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Monday, November 30, 2015

Buddy Guy: Breaking Out

BUDDY GUY: BREAKING OUT (1980)

1) Have You Ever Been Lonesome; 2) You Can Make It If You Try; 3) Break Out All Over You; 4) She Winked Her Eye; 5) I Didn't Know My Mother Had A Son Like Me; 6) Boogie Family Style; 7) You Called Me In My Dream; 8) Me & My Guitar.

Apparently, this period in Buddy Guy's career is so ridiculously understudied and underapprecia­ted that not even the Internet, our most trustworthy and loyal counselor in all things (especially when it comes to the latest pop crap single that sold 100,000 copies in three digital minutes), can be relied upon for cohesive information. The (current) Wikipedia page for this album states, for instance, that it was issued in 1988, and it probably was (still other sources say 1996 and/or 2008), but it was actually a late reissue — the original date seems to be 1980 or 1981 at best. The All-Music Guide review of the album, other than listing some of the credits, gets away with one or two vague phrases that could be equally well applied to 99% of Buddy's output ("raw but applied talent and showmanship" — what the hell does "raw but applied" even mean?), and gives no clue as to whether the reviewer has even heard the songs. Who do you turn to for comfort?

Well, at least the good old Only Solitaire is here to tell you that Breaking Out sounds nothing like anything that Buddy had put out prior to that — and only partially like anything that he would put out after that. The oddity of the record is that, while remaining firmly grounded in standard blues territory, this time it's all about the tone. Yes, this is where Buddy falls upon a new, rich, not totally unique or innovative, but seriously idiosyncratic electric guitar tone — thick, trebly, distorted, echoey, crackling but melodic — and proceeds to explore it on every single song on the album. You might suspect it makes things monotonous and boring, but it does not: since there is enough formal diversity (slow 12-bar, fast 12-bar, boogie, ballad, R&B), all it does is make every single song kick major ass.

ʽHave You Ever Been Lonesomeʼ, presented here as an «original» number, is really just ʽFive Long Yearsʼ (var.: ʽHave You Ever Loved A Womanʼ) with new lyrics, but you could argue that the presence of this tone is really the thing that makes it original, particularly when the man shuts up and just plays his guitar — fast, passionate, thunderstormy, irreverent, and with the guitar assuming the language of a raging bull. I would still insist that when Clapton did the same thing on his From The Cradle fifteen years later (and seriously influenced by Buddy), he would be able to come up with more inventive phrasing... but he never had this kind of tone, and whatever be the case, Buddy got there first.

When he experiments with the same tone on softer numbers, such as ʽYou Can Make It If You Tryʼ, the results are tasteful but not quite as exciting — Breaking Out is really all about «brea­king out» on such rip-roaring tracks as the funky ʽI Didn't Know My Mother Had A Son Like Meʼ, or the breathlessly fast ʽBoogie Family Styleʼ, or the totally instrumental showcase ʽMe & My Guitarʼ that closes the album with five minutes of fretboard assassination that seems to be de­livered in one uninterrupted blast, as if the player's brain were operating on a single powerful charge/impulse that took that long to discharge: normally, these blues jams tend to run out of steam pretty fast, but this here is just one uninterrupted gulp, like watching somebody pick up a wine barrel and drain it off in one go. Listening to this in headphones could indeed make one dizzy and delirious, especially considering the potential psychedelic effects of that treated tone, so be careful about this.

Little can be said about the virtues of individual songs, melodies, or supporting instrumentation — and little needs to be said, since it is all about that tone and the power to use it. Buddy would go on using it in the future, but, strangely enough, never again would he make an album of such stubborn consistency: Breaking Out is indeed a stylistic oddity in his catalog, and a very wel­come one, I'd say. Definitely a thumbs up if you're in the mood for some serious whiplashing.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Beach House: Thank Your Lucky Stars

BEACH HOUSE: THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (2015)

1) Majorette; 2) She's So Lovely; 3) All Your Yeahs; 4) One Thing; 5) Common Girl; 6) The Traveller; 7) Elegy To The Void; 8) Rough Song; 9) Somewhere Tonight.

Well, yes, thank your lucky stars that instead of releasing one huge album, Alex and Victoria decided to split it in two and put out two small packages — because, honestly, there is no stylistic difference whatsoever between Depression Cherry and its unexpected follow-up, and the very decision to have it out seems to me as largely a show of artistic unpredictability: these days, we are so totally unaccustomed to artists coming up with new product so quickly that «wow, Beach House actually managed to release two albums in one year!» will probably be a hotter topic for discussion than the essence of the albums in question.

As for that essence, well... here we have nine more Beach House songs that are totally typical Beach House songs, not a single one breaking the mold of Depression Cherry, which, in turn, stretches all the way back to the mold of Beach House. Same vocal and instrumental textures, same recycled ideas. Had they had the nerve to come up with two such albums in rock music's golden age, critics would have immediately written them off as conservative has-beens, only too happy to jump the shark in their washed-up smugness; today, both albums seem to be getting rave reviews from critics who have completely forgotten what it is to think big, and it drives me nuts, and the only explanation is that they take Beach House to be little more than a set of pretty sounds that constitute food for the brain much the same way as regular food constitutes food for the stomach. A couple hours for digestion, and then...

...the problem is, why would we want to spend money or extra effort on it, when we have the old records? Oh, that's right: Beach House and Devotion were then, and Thank Your Lucky Stars is now. This is supposed to be more contemporary, more relevant, more relatable to the way they — and you — feel today about stuff. This is Beach House Vista, 2015 edition. Unfortunately, I haven't quite forgotten the old edition yet, and as a (potentially) paying customer, I see no seri­ous incentive for upgrading. I want floating icons and shit, goddammit. I have no problem giving an extra spin to ʽGilaʼ or ʽUsed To Beʼ instead of saying, "oh wait, I have already listened to these songs once, have I? What kind of idiot would want to listen to the same song twice? Now a dif­ferent song that sounds exactly like those two, but with slightly different chords — that's far more suitable for a true music lover's ears!"

Okay, I apologize and will try to atone by saying a few good things about these songs. (They're actually quite nice songs, by the way — it's not their fault that their so-called authors have de­cided to, like, write them). ʽShe's So Lovelyʼ is a stately, melancholic, slide guitar-embellished lesbian anthem (I have no idea about Victoria's sexual orientation, but in Beach House's fantasy world, the very idea of sexual orientation may be completely different from our usual ones anyway) — the vocal modulations on the verses have a strangely tragic aspect, though. ʽAll Your Yeahsʼ starts off with a somewhat unusually ominous, maybe even nervous guitar line — too nervous for this band, whose emotions usually run in perfectly formed and balanced sinusoids. ʽElegy To The Voidʼ must have been inspired either by Mozart's Requiem, or by ʽComfortably Numbʼ, or by both — and it eventually culminates in an aggressively howling solo (yes, it must be the void — it heard the elegy, and now it's coming for you!). ʽRough Songʼ is this band's equi­valent of The Rolling Stones' ʽGirls Need More Respectʼ... wait, what are you saying? the Stones never had a song like that? well, Beach House never had any «rough songs» either. This one, in particular, is as smooth as Victoria's... oh never mind.

I enjoyed listening to the record, but a thumbs up? You gotta be kidding. These guys are, like, artists. Evolve, goddammit. Do not confirm my pessimistic suspicions that there's no direction left to evolve. Don't give me these multiple entities beyond necessity. And do not think you can get away by simply naming your album after a nearly-forgotten TV show. Or should this be taken as a hint that from now on, your output will be as interchangeable as most of the hit singles they broadcast on it circa 1961?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Beat Happening: Jamboree

BEAT HAPPENING: JAMBOREE (1988)

1) Bewitched; 2) In Between; 3) Indian Summer; 4) Hangman; 5) Jamboree; 6) Ask Me; 7) Crashing Through; 8) Cat Walk; 9) Drive Car Girl; 10) Midnight A Go-Go; 11) The This Many Boyfriends Club.

Second time around, the joke is not quite so funny any more. True to tradition, this is still a very short album with very short songs (making any of these go over three minutes would severely violate the Geneva convention), but there isn't much progress other than the proverbial «10-year old kid» growing some pubic hair and discovering (in a not-so-independent process) the joys of feedback, distortion, and RCR (Rebellious Caveman Rock!).

Seriously, if there is any way to describe the opening number ʽBewitchedʼ, it is this and only this: a product from the Build-Your-Own-Stooges-Song Set. The opening feedback, the threatening distorted riff, Calvin's nasty baritone, and those lyrics — "I see you hang in the crowd / Staring me down... / What am I to do? / I got a crush on you" — if this isn't a conscious attempt to build their own ʽDown On The Streetʼ, I don't know what it is. Except, of course, that you have to take it as completely tongue-in-cheek, or else it is just a travesty. You could make that riff thicker, throw in some supporting lead lines, add extra bite and snarl to the vocals, get a real good drum­mer, and end up with one of those proto-punk classics from either Funhouse or Raw Power, be­cause the riff is actually quite cool — but you don't do that. You just end up with this corrupted, lo-fi, off-key demo version, because that's supposed to be the point. Okay then.

In fact, the songs here are, if anything, even more intentionally and defiantly «demo-like» than on the 1985 album. The title track is just Calvin singing off-key to a primitive drum machine; ʽAsk Meʼ is just Heather, singing slightly more on-key to... nothing at all, although the vocals do form a cohesive and catchy pop melody that should have had a full backing... or should it, really? Who knows, maybe if they added guitars and a rhythm section, it would have been just another run-of-the-mill twee-pop number — whereas this deconstruction is... like... allegorical in form, meta­physical in content? Fifty-eight seconds of the never-ending battle between the Nacheinander and the Nebeneinander. Art imitating Life or Life imitating Art? "Five hands crawling up my back / Thump, thump, have a heart attack". Nursery rhyme in the left corner, lo-fi aesthetics in the right corner. Clinch, clinch.

The thing is, until we actually see these songs «completed», it is very hard to tell if they are qua­lity embryos, produced with fine, healthy genetic material, or if they're just a bunch of unferti­lized cells whose main, if not only, attraction is that very «unfertilized» look. Some of the vocal, ahem, «melodies» can stick around, largely because of their repetitiveness, and some of the tracks will stick around just due to sheer ugliness (like the last track, ʽThe This Many Boyfriends Clubʼ, apparently recorded live and featuring Calvin at his absolutely ugliest — the vocals are more hideous than a bunch of tomcats in the night, and the accompanying feedback blasts have all the proper effect of nails-on-chalkboard); «enjoyable» these songs can only be for those who also «enjoy» watching Night Of The Living Dead. (With a few exceptions, of course: whenever Hea­ther takes lead vocals, the songs take on a friendly-sweet and generally listenable air — but she does not do it too often).

But if you disregard the individual songs and once again just embrace the concept as a whole, the downside is that, «faux-Stooges numbers» like ʽBewitchedʼ and ʽHangmanʼ aside, the concept remains more or less the same as it was: a tongue-in-cheek look at «musical failure» as an artistic statement in itself. And second time around, it's really not that fun anymore, which is why I can­ no longer be generous enough for a thumbs up — I mean, there's no way I could recommend Jamboree to anybody with a good ear for music, and there's no reason I should recommend Jam­boree to anybody interested in music-centered artistic statements because, well, there's just one thumbs up allowed per exactly the same music-centered artistic statement if there's not much else to go along with the statement. Unless, of course, you have doctor-prescribed aural pain treat­ments, in which case ʽThe This Many Boyfriends Clubʼ is a total must. Play it once every day at top volume, and you will be totally immune to drills, jackhammers, and televangelists for the rest of your precious life.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Buzzcocks: All Set

BUZZCOCKS: ALL SET (1996)

1) Totally From The Heart; 2) Without You; 3) Give It To Me; 4) Your Love; 5) Point Of No Return; 6) Hold Me Close; 7) Kiss 'n' Tell; 8) What Am I Supposed To Do; 9) Some Kinda Wonderful; 10) What You Mean To Me; 11) Playing For Time; 12) Pariah; 13) Back With You.

They went to Green Day's producer for this one — not particularly auspicious, but, fortunately, this was more of a nice gesture than a humiliating desire to start learning from their own disciples. Essentially, All Set is just Trade Test Transmissions Vol. 2, but a wee bit better on most ac­counts: songwriting, production, diversity — as if The Buzzcocks 2.0 were slowly, but surely coming into their own and learning to adapt and to remember what it used to be like in this much more modern world of the mid-Nineties.

The main problem still remains: most of the songs have the same style and the same topic — with just a few exceptions, it's all rather sterotypical power pop about love, with a very very tiny punk angle blinking red from time to time. I mean, just look at the song titles — how much lower can you get than when you go from ʽSome Kinda Wonderfulʼ to ʽWhat You Mean To Meʼ? I want some anger, goddammit! Has it really been that long since they last thought of all the women on Earth as scurvy treacherous bitches? Have they mellowed out so much that even Big Brother and The System are no longer regarded as even a minor threat? For God's sake, the album ends with a pseudo-orchestrated love anthem that's... more Styx than the Buzzcocks (ʽBack With Youʼ)! This is 1996 — who needs all these good vibrations when Y2K is approaching?

Just kidding, of course, but again, the serious implication is that, while the album as such has a certain face, few of the individual songs have one. They do have hooks — ʽTotally From The Heartʼ opens the proceedings on a very positive note, funnier, sweeter, and less openly stupid than ʽDo Itʼ did last time around: nice conclusive resolution with the title and all, as the song's romantic chivalry is delivered at top speed over that good old chainsaw buzz. Problem is, way too many tunes that follow are based on the same chords, moods, and subjects. They deviate from the trodden path on ʽPoint Of No Returnʼ, with metaphysical lyrics that can have multiple interpre­tations and a less-than-usual journey from threatening verses to anthemic chorus; on the I-can't-find-my-way-home complaint of ʽWhat Am I Supposed To Doʼ; and on ʽPariahʼ, which is a musical return to one of their favorite musical patterns (the bolero, this time, however, somewhat mashed together with the Bo Diddley beat), although sounds kinda ugly to me.

And it is a big problem — you could throw the individual hooks of these songs' choruses in my face all day long and I'd never notice when something different hit me. The thing is, no, they don't really need to go for musical diversity, but at least a little more thematic diversity would be nice, since it might have automatically led them to musical diversity as well. At their best, the Buzzcocks could shoot off in all sorts of directions — good love, bad love, no love, sexual frus­tration, social disappointment, and sometimes even plain absurdity. Here, they just continue to push in one direction, flogging that horse until it's black and blue all over. It begins okay, but eventually becomes tedious — so, perhaps, it would just be best to take this stuff one song at a time, the «time» in question being the short gap that is sufficient to make you forget the previous song ever existed. (And that, of course, applies to so much more than late era Buzzcocks).

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Buffalo Springfield: Last Time Around

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: LAST TIME AROUND (1968)

1) On The Way Home; 2) It's So Hard To Wait; 3) Pretty Girl Why; 4) Four Days Gone; 5) Carefree Country Day; 6) Special Days; 7) The Hour Of Not Quite Rain; 8) Questions; 9) I Am A Child; 10) Merry-Go-Round; 11) Uno Mundo; 12) Kind Woman.

Of the three Buffalo Springfield records, this one always gets the cold shoulder — for objective reasons: like Cream's Goodbye a year later, it was released due to contractual obligations already a few months after the band had split, it consisted of various odds-and-ends recorded over a year-long period, and it did not even have a single track where all of the band members would be playing together. Clearly, this is an album that cannot be as strong as its predecessors — and this is the decision towards which most listeners are biased even before putting it on.

But if Last Time Around does not and cannot work as a «coherent» group album (and neither did Again, for that matter), it does not mean, either, that all these songs were not written and re­corded at a time when all the songwriters involved (even Richie Furay!) were maturing or even reaching their creative peaks. In just one more year, Stills would be a respectable and visionary member of Crosby, Stills & Nash; Young would be issuing the first of his numerous solo classics; and even those first Poco albums weren't all that bad, when you lower your expectations.

With maybe one or two questionable exceptions, all the songs here are at least good — hooky, meaningful, nicely produced — and at least a few are classics for the ages. And even if the prin­cipal songwriters are pulling on the blanket in different directions, it's not as if these directions are completely incompatible: had it been so, there'd be no way that Stills and Young would still regularly get together later, as parts of CSN&Y or of the Stills-Young band. Heck, even the sole contribution by the latecoming new member, Jim Messina, who briefly replaced Bruce Palmer on bass, is nonchalantly nice — not to mention that it would very soon be rewritten by Ray Davies as ʽHolidayʼ, although they both probably caught the tune from some pre-war vaudeville.

Anyway, speaking of individualities, Young is really underrepresented here, with just two solo songs to his name — of which ʽOn The Way Homeʼ is a fairly soft, innocent folk-pop ditty sung by Furay and dominated by falsetto group harmonies that sound more Beach Boys than Neil Young; and ʽI Am A Childʼ is an early Neil classic that would soon become a stage favorite, a very simple little ditty that probably earns our love by how well the chorus matches its basic cat­chiness and simplicity — a song written, indeed, from a child's point of view, but, in the grand tradition of «baffling the grown-up», ending up asking some unanswerable question or other (in this case, "what is the color when black is burned?", and no, the song was recorded two months prior to Martin Luther King's assassination, if you're looking for some political metaphor here). I mean, ol' Neil can be a very boring gentleman on acoustic guitar and harmonica when he plays those things for too long, but these two and a half minutes — so sweet, so charming, worth all of Harvest for me if you need a hyperbolical comment.

Of the five Stills numbers, I would want to single out ʽFour Days Goneʼ, which already gives you the perfectly accomplished Steve Stills of Crosby, Stills & Nash — a country waltz with nervous tension a-plenty and that fabulous desperation strain in Steve's voice that gets through to you even if he's singing so quietly, never having to strain his vocal chords; and ʽSpecial Daysʼ, with a great guitar tone that shows how much the man has matured as a psychedelic rock'n'roll player from the early days of romantic folk-rock. ʽUno Mundoʼ, bringing in a Latin beat and a rather hammy lyrical attempt to marry all the world's continents to each other, seems like a misfire to me, but an amusing one — as an anthem, it may not be nearly as immoral as ʽLove The One You're Withʼ, but the "uno mundo, uno mundo..." harmonies should probably have been left to somebody more authentic, like Santana.

Probably the weirdest number here, however, is ʽThe Hour Of Not Quite Rainʼ, an art-pop song with baroque orchestration written by Furay around a poem by Micki Callen as the result of a radio contest on a Los Angeles station («send us your words and Buffalo Springfield will write a song to them because that is absolutely what they're here for, folks»). Amazingly, it sounds real good, with an atmosphere of some deep autumnal mystery generated by the cello-and-brass-heavy orchestration and by Furay's slow, high-pitched, slightly somnambulant, if not altogether drugged-out, vocals. Despite being written «on order» and not featuring the input of any band member other than Furay, it somehow ends up in the same class as ʽExpecting To Flyʼ — melan­cholic light classical psychedelia with a bit of a shivery edge to it.

In short, I would recommend not to regard the record as an auxiliary odds-and-ends package, nor to see it as a less-than-perfect swan song — in reality, «Buffalo Springfield» were almost always more of a mixture of interests than a band united by a single purpose, and should be seen as the first chronological chapter of a long saga, or perhaps an important prologue to the continuing story of Stills, Young, and their buddies from the Byrds and the Hollies (now these were actually real bands, whose stories were vastly different from CSN&Y and did not end with Crosby's and Nash's departures). And in that context, Last Time Around is really more of a See You Soon, Folks thing — not the sound of something crashing and dying, but the sound of something better beginning. And, of course, it gets a thumbs up.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Brian Eno (w. Robert Fripp): Beyond Even

BRIAN ENO: BEYOND EVEN (1992-2006) (w. Robert Fripp) (2007)

1) Ringing Beat; 2) Gasp; 3) Sneering Loop; 4) Tripoli 2020; 5) Behold The Child; 6) Timean Sparkles; 7) Dirt Loop; 8) The Idea Of Decline; 9) Deep Indian Long; 10) Hopeful Timean; 11) Glass Structure; 12) Voices; 13) Cross Crisis In Lust Storm.

More Fripp & Eno for those who prefer their ambient spicy and with extra feedback on top. This album, too, has had a rather strange release history: originally made available only as a digital download, under the odd title of The Cotswold Gnomes, it was later released on CD as Beyond Even (1992-2006) in two versions: a single-CD package and a double-CD edition where you could either listen to all the compositions separately or segued together by means of rather un­sophisticated fade-ins and fade-outs. Additionally, discographies tell me that at least one limited edition print of the CD (Japanese, I think) came under the title Unreleased Works Of Startling Genius — which, I assume, may be a title inspired by the form term «Area Of Outstanding National Beauty», which is actually applied to Cotswolds, referenced in the original name. But enough with this detective crap, or it may begin to look as if I'm actively interested in this or something.

As the title (one of the titles) tells us, these are indeed collaborative works with Fripp, many, if not most, of them being outtakes from the Equatorial Stars sessions. Since, however, there is no intended conceptual unity here (which sort of makes you question the necessity of making that special segued version), the tracks are more variegated in texture, mood, and arrangements: some are rhythmic, some purely atmospheric, some dark (more often), some light (more rarely), and at least one where a lisping (or Japanese) lady whispers "behold the child" in a multi-layered loop — good choice if you want to make your Christmas celebration as modernistically psychedelic as possible, although I might be misreading the artists' lofty spiritual goals here.

Additionally, where on Equatorial Stars Fripp would largely dissolve his solos in the surroun­ding atmosphere, adopting a quiet minimalistic mode as if he were Brian's humble disciple in the art of staying invisible (and inaudible), here there is a bit of the good old Frippertronics in the air, and some mighty devilish Crimsonian soloing from time to time, which comes greatly in handy when you want to shut your mind off, get all conservative as heck and just enjoy the old man getting all pissed off and volcanic on his guitar. For these purposes, I'd especially recommend ʽSnee­ring Loopʼ (which is indeed a loop, and a fairly sneering one), parts of ʽRinging Beatʼ (al­though the wildest guitar parts there are locked inside a near-soundproof sarcophagus), and... and... okay, looks like I went over a top a bit. Oh no, there's actually some more on ʽThe Idea Of Declineʼ, bu that's about it.

Perhaps I was misled by the frequent presence of fellow Crimsonian Trey Gunn on a lot of these tracks — hugging the band's famous «Chapman Stick» that communicates a ferocious bass groove to most of them and greatly enhances the overall feeling of darkness by itself, so that Fripp can just sit back and modulate nonchalant cosmic rays with his six-string. That's how it goes on ʽTripoli 2020ʼ (the equivalent of cool jazz for the electronic age) and on most of ʽRinging Beatʼ. Elsewhere, the grooves are just replaced by impressionism (ʽGlass Structureʼ, which makes you feel trapped inside one, desperately trying to get out), exorcism (ʽVoicesʼ, taking you away to Ghostland), and try-your-patience minimalism (ʽDeep Indian Longʼ, which is like one bass note stretched out to five minutes — even a drone would drop dead from this drone).

On the whole, it's okay — definitely more «entertaining» than Equatorial Stars, but it also feels like these guys are long, long past the peaks of their creativity, because the tracks that remind of their early work are inferior to that work, and the tracks that try to take them into the future or at least keep them suspended in the now are most likely useless to fans of Aphex Twin or any other major IDM hero that was younger than fifty years old when he first began dabbling in IDM. On the other hand, you can't also get around the issue of professionalism and experience, or from the philosophical intrigue of what actually separates «a young man's ambient» from «an old man's ambient» — with rockers, as they age, the differences usually become clear, but what about wizards of atmosphere and technology? Seems like there's no proper dividing line here... or is there? Maybe that is the only credible reason why we still keep listening to these new Eno albums when we really should not be doing that.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Butterfield Blues Band: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

THE BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND: THE PAUL BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND (1965)

1) Born In Chicago; 2) Shake Your Money Maker; 3) Blues With A Feeling; 4) Thank You Mr. Poobah; 5) I Got My Mojo Working; 6) Mellow Down Easy; 7) Screamin'; 8) Our Love Is Drifting; 9) Mystery Train; 10) Last Night; 11) Look Over Yonders Wall.

Eric Clapton had said in interviews that when Cream crossed over to America and began looking around, they basically just thought all those new bands were shit — with the exception of the Butterfield Blues Band, which, he admitted, was the only real competition that the haughty Brits had over there. Whether he was exaggerating or not, and what this was really supposed to mean, is up to you to determine, but the curious fact is, when you come to think about it, there weren't really that many «blues-rock» type bands in the States circa 1964-66. Folk rock, yes, with the Byrds serving as godfathers of the genre; psychedelic jamming, yes; garage-pop, yes, plenty of it, but the blues were largely left over for the British invaders to take. Strange, isn't it, when you come to think about it? As if all these white kids were afraid that The King Gang (Albert, Freddie, and B. B.) would start smashing their windows at night and putting holes in their tires if they tried stepping on their local turf.

Thus, in a way Paul Butterfield (and, coming a wee bit later, The Blues Project, who were their principal and not very successful competition) was filling an empty niche in his own native country — of course, few people were more qualified to do it than Butterfield, who was so much born in Chicago that the first song on his first album was appropriately named ʽBorn In Chicagoʼ, the second song covered Elmore James, the third song covered Little Walter, and by the time the fourth song came along, you were pretty much all set. And having been born in Chicago, and having spent his younger years soaking in the blues atmosphere of the city, and having a good ear for music, there was no way that Paul Butterfield could not have matured into a solid blues singer who could also blow some real mean harp, perhaps a little less creatively than his mentor Little Walter, but not any less passionately.

However, the real reason people still continue to listen to these early Butterfield Blues Band re­cords certainly is not Paul, likeable as he is — it is young prodigy Mike Bloomfield, whom most people first hear on Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and only few people bother to check up fur­ther, despite the fact that he may, indeed, have been the... let me phrase this carefully... single best white blues guitar player in mid-Sixties' America? yes, something like that. At the very least, Clapton did consider him his chief over-the-ocean competitor for a brief while.

The thing about Bloomfield, of course, was that he was really a young punk who somehow got stuck in the blues — a genre that, unlike so many other white kids, he was totally refusing to treat boringly-reverentially. He would play fast, loose, flashy, ecstatic. He could be the Jerry Lee Lewis of the guitar one moment, the Coltrane of the guitar the next moment, and swing in and out of the generic 12-bar mode at will. He clearly loved all these big Chicago dudes a lot, but he was not at all set to imitate them — well, maybe Buddy Guy could have taught him something spe­cial, but then there might also have been things Bloomfield could teach him back. In any case, the guy's crazy leads are the goddamn reason to own and enjoy this record, period.

Because outside of that, the album would mostly hold up as a historically important one — if not the first bona fide American blues-rock album, then certainly one of those that first comes to mind when you think about American blues-rock as a whole. Butterfield is a nice professional guy, but not much more than solid — he does not have that much of a distinctive personality, and he can't even pull off a perfect, Muddy-approved "got my brbrbrbrbrbrbr working" on ʽMojoʼ, which means that drummer Sam Lay gets to sing it instead (!). I certainly couldn't elevate Butter­field as a singer over, say, Mick Jagger (who may have been not as technical on the harmonica, but made a far better job of making your hair stand on end as a singer in those early bluesy days, for good or bad). And consequently, there's not much reason to prefer him over Elmore, Walter, and Muddy, or even think that he brought something extra to the table (he's not a particularly good songwriter, either, and he would never be able to acquire the same «lonesome schizophrenic genius» tag as his future British correlate, Peter Green).

With Bloomfield afoot and aloof, though, even the most straightforward Elmore James covers here, like ʽShake Your Moneymakerʼ and ʽLook Over Yonders Wallʼ, acquire an arrogant boyish fervor that makes them, I dunno, somewhat more rock'n'rollish in nature than the originals — not «dangerously» rock'n'rollish, like the Stones presented their blues, but «ecstatically» rock'n'rollish, just ripping through the stratosphere like there was no tomorrow. Likewise, he is capable of making the slow blues numbers interesting and exciting, sometimes even playing those scorching melodic lines simultaneously with the vocals, without caring whether they take your attention away from the singing or not (they usually do, for instance, on the «original» composition ʽOur Love Is Driftingʼ, which is really just one more 12-bar blues, but with more stinging on it than around a bear-attacked beehive). The two instrumentals, ʽThank You Mr. Poobahʼ and ʽScrea­min'ʼ, have Bloomfield and Butterfield competing, but as shamanistic as Paul sometimes gets on his instrument, he just can't match Bloomfield when he strikes real hard.

We should probably drop in a kind word for the rest of the band as well — Elvin Bishop on se­cond guitar (usually rhythm, but I guess he takes a few leads here and there), Mark Naftalin on organ, Jerome Arnold on bass, and Sam Lay on drums (the latter two were drawn over from Howlin' Wolf's own backing band) — but the best word that can be dropped in, I guess, is that they all manage to put enough swing in the music so that it don't sound too stiff and reverential. Lay, in particular, creates far more fuss with his drumset than your average Joe, and is also seri­ously responsible for the above-average energy quotient of the album; but the role of the drum­mer on a by-the-book blues-rock album is not too enviable by definition.

In any case, as far as «whiteboy blues» stuff from the Sixties goes, there are few records out there to beat out the charm of The Butterbloomfield Blues Band (as it should have been called) — Eric Clapton With The Bluesbreakers might be the only competition in terms of scorching fierce­ness (and certainly not those early pre-ʽAlbatrossʼ Fleetwood Mac albums with Peter Green that strange people tend to rave about). Even if the band would really find its own voice with the next album, this one is still very respec... no, wait, I meant to say «quite kick-ass, really», because, well, if your blues-rock doesn't kick at least some ass, you must be doing something wrong — like confusing it with a 17th century court dance, for instance. Thumbs up.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Buddy Guy: Stone Crazy!

BUDDY GUY: STONE CRAZY! (1979)

1) I Smell A Rat; 2) Are You Losing Your Mind?; 3) You've Been Gone Too Long; 4) She's Out There Somewhere; 5) Outskirts Of Town; 6) When I Left Home.

For most of the rest of the decade, Buddy found himself without a recording contract, suffering the same fate as quite a few old Chicago bluesmen, out of vogue and fighting, or refusing to fight, for survival. One reason may have been a stubborn refusal to adapt, like B. B. King did, but more important, I think, was the fact that unlike B. B. King, Buddy never truly achieved major stardom either in the 1950s or in the 1960s, and thus had no «starting capital» to begin with: not even the good word from Hendrix could make much of an impact.

Eventually, by 1979, as it sometimes happens, Buddy emerged on the far-from-home front — some people have to move to Japan to do this, but Stone Crazy!, as far as I can tell, was recorded in Toulouse, of all places (pretty big city, but who'd know there was a market for American elec­tric blues specifically in the far south end of France?), released on the small Isabel label, and only two years later picked up by the Alligator label in the States (which is why in most conventional discographies you'll find this record marked 1981, when it's really 1979), obviously, to very little fanfare and even less effect.

And you can see why, because Stone Crazy! does indeed show a man who is totally refusing to adapt, living in his own world of musical values and happy to ignore all the developments on all the musical fronts around him. Ten more years and the world would start admiring him for that, but in 1979-81 the progressive drive was still strong, and this retro-Chicago-stuff just didn't cut it. Too bad, because on a purely personal level, the album does show some progress — about half of the tracks feature Buddy Guy in such an overdriven mood as he'd never let us take part in pre­viously. Perhaps there was something in the Toulouse air that made him feel as if he were fighting the Saracens, or maybe it was just the lack of any pressure, but on ʽI Smell A Ratʼ (no relation to the Big Mama Thornton classic) and ʽYou've Been Gone Too Longʼ Buddy Guy is unleashed — good news for all lovers of electric blues guitar thunderstorms.

In fact, unless my gut feeling plays a trick on me, we'd probably have to pick ʽI Smell A Ratʼ as the first bona fide representative of the by-now-all-too-familiar Buddy Guy playing style — «blues against the rules», where conventional, party-approved blues solo licks may be offset at any time with a bit of dissonance, harmony break-up, discordant repetition of an appreciated chord instead of required moving up or down the scale, etc. etc., any time that the soul commands it from the player. Sometimes it's ugly, but even when it's ugly, you kind of feel that it's just be­cause the guitarist got so caught up in his feelings, he forgot all about his textbook. Of course, Buddy is not alone in this respect, but far from every respectable bluesman can allow himself to introduce that element of punkish hooliganry into the playing — Eric Clapton, for instance, while mastering quite a few of Buddy's old licks, never dared to follow him into that territory.

The downside of all this, unfortunately, is that Stone Crazy! is really only interesting when it comes to guitar solos — the song structures are as generically 12-bar as they come, and the only thing that varies are tempos and basic patterns (ʽShe's Out There Somewhereʼ is ʽDust My Broomʼ, ʽAre You Losing Your Mind?ʼ is B. B. King, and only ʽYou've Been Gone Too Longʼ constructs its vamp on the basis of Funkadelic's ʽHit It And Quit Itʼ, because, after all, Buddy does know his way around the basics of R&B, soul, and funk — it's just that the people of Toulouse expect him to play the blues, because it makes for a good rhyme).

Anyway, highlights: ʽI Smell A Ratʼ (plaintive, soulful, crazy aggressive guitar kicks in right away and almost never lets go); ʽYou've Been Gone Too Longʼ (instrumental, funkadelicious, kick-ass energy, the works); ʽWhen I Left Homeʼ (only partially — he makes a big case here out of the alternation of loud and quiet bits, but there's way too little of that scorching soloing when it comes to «loud», and it comes in way too late, and all the rest of the time is Buddy Guy doing his best Bobby Bland impersonation). The rest... ain't bad, really, just nothing to write about. But as a whole, the album does have enough importance and entertainment value to deserve a thumbs up: ʽI Smell A Ratʼ was probably the best blues song to come out of 1979, even if the world couldn't care less at the time.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Blitzen Trapper: All Across This Land

BLITZEN TRAPPER: ALL ACROSS THIS LAND (2015)

1) All Across This Land; 2) Rock And Roll (Was Made For You); 3) Mystery And Wonder; 4) Love Grow Cold; 5) Lonesome Angel; 6) Nights Were Made For Love; 7) Cadillac Road; 8) Let The Cards Fall; 9) Even If You Don't; 10) Across The River.

Stylistically, this is a return to the vibe of American Goldwing — unassuming retro-rock with emphasis on the «nobody should be able to tell that we are not The Eagles or at least The Doobie Brothers!» side of the business. But impression-wise, All Across This Land seems to be the better bet of the two, if only because it's got more muscle; and I mean that almost literally — the riffs, the rhythm section, the vocals all seem to be infected with a strange brawny vivaciousness. Not only that, but Earley and his mates intentionally lower the «intelligence shield» of the music and go as far as to offer a few really simplistic anthems to, uh, simplicity — ʽRock And Roll (Was Made For You)ʼ does sound about as dumb as its title.

And, for once, this is sort of a plus, because throughout their career, Blitzen Trapper have consis­tently failed to convince me that they were truly qualified for the status of a «subtle», «intellec­tual», «innovative» rock band. In reality, a few happy exceptions aside, Earley is a natural-born barroom rocker and little else — and All Across This Land is just that, an album of barroom rock with a Southern edge to it that "just wants to rock'n'roll", as they themselves acknowledge on ʽNights Were Made For Loveʼ. Meaning that it all sounds nice and tasteful and adequate, even if, as usual, few songs stick out.

General gripes involve the superfluous use of synthesizers — cheesy fake strings really do not belong on these kinds of songs — and, more importantly, the fact that Earley has not become any more distinctive as a singer than he used to be: his husky, earthy voice is good for this music, but he still has such minimal range and flexibility that if anybody said he was «singing with feeling», I would have to assume that «feeling» is an immanent, unchanging quality for this guy. This is, however, a grudge that can be held against the absolute majority of Blitzen Trapper's roots-rock idols from the Seventies, so why should we blame poor Eric?

Speaking of sticking out, I'd probably have to put in a good word for the title track, featuring the album's most distinctive and memorable set of riffs and passing off for, let's say, a second-rate Skynyrd; the already mentioned ʽNights Were Made For Loveʼ, a fast tempo pop-rocker stuffed with romantic nostalgia (like a sped-up variation on the Byrds' cover of ʽMy Back Pagesʼ or something like that); and the closing acoustic ballad ʽAcross The Riverʼ, which could have been so much better if sung by Neil Young, but... ah, hell.

Overall, I'm not giving this a thumbs up so as to avoid upholding the illusion that this is some sort of «creative rebound» or that you can find here something that cannot be found on a solid selec­tion of soft rock nuggets from the early-to-mid Seventies. But since the record clearly does not pretend to anything more than telling you, "We love our smelly roots, and what's wrong with that?", I'm not giving it a thumbs down, either. If you just can't get enough of those Southern vibes and need your fill replenished daily, All Across This Land is highly recommendable. If, however, you still vaguely remember Blitzen Trapper as that odd try-anything-once band that arrogantly mixed Brit-pop, roots-rock, and psychedelia on its debut album, that old band just ain't coming back. They made their choice and settled down on the farm. Oh well, I guess somebody at least has to settle down on the farm in these days of urban dictature.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Beat Happening: Beat Happening

BEAT HAPPENING: BEAT HAPPENING (1985)

1) Our Secret; 2) What's Important; 3) Down At The Sea; 4) I Love You; 5) Fourteen ('83); 6) Run Down The Stairs ('83); 7) Bad Seeds (live); 8) In My Memory; 9) Honey Pot; 10) The Fall; 11) Youth; 12) Don't Mix The Colors; 13) Foggy Eyes; 14) Bad Seeds; 15) I Let Him Get To Me; 16) I Spy; 17) Run Down The Stairs ('84); 18) Christmas; 19) Fourteen ('84); 20) Let's Kiss; 21) 1, 2, 3; 22) In Love With You Thing; 23) Look Around.

This is one of those records that usually triggers interminable and unwinnable discussions about what is music, what is art, what is taste, what is good and bad sound, and whether we're supposed to have admiration for something just because it was endorsed by Kurt Cobain, and if yes, should we also admire heroin and Remington Arms, etc. etc. In other words, a reviewer's paradise re­gard­less of how much the reviewer likes or hates the record in question.

The fact remains that, as evidenced by this particular recording, «singers», «songwriters», and, most comically, «multi-instrumentalists» (yes, that's the way they're encyclopaedically described) Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis, and Bret Lunsford, upon getting together, found out or confir­med that they could not sing worth a damn, that they were unable to competently play any of their instruments, and that their songwriting talents did not significantly exceed those of an average 5-year old. Additionally, they did not have access to professional studios and did not even own a drum set (they had to borrow one or build up a cardboard imitation). In other words, they were, like, the first true punk band in history, except they did not want to be punks. Instead, they just took the most brilliant decision that could be taken, given the circumstances.

And that decision was — if our skills and talents match the average level of a 5-year old (okay, maybe a 10-year old for accuracy), why not imitate a 10-year old? "I was walking in our town / I was walking through the store / I saw a pretty girl / She held open the door / I said ʽI like youʼ / She said that she liked me / And we could be friends / In our special stupid way". That is the way this album opens (well, the new CD edition does, anyway), and isn't that something you'd pretty much expect to be written by a 10-year old when pressed into writing «poetry»? Okay, so the word ʽstupidʼ gives it all away: no 10-year old would voluntarily describe him/herself as ʽstupidʼ. So it's not quite as perfect as it may have been. But then, they have to have some points of inter­section with their grown-up audiences — after all, Beat Happening is not advertising itself for a pre-pubescent public. I mean, another of the songs goes, "I had sex on Christmas / I had sex three times today / Three different women taught me how to be bored / In their own separate sweet little ways". So let's put it this way: this is an album written by grown-ups about grown-up issues through the prism of the mentality of a little kid, one such as could have come up with the drawing for the album cover.

Does it work? Well, that's a tough question to answer once you've done your duty of acknowled­ging the innovative (or, rather, «novel») nature of the overall approach. As far as I can tell, it does not work on the level of «base catchiness»: beyond the fact that the primitive chord sequences that they can master on their guitars are all taken from various classic or not-so-classic pop re­cords, they don't really know what to do with them, or, rather, they just don't care, because any extra tinkering with melodies would qualify as «polish», and a 10-year old wouldn't be supposed to care about that. It certainly doesn't work on the level of «conventional prettiness», either: vici­ously off-key singing and annoyingly out-of-tune playing are the norm of day (although some songs violate melodic conventions more than others), so don't expect to be angelically charmed. So what else is there to compensate for poor songwriting and horrible execution? (And, oh yes, awful production, but that goes without saying, since the first thing about Beat Happening that you learn in textbooks is how they were the real «pioneers of lo-fi»).

Well, there is a fair amount of innocent charm in all this stuff, whose fairy godmother is actually Maureen Tucker on ʽAfter Hoursʼ (yes indeed, for everything in the Seventies, Eighties and be­yond there has been a blueprint at least as early as 1969). Just the way this trio launches into this material, with such gusto and all, challenges conventional expectations — instead of upgrading themselves to the level of a very mediocre, undistinctive, third-rate guitar pop band, they have chosen to downgrade themselves, and in doing so, they have attracted our attention rather than dissipated it. The lo-fi production and poor playing, in this case, enhance the experience — we are not being shown some pretentious, idealized, «childfully angelic» world, but are drawn into the process as is, warts and all: Beat Happening do not invite us to admire them, to fall head over heels in love with their cuteness and cuddliness, but instead provoke a mix of curiosity, laughing, irritation, and, on occasion, even some intellectual stimulation.

There is one song here (actually, presented in two versions on the new CD edition, one of which is a barely audible live performance) that is intentionally written in a «punkish» idiom — like, what would a 10-year old scribble in his classroom after his first encounter with The Clash or The Sex Pistols? With a quasi-surf rock guitar line and a stiff vocal performance that brings up visions of the B-52's rather than Duane Eddy, ʽBad Seedsʼ is like a really really silly, really really bad punk rock anthem if you take it on its own, but placed in this general context, it's just the album's protagonist momentarily caught in a bad mood — usually, his mood is much better, when he is trying to pen something romantic and optimistic, but sometimes the world gets him like that, and all he can do is just grin back at it: "we're ba-a-a-a-d, bad bad seeds" (should be delivered with all the theatrical evil that a little harmless, inoffensive kid can possibly gather up).

Special prize goes to Miss Heather "Mr. Fish is having a party" Lewis here, for serving as the prototype for thousands of intellectually endowed, innocently sounding indie ladies that would start springing up at alarming rates in the 21st century — on a gut level, I feel relieved every time that she takes lead vocals, because she is either too afraid or to ashamed to sing as completely out of tune as Mr. Calvin "The best part of sex is walking home" Johnson, who is simply reveling in the pleasure of making your ears curdle. But you're supposed to take it like a man: I mean, would you really be as insensitively cruel as to tell a 10-year old who's really, really trying that your singing totally sucks, lil' buddy? Come on now. In a few years, he'll start taking serious singing lessons, and then we'll see. And these guys here, they're just growing backwards.

And some of the songs are genuinely funny — ʽI Love Youʼ, for instance, has nothing to do with just loving you, but everything to do with our proverbial 10-year old trying to compete with the beatniks: it's something he might have written the next day after having his mind blown by Dylan's ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ, with such deliciously bad semi-rapped lines as "Those poets grin / Who never sin / They fight with Russians / And have discussions / With the KGB / At the Baltic Sea". It actually takes something good to create something that bad, you know. It is also amusing that, although our «kid» seems familiar with sexual experiences (so let's raise that 10 figure to at least 12-13 for comfort), he always seems to downplay and denigrate them: "You got five other guys saying love me do / You know what they want from you / Me, all I ask is love / And, honey pot, my love you can trust" (ʽHoney Potʼ), or check that quotation from ʽChristmasʼ again. On the other hand, we may very well be dealing with a virgin here who's just shooting his mouth off about having sex on Christmas, so, upon second thought, bring that figure back to 10. Any more than that and we begin to have our doubts about the whole thing.

Overall, on a conceptual basis Beat Happening is quite endearing, hilarious, and occasionally rather unsettling, since some of these songs come very close to nailing the phenomenon of mental retardation (the Ramones used to take too much pride in passing themselves off as mental retards: Beat Happening do that humbly and quietly, and this makes it all the more unsettling). On an in­dividual song level, it is practically non-existent, though, even compared to their later records where «polish» would reduce the importance of the concept and increase the importance of sepa­rate song units. Also, the LP/CD re-issue from 1996 which added a whole bunch of bonus tracks, particularly ones taken from the later EP Three Tea Breakfast, makes the whole experience somewhat overlong (23 tracks in 45 minutes — they come close to beating Wire's record with Pink Flag!). Regardless, it totally makes sense as an artistic statement and deserves its thumbs up, although I'll have to wait until I go completely mental before I start really enjoying it on a casual everyday basis.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Buzzcocks: Trade Test Transmissions

BUZZCOCKS: TRADE TEST TRANSMISSIONS (1993)

1) Do It; 2) Innocent; 3) T T T; 4) Isolation; 5) Smile; 6) Last To Know; 7) When Love Turns Around; 8) Never Gonna Give It Up; 9) Energy; 10) Palm Of Your Hand; 11) Alive Tonight; 12) Who'll Help Me Forget; 13) Unthin­kable; 14) Crystal Night; 15) 369; 16*) All Over You; 17*) Inside.

That the Buzzcocks split up in 1981 is totally appropriate — this way, they did not have to smear their name with ten years' worth of (most likely) subpar material. That they reappeared with ano­ther album in 1993, soon after the «grunge revolution» once again changed the face of popular music and removed some of the Eighties' excess, was, consequently, quite appropriate as well. However, as usual, this 2.0 version of the band is yet another example of how, when something gets broken, the cracks and seams will show even if you try very hard to repair it.

These new «Buzzcocks» are really just Shelley and Diggle, with a couple extra new guys named Barber and Barker (no, really, that's their names) in the rhythm section — but it's not as if it was Barber and Barker's fault that the sound of the album is... not all that satisfactory. Namely, the guitar melodies are almost always reduced to the same gray, sludgy, grumbly tone that is heavier and more aggressive than the old «chainsaw buzz» of the Seventies, and tends to lump all the melodies together. I mean, from a certain dialectical point of view «all Buzzcocks sound the same», but when you get down to earth, their early classic albums don't — the individual melo­dies are rising out resplendently from the surface. Trade Test Transmissions just speed before your eyes and ears without bothering to shift tempo, tonality, mood, or perspective.

It's not particularly annoying, and we've all heard much worse: at least this guitar sound «makes sense» — fast, furious, but pop-styled songs about sex, love, and more sex, dominated by catchy choruses, go along better with this style than if they tried to go all heavy metal on their listeners (like some of the hardcore punk people did). Listen to any one of these songs at random and there will be no reason to get mad. But there's fifteen of them here, and they all sound alike — a far, far cry from those times when, if you still remember, Shelley and Diggle tried out various approa­ches. You could complain about ʽLate For The Trainʼ being overlong, but you couldn't say that it sounded just like all those other songs. Those guys were actually bringing ideas, plural, into the studio, not just one basic Idea of how you're supposed to plug in, take off, race through, sign out, and then repeat procedure 15 times in a row.

Unfortunately, I cannot recommend even a single song; unless you begin to pick them apart by paying attention to the lyrics (and you shouldn't, because ʽPalm Of Your Handʼ is, indeed, exactly about what you're probably thinking about at the moment), it's all just one punk-pop song with fifteen vari­ations. A happy song, with a thick distorted buzzing rhythm track and melodic lead lines, but that does not excuse it from taking such a large chunk of time out of your life. ʽT T Tʼ (the abbreviated title track, actually) is a bit grimmer than the rest, with a tough-guy AC/DC-style chord change, but you might not even notice without special warning (I certainly did not before I caught note of Mark Prindle's observation on how the song stands out a bit, and I agree).

So, was this reunion a complete waste of time? Well... at least it's not like they really plopped the Buzzcocks' brand into the dirt here or anything. If you are a big fan, even if you too happen to be disappointed, with time you will begin to trace the little nuances between different songs and get happier. They're silly songs, much of the time, but the Buzzcocks never took themselves too seri­ously anyway, so if Shelley sings about himself as a sexual giant on ʽDo Itʼ, you can be sure he is still being quite the tongue-in-cheek hoochie coochie man about it. I can see where time could help warm up to the songs — unfortunately, I don't have that time, and much as I like and respect the early Buzzcocks, this is not because I feel some sort of psychic connection with Shelley and Diggle, but just because those hooks jump out at me so effectively. It's an entirely different thing when you have to go hunting for the hooks yourself, and Trade Test Transmissions wants you to do all its dirty work on your own — no, thank you very much.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Buffalo Springfield: Again

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: AGAIN (1967)

1) Mr. Soul; 2) A Child's Claim To Fame; 3) Everydays; 4) Expecting To Fly; 5) Bluebird; 6) Hung Upside Down; 7) Sad Memory; 8) Good Time Boy; 9) Rock & Roll Woman; 10) Broken Arrow.

Even though the title of this second album would seem to imply that this record is a logical heir to the first one, it really isn't. Three young lads cut their songwriting teeth in 1966 (although at least one of them — Furay — was denied dental help), helping each other out where necessary. By 1967, the three young lads in question were ready to understand how utterly different they were from each other, but professional and historical ties still bound them together, and so, in­stead of three solo albums, Fate got them to get together again and make a single one. So they kind of jumped from their Rubber Soul period into their Abbey Road stage in one blink — quite a dazzling case of acceleration, if you ask me.

The actual sessions for Again were stretched out across the entire first half of 1967, and did not always include all the band members assembled together: Young was frequently absent because he did not care all that much, bass player Bruce Palmer cared a lot but was also frequently absent because of his drug bust, and session players came and went at random whenever some of the re­gulars dropped out of the picture. In other words, the whole thing was rather messy, but then «messy» was sort of good in 1967, when great ideas sprang out of chaos and «work schedules» were considered detrimental to groundbreaking art anyway.

The one member of the band here who sounds as if he wouldn't mind working on a schedule is Furay, who finally gets a chance to contribute three of his own songs — and they are proto-Poco: nice, sweet, inoffensive country-pop/rock — melodic, derivative, sentimental, perfectly listenable but not all that exciting. ʽA Child's Claim To Fameʼ has some sweet dobro lines added by James Burton, but could have been written and recorded by just about any mediocre Nashville team. ʽSad Memoryʼ is an acoustic folk ballad, somewhere in between the Everleys and James Taylor, which Young tries to make more distinctive by playing some electric lines in the back­ground, muffled and disguised to sound like a soft jazzy sax solo — too quiet to draw attention, though. ʽGood Time Boyʼ is the most upbeat number of the three, and drummer Dewey Martin gets to sing on it, either because they didn't want him to feel left out, or because they thought he had a sufficiently rowdy voice to make it rougher. However, his attempts to generate a «good time» atmosphere and bring it closer to James Brown's R&B stylistics (with chaotic-ecstatic "sock it to me now!"s and "lay it on me now!"s) are laughable, to put it mildly, and the whole thing, at best, can qualify as a humorous / parodic number. (Another Beatles analogy here — they use up their drummer much like the Fab Four used up theirs. Drummers are funny, you know).

Stills gets the largest share of songs here, and they already establish his classic solo/CSN style: not too hard, not too soft folk- and country-rock with a creative/psychedelic twist. Arguably the oddest track of the four is ʽEverydaysʼ, where he combines a nightclub lounge-jazz atmosphere with harsh feedback hum that accompanies all the verses — assuming that the feedback is pro­vided by Neil, this marks the first Young experiment with guitar noise captured on record, and it is sort of ironic that it had to happen on a Stills-penned jazz number! The most ambitious number out of all four, though, is probably ʽBluebirdʼ, which really puts that «rock» in «folk-rock», with battling acoustic and electric guitars, falsetto harmonies in the bridge alternating with brashly-boldly delivered verse vocals, an instrumental section where psychedelic drone meets folk dance and even a little bit of drum'n'bass, and an unexpectedly soft coda where the distorted electric guitar is kicked out of the house by a banjo — you can read all sorts of symbolism into it, but we here will just accept this as an unpredictable randomized adventure.

The biggest artistic breakthrough, nevertheless, belongs to Young, whose three tunes here have all acquired classic status, and raised the Buffalo Springfield benchmark high enough to be able to compete with 1967's first-graders. ʽMr. Soulʼ rocks harder than anything else on the album, and not so much because its main riff represents but a minor variation on ʽSatisfactionʼ, but be­cause this is where we get to know the classic Neil Young style of guitar playing — the piercing distorted guitar tones, the jagged, slightly dissonant solos, the relentless ear-pummeling that forces the listener to take notice. It's a short song, with no sign yet of the earth-shattering guitar jams that Neil would soon be associated with, but it's a fairly truthful sign of things to come. And also, somehow I get the feeling that the song may have been at least a subconscious influence on ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ: couldn't we hear echoes of "I was raised by the praise of a fan who said I upset her", played to the riff of ʽSatisfactionʼ, in "I was raised by a toothless bearded hag", played to the near-equal riff of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ? Just curious.

Neil's other two contributions are not rockers at all, but rather grand romantic epics, on a surpri­singly grand scale that was probably imposed on him by the overall romantic ambitiousness of the times, since his early solo records have almost nothing resembling ʽExpecting To Flyʼ and ʽBro­ken Arrowʼ (well, maybe the self-titled debut does, a little bit). You could, in fact, treat them as two separated movements of a single conceptual piece — «The Arrow That Expected To Fly But Couldn't Because It Was Broken» or something. The first movement is what they sometimes like to call a «Euroart song», one that the Moody Blues and the Zombies would probably appre­ciate; the second is multi-part in itself, playing out like a mini-spectacle (with a goofy self-quotation-mode reprisal of ʽMr. Soulʼ leading into "the lights turned on and the curtain fell down" introduction) with half-metaphorical, half-nonsensical lyrics that seem to be dealing with disillusionment, disenchant­ment, and depression. But really, I'm just writing this because 99% of Neil's songs deal with dis­illusionment, disenchantment, and depression, and remembering this always comes in handy when trying to decipher the cryptic verbal imagery of his early years.

I think that these songs still hold up after all these years, despite their youthful maximalism and rather naïve grandiosity — the vocal melodies are lovely and challenging, what with all those unpredictable time signature changes inside the verses of ʽBroken Arrowʼ; and those who have a problem with the sharpness and shrillness of Young's whiny voice on his stripped down solo al­bums will probably wonder why he would so rarely, if ever, resort to smoothing them out with the psychedelic echo effects on ʽExpecting To Flyʼ that retain all the tenderness of his voice while at the same time masking the «grating» overtones. On the other hand, neither of these songs is «typical» Neil Young — they're «Summer-of-Love Neil Young», recorded in that really strange year when you could extract a common musical invariant from John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Neil Young, and Ted Nugent, so it might be argued that these are just early experiments with different voices, and that the music is not endowed with true Young spirit, whatever that be.

On an amusing note, you could argue that the logical sequel to Buffalo Springfield Again is Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon — picking up exactly where the former left off. But apart from the odd link between the coda of ʽBroken Arrowʼ and the beginning of ʽSpeak To Meʼ, there would be little to further that analogy: Again has no concept, no big masterplan, and is really just an exercise in survival of three differently attuned songwriters in the newly discovered limitless waters of the post-Sgt. Pepper era. An inconsistent mix of pretty secure mediocrity with flawed, insecure greatness, it deserves its thumbs up a-plenty, but you can already see here who's aiming for the buffalo and who's pining for Springfield.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Brian Eno: Another Day On Earth

BRIAN ENO: ANOTHER DAY ON EARTH (2005)

1) This; 2) And Then So Clear; 3) A Long Way Down; 4) Going Unconscious; 5) Caught Between; 6) Passing Over; 7) How Many Worlds; 8) Bottomliners; 9) Just Another Day; 10) Under; 11) Bone Bomb.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it; if it done got broke — for goodness' sake, just replace it already. All of Eno's half-hearted attempts to make bits of vocal pop music past the Seventies, be it with Cale, Schwalm, or anybody else, were incomparable in quality to the classic era; so why, after all this time, once again return to the vocal format, and this time, for an entire album? This attempt was simply bound to be half-hearted again, and it is.

Tucking some modern rhythms behind his belt, enlisting the help of some proverbially progres­sive stars, and alternating between sung, spoken, mumbled, and jumbled vocals, Brian here gives us an album that is both ambient and pop at the same time — or, rather, one that is neither am­bient nor pop. Essentially, it's a platter of moody mush that presents itself as something much more deep than it really is, and also contains some really bad sonic decisions, such as the frequent use of Autotune to transform Eno's normally handsome vocals into the last sounds of a rapidly melting Wicked Robot of the West.

Saddest of all, Another Day On Earth shows that Eno totally lost the capacity to amaze — now, when he is generating pop music, he is just generating pop music. It's not as if ʽThisʼ were a bad song, but it just sounds like any other semi-decent New Wave and later art-pop song. The drum machines are openly crappy (oh, where are those happy days when studio technology and organic Phil Collins could join in bliss and ecstasy on an opening track?), but much worse is the hidden crap effect, when the song is over and you realize that you don't remember anything about it ex­cept that, uh, it was... kind of happy-sounding and peaceful.

Or maybe this entire album is just a bit too happy-sounding and peaceful. See, when you combine faint pop hooks with friendly ambient soundscapes and meditative disposition, there's always a danger of losing focus, of drifting apart in your own mellowness. It's one thing when you are directly producing a stereotypical ambient album — it's totally another when you are using ambi­ence as a support for a «song», because then you get something like ʽA Long Way Downʼ, which is neither here nor there: as an ambient piece, it is let down by the inclusion of vocals, but as a vocal piece, it suffers from melodic minimalism. Like, would those Harold Budd collaborations have been better if Eno thought they needed vocal overdubs? Probably not, or he would have added those overdubs. Then why make that mistake here?

In the middle of the album, we unexpectedly get an almost upbeat, McCartney-esque pop ballad (ʽHow Many Worldsʼ), riding on a simple acoustic guitar riff and sporting unusually pathetic lyrics for Eno; I would have thought that lines like "our little world turning in the blue" would be way below his usual level of acceptance, but there you go — actually, the credits state that the lyrics were co-written with Michel Faber, the Dutch writer, and I sure hope he writes better no­vels than he does poetry. Anyway, it's kind of pretty, but it's also kind of childish: where in the past Eno had this knack for finding minimalist melodies that sounded like they were telling you The Lost Chord Truth of the universe, ʽHow Many Worldsʼ seems poised for a Sesame Street soundtrack. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but then offer it for a Sesame Street soundtrack, goddammit, not your long-awaited «pop comeback».

ʽJust Another Dayʼ, arriving near the end of the album, tries to somehow summarize it all and pre­sent a stately finale, and it's decent — with Brian using his imposing lower range on a basic vocal hook that, in a typical Eno manner, tries to marry the macrocosmically grand with the ut­most in simplicity. Decent, but not devastating: just like the song tries to convince us that "that was just another day on Earth", so is the song itself "just another song", celebrating Eno's gift for serenity and bliss in a routinely manner. After all, the music behind all this is just another mix of humming electronic textures, isn't it? And the percussion is dreadful.

The one really weird song on the album is ʽBone Bombʼ, serving here as a totally unexpected afterthought-style appendix — a series of bass and keyboard pulses, over which a vocally desen­sitized lady with a Laurie Anderson flair (not Laurie Anderson, though) piles up strings of free-form poetry, as if from the point of view of a suicidal terrorist ("bone bomb" is apparently a technical term for a suicide bomber whose own bones serve as lethal projectiles). Predictably, it's kind of creepy, although the subject matter is masked well enough for most people not to take notice. And even though the track is not pop at all, and even though I am not generally a fan of this kind of pretentious pseudo-shocking Relevant Art, I find myself strangely wishing that Ano­ther Day On Earth contained more of the same, instead of generally relying on that safe, cuddly, no longer all that interesting sound.

The sad truth is that the days on which Eno released albums like Another Green World and Before And After Science were not «just another day on Earth» kind of days — they were really special days with special musical events. We may, of course, simply agree with the artist that these days are gone for ever, and now every new day is just another day, regardless of whether you find a new Brian Eno record waiting for you or not. But if so, I don't think I want to be expli­citly told about it; I sort of know it already, you know. Disappointing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: The Promise

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: THE PROMISE (1977-1978/2010)

1) Racing In The Street; 2) Gotta Get That Feeling; 3) Outside Looking In; 4) Someday; 5) One Way Street; 6) Be­cause The Night; 7) Wrong Side Of The Street; 8) The Brokenhearted; 9) Rendezvous; 10) Candy's Boy; 11) Save My Love; 12) Ain't Good Enough For You; 13) Fire; 14) Spanish Eyes; 15) It's A Shame; 16) Come On (Let's Go Tonight); 17) Talk To Me; 18) The Little Things (My Baby Does); 19) Breakaway; 20) The Promise; 21) City Of Night.

And the rains keep falling and falling, and now we learn — those of us, that is, who have not been avid bootleg collectors over the years — that in compiling Tracks, Springsteen intentionally sidetracked one particular period in his history, the «murky years» in between Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town when he was busy fighting his former manager and waiting for the ban on his new records to be lifted. Indeed, of these new songs only ʽRendezvousʼ was formerly available on Tracks, and even there, only in a live version.

The wonderful thing about The Promise, for hardcore fans at least, is that it plays out like a co­hesive, even conceptual, double album — The Great Lost Springsteen Album; yes, a few of the songs would later be reworked for Darkness, but they'd change significantly in the process. The not-so-wonderful thing is that his first official double album, The River, had already shown the excessive simplicity and repetitiveness of the new churn formula; and The Promise, had it been released to the general public in 1977 or 1978, would have been his first The River, albeit a little less exciting and more predictable than the 1980 album.

Just like the material on Tracks, these songs are decent and nothing more. What distinguishes them is that, oddly enough, The Promise is really just one big huge enormous tribute to the music of Bruce's teenage years — early rock'n'roll, Motown, R&B, Phil Spector's wall-of-sound, whatever. We know he'd returned to those inspirations in 1980 and then, occasionally, on later albums as well, but never did they seem to be so consistently and naggingly on his mind than in those «murky years». Perhaps he sought consolation from all his troubles in the music of the Ro­nettes, the Crystals, the Supremes, Ben E. King, and Buddy Holly, or maybe he thought that, since he'd already been branded «the saviour of rock'n'roll» and stuff, he'd really have to go back to his roots and save the goddamn son of a bitch a second time, this time for real. Who really knows? The thing is, say a big thank you to Mike Appel, who effectively kept this from beco­ming the disappointing sequel to Born To Run at the time and whose activity ultimately boxed the Boss into a much darker, and psychologically deeper corner.

Perhaps if you listen to this album in «fresh» mode, taking a long, long break from Bruce-lore, the songs will find a way to appeal to you on song-individual level. My problem here is that I find myself in a position to write about The Promise as a conclusion to a lengthy chronological run, and each of these chords, tones, words is as familiar to me now as the wallpaper staring me in the face. And I will harshly state that this is Bruce's problem, not mine — we are not guilty, after all, that ever since the man locked in on national and international fame, he'd become such a fabu­lously lazy songwriter, mostly exploiting familiar chord sequences and making them his own by putting them on a steady Springsteroid diet.

There is nothing inherently wrong, of course, in putting your own unique stamp on music that you have so openly derived from Phil Spector or Buddy Holly. Problems begin when you overdo it, and The Promise overdoes it with gusto: song after song, you have exactly the same vibe, and remember, back in the Sixties, you had this stuff in single format, or, at best, in relatively brief 30-to-40 minute LP format. Here, you have an hour and a half of Buddy Holly with Springsteen vocals (ʽOutside Looking Inʼ), the Ronettes with Springsteen vocals (ʽSomedayʼ), Mary Wells with Springsteen vocals (ʽOne Way Streetʼ), Roy Orbison with Springsteen vocals (ʽThe Broken­heartedʼ), the Supremes with Springsteen vocals (ʽAin't Good Enough For Youʼ — okay, actual­ly I must admit this is the best song the Supremes never got to sing, the piano melody is so infec­tious), Elvis with Springsteen vocals (ʽFireʼ), Solomon Burke with Springsteen vocals (ʽSpanish Eyesʼ)... need I go on?

Had he had the opportunity to put it out in the old days, it might actually have been clipped and compacted into a shorter, more easily assimilated record (and he'd also patented the concept way before Billy Joel's An Innocent Man, although Billy's retro-tribute probably had more contras­tive impact in the synth-pop days of 1983 than Bruce's would have had in 1977). But then we should also remember that in 1978, once his legal troubles were over, nobody could prevent him from releasing or at least re-recording these tracks — the fact that he chose not to do that, and came out with the much more original (and meaningful) Darkness instead shows that he was probably looking back on this stuff, already then, as a trifling business.

You can still hear shades and echoes of The Promise on Darkness — for instance, the lyrical connection between ʽRa­cing In The Streetʼ (also included here in an early version) and ʽDancing In The Streetsʼ becomes much more clear, since worship of Martha & The Vandellas is a totally integral part of this album; also, ʽFactoryʼ is explained as a lyrical re-write of the much more lightweight ʽCome On (Let's Go Tonight)ʼ. But there is almost nothing of Darkness on The Pro­mise — aside from maybe the title track itself, whose first lines already suggest the whole lyrical trajectory ("Johnny works in a factory / Billy works downtown..." — kids in middle school should be given this couple of lines as part of the regular «Write your own Bruce Springsteen song!» assignment) and whose refrain makes it a logical pessimistic sequel to ʽThunder Roadʼ. However, it comes in so late in the evening that it changes nothing about the general perspective on the record as a whole.

Still, despite all the criticism, it is probably a good thing that Bruce eventually got around to clea­ning up this particular shelf. After all, these are not raw demos or anything — it is a coherent, self-sufficient piece of product; it nicely plugs in the odd three-year gap in what still remains Springsteen's most creative and important decade of all; it is an undeniably generous gift to the fans; and I'm even sure it will be perfectly listenable and enjoyable for me in the future, once the «Springsteen overdose» effect wears off. One thing, however: this polished version of ʽBecause The Nightʼ still leaves me convinced that Bruce made the perfectly right decision when he dona­ted the song to Patti Smith. He sounds pathetically constipated on these verses — I don't know, maybe there's something in them that only makes it right for female voices. Or for demon-haunted avantgarde convention-defying crazy feminist voices, for that matter.