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Friday, September 30, 2016

Catherine Wheel: Ferment

CATHERINE WHEEL: FERMENT (1992)

1) Texture; 2) I Want To Touch You; 3) Black Metallic; 4) Indigo Is Blue; 5) She's My Friend; 6) Shallow; 7) Ferment; 8) Tumbledown; 9) Bill And Ben; 10) Salt; 11) Balloon.

Here's an odd coincidence for you: Rob Dickinson, one of the two primary founding members of Catherine Wheel, was the cousin of Bruce Dickinson, lead vocalist of Iron Maiden. See that? Iron maiden? Catherine wheel? What's up with these British bands and medieval torture devices? (Al­legedly, the band did not call itself that because of the torture device itself, but rather because of the spinning firework named after it — yet that does not destroy the coincidence anyway).

Granted, the music of Catherine Wheel will only sound torturous to people with an inborn aver­sion to the wall-of-sound principle. Raised and nurtured on the shoegazing scene, Dickinson and the band's second guitarist Brian Futter seem to have subscribed to the My Bloody Valentine and the Nirvana fanclub at the same time — their sound is a mixture of shoegazing hypnotism and grungey harshness, which, in the wrong hands, could seem like a suicidal recipe for boring alt-rock sludge. Fortunately, on their debut album they also have the good sense to combine these influences with decent pop hooks and a certain spiritual lightness that makes the songs really touching when they're good, and tolerable even when they're boring.

The two biggest singles from here are also the best tracks. ʽI Want To Touch Youʼ, with a Stone Roses / Madchester echo, is a perfect introduction to the band's early sound — a fluently spinning, sparkling lead guitar part floating over the distorted rhythm vamp; clever use of the wah-wah pedal for extra psychedelic effect; Dickinson's «ethereal» vocals and their repetitive hookline that somehow agrees so well with the hazy, multi-layered arrangement... it's as if the singer is truly prevented from the temptation of touching you because there's a magical forcefield between the subject and object of touching. Yes, it's a very derivative song (if you really wanted to offend, you could easily call it a Stone Roses rip-off), but unlike many other derivative songs, this one is totally cool in its atmospheric flow.

Then there's the much longer and more complex ʽBlack Metallicʼ, where we turn from the tactile temptation to surface analysis — apparently, "your skin is black metallic", whatever that might mean (not sure it's a compliment!), and to drive that message home, they make use of slow tempo, gradual build-up, stormy solos, loud-to-quiet-and-back-to-loud dynamics, and whatever it takes, essentially, to share an epic feel. I don't know why it works, really, but it does. The lyrics suggest a reading of the «cruel beauty» variety, and the music reflects a sense of cruelness and beauty at the same time — with an additional tinge of sadness (which, I guess, is precisely the kind of thing that happens when you mix cruelness with beauty) coming from Dickinson's vocals. Apparently, the public felt the same, because the song even managed to chart (on the «Modern Rock» chart only) in the US, despite the long-windedness and the ambient feel.

That's pretty much all that needs to be said about the record's meat-'n'-potato layer: repetitive, helium-fueled vocal hooks over a bedrock of shoegrunging guitar textures (hey, even the very first song here is simply called ʽTextureʼ, and its motto? "I need more texture!.. You need to give me more texture!" Come on, Rob, you're nothing but texture already!). Sometimes they speed up and become a little funkier and more Madchester-ish (ʽShe's My Friendʼ), but there is never really any essential deviation from the formula, and all the songs set the same mood. The good news is, they are willing to really work on the tunes, and additional listens bring out different riffs and also make you really appreciate the lead guitar skills of Futter, who seems to have made Robert Fripp and Robin Guthrie his prime teachers, and although I couldn't say that he has overcome them on any single point, he is still a worthy disciple (and his technique is really excellent even when it is heavily masked by the production — on songs like ʽBill And Benʼ, for instance, he delivers terrific kaleidoscopic fireworks through the wah-wah pedal).

In fact, Ferment works as an excellent introduction into the «atmospheric alt-rock» scene of late Eighties / early Nineties Britain to those who want their shoegazing with a little bit of rocking energy and a little more song-like shape. Arguably, it is the band's best offering (at least, com­pared to the next few records) because after this, they would tip the balance way too much to­wards the metallic angle; here, the balance between harshness and romanticism is close to perfect. Funnily enough, the record that Ferment reminds me of the most, from my somewhat limited experience, is Blur's Leisure — except that on the latter, all atmospheric textures were strictly subjugated to the pop hook, whereas on Ferment it is strictly the opposite. I guess it just goes to show the overall popularity of this type of sound back in its day, but it was a good sound when the song structures and arrangements behind it weren't too lazy, and Ferment, if anything, de­monstrates to you all the hidden dynamics and inventiveness behind the art of sleepy day­dreaming — and yes, it's probably taken best in a hammock during siesta time, but it still gets a thumbs up even if I never had the chance to listen to it under proper conditions.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cheap Trick: Standing On The Edge

CHEAP TRICK: STANDING ON THE EDGE (1985)

1) Little Sister; 2) Tonight It's You; 3) She's Got Motion; 4) Love Comes; 5) How About You; 6) Standing On The Edge; 7) This Time Around; 8) Rock All Night; 9) Cover Girl; 10) Wild Wild Women.

Truest album title ever — this is a huge letdown compared to Next Position Please, but if we keep in mind the horror that would follow on its heels, then 1985 does present the band as truly «standing on the edge», before taking the final plunge the following year. Ironically, they are turning back to Jack Douglas here for production, so you'd think the idea was to try and recapture the spirit of their very first album. But in 1985, that just wasn't meant to be. The musical values had changed, the atmospheric demands had changed, and the production standards had «pro­gressed» towards the point when, during the final stage, mixer-extraordinaire Tony Platt came in, mixed the plastic keyboards higher than Nielsen's guitar, put a whole load of ear-splitting elec­tronic effects on Bun E. Carlos' drums (so much so that Carlos allegedly asked to be credited for «acoustic drums» to preserve his reputation), and made it all sound like a bunch of loud, chaotic, and essentially tuneless party-rock with a hair metal flavor.

Of course, we should never place all the blame on the producer. Nielsen and Zander still co-write most of the songs — and they also allow them to be «doctored» by a guy called Mark Radice, who plays the awful keyboards and shares the credits for 8 out of 10 numbers here; considering that his previous work expertise included collaborations with Michael Bolton and Barry Manilow, you can probably understand what that means even without assessing his contributions for the Tricksters. As for the «spiritual content» of the songs, it is largely confined to the same two styles that, although directly contradicting each other, formed the bulk of any popular rock artist's reper­toire at the time — cock-rockers and power ballads.

I am not saying that the songwriting is totally abysmal. If you can stand the production long enough to submit yourself to 3-4 listens, it becomes clear that the guys are still inspired by classic pop and R&B: ʽHow About Youʼ, for instance, hops along to the beat of ʽEverybody Needs Somebody To Loveʼ (been watching a tad too much of The Blues Brothers, eh?); ʽLittle Sisterʼ borrows the verse melody of the Stones' ʽ19th Nervous Breakdownʼ; and ʽCover Girlʼ is — theoretically — an exuberant power pop anthem whose roots lie in the classic singles of The Who; the problem is that you have to adjust your ears past several layers of glossy noise and noisy gloss to understand this, and with this kind of derivativeness, the playing style, the ar­rangement, and the mix are super-important. And they're awful.

The most bombastic and sentimental track on the album, ʽTonight It's Youʼ, was chosen as the lead single, and it even managed  to temporarily put them back on the charts — at the expense of drying the last drops of irony and intelligence, leaving behind a completely straightforward sere­nade, capable of waking the neighbors for miles around by way of the electronic drum cannonade and hideously overdriven acoustic guitars that merge with the synthesizers in one silky-glossy whole. It's got a solid construction, for sure, rising from a slow start to a desperate mid-section to the bombastic knight-in-shining-armor chorus, but everything is so obviously calculated that I am not sure how it would be possible to praise this song and put down any given Aerosmith power ballad at the same time — and since I have already done the latter, I am obliged to refuse the former. Which is, by the way, quite easy for me, because I have yet to experience a real tear flowing down my cheek as Zander's voice, singing "all I want is a place in your heart to fall into!", cuts me to the bone and presents the very idea of romantic love in a completely new light. (Also, doesn't Zander have to reduce himself to microscopic proportions in order to achieve this?)

Ultimately, I'd rather go with the playful stuff like ʽLittle Sisterʼ and ʽCover Girlʼ and ʽHow About Youʼ, all of which could be very decent tracks with less obnoxious production. But some­times they go decidedly over the top with the playfulness — ʽShe's Got Motionʼ, somehow for­getting about the romanticism of ʽTonight It's Youʼ, plunges into the joys of totally casual sex and features one of the most absurd musical imitations of the love-making process ever recorded in the history of poodle-metal; and then there's ʽRock All Nightʼ, which was probably the band's worst song recorded up to that point — both of these tunes are a good preview of the sonic night­mare of The Doctor, and the most horrible thing about it is that Nielsen and Zander probably thought that with this crap, they were essentially doing their usual loud-and-ironic schtick. Loud, yes, but any sense of irony is completely lost — atmosphere-wise, this stuff is indistinguishable from your average Def Leppard or Mötley Crüe: really, what is the difference between ʽGirls, Girls, Girlsʼ and ʽWild Wild Womenʼ? Okay, so there's probably no need to hate either, but they're all just leftover curios from the AIDS decade.

No thumbs down, though, for a couple of reasons — they go real easy on the power ballads for now, and I like it how even through all the sonic muck you have these echoes of traditional Six­ties-style melodicity every once in a while. Indeed, I can easily imagine at least half of these songs done really well: maybe if they'd thought about re-recording them during or after their period of musical convalescence, the results would be more impressive than with the actual new material they penned in the 21st century. But instead, I think they ultimately just forgot this record ever existed — ʽTonight It's Youʼ seems to be the only song from here that keeps crop­ping up in their live shows. Too bad, I'd rather it be ʽLittle Sisterʼ or ʽCover Girlʼ.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Carole King: One To One

CAROLE KING: ONE TO ONE (1982)

1) One To One; 2) It's A War; 3) Lookin' Out For Number One; 4) Life Without Love; 5) Golden Man; 6) Read Between The Lines; 7) Boomerang (Love Is Like A); 8) Goat Annie; 9) Someone You Never Met Before; 10) Little Prince.

In retrospect, this record managed to receive some accolades — largely for its lack of embarras­sing moments, I guess, and a stark adherence to the classic production style of the Seventies: in fact, it is quite notable that not only Danny Kortchmar from her own band returns to play guitar, but even former husband Charles Larkey is back on bass, while at the same time Mark Hallman is retained as both player and co-producer. Furthermore, with her Capitol contract expired, Carole now allies herself with Atlantic Records, and reconnects with both former-former husband Gerry Goffin and with Cynthia Weil for some of the lyrics. I mean, this is as good an arrangement as could ever be thought of for 1982, right?

Well, the album does have a fairly nice sound in the end, but as far as Carole's songwriting form is concerned... not really sure. Too many recycled chord sequences, too few fresh ideas: the title track, for instance, tries to impress us with an unexpectedly cool melodic shift in the middle, but once you understand that the pattern is mostly just taken over from ʽStand By Meʼ, it's just not so cool any more. The single, by the way, was the last time any single from Carole managed to get on the charts (although, granted, she did not put out any singles again until 1989, by which time her old fans had probably readjusted to the modern adult contemporary market).

With a little effort, I could single out ʽIt's A Warʼ as a cut above the average, although the alleged «anger» of its lyrics (Ms. King complains about people being cruel to each other on an everyday basis and about how "people I had never met were out to get me", now who could any of these people be?... oh wait a minute...) does not agree very well with the generally cozy and friendly melody. But at least it has a chorus that is (a) catchy and (b) does not directly rip off any other song I know, and when multiplied by Carol's charisma (she even mentions to sing about her enemies and "people thinking mean" with compassion rather than hatred), that's reason enough for keeping us happy on a record where most other songs, in comparison, sound about as inspired as you'd expect yourself to be merely from looking out of your window on the ten thousandth rainy day of your uneventful life.

I mean, I just cannot help mentioning the amazing coincidence that both Carole King and Cheap Trick put out a song called ʽLookin' Out For Number Oneʼ in precisely the same year of 1982, but apart from that, the only thing I can say about the King song is that it is written in the funk-pop genre, completely inappropriate for Carole's personality (not that the Cheap Trick song was much better, but at least it was more in their usual rocking style). And as much as (not that much) I enjoy the quiet, tepid flow of ʽBoomerang (Love Is Like A)ʼ, I also cannot help mentioning that the idea of love as a boomerang was already polished to pop perfection by ABBA in their ʽBang-A-Boomerangʼ seven years earlier, and they did their best to bring out the ʽboomʼ in the ʽBoom­erangʼ part, whereas Carole's song here might just as well have been called ʽTerrapin (Love Is Like A)ʼ or ʽEndorphin (Love Is Just A)ʼ.

Towards the end, Carole remembers that she used to be a rocker, too, and lets rip with ʽGoat Annieʼ, a blues-pop-rock combo with a «hard» angle and a heart-tearing story about a 75-year old goat herder refusing to let herself be driven off her land — a cool anthem to personal liberty that even Ted Nugent would have appreciated, but not much by way of creative songwriting. Come to think of it, this sounds more like typical Bonnie Raitt material, and should have featured a couple awesome slide guitar solos. Anyway, «rocking Carole» is forgotten fairly quickly, with two un­memorable ballads to finish the album (one of them called ʽLittle Princeʼ, ugh) and an overall impression of... well, just another day in the life. I'd say I get about as excited about this music as I get about the album cover — far be it from me to request a «glamorous» look from Carole, but come on now, she looks like somebody who's never ever left Queens on that photo, even if we all know that she was actually born in Manhattan.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Canned Heat: Kings Of The Boogie

CANNED HEAT: KINGS OF THE BOOGIE (1981)

1) Kings Of The Boogie; 2) Stoned Bad Street Fighting Man; 3) So Fine; 4) You Can't Get Close To Me; 5) Hell's Just On Down The Road; 6) I Was Wrong; 7) Little Crystal; 8) Dog House Blues; 9) Sleepy Hollow Baby; 10) Chicken Shack.

Still more lineup changes; by the time they got around to recording this one, The Bear and Fito were still in, and the lead guitar position once again miraculously shifted from Harvey Mandel to The Amazing Disappearing (And Reappearing At Will) Henry Vestine. Unfortunately, an even more serious problem than a quantum-state lead guitar sound struck them this time: before the album was completed, Bob Hite happened to miscalculate his heroin dosage (allegedly, they say he mistook cocaine for heroin), collapsed on stage, and died on April 6, 1981, somewhere in Hollywood; I think he was the last of the Woodstock heroes to have the hand of fate catch up with him in such an ironic manner.

Somehow the band still carried on, though, and the album was completed with three of the recent members contributing vocals where necessary: Ernie Rodriguez on bass, Rick Kellog on harp, and Mike Halby on guitar. There are still plenty of Hite-sung vocal tracks, though, so do not believe them who say that Human Condition was the last Hite-led Canned Heat album: if you have enough love/respect for him as a lead figure, be sure to check out Kings Of The Boogie, because he actually sounds a little more loose here (or maybe it's just better production).

The overall style is not that far removed from Human Condition's, though: basic fast-tempo boogie and generic, but mean-wishing blues-rock constitutes the bulk of it, and where there are exceptions, I'd rather there wasn't any — for instance, the band's cover of Johnny Otis' ʽSo Fineʼ is amazingly stiff and sung without the slightest bit of emotion. Technically, ʽDog House Bluesʼ is also an exception, because it is credited to two members of Devo (and no, it has nothing to do with the Devo outtake ʽDoghouse Doghouseʼ that would surface later from the archives); how­ever, it fits in so naturally with the other blues-rock tracks here that you could never suspect foul play without checking the credits.

Anyway, the best tracks on the album are the fast-paced ones: they close the record with a merry revival of the old Amos Milburn jump blues classic ʽChicken Shackʼ, energized harmonica and guitar solos and all, and open it with their own modern day take on jump blues — the title track probably has the best guitar riff of 'em all, with a nice mix of syncopation and sustain, and the rhythm section is so tight that even if you still wish to deny them the title of Kings of the Boogie (or, at least, continue to insist that they lost that title a decade ago), it would be unfair to strip them of a lifetime board membership at least.

Guitarist Mike Halby contributes much of the original songwriting where it is present, and turns out to be a modestly competent riffmeister with a knack for a decent variation: I think that ʽLittle Crystalʼ reuses and embellishes the more Spartan riff pattern of CCR's ʽBootlegʼ, and although ʽStone Bad Street Fighting Manʼ has nothing to do with the melody of Stones' ʽStreet Fighting Manʼ, the title of the song is amusingly delivered in the same melodic way as it was done by Mick — coincidence?.. Little things like these add a much-needed pinch of amusement to what otherwise would be a completely unremarkable set of barroom tunes. Well, frankly speaking, it is still a fairly unremarkable set of barroom tunes, but then, it hardly aspires to any higher status. The whole thing, bar the totally out-of-place Otis cover, is fully adequate to the purpose, and I might even consider recommending it with a thumbs up, if not for the production, which might on the whole be even worse than Human Condition's — almost lo-fi in places (and I am not sure if it is just my copy, but you can actually sense the engineer adjusting the volume level right in the middle of the title track... what the heck???).

If there's any place left for real amazement, it has to be outside the music — with the death of The Bear, you'd think the team should have finally thought about calling it a day: what is the sense of retaining a mediocre brand name anyway, after two of the band's chief symbols had left this world, and the only original member left was the drummer? But then again, never underesti­mate the drummer (even if his name happens to be Phil Collins) — especially in the case of Canned Heat, where, somehow, the drummer eventually managed to make a difference.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Cher: Cherished

CHER: CHERISHED (1977)

1) Pirate; 2) He Was Beautiful; 3) War Paint And Soft Feathers; 4) Love The Devil Out Of Ya; 5) She Loves To Hear The Music; 6) L. A. Plane; 7) Again; 8) Dixie; 9) Send The Man Over; 10) Thunderstorm.

Much to Cher's honor, this seems to have been the only album of hers released so far to have a pun in the title, as endless as the possibilities are (off the top of my head: 10 Golden Cher-ries, Mon Cher Ami, Go Cher-ry Coupe Now, Cher-ade, and, of course, the queen of 'em all, Ochi Cher-nyje! Hmm, come to think of it, she wasn't saddled with all these songs of Cher-okee origins for nothing, either). But the title is not the only hint at desperation that seems to have gripped the Cher camp as two of her albums in a row flopped so badly — Snuff Garrett is back, obviously in a last-minute attempt to put her back on the track with another hit single of the ʽHalf-Breedʼ or ʽDark Ladyʼ caliber.

Unfortunately, it did not help this time. All faith was put in ʽPirateʼ, another soapy tale relying on romantic clichés from the pre-industrial past (and yes, the song even opens with the sound of seagulls — how fortunate for them that they did not have this idea three years back, or else we'd probably have ʽHalf-Breedʼ opening with an Indian war cry), and it is a dutifully catchy proto-power ballad with a nice singalong chorus (and a really silly accordeon part to boot — I'm not sure if Captain Flint or Henry Morgan were such big fans of the accordeon...), but, alas, it has neither the personal angle of ʽGypsiesʼ and ʽHalf-Breedʼ nor the fun aspect of ʽDark Ladyʼ; and although I'm fairly sure that there were much, much cheesier tunes to have charted in 1979, it is probably no accident that ʽPirateʼ ultimately did not make it, barely scratching the Top 100.

The second single was even less lucky: ʽWar Paint And Soft Feathersʼ is a shameless attempt to cash in on the fond memory for ʽHalf-Breedʼ by rewarding us with a literal pulpy Romeo-and-Juliet story in two Indian tribes. With awful lyrics and a cheap vaudeville flair, this must have been Cher's worst single release in a long, long time, and even Snuff Garrett should have been ashamed of that one, not to mention all the honest people in Indian reservations throughout the US, who should have probably barred Cher from their casinos for life.

Honestly, I don't even have any ideas about who most of those songwriters are — Steve Dorff? Gloria Sklerov? Gary Harju? Whatever. Warner Bros. may have had their reasons for being angry about Cher's albums flopping one after another, but they share the blame themselves: couldn't they find somebody at least marginally more talented to provide the lady with new material? The only songwriter here who looks like he's at least trying is Johnny Durrill, the author of ʽDark Ladyʼ: he is responsible for what is probably the best tune — the fluffy, but funny ʽLove The Devil Out Of Yaʼ, beginning like a slow boring ballad but then picking up speed and leading to a danceable, cuddly chorus with some endearing vocal moves (the accappella falsetto rainbow of "shine above ya this angel...", interrupting the discoish flow, is really endearing). And as much as I hate to admit that a Cher song called ʽDixieʼ and beginning with the line "Wish I was in the land of cotton..." could be any good, it is — the string arrangement in the chorus is quite unusual, with a tinge of psychedelia, and the build-up and resolution are quite... um... emotional?

The most «interesting» tune is probably ʽSend The Man Overʼ, co-written by Garrett himself: its tale of a struggling actress, stuck between stardom and whoredom, clearly sounds related (only tangentially, of course, but still...) to Cher's current predicament, and with each chorus conclu­ding with a rather desperate appeal to "send the man over, I guess, with a script... and the cash!", you could almost find yourself empathizing for the poor thing. (Not that she was particularly striving for cash at the time — on the contrary, her glamorous extravagance was legendary — but hey, it does hurt when your albums do not sell, even if you're already loaded. A matter of hurt pride at least. We're all human, even if Cher may ultimately constitute a separate subspecies).

On the whole, despite the shortness of the LP and a few decent tunes, Cherished is definitely a thumbs down kind of record — the old Snuff Garrett albums could be redeemed by their kitsch, but this is like an unfunny parody on kitsch, and too much of the material just sounds like weak, half-assed imitations of contemporary sounds from ABBA or Olivia Newton-John (regardless of our critical opinion on these artists, they at least always sounded like they knew exactly what they were doing and where they were going, whereas Cher here just seems lost most of the time). Had she been more in control of her personal life in 1977, this may have been less of a disaster, but the times were confusing, and what can you expect from a glamorous vaudeville star marrying a technically incompatible Southern rock icon anyway?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Autechre: Elseq 2

AUTECHRE: ELSEQ 2 (2016)

1) elyc6 0nset; 2) chimer 1-5-1; 3) c7b2.

Okay, most of this second volume (just three tracks in total) is like one gigantic game of Pong, or, rather, two or three games of Pong played at the same time. The first track is 27 minutes long, and the only point of that is to start out fully fleshed out and then gradually shed them sound layers one by one, so that at the end of this sonic striptease we just have a bunch of waves of noise: the balls are gone, but their force fields still remain, and the ripples swing over one another long after their original cause is no longer visible. I think they did this stuff many times before, and it is merely the length of it that is new here — if you derive mystical pleasure from multiple bings, plings, psshts, burps, twirps, clicks, and clucks, be their guest.

On the up side, the first track sounds positively nice, cozy, and melodic when compared to the third track — twice as short, fortunately, but five times as irritating: think all the noisiness of the first volume, but without its sonic power: thirteen minutes of what sounds like a cross between radio static and somebody trying to bore through a concrete wall with a badly dulled and poorly powered electric drill. Some people actually pay money to be tortured by this stuff for no reason whatsoever (most likely, people who have way too much happiness in their everyday life and are looking forward to reduce it by any means possible). Bad news is, there's nothing even remotely innovative about these sounds in 2016, and without the shock factor, this is just dull in every possible manner — emotional or intellectual. And by «dull», I mean «dull as if being slowly cut apart with a very dull blade», that kind of dull.

In between the two, there's a short five minute interlude that arguably provides most of the enter­tainment — a percussion track that sounds as if somebody were furiously bashing his drumsticks on the surface of a thick, boggy marsh, and, appropriately, a synth pattern emulating the incessant croaking of little froggies, hiding somewhere near the surface (although, allegedly, froggies can­not really croak under the water, but I guess everything is possible in the alien worlds of Autech­re). This at least sounds like decent material, idea-wise, for a better developed conceptual track (perhaps they should send it to Björk or something), but little good does it do, sitting crammed there between two silly sonic monsters.

I think I almost like the way that the Pitchfork people tried to describe this volume: "If you ever wondered what it would really mean for Autechre to take an uninhibited plunge into the weirdo void, now you have your answer", they said. Most of the stuff people write about Autechre (and especially people over at Pitchfork) is meaningless and clichéd anyway (and that's not to be taken as an offense — writing something not meaningless about Autechre is almost as hard as explai­ning the Kamasutra to a Mennonite), but I like the "weirdo void" reference. A void is usually supposed to be just a void — there can be no difference between «straight void» and «weirdo void» by definition. Somehow, though, Autechre have often managed, and now they manage it again, to produce a sonic void (in the sense that there's really nothing going on) and justify its existence by the mere fact that they're weirdos. Honestly, this is mostly just annoying filler that is the electronic world's equivalent of Kenny G. Get that? Weirdo void! I am certainly not buying into it just because it's weird (and, actually, it's not even that weird any more — it's simply produced by weirdos, which is a weirdly different weirdness).

Friday, September 23, 2016

Cat Power: Sun

CAT POWER: SUN (2012)

1) Cherokee; 2) Sun; 3) Ruin; 4) 3,6,9; 5) Always On My Own; 6) Real Life; 7) Human Being; 8) Manhattan; 9) Silent Machine; 10) Nothin But Time; 11) Peace And Love.

I don't really know what it is that makes so many analog-reared artists these days to convert to electronica sooner or later — apparently, there's this idea floating around in the air that playing guitars and pianos is «so 20th century», and that there's no way you can avoid electronic sound generation and programmed patterns if you want to stare into the future rather than stagnate in the past. Apparently, this idea is much stronger than the reminder that electronic music is a product of the 20th century, and that way too many «electronic escapades» of modern indie artists end up sounding even more retro (for instance, hearken all the way back to 1980's synth-pop) than what­ever they were doing prior to that. In other words, electronic music as the key to the future is no longer a win-only option — these days, it's just another way of preserving the status quo.

Still, I guess that in the case of Cat Power anything works that can lead the artist away from another puddle of depressed, minimalistic, unmemorable streams of conscious and towards a more concise melodic shape for her compositions — and, luckily for us all, her embrace of elec­tronic beats and pulses managed to put her back on the same track that made You Are Free such a satisfactory experience. Most of these songs she recorded all by herself, only utilizing musi­cians from Jukebox's «Dirty Delta Blues Band» on a couple of tracks; but there are quite a few acoustic overdubs as well, clothing the electronic skeletons, and the mix is very tasteful. Honest­ly, she is not just embracing electronics because it is the trendy thing to do — or if she does, she at least manages to coax such sounds out of all her synthesizers and computers so as to agree with her emotional constitution: dark, paranoid, psychic textures all around.

A good example is the title track — uninteresting drum machine beat aside, the harsh, grey synth canvas, reminding of an endless cloud front swooping across the sky, make a cool contrast with the opening "here comes, here comes, here comes the Sun", clearly an allusion to George Harri­son but with the meaning reversed: in this song, the coming of the Sun seems to rather mean "the end of the world" than the hope of redemption and salvation, as she sings about the distant period in time when the Sun is expected to expand and burn down all life on Earth. The song's quietly dramatic flavor is enhanced with several layers of electronics and overdubs of background vocals, and it works in a Dead Can Dance sort of way, even though the overall sonic combination is much simpler (after all, Chan Marshall is not really a studio tech wiz, and for her first serious experience in harnessing complex studio technologies, this is a great success).

Elsewhere, she relies on electronics as the backbone for a dance-oriented experience: ʽ3,6,9ʼ combines elements of trip-hop and hip-hop (as well as a bit of a nursery rhyme for the chorus), but everything is still infused with the Cat Power atmosphere, as she (fortunately) makes no effort to get into tough street rapping, but simply applies her usual tired, brooding, "been-to-hell-and-back" voice to the new pattern — and it ain't great, but it works. ʽReal Lifeʼ also features her half-singing, half-rapping, but without betraying the usual vocal timbre and intonation, although I am not sure if I like the somewhat «preaching» attitude she takes on here, energized with all the heavy beats ("sometimes you gotta do what you don't want to do / to get away with an unordinary life" — really?). But somehow these things never sound irritating — on the contrary, there's something enchanting about how she manages to marry these conventional dance practices with closeted, introspective brooding.

The songs that got most of the attention, having been released as singles, are actually the ones that are least dependent on electronics and feature her backing band — ʽRuinʼ and ʽCherokeeʼ. The former is a universalist Cassandra-style lament about the ultimate fate of human society, spinning atop an enticing piano riff that sounds as if it was sampled from a ballroom version of ʽLa Cucarachaʼ and then, in the chorus, riding a good old disco bassline, which, of course, makes the repetitive chorus lyrics ("what are we doing? we're sitting on a ruin!") even more ironic. Like­wise, ʽCherokeeʼ is also built on a contrast — a song of love and death, all echoey pianos and high-soaring wailing guitar trills, with an unforgettable chorus of "bury me, marry me to the sky" (an invocation where both parts have to be understood as semantically equivalent — thus, love and death are actually the same thing, if it's sexy enough for you). I think we could all have a good grin at the deadly seriousness and pretentiousness of the song, but it pulls me in by means of sheer craft — I really like how the guitars, pianos, and vocals mesh together, and the impres­sion can be interpreted as romance or mourning or both at the same time, and the bottomline is, if the music totally matches the lyrics, everything about the lyrics is forgivable.

The album's conceptually simplest song also happens to be its longest — ʽNothin But Timeʼ, a song of unexpected hope addressed to the younger generation ("you ain't got nothing' else but time, and they ain't got nothin' on you... your world is just beginning"), strolls on for 11 minutes at the same tempo and on top of the same two-note piano melody. I am not sure why (particular­ly about the instrumental coda — for some reason, after the song fades out around a still reasonable seven-minute mark, it just has to come back again and drive that riff even deeper in your skull for an extra four minutes), but I do like the arrangement and the surprising optimism in the chorus: it is almost as if, after having preached about the end of the world as we know it and her own morta­lity and the impossibility to resolve any problems for so long, she wants to leave us with one big "Well, it's all curtains for me and for you, but let's at least leave some hope for the little children" — and I'm fine with that. The amusing extra note here is that she invites Iggy Pop to help her out with the chorus harmonies, and he makes the best of his melodic baritone to join her in a fit of tenderness. Yes indeed, there's no one out there like old Iggy to wish for a brighter future for our children.

The record does end on a more grown-up note, though: ʽPeace And Loveʼ, another piece of paranoid, half-sung, half-rapped electronic rock, seems to push forward an agenda of "grown-up, progressive hippieism" ("I'm a lover but I'm in it to win"), and, again, it does this in a musically intelligent way — the hookline is a repetitive string of "na-na-na-na"'s, just the kind of thing you'd expect from some old Flower Power band, but they're sung in a minor key and the whole thing sounds like a troubled warning to mankind... as does this entire album, as a matter of fact. It may be called Sun, and there might be a rainbow coming through that front sleeve, but it is still only trying to break out from the darkened sky, and the expression on that face is anything but conventionally «sunny». The good news is, this is one more of those few albums in her catalog where she really comes across as a musician with a strong personality, not as a personality with weak musicianship — so if electronics continues to be this good to her, bring it on. For the record, it did take me a few listens to get warmed up to this new twist, so the thumbs up rating is a bit hard-earned; but it does feel good, you know, when repeated listens eventually lead to satisfaction of the senses, rather than dumb frustration.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Cheap Trick: Next Position Please

CHEAP TRICK: NEXT POSITION PLEASE (1983)

1) I Can't Take It; 2) Borderline; 3) I Don't Love Here Anymore; 4) Next Position Please; 5) Younger Girls; 6) Dancing The Night Away; 7) You Talk Too Much; 8) 3-D; 9) You Say Jump; 10) Y.O.Y.O.Y; 11) Won't Take No For An Answer; 12) Heaven's Falling; 13) Invaders Of The Heart; 14) Don't Make Our Love A Crime.

Ironically, what is probably the best Cheap Trick album of the Eighties does not sound that much like Cheap Trick — courtesy of the band's third «one-guy-per-album» producer in a row, Mr. Todd Rundgren himself. Although Todd Rundgren is no stranger to heavy rock, with which he had toyed around sufficiently over the previous decade and a half, his typical preferences are for a cleaner, more polished and controlled sound; unlike George Martin, however, he had a better idea of how to make that sound actually work for Cheap Trick, rather than simply destroy them as a meaningful musical entity — and over the course of twelve songs (fourteen if you count the two extra tracks on the CD version), that idea is applied so consistently that, for the first time since Dream Police (and, unfortunately, for the last time in a long, long time, if not ever), what you get is a Cheap Trick album that is enjoyable all the way through.

This is really electric guitar pop — thick, brawny, distorted guitar tones have been removed al­most completely, with maybe two or three exceptions (like ʽ3-Dʼ), and the cock-rock flavor of One On One has been generally replaced with a more romantic attitude; however, neither Niel­sen nor Rundgren ever allow that romanticism to run over into exaggerated dramatic sentimen­tality, with nary a single power ballad to be found anywhere. And best of all, the melodic hooks are back for a while — with Rundgren stripping the band's sound down to bare essentials, refu­sing to succumb to generic synth-pop or pop-metal coatings, there's nothing to offer the listener but sheer melody, and this implies a last-minute effort from Rick, who rises to the task so admi­rably you'd almost be ready to apologize for the disparaging assessment of his remaining pool of talent on the All Shook Up disaster.

Unfortunately, they made a wrong move with their first single — instead of releasing a Nielsen original, they went ahead with a cover of The Motors' ʽDancing The Night Awayʼ, a pop-punk nugget from 1977 that they slowed down, de-punkified, and «aggrandized» so that the entire group ended up sounding like a bit of a parody on the E Street Band (as in, «I wonder how Bruce Springsteen could have covered this tune? Maybe like this?»). Not coincidentally, it was the only track on the record that Rundgren refused to produce (since it was forced on the band by the label rather than by himself), and Ian Taylor's production makes it sound closer to the sound of One On One and to the sound of their next album, Standing On The Edge, at the same time. It's not really awful — the original was so good that it would take much more than bad production to spoil it completely — but the public seems to have smelled signs of fakeness, and the single did not chart (besides, it's rarely a good idea to release originally British nuggets as potential hit singles on the US market, and vice versa).

I suppose the disappointment instinctively carried over onto the reaction to their second single, ʽI Can't Take Itʼ — which is a completely different story, a spirited, uplifting power-pop ditty with lots of jangly, Townshend-esque electric guitar and a passionate vocal build-up all the way to the last line of the chorus. Interestingly, it is one of the very few songs in the Cheap Trick catalog that is credited solely to Zander, and indeed, the song gets by largely on the strength of the pulse of the rhythm guitar and the passion of the lead vocals — and as much as I hate to admit that Cheap Trickers could sometimes write great pop songs without a trace of smarmy irony in them, ʽI Can't Take Itʼ makes for one of the strongest cases. Why the hell did it flop as a single? It even had one of their most hilarious MTV videos ever, with people sticking pins in Zander's voodoo dolls and weird zombie/vampire references all over the place. Go figure.

Once we move past the obvious general complaint — yes, the songs are generally lightweight, straightforward, not too ambiguous, not too funny, and largely relate to «classic» Cheap Trick the same way, say, that post-1972 Ray Davies records relate to the classic Kinks period — there's very little by way of specific accusations that I could fling at specific tracks, because I like most of them. Melodic-romantic power-pop à la Roy Orbison? You have this in the form of ʽBorder­lineʼ, an escapist anthem whose verve makes it perfectly credible (hey, wait a minute — is this why they are parodying the cover of Born To Run on the front sleeve photo?). Odd mixes of lushly harmonized Europop with British pub-rock? That is more or less what they do on the title track, one of the album's few returns to pure sarcasm ("I wanna be the biggest gun in the world, I wanna see the tits on every girl!" roars Zander while impersonating the average exploited slob) that cleverly drifts between cocky verses and pleading choruses. Likewise, ʽYounger Girlsʼ offers a good way of glueing a generic blues-rock verse with a singalong pop chorus, and this juncture is actually more interesting than the song's salacious lyrics — hedonistic odes to group sex with teenage females may be a trademark of the Eighties, but it is the melodic structure of the tune, not its verbal message, that has a better chance of survival into the 21st century. (Not that I'm implying that group sex with teenage females has become completely irrelevant in the 21st century, mind you, but at least people tend to use different language to describe it now).

Even the album's lonely ballad, ʽY.O.Y.O.Yʼ, is a standout in their balladry catalog of the time: the emphasis is not on the «power» aspect, but on the melodicity of the lead vocal — Zander's "why oh why oh why can't I... be in love forever?" has a beautiful drawl to it, more of a combina­tion of satisfied purring and hazy laziness than operatic bombast, and somehow all the guitars and keyboards are wisely minimalized and restrained in the background, placing 100% emphasis on the echo-tinged vocals (and yes, Zander's vocals can be beautiful when handled properly). And the album's only song that was actually written by Rundgren, ʽHeaven's Fallingʼ (and sounds not unlike pop-era Utopia), is suitably anthemic and catchy, though, again, perhaps a little too idea­listic for a band like Cheap Trick.

Anyway, I do have to keep all the gushing in check: Next Position Please is highly consistent, but this does not necessarily mean that it is consistently great — much like Todd Rundgren's entire career, it is extremely solidly written pop, but it reflects craft rather than genius, and it is not often that you can instinctively perceive that the guys are really living out these songs or having fun with them. In fact, Rundgren's production precludes them from having fun: it goes in the opposite direction from One On One, where all the wildness sometimes seemed too exagge­rated and standing in the way of a good pop hook — and now that we've got pop hooks a-plenty, I'm starting to miss some of that wildness! You could say that some people are never satisfied, yet somehow they didn't seem to have a problem harmoniously merging the two sides on four albums in a row in the previous decade. And now they have it — still a thumbs up, for sure, but once your magic wand is broken, there's only so much you can achieve with duct tape.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Carole King: Pearls: The Songs Of Goffin And King

CAROLE KING: PEARLS: SONGS OF GOFFIN AND KING (1980)

1) Dancin' With Tears In My Eyes; 2) Locomotion; 3) One Fine Day; 4) Hey Girl; 5) Snow Queen; 6) Chains; 7) Oh No Not My Baby; 8) Hi De Ho; 9) Wasn't Born To Follow; 10) Goin' Back.

Behold, this is a wonderful record — ten amazing songs with nary a single moment of filler, pro­bably the single most consistent and potentially mind-blowing new album produced by Carole since Tapestry, and, in fact, the consolidated power of these songs might even outweigh the collective power of Tapestry. There is a catch, though, and it will be quickly understood with a single glance at the track listing: most of these songs are re-recordings of old classics, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin in the Sixties for other artists. In other words, a desperate last-minute scramble for a commercial resuscitation — an implicit admittance of the fact that Carole has all but run out of songwriting stamina, and has no other choice but to resort to the cheap trick that forever brands the artist as a «washed-up has-been».

It does serve as an impressive testament to the immeasurable former powers of the Goffin/King duo — after two major flops in a row, Pearls made it all the way up to No. 44, and gave Carole her last success of any importance on the singles chart (in the form of ʽOne Fine Dayʼ, formerly recorded by The Chiffons). Considering that Brill Building material was about as far removed from the trends and fashions of 1980 as Renaissance music, it just goes to show how the best-of-the-best of commercial pop music is capable of transcending all chronological borders — not to mention that it is actually a very nice experience to hear Carole King sing her own song with her own charismatic voice. But ultimately it is still a one-time experience that belongs in 1980, and nothing can alter the status of The Chiffons' version as forever set in stone.

There are almost no attempts here to make the songs significantly different from what they were in the first place — on the contrary, the intention is to capture the original vibe as best as possible, to ensure that nothing gets lost in the attempt to gain something else. ʽLocomotionʼ twists with the same verve as in the Little Eva version; ʽChainsʼ has the same youthful perkiness as the Coo­kies version (maybe even a bit more, what with the sped-up tempo and an accappella take on the first chorus); ʽHi-De-Hoʼ has the same pleasant, lazy, nonchalant attitude as the Blood, Sweat & Tears version; and ʽWasn't Born To Followʼ, with a loud and proud banjo in the lead, has the same mix of earthiness and romanticism as it has in The Byrds' interpretation.

A few of the included songs merit this more than others because their original incarnations may have faded out of memory — ʽHey Girlʼ, for instance, was the only big hit for Freddie Scott; and the stuttering waltz ʽSnow Queenʼ, originally released by Carole for her long-forgotten «The City» project in 1968, is also encountered rather unfrequently, although it is more of an intro­spective and atmospheric tune than a catchy pop hit in essence. And if I understand this correctly, ʽDancing With Tears In My Eyesʼ, opening the album, is actually a new song by the two — an interesting one at that, incorporating bits of disco into what is essentially a very traditionally-ori­ented R&B number and showing that there were at least a few tiny sparks of songwriting left, though not enough to kindle a proper fire. On the other hand, while I totally understand the logic of closing the album with a rendition of ʽGoin' Backʼ ("I think I'm goin' back to the things I learned so well in my youth" — why, sure you are!), I do have to remind everybody that Carole had already recorded this song on her first proper solo album, so it's a bit of overkill.

Anyway, an official thumbs up for this album is impossible — it isn't even live, and nostalgic / customer-baiting re-recordings of classics without at least a reinterpretation angle are the equi­valent of thriving on cheat sheets. The best thing I can say is that the arrangements and the pro­duction are tasteful, and that Carole sounds as if she was having real fun with the idea, rather than just lifelessly sitting it out because somebody else hoisted it on her. But even strict completists should probably first ensure that they have all the originals in their collections before moving on to this palliative record.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Canned Heat: Human Condition

CANNED HEAT: HUMAN CONDITION (1978)

1) Strut My Stuff; 2) Hot Money; 3) House Of Blue Lights; 4) Just Got To Be There; 5) You Just Got To Rock; 6) Human Condition; 7) She's Looking Good; 8) Open Up Your Back Door; 9) Wrapped Up.

In between 1973 and 1978, there were about fifty thousand lineup changes in Canned Heat, so, God willing, we will skip most of these and fast forward to the peak of the disco era, by which time the band miraculously still had two of its original members — The Bear on vocals and Fito De La Parra on drums — plus younger bear Richard Hite on bass, Chris Morgan on guitar, Mark Skyer on second guitar, and then in walked Harvey Mandel for a spell, providing some fuel for the studio recordings as a guest star. Somehow this ragged outfit managed to get itself a record contract with the Takoma label, and proceeded to make some more music that not a single soul probably cared about in 1978.

Yet in retrospect you just gotta admire those valiant, prematurely aging hippies — apart from some production effects on the guitars (which, unfortunately, detract from the overall raw sound of the band), there is not a single sign of their having paid even the slightest bit of attention to the big musical changes that were going around at the time. What we have here is nine tracks of blunt, straightforward, brawny boogie-rock — picking up right where One More River To Cross left off, but even less diverse, with no incursions into funk territory (and since most of the old school funk had mutated into disco by that time anyway, they could hardly be blamed). Boogie, blues, and bluesy boogie with a barroom breath; there's not even much of that Woodstock flavor left, because very little, if anything, here has to do with peace, love, and moralizing — almost every­thing that is left is the smell of beer dregs on The Bear's T-shirt.

And it's okay, really. It's nothing great or particularly endearing in any subtle way, but it's thirty-plus minutes of thick, honest, energetic entertainment — the new guitarists select grumbly guitar tones (which always shine through even the craziest phasing effects that they decide to throw in the pot), The Chambers Brothers provide cheerful backing vocals, and even The Bear seems to be in grizzlier shape than he was last time around. It's practically impossible to resist headbanging along to ʽThe House Of Blue Lightsʼ, or feeling some sexy satisfaction from the ol'-time party spirit of ʽStrut My Stuffʼ, and even the totally formulaic Chicago blues of ʽOpen Up Your Back Doorʼ is delivered with such amazing instrumental precision (is that Mandel blazing away on the electric slide? sounds like him, anyway) that you can't help but suspect that, perhaps, the band's troubles of the time were somewhat exaggerated: as a cohesive musical outfit, this lineup shows nothing but the finest form throughout the sessions.

The alleged «gem» of the album is the title track — an old Alan Wilson-era outtake that they unearthed and resuscitated for the record, sounding not unlike a sped-up, extra-syncopated ver­sion of ʽOn The Road Againʼ or at least sharing the same slightly paranoid atmosphere, only this time in boogie rather than blues format. The Bear does a decent job softening and «murmur-izing» his voice to resemble Wilson's, and even if the glossy production does not quite allow you to mistake this for a 1969 recording, the overall gesture is still nice. However, «gem» is, of course, an exaggeration: in the context of all these other pieces of boogie, ʽHuman Conditionʼ hardly has any hidden nuance, hint, or threat to it. The original version (available on various compilations), with Wilson actually on vocals, is actually worth locating — the band seems to be going for a CCR-type sound on that one, and Larry Taylor's bass playing is far more phenomenal than Richard Hite's on the re-recording.

On the whole, the album is so unremarkable that it cannot possibly be recommended to anybody (in terms of preferences, you would not only have to make a detailed analysis of the entire Little Feat catalog before making such a recommendation, but you'd probably also have to plow through the entire Doobie Brothers discography). But it is far from being a bad album — in all honesty, they hadn't sounded that energized and ready for a fight since at least Future Blues, and I did have fun listening to all those boogie romps.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Cher: I'd Rather Believe In You

CHER: I'D RATHER BELIEVE IN YOU (1976)

1) Long Distance Love Affair; 2) I'd Rather Believe In You; 3) I Know (You Don't Love Me No More); 4) Silver Wings And Golden Rings; 5) Flashback; 6) It's A Cryin' Shame; 7) Early Morning Strangers; 8) Knock On Wood; 9) Spring; 10) Borrowed Time.

So, with the commercial failure of Stars, Cher was once again put in the hands of calculating craftsmen rather than people with a nobler understanding of music — for her second Warner Bros. album, the producers were Steve Barri (who'd previously worked with various bubblegum acts, mostly) and Michael Omartian (a session keyboardist and Christian disco-rock artist with album titles like Adam Again!); their main joint claim to fame up to that date was collaboration within the band Rhythm Heritage, remembered mostly for the ʽTheme From S.W.A.T.ʼ (of course, «remembered» is probably a rather strong word here).

The logical expectation here would be an all-out disco album, but apparently the time was not quite ripe yet — this was, after all, still a pre-Saturday Night Fever kind of world, and so there is really only one song that borders on disco, without yet embracing all of its stereotypes: ʽLong Distance Love Affairʼ, a surprisingly catchy and turbulent pop-rocker that aspires to conveying some genuine emotional turbulence — with a grappling instrumental string break and a pretty damn good performance from Cher himself: songs about adultery, even long-distance one, have always seemed right up her alley anyway. (Basically, she always sounds more convincing when she sings about cheating rather than when she sings about being cheated, even if in real life it was usually the other way around).

Most of the other dance-pop numbers on the record, curiously enough, are oldies: decent, but unspectacular covers of ʽI Know (You Don't Love Me No More)ʼ and ʽKnock On Woodʼ, as well as a take on the poorly remembered Gayle McCormick hit ʽIt's A Cryin' Shameʼ. She gives all of these a pleasant, listenable Cher coating, and the arrangements, replete with funky guitars, loud brass, and agile rhythm sections, all reflect good mid-Seventies craft. But the only other song that manages to stand out a little is ʽFlashbackʼ, a new composition by Artie Wayne that combines elements of pop balladry and funk with creative arranging touches (harpsichords? ghostly elec­tric guitar sighs in the background? bring 'em on!) and a great chorus hook — Cher's "...and I flashback!.." with a meaningful pause after the two big beats is arguably the most attention-draw­ing moment of the album, and, on the whole, ʽFlashbackʼ is closer to «art-pop» than anything else on here, a classy song that could have gone down in history as a major highlight of the 1970s had it been done by any other artist.

Everything else, including the title track, is in the balladry camp, and not very interesting: ten years later, this stuff would have been presented in the shape of pop-metallic power ballads and sound disgusting — here, it just sounds okay, with strings, pianos, horns, and gospel background vocals creating a decent generic ambience. ʽBorrowed Timeʼ, concluding the album, seems cat­chier to me than the rest, but that's not saying much. They do not irritate, and that's the best I can say about all of them. Overall, I am surprised at how okayish the record is as a whole, and ʽLong Distance Love Affairʼ with ʽFlashbackʼ probably belong on any reasonable Cher anthology, even though, frankly speaking, they don't have that much to do with Cher as an artist... but then again, what does? Other than that, I'd rather believe in somebody else.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Autechre: Elseq 1

AUTECHRE: ELSEQ 1 (2016)

1) feed1; 2) c16 deep tread; 3) 13x0 step; 4) pendulu hv moda; 5) curvcaten.

Admit it, the last thing you want in your life is to be left without a new Autechre experience every few years — because what would be the meaning of that life? How else could you even begin to penetrate the deepest mysteries of the universe? One good listen to a new Autechre al­bum — isn't that pretty much the equivalent of reading the complete works of all major figures in existentialist philosophy, or at least the equivalent of a master's degree from MIT? Could modern art truly survive without being exposed to the latest and greatest in abstract electronic noise from two geniuses who keep revolutionizing the scene every few years in ways so deep and subtle, most people don't even notice it?... If that is your way of thinking, too, then to you, 2016 will be the awesomest milestone in Autechre history, as Booth and Brown assault and overload our senses with not one, not two, not three, but five albums released on the same day: 247 minutes of brand new Autechre product, enough to keep one away from Selena Gomez and Lukas Graham for at least... uh, well, for as long as it takes for the next Autechre album to come out.

Technically, Elseq 1-5 is really just one album, counting as such in typical discographies and not even analyzeable in terms of separate discs, since it was only made available as a digital down­load (CD format is way beneath these guys' level now, and a vinyl release would go against the digital fetish); but even for a guy like me, who is not used at all to detailed dissections of electronic epics and prefers condensed and superficial assessments, 247 minutes is a bit too much to sit through in one go without going mental (if I listen to it on headphones) or driving every­body around mental (if I go for the speakers). And regardless of whether we hate it or love it, we have to admit the mammoth nature of the enterprise, so I suppose it does merit several reviews after all — let alone the fact that at least some of the 1-5 volumes do have their own specific features, and counting them separately wouldn't hurt.

Elseq 1, in particular, feels like the heaviest and most aggressive volume of the lot, mainly due to the opening blast of ʽfeed1ʼ: eleven minutes of what sounds like strong electric current run through a large set of interconnected and savagely slashed cables — sparks blasting in all direc­tions, and any organic being that dares penetrate even the remote periphery of the field created by this mess getting fried instantaneously. A simple, brutal, and strangely effective track, probably their «angriest» in years and years, and, of course, barely listenable to everybody with inborn aversion to digital feedback. However, the second lengthy epic, ʽc16 deep threadʼ, seems more interesting — not least because it is driven by a very cool rhythmic pattern, one that sounds stuck somewhere in between a huge dripping faucet, two giants playing table tennis, and a railroad man driving spikes in an underwater section of the tracks. Everything else that goes on at the same time is a mix of radio static and iron-soldering noises, rather typical of Autechre, but it is really the cool percussion tone that deserves special attention.

The other three tracks are marginally more melodic: thus, behind the slightly trip-hoppy rhythms of ʽ13x0 stepʼ you will find sonic patterns that sound like alien melodies, transmitted from the distance of several thousand light years and re-converted into music to the best ability of the signal-capturing device — some frequencies lost and some implied by the brain rather than actual­ly heard; ʽpendulu hv modaʼ sounds like some Brian Eno ambient track that keeps getting interrupted through poor transmission, as you twist, bend, and re-direct the poor antenna to get to hear at least something; and only ʽcurvcatenʼ returns us fully to drum-'n'-bass territory in order to end things in the same ballpark where they'd started, only on a slightly more quiet note.

On the whole, the energy and loudness of this stuff does make it seem like an improvement on Exai at least — and I'd be the first to admit that there are a few nifty sonic ideas here, though whether they actually «work» on some metaphysical level or if my mind just clings to them be­cause of the sheer novelty factor is unclear. And let's not even get started on whether these few nifty sonic ideas deserve to be framed in 52 minutes of running time, especially since we've only just begun with the grand experience.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Cat Power: Jukebox

CAT POWER: JUKEBOX (2008)

1) New York; 2) Ramblin' (Wo)man; 3) Metal Heart; 4) Silver Stallion; 5) Aretha, Sing One For Me; 6) Lost Some­one; 7) Lord, Help The Poor And Needy; 8) I Believe In You; 9) Song To Bobby; 10) Don't Explain; 11) Woman Left Lonely; 12) Blue; 13*) I Feel; 14*) Naked, If I Want To; 15*) Breathless; 16*) Angelitos Negros; 17*) She's Got You.

You can probably tell that if I had few kind words to say about Marshall's first album of cover tunes, the chances of these kind words multiplying tenfold for her second album of cover tunes would seem to be pretty thin. But at the very least, you couldn't blame her for completely repea­ting herself: whereas The Covers Record was totally minimalistic, consisting of little other than Marshall and her guitar or piano, Jukebox features Cat Power at the head of the «Dirty Delta Blues Band», consisting of several professional musicians assembled from various outfits (such as guitarist Judah Bauer of Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion), and, consequently, offering mostly bluesy reworkings of the usual near-random assortment of both golden and forgotten oldies.

Yet the album is still dominated by her usual tricks — take a certain song's lyrics, throw out the repetitive elements, destroy the original melody, and offer some atmospheric sonic brooding in its place. Maybe few of us are huge fans of the original ʽNew York, New Yorkʼ as done by Liza Minelli, and would not mind see it so viciously deconstructed (essentially, turned into a slow, funky blues jam), but even if the move works as an artistic statement (take a joyful ode to moving to the big city and turn it into a grimmer-than-grim hangover reaction to the whole thing), it hardly works as an autonomous atmospheric performance in its own rights — the music that they play, actually, is boring as heck.

And then, rinse and repeat twelve times in a row — seventeen, actually, if you consider the ex­panded two-disc edition that throws on five more outtakes from the same sessions (and I do be­lieve there's also an additional EP out there that adds even more). If you like this underground lounge atmosphere, with dark, quivering basslines and wobbly, subconsciously dangerous elec­tric pianos all over the place, good for you, but I'm still looking for melody and not finding it any­where. Dylan's ʽI Believe In Youʼ arguably gets the royal treatment, with a very heavy drum sound and a good mix of distortion and echo on the guitar, so it is a bit of a standout, but I still cannot take it any more seriously than anything else on here.

Like all the rest of her failures, Jukebox fails because even if the artist herself believes that she is making some sort of strong statement, she cannot impress that feeling on me. These arrange­ments are simply not interesting — maybe this is not generic adult-oriented sterile blues playing, but it's the next worst thing: «tasteful» blues jamming without any spark, where you just have the blues ambience, but not the blues technique or the blues punch. And the idea of converting everything to the same common denominator of this blues ambience is never properly cleared up. I can't even tell if she likes Hank Williams or Billie Holiday — it's just that the idea of treating them this way reeks of pointless pretentiousness and presumptiousness.

And then there is the album's only original: ʽSong To Bobbyʼ, an acoustic folk ballad about you-know-who, clearly patterned after his own ʽSong To Woodyʼ on his debut album. When Dylan did that, it was sure as hell presumptious (in a way, you could surmise that he was appointing himself as Guthrie's successor), but the presumption, as everybody could see quite soon, was justified. So is Chan Marshall now appointing herself as Dylan's successor? The lyrics of the song seem so worshipful and fanboyish that no, this is more of a case of here saying "I'm not worthy!" But is there a point in saying that, either? We already know, more or less, that Chan Marshall is not the next Dylan, nor is she the first female Dylan (Dylan-ess?). So... either it's arrogance or it's pointlessness, I really don't care.

To recapitulate — there is nothing here but a meta-concept that is as old as Chan Marshall's career on the whole (ʽYesterday Is Hereʼ from the debut album could have easily made it to this collection as well), and a lot of fuzzy, soporific bluesy atmosphere; honestly, I'd rather go listen to Susan Tedeschi. She's boring, too, but at least she's a goddamn musician, and she wouldn't dare eviscerate the blues idiom in order to stuff her Artistic Personality in its smelly carcass and make people pay money for it. Thumbs down.

Cheap Trick: One On One

CHEAP TRICK: ONE ON ONE (1982)

1) I Want You; 2) One On One; 3) If You Want My Love; 4) Oo La La La; 5) Lookin' Out For Number One; 6) She's Tight; 7) Time Is Runnin'; 8) Saturday At Midnight; 9) Love's Got A Hold On Me; 10) I Want Be Man; 11) Four Letter Word.

A temporary, if not completely satisfactory, rebound, with the band going through some signifi­cant changes. First was Tom Petersson leaving the group, replaced first by Pete Comita and later on, by Jon Brant, arriving just in time for the early sessions for this album. More importantly, not being worthy of two albums in a row produced by George Martin, they were teamed up with Roy Thomas Baker, who at that point was mostly famous for producing the majority of Queen's al­bums, but also heavily invested in the New Wave sound — his hand is right there on all four of the The Cars' first albums, as well as on Alice Cooper's Flush The Fashion, one of the funniest and overall most successful criss-crosses between Seventies' glam rock and New Wave produc­tion techniques, and it is quite possible that this was precisely what Cheap Trick had in mind when they entered the studio with him at the end of 1981.

Production values aside, One On One was decidedly less innovative and experimental than All Shook Up — I guess you could qualify it as «a return to their rock'n'roll roots», with most of the songs being loud, braggartly, and often quite vulgar, as if the band were consciously afraid that All Shook Up made them look softened and sissied up, and now, before it was too late, they just had to do some serious penance at the altars of KISS and AC/DC. Unfortunately, this was not exactly a way to recapture the magic of In Color or even of Dream Police: not only did Baker's production tone down the former raw power of Nielsen's guitar, no matter how frantically the guy still tore at the strings in the studio (and let's not even talk about the obligatory electronic effects on the drums, reducing poor Bun E. Carlos to the same cyborg status as... well, almost everybody else at the time), but, aside from production issues, the band's mentality itself seems to have suf­fered — One On One relates to the 1977-79 records more or less the same way as The Stones' It's Only Rock'n'Roll relates to their 1968-72 records. Something, some of that barely tangible vibe that separates inimitable class from crafty professionalism, was irrevocably lost in the tran­sition between 1979 and 1980, and no conscious effort could help regain it.

Nevertheless, in terms of consistency and gut level enjoyment One On One is still a big im­provement over the stiff seriousness of All Shook Up. At its core lies a series of brash, sex-crazed musical explosions that are at least closer in spirit to classic feel-good Trick than songs like ʽStop This Gameʼ or ʽCan't Stop It But I'm Gonna Tryʼ. We got back some noise, some cat­chy choruses, some headbanging fun — at the expense, however, of a serious headache from too much headbanging: track after track, the roof is brought down with so much verve that you can't shake loose the feeling that these guys actually stormed the local tavern with a straightforward intention of raising hell... well, that's what they promised us on Dream Police, wasn't it? With songs like ʽI WANT YOU!!!ʼ, ʽOO LA LA LA!!!ʼ, ʽLOOKIN' OUT FOR NUMBER ONE!!!ʼ, and especially the anti-grammatical apeman anthem ʽI WANT BE MAN!!!ʼ (and yes, they just as well might have been spelled in all caps on the original release), we are given a whole lotta Zan­der at his most throat-tearin', though, I am afraid, not a whole lotta Nielsen at his most guitar-lovin' — he doesn't solo all that much, and the riffage is way too often reduced to hard rock, rockabilly, or punk clichés. Again, you could blame Baker's production for the «plastic» sound of Rick's guitar playing, but essentially, it's a matter of Nielsen not trying too hard. Even the best melodies sound oddly derivative — for instance, the opening riff of the title track is basically a variation on AC/DC's ʽWhole Lotta Rosieʼ! The song is still fun, but the downside is that it will never be half as fun as ʽWhole Lotta Rosieʼ anyway.

Of the two singles that charted, ʽShe's Tightʼ was just one more of these rockers — okay, but in­substantial, a mix of Ramones-like guitar chords with Cars-like bubbly synths whose title can't help reminding me of contemporary Stones songs like ʽShe's So Coldʼ or ʽShe Was Hotʼ, girl-crazy material, high on testosterone, but strictly B-level. The bigger hit was ʽIf You Want My Loveʼ, the album's only ballad where they try to invoke the Beatle muse with moderate success; I wouldn't exactly call the song «magic», but it is hard not to get infected by Zander's exuberance, and a few well-placed falsetto wooooohs never hurt anybody. Besides, it is probably the best composed song on the album — several sections, ascending-descending patterns, a mix of simple romance, desperation, and anthemic catchiness: everything a decent power ballad needs to be, even if they would very soon forget about all these ingredients.

On the other hand, the record is not entirely gaffe-free: ʽSaturday At Midnightʼ is not only a weird leftover from the disco era, but its chorus fairly openly and directly rips off ABBA's ʽSum­mer Night Cityʼ, and the tune in general is a messy oddity — when Nielsen hits you with that guitar break in the middle, it sounds like basic rock'n'roll, but the rest of the song is crude dance-pop, and rather obnoxious at that. I, for one, much prefer ʽTime Is Runnin'ʼ, with its subtle nods to Roy Orbison in the harmonies, and the pop-punk stride of ʽLove's Got A Hold On Meʼ that surround ʽSaturday At Midnightʼ on both sides — each of these songs could have made for a much better single. The last two tracks also leave something to be desired: the mantra-like "I wanna live in your body! I wanna live in your body!" at the end of ʽI Want Be Manʼ is not as bad as you could think it is (it's a song about robots who want to be people and about people who want to be robots), but the entire tune is too loud and brawny to qualify as a sci-fi parable and ends up sounding stupid; and ʽFour Letter Wordʼ (L-O-V-E, in case you're worried) ends the album on a really dumb cock-rock note with fake arena applause, «guitar hero» steroid riffs and way too much overscreaming.

Altogether, this is a weird proposition — pushing the balance so far in the direction of the rocking side that for every real good track, there's one another that teeters on the brink of self-parody. Still, as far as unreasonable disbalances go, I certainly prefer a rockier version of Cheap Trick to a poppier version of Cheap Trick, and the album does get a thumbs up: ʽSaturday At Midnightʼ, ʽFour Letter Wordʼ, and the awful dumb vocalise on ʽOo La La Laʼ aside, you can still have a light-headed fun romp through most of the other tracks.