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Monday, February 29, 2016

Buddy Guy: Rhythm & Blues

BUDDY GUY: RHYTHM & BLUES (2013)

CD I: 1) Best In Town; 2) Justifyin'; 3) I Go By Feel; 4) Messin' With The Kid; 5) What's Up With That Woman; 6) One Day Away; 7) Well I Done Got Over It; 8) What You Gonna Do About Me; 9) The Devil's Daughter; 10) Whiskey Ghost; 11) Rhythm Inner Groove.
CD II: 1) Meet Me In Chicago; 2) Too Damn Bad; 3) Evil Twin; 4) I Could Die Happy; 5) Never Gonna Change; 6) All That Makes Me Happy Is The Blues; 7) My Mama Loved Me; 8) Blues Don't Care; 9) I Came Up Hard; 10) Poison Ivy.

Look, we all love Buddy Guy. He is one of the coolest blues players around — the coolest blues player still left alive from his generation, probably, and the world will never be the same when he's gone. But that doesn't mean that we just have to keep spending our time on every new album of his, and certainly not on a double album, unless that double album has anything specifically in­teresting to say. And the fact that this album is called Rhythm & Blues, and the first disc is supposed to be «rhythm» and the second is supposed to be «blues» is not a specifically interesting fact on its own. Not to mention that it's a fickle distinction anyway.

The worst news here is that the record, once again, is just too damn slick. On Living Proof, Guy at least sounded excited and eager to, well, prove that he can still outplay any new sucker in town. Here, that excitement seems largely dissipated, and the songs, most of them not-too-original ori­ginals co-written by Buddy with a pack of songwriting partners (Tom Hambridge, Richard Fle­ming, and others), are melodically boring and played by-the-book. You know something's not quite right when the record greets you with the opening riff and it's... uh... Miley Cyrus' ʻParty In The USAʼ. Well, okay, that one's probably a funny coincidence, but fact is, everything here is remade, sterile, safe, and dull.

It certainly does not help matters much that the new bunch of guest stars, in place of Derek Trucks or Santana, now includes bland singer-songwriters like Beth Hart, handsome sentimen­talists like Keith Urban, and evil scourges of humanity like Kid Rock, let alone three grizzled members of Aerosmith who really have no business on a Buddy Guy album. The only pleasant collaboration here is with rising blues star Gary Clark Jr., but his abilities seem wasted on an up­beat track like ʻBlues Don't Careʼ where he just gets a brief rip-it-up solo of speedy trills, choking on themselves (if you know nothing about him, he's usually much better on his own albums). I think these guests are quite indicative, really — and, with disgusting predictability, Kid Rock joins Buddy on nothing else than ʻMessin' With The Kidʼ. Dear Mr. American Bad Ass, could you please not pollute the production of your elders with your presence any more?

Not that the elimination of bad guest appearances would have saved the album anyway. Buddy plays okay throughout, but we know that he is capable of more than «okay», even at this old age, and the only reason why he is not rising to the occasion is that he is not trying to — the emphasis here is on crafting a slick, commercial piece of product. Every once in a while, there's a flash of raw greatness (ʻWhat's Up With That Womanʼ, on which he is backed by the Muscle Shoal Horns, is probably a good example), but for an album that runs well over eighty minutes, these flashes come all too rarely.

I understand that a thumbs down rating here may seem unnecessarily harsh, but see, at this time in history there is simply no need for Mr. Guy to come out with albums like this — I don't think he needs the money that bad, and if he wants to transmit his expertise to a younger generation of players, he can just do it in his basement and leave us out of it. (Not to mention that the only thing that needs to be transmitted to somebody like Kid Rock is a free one-way ticket to Saint Helena island). Basically, there's nothing good on this record that you haven't already heard a couple dozen times (usually better), and the bad stuff on this record is not something you ever need to hear, unless you really have the hots for a sexy hunk like Keith Urban.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Cabaret Voltaire: The Crackdown

CABARET VOLTAIRE: THE CRACKDOWN (1983)

1) 24-24; 2) In The Shadows; 3) Talking Time; 4) Animation; 5) Over And Over; 6) Just Fascination; 7) Why Kill Time (When You Can Kill Yourself); 8) Haiti; 9) Crackdown.

Oh, looks like someone's tired of being unjustly confused with a guitar band. Taking their mission one step further, Cabaret Voltaire now place severe restrictions on guitar-based melodies, and plunge into the seductive waters of electronica. The Crackdown is far less noisy than their pre­vious releases — still dark gray, still a disturbing weight on your conscious, but «cleaner» and more polished than it used to be. More sterile, too, you could say.

The opening track, ʻ24-24ʼ, sounds like something Prince could have come up with — the same electrofunky type of rhythm, same drum machine sound, same approach to the mechanics of the groove to get you up and dancin' in that early Eighties style. Except Prince would have made the number all pretty and optimistic, whereas in the hands of Cabaret Voltaire all such grooves be­come zombie rituals, so we have unsettling lyrics ("turning out, beggars to eat me"), hushed creepy voices, keyboards that sound like marinated church organs, and an atmosphere of total coldness and detachment. These here are the roots of IDM — because if this ain't «intelligent dance music», then what is? (Then again, so was Kraftwerk, so the term is really useless).

Most of what follows is the same: groove after groove, constructed out of dark electronic tex­tures, sometimes peppered with extra ingredients (the brass section on ʻTaking Timeʼ), but always set­ting the same mood. Actually, mood-wise this new style may be said to work better than the old one: Mallinder's out-of-the-shadow vocals are now higher and cleaner in the mix, and throughout the entire album there's a sense of some magic eye, benevolent or malicious, watching over your shoulder, as you make the journey through the twisted alleys of evil electrofunk. Melody-wise or hook-wise, though, I am not even sure where to begin in an attempt to single out any highlights or simply to talk about the points and effects of any particular track.

The closest thing to a potential «hit» on the record is probably ʻJust Fascinationʼ — as Mallinder moves one step closer to singing than hissing and hushing, the track begins to sound uncannily like classic Depeche Mode, and suddenly, Cabaret Voltaire get access to associations of deep dark sexuality that they never really had before. Bad news, though — they don't know very well how to exploit that, nor do they seem to really want to, so essentially the effort is wasted: not too many horny teenagers would probably make use of The Crackdown in 1983, as compared to Construction Time Again. Then again, Cabaret Voltaire would never stoop to becoming a real pop band, would it? To ensure that nothing of the sort ever happens, they name one of the tracks ʻWhy Kill Time When You Can Kill Yourselfʼ, setting themselves up for lawsuits of suicide pro­paganda — except, since this record never sold that much, nobody bothered.

Actually, speaking of selling, the album did reach No. 31 on the UK charts — their highest posi­tion ever, signifying that the change in style did appeal to the masses to a certain degree. They would quickly rectify this mistake with the follow-up, but whether they were rooting for the money or not, the decision to make a dash for the trendy dance scene of 1983 was clearly con­scious, and at least it did not result in them making yet another carbon copy of Red Mecca — even if I cannot say that the new results were any more exciting.

Note also that most of the recent CD editions come with an attached bonus EP, called Double­vision — featuring a studio version of ʻDiskonoʼ and three other tracks that, in stark contrast to this album, are more of a noise-ambient nature (including one called ʻMoscowʼ, with resonating church bells as a distinctive feature — other than that, it seems to represent a post-nuclear war Moscow, which, come to think of it, would be quite an appropriate evil fantasy for 1983). Again, nothing too special, but curious to have as such an ardent counterpoint to the cold dance rhythms of The Crackdown proper.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Budgie: Radio Sessions 1974 & 1978

BUDGIE: RADIO SESSIONS 1974 & 1978 (2005)

CD I: 1) Breadfan; 2) You Are The Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milk; 3) Hammer And Tongs; 4) Zoom Club; 5) Parents; 6) Rocking Man.
CD II: 1) Melt The Ice Away; 2) In The Grip Of A Tyrefitters Hand; 3) Smile Boy Smile; 4) In For The Kill / You Are The Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milk; 5) Love For You And Me; 6) Parents; 7) Who Do You Want For Your Love; 8) Don't Dilute The Water.

Budgie proudly subscribe to the rule that says the less important a certain band is, the more archive releases it has to put up on the market (because ten cheaply assembled albums will even­tually sell more than two, even if the total number of copies will still be hardly enough to cover your cigarette expenses). There's quite a few packages of outtakes, rarities, and live performances out there for the hardcore devoted fan — we are only going to focus on a couple, and rather brief­ly at that, because...

...well, see, one of the reasons why Budgie never put out a live album in the Seventies (just like Black Sabbath) is that they were never a particularly outstanding live band, and this double live CD is a very representative example. We have two shows here, one recorded relatively early in the band's career (London, 1974) and one from the Impeckable era (Los Angeles, 1978) — different drummers, but Bourge is the guitarist on both shows, so you could theoretically hope for the best. Unfortunately, even if you disregard the questionable sound quality of the 1974 show (the 1978 one is much better), it is not easy to recommend them as useful additions to the studio versions, let alone suitable replacements.

Technically, the band sounds good, although Shelley occasionally finds it hard to sing and play bass at the same time (ironically, he has his worst flubs on ʻBreadfanʼ, where you'd rather expect Bourge to slip every once in a while on the speedy riff). But the songs are performed very close to the studio originals and inevitably pale whenever Tony finds it impossible to reproduce all the original overdubs (he does try to insert a few screeching gulls on the early version of ʻParentsʼ, with questionable effects, but he hardly even tries any more on the later version). There is no extra improvisation whatsoever, with the exception of an obligatory-unnecessary drum solo in the middle of ʻRocking Manʼ; and the songs are not taken to a new level of wild wild metal energy because... because, I guess, Budgie are not really wild wild metal people.

Basically, the guys were hard working pros with a knack for a certain humbleness (and maybe so much for the better, because Burke Shelley as a Robert Plant-style swaggering frontman would only embarrass people) — perfect for the studio, not so interesting for the stage. Add to this the occasional problem with the setlist (ʻHammer And Tongsʼ does not cease to be a lame ʻDazed And Confusedʼ rip-off just because it is rolled out on the arena), the occasional problem with the sound, and most likely you will not be returning to these recordings fairly soon. Which should not prevent you from having at least one good listen, though. But Live In Japan or Live After Death this ain't, not by a mile.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Byrds: Farther Along

THE BYRDS: FARTHER ALONG (1971)

1) Tiffany Queen; 2) Get Down Your Line; 3) Farther Along; 4) B. B. Class Road; 5) Bugler; 6) America's Great National Pastime; 7) Antique Sandy; 8) Precious Kate; 9) So Fine; 10) Lazy Waters; 11) Bristol Steam Convention Blues.

The last album by «The Roger McGuinn Experience» tends to be the band's most despised (con­tending for this position with Byrdmaniax). It signified the band's complete fall-off from the charts, the shame being exacerbated and perpetuated by the idiotic choice of releasing ʻAmerica's Great National Pastimeʼ as the lead (and only) single — a slightly funny, but also sort of obno­xious vaudeville number from the Battin/Fowley team, not to mention that its somewhat unjustly derogatory lyrics may have detracted listeners as well (I mean, the song satirizes a certain seg­ment of American population, but why American? "One of America's great national pastimes is cutting the grass / Grabbing some ass / Living too fast" — could be said about quite a few other countries as well, if it needed to be said in the first place).

Anyway, the truth is, Farther Along is certainly not worse than anything else produced by the White-era Byrds, and although it lacks serious ambition, I actually prefer this laid-back, simple atmosphere to the unsuccessful attempt at epicness that was Untitled. There, the band over­reached, going on a sprawl without having the proper means, vision, or talent pool to back it up. Here, the band is just having itself a good time. There is no «flash» whatsoever, and none of these songs probably had what it takes to catch the public eye in 1972 (although that still does not mean that prioritizing ʻNational Pastimeʼ was a wise choice by any means); but in retrospect, Farther Along just feels like a bunch of nice musicians... well, engaging in one of America's great national pastimes, I guess.

Ironically, of all the late-era Byrds catalog this album probably comes closest to fulfilling McGuinn's original dream for Sweetheart — the «musical encyclopaedia of Americana» — featuring excursions in straight country, blues-rock, folk, vaudeville, Fifties' rock, and R&B, all of it taken in the most straightforward manner. And as they so openly steal, beg, or borrow, it happens to mostly work. ʻTiffany Queenʼ is introduced with the classic ʻSatisfactionʼ / ʻMr. Soulʼ / ʻJumpin' Jack Flashʼ riff (all roads lead to Rome), but then almost immediately becomes Chuck Berry's ʻLet It Rockʼ, done McGuinn-style, and on some level it is hilarious to hear McGuinn do the Chuck Berry schtick (more hilarious, anyway, than listening to Gene Parsons sounding all rough-and-rocky on the pub boogie number ʻB. B. Class Roadʼ). The Johnny Otis cover ʻSo Fineʼ technically destroys the Fiestas' original from 1959 — as good as that one was, here the boys do a much stronger job smoothing out and sharpening the vocal har­monies (even with these new-look Byrds, nobody beats them at harmonies). And Larry Murray's ʻBuglerʼ, yet another dog-oriented song, is done very close to the original, but improves on it in many small, subtle details (though, of course, country lovers might want to prefer the «rougher», «rawer» original — fact is, I think Roger McGuinn loves dogs as much as Larry Murray does, if not more, so it is not a set fact here that the original songwriter necessarily must sing this with more feeling).

There's not a lot of original material here at all (another reason, supposedly, for the album feeling like such a letdown in 1972), but of the two McGuinn originals, ʻAntique Sandyʼ is very nice: basically just one folksy melodic line over and over, but a warm, tender, and catchy one, quite tolerable for two minutes and sounding particularly beautiful when taken over from the singer by a cozily sustained piano. (ʻTiffany Queenʼ is the other original, although I'm not sure exactly how original it is in the first place; a joint lawsuit from Chuck and Keith would not be out of order). Most importantly, there's very little about the record that I could call openly bad — ʻB. B. Class Roadʼ does sound a little phoney (not even the beards could make the Byrds get that rough-and-tough feel), and ʻNational Pastimeʼ is good for not more than one listen, but everything else ranges from pleasant to... very pleasant.

Cutting a long story short, Farther Along is slight, but fun, which, at that time, worked better for the Byrds than serious, but boring. It was probably inevitable that the White/Battin/Parsons line-up would crackle and dissipate after they became a commercial non-entity with no particular place to go (actually, the real reason was the perspective of a possible reunion for the original Byrds), but I'm pretty sure that there is still some demand for unambitious, unpretentious, run-of-the-mill nice quality music from the early Seventies, and this record is a good candidate, so a friendly, not too excited thumbs up here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Cardiacs: Toy World

CARDIACS: TOY WORLD (1981)

1) Icky Qualms; 2) Over And Over And Over And Over; 3) Dead Mouse; 4) A Big Noise In A Toy World; 5) Trade­mark; 6) Scratching Crawling Scrawling; 7) As Cold As Can Be In An English Sea; 8) Question Mark; 9) Is This The Life; 10) A Time For Rejoicing; 11) Aukamacic; 12) Nurses Whispering Verses.

The Cardiacs' «debut» — since this record was the very first to sport the band's final name change — is yet another cassette-only release, cut and mixed in the exact same shithole (Crow Studios) and featuring equally piss-poor sound quality that reduces even the finest-written songs to tragic sonic muck. There is one significant addition to the line-up: Sarah Cutts (soon-to-be Sarah Smith) on keyboards, sax, and clarinet, further contributing to the band's genre mix-up with a jazzy vibe. But the sound is so bad, really, that you barely notice.

Actually, to be honest, I do not like this one at all. Not only does it no longer have the novelty benefit, but it almost seems to be comprised of inferior leftovers from the previous sessions (gut feeling, mainly; however, the recording dates do give you June 1980 as the start, which is the exact date of the Obvious Identity session). The main ingredients all remain in place, but the song structures are not nearly as interesting, and too many of the songs, like ʻDead Mouseʼ, just sound like run-of-the-mill post-punk, without any of the mind-shocking twists that made the first bunch of songs so bizarrely fascinating.

There are a few classics here all the same, most notably the final number ʻNurses Whispering Versesʼ that would later be re-recorded for Seaside — not that it is more complicated than the rest, but it is certainly sharper and more desperate than the rest, with a hard-to-forget squeaky guitar line running for its life along the highway, like a scared bunny pursued by a jeep, and Smith rattling off incomprehensible lyrics that are probably about madness (incomprehensible lyrics do tend to be about madness, you know) and generating a nice little atmosphere of paranoia. Another highlight that would also make its way to Seaside is ʻIs This The Lifeʼ, which is essen­tially a slower variation on the same topic — and also featuring the best guitar work on the entire album, in the form of a glum doom-laden riff and some first-rate soloing.

Unfortunately, the rest of the tunes just fall flat due not only to the abysmal sound quality, but also to the repetitiveness — ʻAs Cold As Can Be In An English Seaʼ, for instance, has no busi­ness going over seven minutes, and ʻOver And Over And Over And Overʼ... well, with a title like that, you can probably guess for yourself (although, to be fair, that song does consist of two very distinct sections — one fast, martial, and jovial, the other slowed down and more epic; problem is, neither is particularly inspired). At the other end of the axis, the short links between songs are pointless, the silly looped laughing sounds at the end of ʻTrademarkʼ are annoying, and ʻA Time For Rejoicingʼ is two minutes of vocal-and-organ hooliganry that seems to invoke the spirit of Syd Barrett but fails, if not for the hideous sound, then for the off-key singing.

In short, if you do want to make a select acquaintance with the band's early cassette-only material, The Obvious Identity is a far better choice — actually, better than Archive Cardiacs, a 1989 compilation of select tracks from the two albums which, unlike the albums themselves, would later be reissued on CD (but presumably with the same lo-fi sound, since the master tapes were either lost or completely unfit for re-mastering). As good as these guys could be, they weren't always good, and there's not enough interesting music here for anybody to tolerate the torture of unintentional lo-fi.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Camel: Camel

CAMEL: CAMEL (1973)

1) Slow Yourself Down; 2) Mystic Queen; 3) Six Ate; 4) Separation; 5) Never Let Go; 6) Curiosity; 7) Arubaluba.

There is, and would always be, a lot of Pink Floyd influence in the music of Camel — but it is still instructive that their first album was recorded in August '72, that is, well before the release of Dark Side Of The Moon, so at least you couldn't accuse them of merely jumping on the nearest and most obvious bandwagon. Besides, minor keys and gloomy moods are not all it takes to count as a Pink Floyd rip-off.

Stemming from Surrey (every once in a while, you may see Camel listed as representatives of the «Canterbury school» of rock, which couldn't be farther from the truth — at least, not until Dave Sinclair joined the band, but that would be much later), Camel was largely the brainchild of gui­tarist Andy Latimer and keyboardist Peter Bardens, who are responsible for most of the song­writing and singing (although bassist Doug Ferguson takes a couple lead vocals, and drummer Andy Ward is co-credited for writing the first song).

Although all four members were honing their musical talents already circa 1969-70, they only gelled together in late 1971 and got a re­cording contract with MCA in 1972, so they have to count as «second generation prog», a tough fate for all those who followed in the footsteps of Floyd, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Yes, and ELP. As much as Latimer and Bardens loved all that music, they would never truly be capable of forging their own unmistakable and unmimickable persona­lity — while both of them are excellent musicians, and Latimer has a very nice singing voice, their styles are simply too derivative of earlier heroes.

That said, as long as the band hits the energy pedal, all of Camel music is eminently likeable. Although the seven compositions on this album present no real breakthroughs, they are amazing­ly adequate — not too complex, not too simplistic, not too pretentious, not too humble, a sort of middle-of-the-road combination that manages to please rather than bore. They share the overall humanistic-but-pessimistic musical philosophy/vibe of Floyd — most of the songs are mournful or melancholic — but they have plenty of chops and musical ideas to make you believe that they are not here just to rip off a vibe or two. Above everything else, they have style, which is the one thing, probably, that makes them so attractive for me where bands like Kansas or Styx sound so irritating most of the time.

If you are not new to progressive rock, but new to Camel, I would suggest beginning with the last track here — the instrumental ʻArubalubaʼ is the easiest one to swallow, featuring the record's most instantly memorable doubled guitar-organ riff as the main theme, and rocking all the way to the bank, faster, tighter, and sweatier than anything in the Floyd catalog. The guitar and keyboard solos of Latimer and Bardens are not exceptional, but they succeed in maintaining tension all the way without resorting to excessive gimmicks, and last just enough to make you long for the re­turn of the main theme, which dutifully kicks back in with a vengeance. Note, though, that this is rather an atypical composition for Camel (the album) and Camel the band in general — typically, their instrumentals tend to be softer and subtler, like ʻSix Ateʼ, which begins in waltz tempo, then slows down even further before becoming a quieter version of King Crimson's ʻMirrorsʼ for a few bars and then finally settling down into a steady mid-tempo guitar/keyboard jam. Again, no great shakes, but a little bit of magical mystery atmosphere is still present.

One reason why Camel, provided they were spotted by prog-hating critics in the first place, still largely avoided their venomous spit, is that they kept the «lost in fantasy land» thing to a mini­mum — like everybody else, they loved their Tolkien and shit, but were cool-headed enough not to try and make their albums sound like bona fide Lord Of The Rings soundtracks. Here, for in­stance, there's only one suspicious track (ʻMystic Queenʼ), and they immediately shoot the fan­tasy interpretation in the back by singing "have you seen the Mystic Queen / riding in her limou­sine", although if you don't pay sufficient attention to the lyrics, the song may still come across as a hymn to the Lady of the Lake or any such character — no matter, really, because it is made by carefully constructed Latimer and Bardens solos (the lyrics are minimal), slow, dreamy, a little bit psychedelic, and humbly restrained.

The best known songs from the album are arguably the opening number ʻSlow Yourself Downʼ and the single ʻNever Let Goʼ. The former is a grim blues-rocker that establishes Camel's vibe from the start — quiet, compact, concise music made by loners for loners, sung by Latimer in his lowest range and including a fast mid-section that, too, seems strangely intro- rather than extra­vert: if there is at all such a thing as «Anti-Arena Rock», this song, and Camel in general, is it. As for ʻNever Let Goʼ, which went on to become a permanent stage favorite, this is probably the album's most pretentious moment ("crazy preachers of our doom / telling us there is no room" — hmm, isn't that a kind of line that Ozzy would be supposed to sing?), but, again, leave it to Camel to deliver a pretentious message to humanity as if they were all standing with their noses in a corner. Do not, however, forget to turn the volume up really loud for the last minute — Latimer plays a killer solo, but with such a thin tone and buried so deeply in the mix that you really have to make yourself notice it. Didn't Mark Knopfler take a few hints from that guy?

On the whole, although Camel never achieved proper critical/commercial success until their third album, this debut is by no means «tentative» or «formative» — if you do not like it (and it is theo­retically quite easy to perceive it as too cold, too sterile, or too limp), you will probably not get easily warmed up to the band in general... granted, «warmed up» is probably not the right word, seeing as how their music is always so cold. It is definitely lacking in flashiness, but it is moody and tasteful, even if it hardly sounds like anything a truly intelligent camel would have written. Well, maybe only a very Sufi camel. Thumbs up.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Buddy Guy: Live At Legends

BUDDY GUY: LIVE AT LEGENDS (2012)

1) Intro; 2) Best Damn Fool; 3) Mannish Boy; 4) I Just Want To Make Love To You / Chicken Heads; 5) Skin Deep; 6) Damn Right I Got The Blues; 7) Boom Boom / Strange Brew; 8) Voodoo Chile / Sunshine Of Your Love / Keep On Truckin'; 9) Polka Dot Love; 10) Coming For You; 11) Country Boy.

A fairly typical live show from Buddy in his seventies, actually recorded in the same year as Living Proof and burning with the same aching desire to prove that the man still got it — like ʻ74 Years Youngʼ on the studio record, this one opens with a kill-'em-all version of ʻBest Damn Foolʼ that is supposed to whomp your ass once and for all, so that even if he gets mellower or sloppier later on, the initial impression lasts long enough to keep you going all the way. You've heard it all before, but it never hurts to get another set of those insane trills from the man.

The setlist is heavy on classic hits and oldies, some of which were picked from the classic rock repertoire to please the listeners — in one hilarious medley, Buddy gives his condensed readings of ʻVoodoo Chileʼ and ʻSunshine Of Your Loveʼ, and in another one, he juxtaposes John Lee Hooker's ʻBoom Boomʼ with Cream's ʻStrange Brewʼ as an illustration of what happened to the blues once it made the Transatlantic crossing (although, to be honest, his guitar on ʻStrange Brewʼ sounds far more like solo Clapton than Cream-era Clapton — for one thing, where's the woman tone? Bad illustration). In another creative fit, he merges Muddy Waters' ʻI Just Want To Make Love To Youʼ with the Bobby Rush tune ʻChicken Headsʼ, funkifying the former and bluesifying the latter in the process. "I'm gonna fuck up all these songs tonight", he admits with disarming honesty, much to the audience's delight.

It's too bad the one song he didn't dare "fuck up" was ʻSkin Deepʼ, the pathetic equality anthem from the 2008 album — the only redeeming thing about which used to be Derek Trucks' weeping slide, but Derek ain't here, so there's nothing redeeming about it any more, and it just doesn't fit among all the rip-roaring blues-rock, not even as a «breather». Unless you do care about Buddy Guy as a soul singer, feel free to just skip it and enjoy the flamethrower rendition of ʻDamn Rightʼ instead.

Note that the last three songs here are attached studio recordings: ʻPolka Dot Loveʼ is a rather boring piece of slow blues, and ʻCountry Boyʼ is an even slower cover of the Muddy Waters song with another annoying attempt by Buddy to closely mimick his predecessor's vocals, but at least ʻComing For Youʼ has some cool wah-wah funk guitar (the song itself is an attempt to write something in the style of Sam & Dave's ʻHold On I'm Comingʼ). Honestly, though, it would have been nicer to get more live material instead — it's not as if the man were now limiting himself to playing short 40-minute sets, right? He's just 76 years young, after all.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Beatles: Revolver (IAS #008)

This week's Important Album is:

The Beatles: Revolver

Hope the new twist works out. Next week, finally something fresh.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Cabaret Voltaire: Johnny YesNo

CABARET VOLTAIRE: JOHNNY YESNO (1983)

1) Taxi Music; 2) Hallucination Sequence; 3) D.T.'s/Cold Turkey; 4) The Quarry; 5) Title Sequence; 6) Taxi Music Dub.

An interesting diversion — supposedly these tracks constitute a soundtrack to a short movie by Peter Care, one of two little-known quickies he made before establishing an alternate career in the music video business (mostly for R.E.M., but remember, uh, Bananarama's ʻVenusʼ? Apparently that's him, too...). The album itself is probably longer than the movie, though, and functions as a completely autonomous Cabaret Voltaire release, significantly different in style from their usual stuff. It is also the last proper CV album with Chris Watson (who had already quit the band when the record was released, but apparently worked on all the tracks).

I have no idea what the movie was about, or whether this shift in style was caused by the movie or something else, but fact is, Johnny YesNo is a little softer, a little more mysterious, and much better produced than the average Watson-era CV album. Unlike the usual releases, which largely focused on bass/guitar interplay, here the keyboards take a much more prominent position, and the bass grooves are largely absent or reduced to just one or two pouncing notes, like on ʻTaxi Musicʼ — you can dance to it if you want to, but you'll probably end up looking stupid. Kirk's guitar sound remains grumbly and murky as usual, but because of the incessant chirping of the keyboards (main riff is poppy, «lead» melodies are free-form jazzy), the atmosphere is not as de­pressing as could be expected. Indeed, one could picture oneself taking a slow taxi ride through some desolate cityscape, populated with cyborgs and mutants going around their business. Inof­fensive, but entertaining. Entertaining, but overlong — a fourteen-minute taxi ride like that can really wear you down after a while, especially considering that the landscape stays more or less the same throughout.

The shorter tracks are even stronger bent on atmosphere rather than rhythm: ʻHallucination Sequenceʼ places its faith in sonic oscillations that put your mind in some creepy alchemist lab; ʻCold Turkeyʼ is a bunch of gruesome guitar feedback that tries to reproduce the feeling as au­thentically as John Lennon's song of the same name (ugly, but for a reason); ʻThe Quarryʼ is the usual hustle-and-bustle set to the metronomic punch of some mighty earth-burrowing machine; and ʻTitle Sequenceʼ is basically a wild electronic Jew's harp tap-dancing on your spinal cord. No amazing sonic discoveries here, I'd think, but some pretty creative ideas, and even despite the paucity of the tracks, the diversity of these atmospheres could easily compete with the diversity of any regular CV release.

Final verdict — this does belong in the proper discography; it's not merely an auxiliary detour, but quite a serious, autonomous project, not to mention one of the best produced Cabaret Voltaire albums of the early Eighties. But it will hardly be remembered as a milestone in the history of electronics, industrial music, or movie soundtracks.   

Friday, February 19, 2016

Budgie: You're All Living In Cuckooland

BUDGIE: YOU'RE ALL LIVING IN CUCKOOLAND (2006)

1) Justice; 2) Dead Men Don't Talk; 3) We're All Living In Cuckooland; 4) Falling; 5) Love Is Enough; 6) Tell Me Tell Me; 7) (Don't Want To) Find That Girl; 8) Captain; 9) I Don't Want To Throw You; 10) I'm Compressing The Comb On A Cockerel's Head.

Anyone up for a new Budgie album in the 21st century? I originally had sort of assumed that after the release of Deliver Us From Evil, Shelley just retired the band's name and went on to have a solo career or something — apparently, though, «Budgie» as a touring band functioned all the way into 1988, and even after the last gigs Shelley never did much of anything except for a few collaborations on side projects. But supposedly, boredom got the better of him after a while, and there you have it — a brand new Budgie album in 2006, replete with a typically Budgie title and a typically Budgie album cover.

The music, unfortunately, is not at all typical Budgie. The original post-1974 drummer Steve Williams returns as a loyal servant, but the guitar player is brand new: a guy called Simon Lees, who was actually born one year before the release of Budgie's first album, and began his guitar training at the height of the hair metal era, and it still shows, no matter how much he is trying to hide it. In any case, the guitar sound on this album is largely bad — overcompressed, genetically modified, synthetically treated, and way too much influenced by nu-metal — and the aesthetics of the album is way too heavily rooted in the Twisted Sister / Poison camp, which is all the more surprising considering that Budgie did not even have the proper time to live into the hair metal age. It's as if at least half of these songs were really written circa 1984-85 (and why not?), then given the «modern» production treatment.

The record is not without a certain bizarre charm: Shelley and Lees use the pop metal idiom without subscribing to the pop metal lifestyle — this is not a collection of "let's party" anthems, cock rockers, and power ballads; the approach has elements of unpredictability, surrealism, and Budgie's obfuscated social criticism. But what of it all if the riffs are no good? To be sure, songs like ʻJusticeʼ and ʻDead Men Don't Talkʼ are full of metal riffage, but this is just metal riffage like tons of other metal riffage — no revelatory note combinations, no juicy tones, no personality whatsoever. In addition, Shelley has to really strain his aging voice to outshout the plastic electric noise, and he was never a screamer and still isn't.

Ultimately, the only songs on the record that have a bit of emotional resonance are the quiet ones. The title track is a decent ballad, leaning towards toothless adult contemporary, but with some pretty harmonies in the chorus — pretty enough to make me believe that, perhaps, we are all living in cuckooland indeed, or else why would we have to bother with this record in the first place? ʻCaptainʼ is a bit of acoustic folk that would be 100% filler on a classic Budgie album, but here becomes a highlight just because it is one of the few not-overproduced, not-overscreamed tracks. Is this praise? Doesn't sound much like praise to me.

Strangest of the lot is ʻI'm Compressing The Comb On A Cockerel's Headʼ, a track that sports a trademark Budgie title but sounds like a cross between Devo and Limp Bizkit, spludging along to a martial-industrial-metal rhythm and a particularly ugly vocal melody, as if Shelley tried to imitate the death metal growl to the best of his abilities. Adding insult to injury, almost the entire second half of the lengthy track is given over to a «phone-dialing» synth solo (or is that a synth guitar solo?) the likes of which went out of style at the end of the New Wave era, I think. Again, there's a certain bizarre attraction stemming from the stupidity of it all, but should we give the songs a thumbs up just because they're so ridiculous?

The real bad news is that the record will most likely confuse and baffle veteran Breadfans who'd like to be in for the kill, without attracting any new fans because that task is impossible unless Shelley somehow gets some of his Metallica admirers to guest star on the record. Ultimately, the best thing about this unfortunate «reunion» attempt remains the album cover — yes, the lanky bassist still retains some style, but the substance, alas, is still long gone and can never be re­covered again. Thumbs down.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Byrds: Byrdmaniax

THE BYRDS: BYRDMANIAX (1971)

1) Glory, Glory; 2) Pale Blue; 3) I Trust; 4) Tunnel Of Love; 5) Citizen Kane; 6) I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician; 7) Absolute Happiness; 8) Green Apple Quick Step; 9) My Destiny; 10) Kathleen's Song; 11) Jamaica Say You Will.

Approximate critical consensus says thus: The Roger McGuinn Experience fell flat on its face with Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, miraculously recovered with Ballad Of Easy Rider, miraculously climaxed with Untitled, then just as immediately fell flat on its face again with Byrdmaniax, in a series of rise-and-tumbles that are all too strange to understand considering that (a) the band, at this point, never went through major lineup changes, (b) pursued more or less the same sty­listic course, and (c) hardly aspired to getting back in the major league by adapting to the times (e. g. shifting over to hard rock or glam).

I cannot really subscribe to this point of view. Yes, some of the 1969-72 records may certainly be a little worse or a little better than others, depending on how many unfunny novelty numbers are included or on whether McGuinn wants to inject some symbolism in his song structures or not. But on the whole, this period is even — no major marvels or disasters, and I find myself shrug­ging my shoulders both at the loving appraisal of Untitled and at the exaggerated disgust for Byrdmaniax, the ill-fated follow-up.

Supposedly, the Achilles' heel of Byrdmaniax is an increased degree of Kim Fowley's involve­ment in the life of the Byrds — this time, the man has a whoppin' three co-credits with Skip Bat­tin, and two of them sound as far away from what we expect of the Byrds as anything: ʻTunnel Of Loveʼ is a useless five-minute recreation of Fats Domino's ʻBlueberry Hillʼ groove accompanying a rather macabre, Alice Cooper-worthy, lyrical fantasy; and ʻCitizen Kaneʼ is two minutes of vaudeville nostalgizing about pre-war Hollywood values (actually, despite being so very un-Byrd­sey, it's actually somewhat funny, and quite harmless with its 2:37 running time). ʻAbsolute Happinessʼ takes a more serious tone, but hardly registers as an actual song — it is so quiet and so lacking in melodic presence that you can never properly remember what is so absolute about it.

However, Fowley's presence alone is hardly sufficient to make the album a complete disaster. For one thing, it's got a really strong opener — the energetic cover of the ʻGlory, Gloryʼ spiritual, with what might be one of McGuinn's strongest ever vocal performances for the band; those high notes on "I wanna thank you Jesus" and on the hallelujahs, combined with Roger's timbre, sting all the right emotional centers, and although the arrangement has been criticized for the fast-moving piano part, I think it totally belongs in the song. For another thing, ʻPale Blueʼ and ʻKathleen's Songʼ, even if they are not masterpieces, are at least as good as any ballad on Untit­led, and I also do not think that Melcher's orchestration spoils either of them as long as it does not drown out the acoustic guitar, harmonica, and vocals (and it does not).

There's also ʻI Trustʼ, Roger's experiment in crossing R&B/gospel aesthetics with country-rock arrangements that is neither too inspiring nor too disappointing, but again, his singing on the track is to be heavily commended; decent covers of Helen Carter's ʻMy Destinyʼ (not that worse than anything on Sweetheart) and Jackson Browne's ʻJamaica Say You Willʼ; and Roger's own take on the vaudeville genre, ʻI Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politicianʼ, which is even more trivial than the Fowley song but is also even shorter. Finally, ʻGreen Apple Quick Stepʼ is basically ʻNashville West Vol. 2ʼ, arguably done in a more down-to-earth, rustic style than its predecessor, but there's nothing wrong with that.

Also, now that the album has been properly reissued on CD, you can also take the liberty of replacing any of its worst numbers with a nice cover of ʻJust Like A Womanʼ that was recorded during the sessions but not used for some reason. Okay, that would be a cheap cop-out, but the general assessment stands: Byrdmaniax is a problematic record that suffers from some erroneous decisions (including, most definitely, the decision to place a set of the band members' death masks on the front cover! what were they thinking?), but it is by no means an artistic embarrass­ment compared to its immediate predecessors. Same mix of nice, boring, and throwaway pieces as usual — most likely, it is primarily its total lack of ambitiousness that earned it its negative points in 1971, when not being ambitious counted as being worse than nothing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Cardiacs: The Obvious Identity

CARDIACS: THE OBVIOUS IDENTITY (1980)

1) The Obvious Identity; 2) Visiting Hours; 3) Pip As Uncle Dick But Peter Spoilt It; 4) To Go Off And Things; 5) Rock Around The Clock; 6) Leaf Scrapings; 7) Unknown; 8) A Game For Bertie's Party; 9) Cameras; 10) Bite 3/a; 11) Piff; 12) Let Alone My Plastic Doll; 13) A Balloon For Bertie's Party.

Technically, this is not yet proper «Cardiacs» — in 1980, the band was still called Cardiac Arrest; and also technically, this is not a properly available debut album — it was recorded in a tiny ama­teur studio, located in some crappy basement in Kingston upon Thames, then copied onto 1000 old tapes and sold at the band's concerts. In the analog era, laying one's hands on this rarity would be a stroke of collector's luck; in the digital era, scooping up a bunch of MP3 files becomes little problem, but, of course, the awful sound quality is inescapable. And it is pretty awful, even way too awful for something that was copied and re-copied several times on magnetic tape; I'm gues­sing that the original recording equipment was no great shakes, either.

Nevertheless, this is a complete long-playing record, in some way, and most importantly, it pre­sents Cardiac Arrest, soon to be simply Cardiacs, as a band that has already worked out its per­sonal style and a clear understanding of what it wants to do — subsequent recordings would ob­viously kill it in terms of pure listenability, but not necessarily in terms of revolutionary ideas. At the same time, although many of these songs would later be included on various compilations, only one (ʻTo Go Off And Thingsʼ) would be properly re-recorded in the studio; however, the band never really disowned the material, sometimes performing it live, so for the sake of com­pleteness it does deserve at least some mention.

For the record, the players here are listed as «Philip Pilf» (band leader Tim Smith on guitar, synthesizer, and vocals), «Patty Pilf» (his sister brother Jim Smith on bass), «Duncan Doilet» (Colvin Mayers on keyboards and vocals), «Little Bobby Shattocks» (Mark Cawthra on drums), and «Peter "Zip" Boker» on vocals (the band's original singer Michael Pugh, although by the time they got around to recording these tracks, he was already on the way out, and so his lead vocals are featured only on two of the tracks). This is the first clue you get as to the Cardiacs' penchant for absurdism, theatricality, and unpredictability, but then there are plenty more within the music itself, which is fairly unique for 1980 even despite the abysmal sound quality.

One thing that Tim Smith abhorred was pigeonholing; when somebody coined the term "pronk" (a condensed "progressive punk", that is) to define the band's music, he violently refused it, pre­ferring instead older diffuse terms like "psychedelia" or "pop". But "psychedelia" would pro­bably obscure from our view the inevitable influence of punk and New Wave bands, and using the exact same term to describe the music of Cardiacs and the music of, say, the Knack would be a termi­nological disgrace. Anyway, to hell with terminology. Some things deserve lengthy descriptions to be understood rather than short terms.

The Cardiacs play loud, brash music here that makes equal use of crunchy distorted guitars, played in chainsaw buzz mode or in more traditional rock mode, alternating at will, and of pip-squeaky synthesizers that usually like to be playful (as in a Sparks song) rather than cruel and robotic. But sometimes these synthesizers are used instead in Mellotron mode, providing lush (well, as lush as you could get in a dirty basement) orchestrated backgrounds, which sounds par­ticularly strange when you combine these «progressive keyboards» with punky guitar chords: see ʻA Game For Bernie's Partyʼ, which for a couple of minutes sounds as if your local punk band has invaded your local Catholic cathedral during a Mass service. Oh, and did I mention that at any given time the band can erupt into (a) ska, (b) Zappa-like crazyass structural changes every few bars, (c) hysterical Rock God guitar solos, the likes of which seem to have gone out of style with the passing of the early Seventies' glam icons, but make revenant guest appearances here (ʻLet Alone My Plastic Dollʼ) just for some good ol' times' sakes?

If this all sounds like a recipe for the best damn album of 1980 (too bad it had to be limited to 1000 old tapes), I must state, for balance, that the actual songs sound too much like overdone brain products of people who had too much talent to burn — there's too much of a desire to show off here for the tunes to make real good sense. The lyrics certainly do not make much sense, even if you manage to decode them, which is hard to do given the circumstances — loud, brash songs sung in Estuary English on muffled tape; but that is nothing compared to the confusion of the music, which really does try to integrate elements of punk rock with elements of progressive (even, dare I say it, «symphonic») rock. Listen to ʻLeaf Scrapingsʼ — one minute they sound like Yes, with a tricky time signature outlining a mystical world populated with astral noises, and then the next minute they sound like the Adverts or the Damned. I can't even say if I like this or not: the best I can say is that they make a brave effort to synthesize something thought to be unsyn­thesizable, even if the effort carries more of a symbolic than a proper meaning.

In any case, no judgement can be pronounced on an album that sounds this much like shit; I do believe that it is essential listening for any Cardiacs fan, but in this world of free-flowing music, any attempt to make it your proper introduction into the bizarre world of Tim Smith may lead to unfortunate consequences.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Cactus: Fully Unleashed - The Live Gigs

CACTUS: FULLY UNLEASHED: THE LIVE GIGS (2004)

CD I: 1) Intro/Long Tall Sally; 2) Bag Drag; 3) Evil; 4) Parchman Farm; 5) Alaska; 6) Oleo; 7) No Need To Worry; 8) Let Me Swim.
CD II: 1) Big Mama Boogie; 2) Heeby Jeebies/Money/Hound Dog/What'd I Say; 3) No Need To Worry; 4) Parch­man Farm; 5) One Way... Or Another; 6) Bro. Bill; 7) Swim; 8) Bad Mother Boogie; 9) Our Lil' Rock'n'Roll Thing; 10) Bedroom Mazurka.

Okay, as absurd as it may sound, this almost comes close to a great album. See, even though by and large Cactus totally sucked as a studio band with an obligation to come up with original songs and shit, live they could, indeed, get «fully unleashed». The live side of 'Ot 'n' Sweaty never did proper justice to their capacities — not only because it already lacked the original gui­tarist, but also because there were physical limits on the length of the tracks that downplayed their jamming skills. However, with this sprawling 2-CD mammoth, presenting an entire 2-hour long show (the original lineup's last gig at Memphis, Tennessee, on December 19, 1971) plus an assorted selec­tion of other live tracks (including, for some reason, the entire live half of 'Ot 'n' Sweaty as well!), Rhino Records have made the nearly impossible — made me re-appreciate the band's talent and re-assess their status.

Formally, the classic Cactus line-up on stage did not do much of anything that they did not do on the studio records, except stretching out the songs (sometimes to really absurd, Zep-worthy lengths: ʻNo Need To Worryʼ goes on for 20 minutes, all solos included). But either they really went out on a limb that night, trying to make their last show as memorable as possible, or, if that was their usual style, then it must be assumed that (not unlike quite a few other hard rock bands) they held back in the studio, whereas on stage all four players, all the time, tried to be louder, wilder, more frantic and hysterical than anybody else. It does not get much better than on the opening ʻLong Tall Sallyʼ — in the studio, slowing down the Little Richard original never made sense, but here you won't even have to remember that this is a Little Richard original. It's not at all important what this is in the first place! That is, as long as the guitarist guts his guitar like a screeching pig, the bassist lays it on so thick you'd think he had steel cables for strings, the drum­mer pounds like Bonham's younger brother, and the vocalist knows no other mode than ripping his voice to shreds (and he still has something left by the end of the 2-hour show).

Essentially, this is pre-Spinal Tap-era, «everything up to eleven»-style stuff, but this is precisely how they manage to add excitement to their generally clumsy-lumbering manner of playing. In the studio, their Godzilla just wandered around, mindlessly bumping into corners, but here, it actually breathes fire and demolishes skyscrapers, sometimes at a frantic pace (despite the pre­sence of some super-slow blues, the overall pace of the show is much quicker than the average pace of any of their studio records). Check out the final wild romp of ʻBig Mama Boogieʼ, or ʻParchman Farmʼ, or McCarty's feedback stunts at the end of ʻLet Me Swimʼ — crude, tasteless, brainlessly violent, and perversely awesome.

Of course, nearly three hours of material is overkill, but the re-release of the Puerto Rican mate­rial from 1972 really does not count, and an extra live ʻParchman Farmʼ is quite welcome. And I suppose that Cactus cannot be appreciated any other way than in «total sprawl» mode: anything less than completely-over-the-top and killer boredom sets in. But frankly, I am really surprised at how much I enjoyed most of these 15-to-20-minute live tracks — even the medley of rock'n'roll oldies, although it is performed in the silly-lumpy-glammy way that most people were doing them in the early Seventies (think Uriah Heep or Queen), is appealing in their unsophisticated, unpretentiously rustic mode of performance. Even that ultra-slow ʻNo Need To Worryʼ: the guitar solo that McCarty plays at the beginning is so utterly ridiculous, it must have served as a basic inspiration for all introductory solos by Angus Young.

In brief, if you do want to hear Cactus, this is the album to hear, and the most ridiculous thing is that we all had to wait more than thirty years to hear it. Not that it could have withstood compe­tition with Live At Leeds or Made In Japan, had it been released in 1972 as a triple live LP, but I'm fairly sure it could have endured at least as a cult classic. Anyway, even if the music is dumb, I still love me an album that pulls all the stops, and on December 19, 1971, these guys were on some rich barbecue fire, so a thumbs up, by all means. As far as I know, there's also a sequel out there (Live Gigs Vol. 2), but since the material predictably overlaps, Vol. 1 is everything a sane music listener really needs from these guys.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Buddy Guy: Living Proof

BUDDY GUY: LIVING PROOF (2010)

1) 74 Years Young; 2) Thank Me Someday; 3) On The Road; 4) Stay Around A Little Longer; 5) Key Don't Fit; 6) Living Proof; 7) Where The Blues Begins; 8) Too Soon; 9) Everybody's Got To Go; 10) Let The Door Knob Hit Ya; 11) Guess What; 12) Skanky.

You can pretty much see from these titles — ʻ74 Years Youngʼ, ʻStay Around A Little Longerʼ, ʻEverybody's Got To Goʼ — that there is essentially one thing hanging heavy on Buddy Guy's mind these days, and it don't have much to do with his little red rooster, either (although a couple of the tunes here still raise that subject on an obligatory basis). Indeed, he has reached that crucial point where every new album, no matter how generic or predictable, is welcome as long as it serves as «living proof»: the man is still alive in body and in spirit. No other reasons are neces­sary: it is now a game of survival, of seeing just how long and how bright that old spirit, dating all the way back to what is like the Stone Age from a 2010 perspective, can still burn.

And yes, nothing particularly interesting can be said about these songs except for a general con­firmation — the man still got it. ʻ74 Years Youngʼ brings home the message once it's time for the guitar solo: as he takes a break from listing his achievements and memories ("drank wine with kings and the Rolling Stones", etc.), the man unleashes such a violent barrage of rapid-fire blues licks, punching the shit out of that poor guitar, that you almost get the urge to scream "enough already! we get the message, Mr. Guy, have pity on your 74-year young hands!"

But that "74 years young, gonna keep on having fun" bit is still braggadoccio, because later on we get either sentimental about it (ʻStay Around A Little Longerʼ is a duet with B. B. King where the two of them basically ask this of one another, confessing mutual admiration) or religious about it (ʻEverybody's Gotta Goʼ dips into gospel, as Buddy comes to personal terms with the Lord); the man understands everything about the power of hyperbole, and easily swaps songs that deny the possibility of a near end with songs that accept and make their peace with that possibility. And all three of these numbers are convincing and touching, each in its own way, even if their manipu­lative devices are in plain view — yet how could one not be moved at the sight of a friendly, emotional duet between two age-old patriarchs of the blues?

Next to that, the duet with Santana (ʻWhere The Blues Beginsʼ) can only sound like you'd ima­gine a duet with Santana should sound — pompous, pathetic, predictable, still theoretically cool like any duet between two guitar giants should be, but way too gloomy and serious. Apparently, whenever Santana crosses your threshold, you think you have to engage him in something Spiri­tual with a capital S, or else he'll think you unworthy or something; but Spiritual with a capital S can only be Successful with a capital S when it's Subtle with a capital S, and Buddy Guy has never been the master of subtle (unlike B. B. King, by the way, who could squeeze your soul out with his microtones). So they just blast away, and the pomp soon becomes overbearing.

The rest of the tracks are fun, but, as usual, rather non-descript, and too often fall upon the exact same groove (ʻSkankyʼ is essentially an instrumental re-run of the title track, and both just milk the ʻPride And Joyʼ groove until it runs completely dry). So, overall, you have to get in a some­what respectful or reverential mood to be able to say that Living Proof is better than average — although, to be fair, Buddy himself tries to avoid getting too serious about his age. He sure as hell ain't fearing no reaper — good for him.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Beatles: Abbey Road (IAS #007)

A rule is a rule, so here's a slightly different angle on an all-too-familiar record:

The Beatles - Abbey Road

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Cabaret Voltaire: Hai!

CABARET VOLTAIRE: HAI! (1982)

1) Walls Of Kyoto; 2) 3 Days Monk; 3) Yashar (version); 4) Over & Over; 5) Diskono; 6) Taxi Music (version).

The strange fascination of Cabaret Voltaire with live albums is explainable in two ways: (a) much of their material was actually developed on the stage, and some of it even never left the stage (Hai! is a good illustration — three of its songs would only be released in studio versions after the album, and two more are only available on the album); (b) they actually believed that music properly «happens» as interaction between performer and audience, so that it's better to release a poor quality live album than a glossed-up studio tape. Well, sometimes, at least.

Stylistically, Hai! is very close to 2x45, but with one major difference: in place of Chris Watson, the band now features Alan Fish, trading in their «tape manipulator» for a real live drummer. The difference is impossible not to notice — particularly when you listen to the old and the new ʻYasharʼ back-to-back; the song now features fewer electronic effects, but a wild tribal beat all the way through. What is better? What is closer to the «true» Cabaret Voltaire spirit? Impossible to tell for me, since my connection to the band is not really on an emotional level; but at least for the sakes of a live show, I'd say the choice of a live drummer is a wise one.

All the other songs, too, feature expectable danceable grooves with dark-gray overtones, similar in mood, tempo, and tone; the only standout is ʻ3 Days Monkʼ, because of the wah-wah enhanced bassline — letting out an angry croak that is different from (and somehow feels a little more per­sonal and communicative than) all the regular dance grooves. I guess that ʻTaxi Musicʼ is also a standout due to its sheer length (although the studio recording would be even longer), but since it does not depart too much from its starting points, 11 minutes is just asking for trouble.

The bass groove can even be poppy if they wish: ʻWalls Of Kyotoʼ opens the album with a part that could be usable for every fast-moving song from Joy Division to U2, and maybe even well beyond that particular time span. But that does little to change things, as the guitars and key­boards still continue to churn out «sonic muck» more than anything else, and the only reason why Mallinder spits out those bits and pieces of broken vocals is to raise the aggression/paranoia bar. Nevertheless, the rhythm section is so tight throughout that your innate sense of rhythm might eventually placate your confused sense of melody. I do know at least this about myself — that every time ʻDiskonoʼ comes on, that simple, repetitive bassline gets me every time. In short, I give the record a thumbs up — not on an emotional level, but on some sort of primal level it has that old shamanistic charm, only this time the shamans exercise a bit more self-discipline.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Budgie: Deliver Us From Evil

BUDGIE: DELIVER US FROM EVIL (1982)

1) Bored With Russia; 2) Don't Cry; 3) Truth Drug; 4) Young Girl; 5) Flowers In The Attic; 6) N.O.R.A.D.; 7) Give Me The Truth; 8) Alison; 9) Finger On The Button; 10) Hold On To Love.

The less said about the last Thomas-era Budgie album, the better. I wish things could be ex­plained as easily as «they hired themselves a keyboard player, and it totally ruined them», but even without Duncan Mackay's keyboards (which are not the worst sort of keyboards played on a metal album, no) these songs seem absolutely pitiful in the era of classic Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, not to mention absolutely unworthy of Budgie's own legacy.

At least Power Supply had those jagged Priest-like riffs, and Nightflight tried a bit of a pop-metal approach that was essentially listenable — here, the band goes for «power», with lots of power chords, gang choruses, brawny-hero screaming, and stadium appeal. Bad move for every­body involved: Shelley is about as natural in this "scream for me Long Beach!" role as Woody Allen, and the guitarist's modest, but non-zero talents are more or less wasted on this collection of completely interchangeable power-fests.

The influence of the pop style of Nightflight is still evident — most of the choruses aim for catchiness, though usually of the super-stupid kind (ʻHold On To Loveʼ is a particularly annoying example, with an anthemic refrain that probably took five seconds to write and whose simplicity is not redeemed by its stupidity, because when you deliver simple-and-stupid with such grand pathos and no signs of irony, how can you truly convince the demanding fan of how important it is to "hold on to, hold on to love, everyone hold on to love?").

Respecting the spirit of the times, they do a political song that wishes to offend politics but ends up offending countries (ʻBored With Russiaʼ is really one of the most misguided titles in the his­tory of Cold War-related pop songs) — fortunately, the song is so bland that it should have been called ʻBored With Budgieʼ instead, with a chorus that is more adult contemporary than solid hard rock or metal. They also do a ballad on which the synthesized strings drown out the vocals and the vocal melody seems to be written only up to a certain point, after which the singer just takes the sentimentality wherever it takes him (ʻAlisonʼ). And they do an «epic» number (ʻFlowers In The Atticʼ) about abandoned children or something like that with a power ballad chorus and not a shred of personality.

Overall, this was a clear sign that the band had better vaporize before it put out something even more embarrassing (and this was only 1982, the decade still being so young), so upon getting the predictable thumbs down from just about everybody, Budgie were no more.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Byrds: Untitled

THE BYRDS: UNTITLED (1970)

1) Lover Of The Bayou; 2) Positively 4th Street; 3) Nashville West; 4) So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star; 5) Mr. Tambourine Man; 6) Mr. Spaceman; 7) Eight Miles High; 8) Chestnut Mare; 9) Truck Stop Girl; 10) All The Things; 11) Yesterday's Train; 12) Hungry Planet; 13) Just A Season; 14) Take A Whiff On Me; 15) You All Look Alike; 16) Well Come Back Home.

This was the most ambitious project of the «McGuinn Experience» — a double album, half live, half studio, presenting a seemingly solidified line-up (now including the far older and more experienced Skip Battin on bass as a replacement for John Yorke) that would bravely take The Byrds into the Seventies as successful survivors, alongside The Stones, The Who, The Kinks... well, no dice, really.

Even though the album was very warmly received by critics, even though its sales were strong, and even though it still enjoys a rather stable general reputation, I would call it a serious step down from the level of Ballad Of Easy Rider, and the true beginning of the end. It is not parti­cularly embarrassing — it is confused, feeble, and it does not seriously stand the gruesome levels of competition that were around circa 1970. (The confusion even extends to the album title — which came about by accident, as Columbia pressed copies before they had time to think of a proper name, using a first-draft album cover that still had (Untitled) indicated on it in the spot where the real album title should have been).

For starters, people like to praise the live half, but I do not really get it. The first side, mixing a few classics with recent material, sounds way too sloppy and rough for my ears — in particular, I find Clarence White's style of weaving in his lead guitar phrasing downright irritating: ʻMr. Tam­bourine Manʼ is almost completely destroyed by that stupid lead guitar playing some sort of jiggly country dance around McGuinn's vocals on the verse melody, and that's not even mentio­ning that the vocal harmonies on the chorus sound like a cat choir next to the gorgeousness of the original. Neither are the guitars well in sync on ʻMr. Spacemanʼ or on ʻPositively 4th Streetʼ, and since the Byrds are not truly a «rock and roll» band, it is hard to bring up the argument that they are compensating for the sloppiness with kick-ass energy and overdrive (not because they should not do that, but because they do not do that). Only ʻNashville Westʼ stands competition with the studio version, but it is not clear why they must go ahead and try to make everything else sound like ʻNashville Westʼ — except for the darker and harsher ʻLover Of The Bayouʼ, where they go for a voodooistic swamp-rock attitude (a little hilarious how Roger makes his voice sound so deep and hoarse), not something they'd ever tried before and therefore feeling a little artificial, though definitely not bad.

The key point here is whether or not you will like their 16-minute improvisation around ʻEight Miles Highʼ. There's some nifty musicianship displayed, for sure, particularly a cool rhythmic bass solo from Battin, but overall I would say that these guys are no Cream and no Grateful Dead when it comes to, let's say, «visionary jamming». The guitarists seem to stick to more or less the same direction, never trying to take things into a different key and permanently falling back on the same phrasing, so unless you manage to reach the desired state of trance very quickly, after a brief while it just gets ultra-boring. And although I have heard praise for the interplay between White and McGuinn, most of the time I don't even hear the interplay — McGuinn's guitar is quietly buried well below White's, who gets most of the spotlight. And he's good, but he ain't no Clapton. And with the total amount of bands who were doing 16-minute jams in 1970, one would think that the Byrds, of all these people, would have done well to constitute an exception, no?

In short, the live part, to me, is a serious disappointment (although this does not mean that the Byrds could not put up a good show — the Fillmore tapes from 1969 show the band in a much more self-assured shape). Unfortunately, the new studio material is not significantly better. Much of it (including also ʻLover Of The Bayouʼ on the live half) comes from the abandoned Gene Trip, a country-rock musical reimagining the story of Peer Gynt (!), co-written by McGuinn with the lyricist Jacques Levy (who would later work with Dylan on Desire); this means that Roger makes a grand return here as songwriter, which is not a very good omen — and indeed, the songs are rarely among his best.

ʻChestnut Mareʼ has a pretty chorus melody, but suffers from rather boring spoken verses and also from being overlong — basically just five minutes of story-telling, occasionally interrupted by a couple of lovely vocal lines. ʻAll The Thingsʼ sounds pretty until you realize that it is really McGuinn's attempt to write his own ʻMy Back Pagesʼ — note the contrast between the main bulk of the verse and the conclusive refrain with vocal harmonies — and in contrast with that song, ʻAll The Thingsʼ is just pretty, not visionary. ʻJust A Seasonʼ is probably the catchiest and most intimately endearing piece of the lot, but it has to grow on you a bit. None of the other songs, ex­cept for the cute novelty bit of Leadbelly's ʻTake A Whiff On Meʼ, done with humor and passion (and it's always nice to hear a direct reference to cocaine, which, funny enough, must have pro­bably sounded more controversial in 1970 than it was at the time when Leadbelly sang it), any­way, none of the other songs ever made much of an impression on me. Just fluffy, inoffensive, forgettable country-rock.

It should be noted that ʻHungry Planetʼ and ʻYou All Look Alikeʼ mark the first appearance of the great rock'n'roll swindler, Kim Fowley, on a Byrds album — although for the moment, they are not particularly embarrassing, and Skip Battin, who was the one to bring Fowley along, pro­bably was responsible for the music anyway. The lyrics to ʻHungry Planetʼ are banal, but not stupid — it is far more problematic that the song tries to kick up some sort of syncopated funky groove, but the music just limps along (a few tasty acoustic licks on the solo, but nothing to hold your interest for more than three seconds in a row). Much worse: what's up with the drunk quasi-yodelling during the extended coda to ʻWell Come Back Homeʼ? Now that's just plain stupid. If they wanted a ʻHey Judeʼ vibe, they should have brought in Paul McCartney instead.

Consequently, I seem to belong to the minority that does not think much at all of this record, be it live or studio. Of course, formally, it is the band's bulkiest project — so bulky, in fact, that in the program of remastering and reissuing the original albums Untitled became the only one to get a 2-CD release, «renamed» to (Untitled)/(Unreleased). Predictably, the second disc is not better than the first one — some alternate takes, some unmemorable outtakes, a studio version of ʻLo­ver Of The Bayouʼ that hardly bests the live variant, and more live performances that are just as sloppy as the old ones: okay at best, inferior at worst (ʻThis Wheel's On Fireʼ meanders aimlessly without recapturing the heavy apocalyptic vibe of the Dr. Byrds version). On the whole, both the original and the new version fall in the «not too good, not too bad» category, and clearly demon­strate that The Byrds had turned into thoroughly second-rate players.