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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Brian Eno: Nerve Net

BRIAN ENO: NERVE NET (1992)

1) Fractal Zoom; 2) Wire Shock; 3) What Actually Happened?; 4) Pierre In Mist; 5) My Squelchy Life; 6) Juju Space Jazz; 7) The Roil, The Choke; 8) Ali Click; 9) Distributed Being; 10) Web; 11) Web (Lascaux Mix); 12) Decentre.

The revival of Eno's «pop» career ended as quickly as it began: in 1991, Brian almost finalized what would have been his first completely solo pop record since the Seventies, ironically calling it My Squelchy Life — but at the last moment, the project was scrapped, shelved, and ultimately replaced with Nerve Net, an allegedly much less accessible affair that did incorporate some mate­rial from MSL, but on the whole, did not look much like a «pop» album, let alone anything even remotely close to the nostalgic spirit of Wrong Way Up.

What Nerve Net is, actually, is an attempt to modernize and «harshen up» the man's electronic sound. Throughout the Eighties, Eno was largely following his own path, making all sorts of becalmed ambient albums that fit in with nothing else. But he may have eventually noticed that, in doing this, he had pretty much fell out of time — and even as a producer, he'd hit his cutting-edge peak with Talking Heads in 1979-80 and, well, that was that. Nerve Net sounds like a con­scious, even desperate attempt to catch up, and since the hottest thing around to catch up with was IDM (well, actually, the term IDM itself wouldn't be coined until 1993, but still...), this is what he is catching up with here. Electronic textures set to dance rhythms — produced by a man who hadn't really come close to a dance rhythm in at least a decade.

Saying that Nerve Net is a «bad» album wouldn't be meaningful at all. Rather, it is the stereo­typical useless album: an old-school pro treading on the turf of younger artists who are much more agile and knowledgeable in this department — I do not think that many a fan of Aphex Twin will think all that highly of Nerve Net in comparison. It is creative and moderately diverse, but the tunes are neither memorable nor all that powerful, and one reason behind that may be their compromising nature: the rhythmics may be modern enough (although the actual rhythms are rarely techno — more like good old syncopated funk), but the guest stars, including old friends Robert Fripp and Robert Quine on guitar, are old school veterans, and are just doing their usual schtick, not looking particularly excited about Eno's call for rejuvenation.

Problem is, if you're making a dance album (and this is a dance-oriented album), it has to go all the way, but this one does not. It sets up groove after groove with tense, nervous atmospherics (hence the name Nerve Net, right? right?), but it's almost as if Eno's decade of creating relaxed ambient sounds were refusing to let go off him, and every groove that tries to go for a harsh, grim, merciless effect ends up sounding soft and tender. In fact, about half of them sound like Brand X reprogrammed for drum machines and keyboard loops — atmospheric jazz-funk that tended to get boring even with live players, and gets useless with machines.

Attempts at singling out «better» tracks have been fruitless for me. Maybe it is the ones that have Fripp soloing all over them, like ʽWire Shockʼ with its vocoder-ish guitar tone vomiting all over your living room. Or maybe it is ʽAli Clickʼ, just because its funky groove sounds more loose and cocky than any other, and there's also this fade-in-fade-out piano line swooping down, and Eno is rapping something out on top of the music as if this were a surrealist pop number out of the past? Or maybe it's ʽWebʼ, because its «web» of distorted synthesizers and scared piano tinkling is the most ominous soundscape on the album? Whatever be, to me these observations do not come naturally — I have to concentrate really, really hard on the tunes to be impressed by them. Not that they aren't professional or creative or anything like that: they are simply too busy and fussy to be «ambient», yet too reliant on atmosphere and repetitiveness to be properly «dynamic».

Disturbing bit of trivia: apparently, the vocoder-distorted vocals on ʽWhat Actually Happened?ʼ encode the discussion of a rape situation. You wouldn't notice it unless you listened in very at­tentively or checked the lyrics online, but there it is. The words would agree with the general tone of the album — nervous, paranoid, deranged, psycho — but their blurriness also agrees with the general timidity of the album: Selected Ambient Works it sure ain't. On the other hand, those who still like to have their dynamic, kick-ass electronica with a bit of a humanoid face to it (all these guitar solos and drum loops that give the impression of being hand-generated) might still want to give this a try. Eno's mediocrity does have growth potential, you know. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: Live In Dublin

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: LIVE IN DUBLIN (2007)

1) Atlantic City; 2) Old Dan Tucker; 3) Eye On The Prize; 4) Jesse James; 5) Further On (Up The Road); 6) O Mary Don't You Weep; 7) Erie Canal; 8) If I Should Fall Behind; 9) My Oklahoma Home; 10) Highway Patrolman; 11) Mrs. McGrath; 12) How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live; 13) Jacob's Ladder; 14) Long Time Comin'; 15) Open All Night; 16) Pay Me My Money Down; 17) Growin' Up; 18) When The Saints Go Marching In; 19) This Little Light Of Mine; 20) American Land; 21) Blinded By The Light*; 22) Love Of The Common People*; 23) We Shall Overcome*.

Apparently pleased with the vibes, results (and sales?) of We Shall Overcome, Bruce took The Seeger Sessions Band on tour — and not just anywhere on tour, but all the way to The Point Theatre in Dublin, to show these Irish sissies what a real man's reel really sounds like. The Irish sissies did not mind, and gave The Boss a truly international welcome. Probably feeling sancti­fied about getting to sing tura-lura-lura-lay smack dab in the heart of tura-lura-lay country and getting away with this, Bruce released the proceedings as a live DVD and a live album — not just «another live album», but a special one.

The obvious problem here is that The Seeger Sessions Band, as you might have guessed, mainly plays songs from The Seeger Sessions — all of that album is reproduced here with the exception of ʽJohn Henryʼ (too political?), ʽShenandoahʼ (too intimate and dirge-y?), and ʽFroggie Went A-Courtin'ʼ (now THAT I consider the crime of the century — depriving worthy Dubliners of a passionate, rabble-rousing, ball-breaking ʽFroggie Went A-Courtin'ʼ? What were they thinking?). Naturally, with the exception of a few extended jam bits, these songs sound mostly identical to the studio versions, which were produced less than a year ago, and it's not even a question of adding «live spirit», because The Seeger Sessions were themselves imbued with live spirit. So the enthusiastic roar of the Irish crowd may add a little adrenaline, but on the whole, when it comes to «paying me my money down», most people will think twice before paying twice for more or less the same thing.

The gimmick of the record is that, in addition to all the traditional songs, Bruce sneaks in some of his own material, rearranged... nay, rewritten in the same format, and then it all depends on what you think of the idea. Personally, I think it sucks. Perhaps he thought that he had no choice — the people wanted to hear at least some of his own songs, yet they would obviously sound strange wedged in between the old folk classics, so he just had to reinvent them as «pseudo-old folk clas­sics». But who needs an ʽAtlantic Cityʼ shorn of its hooks and recast as a speedy, but utterly generic bluegrass romp? Or ʽBlinded By The Lightʼ losing the verse-chorus contrast and reduced to a mumbled vocal delivery set to a relentless ska beat? Or ʽFurther On Up The Roadʼ turned from a dark, grizzly blues-rock number into a happy highlander anthem, with flutes and accor­dions and bagpipes (okay, no bagpipes... but there should have been bagpipes)?..

As a one-time experiment, this may be amusing, but artistically, this is a dead end: Bruce may have succeeded as an interpreter of traditional old-school songwriting, but as an imitator, he does poorly even when compared to Woody Guthrie, let alone all those nameless ballad writers whose legacy has outlived their identities just because the legacy meant so much more to people than the identities. Likewise, he does not fare that well when he takes old songs with well-established forms and tries to recast them into something completely different — his multi-vocalist take on ʽWhen The Saints Go Marching Inʼ, remade as a soulful acoustic ballad, is plain boring. Besides, what's up with having a fully formed brass section, capable of hitting up that New Orleans sound in no time, and not doing ʽSaintsʼ the way it should be done? Shouldn't he be old and wise enough now to stop with these «confound-all-expectations» childish games? Come on out and decide, Mr. Springsteen — is it «give the people what they want», or is it «the artist bows down to no public pressure»? You've been having it both ways at the same time for so long now, it's become downright irritating at times.

Anyway, it's not as if I did not enjoy Live In Dublin — it's just that, on the larger scale of things, it feels like a conjectural appendix to The Seeger Sessions. Or you might turn it around and say that the Springsteen vibe really only shines to its brightest extent in the context of an arena, in which case The Seeger Sessions will be merely a warm-up prelude to the mass epiphany of Live In Dublin. But viewing both as equally important would be quite illogical, and I, personally, choose the former — it's more concise and compact and it lacks any failed self-experiments. The only track I'd gladly salvage from here is ʽOpen All Nightʼ, which I didn't even recognize at first, an old Nebraska number completely redone as a rollickin' / rip-roarin' honky-tonk number with a bedazzling piano part. Put it as a bonus track onto The Seeger Sessions and that's all we need.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Brinsley Schwarz: The New Favourites Of Brinsley Schwarz

BRINSLEY SCHWARZ: THE NEW FAVOURITES OF BRINSLEY SCHWARZ (1974)

1) (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?; 2) Ever Since You're Gone; 3) The Ugly Things; 4) I Got The Real Thing; 5) The Look That's In Your Eye Tonight; 6) Now's The Time; 7) Small Town, Big City; 8) Trying To Live My Life Without You; 9) I Like You, I Don't Love You; 10) Down In The Dive.

For their last album, Brinsley Schwarz turned to Dave Edmunds, already a minor celebrity in his own right, an avid lover of early pre-Beatles rock'n'roll who would as much want to impose that love on others as dwell in it himself — and indeed, The New Favourites should have rather been titled The New Old Favourites, since it just might be the single most retro-oriented Brinsley Schwarz album there ever was.

It does begin with what is arguably Nick Lowe's most famous song — the catchy pop anthem in support of idealistic ideals that would, however, only truly catch on in the popular conscience with the Elvis Costello cover several years later (and then be cemented even later with the version from the Bodyguard soundtrack, but we will try to erase that from the record). You could argue that this song, too, is «retro» in a way — advocating for a fallback from decadence and cynicism to the naïve, but noble (if also somewhat mythical) sentiments of the previous decade — but mu­sically, it should probably be described as «power pop», punchy, muscular, employing the three-chord punch of ʽBaba O'Rileyʼ (to weaker effect, though), and quite modern for 1974. It's not a great song in terms of composition, but Lowe makes an excellent, passionate vocal run towards the chorus resolution, and at the very least, comes across as a convincing spokesman for the cause — no wonder the song was endorsed for the Vote For Change tour in 2004 (even if the election results that year ultimately showed that something really was very funny about peace, love, and under­standing, but that's really beyond the point...).

Nothing else on the album, however, even begins to approach the anthemic fire of that song: all the other songs are quite down-homey, humble, and formulaic in comparison. Symbolically, one of the record's two covers is ʽNow's The Timeʼ, a very early, very simple and naïve pop song by The Hollies — not a songwriting gem like ʽBus Stopʼ or ʽKing Midas In Reverseʼ, but a generic early Merseybeat-style ditty that the Schwarzes perform with their usual diligence, yet how could they ever beat the Hollies' harmonies — their only serious advantage as of 1963, and one which still makes these early ditties outstandingly enjoyable, as opposed to this immediately forgettable cover? The second cover, by the way, is much more recent — Otis Clay's ʽTrying To Live My Life Without Youʼ, but, again, it is not clear how the band can improve on the song or make it more interesting in at least some respect.

Most of the «originals» also turn out to be pastiches and imitations — like ʽSmall Town, Big Cityʼ, which is essentially ʽAlley Oopʼ with new lyrics — and it looks like the band is not even trying to cover that up; maybe Edmunds was the one who convinced them that «good bands bor­row, great bands steal», but they got the causation wrong — it's not «if you steal, you're a great band», it's «if you're a great band, you steal», and because of this, here we have a good band stea­ling, which is embarrassing. I am not 100% sure that each and every one of these chord progres­sions had already been used in some pop / rock / country song in the 1950s/1960s, largely be­cause my memory is not vast enough to stockpile all those chord progressions, but it does honest­ly feel like this is the case, and then the idea of Brinsley Schwarz as the Stray Cats of the 1970s or something like that just doesn't seem so hot — except for the tactical idea of preserving the pleasures and vibes of pre-Beatles entertainment in the mid-1970s, which has been inevitably obsolete since, well, the mid-1970s, there is nothing about this music that elevates it above «listenable if you are ever forced to listen to it, so cross it off the Guantanamo list».

Since Brinsley Schwarz disbanded in 1975, The New Favourites could be regarded as one last bluff, undertaken to revitalize their image — and I am not saying it could not have worked, be­cause a large part of the world, fed up with progressive, glam, and Californian soft-rock, might have welcomed a retro-twist like this, were it properly presented. But this was a weak band from the very beginning, and even the addition of a dedicated producer could not have made it any stronger. Besides, the presence here of ʽPeace, Love, And Understandingʼ shows that Lowe could write passionate and powerful songs, at least occasionally — the logical question then being, why couldn't they write any more like that, instead of focusing on low-key secondhand stuff. Perhaps they didn't want to, because low-key secondhand stuff was what they really liked — in which case, well, they arguably got what they deserved.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Beach House: Depression Cherry

BEACH HOUSE: DEPRESSION CHERRY (2015)

1) Levitation; 2) Sparks; 3) Space Song; 4) Beyond Love; 5) 10:37; 6) PPP; 7) Wildflower; 8) Bluebird; 9) Days Of Candy.

You know, despite the fact that the sound of Beach House has evolved over the years — arguably reaching a «grandeur peak» with Teen Dream and mostly staying there with Bloom — frankly speaking, it's not that much of an evolution. Everywhere you look, you still find largely the same formula of misty-moisty dream-pop with chiming keyboards and floating guitars and Galadriel vocals. Therefore, to read that "this record shows a return to simplicity" in their press release is, to say the least, dismaying; and to read, just a few lines later, that "here, we continue to let our­selves evolve while fully ignoring the commercial context in which we exist" is downright terri­fying. Not to mention that, you know, they are actually selling this record — they cannot "fully" ignore the commercial context in which they exist unless they feed on wild fruits of the jungle and drink water from pure, untainted mountain streams. An impression that their music might convey, for that matter, but then don't they, like, need to at least pay for studio time?..

Anyway, Depression Cherry — a rather awful title, if I may so suggest — is indeed a conscious return to the rather subdued, minimalist textures of the band's first two albums, where they did not use real drums or, indeed, much of anything beyond ancient-sounding keyboards, guitars, and the pssht-pssht drum machine. The question is — why? «Evolving» with this working pattern is pretty much out of the question, as the music has almost exactly the same moods, tones, tempos, associations as it «used to be». Fine, so we have already established them to be the AC/DC of dream-pop, but even AC/DC could get dull after a while, unless the Young brothers sat down and crapped out a particularly fine batch of new (if still derivative) riffs. What about these guys? Bloom could still grow on you with time. Do these songs still have any fresh signs of magic, slowly, but steadily working on your brain?

A few, I'd say. Speaking of riffage, the main riff of ʽSpace Songʼ weaves a beautiful pattern in­deed, although I couldn't say the same about the bubbly space-synth countermelody that domi­nates the bridge section — they should have rather allowed the guitar to build upon that riff. ʽBe­yond Loveʼ also has a great guitar tone — colorful, sustained, slightly distorted, perfectly atte­nuating Victoria's vocals. And the two extended tracks, ʽPPPʼ, and ʽDays Of Candyʼ, have those trademark hypnotizing Beach House codas — ʽPPPʼ turns into a fairyland waltz that manages to be completely sentimental and totally non-corny at the same time, and the wailing lead guitar line of ʽDays Of Candyʼ is a simple-graceful-magical way to finish the album, but... but...

...ultimately, it's unsatisfactory. All of this is just way, way, way too safe, cozy, comfortable, predictable, expectable. All the tricks of the trade have been learned, studied, reproduced, all the techniques explained and chewed over, including the technique of always playing the same chord at least twice or thrice before turning it over to the next one — otherwise, you know, you can create the sense of «rushed», or, even worse, entrap Beach House in the boring layman conven­tions of that stupid old fourth dimension called «time». And timelessness is the essence of the Beach House sound — woe to him who suddenly gets the impulse to ask, "oh wait, haven't I already heard this song before?" Before? What before? There is no before, or after. There's just "a place I want to take you / When the unknown will surround you" (ʽLevitationʼ). Wait! you cry, I frickin' know this place already, I've been in that place since 2006! No, no, they say, that won't do. In the world of Beach House, there is no 2006, or 2015. "There is no right time", she sings, "you will grow too quick, then you will get over it".

Coming back to our senses (briefly), I should conclude that Depression Cherry has its moments, but that its ideology of «getting back to basics» is flawed to the core, because (a) this band had never moved too far away from its basics in the first place, (b) this band had already explored its basics so thoroughly that deliberately returning there almost feels like an auto-lobotomy, and (c) who do they think they are — the Beatles on the friggin' rooftop? No thumbs up, thank you very much, though I do single out ʽSpace Songʼ here as particularly luvvable. Apparently, all of their space is dressed in red velvet, and each asteroid is inhabited by its own native siren.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Butthole Surfers: Locust Abortion Technician

BUTTHOLE SURFERS: LOCUST ABORTION TECHNICIAN (1987)

1) Sweat Loaf; 2) Pittsburg To Lebanon; 3) Weber; 4) Hay; 5) Human Cannonball; 6) U.S.S.A; 7) The O-Men; 8) Kuntz; 9) Graveyard; 10) 22 Going On 23.

Okay, this time they're really just taking random words out of a dictionary. In fact, they're taking random stuff out of everywhere, and piling it all up as long as it sounds heavy, dark, weird, dis­turbing, and humorous at the same time. Now do not get me wrong: if something sounds heavy, dark, weird, disturbing, and humorous at the same time, that does not necessarily mean that it's good — which should be kind of obvious to anybody who ever tried emptying the entire contents of a fully stocked refrigerator into one big bowl and tasting on the contents. In fact, I am still trying to understand whether this album has any artistic merits, and it is even harder than with Rembrandt Pussyhorse, because on there, they at least tried to hook us with verbal content. On Locust Abortion Technician, there is not a lot of words in the first place, and what little there is does not even make surrealist sense.

«Bad acid trip» is a typical description when it comes to discussing this record, but so many pieces of music have been described as sonic equivalents of «bad acid trips», it's hardly distinc­tive any more — as well as most likely meaningless to those of us who have never had bad acid trips. «Evil clown music» is more like it, especially when you take the album sleeve into consi­deration — or, perhaps, «Zen music», if you take «Zen» not in its misguided meditative interpre­tation, but in the proper meaning of «revelation through shock». Almost any of these composi­tions / sonic collages could theoretically awaken one of the many beasts inside you, as the Surfers cleverly choose «tasty» soundbites and stack them on top of each other or twirl them around each other and then invite you to step into the unknown and tell them what it is that you feel, as they deconstruct and distort musical reality.

I wonder what Tony Iommi would say about ʽSweet Loafʼ, a six-minute «tribute» not just to the main riff of Sabbath's ʽSweet Leafʼ, but to the basic construction principle of Master Of Reality in general — brutal-heavy parts being divided by soft acoustic interludes for the sake of sharper contrast. Silly it may be, but it definitely sounds more «trippy» than the original — which, if you remember, was actually an anthem to marijuana, and so, in a sense, you could say that the Surfers stay more true to the original spirit of the song than Sabbath themselves. And what would the ori­ginal heavy electric bluesmen from Beck to Page say about ʽPittsburg To Lebanonʼ, an exercise in distorting the 12-bar structure to the fuzziest extremes of 1987? And what would the original masters of psychedelic guitar say to ʽWeberʼ, thirty seconds of craziest, shrilliest lead guitar over­dubs ever that make Cream, Hendrix, and even the Stooges seem like studio wimps?

Okay, they'd all probably just laugh it off, and they'd have their reasons. But even on the least well structured numbers here, the Surfers do their best to exacerbate everything, and they do it on a highly professional level: this is not just a bunch of kids giggling with the recording controls, these are experts that crank up to 11 whatever it is that they are cranking. In fact, the album's only track that does superficially resemble a «song», the speedy rocker ʽHuman Cannonballʼ, might be the weakest link — it just sounds way too normal for this record. It could have been recorded by, I dunno, Bad Religion, for instance. Whereas something like ʽKuntzʼ — a totally bizarre mix of East European and Southeast Asian motives (including a vocal track that they dragged off some Thai pop song) — as deranged as it is, could only come from the inexhaustible trickster mind of Gibby Haynes. And Leary's guitar work on ʽGraveyardʼ showcases his serious chops as a blues guitarist (that solo would be well respected on any classic blues-rock record), but it is more im­portant how every once in a while he dissolves the notes in a puddle of hysterical noise, while Haynes is mumbling black magic incantations or something in the background.

It helps that the album is short (barely half an hour in length) and yet its contents are so diverse; it also helps that there is practically no toilet humor (or if there is, it's probably in Thai); and it cer­tainly helps that, deep down inside, these guys are really just good old fans of the classics — had they been worshippers of avantgarde icons like Henry Cow, this would have been «weirdness squared», but when you take Sabbath and Zeppelin as your points of entry, well, from a certain cynical point of view, these guys are just begging to be deconstructed to some such effect. Not that Locust Abortion Technician cannot be enj... uh, assimilated on its own, without any know­ledge of its derivational base. But I don't believe that Haynes himself ever wanted you to do something like that — most likely, he'd tell you to go do your psychedelic, metallic, and punkish homework first, and then get back to him later. In any case, my thumbs up here should only be relevant if one does not regard the record as a stand-alone thing, but sees it as a crooked mirror projection of its predecessors. As a stand-alone thing, I would not be qualified to judge it anyway. Besides, it's not 1987 any more — these days, what are the chances of anyone hearing ʽSweet Loafʼ before ʽSweet Leafʼ, rather than after? (Unless, of course, the anyone in question is a 12-year old with a particularly sick mind, surfing for buttholes on the Internet).

Friday, September 25, 2015

Built To Spill: You In Reverse

BUILT TO SPILL: YOU IN REVERSE (2006)

1) Goin' Against Your Mind; 2) Traces; 3) Liar; 4) Saturday; 5) Wherever You Go; 6) Conventional Wisdom; 7) Gone; 8) Mess With Time; 9) Just A Habit; 10) The Wait.

Can I come out and say that You In Reverse is the best ever Built To Spill album? No, that would be illogical and arbitrary. Besides, how can I even begin to pronounce those kinds of judge­ment on a band that I do not properly «get», whose music I have no deep feel for? And be­sides, how can a band that is more than ten years into its musical career release a «best» album? Surely that is downright impossible.

But let us just see what we can see about this, on a track-by-track basis, just for the first several numbers. First, ʽGoin' Against Your Mindʼ is fast. I think it's faster than anything they played before, and it helps the sound — you know, «alt-rock» in general, with its preference of mid- and slow tempos, tends to wear you down, and this is oh so true of all preceding Built To Spill re­cords. So the song is almost nine minutes long, but who cares? It's an impressive speed train, quieting down in the middle to let the drummer catch a breath, only to explode into even more aggressive action towards the end. New guitarist Jim Roth, turning the trio into a quartet, pro­bably helps out, but it is unclear if his presence is all that essential — Martsch is a master of overdubbing, and the only reason to bring in an extra guitarist would be to lend a more «live» aura to the proceedings. Hmm, maybe it actually works.

The second track, ʽTracesʼ, slows down the tempo, although not quite to the standard creepy-crawly level of their classic albums — more disturbing is the fact that it never changes the basic rhythm or melodic pattern from start to finish, reflecting a «less challenging» attitude towards songwriting on this record. But if it works, why not? Here, the band establishes an unbreaking, monotonously pulsating melancholic vibe, out of which eventually spirals a moody guitar solo that logically and unavoidably winds itself up to hysterical heights without ever straying away from the rhythmic restrictions of the main melody — simple, evocative, and efficient. Nowhere near as intellectually challenging as ʽRandy Described Eternityʼ, for sure. But somehow, a bit more human, the way I perceive it.

The basic formula will persist: song after song after song, it is usually just one melody per unit (with the notable exception of ʽMess With Timeʼ, which begins like an Oriental-influenced lite metal number and ends like a hard-rock-meets-ska hybrid), and they consistently try to make it simpler, more accessible, maybe even more commercial, but still with enough taste and creativity, and with sufficiently convoluted lyrics that still seem to deal with the meaning of life in their own twisted ways, so as not to disappoint the demanding fan or the casual listener. Some of these songs, like ʽConventional Wisdomʼ with its swirling colorful lead guitar, charging tempo, and merry attitude, are fairly atypical for the band. Others, like the slow, jangly, psycho-dreamy ʽJust A Habitʼ, are more predictable, but the one thing that unites them all is this relative simplicity.

Oh, and another thing might be better production: for some reason, now that they are no longer handled by Phil Ek in the studio, Martsch's vocals suddenly become more upfront, and the songs in general become much more influenced by their soulful, tender, contemplative-Proustian voca­list; even if I am hardly his biggest fan, I must say that now that he is no longer hidden behind the wall of guitars, but given an equal voice with all of them, one major factor of irritation is gone, and the album is generally easier to listen to. It has even got occasional moments of conventional beauty (to which Built To Spill were never complete strangers — remember ʽHazyʼ from the de­but album? — but which was rarely a priority): ʽThe Waitʼ, in particular, is a stately, somewhat angelic choice for the album closer, with heavenly slide guitars, echoes, dreamy harmonies, and lyrics that... well, apparently they imply that your entire life consists of nothing but waiting. Yes, in a certain way I can see that. I can also see how it would agree with Built To Spill's overall musical philosophy and its somewhat Taoist overtones.

Although the qualitative gaps between all these albums are really small, to the extent that you will probably either love everything by the band, hate everything by the band, or (like myself) respect everything by the band without getting infected by it, I kinda sorta think of You In Re­verse as a major turn. Better bands would lose out by simplifying and streamlining their sound, but for Martsch and his pals it might actually be a better bet to stay away from too much experi­mentalism and esotericism, and concentrate on these «single-shot» songs that lock onto a groove and ultimately, sooner or later, make it work, no matter how trivial or boring it may have sounded during its first minute. A thumbs up, then, although do keep in mind that for a band like this, it is much better to just apply one single judgement to all the albums at the same time.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Billy Bragg: England, Half-English

BILLY BRAGG: ENGLAND, HALF-ENGLISH (2002)

1) St. Monday; 2) Jane Allen; 3) Distant Shore; 4) England, Half English; 5) NPWA; 6) Some Days I See The Point; 7) Baby Faroukh; 8) Take Down The Union Jack; 9) Another Kind Of Judy; 10) He'll Go Down; 11) Dreadbelly; 12) Tears Of My Tracks.

Curiously, it took Billy almost twenty years to do this, together with the experience of working with Wilco and then with his own specially assembled band, The Blokes — but England, Half-English finally does the trick: here be a pretty decent «political pop» record, where the majority of songs is given over to liberal-political manifestos, and yet does not suck from a detachedly musical standpoint. Yes, that's a very rare thing in general, and almost like a first for Billy, whose best musical numbers up to now were usually of a lyrical nature.

This may be, of course, due to active collaboration with The Blokes, who, for this album, also included Ian McLagan of the Faces on keyboards, and Lu Edmonds of The Damned and PiL on guitar — and about half of the songs here credit them both or at least one of them as co-writers. More than that, ʽSt. Mondayʼ, the spritely record opener, is credited to Billy solo, but the cheery piano rolls that open and then dominate the tune are prime McLagan — nothing like a true vete­ran of Brit-pop-rock lending his spirit and good will to make a tune so optimistically infectious, especially for all those who, like Billy, hate working on Mondays.

But who did what and why is all just speculation; the pure fact is that I really like the record and think that it hits home more often than it does not. Even the title track, which, as you have pro­bably already guessed, lashes out at anti-immigrant sentiments by accentuating the perpetually mixed nature of English culture ("St. George was born in Lebanon / How he got here I don't know / And those three lions on his shirt / They never sprung from England's dirt") and could have allowed itself doing and being nothing else whatsoever (Important Social Statement being enough for liberal musical critics), is a fairly odd musical concoction that deliberately tries mixing together elements of Latin and African rhythms, with a little bit of vaudeville in between. It's danceable, it's catchy, it's got a rippin' percussion track, and it makes some good culturo­logical points — what's not to like? Unless you're a member of the Enoch Powell fan club or something. (Like Eric Clapton.) (Who would now deny it.) (But truth will out!)

Stuff like ʽNPWAʼ (ʽNo Power Without Accountabilityʼ) is more trivial musically — just a straightahead mid-tempo blues rocker — but it still sounds okay, as emphasis is made on the sternness, harshness of the arrangement, with all the musicians (particularly the drummer and the organ player) getting into the same accusatory spirit as Billy and hammering out these largely familiar chords with meaningful determination. And while most people will only comment on ʽBaby Faroukhʼ from an "Oh look, here's a happy song about a pretty baby written from a pro-immigration perspective!" (you never can really tell, though — it could be about Freddie Mercury, for all we know), the song actually has a fun guitar melody and a classy instrumental break, equal­ly divided between pretty acoustic and electric slide guitar licks. (The vocal harmonies are a little hicky, though — a somewhat clichéd representation of the «Oriental ladies chanting a new­born baby's praises» idea).

There's a couple really good songs here, too, where «good» means «deep-cutting» rather than just «satisfactory». ʽHe'll Go Downʼ, for instance, is a subtle, haunting ballad where Billy becomes Tom Petty when singing the chorus, but usually tries to be Leonard Cohen, and the organ and the guitars play little contemplative melodies off each other in spooky-midnight mode. And ʽAnother Kind Of Judyʼ, following an almost Madchester-style rhythm, might be the best fully arranged properly Eighties-style pop song Billy ever put on record — a decade too late, perhaps, but then nothing is really too late in the 21st century, where you can be anybody from Socrates to Kurt Cobain and still feel at home with at least one target audience group.

Anyway, by the time he gets around to the smarty-pants ʽTears Of My Tracksʼ — reverting a Smokey Robinson title to sing a lament for his freshly sold vinyl collection — the record has fulfilled its proper function and proven that yes, sincere and straightforward liberal propaganda need not be defiantly anti-musical, no matter how many hardcore artists try to convince you other­wise. A masterpiece for the ages this might not be, but it gets its thumbs up anyway. Now it's up to you, Ted Nugent, to take up the challenge! 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Brian Eno (w. John Cale): Wrong Way Up

BRIAN ENO: WRONG WAY UP (w. John Cale) (1990)

1) Lay My Love; 2) One Word; 3) In The Backroom; 4) Empty Frame; 5) Cordoba; 6) Spinning Away; 7) Footsteps; 8) Been There Done That; 9) Come In The Desert; 10) The River; 11) You Don't Miss Your Water*; 12) Palanquin*.

With Thursday Afternoon behind his belt, Brian Eno unofficially changed his name to Brian EnoUGH, and focused primarily on installations and all sorts of musical carpentry — so when he came back in 1990 with his next proper «musical» album, that part of the world for whom the name still mattered was probably quite shocked to learn that (a) not only would it be a collabora­tion with John Cale, another giant from the past, but (b) it would also be a pop album — Eno's first pop album in thirteen years, to be correct.

And if anything, as you listen to the opening electronic-syncopated rhythms of ʽLay My Loveʼ that opens the record, it's like those thirteen years never happened. Maybe the keyboard tones are a little different, since, clearly, Eno uses a different set of sound-generating gizmos in 1990 than he did in 1977, but the basic style of the song is not one inch different from Eno's basic style on Before And After Science, or, for that matter, Here Come The Warm Jets. Not one! Just the same combination of catchy melodicity, warm friendly vocals, tense rhythmics, and overall weird­ness that used to make those records so accessible and so inimitable at the same time.

Behind all the joy there are problems, however. One is that, although all but one songs are jointly credited to Cale and Eno, Wrong Way Up does not sound like much of a collaboration. When you had Eno and Cluster, or Eno and Budd, or even Eno and Byrne, it was rather easy to spot the individual talents and tell who's contributing what, and it all added up to all sorts of exciting com­binations of vibes. This record, in comparison, feels like half-Eno, half-Cale, and even if techni­cally Cale probably plays keyboards, strings, and horns on some (all?) of the Eno songs and vice versa, the other guy is always being low-key while the first guy is singing and flashing his per­sonality. So you have the Eno part (ʽLay My Loveʼ, ʽOne Wordʼ, ʽEmpty Frameʼ, ʽBeen There Done Thatʼ, etc.) and the somewhat smaller Cale part (ʽIn The Backroomʼ, ʽCordobaʼ, ʽFoot­stepsʼ, etc.), and they're quite different: Brian is still largely the friendly guy with a grin, Cale is still that second-gloomiest guy from the Velvet Underground after, you know... the first-gloomi­est guy. The two personalities do not mesh that well.

Of course, they are not necessarily supposed to: Wrong Way Up could run on contrast rather than coherence. But this is where the second problem knocks on the door, and that is — these songs are not that good, honestly. After the first pangs of pleasure at the familiar sight and sweet memories triggered by ʽLay My Loveʼ are over, you begin to realize that the song is neither as fresh nor as tightly gripping as anything Eno did in the 1970s, even if the looped string riff is kinda cute and uplifting. This is just too much of a «let's go back there and see what we can do with the same old ingredients again» spirit to allow me to rate the song on the same level as ʽNeedle In The Camel's Eyeʼ or ʽNo One Receivingʼ, if you get my drift. It's a nice song, but it just doesn't — has no intention to — stick around all that long.

They even selected one of the songs here for a single, and it even charted in the States: ʽBeen There Done Thatʼ is a New Wave-stylized pop hopper that nicks its verse melody from Paul Mc­Cartney's ʽJunior Farmʼ (isn't that actually weirder than anything else on here?), is fairly infec­tious while it's on, but in the end just sounds like any medium-quality New Wave pop hit produ­ced in the late 1970s or the early 1980s. Again, it's all fair, but it's Eno-lite, no surprises, all smoothness and nostalgia and, if you pardon the expression here, not a lot of soul. And then ʽThe Riverʼ sounds nice, but it is essentially fashioned in the mode of an old country-pop tune, some­thing of a cross between the darkness of Johnny Cash and the sweetness of Ricky Nelson. I can understand Brian wanting to write and record something like that, but surely he could have no illusions that this (rather than, say, ʽBy This Riverʼ) is something that he would be remembered by long after Johnny Cash, Ricky Nelson, and his truly have given that unpredictable trio perfor­mance at Live Aid: A Benefit Concert For The Children Of Limbo, organized and sponsored by the Archangel Committee.

I must say that, in a way, I actually prefer the «purely Cale» slices on here — apparently, he was in some sort of Spanish phase here, so ʽIn The Backroomʼ is a moody Mexican tale with castanet overdubs and echoey guitars and violins, and ʽCordobaʼ is a subtly haunting minimalistic ballad about... nothing in particular; it tries to conjure a little bit of puzzling mysticism out of thin air and generally fails, but at least the attempt is worthwhile. In other words, whatever John is doing here does not simply seem like a stab at recapturing and repackaging old glories — Eno, on the other hand, can almost literally be seen hopping with a butterfly net after that elusive «spirit of 1977», and it is just a little odd for such a respectable gentleman to be seen hopping around.

Since none of the songs are decidedly bad, a thumbs up is still in order: the disappointed tone of the review is explained primarily by context — with those almost impossible quality standards that Eno's pop albums were setting in the mid-1970s, you could predict that any «comeback» like this would be a disappointment, but you'd still secretly hope for another grand slam. Still, let us look at the good sides, too — for instance, they pay no attention whatsoever to the actual pop trends of the time, bent completely on doing their own schtick by their own standards. And, as is usual with Eno, there are no attempts at self-aggrandizing or putting on Elder Statesman clothes or anything like that — aside from the usual cryptic lyrics that may or may not hold the key to the meaning of life, it's all quite unpretentious. And catchy, and well-produced, and enjoyable; but as for replay value — only for big fans of both artists, I'd say.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: WE SHALL OVERCOME: THE SEEGER SESSIONS (2006)

1) Old Dan Tucker; 2) Jesse James; 3) Mrs. McGrath; 4) O Mary Don't You Weep; 5) John Henry; 6) Erie Canal; 7) Jacob's Ladder; 8) My Oklahoma Home; 9) Eyes On The Prize; 10) Shenandoah; 11) Pay Me My Money Down; 12) We Shall Overcome; 13) Froggie Went A Courtin'.

Was this inevitable? Bob Dylan entered his «roots revival» stage in the early Nineties, having turned 50, and even though many more people probably praised Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong than people who actually keep on listening to these records a quarter cen­tury later, at least nobody will deny that they did help revitalize his artistically sagging career and, in a way, prepared the ground for Time Out Of Mind. Springsteen enters that same stage com­paratively a little bit later (about five years or so), but a bigger difference is that, unlike Dylan, Bruce never had an early folk-loving stage — his very first albums were already influenced much more by Dylan himself than any of Dylan's folk hero predecessors, and Bruce was never known all that much for covering other people's songs, anyway.

But I do not think that, once the initial news leaked out that Springsteen was recording a whole bunch of traditional folk songs from the Pete Seeger songbook, anybody doubted that he could make these tunes his own. I'd rather think that, perhaps, one could doubt whether he could have preserved something of the old spirit of these songs — instead of just Springsteen-izing them — and it is for this precise reason, arguably, that the sessions were held not with the regular E Street Band, once again temporarily put on hold, but with a bunch of new musicians from the New Jer­sey Area, not at all well known but apparently well versed in traditional music. Acoustic guitars, fiddles, banjos, old-timey percussion, the works. On top of that, one major surprising addition are The Miami Horns, regularly sitting in on most of the tracks and giving them a decidedly New Or­leanian flavor — and on top of it all, there's The Boss and his well-worn raggedy voice, now per­fectly adaptable to conveying that grizzly folk spirit.

How does it work? Well, the biggest flaw of the album is that it's almost predictably good. Most likely, you already know many of these songs — and unless you just hate the folk tradition as such, these are all fine examples of the genre. Most likely, you already know how The Boss in­spires his backing bands to play at top energy level — and how well he can impersonate that pro­verbial Working Man, taking his time on the front porch after a hard day's work to provide some simple, unadorned musical joy for himself, his family, and his neighbors. Most likely, you also know how The Boss is stubbornly resistant to musical fashions (especially having learned his lesson with bad production in the Eighties), and you know he is not going to rearrange these songs as raves, raps, or metalcore. A project like this has a near-zero probability of failure, and this is precisely what makes it not very exciting.

I don't even want to comment on any of the songs individually, because most of them serve the same purpose: entertainment. This is not some sort of sanctifying project where one turns the songs upside down and shows you the interesting stuff in those little corners and pockets that you never saw there before. These are big band arrangements for party halls and country fairs, to which people simply dance the night away, regardless of whether the lyrics tell bloody stories of Jessy James, Biblical parables, sailor sagas, or silly kid tales of how Froggie went a-courtin'. This is why the tracks are long and repetitive, and all the choruses are catchy because they are looped almost to infinity — you're not really supposed to notice that, you're simply supposed to keep on dancing, caught up in a rhythmic whirlwind. And the Boss is right there, giving you a prime example of inexhaustible energy and passion. You stop only when he stops, no earlier.

That said, I am still content to have this. The brass arrangements of the material are somewhat of a novelty, yet they work — giving the songs an extra «cabaret» flavor, perhaps, but one that does not feel alien to the material. And if you want to hear those old-timey numbers played with gusto, with as much bravado, volume, and recklessness as possible, I'd be hard pressed to come up with a better candidate than The Seeger Sessions — Bruce never relents, and on songs like ʽJacob's Ladderʼ or ʽO Mary Don't You Weepʼ, you can almost feel him pushing, pushing, pushing the band to further heights of passion with each new reprisal of the chorus. Subtlety is not a welcome guest on the record; subtlety is left over to the real Pete Seeger, or the likes of The Country Gen­tlemen. Here, it's all about going wild, and who's better at going wild than Springsteen? And at the tender age of 55, too, it's like the perfect balance between being old enough to lend some spirit of authenticity here, but young enough to still be able to kick up a good ruckus.

This does not conceal the fact that the record is lightweight, and in general more of a temporary amusement for Springsteen rather than a serious project — but clearly, the man has earned a right to some lightweight detours, and paying tribute to a musical genre without which your musical genre would not exist in the first place may be the best choice for such a lightweight detour. I will probably refrain from an explicit thumbs up here, because after the first few songs, the predicta­bility effect becomes so strong that tediousness begins to set in; however, I will never say that the album is completely expendable, either — at the very least, it is a meaningful chapter in the Springsteen book, if not necessarily a meaningful milestone in the art of folk music revival.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Brinsley Schwarz: Please Don't Ever Change

BRINSLEY SCHWARZ: PLEASE DON'T EVER CHANGE (1973)

1) Hooked On Love; 2) Why Do We Hurt The One We Love; 3) I Worry ('Bout You Baby); 4) Don't Ever Change; 5) Home In My Land; 6) Play That Fast Thing (One More Time); 7) I Won't Make It Without You; 8) Down In Mexico; 9) Speedoo; 10) The Version (Hypocrite).

Apparently, this is a «stop-gap» album, thrown out on the market to appease the fans (but how many fans?) while waiting for the boys to write and record a proper set of new tunes — which explains its very lightweight nature, even judging by Brinsley Schwarz's usual standards. But even so, its title is symbolic: formally, it is simply the title of an old Goffin/King song that they are covering here, but allegorically, it reflects the band's ever-growing ideology of «if it ain't broke, don't fix it» — which this album is all about, from head to toe.

Be it as it may, this time around Nick Lowe and Co. are not even trying to imitate The Band — or, if they are, they are inadvertently imitating The Band's Moondog Matinee (inadvertently, be­cause both records happened to be released at the exact same time, October 1973). Then again, if you throw in Bowie's Pin Ups, 1973 was probably the first year of massive nostalgia for pop mu­sic of the previous decades (and then we'd also have to mention American Graffiti, and then there is simply no stopping...), so no wonder that Please Don't Ever Change is filled to the brim with Fifties- and Sixties-sounding soul, R&B, doo-wop, Latin, rockabilly, ska, and New Orleanian music. The only difference being is that most of these songs are not covers, but Nick Lowe (and Ian Gomm) originals, but other than the lyrics and the arrangements, little about these «originals» is «original» in the proper sense of the word.

Since this is Brinsley Schwarz we are talking about, this implies that the sound will be professio­nal and clean, the «show-off factor» will be less than zero, the atmosphere will be light, homely, and pleasant, and the memory of the album will probably wear off you in 24 hours if no more music is listened to, and in much less than that if you aurally compare this stuff to whatever, say, Genesis, The Who, or even The Faces were doing that same year. Some of the songs are just total novelties (or, rather, «oldities») here, with no individual reasons to exist — ʽDown In Mexicoʼ is not a cover of the hilarious old Coasters number, but an «original» Latin serenade pastiche, which the band is unable to play better than your average Mexican band and, what is worse, is also unable to render distinctly «Brinsley Schwarz-ian», whatever that could mean; and their take on ska is either limp and devoid of energy (in between ʽWhy Do We Hurt The One We Loveʼ and ʽWrong 'Em Boyoʼ, I know which one I'd choose in a jiffy), or simply puzzling (what is that in­strumental cover of Leroy Sibbles doing there in the first place?).

With the blues, these guys are in more familiar and comfortable territory, and soulful numbers like ʽI Worryʼ and ʽI Won't Make It Without Youʼ, whose spiritual ancestors include B. B. King, Sam Cooke, and Fats Domino, among other people, are smooth and touching, though I would not know what else to say. Somewhat more exciting is the live version of ʽHome In My Handʼ from the previous album, with a nice jamming section where Brinsley and Ian heat up the hall with nasty riffs and hysterical solos (think of the little brother of Marc Bolan on rhythm guitar and the little brother of Alvin Lee on lead, though both clearly have a long way to go). But on the whole, even here there is not much to say — just tap your toes and be happy, and please don't ever change, because, you know, we like you just the way you are. (At least they do this song better than the Beatles did it on the BBC — but fortunately for Brinsley, the Beatles never tried to re­cord it in a regular studio session). 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Bon Jovi: Burning Bridges

BON JOVI: BURNING BRIDGES (2015)

1) A Teardrop To The Sea; 2) We Don't Run; 3) Saturday Night Gave Me Sunday Morning; 4) We All Fall Down; 5) Blind Love; 6) Who Would You Die For; 7) Fingerprints; 8) Life Is Beautiful; 9) I'm Your Man; 10) Burning Brid­ges; 11*) Take Back The Night.

The title of this album refers not to the split between Jon and Richie Sambora, as could have been easily suggested, but to the split between Bon Jovi and Mercury Records, the label with which the band had been associated from the very beginning. Apparently, their long-term contract ran out, and both sides agreed not to renew it — and, well, I can sort of understand Mercury Records, be­cause what do you do with a band that so decidedly does not belong in the 21st century, not to mention one that hasn't produced even a semi-decent record in more than a decade? And, on a more objective note, whose sales have been on a steady decline ever since the world discovered Britney Spears? (Not that there's any direct connection... or is there?).

Anyway, I'd like to say that Burning Bridges is their worst album in a long, long while, but in a way, it is not even an album — it is a hasty assemblage of songs culled from various vaults, with just one or two new numbers, released as a contractual obligation to facilitate the band's transition to a new label. This probably explains the presence of Sambora on the credits to at least one song (the bouncy pop rocker ʽSaturday Night Gave Me Sunday Morningʼ) and the lack of Desmond Child on any other credits, because everything written with Child was released on the spot (okay, not really, but whatever Child-cowritten outtakes they had were already issued on the 2004 box­set). This is also a gallant explanation for why almost everything on here is so shitty, and why you needn't even be aware of this album's existence unless you are forty-three years old and still remember that fateful day when your elder sister took you along to your first...

...okay, never mind. In terms of upbeatness and catchiness, there are two songs here with so-so hooks — the already mentioned ʽSaturday Nightʼ (disco meets alt-rock and fuses with it to be­come arena-era Taylor Swift as sung by Jon Bon Jovi; I don't think you'll meet a more precise description of this anywhere) and ʽI'm Your Manʼ, because falsetto woo-woos are a terrible wea­pon even in the wrong hands. The title track, an acoustic-and-accordeon dance number, is a rather rude goodbye to Mercury Records, but since it does not mention Mercury Records by name, they apparently had no choice but to let it go. It's at least mildly amusing if you know the context.

Everything else is mainly just power ballads, with the usual Bon Jovi aplomb and pretense — soulfulness, echoes, power chords, some more fresh bleeding from a heart that's been punctured so much, it's hard to believe it could not be made out of plastic. Largely awful production, too, with synthetic guitars, heavily processed vocal harmonies, and lifeless percussion, particularly on the single ʽWe Don't Runʼ. ʽA Teardrop To The Seaʼ is at least slightly redeemed with an unusu­ally noisy, distorted, hystrionic guitar solo (played by producer John Shanks?), but later on the scales are tipped to the other side with the awful «blues de-luxe» soloing à la late Gary Moore on ʽFingerprintsʼ (remember ʽStill Got The Bluesʼ? that's what I'm talking about, the pathetic gypsy-blues style for people who have no feeling for the real blues). But yes, on the whole, it's all in quintessential Bon Jovi style, so if you're a fan, Burning Bridges will not disappoint. If you're not a fan, though, join me in my thumbs down, and don't forget to send a congratulations card to Mercury Records. Better late than never — and now they can finally reassign some of their budget to promoting Iggy Azalea. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Butthole Surfers: Rembrandt Pussyhorse

BUTTHOLE SURFERS: REMBRANDT PUSSYHORSE (1986)

1) Creep In The Cellar; 2) Sea Ferring; 3) American Woman; 4) Waiting For Jimmy To Kick; 5) Strangers Die Every­day; 6) Perry; 7) Whirling Hall Of Knives; 8) Mark Says Alright; 9) In The Cellar; 10) Moving To Florida*; 11) Comb*; 12) To Parter*; 13) Tornadoes*.

On here, the Surfers are attempting to get a little more serious, though you certainly would not know it from the album title — which not even the real Rembrandt would have appreciated, I think, no matter how iconoclastic a picture is being painted of him in various urban legends. But then I guess, if you put the word «Rembrandt» in your album title, there's no getting away from at least trying to do something important. Even if it is followed by the word «pussyhorse». Okay, not that important, perhaps.

Most of these tracks rise high above basic street hooliganry, though not always above the level of parody — some sound like an absurdist take on Joy Division (ʽWhirling Hall Of Knivesʼ) or Nick Cave (ʽSea Ferringʼ), and some are noisy, irreverent deconstructions of classics (the Guess Who's ʽAmerican Womanʼ). The true name of the game, though, is «experimentalism», and the band tries on everything that works and some things that don't, with spontaneity and unpredictability as their chief guides.

One of the legends states, for instance, that they were recording ʽCreep In The Cellarʼ on a used 16-track tape without having previously erased a country-western fiddle track from one of the channels — which played something completely different, but they liked it and left it in, so here we have ourselves some dark piano pop with a merry fiddle «underdub» playing something almost straight out of the Beatles' ʽDon't Pass Me Byʼ. Does it work? Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't. More important is the fact that such was Fate's decree, and if you call yourselves The Butthole Surfers, you just don't muck around with Fate.

Everything here is weird, largely because the Surfers have finally gotten used to the possibilities of the recording studio, and are using the whole power of effects, overdubs, loops, and samples to their benefit, if that might indeed be the right word for it. Some basic knowledge of American pop culture, as usual, wouldn't hurt to appreciate the record deep enough, but is hardly necessary: perhaps knowing that ʽMark Says Alrightʼ utilizes the growl of a pitbull named Mark Farner, in «honor» of the leader of Grand Funk Railroad (a band that could hardly be further away from the Butthole Surfers' ideal than any other — but then, at least secretly, deep down inside everybody really loves GFR), makes the track a little more hilarious — but its real charm lies in how it com­bines elements of musical suspense with musical clowning, starting off with surf guitar trills and then melting them into a sea of chiming noises and wobbly interlocking soundwaves. What's Mark Farner got to do with that, anyway?

But essentially, this is a record about madness, not as heavy and frightening as, say, The Birth­day Party, yet every bit as deranged — already ʽCreep In The Cellarʼ begins with the line "there's a hole in his brain where his mind should have been", an appropriate tag for everything that goes on here. If there is a problem, it lies in the fact that almost as many albums had been recorded about madness by 1986 as there had been about breakups, and the Surfers aren't giving us any previous­ly uncovered angle, although it helps that they are not being too serious about it: for instance, a surreptitious slice of social criticism is heavily disguised in ʽPerryʼ, an adaptation of the Perry Mason theme for organ, schizophrenic guitar, and distorted, barely identifiable vocals. A zombie mutant Vegas anthem, words, music, and meaning all corroded.

I would not go as far as to fall in love with the record, though. Like many experimental «try anything for kicks» records, this one has some brilliant musical ideas (like the flanger effect on ʽWhirling Hall Of Knivesʼ, drilling a nice see-through hole in your skull in four and a half minutes), some odd stuff that overstays its welcome (did the electro-tribal drumming on ʽAmeri­can Womanʼ really have to occupy five and a half minutes of space?), and some completely pointless tracks — for instance, the "church organ" + "bubbles" + "distant vocal noise" combina­tion of ʽStrangers Die Everydayʼ simply does nothing other than undermining the solemnity of the church organ with the silliness of the bubbles. So what was that all about again?..

The CD issue of the album increases its length drastically by throwing on the EP Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis (from the previous year) as a bonus, adding three more tracks in the same (lack of) style and one, ʽMoving To Floridaʼ that would have been a better fit for Psychic..., what with its vocal lambasting of the redneck stereotype. However, I am not certain that forty nine minutes is a good span for an album like this — what with the songs tending to drag so much and the sonic weirdness of it all not always coinciding with sonic amazement, so to speak. Of course, in the overall context of 1986 («the worst year for music», as I like to call it, although mostly in reference to the major label commercial stuff), Pussyhorse is a marvel of human in­genuity. But in the overall context of human ingenuity as such, I would refrain from a thumbs up judgement: there is not much here that I openly enjoy, be it with a giggle or with a shiver, and too many tracks that are too boring to respect.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Built To Spill: Ancient Melodies Of The Future

BUILT TO SPILL: ANCIENT MELODIES OF THE FUTURE (2001)

1) Strange; 2) The Host; 3) In Your Mind; 4) Alarmed; 5) Trimmed; 6) Happiness; 7) Don't Try; 8) You Are; 9) Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss; 10) The Weather.

Oh no! «The magic is gone!», a lot of fans seem to complain about this record, implying that the new millennium's cosmic rays have somehow managed to break through the skull of Doug Martsch, of all people, corrode his genius, and destabilize his vision so now Built To Spill sound like «any other generic indie-rock band». Such a shame. I do have an alternate opinion, though, seeing as how I was always dubious of that genius in the first place — maybe it's not so much the music that has changed, but simply the people, who were once listening to Built To Spill in their easily impressionable, character-forming teen years, happened to grow up... and suddenly find out that Doug Martsch never did?

Because, honestly, if there is one big flaw to Ancient Melodies Of The Future, it is simply that the band refuses to evolve. We have largely the same formula here — dreamy, philosophical pop songs with dense layers of guitar overdubs and monotonous vocals that have little hope of clam­bering into the open from under that thick mesh of competing guitars. In this context, how could you even begin to answer the question of which songs are «better» — the ones here or the ones on the preceding «golden trio» of BtS records? Okay, so these ones are shorter, with fewer melo­dy changes along the way than there used to be, and maybe the overall number of complex riffs has somewhat decreased, but probably not because Martsch has run out of them (a guy like Martsch can never really run out of complex riffs), but because he may have wanted a slightly more straightforward, in-yer-face approach.

Personally, I have never witnessed any magic on any Built To Spill album — intellectual at­tempts at credibly modeling magic, yes, but not real magic, and in that respect, I see no diffe­rence between the old shit and the new shit. A song like ʽAlarmedʼ, for instance: any true Martsch fan should just love everything about it, from the grand opening with the swooping strings whis­tling over your head like bombers, to the equally grand lyrics ("I'm alarmed and I can't help from / Crashing onto this island we've become") to the way it gradually segues into the noisy coda, where Martsch's knightly challenge of "did you make it all wrong, so wrong?" is drowned in a sea of ominous strings and nastily dissonant keyboards. I am unable to love it, for all the already known reasons (bad singing, messy production, inability to make the best melodic elements of the song take heavy precedence over the average elements, etc.), but how could anybody who does not view these reasons as a problem not love it? Beats me.

Or a song like ʽHappinessʼ. Slide guitar opening with an almost Sleepy John Estes sound to it! Then it kinda sorta becomes closer to the Black Crowes, but who could blame them for wanting to try and combine slide with distortion? "Happiness will only happen when it can" — yet ano­ther of those simple philosophical maxims from Mr. Martsch, no better and no worse than any such statement made previously. What's not to like? Or ʽIn Your Mindʼ — backward solos, mys­terious Eastern-flavored mellotrons, a sludgy fuzzy guitar interlude, and a psychedelic climactic puncture in the chorus ("no one can see in your MIIIIND!..." — a simple truth, delivered not for the sake of providing hitherto unknown knowledge, but for the sake of letting you know that the music of Built To Spill serves to hypothetically reflect the black box activities that take place under your skull, and is thus historically and spiritually linked to... okay, did I ever mention that Doug Martsch might be seriously influenced by John Lennon circa 1966? Just in case I didn't, ʽShe Said She Saidʼ is, like, the thickest root supporting the BtS trunk).

But do not get me wrong: for me at least, the album was just as unmemorable as almost every­thing that preceded it. And the reason why, this time around, I wouldn't want to give it a thumbs up is not because the music is «bad» (Doug Martsch came to me in my dreams one of these nights and told me confidentially that he never once wrote a bad song, so I have no reason to disbelieve him if he went to all this trouble to show up), but because it has become fixed and locked in «autopilot» mode. The songs still feature plenty of the band's instrumental trickery (I did not yet mention the multi-guitar storm attack on ʽTrimmed And Burningʼ, which is one of the most im­pressive musical moments on the entire record) — they just refuse to take one step beyond that trickery, or even expand the bag of already explored tricks. The formula works, but now it thrusts itself in your face — «look, we can still write new songs in the same old ways!» But what works for intelligently anti-intellectual bands like AC/DC, can hardly be said to work for arrogantly philosophical bands like Built To Spill; a philosopher, after all, can never be satisfied with his current findings, but has to constantly dig deeper and cast wider in order to even preserve, let alone expand, his reputation. Therefore, yes, somewhat of a disappointment — but only because I was never a big fan of this band in the first place. If you were, save yourself the worry: the classic Built To Spill sound remains completely intact on this short, tight, self-assured, and «creatively» construc­ted album (where the quotation marks refer to the modern, somewhat mechanistic and, I would say, rather boring understanding of the term).

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue Vol. II

BILLY BRAGG: MERMAID AVENUE VOL. II (w. Wilco) (2000)

1) Airline To Heaven; 2) My Flying Saucer; 3) Feed Of Man; 4) Hot Rod Hotel; 5) I Was Born; 6) Secrets Of The Sea; 7) Stetson Kennedy; 8) Remember The Mountain Bed; 9) Blood Of The Lamb; 10) Against The Law; 11) All You Fascists; 12) Joe DiMaggio Done It Again; 13) Meanest Man; 14) Black Wind Blowing; 15) Someday Some Morning Sometime.

Okay, almost everyone says this one's not so good, and how could it be? Maybe the impressive success of the first volume was not enough to make them go back into the studio and record some more — but it was enough to make them release most of the stuff that did not make it onto Vol. I, and if these are outtakes, well, there must have been reasons for their being outtakes from the very beginning, right? Scraps are scraps, even if you're a giant of popular music.

Honestly, though, I do not share this popular opinion about the sequel being so seriously inferior. Maybe it is because I do not view the original Mermaid Avenue as a masterpiece — merely as a very pleasant, very insightful, very tasteful synthetic exercise — and without elevated expecta­tions for the sequel, the sequel just comes across as yet another such exercise. In fact, one reason why these songs were discarded originally may have been not the lack of quality, but their being generally much more distant from the standards of «folk rock» than the songs on the first album: here, Billy and Jeff really go a long way, adapting Woody's words to so many different musical styles that poor Woody must have rolled over in his grave much more than once. They may have ditched some of this first time around just so as not to have Norah scratch her head and wonder whether the decision to entrust this stuff to a couple of modernist clowns was such a good idea in the first place. But second time around... there's just no stopping them.

See for yourself. ʽMy Flying Saucerʼ is a folk-pop song all right... in Buddy Holly, not Woody Guthrie style (starts out ʽPeggy Sueʼ style). ʽFeed Of Manʼ is a slide guitar-heavy swamp rocker that sounds like Rory Gallagher with Brian Jones on second guitar. ʽSecrets Of The Seaʼ is an in­die pop song that is 100% Summerteeth-era Wilco. ʽAll You Fascistsʼ is speedy blues-rock with crazy guitar and harmonica romps that may have been inspired by Five Live Yardbirds. And weirdest of all is ʽMeanest Manʼ, a song with such strange lyrics that the only thing Bragg could do about it was turn it into a wannabe Tom Waits number... and sing it like Tom Waits, too. (Why didn't they try to get the real Tom Waits, I wonder? They got Natalie Merchant and Corey Harris as guest stars — Tom Waits would kick their limp folksy asses).

Most of the other songs, too, sound very much «appropriated» by either Tweedy or Bragg, to the extent that the album closer, ʽSomeday Some Morning Sometimeʼ, a gentle ballad with kaleido­scopic electronic overdubs, would seem like a natural predecessor to the futuristic «folktronic» soundscapes of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Most importantly, they use Woody's lyrics to create moods that go way beyond Woody's lyrics — yes, it is true that these lyrics show us a much more profound and diverse Guthrie than the Dust Bowl Poet stereotype, but these guys go further than that: ʽBlood Of The Lambʼ, for instance, is cast as a bitter, sarcastic cabaret vaudeville, where Tweedy's vocals take on an almost mocking air as he sings that "I've learnt to love my peoples / Of all colors, creeds and kinds / I'm all washed in the blood of that lamb". Was it supposed to be ironic? Maybe it was. Who the heck knows?

Or ʽMeanest Manʼ — okay, so Woody writes about all those evil things that he could have been, but he isn't because of the kindness of the people around him; is it right, then, to have the song delivered pirate-style, as if the protagonist were the meanest man? Or maybe he really is? Maybe this is just a tiny hint at the creepy dark side of the man?.. Oh God, perhaps Norah should have reconsidered, after all. Then again, if the original intent was to create a multi-dimensional portrait of a man equally beset by angels and demons on all sides, then this is exactly what Billy and Jeff are doing for us here. They may have largely invented this portrait, filling in all the blank spaces with bits of their own personalities (Billy the streetwise jester and Jeff the idealistic dreamer), but there probably was a little bit of each in the old Woody anyway, so no prob.

In any case, as far as the songwriting and the arrangements are concerned, half of these tunes are bona fide Billy Bragg tunes, the other half is first-to-second-rate Wilco, a must have for all fans of the classic Wilco sound, and as a special bonus you get another brief acoustic ditty tenderly sung by Natalie Merchant's faience shepherdess — shake it, but don't break it; it's a good thing, after all, that nobody tried to make a 10,000 Maniacs album out of this set of lyrics, «This Guitar Kills Politically Incorrect Male Chauvinists»-style. This one gets another safe, friendly thumbs up. And please note that, as of 2012, both are also available together as Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, a sprawling boxset that adds yet a third bonus CD of even more stuff, which I have not heard so far, but I'm pretty sure that three's good company, and judging by Amazon prices, it's also quite a good bargain compared to buying all the stuff separately.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Brian Eno: Thursday Afternoon

BRIAN ENO: THURSDAY AFTERNOON (1985)

1) Thursday Afternoon.

For full, originally intended effect this single track, stretched out over an hour, should go hand in hand with a video installation, where, allegedly, seven immobile shots of a semi-nude model were filtered through various video effects. Without the accompanying visual impressions, the sheer transcendence of the sonic palette will travel through your conscience unfertilized, and you will be forced to quench your spiritual thirst with imperfection. Damn you, Brian Eno, then, for allowing Polydor Records to distribute this work of art as a stand-alone audio CD, providing the illusion of perfection for your fans worldwide when in reality they are surreptitiously offered but one half of the apple of revelation.

Then again, who in his right mind would want to spend sixty minutes (or even more) staring at a video installation? Even if it shows semi-nude models? If it happened to be any of you reading this review, please take the time to leave behind a happy memory of an epiphany you had in the process, one that alleviated for you the uneasy task of opening your mind to possibilities and looking at the material and trans-material world in front of you with a different set of eyes. If it did not happen, well, let us join forces and see what we can make out of these sixty minutes of sounds, and how, even today, it can help us cure cancer and neutralize ISIL leaders.

One visual association that I definitely do not get is with semi-nude models. The composition consists of a set of seemingly random, but in reality quite complicatedly patterned processed piano notes, playing against a very, very slow crescendo of electronic hum. The notes, as is quite common with Eno's ambient experiments, are subject to delay, subtle timbre change, and over­laying, so, technically, you probably could not state with certainty that «it all sounds exactly the same», but from a layman's point of view, it certainly does. The electronic hum eventually drowns out the piano tinkling, but only around the 58th minute or so, after which the humming machine simply fades out.

If there is a visual association, it would most likely be something in the cubist style... no, not even cubist: more like De Stijl. Yes, actually, Thursday Afternoon would have made a fine audio companion to a van Doesburg exhibition — its piano «plops», appearing on the surface as quickly as they vanish again into nothingness, are just like randomized, proto-Tetris geometric figures on De Stijl design pieces. Which is not really a compliment: De Stijl, as far as I am con­cerned, works much better on T-shirts and table cloths than it does in a museum, but would then Thursday Afternoon also have a purely pragmatic function? Other than, I guess, you could set it as the default receiving melody on your cell phone and spiritually illuminate all your contacts instead of picking up the phone and replying to their petty harassments?..

This is a piece of music that is, in the words of certain business executives, "inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional"; the only option that is not observed here is that "it must be 3¼ seconds long", because the quotation, as retold by Brian, re­fers, of course, to the Windows 95 theme, which was basically Thursday Afternoon condensed to that sort of length (imagine Windows 95 taking sixty minutes to load, though). That was a nicely pragmatic «applied» use for Eno's magic. Other than that, you could set it to run in the background, for relaxation and harmonization and purification purposes (burning some incense alongside would be nice as well), but I am afraid that, whatever else you'd be doing at the moment — scrubbing the windows, doing your taxes, writing your novel, or, God forbid, making love to your equally nutty New Age-y girlfriend — you would begin slowly going crazy around the 15 minute mark, and finalizing the deinstallation around the 40th minute, because this stuff is naggy: the synth hum is okay, but the piano notes may eventually cause the same effect as drip­ping water in a torture cell.

That said, (a) the main «theme», if run for about a couple of minutes, is every bit as beautiful and mystical as anything the man ever did, and (b) if you are a professional risk-taker or just an avid listener, hardened in many a battle against arrogant genius, submitting yourself to the full experi­ence at least once is probably not the stupidest way to delete sixty minutes of your life. Which, like anybody else's life, is worthless anyway next to the deep mysteries and wonders of the uni­verse — and we might just as well proclaim this as the basic overall meaning of Thursday After­noon, an album that one might easily condemn, but hardly ever forget.