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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Carole King: Simple Things

CAROLE KING: SIMPLE THINGS (1977)

1) Simple Things; 2) Hold On; 3) In The Name Of Love; 4) Labyrinth; 5) You're The One; 6) Hard Rock Cafe; 7) Time Alone; 8) God Only Knows; 9) To Know That I Love You; 10) One.

The start of an era: Carole's first album for Avatar Records, with a completely new team of musicians and a seriously different sound, even if, from the very first track, it is quite obvious that most of the change has been external and superficial. Her voice and piano, fortunately, are still at the core of the sound, but on the whole, the arrangements become tougher and more elec­tric: strings and horns are still in, but acoustic guitars are mostly out, largely because of Carole's new partner, Rick Evers, who sort of steered her in a slightly heavier direction.

Critical reception for Simple Things was frigid at best: common consensus seemed to imply that Carole King had become a stubborn dinosaur, refusing to evolve and adapt to the times — alle­gedly, Rolling Stone dubbed it «the worst album of 1977» (with Kansas and Uriah Heep still on the prowl? you sure ain't no gentleman, Mr. Wenner!), and the bad reputation still persists, seeing as how all of Carole King's pre-Avatar record catalog still remains in print, whereas some of those later albums seem to have never even been released in CD format. Indeed, like most of the American soft-rockers of the first half of the decade, Carole was in trouble — it would have been very hard to imagine her as a disco dancer, let alone a punk rocker, and her natural shyness and reclusiveness was becoming less and less convenient in an epoch that was placing more and more emphasis on flashiness and visual imagery. In a way, it is quite amazing that she still had enough credit left for the album to go gold, by pure inertia...

...especially if you also take into consideration the arch-ridiculous decision to take the worst track off it and release it as a single. See, not only does Carole King have no business writing a track called ʽHard Rock Cafeʼ — a bit like seeing Judas Priest at the local Renaissance Fair — but even if it is just business and she was paid by the Hard Rock Cafe for promotion or something, why write and arrange it like a friggin' mariachi band number? All of a sudden, in the middle of this still very personal and intimate bunch of ballads and soft-rockers, you get the artificially «happy» and utterly generic atmosphere of a banal carnival. As a corny B-side outtake or a publicity jingle, it would be okay, but as the first public announcement of The New Carole King, it was a highly predictable embarrassment, a serious lapse of taste that could only alienate the critical community — most of the members of which were far too busy in 1977, anyway, to listen to a new Carole King album from top to bottom.

Which is too bad, since there are at least some good songs here, and overall, I would consider it a significant improvement over the consistent mediocrity of Thoroughbred — on the first go, at least, the change of creative environment did Carole some good. First and foremost, we gotta give some credit to the guitar players — particularly Robert McEntee and Mark Hallman (I am not sure how much credit should be actually given to Rick Evers, who is co-credited on three songs with Carole and also listed as a guitar player). On two of the album's most uptempo numbers, the guitars kick up a real storm. ʽYou're The Oneʼ is a dark and melancholic song, a little reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's ʽYou Make Loving Funʼ in terms of tempo, basic rhythmic structure, and the impact that the sharp, intrusive guitar licks make on the rest of the song — but this one's more disturbing and, at times, even more desperate, in strange contrast with Carole's former peace of mind. The other number is ʽGod Only Knowsʼ — not a cover of the Beach Boys song, but a completely different and, this time, bouncy and uplifting song, with a ʽRunawayʼ-ish "I wonder..." hook.

Both songs are decent as far as composing goes, but the real reason I am singling them out is that both are extended with an unusually long (for Carole) coda, where the guitarists are given complete freedom, and they are not afraid to use it. On ʽYou're The Oneʼ, the two players battle each other, contrasting a sharp, shrill tone with one muffled by a talkbox effect; and on ʽGod Only Knowsʼ, one of the soloists (no idea who exactly) delivers a fluent, super-melodic blues-pop solo that Dickey Betts might have envied. Really, this marks a first — never before did Carole allow her supporting players to carry on with their guitar solos for so long, and she couldn't have chosen a better opportunity to start: the electric guitar on both these songs is as perfect a companion for her and her piano as the sax solo was on ʽJazzmanʼ.

As for the less guitar-dependent songs, I'd say that the title track is quite lovely, despite the unnecessary overreliance on synthesizers, and gets its programmatic message ("simple things mean a lot to me") across quite convincingly. Little else stands out (although, other than the abys­mal ʽHard Rock Cafeʼ, little else is openly irritating), until she gets to the very end and delivers one of the most ambitious songs she ever wrote: ʽOneʼ is a micro-macro-cosmic anthem that somehow manages, over a measly five minutes, to touch upon everything, using the magic num­ber as a starting point — a song about being "one" as a person, as a family unit, and as "one" with the universe, and about all the emotions that go with it, from joy and amazement to bewilder­ment and confusion (the pertinent refrain is "what am I gonna do?... what am I gonna do?..") Perhaps it is far from her best in sheer melodic terms (although I really like the structural games she plays with the bridge section, going from super-quiet "I am one" to super-loud "WE ARE ONE!"), but it really pays off to see her combine deep personal honesty and vulnerability with sonic bombast in this manner, and in any case, it's a fresh approach to finalizing the album, after three nice, but generic-predictable straightforwardly optimistic codas in a row — this time, the ending is more ambiguous and intriguing.

Bottomline is, the critics were wrong: in a world that does not necessarily expect each and every one of its master songwriters to adapt to new trends, but allows them to follow their own path of spiritual and artistic evolution, Simple Things should have been as welcome as any other B-level Carole King album, and it does have more high points than either Rhymes & Reasons or Thoroughbred, to name but a couple of truly middle-of-the-road albums for her. I am not sure that three very good songs (two of them mostly because of the guitar work), one awful song, and 5-6 unremarkable tunes are really worthy of a thumbs up, but don't let me discourage you from trying the record out anyway — if you see it in a corner, give it a spin, just to be assured that as late as 1977, Carole King did not betray and abandon her muse, even if she still left her going around somewhat underfed and unwashed behind the ears.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Canned Heat: Historical Figures And Ancient Heads

CANNED HEAT: HISTORICAL FIGURES AND ANCIENT HEADS (1972)

1) Sneakin' Around; 2) Hill's Stomp; 3) Rockin' With The King; 4) I Don't Care What You Tell Me; 5) Long Way From L. A.; 6) Cherokee Dance; 7) That's All Right; 8) Utah.

Canned Heat's first album without Wilson was, by all means, a disaster — a band that struggled plenty while its top songwriter and (arguably) most charismatic member was alive had little choice but to flounder when he was dead. The man's original replacement was Joel Scott Hill, a decent guitar player (he is immiediately given a chance to shine in that capacity on the fast boo­gie piece ʽHill's Stompʼ), but a very ordinary blues singer — his whiteboy soul-blues deliveries on ʽSneakin' Aroundʼ and ʽThat's All Rightʼ sound like pale parodies on pre-war urban blues and jump blues, and you could easily get vocals like these in ten thousand random barrooms and saloons all across the USA.

Worse than that, the album is simply filled from top to bottom with bad or poorly executed ideas, little sparks that fail to light any reliable fires. Even the «gruff blues» formula that used to work so well for them is now wasted on ʽUtahʼ, eight minutes of the generic ʽMannish Boyʼ groove, for some reason, recorded in a lo-fi standard, with lots of reverb on The Bear's vocals (did he have laryngitis or something?) and a lengthy, chaotic, meandering, and just plain boring solo from Vestine (or is that Hill?) that tries to set a personal record for the number of trill sequences one can squeeze out of the guitar in five minutes.

The one track that will probably draw the most attention is a guest spot by none other than Little Richard, who, coming totally out of the blue, graces the band with his presence, bringing along a new song and an old sax player (Clifford Solomon) — and although he does duet with The Bear, this is essentially just Little Richard, backed by Canned Heat, doing an impersonation of Little Richard that does not work one bit, because Canned Heat are too stiff to be doing breakneck maniacal rock'n'roll, and because Little Richard is too out of place and time to recapture the genuine youthful flame of the Fifties anyway. Not to mention that, in the context of the time, singing a merry happy ditty about "the king of rock'n'roll" just when none of the band members could genuinely synthesize merriment and goofiness in their hearts was probably not the right choice — and where «authentic» Little Richard performances make you want to drop everything and headbang like crazy, this whole experience just feels fake from the start.

In the end, the only tracks that make sense on the album are the aforementioned ʽHill's Stompʼ (not very imaginative, but incendiary guitar playing for three minutes, in a style reminiscent of Albert Collins) and yet another instrumental, provided by a much more suitable guest star than Little Richard — famous flute (and sax) player Charles Lloyd, whose perfectly composed melody gives a weird pastoral feel (with a touch of psychedelia) to the blues groove. In comparison, all the vocal-based numbers are downers: The Bear is clearly in no shape to contribute anything worthwhile, Hill is mediocre, and... well, bottomline is, they should have really taken a much longer holiday to get in shape. As the matter stands, Historical Figures And Ancient Heads really does turn Canned Heat into what it states it is — an unhappy, but probably inevitable de­velopment. Get the Charles Lloyd track for a good experience, and thumbs down for the rest.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Cher: Half-Breed

CHER: HALF-BREED (1973)

1) My Love; 2) Two People Clinging To A Thread; 3) Half Breed; 4) The Greatest Song I Ever Heard; 5) How Can You Mend A Broken Heart; 6) Carousel Man; 7) David's Song; 8) Melody (Little Bossa Nova); 9) The Long And Winding Road; 10) This God Forsaken Day; 11) Chastity Sun.

Back into the arms of Snuff Garrett — once the idea of «The Great American Songbook As Re­imagined By The Sonny Bono Orchestra And Re-Testosteroned By Cher» turned out to be com­mercially defunct, Cher decisively ditched Sonny as producer (and, less than a year later, would ditch him as husband) and returned to Mr. Garrett for yet another record of pure Vegasy schlock. On the whole, this one is a tiny bit better than Foxy Lady, yet still nowhere near a return to the moderately high quality of Gypsys.

You can probably sense the difference if you compare the title tracks — both pictured Cher as the abused protagonist in outcast fantasy scenarios, but where ʽGypsies, Tramps & Thievesʼ had a ringing note of truth to it, ʽHalf-Breedʼ is almost purely theatrical, relying more on its pop catchi­ness than on a nuanced vocal performance. Ironically, of the two, it is ʽHalf Breedʼ that should have struck closer to home — Cher does have some Cherokee ancestry on her mother's side, al­though I highly doubt it that "the other children always laughed at me / Give her a feather, she's a Cherokee" comes even remotely close to being autobiographical. Nevertheless, the proto-disco strings, the overall arrangement that gives the impression of a poor soundtrack to some blacks­ploitation movie, and the lack of a particularly striking vocal move prevents the song from being taken too seriously, and puts it too close to the territory of simple vaudeville entertainment.

Not that there's anything wrong with simple vaudeville entertainment, and I do like the song, written for Cher by master entertainer Al Capps — the real problem is that there's not enough of pure, healthily cheesy vaudeville entertainment on the record. Instead, the tracks that draw most of the attention are covers of hit ballads — two McCartney tunes, done decently but unspecta­cularly (ʽMy Loveʼ is sung well, but that pitiful guitar solo in the middle is a pathetic joke compared to the elegant solo by Henry McCullough on the original release; and ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ shouldn't be touched by Cher, who can't do «pleading» to save her life), and one Bee Gees tune, done unconvincingly (again, to do ʽHow Can You Mend A Broken Heartʼ, you have to at least create the illusion that you actually, like, have a broken heart — Cher's heart, meanwhile, always gives the impression of being encrusted with steel plate armor, and its 80-year guarantee  has not expired yet).

Of the tracks that draw less attention, only one other is also a piece of bouncy, light-hearted cheese, but this time it pretty much stinks — Johnny Durrill's ʽCarousel Manʼ, another silly tale of outcast life in the Wild West, with not a shred of conviction; and the rest is still more balladry, this time obscure, but probably for a reason. Dick Holler, Jack Segal, pre-Toto David Paich... steady, reliable, sparkless composers as interpreted by a steady, reliable, sparkless singer. The only time she does sparkle is at the very end, when she takes a recent Seals & Crofts song and re-writes it as ʽChastity Sunʼ, dedicating it to her daughter (not particularly relevant now that the daughter is no longer a daughter, but it's fun how, what with Chaz Bono's sex change adventure and all, the words "When I look at you / In your eyes I see / The world that God meant to be" now take on a starkly progressive meaning) — anyway, that song is probably the only one on the whole album where Cher stops being Cher for a moment and becomes a genuinely loving mother, even finding it in herself to introduce a little falsetto during the tenderest moments.

Still, one sweet moment, scattered bits of cheesy entertainment, and a few (botched) megahits with originally great melodies do not earn Half-Breed a lot of respectability — on the whole, it's just one more generic early Seventies' LP, aimed at the target audience of the largely unfunny Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, and even the fact that it temporarily put Cher back on the charts again (album sales were much higher than for Bittersweet White Light, and ʽHalf-Breedʼ was a number one for her) does not mean much in the grand scheme of thumbs down.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation (IAS #35)

A tough album to write about, but, to the best of my avantgarde-cracking abilities, here it is:

Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Musique De Film Imaginé

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: MUSIQUE DE FILM IMAGINE (2015)

1) Après Le Vin; 2) Philadelphie Story; 3) La Dispute; 4) L'Enfer; 5) Elle S'Echappe; 6) Le Cadeau; 7) Le Sacré Du Printemps; 8) Le Souvenir; 9) Les Trois Cloches; 10) Bonbon; 11) L'Ennui; 12) Bonbon Deux; 13) La Question; 14) Au Sommet.

One thing I have to say about Anton Newcombe: for a guy who largely built his reputation on a series of mind-numbingly repetitive psycho-drones, he sure comes up with the wildest of original ideas every once in a while. Forever and ever, he continues to be inspired with the Sixties — to him, probably representing the peak of the human spirit in the 20th century, or even beyond that (and he's not alone!) — yet he always manages to insert a bit of the 21st century in every tribute to that decade, with a maddening mix of slavish derivativeness and stunning originality.

This record, now, is also all about the Sixties (and a little Fifties), but suddenly he turns his attention away from the Beatles and the Stones and guides it over the English channel, to focus on French filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, for a change: since, apparently, the movies of Godard and Truffaut meant the same to film as the Beatles, Stones, and Velvets meant to music, it was only a matter of time before mad man Newcombe found a way to somehow incorporate that in his creativity. The only thing he forgot to make was a movie — but he did write the sound­track to it, and he claims to have actually seen the movie in his head, although I doubt that he'd ever be willing to commit it to camera, even if Warner Bros. approaches him with a million dollar deal. (And, let's face it, it would most likely be awful anyway).

Technically, much of the soundtrack sounds fairly traditionally for BJM: slow or, at best, mid-tempo instrumental grooves with lots of sustained notes formed into solemn guitar-based or brass-based melodies. However, most of the important tracks, written in minor keys, wrapped in serious echo, and often adorned by half-sung, quarter-spoken, and quarter-whispered vocals, have a much more romantic and doom-laden feel than Newcombe's previous work, bringing to mind both the recent French shoegazing scene (like Alcest) and, for sure, some of the sonic atmosphere of the old French New Wave — not so much Godard, though, whose movies were much too bizarre and turbulent for this, as somebody like Alain Resnais (Last Year At Marienbad could sure profit from some of these sounds) or even, goodness gracious, Claude Lelouche (some of the atmospheres are right up A Man And A Woman's alley).

To assist him in this uneasy, but intriguing task is a small selection of some authentic French and Italian modern talent — Stéphanie Sokolinski, better known as SoKo (since the combination of French and Slavic elements in that name is much too much for the average person to bear), musi­cal performer and actress with pop-Goth overtones, takes the lead vocal on ʽPhiladelphie Storyʼ (yes, that is the messed-up title, even if the original title of Cukor's movie in the French version was Indiscrétions); and Asia Argento, who also stars in movies and sings on LPs, although I am not sure if I have ever heard or seen anything from her (I know she's supposed to be in 1994's La Reine Margot, but that one was so terrible, I couldn't stand more than twenty minutes)... anyway, Asia Argento is featured on ʽLe Sacre Du Printempsʼ, which, as you have probably already gues­sed, has nothing whatsoever to do with Stravinsky. Is Stravinsky ever regarded as a forefather of The French New Wave? Not sure, but it's not really up to me to question Anton Newcombe's erudition — he obviously did some homework on this issue and I did not.

In any case, the important thing is that Musique seems to work even outside of all those con­nections — it is perfectly possible to enjoy it and even to be stimulated by it if you do not know a single thing about old French movies. Most of the grooves make sense. They can be quite mini­malistic, almost ambient (ʽBonbonʼ sounds like a digital projection of a meditative glass harmo­nica solo; ʽL'Ennuiʼ opens and closes with a simple musical box melody, over which a cello, a flute, and a Mellotron play a set of mournful chords), and they can be quite loud and bombastic (ʽL'Enferʼ, presenting a stern, but melancholic rather than terrifying picture of Hell — you know, the kind of Hell where demons keep asking themselves «to be or not to be?» before pouring boiling oil over your head), but they are all united by a sense of being stuck somewhere in limbo, as the old world has already been lost and the new one has not yet been gained — a sense that they do indeed share with some of those old movies.

The two sung tracks are no exception: «SoKo» sings with passion and energy on ʽPhiladelphie Storyʼ, but, true to her artistic persona, it is the passion and energy of a ghoul — "Hallelujah, chantez ma resurrection!" is the epic climax to each verse, upon which you dutifully expect a bite to the neck. And ʽLe Sacré Du Printempsʼ is kind of, like, you know, when they were all gathered to perform The Rite of Spring, but the weather turned out twenty degrees colder than expected, so they just all huddled up in their wintercoats and stayed home instead, staring out the windows and thinking real cold thoughts on the fate of the universe.

So, as you see, for me at least it does work, atmosphere-wise. This is the stiffest, most minimalis­tic and frozen Brian Jonestown Massacre release yet, more like a Dead Can Dance impersonating Brian Jonestown Massacre impersonating Alain Resnais with a little Antonioni DNA thrown in. It's not that good — the market has been flooded with half-ambient, winterish soundscapes like these for years anyway — but it feels solid and intriguing at least as yet another chapter in the odd journey of Anton Newcombe, which, considering his passion for chemical substances and his usual sloth-like approach to music, should have ended or, at least, transformed into a predictable straight line a long time ago. It does not, however, and for that reason alone I am happy to sup­port the record with a thumbs up and say that in a perfect world, it should have sold more copies than Adele's 25; but then again, in a perfect world like that 80% of the people would rather go watch a re-run of Last Year At Marienbad than the latest episode of Star Wars, and when you think about this real hard, the consequences can be rather scary.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Cat Power: The Covers Record

CAT POWER: THE COVERS RECORD (2000)

1) (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction; 2) Kingsport Town; 3) Troubled Waters; 4) Naked If I Want To; 5) Sweedeedee; 6) In This Hole; 7) I Found A Reason; 8) Wild Is The Wind; 9) Red Apples; 10) Paths Of Victory; 11) Salty Dog; 12) Sea Of Love.

You can probably already see from the preceding reviews that I am in no hurry to join the circle of adulators when it comes to Ms. Marshall and her ideas on how to use up her talents. And this is too bad, because when next it comes to The Covers Record, it is pretty damn hard to feel any­thing but hateful numbness unless you already are an adulator. Apparently, the «success» of Moon Pix (a fairly relative one — it's not like it made a Madonna out of her or anything) led her to thinking that now she had to perform one of those classic «artistic suicides», like Dylan's Self Portrait, to take the attention away from her persona and draw it to something else, becoming an interpreter for a while, instead of an artist.

To that end, The Covers Record does indeed consist of 12 covers, ranging from old folk and blues numbers to such Sixties' classics as ʽSatisfactionʼ and obscurities such as Moby Grape's ʽNaked If I Want Toʼ; most of them are transformed beyond recognition and often symbolically castrated by the removal of chorus hooks (which she'd already actually done much earlier, e. g. with Tom Waits' ʽYesterday Is Hereʼ), and to say that the arrangements are sparse would be say­ing nothing — most of the guitar-only and piano-only tunes are reduced to two or three chords, placed on endless repetition. Carrying the Pink Moon analogy over from the previous album, I'd have to say that Pink Moon, in comparison to this, sounds like a Mahler symphony.

Some, indeed, will find this approach as haunting, mysterious, chilly, and grappling as anything Cat Power ever did — and I do agree, in principle, that a reinvention of ʽSatisfactionʼ as an intro­spective, almost dark-folkish ballad with only the verse lyrics preserved sounds cool in theory, and even in practice... for the first thirty seconds or so. But the joke gets predictable and boring very, very quickly. The formula is always precisely the same: take any song (sad, happy, angry, lyrical, whimsical, whatever), deconstruct and strip its melody to the barest of bare essentials (simple enough to play for anybody with a couple weeks worth of musical training), and sing its lyrics in that icy-tender, husky, back-from-the-dead tone that leaves no doubt about it — here's a human being who's been through much more than you (sucker).

Problem is, this does not exactly tie in with the stated goal of the record: instead of humbly diver­ting attention from her own Moon Pix persona, she reinvents these songs so drastically that they no longer retain any of the original spirit and simply become another bunch of Cat Power songs, only this time, very poorly written ones. Apparently, her shows at the time included a projection of Dreyer's Passion Of Joan Of Arc while she was playing and singing the songs — which, if you ask me, comes across as a fairly arrogant gesture, rather than a humble one (a truly humble ges­ture would probably be to simply replace the concert with the film: I, for one, would much more love to see another screening of Passion than sit through Chan plink her way through all twelve of these «covers»).

It is not even the minimalism as such that drives me nuts — it is the idea of using this fatalistic moroseness as the single common denominator to which everything is reduced. When the former­ly pissed off ʽSatisfactionʼ, the formerly triumphant and inspiring ʽPaths Of Victoryʼ, the former­ly dangerous-romantic ʽWild Is The Windʼ, and the formerly facetious ʽSalty Dogʼ all become the same brand of ʽStill I'm Sadʼ, I just fail to see the point. Are we supposed to think that at the bottom of all these tunes there is indeed endless sadness, and that it was not until Chan Marshall opened our eyes to this that it became so evident? Or should we take this as a metaphoric state­ment of the «when you're overwhelmed with one emotion, you tend to view everything in the world through that emotional state» variety? But even if this is so, was this really sufficient to justify using an average of 2-3 notes for each song? And if this symbolizes the extremity of sad­ness, why not just pull a Cage on us and release nothing but silence?

In short, I'm not getting this and certainly not pretending to get this. A curious idea in theory that outlasts its welcome in less than two minutes, and is far more pretentious than it is humble. In the long run, the cover of ʽSatisfactionʼ is good enough to serve as a chuckle generator for unsuspec­ting friends, and the last two tracks are surprisingly listenable (on ʽSalty Dogʼ, she sings to the guitar playing of Matt Sweeney — you can tell, because there are many more than two notes here; and ʽSea Of Loveʼ, which sounds as if she's playing it by plucking open piano strings harp-style, is at least slightly livelier and perkier than the rest), but that's about it, and a thumbs down reac­tion, alas, seems inevitable.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Cheap Trick: At Budokan

CHEAP TRICK: AT BUDOKAN (1979; 1998)

1) Hello There; 2) Come On Come On; 3) ELO Kiddies; 4) Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace; 5) Big Eyes; 6) Lookout; 7) Downed; 8) Can't Hold On; 9) Oh Caroline; 10) Surrender; 11) Auf Wiedersehen; 12) Need Your Love; 13) High Roller; 14) Southern Girls; 15) I Want You To Want Me; 16) California Man; 17) Goodnight; 18) Ain't That A Shame; 19) Clock Strikes Ten.

US audiences really love their pop rock LIVE! and kicking, don't they? Two years after the toils and troubles of KISS were rewarded with their commercial breakthrough as a live band, the same thing happened to Cheap Trick who, ironically, opened for KISS in the early days: what could not have been achieved with the three classic studio albums (although, truth be told, each of those charted higher than its predecessor, so that the groundwork was laid well), was achieved with a live album — which, even more ironically, was never even intended for domestic release in the first place, so that the first US buyers got it as a Japanese import.

Nostalgic reasons aside, At Budokan remains great fun after all these years, but neither in its original form as released in 1979, nor in its expanded form (the complete concert, first released on CD in 1998 and since then having become the default version) does it really «destroy» the studio versions of the songs, as is so often claimed. The thing is, Cheap Trick are most certainly a «pop rock» band in the truest sense of the word, combining catchy pop hooks with dirty rock energy in brotherly proportions, but when it comes to the sacred question of «Beatles or Stones?», there's no getting out of it, and the Trick do love the Beatles more than the Stones — and this sets the predicament: unlike the Stones or the Who, Cheap Trick are studio creators first and live enter­tainers second. And even when they are live entertainers, the emphasis is very much on «entertainment» rather than «live rocking» — Rick Nielsen's baseball caps, checkered jackets, wild faces, and poly-necked guitars matter as much for the Cheap Trick show as does his ability to produce grumpy distorted tones.

This is why I normally prefer to listen to the studio versions of all these songs — yes, even the famous live performance of ʽI Want You To Want Meʼ, with the music hall piano replaced by Nielsen's rock'n'roll guitar, does not make nearly as much sense as the studio version, where the climactic bit of "didn't I, didn't I, didn't I see you crying?" is properly followed by the echo of another "crying", rather than the echoing yell of several thousand Japanese fans. And every time that Nielsen or Zander make a playing or singing mistake — and it does happen occasionally, although, to give them their due, much less frequently than after their fame had finally gone to their heads — it makes me cringe much more than any time the Stones or the Who make mistakes during their shows. The curse of the pop hook, yes indeed, sir.

Nevertheless, all of this criticism should be taken lightly — all I'm saying here is that it might be wise to begin your enjoyment of Cheap Trick with the holy trilogy of 1977-78 before assessing them as a live band, and only then proceeding to see how, at the expense of muddying up their sound and occasionally sacrificing the sharpness and subtleties of the pop hooks, they compen­sate for this with extra wildness. Needless to say, everybody is working their ass off, not the least of all «bookkeeper drummer» Bun E. Carlos, cracking at the snare with an amount of brutality worthy of the (not yet late) John Bonham; even if he cannot get quite the same «depth» of the sound, the power and melodicity of his drumming is enough to make him feel like a perfectly equal member of the band, and, perhaps, more vital to its overall live sound than both the bass of Tom Petersson and Zander's rhythm guitar.

Meanwhile, Nielsen lays on the distortion real thick — not in a nasty metallic way, no, rather in the naughty glammy «gonna raise hell» kind of way. For this release, he does not get any particu­lar spotlight (in the 1970s, at least, he used to have a very lengthy «masturbatory» section as the introduction to ʽBig Eyesʼ, Angus Young-style, but you won't find it here), the closest probably being the extended solo in ʽNeed Your Loveʼ, a preview of the track that would eventually be recorded for Dream Police; however, that solo is clearly experimental rather than self-aggrandi­zing, and the whole thing, with Zander's dreamy falsetto and its odd contrast with the almost «slowed down proto-thrash metal» riffage of the song, is arguably the most complex and psyche­delic performance of the show, a definite highlight largely due to Mr. Nielsen's making his guitar screech, squirm, and grumble in half a dozen different ways.

And then, of course, there's the whole «show» thing which, these days, can be fully enjoyed with pictures (if you do plan on getting Budokan, by all means get the edition that contains the DVD of the concert — it's trimmed, but still worth every minute of it), but is still very well felt even through just the sound. The show begins with ʽHello Thereʼ (of course) and ends with the reprise ("it's the end of the show / now it's time to go"), which naturally brings on to mind the concept of Sgt. Pepper, and even though nobody in the band is wearing uniforms, all of the members repre­sent certain artistic and actor-like stereotypes, with Zander as the prototypical «rock idol», sway­ing the audience with excitement ("I... want... you... to want... ME!"), Petersson as the black-haired evil twin / mirror image of the white-haired Aryan god, Nielsen as the mischievous trickster ("the first thing I did when I got to Japan... WAS BUY A JAPANESE GUITAR!"), and Bun E. Carlos as the «working guy turned rocker» (well, you probably can't really hear that last one, but still, there's something about Bun E.'s drumming that suggests an «office guy gone all eccentric on us» style).

In any case, there is absolutely no denying that not a single «classic rock-style» band around 1979 could seriously compete with these guys in terms of generating arena-rock excitement — not only did they retain and amplify all the power of early glam rock, but they were able to throw in the tongue-in-cheek element, with plenty of humor, which would make At Budokan much better suitable for the modern listener, I think, than, uh, Peter Frampton, for instance. They do all the stuff that cheesy rock entertainers are supposed to do — like, for instance, trading brief solo passages between each other in the coda section of ʽAin't That A Shameʼ — but all the clichés are executed with an ironic angle to them. There's so much humor and irony here, in fact, that it really makes you wonder how on earth they managed to lose it all so quickly in the accursed Eighties — here, at Budokan, it seems as if they simply could do no wrong.

Just for the record, some songs here cannot be found on regular studio LPs: the oh-so-Beatlesque merry pop rocker ʽLookoutʼ was a B-side, and the slow shuffle of ʽCan't Hold Onʼ is a parody on the broken hearted blues genre that does not work too well, I think. ʽNeed Your Loveʼ, as I already said, would soon be recorded in a definitive version for Dream Police, and the encore features a rousing version of Fats Domino's ʽAin't That A Shameʼ that's right up their alley: just as old man Fats never fooled anybody with that whole "my tears fell like rain" stuff, neither do Cheap Trick, concentrating on the humorous side of rock and roll rather than its sentimental over­tones. In fact, there's not a single shred of genuine sentimentality on Budokan, Zander's beautiful blonde hair notwithstanding. And they end the show with a mammoth version of ʽClock Strikes Tenʼ which, for a change, I do prefer to the original studio track — if only because it does not choose to end on the silly kiddie "imagine what we're doing tonight..." repetition, but rather on the manly-rambunctious "gonna get on down, gonna get on down" part.

A major thumbs up, of course, even if I probably wouldn't place this into the Top 10 of my favo­rite live albums (I think that the only «pop» band with a guaranteed spot on that Top 10 could be Fleetwood Mac — and, for all of Nielsen's wonderful qualities, he was never even half the guitarist that Lindsey Buckingham could be). But really, the worst thing that could be said about the record is that it made Cheap Trick into superstars — and, as superstars, they would very quickly begin to transform into an ordinary superstardom machine, behaving in accordance with the laws of the music market. Who knows? Without Budokan, there may have been no The Doc­tor, or no collaborations with Diane Warren, or none of those other unspeakable evils of the Dark Age of the Cheap Trick era. But then again, in the 21st century we're free to ignore the evils and focus on the good stuff, so enjoy this bit of Japanese magic and forgive them their later trans­gressions, or, rather, just forget about them.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Carole King: Thoroughbred

CAROLE KING: THOROUGHBRED (1975)

1) So Many Ways; 2) Daughter Of Light; 3) High Out Of Time; 4) Only Love Is Real; 5) There's A Space Between Us; 6) I'd Like To Know You Better; 7) We All Have To Be Alone; 8) Ambrosia; 9) Still Here Thinking Of You; 10) It's Gonna Work Out Fine.

The end of an era: Carole's last album for Ode Records, last album produced by Lou Adler and the last one to reflect precisely the same old, sunnily conservative production stylistics, associated with Carole's house band (Kortchmar et al.), as well as Crosby & Nash (both of whom appear here as background vocalists), James Taylor (who also appears here as background vocalist), and riding a thoroughbred horse on the beach without a care in the world. Which does not mean that there actually were no cares in the world — husband Charles Larkey, woe and alas, is no longer credited as the resident bass player (replaced by Leland Sklar), because of domestic troubles that were tearing the house apart.

Instead, however, of going the easy way and converting domestic problems into tempestuous art, Carole went the hard way and preferred to make another sunny album — this was, after all, what the people expected of her. And now that she was no longer bound by the catchiness parameter (grown-ups can stand hookless, after all — you can't fool the kids, but you can work your way around the grown-ups), the result, once again, is disappointing. There is virtually nothing about Thoroughbred, bar Carole's usual ability to come across as friendly and likeable, to make it stand out — like Rhymes & Reasons, this is just an okay collection of mediocre ballads and smooth, formulaic pop-rockers.

"So many ways, so many ways to show you love someone" — a promising start, perhaps, but just one question: where are these many ways? The only way I hear is a piano ballad that rides the same chords we have already heard a hundred times, and the worst way possible to present it, when the transition from verse to chorus is marked only by a surge in volume, nothing else. And even worse than that, there are signs of fakery aboard: on the closing number, ʽIt's Gonna Work Out Fineʼ, she sings: "We've been hurting each other through a hard time / And it's a mighty good feeling to know it's gonna work out fine" — the entire song rings as untrue as the combination of these two lines: if you've really been hurting each other, how the heck do you even begin to get the feeling that "it's gonna work out fine" (and it really won't)? She tries hard — yes, she even delays the resolution of the second line, turning it into a climactic outburst, with some heavy artil­lery thrown in in the form of an uplifting brass riff. It does not help: the song is formally positive, but hardly the strong uplifting jolt that is needed to convince the listener.

Of all the songs here, I can vouch safely only for one — ʽAmbrosiaʼ, with lyrics by Dave Palmer, has a certain stately majesty, coupled with melancholy and nostalgia. There's nothing particularly outstanding about its melody, but there's a sort of mix between gospel-soul and country-pop here that tugs at heartstrings which none of the other songs manage to irritate. Repeated listens show that the whole thing is not hopeless (there are at least some attempts to produce memorable pop phrasing on numbers like ʽDaughter Of Lightʼ and ʽWe All Have To Be Aloneʼ), but most likely, by the time you get used to the very subtle nuances that distinguish these tunes from one another, you will already have completely lost interest. Yes, ʽHigh Out Of Timeʼ does sound a lot like Crosby & Nash, not the least because Crosby & Nash sing background vocals, but in basic musi­cal terms this is a non-entity — like a deconstructed ʽLong And Winding Roadʼ, devoid of its genius musical decisions and turned into slow background balladry muzak. And it's even more painful to listen to something like ʽOnly Love Is Realʼ start out with almost the same melody and atmosphere as ʽIt's Too Lateʼ, only to realize a few bars later that it has none of that awesome contrast between the ominous verse and the angry-sad chorus.

In short, while not an embarrassing disaster, Thoroughbred is a serious disappointment after the previous two records: Wrap Around Joy had given us a promising transformation into a jazz-pop hookmeister (even with a few glam elements thrown in for good measure), Really Rosie proved once and for all that «inborn pop instinct» is a reality that requires at least a lobotomy to go away completely, but with this album, she once again tried to put «substance» before «form», and, honestly, Carole King is not the deepest or the most unusual thinking artist in existence, so her falling back on the thrice recycled formula of Tapestry was doomed from the start. The album did chart for a while, but the formula had clearly run out of gas, as, for that matter, did almost the entire sunny Californian style by the end of 1975. And even if the record is still much better than Carole's post-Ode output on the average, I do not see myself revisiting it any time in the future — cut out ʽAmbrosiaʼ, perhaps, and leave the rest of this «thoroughbred»'s carcass to the dogs, with a decisive thumbs down.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Canned Heat: Live At Topanga Corral

CANNED HEAT: LIVE AT TOPANGA CORRAL (1971)

1) Bullfrog Blues; 2) Sweet Sixteen; 3) I'd Rather Be The Devil; 4) Dust My Broom; 5) Wish You Would; 6) When Things Go Wrong.

Another weird discography adventure here. Apparently, Canned Heat still wanted to release a live album that had both Wilson and Vestine on it, and they had the tapes to do it, but there was a catch: after the commercial failure of the previous live album, their label (Liberty Records) had no wish to issue another one, so they took the tapes and claimed that they were from their live shows at Topanga Corral in 1966 and 1967, when they were not yet under contract — when, in fact, the recordings were really made at a 1969 show at the Kaleidoscope in Hollywood. This allowed them to release the album on a different label (Wand Records), at the expense of a little bit of dishonesty, perhaps — but every bit worth the ruse.

The thing is: maybe Harvey Mandel is the better known and the more inventive one of the two guitarists, but Vestine actually belonged in Canned Heat: a straightforward blues guitarist with a rocking heart — with very few special tricks, yet an ability to get to the heart of the matter where Mandel would more often get stuck in a psychedelic haze. You get this exactly one and a half minute into the record, when Vestine takes over from The Bear on ʽBullfrog Bluesʼ and strikes out a solo almost on the same level of fire-and-brimstone as Clapton on the famous Cream ver­sion of ʽCrossroadsʼ — too bad the rhythm section is nowhere near Cream in terms of intensity, because Henry is totally in the zone here: fast, fluent, precise, ecstatic, everything you'd need from a generic, but heartfelt fast-paced blues-rocker. Later on, Wilson comes in with his usual «I'm gonna play some simple, pretty, slow riffs and we'll call that a guitar solo, okay?» approach, and Vestine waits with impatience to break out from under The Owl's lead and kick some more ass, and it's really more fun to observe the contrast between Wilson and Vestine than between Wilson and Mandel.

Unfortunately, the album never quite lives up to that explosive start. The old blues covers are either way too predictable (ʽDust My Broomʼ? Not again!), or way too ambitious — it's one thing when they update really old acoustic classics, but the attempt to outdo B. B. King on ʽSweet Six­teenʼ is certainly misguided: Vestine does a good job, yet he cannot even begin to hope to capture all of King's subtle overtones, and it is hard to think of the track as completely detached from its King association. ʽI Wish You Wouldʼ is rather poorly mixed, with the repetitive riff groove ri­sing way over everything else, so, even if there's some nice harmonica playing and another ex­cellent solo from Henry with a razor-sharp tone, eight minutes of constant "cham-CHOOM-cham, cham-cha-CHOOM-cham" is a bit too much (at least the ʽBoogie Chillenʼ riff is aggressive, whereas this one is just nagging). On the other hand, Elmore James' ʽIt Hurts Me Tooʼ (here renamed ʽWhen Things Go Wrongʼ, but nobody's fooling anybody), suddenly recorded with plenty of echo, unexpectedly becomes a feast of plaintive, lyrical solos that take the song way beyond the scope of the original — I think that Wilson is responsive for the weeping, whereas Vestine delivers the angrier solos, and in between the two (and the odd echo that seems to feed Wilson back all of his complaints in a very psychedelic manner), they generate a great feel.

So, kick-ass start, mind-blowing finish, and some nice, unexceptional blueswailing in between — the record pretty much lets you see everything that made Canned Heat so cool in their heyday, and everything that prevented them from becoming a first-rate act both in the short and the long run; in particular, the work of the rhythm section here is fairly pedestrian, and, with all due re­spect for The Bear, he never ever was that great a singer: he just honestly does his job, but most of the time I just wait for him to move over and let Jimi, uh, I mean, Henry, take over. Still, the highs are high, and the lows are in the middle, so it all works out to a thumbs up in the end.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Cher: Bittersweet White Light

CHER: BITTERSWEET WHITE LIGHT (1973)

1) By Myself; 2) I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good; 3) Am I Blue; 4) How Long Has This Been Going On; 5) The Man I Love; 6) Jolson Medley; 7) More Than You Know; 8) Why Was I Born; 9) The Man That Got Away.

Surprisingly, this isn't that bad. Temporarily (actually, for the last time) under Sonny's productive control again, Cher retains the Vegas angle, but now it is applied to material that is more Vegasy by definition — the Great American Songbook — and the entire record is given over to lushly arranged, sprawling, time-taking covers of the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, and other Tin Pan Alley wonders. Of course, for a formerly «rocking» (to some extent) artist to record an album of golden oldies in the middle of 1973 was bound to be a commercial suicide, and so it was — prompting another rift between Cher and Sonny, and the eventual return into the hands of the more «modern-sensitive» Snuff Garrett. But nowadays, as we don't expect all that much from any Cher album by definition, it somehow manages to stand out as a particularly odd curiosity, for at least a couple of reasons.

One: it is curious to hear Cher's powerhouse approach applied to these songs — usually, you hear them as romantic and sentimental, or as melancholic and introspective if they're done by a Billie Holiday, or, you know, Sinatra-style, or Ella-style, but how about hearing them done in "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in" style? Because most of these Tin Pan Alley creations are really only what the performer makes them — and Cher takes a big whip to all of them and makes them scale epic heights, as if, you know, she was some kind of Juno and the average male protagonist of every song was some kind of Jupiter, and we'd be sitting in the amphitheater and watching them sort it out on Olympus through a looking-glass. (Although that does not prevent her from having her little jokes — it is quite telling that the first song in the ʽAl Jolson Medleyʼ is ʽSonny Boyʼ: "Climb upon my knee, Sonny boy / You are only three, Sonny boy" — I do so hope the dynamic duo made good use of that line on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour).

Two: the arrangements. They are actually above the generic Vegasy level, because Sonny Bono, the great lover of complex, multi-layered sound, drags just about every instrument possible in the studio and produces really thick, lush, polyphonic tracks — listen to ʽWhy Was I Bornʼ, for in­stance, where, in addition to the strings, you have flutes, brass, piano, harps, electric guitar (actu­ally, two electric guitars in a call-and-response session), and once Cher ceases singing, there's also a lengthy semi-psychedelic coda, with each of the instruments forming a gentle swaying wave of its own: honestly, it is hard to imagine the staggering amount of work that must have gone into this arrangement — and for what? Just so that the album could flop, because everybody would predictably concentrate on the a priori foolishness of the idea of Cher singing Tin Pan Alley material?.. Geez, Sonny boy, perhaps you were only three after all.

But on the other hand, it's really not that foolish. The combination of Sonny's production with Cher's Gargantuan vocals results in something that's somewhere half between kitsch and artistic bravery, and besides, you'd need Gargantuan vocals to rise above all the wall-of-sound ruckus created by a dozen or so musicians at once (listen to ʽThe Man I Loveʼ — strings, trumpets, gui­tars, and piano all compete with each other, caught in a wild bet on who of them, precisely, will be able to drown out Cher's voice... they all lose in the end, as she sustains that last note for about 20 seconds, which, come to think of it, comes a good quarter century before A-ha's ʽSummer Moved Onʼ, so, Morten, eat your Harket out!). So, in the end, there's something good about the idea, even if I can't quite put my finger on it. Really, I can't give the album a thumbs up because, honestly, I, too, couldn't care less about Cher doing the G.A.S., but at least they tried a highly unusual angle here, and it's up to anybody to decide if that angle really means something or if it's just a failed attempt at genre appropriation. In any case, worth hearing at least once.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Brian Eno: The Ship

BRIAN ENO: THE SHIP (2016)

1) The Ship; 2) Fickle Sun (I); 3) Fickle Sun (II): The Hour Is Thin; 4) Fickle Sun (III): I'm Set Free.

Back to solo territory, and to (almost) pure ambience again. The major difference being that this is the first of Eno's ambient albums where his own voice serves as one of the ambient instruments: the original plan was to simply have the whole thing as another «installation», but then, as Brian told Rolling Stone, he suddenly discovered that he was able to sing the lowest notes of the piece due to the aging of his voice — and this impressed him so much that he decided to add vocal support for the whole piece. Which certainly does not make it «poppier» or more accessible — merely adds another layer of sonic support to the picture.

ʽThe Shipʼ in question is the Titanic, of course — the idea is that of a conceptual piece that is probably focused on the adventures of the broken Titanic underwater (where «adventure» is to be understood philosophically — in a sense, if nothing whatsoever happens to you, this is by itself quite an adventure). The «lyrics» to the piece were not written by Eno himself, but rather selected by him from a string of sentences randomly generated by a Markov chain algorithm from a data pool that included a passenger's account of the sinking of the boat, plus some translations of dirty French songs from World War I for a change (although that last detail might be a hoot — don't see any particularly dirty tidbits in the lyrics; perhaps the algorithm included a modesty clause); fun, but ultimately pointless, in my opinion — although, come to think of it, quite consistent with Eno's general fatalism, belief in luck, and fascination for stuff like Tarot cards (and maybe help­ful in some way — he did rant, for instance, about the greatness of the line "the hour is thin" that was totally computer-generated, and, uh, he just might have something there...).

Anyway, what's really good about The Ship is that its ambience is of a stern, metallic character, with elements of the industrial style consistently incorporated throughout — for ʽThe Shipʼ, you really do get the impression of being placed underwater and watching the huge metal monster groan and moan while tiny currents and occasional biological organisms swish and swoosh past the metallic covering. Ropes and seams are creaking and straining, little gas bursts escaping, and multiple vocal overdubs sound like a mix of ghost apparitions and aural hallucinations. After twenty minutes of completely static ambience, the first part of ʽFickle Sunʼ comes on in a much more dynamic manner — as a slow anthem of death, with almost Gothic overtunes, gradually gaining in intensity, with grinding feedback waves and quasi-orchestral pomp (reminiscent of classic Coil, really) — and then, again, somewhat randomly, the same «suite» continues as ʽPart 2ʼ (with a professional, but boring voiceover by Peter Serafinowicz over a simple ambient piano melody) and as ʽPart 3ʼ, which, out of the blue, is a very 1970s-sounding cover of The Velvet Underground's ʽI'm Set Freeʼ, beautifully sung by Eno and once again featuring Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins on additional instruments.

Fans of Eno's melodicity will most definitely want the album for that cover — it is quite prover­bially gorgeous, stripping away all the lo-fi «ugliness» of the original and replacing it with a paradisiac atmosphere: violins, violas, layers of keyboards, and, above all else, the semblance of a beautiful tribute to Lou Reed, who, upon finally being «set free», certainly does deserve an ange­lic tribute from the man who, after all, forty years back, raised the «angelic standard» to nearly unreach­able heights: this is a fascinating cross-breed of Velvet Underground values with Eno values, even if I still struggle to see its relationship with the bulk of the album. But as for the bulk of the album, well, it's not generic Eno by all means, but it is neither the beautiful ambient Eno nor the dark and mysterious out-there-in-space ambient Eno, and I am not sure I am capable of squeezing yet another ambient Eno in my storage room — I'd just say that the album is sufficient­ly atmospheric to be a curious listen, but I can't say it really gave me a whole new perspective on what it would be like to spend 100 years in incorporeal form at the bottom of the ocean.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Cat Power: Moon Pix

CAT POWER: MOON PIX (1998)

1) American Flag; 2) He Turns Down; 3) No Sense; 4) Say; 5) Metal Heart; 6) Back Of Your Head; 7) Moonshiner; 8) You May Know Him; 9) Colors And The Kids; 10) Cross Bones Style; 11) Peking Saint.

This is it, the moment of truth — if you don't like Moon Pix, you're probably more of a dog power than a cat power person; and if you like, but don't love Moon Pix (like I do), you must have serious problems with quite a lot of modern musical art, because Moon Pix is really it: a record that is modern-artsy to the extreme, a set of semi-improvisational, stream-of-conscious­ness-like rambling confessions that sound like they were recorded in a hazy trance. In fact, I don't know about «recorded», but legend has it that many of the songs were written by Chan in one night under the influence of a disturbing nightmare, involving dark spirits and demons and all sorts of stuff that, you know, can sometimes happen to a girl from Georgia overdosing on New York City. Perhaps that is why the album is called Moon Pix, even if the only song on the album with a direct reference to ʽmoonʼ is ʽMoonshinerʼ, and that's a different kind of moon.

Anyway, if I were a mean, evil person, I would have certainly taken the chance to mock the song­writer on account of a lyric like "It must be the colors / And the kids / That keep me alive / 'Cause the music is boring me to death". Honestly, when listening to Moon Pix, this is precisely the feeling I get — the music is boring me to death, but the colors of the album are what saves it from mediocrity. ʽColors And The Kidsʼ is basically just three piano chords put on repeat for about six and a half minutes, and her voice, fading in and out of the picture, sometimes cracking from excessive emotionality and sometimes dissipating from lack of training, is no great shakes either — but the first thing you realize with surprise is that somehow, this does not annoy your aural nerves (the only thing that does annoy me a bit is the sound of the piano lid closing at the end: cheap trick! cheap trick!), and from there, you can slowly build up appreciation for the odd atmosphere that she constructs, that good old optimistic pessimism, or pessimistic optimism, whatever, with just a touch of laziness and apathy because, you know, the universe is expanding or something like that, so what does everything else matter?

My biggest problem is that, even though she is now in Australia and recording with a completely different band, and the production is relatively hi-fi and the instrumentation relatively diverse (there's even a separate flute player), the music is still not up to par — mostly standard folk and blues patterns without any innovative or personal touches — and that, for all her talent, Chan is still refusing to take singing lessons, metaphorically speaking. I know I should be falling over my head with songs like ʽMetal Heartʼ and ʽCross Bones Styleʼ, but I am unable to perceive them as «magical», like so many fans do — pleasant, yes, mildly disturbing, yes, but nothing that would cut across the heart like a razorblade. Even ʽCross Bones Styleʼ, which is supposedly a dark folk lament over the horrible fates of diamond miners in South Africa (impossible to tell from the lyrics, but you can tell the song is mournful and disturbing), basically just rolls by like a chilly breeze — some jangly drony acoustic chords, some double-tracked folksy harmonies with high-low modulation, nothing too flashy and absolutely no secrets to come undone over the course of repeated listens. And repeated listens are necessary, because eventually you come to realize that the only source of real dread and creepiness would be the normality of it all — the total lack of any sort of flashy sonics or production gimmicks. Not that this wasn't the case with her previous records as well; it's just that Moon Pix is a clear step forward in terms of sonics and production, and since there are more instruments and some actual musicians backing her this time, you'd think you could expect something different, but no! You can't, really.

Actually, you know, I'm not exactly right when I speak about a lack of gimmicks — every re­viewer of Moon Pix feels it necessary to remind the reader of the backwards drum loop on ʽAme­rican Flagʼ that was, believe it or not, sampled from the Beastie Boys' ʽPaul Revereʼ (but why?); or of Belinda Woods' flute work on the folk ballad ʽHe Turns Downʼ (pretty, but quite low in the mix, and not really making much of a difference); or of the thunder bursts on ʽSayʼ, which make you feel locked up for safety in the room with the artist while nature is having a wild ball on the outside... but then again, almost every song on the album feels private and intimate anyway. So, essentially, the gimmicks are there, but they just don't matter.

What matters is the combination of largely predictable, though tasteful, folk and blues patterns, hookless vocals, ambiguous lyrics, and morose atmosphere. The one album that somehow springs to mind in connection with this is not even by a female artist — it is Nick Drake's Pink Moon, and guess what, I didn't even realize when I thought of it that it also had the word "moon" in the title. The difference being that Nick played a better guitar, had a better singing voice, wrote better songs, and could work that "don't-mind-me-I'm-just-humming-this-tune-in-the-corner" vibe much more efficiently than Chan Marshall, who can still occasionally come across as too narcissistic. Still, she's got one on him at least — she sounds a bit more human and relatable, whereas Nick was basically a Christ-like figure: you didn't really have a good idea of how to approach him, how to address him, whether he shits rose petals etc. — tons of mystery. This is where Marshall's «ordinariness» in terms of playing and singing really works well for her.

I give the record a thumbs up because I appreciate the rugged charisma, the lyrical originality, and the unquestionable progress in «formal» terms (more stylistic diversity, better production, interesting bits of studio experimentation), but I do wish that something more would remain in my head than the line "Yellow hair, you're a funny bear" that somehow got me trapped in a love-hate relationship — moving, yes, but also sounding a bit like the blueprint for everything that I hate about SIKC (Sentimental Indie Kid Culture), you know, that part of the universe where you have to get sad only because it's a sin to be happy, or, even worse, when all the bad things around you are only used as a pretext to get sad, because Sad is Cool. In other words, color me uncon­vinced — on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rate the sadness of Moon Pix about 4 or 5 («not irritating be­cause the person sounds nice, not genuinely moving because the feel is an artificial one»). But that's just because I'm fairly jaded on sadness, I guess.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Cheap Trick: Heaven Tonight

CHEAP TRICK: HEAVEN TONIGHT (1978)

1) Surrender; 2) On Top Of The World; 3) California Man; 4) High Roller; 5) Auf Wiedersehen; 6) Takin' Me Back; 7) On The Radio; 8) Heaven Tonight; 9) Stiff Competition; 10) How Are You; 11) Oh Claire.

You know what's a creepy song? ʽHeaven Tonightʼ is a creepy song, and the fact that it's placed right in the middle of an album of typically tongue-in-cheap-trick tunes, or even the fact that Nielsen himself called it a «parody» on anti-drug songs is able to do anything with the creepiness. I would be the first to agree that Cheap Trick is essentially a «B-level» band, one whose inherent sense of humor always prevented it from descending into the true depths of human psychology and emotionality (and when they'd lost that sense of humor in their Eighties shit period, it was too late to go deep anyway) — but no first-rate B-level band can exist without at least one or two A-level tunes, and ʽHeaven Tonightʼ is simply it.

The song has been compared to everything, from the Beatles' ʽI Want Youʼ to Led Zep's ʽKash­mirʼ, with both of which it does share melodic properties, but the vibe is different — it is distinct­ly funereal, a more-than-perfect soundtrack to the death of a junkie. Just a few transpositions, and the magical-mystical-Sufian ʽKashmirʼ vibe becomes a funeral march... but the most shiver-sending moment is, of course, when Zander lowers his voice down to that ominous whisper — "would you like to go to Heaven tonight? would you like to go to Heaven tonight?"... where ʽHea­venʼ signifies both the heavenly delight of a really solid dose of the stuff, and its direct con­sequences. A parody? This should be played at frickin' drug rehab centers — the only song I know that could compare to this directly in impact is the Stones' ʽSister Morphineʼ. Oh, and did I mention the instrumental banshee wail in the coda? I am still not completely in the clear what instrument that is — a musical saw? Or just a synthesizer imitating one? Regardless, it's as per­fect a symbolization of the poor soul finally getting on its way to Heaven as possible.

And no, the rest of the album is nowhere near that heavy on the senses, even if it is very frequently heavier on the guitars. For many, Heaven Tonight remains the absolute peak of the band, and I almost concur, except I think that In Color may be just a tad more consistent, if, on the whole, lighter in tone. In a way, Heaven Tonight synthesizes the «rawness» and «titillation» aspects of the self-titled debut with the tightness and pop hooks of In Color, so its greatest songs (title track apart, that must be ʽSurrenderʼ and ʽAuf Wiedersehenʼ) are true pop masterpieces, and both of them sound as fresh and relevant today as they did nearly 40 years ago. In particular, ʽSurrenderʼ, with its theme of «hip unity» between teens and parents, has, in fact, only become more relevant with age, as parents and grandparents these days can often give their kids lessons in hipness ("Mom and Dad are rolling on the couch... got my Kiss records out" almost sounds sentimentally naive these days!).

And ʽAuf Wiedersehenʼ — now there's a tongue-in-cheek song for you! If you ever contemplated suicide, this song could actually present a cure: the very concept of suicide is sent up so brutally by these guys (basically, the message is "you want to kill yourself? no, really? wait, lemme just grab the popcorn!") that the very act of suicide, through this angle, becomes a moro­nic theatrical gesture rather than a true solution to your problems. Cue solid Dylan lyrical refe­rence (not that ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ ever endorsed suicide, but it was a dark tune all the same), an Alice Cooper-ish riff brimming with swagger and contempt, and some of Zander's wildest screaming ever captured on record, and you got yourself a kick-ass positive social statement (which, I have no doubt, quite a few idiots in their time may have mistaken for propaganda of suicide).

The rest of the record lags and sags a little bit in between the three big babies, although, truth be told, there is not a single bad tune — some are just okay, like ʽHigh Rollerʼ, a slow catchy cock-rocker based on a riff with AC/DC chords played Grand Funk style; or ʽOn The Radioʼ, which lifts its fun ascending melody from the Kinks' ʽPicture Bookʼ and goes for the same style of light-hearted nostalgia; or the music hall influenced ʽHow Are Youʼ, which is even more McCartney-esque than ʽI Want You To Want Meʼ — a fun, catchy, friendly song, but one that would pretty soon disappear off the radar (because who the heck would want to have to perform two ʽI Want You To Want Meʼs in a single show?). One song that did go on to become a show stopper, sur­prisingly, is a loyally performed cover of The Move's ʽCalifornia Manʼ (with a bit of ʽBronto­saurusʼ thrown in for good measure) — a perfect barrelhouse boogie for the boys, but certainly a bit unoriginal; Nielsen's glam-rock guitar soloing in the middle, with almost every single rock and roll cliché thrown in, is probably the high point.

In any case, even the least of the lesser numbers is still perfectly enjoyable thru and thru, and the album thrives on quirky little hooks and gimmicks that keep the interest up and running — even the final track (ʽOh Claireʼ), a one-minute arena-rock screamer with "oh, konnichiwa!" as the only lyrics: it is, at the exact same time, a send-up of their «tradition» of recording an ʽOh C...ʼ song on every album (ʽOh Candyʼ, ʽOh Carolineʼ), made even funnier by the fact that it is a pun on "Eau Claire, Wisconsin" — and an odd «preview» of the Budokan concert, perhaps recorded in the anticipation of the upcoming Japanese tour. (Actually, the song was not listed at all on the LP cover, being one of those ʽHer Majestyʼ-style little surprises... alas, it is impossible to write a single Cheap Trick review without a bunch of Beatles references, is it?).

Yes, Heaven Tonight is a monster of an album — and the last in the classic trilogy to work wonders with pretty much the exact same formula. It's almost a pity that already on the next album they'd start tinkering with the formula — and initiating their downfall in the process — but in 1978, there was still no end in sight to the power and the glory. An enthusiastic thumbs up: this is absolutely required listening for all lovers of heavy pop music.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Carole King: Really Rosie

CAROLE KING: REALLY ROSIE (1975)

1) Really Rosie; 2) One Was Johnny; 3) Alligators All Around; 4) Pierre; 5) Screaming And Yelling; 6) The Ballad Of Chicken Soup; 7) Chicken Soup With Rice; 8) Avenue P; 9) My Simple Humble Neighborhood; 10) The Awful Truth; 11) Such Sufferin'; 12) Really Rosie (reprise).

Not having had the honor of growing up as a kid (or growing kids as a parent) in mid-Sixties America, I have missed the opportunity to become closely acquainted with the work of Maurice Sendak — however, as far as I can see, at least the verse part of his picture books (The Nutshell Library series) was fairly faithfully adapted by Carole King, and the lyrics are pretty cool: at the expense of being perhaps a bit too complicated for the average toddler, they have «family enter­tainment» value in that they may engage both kids and adults, and, of course, they have that «unsettling», «dark» angle that is so much all the rage today, as long as a particular author of children's literature wants to get a pat on the back from sophisticated critics and readers.

But truth be told, there's really no denying the talent of the writer, and it's twice as awesome that a melody writer as talented as Carole King agreed to put some of those lyrics to music. It may have been quite natural, too, seeing as how she had kids of her own who probably were growing up on that stuff (in fact, daughters Louise and Sherry are here in person, providing backup vocals throughout), and, as a progressive mother who is not afraid of a little bit of scary imagery, she herself is totally getting into the spirit of the thing. More importantly, it provides her with a great opportunity to get away from the too overtly mellow, wishy-washy structure of her emotional balladry and concentrate almost exclusively on those pop hooks that had pretty much died out after Tapestry (although Wrap Around Joy wasn't too bad in that respect).

The proper way to do this, actually, is (a) keep the tunes as snappy and upbeat as possible and (b) keep the arrangements to a minimum — most of the time, it's just a piano-bass-drums trio, with husband Charles Larkey and Andy Newmark keeping up the beat. In a few cases, there's also some guitar, usually in the appropriate contexts — for instance, ʽThe Awful Truthʼ, where the protagonist discusses her chances at "playing Mrs. Dracula", is accompanied by some histrionic distorted electric soloing; and, curiously, Carole herself is credited as the only guitar player on the album, so it's somewhat hilarious to think that her first experience playing distorted electric guitar may have taken place on an album for kiddies.

Anyway, if your toddler likes the books, he or she would probably be happy to recite the alphabet in the ʽAlligators All Aroundʼ order, empathizing with the I-don't-caring Pierre and the lion who had to eat him in order to cure him from an annoying attitude, crying at the terrible fate of Chicken Soup (Carole gets into this one with a particularly theatrical flavor, with probably her wildest bit of screaming ever captured on record), or learning the differences between the twelve months of the year, all of which have only one thing in common — ʽChicken Soup With Riceʼ. And if you are the parent of that toddler, you might (brushes sentimental tear off face) be happy yourself to provide him or her with that entertainment. Besides, if you just stick to the books, you'll never be able to recite them as effectively as Carole, so, you know, better leave it to the professionals.

No, honestly, it's not one of those rare records that «masquerades» as a children-oriented piece of entertainment, while at the same time containing hidden depth — Really Rosie is purely shallow fun-oriented stuff. But it is infested with Carole King charisma from top to bottom, and when the charisma is combined with a clever mix of cuddliness, sentimentality, humor, and macabre spoo­kiness... well, the overall result is far more enjoyable on a gut level, even for an adult, than quite a few «dead serious» albums in my memory. So, thumbs up: my only complaint is that it will now take at least a couple of weeks for my brain to clear out that "chicken soup, chicken soup, chicken soup with RIIIICE!" bit. Particularly painful, that one, given how much I hate the very idea of chicken soup with rice. (For a change, try humming "chicken soup with mice" or "chicken soup with lice" instead — I assure you that it won't spoil the spirit of the book or of the musical one little bit).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Canned Heat: Live In Europe

CANNED HEAT: LIVE IN EUROPE (1970)

1) That's All Right Mama; 2) Bring It On Home; 3) Pulling Hair Blues; 4) Medley: Back Out On The Road / On The Road Again; 5) London Blues; 6) Let's Work Together; 7) Goodbye For Now.

I have learned not to trust any datings for Canned Heat albums past 1969 (due to the band's con­voluted history combined with their relatively «minor» status, they tend to be quite contradic­tory), but it does look like this concert record was indeed released in 1970, though it is not quite clear if that was still before or already after Wilson's death. Regardless, he is definitely here on the album, along with Harvey Mandel, and some sources state that it was largely recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in April 1970 (more likely, in January 1970, because from The Bear's announcements at the end it ensues that they were headlining after Deep Purple and Renaissance, and Deep Purple only played the RAH in January), along with other venues (not sure which ones), so I suppose that, un­like the next live album, this one was probably at least in the plans before Wilson's passing.

What was also in the plans, I guess, was to present the band as one with the audience: a pretty good chunk of the record is taken over by Hite's and the other members' friendly chat with front row enthusiasts, sometimes in a manner as innocent as The Bear asking "you got any acid?", or proposing to do his Jim Morrison impression (hard to tell from the level of laughter if the impres­sion really made much of an impression or not), and sometimes while bringing strange guests up on stage (no idea whatsoever who "The Rag Queen" is, appearing right before the final number), you know, just to show that it's more than just about the music and the band and all.

But while I do appreciate the brotherly spirit (a glimpse of which you can actually catch in the Woodstock movie, when a fan climbs up on stage in the middle of the performance and nabs a pack of cigarettes right from The Bear's front pocket — not something that either Keith Richards or Pete Townshend would tolerate, I guess), the music still means more to me, and this particular bunch of performances is not that great, unfortunately, even by the band's own modest standards. Mandel, in particular, seems relatively tame throughout, digging his slow-burning psychedelic tones but almost never stepping out in front; and Wilson is brought to the forefront only on two generic 12-bar blues numbers, which does not allow him to make great use of his voice.

It does not help matters much, either, that ʽPulling Hair Bluesʼ is a nine-minute drag where the only instruments are Larry Taylor's bass and Wilson's harmonica (perhaps John Entwistle could hold your attention with nine minutes of pure bass guitar, but Larry Taylor is just not that good); that ʽOn The Road Againʼ is recast here as a rather wimpy funk jam with none of the ominous rattle and hum of the studio original; or that their brave take on Sonny Boy Williamson's ʽBring It On Homeʼ may feel far more loyal to the original than Zeppelin's version, but is far less deserving of a special memory cell. In the end, strange enough, the best performance on the entire album turns out to be the show-ending rendition of ʽLet's Work Togetherʼ, elongated in comparison to the studio version with some extra and far more badass soloes — Wilson plays a beautiful slide part, Mandel counterattacks with nasty distorted electric stuff, and the whole thing plays out its part to perfection as a final anthem to complete the unification process between audience and band, without forgetting the individual talents of the band's members either.

Other than that, it's all perfectly listenable, but somehow the level of energy is simply not the same as it used to be with Vestine — I'd take a single 40-minute ʽRefried Boogieʼ over this album in its entirety, easily. It is also hardly coincidental that their next live release, despite being clearly pulled from the archives, would turn out to be far superior. It is also ironic that at that date, they could still be the headliners in a show that included Deep Purple as an opening act — a situ­ation that would be reversed very, very soon...