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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Can: Unlimited Edition

CAN: UNLIMITED EDITION (1968-1973; 1976)

1) Gomorrha; 2) Doko E; 3) LH 702 (Nairobi/München); 4) I'm Too Leise; 5) Musette; 6) Blue Bag (Inside Paper); 7) E.F.S. No. 27; 8) TV Spot; 9) E.F.S. No. 7; 10) The Empress And The Ukraine King; 11) E.F.S. No. 10; 12) Mother Upduff; 13) E.F.S. No. 36; 14) Cutaway; 15) Connection; 16) Fall Of Another Year; 17) E.F.S. No. 8; 18) Transcen­dental Express; 19) Ibis.

Can had originally opened their vaults as early as 1974 — with an LP called Limited Edition that was, appropriately, limited to a few thousand copies and targeted at the hardcore fanbase they had developed. Two years later, the collection was expanded to the size of a double album and re-released as Unlimited Edition, even though the fanbase did not exactly double in size over the 1975-76 period. However, in May 1976 Can were no longer on the cutting edge of experimental pop music, and were probably thinking in earnest about the systematic preservation and protec­tion of their rich legacy... and so, here you go.

Frankly speaking, much of this record is crap. But what can you expect of chaotic odds and ends, salvaged from years of hunting after inspiration in the confines of a recording studios? Some days there's plenty of game (and it usually ends up on your regular albums), and some days it's just a bunch of meaningless, emotionally uninterpretable sound collections (and that's what usually stays in the vaults). And even if something there does make sense, it is still going to sound infe­rior compared to all the stuff that you trusted far enough to polish for official release.

Many of these snippets come branded as parts of «Ethnological Forgery Series», whose ironic title suggests that these are parodies / avantgardist imitations / deconstructions of various genres of world music — thus, ʽNo. 27ʼ, with Suzuki on vocals, is built around quasi-deep-folk-Japanese singing; ʽNo. 7ʼ and ʽNo. 11ʼ are quasi-Near Eastern pastiches; ʽNo. 36ʼ is a take on New Orlea­nian jazz; and ʽNo. 8ʼ is a percussion-only bit of pseudo-Caribbean fun. These are all short, fun, usually pointless, and always harmless — but I couldn't say the same about the 17-minute long ʽCutawayʼ, where similar and other snippets have been sewn together into one large and totally incoherent sheet of short grooves, mood pieces, and studio hooliganry. Without any central unifying theme, mood, or purpose, the very title ʽCutawayʼ certainly surmises ʽThrowawayʼ, which should have been its real title, even though I'm sure there must be people out there who'd swear by this as the ultimate Can experience. (I'd take the amateurish, but sincere experimenta­tion of the studio half of Ummagumma over it, though, any day).

So is there anything here of real worth? Actually, yes: several tracks represent more or less com­plete experiences, and could make respectable companions to regular albums from the respective era. Namely, from the Monster Movie period we have ʽThe Empress And The Ukraine Kingʼ, an absurdist funky rave with Mooney at his fussiest and some kick-ass guitar overdubs from Karoli; ʽMother Upduffʼ, a bizarre spoken tale of one family's unforgettable European adventures that sounds like a cross between similar tales by the Velvet Underground and The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles & Fripp; and two perfectly reasonable pop songs (ʽConnectionʼ, with a Stonesy vibe, and ʽFall Of Another Yearʼ, with some truly autumnal-mood interplay between Holger's bass and Karoli's acoustic guitar).

The Suzuki era is represented less adequately; from the peak years, only ʽTV Spotʼ, with its re­lentless paranoid groove and one of Suzuki's most comprehensible vocal performances, stands out, but I don't really see any place for it on Tago Mago. However, ʽGomorrhaʼ from 1973 would definitely have fit on Future Days, and I am actually sorry not to see it there — with those sad, distant, ghostly slide guitar wails and echoey crescendos it is as otherworldly evocative as the best stuff on that album, and might indeed be the best composition here (which is probably why it serves as the album opener — to lure you into a sea of ultimately broken promises). Finally, the album ends with two later tracks that are at least intriguing: ʽTranscendental Expressʼ, completely dominated by a lead banjo part, sounds like psychedelic deconstructed country-western, and the lengthy ʽIbisʼ from 1975 shares the creepy nighttime mystique of the best tracks on Landed, even if it's a bit of an overkill at its nine minutes.

The best spots for these individual tracks, though, would have been bonus slots on the respective albums — taken together, they do remind us of the vast scope of this band's interests and of its refusal to be strictly tied to any conventions, but they do not exactly kick the ground from under your feet; and as for all the short snippets in between, it is not clear to me if they add to the awe­inspiring brilliance of the Can kaleidoscope or simply act as irresponsible nuisances, preventing you from dedicating your complete attention to the good stuff. In any case, I suppose that this is pretty much what anybody would expect from an album of Can outtakes — diversity, unpredic­tability, and a total and utter lottery when it comes to spiritual impact.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Alan Price: England My England

ALAN PRICE: ENGLAND MY ENGLAND (1978)

1) England My England; 2) This Ain't Your Lucky Day; 3) Mama Don't Go Home; 4) Groovy Times; 5) Baby Of Mine; 6) I Love You Too; 7) Those Tender Lips; 8) Citizens Of The World Unite; 9) Help From You; 10) Pity The Poor Boy.

Odd how, when you listen to these records by «second rate» artists peaking in the early-to-mid Seventies, you get this sharp feeling of «gradually winding down» — each next album being ever so slightly inferior compared to its predecessor, but slightly, slightly, so that the contrast is felt particularly between extremes rather than neighbors. Compared to Alan Price, England My Eng­land is merely suffering from a tiny extra touch of disco and a tiny extra touch of Billy Joel-itis (Joel-light-is, I mean), but then if you play it next to Lucky Man!, well...

Again, hardly a single song here sounds really embarrassing, but this is only because the author relies too much on the tried and true: vaudeville, R&B clichés, soft funky grooves, conventional ballad structures — and his usual humble charisma, which is by far the only thing that has not deteriorated, because, well, that's just a fact of nature. Again, the songs are divided between love ballads, love-sex grooves, and a few sociopolitical declarations thrown in for old times' sake — such as the title track, which starts out sounding more like a Russian folk song than a patriotic English anthem, somehow redeems itself in the chorus ("we are your children, oh England, don't cry!"), and still leaves behind a confused impression, particularly when Alan begins to scat-sing to these Russian cossack dance moves. There's also ʽCitizens Of The World Uniteʼ, which only lacks a proper Barry Gibb falsetto to have been a big hit at Studio 54, which — no doubt about it — was the place for citizens of the world to unite at the time.

I struggle to single out any highlights, but arguably ʽGroovy Timesʼ is Price's finest moment here, starting out as one of those unremarkable soft funk grooves only to have him launch into an extended, warm, gentle, and classy jazz piano solo that sounds absolutely fabulous even on top of the most generic and glossy arrangement imaginable. Another track that stands out after a few listens is ʽHelp From Youʼ, a slow piece of soul with an impressive vocal buildup — and it is quite strategically placed near the end of the album, so that after a series of quiet, unassuming, humble grooves you get this one particular spiritual statement where the man gives it his all, suddenly becoming a vocal powerhouse for six minutes and not losing an ounce of his usual sincerity at that.

Overall, this is by no means a bad record; it merely confirms the man's complete resignation from any truly «creative» angle, let alone the more demanding «experimental», but the mix of ancient and modern stylistic influences is still intelligent (it is not often, after all, that you find Phil Spector-style vocal harmonies, Ray Charles-style keyboards and disco basslines on the same album), the man's aura is still pleasant, and as far as generic entertainment from 1978 is concer­ned, this is a far better proposition than a great percentage of chart-hitting disco burners.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Animal Collective: Live At 9:30

ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: LIVE AT 9:30 (2015)

1) Amanita; 2) Did You See The Words; 3) Honeycomb; 4) My Girls; 5) Moonjock; 6) New Town Burnout; 7) I Think I Can; 8) Pulleys; 9) What Would I Want?; 10) Peacebone; 11) Monkey Riches; 12) Brother Sport; 13) The Purple Bottle.

Technically, this is Animal Collective's third live album, but in a sense, it could just as well be the first, because Hollinndagain consisted exclusively of original material (and shit material at that), while the limited edition Animal Crack Box from 2009 was restricted to just a few vinyl copies. Continuing this trend, Live At 9:30 also comes specifically for collectors, pressed on six sides of bright-colored psychovinyl, but at least it is also distributed as digital files, making it more widely available — and it is also officially released on the band's main label (Domino), whereas Animal Crack Box was more of a homebrewn affair.

Anyway, the big question is: are these «post-fame» Animal Collective actually worthy of a live album, or is this just a quick (but colorful) money grab at the expense of collectors? Well, I am hardly the band's biggest fan, but my answer is a definitive yes to the first half of this question (although it is also a slightly more doubtful yes to the second half — I mean, high art and money-grabbing are not necessarily mutually exclusive, are they?). The thing is, once they get on stage, these guys do not care so much for an exact reproduction of the spritely pandemonium of their studio recordings as they do for creating spritely pandemonium, period. And the longer it lasts, the better — look at these track lengths: even though most of the songs are taken from officially released records, the collective runtime is almost twice as long as it takes to listen to the studio equivalents of the live record. Time stretches out to indefinite limits at Animal Collective shows, that one's for sure.

At this point, the band clearly refuses to rest upon past successes: the largest number of tracks come from the most recent Centipede Hz, with only two coming from Merryweather Post Pavilion (still arguably the centerpiece of the band's modern day legend) and the rest scattered evenly all the way up to Feels (but no earlier). However, track selection really does not matter that much, because when they're up on stage, Animal Collective present themselves as a «jam band», setting up one mind-boggling groove after another (and accompanying them with an equally mind-boggling light show that, unfortunately, stays out of the audio experience) and animating, aggrandizing and accelerating them to ecstatic heights. In this setting, anything can serve as a working theme, upon which they pile up their arrays of keyboard effects, tribal drum patterns, and vocal harmonies that ignite, shoot up, and burst apart like sets of fireworks.

The original compositions are not changed to the point of being unrecognizable — no, the melo­dies and even the arrangement details tend to be preserved, but the music gets longer expositions and the repetitive ritualistic grooves get to become truly gigantic (an extreme example is ʽPul­leysʼ, stretched out almost Cream-style from an original three and a half minute length to about 15 minutes). If you put all six sides of vinyl together, there are definite signs of overkill; but if you take it slow, about half an hour at a time, for instance, the result is a strong psychedelic punch that really sounds like nothing else. This is not «electronica» with its formulaic rigidity: these are your past-and-future-merging 21st century SMiLing Beach Boys, where vocals matter as much as instruments (sometimes more) and electronic sound production is no more distant and alienating to the mind as, say, any special production effects on Sgt. Pepper.

The usual complaint is that behind all the kaleidoscopic richness of this approach lies a certain monotonousness — that the entire 2-hour long show is just one huge celebration of an alternate psychedelic reality, populated with bizarre, but generally friendly alternate lifeforms that seem, however, all to belong to the same infraclass: not just an «Animal Collective», that is, but rather a «Psychomarsupial Community» or something like that, where each member is slightly different but common enough so that eventually you just get lost in the all-too-similar diversity. With em­phasis on the «jam» parts, this inevitably downplays the memorable main themes of the tunes and concentrates on the vibe, and the vibe is pretty much the same throughout. If they happened to have their own idiosyncratic equivalent of a ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ or at least a ʽWillie The Pimpʼ on here for diversity's sake, their status would have seriously increased at least in this reviewer's eyes — then again, they probably know better than to sacrilegiously break up the spiritual ritual and annihilate the mesmerizing effect on the audience, so forget it.

In any case, kudos to what it is they actually manage to do on stage — it's one thing to generate all these multi-layered arrangements in the cozy spacetime of the recording studio, and quite another one to generate all the layers simultaneously in a live environment: with a little help from the same digital technologies, no doubt, but the singing (with all those intertwining harmonies), the drumming, and much of the keyboard work are really live, and display consummate profes­sionalism (to be expected, perhaps, after 15 years of gelling together, but nonetheless amazing). Love 'em or hate 'em, they are pretty much one of the most obvious symbols of innovative musical culture in our little «impoverished through too much enrichment» 21st century, so a guaranteed thumbs up here in any situation.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Carbon Based Lifeforms: VLA

CARBON BASED LIFEFORMS: VLA (2011)

1) VLA.

Short for Very Large Array, apparently, a radio astronomy observatory in New Mexico, known for important observations on black holes, protoplanetary discs, and other stuff that makes great fodder for young aspiring artists of the «sci-bient» variety. There's not much to describe — it's just one hour-long track consisting of a steady hum, recurrently shifting pitch back and forth. If you listen very closely, you will hear occasional additional sounds: some distant cling-clanging, a few lines of faraway electronic pulses, faint echoes of what may or may not have been voices... basically, you will find yourself in the role of a SETI specialist desperately searching for anything that might pass for a sign of extraterrestrial life. And failing, of course.

It would be too easy to call the experiment CBL's Thursday Afternoon — no matter how mini­malistic, Eno's hour-long static panorama could still qualify as music, whereas this here is just sound, with no melodic component whatsoever. Nevertheless, both are similar in that (a) you can basically play them starting at any point and shut them off whenever you like to and (b) the parts are actually very subtly different, but the difference is purely formal unless you agree to study the data under a microscope, and who'd want that? Also, strange enough, VLA actually works as a background setting — that hum certainly isn't «emotionally rewarding» in any sense, but I have listened to it all the way through while being busy with other matters, and it never got on my nerves, which might just be the point of the album. See, the whole thing represents the Vastness of Space, and if the Vastness of Space gets on your nerves, you probably don't belong in it.

I am certainly not going to go head over heels about it and spew nonsense about how listening to this record should expand our mind and enhance our conception of space and perceive our own limited, minuscule, and totally insignificant existence in this universe as merely a random blip in the overall immanent texture. (I mean, it's all true, but why not read a good book on cosmology instead?). But if you have an hour-long important job to do and you want to get a little bit of that «me so importantly locked up in my ivory tower with a telescope and stars for companionship» feel to help you get the job done, VLA might just be the perfect recipe for such an occasion. At the very least, it will make the time pass quicker... or slower, depending on the circumstances.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Carcass: Swansong

CARCASS: SWANSONG (1995)

1) Keep On Rotting In The Free World; 2) Tomorrow Belongs To Nobody; 3) Black Star; 4) Cross My Heart; 5) Childs Play; 6) Room 101; 7) Polarized; 8) Generation Hexed; 9) Firm Hand; 10) R**k The Vote; 11) Don't Believe A Word; 12) Go To Hell.

Well, I totally agree with the fans that Swansong can hardly even begin to be considered a proper Carcass album. Where are the insane tempos? Where's the guitar/bass/drum madness? Where are the gory lyrics? Pretty much the only thing that somehow ties this record to everything that was before are the growling vocals, and even these are constantly in danger of becoming comprehen­sible — this is arguably the first Carcass album where you can generally make out what the songs are about, and many of them are about... social protest and disillusionment... oh wait... are these guys turning into Bad Religion or what???

Not surprisingly, the album often gets negative marks from metalhead fans and critics alike, be­cause, well, those who want their Bad Religion can have it, and those who want their kick-ass melodic heavy metal à la Accept can have it, but this is like a total frickin' sellout — and, in fact, it was almost going to be official, since after the success of Heartwork Carcass, with new guitar player Carlo Regadas replacing Michael Amott (who went off to start Arch Enemy), were all set to go big, signing up with Columbia. Eventually, much to the relief of the indie metal crowd, the deal fell through, and they returned to Earache records; but in the meantime, the band members managed to spoil their mutual relationship, Bill Steer kind of got bored with the whole metal business, and by the time they mopped up the sessions, the group was pretty much finished.

That said, if you look at the general evolution of Carcass music, Swansong seems like a perfectly logical conclusion. Arguable as it is, I'd still say that it contains their most «naturally-sounding» and memorable set of tunes, even if it comes at the expense of downplaying the shock factor al­most to zero level and dropping the search for innovative production techniques and melodic layerings. A single example may suffice — the main riff of ʽBlack Starʼ, sounding like a nasty shrapnel run from a low-cruisin' airplane, seems far more evocative to me than anything on Heartwork, let alone all those earlier and messier tunes. It may be a minus, yes, that the track quickly begins to sound like a solid, but derivative imitation of Iron Maiden; but this will only lead us into the uncomfortable depths of discussing what matters more — quality/memorability or innovation/individuality — and I'd like to avoid that discussion in a set of Carcass reviews.

Anyway, at least they do not lose their sense of punny humor (ʽKeep On Rotting In The Free Worldʼ, ʽGeneration Hexedʼ), and at least these good riffs and melodic solos keep coming, even if I could totally see ʽGeneration Hexedʼ sung cleanly by Accept's Udo Dirkschneider and its riffs cracked out by Wolf Hoffmann — and most other songs are like a mish-mash of various metal substyles, from Metallica-Megadeth thrash to the British New Wave (the band themselves men­tioned Thin Lizzy as one of the influences at the time, although this is certainly not the first asso­ciation that is going to jump into your head). Actually, at this point the growling vocals in general are an unfortunate atavistic compromise —  songs like ʽRoom 101ʼ, with its mad prophet tale, were made to be sung cleanly: I close my eyes and try to imagine what would Ronnie James Dio have done with it, and once I do, the actual version begins to sound like a death metal parody of an unpreserved Dio track.

In fact, with a cleaner approach, Swansong would have made for a very impressive collection of «protest-metal» tunes — the melodies of songs like ʽTomorrow Belongs To Nobodyʼ have enough thunder and snap to them to sound convincing, and I cannot for the life of me regard Steer's and Walker's songwriting here as throwaway songwriting (well, apparently while they were writing the tunes and making the original recordings, nobody thought as of yet that this would be the band's last album). Blame it on the general narrowness of the metal formula that the record, stripped of the band's traditional grossness, sounds monotonous and devoid of individu­ality — a flaw that would have been more forgivable on an old school pop record, perhaps. But as long as you're cool with that general formula, Swansong should be a thumbs up all the way, and a perfect way to switch off one's career: now that the band has «matured» to the state of complete adulthood, there's no way further but down, and disbanding was the most natural thing to do.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Camel: Rajaz

CAMEL: RAJAZ (1999)

1) Three Wishes; 2) Lost And Found; 3) The Final Encore; 4) Rajaz; 5) Shout; 6) Straight To My Heart; 7) Sahara; 8) Lawrence.

Rajaz is an Arabic poetry meter that has traditionally been associated with the slow, regular pace of camel hooves across the desert — meaning that, all of a sudden, Latimer must have woken up from a prolonged dreaming period and thought, «Hey! Last time we actually justified the band's name was on the album cover for Mirage! Why do I keep calling this outfit Camel if all I do is sing about the Berlin Wall, the Dust Bowl, and Irish immigration?» And there you have it — after years, if not decades, of detours, Rajaz is a conscious attempt to (a) explain why the band was originally named Camel after all and (b) get back to its (Camel's) original roots, or at least pro­vide some reasonable facsimile.

Of course, this is not really a nostalgic revisit of the styles and sounds of Mirage or any of those early records. Once the initial positive reaction of the «wow! finally something different and attention-grabbing!» is over, you begin to realize that this is still very much a solo Latimer album, and that he is still relying on the same chords and moods, and that Ton Scherpenzeel is back on keyboards, and that Latimer's wife is still writing the lyrics, and that the best tracks are all grouped in the record's first half, and that it still tends to slip back into moody, draggy, Harbour Of Tears-like inoffensiveness every now and then, and...

...and none of it really matters when the album opens with ʽThree Wishesʼ, a multi-part instru­mental that employs complex and frequent tempo changes, for once, and even incorporates ele­ments of jazz fusion — first time in how many years? Even the keyboards, which had been Camel's weakest link ever since Bardens' departure, have been diversified, with Scherpenzeel using a whole array of organs and synthesizers instead of stubbornly sticking to the plastic string-imitating tones of yesterday. The track has a nice buildup, gradually evolving from a desert-like atmosphere of solitary blueswailing lines over a dusty synth horizon to a pretty art-pop gallop through said desert and then to bits of tricky jazzy time signatures and, eventually, even a mysti­cally-magically distorted pseudo-Eastern guitar solo which is probably the closest Latimer ever came close to sounding like Steve Vai in his entire career.

That is just to give you the general idea that things are on the move — like I said, do not expect too much change, but expect just enough to feel a new surge of life after the seemingly endless rut of the past fifteen years. When the vocals enter the picture on ʽLost And Foundʼ, the impres­sion is disappointing — the same kind of tender hookless ballad that we already know so well — but once they go away, it's back to jerky-jazzy signatures and tonal diversity, with no less than three different approaches to guitar soloing, the last of which, heavy on sustained notes, seems to be taking a serious (and efficient) lesson from Robert Fripp. More stellar guitar work awaits on ʽThe Final Encoreʼ, and then, of course, there is the title track — yes, the one allegedly composed «on the camel meter», and while it does not exactly conjure visions of camels all by itself (pro­bably because it shows no Eastern influence whatsoever in the melody), it's still a good example of «sick and tired blues», culminating in a drawn-out slide solo that helps make the accompany­ing four-note «camel riff» even more hypnotic.

As we get to the second half, things begin to get less and less exciting, with more languid ballad­ry like ʽStraight To My Heartʼ and fewer of these exciting jazzy interludes. Still, ʽSaharaʼ is largely similar in structure to ʽThree Wishesʼ (same mish-mash of New Agey ambience, happy art-pop, and Eastern overtones), and if only the grand finale of ʽLawrenceʼ weren't so stretched out — Andy, come back to your senses, you're no David Lean! — it would have made for a more convincing conceptual conclusion; but it's a little too slow, too repetitive, and too scarce on ideas that weren't already musicalized on the first three tracks. In other words, sixty minutes of music is overkill: by all means, Latimer should have restricted himself to the usual running length of the LP era. We know he's a first-rate guitar player already.

Still, there is no denying it: Rajaz is the best Camel record since Nude, and although I am sure it could have been even better (if, for instance, Latimer had bothered bringing in a more refined keyboard player, or if he'd made it completely instrumental), it's one of those reassuring moments when you know that you have not waited around for nothing — the moment when cobwebs are shaken off, the sleeping giant awakens (or at least bats an eye), and suddenly you distinctly re­member why you used to single out the band in the first place. A definite thumbs up.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Can: Rite Time

CAN: RITE TIME (1989)

1) On The Beautiful Side Of A Romance; 2) The Withoutlaw Man; 3) Below This Level (Patient's Song); 4) Movin' Right Along; 5) Like A New Child; 6) Hoolah Hoolah; 7) Give The Drummer Some; 8) In The Distance Lies The Future.

Maybe the best thing about this record is its title — while we could certainly question the idea of 1989 really being the right time for a reunion of the original Mooney-era Can, there is no ques­tion whatsoever that most of Can's music always represented a musical rite, and unless you take it as such, you probably lack the full potential of getting into the groove. The good news, then, is that this reunion, which really took place in 1986 somewhere in the southern side of France (where, as ʽHoolah Hoolahʼ tells us, they don't wear pants), fully complies with the «rite» thing and largely consists of danceable grooves presided over by a mad shaman (Mooney) who is, at least formalistically, still capable of sounding in deep communication with the spirits.

Nevertheless, the record was largely either ignored or reviled upon release, and critical opinion has not warmed up to it in recent decades — maybe because nobody really bothered: «reunion» albums are typically looked upon with suspicion, and, unlike «forgotten masterpieces» from a band's long-gone golden age, once condemned to oblivion, they can never be redeemed. The thing is, Rite Time is thoroughly retro-oriented: most of it sounds like the idea was really to make Monster Movie Vol. 2, and the very approach, for a band known for its relentless explo­ration of pathways into the future, must have seemed like heresy. When people heard it, and it sounded like Monster Movie without being as good as Monster Movie, well... people had plenty of far more relevant stuff to listen to in 1989.

Listening to Rite Time in retrospect, though, with the fields of time now compressed and flat­tened so that the chronological gaps of the 20th century are no longer as huge as they once seemed — the album is mighty pleasant. It does sound like classic Can a lot: same wild and complex work from the rhythm section, same bizarre mix of electronic and acoustic keyboards from Schmidt, same array of psychedelic guitar tones from Karoli, and not a single teeny-tiny indication that this was recorded in a completely new decade: apparently, the guys never placed much trust in either the digital synthesizer epidemics or the pop-metal guitar tone (for which, now that we look back at it, they really should be commended). Nor are there any signs of continuing passion for their late Seventies' excesses: Rosko and Rebop were not invited (well, Rebop could not even if they wanted to, having been dead since 1983), and neither disco grooves nor Carib­bean dance rhythms are any longer part of the masterplan.

The actual grooves range from decent to occasionally excellent: ʽOn The Beautiful Side Of A Romanceʼ, for instance, is built upon a convincingly grim interaction between Czukay's «earth­quake» bass rumbles and Karoli's responses, with further keyboard and guitar overdubs like sets of dark clouds gliding across the sky, periodically ruptured by bass thunderbolts. ʽLike A New Childʼ uses the guitar only sparsely, for thin supportive lead lines and occasional gentle pings, as life largely takes place at the intersection of the steady rollin' bass and (this time the white rather than dark) clouds of Schmidt's keyboards; the result is almost an ambient soundscape that kind of gives an idea of what Future Days may have sounded like had they thought of doing something like that in 1969. And while I cannot say that the title of ʽGive The Drummer Someʼ is complete­ly justified (Liebezeit is really no more active there than everywhere else on the album), the groove, completely devoid of any memorable theme as such, still creates magical tension — Czukay's overdubs of isolated guitar lines and keyboard bits, where anything might jump out at you at any given moment of time, show the old master's hand as efficiently as anything.

Mooney's contributions remain the most questionable elements — I do not mind the aging or weakening of his voice, since he almost never used it for conventional «singing» in the first place, but it does occasionally come across as grating, particularly on ʽRomanceʼ, where the stereo­typically «Jamaican» lamentation bits do not mesh well with the music. Something like ʽThe Withoutlaw Manʼ will produce different impressions depending on how much you are ready to not take this deconstructed tale of a well-known gun seriously — Mooney sounds more like a babbling village idiot on that one than a diplomated shaman, but ignore him or come to terms with him, and behind that there's still a cool groove and a great «twirling» guitar line from Karoli that's got some of that «bluesy slyness» to it, for no particular reason but still feeling good.

Perhaps the critics were mostly appalled at the idea of such an obvious musical joke as ʽHoolah Hoolahʼ, whose music and lyrics really fit in better with the likes of Weird Al than one of the world's most revolutionary musical bands. But even as a musical joke, it still got a hell of a poi­sonous guitar tone and a hilariously «Near Eastern» dance melody executed on Schmidt's organ, and besides, musical jokes had been in Can's repertoire for quite some time now; did ʽCan-Canʼ fail to already prepare you for this? Plus... it's catchy. Sort of.

Anyway, by the time we get to the somewhat ambiguous conclusion of ʽIn The Distance Lies The Futureʼ (a musically and vocally confused track that pretty much indicates nobody has any real clue as to what that future might be, and I concur), I feel convinced that there was a point behind the reunion. I'm not sure what that point was, exactly (other than the obvious «we still Can»), but the album never feels like a bunch of washed-up has-beens desperately trying to rekindle the old unrekindlable magic. It never feels like a totally self-assured and contemporarily relevant bold musical statement, either, but it... well, in the overall context it also gives this feeling of well-roundedness, where the band has come full circle, and its long, strange trip eventually brings them back on the same platform from where they skyrocketed twenty years back. Now they can really pack it up and go home with one last reassuring thumbs up — and, indeed, there's never been any attempt at another reunion ever since (not that it would have been even technically possible since Karoli's demise in 2001, but that's actually a different matter).

Monday, May 23, 2016

Alan Price: Alan Price

ALAN PRICE: ALAN PRICE (1977)

1) Rainbow's End; 2) I've Been Hurt; 3) I Wanna Dance; 4) Let Yourself Go; 5) Just For You; 6) I'm A Gambler; 7) Poor Boy; 8) The Same Love; 9) Is It Right; 10) Life Is Good; 11) The Thrill.

I am not quite sure if this was recorded and released before or immediately after the first attempt at the original Animals' reunion... but who cares? It's not as if you can see any faint echoes of «Animalisms» in this album, which seems to be continuing in the same direction as its prede­cessor — glossing Alan's image as that of a clean-cut entertainer with equal respect to vintage and modern forms of said entertainment. For sure, this «between today and yesterday» angle makes for a mildly interesting listen, but in fact the album's only saving grace is Price's humble charisma that even a bowtie cannot totally melt away.

The record is a stylistic hodge-podge — there's gospel soul (ʽRainbow's Endʼ), discofied pop rock (ʽI've Been Hurtʼ), sugary folk pop (ʽI Wanna Danceʼ), funk-pop (ʽLet Yourself Goʼ), Billy Joel-esque balladry (ʽJust For Youʼ), glossed-over rock'n'roll (ʽI'm A Gamblerʼ), and later on, there'll be some blues, some country, some vaudeville... no two songs really sound alike, which would have probably made the album a masterpiece if all the tunes had something new and stunning to say in their respective genres. Which they do not; but Price sings them all in his usual lovable voice, and oversees arrangements that avoid contemporary gimmicks and concentrate on quite traditional and well-constructed guitar and organ solos. (The screechy guitar solo on ʽLife Is Goodʼ is particularly well rounded — I have no idea who Rod Hendry, the officially credited guitar player, is, but if he's alive and well, please tell him that somebody still cares).

Most importantly, the «new» elements, such as the very well noticeable disco bassline on ʽI've Been Hurtʼ, are quite harmlessly integrated with old stylistics — really, that song sounds just like good old time barroom entertainment, just with an extra «hop quotient» thrown in for the sake of modernity. And I suppose that on ʽI'm A Gamblerʼ, Alan delivers a solo on the newly manufac­tured Polymoog synth, because you just don't get that sound from him or anybody else prior to those times, but it just adds a slightly «technophile» aspect to take away the generic flavor of this otherwise completely run-of-the-mill boogie number.

The only real standout on the album is ʽRainbow's Endʼ, which could have easily fit on any of Alan's conceptual records — a soulful, self-questioning epic with great interaction between the almost operatic lead vocal part (terrific falsetto flourishes at the end of each line) and the gospel-style backing vocals. Unfortunately, it sets the wrong tone for the record: had it been placed at the end, it might have mildly stunned us as a sort of ʽDay In The Lifeʼ conclusion to the overall «whimsy» of the album — as it is, it serves as an inadequately grand introduction to lots of plea­sant, but simplistic entertainment (although ʽLife Is Goodʼ, near the end of the record, tries to somewhat remedy the situation and bring back the epic vibe — especially with that guitar solo — but it is not as originally written as ʽRainbow's Endʼ).

Still a thumbs up, though: the overall combination of diversity, modest energy, occasional hooks, and personal charisma ensure that this is one of those «high-mediocre» albums where nothing specifically stands out, but the collective humor, emotionality, and taste produces a positive vibe all the same. Generic entertainment, yes, and, again, a far cry from the man's lucky streak of 1973-75, but «if all generic entertainment were like this»... and you can finish this one up in any way you personally prefer.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Andrew Bird: Are You Serious

ANDREW BIRD: ARE YOU SERIOUS (2016)

1) Capsized; 2) Roma Fade; 3) Truth Lies Low; 4) Puma; 5) Chemical Switches; 6) Left Handed Kisses; 7) Are You Serious; 8) Saints Preservus; 9) The New Saint Jude; 10) Valleys Of The Young; 11) Bellevue; 12*) Shoulder Mountain; 13*) Pulaski.

Bird likes to be prolific in so many different ways that the border between «basic» albums and «special» (live, ambient, cover, etc.) projects in his career tends to become blurred; but, the way I see it, Are You Serious is really his first «basic» album in about four years, since at least Break It Yourself — comprised of bona fide art-pop songs and nothing else. It appears that, after seve­ral years of fiddling about, the idea here was to produce something normal and accessible, reflec­ting his new family life and values, and, indeed, the songs are generally less cryptic lyrically and less provocative musically than you'd typically expect from the man.

And that is perfectly all right with me, except the record does little to shatter my belief that An­drew is about a decade past his creative peak already (which is not a crime — not even the Beatles had themselves the luxury of ten uninterrupted years of creative growth); then again, an album that pursues intimately personal goals need not necessarily strive for originality as well, and this one is just a bunch of family-oriented songs from the most light-footed loner in modern pop music, and should be taken as such, and enjoyed like a familiar, predictable, but still deli­cious gourmet dinner.

Most of the songs combine sincerity with catchiness and — how could we make without that? — a lyrical or musical allegory or two. The very first song, ʽCapsizedʼ, will reassure us that, happily settled family man or not, this is still the same old neurotic Andrew Bird, and he still needs some­body by his side when he has to pull it together, and there's just no telling how much worse things get when the somebody in question goes missing: "another break up, this ship is capsized", and we get archaic references to Jesus making our dying bed. The accompanying music is like a cross between James Brown and Tom Waits, borrowing the funkiness of the former and the hoarse, distorted approach to instrumentation of the latter, with broken guitar riffs that could have come from Marc Ribot (actually, they come from Blake Mills) — but unlike either of them, Andrew never loses his cool, so that most of the drama is implicit, reflected in the tense, suspenseful atmosphere but never breaking through to the surface.

It's all about paranoia, really — a set of songs written by somebody who allegedly feels confused and insecure around other people, and then finally finds himself in that embarrassing position when someone (even someone loved) is always around. "And if she sees you, it changes you / Rearranges your molecules", he sings on ʽRoma Fadeʼ to an oddly danceable and bizarrely morose beat, continuing and appropriating the old tradition of «love's a wonderfully dangerous and dangerously wonderful thing». It gets worse on ʽPumaʼ: "She was radioactive for seven days / How I wanted to be holding her anyways / But the doctors, they told me to stay away / Due to flying neutrinos and the gamma rays" — no, this is not misogyny, this is more like an inverted case of autophobia, with Bird's jerky, hopping staccato violin rhythms reflecting his agitated state of mind and the seeming impossibility of making the right choice.

Musically, the songs seem to draw upon all sorts of local pop traditions, from Mexican to Carib­bean to French to Celtic to good old 1970s R&B, but all the influences are softly converted to «Andrew Bird music», based on violins and jazzy guitars, and essentially it feels like the man has no preferences whatsoever — as long as the whole thing does not come close to stereotypical «rock» or «pop», and as long as he's allowed to keep that guitar / violin setup, anything goes at any time. One of the simpler, folksier songs is a duet with Fiona Apple (ʽLeft Handed Kissesʼ), who, I guess, could in certain respects be viewed as the female Andrew Bird, so the collaboration should come across as natural — yes and no, because with these two certified loners, they have no chemistry whatsoever, and even when they're singing at the same time, they're pretty much doing it without noticing that the other guy is in the same room, so... (actually, most of the time he's not even looking at her in the accompanying video, so even visually it feels as if they're talking to each other and to the wall simultaneously). It's kinda cute, even if there's a bit of pre­tentious artificialness to the performance.

In any case, the biggest deal here is that it's easier to relate to a record like this than it is to relate to most of Andrew's usual dialogs with his inner demons, where you really have to be one of the demons in question to «get» everything that is going on. This, and the fact that repeated listens will have the melodies to at least ʽCapsizedʼ, the title track, and ʽPumaʼ stuck in your head for days,  is what makes the record stand out a good bit from the rest of Andrew's over-inflated latter day catalog, even if it does not exactly promise a brighter future. Thumbs up, and a special re­commendation for highly sensitive boys with lotsa girl troubles, just to let you know that you're not alone, and maybe you should pick up some violin lessons.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Carbon Based Lifeforms: Interloper

CARBON BASED LIFEFORMS: INTERLOPER (2010)

1) Interloper; 2) Right Where It Ends; 3) Central Plain; 4) Supersede; 5) Init; 6) Euphotic; 7) Frog; 8) M; 9) 20 Minutes; 10) Polyrytmi.

I forgot to mention that, apparently, not only are all those album covers geometrically and styli­stically similar to each other, but even the tracks run in completely continuous order: thus, ʽIn­terloperʼ here is numbered 24, implying that the LP is to be understood as the third part of a com­plete whole — and, as it turned out later, the last part, although there's nothing here to instinctive­ly indicate any sort of grand completion of one's purpose. But if The Artist tells you so, then The Artist must be right, because there's nothing more sacred than The Original Artistic Intention. Even the almighty gods cower and recede before the stunning power of the OAI, so what's to be said of a simple humble reviewer?

Nevertheless, the simple humble reviewer will try to gather all the nastiness he can muster and state that Interloper brings no surprises to the table — it is still masterful, but it seems that the duo's grasp is weakening, as the sonic-emotional effect of most of these tracks becomes restricted to almost dangerous levels of subtlety. The title track features a single delay-treated electronic loop played out against a background of stately, but shallow-sounding Eno-esque synth tapestries: well-constructed, I admit, but so effortlessly sliding through the senses that I cannot, for the life of me, visualize it or emotionally experience it in any way. Not too pretty, not too ugly, and not even representative of an exciting parallel universe. I mean, if those were the sounds of a parallel universe, I might consider settling there (it's always a good perspective to settle down in a place where "nothing ever happens"), but go there as a tourist? No way.

The only track where something does happen is ʽRight Where It Endsʼ, with its more sharply expressed trip-hop rhythms, acid keyboard lines, and evil whispers. Incidentally, fans of the album often complain of this very track as disrupting the flow — I understand them perfectly, but the complaint can only register if you are really taken in by the flow; if you don't think the flow's too cool, then a little bit of disruption is actually good for the health. At least there's a definite feel of suspense and concealed danger here, and that's a good thing, because what's a parallel universe, really, if it's all safer than a mother's womb?

Everything else, well... my biggest beef is that it's way too long and way too even. The best masters of ambient, like it or not, still have ways to shift the mood from track to track, or at least to capitalize on a few brilliantly selected chord sequences. On Interloper, tones and overdub structures matter far more than chord sequences, and when there are discernible chord sequences, they sound way too much like adult contemporary (for instance, the melody of ʽ20 Minutesʼ could have very easily be encountered on a Phil Collins solo album, although he'd never bother to wrap it up in so many additional layers, of course). Or, when they hit upon a good one, they can spoil the moment with a totally unnecessary and generic percussion track (ʽInitʼ, which starts out beautifully, but do they really want us to slow-dance to it or what?).

With repeated listens, you can probably get used to the softness of it all, and, most importantly, Interloper preserves the warm human spirit that has always characterized CBL, but I have to confess that I thought better of them when they were drawing their influences in about equal measures from Eno, Tangerine Dream, and Floyd, than now, when they seem to be so much concentrated on «light» rather than «darkness» — because light always shines brightest in con­trast with darkness; and these guys are good, but not good enough to become absolute Gods of Light — the more they try to be, the more boring the results become. So, not a thumbs down, but definitely a step down from the quality of the previous two albums, although I think we really saw it coming (with music like this, holding on to an exciting standard for very long is downright impossible — not even a musical genius like Eno could boast a decade-long uninterrupted career of ambient masterpieces).

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Carcass: Heartwork

CARCASS: HEARTWORK (1993)

1) Buried Dreams; 2) Carnal Forge; 3) No Love Lost; 4) Heartwork; 5) Embodiment; 6) This Mortal Coil; 7) Arbeit Macht Fleisch; 8) Blind Bleeding The Blind; 9) Doctrinal Expletives; 10) Death Certificate.

This is where opinions begin to split, skulls commence to crack, and symposia of sickness start degenerating into pedigree butchery. For some people, Heartwork is the absolute pinnacle of the shivery art of Carcass; for others, it is an unforgivable betrayal of the primary values for which this band had so affirmatively stood up in the past. What's up with the sissy title? What's up with the symbolic, but generally inoffensive album cover? What's up with Carcass songs called ʽNo Love Lostʼ and ʽThis Mortal Coilʼ, titles more suitable for Celine Dion and, uh... This Mortal Coil? What's up with the lyrics being almost free of new anatomical terminology? What's up with the clean, almost sterile production? Where have all the gory times gone?

Of course, you cannot blame an artist for wanting to break out of a stereotype — and, let's face it, by 1993 the band's «gore-grind» schtick was getting old, not to mention that it had been success­fully picked up by quite a few newcomers, like Cannibal Corpse, whose primary point was to outgross the old masters, whatever it takes. Reasonably, Steer and Ammott must have decided that they had no real interest in competing with others in the grossness department, and that they would try something different — namely, to «clean up» their act a bit and go for a synthesis of grindcore brutality and melodic heavy metal, where the individual songs would have more indi­viduality while still being conjoined by a general atmosphere of viciousness.

Thus, only a couple of tunes here truly remind of the Carcass of old (ʽCarnal Forgeʼ is the best «retro» example), while the rest are strictly in the «melodic death metal» vein, with distinct, often seriously slow riffs from Steer and the usual classically-influenced leads from Amott. The vocals remain in incomprehensible growl mode throughout, which is a minus — I think that stuff like ʽNo Love Lostʼ calls for cleaner singing, but perhaps they were too afraid to bring in clean vocals, thinking that it would make them sound like Queensryche or something. Also, in terms of instru­mentation and arrangements, the album is surprisingly less diverse than Necroticism: there's no special effects, no sampled overdubs, no acoustic interludes, absolutely nothing to draw your attention away from the basic riff — solo — riff — solo patterns.

Although the vocals go so far in the mainstream direction as to sometimes arrange themselves in verse/chorus patterns, it is pretty hard to apply the term «catchy» to any vocal «melody» that sounds as if it were delivered by Satan suffering from acute constipation. However, the riffs are fairly strong and could easily withstand competition with any sophisticated classic thrash or death metal band — ʽNo Love Lostʼ, ʽEmbodimentʼ, the stop-and-start tricks on ʽDoctrinal Expletivesʼ all qualify, and these are only the slower ones; the faster ones, like ʽBlind Bleeding The Blindʼ, add breathtaking excitement without abandoning the melodic angle. From a technical standpoint at least, the general quality of the tunes — complexity of chord patterns, smoothness of transition from fast to slow sections and back again, thoughtful construction of lead parts — leaves little to be desired.

That said, it would be useless to deny a certain amount of disappointment: now that Carcass are no longer really an «extreme» band, they do fairly little to make the music stand out from the rest of the competition. This is just normal, high-quality melodic death metal with faint echoes of the band's original grotesque identity; in fact, we could probably go as far as to state that this was the beginning of the end — particularly with Amott quitting soon after the album's release to form Arch Enemy. The fact that the band retains its penchant for morbid song title puns like ʽArbeit Macht Fleischʼ (good name for a B movie about zombie-infestated concentration camps) and ʽBlind Bleeding The Blindʼ does little to conceal the fact that they are attempting to get serious, and maybe the last thing this world needs is Carcass being serious. Still, as long as the riffage is that good (although I couldn't even begin to describe the particular ways in which it is good without turning into a certified metalhead), and as long as they sound so excited about finding new ways to upgrade their image, thumbs up are in order.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Camel: Harbour Of Tears

CAMEL: HARBOUR OF TEARS (1996)

1) Irish Air; 2) Irish Air (instrumental reprise); 3) Harbour Of Tears; 4) Cybh; 5) Send Home The Slates; 6) Under The Moon; 7) Watching The Bobbins; 8) Generations; 9) Eyes Of Ireland; 10) Running From Paradise; 11) End Of The Day; 12) Coming Of Age; 13) The Hour Candle.

Honestly, there's not much to say about Harbour Of Tears after what has been said about Dust And Dreams. Here is another concept album about people going out West — this time, not from the Dust Bowl to California, though, but from the coasts of Ireland to the American shores: a voyage more remote in time and more extensive in space, and thus, liable for a bit more grave­ness and epicness. Expectedly, we add some Celtic overtones here, most noticeable on the ope­ning ʽIrish Airʼ — a theme first sung accappella by Mae McKenna, then performed by Andy on the flute, and finally, with a mighty opening howl, reproduced by him on electric guitar. It's a nice gradual transition from tender prettiness to wailing desperation, but it doesn't seem to have much of an original melody, and so, from the very start, you have everything that is right and everything that is wrong about this record in its first three minutes.

Right: the whole thing is permeated with quintessential Camel gloom, expressed in guitar tones, keyboard tones, chord sequences, build-ups, guitar solos, and vocals that sing about little other than toil, trouble, and grief caused by family separation rather than joy at the perspective of finding better life in a faraway country. Particularly good is that the sound is dominated by Lati­mer's acoustic/electric guitar and flute rather than keyboards (although Andy's new keyboardist, Mickey Sim­monds, is not much of a step up from Scherpenzeel).

Wrong: the overall level of energy seems just as low as on the previous few albums, and the monotonous mood leaves little space for surprises. The Celtic flavour is a nice touch, but you will hardly surprise anyone with a traditional Irish air in 1996, and besides, the flavour itself is really limited to only a few tracks — in addition to ʽIrish Airʼ, there's ʽEyes Of Irelandʼ, a stereotypical waltz that could just as well have been Lennon's ʽWorking Class Heroʼ, and a few brief instrumentals that are really more New Age than Celtic folk. The rest is standard fare late Camel dirge-rock. The most «progressive» of the tracks is arguably ʽComing Of Ageʼ, a multi-section composition with some tricky time signatures, but even that one culminates in a «Camel wail», with a howling two-chord riff as its culmination.

The biggest problem is that the album presents itself as a gut-wrenching emotional journey, but by that time, it had become such a typical routine for Latimer that you'd have to forget everything you ever knew about Camel to have your guts truly wrenched out. Burn down all context, and you might actually want to shed some tears in the harbour. Put all the context back, and you might feel yourself too jaded and weathered to spare even a single drop of salt water, because everything here is so strictly formulaic and predictable — predictable to the point that even after three listens, I cannot single out a single song in my memory. Okay, I guess ʽWatching The Bob­binsʼ has that suspenseful pause before the final line in each verse, that sort of makes it a little special. What else is new? Nothing.

Granted, if you are a big fan of Latimer's guitar playing, ʽThe Hour Candleʼ and a few other in­strumentals here are a must-have. I'm not sure how many chord sequences he uses that have not appeared on earlier Camel songs, but the blues soloing on ʽHour Candleʼ is tasteful and wonder­fully showcases his skill with sustained notes. Still not a match for ʽLiesʼ, though: too anthemic and pompous to really cut to the bone, if you ask me.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Can: Can

CAN: CAN (1979)

1) All Gates Open; 2) Safe; 3) Sunday Jam; 4) Sodom; 5) A Spectacle; 6) Ping-Pong; 7) Ethnological Forgery Series No. 99 ("Can-Can"); 8) Can Be.

This is unquestionably a step up from Out Of Reach, but much too late anyway. Actually, it is not that much of a step up — all it does is correct that album's most blatant mistakes, such as letting Rebop and Rosko write their own songs and sing them, or dabbling too much in African and Caribbean musical textures with which the (still) predominantly German team cannot really do a lot of exciting things. Instead, they prefer to expand on the legacy of tracks like ʽNovemberʼ and ʽSeven Days Awakeʼ — moody instrumental jams with tightly controlled grim attitudes in­stead of shrill, passionate build-ups.

Already on the first track, ʽAll Gates Openʼ, Karoli returns as the band's primary vocalist, decla­ring rather than singing the sparse lyrics in a semi-robotic voice, trying to feed the aura of mystery wih it — and almost succeeding, considering that the aura is also helped out with bits of swampy-bluesy harmonica (is this the first and only appearance of a noticeable harmonica part on a Can album, or what?) and strange swings between ominous bluesy «verses» and psycho-pop guitar flourishes on the «chorus» (or maybe «bridge», I can never make head or tails out of these convoluted structures of theirs). Rosko and Rebop are downgraded here to providing a basic funky setup, and that's the one thing they do real well, so on the whole, the track is a success, even if it is still way too quiet and humble to make much of a lasting impression.

The problem persists through most of the record — all of these jams sound good while they're on, but never leave any strong aftertaste. ʽSafeʼ, for all of its eight minutes, is dominated by the oscil­lating electronic groove in the background that resembles the orbital circulation of some noisy alien device — it's impressive, but it pretty much neutralizes the effect of whatever it is they're playing or chanting in the foreground. ʽSunday Jamʼ is a tight quasi-disco groove with juicy rhythm and lead guitar tones, but no memorable riffs or exciting solos. ʽSodomʼ slows down the tempo for a sterner, more threatening groove, but still does not come close to justifying the title: as a reflection of the activities of Sodom's inhabitants, the atmosphere is too lazy, and as a ref­lection of their (upcoming) punishment, it doesn't have enough bombastic echo or other special effects to make it worthy of the Old Testament. And ʽA Spectacleʼ, once again, sounds like a preview of the Afro-European grooves of Remain In Light, but the rhythm section and the funky guitars never seem to settle upon a specific perfect note pattern, and the results are messy.

The final two tracks are a big surprise, of course — it's almost as if the band members listened to everything they just recorded, and had the same reaction as myself: "Hey, we sound pretty good, but there's really no kick to all of this!" So they went ahead and, feeling unable to come up with something real hooky on their own, decided to make the weirdest thing possible — generate a Can-ified version of Offenbach's Galop Infernal from Orphée aux Enfers, better known to all of us laymen, of course, as the «Can-Can Song» — get it? Can-Can? Well, it was only a matter of time before Can would have to capitalize on the pun, as inavoidable, I guess, as the Rolling Stones eventually having to do ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ. Shamefully, I admit that the result is sort of hilarious, and that Karoli in particular does a tremendous job finding just the right guitar tones for all of the tune's separate melodies (although I think he should have gone all the way and used the «agonizing pig» talkbox effect on the main galloping part). It's even better when they then offer their own variation, in the form of ʽCan Beʼ where Karoli just goes off his rocker and begins Chuckberrying all over the place. But yes, of course both parts are just a desperate musical joke, no matter how professionally and humorously it is carried out.

That the band just faded away, without any official announcements of splitting, after the self-titled album (later also appearing under the title Inner Space) failed to impress anybody, is hard­ly surprising. The worst thing about Can is not even a lack of progress as a whole — more like a lack of conviction and passion: this is the sound of a band that is no longer genuinely interested in this thing they're doing together, no longer trying to get the best out of themselves. Oddly enough, no matter how much Can helped usher in the New Wave era, they themselves felt at odds with that era — their strongest and most genuine connection was really with older styles of playing, such as blues rock and funk, and unlike, say, King Crimson, they did not express a strong desire to fit in with the new crowds. (I mean, if they did have any such desire, why the heck did they want to team up with two old geezers from Traffic when they could have easily picked some of the talented youngsters? Even Fripp had to have Adrian Belew to make him feel young again).

So all we have to console ourselves is the knowledge that at least they left behind a decent enough swansong (I am leaving the reunion record out of this, for the moment) and, keeping in touch with their regular sense of humor, checked out with an elaborate musical joke. Which is a fairly tasteful way to end a career, but hardly makes for a rewarding listening experience — no subtle epiphanies here, trust me.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Alan Price: Shouts Across The Street

ALAN PRICE: SHOUTS ACROSS THE STREET (1976)

1) Glass Mountain; 2) The Waste Land; 3) Leave It All To Me; 4) Hungry For Love; 5) I Know When I've Had Enough; 6) Shouts Across The Street; 7) I Just Got Love; 8) Don't Stop; 9) The World's Going Down On Me; 10) Cherie; 11) Don't Try; 12) Farewell Goodbye.

This next record from Alan seems almost deliberately «low key» and even plain regressive, com­pared to the vivid panoramas of provincial British life that he set up on his last three. I mean, being serious about your native country is fine and dandy, right? But you can't do it forever; a man needs a break every now and then, and so Shouts Across The Street is a much lighter and a much less inventive affair. Here, we see Mr. Price falling back on some good old blues-rock and R&B grooves, as well as retaining his passion for vaudeville, but throwing out most of the social realism and replacing it with simpler tales of love, lust, misery, and happiness.

Not that it's bad or anything — «low key» is fine by me if the grooves are strong and the front­man is attractive, and as long as Alan is not impersonating Billy Joel or Barry White, he's doing okay. Unfortunately, he does impersonate Billy (ʽLeave It All To Meʼ) and Barry (ʽDon't Stopʼ) at least a couple of times, and these songs just sound like uncomfortable attempts at sounding «modern» for 1976; ʽDon't Stopʼ is a particularly corny flop, with embarrassing falsetto "baby, baby, baby"s and a soft-romantic piano-embellished funk groove that would at least require the presence of a uniquely sexy vocalist (like Al Greene) before it could even begin fulfilling its pragmatic purpose (bedding hot chicks). All that's missing here is a gold medallion on a hairy chest, but we don't even know if Alan had enough hair for the purpose — and in any case, he always had it better with a bowtie on.

On the other hand, all of the tunes here that have a more «retro» sound to them work better: even silly-named tracks like ʽHungry For Loveʼ, with a fun blues-based pop-rock melody and a memo­rable guitar line (played on something that sounds very close to 10cc's "Gizmo" guitar), are ac­ceptable, not to mention happy barroom shuffles like ʽI Know When I've Had Enoughʼ or lusty romps like ʽThe Waste Landʼ. On most of these tracks, Alan plays a careless clown, but his vocal and musical charisma have sure grown since his mid-Sixties singles, and he is now much less shy and reserved when getting into character, which makes him fairly convincing when imper­sonating either the chauvinist gigolo on ʽI Knowʼ or the midnight stalker on ʽWaste Landʼ (okay, so neither of these set positive social examples, but it's tough to stay clean all the time).

For something more serious, keep your eyes and ears on ʽThe World's Going Down On Meʼ, starting out with a chord sequence not unlike Harrison's ʽIsn't It A Pityʼ (so you can slap the «epic» label on it without reservation), but never really diving into the depths of misery: instead, it tries for an optimistic-sounding chorus that contrasts lyrical lamentation ("I think the world's going down on me / You can't imagine what I've seen") with beautiful falsetto resolutions of the chorus melody and a wall of sound with soaring organs and guitars — works beautifully when you want to aggrandize your misery and raise it to the status of Universal Tragedy, thus offering yourself some consolation in the process.

Still, by the time you get to the end, those final lines of "Farewell, goodbye / I hope I didn't make you cry" might seem self-ironic — to fans eager for more musical tales of Geordie life and social allegories, Shouts Across The Street may well have been a solid disappointment, and, of course, it did absolutely nothing to revive the man's briefly successful commercial career. Granted, it may well have been a conscious move away from being stereotyped as a new «working class hero», but in any case, the deed was done: the album ended his flirt with fame and fortune once and for all, and from then on, nothing would help — not even the brief reunion with his former band a year later, which took place right in the middle of the «punk revolution» and was doomed from the start anyway. And yet, now that we've left those times far behind and feel ourselves free to judge musical records based just on their feel-good quotient rather than their throbbing relevance at the time, Shouts Across The Street does come across as a fun listening experience on the whole (ʽDon't Stopʼ and an occasional «cock-rock» misfire like ʽI Just Got Loveʼ aside), and I could hardly deny it a thumbs up — after all, it's only rock'n'roll and all that.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Andrew Bird: Echolocations: Canyon

ANDREW BIRD: ECHOLOCATIONS: CANYON (2015)

1) Sweep The Field; 2) Groping The Dark; 3) Rising Water; 4) Antrozous; 5) The Return Of Yawny; 6) Before The Germans Came; 7) The Canyon Wants To Hear C Sharp.

In 2015, Andrew Bird packed his violin and some recording equipment, travelled all the way to the Coyote Gulch canyons in Utah, and conducted a serious scientific experiment to answer the question: "If one plays a violin inside a canyon, will there be an echo?" The results would not only be self-sufficient on their own, but would also function as a part of an installation (of course) presented at the Boston Insti­tute of Contemporary Art for three months, during which any Bosto­ner unable to scrape up the money for a ticket to Utah could come visit and experience what it would be like if you had to spend fifty minutes in a canyon, playing your violin.

Needless to say, we here at Only Solitaire immediately had to alert the trusty Bullshit Patrol; but, either out of sheer respect for the hitherto illustrious career of Mr. Bird, or for some deeper rea­son, perhaps, the Patrol refused to make an arrest, stating that, although the album is definitely expe­rimental, it is (a) eminently listenable and (b) experimental in the good sense of the word, as in, «somebody who is genuinely searching for new sounds in hopes of tapping into some hitherto unexplored corner of one's emotions». Nobody can insist that the tapping actually took place, but the attempt is at least curious, and at most — pleasant.

Obviously, this is an ambient-minimalist record, with Andrew Bird presenting himself as the Brian Eno of the violin, using it as an impressionist tool while various nature sounds (wind and water, mostly — apparently, there's nothing like an Andrew Bird violin melody to scare all the actual coyotes away) are reverberating in the background. But it is not particularly dissonant, and the things he plays are, in fact, quite diverse — ranging from deconstructed elements of some baroque violin partita (ʽSweep The Fieldʼ, which begins that way and then turns into more of a modern classical piece for violin and whistle) to loops of pretty flourishes without a cause (ʽGro­ping The Darkʼ) to attempts at emulating an Indian, sitar-like sound with the violin (ʽAntro­zousʼ). ʽBefore The Germans Cameʼ, despite the title, sounds like the man's tribute to Bach; and while I am not positively sure if ʽThe Canyon Wants To Hear C Sharpʼ, not being in any way related to the canyon or anything, that last composition gives the impression of somebody trying to play a serious blues jam on solo violin, with more Eastern elements woven in for good measure.

Therefore, to avoid falling into the iron hands of the Bullshit Patrol, you'd probably be better off forgetting about the general setting of the recording — honestly, most of the time you'd have no idea that this was not recorded in a studio, and who really cares? — and just view this as a set of experimental violin pieces played by somebody who actually understands what he's doing. As an ambient record, the violin and particularly Bird's individualistic manner of playing it make it a somewhat unique experience, and somehow it still manages to remain permeated with his lonely, melancholic spirit. Well, as Jimi said, "If the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art fell in the sea — let it be, it ain't me, 'cos Andrew Bird got his own world to look through, and at least he ain't gonna copy Vanessa Mae". And since I'm in no position to disagree with Jimi, the worst I can do is not give this record a thumbs up, because I honestly did not enjoy it that much — and besides, it's only the first one in an announced series that promises to bring you even more of those «echolocations» before the industry runs out of violin strings (including Rivers, Cities, Dungeons, Dragons, and Donald Trump's Esophagus), so I'm saving up on thumbs in ad­vance. But it's got mood-setting potential, all right, and it is Andrew Bird, after all: one of the few modern musicians with near-impeccable taste, whether you hate it or love it.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Carbon Based Lifeforms: World Of Sleepers

CARBON BASED LIFEFORMS: WORLD OF SLEEPERS (2006)

1) Abiogenesis; 2) Vortex; 3) Photosynthesis; 4) Get Theory; 5) Gryning; 6) Transmission / Intermission; 7) World Of Sleepers; 8) Proton / Electron; 9) Erratic Patterns; 10) Flytta Dig; 11) Betula Pendula.

No, I'm really not comfortable with this «psybient» term. Or, tell you what: let us keep it, but let's spell it differently — let it be «sci-bient», because this is what these guys really are: they are using ambient landscapes to promote various (but connected) scientific concerns. Look at the track titles here — the very first one is ʽAbiogenesisʼ (a term that I personally abhor as a linguist, because it should literally translate to "birth of non-life" rather than the surmised "birth of life from non-life"), where the music is supposed to serve as a metaphor for... well, you know. (It's a little odd that life had to originate to such perfectly programmed trip-hop beats, but then again, you weren't there, and certain carbon-based lifeforms already were. It's also odd that Nature gave signals to "wake up" in perfect English, transferred over imperfect radio waves, but that's what you get when Anglo-Saxon revisionism of natural history eats up the minds of even the starkest Scandinavian resistants).

Birth and various ways of functioning of life, as seen not from a religious, but from a fully upda­ted modern scientific perspective — and all the attached ecological concerns as well — this is what constitutes the «philosophic core» of World Of Sleepers, and it's all fine and dandy, but if you only had the music and no titles (or occasional vocal samples) to proffer any guidance, I am not certain that the symbolism could be so easily decoded. With a stronger rhythmic base than last time, but without any ominously overwhelming bass lines, most of the tracks here are just soft synthesized sound patterns over potentially danceable beats; sometimes pretty, sometimes suspenseful, but not particularly suggestive of monumental natural processes.

Thus, I suppose that ʽBetula Pendulaʼ, for maximum authentic effort, should probably be listened to on a nice, warm, slightly cloudy day, within the confines of an actual birch grove, illustrating the slim, elegant grace of nature (rather than the artificial consequences of a slash-and-burn ap­proach to agriculture that usually results in the appearance of birch colonies, but that's sort of beyond the point). In this setting, the interaction between clouds, birch leaves lazily swaying in the breeze, and CBL's slowly overlapping synth loops, gradually pushing each other out of existence without any malicious intent, is bound to achieve its double purpose — make you un­consciously eco-conscious, and become analogously charmed by digital software.

Likewise, the best way to enjoy ʽPhotosynthesisʼ is get yourself a textbook, learn all the details of the process, and then try to correlate them with the various stages of the composition, which gradually builds up from the same soft waves of keyboard ambience to a dynamic groove with «acid» elements, while a concerned male voice keeps asking the question "what about the fo­rests?", probably sampled from some environmentalist documentary or other (doesn't really mat­ter). ʽVortexʼ must have your mind spinning around as the main keyboard line is looped around the usual electronic windwall, creating, if not a real vortex, then at least a spiral; with ʽProton / Electronʼ, you probably have to think of yourself as a neutron, caught without a charge in be­tween the negative high-pitched pipsqueaks of the electron and the positive satisfied bass grunts of the proton; and as for ʽErratic Patternsʼ, I honestly have not been able to notice any, so I guess this must be some sort of hint — maybe the erratic pattern is you, as opposed to the perfectly sequenced mid-tempo groove of the track.

In the end, even if common opinion usually selects World Of Sleepers as CBL's peak, my own impression is that the album is slightly weaker than its predecessor — the atmosphere is just too soft and snoozy throughout, with nothing to really shake you up like that Floydian bassline at the beginning of ʽCentral Plainsʼ; and also, it seems to be making much more of a compromise with contemporary electronics than they used to, which somewhat dulls the impact. On many of these tracks, they could have made the electronic veils more thick and imposing, rather than sticking to the same kind of thin, ghostly sound that makes everything sound the same in the end. But all that said, the results are still impressive — a long, humble ode to Life as an accumulation of patterns that organize system out of chaos and then, through ever-increasing complexity, create the sub­jective impression of chaos once again. I sort of get that, even if it takes a trip of reason rather than an impulse of the heart to do so. In any case, a thumbs up.