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Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Cars: Panorama

THE CARS: PANORAMA (1980)

1) Panorama; 2) Touch And Go; 3) Gimme Some Slack; 4) Don't Tell Me No; 5) Getting Through; 6) Misfit Kid; 7) Down Boys; 8) You Wear Those Eyes; 9) Running To You; 10) Up And Down.

Perhaps Ocasek and Orr, too, had a suspicion that the magic did not work as efficiently with Candy-O as it did with The Cars — that the album gave too much of an impression that they were trying consciously and somewhat artificially to recreate what used to come so naturally and effortlessly. Either that, that is, or someone in the record business just slapped them around and said, «So you think you're some hot New Wave stuff? I'll tell you who's really New Wave — Gary Numan is! He's not even using any guitars now, that stuff's so on its way out!» And thus, as the Eighties rolled in, it was decided that the sound had to modernize.

Do not be misled, however, by the frequent descriptions of Panorama as a dark, experimental, less accessible album than the usual Carfare — sure it is somewhat darker, mainly because it relies more on bass-happy keyboards than colorful power-pop guitars, but there's nothing parti­cularly «experimental» about it compared to the general post-punk boom of 1980, and as for less accessible, well, The Cars were always oriented at the pop market, and even at their most deviant they had to look for instrumental earworms and catchy singalong choruses. And they were never a bunch of shiny happy people anyway — feeling miserable, if not on the surface, then deep down in the core at least, was always an obligatory component of even their biggest hits.

Anyway, I do not support the school of thought according to which, in basic quality terms, The Cars took a huge dip down with Panorama, and later had to go through a period of convales­cence and atonement with the more traditional Shake It Up. At least in the overall context of their career, Panorama introduces some fresh change — and, for what it's worth, the general quantity and quality of the hooks is hardly below the same parameters for Candy-O. I can certainly live with the relative lack of guitar (relative — it is still an integral part of the sound, and most of the solos are guitar-based), and I can understand the sometimes questionable stretch­ing out of song lengths: the band is getting a little bit artsier, and that means requiring a little more time for the build-up or for the groove to achieve the proper hypnotizing effect.

For some reason, I used to really dislike the title track — probably because the nearly six-minute length got to me in the wrong way, but I eventually grew accustomed to its paranoid groove, not to mention that, finally, we have a proper album opener for a band named The Cars, as its tempo and atmosphere are so perfectly compatible with a nighttime drive on a lonely highway. At the heart of what begins as a sort of proto-Depeche Mode synth-pop runner really lies a desperately frantic classic rocker, and it's worth waiting for the climactic moment at about 3:55 into the song when Easton finally breaks through with a crazy-aggressive rock solo, unfortunately, spliced into several small bits rather than allowing the guitarist to stretch out and spill it all in one mega-burst. It is their only attempt at properly doing that «bitter-fast post-punk wail song» that everybody else was doing at the time, and there's enough atmospheric tension and individual guitar / synth hooks here to stand the competition.

The three singles from the album weren't too bad, either: ʽTouch And Goʼ is melodically astute, going from a tricky polymeter structure in the verse (that creates quite a confusing feel) to a «relieving», bouncy ska-like chorus resolution; ʽDon't Tell Me Noʼ is the album's most robotic number, with a dark (generic, though) arena-rock riff and a mechanically soulless keyboard part that agree perfectly with Orr's half-human, half-machine vocals dropping lyrical lines that eerily resemble a modern chatbot ("It's my party. You can come. Don't tell me no"); and only ʽGimme Some Slackʼ seems somewhat silly in comparison, probably because the chorus is based on a really dumb-sounding hook (bad synth tone, too), but it's still catchy.

The non-singles, largely stuck on the second side, range from ironically catchy declarations of insecurity (ʽMisfit Kidʼ) to pissed-off rockers with increased guitar presence (ʽDown Boysʼ may have Easton's angriest guitar riff ever on a Cars song) to slow, smoky ballads stuck somewhere between old-school psychedelia and new-school adult contemporary (ʽYou Wear Those Eyesʼ: not a great song, but that's one great wobbly guitar tone Easton is using for the lead parts). Not everything is equally memorable, but, really, not a single song is openly bad — the craft and light experimentation that went into every one of them seems obvious to me.

It's not as if I were heavily recommending Panorama over Candy-O, even if my tone for the previous review may seem distinctly bluer than for this one. In Spartan terms of melody and hooks, the two are quite on the same level — the only difference is that here, they are trying to construct a different atmosphere, in which they sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, but at least it provides a feeling of artistic growth, and that's good enough for me. It wasn't good enough for the public, who weren't amused and pretty much humiliated ʽTouch And Goʼ in the charts (none of that depressed shit for the US of A in the happy summer of 1980 — not at a time when we have Olivia Newton-John singing ʽMagicʼ, at least!). But it's good enough for me to confirm another thumbs up and insist that, even if one hates it, one has at least to admit that Panorama proved that The Cars were not merely a well-oiled, perfectly programmed, finalized, and locked hit-writing machine operating on one single algorithm.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Captain Beyond: Far Beyond A Distant Sun - Live In Texas

CAPTAIN BEYOND: FAR BEYOND A DISTANT SUN (1973; 2002)

1) Intro/Distant Sun; 2) Dancing Madly Backwards (On A Sea Of Air); 3) Amworth; 4) Myopic Void; 5) Drifting In Open Space; 6) Pandora's Box; 7) Thousand Days Of Yesterdays; 8) Frozen Over; 9) Rhino Guitar Jam; 10) Mesmerization Eclipse; 11) Stone Free.

So brief and turbulent was the age of Captain Beyond that they pretty much forgot to leave behind the principal qualification proof of a genuine prog-rock / hard-rock ensemble of the 1970s, and you know what that is, don't you? For a long time, the only semi-officially endorsed product, distributed through their fan club, was Frozen Over, a bootleg recorded at the University of Texas in Arlington on October 6, 1973, when the band toured as a support act for King Crimson, no less, promoting their freshly released second album. Eventually a shortened and reshuffled version got an official CD release under the title of Far Beyond A Distant Sun (in 2002), and finally, in 2013, the complete show was released as Live In Texas on the Purple Pyramid label, specializing in cleaning out the vaults of various semi-forgotten Seventies' acts.

There is no doubt that the band could put on a good show — in fact, they play for almost as long as King Crimson themselves played on that same night, and I don't think Mr. Fripp would have allowed that if they sucked. The problem is the sound quality — the show may have been recorded by stage-placed equipment rather than from the audience, but there are no signs of mixing consoles, and although the results are technically listenable, they can only be recommen­ded to non-audiophile fans of the band. (For the record, there is another, an even larger, 2-CD re­lease on the same label called Live Anthology, with selections from live shows in 1971, 1972, and 1977, but I haven't got that one and cannot say if the sound quality is generally any better. Could be at least partially, because some of the recordings are from Montreux '71, some memories of which survived even in the form of decent video footage).

Anyway, (major) sound problems aside, this seems to be a representative and generally satis­factory portrait of the band at their peak. The studio recordings are not particularly improved or «muscularized» in a live setting, but the band is capable of retaining all the psychedelic colors and reproducing all the technically challenging grooves and instrumental flourishes (like Larry's cute «bumble-bee» bit on ʽDrifting In Open Spaceʼ, for instance — too bad his guitar keeps jum­ping in and out of the mix). Also, they don't have a keyboard player on stage, so all the keyboard parts are replaced by guitars — remember how I complained about the lack of a kick-ass guitar solo on ʽDriftingʼ in its studio incarnation? Well now, the song has a totally kick-ass guitar solo, as do many others. Too bad it all sounds so shitty.

There's quite a few surprise elements appearing throughout the show, but they're questionable. ʽPandora's Boxʼ is a lengthy mood-setting soundscape, slow, quiet, with minimalistic, almost ambient guitar serving as a backdrop for Evans' boring poetic monologue. Rhino's ʽGuitar Jamʼ is disappointing: the man is a very capable guitarist, but this here «jam» is largely just a test for one of his guitar tones — seems like some kind of an early talkbox, but it sounds as if he just disco­vered it and is testing its possibilities rather than intentionally using it for any specific purpose. ʽMesmerization Eclipseʼ starts out okay, but then transforms into a 15-minute drum solo: and, okay, Bobby Caldwell was a good drummer, but he did not have either the jazz versatility of Ginger Baker or the superhuman crashing power of John Bonham to deserve a 15-minute drum solo (actually, not even Baker or Bonham deserved a 15-minute drum solo).

They do close the show with a Hendrix cover (ʽStone Freeʼ) that is almost unexpectedly good — I mean, these days there's absolutely no reason to listen to it, but it turns out that Rhino could offer a pretty decent imitation of Jimi for those who still yearned for a live Hendrix-style sound in the early 1970s. So it all just goes to show that, just like in the studio they had enough ideas and good taste to qualify as a solid B-level prog outfit, so did they have their excessive misses and undeniable successes on stage: not a great band with an unmatchable vision, but a good one with real talent to burn. Too bad they did not have the opportunity to leave us a sonically worthy memento of that (live) goodness.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Can: The Lost Tapes

CAN: THE LOST TAPES (1968-1977; 2012)

CD I: 1) Millionenspiel; 2) Waiting For The Streetcar; 3) Evening All Day; 4) Deadly Doris; 5) Graublau; 6) When Darkness Comes; 7) Blind Mirror Surf; 8) Oscura Primavera; 9) Bubble Rap.
CD II: 1) Your Friendly Neighbourhood Whore; 2) True Story; 3) The Agreement; 4) Midnight Sky; 5) Desert; 6) Spoon (live); 7) Dead Pigeon Suite; 8) Abra Cada Braxas; 9) A Swan Is Born; 10) The Loop.
CD III: 1) Godzilla Fragment; 2) On The Way To Mother Sky; 3) Midnight Men; 4) Networks Of Foam; 5) Messers, Scissors, Fork And Light; 6) Barnacles; 7) E.F.S. 108; 8) Private Nocturnal; 9) Alice; 10) Mushroom (live); 11) One More Saturday Night (live).

A whole can of Can here — actually, three cans of Can, which is way more than can be canned in one can-sitting session. Apparently, these tapes were not so much Lost (because nobody ever really missed them) as they were Found, covered with dust somewhere in the depths of studio cabinets, after the original Can studio was sold and dismantled in the early 2010s. Thirty years ago, nobody would probably have bothered, but these days it's a bit different, and besides, it's not like Irmin Schmidt probably had a lot on his hands, either, so he set out to clean them up, digi­tally remaster the best of the 30-hour-plus recordings, and ultimately came up with about 3 CDs worth of material largely from the «prime» years of the band: actually, the earliest track here dates from 1968 and the latest one from 1977, but the main bulk comes from 1969-72, and in any case, the whole thing is just one big Eldorado for the loyal fan. (I assume that, since the tapes were «lost», they weren't even bootlegged, but I am not too sure).

Reviewing the whole thing is quite a challenge, though: on one hand, there's so much, yet on the other hand, nothing here reveals anything particularly new about Can. As it always happens with their archival releases, chronological sequencing is considered to be an insult and the different tracks are spliced together in a seemingly random fashion — not to my liking, because the best thing about such retrospective collections is usually the «historical curve», yet here we travel back and forth in time as if the driver were under some serious intoxication. Since I have no knowledge of Schmidt and Co.'s masterplan for this sequencing and wouldn't agree with it even if I did anyway, here's a few random notes on various tracks grouped together by chronology.

(A) 1968-1969, the Mooney years. This has the single worst track of 'em all — ʽBlind Mirror Surfʼ, a proto-early-Kraftwerk sonic experiment with electronic tones, feedback, and atonality that my ears cannot stomach: if you ever thought the second half of Tago Mago could sound ugly, wait until you hear this mess (honestly, it sounds like it was rather inspired by John and Yoko's Two Virgins than anything Cage-ian or Stockhausen-style in origin). Yet it also has ʽMillionen­spielʼ, a fast, tight, choppy R&B instrumental with a fascinatingly grim bassline (I think it has pretty much the same chords as Metallica's thunder-riff for ʽFor Whom The Bell Tollsʼ), flute and sax interludes, a whole bunch of different acoustic and electric guitar tones, and, on the whole, sounds not unlike something that Booker T. & The MG's would be quite willing to play. There's also two massive jams, the vocal-accompanied ʽWaiting For The Streetcarʼ and the wordless ʽGraublauʼ, that are every bit as good as anything on Monster Movie (ʽGraublauʼ is actually noisier and heavier than almost anything from that period — there's few tracks on which you will hear Schmidt torturing his keyboards Keith Emerson-style. Maybe they did not officially release it because they did not want people confusing them with The Nice).

(B) 1970-1973, the Suzuki years. There's actually almost nothing from 1970-71, for some reason, except for a somewhat disappointing ʽOn The Way To Mother Skyʼ — perhaps the title means that it was the first part of the jam that eventually resulted in ʽMother Skyʼ, but although the track features frantic tribal drumming from Jaki and a great guitar solo from Karoli, it is too hysterical and does not have the calculated coolness of ʽMother Skyʼ proper. The bulk of the material comes from 1972, and includes probably the highest point of the collection — a magnificent 16-minute long live rendition of ʽSpoonʼ, which begins with a rather loyal reproduction of the single (unlike the highly mutated version on Live 1971-1977) and then is transformed into a super-tight jam that simply becomes more and more aggressive and intense with every minute. Another highlight is ʽDead Pigeon Suiteʼ, which incorporates soft «folk-prog» passages, with gentle piano, chimes, and jangly guitars, only to blow 'em up around the 6:30 mark by suddenly turning into a James Brown parody, and then into the polyrhythmic groove that would eventually separate itself from the rest of the track and become ʽVitamin Cʼ on Ege Bamyasi. Come to think of it, had they included the entire suite on that album, it might have done wonders for its diversity factor.

(C) 1974-1977, the post-Suzuki years. This is the smallest, but not the most insignificant part of the collection, as long as we agree to not discriminate against the «silver age of Can».There's at least one mega-monstrous jam here that sometimes, in terms of volume and production, reaches almost orchestral proportions (ʽNetworks Of Foamsʼ); much of its quieter section is wrapped around the interplay between Karoli's wah-wah guitar and Schmidt's «bubbling» keyboards, creating the effect of taking place underwater, so that it is easy to visualize the entire suite as the brief life, underwater exploits, and eventual catastrophe of a brave little submarine, or something like that. The chronologically final track, ʽBarnaclesʼ (from 1977), is a dark funky jam that would have easily fit on Saw Delight, but they may not have found it atmospheric or catchy enough.

The important things to remember are this — the collection is diverse, the collection is well re­presentative of most of Can's sub-styles, the tracks are marvelously mastered for a bunch of tapes that spent more than thirty years gathering dust, and the whole thing is clearly a must-have if you know and love your classic Can. Yet, on the other hand, it opens no additional universes (not surprising — the tracks weren't, after all, left in the cabinets just because somebody forgot where he put them), it's got some real filler (especially some of the shorter ditties and links that I was too lazy to mention), and the entire package may not be worth all that money if you buy it at the regular price. Then again, I suppose that the grumbling is just the usual kind of grumbling that I grumble out against 90% of archival releases — but the appraisal, on the other hand, is the unexpected and unpredictable part, and the highest compliment that The Lost Tapes could tech­nically get from me is that I sat through all of them twice, without interruption (that's more than 3 hours of music, to be sure), and, except for occasional brief bits and ʽBlind Mirror Surfʼ, honestly enjoyed all of it.

So, obviously a thumbs up, although I am not sure I will be so pleased when The Lost Tapes Vol. 2, comprised of leftovers, or, God forbid, The Complete Lost Tapes (Deluxe Expanded Special Edition), con­taining all 30 hours, will end up on the market — which is probably inevitable in the long run.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Cher: All I Really Want To Do

CHER: ALL I REALLY WANT TO DO (1965)

1) All I Really Want To Do; 2) I Go To Sleep; 3) Needles And Pins; 4) Don't Think Twice; 5) She Thinks I Still Care; 6) Dream Baby; 7) The Bells Of Rhymney; 8) Girl Don't Come; 9) See See Rider; 10) Come And Stay With Me; 11) Cry Myself To Sleep; 12) Blowin' In The Wind.

It's too bad, I think, that the debut album of Cher as a solo artist does not include ʽRingo, I Love Youʼ — her first single, issued in 1964 under the rather hideous name of Bonnie Jo Mason and allegedly co-written by Phil Spector in person. It is such a silly Beatlesque pastiche (one out of hundreds, of course) that the only point of interest there are Cher's vocals, so unusually low for the time that, rumor has it, some radio stations refused to play it because they thought they were being duped. And although she probably had no say whatsoever in these early decisions at the time, the song still set a career pattern that would be rigorously adhered to for the next fifty years: if it ain't trendy, the dark-haired lady can't be bothered.

Fast forward a bit to October 1965, by which time the dark-haired lady had teamed up with Sonny Bono and became an international celebrity by means of ʽI Got You Babeʼ. No sooner had the duo released their first LP that Sonny put forward the idea of crafting a parallel solo career for the wife — a golden throne for her and a grave for himself, as it would later turn out, but seeing as how he, at the moment, was the only one of the two with songwriting talent, the poor guy obviously could not see it coming. And thus, with the release of ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ as a single and the same-titled LP quickly following it up, the green light was given to one of the most, umm, let's say «predatory» careers in show-business, ever. A career as historically instructive as it is almost delightfully tasteless, and one well worth studying in detail, if only because it pretty much reflects the entire history of pop/rock music in its crooked mirror.

Anyway, it's October 1965, and the Byrds are one of the hottest things on that side of the Ame­rican market that tries to be friendly to «mainstream» and «alternative» audiences at the same time, so, naturally, at this time Cher is a folk-rocker, singing pretty arrangements of Dylan (three songs), Pete Seeger and The Byrds themselves (ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ), Jackie DeShannon, and a bit of British Invasion to round out the picture (a cover of The Kinks' ʽI Go To Sleepʼ which they never released officially at the time anyway). No expense was spared during the recordings, as a large part of The Wrecking Crew was recruited for the sessions, and Sonny's production, though not as masterful as Phil Spector's, still managed to come close to capturing the wall-of-sound effect — actually, considering that most folk-rock at the time was produced by young bands without much experience or simply with no desire to go beyond minimalistic arrangements, Sonny had the advantage of merging the «innocence» of the folk sound with Spectorian bombast, and at least in purely technical terms, he did it well.

Of course, Cher's voice at this time is both an asset and a problem. Asset, because if you care for low-timbred female vocals at all, there's just no way that at least some Cher songs could not ap­peal to you — when she's really on, she's a powerhouse, and as calculated as the whole thing (and the whole Cher career) is, I struggle to think of a 1965 album by a female artist (white, at least) that would better convey the idea of «woman empowerment». Problem, because one thing Cher has never had is subtlety — she rips through all this material, diverse as it is, as if she had boxer gloves on throughout the sessions, and while this is perfectly all right for some songs, it is defi­nitely not all right (and, in fact, embarrassing) for others.

First, the highlights, though. ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ, set to the predictable, but tasteful jangle guitar and chime keyboard, is a stunner — definitely a song more suitable for Cher than even The Byrds, taking Bob's tongue-in-cheek joking chauvinist jab at over-intellectualized females and turning it inside out in favor of the other sex. It is actually the only song on the album where the lady sounds like she's having fun — playing around with her limited range and sometimes arching out that "all I really wanna doooooo..." as if teasingly mocking the song's addressee — and it's kind of a pity that the other two Dylan covers here are ʽDon't Think Twiceʼ (a tune that is not intended to be screamed out, whatever the cost!) and ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ, done in a manner as grand as any national anthem and just about equally stultifying. Of course, it would have been too much to expect her to go ahead with ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ (although she'd probably do a great job with it), and there'd be gender problems with ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ, but... uh... ʽMaggie's Farmʼ, perhaps?

Other tunes where she is vocally spot on include ʽShe Thinks I Still Careʼ, a bitter-mocking rendition of Dickey Lee's ʽHe Thinks I Still Careʼ; and a rousing ʽSee See Riderʼ which manages to pack just enough brawn and arrogance to stand up to all the sprawling competition. Some others are just bizarre — for instance, a reading of Jackie DeShannon's ʽCome And Stay With Meʼ that should have honestly been retitled ʽCome And Stay With Me, Bitchʼ: where Marianne Faithful, who originally performed the song, sings the lines "I'll send away all my false pride and I'll forsake all of my life" as if she really means it, tender and on the verge of breaking, Cher's natural, never-shifting timbre makes it sound as if she's totally mocking the guy — probably giving him the finger behind the back, too. I do not doubt that the irony was unintended, and that, like so many other titles here, it was simply a matter of poor song choice, but the effect is still hilarious all the same, especially considering that this is one of her best-sung tunes here.

Specific downers, on the other hand, would include ʽNeedles And Pinsʼ — Sonny wrote it, yes, but not for her, and she just ploughs through the subtle hills and valleys of that song with a vocal bulldozer — and ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ, where she seems to just lack the technique and even ends up singing awfully off-key in spots. And although the dreamy baroque arrangement of ʽI Go To Sleepʼ is a very nice alternative to the minimalistic piano demo accompaniment of Ray Davies, one thing Ms. Cherilyn Sarkisian will always have a very hard time to simulate is that feeling of late night loneliness without a loved one. (Oh, I mean, it might just be a matter of her voice, it's not as if I'm implying she never ever felt lonely without a loved one herself.)

Overall, this is just like it will always be from now on — there's material that lends itself to the Cher treatment, and then we're in for a hell of a treat, and then there's material that fights back, and then we're either in for a hilarious oddity, or, more often, for a corny embarrassment. But this is precisely what makes the exploration of her backlog such a fun thing — you find yourself in the position of an involved historiographer, describing the never-ending shift of balance between treats, oddities, and embarrassments, and isn't that what life's all about in the end?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Beyonce: Lemonade

BEYONCE: LEMONADE (2016)

1) Pray You Catch Me; 2) Hold Up; 3) Don't Hurt Yourself; 4) Sorry; 5) 6 Inch; 6) Daddy Lessons; 7) Love Drought; 8) Sandcastles; 9) Forward; 10) Freedom; 11) All Night; 12) Formation.

Look, I really do not want to Queen Bey in this «damned if you do, damned if you don't» posi­tion, particularly not when her latest album almost sounds as if she were personally responding to all of my criticisms for the previous one — well, not mine, obviously, but clearly her goal is to find that one perfect spot where she could have her legions of fans and the small, but demanding, detachment of elitist critics all roll together. There's no stone cold reason why the consummate hitmaker, the glitzy fashion icon, the fight-for-your-rights symbol could never grow into a real artist, even with all the difficulties brought on by fame and fortune. Well... come to think of it, maybe there is: at least, I'd hypothesize that if you were not a real artist before the onset of fame and fortune, the chances of your, let's say, «spiritual transformation» after you have been caught up in the cogs and wheels are pretty slim.

But still, at the very least Lemonade has a clear edge over Beyoncé in that here, it is at least interesting to see her take on the challenge — the record is much more turbulent, dynamic, and diverse. It's got some unpredictable collaborators, too: I mean, Kendrick Lamar could probably be expected at some point, sooner or later, but Jack White? (There's also some pseudo-crediting: ʽ6 Inchʼ, for instance, lists The Animal Collective as co-writers, apparently because one of the lines in the song somewhat reminded the production team of a line in ʽMy Girlsʼ — the result is an extra credit for Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist, formally as a safeguard against lawsuits, but I'm pretty sure the lady thought it cool to have some respectable indie names included in the liner notes. I mean, some people might actually think that way that she got The Animal Collective to work for her, you know? And everybody's happy — the guys will probably make more money off ʽ6 Inchʼ than they made off all their records put together, anyway).

Like Beyoncé, the record is all about herself, yes, but now that her daughter has grown up a bit, intimate family matters take a small step back, whereas her iconic status makes an advance. The very first single, which preceded the album by a couple months, was ʽFormationʼ, which, for all I know, could just as well have come from Nicki Minaj — people made a stupid fuss out of it be­cause it, like, celebrated Beyoncé's black heritage and all ("I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils" — first time I ever heard about the Jackson family as a metaphor for all Afro-Ame­rican people), but actually, it's more about celebrating Beyoncé's bitchiness: "I'm so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress" sounds just about right to me. She might slay all right, but the song itself is a mediocre piece of very routine hip-hop — and, in the context of the album, one of its weakest tracks, perhaps not incidentally delegated to the very end of the record, almost as if it were a bonus track after the much more logical conclusion of ʽAll Nightʼ.

Although it is somewhat atypical of the album in general, ʽFormationʼ still ties in with a whole set of other songs that focus on strength, power, independence, and various ball-breaking activi­ties — at least she's honest about it, because a whole album of whining by one of the world's big­gest superstars would be worse than pathetic. And I have to admit, I really like some of these. ʽDon't Hurt Yourselfʼ has a thick, dark, thrashing groove (not surprising for a song that samples ʽWhen The Levee Breaksʼ — as done by Led Zep, not Memphis Minnie), a cool arrangement of backing vocal harmonies that sound like they're appropriately and shitlessly scared of the lead singer, and enough metallic effects on Beyoncé's vocals to make Jay-Z run for cover ("you ain't married to no average bitch boy"). ʽDaddy Lessonsʼ is a mix of New Orleanian jazz and neo-country-pop (Bey going Taylor Swift on us now?) that unexpectedly turns out to be the catchiest number on the album (even as it formally defends the 2nd amendment, much to the delight of Uncle Ted Nugent — then again, isn't a country song supposed to?..).

Best of the bunch is probably ʽFreedomʼ, which was written in line with the Black Lives Matter campaign but avoids any direct lyrical references and could therefore qualify as just a general, abstract anthem to the nice F-word. Kendrick Lamar adds one of his intelligent poetic raps in the middle, but the song's primary point of attraction is still the chorus. Like most choruses for most songs called ʽFreedomʼ, it is lyrically clumsy ("freedom, freedom, where are you? cause I need freedom too") and clichéd ("I break chains all by myself"), but the bombastic ascent all the way to the epic resolution how "a winner don't quit on themselves" is totally believable. Even a rich superstar, you know, should be allowed to flex some muscle every now and then, and she's flexing it just about right on this tune.

Of course, a Beyoncé album consisting of nothing but kick-ass empowering statements would be unthinkable, and there are plenty of lyrical moments scattered throughout — some of them quite melodic and emotional, like the album opener ʽPray You Catch Meʼ (gorgeous harmony arran­gements, classy «deconstruction-style» minimalistic atmosphere, non-cloying sentimentality) or ʽLove Droughtʼ with its nice falsetto chorus; also, ʽAll Night Longʼ has a beautifully vocalized title, but drags on for a little too long. ʽSandcastlesʼ is a really bland piano ballad, though, that should probably belong on an Alicia Keyes album instead.

Overall, the album is still absolutely not my cup of tea — all that hot-electrifying-sexxxy aesthe­tics of songs like ʽ6 Inchʼ (is it about a podium model or a stripper? who cares, anyway) is ulti­mately just stupid, and although, thankfully, the album is not so thoroughly obsessed with the whole «self-empowering through sex» ideology that was at the core of Beyoncé, it still retains that angle; let, I dunno, Rolling Stone and the NME sing praises of it rather than the grumpy conservative Only Solitaire. But I was pleasantly surprised, this time, at how many of these songs actually stuck around, enough to suspect that from a purely musical angle, Lemonade may indeed be Beyoncé's (or, rather, The Beyoncé Concern's) greatest achievement so far. Strip away all the ideological elements for sociological gender-based analysis, forget the English language (most people outside of the US will probably not get most of the references anyway, and who cares what Red Lobster really means to a starving Afro-American family of three, worth no more than a measly 600 million bucks?), and you're left with a bunch of perfectly crafted vocal hooks, accompanied with elegant arrangements that meld together live playing, electronic programming, and sampling in an undeniably «artsy» style.

So yes, this is even better than B'Day, and so here comes another thumbs up. If she keeps it up this way, who knows, maybe the next album will feature Tom Waits as special guest and a fully credited sample from Can's ʽUp The Bakerlooʼ — I guess that she's now pretty much earned the right to do anything, and she'd be a fool not to use it to her advantage.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Caribou (Manitoba): Up In Flames

CARIBOU (MANITOBA): UP IN FLAMES (2003)

1) I've Lived On A Dirt Road All My Life; 2) Skunks; 3) Hendrix With KO: 4) Jacknuggeted; 5) Why The Long Face; 6) Bijoux; 7) Twins; 8) Kid You'll Move Mountains; 9) Crayon; 10) Every Time She Turns Round It's Her Birthday; 11*) Cherrybomb; 12*) Silver Splinters; 13*) Olé; 14*) Thistles And Felt; 15*) Seaweed; 16*) Cherry­bomb Part II.

Ambition begins to bubble here — Manitoba's second album is even louder and more colorful than the first, and goes on to spread its tentacles in even more directions. By 2003, Dan Snaith had staked his claim somewhere midway between Sufjan Stevens and The Animal Collective, although I would guess that the major influence on Up In Flames was neither, but rather an older artist — My Bloody Valentine, whose psychedelic production techniques Dan must have studied at length, because some of this stuff (such as ʽKid You'll Move Mountainsʼ ) often tends to sound precisely like MBV at their most trippiest: woozy, delirious grooves with interlaced ghostly over­dubs and whiffs of vocals that are sometimes felt more than heard.

As derivative as the overall style tends to be, it is still Dan's own: there's not enough somnam­bulant guitar drone here to qualify as «shoegaze», way too much non-electronic instrumentation to count as «electronica», and way too many borrowings from all sorts of musical genres to con­form to the already poorly understood definition of «folktronica». «Psychedelic» is the only term that fully applies, largely due to its inborn vagueness — this is music from another dimension, although, in nice contrast to much competition, it does not brag about its origins, but rather just behaves in an orderly, ordinary manner, humbly inviting you to try out the rabbit-hole instead of pulling you there by force.

The musical skeletons of these songs are less jazzy than before, and owe more to folk, classic Brit-pop, baroque pop, and even dance-pop — but really, the skeletons should be of more interest to musicologists than simple music listeners, because the sonic textures clearly take precedence here over basic composition. Once the groove is set up (and this is usually done quickly: Snaith is no lover of overlong intros), Snaith opens his mid-size bag of tricks and pulls stuff out largely at random — bombastic percussion bursts, pastoral flute passages, avantgarde jazz brass blows, angelic vocal chants, astral noises, and sometimes all of it at once (ʽBijouxʼ). Although it does have the unfortunate effect of making all the songs sound the same, the soothing countereffect is that Up In Flames is a pretty short record, and we could all stand fourty minutes of a same-soun­ding universe that could be best described as «trying to interpret the Animal Collective for a five-year old kid», or «a cross between Loveless and Sesame Street».

My only real problem with the record is the old «middle-of-the-road» problem: it all sounds very, very nice, but it never blows the mind in quite such a decisive way as its influences or the best of its contemporaries. Even when the man goes for a really large, quasi-epic sound, like on the sup­posedly climactic grande finale of ʽEvery Time She Turns Roundʼ, it still seems quiet and cloudy and a little too messy. All these sounds — the electronic blips, the sax farts, the chimes, the bells, the whistles — seem like packs of scurrying ants and other tiny insects under your feet, a hustle-bustle that is nice to observe from a certain vantage point, but hard to get into. Like I already said, at times this seems to be an advantage (humility, lack of emotional manipulation, etc.), but at other times you feel like he's gone too far in the other direction and does not give a damn about properly involving the listener at all. And that can be a little maddening.

Nevertheless, on the whole this is a major step forward from Start Breaking My Heart — more complex in almost every respect, and positioning Snaith in the respectable camp of people with a floating, rather than fixed, formula of self-improvement. And if you like this at least as much as I do, and definitely if you like this more than I do, go for the more recent expanded 2-CD edition that adds seven extra tracks: some of these, like ʽCherrybombʼ, go heavy on samples and dance beats and could work well on the floor, while others, like ʽSeaweedʼ, are more firmly rooted in the baroque-pop soil, merry chimes and all. Essentially more of the same, but focusing almost exclusively on the instrumental side of things. Thumbs up.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Cars: Candy-O

THE CARS: CANDY-O (1979)

1) Let's Go; 2) Since I Held You; 3) It's All I Can Do; 4) Double Life; 5) Shoo Be Doo; 6) Candy-O; 7) Night Spots; 8) You Can't Hold On Too Long; 9) Lust For Kicks; 10) Got A Lot On My Head; 11) Dangerous Type.

The «carbon copy» principle does not necessarily lead to failure — one need only mention the classic example of Strange Days doing everything that The Doors did and more — but with The Cars, we have a classic example of the opposite: Candy-O is just like The Cars, featuring all the same ingredients, but completely missing the magic of its predecessor. It's such a direct slap in the face, and, strange as it is, so many people have noticed this and commented on it that a de­tailed, professional-musicological comparison of the two records could probably lead to major scientific breakthroughs on our perception of music in general, and I'm dead serious.

As an incentive, just take the case of the opening tracks. ʽLet's Goʼ is a good pop-rock single that also opens with the juxtaposition of old-school rock guitar and new-school futuristic synthesizer, also has a catchy singalong chorus, and also has some of that detached, ironic cool. It's a nice song to brighten up your day — but it just ain't ʽGood Times Rollʼ, because ʽGood Times Rollʼ had a certain amount of sonic depth to it. The guitar lick was snapping and barking, the synth counter-response went kick-ass, kick-ass, the vocal was bitterly desperate, the post-chorus key­board flourish was an anthemic fanfare. There, you had a feeling like something was really hap­pening. ʽLet's Goʼ, in comparison, is just a bit of light-headed fluff — there's no double bottom to this song, no intrinsic bite to the guitar or keyboard melodies, and even the lyrics, come to think of it, are just a 1979 take on ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ ("and she won't give up 'cause she's seventeen" is, after all, a dead giveaway).

Alas, the same relative disappointment applies to just about any song on the album — every­where you go, you are greeted with the same simple, endearing, fluffy synth-adorned power-pop, decently composed, arranged, and performed, but with very little lasting value, and very little, in fact, to distinguish it from any similar New Wave pop from the era. Some of the choruses are fabulously catchy, yes, mainly through being so repetitive (ʽIt's All I Can Doʼ), but it is only on the guitar-heavy title track, with Orr's almost Kraftwerkian robotic vocals, the relentless mecha­nistic punch of the rhythm guitar, and the weird alternation of power chords and pseudo-classical arpeggios in the guitar solo, where I am reminded that this is indeed the same band that made The Cars into one of the epoch's most symbolic albums.

I wish I could say that the main problem of Candy-O is that it focuses too much on «silly love songs», but so did The Cars — it's not as if these songs are really that much «sillier» by defini­tion. In fact, repeated listens bring out favorable points almost everywhere. ʽNight Spotsʼ has a classy guitar riff, and it's fun to see it clash with Hawkes' keyboards as they occasionally imitate the sound of equipment heating up and ready to explode. The "it's all gonna happen to you" cho­rus of ʽDouble Lifeʼ is elegantly attenuated by Easton's slide guitar licks, giving it a touch of class. ʽGot A Lot On My Headʼ is frantic fun, opening with a power-pop riff that lesser bands would kill for, and you just gotta love how it explodes right before the beginning of the verse, scintilla­ting in little flaming fragments away in the stratosphere. In fact, not a single song even begins to approach «bad» — I am not exactly sure about the function of the brief echoey experiment of ʽShoo Be Dooʼ, which sounds like a psycho-New Wave impersonation of Gene Vincent, but at least it's a curious experiment, regardless of whether it succeeds or not.

Overall, it's just like this: imagine an album like Rubber Soul immediately followed, rather than preceded, by a... Please Please Me, then imagine your reaction at such a twist. In time, you'd probably learn to fall under the charm of both, but the first feeling of disappointment (especially if this had really happened around 1965-66 and you were there at the time) would pro­bably stay with you for the rest of your life. And this is pretty much what happened here — Candy-O has the same pretty face as The Cars, but there's no teeth in that pretty mouth once it begins to smile at you. Perfectly enjoyable, but I never ever even get the urge to sing along to any of these songs because I don't feel like they have enough soul in them, and it's hard to empathize. Maybe it would have been better to have them all as instrumentals? Anyway, still a thumbs up for all the cool melodies, but a major relative disappointment that certainly does not deserve getting a Roxy Music-inspired album cover — where's the appropriate decadence, goddammit?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Captain Beyond: Dawn Explosion

CAPTAIN BEYOND: DAWN EXPLOSION (1977)

1) Do Or Die; 2) Icarus; 3) Sweet Dreams; 4) Fantasy; 5) Breath Of Fire: A Speck Within A Sphere; 6) Breath Of Fire: Alone In The Cosmos; 7) If You Please; 8) Midnight Memories; 9) Space Interlude; 10) Oblivion; 11) Space Reprise.

They should probably have retitled the band «Beyond Captain» for this one. Apparently, by 1976 most of the original members found themselves with nothing to do, and decided to have another shot — all except Rod Evans, who went into respiratory therapy instead (giving a whole new meaning to the words "Hush! Hush!"). So Caldwell, Dorman, and Reinhardt had to find them­selves a new vocalist. His name was Willy Daffern, he came from nowhere in particular (I think he worked for The Standells a bit in the late 1960s), and he sucked.

Well, maybe not «sucked», precisely, but he belonged to the same cohort of loud-mouthed, text­bookishly «soulful», pompous (white) vocalists that also included David Coverdale, Glenn Hughes, Lou Gramm, miriads of them — at least Rod Evans never pretended to operatic qualities, and he had a somewhat somber and humble tone that worked well with the band's loud music, whereas this guy has no subtlety whatsoever, even if in terms of range and technique he might have been slightly better qualified than Evans.

Most of the complaints about Dawn Explosion, however, are usually targeted not against the vocalist, but against the music — this is just hard rock without any progressive ambitions, the fans complain, and the record's intelligence quotient falls way below acceptable standards. I find these accusations a bit too far-fetched: for sure, there's a lot of hard rock riffage here, but it's not as if they turned into Thin Lizzy or AC/DC overnight. There are multi-part suites here, too, and soulful ballads, and psychedelic interludes, and even a jazz-fusion instrumental. And even the hard rock numbers are not aggressive, but rather celebratory, just as they used to be. There's no attempt here to reorient the band in another direction — there is an attempt to make it somewhat adapt to the times, with «arena-rock» overtones, but the basic combination of heaviness, psyche­delia, and pop instincts remains intact.

The main problem remains the same — the songs are just not good enough to warrant an auto­nomous existence in some personalized VIP cell inside your brain; and coupled with the issue of a new and annoying vocalist, and especially if placed in the context of 1977 with its major changes of musical aesthetics, Dawn Explosion cannot help being somewhat disappointing. I like the riffs — ʽFantasyʼ kicks ass through all of its six minutes (although they probably shouldn't have been ripping off Deep Purple's ʽBloodsuckerʼ), and the opening riff of the ʽBreath Of Fireʼ suite is like a respectable gentleman's take on Aerosmith's ʽWalk This Wayʼ, and ʽIf You Pleaseʼ sounds as if it were inspired by the Beatles circa 1965 — but I do not find them sufficiently in­spired or original to last a long time beyond basic operative memory.

Overall, if you do not mind the vocals, the entire record is perfectly listenable, and Reinhardt's soloing on ʽFantasyʼ, the power ballad ʽMidnight Memoriesʼ, and the second part of the ʽBreath Of Fireʼ suite is genuinely ecstatic-emotional. (ʽOblivionʼ, curiously enough, sounds very close to the jazz-hard-rock of Gary Moore's G-Force, which Daffern would be briefly joining a couple years from then). As far as «old school rock» from the first years of New Wave is concerned, Dawn Explosion is nowhere near the fat bottom of the list. But it is doubtful that a record like this could drag even a single young fan away from New Wave's fresh appeal. Naturally, it sold very little, and the band found itself falling apart once again in 1978.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Can: Live Music 1971-1977

CAN: LIVE MUSIC 1971-1977 (1999)

1) Jynx; 2) Dizzy Dizzy; 3) Vernal Equinox; 4) Fizz; 5) Yoo Doo Right; 6) Cascade Waltz; 7) Colchester Finale; 8) Kata Kong; 9) Spoon.

This one is somewhat more official. This double CD compilation first came out as an integral part of the Can boxset in 1999, but later on became generously available as a separate archival album in its own rights — although, clearly, it should be not be a part of any collection that does not already include all of the band's principal studio recordings.

As usual, the track listing is a bit of an (intentional) mess. Even though the title says 1971 (pro­bably to lure in ardent fans of Tago Mago), the earliest recordings here are from 1972, and the entire first disc is assembled from performances in the UK and Germany in 1975 and 1977; addi­tionally, the quality of the sound varies significantly from track to track, predictably worsening for the early dates and improving for the latter ones (an aggravating matter for Suzuki fans, but then Suzuki always sounds like crap even on the studio recordings — seems like he regarded singing directly into the mike as a way-too-binding procedure).

Still, the almost 40-minute long ʽColchester Finaleʼ, a lengthy improvisation that was, indeed, recorded at Colchester (University of Essex), is well worth any serious fan's money. Non-serious fans will not find any major surprises, and some might even complain about a lack of focus as reflected in the often chaotic rather than metronomic drumming on Jaki's part, but my only com­plaint is the acoustics at the University of Essex, which prevents me from savoring all the tasty nuances of the band's guitar and bass players. The band is totally in Tago Mago mode here, not quite as ferocious as on ʽUp The Bakerlooʼ, but, fortunately, the last third of the performance is nothing other than ʽHalleluhwahʼ, on which Liebezeit really comes to life and the band culmi­nates in a noisy, explosive climax that sounds as if it might have been fatal for some of their equipment (though probably not — Who-style destruction was not one of their trademarks).

On the other hand, the entire ʽColchester Finaleʼ has nothing but its impressive length factor on the 14-minute version ʽSpoonʼ from Cologne, with much better sound quality and a throbbing intensity that just goes on and on — they almost literally play it according it to the «stop when you drop» principle. The original pseudo-pop three-minute single is taken here as merely a pre­text, or, rather, it is the single version that should be now regarded as a «taster» of the real ritual to come, because no self-respecting supernatural spirit is going to reply to a meager three-minute summon — but the ruckus they raise with these 14 minutes, on the other hand, suffices to make everybody who matters crawl out of their graves.

The real good news is that the 1975 performances, despite the lack of Suzuki and the general feel of the band having already outlived its «peak period», are every bit as musically strong: the non-album improv ʽJynxʼ, the extended version of ʽVernal Equinoxʼ from Landed, and the unexpec­ted return of the old Malcolm Mooney warhorse ʽYoo Doo Rightʼ, but with next to no vocals this time, all qualify as powerful voodooistic rituals in their own right. ʽJynxʼ is the more avantgarde of the three, with heavy emphasis on percussion and psychedelic / industrial sound effects, but it still has enough funky bottom to it to be considered a proper musical groove, and Karoli's blues / funk / classically-influenced soloing on ʽYou Doo Rightʼ is just wonderful to observe — an effort­less flight of the imagination that shifts direction every 15 seconds or so.

Only the two tracks from 1977, with Rosko Gee on bass, predictably pale next to everything else, but they are (a) short, (b) well-recorded, and (c) still moody enough to act as breathers between all the hard, hot stuff. Besides, ʽCascade Waltzʼ is actually from Flow Motion, and ʽFizzʼ is dark and spooky enough to fit on Saw Delight, so it's not as if they didn't fit in here somehow. It might have made more sense to correct the track listing and shift them towards the end, but I guess the idea was to save the best for last — so that, once you begin to think you can't have any more, ʽSpoonʼ would come up and bury you six feet under.

Anyway, I am honestly not sure about just how many live albums like these the band could shake out of its vaults — considering the sheer amount of hours they spent playing with the recording equipment on — but I do suppose that these tracks were not selected randomly, and that they truly represent the band at its live best (questionable and vague as that notion is when so much of your music is improvised), so there's hardly an option here not to give it a major thumbs up. But do remember that, for the most part, this is Can at their most extreme: a 40-minute long jam from these guys is not the same thing as a 40-minute long prog-rock epic à la Thick As A Brick, and unless you are a strong believer in the healing powers of long, repetitive, hypnotic jamming with no post-production treatment, you'd better go back to the «doctored» studio tracks, where mo­mentary inspiration was always tempered with symbolic reasoning, and a pair of scissors.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Alan Price: A Gigster's Life For Me

ALAN PRICE: A GIGSTER'S LIFE FOR ME (1995)

1) Boom Boom; 2) Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie-Woogie Flu; 3) Rollin' Like A Pebble In The Sand; 4) I Put A Spell On You; 5) Good Times / Bad Woman; 6) Some Change; 7) Enough Is Enough; 8) Whatcha Gonna Do; 9) A Gigster's Life For Me; 10) (I Got) Business With The Blues; 11) How You've Changed; 12) Old Love; 13) What Am I Living For; 14) Say It Isn't True.

Liberty was pretty much the last of Alan Price's attempts to record a more or less complete LP of new material. Either he ran out of inspiration, or he just got tired of all his records selling poorly (he probably makes more royalties off ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ these days than he does off his entire solo career anyway), or both, but anyway, the fact remains that Alan Price as a productive songwriter entered a period of decline in the 1980s and kicked the bucket in the 1990s.

Playing and touring was another matter, though, and for those purposes, sometime around 1994 Alan formed a «supergroup» of sorts, called The Electric Blues Company and featuring some of his old friends and colleagues — Peter Grant, who already played with him in the 1980s, on bass; Bobby Tench (formerly a sideman with Van Morrison, Freddie King, Jeff Beck, Ginger Baker, and many other far more famous people than himself) on guitar; and Zoot Money, one of Britain's most renowned sidemen, on guitar and keyboards. (Drummer Martin Wilde is the only dark horse, and I can sort of see why).

For the most part, these guys just played together, soending a lot of time on the road; in between touring, they did, however, venture into the studio as well, recording the dull-titled Covers in 1994 (haven't heard that one and would be very reluctant to try it out — not another version of ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ, dear Lord!), and the slightly more colorful Gigster's Life For Me in 1995, which was picked up by Sanctuary's «Masters Of Blues» series and for that reason remains the somewhat easier available album of the two. And, clearly, the more interesting, because it focuses on slightly more obscure material than Covers, as well as offers at least a couple Price originals for those few admirers who are always waiting.

Unfortunately, unlike the surprisingly enthusiastic Thom Jurek from the All-Music Guide who even resorted to the word "terrific" to describe the album, I can only confess to having been deeply and profoundly bored all through Gigster's Life's inadequate hour-plus running length. Unless you just got to have yourself some retro-oriented, uninventive, run-of-the-mill blues-rock from 1995, the record has very little to recommend it, and, most importantly, it does not sound like a proper Alan Price record — true to its name and nature, it sounds like the results of a session on which Alan Price is a bit player. He does not even sing lead vocals on most of the tracks (Bobby Tench and Zoot Money handle them, and both sound like your average rockabilly singer in the local bar on a Saturday night), although on the rare occasion when he does, the level of excitement sweeps up considerably: for instance, Rudy Toombes' ʽRollin' Like A Pebble In The Sandʼ is a nice jazzy ballad — nothing special, just nice.

But there is nothing nice whatsoever about limp versions of old classics like ʽBoom Boomʼ or ʽRockin' Pneumoniaʼ, played with some pretense to rock'n'roll energy but sounding totally un­inspired and pro forma. There is nothing nice about yet another version of ʽI Put A Spell On Youʼ — even the old rendition from the late Sixties was nowhere near the true capacities of Alan Price, and how could he ever hope to compete with the likes of Screaming Jay Hawkins or John Fogerty thirty years later? There's nothing nice about a long, lazy, unfocused rendition of ʽWhat Am I Living Forʼ, a three-minute R&B song at best that has been slowed down to five. There's totally nothing nice about yet another version of Jackson Browne's ʽSay It Isn't Trueʼ — eleven minutes? you must be joking. Most ridiculous of all, there is nothing nice about the band selec­ting, out of all of Eric Clapton's catalog, ʽOld Loveʼ from the Journeyman album: I have actually always thought that this blues ballad has potential, but it was not properly realized with the ori­ginal arrangement and neither was it properly performed here (Eric can sometimes make the song come to life in concert, and maybe these guys could, too — who really knows? — but in the studio, it only shows a brief sign of pulse in the transition from verse to chorus).

The only thing I can say in favor of the record is that Bobby Tench is a damn good guitar player when he really puts his heart to it — based on some of his solos (most notably on the Boz Scaggs cover ʽSome Changeʼ and on the Peter Green cover ʽWhatcha Gonna Doʼ), I wouldn't really mind seeing him live. Sharp, crispy tone, great control over sustained notes, kick-ass punchy licks, the works. But even that is only present on just a few songs. As for Alan's originals, the title track, co-written with Bobby, is an unconvincing stab at pop-reggae, and only ʽHow You've Changedʼ features him in his trademark Randy Newmanesque mode, but the song is too slow and the vocal hook is too lazy to make much of a difference.

Bottomline is: if the guys actually had a good time recording this memento of themselves in the studio, we should all be happy for their veteran egos, God bless 'em and all. But as for everybody else, the record deserves, at best, a cursory listen, just so you could make sure that Alan Price was indeed alive and well in the 1990s (we know that, as of 2016, he is still alive, but I know next to nothing of any touring or recording activities of his in the past ten years), and a thumbs down just because I'm pretty sure these guys could do better if they wanted to do better, but they probably just didn't want to.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Baroness: Purple

BARONESS: PURPLE (2015)

1) Morningstar; 2) Shock Me; 3) Try To Disappear; 4) Kerosene; 5) Fugue; 6) Chlorine & Wine; 7) The Iron Bell; 8) Desperation Burns; 9) If I Have To Wake Up (Would You Stop The Rain); 10) Crossroads Of Infinity.

Apparently, less than one month after Yellow & Green came out, Baroness were caught in a horrible accident when their bus fell from a viaduct somewhere near Bath, England (touring is evil!); miraculously, everybody survived at the cost of some broken limbs and fractured vertebrae, but the whole thing still left the band shaken, debilitated for some time, and ultimately led to the departure of the entire rhythm section, making Baizley the sole remaining original member. They did return to touring at the end of 2013, but it wasn't until early 2015 that they felt themselves properly refreshed and recovered to return to the studio, with new members Nick Jost on bass and Sebastian Thomson on drums (Pete Adams remains as second guitarist).

Of course, it is nice to see a band brave the odds and overcome Fate by stubbornly clinging to its own self-designed destiny. The problem, however, is that after the diversity and experimental nature of Yellow & Green, the accident seems to have turned Baroness into testosteronic senti­mentalists — Purple is not so much about the music as it is about wailing and lamenting. "All of us tinderwood / Bound for the fire", we are told in the very first track, and references to "deep wells of despair", "desperation burns", "killing the lights", nursemaids "cutting through my rib­cage", and other unappetizing events and abstractions are to be found just about everywhere. You'd think they should be praising God for saving their flesh, but it's amost as if they'd be feeling better if that bus crash had taken them directly to God. Maybe I was right, and they are turning into Radiohead after all?

Then again, if a band that once used to revel in the still-infinite possibilities of riff-molding wants to make an album centered around gloom and depression as a central topic, that should not con­stitute a crime as such. The real downside is that, by and large, this new music of theirs just sucks. "These are some of the biggest, strongest songs that Baroness has written", states a reviewer on Pitchfork, and many others join in the fray with equally adamant reactions. What the heck? Am I alone, then, in thinking that about half of this album sounds like friggin' Nickelback — loud, brash, monotonously distorted alt-rock with the same dull, forgettable sheen throughout? And the other half... well, sounds like someone trying not to sound precisely like Nickelback, but not being very good at it?

The first song, ʽMorningstarʼ, opens proceedings with a pleasant promise — a thick, sludgy metal riff, some math-rockish guitar interplay in the bridge section, an anthemic chorus, signature changes along the way, and a desperate, but clean caveman growl from Baizley; strangely remi­niscent of Amorphis or some other heavy metal band wobbling between «melodic death metal» and «progressive metal». Fine enough, yes, but when song after song is unwrapped before your eyes featuring exactly the same style — tempo, tone, mood, vocal intonations — and when many of those songs, beginning with ʽShock Meʼ, cannot even bother to arm themselves with strong riffage, how are they even defensible?

Okay, if you thought the Nickelback comparison was too humiliating, I apologize (after all, these guys are definitely better equipped from a technical point of view, and there is no denying a certain level of complexity required from most of these songs), but still, there's absolutely nothing on Purple that you cannot already find in much better quality on an Amorphis or, for that matter, an Opeth album. I insist that it is impossible in 2016 to simply put all your trust in a bunch of de­rivative heavy riffs and one singer's «vulnerable Viking» vocal style and come out with a non-boring, much less awe-inspiring album — which is precisely what they are trying to do here. The only consolation is that at least they did not try to stretch it to 70 minutes.

Unfortunately, this safe, comfortable formula is very easy to conform to (see my Amorphis reviews for reference), which might well signify that Baroness are over for me as a potential point of attraction. I am amazed at waves of reviewers who have awarded the usurped imperial clothes of Purple with fairly high ratings — all I can suggest is that they manage to do the impossible and view the songs completely out of context, conveniently forgetting everything about Baroness' own past, as well as the entire past of heavy metal as a genre. That is not something I'd ever be able to do, as necessity drives me to give the album a thumbs down rating — I mean, I'm sorry about the overturned bus incident and all, but then, why should a personal tragedy necessarily lead to a public one? At least from my perspective, this is bland, boring, derivative muzak that totally misplaces the band's talents and never rises up to the task of properly moving the listener; here's hoping that, once the trauma is finally overcome, they will return to what they do best (kicking ass) instead of pushing this crappy pseudo-soulful grunge-metal on us.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Caribou (Manitoba): Start Breaking My Heart

CARIBOU (MANITOBA): START BREAKING MY HEART (2001)

1) Dundas, Ontario; 2) People Eating Fruit; 3) Mammals Vs. Reptiles; 4) Brandon; 5) Children Play Well Together; 6) Lemon Yoghourt; 7) James' Second Haircut; 8) Schedules & Fares; 9) Paul's Birthday; 10) Happy Ending.

I know relatively little about the thing called «jazztronica» or «nu jazz», but if the most typical artists in that style happen to be Amon Tobin and Flying Lotus, whose works are quite familiar to me, then I'm happy to say that on this album, Mr. Dan Snaith, a 23-year old artist hailing from Dundas, Ontario who used to call himself Manitoba before cruel life forced him to change this to Caribou — anyway, on this album Mr. Dan «Manitoba» Snaith sort of invents his own subgenre of jazztronica, which we might just as well call «kiddie-jazztronica».

Yes, he would go on to far more accessible and seriously different things, but he did start out as a self-made electronic composer, and one with a vision all his own, even if that vision remains on a scale so humble that «nice and pretty» is probably the strongest reaction that may be honestly ex­perienced when listening to this stuff. Snaith's primary tool throughout is a softly tuned, warbled synthesizer — producing muffled, Fender Rhodes-like electric piano sounds, as well as various chiming textures, so that the entire record has a bright, sunshine-like feel, enhanced by occasional usage of equally soft and calm acoustic guitars and harps; as for percussion, he is normally con­tent to stick to the most «primitive» of drum machines, often imitating jazzy brush technique or Indian tablas, and sometimes probably sampling Snaith's own drumming.

If all of this were played as «normal» jazz, the album would hardly hold any interest for anybody; it is the astute combination of analog and digital elements that makes it what it is — a series of impressionistic musical paintings that combine jazzy vivaciousness with friendly hi-tech and a certain childish innocence. The whole thing is a hustle-bustle, but one that seems to take place right under your nose, without any attempts to separate the background from the foreground or create additional sonic depth through echoes, tricky mixing, and rich layers of overdubs. What you have is simple, loud, but inobtrusive melodies — playful and careless in tone, but not alto­gether insubstantial. Why they should necessarily be associated with Canada (the first track is ʽDundas, Ontarioʼ — Snaith's homeland) remains somewhat of a mystery, as does the album's title, because there is absolutely nothing heartbreaking about the music: but chalk it up to the necessity of the Artistic Enigma, quite forgivable in the face of the overall loveliness of the sound anyway, and let us just evaluate the music on its own terms, regardless of whatever the artist wants, because now it is out of his hands anyway.

So, in this alternate unreal reality, ʽDundas, Ontarioʼ is a place symbolized by several meditative «electric piano» lines criss-crossed with a toe-tappy xylophone part — two voices, one pensive and intimate, another one playful and arrogant, a Florestan and a Eusebius of sorts. This trick is later reprised in different varieties — for instance, the interplay between the somewhat dreary, continuous keyboard parts and the jumpy folksy acoustic guitars of ʽChildren Play Wellʼ, or the dreamy psychedelic synths and the jerky jazzy bassline of ʽSchedules & Faresʼ — and provides the bulk of sheer entertainment. In any case, this is a very active record: there is not a single track that would not have a lively rhythmic base or at least a second, dynamic, voice that stands out in stark con­trast to the more ambient/static loops of the first one.

The most active track is ʽLemon Yoghourtʼ, which somebody on RYM aptly called "a great track to jerk off to", not because it has the word "lemon" in it, but because the music itself does sound like it invites you to, ahem, «squeeze your lemon» for about two minutes, with a very insistent multi-channel keyboard loop that might just sound like the speedy dripping of lemon juice, but who knows... anyway, sexual innuendos aside, it's a fun sound, and the track is quite strategically placed at the middle of the album, guaranteed to wake you up if you accidentally fall asleep on one of the longer tracks, like ʽPeople Eating Fruitʼ (which does not at all sound like people eating fruit, unless you take all the crackly glitching in the background to be symbolic of gnashing teeth and suckling lips — but it does sound like a joyful morning prayer-ritual conducted by a bunch of shiny happy people who probably do eat a lot of fruit).

Longest of all is ʽPaul's Birthdayʼ, a track that could probably act like a perfect sampler for the rest of the album, because it's got it all — a cute combo between digital and analog (there's a nice harp glissando acting as the track's main hook), all of the man's beloved synth tones, jazzy bass­lines and bits of modal brass soloing, and even a surprisingly funky arrangement of digital glit­ches replacing the bass groove for a period of time. I have no idea who the heck is Paul, but I do know that he got himself a fairly unique birthday present here.

The closest vocal analogy to this record would probably be something like contemporary Broad­cast albums, but even those would either have more «depth» or more «grief» to them — the ad­vantage of Start Breaking My Heart is its total and complete cuddliness, which never gets sickening due to the technical mastery of the artist, and provides you with yet another charming advertisement for the paradisiac qualities of Canada (an imaginary Canada, one should always add before the charmed listener actually starts packing). There might not be enough memorable melodic themes here to assert compositional greatness, but the overall sound of the record, once you let it seep in, is unforgettable, and definitely deserving its thumbs up.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Cars: The Cars

THE CARS: THE CARS (1978)

1) Good Times Roll; 2) My Best Friend's Girl; 3) Just What I Needed; 4) I'm In Touch With Your World; 5) Don't Cha Stop; 6) You're All I've Got Tonight; 7) Bye Bye Love; 8) Moving In Stereo; 9) All Mixed Up.

The fate of this album is decided in two seconds flat. Two seconds! One — and you have yourself a dry, distorted guitar tone playing a classic old school blues-rock lick that would sound perfectly at home on a T. Rex or a Stones record (in fact, it's pretty much the same chord sequence that Keith Richards plays in ʽStop Breaking Downʼ). Two — and you watch as it contrasts with a robo­tic synth tone and a wobbly astral pulse that seems to come directly from a Kraftwerk tune. And there you have it: a simple, immediately effective, and amazingly symbolic synthesis of traditional rock'n'roll with an entirely new type of music. For all of New Wave's diversity, did any artist ever succeed in getting his point across in a matter of two seconds?

Not that the charm of ʽGood Times Rollʼ does not expand to the rest of the song. The melody keeps developing, but always with this strict preservation of a democratic balance between the «old» (as represented by the rhythm and lead guitar work of Ric Ocasek and Elliot Easton, res­pectively) and the «new» (as represented by Greg Hawkes' smoothly, but mechanically flowing rivulets of synth phrasing). And then there's the lyrics — the song title takes up a well-worn R&B / rock'n'roll cliché and sends it up in an ironically modernist way: we all remember Ray Charles telling us to "let the good times roll", but we could hardly imagine him adding "let them knock you around", much less "let them make you a clown". That's The Cars for you — vapor-headed and optimistic on the surface, bittersweet and acid-tongued half an inch under the surface.

You can rarely, very rarely understand what sort of emotional reaction these songs are supposed to extract — mixed reaction, for sure, but one thing that was there from the very beginning is a certain sense of fatalism, acceptance of life as it is, together with the fact that, no matter what you do, you will commit stupid and dangerous things, and you might just as well relax and enjoy them before they inevitably drag you to your doom and stuff. The entire album is drenched in that attitude, a mix of hedonism and apocalypticism that The Cars obviously inherited from one of their biggest idols, Roxy Music (together with the penchant for brutally sexy + intentionally tasteless album covers) — except they're nowhere near as «artsy» as Roxy Music, with the melo­dies more simple and straightforward and the vocals not even beginning to approach the exagge­rated mannerisms of Bryan Ferry.

They're really quite simple lads with no puffed-up ambitions — if that much is not yet made ob­vious by ʽGood Times Rollʼ, then ʽMy Best Friend's Girlʼ, an unconcealed tribute to the song­writing style of Buddy Holly, clinches the case. If not for the robotic synths popping in every now and then, and if not for odd references to "nuclear boots" and "drip dry gloves", nothing would indicate that the song could not have been written in 1958, and when the chorus is fol­lowed up by that little Carl Perkins / Buddy Holly / George Harrison rockabilly line, it's like the twenty years in between 1958 and 1978 never happened. Yet, when you think about it real hard, Ocasek's vocals are very much 1978, with that subtle melange of idiocy, paranoia, and irony — and the contrast between the exaggerated happiness of the melody and the overall tragic message is starkly modern. Like, there's nothing about the song, really, that suggests tragedy except for the surprising resolution of the chorus (Ric's "...but she used to be mine!" comes across almost as if he were too embarrassed to admit it before a judgmental world), and yet it's all about the same kind of resigned fatalism as we just had in ʽGood Times Rollʼ.

Once the formula has been established, The Cars do not see any reasons to depart from it, but the album remains melodically diverse enough to not let us mind it in the least. For ʽJust What I Neededʼ, which they probably selected as the lead single because its thick-robust riffs were as close to commercially viable Boston-style arena-rock as this album ever gets, bass player Ben Orr is selected as vocalist, and he is indeed a better choice for carrying a muscular song like that, but the mood and message remain the same — where Boston would sing "I guess you're just what I needed" with the presupposition of «it's such a miracle that I got just what I needed», The Cars sing it with the presupposition of «well, uh, it's kind of lucky that I probably got just what I needed, but, you know, if I didn't, it wouldn't be much of a problem, really, because, like, you can't always get what you want and stuff». It should be ascribed to a certain level of musical genius that they manage to sound terminally bored and exciting / energetic at the same time.

As the record goes by, our interest is further kept up by means of quirky sonic experimentation (ʽI'm In Touch With Your Worldʼ, crammed with as many fun sound bites as these guys could get from their month in the studio), occasionally increased tempos (ʽDon't Cha Stopʼ, a sex song that neatly separates the rest of the record into two equal parts — pre-copulation frustration and post-copulation depression), and, finally, what should be the album's best song once you get fed up with the big hits on all the A-sides: ʽMoving In Stereoʼ, whose cold synths, doom-laden bassline, and lengthy instrumental coda make it straightforwardly grim, unmasked by uptempo rhythmics or merry singalong vocal choruses. It also contains a great, often overlooked verse, that I believe is essential to understand The Cars and their understated awesomeness: "It's so easy to blow up your problems / It's so easy to play up your breakdown / It's so easy to fly through a window / It's so easy to fool with the sound" — precisely the kind of things that so many bad artists exploit in their music, and precisely the kind of things that The Cars preferred to avoid even when they were being at their most psychological. ʽMoving In Stereoʼ is no exception — it's a fairly depres­sing tune, yet it achieves that effect without resorting to any of the usual clichés associated with depression (well, except for maybe that booming bass, but you'd never accuse the song of having a stereotypical «Goth» sound anyway, with or without the bass).

Such a simple-sounding record, on the whole, and yet so perfect in its intelligent humbleness that no «simple pop-rock» album from the era, with or without New Wave trimmings, can truly com­pete with it: everything else is either too obsessed with musical innovation and serious message (which is not at all a bad thing, but leaves the niche of pure intelligent entertainment uncomfor­tably empty), or too drowned in primitive emotions and genrist clichés, or is simply less interes­ting from a musical standpoint (like Tom Petty, for instance). An obvious thumbs up, the worst thing about which is that the band's subsequent career could not hope to live up to the debut — having pretty much said it all in all the ways they knew across these nine tracks, Ocasec, Orr, and company would never again conquer another peak of comparable height.