shades of Jim Jarmusch (yes, that is him) on the front cover — just the mere fact that (one of) the world's trendiest arthouse directors thus endorses the creativity of the BJM should only make matters worse: in reality, the BJM rise above the usual «hipster boy» level, and hardly need to emphasize their coolness in such additional ways. (Jarmusch did use one of their songs in the soundtrack to Broken Flowers, but was there any real need to «return the favor»?).

On the whole, the record is like a compromise between the «trance» and the «retro pop» aspects of the band — pop music with detached pop hooks, converted into «trance» by the somewhat dehu­manized spirit of its creator. Since it achieves its goals, has a few nice songs, and features the usual classy retro sound that we always expect from Anton and his team, it would be impolite to give it a thumbs down. But will I ever listen to it again? Meaningless question — in Newcombe's world, time stands perfectly still, and there is no such thing as «again», I guess.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Boris: Noise

BORIS: NOISE (2014)

1) Melody; 2) Vanilla; 3) Ghost Of Romance; 4) Heavy Rain; 5) Taiyo-no Baka; 6) Angel; 7) Quicksilver; 8) Siesta.

Press release information: «Their most all-encompassing effort to date. It is an amplification of Boris’ endless pursuit of musical extremes while moving aggressive, intense rock into new terri­tories. Here, the band masterfully intermingles sludge-rock, blistering crust punk, shimmering shoegaze, epic thunderous doom, psychedelic melodies and just about everything else they’ve ever done. In writing Noise, BORIS was intent upon condensing all that the band had explored over the years, in order to create something more bold, streamlined and powerful. And, upon completion, the band considers Noise its most defining effort

As you can already tell, the omens are not good. Usually, when a band itself declares that album so-and-so is its «most defining effort», this means a desperate PR effort to predetermine the lis­tener's attitude — surely, if the band members themselves say so, it must be right. Fortunately, I only discovered the press release after subjecting myself to several listens, throughout which I only found the record boring; had I known about these superlatives early on, I might have thought of it as hideous. To state that Noise is «moving aggressive, intense rock into new territories» makes even less sense than stating that America was discovered by Bob Dylan in his 115th dream. This is standard late-period Boris — the band that has long since moved away from its semi-ori­ginal sound and is now largely making its living with a synthesis of metal, shoegaze, noise, and ambient psychedelia, nothing whatsoever about which could be considered a «new direction». On the contrary, if anything, Boris are getting more and more «retro» with each new outing.

And this outing, unfortunately, is far from their best one: I have not been able to discern even one interesting track anywhere on here. As usual, there are good guitar tones, plenty of energy, and, indeed, quite a bit of stylistic variety, but nothing is done here that could even vaguely pique my interest. Take ʽQuicksilverʼ, for instance, the first track off the album to be freely streamed: seven minutes of «speedcore» whose only value is... speed. Awful singing, dull riffage, flashy soulless soloing — this music is not evil, or scary, or angry, it is just... speedy. Or ʽHeavy Rainʼ, sung much better by Wata, but utilizing such predictable «doom-laden» chords that not even the extra heaviness can save the song from... okay, I'm repeating myself.

This is really unbearable because I'd actually like to like this — they are obviously trying to be artsy and accessible at the same time, but this post-rock vibe is just killing them: the 18-minute ʽAngelʼ is such a blatant (and incompetent) rip-off of some Godspeed You! Black Emperor epic that it makes me want to scream out loud — for Amaterasu's sake, guys, you've been going at this for almost twenty years now, how come with each new album you are becoming less and less original? You had that thing about feedback which was more or less your own schtick — now you have completely abandoned it to focus on these third-rate imitations?

Everything here is just one large exercise in soulless, hookless mannerism, so it's pretty sad news (but predictable perhaps) that they would consider this their «defining effort». Naturally, you do not have to take my word for it, but please do not listen to this album without being able to place it in its proper context — you owe that much to people like GY!BE, or My Bloody Valentine, or even Radiohead (did I mention the heavy debt that ʽGhost Of Romanceʼ owes to OK Computer?) who actually defined how «artsy» music would sound in the modern age before Boris came along and decided, for some reason, that they could do just as well, and that they could be justified in not writing good melodies as long as they could combine all this into one melting pot, where you mix pickles with apple jam and goat cheese with dark chocolate. And don't even trust the album title — because this album is not Noise. It's just Nonsense, and the rating is a certified thumbs down.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Billy Bragg: Life's A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy

BILLY BRAGG: LIFE'S A RIOT WITH SPY VS. SPY (1983)

1) The Milkman Of Human Kindness; 2) To Have And To Have Not; 3) Richard; 4) A New England; 5) The Man In The Iron Mask; 6) The Busy Girl Buys Beauty; 7) Lovers Town Revisited.

This might be the single most influential (or, at least, most revered) LP in the history of pop music (or, at least, UK pop music) that takes no more than sixteen minutes in total to tell you everything it needs to tell you. A much later CD edition has expanded it to more than twice its length with the addition of demos and rarities, but even then it was divided into two discs and the first one contained nothing but the original album — so you don't ever forget the importance of brevity in this line of artistic business. (I only have the record as part of the 1987 compilation Back To Basics, so I have not yet heard the additional tracks on the expanded release).

Now even though for Billy Bragg social activism and politics have always been every bit as im­portant as his music, Life's A Riot already clearly shows that he is a «singer-songwriter doing politics», not a «social activist pretending to be a musician in his spare time». The thing that he does here was something largely unheard of in 1983: «folk-punk» in the most literal sense of the word, where the artist is a one-man band, playing energetic, uptempo tunes on an electric guitar, but using it in the manner of a folk troubadour. Give the man a complete rhythm section to go along, and you will have something in between The Clash and Elvis Costello; as it is, what you have is a modern day Woody Guthrie, updated to reflect contemporary realities and certain ad­vances in playing, writing, and verbalizing that took place since the 1940s.

The way to enjoy and understand Billy Bragg is through his «persona» rather than any specific musical gift. As you see them here, these songs are neither particularly well written nor amazing­ly well performed: sure Billy can write, play, and sing, but there is nothing about these chord changes, guitar tones, or vocal inflections that has not been done better by more artists than you will have the chance to listen to in your sweet short life. However, once you put it all together — his choppy garage-rock guitar chords, his rough, earnest, Strummer-influenced voice, his deep-reaching lyrics (way above whatever you'd expect from the average leftist stereotype), and that stripped-down attitude, as if he were just recreating his usual busking on the streets of London in the studio — the whole is far more impressive than the parts.

Besides, at this point it is not even completely clear if social messages are more important for Billy than pure expression of emotion: after all, the album opens with ʽThe Milkman Of Human Kindnessʼ (already an awesome song title, isn't it?), which is basically just a romantic love song (unless, of course, you want to interpret the line "I will leave an extra pint" as indication that the protagonist is simply willing to make love to as many women as there are milk bottles, and that the current addressee is just one of the many. Ah well, still a romantic love song, just with an ad­ditional Don Giovanni twist then). As the song opens with loudly blasting, ass-kicking folk-rock guitar chords, you most naturally expect the opening to be followed with the band kicking in — bass, drums, second guitar, maybe Al Kooper on the organ or something — but it never does, and I still wonder just how much better the song could have worked on its own, if given a full arran­ge­ment. Not much better, perhaps, because the chorus has no well-placed hook (that "I will leave an extra pint" is merely memorable because it is a fun line delivered accappella for the whole world to hear and memorize) — but no harm in wondering.

Social conscience begins to kick in with the second track: ʽTo Have And To Have Notʼ is basi­cally the Clash's ʽJulie's In The Drug Squadʼ (or some other Clash song, no matter) with new ly­rics ("just because you're better than me doesn't mean I'm lazy"), but since it's more derivative, it's also catchier, and Billy's enthusiasm may even be more infectious than Strummer's, precisely because of the stripped-down arrangement. ʽA New Englandʼ makes a subtler point: "I don't want to change the world / I'm not looking for a new England / I'm just looking for another girl" could be superficially understood as reluctance to introduce changes, but in fact, it is quite clear that getting another girl is a difficult task in old England, so... anyway, the chorus here is probably the most charismatic spot on the entire record, combining a bit of melancholy, a bit of puzzled con­fusion, and a bit of optimism in the face of depressing odds. Additionally, it's a good example of Billy's way of genre-welding: "I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I'm 22 now but I won't be for long" is written and sung as if it were an old talkin' blues (close your eyes and hear Woody, or Dylan, sing this), but the accompanying guitar is doing it surf/rockabilly-style. Kinda cool.

The odd man out on this short record is ʽThe Man In The Iron Maskʼ, which totally eliminates all the garage/punk stylizations, slows down, and turns to dark European folk for inspiration — again, singing about torturous unrequited (or betrayed) love rather than social problems, and sin­ging surprisingly well: given Billy's well-defined, in-yer-face cockney accent all over the place, his take on the «quasi-medieval balladry» genre works out all right, as he never falters on the prolonged notes and switches from higher to lower registers to good effect. Maybe this is not exactly a Lou Reed or a Peter Hammill level of deep-reaching psychologism, but for just a guy with just a guitar, this is exceptionally well crafted stuff.

Nevertheless, like I said, Life's A Riot earns its thumbs up «on the whole», as a successful first-time stylistic experiment of merging the «wisdom» of old folk with the «brute force» of new punk, rather than through individual tracks — and yes, to do that, sixteen minutes are just enough (already the last two ultra-short songs bordered on «slightly tedious»). Being the people's cham­pion and all, though, Billy even made sure that you do not get overcharged: "Pay no more than £2.99 for this 7 track album", the front cover says in ineffaceable type (which still seems a bit high — that's something like £9.50 in today's prices, which is the price of a solid CD, but then again, it looks like three pounds was a fair price for a 12" release back then). Ironically, the 2-disc edition as sold on Amazon in the UK goes for £7.89 today — and the cunning bastards have erased the original small type, replacing it with the boring (but serving its purpose) tag of «30th Anniversary Edition». Apparently, there's just no getting away from capitalist swine games even for a true people's champion. Tough world.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Brian Eno: Music For Airports

BRIAN ENO: AMBIENT 1: MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS (1978)

1) 1/1; 2) 1/2; 3) 2/1; 4) 2/2.

The biggest problem with Music For Airports is that it is not really music for airports. It was briefly used at one of the terminals of the LaGuardia Airport as an experiment, but I assume that people complained too much, or perhaps the airport personnel just went crazy after a while, and the idea fell through. Ironically, it was actually thought of by Brian as a pragmatically oriented therapeutic measure against the tense, stuffy atmosphere of your average airport. But could you imagine being stuck out there, waiting two or more hours for a delayed plane while the soft piano tinkle of ʽ1/1ʼ gets looped and re-looped and trans-looped and be-boop-a-looped into your ears? Eventually, you'll begin wishing for twenty crying babies at your side instead.

That is the biggest problem with Eno's ambient experiments: no matter how much he may insist that the music is not to be focused upon on its own, but merely taken in as a side dish next to whatever else it is that your are consuming or producing, it is difficult to do so. Sooner or later, you will want to say, "okay, does ʽ1/1ʼ really have to be 17 minutes long?", and once you say that, the carriage turns back into the pumpkin, Snow White bites the apple, and Brian Eno drops the sheepskin and is exposed for the big bad wolf that he really is, duping poor credible art lovers into believing that they were presented here with a masterpiece.

Technically, these four recordings are not the simplest pieces on Earth, but there is also nothing radically challenging about them — ambient minimalist pieces that owe their structures to Steve Reich, and mostly just exploit the idea of incommensurable cycles, with different loops repeated under different time patterns, creating infinite variety out of a minimal amount of sounds, but this is not something you'd notice until you were paying very close attention, and you're not supposed to do it — you're supposed to be biting your nails at an airport terminal, wondering about whether you'll be able to make your connection rather than wondering whether the distance between oc­cur­rences of loop A is really 23 seconds and the distance between two instances of loop B is really 27 seconds. So it's a little confusing this way.

Indeed, the little piano melody on ʽ1/1ʼ (co-credited to Robert Wyatt and producer Rhett Davies) is very impressionistic and pretty. The holy-ghostly vocals on ʽ1/2ʼ, recorded by Eno with three additional female vocalists and sounding very much like the heavenly overdubs on 10cc's ʽI'm Not In Loveʼ three years earlier, are a little creepy. Then ʽ2/1ʼ puts the minimalistic piano and the ghostly vocals together, and then ʽ2/2ʼ yields the field to synthesizer tones, brightly announcing a new dawn (for the tired traveller who finally had to cuddle up and spend the night on the hard, unwelcoming airport bench, lulled to sleep and called to reveille by the all-pervasive sounds of Ambient 1). They're all nice, they just don't have to run for... oops, sorry.

Any additional writing on the subject would cause either excruciating pain or embarrassment; you would not really want to find yourself in the shoes of the AMG reviewer, for instance, who wrote that «these evolving soundscapes... can hang in the background and add to the atmosphere of the room, yet the music also rewards close attention with a sonic richness absent in standard types of background or easy listening music», as if the reviewer were an active specialist in all types of background music and immediately knew how to distinguish the «sonic richness» of Music For Airports from... umm... Forest Sounds With Soft Rains & Gentle Winds: For Deep Sleep, Meditation & Relaxation (yes, they sell these on Amazon, too). Even if there is «sonic rich­ness» in the way the loops meet each other and then go on their merry way at different rates, it is not clear how that translates into an awesome spiritual experience. So let's just cut the crap — instead of thinking all the wrong thinks, just imagine you're an airport and then decide whether this one's for you, or if you'd like to pass it on to Pyongyang Sunan International.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: Tunnel Of Love

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: TUNNEL OF LOVE (1987)

1) Ain't Got You; 2) Tougher Than The Rest; 3) All That Heaven Will Allow; 4) Spare Parts; 5) Cautious Man; 6) Walk Like A Man; 7) Tunnel Of Love; 8) Two Faces; 9) Brilliant Disguise; 10) One Step Up; 11) When You're Alone; 12) Valentine's Day.

There are two ways to think about Tunnel Of Love. The first one is that this is one more unex­pected career twist — after the thunder, the sweat, the blood-pumping of Born In The USA, The Boss just flushes the «Rambo rock» down the drain and goes all adult contemporary on us. The second way of thinking is that this is simply where The Boss... grows old. Take a mental snapshot of the man in the ʽDancing In The Darkʼ video — then, with that snapshot still in active memory, take a look at this album cover. Two different people. Heck, he almost looks like Vincent Vega in that outfit and with that particular posture.

Thing is, I can easily live with either way of thinking, or with both at the same time, but in either case Tunnel Of Love is simply not very good. Going introspective, personal, and depressed after the flamboyant extravert show that was Born In The USA is all very good, but in 1987, it just does not look like Bruce was all that ready for such a metamorphosis. He really was depressed, worn down by his «pop idol» image as well as devastated by the collapse of his first marriage, but he was not able to channel his depression into music — the songs on Tunnel are as simple and straightforward as they used to be, but now they're just depressed. And boring.

The synthesizers on Born In The USA may have had crappy Eighties' tones, but when you are caught in that kind of frenzy, let's face it, you don't really give a damn about the synth tone. The album suffered from mediocre production, but more than made up for it in terms of drive, energy, and hooks. Not so on these songs. Electronic drums, «dinky» lead keyboards and «heavenly» synth tones in the background dominate the turf here, and what does it all have to do with Bruce Springsteen? The title track is a bland dance number that could have been sung by Kim Wilde, with each one of the above-mentioned elements present, and some awful metallic guitar solos to complete the picture. Even the lyrics, which many critics have praised, are nothing special — "You've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above / If you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love". Not very original, if you ask me.

The recording was originally planned to be a Springsteen solo recording, before he relented and let some of the E Street Band members to sit in — a misguided decision, methinks, because with Bruce, it's either all the way or no way at all. Maybe if all the tracks were completely acoustic, just the man and his guitar Nebraska-fashion again, it would have produced a stronger impres­sion because of the intimacy. But when I listen to a decent track like ʽBrilliant Disguiseʼ, I can't help thinking how much better it would have been with a full-hearted rather than half-hearted ap­proach — more guitars, louder drums, a wild sax solo, some shouting, the band wilding out, and who cares about the lyrics being so personal? He did let other people play on the track anyway, didn't he? And not going all the way, he let it get limp. And who knows, he might have had ano­ther ʽBobby Jeanʼ in his pocket here. The accompanying minimalistic video, shot in black and white and featuring the man adding live vocals to an acoustic track, is offset by the bland musi­cal backing — if it is a song of such personal strength and depth, why is it so blandly arranged and so devoid of any decent musical hooks?

Fact is, if it were a record by anybody other than Bruce — Sting, for example, not to mention Bryan Adams — critical attention would probably pass it by. However, as this was a dark, deeply introspective album following the man's biggest success to date, it was tacitly decided that Tun­nel Of Love would be endorsed: it is, after all, so tempting to have the big guy first scatter his thunder and lightning around, then suddenly let you in on his deepest secrets, make himself vul­nerable, open up his bleeding heart and disclose to the public that even the People's Champion has his own personal problems that tie into human, not social relations. And this temptation was stronger than simply admitting that ʽTougher Than The Restʼ and ʽWalk Like A Manʼ are lazy, poorly written, crappily arranged ballads that cannot be said to contain more «soul» than any given adult contemporary ballad of the decade — unless your position is that any track on which Bruce Springsteen opens his mouth already got soul a-plenty.

Re-reading my old vitriolic assessment of this record years ago, I thought that, heck, I myself am one year older now than Bruce was when making this album, maybe the reaction would be dif­ferent this time — but it wasn't. I do not find the atmosphere of Tunnel particularly seductive, captivating, or intriguing; I do not find any interest in its melodies; I have no frickin' idea why so many people reward it with so many stars as if it were the ultimate breakup album. I have no idea why ʽValentine's Dayʼ drags on for so long, or what exactly the swamp rockin' ʽSpare Partsʼ is doing here (I wish I could call it the best song on the album, but that would probably get dogs snappin' at my heels). I feel sorry for the guy circa 1987, but I am also glad that he made it out very easily — all it took was realizing that fellow musicians make better wives than models (but don't tell Keith Richards, or there'll be a violent Telecaster battle somewhere out in space). So no hard feelings whatsoever, but a thumbs down all the same: as an artistic statement, Tunnel Of Love is bland and boring, and as an entertainment package, it does not even begin to exist.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Brian Wilson: What I Really Want For Christmas

BRIAN WILSON: WHAT I REALLY WANT FOR CHRISTMAS (2005)

1) The Man With All The Toys; 2) What I Really Want For Christmas; 3) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; 4) O Holy Night; 5) We Wish You A Merry Christmas; 6) Hark The Herald Angels Sing; 7) It Came Upon A Midnight Clear; 8) Christmasey; 9) The First Noel; 10) Little Saint Nick; 11) Deck The Halls; 12) Auld Lang Syne; 13) On Christmas Day; 14) Joy To The World; 15) Silent Night.

This one will be done with in brief. As you remember, the Beach Boys had already fulfilled their national obligation with a Christmas album as early as 1964. However, now that Brian has offi­cially reached the natural age of a Santa Claus, he might have felt the need to balance that early teenage offering with a well-aged, well-tempered reading of the classics — in fact, a couple of the songs here are reprised from Christmas Album, most noticeably the Wilson/Love co-written ʽLittle Saint Nickʼ and ʽThe Man With All The Toysʼ. And yes, one more ʽAuld Lang Syneʼ for the world to cherish and enjoy.

And what you get, in light of Brian's previous career, is probably what you'd expect. Sincerity a-plenty, wonderful harmonies from the Wondermints, pretty and tasteful arrangements played on a wide variety of instruments — and that dear old crackly voice. Newly written songs include the title track, with lyrics provided by Bernie Taupin (and if you're wondering what it is that Brian really wants for Christmas, well, he couldn't get it even if he were President), and ʽChristmaseyʼ, co-written with Jimmy Webb — melodically, both are indeed «Christmasey», nothing particular­ly special or irritating.

If you really love Beach Boy-style harmonies for what they're worth, though, they do a really really fine job on the choral numbers, such as ʽJoy To The Worldʼ and ʽSilent Nightʼ. This is, of course, perfectly rehearsed professionalism rather than sparkly youthful enthusiasm, but frankly, I am not sure which of the two I would prefer in 2005. And another thing is that back in 1964, it was never clear if the Beach Boys sang these Christmas carols because they really admired them, or because Capitol, or Papa Murry, told them to — here it is perfectly obvious that Brian is en­joying the process, and why shouldn't he? Come to think of it, of all veteran rockers it is Brian Wilson, with his wonderfully childlike mind, who is the most natural candidate for an old-fashio­ned Christmas release. Not that I'd truly recommend this album — I don't usually recommend Christmas albums unless they have ʽThe Night Santa Went Crazyʼ on them — but at least this one is not a total waste of time. Lovely harmonies.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Brand New: Deja Entendu

BRAND NEW: DEJA ENTENDU (2003)

1) Tautou; 2) Sic Transit Gloria... Glory Fades; 3) I Will Play My Game Beneath The Spin Light; 4) Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don't; 5) The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows; 6) The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot; 7) Jaws Theme Swimming; 8) Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis; 9) Guernica; 10) Good To Know That If I Ever Need Attention All I Have To Do Is Die; 11) Play Crack The Sky.

Already these guys are getting more serious, and I am not sure if they deserve such an enthusias­tic pat on the back for this as they did. Yes, it is hard not to notice that on their second album, Brand New have moved way, way beyond writing about break-ups and are now writing about... well, about whatever they might have caught on TV the day before going into the studio, be it an Audrey Tautou movie or a Wes Anderson movie or a documentary about the shipwreck of the FV Pelican way back in 1951 — all of these subjects and more get faithfully covered on the record, and this, I guess, makes it more mature and makes their «emo» more substantial.

Unfortunately, the songwriting does not get improved all by itself just because the covered topics get more serious (or do they?). The lead single was ʽThe Quiet Things That No One Ever Knowsʼ, a song about strained relationships (maybe; if you're not sure what any song is about, write «strained relationships» and you have a 70% probability of getting it right) with lots of metapho­rical hospitals-and-blood imagery (and an appropriate video) but also with a very generic alt-rock melody that mostly rests either on power chords or on metronomically chugging guitars — and plenty of screaming, of course (not very quiet). I guess it is still much better than the average generic emo song — this one at least seems meticulously thought over — but no pop genius is in evidence, and the chorus just sucks.

The second single was ʽSic Transit Gloria...ʼ, and it at least has a cool-walking bassline that might remind you of ʽThe Guns Of Brixtonʼ, but the screamy chorus still ends up ruining it. Again I have no idea what the lyrics are about (seems to be at least partially about sex, which covers the 29,99% ground of the remaining probabilities), but I totally feel that the verses, where the vocals are «side-tracked» to the left and to the right of the cool-walking bassline and set up at least some sort of tense mood, deserve a much better, or at least more subtle chorus. As it is, it is hard to get moved when they start raving without any visible reasons whatsoever.

Amazingly, the best song on the album is also its longest — with this predictable formula of hookless guitar pop and meaningless screaming so firmly in place, you wouldn't think that Brand New could be at their best when trying to craft a lengthy epic, but they are: ʽGood To Know That If I Ever Need Attention, All I Have To Do Is Dieʼ is not only a funny title, but it also has a loud power pop rather than «screamo» chorus, and a couple of lengthy instrumental passages where Vincent Accardi shows off some nice chops (as well as a ʽHotel Californiaʼ fetish). I feel like most reviewers give up way before the end, so the song rarely, if ever, gets a mention, but it is the most interesting composition on this tiresome record — certainly better than whenever they break out the acoustic guitars and begin to sound like R.E.M. on speed (ʽPlay Crack The Skyʼ).

I know it's just the regular emo formula and all, but the music here is largely generic, and so is Jesse's singing — even with a formula in place, one could hope for more involving guitar riffs or catchier choruses. As it is, I doubt that Déjà Entendu, although it achieved some commercial success and got all those positive reviews, will ever get past the original adoration of those young adolescents with which these songs resonated in 2003, just because those guys were young and fresh as well. I find this record just as devoid of musical interest as its predecessor, but more pretentious, so a thumbs down is the proper way to go about this.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Strung Out In Heaven

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: STRUNG OUT IN HEAVEN (1998)

1) Going To Hell; 2) Let's Pretend That It's Summer; 3) Wasting Away; 4) Jennifer; 5) Got My Eye On You; 6) Nothing To Lose; 7) Love; 8) Maybe Tomorrow; 9) Spun; 10) I've Been Waiting; 11) Dawn; 12) Lantern; 13) Wis­dom.

This was the band's only release on a «major minor label», as they temporarily switched from Bomp! Records to the larger TVT Records, whose biggest claim to fame up till then were the Nine Inch Nails — hardly the closest band to BJM in terms of style and attitude, but somehow the TVT people thought Newcombe and his pals had a bright commercial future before them, and signed them to a multi-record deal. The deal lasted for just one album — this one — and when it flunked, the band got dropped again, with an ever lessening chance to be one day picked up by Warner Bros. or Sony Music Entertainment.

Since Newcombe's dependency on heroin by this time was said to be near-complete, allegedly much of the work fell on the shoulders of Matt Hollywood, and this may be the reason why the record is slightly shorter than usual, and more dynamic — and also even more retro — than usual: although the tempos are still slow rather than fast, there are very few mind-numbing drones, and for the most part the band here just concentrates on a modest, unpretentious pop-rock and folk-rock sound, so that the absolute majority of the songs here sound like inferior imitations of mid-Sixties masterpieces. Okay, so there's nothing essentially new in this statement — it just needs to be stressed that this is the first BJM album that does not even begin to try to build upon the legacy of the elders; instead, it merely imitates that legacy.

Probably the most blatant imitation for those in the know will come with the second song, ʽLet's Pretend That It's Summerʼ, whose ominously melancholic beginning is transparently reminiscent of The Kinks, particularly ʽDead End Streetʼ and similar songs. Ah, but if only Newcombe and Hollywood were really endowed with the genius of a Ray Davies! As it happens, the ominous­ness of the verses is completely wasted on the limp, disappointing chorus — the "let's laugh, have fun..." part, suddenly changing tempo and tonality and borrowing its bassline from the Beatles' ʽRevolution 1ʼ (yes indeed!), dissipates, rather than explodes, the tension build-up of the verse, and, in my opinion, is a first-rate example of how not to write a pop song if you truly want to hook your listener. And since these examples could be easily multiplied, it is no wonder that even a larger label was unable to properly promote the BJM — the Sixties' stylistics might have been «classy» all right, but class without catchiness is a poor contributor to album sales.

ʽWasting Awayʼ is another strange creation, with generational lyrics that seem to have been in­ten­tionally written from a Sixties' perspective: "The kids today / They got nothing to say / Be­cause they taught them that way" — and the accompanying sad harmonica solo brings Neil Young to mind (was there ever a Neil Young reference in a BJM review prior to this? If no, we're making progress). Nice sound, right message, but is this an interesting song? The harmonica solo is probably the best part about it. The rest — well, the song is just too limp and lazy to properly match the aggressive accusations of the lyrics. If I were an angry young man and I heard Anton Newcombe telling me that I'm wasting my life away in this sort of relaxed, nonchalant fashion, I would probably just tell him to go fuck himself — and it just ain't clear who of us exactly would be wasting his life away, anyway.

Or a love song like ʽJenniferʼ — there's, like, one jangly guitar line holding the entire song to­gether, and normally you expect a line like this to serve as a building block for something bigger, but this is just nonsense: it's like coming to a fancy restaurant, getting a nice bread basket for starters and then, much to your surprise, finding out that you are going to get nothing other than nice bread baskets until the end of the day. Come on, guys! Do something! Add an extra frickin' chord, for Chrissake! This is a tribute to Sixties pop — not even Gerry and The Pacemakers would tolerate such arrogantly lazy songwriting!

To cut a long story short, or, rather, to excuse myself for being unable to come up with a long story, Strung Out In Heaven has a very pleasant sound that will be doubly pleasant to all those who like old school folk rock, but do not like monotonous psychedelia. It even has a few oldies re-recorded here to match their then-current understanding of an ideal sound (ʽWisdomʼ from Methodrone, which most people must have forgotten completely by 1998). There is not a single bad song — but there is not one single song here I'd ever love to hear again, either, because the melodies are derivative, the hooks are not well developed, and the production, devoid of BJM's usual layers of multi-everything, is boring. Not coincidentally, almost every other review of this record I've seen usually avoids, intentionally or not, talking about the individual songs — be­cause, well, there's just nothing to say. Good acoustic guitar tones. Not so good singing. Whatever.