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Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Special New Year's Announcement

Dear All,

as I have recently indicated in a Facebook post, the new year is finally going to see a few changes in the schedule, compared to six (has it really been that long?) rather rigid years in a row. I will still be reviewing on a regular basis (no worry), but the sequencing of the reviews will be somewhat different. Namely:

1. Instead of a rigorous chronological distinction into six different time periods, they will all be condensed into three: "Old" (including all artists beginning from the pre-war bluesmen and ending with the Sgt. Pepper era), "Classic" (1967-1975), and "Modern" (from the punk/New Wave era right into the 21st century). "Old" artists will be reviewed on Monday/Thursday, "Classic" artists will be covered Tuesday/Friday, and "Modern" on Wednesday/Saturday. This has substantial as well as technical / logistic reasons.

And although I still have a few B's to finish up in the "Old" and "Classic" categories, we are finally breaking through into the C's on this very first week!

2. On Sundays, if all goes well, I am going to eschew the alphabetic principle and instead focus on a series of "Great Album" reviews. For two reasons: (a) in light of man's mortality, there's a serious chance the blog won't ever be able to make it past the first half of the alphabet, so this is a chance to write something about important artists regardless of the alphabet; (b) this will guarantee that there will be at least one "important album" review per week.

These special Sunday reviews will have a significantly different structure from the usual ones, and will be uploaded to the regular old site instead of (or in addition to, we'll see) this blog (there will be a link in any case). As for the material, so as not to spoil the Sunday surprise, I will just say that the "great albums" will not simply reflect my personal preferences; the selection is going to be determined by certain external factors. Otherwise, I'll end up exclusively writing about stuff that has already been reviewed, and that would become tedious.

And it all starts tomorrow, so stay tuned.

The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers

THE BYRDS: THE NOTORIOUS BYRD BROTHERS (1968)

1) Artificial Energy; 2) Goin' Back; 3) Natural Harmony; 4) Draft Morning; 5) Wasn't Born To Follow; 6) Get To You; 7) Change Is Now; 8) Old John Robertson; 9) Tribal Gathering; 10) Dolphin's Smile; 11) Space Odyssey.

Although technically marked 1968, since it was released on January 15, the Byrds' fifth album still fully belongs in 1967 — on the whole, it is still far more «psychedelic», «baroque-poppy», and «experimental» than anything from the new back-to-roots era of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and beyond. It is also messy to the extreme, since the complete and irredeemable disintegration of the original Byrds took place right through the sessions — during which Crosby walked out, Michael Clarke walked in, Gene Clark came back, Michael Clarke walked out again, and Gene Clark walked out again, too. Not to mention dozens of sessions musicians walking in and out on a pay-per-hour basis. Or on just a good word.

Despite, or maybe thanks to all the turbulence, The Notorious Byrd Brothers has always fasci­nated the critical mind, and eventually turned into a «cult favorite» — people who think it too ob­vious to list Mr. Tambourine Man or Younger Than Yesterday as their favorite Byrds album often turn to this as an honorably elitist competitor. I am in no rush to join that chorus, though. It is true that this is really the last Byrds album where the band members are still trying to push their imagination to the limits, the last one where three different talents (McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman) compete with each other and feed on each other at the same time, the last one that expli­citly rejects formula in favor of freedom. But it is not true that freedom is always preferable to formula — and The Notorious Byrd Brothers, in my opinion, could certainly benefit from a little more martial discipline than is on display.

It is somewhat telling that when it came to singles, the only track that was deemed qualifiable was a cover, and not even a Dylan cover, but their take on Goffin and King's ʽGoin' Backʼ, pre­viously known mostly in Dusty Springfield's arrangement. It is a classic number, to be sure, but other than replacing the «adult pop» version with keyboards and strings with a janglier and more percussion-heavy pop-rock arrangement, the band does not truly unlock anything here that Dusty had not already unlocked — the nostalgic pull towards the past coupled with gentle optimism for the future, as reflected in the elegant key changes of the melody. Even if we call this the «defini­tive version» of the song (to me, though, that would rather be Carole King's own take on her cre­ation on the Writer album), it is still a cover, and not a magically transformed one.

The band actually does much more with their second Goffin/King cover, ʽWasn't Born To Fol­lowʼ, which they saw as a fast-paced country-rock number (unlike Carole herself, who recorded it in a slow, gospel-tinged version in 1969, while still a member of «The City») — and it still did not prevent them from throwing in a few backward solos and put a heavy phasing effect on the instrumental passage, because, you know, playing straightforward country is kinda dull (an idea that had all but evaporated by the following year). However, even that song never truly goes be­yond «cute» — maybe it's all because of the vocals, so cuddly and fragile and monotonous.

The rest of the album is all left to original material, but next to the songs on Younger Than Yes­terday, these never seem to truly compete in terms of sharp, interesting ideas. Crosby, in parti­cular, is beginning to value social importance over musical integrity. His ʽDraft Morningʼ, an anti-Vietnam rumination on the fate of a nameless soldier, has no discernible musical theme, and although the vocals were completed by McGuinn and Hillman already after he'd been fired, the vocal melody is more enjoyable due to the pure beauty of their silky tones than to the actual lines they're singing — not to mention the totally pro forma, unconvincing and disruptive «war sound effects» in the instrumental part; as far as anti-war songs like these go, give me The Doors' ʽUn­known Soldierʼ over this one any day. ʽTribal Gatheringʼ, inspired by yet another hippie caucasus, is too short and simplistic to justify the «aura of deep mystery» intention of the author, sounding more like hippie lounge muzak than something to actively attune your brain to. And although I distinctly remember that ʽDolphin's Smileʼ sounded fresh and sparkly, a nice tune to wake up to on a bright summer morning when you want to start your life anew, the whole thing was just too hazy and hookless to ever find a proper place in my memory.

Ironically, Crosby's best song at the time was not only considered too risky to put on the album, but, in fact, seriously contributed to his decision to leave the band — and donate the song to Jefferson Airplane. As sung by Grace Slick, the version of ʽTriadʼ is still the definitive one, but the one that The Byrds did, eventually released on CD as a bonus track, holds up fairly well, too. And it isn't merely its controversial subject matter — "going on as three" is a fairly uncomfor­table notion even for 2015, although it is probably the next logical stage after gay rights — that makes it stand out, no; it has an excellent verse structure, with a double resolution of the vocal melody that, well, doubles the intrigue. There's a certain je ne sais quoi in that "...I don't really see why can't we go on as three" conclusion that almost makes you... you know... see the point and all. It's fairly disturbing and provocative on all fronts — no wonder that the nice country lads McGuinn and Hillman felt way too uncomfortable about something like that.

But what did they offer instead? Well, Hillman does write one of the album's best songs, ʽNatural Harmonyʼ, which goes against his country-rock reputation by actually sounding more like some­thing Crosby would write — jazzy, trippy, and featuring heavy use of the Moog synth, still very much a rarity in late 1967; however, his collaboration with McGuinn on ʽChange Is Nowʼ I can appreciate only a formal level. It does this novel trick of putting together folk, drone, psychedelia, and even a fast country-western part, but none of the parts are interesting on their own, and put­ting them together just feels like an empty experiment.

McGuinn does shine on his own on the opener, ʽArtificial Energyʼ, largely due to the powerful, anthemic brass section (famed session musician Richard Hyde on trombone); but his ʽSpace Ody­sseyʼ, concluding the album, is definitely an acquired taste. If the idea of a slow four-minute folk ballad from the highlands, overdubbed with all sorts of «deep space effects», instantaneously appeals to your cosmic cowboy psychology, you'll find it a masterpiece. Personally, I find it boring and tedious, a fairly dubious tribute to a fairly dubious piece of literature — and, for that matter, I also hold the opinion that of all Kubrick's movies, A Space Odyssey is also the one that has dated far more seriously than any other, let alone Arthur Clarke's prose.

All in all, maybe this entire album is very much an acquired taste, and one that I have lost all hope of acquiring. Nothing here is truly bad, with the exception of the last track, but the highs are lower than any previous highs, and other than the Goffin/King covers, there really isn't anything here that would unquestionably make it into my personal «best-of» collection. I still give the record a thumbs up out of respect — with the band in a state of near-collapse, it is amazing that they even had their minds set on experimentation and progress so much of the time — but let it also go on the official record that I continue not to share the hype, and generally like my Byrds when they are more polished and focused than when they are in a state of disarray.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Brian Eno (w. Karl Hyde): Someday World

BRIAN ENO: SOMEDAY WORLD (w. Karl Hyde) (2014)

1) The Satellites; 2) Daddy's Car; 3) Man Wakes Up; 4) Witness; 5) Strip It Down; 6) Mother Of A Dog; 7) Who Rings The Bell; 8) When I Built This World; 9) To Us All; 10) Big Band Song; 11) Brazil 3; 12) Celebration; 13) Titian Bekh.

Still another addition to the already seemingly endless list of Eno's collaborators, this time in the form of Karl Hyde, one of the founding fathers of the electronic band Underworld and, since 2013, also a solo artist. In other words, this is the first time since the Peter Schwalm collaboration that Brian enlists another electronic musician as equal partner; and considering how frequently the old guru gets in creative trouble when trying to saddle more modern styles of electronica, the setup suggests disaster from the get-go — once again, the master of soft nuance will try to con­vince us that he's just as good at techno-trance as the youngsters? (Let alone the fact that Karl Hyde himself is only nine years younger than Eno himself).

Surprisingly, the suggestion is screwed: not only is this not a disaster, but Someday World is, in fact, one of the most impressive, if not the most impressive, record to come from the Eno printing press in the 21st century. Its basic denomination is pop — most of the tunes feature vocals, repe­titive structures, hooks, choruses — but the individual styles, mostly furnished with electronic arrangements, are quite varied, ranging from Eno's classic upbeat style of the 1970s to dance music styles that rather reflect the «Hyde generation» of the late Eighties / early Nineties than anything considered «modern» in the 2010s. Which is a good thing — the two gentlemen are doing here what they do best, without necessarily attempting to sound in line with the times.

There are a lot of synthesized horns here, although, since there are also real horn players (in­clu­ding none other than Roxy Music's Andy Mackay on alto saxophone), it is not always easy to tell digital brass from analog brass with digital treatment; on ʽThe Satellitesʼ, for instance, real and «fake» horns often play off each other, creating a wildly polyphonic, dense sound. Sometimes they go into overdrive: ʽDaddy's Carʼ plays out like a cross be­tween some wild Latin dance and classic Stone Roses, with the addition of a wall of background harmonies and maniacal funky per­cussion. Sometimes you get echoes of Talking Heads and King Crimson (ʽMan Wakes Upʼ; the short instrumental ʽBrazil 3ʼ, whose throbbing electronic theme sounds like they're quoting the beginning to ʽBurning Down The Houseʼ). More often, though, they are being quiet, subtle, and vaguely creepy, with lulling sweet vocals over threatening bass lines — even if the absolute majority of the songs here are «beat-conscious», as they say.

Mostly, though, it's the hooks, and the almost unbelievable ease with which they produce an at­mosphere of solemnity that is quite reminiscent of the glory days. Check ʽTo Us Allʼ — taking two minutes to build up some tension, then finally exploding in an anthemic vocal sermon, a prayer in the face of the whole universe, well represented by a few beautiful guitar and keyboard parts. The eerie ʽMother Of A Dogʼ is one of the best Radiohead songs that Radiohead never wrote (actually, there's quite a few of these, isn't there?), with so many peacefully conflicting overdubs in the background that you'd easily get lost if not for the "I was raised by the son of the mother of a dog, I was raised by the mother of a dog" mantra that glues it all together (and no, the verses will not make it any easier to understand what they mean — it is up to you, in this as well as all other cases, to come up with your own interpretation). Eventually, they just run out of words and either put their strength in simple vocalizing (ʽBig Band Songʼ) or dispense with vo­cals altogether (ʽCelebrationʼ), but the musical themes are sufficiently interesting and/or pretty to agree with that decision (although Hyde, who takes the lion's share of the vocals, is a fairly good singer).

Despite all the moments of darkness, though, Someday World is basically a happy, optimistic album — I mean, come to think of it, Eno never made a truly depressing record (although some of his ambient opera may come across as scary or alienating), and the older he gets, the more hopeful he seems to become of humanity as a whole (bless his trusting old heart). There is one song here on which they have the nerve to speak for God himself — ʽWhen I Built This Worldʼ — but despite all the unpleasant things the Lord says of us in an uncomfortably auto-tuned voice, and despite the upsettingly funky-paranoid interlude that immediately follows the declaration, the se­cond part of the song sounds carnivalesque and oddly uplifting. Well, nice to know we don't have to expect the next great flood anytime soon.

I could probably live without the lengthy acoustic ballad that ends the album (and sounds like something Greg Lake might have contributed to an ELP record in one of his «I'm so romantic, I could just die» moments), but it has its legitimate place there — as a stripped-down, intimate coda to an overall «lush» experience — and if you couldn't quite guess the overall friendly and courteous mood of the album while the electronic pieces were playing, the coda lets you do this in «old school mode», so let it stay. On the whole, it's just nice to know that the man can still realize a visionary project like this — a little bit of complex intellectual naïveté never hurt anyone anyway; and since this is ultimately a modern pop album, not a confusedly ambient one, I have no difficulty giving it a major thumbs up.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Butterfield Blues Band: Live

THE BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND: LIVE (1970)

1) Everything Going To Be Alright; 2) Love Disease; 3) The Boxer; 4) No Amount Of Loving; 5) Driftin' And Driftin'; 6) Intro To Musicians; 7) Number Nine; 8) I Want To Be With You; 9) Born Under A Bad Sign; 10) Get Together Again; 11) So Far, So Good.

The very idea of the Butterfield Blues Band releasing their first live album without Mike Bloom­field — or Elvin Bishop, for that matter, if we want to be chivalrous about it as well — seems so revolting to me that, you know, these guys would have to work real hard to compensate for the affront. And they did not work that hard. Live seems like a realistic picture of Paul Butterfield and his bluesy/jazzy friends at the time: a band that plays it tight, intelligent, and safe to the point of boring. The fact that the record came out the same year as Live At Leeds and Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, not to mention all the fresh blood like Led Zeppelin or Jethro Tull shaking down the walls, does not exactly speak much in its favor, either.

The main problem, however, is not that the Butterfield Blues Band does not sound «tough» when it gets out on stage — kicking ass and rockin' the roof are not, after all, obligatory requirements for a good show, not even in 1970. The main problem is that they give the impression of trying to sound «tough», without truly rising to the task. Case in point: ʽNumber Nineʼ, a lengthy, speedy funk-rock jam, with the brass section in full flight and Paul playing Aeolus, Lord of Winds, on the harmonica. You can literally feel the buckets of sweat coming off the players, but to no avail: Sly & The Family Stone or James Brown would have blown them off the stage in a minute. There is a certain level of tightness and coordination, but it does not feel natural, and eventually the brass section just begins going to hell, with the players falling out of sync with each other and almost hinting at free-form jazz — but then, neither is this too free-form to genuinely compete with, say, Eric Dolphy. It's all neither here nor there: a whoppin' big mess that becomes a real chore when you realize you have to endure ten minutes of it.

Naturally, most of the songs are taken from the band's latest albums: ʽEast-Westʼ is not an option, and there is not even a single fast, short, catchy blues-rocker from their past — mostly these ex­cursions into jazz-pop and funk territory, with a little gospel on the side (the awful singalong number ʽGet Together Againʼ, which, for some reason, strives to establish a black church atmos­phere in an L.A. club). ʽThe Boxerʼ, by the way, is not a Simon & Garfunkel cover (that would have been at least novel), but rather a new funky composition by Rod Hicks that provides the drummer with a soloing opportunity (the drummer is the boxer, see?), and the brass section with a chance to replicate the meticulous punctuality of The Family Stone (which they fail). The other tunes aren't even worth discussing.

What is worth discussing is the split that the public had with the critics — most of these latter day Butterfield albums, and this live one in particular, have always received a serious share of aca­demic admiration, yet sales were drastically slow, and if East-West still finds support among the connoisseurs these days, everything after 1966-67 seems to have completely fallen out, no matter how much the critics try to revive it (see Bruce Eder's truly glowing account of the Live album at the All-Music Guide, for instance). The reason, I guess, is that The Butterfield Blues Band play their program formally right. There are no serious lapses of taste here (other than in the ʽIntro To Musiciansʼ bit, which Paul delivers as if he were stoned, or dead drunk — maybe he was), there's energy, there's some originality, there's not a lot of pretense and quite a lot of humbleness. But there is never a sign that this is a band that's ready to «go all the way», you know. Ultimately, they just sound like any average blues-rock band with enough determination to go on practicing, no matter how much time it takes. And the decision to expand into jazz-rock and funk — genres that absolutely require that one «goes all the way» if one wants to make a difference — was pro­bably the single silliest decision of Butterfield's entire career. As a jazz musician, he's too sterile; as a funk player, too stiff. He was born in Chicago, and that is where he should have stayed.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Buddy Guy: Slippin' In

BUDDY GUY: SLIPPIN' IN (1994)

1) I Smell Trouble; 2) Please Don't Drive Me Away; 3) 7-11; 4) Shame, Shame, Shame; 5) Love Her With A Feeling; 6) Little Dab-A-Doo; 7) Someone Else Is Steppin' In; 8) Trouble Blues; 9) Man Of Many Words; 10) Don't Tell Me About The Blues; 11) Cities Need Help.

This is as straightahead as it ever gets: nothing but pure electric blues, eleven heads in a row, and not a single guest star in sight — an impeccable experiment in the «can I do it alone?» genre. Of course, this also makes it twice as hard to say anything uniquely meaningful about this album, un­less it is in the comparative genre... and it's not that difficult to slip into the comparative genre here, considering how few originals there are. The choice of covers is actually not all that trivial: for instance, there are two songs by Charles Brown, both of which were covered in 1963 by Sam Cooke on his Night Beat album. Coincidence, or the result of some fortuitous nighttime listen? There's Freddie King's ʽLove Her With The Feelingʼ redone in the style of ʽHoochie Coochie Manʼ, because Buddy loves ʽHoochie Coochie Manʼ, but he can't play ʽHoochie Coochie Manʼ on all his albums, so a little strategic thought is in order here. There's Denise LaSalle, there's Fenton Robinson... all sorts of interesting blues people that rarely appear on the first pages of blues encyclopaedias. But, of course, it's still just the blues.

Points worth mentioning, in addition to Buddy's reliable vocals and guitar escapades, are: (a) a sweet appearance by legendary Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry's pianist of choice, contributing a feather-light (in the good sense of the word) solo on ʽ7-11ʼ; (b) a suitably comic arrangement of ʽSomeone Else Is Steppin' Inʼ, with ridiculous «party noises» in the background and a drunken choir joining in for the final line of the chorus — but thanks, Mr. Guy, for reminding me where the Stones stole their ʽBlack Limousineʼ from; (c) ʽTrouble Bluesʼ features a lo-fi production style, with plenty of hissing and crackling to artificially age the song — see Mr. Guy flirt around with indie aesthetics!; (d) ʽCities Need Helpʼ, one of the two originals, is Buddy adopting a soci­al­ly responsible posture — kind of like Bobby Bland on his moody, smoky early 1970s records. He still cannot resist from the temptation to turn it into a guitar pyrotechnics feast midway through, though, and I concur. Are we going to become more socially conscious if Buddy Guy tells us that our cities need help? No. But if he goes on beating the crap out of that guitar, who knows what changes that might eventually bring about in our social consciousness.

In terms of beating the crap out, I would probably single out ʽPlease Don't Drive Me Awayʼ, where the man brushes the dust off the wah-wah pedal for a speedy, destroy-everything-in-its-path type of solo, sometimes bordering on the psychedelic; and ʽSomeone Elseʼ, for such an essentially comic number, also boasts a fairly mean tone, with each note threatening to snap you in half. Beyond that, it's Buddy Guy and his predictably ecstatic blues guitar — lots of impro­vising, not a lot of artistic invention that could be correlated with words. Which means it is time to award this album its well-deserved, if unexceptional, thumbs up and move on.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Budgie: Never Turn Your Back On A Friend

BUDGIE: NEVER TURN YOUR BACK ON A FRIEND (1973)

1) Breadfan; 2) Baby Please Don't Go; 3) You Know I'll Always Love You; 4) You Are The Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milk; 5) In The Grip Of A Tyrefitter's Hand; 6) Riding My Nightmare; 7) Parents.

Smart move — replacing Rodger Bain with Roger Dean. After all, when it comes to production Budgie could very well be their own producers, but when it comes to painting your album sleeve, none of the band's members could draw worth a damn, so why not hire the hippest of the hip? The style is immediately recognizable; the only question is, will that style be superimposed on music that will be closer in sound to Yes — or to Uriah Heep?

The answer is neither. The album cover may be colorful and enigmatic (what the hell is that guy doing with that mutant eagle?), but Budgie stubbornly remain a heavy rock band above every­thing else — only one track on here displays extra «progressive» ambitions, and, to be honest, they are not even the kind of ambition that Black Sabbath displayed that very year, when they got Rick Wakeman to play for them a bit. To compensate for this, though, they tighten up their for­mula to the max: there is really no other Budgie album where they would kick ass on such a consistent, inventive, and, might I add, intelligent basis. (Yes, kicking ass can actually require inventive­ness and intelligence).

Of course, I suppose that the true reason why this record is usually brought up as Budgie's finest hour is ʽBreadfanʼ — not only would that be the only Budgie song to be revived and popularized in the future (by Metallica), but it is clearly also the Budgie song, period; the one that, in Mick Jagger's own words, "makes a dead man come". Bourge's opening riff is so good that the band repeats it over and over for almost a minute before Shelley starts singing — a classic combination of speed, precision, and fury that predicts the stylistics of thrash metal a good decade before thrash metal. There's other goodies scattered around, too — like the hilarious (anti-capitalist?) lyrics with nursery rhyme elements, or the slightly creepy dark-folk acoustic bridge; but essen­tially it's all about the riff, and if you think the song is too abusive and repetitive, well, it's meant to be that way. It must actually be quite a chore, I suppose, to be able to play that tricky riff so many times in a row so quickly without making any mistakes — of course, with the advent of Slayer and Megadeth this all became standard practice, but I honestly don't know a single other track from 1973 that would have a riff like ʽBreadfanʼ's.

Still, the album is much more than just ʽBreadfanʼ. Their cover of ʽBaby Please Don't Goʼ, which they borrowed from Them (and the Amboy Dukes) rather than Muddy Waters (and which would later be re-borrowed by AC/DC), has the crunchiest rhythm sound of all these covers and an ex­cellent slide guitar solo that puts Ted Nugent to shame (and I am quite a fan of Ted Nugent's guitar playing) — AC/DC would have more fun with the track, but this one's my bet if you want a stone cold dead face to go along with it. ʽYou Are The Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milkʼ could certainly live a healthier life without the silly «phased» drum solo that eats up almost two minutes, but other than that, it is still a major riff-fest, even if it is arguably the most Sabbath-de­rived tune here (particularly when the second, boogie-oriented, part comes along).

On Side B, you have the magnificent ʽIn The Grip Of A Tyrefitter's Handʼ, where Tony has a brilliant idea — chop the minimalistic four-chord riff in two parts and place both of them in dif­ferent channels, so you get the effect of two guitars chatting with each other in point / counter­point mode; beyond that, the instrumental breaks totally dispense with solos in favor of an extra bunch of riffs, including an oddly tuned «pseudo-Eastern» one. And then there is ʽParentsʼ, a 10-minute epic about the perils and insecurity that await you upon graduating from Dad's and Mom's care — not a particularly innovative or insightful topic, but somehow they manage to get the tragic vibe just right. I still don't know why they thought it useful to mimic a seagull squad on top of these solos, but apparently «seagulls shrieking» = «thunderstorm coming», and that's, like, a metaphor for the perils of grown life once you're ripped out of your safety net. Anyway, it's a major improvement on ʽYoung Is A Worldʼ and arguably Budgie's best attempt at a sentimental, heart-on-sleeve, and simultaneously heavy/thunderous epic.

In the end, my only gripe with the album are the acoustic links — ʽYou Know I'll Always Love Youʼ and ʽRiding My Nightmareʼ definitely overdo the soft-and-tender thing, and Shelley's fal­setto actually grates on my nerves far worse than his normal «bleating» on the harder tracks: there is something very unnatural about his trying to pass for Art Garfunkel. Fortunately, that's just two short tracks that can be skipped if you find this style an irritant, too.

No unreasonable expectations, please — ʽBreadfanʼ may indeed contribute their most significant contribution to the world of heavy music, but other than that, Never Turn Your Back On A Friend is just a solid piece of work in an already well-functioning and properly explored area. But it is a solid piece of work: I mean, if a band can be complex-and-catchy (ʽBreadfanʼ) and simplistic-and-catchy (ʽIn The Grip...ʼ) on the same album, it's gotta count for something. Deri­vative or not, Tony had the golden touch at the time, and even made a few tentative moves to wiggle himself out from under the other Tony's shadow (even ʽIn The Grip...ʼ sounds like nothing Sabbath ever did up to that point, let alone ʽBreadfanʼ). Clearly a thumbs up here — this record is a must-hear for any hard rock fan, even those who have a natural aversion towards Roger Dean covers, because you can sometimes find a Jon Anderson hiding underneath.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Beat Happening: Music To Climb The Apple Tree By

BEAT HAPPENING: MUSIC TO CLIMB THE APPLE TREE BY (1984-2000/2003)

1) Angels Gone; 2) Nancy Sin; 3) Sea Hunt; 4) Look Around; 5) Not A Care In The World; 6) Dreamy; 7) That Girl; 8) Secret Picnic Spot; 9) Zombie Limbo Time; 10) Foggy Eyes; 11) Knock On Any Door; 12) Sea Babies; 13) Tales Of A Brave Aphrodite; 14) Polly Pereguinn; 15) I Dig You.

As a very brief, but obligatory post-scriptum to the true story of Beat Happening, we should mention this collection of singles, EPs, and other rarities, spanning about fifteen years. It was first made available as one of the CDs in the Crashing Through boxset, released by K Records in 2002 and containing just about everything the band ever did; then, a year later, it was issued sepa­rately, for the benefit of those veteran fans who already had all the records.

As it usually happens with these things, you will not find any major surprises here, though. His­torically, I guess, the most important tracks are the last four — recorded by the band in 1988 in collaboration with another indie outfit, Screaming Trees, and containing the proto-grunge rocker ʽPolly Pereguinnʼ that was later named by Kurt Cobain as his favorite song of the 1980s. It does stand somewhere halfway between the heavy psychedelia of the late Sixties and Nirvana's somber grunge declarations of hatred for humanity, but honestly, it's not that good — not even in a bang-your-head-against-the-wall suicidal variety of «good». The sound of it, with the heavily distorted descending riff (a little derivative of Cream's ʽWhite Roomʼ, if you ask me), the deafening bass, and the stone-dead vocals, is morbidly seductive, but the hook-power is quite limited. But I guess the sound was well enough for Kurt on this occasion. Besides, it's really a Screaming Trees song, not a Beat Happening one, so why am I even discussing this?

Another interesting inclusion is the single ʽAngel Goneʼ, which was actually recorded during a brief reunion period in 2000 — and shows that very little had changed in the meantime, except that Calvin's baritone became even deeper, but also more controllable: he is now capable of wea­ving fluent, even slightly mesmerizing vocal melodies (over the same monotonous two-chord guitar jangle) that confirm the band did have talent, after all, no matter how efficiently they tried to hide it for all those years. And the B-side, ʽZombie Limbo Timeʼ, shows that they never lost the scary graveyard side of their personality either — although this track, to be honest, sounds like straightahead black comedy (and could also be easily mistaken for a B-52's outtake).

Fans of You Turn Me On will also be happy to have the single ʽSea Huntʼ, which preceded the album and presaged its style — anthemic singing, heavy echo, and just a touch of offensively out-of-tune violin to remind us that these guys were still downshifters and deconstructors, and what was good for The Velvet Underground was even better for Beat Happening. The rest of the tracks, including alternate (single) versions of ʽNancy Sinʼ and ʽDreamyʼ, just sort of pass by, though. That said, I do admit that I have not been, as of yet, able to listen to the record properly as recom­mended — namely, while in the state of climbing an apple tree — and cannot accurately guaran­tee that it will not sound completely different to the ears of someone busy grappling a tree trunk with all four limbs. Unless, of course, this is simply a veiled hint at the fact that this kind of music can only appeal to 12-year olds, or to any-year olds with the mind of a 12-year old, or to any-year olds who can efficiently simulate the mind of a 12-year old whenever they want to re­cover from the latest political scandal or personal tragedy. Beat Happening, ladies and gentlemen. Give 'em a big hand and all.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Buzzcocks: The Way

BUZZCOCKS: THE WAY (2014)

1) Keep On Believing; 2) People Are Strang Machines; 3) The Way; 4) In The Back; 5) Virtually Real; 6) Third Di­mension; 7) Out Of The Blue; 8) Chasing Rainbows Modern Times; 9) It's Not You; 10) Saving Yourself; 11*) Dis­appointment; 12*) Generation Suicide; 13*) Happen; 14*) Dream On Baby.

Look out, the cocks are buzzing once more (or should that be «the buzzes are cocking»?)! After an 8-year long break, Shelley and Diggle are back with a brand new rhythm section (Chris Rem­mington on bass, Danny Farrant on drums), a brand new producer (David M. Allen, known best of all for producing a string of records for The Cure in the 1980s), and a brand new way of re­leasing their stuff — via the PledgeMusic system, which runs on direct fan support. Apparently, the band wanted to find out if it still had any fans left — enough to finance the recording and release of yet another LP — and guess what, either there are still enough people around to want to hear a brand new Buzzcocks album, or studio fees are going down at the same rate as oil prices. In any case, all these nasty generous people have essentially stripped me of the right to begin this review with the proverbial «who the heck needs the Buzzcocks in the 21st century?» rhetoric question. They have not stripped me of the God-given right to say bad things about the Buzz­cocks, though, so brace yourselves.

On second thought, though... the funny thing is, The Way does not really sound all that bad. In fact, compared to the last one, two, three... five Buzzcocks albums, it sounds downright involving! First and foremost, it has the absolute best production values on a late-period Buzzcocks record, hands down. Perhaps they went easy on sound compression or something, but the guitars have a sharper, brighter, crisper sheen even when they are sticking to chainsaw buzz — and sound even better when they go for cleaner riffs or a less distorted sound in general. Maybe we have the pro­ducer to thank for that (after all, he did work on Disintegration, one of the most magnificently produced albums of all times)... who knows? all I know is that this sound comes in far more co­lors than the fifty shades of grey on all their records from the 1990s and the 2000s.

Second, it's got a handful of really enticing songs. ʽPeople Are Strang Machinesʼ, for instance, has nostalgically playful oh-oh-oh-oh backing vocals à la David Bowie, nice lead lines and a moody chorus — not that the song title tells us anything we didn't know before, but they tell it with plenty of conviction this time. ʽOut Of The Blueʼ expertly plays with stop-and-start struc­ture and throws in a simple, efficient, and not totally stolen garage-rock riff. ʽChaising Rainbows Modern Timesʼ often gets mentioned as the one song on here that comes most close to emulating classic-era Buzzcocks, and it does, except that I am not too happy about the main rhythm melody sticking way too close to the ʽBlitzkrieg Bopʼ pattern. And ʽSaving Yourselfʼ is probably the darkest, most uncomfortable finale to a Buzzcocks album ever — in fact, this whole record, in light of everything that we know about the band, might be their darkest ever, with way too few songs about boys and girls and way too many about surviving in a strange new world.

I know what you're thinking, and quite a few people out of the few people who noticed and dis­cussed the record said the same things — the Buzzcocks sound old here, older, more grizzled and tired than ever before, and like all old and tired people, they now feel more at ease whining at the horrors of «virtual reality» and all that other crap than doing what they used to do best (debating about the fifty ways to leave your lover, that is). The tiredness is indeed reflected in the tempos (slower than usual), the vocals (Shelley's range and energy has gone down), and the lyrical themes. But if we are to nitpick about nuances and subtleties, this is compensated for by the im­provement in texture and melodicity, and by the very simple fact that finally, the Buzzcocks are coming to terms with their age and acting like it — like any other veteran on the field, they have earned their right to complain about the younger generation and its values, even if the younger generation has a legal right to ignore every single word of it. (One of the bonus tracks is actually called ʽGeneration Suicideʼ, so there!).

I almost thought about giving the album a thumbs up, in fact, before I pinched myself back to reality (I mean, will I ever get the urge to listen to at least one of these songs again? Hardly!). However, and I do mean that honestly, this was, indeed, the only post-reunion Buzzcocks album that did not actively annoy me — an album that sounded like they really wanted to make it be­cause something in their hearts urged them to, rather than simply a mechanical requirement like «well, we're musicians, we're supposed to make records, so let's go make another record, even if we know beforehand we're not making any serious money on it». Nothing here makes me yearn for a follow-up, but it's still nice to add another bunch of aging punkers to the small collection of punkers who know how to do it well (like the Adolescents, who, today, are anything but, yet still manage to preserve their integrity).

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Byrds: Younger Than Yesterday

THE BYRDS: YOUNGER THAN YESTERDAY (1967)

1) So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star; 2) Have You Seen Her Face; 3) C.T.A.-102; 4) Renaissance Fair; 5) Time Between; 6) Everybody's Been Burned; 7) Thoughts And Words; 8) Mind Gardens; 9) My Back Pages; 10) The Girl With No Name; 11) Why.

Although this album (actually recorded at the end of 1966 — still in the «Revolver era» rather than the much-mutated «Sgt. Pepper era») is very frequently listed as the pinnacle of the Byrds' career, I have always belonged to the small minority that regards it as a tiny step down from the heights of Fifth Dimension — at least in terms of innovation and diversity, if not overall song quality. Where Fifth Dimension, with all its minor faults, broke The Byrds out of the eggshell of their early formula and opened them to the many ways of the world, on Younger Than Yester­day you can sort of see the beginnings (only the beginnings) of their retreading back to a slightly different, but still monolithic eggshell. At the very same time, you also see signs of serious ten­sion between band members that ultimately led to the band's enclosing itself in a rigid niche, and then simply disintegrating because nobody cared any more.

If these sound like undeservedly harsh words for an introduction to a great album, let me stress that the idea is not so much to defame Younger Than Yesterday as it is to restore justice for Fifth Dimension. My only concrete problem (as opposed to the abstract construction of an idea­listic «progress curve») with this record is one song and one song only, and yes, you guessed right: David Crosby strikes again! Last time around, it was the clumsy arrangement and the exag­gerated vocal antics on ʽHey Joeʼ — this time, it is ʽMind Gardensʼ, unquestionably the worst track ever that classic-era Byrds put on tape. In fact, it was one of those ʽRevolution #9ʼ-type moments, where everybody except the contributing artist hated the track, but did not have enough willpower to veto its inclusion.

Crosby himself later argued that the hatred was simply due to backwardness — that his band­mates were appalled about including something that did not have either rhyme or rhythm — but, of course, this is just a bunch of crapola; in fact, Crosby himself would later come up with plenty of far, far better compositions that had neither rhyme nor rhythm, but compensated for this with beautiful atmospherics. ʽMind Gardensʼ, however, sounds like something where the overriding itch was to compose, record, and release a track without rhyme or rhythm, period. (Actually, the underlying guitar melody does have plenty of rhythm, to be precise — it's just not a very interes­ting guitar melody, and David largely referred to the vocals, of course). The lyrics, which sound like they were largely influenced by Oscar Wilde's Selfish Giant (yet still find a clichéd oppor­tunity to throw in a reference to "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune", just for kicks), are almost intentionally primitive in their psychedelic-moralistic imagery; the singing is annoyingly shamanistic and shows that Cros never properly finished his crash course in tribal incantations; and worst of all, very soon you find yourself surrounded by a swarm of discordant backward gui­tar solos that make the whole experience physically painful (there is an alternate version among the bonus tracks of the CD reissue that seriously tones down this hideous buzz, but still does not completely resolve the problem). Basically, the only kind words I have to say about this monstro­sity is that it makes the following ʽMy Back Pagesʼ sound twice as angelic by contrast.

All the more curious is the fact that, outside of ʽMind Gardensʼ, the remainder of Crosby's con­tributions for this record are fairly nice — ʽEverybody's Been Burnedʼ is a beautiful three-minute long introspection on the matter of broken relationships, with two somber minor key guitar parts weaving around each other and a perfectly melancholic vocal serenade from David himself. (The song is said to have been written as early as 1962, but I guess its «torch song» genre characteris­tics and the lack of a proper chorus could not help but delay its release); and ʽRenaissance Fairʼ, inspired by an actual trip to the original South Californian Renaissance Fair, is one of Crosby's catchiest compositions — based on a real riff, for once, if not a particularly inventive one; its starry-eyed refrain of "I think that maybe I'm dreaming..." should count as one of the most trend-defining, uh, starry-eyed magical moments of 1967, especially in its retro-futuristic perception of Elizabethan decor as suitable garb for the new psychedelic era.

At the same time with Crosby reaching his songwriting peak (even if it does result in a few exces­ses), we also have Chris Hillman emerging as a distinct songwriter in his own right — and pul­ling the band in a completely different direction: the country-rock style. ʽTime Betweenʼ and ʽThe Girl With No Nameʼ, with their steel guitars, banjo-imitating guitars, and perky tempos, are two prime examples of the Byrds' early venturing into hillbilly territory, and, honestly, sound like fairly generic country to me (I do actually prefer the Beatles doing ʽWhat Goes Onʼ — they have Ringo singing on it, and it's kinda funny). However, Hillman is able to do better than that: ʽHave You Seen Her Faceʼ is a fine slice of jangly pop (the intro alone sounds like a blueprint to a good half of Big Star's career), and the sleeping masterpiece here is ʽThoughts And Wordsʼ, which somehow manages to combine both the country-rock and the art-pop idioms, throwing in a moody psychedelic hum effect — it's like the Byrds' ʽThings We Said Todayʼ multiplied by the trippy production values of Revolver. On this song, the backward guitars actually work. See how they kick in as the second chorus starts up its "I knew what you wanted to do"... yep, you wanted to drive me nuts by jamming jagged shards of backward guitars in my ears. You don't spoil lovely melancholic music with brute ugliness unless you have a good reason, and Hillman at least pre­tends to have one — it's all about a lovely beginning and a rather brutal ending.

And we have not yet mentioned the McGuinn/Hillman lead-off ʽSo You Want To Be A Rock­'n'Roll Starʼ, one of the first and bitterest sarcastic takes on rock stardom by rock stars themselves; or the sci-fi noises on ʽC.T.A.-102ʼ, a more than respectable successor to ʽThe Lear Jet Songʼ; or the new re-recording of Crosby's ʽWhyʼ, released earlier as a single and now sounding very much like Martha & The Vandellas' ʽHeatwaveʼ because we can; or ʽMy Back Pagesʼ, which tends to get my vote as the band's second best Dylan cover (and this time, they actually have enough space to cover four out of six original verses) — McGuinn's vocals are not always capable of capturing, let alone expanding upon, the magic of the original, particularly when they cover hu­morous or battle-oriented songs, but «Dylan the transcendental visionary» always comes off fine, and rarely, if ever, finer than on these "crimson flames tied through my years"...

And it all happens within an almost embarrassing twenty-nine minutes — in 29 minutes here, these guys say more than most modern bands say in 10 years. Amazing how fast things were really moving back in 1967, isn't it? (The bonus tracks aren't particularly phenomenal this time, but they do include ʽLady Friendʼ, the last substantial Crosby-penned single they released, and a couple more early excursions into country-rock with Hillman). Although, supposedly, this still has something to do with the conservative peculiarities of the American LP market, which rarely thought its customers worth more than 30 minutes of music per vinyl chunk. (Unless your artist was Dylan, who just couldn't shut up — ironically, though also predictably, Bob would begin releasing his own under-30-minute albums exactly at a time when this restriction was finally and completely lifted).

So where, if you might ask, are those «retreading» signs that I mentioned earlier? Well, essential­ly you see two main trends sometimes peacefully co-existing, sometimes battling here — Cros­by's psychedelic vision and Hillman's «earthy» style, with McGuinn clearly more seduced about the latter than the former. Crosby would eventually lose, and for good reason — all these songs are really much more about solo Crosby than the Byrds as a band, far more so, in fact, than even John Lennon's latter-day Beatles material (more like as if Lennon were to offer songs like ʽMo­therʼ or ʽGodʼ for Beatles albums). Hillman would win — and complete the Byrds' transfor­mation into The Country Turf Preservation Society, which would still be a fairly pleasant society, to be sure, but quite far from the all-powerful eclectic deities of American rock that they were for a very brief period in 1966.

On a song-by-song basis, Younger Than Yesterday is as strong as anything else they did in their peak period — however, it does not have either a ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ or an ʽEight Miles Highʼ to symbolize a particular major breakthrough (ʽSo You Want To Be...ʼ comes somewhat close, with its send-up of the pop star image and Hugh Masekela on the trumpet, but does not exactly have the majesty of those two other singles), because there are no major breakthroughs here. Which, on a personal level, should not prevent anybody from simply enjoying the excellent music. Alternately, it may just be an intense hatred for ʽMind Gardensʼ that spoils and distorts my perception: honestly, I'd rather have Crosby re-recording ʽHey Joeʼ in a duet with Iggy Pop rather than having to listen to this atrocity, which I count among the same «1967 excesses» as the Ani­mals' Winds Of Change, even one more time. Regardless, thumbs up are still guaranteed all the way — on the already overloaded shelf of classic records from that wonder year, Younger Than Yesterday will always have a secure place of honor.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Brian Eno: Lux

BRIAN ENO: LUX (2012)

1) Lux 1; 2) Lux 2; 3) Lux 3; 4) Lux 4.

With all these collaborations and new ideas and attempts to conquer the world of body-oriented electronic pulses, we'd almost forgotten Eno's primary function in the world of instrumental elec­tronic music — as provider of heavenly ambient soundscapes. Ever since Thursday Afternoon made a, ahem, definitive statement on that, «heavenly ambience» became largely reserved for scattered installations and Windows themes; I think that The Shutov Assembly was really the last album tagged as simply «solo», whereas purely ambient releases from later years were all supposed to go along with the installations.

Actually, Lux, too, was originally commissioned as a soundtrack to an art gallery (and, prior to that, was exposed at airport terminals), but it counts as an artistic work in its own rights — not to be specifically associated with any particular space, time, or n-th dimension. Consisting of four tracks that run for about 18-19 minutes each, it returns us to the good old days when Mr. Eno was trying to make us understand and slowly savor the inherent beauty in one single piano note before moving on to another one — a nostalgic trip, if you wish, to the times of Music For Airports and On Land, when the world was so young and unspoiled and Man had plenty of time to relax and chill out after unloading all the fresh kill and waiting for Woman to cook his supper.

These days, we've all advanced to a new level of conscience — and preoccupation — that pro­bably will not let you get in the 100% proper mood to enjoy this new musical painting. For what it is worth, though, I find it every bit as well-developed and beautiful as anything he'd ever done in the genre. All four tracks sound very much alike, with relatively minor nuances responsible for minor mood shifts, so, in a way, it is sort of like a somewhat busier, more involving Thursday Afternoon, where the point is no longer to infuriate you with its subtle arrogance, but to honestly entertain you with visions of yet another glass castle... or tropical aquarium, whichever way your imagination takes you, provided you have one and it includes hardware support for Enotronics.

The specific catch is that, in addition to Eno, Lux also features the contributions of Leo Abra­hams on «Moog guitar», and of Neil Catchpole on viola and violin: I do not even remember when was the last time, if there even was a last time, that Brian recruited string players for his purely ambient projects, and these textures make a lot of difference. Usually it is just a single note, of course, bowed smoothly and steadily somewhere in the background, fading in and out ever so slightly, but in combination with the slowly tinkling keyboards this can have an even stronger hypnotizing effect than bare keyboards (unless the wheezy sound happens to irritate you; if so, better shut off and reboot your ears in safe mode before continuing).

Most of the positive responses to Lux, I think, came from people who never realised before how seriously tired they were of all the information overload and all the frantic activity (or frantic si­mulated activity) of modern music (particularly electronic) — probably putting it in the same category as all those «slow reading clubs» and other feats of deceleration and downshifting — so it is quite possible that this was Eno's intention all the way: for him, to release Lux in 2012 is pretty much the same as it would be for a major former disco star to put out a canonical disco record. Just to see if it still holds up, you know. From that point of view, Lux is a total success: critics liked it, fans seemed pleased, and yes, the man can still put you to healthy sleep after all these years. And, as I have always insisted, there's nothing wrong with music that puts you to sleep if its original intention is to put you to sleep. The nagging question is: if you pay full price for a ticket to one of those galleries where they play this, are you offered a complementary pil­low and blanket, or do those cost extra?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Butterfield Blues Band: Keep On Moving

THE BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND: KEEP ON MOVING (1969)

1) Love March; 2) No Amount Of Loving; 3) Morning Sunrise; 4) Losing Hand; 5) Walking By Myself; 6) Except You; 7) Love Disease; 8) Where Did My Baby Go; 9) All In A Day; 10) So Far, So Good; 11) Buddy's Advice; 12) Keep On Moving.

God, how boring. By 1969, both Elvin Bishop and Mark Naftalin had left the band, feeling that the ship had sunk low enough — but, of course, «The Butterfield Blues Band» may function under that title as long as it has at least one Butterfield in it. Keep On Moving features at least ten different players in addition to Paul, and I am not even completely sure who of them was «of­ficially» a band member and who was not at the time. Most importantly, the quality of the music hardly stimulates me to find out.

Basically, at this point they are acting as a weak, dis-focused substitute for Blood, Sweat & Tears. Lots of brass, lots of swinging' and funky rhythms, lots of swagger and agitation, but practically nothing by way of memorable tunes. Somehow, they have gradually entered a «loungy» phase of existence, where vibe and atmosphere are created by the players' tones and personalities rather than compositional findings — and other than a few more nice bits of Paul's harmonica, there is nothing particularly fascinating about these particular tones and personalities. For me at least, the «three listen test» was failed here 100%: glancing back at the song titles, I have not the faintest memory of how any of them originally went, other than a general vague remembrance of how much noise the brass section made and how Paul Butterfield worked so very hard to pass for a natural «soul screamer» and it still didn't help.

Now, with the help of the «play» button, just a few quick remarks: ʽLove Marchʼ is undescribably dippy and silly — and its organ-led gospel bridge, culminating in a "I know... THERE'S GOTTA BE A CHANGE!", is the biggest embarrassment in Butterfield history up to that date, just about everything about it being a poorly executed cliché. ʽWalking By Myselfʼ is the only song that even remotely tries to rock, and new guitarist Buzz Feiten adds a decent lead part, but he's defini­tely no new Mike Bloomfield. His only songwriting contribution, ʽBuddy's Adviceʼ, probably has the best brass riffs on the album, but they fall on a totally empty stomach anyway.

For objectivity's sake, I should probably state that the album is very well produced (by Jerry Ragovoy, the author of ʽTime Is On My Sideʼ and ʽPiece Of My Heartʼ), that the brass, keyboard, and guitar players are tightly coordinated, that at least some thought is included in most of the arrangements, and that Robert Christgau gave the album an A, saying about Butterfield that "he just gets better and better". Well, this ain't the first and ain't gonna be the last time that we don't exactly see eye-to-eye with Mr. Dean, and just so that this fact can be properly reflected, I'm going all out here and awarding the album a decisive thumbs down. Okay, honestly, this deci­sion has nothing to do with Christgau — I just thought that you should be aware of alternate opinions, no matter how puzzling or irrational they are.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Buddy Guy: Feels Like Rain

BUDDY GUY: FEELS LIKE RAIN (1993)

1) She's A Superstar; 2) I Go Crazy; 3) Feels Like Rain; 4) She's Nineteen Years Old; 5) Some Kind Of Wonderful; 6) Sufferin' Mind; 7) Change In The Weather; 8) I Could Cry; 9) Mary Ann; 10) Trouble Man; 11) Country Man.

The success of Damn Right, I've Got The Blues gave birth to a prolific pattern to which Buddy has more or less conformed ever since, releasing a steady stream of records with one or two year intervals that are pretty much interchangeable, some being slightly more and some slightly less interesting, of course — essentially, though, lovers of Buddy will want to savor them all, while those who are largely indifferent to modern electric blues might just pay a little attention to those few tracks on which Buddy's guitar playing occasionally transcends the genre's limitations.

Feels Like Rain, unfortunately, has no such tracks. Like its predecessor, it is a mish-mash of some really old blues tunes, some comparably old R&B hits, and a few contemporary, but still retro-oriented compositions — all of them impeccably played and produced, and featuring some guest stars to boost up sales; this time, though, Buddy goes with some lesser profiles, the most notable of the lot probably being Bonnie Raitt and Paul Rodgers, and with John Mayall and Travis Tritt in tow. Accusations of «pandering to mainstream tastes», which sometimes accom­pany descriptions of this record, are a little misguided: with or without all these people, Feels Like Rain would still feel exactly like Buddy Guy — if he choked the arrangements up with solemn synthesizer parts, or started studying Madchester beats, that'd be a whole other story, but these guys are just following the boss' directions, 'sall.

What is actually much worse than abstract «pandering to the mainstream» is the inclusion of all those covers. What business does Buddy really have in trying to not just cover Muddy Waters' ʽShe's Nineteen Years Oldʼ, but to actually imitate Muddy, both in his vocals and his guitar play­ing? It's one thing to adapt the song to his own style, but have we all lost access to the old records or something? Is the intended target audience of the cover supposed to consist of people who'd never ever want to listen to a song from 1958 because it's, like, all mono and shit? It's not very likely that those same people would be interested in investing their money in a record by an old geezer who was 22 himself in 1958. Likewise, it is not very uplifting when he tries to appeal to the James Brown fanbase (ʽI Go Crazyʼ) or, God help us, the Grand Funk Railroad fanbase (ʽSome Kind Of Wonderfulʼ — which most people certainly associate with GFR rather than Soul Brothers Six) instead.

My own favorite tracks here are the two blues-rock rave-ups that bookmark the album and are credited to Buddy himself — ʽShe's A Superstarʼ and ʽCountry Manʼ (not that he had much to compose on either one, except for some new lyrical lines). Totally generic in basic form, they are simply used by Buddy as launchpads for some major master soloing, with heavy wah-wah sup­port and a speedy, guitar-throttling approach where his note sequences cover each other like rippling waves, rather than jagged, broken, dissonant patterns that he favors more often. The words of ʽCountry Manʼ, which he delivers like a passionate defense speech in court ("I'm a country man, baby, you know I ain't ashamed / That's why I'm crazy 'bout my guitar, that's why I surely will keep on playing"), ring a little strange, seeing as how Buddy was always professional­ly associated with «urban» Chicago blues — but then again, he did spend all of his childhood in Lettsworth, Louisiana, and if he means that it is precisely this rustic pedigree that gives him the strength and the stubborness to push on in his «conservatively innovative» manner, more power to the man, I say. He certainly plays the hell out of his guitar on that track as if each new verse he delivers on the subject provides him with extra strength to do it.

If you are in the mood to relax a little, the title track, written by John Hiatt and sung and played by Buddy in a duet with Bonnie Raitt, will do a reasonably good job as well. Nothing particularly special on the hook / riff / arrangement front, but Bonnie's slide playing is always welcome, and her raspy vocal support in the background feels... well, suffice it to say that there's a pleasantly optimistic vibe to all of this, and that Buddy's singing is almost unusually sensitive and vulne­rable, compared to his usual standards.

That said, three songs to salvage out of eleven is not a particularly awesome quota; and the rest, ranging from the puzzling (dueting with Paul Rodgers on ʽSome Kind Of Wonderfulʼ? How gauche!) to the unremarkable (dueting with John Mayall on ʽI Could Cryʼ? How... nostalgic...), are nothing to write home about. Of course, that did not stop the man from scooping up yet another Grammy here for «best contemporary blues album» — for almost total lack of competition, I suppose — but honestly, it does not seem as if the guy was trying too hard here. Fortunately, he would begin pinching himself way hard for the next release, just in the nick of time to escape being pegged down as a particularly smelly dinosaur.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Budgie: Squawk

BUDGIE: SQUAWK (1972)

1) Whiskey River; 2) Rockin' Man; 3) Rolling Home Again; 4) Make Me Happy; 5) Hot As A Docker's Armpit; 6) Drugstore Woman; 7) Bottled; 8) Young Is A World; 9) Stranded.

This was originally my introduction to the Budgie sound, and so I am somewhat partial to their second album, even though, when you put it in the proper context, it loses to the self-titled debut in terms of freshness and to their third album in terms of polish and ambition. Still, it seems clear enough that Squawk is not just a mechanical retread of Budgie: in the year 1972, broade­ning of the horizons was still considered more noble than locking oneself into a tight, never-changing formula, and next to Budgie, Squawk has a bit more of everything — more acoustic numbers, a stronger folk and even Delta blues influence, and a small, but solemn progressive streak that suggests Moody Blues and King Crimson as humble, but insistent competitors to Black Sabbath as the band's primary musical mentor.

Two tracks in particular stand out, each one illustrating a different facet of the band. On the in-yer-face blood-and-guts hard rock front, the neorealistically titled ʽHot As A Docker's Armpitʼ is an early classic, with a super-catchy pop-metal riff whose notes are precisely echoed by Shelley's vocals (even if it requires introducing a rather silly stutter) and a speedy mid-section with one of Bourge's speediest solos ever played (possibly influenced by ʽChild In Timeʼ), while the final section, with its bolero structure, plays out like a Jeff Beck tribute. Derivative as heck, yes, but its swagger cannot be beat — and while it is possible to be distracted or irritated by Shelley's «goat» vocals, I think they work very well in the context of this ironic, irreverent music that never asks you to take itself too seriously. There's some sort of early proto-hipster snootiness about all this that could be despised in a different context, but comes across as delightfully hilarious when you remember all the «serious» hard rock bands playing around in 1972 — yes, even Deep Purple.

The second track is ʽYoung Is A Worldʼ, showcasing Budgie's romantic / sentimental / artsy-folksy side — their initiation, in fact, into this tricky world, and a fairly successful one. The acoustic introduction, the Mellotron touch, Shelley's oddly seductive declarations of "I can be big" and "I can be small", Bourge's massive infusions of thick riffs and droning solos that come and go while the main romantic theme keeps returning — all of this is not exactly King Crimson quality, but a reasonable facsimile; at the very least, this helps them break out of Sabbath's sha­dow, since Sabbath themselves would not begin their own «artsy» phase until a year later. Even outside of any context, though, ʽYoung Is A Worldʼ is just a nicely pulled off epic track, and Shelley in particular plays the part of a naïve wild child very convincingly — he should have actually sung more often in this high-and-deep register.

The rest of the material, though not as immediately hooky or epic, is still quite consistent. ʽWhis­key Riverʼ cleverly introduces a funky vibe into an otherwise generic blues-rocker (Ray Phillips' drumming is particularly recommendable here); ʽStrandedʼ begins like it wants to rip off Jimi's ʽIf 6 Was 9ʼ, but then moves into Zeppelin territory instead and becomes their answer to ʽWhole Lotta Loveʼ; ʽBottledʼ is a short and cool slide guitar instrumental (hence the title); and on ʽRol­ling Home Againʼ, Budgie become the Monkees and play a friendly little country-pop ditty, which sounds totally out of outer space in this context, but feels like a very welcome companion. I am definitely not a fan of such relatively by-the-book blues-rockers as ʽRockin' Manʼ and ʽDrugstore Womanʼ (the titles kind of speak for themselves), but I don't have anything against them, either — there's enough sectional changes and plenty of energy to keep them afloat without raising too much interest.

Nevertheless, I do have to admit that if Squawk happened to be the last record by this band, any memory of it would have washed out fairly quickly. Its thumbs up are perfectly well guaranteed, but it is not here, no, that Budgie would briefly turn into an unstoppable monster on the brink of dominating the hard rockin' scene. To do that, they'd need to tighten and sharpen their act some more — and one element of that was shedding their Sabbath skin completely, by getting rid of Rodger Bain in the producer's chair.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Beat Happening: You Turn Me On

BEAT HAPPENING: YOU TURN ME ON (1992)

1) Tiger Trap; 2) Noise; 3) Pinebox Derby; 4) Teenage Caveman; 5) Sleepy Head; 6) You Turn Me On; 7) Godsend; 8) Hey Day; 9) Bury The Hammer.

A tricky question here: will the Beat still be Happening if, for once — just for once — the band actually decides to record music that does not intentionally sound bad? As in, quality hi-fi pro­duction, predominantly on-key vocals, well-tuned guitars and all? The song structures may still be minimalistic as hell, restricted by 2-3 chords at max, and the atmosphere may still smell of lobotomy post-op, but the technical quality is improved to the point of there actually being some technical quality, and isn't that, like, sacrilegious for this band? Is there a point here? Didn't we really all enjoy Beat Happening just because of the aural masochism?

In any case, it is a good thing that they recorded this, because otherwise we'd just have empty speculations — and here is your actual chance to witness a cleaner, tighter, more overtly musical variant of Beat Happening before it's too late. Additionally, there is one more important change: the songs are much longer now on the average, varying from around 4 to 6 minutes, with ʽGod­sendʼ clocking in at an awesome-awful 9:28 — and no, this is not some sort of «progressive» tendency, because the Spartan melody stubbornly stays the same all the time. If you can listen to our shit for two minutes, you might as well listen for nine. Let the chords soak in.

My honest opinion is that the gamble pays off quite well. In essence, this is the same old Beat Happening — Calvin, the grumpy one, and Heather, the bright innocent one, with their guitar melodies reflecting the two different personalities — and the improved sound quality is a blessing for their vocal hooks, which, although repetitive, finally get a chance to properly materialize and solidify (particularly when they prop them up with multi-tracked vocals).

So you could say that the inexperienced kid of seven years ago has finally matured here, advan­cing to the level of writing some really densely encoded lyrical observations on love and death and to the level of actually mastering some professional techniques to set them to music — yet all the while remaining at about the same level of rudimentary musical talent, and retaining the twee innocence and the gloomy sarcasm of yore. Actually, one thing that you can sense fairly well is that the personality is almost completely split in two now: Heather and Calvin move in such dif­ferent directions that it almost feels uncomfortable to have something as sweet, optimistic, and encouraging as ʽSleepy Headʼ and something as grinningly ghoulish as ʽPinebox Derbyʼ (a song about hunting witches and sealing them in coffins, no less!) on the same album. Or, a minute later, have to listen to the quasi-Satanic mantra of "turn me on dead man, turn me on dead man" and then, right next to it, learn that "it's just the things you do, you make it true, you're a godsend" over the course of a friendly nine-minute mantra.

Indeed, approximately half of this album sounds as if it were recorded in the dead of night at your local cemetery, while the other half was recorded in broad daylight on some green lawn in Central Park. The two halves lock together on the final track, ʽBury The Hammerʼ, a relatively rare case of an actual duet between Calvin and Heather that urges to "forgive and forget, it's time to make amends", as if the previous forty minutes were spent in the state of a hostile rift, and now the creepy cemetery joker and the sunshine-loving dame are coming together in one final em­brace... yeah, I could picture something like that.

And yes, the vocal hooks are nice. Not very original — just nice. For the record, one bit of vocal modulation on ʽSleepy Headʼ is borrowed from the Stones' ʽAs Tears Go Byʼ, and I'm sure that most of the other parts can be traced back to their old-school pop roots as well, from Motown to the Kinks, but they are reworking, not stealing, and matching the old hooks to their modern per­sonalities. Be it the mournful "we cry alone, we cry alone" of ʽTeenage Cavemanʼ, or the ado­ring "you make it true..." bit of ʽGodsendʼ, or the nonchalantly mumbled "bury the hammer, bury the hammer" mantra, they're all a tiny tiny bit «new», and they're all meaningfully attractive.

Overall, this is clearly a thumbs up kind of album — I hesitate to call it the «culmination» of all things Beat Happening, since it objectively sounds very differently from everything they did pre­viously; but as the end of the journey, it is at least as important as the self-titled debut. You can easily skip the middle of the road, but it makes sense — and a little intrigue — to take a look at how they ended up if you already know how they started out. Ironically, this was not originally supposed to be Beat Happening's swan song: it is more like one of those albums that unintentio­nally come out looking like swan songs, and then subvert the band into breaking up because there's just no way they could really pick it up and continue on. Another record like that, and the spiral of mediocrity would start swirling again; but as it is, You Turn Me On remains the band's most immediately accessible and likeable record, and I'm glad they went out with it. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Buzzcocks: Flat-Pack Philosophy

BUZZCOCKS: FLAT-PACK PHILOSOPHY (2006)

1) Flat-Pack Philosophy; 2) Wish I Never Loved You; 3) Sell You Everything; 4) Reconciliation; 5) I Don't Exist; 6) Soul Survivor; 7) God, What Have I Done; 8) Credit; 9) Big Brother Wheels; 10) Dreamin'; 11) Sound Of A Gun; 12) Look At You Now; 13) I've Had Enough; 14) Between Heaven And Hell.

Can't we just say that this is another late period Buzzcocks album and leave it at that? Please? I'm not even stating that it sucks or anything — it probably sounds as good as it can possibly sound, given Diggle's and Shelley's self-imposed limitations. I just can't think of anything interesting to say. Okay, let's try ramble-scramble mode for a bit, see where it gets us:

— ʽCreditʼ begins with an automated voice system instructing you to spend your virtual financial resources in the correct manner, and soon transforms into an old geezer's rant about "videophones with all the latest ringtones" that cause a "pile of debts" for nothing, because "wish I could get something I really need". Well thanks, guys, for warning us about the 2008 crisis and all two years in advance. Who knows, maybe if you had made the underlying melody more interesting, people would take heed and all trouble might have been avoided... nah;

— ʽSound Of A Gunʼ: hey, this is one song I really like and would not, in fact, mind taking home with me. The riff's only advantage is one single chord change, but it makes a big nasty difference, and I am not sure I've ever heard it before, simple as it is. It's probably about gun violence, or it takes gun violence as a metaphor for other kinds of violence, or it takes other kinds of violence as a metaphor for non-violence, whatever. The point is, it's short, it's tough, it's nasty, it's catchy, I wish there were more songs here like this one, but life's a bitch;

— ʽBetween Heaven And Hellʼ: ends the album with atmospheric electronic noises (apparently, they hold regular synthesizer sales in limbo, to make time pass quicker) and a moody vocal har­mony session where the title is being bounced around from lower to higher harmonies. This way, nobody can say that Flat-Pack Philosophy has no art-pop elements, and the Buzzcocks become eligible for The Beach Boy Hall Of Fame and The Brian Eno Hall Of Fame at the same time. If only for a few seconds, that is.

Then there are eleven other songs on the album, but fuck 'em. They all sound the same anyway. My biggest problem, however? I still have no idea what «flat-pack philosophy» is supposed to mean, even after re-reading the lyrics to the title track several times. If it's a hint that modern era Buzzcocks music is assembled from pre-packaged pieces, I'm in. But somehow I doubt that.