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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Butthole Surfers: Electriclarryland

BUTTHOLE SURFERS: ELECTRICLARRYLAND (1996)

1) Birds; 2) Cough Syrup; 3) Pepper; 4) Thermador; 5) Ulcer Breakout; 6) Jingle Of A Dog's Collar; 7) TV Star; 8) My Brother's Wife; 9) Ah Ha; 10) The Lord Is A Monkey; 11) Let's Talk About Cars; 12) LA; 13) Space.

Okay, so we are not going to play it hip here and declare that the Butthole Surfers' brightest mo­ment of commercial glory was a proverbial pile of shit — but let us also face the inevitable: de­spite the gory album cover and the Hendrix pun of the title, Electriclarryland is simply not even close to Independent Worm Saloon when it comes to good music. It may have been the toning down of the ferociousness of their sound that was responsible for the album climbing up the charts, or it may have been the factor of prolonged exposure and publicity, or perhaps the world at large was a little more adventurous in 1996 before Britney Spears swept it all away, but the fact is, Electriclarryland is decent, but not very good.

With Jeff Pinkus out of the group and Leary taking over bass duties (occasionally shared with Andrew Weiss of the Rollins Band), the Surfers make one more step towards «being normal», and this time, they overstep it, because in the place of aggressive snarling rock'n'roll, fueled by Leary's guitar-god performance, what we get is a bunch of mid-tempo «alt-rock» songs, heavily dependent on lyrics and vocals rather than captivating instrumental work and also influenced by some of the more modern developments in music, such as trip-hop. It seems that the band, either of its own will or, perhaps, pushed by outside provocators, is trying to adapt to contemporary trends — big, big mistake, since for all their revolutionary mind-blowing prowess, the Butthole Surfers were always at their best when guided by their past, not present influences (note: this judgement certainly does not apply to any artist, but it seems oh so true for these guys).

The result is stuff like ʽPepperʼ, a song that got them into the Top 40 on the singles market — a miraculous feat, I guess, but the irony of the situation is that ʽPepperʼ, at most, is just listenable when it comes to separating the band's great stuff from the band's passable stuff. Leary still does his best to get a good psychedelic lead tone going on this slow trip-hoppy cruise, but the solo seems strictly confined to a single melodic pattern, the vocals, whether it's the rapped verses or the sung chorus, are somnambulant in a prison courtyard, and the gruesome story told through the lyrics only seems there to somehow introduce an element of belated shock into the commercially intended performance. No, actually, the groove is still worthwhile — closing your eyes to it and settling into a slow rhythmic wobble can be relaxing — but in the end, this... well, sounds more like the Brian Jonestown Massacre than the Butthole Surfers. And how on Earth this got into the Top 40 in 1996, I'll never know. Did people confuse this with a new Tricky single or what?

Echoes of Worm Saloon's rocky explosions are still felt throughout — even the album opener ʽBirdsʼ has a fast-'n'-furious rock'n'roll punch, although it adds little to the vibe already explored on ʽWho Was In My Room?ʼ and ʽDust Devilʼ. Another fast tempo number, ʽAh Haʼ, prefers to replace distorted hard rock guitars with jangly folk rock guitars, so that they sound like a home­less, toothless version of R.E.M.; and there is at least one bona fide hardcore punk number, ʽUlcer Breakoutʼ, with the good old chainsaw and dog bark and racecar drumming. But either it is the overall context in which they are lodged, or the lack of their own individuality, yet none of these songs suffice to turn the tide in favor of the record.

Oddly enough, when you look at all this with just a formal look, the album remains pretty weird. There is ʽJingle Of A Dog's Collarʼ, a dark folk-pop ballad that seems to have been written from the perspective of a canine character (and ends with some genuine sniffing). There's the risqué ʽMy Brother's Wifeʼ, with heavy use of vocal sampling, loads of white noise, and extra overdubs to reflect the psychosexual commotion of the title character. There's ʽThe Lord Is A Monkeyʼ, a technically successful stab at psychedelic hip-hop with cartoonishly evil rapped vocals and ruth­less wah-wah solos. There's ʽLet's Talk About Carsʼ, featuring a classy pop riff over which people seductively speak French for a few minutes. In short, there's all it usually takes to get a classy, involving, unpredictable pop album.

But somehow, in the end, it just doesn't want to click. Where the mix between «normalcy» and «madness» on Worm Saloon seemed just perfect, here it is as if «normal» and «weird» keep seg­regated to two different channels and do not mix at all. So I keep getting torn between the total sensual puzzle of ʽLet's Talk About Carsʼ — and the total openness and even genericity of something like ʽTV Starʼ (a ballad whose chorus goes "Christina, la-la-la, I love you so", if you can believe it). None of the individual songs are awful, but together, they do not amount to an impressive performance. Not that I would imply that «mainstream involvement» ended up eating away the band's essence — rather, they just tried to do something different here, and could not play up to their usual strengths in the process. The record is still well worth a look, but it not only seems weak and lagging next to the band's high standards of quality, it also seems kind of dated to its time period, and Butthole Surfers feel so much greater when they are not attached to any particular time period — not so blatantly, at least.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Buzzcocks: Love Bites

BUZZCOCKS: LOVE BITES (1978)

1) Real World; 2) Ever Fallen In Love; 3) Operators Manual; 4) Nostalgia; 5) Just Lust; 6) Sixteen Again; 7) Wal­king Distance; 8) Love Is Lies; 9) Nothing Left; 10) E.S.P.; 11) Late For The Train.

This quickie follow-up to Another Music sounds slightly disappointing to me, not because it was rushed or anything, but because the band went for a somewhat less humorous, more serious ap­proach here, and when the Buzzcocks are weighted down with too much seriousness, they seem to lose touch with their genius. However, moving one step away from perfection is not much of a crime, particularly when you are still capable of crafting first-rate pop-punk hooks by the dozen; and if you are not obsessed with the idea of drawing boundaries between Album A and Album B in the first place, you might not even understand what I'm talking about here.

"I'm in love with the real world / It's mutual or so it seems / 'Cos only in the real world / Do things happen like they do in my dreams", Shelley tells us in the opening manifesto of ʽReal Worldʼ — and you could interpret that first line either as the epitome of the punk revolution (music that has to do with "the real world", instead of progressive rock's fantasy universes), or, more likely, as just a statement of personal humility — and peacefulness, which sets the Buzz­cocks so far apart from the bellicose stylistics of their working class brethren. Indeed, all of the songs here are love songs — some are, in fact, romantic love songs, as ʽLove Is Liesʼ, written and sung by Steve Diggle, begins as an acoustic ballad, and by the time we get to the chorus, we are knee-deep in ʽSugar And Spiceʼ territory: "Love is lies, love is eyes, love is everything that's nice" (okay, so you can sort of see why Diggle is not trusted with writing more songs, but if you disregard that creepy "love is eyes" equation, it's actually a pretty folk-pop tune, well deserving of being professionally covered with Searchers-style vocal harmonies).

Then there's ʽEver Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)ʼ, often quoted as the most notable song on the album, if not the signature tune of the Buzzcocks — indeed, it is a skilful synthesis of the speedy punk song and the bitter love-lost ballad, although, with a little irony, one might suggest that the Ramones did beat them to the punch with ʽTexas Chainsaw Massacreʼ. However, it is not the instrumental melody and its clever use of minor chords, but rather the vocal hook that produces the deepest impression — Shelley has this fine talent to take an unwieldy string of prose, loop it, and convert it to a gracious musical serpent that sounds like it was born to the realm of rhythm and melody. Who else could craft such a twisted, yet natural chorus with the phrase "have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't've fallen in love with?" I bet the guy was a tongue-twister champion in elementary school.

On the other hand, the Buzzcocks are also trying to prove that they are, first and foremost, a musical band — by including two instrumentals: the short one, ʽWalking Distanceʼ, was written by the bassist and features a nice set of speedy interlocking pop riffs, and the long one, ʽLate For The Trainʼ, is again recorded bolero-style, this time with such an insistent drumbeat, though, that poor John Maher must have ended up with even worse blisters on his fingers than Ringo ever did. The problem is, it does not have enough musical ideas for five and a half minutes: it seems like it is desperately looking for a crescendo, but finally gives up on that and just lets the drums take over completely for the coda.

Definitely not a work of genius, that one, and shows that the Buzzcocks are not universal masters of everything — unsurprisingly, it is the short three-minute pop-punk tunes like the cocky, heroic ʽNostalgiaʼ or the sexopathological statemenr ʽJust Lustʼ that take home first, second and all the other prizes. Or even a tune like ʽE.S.P.ʼ, which takes pride in taking one ten-note riff as the basis for all of its five minutes — and somehow it works, because normally you'd expect a riff like that to be used as the intro to the song and then go away, and the fact that it stays forever and ever makes it minimalistically funny. Blatantly annoying, yes, but funny.

All in all, still a satisfactory thumbs up here, despite the occasional misfires and the fact that lightweight funny Kinks-influenced ditties have largely been replaced with heavier and a bit more moralistic rockers. They did want to make a point that Love Bites, want it or not, and they made it all right — after all, partner relationships have every right to cause as much punkish frustration as social oppression does, and where your life has space for Give 'Em Enough Rope, there should be some extra space right next to it with Love Bites

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Bruford: The Bruford Tapes

BRUFORD: THE BRUFORD TAPES (1979)

1) Hell's Bells; 2) Sample And Hold; 3) Fainting In Coils; 4) Travels With Myself — And Someone Else; 5) Beel­zebub; 6) The Sahara Of Snow (part 1); 7) The Sahara Of Snow (part 2); 8) One Of A Kind (part 2); 9) Five G.

Two studio albums into their career and these guys are already gunning for a live release — gran­ted, a limited release, for some reason restricted to the American, Canadian, and Japanese mar­kets, even though you'd think a band like Bruford could probably have fared somewhat better on the Euro­pean market. Recorded on July 12, 1979, in a New York club, this performance marked the playing debut of John Clark, a student of Holdsworth who was recommended by Allan as his replacement once he'd finally had enough — and, honestly, I cannot easily tell the difference, though this is probably just due to my indifference to much of this material.

As you can see from the track list, they cover One Of A Kind almost in its entirety here, while the much better debut album only gets two songs (well, actually, ʽFainting In Coilsʼ incorporates a chunk from ʽBack To The Beginningʼ, so three, technically) — and while it is rather obvious that they could hardly count on Annette Peacock to tour with them, there seems to have never been any thought about carrying their «symph-prog» side over to the live circuit. Instead, all of this here is a strictly fusion affair, and, as you can guess, everything is smooth, professional, and mostly sounds the same as the studio originals, with a few extended jamming parts here and there and enthusiastic crowd noise (yes, those batty New Yorkers do love their fusion). If this makes you feel any better, the sound quality is quite excellent for a low-key club date recording, but then could you expect anything less from the former (and future) drummer of King Crimson?

The obvious bottomline is that if you do not enjoy One Of A Kind, you can hardly expect to be turned around by The Bruford Tapes; and if you do enjoy One Of A Kind, you have to be a true «fusion nutso» to want to appreciate the little additional nuances that the band brings to the tables of this little New York get-together. In both cases, this is most likely a thumbs down — despite the self-understandable skill and tightness of the musicians. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Brian Eno: The Drop

BRIAN ENO: THE DROP (1997)

1) Slip, Dip; 2) But If; 3) Belgian Drop; 4) Cornered; 5) Block Drop; 6) Out Out; 7) Swanky; 8) Coasters; 9) Blissed; 10) M. C. Organ; 11) Boomcubist; 12) Hazard; 13) Rayonism; 14) Dutch Blur; 15) Back Clack; 16) Dear World; 17) Iced World.

True to its name, I believe that all of this album, except for the last track, is about «the drop». Since gravity causes different effects depending on the nature of the object subjected to gravity, things, you know, tend to drop at different rates with different sonic repercussions, and this is exactly the subject that Brian Eno explores on this album. And if you think the subject is slight, well, think again — can you even imagine a world without dropping? It's not every second, mind you, that a starving child dies in Africa — but every second, millions and billions of objects around the world effectuate The Drop. And has anyone in the history of music ever made a work of art about that? Absolutely nobody, not even The Fall.

On the down side, when you dig deep into the art of dropping, it shows little potential for fasci­nation. If you emphasize it and make tricky electronic interlocking patterns, like Autechre, it can have some crazy appeal — but if you treat it minimalistically, like Brian does here, it doesn't do all that much. Sixteen short tracks — snippets, really — that range from rhythm-less atmospheric textures to (theoretically) danceable tracks with drum-'n'-bass support, and most of them just float by without awakening any unusual thoughts or feelings. There is little here that wasn't already done better on Nerve Net or Spinner, and those, too, weren't exactly huge artistic successes. At best, this music feels like a collection of moody intros to potentially gripping songs — some mildly intriguing groove is set up, you subconsciously expect it to develop / transition into some­thing more exciting, it never does, and you walk away... dissatisfied. Maybe you will get an idea of what a ʽBelgian Dropʼ really is, but how exactly is that going to help you develop your spiri­tuality and keep in touch with The Eternal?

Since the tracks are so frustratingly non-descript, I believe that the only thing that remains is to point out that the last track, called ʽIced Worldʼ and stretching out for more than thirty minutes, is actually just an extended version of the second part of the last track from Spinner, and that nothing particularly different happens in those 25 minutes of it that were not included on Spinner. I do wonder if there's a skyscraper high enough anywhere in the world that would require a 32-minute ride with ʽIced Worldʼ as the soundtrack. If there is, they should be waiting for you with a straitjacket at the top, just for the purpose of extra security — or, at the very least, you might never ever want to hear a piano again as long as you live.

It is so ironic, of course, that the worst of Eno's ambient albums seem to be those on which some­thing actually happens — at least Music For Airports, with its Zen-Spartan poise, entrances you with its superficially humble arrogance, but this «unwelcome jazz» thing that Brian got going in the late Nineties is just yawn-inducing. Never even mind that these albums put him at a total dis­advantage with all the experimentation and innovation that was happening at the same time on the electronic scene — it's just a bunch of bland sonic collages by itself, in and out of any context. I can understand that the man was bored, but rubbing your boredom off on others is simply im­polite, especially for such a great artist.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: High Hopes

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: HIGH HOPES (2014)

1) High Hopes; 2) Harry's Place; 3) American Skin (41 Shots); 4) Just Like Fire Would; 5) Down In The Hole; 6) Heaven's Wall; 7) Frankie Fell In Love; 8) This Is Your Sword; 9) Hunter Of Invisible Game; 10) The Ghost Of Tom Joad; 11) The Wall; 12) Dream Baby Dream.

I guess it's a big help for us all to see the ol' Boss still asserting his masculinity with such confi­dent posture on the cover of his nine billionth studio album, but wait ten more years and people will start mixing him up with Clint Eastwood, and then where will we be? Another question is whether a brand new album from the Boss is really necessary, when we have not yet completed our disappointment ritual with Wrecking Ball? Why does he refuse to come to terms with the fact that millions of fans all over the world just want to hear ʽBorn In The USAʼ and ʽBorn To Runʼ, because they don't have time to learn all those new words?

Actually, High Hopes is a bit of a cop-out. On most of his previous albums, Bruce had freely re­sorted to resuscitating some of his outtakes and older raw ideas, but High Hopes is the first one in a long time, if not ever, to consist almost exclusively of outtakes and old ideas — even a casual fan like me immediately recognizes ʽAmerican Skin (41 Shots)ʼ, which was played as early as the Live In New York City tour, and, of course, ʽThe Ghost Of Tom Joadʼ is not just a re-recording of the old title track from that one LP, but a studio take on a live electric version with Tom Mo­rello that Bruce had also been playing since God knows when (I know I first saw it on the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert in 2009 and was duly impressed with Mo­rello's fireworks, and here you have them all over again). Information on the provenance of the other songs is easy to come by as well, but we shall not dwell too much on trivia here.

Instead, the good news is that, for all of its mixed nature, High Hopes somehow ends up being more interesting and involving than Wrecking Ball — maybe precisely because the man had no single, obsessive, and poorly executed concept here, but simply rounded up a bunch of isolated good ideas and left them for us to piece together. There's some of that traditional Seeger-inspired folk rock here, some typical old school Springsteen epics, and some really odd stuff, like the title track, which was originally written and recorded by the obscure artist Tim Scott McConnell, a.k.a. «Ledfoot», the self-proclaimed creator of the «Gothic blues» genre; actually, Bruce recorded his first version of the song as early as 1996, but this is a totally reinvented version, with Morello's pyrotechnics and a crazed-out Latin brass rhythm section turning the tune into a tribal dance round the fire (funny enough, the drum intro almost tricks you into thinking that the band is all but ready to launch into Led Zeppelin's ʽRock'n'Rollʼ — probably an accident, though).

The songs, as usual, are relatively simple and often tremendously repetitive, which is excusable on folk stylizations like ʽDream Baby Dreamʼ (a cover of Suicide!) but a little irritating on the originals like ʽHeaven's Wallʼ. Nevertheless, there are some good hooks, including orchestral ones — ʽHunter Of Invisible Gameʼ is a generic folk ballad in form, but well redeemed by the orchestral line that pierces the song throughout and essentially plays the same role that the Char­lie McCoy guitar flourish plays on ʽDesolation Rowʼ. And some good lyrics, too: ʽThe Wallʼ is a genuinely moving tribute to Vietnam vets, not even so much because of the lyrical trumpet part, but because the words are so well put together: "Apology and forgiveness got no place here at all, here at the wall". Then again... he wrote this circa 1998, back when the old imagery bag still had some good stuff tucked away at the bottom.

The strange alliance with Tom Morello actually works out well for the album: not only does the man add his flashy, indulgent, but oddly efficient guitar fireworks to several of the songs, but he was also the motivator behind Bruce's unpredictable choice of covers — not that ʽJust Like Fire Wouldʼ and ʽDream Baby Dreamʼ are such great songs per se, you understand, but the idea of Bruce Springsteen covering The Saints and Suicide, if only to acquaint the general public with these bands' existence, is endearing, and doubly endearing, perhaps, if we remember that this is being done in 2014, by which time no layman is supposed to remember anybody but Michael Jack­son and Madonna from that decade. This is at the same time a «retro» move for the man, and a bold leap forward — let's have high hopes for a Captain Beefheart cover next time around.

Without much of anything else to say, I would just like to let this go with a thumbs up. By its very nature, High Hopes, comprised as it is of odds and ends, could not be a «great» Springsteen album. But at this time, I'd rather have a «simply good» Springsteen album that does not strive for much rather than a «would-be great failure» like Wrecking Ball, which struggles to ensnare you with its Grand Message, but falls flat compared to all those early Grand Messages. Some hooks, some decent lyrics, some diversity, a bit of weirdness... no, really, can't complain. Perhaps it was a good idea to let all those songs stew for a decade or more — sometimes it does not work (like with the weak version of ʽLand Of Hope And Dreamsʼ on Wrecking Ball), but here, these particular studio sessions caught the Boss in an invigorated mood, and even ʽAmerican Skinʼ sounds every bit as punchy as its live counterparts.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Buddy Guy: A Man And The Blues

BUDDY GUY: A MAN AND THE BLUES (1968)

1) A Man And The Blues; 2) I Can't Quit The Blues; 3) Money (That's What I Want); 4) One Room Country Shack; 5) Mary Had A Little Lamb; 6) Just Playing With My Axe; 7) Sweet Little Angel; 8) Worry, Worry; 9) Jam On A Monday.

What a difference a label change made — Buddy didn't even have to move away from Chicago, because the New York-based Vanguard Records gave him studio time at Universal Studios in his own Chicago stronghold, where he was still able to play with some of the Chess veterans, inclu­ding, most prominently, pianist Otis Spann, who makes A Man And The Blues as much his own as Buddy's. Some people have claimed not to notice any big difference, but that is not true: the major difference is that, for the first time in more than ten years, Buddy got to make an album — no longer confined to the limitations of the single form — and this has not only allowed him to properly unfurl his talents, but also stimulated him to expand them.

If you think, though, that A Man And The Blues is going to be some ballsy, flashy, I-can-beat-that-Hendrix-sucker affair, think again — with a few minor exceptions, this is a very quiet, low-key recording, concentrating on slow blues guitar/piano interplay rather than cocky blues-rock riffage. One of the minor exceptions is ʽJust Playing With My Axeʼ, which borrows the basic riff of ʽSatisfactionʼ (or, more accurately, the basic guitar/brass riff of ʽSatisfactionʼ as done by Otis Redding) and uses it as a base for some rather chaotic, but clean-sounding jazzy improvisation on Buddy's part — not as if that axe were chopping a whole lot of wood.

Large numbers of generic slow 12-bar blues can be a heavy burden, of course, but the saving grace of the record is Otis — from the opening title track, where Spann and Guy duel with each other for about six minutes, and right down to ʽWorry Worryʼ, where... Spann and Guy also duel with each other for about six minutes, the record is loaded with this exciting piano/guitar dialog, where the possibilities for expression are near endless, and the two men captivate our senses like two genius actors in a never-ending Shakespeare dialog, alternating between lengthy expositions of individual arguments and quick, flashy call-and-response duels (check out especially those brief inter­changes in the coda to ʽA Man And The Bluesʼ).

The best of these tracks is probably the soulful cover of Mercy Dee Walton's ʽOne Room Coun­try Shackʼ, a song whose nearest relative in the blues idiom is the well-known ʽBall And Chainʼ (popularised by Janis, but actually brought to the public by Big Mama Thornton) — Otis plays it out like Ray Charles, moody and ominous, while Buddy does his best Bobby Bland impersona­tion and adds minimalistic jazzy leads (incidentaly, Wayne Bennett, Bobby Bland's guitar player, is also present on the album, but only as rhythm guitarist). It's not exceptional, but in between the two, they succeed in generating a haunting atmosphere of loneliness and depression, and the only problem is that more conventional numbers, such as B. B. King's ʽSweet Little Angelʼ and ʽWorry, Worryʼ, feel a little bland after it.

The «rockier» numbers are also done «gently»: ʽMoney (That's What I Want)ʼ is played with clean guitar and fluent, accurate piano (no Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano bashing allowed), and the re-recording of ʽMary Had A Little Lambʼ gives much of the melody to the brass section, while Buddy's soloing style is, once again, soft, smooth, and silky, to the extent that I probably couldn't tell it apart from B. B. King at this moment (well, no, actually, the two men's playing techniques are always different, but the guitar tone here is 100% Lucille). But that is no big deal — the big deal is that, for the first time in his life, Buddy here gets to play what he wants, how he wants, and (quite importantly) for as long as he wants (a couple of the songs have fade-outs that may have concealed even longer jamming bits, but how we will ever know?). And since it's all done with style and taste, let us just forget about the «identity-finding» issue (I mean, if you want to lay down a claim that Buddy never truly found his own identity until the 1990s, that's fine with me) and give this a well deserved thumbs up, and don't forget — this is as much thumbs up to Otis as it is to Buddy, if not more.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Arcs: Yours, Dreamily

THE ARCS: YOURS, DREAMILY (2015)

1) Once We Begin (Intro); 2) Outta My Mind; 3) Put A Flower In Your Pocket; 4) Pistol Made Of Bones; 5) Every­thing You Do (You Do For You); 6) Stay In My Corner; 7) Cold Companion; 8) The Arc; 9) Nature's Child; 10) Velvet Ditch; 11) Chains Of Love; 12) Come & Go; 13) Rosie (Ooh La La); 14) Searching The Blue.

Although «The Arcs» were assembled as a side project of Danny Auerbach, comparison of their first (and so far, only) album with the latest production of The Black Keys shows that Danny probably just wanted to take a break from Carney — because Yours, Dreamily is easily seen as a next logical step in Auerbach's evolution from grizzly blues-rocker into a moody popster, sort of like a one-man Fleetwood Mac in all of its multiple consecutive incarnations (at least he does not have a spare Christine McVie-type personality). Assisting him in this evolution are: keyboard and horn player Leon Michels (who also plays sax in his own band, El Michels Affair), drummer and general multi-instrumentalist Richard Swift (who is also a member of The Shins), and, to a lesser extent, drummer Homer Steinweiss and bassist Nick Movshon, who used to play for the late Amy Winehouse, among others. They all share songwriting credits with Auerbach — particularly Leon Michels — but it is very perfectly clear that this is essentially Danny's project from top to bottom, as his personal unshaved aura is all over the place.

And there's nothing wrong with that, either: Yours, Dreamily is an excellent album, full to the brim (a very reasonable 45-minute long brim) with clever, tasteful, and almost instantly memo­rable «blues-pop» songs that are about as worthy a continuation of the Brothers / El Camino / Turn Blue tradition as could be. The sentiments throughout are generally the same — brooding, soulful, a little melancholic, maybe even a tad misanthropic, reflecting an artistic depression that is quiet, but subtly deep enough to make you want to kill yourself if you spend too much time digging: ʽEverything You Do (You Do For You)ʼ, a mean mean reversal of the crappy message of the Bryan Adams song, could be understood as a personal complaint about an egoistic lover, or it could be just as easily interpreted as a bash of the general reason why everything goes wrong in this world of ours. Well, probably not — most of the songs here are directly woman-related — but the music has a consistent «world-weary» makeover that will be of great use to you whenever you feel pissed at either your partner, or The System, or your own unenviable personal role in the consequences of the Big Bang.

The songs are generally blues- or jazz-based, but always with catchy vocal hooks, most of which are traditionally lodged in the song title: as a concluding chorus line of each depressed verse, the line "everything you do, you do for you" falls with a heavy falsetto thud like a killer stone (and the percussion is produced like a series of ominous faraway thumps to emphasize the effect), and so does the concluding line of ʽPistol Made Of Bonesʼ, a rather transparent metaphor for the past coming to haunt the protagonist. On the other hand, ʽStay In My Cornerʼ, almost completely sung in falsetto and owing its existence to Sam Cooke, Ben E. King, Al Green, or any other master of the American R&B tradition, has the hook dutifully delivered like a tender plea, because, well, somebody is gotta be there for the protagonist to shield him from all these dark thoughts, and to make his case even stronger, the protagonist is also going to play a loud, slightly distorted, heart-breaking slide guitar solo for that special somebody.

Although the album was not produced by Danger Mouse (Auerbach and Michels took care of production themselves), his legacy is noticeable — there's echo all over the place, a wide variety of guitar effects (such as the «burping» tone on ʽThe Arcʼ, whose riff, by the way, bears an iffy resemblance to ʽMoney For Nothingʼ), different percussion on every track, ranging from drum machines to the above-mentioned «distant thumping» on ʽEverything You Doʼ, and other little production tricks that efficiently modernize the music while keeping its melodic backbone firmly in the past. The most questionable production decision is probably on ʽCome & Goʼ, essentially a modern-day cabaret number loaded with love-making moans, a song that you might find a little problematic to play in the presence of your parents (depends on the parents, of course) — certain­ly, the hookline "the more he comes, the more he goes" will take on quite a distinctive meaning next to this bit of softporn soundtrack. But then, we're all grown up here, and this is an inventive addition to the loungy-smoky atmosphere of the track.

If there is one single flaw to Yours, Dreamily, it is that no single track stands out above the others — not only is the same mood retained throughout, but it also constantly stays at the same level of room temperature. Auerbach never lets that depression carry him away to madness or imaginary suicide, nor does he allow the fervor of his prayers for delivery to carry him away into the stratosphere. Perhaps he is right, and perhaps he is simply being honest with us, expressing his emotionality exactly in the way that it runs through him, without artificially revving himself up or down — the lamentable consequence of this being that the album, while totally lovable upon first listens, will probably not hold up too long in your head.

Then again, was it really meant to? As a mere «detour» from the Black Keys, a side venture that will neither get a lot of publicity nor a lot of critical attention, Yours, Dreamily exceeds all possible expectations anyway, and I don't think we could or should be asking for more. When they finally bring it down with the soothing piano balladeering of ʽSearching The Blueʼ, a dreamy, moving tune with a bit of the old inquisitive Lennonesque spirit, we finally get the main question of the album — "Is anything we do / Ever gonna last? / Couldn't I have a clue, / Searching the blue?" Well, I'm not sure if Yours, Dreamily is going to last, what with all of its humble tone and un-flashy appearance, but at least it is a record that should be taken seriously by its contem­poraries — and, once again, confirms my opinion of Auerbach as one of the leading artists of his generation, even if that may not be meaning all that much in the 2010s. Thumbs up.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Butthole Surfers: Independent Worm Saloon

BUTTHOLE SURFERS: INDEPENDENT WORM SALOON (1993)

1) Who Was In My Room Last Night?; 2) The Wooden Song; 3) Tongue; 4) Chewin' George Lucas' Chocolate; 5) Goofy's Concern; 6) Alcohol; 7) Dog Inside Your Body; 8) Strawberry; 9) Some Dispute Over T-Shirts Sales; 10) Dancing Fool; 11) You Don't Know Me; 12) The Annoying Song; 13) Dust Devil; 14) Leave Me Alone; 15) Edgar; 16) The Ballad Of Naked Man; 17) Clean It Up; 18) Ghandi*.

Lookee here, Butthole Surfers go «mainstream», and all it took was the overnight success of one Kurt Cobain, which, for a strange brief moment in time, convinced major labels that people would buy all sorts of artistically independent weird shit from them, rather than just the carefully calculated and marketed crap — even stuff from a band called Butthole Surfers, who not only did not see it fit to rename themselves for their debut on Capitol, but actually insisted on the name being splattered in bright, shiny, ugly letters all over the album cover. And, considering that this is probably the friendly smiling face of a large tapeworm that we see framed by the name, now we actually know who might be the proverbial «butthole surfer».

But it's not as if the switch to a major label did not change the band one bit — on the contrary, Independent Worm Saloon is Haynes and Co.'s most normal, straightforward, accessible album to date, and could easily be regarded as a sellout by hardcore veterans. Produced by none other than Led Zeppelin's own John Paul Jones, this is a record of relatively conventional blues rock, hard rock, dark folk, and occasionally industrial-metal songs that may have some shocking power and may be somewhat offensive, but are in no way baffling to the mind. This is simply Butthole Surfers doing good old rock music — and seemingly enjoying it.

And I enjoy it, too, as it fits my observations — the best things in life often come out when we have weirdos acting normal, rather than weirdos acting weird (or normals acting normal, for that matter). The instrumental tones, the riffage, the little bits of studio overdubbing, the song titles and lyrics, the diversity of approach, the passion of delivery, the way the band so totally and reck­lessly gets into everything it does — I buy this approach completely, even if most of the riffs here are just minor variations on old hard rock, punk, and metal patterns (and what isn't?). Simply put, this is one of the most kickass albums of 1993, ladies and gentlemen.

Most of the songs are short, but when they're long, they frickin' deserve to be long — like ʽDust Devilʼ, which is like a rougher, crunchier, more psychedelic take on the ZZ Top rock sound, with a bit of Judas Priest thrown in, but really all of this is just an inspirational basis for Leary's love affair with the multiple avatars of his guitar, which start off simply enough, but then gradually build up — at near-top speed! — to a near-apocalyptic explosion, capitalising on the promise that was hinted at on ʽBarking Dogsʼ. On headphones, this does evil things to your brain, although even Jimi would probably suggest that the man is going over the top with this. But hey, if some­body is supposed to go over the top, let it rather be Paul Leary than, say, Joe Satriani.

Each and every one of the heavy, fast, «industrialized» rockers on this album rules to one degree or another — starting from the first one, ʽWho Was In My Room Last Night?ʼ, which takes an old riff from the fast part of Led Zeppelin's ʽDazed And Confusedʼ (no coincidence that John Paul was in the studio, right?) and gruffs it up to the point where you almost begin to believe that these boys actually mean business, and that meeting them in a dark alley would not be good for your health. The more punk-style ʽGoofy's Concernʼ is not nearly as serious, but it features the grumbliest guitar tone from Leary ever, and ʽDancing Foolʼ is the punchiest indictment of dance-oriented music ever written, with Haynes impersonating "a dancin' fool" and "the disco king" to  merry martial rhythms that actually have their roots in ʽThe Immigrant Songʼ rather than any­thing even remotely connected with disco, while Leary counteracts with a guitar riff that seems copped from some baroque chamber music suite. Yes, really. I know what it means, but I can't explain.

The more quiet tunes on the album are not as immediately striking, but eventually ʽThe Ballad Of Naked Manʼ, with its relentless acoustic guitar and banjo strumming, begins to come across as some sort of program statement — where the "naked man" in question is taken to be a symbol of Truth and Reality, scorned and shunned by the truth-fearing population ("so get the hell away from me, you goddamn naked man, go the fuck away from me back to Naked land!") — and Haynes is seen as the ragged travelin' minstrel, preaching folksy simplicity to the crowds. The problem is that the quality of the Surfers' music usually depends on the extent to which Leary's talents have been taxed, and he frankly doesn't have much to do on ʽNaked Manʼ, so I'd rather go with ʽThe Wooden Songʼ, where he does get a chance to crash through the monotonousness of its slow country waltzing with a scratchy, squiggly, quasi-atonal guitar solo.

But heck, I even have to confess that I love ʽThe Annoying Songʼ, despite the fact that it was al­most certainly recorded to annoy — what else are those «chipmunk» vocals for? Yet somehow, when used in the context of this novelty hard rock song, especially at the climactic screaming outbursts at the end of each verse, they sound... hilarious.

Of course, the Surfers are still patented jesters, and none of this should be taken too seriously, even with the vocals erased. But then, in a way, all rock music — heck, maybe all music in gene­ral — is sort of an absurd enterprise, and here the Surfers are just taking some aspects of it and driving them towards a logical height of absurdity. They do it more self-consciously than, say, AC/DC, which means that Independent Worm Saloon could never hope to achieve popularity among the masses, for whom it would still be way too weird; but I could easily see how it could be some stuffy intellectual's favorite rock'n'roll record of all time. Hell, maybe it's on the way to becoming my favorite rock'n'roll record — at least, ʽDust Devilʼ would most unquestionably land in a personal Top 1000 rock'n'roll songs or so. Thumbs up, totally.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Buzzcocks: Another Music In A Different Kitchen

BUZZCOCKS: ANOTHER MUSIC IN A DIFFERENT KITCHEN (1978)

1) Fast Cars; 2) No Reply; 3) You Tear Me Up; 4) Get On Our Own; 5) Love Battery; 6) Sixteen; 7) I Don't Mind; 8) Fiction Romance; 9) Autonomy; 10) I Need; 11) Moving Away From The Pulsebeat.

By the time the Buzzcocks got around to releasing their first LP, they'd already played together for two years, and even had time to go through a serious lineup change, dropping their original vocalist Howard Devoto (whom one still has a chance to hear on the Spiral Scratch EP — the Buzzcocks at their punkiest, one might think) and relegating vocal duties to guitarist Peter Shel­ley. And even if they began as friends of the Sex Pistols, Another Music In A Different Kit­chen shows that, ultimately, they'd rather settle on becoming the British equivalent of the Ra­mones — exchanging, perhaps, some of their Queens-based brethren's primal minimalism for a slightly higher level of musical complexity and intellectualism, but worshipping, above and beyond everything else, the (silly) pop catchiness of the music.

Steve Diggle's rhythm guitar playing may be fast, distorted, and superficially aggressive, but the music is not triggering a «pissed-off» reaction — it's basically teenage fun, with a Manchester twist. Shelley's vocals have that slightly haughty, but friendly nasal twang that is so common of British glam rockers, and the band has a passion for melodic vocal harmony that shows up on most of the songs — sung songs, not merely recited or screamed over a harsh beat. Likewise, his solos, while not too complex, seem carefully constructed and well rehearsed, albeit still played with maximum feeling. And the tightness of the band's rhythm section once again exposes the myth of punk rock as «non-musician music» for all it's worth — I mean, either the Buzzcocks are not punk rock at all (an open terminological possibility), or this here is some of the tightest, best played, diligently produced rock music of the late 1970s.

While the Buzzcocks are usually judged by their singles, these early albums are by no means dis­missable — the debut almost completely consists of well-written highlights, further aided by hilariously insightful lyrics: ʽFast Carsʼ, dominated throughout by its genius two-note guitar solo (catchy and reasonably evocative of a police siren at the same time!), is probably the first well known anti-car song in history, showing that this pop-punk band may have inherited the love for the simple rock'n'roll values of the early 1960s, but not the love for all those other values that went along with it — "they're so depressing, going around and around" makes this the ideological antipod of ʽI Get Aroundʼ. And although this is the only song about cars on the album, it does allow it to proudly fall in the «Nothing but girls and cars!» category — because, well, most, if not all, the other songs are about girls. No coal miners or soup kitchens anywhere on the horizon.

Honestly, though, it does not matter much what Pete Shelley thinks about girls as long as he writes these wonderful hooks about them, both vocal and instrumental. The band succeeds both with the speedy chainsaw-buzz three-chord rockers (ʽLove Batteryʼ), the slightly slower, more old-fashioned glam-rockish tunes (ʽGet On Our Ownʼ), and the sharper, moodier, artsier compo­sitions (ʽFiction Romanceʼ), showing great understanding of what it is that separates a striking riff from a meaningless one — the riff of the ʽAutonomyʼ chorus may only have two chords to it, but it cuts through to the heart in one bar, a nagging, insistent, desperate drone that fully supports Shelley's claim that "I, I want you, autonomy!" Indeed, this is nowhere near «unique» music, but it does come across as completely autonomous, sounding just like any other punk rock band and yet, at the same time, totally belonging to these guys and nobody else — probably no other punk band in Britain at the same time showed such attention to melodic detail (certainly not the Pistols or the Clash, to whom melody was only one of several factors that mattered, and probably not the most important one).

In fact, Another Music could have been quite valuable as an instrumental album, and it is no surprise that the last track, ʽMoving Away From The Pulsebeatʼ, based on a modernized version of the Bo Diddley beat, actually ends with several minutes of instrumental jamming — guitar solo (somewhat reminiscent of Joy Division's fabulous solo on ʽShadowplayʼ, which appeared later and, for all we know, may have been influenced by the Buzzcocks style), brief drum solo (drum solo on a punk album!), and, finally, the return of the original crunchy riff to bring it down to a grand conclusion. Shelley's solos, loyally following the rhythm rather than playing against it, are always a joy to listen to — in the end, the only song that I am not fond of is the anthem ʽ16ʼ, whose slow, repetitive, bolero-style melody and especially the little bit of chaotic free-form noise sort of disrupt the record's near-perfect flow. That said, the song does emphasize the band's ex­perimental and slightly surrealist side which was essential for them — it's just that it does not feel nearly as natural here as the follow-up, ʽI Don't Mindʼ, which is simple as a doornail but is also one of the finest pop songs the early Kinks never wrote.

The slightness of the album prevented it from ever featuring highly in the critical ratings when it came to assessing the legacy of the British punk movement, but I think that the moment one de­cides that «punk», in order to be «good» or «great», does not necessarily have to make a grand social statement (and the artistic value of these statements, per se, has rarely been high anyway), Another Music will immediately rise up to the top of the roster, being the exact (but idio­syncratic) British equi­valent of Ramones — and who cares now that it came out two years late? The important thing is that the music sounds catchy, invigorating, and fresh even today. And has there been a «punk» band in the 2000s, anyway, that managed to produce something as innocent, memorable, and endearing as ʽI Needʼ? This is like Sha Na Na with distorted guitars and a real, not fake-vaudevillian, sense of humor. Thumbs up, of course.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bruford: One Of A Kind

BRUFORD: ONE OF A KIND (1979)

1) Hell's Bells; 2) One Of A Kind (part 1); 3) One Of A Kind (part 2); 4) Travels With Myself – And Someone Else; 5) Fainting In Coils; 6) Five G; 7) The Abingdon Casp; 8) Forever Until Sunday; 9) The Sahara Of Snow (part 1); 10) The Sahara Of Snow (part 2).

In between Bruford's first and second album came Bill's brief participation in UK, where he was reunited with his former King Crimson pal John Wetton. However, according to the most com­mon version, that participation ended abruptly when Wetton and Eddie Jobson decided to fire Alan Holdsworth from the band — and since Bruford was the one to bring him in, in gentlemanly fashion, for queen and country and all that, he decided to leave as well. And so both of them once again found themselves in... Bruford. Back with Dave Stewart and Jeff Berlin, too, who were only too happy to oblige and throw their talents back on the wagon.

Unfortunately, despite some glowing accounts of this second album, this one leaves me com­pletely and utterly cold. Where Feels Good To Me was a curious blend of fusion and romantic prog-rock, courtesy of Annette Peacock and an overall desire for innovation, One Of A Kind is anything but one of a kind. Basically, it is just a generic fusion album — a high quality fusion album, to be sure, with top-notch standards and all, but completely indistinguishable in character from the average pool of similar albums produced in the mid- to late-Seventies. If you are a qua­lified pro here, one who «knows» exactly which albums from that time by Weather Report, Chick Corea, Soft Machine, Brand X, etc., bottle that spirit and which ones are simply coasting, you will be able to form a definite judgement here as well. If, like myself, you largely find them all interchangeable... okay, so this is probably not going to be a long review.

Like I said, the standards are high, and one major plus of the record is that Jeff Berlin continues to churn out speedy, complex basslines that suck up most of my attention. On the downside, Stewart's keyboards and Holdsworth's guitars seem to simply revel here in all possible clichés of the genre — stuffy synth tones, soulless speed runs, or (on the «ballad-type» numbers) romantic Santana-esque soloing with a bit of the roaming gypsy spirit. And Bruford himself? Although cre­dited as primary songwriter on most of these tracks, he is, after all, just the drummer, and how can a drummer make a composition interesting if everything else about it is boring?

The only brief departure from the formula is ʽForever Until Sundayʼ, a track originally performed by UK on their 1978 tour and still retaining here a nice, refreshing violin solo from Eddie Job­son (not exactly Oistrakh quality, you understand, but still a great relief to hear after all the unending guitar noodling). ʽFainting In Coilsʼ is also unusual in that it features a mock-theatrical staging of a small bit from Alice In Wonderland at the beginning (with Anthea Norman Taylor, later to be­come the spouse of Brian Eno, taking on the role of Alice — and the title itself is taken from the Mock Turtle's story), but what the rest of the tune actually has to do with the idea of "fainting in coils" is way beyond me; sounds just like one more forgettable fusion tune to me.

Maybe the worst thing, after all, are those awful keyboard tones: I mean, I could imagine a setting in which the main theme of something like ʽHell's Bellsʼ would be totally realized in its life-asser­ting optimism (notwithstanding the totally incongruent song title), but with these retro-futu­ristic fanfare synths blasting it out like a security system alarm gone mad, it's just no good — so thank you, AC/DC, for stealing the title of the song and putting it to much more adequate use the very next year (in a song that actually had some real bells in it, and kicked this record's stale in­tellectualism all over the place).

Or maybe the worst thing is that all these songs sound the same — not all of them are written in the same key, but all of them set exactly the same mood: not too hot, not too cold, not too sappy, not too harsh — perfect for elevators and mid-level restaurants with a poshy attitude. Anyway, as I said, major fusion fans might not want to take this seriously, but the only honest thing I can do here is award this stuff a thumbs down — what else can be done with a record where not even one tune is endowed with «staying power»?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Brian Eno (with Jah Wobble): Spinner

BRIAN ENO: SPINNER (w. Jah Wobble) (1995)

1) Where We Lived; 2) Like Organza; 3) Steam; 4) Garden Recalled; 5) Marine Radio; 6) Unusual Balance; 7) Space Diary 1; 8) Spinner; 9) Transmitter And Trumpet; 10) Left Where It Fell.

As most of those people who are supposed to generally know stuff about people named «Jah Wobble» already know, but those people who find names like «Jah Wobble» kinda funny probably may not know, Jah Wobble was an old friend of the Sex Pistols' John Lydon, and to­gether they originally formed PiL, where he played bass guitar before he got bored and moved on to an even more experimental/avantgarde solo career. That a guy like that would eventually attract Brian Eno's attention was quite probable, but it is important to keep in mind that Spinner was not really a «collaboration» as such.

Instead, what happened is that Eno simply sent Wobble a bunch of his tapes that were originally recorded for the soundtrack to one of Derek Jarman's experimental movies — just, you know, because what do you do with a bunch of tapes left over from a soundtrack? Why, you send them to Jah Wobble! Like, what could be more natural and predictable? Remember, Jah Wobble is always there behind your back to make good use of your leftovers (provided your skill level is at least 20 points, which makes you eligible for co-operation).

The results are not particularly thrilling, though. Wobble decided not to disrupt the steady ambient flow of Eno's tapes — instead, he just made them more bass-heavy, added some rhythm (in places), and emphasized the dark / mystical / ominous aspects, but all very gently, even on those of the tracks that also received a volume boost from percussion and electric guitar overdubs (some of the percussion was handled by Can's own Jaki Liebezeit, which is particularly notice­able on the title track with its fussy, overspilling drum track). What emerges is a mix of ambient, industrial, and even dub compositions that are never too intrusive, not very illuminating, and mainly just keep returning you to those dark sonic caverns that you have probably already ex­plored in depth on earlier Eno albums.

It's not bad, and not even meaningless, but none of this inspires any creative writing: the beats sound normal, the synth and bass tones are nothing special, the «acid jazz» overtones that some­times arise out of nowhere are fairly routine, and the last track, which goes on for 15 minutes, according to Brian himself, was not liked by anyone, so he called this style, self-ironically, «un­welcome jazz», which it is: starting out like a limping jazz-fusion shuffle with Eastern overtones and wildly wobbling volume levels, it is then transformed into something that sounds like an intro to a soothing smooth jazz instrumental, only looped to eternity. Yes, it's moody, but so is every­thing Eno ever did.

Overall, it is weird: there is actually much more happening on this record than is usual for Eno's ambient projects, but in the end you are left with the feeling that you got much less than you bar­gained for. Apparently, Enoisms and Wobblisms just do not make good partners — the ambient soundscapes are not in agreement with the bass grooves, and the end product is a disappointment somewhat on the same grounds as Neroli: an attempt to sound harshly modern that still relies on old-fashioned ideas of beauty — a conflict of interests that remains unresolved. But I guess that the very manner in which the record was produced automatically precluded it from potential mas­terpiece status. It's not as if Eno cannot work in a dynamic environment — his work with Talking Heads and David Byrne is best proof that he can — it is simply that here, there was no dynamic environment to begin with, just a bit of quick fiddling about by correspondence. Definitely not essential for fans of either Eno or PiL, I'd say.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: WRECKING BALL (2012)

1) We Take Care Of Our Own; 2) Easy Money; 3) Shackled And Drawn; 4) Jack Of All Trades; 5) Death To My Hometown; 6) This Depression; 7) Wrecking Ball; 8) You've Got It; 9) Rocky Ground; 10) Land Of Hope And Dreams; 11) We Are Alive.

Okay, so at least the surprisingly elevated «poppiness» of Working On A Dream put a special mark on it. Fans may have been irate at Bruce borrowing musical ideas from KISS, but one can­not deny that, in this way, he at least gave us all something to remember that record by. Fast for­ward now to 2012 and his next studio LP, and here is something that is completely by the num­bers — conforming to all known stereotypes of The Boss and violating none of them.

Naturally, Springsteen feeds on social problems and regurgitates them as vibrating, spirited music, which is where he is usually at his best — and this time, the incentive behind the music and the anger has been the global financial crisis: a great opportunity to finally realize one's dream to be­come an authentic Woody Guthrie, strolling through Depression streets and providing voice ser­vices to all those devoid of voices. Never mind that by 2012, the crisis had largely abated; it only matters that there be a spark to light up the fire, and as prolific as Bruce usually is, he likes to have these sparks flying around, rarely venturing into the studio without a good pretext.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wrecking Ball conjures active memories of The Seeger Sessions: even though all the songs are original, they are mostly written in the folk paradigm, with simple, repe­titive, traditional structures that have more in common with highland ballads than with Bruce's usual rock formula. Only a few members of the E Street Band appear on the record, and even then not on all the tracks; there are a few sax solos from Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011, a few tracks with Weinberg on the drums, and a couple Van Zandt mandolin tracks — the rest is taken care of by session musicians, which has a negative impact on the album's energy levels, but I guess if the Boss decided the E Street Band was not appropriate enough for these songs, he must have had his own reasons.

Alas, if he hoped this would be a new Rising — in the sense of that major «jolt» to put the nation back on its feet or something like that — I am afraid that it has only been one in the minds of Rolling Stone-style critics. The songs aren't exactly bad (in fact, relying on these formulas is a good guarantee against «badness» in general), but without the E Street Band, and with his own strength also beginning to give up after all these years, Bruce gets bogged down somewhere in between a whimper and a bang.

ʽWe Take Care Of Our Ownʼ, the opening song, was once again used in Obama's (second) presidential campaign, and it is a perfect song for a presidential cam­paign — loud, muscular, optimistic, smooth, safe, catchy, cozily played out by the New York String Section, and ultimately forgettable like any of your average anthems. It has its rallying use, I guess, but it is essentially one simple musical phrase repeated over and over again in a glossy manner: the muscle is there all right, but there is hardly any genuine sweat on it. It sounds like something made on order — and yes, I remember well that ʽBorn In The USAʼ was all made up according to the same principles (and its synthesized sound had dated fairly quickly, unlike this string orches­tra thing), but at least back in 1984 Springsteen still had plenty of youthful soul and stamina to push into that form. ʽWe Take Care Of Our Ownʼ is just... limp.

As is most of everything else. A particularly good example is ʽLand Of Hope And Dreamsʼ, a fairly old song that was performed live as early as 1999, and used to be one of the highlights of Bruce's show — with a "this train..." section that may be the man's sincerest and most emotional contribution to the gospel genre — but this version is surprisingly flaccid compared to the way it used to sound, not just because the man's voice is giving out, but also because the arrangement replaces raw energy with a wall-of-sound approach. Still a good song, but give me the Live In New York version of this any time.

I have not even mentioned that the man's lyrics seem to turn more and more into tripe as the years go by. You may adore or hate the lyrics of ʽBorn To Runʼ, but you have to admit that, in any case whatsoever, something like "This is my confession / I need your heart / In this depression / I need your heart" is just way below the threshold — and this song is supposed to be a spiritual conso­lation for all the poor souls ravaged by the crisis. Or this: "We are alive / And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark / Our souls and spirits rise / To carry the fire and light the spark / To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart" — exactly how many dusty clichés are entrenched within this passage? No matter, as long as old and new fans alike are willing to gobble it up. And then there is the irony of the title track, which can be taken half-literally (as a cocky protest of the old Giants Stadium against its demolition) and figuratively (as a nation's cocky stand-off against economic trouble), but then when you realize that the Stadium was demolished after all, the line about "bring on your wrecking ball" takes on a fairly ironic shade.

In the end, as simply a collection of songs Wrecking Ball is relatively okay. But as a major social statement, it seems to me a transparent misfire, embarrassed by its own ambition and buried in its shallowness-masquerading-as-depth; and if Magic at least still showed signs of life, and Working On A Dream still showed signs of searching for life, Wrecking Ball is like a wad of chewing gum that finally ran out of the last bits of flavor. At the very least, it shows that being deeply moved by other people's troubles no longer guarantees high quality — or, who knows, it might show that in this particular case, the Boss was not that deeply moved by other people's troubles. After all, with the Democrats in power and the crisis clearly not being on the level of the Great Depression, it's hard to believe that the man was in some really deep apocalyptic mood; and thus, we just have another set of optimistic «we shall overcome» statements where, truth be told, it is not quite clear even to the artist what exactly it is that we need to be overcoming.

For the record, ʽRocky Groundʼ here features the first ever appearance of a rap vocal on a Spring­steen album — provided by backup singer Michelle Moore (happily for all of us, Bruce changed his original mind about performing the rap himself). So there's at least one objective argument for defending the man's ability to keep up with the times, about twenty years too late but better late than never. This patented bit of sarcasm, however, has nothing to do with my thumbs down assessment of the album. Rather, the thumbs down have to do with the bitter realisation that, in a way, Bruce Springsteen has turned into a pale parody of his former self. And if you happen to disagree and are preparing an angry retort here, please take the time to relisten to Darkness On The Edge Of Town first, and then see if your angry retort has lost any of its anger.

Oh, and if you happen to be David Fricke from Rolling Stone, the author of a five-star review that began with the phrase "Wrecking Ball is the most despairing, confrontational and musically tur­bulent album Bruce Springsteen has ever made", I do so hope that you be rewarded in the after­life by having to listen to nothing but Billy Joel, of whom you also seem to be a huge fan.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Buddy Guy: Left My Blues In San Francisco

BUDDY GUY: LEFT MY BLUES IN SAN FRANCISCO (1967)

1) Keep It To Myself; 2) Crazy Love; 3) I Suffer With The Blues; 4) When My Left Eye Jumps; 5) Buddy's Groove; 6) Goin' Home; 7) She Suits Me To A Tee; 8) Leave My Girl Alone; 9) Too Many Ways; 10) Mother-In-Law; 11) Every Girl I See.

The only «original» LP that Buddy managed to get out of his stay at Chess is still not very «ori­ginal»: despite being released in 1967, at a time when even the most old-fashioned bluesmen were beginning to pay heed to the album-oriented mentality, it consists of eleven tracks recorded throughout the decade — although, fair enough, most of them were not previously released as singles, so most people probably did not hear any of this stuff prior to 1967. Today, all of these tunes are included in the Complete Chess package, so it makes no sense to hunt for the LP sepa­rately, but it might deserve a brief separate mention anyway.

For the Hendrix-owned standards of 1967, this stuff obviously does not seem very impressive; but Buddy holds his own ground fairly well against such competitors as B. B. King or Albert King, except that he seems constantly torn between his ambitions as a guitar player and a red-hot R&B entertainer — on the opening ʽKeep It To Myselfʼ, he wails and screams his way through the tune like a wannabe James Brown, and his backing band, laying it hard on the brass, wouldn't mind outperforming the Famous Flames, either (you wish). Predictably, this leads to the songs being stuck somewhere in between the two extremes, and satisfying neither the serious R&B lover nor the casual fan of expressive guitar playing — at least, not satisfying nearly as much as they could, had Buddy had a more focused understanding of what it is he is trying to be.

On the other hand, it helps that the selection is fairly diverse. We have regular 12-bar blues with stinging, albeit poorly mixed, guitar (ʽI Suffer With The Bluesʼ; the bass lines, left uncredited, are mixed really high, though, and are stunningly inventive, whoever it was that invented them); slow brass-drenched blues-de-luxe with wailing guitar (ʽWhen My Left Eye Jumpsʼ); a variation on the Chuck Willis/Elvis ʽI Feel So Badʼ groove with a playful jazzy solo (ʽCrazy Loveʼ); an early stab at proto-funk (ʽBuddy's Grooveʼ) with nice brass/guitar interplay and a lightly aggressive/omi­nous touch (once again, mainly due to the cool bassline); even a straightahead pop song that could have easily been handed over to some Motown girl group, despite being credited to the prolific Willie Dixon.

So it's all smooth and fine — just not very individualistic and not tremendously exciting. Not that his earliest efforts on the Vanguard label fully convey the uniqueness of his talent, either, but even so, you can immediately feel the difference as you jump from this LP to the follow-up, and we either have to ascribe this to stupid pressure from Chess, forcing the man into the three-mi­nute single format, or to the man's conscious decision to recast, upgrade, and modernize his image in the wake of the guitar rock revolution of 1966-67. Probably both, though.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Ben Folds: So There

BEN FOLDS: SO THERE (2015)

1) Capable Of Anything; 2) Not A Fan; 3) So There; 4) Long Way To Go; 5) Phone In A Pool; 6) Yes Man; 7) F10-D-A; 8) I'm Not The Man; 9-11) Concerto For Piano And Orchestra.

Back to solo format, or, more accurately, orchestral format — Ben Folds' latest project combines his composing, playing, and singing talents with those of the so-called «yMusic Ensemble» for a total of eight chamber pop songs, plus a bona fide piano concerto with the Nashville Symphony, probably not the hottest symphonic orchestra on the planet but a fairly qualified one, and quite proficient in playing and recording American composers from Ives and Gershwin all the way to Leonard Bernstein, which is precisely the tradition, I believe, to which Ben subscribes, combining old-school academic values with an element of lightweight (sometimes even slightly tacky) popu­lar entertainment. But we will come back to this a little later.

Substantially, nothing much has changed since last we saw Ben Folds as a solo artist: this is still our old friend, the little nerdy-wimpy everyday life philosopher who is to singer-songwriting what Jerry Seinfeld is to comedy, and he still writes and sings these light, fragile pop tunes about broken hearts, hurt feelings, and society pressure that could be very depressing if only they showed any pressure at all, which they do not. But the chosen format, where the man completely frees himself from the conventions of a pop-rock combo, seems to have triggered some hidden reserves in his spirit, and the eight songs that form the bulk of the record are, on the whole, his finest effort in quite some time. At the very least, it was much more delightful to listen to this stuff than either the Ben Folds Five reunion, or that draggy Nick Hornby collaboration.

These are pop songs, for sure, not baroque chamber music imitations, and it's not as if the format were anything new (Fiona Apple? Regina Spektor? Sufjan Stevens?), but somehow Ben gets us exactly in the right mood with the first thirty seconds of ʽCapable Of Anythingʼ, when the piano, the violin, and the soft underlying percussion start hopping at a merry tempo, and an even cuter little woodwind flourish links the bars together. That's a delicious slice of pop catchiness there, along with hope, good humor, and just a tiny pinch of melancholia to tone down the extra sweetness. The arrange­ment shoots off colors in many directions, with cellos, trumpets, and occasional explosive sound effects added at will, and ultimately it seems to not matter much what the man is singing about — in fact, it does not seem to matter if he's singing at all, because the vocal hooks are easily the least at­tractive part of the whole bouillon.

Another big highlight is the title track, which starts out with a promising, suspenseful set of violin and cello lines, again played at a relatively fast tempo — then quickly progresses towards a china cup thunderstorm of romantic piano and violin waves gently lashing against each other... and what is the song about? "I will not forget you / There is nothing to forget". Uhh... okay, this is another fairly good moment to state how little one could care about Ben Folds' personal problems as long as he keeps composing decent music, because those problems don't have to have anything to do with the music. In fact, even without the ambitiousness of the Concerto, these songs are all about musical experimentation with the chamber orchestra format — a background against which Ben's «little man issues» seem trite and insignificant.

This is why the least impressive tracks here are the slow ballads that place Ben's vocals at the center of attention — ʽNot A Fanʼ has too much of that just-a-man-and-his-piano aura that made so much of his solo work so tedious, and, in a way, seems to have been written with the sole pur­pose of ad-libbing a barely audible "...so fuck you!" in the final bar; ʽYes Manʼ has a much more sophisticated vocal melody, but its multi-tracked vocals ultimately do it a disservice, drawing attention away from the music and onto the vocals. Much more charming is such a little novelty number as ʽF10-D-Aʼ — two minutes of a song about writing a song, with Ben spelling out the various notes of the tune-under-construction as it goes by; it is charmingly theatrical and also surprisingly efficient (you'd never think that a wholesome new song can be built like that, but somehow, it is almost a wholesome new song).

The last twenty minutes of the album are given over to the aforementioned Concerto, and it sounds... cool. It's not great innovative classical music — it's an experiment in the old-fashioned way, combining elements of Western classical, jazz, ragtime, vaudeville, and maybe showing just the tiniest bits of modern influences; for all I know, something like this could have been written by the likes of Copland as early as the 1920s, but then I don't know that much about Copland or any other classical American composer, so I don't exactly feel qualified to judge Ben's work here as a respectable homage or a pathetic joke. All I know is, all three movements sound interesting, and Ben's piano playing, wisely not straining for virtuosity, is constantly varied and engaging (and I am still trying to understand what exactly it is that he does at the beginning of the third movement — is that a prepared piano? is he picking at the hammers directly? whatever). The orchestra seems well engaged in the process, too, although for such a grand classical opening, the final movement ends in a somewhat disappointing wisp.

What ultimately wins me over is the humbleness of all this stuff. Symphonic and chamber arran­gements in pop music often — in fact, the more recent, the more often — tend to come with a lot of pomp and self-aggrandizing, or extra-musical baggage that makes it all seem twice as deep as it really is (oh yes, I'm looking at you, Sufjan Stevens!); here, there is no extra-musical baggage whatsoever, just a guy who is really interested in wringing out a new set of emotions by combi­ning his piano pop experience with adventurous combinations of string instruments. Adventurous, but also strictly traditional — not a move that might bring on wide-scale critical recognition, but certainly a move that is quite true to the man's artistic essence. In short, I'm perfectly happy about this, and not even a few mediocre slow ballads can prevent a thumbs up. Definitely a record that should reserve itself a nice place in the annals of «chamber pop» history.