CAN: CAN (1979)
1) All Gates Open; 2) Safe; 3) Sunday Jam; 4) Sodom; 5) A Spectacle; 6) Ping-Pong; 7) Ethnological Forgery Series No. 99 ("Can-Can"); 8) Can Be.
This is unquestionably a step up from Out Of Reach, but much too late anyway. Actually, it is not that much of a step up — all it does is correct that album's most blatant mistakes, such as letting Rebop and Rosko write their own songs and sing them, or dabbling too much in African and Caribbean musical textures with which the (still) predominantly German team cannot really do a lot of exciting things. Instead, they prefer to expand on the legacy of tracks like ʽNovemberʼ and ʽSeven Days Awakeʼ — moody instrumental jams with tightly controlled grim attitudes instead of shrill, passionate build-ups.
Already on the first track, ʽAll Gates Openʼ, Karoli returns as the band's primary vocalist, declaring rather than singing the sparse lyrics in a semi-robotic voice, trying to feed the aura of mystery wih it — and almost succeeding, considering that the aura is also helped out with bits of swampy-bluesy harmonica (is this the first and only appearance of a noticeable harmonica part on a Can album, or what?) and strange swings between ominous bluesy «verses» and psycho-pop guitar flourishes on the «chorus» (or maybe «bridge», I can never make head or tails out of these convoluted structures of theirs). Rosko and Rebop are downgraded here to providing a basic funky setup, and that's the one thing they do real well, so on the whole, the track is a success, even if it is still way too quiet and humble to make much of a lasting impression.
The problem persists through most of the record — all of these jams sound good while they're on, but never leave any strong aftertaste. ʽSafeʼ, for all of its eight minutes, is dominated by the oscillating electronic groove in the background that resembles the orbital circulation of some noisy alien device — it's impressive, but it pretty much neutralizes the effect of whatever it is they're playing or chanting in the foreground. ʽSunday Jamʼ is a tight quasi-disco groove with juicy rhythm and lead guitar tones, but no memorable riffs or exciting solos. ʽSodomʼ slows down the tempo for a sterner, more threatening groove, but still does not come close to justifying the title: as a reflection of the activities of Sodom's inhabitants, the atmosphere is too lazy, and as a reflection of their (upcoming) punishment, it doesn't have enough bombastic echo or other special effects to make it worthy of the Old Testament. And ʽA Spectacleʼ, once again, sounds like a preview of the Afro-European grooves of Remain In Light, but the rhythm section and the funky guitars never seem to settle upon a specific perfect note pattern, and the results are messy.
The final two tracks are a big surprise, of course — it's almost as if the band members listened to everything they just recorded, and had the same reaction as myself: "Hey, we sound pretty good, but there's really no kick to all of this!" So they went ahead and, feeling unable to come up with something real hooky on their own, decided to make the weirdest thing possible — generate a Can-ified version of Offenbach's Galop Infernal from Orphée aux Enfers, better known to all of us laymen, of course, as the «Can-Can Song» — get it? Can-Can? Well, it was only a matter of time before Can would have to capitalize on the pun, as inavoidable, I guess, as the Rolling Stones eventually having to do ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ. Shamefully, I admit that the result is sort of hilarious, and that Karoli in particular does a tremendous job finding just the right guitar tones for all of the tune's separate melodies (although I think he should have gone all the way and used the «agonizing pig» talkbox effect on the main galloping part). It's even better when they then offer their own variation, in the form of ʽCan Beʼ where Karoli just goes off his rocker and begins Chuckberrying all over the place. But yes, of course both parts are just a desperate musical joke, no matter how professionally and humorously it is carried out.
That the band just faded away, without any official announcements of splitting, after the self-titled album (later also appearing under the title Inner Space) failed to impress anybody, is hardly surprising. The worst thing about Can is not even a lack of progress as a whole — more like a lack of conviction and passion: this is the sound of a band that is no longer genuinely interested in this thing they're doing together, no longer trying to get the best out of themselves. Oddly enough, no matter how much Can helped usher in the New Wave era, they themselves felt at odds with that era — their strongest and most genuine connection was really with older styles of playing, such as blues rock and funk, and unlike, say, King Crimson, they did not express a strong desire to fit in with the new crowds. (I mean, if they did have any such desire, why the heck did they want to team up with two old geezers from Traffic when they could have easily picked some of the talented youngsters? Even Fripp had to have Adrian Belew to make him feel young again).
So all we have to console ourselves is the knowledge that at least they left behind a decent enough swansong (I am leaving the reunion record out of this, for the moment) and, keeping in touch with their regular sense of humor, checked out with an elaborate musical joke. Which is a fairly tasteful way to end a career, but hardly makes for a rewarding listening experience — no subtle epiphanies here, trust me.