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Monday, October 31, 2016

Cher: Cher (1987)

CHER: CHER (1987)

1) I Found Someone; 2) We All Sleep Alone; 3) Bang-Bang; 4) Main Man; 5) Give Our Love A Fightin' Chance; 6) Perfection; 7) Dangerous Times; 8) Skin Deep; 9) Working Girl; 10) Hard Enough Getting Over You.

I always thought The Witches Of Eastwick was a fun movie (thanks largely to Nicholson, of course, but the ladies were okay too), and even though I do not remember much about Moon­struck, I don't remember being particularly put off by that one, either. Both of them came out in 1987, and both plainly suggested that Cher could have a bigger future in Hollywood than in her sunken musical career: for five years straight, she had not bothered making a new record, and we could almost be so happy as to hope that she would sit out the rest of pop music's corniest decade just as well. Alas, this was not meant to be: 1987 had to be the year of Cher's final triumph as actor and musical performer, and we had to sit back and accept it.

As is often the case, a new self-titled album signifies a creative rebirth, and in this case, Cher is rebooted as a leather-clad, big-haired, power-puffed arena icon, stuck in between synth-pop and glam metal — whatever it takes for people to buy the record. Her corporate allies, in addition to Desmond Child (now solidified in his realm by having recently scored with Bon Jovi), now in­clude Diane Warren (who else!), Michael Bolton (the long-haired Zeus of Eighties glam-rock to Diane's Hera), and a bunch of lesser figures who spend most of their time sucking up to the big ones. Her musician supporters include a list of approximately 100 different names — amazing, considering how almost every song here feels like it consists of about four different synthesizer notes and a robot drummer. And her attitude here can be described as "I don't really care how good it is, as long as it can kick ass across a football field".

I don't think it makes sense to even begin discussing any of these songs — everything here just sounds like completely generic radio fodder from the era (which it was): minimalistic, but annoy­ingly loud synth patterns, big drums, hystrionic guitar solos, and mildly catchy choruses that sometimes stick in your mind because of how many times they are repeated. The «hits» (ʽI Found Someoneʼ and ʽWe All Sleep Aloneʼ) sound no better or worse than the non-hits; also, ironically, even though it was ʽWe All Sleep Aloneʼ that was co-written by Child with Jon Bon Jovi, the one song that sounds the most like Bon Jovi is ʽGive Our Love A Fightin' Chanceʼ, co-written by Child with Diane Warren. But why should we care?

The worst offender is probably a re-recording of ʽBang Bangʼ, done pop-metal style, just because it is such a transparent statement of "that was way back then, and this is how it's going to be done now", because times change blah blah blah. Poor Sonny must have had a fit when he heard this; those of us who weren't tremendous fans of the early version in the first place have it better, but still, it is fairly hard to tolerate this mess of metallic basslines and piled-up synth overdubs. At least the original was a sentimental cornball with a sense of dark humor; the new version is a plastic, lifeless melodrama going straight to the garbage bin.

The only «stand out» on the record is ʽSkin Deepʼ, just because it ditches the arena-rock clichés for a second... only to engage just as heavily in dance-pop clichés à la Debbie Gibson or Tiffany or any of those other post-Madonna icons of the era. It's... danceable. Good enough for an aero­bics stint, but it didn't even chart all that high upon release. For that matter, even ʽI Found Some­one (To Write My Crappy Songs For Me)ʼ and ʽWe All Sleep Alone (No Matter What You Think About Me Having A Threesome With Michael Bolton And Desmond Child)ʼ never hit the top of the charts — although they did rise high enough, largely because of the captivating effect that the names of Bolton and Bon Jovi had on the public at the time, and made it perfectly legit to speak of Cher's musical «comeback» after almost a decade of floundering. But all this album really does is integrate the lady in the already established musical fashion of the late Eighties — and now, in the 2010s, it is high time we put the ugly baby back to sleep with a thunderous thumbs down, while at the same time, perhaps, resuscitating some interest in the early 1980s «flops» like Black Rose and I Paralyze that actually had at least a few sparks of genuine creativity.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Rolling Stones: 12 x 5

THE ROLLING STONES: 12 x 5 (1964)

1) Around And Around; 2) Confessin' The Blues; 3) Empty Heart; 4) Time Is On My Side; 5) Good Times Bad Times; 6) It's All Over Now; 7) 2120 South Michigan Avenue; 8) Under The Boardwalk; 9) Congratulations; 10) Grown Up Wrong; 11) If You Need Me; 12) Susie Q.

England only saw one Rolling Stones LP the year that Beatlemania took over the whole wide world, but the Americans, freshly subscribed to the joys of British Invasion, were more lucky and got this «megapack» of 12 extra songs where the British side got only five: the EP Five By Five, which did indeed contain five songs by five band members, was padded with several A- and B-sides and a few tracks recorded exclusively for the American market, and released as proof that The Rolling Stones could easily compete with the Fab Four now at least in terms of quantity, if not necessarily in quality.

Without these peculiarities it could seem, indeed, that the «sophomore slump» had set in, since there are few, if any, surprises on the Stones' second American record — for the most part, it is the same cocktail of Chicago blues, Chuck Berry rock'n'roll, some contemporary soulful R&B, and one or two half-hearted originals — competent, but not yet suggestive of an individual artis­tic path or anything like that. And now that the «novelty shock» has worn down, it is not that easy, either, to take the world by surprise at the phenomenon of The Rolling Stones for a second time. So it is quite predictable that of all the early Stones' album, this one usually gets the worst rap (well, maybe with the exception of December's Children).

Nevertheless, while there are no great stylistic or substantial breakthroughs, there's hardly a single direct flub anyway — they were so good at those things at the time, just a little more of each one could not have hurt. And besides, they are expanding their stylistic reach, largely re­fusing to record any carbon copies of what they'd already done. The very first two tracks, in fact, show that the boys are here to stay and conquer: ʽAround And Aroundʼ, taken over from Chuck, is merry barroom brawl rock that was sort of lacking on Newest Hitmakers, and not only does it signal the true arrival of Ian Stewart as a boogie piano player to rival Jonnie Johnson and Jerry Lee Lewis (even if, unlike those two, he always humbly keeps to the background — how many actual piano solos are there on Stones' albums?), but it also firmly establishes Keith as the un­questionable inheritor and perfector of the Chuck Berry lick — he doesn't play much, but every note that he does play sounds heavier, grittier, and, somehow, more fully and decisively realized than the way Chuck played it himself. The most important new element is Jagger, though — with his vocal delivery, the "but we kept on rockin', goin' 'round and 'round..." bit becomes openly and overtly rebellious, a barely veiled call to rip out them theater seats and go full-out riot mode, even if essentially this is just an innocent have-a-good-time piece of boogie. I don't know, really, but every time I compare the two, Chuck's version just makes me want to dance — the Stones' version, in comparison, gets my blood boiling. Just such a perfect combination of piano, guitar, and voice, and I'm still not sure how they used to hit the spot with such precision.

Then there's ʽConfessin' The Bluesʼ, with Mick again in full-out «midnight rambler» mode and the guitarists supporting him with a grim, dry, snappy sound. Mick is strained a little, but that's exactly what makes the song so enticing — unlike Chuck Berry or Little Walter, who sang the verses very naturally and largely undistinguishably from any other piece of 12-bar blues, Jagger is here to make a difference, and his near-geometrically principled modulation is perfect — he has this way of emphasizing specific lines with a high-pressure glottalized burst ("oh, baby... can I ha-a-a-ve you for myself?") that would have been considered offensive and criminal a decade earlier; but the real cool stuff is how he floats between different vocal styles, transforming a potentially deadly dull 12-bar blues into a journey of seduction that, at times, sounds downright creepy. Again, this is not just a love song, and not even a stalker's monolog: even as I am relis­tening to it in 2016, there's something deliciously Satanic about it, a tinge of that old "my name is Lucifer, please take my hand" vibe (not that Ozzy could ever begin approaching Jagger's level of mephistophelianism).

The big hit single, ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ, they got from Bobby Womack and The Valentinos, and while Mick could never compete with Bobby on a technical level, he is not trying — instead, what he does is try and take that «bitch-slappin'» potential of the vocals to a whole new level: each verse is shot out at you in one unfaltering timbral wave, like a revved-up prosecutor's speech that has to keep the audience on the edge of their seats without stopping. Throw in Keith's ins­pired, chopped-up, sputtering, stuttering solo break that came absolutely from nowhere (nothing even remotely like it on The Valentinos' original) — and I still insist that it directly inspired Dave Davies for ʽYou Really Got Meʼ, recorded just a few weeks after ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ hit the UK market — and you get yourself yet another fully legit contender for «first punk song ever», even if the tone is misogynistic rather than anti-social. Another cool thing about it is the extended coda, bringing the length well over three minutes, and sounding unusually repetitive and even noisy for the times; perhaps they just thought that little power chord riff was fun to play, but incidentally they came up with a sort of proto-Velvet Underground sound anyway.

These are the big ones, but there's plenty of joy to be gotten from some of the smaller ones as well. Of course, The Stones have very little business covering The Drifters, but I have always loved the groove tightness on ʽUnder The Boardwalkʼ, and how even here they managed to intro­duce an odd strain of darkness — the "under the boardwalk, under the boardwalk..." backing vocals are anything but joyful, more like voices of all the spirits of those unfortunate enough to drown somewhere in the vicinity of the boardwalk. Solomon Burke's ʽIf You Need Meʼ is given as strong a Jagger-jolt as ʽYou Can Make It If You Tryʼ — no tenderness whatsoever, but these glottal contortions produce a fabulous sensation of cockiness and such self-assurance that... well, if you need him, why don't you call him? Don't wait too long, in a few years he'll start losing that magic grip. Even the instrumental jam ʽ2120 South Michigan Avenueʼ has its moment of great­ness when all the instruments quiet down for a few bars, creating an atmosphere of suspense, and then Jagger's harmonica blasts start raining down from the sky (note that the recent remaster of the album restores an extra minute and a half of the jam with a long-lost Richards guitar break, although it is not one of his best); note also the nasty fuzzy tone on Wyman's bass, bringing this much closer to proto-hard rock than it could seem. And while the definitive classic rock cover of ʽSusie Qʼ still had to wait for John Fogerty to mature, this short and super-tight blast is no slouch, either: the boys scoop out all of the swamp from Dale Hawkins' original and replace it with early rock'n'roll fury — this is easily the single best group performance on the album, with everybody giving it his best, Bill and Charlie almost owning the result with fairly psychedelic bass zoops from the former and near-tribal drumming from the latter.

In the meantime, the number of original compositions has increased drastically — counting both Jagger/Richards and the «Nanker Phelge» moniker, there's five, of which ʽEmpty Heartʼ, a plea­ding, brooding R&B number with interlocking guitar, organ, and harmonica parts, is arguably the best: most of the time it isn't even so much of an actual pop song as it is more of a shamanistic ceremony, a multi-layered magical incantation to attract the missing lady (or ladies). ʽGrown Up Wrongʼ, a rather thin one-line guitar vamp, and ʽGood Times Bad Timesʼ, an acoustic blues-pop ballad, are less impressive, but the former is still fun, and the latter, once again, features some super-exuberant harmonica playing at least (the lyrics are total crap, though: "there's gotta be trust in this world / or it won't get very far / well trust in someone / or there's gonna be war" should be considered an insult to Dartford Grammar School, never mind the London School of Economics). ʽCongratulationsʼ, however, is a bit of a beaut — an early precursor to the band's baroque pop flirt in the mid-Sixties, in a way, judging by how the two guitars create those interlocking rippling patterns (Jagger's vocals here are a weakness, though — he is not yet as good at sentimentalism and sadness as he is at sneering and grinning).

So, ultimately, what we have here is not a breakthrough, but a quiet refinement of the band's talents — some new ground covered, some songwriting experience gained, some basic training with overdubs and production technology (it didn't hurt, either, that parts of the album were re­corded during the Stones' first visit to the legendary Chess Studios in Chicago), and, above all, a strong confirmation that the band would continue to dwell on the creative side, not content with merely supporting a rigid «bad boy» image. If, on the whole, the record still feels a tad weak in between those that surround it, this is only because it was a bit rag-taggy in the making, and was never even intended to become a fully grown LP in its own rights. And still, a big thank you to the American market, because that way it at least ensured that the Five By Five EP, an impor­tant step in the band's development, would not disappear without a trace in the depths of the «rarity section» of the discography — so, a thumbs up without hesitation.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Avett Brothers: True Sadness

THE AVETT BROTHERS: TRUE SADNESS (2016)

1) Ain't No Man; 2) Mama, I Don't Believe; 3) No Hard Feelings; 4) Smithsonian; 5) You Are Mine; 6) Satan Pulls The Strings; 7) True Sadness; 8) I Wish I Was; 9) Fisher Road To Hollywood; 10) Victims Of Life; 11) Divorce Separation Blues; 12) May It Last.

Sooner or later, the Flying Electronic Monster catches up with all of us — there may be times when not using synthesizers for your records is seen as a bold act of artistic defiance, and then there are times when not having a synthesizer on board is like going out on the street with no pants on. (Not that going out on the street without your pants on cannot be seen as a bold act of artistic defiance, but then, how many people around will really be able to tell if you intentionally left them at home or just forgot to put them on? Same with the synthesizers). Anyway, while Seth does use them sparingly, the very first track (ʽAin't No Manʼ) opens with the we-wiil-rock-you sound of a drum machine, and then electronics are all over ʽYou Are Mineʼ and all over ʽSatan Pulls The Stringsʼ and... uh... wait a minute... well, actually, I guess that is all.

Admittedly, the electronics work — Rick Rubin does a good job integrating them into the band's overall sound, and I can certainly understand them trying out something a little different from the usual mope-country sound (and there might be just a hint of jealousy here, at the relative success of The Black Keys doing the same thing). All of these three songs are good. ʽAin't No Manʼ is a catchy country-pop tune with a cute bassline, getting by solely on the energy of the rhythm sec­tion and the gospel-style backing vocals. ʽYou Are Mineʼ opens with a simple banjo line, but then quickly becomes techno-psychedelic, with multiple electronic layers over acoustic piano and vice versa — and some beautiful vocal harmonies, McCartney-style. Finally, ʽSatan Pulls The Stringsʼ is an experimental arrangement of a traditional tune, sort of a 50/50 merger between a country-blues and an acid techno track, which works because they choose some particularly evil-sounding synth tones, perfectly adequate for a robotic vision of Satan pulling the strings, I guess.

But never worry, these are just minor brushes across a canvas that largely stays the same — just because they dragged in a few extra chips and cables changes nothing about the fact that Scott and Seth Avett still behave as a pair of intelligent, heart-broken, world-weary farm hands who'd rather mess up their lives so they can sing about it than straighten these lives out because what fun is there with a straightened out life? The album's single most memorable tune is ʽSmith­sonianʼ, which lays out their life philosophy as simply and straightforwardly as never before: "Call the Smithsonian, I've made a discovery / Life ain't forever and lunch isn't free / Loved ones will break your heart with or without you / Turns out we don't get to know everything". Okay, so this really used to be their creed all along, but sometimes it helps to set aside the metaphors for a moment and just go for some blunt wording — and few people these days can spell out basic (but true) banalities with the same pleasantly nonchalance as the Avett Brothers.

Commenting on the soft acoustic ballads is an impossibility (they just sound like any other soft acoustic ballad ever written by these guys), but I was pleasantly surprised by the increased level of diversity — apart from the electronics, we have some really complex arrangements (on the title track, for instance, where choppy electric chords mingle with jangly acoustic picking, organs and strings), some Latin bounce (ʽVictims Of Lifeʼ with samba elements — should have invited Paul Simon on that one, as it sounds not entirely unlike ʽMe And Julioʼ), and a full-out Straussian waltz arrangement on the album closer ʽMay It Lastʼ that flows in and out of a baroque-pop construction, making this arguably their most complex studio creation up to date (a good structural analogy would be something like Buffalo Springfield's ʽBroken Arrowʼ); and the com­plexity is well deserved, since the song does end the album on a friendly note — sadness and melancholia, yes, but mixed with a note of support ("there is a sea, and I am your captain...").

On the whole, I could even call this «progress», if the notion did not sound so ridiculous when applied to the Avetts — who had always been perfectly happy to be the modern AC/DC of folk- and country-rock as long as they still thought they had something to say. So the sonic discoveries of True Sadness are not really an indication of the band expanding its horizons — most likely, they were just introduced so that they could not be accused of making a vain point out of sticking to the formula (the way Angus Young proudly asserts how they put out not 11, but 12 albums that sound the same). It's more like, hey, a synthesizer? A drum machine? Sure, why not — who the hell are we to say no? It's not like God ever told us to stick to guitar and banjo. It's an attitude that seems likeable, and reason enough to give the record a thumbs up, even if I probably will treat it in the future just like any other Avett Brothers album.

Oh, and, also for the record, I do like the idea of calling it True Sadness — few of these songs sound proverbially sad (as in, emotionally overdone and making you feel like you're standing in a salty puddle already), but they weave their little nets of personal dissatisfaction and trouble in oblique ways: a well-placed lyric here, a single chord change there, without wallowing in misery or throwing a fit. They can even get sad on something technically upbeat (ʽVictims Of Lifeʼ), and though they're far from the first artist to be able to do that, they just might be the first ones to draw attention to this through the very title of the album. Although in doing so, they bring back accusations of vanity — ain't it a little presumptious to insist that it is your record that represents «true sadness» and not, say, Conor Oberst's, or Bon Iver's? That's Satan pulling the strings for you, brothers...

Friday, October 28, 2016

Catherine Wheel: Adam And Eve

CATHERINE WHEEL: ADAM AND EVE (1997)

1) Intro; 2) Future Boy; 3) Delicious; 4) Broken Nose; 5) Phantom Of The American Mother; 6) Ma Solituda; 7) Satellite; 8) Thunderbird; 9) Here Comes The Fat Controller; 10) Goodbye; 11) For Dreaming.

Not something I would be consciously looking for. The record does happen to be a fan favorite and all that, but now that they have cut down on the «metallic» part of the sound, they did not do that much to return the «ambient» part of that sound — and what we are left with is a mope-rock album, kind of a proto-Coldplay but with a very strong Pink Floyd influence. The acoustic intro­duction, in fact, sounds like a demo version of ʽMotherʼ, which might not be coincidental, consi­dering that Bob Ezrin was brought into the producer's seat; and at one point they even have a direct lyrical quotation from ʽShine On You Crazy Diamondʼ, which is not irritating at all, but it does result in reminding us one extra time of just how derivative this band is.

The songs are not bad, but they largely get by on the strength of the choruses, and they truly require you to appreciate the charisma of Dickinson — who, in my opinion, just does not have as nearly an achingly beautiful voice as this music is supposed to require. And by shifting the ba­lance over to these vocal hooks, straining with p-p-p-pain and all, Catherine Wheel move from the cosmic plane to a much more personal sphere, where I am not sure that they really belong. Or, at the very least, they have ten times as much competition there than wheverer it was that they used to float around on their first two records.

Besides, one should not forget that the album was released two months after the Big One — in July 1997, we were already living in a post-OK Computer universe, where any new big statement of personal fatigue, disillusionment, and fear of existence in a modern world would have to stand up against the musical innovations and emotional personality of Abingdon School; yet the melodic content that we have here is still way too derivative of the shoegazing drone, only without the shoegazing mesmerism — and just about every song sets the same mood: at the end of each one, you get the urge to come up to Mr. Dickinson, give him a gentle hug and say, "It's alright man. Pull yourself together. It was not me who strangled your cat and abducted your wife. It just happens. You just have to mix with the right people."

Of the three singles (ʽDeliciousʼ, ʽBroken Noseʼ, ʽMa Solitudaʼ), I might try to single out ʽBro­ken Noseʼ for its able alternation of low and high vocals and a specially increased level of personal bitterness that could border on punkish anger, if it weren't so deeply soaked in desperation like everything else. Or perhaps it should have been ʽMa Solitudaʼ, just because the former two are both hard-rockers and this one is more like a moody art-pop song, with cellos and stuff? Forget it. They all give off the same vibe — and it's a nice vibe, but it never gets sharp enough to truly hold my attention. As affected as they were by Pink Floyd, they never ended up learning the main lesson — if you want to infect others with your emotions, you have to give it all you've got. But Rob Dickinson is never as pissed off and determined as Roger Waters, and Brian Futter is never as tightly wound-up and aggressive as Dave Gilmour.

The result is that I have nothing to say about these songs, good or bad. They simply exist. If you like your fifty shades of mope, I guess Adam And Eve could easily be the fifty-first one, but there's too much pop here for me to truly enjoy the atmosphere, and too much atmosphere (and still way too many distorted guitars playing one-chord patterns) to catch myself up on the pop hooks. Respectable, ultimately, but... boring.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Cheap Trick: Woke Up With A Monster

CHEAP TRICK: WOKE UP WITH A MONSTER (1994)

1) My Gang; 2) Woke Up With A Monster; 3) You're All I Wanna Do; 4) Never Run Out Of Love; 5) Didn't Know I Had It; 6) Ride The Pony; 7) Girlfriends; 8) Let Her Go; 9) Tell Me Everything; 10) Cry Baby; 11) Love Me For A Minute.

Ugh, no wonder this album was a total commercial disaster — I mean, just look at that album cover: looks like a perfect one for a fetish porn movie soundtrack. Who the hell would buy some­thing like that in a music store? It's okay to opt for a little change after the last two records, where the boys' looks always reflected the degree of the musical inspiration, but not at such a terrible cost — just by looking at the sleeve, one already might experience visions of dusty, tattered, cracked CD cases in used bins with fifty-cent stickers on them.

Pitiful, that, because the record was actually an attempt at a fresh start. After Busted showed that ʽThe Flameʼ was really a fluke, and that the world was not particularly interested in putting Zander and Nielsen on the regular payroll for power balladeers — and after the grunge revolu­tion happened and burst the bubble of the hair metal era in general, the band gradually began coming back to its senses. For their next producer, they chose Ted Templeman (of Van Halen fame); the number of outside songwriters was seriously reduced, though questionable figures like Survivor's Jim Peterik still wound up on the list; and the emphasis was placed squarely on the heavy rock sound again, with adult contemporary overtones limited to an absolute minimum. Oh, and the keyboards are out — for good.

The problem is, having breathed so much poison over an entire decade, it's hardly possible to get it out of your lungs all at once, and the album still suffers from two serious problems. First, even despite the sparse and familiar instrumentation, the production is fairly shitty. Nielsen's electric guitars sound either overcompressed or just too glossy much of the time, and his sprightly acous­tic sound, reserved for the more sentimental tunes, consists of dull, bombastic power chords that anybody could have played — and Zander's vocals are often buried so deep in the mix, you'd think they were expressly interested in squashing his personality. (On the other hand, this might have been a good idea for some of the more sexually explicit numbers: the less lyrics of ʽRide The Ponyʼ you manage to make out, the better for your digestive system. Is it even grammatical­ly possible, let alone sexually, to "satisfy your funk"?).

Second, in Cheap Trick's endless battle of Irony vs. Sleaze, Woke Up With A Monster is still firmly on the Sleaze side — in a way, that album cover does reflect the fact that too much of the record still presents the band as intentionally «anti-intellectual» cock-rockers, pandering to an AC/DC-type audience but without the Spartan qualities of AC/DC that make the Young brothers such a delightful un-guilty pleasure for certain intellectual types as well. And I'm not mentioning AC/DC just like that, out of the blue: ʽGirlfriendsʼ, one of the record's hardest-rocking tracks, is basically just a minor rewrite of ʽBad Boy Boogieʼ (although the way they play the opening riff also reminds me that ʽBad Boy Boogieʼ itself had copped its riff from ʽRoute 66ʼ), so much so that, when after the guitar break Zander begins to sing the exact same vocal melody that Bon Scott does, the words "ain't the same old line from a rock'n'roll song!" have to be taken quite literally. The tight little number, with Bun E. Carlos kicking away like a trusty old packmule, is still fun — but when the very next one, ʽLet Her Goʼ, opens with a riff that is a minor variation on ʽDirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheapʼ, it's like, «No way! They can't be that obvious, can they?»

The one and only number that steps a little beyond the formula of the sentimental ballad and the cock-rocker is the title track — slower, moodier, with disturbing lyrics and a bit of creepy vocal acting from Zander; most memorable, of course, is the combination of its chorus riff with sup­porting vocals, sort of like a mix between the Beatles' ʽI Want Youʼ and a middle-Eastern ʽKash­mirʼ-like epic. The last time they tried something like that was probably with ʽHeaven Tonightʼ, although ʽWoke Up With A Monsterʼ is, of course, a far cry from the inspired melody and arran­gement of their creepiest song — among other things, it suffers from the same overcompression as everything else here, and it could certainly use a denser arrangement, maybe with some cellos thrown in for good measure. Still, as a conscious attempt to write an art-rock song, it is clearly a standout here, and how long has it been since we were able to talk about «standouts»?..

Other than that, well, bad lyrics aside, the album is generally listenable and occasionally enjoy­able. The upbeat power-pop tracks like ʽMy Gangʼ and ʽYou're All I Wanna Doʼ (ugh, that title!) work well, and even the few power ballads here are a big step up from the level of Busted — ʽNever Run Out Of Loveʼ has a thoughtfully crafted vocal melody with perfectly placed falsettos, a living-and-breathing rhythm section, and a gritty rather than pompous lead guitar part, and ʽTell Me Everythingʼ once again returns them to Roy Orbison mode, which is much better than the Michael Bolton mode anyway.

So, if anything, this record is in bad need of a complete re-recording — maybe throw away some of the worst lyrical offenders like ʽRide The Ponyʼ, correct production issues, and somewhere within this package lies a perfectly normal Cheap Trick album (much like The Doctor, although that one could only be salvaged with some top-level surgery). At the very least, there seems to be a near-common consensus that this was a major step up from Busted at the time, and I fully con­cur — too bad that the album flopped so badly (the band blamed Warner Bros. for lack of pro­motion, but I think there were deeper issues as well... then again, there's always that matter of the clown and the tattooed lady), although at least the flop did serve its purpose: it taught the band to finally stay away from big labels, corporate songwriters, and fickle contemporary trends.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Carole King: In Concert

CAROLE KING: IN CONCERT (1994)

1) Hard Rock Cafe; 2) Up On The Roof; 3) Smackwater Jack; 4) So Far Away; 5) Beautiful; 6) Natural Woman; 7) Hold Out For Love; 8) Will You Love Me Tomorrow; 9) Jazzman; 10) It's Too Late; 11) Chains; 12) I Feel The Earth Move; 13) You've Got A Friend; 14) Locomotion; 15) You've Got A Friend.

I like how this was officially called The Colour Of Your Dreams Tour, yet a grand total of one song from that album actually made it onto the accompanying live album — perhaps she did perform a bit more on stage, but I doubt it, because, well, it's Carole King, and if Carole King goes on stage, she has to do Tapestry in its entirety (8 out of 12 songs, to be accurate — the other four they don't play on the radio that often), plus a few of the lively golden oldies like ʽChainsʼ and ʽLocomotionʼ, and before you know it, you're running out of time and nobody wants to hear the crap you've been writing of late anyway. Who we're kidding?

Time has pretty much rendered this record useless, particularly now that the vaults have been opened and you can listen to a young and fresh Carole singing the same songs at Carnegie Hall in 1971 — but she does have the advantage of preserving her voice and charisma in an immaculate state, so as long as she and her band do not tamper too seriously with the songs, it doesn't make that much difference whether you're listening to a 1971 or a 1993 performance: the lady carries that classic vibe with her in her pocket wherever she goes, and she'll be sticking to her guns even if we all turn into a bunch of grinning post-modern nihilists overnight.

Unfortunately, from time to time they do tamper with the songs, and as hard it is to spoil a great Carole King tune when Carole King herself is performing it, they almost succeed with ʽBeautifulʼ, which is given a smooth and soulless adult contemporary sheen — apparently, as a «pleasant surprise» for the audience, which sits in befuddled silence as it is treated with several bars of a milk-curdling «atmospheric» intro, then feebly cheers at the sounds of "you gotta wake up every morning...", with most of the people probably feeling duped rather than pleasantly surprised. A less serious misfire is the new glam-rock setting for ʽChainsʼ, with distorted guitars and fiery solos — the song does not exactly lose its fun quotient, but the fun does seem cheapened.

If it's any consolation, lead guitar duties are consistently handled by none other than Slash, who now takes it to the stage after collaborating with Carole on ʽHold Out For Loveʼ — yes, that is the one and only song from Colour Of Your Dreams that made it onto here, with a dutifully ex­tended lead guitar break from the man, and Carole also encourages him to let his hair down (as if it already weren't) every time she does a «rocker», which leads to odd results. Then again, you just might be interested in Slash's take on ʽLocomotionʼ or ʽJazzmanʼ (ʽJazzmanʼ actually works very well, with inspired solos from all of the band members, including short, energetic breaks from the bassist and drummer), because, after all, we're not talking about some completely gene­ric hair metal guitar player here... aren't we?

I could certainly do without Carole choosing one of her worst songs ever to open the concert (ʽHard Rock Cafeʼ — no, Ms. King, not even the presence of Slash legitimizes any part of this as a «hard rock» show, even if it does kick ass from time to time), and while I have nothing against backing choirs or Crosby and Nash, it was hardly necessary to include two versions of ʽYou've Got A Friendʼ, one of them with a young choir and the other one with two aging hippies. Why not do ʽRaspberry Jamʼ as an encore instead? Surely her band is capable of building up a beauti­ful not-altogether-pop vibe — they do it well enough on ʽJazzmanʼ.

But in the overall context of these 73 minutes of live performance, that is nitpicking; and as much as these echoes of Carole's insipid early 1990s style jab and sting the senses from time to time, I cannot agree with the oc­casional assessment that on this album, Carole redoes her classics «in Nineties' fashion». Most of the arrangement details and accompanying vibes really stay the same, so, if anything, this album works as proof that if you wanted to go to a Carole King show in 1993, you needn't be afraid that she'd fuck it up too much. Does it prove anything else? Well, it does offer hope that any Carole King show, as long as she's alive, will always be enjoyable to a large degree — actually, I have the Living Room Tour DVD from 2005, and it's even better than this one (no bad songs whatsoever), though probably not worth a separate review. The only important thing is never to let her remember that it's not 1971 anymore. — you do that, and you're in for a huge embarassment, almost inevitably.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Canned Heat: Boogie 2000

CANNED HEAT: BOOGIE 2000 (2000)

1) Wait And See; 2) Last Man; 3) World Of Make Believe; 4) Dark Clouds; 5) Searchin' For My Baby; 6) I Got Loaded; 7) Too Much Giddyup; 8) She Split; 9) 2000 Reasons (Y2K Blues); 10) Road To Rio; 11) Can I Come Home?; 12) I'm So Tired.

If you only want one reliable taster of what it was like to call yourself «Canned Heat» after every­body who ever made a difference in the original band had passed away, you might just as well go along with Boogie 2000. It's just such a nice little record — nothing particularly special, nothing whatsoever to make you raise an eyebrow, but it's just done so damn well, I couldn't really think of where to begin to voice any specific complaints.

Sure, just as always, it's just straightahead blues and blues-rock, with not a single original melody in sight. They can write «Music by A. de la Parra and friends» for all they like, but we know, don't we, that ʽLast Manʼ is simply ʽLet's Work Togetherʼ with new lyrics, and that ʽToo Much Giddyupʼ rides the blues train of ʽMilk Cow Bluesʼ, and that ʽ2000 Reasons (Y2K Blues)ʼ is just a mix of ʽSweet Home Chicagoʼ with ʽDust My Broomʼ, and the list goes on. There's no new music written here — period, end of story. But above and beyond that, this particular lineup of late period Canned Heat, reduced to a hardcore quartet of de la Parra, Taylor, Kage on bass and Lucas on guitar, gives arguably the tightest, leanest, and most energetic show of blues-rock fun, grit, and (a little) nostalgia that could ever be expected.

There's just something about the way they crash-boom-bang into the album with ʽWait And Seeʼ, a Fats Domino number with a guest flautist and a guest saxophonist, the former bringing on inescapable echoes of ʽGoing Up The Countryʼ and the latter laying on a good New Orleanian vibe. The rhythm section is tight as a tick, Lucas gives a soulfully humorous vocal performance, and Skip Taylor's production delineates and emphasizes each instrument to perfection. It's like a textbook case of how to treat a cover song if you lack imagination, but compensate for this with verve and dedication. The only thing that is missing is a great lead guitar part — but this comes with the next track, where, on ʽLast Manʼ, Lucas throws his slide playing talents into the pot: the solos here are even more fluent, ecstatic, and note-perfect than on the previous album, putting the man (almost) on the level of... Dickey Betts, for instance — he'd be a good competitive addition to The Great Southern at least, if not necessarily to the Allmans.

Another bit of saving grace is the ongoing diversity. They have a bit of comic blues (Har­rison Nelson's ʽI Got Loadedʼ), a bit of real old school jump blues (ʽShe Splitʼ), a soul cover (ʽSear­chin' For My Babyʼ), an odd jump into Latin territory (ʽWorld Of Make Believeʼ), and at least one track with more of a ZZ Top-style Texan rock sound (ʽRoad To Rioʼ, where you almost expect Billy Gibbons to crop up at any moment). No, no baroque pop or death metal, but let us not be pushing it — these guys would be the first to admit they're happy with clinging to a for­mula, yet even within that formula, there's plenty of ground to cover, and they are not interested in merely doing one stereotypical 12-bar tune after another. Instead, they're laying down all the stereotypes, and having their way with each of them.

I guess the record peters out a little near the end: instead of the slow, harmonica-heavy ʽI'm So Tiredʼ, they should have had another kick-ass rocker to wind things down on the same exuberant note on which they started it (and ʽI'm So Tiredʼ doesn't even sound all that tired!). Also, I am not at all fond of Greg Kage's singing voice — next to Lucas', it's kinda colorless in comparison, and detracts from the overall enjoyment of such powerful tunes as ʽToo Much Giddyupʼ (which is still heavily recommendable because of more top-notch sliding from Lucas). But there can only be so much nitpicking about an honest, no-bull record like this, one that essentially hits all the right spots. It might not be raising any false illusions about the future vitality of blues-rock, but it does make a good case for why people are still making blues-rock records after all these years. So, a modest, but honest thumbs up here.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Cher: I Paralyze

CHER: I PARALYZE (1982)

1) Rudy; 2) Games; 3) I Paralyze; 4) When The Love Is Gone; 5) Say What's On Your Mind; 6) Back On The Street Again; 7) Walk With Me; 8) The Book Of Love; 9) Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.

The only musical change that goes hand in hand with Cher dropping the «I'm just a singer in a rock'n'roll band» slogan is that there is a slight shift of melodic content from guitar to keyboards, but other than that, I Paralyze is pretty much a natural sequel to Black Rose — the lady is trying to adapt to new musical realities without selling out completely to the dance-pop scene. Once again, she has a new record label (Columbia) and a new producer — John Farrar, known for his work with Olivia Newton-John; and, maybe even more importantly, a recognizable songwriter partner amidst a sea of the usual unknown faces — Desmond Child, already established as a re­spectable money-maker due to ʽI Was Made For Lovin' Youʼ, but still way ahead of his glory years as a systematic cash generator for Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, and Alice Cooper (not to mention Cher herself, whom he would only take to financial heaven in her glam-rock phase).

This album was overlooked upon release and continues to be largely overlooked now, but in all honesty, it is a lot of fun, and it improves upon the formula of Black Rose by not trying so despe­rately to «rock out» in an environment crawling with members of Toto — and it goes without saying that it is much, much better than anything released by the woman in her big hair glam rock glory days to come. Short, tightly performed, relatively tastefully produced, it follows the ideo­logy of a balanced mix between modernity and retro-ism, and most of the songs are surprisingly catchy, even if they never truly showcase Cher as an artistic individuality (but what does?).

Thus, ʽRudyʼ opens with a pompous piano riff that is highly reminiscent of ABBA and «Euro­pop» in general — not surprising, since it is actually a cover (with a very inane new set of Eng­lish lyrics) of Dalida's ʽQuand Je N'Aime Plus, Je M'En Vaisʼ from the previous year, but done in a rockier fashion, with a larger guitar presence and with Cher putting a little less gloss on her vocal performance than the French pop star. In contrast, ʽSay What's On Your Mindʼ sounds like an updated take on the classic Motown sound, with one of those upbeat, rhythmic, but tender choruses that used to build up positive vibes in a matter of seconds. And still in contrast, the title track, coming from Farrar's team, is thoroughly New Wave in mood, with cold synthesizers and electronically treated vocals a-plenty, but then it also throws everything else in the mix — soul­ful vocal harmonies, R&B-ish brass backing, jangly guitars, sound panning, whatever. Clearly the most experimental track here, it failed as a single, probably because the public did not expect this kind of sound from a woman who, only three years ago, was largely busy catching the public eye wearing nothing but gold bikinis or steel chains.

Child's contributions are also surprisingly decent: ʽThe Book Of Loveʼ is a funny attempt to make a New Wave rocker out of a traditional folk ballad melody (Cher even gets to retain a "hey-ho" in the lyrics), and ʽWalk With Meʼ, like ʽRudyʼ, is a good case of a «mammoth pop» arrangement in the Phil Spector tradition, but putting the main piano riff well above everything else in the mix so you don't get to miss the main hook. ʽWhen The Love Is Goneʼ, however, is the first taste of sad things to come — a prototypical slow power ballad with more emphasis on power than melody, though, fortunately, still relatively unspoiled by the worst excesses of Eighties' production. On the other hand, I actually prefer this cover of The Babys' ʽBack On My Feet Againʼ (here retitled as ʽBack On The Street Againʼ) to the original — she sings it with more verve and recklessness than The Babys (who were little more than a Journey clone anyway), and the synth player at least tries to use his instrument creatively, weaving a complex pseudo-baroque-like pattern throughout the song and strengthening its melodic base.

On the whole, this just looks like a fairly solid B-level New Wave pop album to me, not too risky and not too embarassing — a fairly good direction to follow for a few years, but it also seems that this sound as such was quickly moving out of style in 1982, with mainstream values turning to more and more synthesizers and more and more boom-'n'-echo on the production, and this, per­haps, would also go some way in explaining why the record flopped so badly; in retrospect, I do give it a firm thumbs up as Cher's finest offering of the decade. Not that it had much competi­tion — Black Rose was the only thing that preceded it, and following the album's flop, Cher took a five-year break from her musical career, concentrating on acting, only to reemerge five years later as... well, you know, as the Cher that is remembered and treasured / abhorred by the MTV gene­ration these days.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Rolling Stones: England's Newest Hitmakers

THE ROLLING STONES: ENGLAND'S NEWEST HITMAKERS (1964)

1) Not Fade Away; 2) (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66; 3) I Just Want To Make Love To You; 4) Honest I Do; 5) Now I've Got A Witness; 6) Little By Little; 7) I'm A King Bee; 8) Carol; 9) Tell Me (You're Coming Back To Me); 10) Can I Get A Witness; 11) You Can Make It If You Try; 12) Walking The Dog.

Sidenote 1: With this review, we inaugurate the "Important Artist Series" as a replacement for the "Important Album Series". This time, instead of following the RateYourMusic recommendations, the series will focus on my favorite artists that had already been reviewed on the old site, in approximate order of appreciation - and, since The Beatles were already done according to the alphabetic principle, what would be the most logical Sunday choice for a follow-up? Okay, stupid question.

Sidenote 2: I did consider a possible change of course, but in the end, I decided to still follow the same path that I originally chose for the old site and review the Stones' American Decca catalog rather than the «authentic» UK releases, simply because the American LP sequence ends up being more comprehensive with its inclusion of singles and American-only tracks. But technically, this record should indeed be simply called The Rolling Stones, and feature Bo Diddley's ʽMona (I Need You)ʼ instead of Buddy Holly's ʽNot Fade Awayʼ, their first hit single that was tacked on specially for the American market.

"What's the point of listening to us doing ʽI'm A King Beeʼ when you can hear Slim Harpo doing it?", Jagger once famously remarked — long after The Rolling Stones had mastered the art of writing their own material, of course; had he humbly and honestly admitted this in April 1964, this could go a long way in ruining Andrew Oldham's carefully constructed promotional cam­paign. But here we are in 2016, when both Slim Harpo's original from 1957 and the Stones' 1964 cover of the original have all but merged in the same time dimension, and as much as I like and respect Mr. Slim, I think that «the point» is now fairly self-evident.

Too much silliness, some of it PC-motivated rather than substantial in any way, has been spread about the «whiteboy soulless blues imitations» of the British Invasion — well, sometimes there's a grain of truth to it, depending on the level of talent and technique of the artist in question (and, no doubt about it, there were plenty of second- and third-rate imitators back in the day, just as there are in any time period), but in the case of The Rolling Stones, this is an utterly misguided position. The thing is, while early Stones did indeed mostly cover their overseas idols rather than write their own songs at first, they had, from the very beginning, a creative approach to these covers — more creative, in fact, than The Beatles had, which might actually be one of the reasons why it took them so much longer to overcome their shyness and begin writing original songs on a regular basis. They did not feel such a pressing need to write their own songs, because they were simply very happy about how they succeeded in reinventing others.

Take the aforementioned ʽI'm A King Beeʼ — play it back to back with Slim Harpo and then decide, honestly, which of the two you'd like to leave in your collection if you couldn't have both, for some reason. First and most obvious thing you notice is the production: naturally, the 1964 standards of Regent Studios in London make all the instruments sound sharper and clearer than the 1957 standards in Nashville (I used to think it was a Chicago song like all of 'em, but appa­rently Slim never made it to Chicago). This, however, is but a technical advantage. Much more importantly, the boys capitalize on the potential of the song — immanently present there from the beginning, but never properly explored by the author. Not only does Wyman nail the «buzzing» bass zoop of the song so that it sounds even subtler and more menacing than the original, but in the instrumental break, after the inciting "well, buzz awhile", he actually delivers a fun buzzing solo (the original just went along with the zoops — same thing as the verse without the vocals). And then, the «sting it babe!» bit — Harpo delivered, like, three miserable «stinging» notes, while Brian Jones actually makes his guitar sound like an angry hive going wild on your ass, in one of the most imaginative mini-solos he'd ever devised.

Okay, you'll say, but what about the vocals? Surely an authentic bluesman from the Louisiana region will sound more convincing and authentic than a snotty 21-year old Dartford kid who'd never even seen the Delta, let alone spent some time there? But again, this kind of logic is only valid if we work from the assumption that Mick Jagger wanted to sound like Slim Harpo, and that the idea was to give a credible impression of Afro-American sexual power as conveyed through blues music. If, however, we work from the assumption that Afro-American blues music was simply chosen as a starting medium for venting the suppressed sexuality of young British kids... well, in that case I have to say that Mick Jagger is far more successful here at accomplishing his own personal goal than Mr. Harpo was at accomplishing his — simply because nobody in 1964's Great Britain sounded quite like Mick Jagger. Nobody, not a single frickin' soul.

I mean, I keep running these rowdy young boys of the time through my mind, one by one — Eric Burdon, Roger Daltrey, Paul Jones, Keith Relf, Phil May, never mind The Beatles at all in this category — and there's nobody who would even begin to approach Jagger in terms of a certain «aggressive mystique» in his singing (and also harp playing, by the way). Mick wasn't much of a burly belter — he was more of a midnight rambler, sounding razor-sharp and sneeringly cocky at the same time, like pop music's equivalent of some deadly, impossibly charismatic villain from some TV show or comic series. And yes, half a century later it's all very well for us to smile at the «dangerous» image that was so carefully assembled for him and the boys in 1964, but the fact is, this here ʽI'm A King Beeʼ does sound utterly dangerous for the time. Never mind the promo­tion, the photos, the staged «offensive behaviour»: The Rolling Stones were considered «dange­rous» in 1964 because their music sounded dangerous, far more so than The Beatles.

Speaking of the Beatles, here's another comparison. The self-titled UK version of this record, unlike its doctored American counterpart, opened with the (also heavily reinvented) cover of Chuck Berry's cover of Bobby Troup's ʽ(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66ʼ — a basic three-chord rocker that sounds not entirely unlike the Beatles' ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ if you reduce them to bare-bones structures. Both songs serve as kick-ass energetic openers to capture your attention and devotion from the get-go; but the Beatles use the energy of rock'n'roll to stimulate over-the-top joy and exuberance of a burgeoning teenager — the Stones, on the other hand, use it as a newfangled, barely understood voodoo mechanism. The song, which used to be a fairly innocent ode to the wonders of U.S. highway travel in the days of Nat King Cole, and was still quite happy sounding even in its Chuck Berry incarnation, is here transformed into a mystical romp: Jagger lists all these unknown, enigmatic words like "Amarillo", "Gallup, New Mexico", and "Flagstaff, Arizona" as if they were part of some black magic incantation (surely they couldn't sound any different from the proverbial "abracadabra" for him at the time), and even though the druggy days were still years away from the boys at the time, the line "would you get hip to this kindly tip, and take that California trip" sounds positively stoned in this context.

It does not hurt, either, that in early '64, the Stones emerged on the scene as easily the tightest of all nascent British bands, period. Again, listen to the way they play ʽRoute 66ʼ and ʽCarolʼ in the context of the time — nobody in 1964 played with quite the same combination of speed, tight­ness, and mean, lean, focused energy. One of the biggest mysteries that I have never managed to figure out is how they got their rhythm section to sound that way: with Charlie Watts' predominantly jazz-based interests and with Bill Wyman being older than most of the rest by a good nine years (and having previously played with comparatively «tepid» outfits), it would seem at first like a fairly suspicious match with their wild pair of guitarists — but from the very first seconds of ʽRoute 66ʼ, it is clear that everybody gels in perfectly, and that Bill and Charlie are only too happy to provide Keith and Brian with the tightest, fastest, grittiest «bottom» that was at all pos­sible in 1964. And Mick, at the same time, proves himself to be a master of the harmonica, re­fraining from technical feats or wild power-puffs and making it, instead, into a melodic extension of his own voice (ʽI'm A King Beeʼ and Jimmy Reed's ʽHonest I Doʼ are the best examples).

Almost everything here smells of creativity and excitement. For ʽI Just Want To Make Love To Youʼ, it was clear that they couldn't replicate the Olympian swagger of physical love god Muddy Waters — so, instead, they sped the thing up to an insane tempo and subjected their soon-to-be teenage girl fans to the lose-your-head breakneck fury of a young and strong team of British rock studs. For ʽHonest I Doʼ, Jagger knows it is useless to replicate the «toothless voice» of Jimmy Reed, so he is going instead for a Don Juan-ish delivery: you know he absolutely does not mean it when he sings "I'll never place no one above you", certainly not after following it up with the wolf-whistle harmonica solo, but is that reason enough to refuse a lying-'n'-cheating one night stand? It certainly isn't. For Rufus Thomas' ʽWalking The Dogʼ, they pull out all the stops, with the sneeriest, nastiest vocal performance possible and Keith blasting away on that solo as if his life, freedom, and an upcoming 20-year heroin supply all depended on it. I like all the original performances of these songs, sure enough, but they were never as defiant as what the Stones manage to turn them into here, and if you don't feel that quantum difference, you will most likely be unable to grasp the essence of this band, not even after formally swearing your allegiance to the likes of Sticky Fingers or Exile On Main St.

Where the band does slightly fail is on the material that they do not manage to fully drag over to the dark side — the most notable of these failures probably being Marvin Gaye's ʽCan I Get A Witnessʼ, an okay cover, I guess, but Jagger is trying too hard to simply get us up on our feet and dance, without finding himself some extra function that was not already there in Marvin's original; and as an «R&B singer without a back thought», it is clear that the man does not hold his own against seasoned pros. (In fact, I am far more sympathetic towards the instrumental extention of this song — ʽNow I've Got A Witnessʼ features top-notch harmonica solos and another masterful guitar break from Keith). ʽYou Can Make It If You Tryʼ, originally done by Gene Allison but probably heard by the Stones in the more recent Solomon Burke version, is another duffer can­didate, but Mick's vocal here commands more respect than it does on ʽWitnessʼ — replacing soul with swagger, it still manages to give you an uplifting kick.

The album contained but one original (ʽTell Meʼ), and it has always amused me that the «evil» Stones would have a tender, sentimental pop ballad (albeit a tragic one) as their introduction to the world of songwriters' royalty (and royalties) — but I'll be damned if it isn't quite a fine-written song for the ʽFrom Me To Youʼ era, with the boys already mastering the art of build-up (tender verse, alarmed bridge, desperate chorus) and, curiously, going well over the typical three-minute barrier, as if they got carried away with their own success. It also set a common standard for them: in the future, the typical Stones ballad would be a bitter lament rather than a serenade, helping to lessen the gap between their rocky swagger and their sentimental side. In any case, ʽTell Meʼ is a respectable keeper, rather than forgettable fluff, and it's kind of a pity that they buried it once and for all in their live set after 1965 (honestly, they wrote quite a few worse clunkers in the balladry department after that).

In short, remember this, kids: there were only two artists in 1964 to top the LP charts — the Beatles and the Stones, and if you do not understand how the artistic creativity and imagination of A Hard Day's Night could be regarded on the same level with the «slavish blues and rock'n'roll covers» of The Rolling Stones, you will probably have to regard this fact as a sorrowful con­sequence of how Andrew Loog Oldham and his buddies were able to dupe the British public with their titillation-based promotional campaign. (Then again, there are also those who think that Brian Epstein not only made the Beatles, but also was the Beatles, to a certain extent). I have never subscribed to that conspirologist opinion, though, and as time goes by, the awesomeness of the fresh, young, nasty, swaggery Stones only becomes more and more obvious to me even against the ever-expanding musical horizons, so a loyal thumbs up here.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Band Of Horses: Why Are You OK

BAND OF HORSES: WHY ARE YOU OK (2016)

1) Dull Times/The Moon; 2) Solemn Oath; 3) Hag; 4) Casual Party; 5) In A Drawer; 6) Hold On Gimme A Sec; 7) Lying Under Oak; 8) Throw My Mess; 9) Whatever, Wherever; 10) Country Teen; 11) Barrel House; 12) Even Still.

I must say that I have to take some offense at the title. It is staring me right in the eye, silently implying that I am OK when I shouldn't be — even though I am most definitely not OK, nor do I feel like a particularly careless bather who just happened to climb out back on the beach, only to dis­cover all of his/her clothes pilfered by bad fortune. It is, in fact, somewhat presumptuous to assume that the average buyer of your records is doing that because he/she needs to be shaken up from happy bourgeois slumber and face the harsh realities of a ruthless modern world. At least, last time Arcade Fire tried to do this with Funeral, it did not work, so how could it work with a band approximately ten times less talented?..

Fortunately, one listen to the album is enough to dispel the prior impression. Ben Bridwell would never agree (not in public, at least) with this assessment, but really, Why Are You OK works best if you not only drop your expectations down a deep well, but, in fact, agree to interpret it as a veritable musical anthem to inactivity, casualness, and even artistic impotence. It features some of the slowest, simplest, most meditative and event-less music written by Ben Bridwell, ever, and from time to time it even drops certain hints that this is the only thing worth doing today. The very first track, for instance, greets you with the cheerful "Listen close wherever you go / Dull times, let them seep into your bones" — and musically, the combination of the tempo, the dro­ning guitar, and the lulling vocals suggest that Bridwell may have spent a bit too much time re­cently listening to the entire catalog of Beach House. Only where Beach House put their faith in the creation of a «magical» atmosphere, here, while retaining the trance-like aura of the music, Band Of Horses offer a more earthly, realistic vision.

This is neither too good... nor too bad. Just like the last time around (with Mirage Rock), I don't feel like any of these songs contain any staying power — but unlike the last time around, it's not even a matter of them pretending to contain it. It's very much an album of little, mundane things, enveloped in some humble, mundane sorrow: Band Of Horses are caught in the middle of a de­bilitating vacuum, and since 2016 does look an awful lot like a debilitating vacuum on the whole, Why Are You OK is perhaps even more symbolic of the void to me than it is to its creators. In all of these songs, they either sing about meaningless trifles (ʽIn A Drawerʼ manages to become the most memorable number on the album by featuring the repetitive hook "Found it in the drawer, found it in the drawer, took a little time but I found it in the drawer" — we're never told what the it actually is, but who really cares?), or ask pointless questions whose only purpose is to undermine your self-confidence (ʽHagʼ: "Are you truly in love? absolutely in love? you're happy enough, are you fully in love?"), or produce anthemic invocations delivered in such cold tones that you're sure they don't really mean it (ʽBarrel Houseʼ: "bring some peace to this world and keep passin' it on"). In short, this is an album about trying to make something out of nothing, because what else is there to be made in the first place?

Musically, there's not a lot of surprises here: by now we know only too well that Band Of Horses like a soft-rock sound with soaring production, and this time they made it even softer and more soaring than before. The lead single, ʽCasual Partyʼ, accompanied by a fairly bizarre video of the band members forced to play the song for a feast of cartoonish aliens, is really atypical of the album — too fast and upbeat, almost like a jangle-power-pop number, although the lyrical mes­sage is pretty much the same and even more explicitly than ever ("since Ben got that, he's a socio­path", they state without blinking). Most of the rest is far slower and drearier, really — imagine a Beach House record played by rootsy bearded guys. Occasionally, a simple sentimental note still slips by (ʽWhatever, Whereverʼ is Bridwell's ʽBeautiful Boyʼ, but it is too syrupy for my tastes), but really, the music as such does not feel depressing: the point is not to depress, but rather to freeze, and it does have a comatose effect — you might want to throw on some AC/DC once it's over, to spring your muscles back to action.

No thumbs up, anyway; I am not sure that I will remember how even one song goes on here in a week's time or so, but I might remember the strange overall effect — and the fact that I did not really enjoy that effect, even if I felt it. And I hope I'm interpreting all of this right, because if I'm not, then I'm losing my last crumbs of interest in this band.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Catherine Wheel: Like Cats And Dogs

CATHERINE WHEEL: LIKE CATS AND DOGS (1996)

1) Heal 2; 2) Wish You Were Here; 3) Mouthful Of Air; 4) Car; 5) Girl Stand Still; 6) Saccharine; 7) Backwards Guitar; 8) Tongue Twisted; 9) These Four Walls; 10) High Heels; 11) Harder Than I Am; 12) La La Lala La; 13) Something Strange / Angelo Nero / Spirit Of Radio.

I guess if you are a mildly popular rock band and you feel the need to release an entire album of B-sides, outtakes, and other rarities, one way to go about is to put out one of those Hipgnosis album covers where one guy is supposed to ask the other, "So, just how many cats are there on the photo?", and the other is supposed to answer, "Cats? What cats?". (By the way, the back cover actually has dogs, but if you are a straight male, it is nowhere near as interesting).

Nevertheless, with this bit of a Roxy Music touch out of the way, this is an almost surprisingly strong collection. Since it gathers leftovers from several phases of the band's career, it has the added bonus of diversity — and the band's B-sides were not much weaker than their A-sides anyway. Dressed in the same wall of sound, yes, but the songs do range from drawn-out atmos­pheric panoramas to mid-tempo alt-rockers to concise pop tunes, with a few covers thrown in for good measure: Floyd's ʽWish You Were Hereʼ, done with organ and harmonica over acoustic guitars, is totally respectable (Dickinson's vocals seem a bit overdone to me, but then, they aren't specially overdone for this tribute — it's his natural way of blowing out emotion), and Rush's ʽSpirit Of The Radioʼ is just bizarre, because, unlike Floyd, Rush just does not seem to be the kind of band too likely for such ambience-lovers as C. W. to cover. Indeed, it does not work too well (then again, I'm no huge fan of Rush, so I'm not likely to be a huger fan of Rush covers), but a surprise is a surprise anyway.

It is interesting, actually, that their B-sides in the era of Chrome sounded more like the dreamier stuff from Ferment — relating particularly to ʽCarʼ and ʽGirl Stand Stillʼ, two tracks appended to the short and upbeat single ʽShow Me Maryʼ and illustrating the «static» side of the band for a change; and I do prefer both of them to ʽShow Me Maryʼ. ʽCarʼ creates a soothing-lulling pillow of sound, as the bass takes responsibility for main melody, and a variety of electronically treated regular and slide guitars zoom in and out with micro-melodies of their own — a soft, fragile pattern that goes along very well with the introductory "if I touch you will you break?.." ʽGirl Stand Stillʼ is even better in all of its 8-minute glory, a Talk Talk-ish «pre-post-rock» slowly winding its way up a steep path until all hell breaks loose and then taking extra time to calm down — not as if this weren't a formula that Pink Floyd had already been following two decades earlier, but I just like the execution: there's something faintly mesmerizing about the way all their droning overdubs flow in and out of each other.

The shorter and poppier songs aren't nearly that good, but ʽBackwards Guitarʼ has one of their wildest solo parts ever, and ʽThese Four Wallsʼ is arguably one of their best slow grungy rockers, largely because of the unusual mix of desperation and determination contained in Dickinson's voice as he lashes at the microphone with the chorus — it's as if there's a clenched fist here added to the fuzzy psychedelic mix, and, strange enough, it works: maybe because the band does not generally abuse the «teenage battle scream» principle, on this particular track it comes across as convincing, an odd statement of anthemic determination in a sea of semi-conscious uncertainty. Although the semi-conscious uncertainty can be cool as well — ʽLa La Lala Laʼ, whose title (and especially the way it is chanted throughout) could almost align the band with the likes of Blur, is accompanied with one-liners like "nothing's good, nothing's clear", "don't know what I really fear", and waves of screechy psychedelic guitar to illustrate the confusion.

Despite the record's unhealthy length (70 minutes of Catherine Wheel is quite a chore to sit through in any setting), I give it a thumbs up, because who could resist those pink nighties... uh, I mean, because there's enough high points here to compensate for the monotonousness of the previous two LPs, and also because my idea of what works best for this band may not necessarily be the same as the band's own idea — I like them when they're building up quiet atmospherics out of a half-dozen guitar overdubs, and I like them when they're raging over an instrumental break, and there's plenty of both on Cats And Dogs, whereas both Chrome and Happy Days try too hard to promote them as brilliant songwriters, which they are not.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Cheap Trick: Busted

CHEAP TRICK: BUSTED (1990)

1) Back 'n' Blue; 2) I Can't Understand It; 3) Wherever Would I Be; 4) If You Need Me; 5) Can't Stop Fallin' Into Love; 6) Busted; 7) Walk Away; 8) You Drive, I'll Steer; 9) When You Need Someone; 10) Had To Make You Mine; 11) Rock'n'Roll Tonight; 12) Big Bang.

Foreword/spoiler: I do indeed fully and completely conform to the general consensus that Busted is the worst Cheap Trick album, ever — with one important addition: most of the time, it does not even feel as if I'm listening to a Cheap Trick album here. This is more like a Bon-Jovi-meet-Michael-Bolton album, for some unexplained reason given to Cheap Trick to record. Where The Doctor was at least «rambunctious» — loud, cartoonish, irreverent, kicking up the dust, even if it did it all in a sonically disgusting manner — Busted is well-combed, sterile, polite, one hundred percent predictable adult pop. For all I know, these guys could get behind Celine Dion on one of her «rockier» nights out and nobody would even notice.

Of course, it all has to do with the success of ʽThe Flameʼ. The music industry saw that it was good (because it sold), and wasted no time in moving in for the kill, saddling Cheap Trick with tons of power ballads and sentimental rockers to confirm and expand the suave image — and no matter how much they would complain about it in the future, at the time they seemed happy to oblige, because much of that schlock was written by the band members themselves. Outside songwriters still remain involved on a casual basis, though, including Diane Warren, who gets the chance to rectify her silly mistake with ʽGhost Townʼ (i. e., writing a decent retro-pop song) and come up with a solid, bullet-proof, totally reliable musical atrocity called ʽWherever Would I Beʼ (amazingly, it didn't sell all that well — probably needed a brain-numbing Hollywood block­buster to go along with it, with Rick Nielsen starring as Bruce Willis).

The boys themselves turn out to be strong competitors for Diane the Terrible, contributing ʽCan't Stop Fallin' Into Loveʼ — never mind that "falling into love" is not wholly grammatical, but any romantic power ballad that begins with the line "hey little ladies, there's some cool young dude" is guilty before it has a chance to get to the bridge, let alone the chorus. That said, the chorus is an overblown nightmare in itself — bringing on visions of the National Football League singing it in unison at the Super Bowl rather than anything subtle and emotional. Not that subtle and emotio­nal had ever been Cheap Trick's forte, but this is the first album where their understanding of «love» completely eludes both subtlety and irony, leaving only power. If you were a girl and you had to marry Zander in 1990, I'd bet he'd never let you out of the gym.

Other notable details: (a) the first song is co-written with Taylor Rhodes, who later went on to co-write ʽCryin'ʼ with Aerosmith and some other shit with Celine Dion; (b) the fourth song is co-written with Foreigner's Mick Jones, who also plays guest guitar so that it would sound even more like Foreigner; (c) the ninth song is co-written with Rick Kelly, whose musical talents are described on his own website in the following words: "Rick Kelly has the kind of voice and a knack for melody that is both richly and warmly familiar, ranging from the pop styles of Adam Levine to John Mayer to Billy Joel". In case you might be wondering, the track itself (ʽWhen You Need Someoneʼ) does sound «warmly familiar» — as in, when you've just finished barfing and whatever you puked up is still warm on the floor... okay, sorry, got a bit carried away there.

So, anything good here? Well, if you put a gun to my head and demanded to extract at least one track for a comprehensive anthology or something like that, I would probably go along with ʽI Can't Understand Itʼ, free of outside songwriters and basically functioning as a normal power pop song, still spoiled by production (the drums are too loud, the guitars too out of focus, etc.) but at least upbeat, catchy, and mildly funny. Their cover of Roy Wood's ʽRock'n'Roll Tonightʼ, round­ing out the record, is also OK, although, unfortunately, it comes round way too late to save the day — it's in the vein of ʽCalifornia Manʼ, and it shows that the boys can still have moderately tasteful fun when they put their minds to it. Also, ʽWalk Awayʼ is sort of an okay ballad, with that nostalgic chord progression and retro-pop harmonies, arguably the only one that you can listen on here without getting the urge to... well, you know.

Interestingly, one of the guest stars is Sparks' Russell Mael himself, but his presence is largely wasted on the glam-rock swaggerfest ʽYou Drive, I'll Steerʼ (admittedly, this particular period was not the hottest one in the history of Sparks, either). All I manage to remember about the song is that every time Zander and Mael duet on the line "I'm in the lap of luxury", I always hear "I'm living at the grocery", which, if it were true, could, perhaps, partially explain the abysmal quality of the album — at least, you'd really have to give it away as a freebie at the local grocery to get anybody interested. Anyway, a complete and total disaster here, critical, commercial, and artistic, best summed up in the band's own words in the prophetic title track: "Busted, busted for what I did / I didn't think it so wrong". Thumbs down with a vengeance.