Search This Blog

Loading...

Saturday, April 30, 2016

10,000 Maniacs: Twice Told Tales

10,000 MANIACS: TWICE TOLD TALES (2015)

1) Lady Mary Ramsey; 2) The Song Of Wandering Aengus; 3) She Moved Through The Fair; 4) Dark Eyed Sailor; 5) Misty Moisty Morning; 6) Bonny May; 7) Canadee-I-O; 8) Do You Love An Apple?; 9) Greenwood Sidey; 10) Carrickfergus; 11) Death Of Queen Jane.

As of 2015, it's officially alive — and no, it's not «Mary Ramsey and friends», it is still a more or less authentic version of the 10,000 Maniacs, with the original keyboardist, bassist, and drummer still loyally in place, and even John Lombardo making an appearance as the protective husband and the keeper of the flame, all in one. The only problem is that this time, they did not bother to compose any original material at all; instead, the idea is to really put the old «folk» back into «rock» and come out with an album of nothing but old folk tunes — an idea that both Natalie Mer­chant and the late Robert Buck would probably have abhorred. But it is 2015, and chances are that even if they manage to come up with another ʽDon't Talkʼ or ʽNoah's Doveʼ, nobody will give much of a damn anyway; so why, indeed, can't they just relax and be playful?

Actually, it's a nice little record. Not much to speak of: the arrangements are very straightforward and conventionally accessible — bass, drums, acoustic and soft electric guitars, some strings and keyboards, strictly middle of the road: no odd touches of electronica, and no attempts at strict acoustic-only «authenticity». It just sounds good, and Mary Ramsey's vocals still sound young and sweet, despite her recently pushing 50. Of course, it's also the kind of record that has already been produced countless times — more like Tales Told To Infinity, if you ask me — but if this material is handled with enough love and depth, well, it won't hurt to enjoy the old stuff once more in a very slightly different reading.

Oddities include the record being bookmarked by two strings-only performances of the instru­mental ʽLady Mary Ramseyʼ (amazing that, with a Mary Ramsey actually in the band, they never tried this stunt before!) and an accappella rendition of Yeats' ʽThe Song Of Wandering Aengusʼ, which sort of acts as a promotional introduction to our ageless national treasures, like a foreword or something. There the oddities end, and you get your predictable selection of Saxon, Irish, and Scottish ditties, shanties, canticles, and an occasional murder ballad thrown in.

I do reiterate that everything sounds nice, and they even put some effort in the arrangements — for instance, ʽShe Moved Through The Fairʼ gets a fairly complex set of overdubs and even a vaguely psychedelic guitar solo. The worst thing about the record is probably its album cover, cheesy to the point where you'd have to be a very cartoonish stereotype of a folk enthusiast to even want to pick up a CD like that at your local store; I do give my word that the music is much more rewarding than the album art would make it seem. However, none of the songs deserve individual comments — even Loreena McKennitt injects more personality into ʽCarrickfergusʼ than Mary Ramsey and 10,000 Maniacs, who, by the way, should really have changed their name to «10,000 Diligent, Respectful, Bookish Folkies» before giving us something like that.

Still, it's somehow nice to know that the band still has enough fans to support them, as the album was funded through PledgeMusic and released on an independent label — although why it feels nice, I'm not able to answer even to myself. I mean, when Jon Bon Jovi gets old and tired and washed up and penniless and starts appealing to fans on PledgeMusic, will that feel nice, too? Shouldn't that kind of compassion be reserved for people who still have something left to say even when long past their prime?.. Ah well, anyway, that would be taking it too seriously. All I know is, this record generated a decent vibe for fifty minutes, then sank into the swamp, but may­be it still made me a better man in the process; who really knows?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Carbon Based Lifeforms: The Path

CARBON BASED LIFEFORMS (NOTCH): THE PATH (1998)

1) Intro; 2) Behind The Corner; 3) Rain; 4) Rise To Tomorrow; 5) Hold; 6) Machinery; 7) And Contact; 8) Sinful Things; 9) Dreamshore Forest; 10) Submerged; 11) Contaminated Area; 12) Last Breath; 13) Station Blue; 14) Or Plan B.

Okay, so properly speaking, this is not quite Carbon Based Lifeforms yet: this is credited to «Notch», a band that, in addition to Johannes Hedberg and Daniel Ringström, also included a third musician, Mikael Lindqvist, credited here for at least three of the tracks. The music itself is also significantly different from that of CBL proper, which, according to the musicians, was originally formed as a side project for just the two of them and then became a full-time occupa­tion — Notch sound more chilly and transcendental, generally go easier on the bass and have a more New Age-like feel on the whole. But still, the connection is more than obvious, and it is no wonder that many «loose» discographies of CBL have this as their first entry, so we might as well start our carbonated journey right here.

The Path, self-produced and self-released by this bunch of laborious Swedes, is no great shakes, but I'd still rate it as a fairly accomplished and pleasant electronic experience for background listening. Despite the length (and subsequent CBL releases would only become longer) and the relatively static nature of its tracks, it is surprisingly diverse, tempo-wise and style-wise, and takes in about equal proportions from minimalistic ambient, modern (or not so modern) classical, and various types of «soft» dance music. Besides, they actually got a retro vibe going on: either it is the choice of instrumentation or an intentional return to traditional analog-era harmonies or both, but there are plenty of moments here that remind me of classic 1970s electronics — Tan­gerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Cluster, Bowie/Eno's Berlin Trilogy, you know the drill. Some­thing like that, instead of becoming yet another bunch of Aphex Twin or Autechre clones.

A track like ʽRise To Tomorrowʼ would be quite telling. Steamy industrial intro, mechanical vocal overdubs, psychedelic synth clouds dripping acid droplets, out of which gradually emerges a simple, but steady bassline and, one after another, several lead keyboard loops chasing each other by the tail. Melody, complexity, atmosphere, the works. Something is lacking, though, to make the whole thing properly «otherworldly»: the warp engines splutter and try to kick in, but in the end, you get vague glimpses of a parallel universe without being transported. Maybe it's be­cause we know these recipes from past decades all too well, and they have yet to learn how to add a secret ingredient that would make you want to relive it all over again.

Likewise, ʽMachineryʼ, which spends its eight minutes running on a busily rotating set of electro­nic pistons, does sound like a working machine, but a very smooth, humble one — steam exhaus­ted in the background, piston running in the foreground, and tiny kaleidoscopic gurgling taking place on a micro-scale. Never relenting, never stopping, never experiencing any technical prob­lems, just quietly doing its thing, whatever it is, while you are either busy doing something else or trying, out of fun / curiosity / boredom (pick whichever you like), to adjust your brain pulse to the rhythm so that you, Notch, and the universe can all tune in to the same wavelength. (Didn't really do that much to my brain, but maybe I'm just too old and cynical).

Sometimes they get almost too modern, though: ʽLast Breathʼ is an exercise in trip-hop, with a croaky wah-wah synth line making an «instrumental rap» bit on the side, and while I find the track amusing on its own, it is somewhat out of place on a record like this, especially when you find it jammed between the creepy chill of ʽContaminated Areaʼ and the subliminal bass pulses of ʽStation Blueʼ. On the other hand... diversity!

Anyway, what is really the most pleasing here is the density of sound: for a couple (or even trio) of guys self-producing their first record, The Path is exceptionally rich in texture, right from the opening «quasi-orchestral» bit (ʽBehind The Cornerʼ) and until the very last track. If you are a major electronica fan, there's enough detail here, and endlessly shifting nuances, to keep you occupied for a long time. If you're not, you probably won't be planning to return to it any time soon, but even so, it is precisely this attention to layering and nuancing that inconspicuously plants seeds of respect for The Path into one's mind. That said, I will not succumb to the temp­tation of calling this «the lost CBL masterpiece» or anything like that — the music's debts to its ancestors are way too huge, and they wouldn't really start paying them off until the impressive, but still inanimate Notch evolved into Carbon-Based Lifeforms.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Carcass: Reek Of Putrefaction

CARCASS: REEK OF PUTREFACTION (1988)

1) Genital Grinder; 2) Regurgitation Of Giblets; 3) Maggot Colony; 4) Pyosisified (Rotten To The Gore); 5) Carbo­nized Eyesockets; 6) Frenzied Detruncation; 7) Vomited Anal Tract; 8) Festerday; 9) Fermenting Innards; 10) Excre­ted Alive; 11) Suppuration; 12) Foeticide; 13) Microwaved Uterogestation; 14) Feast On Dismembered Carnage; 15) Splattered Cavities; 16) Psychopathologist; 17) Burnt To A Crisp; 18) Pungent Excruciation; 19) Manifestation Of Verrucose Urethra; 20) Oxidized Razor Masticator; 21) Mucopurulence Excretor; 22) Malignant Defecation.

If you ever had any problems with the Liverpudlian accents of the Fab Four, try this for comfort: anybody capable of deciphering even a single word on Carcass' debut album without peeking into the lyrics sheet should probably be burned at the stake for serious witchcraft. Likewise, if you can commit even a single «melody» on this album to an individual memory cell, you should probably take immediate action to get yourself committed before the shit hits the fan.

Meet bass player Jeffrey Walker, guitarist Bill Steer, and drummer Ken Owen, three friendly and (according to most sources) perfectly normal guys that, one day, set out on the quest of making the most disgusting rock album ever. The immediate influence here is the pioneering grindcore of Napalm Death, for whom Steer also played guitar (and Walker designed the art of their first album, Scum, just to indicate the sort of symbiotic relationship between the two) — but while Napalm Death concentrated more on the laconic-minimalistic side of things, Carcass took it into an, ahem, somewhat more anatomical direction. As you can see, you do not need to go further than the song titles — and a thorough study of the lyrics with a medical encyclopaedia by your side, accompanied by some unflinching staring at this and the ensuing album covers, will make you perfectly qualified for a job as morgue assistant without any real need for a college degree.

The only thing in favor of this record is total commitment — but its totality is, in fact, so over­whelming that it translates to a certain kind of hip charm even in the minds of perfectly sane people (in fact, perfectly sane people are its base audience — it's not as if Carcass had a small, but loyal fanbase of mass murderers and necrophiliacs in mind). The band is unquestionably very tight and professional, but here it completely sacrifices skill to the idea of heaviness, speed, and «melodic blurriness», making Slayer sound like ABBA in comparison; and the vocals are an incomprehensible slurred growl all the way. For 37 minutes in a row, the record operates in two modes — fast and very fast, where all fast parts sound the same, all very fast parts sound the same, and the only difference between fast and very fast is... uh... tempo.

One does have to somehow «accept» the whole package — music, voice, song titles, song lyrics, album art, etc. — for the experience to work. Of course, it's essentially an «anti-musical» joke, whose only serious point is testing the limits of personal and artistic freedom, something that John Peel must have understood very well when he called Carcass his favorite new band of 1988 and got them to appear on his show. Later on, the songs would become longer, more melodic and «musical», not to mention the production, which is pretty bad here, and, apparently, the band members themselves were unhappy with it, but with this kind of approach, lo-fi, dirty, and mean actually works best: I mean, when you name a song ʽVomited Anal Tractʼ, it better sound like a vomited anal tract, or else what's the frickin' point?

It would hardly make sense to condemn the album with the «anybody could produce this kind of shit» argument, either. First, it takes some serious practice to become a top level grindcore artist. Second, it takes real guts (or, perhaps, in the spirit of the album, it takes some really fermented innards) to come up with such an uncompromising concept. Third, once you get around to reading the lyrics, they are really hilarious — probably some of the most verbose, poetic, inven­tive texts centered around complex human anatomy ever thought of by living man (not that I'm mentally prepared to analyze any of them here). Fourth, the sheer contrast between the persona­lities of the band members (who are nice-behaving vegetarians) and the «atrociousness» of the whole concept is somehow quite comforting — I'd certainly rather have that than comparable work of an actual madman like G. G. Allin.

But clearly, there's no need to actually discuss the music; unlike later Carcass albums, the basic point of these songs is that even if they start out with actual chord sequences, the insane tempos mash them together in a grinder and the muddy production finishes the job. The idea is not to «hum» these songs, but to participate in a deranged, macabre dance of death — a fun thing to do, provided you do not accidentally blast these songs out of your car when passing near a hospice (and even if you do, you'd still have to drop leaflets with printed lyrics in the yard to achieve the necessary sacrilegious effect) or send out a complementary version of the CD to victims of nuc­lear meltdown accidents. I am not, by any means, giving this album a proper «thumbs up», but I certainly acknowledge not just its right to existence, but its actual artistic purpose. Besides, you could probably get an M.D., easy, with just a cursory analysis of the lyrics — or, at the very least, vastly expand your anatomical vocabulary.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Camel: The Single Factor

CAMEL: THE SINGLE FACTOR (1982)

1) No Easy Answer; 2) You Are The One; 3) Heroes; 4) Selva; 5) Lullabye; 6) Sasquatch; 7) Manic; 8) Camelogue; 9) Today's Goodbye; 10) Heart's Desire; 11) End Peace.

Existence of this record is often attributed to pure contractual obligation: by 1982, Camel were pretty much defunct as a band, with the next-to-last remaining founding member, Andy Ward, leaving Latimer's company due to personal problems, yet Decca still expected Andrew to fulfill the contract and hand them another LP — and, moreover, a «commercial» one, rather than yet another morose semi-instrumental suite about some crazy Japanese soldier. With no place left to run, Latimer concurred, and, allegedly unwillingly, produced the next «Camel» album all on his own, deserted, disillusioned, and dissatisfied.

Actually, not nearly on his own — as a matter of fact, The Single Factor «boasts» the single largest number of guest musicians on a Camel album so far. Out of the old friends, Bardens makes a brief appearance on the instrumental ʽSasquatchʼ, and keyboardist Duncan Mackay, who played on Nude, reprises his duties on another instrumental, ʽSelvaʼ. Elsewhere, you get to feel the vibe of such diverse talents as former Genesis member Anthony Phillips (here mostly playing keyboards rather than guitar, despite being much better known as a guitarist), Fairport Conven­tion drummer Dave Mattacks (one track), Pilot's and Alan Parsons' bass player David Paton, and about half a dozen other less well-known musicians.

With a chaotic soup like this replacing a virtually defunct band, and with industry demands spiling the joy of artistic creation, and the overall times not being particularly auspicious for old school progressive rock, it is, in fact, amazing that The Single Factor is not such a complete dis­aster as could be predicted. It is fairly bland, unadventurous, unfocused, and self-plagiarizing, yes, but things could be much worse — it would be all too easy to see Latimer plunge into synth-pop or electrofunk, for instance, conforming to popular demand and embarrassing himself to no ends. This he does not do, even if the songs are mostly «pop», and there's quite a few synthesizers on them. Nor does he go all cheerful and life-asserting on our asses, betraying his natural melan­choly — which ends up showing even on the «positive» songs like ʽYou Are The Oneʼ.

The problem with Single Factor is that, despite all the various guests, it sounds very mono­tonous and mono-mood-like. Layers of acoustic and electronic keyboards, sometimes merging into one with Latimer's guitar parts, all give a constant feel of something very smooth, pretty, sad, and utterly uneventful, no matter how involved the rhythm section is or at what tempo they play the song. ʽSasquatchʼ is a rare exception, distinguished by a well-composed Latimer lead melody and benefiting very much from Phillips' 12-string guitar part and Bardens' mini-Moog solo — and some of the guitar overdubs give a really weird psychedelic effect, too. But stuff like ʽSelvaʼ and ʽEnd Peaceʼ has little to distinguish it from a thousand contemporary or later New Age instru­mentals, unless you find yourself specifically moved by Latimer's minimalistic bluesy solo on the former (I cannot say that I am, because he is trying to hit us in the soft spot that's already been occupied by the likes of Santana).

Of the superficially catchy pop songs, there is not one that actively irritates me (although the fast tempo and overall tempest-in-a-teacup attitude of ʽManicʼ comes close), but not a single one that would beg for replay value, either. It is bizarre that the verse melody of ʽCamelogueʼ begins exactly the same way as AC/DC's ʽLet Me Put My Love Into Youʼ (should that be interpreted as proof of Latimer being a closet fan of Back In Black?), but that's about the most profound ob­servation I could make about this bunch, alternating between odes of admiration and nostalgic laments but never reaching any solid musical heights. There's even a song called ʽHeroesʼ, but David Bowie has nothing to be afraid of — it's slow, instrumentally hookless, and completely dependent on its whiny plea of "heroes, I call for you!" that no hero could take seriously, unless it would be to promptly arrive on the scene and put the pleader out of his misery.

In short, I am quite tempted to give the record a thumbs down — it is truly the first Camel album that has nothing new or interesting to say — but as long as Latimer maintains that low profile and that humble façade and does not pretend to be a master of musical forms that he does not under­stand or love, there's nothing discretely «bad» about this music, and it can work okay as a back­ground mood setter. However, in terms of the overall trajectory, it is a fairly mean blow to be presented with something like this right after the relative artistic triumph of Nude.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Can: Flow Motion

CAN: FLOW MOTION (1976)

1) I Want More; 2) Cascade Waltz; 3) Laugh Till You Cry, Live Till You Die; 4) ...And More; 5) Babylonian Pearl; 6) Smoke (Ethnological Forgery Series No. 59); 7) Flow Motion.

This is where the fans really went nuts — Can scoring a commercial dance hit on the UK charts? Perfidy! But in fact, Flow Motion is quite a chivalrous and tasteful continuation of the band's search for a compromise between musical experimentation and public acceptance. Had most of these tracks appeared on a David Bowie record, they would probably be encountered with praise by the critical community, since Bowie was a «pop» artist by definition, and his embracing of «progressive» values within a pop context was always welcome; on the other hand, Can, who with these albums were sort of meeting «pop standards» halfway, were scolded not because of the actual quality of the music, but because of their trajectory, which is frankly unfair.

The trick is that Can are not simply playing funk, reggae, and pop on Flow Motion: they are playing Can-style funk, reggae, and pop, which means that they will do everything possible to populate these conventional musical structures with odd sounds and strange atmospheres. Take the hit itself, ʻI Want Moreʼ — it's odd from the very start, with the first rhythm guitar part soun­ding like an old Bo Diddley part from ʻMonaʼ, and the second, joining in ten seconds later, soun­ding like a contemporary Talking Heads funky groove. It's a simple combination, but somehow from the very first start it adds a bit of a psychedelic dimension to the track, where your mind gets trapped between the two interlocking rhythms and tossed to and fro like a basketball. And that's just the beginning, because then you get a New Wavish synth hook, ghostly echoey vocals, additional layers of distorted guitars and keyboard loops — again, if your average dance track were produced with that much care and creativity... well, it wouldn't be too good, because most people would be too entranced to actually do much dancing.

Or ʻCascade Waltzʼ — it actually is a waltz, playing in diligent 3/4 time, but the rhythm guitar is chopping out... reggae chords, making this arguably the first instance of an actual reggae waltz on record. With the cascades in question probably symbolized by the slide guitars, which give the whole thing a bit of a Hawaiian feeling, I am not even sure any more what it is I am listening to: a bizarre stylistic combo with an atmosphere of lazy, dreamy, colorful relaxation. For ʻLaugh Till You Cryʼ, Karoli picks up a Turkish baǧlama, but the band carries on with a Caribbean stylistics, playing an equally relaxed slow ska pattern that agrees very well with the song's slogan — "laugh till you cry, live till you die", and when people tell you that, if you call yourself Can, then you're supposed to keep on producing tracks that turn your subconscious outside out and expose to the world its darkest, smelliest corners, just let them know how much you care by writing more songs like ʻBabylonian Pearlʼ (which sounds like the band's tribute to Roxy Music).

All right, if you do want some darkness, there's always the title track, which seems to also have begun life as variations on a ska/reggae groove, but is more in line with Can's traditional ways of jamming. Largely instrumental, it builds upon the interlocking patterns of Schmidt's keyboards, faintly resonating from some faraway corridors or deep waterholes, and Karoli's heavily pro­cessed guitars, for some of which he uses the wah-wah and the phasing effect at the same time, producing some fairly devilish sounds. There's a Hendrix vibe here, too, and a Funkadelic one, perhaps, but all in a nice shroud of Teutonic darkness; and whoever would want to ask questions like "what are these Germans doing covering black people's music?", well, just remember that the band's first vocalist was actually black, and that the band's actual musical roots had always been in the blues rather than in Bavarian folk songs or The Ring.

If there's one single complaint I'd have to voice, it's that for the first time, I do not notice the rhythm section all that much. It's there, for sure, and doing a good job, but I do not feel a great deal of involvement on the part of Czukay, and there's not a single jaw-dropping rhythm pattern from Liebezeit, either (perhaps he was just getting the hang of that whole reggae thing, and re­mained content to be relegated to quasi-apprentice status for the time being). That is not good, be­cause ultimately Can is first and foremost about the rhythm, and only later about everything else; and it is hardly a coincidence that Czukay's duties would only diminish from then on, until his complete resignation from active player status in 1978. But whatever might have been the reason for this change, Flow Motion has plenty of cool things going on to compensate, and remains in­dispensable listening, I'm sure, for everyone who does not spend half of one's lifetime standing round the corner and waiting for a nice occasion to shout SELLOUT! as if it really mattered. Most definitely a thumbs up.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Charley Patton: Complete Recordings Vol. 5

CHARLEY PATTON: COMPLETE RECORDINGS VOL. 5 (1930-1934/2002)

1) Dry Well Blues; 2) Moon Going Down; 3) We All Gonna Face The Rising Sun; 4) Moaner, Let's Go Down In The Valley; 5) Jesus Got His Arms Around Me; 6) God Won't Forsake His Own; 7) I'll Be Here; 8) Where Was Eve Sleeping; 9) I Know My Time Ain't Long; 10) Watch And Pray; 11) High Sheriff Blues; 12) Stone Pony Blues; 13) Jersey Bull Blues; 14) Hang It On The Wall; 15) 34 Blues; 16) Love My Stuff; 17) Poor Me; 18) Revenue Man Blues; 19) Troubled 'Bout My Mother; 20) Oh Death; 21) Yellow Bee; 22) Mind Reader Blues.

Fortunately, the final volume of the boxset once again manages to focus on Patton himself rather than friends — although not before making us sit through eight tracks by the Delta Big Four, a vocal quartet that just so happened to get captured in the tin can sometime in May 1930 in the same Grafton, Wisconsin studio; and no, Patton is not playing with them and he certainly is not contributing guitar. If you are a fan of pre-war barbershop quartet music, these recordings are of mildly passable quality, and the four guys harmonize fairly nicely, but personally, I'd rather sit through eight different takes of ʻStone Pony Bluesʼ instead.

Almost everything else is Patton: two more tracks from the June 1930 Grafton sessions (ʻDry Well Bluesʼ and ʻMoon Going Downʼ), and a batch of his final recordings in New York City, produced during a three-day session (January 30-31 and February 1, 1934); Patton died three months later, on April 28, in Indianola, allegedly from heart problems; it is probably a coinci­dence that one of the last songs he'd recorded was a duet with Bertha Lee on a spirited version of ʻOh Deathʼ, since he was probably used to performing these spirituals on a regular basis, but still a little eerie. (There are also two solo tracks by Bertha Lee appended at the bottom).

There's nothing particularly revealing about that last session, and, in fact, quite a few of the tracks are just rehashes of older recordings (ʻStone Pony Bluesʼ is, obviously, a new take on ʻPony Bluesʼ; ʻHang It On The Wallʼ is ʻShake It And Break Itʼ, etc.), but there's one piece of good news: the quality of the recordings is tremendously superior to the 1929-30 recordings, with very little hiss and crackle to obscure the singing and playing — and given that Patton remained in top performing form until the very end, this probably transforms the 1934 batch into the finest intro­duction to the man's talents. ʻ'34 Bluesʼ, with its wonderful superimposition of rhythmic strum and melodic lead lines, perfectly illustrates his mastery of the six-string; and ʻPoor Meʼ may be his best (or, at least, best appreciated) vocal performance, with heart-tugging overtones of sadness and melancholy emanating from the ragged-rough crust of his croaky vocals (and once again reminding the modern listener of how much Tom Waits owes to these pre-war moans).

So, is it really a historical accident, caused by the timing of the re-issues, that Robert Johnson had gone on to become a household name, and Patton has to limp in his shadow? At least with this 1934 session in your hands, it is hard to make an argument based on sound quality — these tracks sound as discernible as anything Johnson would go on to record several years later. A more likely theory is that Johnson sounded far more «modern» in the 1960s, when he was «rediscovered» by British and American bluesmen, than Patton — with his cleaner vocals and a sharper, more understan­dable guitar style that was also easier to relate to Chicago electric blues than Patton's original wild Delta style, where chord strumming, crude bass «pings», whiny high-pitched leads and percussive stomps could replace each other so unpredictably. And that voice, too — of all pre-war blues players, there probably isn't one other (with the possible exception of Blind Willie Johnson) capable of giving you the illusion of taking you back even further, at least into the dark depths of 19th century slavery, if not into the even darker depths of ancient tribal Africa.

So, you could imitate Robert Johnson to a certain degree, but as for Patton, he could only remain a source of admiration and reverence, rather than an active influence. Even Howlin' Wolf, who clearly was influenced by his one-time senior partner, does it a different way — his vocal style was all about, um, carnality, whereas Patton's style could hardly be described as «sexy»: more like something with a direct connection to Mother Earth herself. There may have been others like Charley, walking American highways in the pre-war years; but there hasn't really been another one like him ever since, and there certainly never will be. Which, allegedly, makes this 5-CD set a must-have in your collection, even if it means throwing out extra money for all of Charley's colorful retinue of fiddle players, lady pianists, and barbershop quartets.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Cabaret Voltaire: The Conversation

CABARET VOLTAIRE: THE CONVERSATION (1994)

1) Exterminating Angel (Intro); 2) Brutal But Clean; 3) The Message; 4) Let's Start; 5) Night Rider; 6) I Think; 7) The Heat; 8) Harmonic Parallel; 9) Project80; 10) Exterminating Angel (Outro).

Although this is still credited to Cabaret Voltaire, the liner notes explicitly state that the album was "composed, programmed, arranged, and sonically orchestrated by R. H. Kirk", so apparently Mallinder's involvement here was minimal at best — not that you'd really notice, considering that his trademark vocals had been completely absent on the previous two records as well; and truly, there is not a lot of stylistic difference between all three, except for maybe this Conversation showing an even more claustrophobic spirit than ever before.

What the album is really most notable for, though, is its duration — spread across two CDs, with the second one largely consisting of a single 53-minute long collage, ʻProject80ʼ, featuring long samples of movie dialog interpolated with industrial clang-a-bang. The track actually sounds closer in spirit to «classic» Cabaret Voltaire than anything they'd done in a long time, except that there are no signs of returning to a guitar sound — but the effort is on gray dirty noise rather than danceable patterns, with the atmosphere changing from industrial to militaristic to post-stormy ambient and back again several times. It's a bit of an excruciating listen, but perhaps it is accep­table as a last testament of sorts, a pompous reappraisal of the Cabaret Voltaire legacy and all the emotional turmoil it represents for easily impressionable people.

Neither its individual parts, though, nor the much shorter tracks on the first CD lend themselves any easier to description than any bits and pieces on International Language. The two-part ʻExterminating Angelʼ may own its title to a Buñuel movie, but it is neither as suspenseful nor as bizarre as its filmed counterpart — just a set of cloudy tape loops generating a mixed atmosphere of serenity and faraway ominous danger, with percussion overdubs added in the «outro» part so you can dance to the atmosphere of serenity and faraway ominous danger. Likewise, everything else works like smooth, inobtrusive, barely noticeable background muzak that seems to gravitate towards «chill-out» now out of its original «acid» inclinations. Occasionally, there's a touch of something different (ʻThe Heatʼ reworks a reggae groove; ʻHarmonic Parallelʼ lazily stutters along to a relaxed trip-hop beat), but some of the keyboard loops are downright cheesy — the one on ʻBrutal But Cleanʼ sounds like something Modern Talking could find some use for. In other words, the small highs are balanced by equally small lows, and most of the time you get bland background neutrality.

In fact, considering that Kirk's solo albums from the same period, recorded for Warp, are more adventurous on the whole, it is somewhat of a relief that he and Mallinder finally pulled the plug on the Cabaret Voltaire thing later that year. Let's face it — the CV spirit got old and debilitated by the late Eighties, and despite a few last-minute shots of darkness that they tried to administer for Body And Soul, this whole techno thing that they got going in the Nineties was not proper Cabaret Voltaire — and proper Cabaret Voltaire was so tightly bound to the New Wave and mid-Eighties era that there was no way they could artificially stimulate it for a long time anyway. Obviously, if there's something they are going to be remembered by, it will be those albums where Kirk is grinding out his creepy-nasty guitar cobwebs and Mallinder is running from phan­tom dangers through smelly underground sewers. Anything that comes later, no matter how in­offensive or even mildly creative, will be superfluous.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Can: Landed

CAN: LANDED (1975)

1) Full Moon On The Highway; 2) Half Past One; 3) Hunters And Collectors; 4) Vernal Equinox; 5) Red Hot Indians; 6) Unfinished.

As public enthusiasm slowly dissipates over Can's gradual slipping into «accessible» patterns, my hope that eventually these mid-Seventies' albums will get their due only increases. Nowhere near as groundbreaking as Tago Mago or Future Days, sure; but in some special way, Landed still gives you a unique sound — Can crossing their experience, inborn talent, and experimentation with more conventional rock and funk rhythms of the day. Don't let brief lazy descriptions like «Landed marks the band's turn towards glam rock and early disco» form an incorrect impression before you even hear the album — if all glam rock and disco sounded like ʻFull Moon On The Highwayʼ and ʻHunters And Collectorsʼ, we could just as well eliminate any formal difference between nightclubs and highbrow art colleges.

Actually, Can were part of the common progressive trend that few people back then managed to (or even tried to) avoid — they just happened to be less lucky than, say, Kraftwerk, who'd also went from frenetic avantgarde experimentation to «catchy pop» in a matter of several years, but somehow managed not only to preserve, but even to enhance their critical reputation in the pro­cess. It was easier for Ralf and Florian, though, because with records like Autobahn and Man Machine they were creating a completely new sub-genre of pop music, whereas Can found them­selves in a more difficult position: any sacrifice of their «excesses» (track length, tape splicing, crazy vocalizing, complex time signatures, etc.) would inevitably bring them back to their well-tattered roots — good old blues-rock. Would there be any fun in that?

Well, I'd say that Landed is still a lot of fun. ʻFull Moon On The Highwayʼ makes this album the first one in Can's catalog to be introduced with a «potentially commercial» three-minute pop-rock song, but it is still unmistakeably Can — largely due to scorching acid fire guitar solos from Karoli, because the rhythm section of Liebezeit and Czukay prefers to exercise restraint (although I still like whatever Holger is doing with that bass, especially in the coda where he seems to be turning that «disco» pattern inside out). The vocals, handled by Czukay on this track, are louder and more self-assured than anything sung on Babaluma, and the sped-up chorus vocals sound less like the proverbial chipmunks than like a pack of merry sprites levitating over the proverbial highway. If you ever wanted to put together a rock opera on highway travel, make sure to put this one right after Deep Purple's ʻHighway Starʼ — there's no cooler transition from bright daytime, with the protagonist exuding self-confidence and arrogance, to creepy nighttime, when spirits take flight and driving becomes a test for the spirit.

The other tracks also have that night-time sheen to them, much of this having to do with the band's final mastering of state-of-the-art recording technologies (for the first time, they had access to 16-track recording!), so that some of the action is taking place «in the background» and some «in the foreground», creating cool sonic dimensions — not to mention that ʻHunters And Collectorsʼ "all come out at night", and ʻVernal Equinoxʼ has the root nox in the title. ʻVernal Equinoxʼ, in particular, is a highlight, the album's busiest instrumental with lots of wailing plea­sure from Karoli's guitar (no less than three different tones, too) and occasional ultra-speedy bursts from the rhythm section (although the electronic drums are probably programmed, but Czukay's bass zoops are most certainly not).

On the whole, even if the individual songs aren't nearly as catchy as they should be, I love the atmosphere — Landed sounds like one big supernatural dance party around some sort of elemen­tal bonfire, and as much as it borrows from contemporary R&B, it ends up converting everything into ritualistic wildness, largely due to clever mixing techniques. This makes the transition into the final track, honestly titled ʻUnfinishedʼ, all the more natural — this is where rhythm dies out, but ritualistic wildness remains, as the track begins similarly to one of the spooky freakouts on Tago Mago and eventually, after a long and dangerous journey through sonic tornadoes, earth­quakes, and beastie-infested underground caverns, ends up somewhere in the otherworldly domain of Future Days, populated with Yellow Submarine characters. Okay, so maybe this de­scription makes the composition more interesting than it actually is, but as far as Can noisefests go, this one is pretty inspired — and has a gorgeous little impressionist coda that old man De­bussy would probably have thumbed up for me.

In the meantime, I'm going to have to do on my own and issue this an autonomous thumbs up all by myself. Actually, maybe the best thing about these mid-period Can albums is that they are rarely boring — you'd think that the band should have gotten less superficially exciting and stuck in its own juice as it went on, but they never forget about the fun quotient, unlike some of their stuffier Krautrock contemporaries like Faust, for example. And when fun and experiment go hand in hand, it's the best kind of fun and the best kind of experiment that may be had.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Charley Patton: Complete Recordings Vol. 4

CHARLEY PATTON: COMPLETE RECORDINGS: VOL. 4 (1930/2002)

1) Some Summer Day; 2) Bird Nest Bound; 3) Future Blues; 4) M&O Blues; 5) Walkin' Blues; 6) My Black Mama, Pt. 1; 7) My Black Mama, Pt. 2; 8) Preachin' The Blues, Pt. 1; 9) Preachin' The Blues, Pt. 2; 10) Dry Spell Blues, Pt. 1; 11) Dry Spell Blues, Pt. 2; 12) All Night Long Blues (take 1); 13) On The Wall; 14) All Night Long Blues (take 2); 15) By The Moon And Stars; 16) Long Ways From Home.

This fourth disc takes the idea of «completeness» to a whole new level — only the first two out of sixteen (!) tracks here are actually by Patton, the rest of them divided between blues guitarist Willie Brown; the legendary Son House; and a gifted, but completely unknown singer and pianist by the name of Louise Johnson. Allegedly, Patton may be sitting in on second guitar on a couple of the Son House tunes, and apparently, he also contributes some «response vocals» on several of Johnson's tracks, but mostly his presence on all this stuff is in spirit — he just happened to be sharing the recording studio with all these guys on one or more sunny (or not so sunny) days in June 1930, in the same old studio in Grafton, Wisconsin. (For the record, many of these tracks — but not including Patton's — were previously released on an obscure LP called Legendary Sessions Delta Style: The Famous 1930 Paramount Recordings In Chronological Order, at least one European pressing of which is said to date back to 1973.)

Which means that there is not that much to review here: Son House is awesome, but he should be talked about on his own page in his own time — although we might use this as a pretext to men­tion that, despite all the obvious similarities, Son House's playing and singing style, being the direct predecessor to and major influence on Muddy Waters, is much closer to the familiar Chicago patterns than Patton's playing or singing, and gives the impression of being more con­cerned about «tightness» and «showmanship» at the same time. Louise Johnson is a rare example of a lady singing and «tinkling the ivories» all at once, and she is fairly powerful at the piano, and it is fun to discover ʻOn The Wallʼ, a newly lyricized version of Charles Davenport's ʻCow Cow Bluesʼ, one of the earliest examples of New Orleanian blues boogie that would later go on to become Ahmet Ertegün's and Ray Charles' ʻMess Aroundʼ. But there's just not enough material by her, really, to get to know her real proper. And Willie Brown? He's just another attempt at a Blind Willie Johnson clone (vocal-wise, at least) that probably went for a dime a dozen back in 1929-30 — sorry, Willie.

Which leaves us with the two Patton songs, one of which (ʻSome Summer Dayʼ) is just a cover of ʻSittin' On Top Of The Worldʼ, following on the heels of the success of the Mississipi Sheiks' original version; and the second one, ʻBird Nest Boundʼ, with Brown on guitar, is just a run-of-the-mill example of the man's singing, with nothing particularly exciting about it.

Curious, too, because the backstory goes that Paramount were actually after Patton in 1930, and that he'd arrived in Grafton from Lula, Mississippi, with Brown, Louise Johnson, and Son House in tow — he'd just befriended House at the time and put him under his patronage, as the latter was an unknown nobody at the time; yet somehow, in the end, Paramount ended up recording his retinue instead of the Big Man himself. (Furthermore, none of the commercially released Son House records managed to sell well at the time, and the man did not record commercially again for several decades after that!). One can only guess why Charley was not in the mood to cut a significant number of sides that summer. Regardless, taken together, the whole thing is still a classy many-faced document of the times — and, besides, sometimes the «tell me who's your friend» principle goes a long way towards a better understanding of the artist himself.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Cardiacs: Guns

CARDIACS: GUNS (1999)

1) Spell With A Shell; 2) There's Good Cud; 3) Wind And Rains Is Cold; 4) Cry Wet Smile Dry; 5) Jitterbug; 6) Sleep All Eyes Open; 7) Come Back Clammy Lammy; 8) Clean That Evil Mud Out Your Soul; 9) Ain't He Messy Though; 10) Signs; 11) Song Of A Dead Pest; 12) Will Bleed Amen.

I wish I could say something like «on the last Cardiacs album, Tim Smith comes to his senses and delivers a meaningful, resonant swansong where all of the band's strengths combine in logical rather than narcisitically irritant ways». But Guns was never ever intended as the band's swan­song, and even though in terms of complexity and accessibility, it is clearly an intentional step back from the brainkill of Sing To God, very little had truly changed on the main segments of the Cardiacs' front over those three last years of the Nineties.

With the same lineup and the same stylistics, Guns is Sing To God's little underdeveloped brother — another energetic, psychotic, overblown celebration of God-knows-what for God-knows-whatever-reasons. Tracks like ʻThere's Good Cudʼ or ʻWill Bleed Amenʼ are excellent representatives of their prog-pop-punk hybrid, with the distorted riffs taken from punk, the ditzy keyboards and vocal harmonies from pop, and the constant tempo and structural changes from prog — meaning that all the good sides of all these genres generally get neutralized by each other, and leave me feeling neither angry nor joyful nor even too perplexed at what I have just heard (and the exact same thing goes for the lyrics, which, by and by, seem to have been written based on a purely aleatory principle — "there's good cud, there's dead good sticker sing mercy alive hot dog love's a-winnin'" is a typical example — could we please alert the Bullshit Police?).

I count one track here that is really interesting and could be recommended to a wide audience: ʻJitterbugʼ, after a few minutes of the usual Cardiacal mess (mutually counteracting indie-rock guitar and New Wave keyboards, each of them existing in its own autonomous world), suddenly transforms into some sort of medieval-inspired «psychedelic Mass», with Tim's spiralling vocals adorned by coherently spiralling kaleidoscopic keyboards and the whole thing acquiring an «alternative angelic» quality. When I compare this with the climactic resolution of ʻDirty Boyʼ on the previous record, I can't help but think that maybe Tim Smith missed his true vocation — re­viving and reinventing the chorale form for a new age. Because once it's over, they get back to their usual tricks — playing rock music that does not have the feel of rock music, brewing a «delicious» stew of musical fish, pickles, and chocolate for those few select palates that can taste it and stomachs that can digest it.

Oddly enough, for the next eight years the band pretty much stopped releasing new material, con­centrating instead on live performances (including focused revivals of their earliest songs from the cassette tape epoch and even before that) — before Tim Smith collapsed from a heart attack and stroke in 2008, from which he is still slowly trying to recover even now; so, for all we know, Guns may have to remain the last Cardiacs album for eternity. But since there is nothing about the album, either objectively or intutitively-subjectively, to suggest a «conclusive» nature, so too will I refrain from any conclusions and end this section on a «to be continued...» note. I mean, regardless of my attitude towards Tim Smith's music, there's no denying the unusual nature of his brain or the adventurousness of his spirit, so here's hoping for an eventual recovery and more of those awfully frustrating Cardiacs albums for us to argue about. In the meantime, I will try to leave this one unrated — at least it does not try the listener's patience for so much time, and I can add ʻJitterbugʼ to the small «best-of» collection that this band deserves, despite all the criticism.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Camel: Nude

CAMEL: NUDE (1981)

1) City Life; 2) Nude; 3) Drafted; 4) Docks; 5) Beached; 6) Landscapes; 7) Changing Places; 8) Pomp & Circum­stance; 9) Please Come Home; 10) Reflections; 11) Captured; 12) The Homecoming; 13) Lies; 14) The Birthday Cake; 15) Nude's Return.

A curious and almost brave move here: just as Camel's transformation into a «pop» band was nearly complete, Latimer suddenly rebounded and came out with his second «tone poem» (I'd hesitate to use the term «rock opera»: unlike Snow Goose, Nude does have several sung parts, but there's certainly not enough of them to qualify) — and, once again, the subject is loneliness and seclusion in the face of war, the whole thing being a musical retelling of the story of Hiroo Onoda, stranded in the Philippine jungle for thirty years after the end of World War II, refusing to believe that the fighting has ended.

Admittedly, the suite never gets the same kind of respect from fans as Snow Goose, largely for the reason that it shares quite a few simplified pop values with its two predecessors, and is on the whole far less adventurous and «progressive». This may be true, but it's not as if Snow Goose was a genuine prog monster, either — except for occasional heavier emphasis on jazz-fusion elements, it seems that its main advantage was the lack of vocals, which always makes any musi­cal work seem superficially more «serious». Nude, on the contrary, opens with ʻCity Lifeʼ, a bona fide soft-pop song bordering on adult contemporary — and even if its tone and message fits in very well with the rest of the album, by way of a happy-sad introspective look back at one's «odd» past from the point of view of the «normal» present, it can certainly warp the general perspective, because, you know, first impressions do matter.

However, on the whole Nude is a success, because for the first time in years Latimer finds him­self fully immersed in his most natural state — melancholic introspection. Most of the tracks, bar story-demanded interludes like the triumphant-martial ʻHomecomingʼ, set the same autumnal mood that, as some listeners have cleverly stated, sounds like post-Waters era Floyd before post-Waters Floyd was even invented — but without the same kind of emphatic wallowing in one's own misery that often irks people away from A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. Besides, some of the mood-shifting interludes are actually quite good, like the «action-packed» ʻDocks/Beachedʼ, illustrating Nude's arrival and combat action in the Philippines — the former with its scary, echo-laden thunder-and-lightning slide guitar lines, and the latter being the only trace on the album of the band's former jazzy glories.

More typically, the instrumental pieces shift between minimalistic New Agey ambience (ʻLand­scapesʼ, ʻReflectionsʼ), obligatory tribal beats representing Nude's «exotic» surroundings (ʻChan­ging Placesʼ), and occasional outbursts of retro-progressive activity to illustrate shifts of circum­stances (ʻCapturedʼ, whose melodic shifts might remind you of Gabriel-era Genesis). No indivi­dual piece is remarkable on its own, but in between all of them they certainly tell a coherent and interesting story, albeit probably not the kind of story that Onoda himself would have told (and, for that matter, even though Latimer is credited for playing koto on at least a few of the tracks, I did not specifically notice any Japanese motifs — not that it's a crime or anything).

Only one track in particular has always stood out for me, and struck a far more aching chord than just about any other Camel song in existence — ʻLiesʼ, representing Onoda's initial exhausted and heartbroken reaction to his return to society ("Tell me no lies, has peace arrived, or is this some kind of joke?"). It's not too complex, and its main active weapon, Latimer's angry-depressed Gilmour-style guitar work, may seem all too predictable, but there is still something special about its bluesy ambience. It just sums up so well everything that must be going on in the soul of some­body whose whole world has just crashed and crumbled around him and who has to gather all his remaining strength to start anew, yet is unsure if he can make it. It's honestly one of the most depressed tracks I've ever heard — and I've heard quite a few — although it probably works better in the context of the album than all by itself.

The record still cops out with a «Hollywoodish» happy ending — ʻNude's Returnʼ, where sad­ness and exhaustion are ultimately shown as trumped by optimism and hope in the future, a quietly rejoicing finale that may be true to real life (seeing as how the real Onoda did not commit suicide or anything, but lived to the ripe age of 91) but is less loyal to great art; my response to this is that I usually stop the album right at the abrupt ending of ʻLiesʼ and imagine that the protagonist takes his own life at this precise moment. That way, Nude becomes a slow-paced, quietly-intensifying atmospheric masterpiece for me, and even if many of its individual ingredients may suffer from limping, there's no other Camel album that would steadily and inevitably lead the way to such a snappy coda.

Although the record was recorded in 1981, this is the one that truly puts a stop to «Seventies' Camel» — not only would The Single Factor herald the departure of the last original member of the band, bar Latimer, but it would also signify Camel's transition into the new reality of the new decade. And, oddly enough, if there is one other album in the band's catalog that could be seen as a spiritual companion to Nude, it is the first one, the self-titled one — they have really gone full circle with their brooding, starting out with almost a manifesto of lonerism and eventually ending up with Hiroo Onoda as an even more authentic mascot for lonerism than Philip Rhayader (who at least had Fritha and the goose to keep him company). And no matter how much criticism people may fling at the «softness», «simplicity», or «boredom» of these individual bits and pieces, on the whole I really enjoy the way Nude reaches out to the sad loner in all (or at least most) of us, if you're ready to connect, so — thumbs up, most definitely.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Alan Price: Between Today And Yesterday

ALAN PRICE: BETWEEN TODAY AND YESTERDAY (1974)

1) Left Over People; 2) Away, Away; 3) Between Today And Yesterday; 4) In Times Like These; 5) Under The Sun; 6) Jarrow Song; 7) City Lights; 8) Look At My Face; 9) Angel Eyes; 10) You're Telling Me; 11) Dream Of Delight; 12) Between Today And Yesterday.

The success of O Lucky Man! must have popped the cork off Alan's little bottle of hitherto hidden ambitions, because he very quickly followed it up with the most «serious» album in his career so far, and maybe ever — Between Today And Yesterday is a full-fledged conceptual piece about everyday life (today and yesterday) in Northern England, a sort of epic «Ode to Geor­die» that will clearly strike the biggest chord of all with Tyneside people, but might just as well appeal to everyone concerned with the struggle and strife of ordinary people living in small, de­pressed towns all over the world — the "left over people" of the album's introductory song.

It is not some sort of breathtaking masterpiece, no; Price is neither the master of the heart-tugging musical hook, nor is he some fabulous unique singer who'd be capable of making his shopping notes come alive under vocal pressure. But he's got style, taste, basic songwriting capacities, and, above all else, he knows what he's doing and what he's singing about — this is a tactful, honest record, and with repeated listens, it gets under your skin through sheer humility and understate­ment alone, never mind the melodicity and the pleasant arrangements. If there's any reason why it could hardly hope to become a major international hit like some Kinks album, it's because it is even more «British» musically than any given Kinks album — with but a small handful of bluesy ex­ceptions, it's all vaudeville and music hall (although the Randy Newman influence is also very keenly felt throughout).

In the UK, he did (rather unsurprisingly) achieve his biggest commercial success with the record, which rose to #9 on the charts; and the single ʻJarrow Songʼ reached #6, which would be the last time ever he'd crack the top 10 on the single charts — an excellent song, too, commemorating the Jarrow March of 1936 with a slightly-merrily-drunk anthemic chorus and a cool structure, where the old-school music hall verse-chorus segments are written from the point of view of the origi­nal participants of the March and the more modern, rockier bridge section is written from the author's point of view ("I can see them, I can feel them, I can hear them / As if they were here today"), until the author finally merges the past with the present ("My name is little Alan Price..."). It's cool, creative, sensitive, complex — precisely the way one should be writing songs of social protest if one does not want them to be here today and forgotten tomorrow — and arguably one of the finest glorifications of the "Geordie boys" ever written, though probably too convoluted and too personal to be adopted as a high school anthem anywhere in Tyneside.

The album as a whole is conceptually divided into the "Yesterday" and "Today" parts, corres­ponding to its two sides — and the "Yesterday" part, I'd say, is somewhat superior, since that is where he most fully unleashes his arrangement skills, with colorful use of brass, keyboards, and orchestration. ʻLeft Over Peopleʼ and ʻIn Times Like Theseʼ continue the good old tradition of sarcastic social criticism under the sauce of cheerful, catchy vaudeville; and ʻAway, Awayʼ is a touching, but not overtly sentimental account of wives seeing their husbands off to work in the morning. Probably the most underrated of all these is ʻUnder The Sunʼ, a lush orchestrated ballad where, for once, the weakness of Alan's voice works strongly in his favor — the strain, the shaky intonations, the occasional slip-ups make it all far more human than if Engelbert Humperdinck ever wanted to have a go at the stuff.

The "today" side, which was probably intended to sound more «modern», is slightly patchier for that reason — this is where we meet the somewhat corny synthesizers of ʻAngel Eyesʼ and the substandard «modern R&B» number ʻCity Lightsʼ; however, I am quite partial to the slow, bitter-burning blues of ʻYou're Telling Meʼ, with some good old Animals-style organ soloing and quiet­ly understated guitar runs, and I cannot quite decide if ʻDream Of Delightʼ sounds more like Crosby, Stills & Nash or like James Taylor, but on the whole, it's a decent acoustic ballad, al­though it remains in sore need of a decent hook to rise above pure «atmosphere».

The link that ties both sides together is the title track, first presented in a stripped down piano arrangement and then expanded to a full wall-of-sound arrangement, with tempestuous strings, a loud rhythm section, and a gradual vocal crescendo. The basic melody is a bit generic (remember Badfinger's ʻMidnight Callerʼ?), but this does not prevent the song from reaching an epic climax. The point of the song, so it seems, is to tell us that nothing ever changes, and "draw the shades" and "let me drink black wine" — sort of a resigned conclusion, not particularly alleviated by the fact that most of these songs have either a tender or a humorous nature to them, because once again, like Roger wrote, "quiet desperation is the English way", and it's as if Price made this entire record to prove him right.

Anyway, do not expect any grand melodic breakthroughs here; the record is to be enjoyed some­where at the crossroads of an intelligent concept, a charismatic personality, and deep musical ex­perience rather than because of outstanding songwriting genius or illuminating social philosophy. Its purpose is to entertain your tired ears while at the same time making you feel some compas­sion for the underdog — the kind of thing that we normally expect from people like Billy Bragg, yet, as it turns out, Price had the whole punk movement beat here for about two or three years, and he didn't even have to resort to chainsaw buzz or «electro-busking» here. Patchy in places, yes, but unquestionably a high point of his career, well worth another thumbs up.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Cabaret Voltaire: International Language

CABARET VOLTAIRE: INTERNATIONAL LANGUAGE (1993)

1) Everything Is True; 2) Radical Chic; 3) Taxi Mutant; 4) Let It Come Down; 5) Afterglow; 6) The Root; 7) Millenium; 8) Belly Of The Beast; 9) Other World.

More sophisticated techno from the now-obscure couple who just refuse to quit. There are some significant differences from last time around: apparently, «international language» means saying goodbye to some of the more «acid» excesses and concentrating upon grooves, loops, and sam­ples of a smoother, softer variety, with high-pitched, chime-like frequencies largely replacing the squeaky-squelchy burps of Plasticity. In layman terms, this means that International Language is not so much going to kick your ass as it's going to pat you on it, although the whole thing is still much too dark and grumpy to bring in the «sexiness» of Groovy, Laidback And Nasty (and thank God for that!).

On the grand scale of things, this changes nothing: as background muzak for huge electronica fans, there's no problem with the album, but miracles are not going to happen, and chances of any of these tunes to linger on in your head once they have performed their applied function seem rather ephemere. I like the attention to detail — for instance, the mechanism of slowly «breeding» the techno groove of ʻEverything Is Trueʼ as it grows out of some musique concrète, generating all of its overdubbed samples before the rhythmic base is properly established; however, once it is properly established, it just becomes a generic techno dance number. I also suppose that ʻRadical Chicʼ might be an actual tribute to Chic — I'm not sure if they sample any Chic material here, but the track sure sounds the way a proper techno cover of Chic should sound — and that is probably creative, but techno reinventions of disco oldies are not really my thing (I usually have to come up with excuses for why I like this or that particular disco song, and I'd have to come up with twice the number of said excuses for a disco-techno hybrid).

ʻLet It Come Downʼ is a little reminiscent of the old days, with a very thick, very grumpy-soun­ding bassline, rhythmic industrial clanging in the background and a pseudo-brass riff from a spy movie rotating in the background — if not for the relentless techno punch and the lack of de­pressive guitar drones, you'd almost mistake it for a leftover from the old days, and I'd love to see it torn out of this context and placed on a more impressive album as a moody instrumental inter­lude. However, apart from it and maybe the cute combination of the surreptitious-subtle funky bassline and «hooting owl» gimmick of ʻBelly Of The Beastʼ, nothing else truly stands out. So when we get to the finale of ʻOther Worldʼ, and the rhythmic base falls out, leaving us with no­thing but pure New Agey ambience of electronic swirls and distant echoes, the effect is a bit baffling — you mean to say that this was an artistic statement all along, not merely a collection of well-wrought grooves to help the blood flow?..

I suppose there should be an inevitable crack at the title here — something along the lines of «if this kind of techno is indeed supposed to represent ʻinternational languageʼ by default, I sure wish Mallinder and Kirk stuck to all things national» — but the album, like most of their late period efforts, is really not too bad, and it manages to preserve a tiny pinch of their unique identity. I'm pretty sure it could even appeal to major fans of electronic music, like a Susan Tedeschi album might appeal to major blues fans. I just can't get rid of the feeling that ever since CV switched over to electronics completely, they found themselves locked in this compromised state, where everything they'd do would work to some degree, but never to the degree of leaving a lasting imprint on the music genre. But who knows? Maybe in twenty years' time you'll see Internatio­nal Language reappraised as a lost masterpiece, and people will be ready to donate all of their Aphex Twin collection for a used copy. The Grand DJ works in mysterious ways.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Can: Soon Over Babaluma

CAN: SOON OVER BABALUMA (1974)

1) Dizzy Dizzy; 2) Come Sta La Luna; 3) Splash; 4) Chain Reaction; 5) Quantum Physics.

I think that I might actually prefer Can's first post-Suzuki album to Future Days, even if this means going against the average consensus. Essentially, they are continuing to develop in the same direction, once again abandoning pure jam power in favor of otherworldly ambience with occasional touches of beauty — but, while the sound of this album is a little more conventional, perhaps, it is also sharper, and there's just basically more going on than there used to be.

The album title is a spooneristic distortion of Moon Over Alabama, but, for some reason, to me it always suggested an association not so much with Kurt Weill's ʻAlabama Songʼ, but with ʻStars Fell On Alabamaʼ — there's a distinct shadow of midnight jazz lying over much of the record, and it does have a nightly, ghostly, slightly mystical aura to it, especially the first half which could be thought about as the logical nighttime state of the same world that we'd explored on Future Days during the daytime. ʻDizzy Dizzyʼ, the first song in the band's catalog to be domi­nated by Michael Karoli's violin rather than guitar (which he plays Stephane Grappelli-style), is particularly impressive in that respect — it's all about ghostly apparitions, as personified by the wobbly, echoey, ephemeral character of all the instruments: drums, bass, violin, keyboards, vocals, they all sound like they're there and they're not there.

ʻCome Sta La Lunaʼ and ʻSplashʼ complete the first side of the album with perky Latin rhythms, the former one more of a cha-cha-cha and the latter more of a samba, but aside from the rhythm tracks, nothing about the tunes is specifically Latin American — ʻLunaʼ is distinguished by oddly processed vocals (note: many of the technical effects on vocals are probably best explained as the result of Karoli's and Schmidt's shyness, as they had to manage without a separate vocalist), dis­sonant violin runs and avantgarde piano rolls that all converge in a ball of weirdness, like a naked midnight dance on the beach supposed to help the dancers find their inner self. On ʻSplashʼ, the tempo is accelerated, the violin and guitar solos become crazier (including violin tones so distor­ted that I almost mistook them for saxes), and the moonlight madness becomes more pronounced: the only thing that's lacking is a bombastic climax, instead of which we get a rather unsatisfactory fadeout just as things are beginning to really heat up.

The second side of the record takes us in a different direction — with titles like ʻChain Reactionʼ and ʻQuantum Physicsʼ, you know you're moving away from psychedelic nocturnal scenery and into the realm of the micro-cosmic. ʻChain Reactionʼ itself is probably the closest they came to recapturing the nightmarish atmospheres of Tago Mago, with acid guitar solos, chicken-scratch funk guitar borrowed to symbolize the unstoppable onslaught of particle movement — and, most curiously, the track's several crescendos always inevitably descend into sections that I'd call «ʻDead Man's Tangoʼ Variations», such morbidity and coldness emanating from those passages. As for ʻQuantum Physicsʼ, the lengthy and nearly rhythmless piece of keyboard ambience, it sounds almost frustratingly modern — draggy, minimalistic, bleary-eyed, pretty much the blue­print for the vast majority of Boards of Canada albums.

As you can see, the album is somewhat journey-like — with a more «naturalistic» first side like a three-movement suite on exciting, but dangerous nighttime life in an alternate universe, and the second side a two-movement exploration of the «dynamic» and «static» states of the little bits and pieces that form the alternate universe in question. In other words, I find it even easier to concep­tualize than Future Days, and I certainly find it more evocative: darker, creepier, more prone to transporting my mind to distant places than its predecessor. (For some reason, many people tend to really put down ʻChain Reactionʼ, but I think the abrupt signature changes alone justify its presence, and the only real complaint I have about the aggressive jam parts is that the soloing instruments are kept way too low in the mix).

In any case, it is important to clear away the perpetrated misconception that «this is the beginning of the end for Can» which is still being retranslated all over the place. It is, at the very least, a worthier spiritual companion to Future Days than Ege Bamyasi was to Tago Mago, capitalizing on its ambient/impressionist achievements rather than sounding like a pale copy of them. Yes, it may be argued that 1973 was the last year for Can to introduce «revolutionary» ideas in the world of music, but even revolutionary ideas may be improved upon with non-revolutionary nuances, and for a few additional years, the band still wrote and released worthy music that was in no way boring, let alone «commercially oriented». Thus, thumbs up all the way.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Charley Patton: Complete Recordings Vol. 3

CHARLEY PATTON: COMPLETE RECORDINGS: VOL. 3 (1929/2002)

1) Some Of These Days I'll Be Gone; 2) Elder Green Blues; 3) Jim Lee, Pt. 1; 4) Jim Lee, Pt. 2; 5) Mean Black Cat Blues; 6) Jesus Is A-Dying (Bed Maker); 7) Elder Green Blues (take 2); 8) When Your Way Gets Dark; 9) Some Of These Days I'll Be Gone (take 2); 10) Heart Like Railwood Steel; 11) Circle Round The Moon; 12) You're Gonna Need Somebody When You Die; 13) Be True, Be True Blues; 14) Farrell Blues; 15) Tell Me Man Blues; 16) Come Back Corrina.

The third disc of the set essentially covers the second half of the extensive October 1929 sessions, but does not contain as many highlights. Patton's tracks here are the same volatile mix of blues, pop, gospel, folk, and country — pure blues forming a minority, in fact, as the disc opens with a lively and sentimental pop tune (ʻSome Of These Days I'll Be Goneʼ), the kind that always sounds more authentic and heart-tugging when sung in Patton's grizzly tone than in crooner mode (by the way, how often do people acknowledge Patton's influence on Tom Waits? it must have been a more direct one than simply Patton influencing Howlin' Wolf and Wolf influencing Waits). The two takes captured here are practically identical (except that the officially released second one is in better sonic shape), but the second one is just a tad faster and more danceable, so I sup­pose the good people at Paramount were really craving for some «commercialism» here.

Of the more curious tracks, the cover of ʻJesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bedʼ is worth noting, with Patton playing slide and wailing in the same style as Blind Willie Johnson, although, gran­ted, neither his slide playing skills nor even his earthy voice is a proper match for Blind Willie's gifts when they are fully activated (actually, he sounds a little too rushed and uninvolved singing this stuff — almost as if it did not agree too well with him, yet for some reason he found himself obli­gated to record Blind Willie's material. Maybe Paramount wanted to use him as their chief com­petitive asset against Columbia; I really have no idea). There's also ʻYou're Gonna Need Some­body When You Dieʼ, which he recorded before Blind Willie cut it as ʻYou're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bondʼ a year later — of course, all these tunes and words were pretty much dangling in the air at the time, belonging to nobody in particular, but it is still interesting, when possible, to go back and trace their relative trajectories.

The last four songs on the disc are not credited to Patton at all, but he is probably playing guitar to the fiddle of Henry Sims, who also sings lead vocals (and, vice versa, Sims is contributing his own fiddle parts to several of Patton's songs). They're nothing special, but there's... uh... one of the earliest version of ʻCorrine, Corrinaʼ here, though you might miss it if you have not paid attention to the printed titles because Henry has a nasty habit of mooing his words instead of sin­ging them. Anyway, don't shoot the fiddle player and it's always pleasant to have a bit of histo­rical context — this "Charlie Patton and Friends" thing should not bother you in the least.