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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Candi Staton: I'm Just A Prisoner

CANDI STATON: I'M JUST A PRISONER (1970)

1) Someone You Use; 2) I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart; 3) You Don't Love Me No More; 4) Evidence; 5) Sweet Feeling; 6) Do Your Duty; 7) That's How Strong My Love Is; 8) I'm Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin'); 9) Another Man's Woman, Another Woman's Man; 10) Get It When I Want It.

The «First Lady of Southern Soul» (for about a few days in the early 1970s) was first discovered by the notorious soulster Clarence Carter, for whom she was first his backing vocalist, and then his wife, for about three years. In personal terms, that was improvement over her first husband, who beat her up — the second one merely cheated, which meant that the marriage also did not last long. But at least in professional terms Carter did good for her: recognizing that she had what it takes to step out as a solo artist, he set her up as such, getting her to Fame Studios at Muscle Shoals and even writing some songs for her.

Although there is nothing particularly original or unusual about this debut record (not to mention how small it is — ten short songs that are over in a jiffy), Clarence's instincts did not fail him: I'm Just A Prisoner is required listening for any serious fan of old school soul music. The songs have mostly been written specially for the artist (Carter is joined by other established songwriters such as George Jackson and Ronnie Shannon, and Staton herself gets at least one co-credit); the arrangements, given that we find ourselves in Muscle Shoals, are sonically impeccable; the backing band is tough and knows how to set itself on fire at all the right moments. But most im­portantly, right from the get-go Ms. Staton establishes an awesome presence and keeps it up right until the end.

Her earliest experience was gospel singing, which explains why it looks like she's taking Aretha Franklin as her role model — the power, the passion, the self-assertion, the fight for your right. She cannot scale the same heights as Aretha, yet, on the other hand, there is a gritty "bad bitch" vibe to her singing that you cannot find in Aretha's singing, either, and the whole slant of the album is on aggressive resistance — just look at these song titles: there are, at best, one or two songs with sentimental values, and even these are delivered with a flaming sword (ʽSweet Feelingʼ is a song of rescue and loyalty rather than one of tender love). Much more often it's about infidelity and treachery, though: the very first song states that "I'm just someone you run to, I'm just someone you use", even if it is set to an R&B-pop hybrid melody that one usually asso­ciates with chivalrous serenades from the likes of Sam Cooke.

The best effect is reached, how­ever, when gritty words rub against gritty music — ʽEvidenceʼ sets up a cool mid-tempo funky groove as a foundation for two and a half minutes of fervent rants and verbal slapping in such a pissed-off way as you'd rarely, if ever, get a chance to hear on an Aretha album. Where Franklin fights for the right to earn "respect when I come home", Staton makes accusations instead of demands, with little in the way of reconciliation. It's a hot, infuria­ting, involving performance, and the only problem is that the song fades out just as it begins to hit its stride — which, by the way, is a common problem with most of the material on here (each of the songs could have benefited from a little extra jam power). The most extreme case is probably ʽI'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheartʼ, rolling on a bit faster and explaining how stability in life is more important than getting it on with young men who'd all rather "do the camel walk", so, Romeo, take a hike. In theory, this point is debatable on several levels, but Candi's delivery is so tense, fast, fluent, and powerful that you barely have the opportunity to retort — she emerges here as a true master of «artistic flooding».

Accordingly, there's this real powerful gospel take here on ʽThat's How Strong My Love Isʼ, for some reason featuring a completely new set of lyrics (compared to the classic Otis Redding ver­sion) and a completely new attitude — one of iron-willed loyalty rather than insane devotion, all the more ironic seeing as how the song is surrounded on all sides with tunes complaining about mistreatment and deception. But the irony does not really matter as long as everything is delive­red with credibility — and it is, enough for the lady to have placed three singles from here in the lower ranges of the US pop charts and in the higher ranges of the R&B ones. (The biggest R&B chart success was ʽSweet Feelingʼ, a song melodically reminiscent of Aretha's ʽI Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)ʼ, but more rhythmically conventional). Were this released on the Atlantic label, we'd probably be hearing much more about it than we usually do — but a techni­cal inconvenience like that should never stand in the way of a well-earned thumbs up.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Captain Beefheart: Safe As Milk

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: SAFE AS MILK (1967)

1) Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do; 2) Zig Zag Wanderer; 3) Call On Me; 4) Dropout Boogie; 5) I'm Glad; 6) Electricity; 7) Yellow Brick Road; 8) Abba Zaba; 9) Plastic Factory; 10) Where There's Woman; 11) Grown So Ugly; 12) Au­tumn's Child.

Don Van Vliet has always been mad, he knows he's been mad, like the most of us are, but it always takes time to properly assess your madness, and sometimes you have to earn the right to becoming truly mad — you really have to work for it, you know. Thus, if you take the very first single by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, a cover of Bo Diddley's ʽDiddy Wah Diddyʼ, what you will find will simply be a garage amplification of a classic blues-rock number (no wonder it ended up on the Nuggets boxset), with some great fuzz bass and a raspy black man's voice, which, upon close scrutiny, turns out to be white, but you'd need a band photo to certify that anyway. But already the second single, ʽMoonchildʼ (ironically, written by David Gates, soon to be of Bread fame and as far removed from Beefheart weirdism as possible), is garage rock with psychedelic rather than bluesy overtones, reveling in blasts of conjoint fuzz bass, scree­chy slide guitar, piercing harmonica, and wild echo. Still relatively normal, though, at least, by the common standards of psychedelic experiments circa 1966.

By the time The Magic Band recorded enough demos for a complete album, though, it became clear that «garage rock» and «psychedelia» were mere stepping stones for Don Van Vliet — trai­ning material upon which he could cut his formative teeth as he prepared to launch a musical genre that would be his and his only. The general motto of beefheart-rock as we know it would be something like «Acknowledge authority only to challenge it», and Safe As Milk is the best place to perceive it, because on subsequent records, the huge influence of various respectable predeces­sors on Van Vliet would already be much less discernible (though no less important). Safe As Milk, however, could probably be called by some a «formative» record, one that still sounds like a cross between the traditional-conventional and the crazy-innovative — although I would rather reserve that word for the early singles, because as far as I'm concerned, Beefheart never really made an unequivocally better record than Safe As Milk. More challenging and stupefying, for sure; more influential, without a doubt; but more «meaningful» or «emotionally stunning» — well, I am not too sure about that.

Let us begin by stating that Safe As Milk is wonderfully eclectic, reflecting The Magic Band's healthy mastery of just about every style of American popular music in existence. Chicago blues (ʽSure 'Nuffʼ), Detroit-ish garage-rock (ʽZig Zag Wandererʼ), deep southern soul and R&B (ʽCall On Meʼ, ʽWhere There's Womanʼ), Nashville country (ʽYellow Brick Roadʼ), folky psychedelia à la Jefferson Airplane (ʽAutumn Childʼ) — they have it all worked out, but they are never content to merely offer passable imitations of all these genres. High above the solid musicianship (not exceptional, but always competent, which is really something when you think about how many different styles they have to master), including, for the record, the slide guitar talents of a very young Ry Cooder, reigns supreme the personality of the Captain, which, at this time, consists of three magic strands: (a) a highly flexible voice that can go from Howlin' Wolf to Wilson Pickett and back at a moment's notice; (b) totally crazy lyrics that can have a strong foundation in tradi­tional blues and R&B clichés and then shoot away from them twice as fast as in the hands of Robert Zimmerman; (c) a splice-and-deliver vision that can, within the same song, take you in a completely unpredictable direction at any given moment.

In the future, point (a) is the only one of the three upon which the man couldn't possibly outdo himself — his singing, snarling, crooning, raving, ranting, and panting on this record is as far out as it gets — whereas the lyrics would certainly get crazier, and the melodies would get so com­plex that this initial set would, in comparison, look like Doris Day. Yet it is a level with which I am perfectly comfortable, and so, no doubt, would be any general fan of the «golden middle», not spoiled and misled by the constant heralding of Trout Mask Replica as the Captain Beefheart album par excellence — a trick that, as I suspect, has caused more people in history to turn away from the artist in horror rather than embrace him. The thing is, Safe As Milk is already a record that gives you a totally unique musical vision. Where Dylan showed how traditional musical forms may be revived and modernized with words, tones, and arrangements that are relevant to the 20th century, Beefheart goes one step further — he shows how they can all be driven to heights of insanity. If it's blues, it's got to be hellfire-demonic. If it's soulful pleading, it's got to be pleaded from a straitjacket. If it's nasty garage-rock, it's got to be nauseatingly nasty garage-rock, the musical equivalent of pulling your pants down and delivering a steamy one right in front of the old lady. Even if it's country, you still gotta giddy up, horsey.

On the very first track, the dashing Captain tells us that he "was born in the desert, came on up from New Orleans... came up on a tornado sunlight in the sky" (I'm pretty sure he used to tell things like that to interviewers, too — Dylan's bizarre nonsense that he spouted at press conferen­ces in 1965-66 is the acumen of truth compared to some of the things Don Van Vliet told jour­nalists, and, creepiest thing of all, it is never known how much of that stuff he actually believed himself at the time of telling). He does it to the tune of ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ, and, of course, the tradition of inventing one's own epic mythology is a long-standing one in the blues world — but "I went around all day with the moon sticking in my eye" may be a bit too much even for Muddy Waters. (Ultimately, it proved a bit too much even for Ry Cooder, who here is perfectly happy to carry across the slide guitar melody with plenty of color, taste, and fluency — but apparently the poor guy never truly understood what exactly it was that he was stepping into, thinking that this was going to be some sort of post-Paul Butterfield thing...).

Then there's ʽZig Zag Wandererʼ, which rolls along like one of those sexually charged, arrogant garage-rock nuggets, but instead of featuring a snotty, sneery, finger-giving teenager, it gives you an R&B-influenced howler, sounding like a man driven to paranoid insanity by the world closing in on him: "You can huff, you can puff, you'll never blow my house down..." ...because I'm loaded with dynamite and I'll take you and everybody else with me as I go. Musically, this track is very close to Zappa's style on Freak Out!, but where Zappa was all about sarcasm and satire, Beefheart takes this image very seriously — there's relatively little humor on Safe As Milk, as could probably be expected from the difference between a man who liked to feign and dissect insanity (Frank) and a man who was quite genuinely insane (Don).

Yet for a genuinely insane man, he does offer a staggering lot of psychologically and emotional­ly different insights and perspectives. There's the cocky, braggy, blues-influenced posturing of ʽSure 'Nuffʼ; the paranoid hysteria of ʽZig Zag Wandererʼ; the almost cartoonish cruelty and mockery of ʽDropout Boogieʼ, which is like a lyrical sequel to Dylan's "get born, keep warm, short pants, romance", only this time set to a ʽLouie Louieʼ-like riff-hammering for a stronger effect; the mystical appraisal of ʽElectricityʼ, done Howlin' Wolf style and combining both poetic admira­tion and deep fear of that supreme force of life (the way he carefully drawls out those syllables in the classic «sandpaper» style — "eeeh-laaae-ktreeee-citeeee..." — sounds like an evil magician casting a spell all by itself). There's some place for love in all of this, too, although good luck finding yourself a lady with a song like ʽWhere There's Womanʼ: Beefheart's howling delivery offers exquisite praise for the female sex ("where there's woman, honey wine, where there's woman, lovin' time"), but the psychological instability of the howling character is so well on display that you never really know in what way he truly sees the female ideal. It might be in the form of a beautiful wedding and living happily ever after, or it might be in the form of keeping her severed head locked up in the freezer — for the sake of eternal worship. (Fortunately, as it so happened, Don and his wife Janet spent 40 years happily married, but as far as I'm concerned, that was just a lucky coin toss).

It is important, though, that Safe As Milk is never as far removed from reality as we could think upon first hearing it. Most of the lyrics make some sort of sense — there's plenty of social com­mentary around, be it on the teenage state of mind (ʽDropout Boogieʼ can easily be pictured on a single concept album with Alice Cooper's ʽI'm Eighteenʼ), or on, ahem, the working class con­ditions (ʽPlastic Factoryʼ, with one of the most convincing "boss man let me be!"'s you'll ever hear), and even a piece of jungle-boogie nonsense such as ʽAbba Zabaʼ makes more sense when you learn that Abba Zaba is the name of a real Californian candy bar — apparently, here it is used more as a metaphor for drug-addled vision, but blame it on the manufacturers who gave that kind of name to a candy bar. (And, for the record, it has never been clinically proven that Beefheart never took drugs — he said that he didn't, but then he also said that he went a year and a half without sleeping, so...). The issues that are tackled and the answers that are given are always am­biguous and clouded, of course, but that's just the trademark of a good work of art — feet on the earth, head in the clouds — and that's the way I personally prefer it, rather than having to admire the consequences of a complete blast-off.

The only criticism one could make of the album is that it is nowhere near as musically inventive as Beefheart's future endeavors. The base melodies are often either «primitive» (ʽDropout Boo­gieʼ) or directly lifted from traditional sources (ʽSure 'Nuffʼ), and composition as such seems to have been far from Beefheart's first worry here — at best, he delights in splicing together various dissimilar melodies to form a progressive mini-suite like ʽAutumn's Childʼ, but there are still very few signs of the evilly twisted time signatures and head-bursting dissonances that would make him the cherished darling of the avantgarde movement. Naturally, this makes Safe As Milk less interesting for musicologists and daring musicians; but, sure 'nuff, this makes it easier for simpler people to assimilate and empathize. At least in terms of grabbing my attention and lifting up (and shaking out) my spirit, Safe As Milk is as good as it gets, and gets as high a thumbs up rating as is technically possible for a Captain Beefheart record.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cher: Believe

CHER: BELIEVE (1998)

1) Believe; 2) The Power; 3) Runaway; 4) All Or Nothing; 5) Strong Enough; 6) Dov'e L'Amore; 7) Takin' Back My Heart; 8) Taxi Taxi; 9) Love Is The Groove; 10) We All Sleep Alone.

Undoubtedly, the main question of 1998 was not "how do we stop the Congo War?" or "do we impeach President Clinton or not?" — the main question of 1998, which each of us who was old enough to have ears must have heard a million times, was: "Do you believe in life after love?". I'm pretty sure that more people on this planet of ours have pondered over this question than there are people for whom the name "Cher" means anything — I do believe myself that I lived through at least three solemn promises to find and strangle the singer before even learning who that was (I knew about the existence of Cher, of course, but it never occurred to me to equate this Vegas relic with the autotuned monstrosity that Genghis-Khanned its way all over the radiowaves).

Since the record-buying public would not want to pay serious attention to the slowly unfolding and ultimately not very rewarding soulful intricacies of It's A Man's World, it seemed inevitable that we'd soon begin the next loop — after a commercially failing «artistic» album, the world should brace itself for an artistically failing «commercial» album, what with retirement not being an option in an age where the triumphant march of female empowerment can always be bolstered with a little plastic sur­gery. And it's no big secret that the direction in which she went with Be­lieve had everything to do with the success of Madonna's Ray Of Light — the advent of electro­nic techno-pop suddenly gave «Divas» all over the world a new style where they could succeed without breaking too much sweat and stay unquestionably modern and trendy. Of course, she'd never really worked in the electronic field before, but it's not about electronica, really: it's about a dance-pop groove, and how could somebody with ʽTake Me Homeʼ behind her belt fail at that, if she really put her mind to it?

Well, technically speaking, she does not fail. The record, masterminded by British producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling (whose clientele before and after has also included Enrique Iglesias, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, and One Direction, if you really want to know more) and with significant songwriting input from Paul Barry (also a wholesale supplier for Enrique Igle­sias), became her largest success ever, and ʽBelieveʼ became her signature song — probably the only such case in pop history, when it took the artist more than thirty years in the business to produce a signature song (and I'm fairly sure that youngsters all over the world went into a state of shock upon discovering that the very same person who really didn't think we were strong enough now in 1998 had said that all she really wanted to do was to be friends with us back in 1965 — I mean, at least the ones who could actually be prompted to discover anything).

Grinding my teeth and cursing God's name, I have to admit that ʽBelieveʼ does display genius craftmanship — nothing else could explain its mystical hold over the world. Its main hookline is one of those anthemic-rhetoric questions that can hook up to your brain like a well-polished political slogan, and when combined with the techno beat, it probably does constitute the ultimate in clublife experience (not that I'd know much of that). Then, of course, there's the vocoding bit: as everybody knows, this is the first well-popularized use of autotuning on the vocals, and as heavily as the practice became abused immediately after that, this particular first time actually works — the vocal effect was not there because Cher needed autotuning (her vocal powers are still fairly intact at this point), but because the producers thought it would be fun to have her sing like a robot for a bit (alternately, it may have been hard for her to hit that little melismatic bit on "so sa-a-ad that you're leaving", except we never ever get evidence for that because there does not seem to be even one version of the song in existence, studio or live, without the effect). Just a little creative fun, and look at all the damage it did to the music industry.

The problem is, of course, that it will take at least ten thousand years for the song to return to a reasonable reputational level — the one of a fluffy fun dance-pop throwaway, rather than a «pop epic» of catastrophic proportions — and that the process of leveling has not even begun yet, as I still get shudders and shivers every time I hear the damn thing. And then there's another problem: most of the rest of the album, though consistently delivered in the same vein, is just crap. Techno crap, disco crap, adult contemporary crap — song after song of tasteless, meaningless, corporate-formulaic drivel that makes even the late-Eighties «glam trilogy» seem like a strong musical offering in comparison. Oh, it's catchy all right — the choruses are repetitive enough, so if you hold out for two or three listens, musical viruses such as "baby, it's all or nothing!...", "now I'm strong enough to live without you!", "love is the groove in which we move", and even the accur­sed "taxi, taxi, give me a ride" will infiltrate your DNA and begin a corrosive process of mutation that can only be stopped with a good cleansing (I recommend Metal Machine Music, if you're man enough to take some rough treatment). But taken as a whole, the album is perfect proof that you don't really need Autotune in order to sound like a crudely assembled robot.

The few non-techno songs on the album are even worse than the techno ones: ʽDov'E L'Amoreʼ, for instance, is the most clichéd take on the "Latin love song" that could be thought of, with restaurant-level flamenco guitar and horrid Italian-English lyrical hybridizations ("dov'e l'amore, dov'e l'amore, I cannot tell you of my love, here is my story" — bathroom, please), and ʽTakin' Back My Heartʼ almost mockingly starts out with a guitar lick copped from ʽStayin' Aliveʼ, as they try a generic old disco revival for a change, only to actually make us feel nostalgic for the real thing, when disco music could actually be creative and even feature excellent musicianship. Some are hideous hybrids — ʽTaxi Taxiʼ tries fusing an old disco bass line with a modern techno beat, but since the main melody consists of something like one synth note, the «experiment» goes very wrong from the beginning. And then there's the idea of fighting fire with fire — take an old glam-pop turd (ʽWe All Sleep Aloneʼ) and reinvent it as a new techno-pop turd, just, you know, to prove that the old flame can still burn bright in a new vessel. Which doth remind me of a great answer found on the Web to the important question "How well does poop burn?" — "If you find some month old elephant dung, it can be a great firestarter since they exclusively eat plant matter. However, if your dog's asshole is leaking diarrhea from that left over taco bell you gave him, it will most likely not ignite." Kind of reminds me of the current situation.

Again, it is, of course, all a matter of (good vs. bad) taste, and since the choruses are catchy and all, brings us back to the eternal question of whether there is such a thing as a «bad hook», or if a hook is a hook, and if you can get hooked up, that's a good thing in itself... but instead of having this discussion, let's all just be good boys and girls, agree that Believe is a thumbs down turd that has no place in the musical garden of Eden, and move on to a safe and happy future in which there is no life after love, and Cher is remembered more for Gypsys, Tramps And Thieves and even I Paralyze than for the amazing feat of trivializing the already not-too-complex musical values of Madonna.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Rolling Stones: Aftermath

THE ROLLING STONES: AFTERMATH (1966)

1) Paint It, Black; 2) Stupid Girl; 3) Lady Jane; 4) Under My Thumb; 5) Doncha Bother Me; 6) Think; 7) Flight 505; 8) High And Dry; 9) It's Not Easy; 10) I Am Waiting; 11) Going Home.

Looking back at the era where most bands began as cover acts, and then slowly progressed towards establishing their own styles, images, and writing signatures, this sort of makes me happier than looking forward at the situation where, even if you are a completely immature and insecure struggling 18-year old artist, you are still expected to enter that studio, trembling hands and all, and come out with your own set of writer credits. Imagine an entire album of Jimmy Reed remakes and clones of ʽThe Singer Not The Songʼ — I am much happier hearing the Stones reinterpret Chuck Berry and, for that matter, cover Jimmy Reed directly rather than trying to «write» something in his name. But those first two years helped them work out a solid base, and by the time it became clear that major artist, want it or not, would have to write their own stuff (not to mention all the financial benefits), Jagger and Richards, having finally cut their teeth on the occasional A-grade riff-rocker and the occasional Brit-pop ballad, were ready to play «the Beatles game» for all its worth.

Recorded at the RCA Studios in Hollywood in late 1965 and early 1966, Aftermath features nothing but Jagger/Richards originals and firmly plants the pair in the top rank of contemporary British songwriters. Their artistic ambitions stay true to their inner spirits — they are not even trying to out-Beatle the Beatles by writing painful-soulful confessions like ʽHelp!ʼ or dabbling in early cosmic-psychedelic territory like ʽNowhere Manʼ. Instead, they take their cues from the sneery attitude of Dylan and the psychological surgery of Ray Davies — Aftermath is a pene­trating, sarcastic, and, judging by modern standards, delightfully offensive portrayal of a bored young man's life in contemporary England, as the boys set their mastery of the American blues form firmly in the service of painting the reality of British existence. This means that Aftermath will, almost by definition, have a somewhat lesser appeal than Rubber Soul or Revolver, but it does not mean that Aftermath does not possess certain intricate qualities and strong points of attraction that you will never find on any Beatles album — or any Beach Boys one, for that matter.

The continuing discrepancies between UK and US releases began to hurt at this point: Aftermath was the Stones' first intentional stab at a certain conceptuality, and the decision of the American people to take out ʽMother's Little Helperʼ and replace it with the contemporary successful single ʽPaint It Blackʼ, while understandable from a purely financial perspective, would look akin to a classical label's decision to throw out a slow, boring andante movement out of the middle of a Mozart concerto and replace it with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. They also thought that the running length of 50 minutes was way too revolutionary for the local people (only crazy people like Bob Dylan could get away with something like that), and tossed out ʽTake It Or Leave Itʼ, ʽWhat To Doʼ, and — in a particularly criminal turn of action — ʽOut Of Timeʼ, an essentially Aftermath-like type of song; the fact that two of them later ended up on the US-only Flowers (with ʽOut Of Timeʼ cruelly cut up by about a minute and a half) does not properly excuse the butchers.

Still, once the pattern has been set, it would only make things messier to deviate from it, and so we will be talking primarily about the way Aftermath was served to the American people, be­ginning with a universalist anthem of bleakness and darkness rather than a bitter sociological ob­servation on the depressed life of British housewives. ʽPaint It Blackʼ does not yet give us the Stones at the ʽGimme Shelterʼ height of their apocalyptic powers — it is much lighter than that, and it is hard to take Jagger's lyrics and vocal delivery too seriously. What really makes the song (or saves the song, if you prefer) is the anger, the sturm-und-drang mode that begins with Charlie's «alarm! alarm!» percussion pattern and culminates in the key change in the middle of the verse: as Jagger turns from the mope of "I see a red door and I want it painted black..." to the bark of "I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes...", it is clear that this is sure as hell not going to be another unsatisfactory fakery à la ʽBlue Turns To Greyʼ — this is more about anger, of the headbanging type, than about drowning in one's own tears. And from that point of view, Brian's introduction of the sitar here is, in a sense, even more revolutionary than George Harrison's introduction of it on ʽNorwegian Woodʼ — here, for the first time, the sitar is actually used as a rock instrument, playing a rhythmic, rocking drone that kicks ass rather than mystifies in some pseudo-Hinduist manner. Throw in those thick bass zoop-zoop-zoops from Wyman, particularly in the coda, sliding his fingers down the strings as if he were figuratively splashing fat blots of black paint at Jagger's red door, and the aggressive interpretation of the song is com­plete: you can trash the concert hall to the martial sounds of ʽPaint It Blackʼ just as effectively as you could do it to ʽThe Last Timeʼ or ʽSatisfactionʼ.

It is this unusual combination of predictable and unpredictable instruments, familiar forms and unfamiliar substantiations of them, that makes Aftermath still sound so fresh and unique after all these years — provided you give it a serious and fair chance. I mean, when you really sit down and take a close look at the lyrics to ʽLady Janeʼ, it turns out that the general message is not that far removed from ʽYesterday's Papersʼ' "seems very hard to have just one girl / when there's a million in the world" — this is not so much a chivalrous love serenade as it is about dumping one love in favor of another, the whole thing being permeated with thick Jagger irony, both in the words and the faux-Chaucerian accent that delivers them. This contrasts starkly with the most seriously-minded person in the band — Brian Jones, playing the hell out of that Appalachian dulcimer, yet even Brian got caught in the irony when he talked in an interview about the dul­cimer being an old English instrument (probably confusing it with the hammered dulcimer). Of course, texture-wise, the song does have an Elizabethan feel to it (though you'd probably be hard pressed to find anything from Elizabethan times that would sound even remotely close), but it only works because it mixes «gallantry» with «mockery» — otherwise, you'd have the Stones as predecessors of Amazing Blondel, and that would probably be a real disaster.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of Aftermath, and the one reason why the album will never find as much acceptance in the circles of «pop aestheticists», is that, unlike the Beatles or Brian Wilson (or Hendrix, for that matter), the Stones do not show as much interest in exploring the technical sonic possibilities of the studio. The songs sound relatively sparse, with few overdubs except for all of those Brian's exotic instruments; experiments with tape, special effects, etc., are kept at an absolute minimum; and all the songs are strictly guitar-based, with Brian's dulcimers, sitars, and marimbas fulfilling the cherry-on-top role. On the other hand, give Keith Richards his due, too: he is perfectly willing, where necessary, to work in the background and just provide the dough for Brian's toppings — Aftermath is not a very riff-heavy album (even on a song like ʽUnder My Thumbʼ, you really get to have a much stronger feeling for its riff only in a live setting; in the studio, you hum along to the marimbas), and it rather gets by on the strength of vocal hooks and exotic instrumentation, justifiedly opening the so-called two-year «pop period» for the Stones.

Time and radio play singled out ʽPaint It Blackʼ and ʽUnder My Thumbʼ as the highlights (and maybe throw in ʽLady Janeʼ, which was also released as a single), but in reality, the album is quite consistent, and contains a good deal of «sleeper classics» that the Stones themselves would subsequently — undeservedly — shun in concert, mainly because those songs did not so well agree with their «roots rock» image. (Or, sometimes, maybe not, because how more «roots» can you get than with the genius-amateur country of ʽHigh And Dryʼ?) Almost everything is catchy one way or another, though sometimes too repetitive — ʽFlight 505ʼ, for instance, sets an excel­lent mid-tempo groove going, but once it has been established, very little happens with the song over its three long verses and one unremarkable instrumental break, and you begin wondering if the music here wasn't organized around Jagger's gruesome story of an airplane crash rather than the other way around. (Of course, you don't have to think that the song is literally about an air­plane crash — it is about having to pay dearly for one's reckless decisions, the kind of which a highly disciplined and precautious English gentleman like Mr. Jagger would never take on his own). More importantly, almost everything tells a story, whether it be the female character assas­sination of ʽStupid Girlʼ or ʽUnder My Thumbʼ (Jagger's «misogyny», for which he'd be roasted alive in the PC age, even if stupid girls — and cruel boys — are as much a reality in 2016 as they were in 1966), contemplation of one's own loneliness and stupidity in ʽIt's Not Easyʼ, the odd air­plane allegory of ʽFlight 505ʼ, or... well, I am, of course, not going to insist that the Stones were as accomplished in the art of British storytelling as the Kinks on Face To Face or Somethin' Else, since too many of these songs are centered around the protagonist's relationships with his numerous Lady Janes and Lady Anns and Sweet Maries, but even as it is, the scope of Jagger's feelings is head-spinning: on Side B alone, he has enough time to (a) blame his woman for dum­ping him because "she found out it was money I was after", (b) blame himself for being left without a woman (ʽIt's Not Easyʼ), (c) express an abstract hope that it'll all work out in the end (ʽI Am Waitingʼ), (d) revel heartily over the perspective of going home to see his baby as if nothing happened in the first place and he were just some nonchalant Sonny Boy Williamson on his way back from a hard day's work at the factory.

Speaking of (d), the one and only thing that the American release of Aftermath got absolutely right was sticking the 11-minute jam ʽGoin' Homeʼ to the end of the record. Not only is it easier that way to simply turn off the record 11 minutes too early if you hate its meandering, but it also forms a much more natural (and somewhat eerie and foreboding) end to the LP than the some­what subpar series of filler tunes (ʽThinkʼ, ʽWhat To Doʼ) that capped off the UK version. And I, for one, have always been fascinated by ʽGoin' Homeʼ. What that track does is take a dusty old blues cliché ("goin' home to see my baby", usually delivered in an optimistic key by the bluesman whose only joy in life is his baby) and, as soon as the jam part starts, turn it on its head — the music quickly takes on a dangerous air, with alarming, suspenseful harmonicas and guitars all over the place, and Jagger's improvised ad-libbing is the exact opposite of a love-crazed R&B-er like, say, Otis Redding, burning it on stage: he is 100% in his "midnight rambler" image here, throwing off endless "I'm goin' home"'s and "I'm gettin' out"s and "early in the morning"s and "in the middle of the night"s with the alarming glee of a psychopath rather than a sweet man in love. The only thing missing here is an accompanying video: I can easily picture a setting in some creepy part of nighttime London, with Mick gliding and wriggling his way across the pavement while Richards with his guitar and Brian with his harmonica occasionally show up from behind the hedges, evil grins on their faces and all. Could be creepier than ʽToo Much Bloodʼ, with a little effort invested. Especially that ending — "touch me one more time... come on little girl... you may look sweet... but I know you ain't... I know you ain't...". That's Mick the Ripper, right? You bet your ass that as the night goes by and the first rays of the rising sun put an end to the song, what we're left with is not so pretty a picture.

Of course, that's just one charming way of interpreting things, but if I do not acknowledge this, there's no way I can explain the strange magic of Aftermath that has kept me in its grip for so many years. Yes, it is the album that initiates a relatively «sweet» period for the Stones, one that would be officially discarded only with the advent of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ two years later, but even that sweetness was always mixed with darkness and provocation. Aftermath knows how to switch from tenderness to cruelty, from sincerity to irony, from light optimism to dark suspense without suspending belief in either of these — thanks, first and foremost, to the burgeoning talents of a skilled melodist (Richards), an inspired arranger (Jones), and an unparalleled show­man at the peak of their powers. Perhaps, song-by-song, it is not the most consistent set of tunes they had ever produced (I would never include ʽDoncha Bother Meʼ or ʽWhat To Doʼ in my Top 100 Stones songs, I guess), but in terms of highlights, conceptual unity, and innovative break­throughs (the 11-minute length of ʽGoin' Homeʼ alone is worth something!), Aftermath is as good a Rolling Stones album as can be found. It does not ask you to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream (because that's one sure way to get whupped by the midnight rambler), and it does not pretend that they just weren't born for these times (because they so very much have), but it does tell you, in no uncertain terms, how it feels to be like a rolling stone — so let's just leave it here with a dylanesque thumbs up.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Britney Spears: Glory

BRITNEY SPEARS: GLORY (2016)

1) Invitation; 2) Make Me...; 3) Private Show; 4) Man On The Moon; 5) Just Luv Me; 6) Clumsy; 7) Do You Wanna Come Over?; 8) Slumber Party; 9) Just Like Me; 10) Love Me Down; 11) Hard To Forget Ya; 12) What You Need; 13*) Better; 14*) Change Your Mind (No Seas Cortés); 15*) Liar; 16*) If I'm Dancing; 17*) Coupure Electrique.

Three times have I sat through this record, and three times have I felt a strong pulling to take a shower immediately afterwards, because sitting out there in a pool of even your own figurative vomit is quite a schizophrenic feeling. But what could I do? Britney Jean "Princess Of Pop" Spears' Glory, her ninth overall studio LP, is not simply the worst record of her career so far — it is, quite literally, one of the worst albums I have intentionally chosen to sit through in the past... ah, heck, ever. And I am not saying that it is unique in its badness: it is simply part of a world where I very, very rarely venture. It may be useful to witness that world occasionally — like it may be instructive for anyone dwelling in a well-to-do quarter of the big city to take an occasio­nal detour to the slums, just to make sure that they actually exist — but then again, even a slum may have something noble and righteous about it, since poverty is not a crime. Listening to Glory, on the other hand, is more like taking a detour into the cheapest, trashiest whorehouse there is, where getting hooked up on heroin and catching a couple VDs is more like an obligatory course of action than an unfortunate side effect.

Where do I even begin? Well, maybe just to get this out of the way, this is not the most boring or even the most musically generic set of electropop tunes released in the history of humanity. Whatever the odds, Britney Spears still has not been stripped of the «Princess of Pop» label by the music industry, and the music industry at least has the good sense to hire taboons of corporate songwriters who can supply their victim with a decent enough amount of earworms. You take the required three listens and, sure enough, you glance back at the song titles and you can remember how many of them go, along with some of the beats. Nor could you objectively accuse the arran­gers and producers of not doing anything with the dance grooves once they've been established: what separates high-class stinky trash from low-class stinky trash is that the former has had money, time, energy, creativity and sometimes even a spoonful of talent invested in it. (The number of special effects applied to Britney's vocals alone deserves an objective mention).

The (very relative) saving grace of Femme Fatale was that these earworms happened to be amplified by a general «high-energy» approach to the project. Many of the songs had an anthemic feel to them — fast, loud, «empowered», and this helped overlook their essential fakeness and concentrate on their hooks. With Glory, the whole thing is different: it has more of a pseudo-chamber feel, maybe even of a «pseudo-bedroom» feel, if you know what I mean, and instead of giving us Britney Spears as an unstoppable tornado of externalized sexuality, it is more of a ʽPri­vate Showʼ, to use one of the titles as an appropriate metaphor. This is where you are invited to take a little bo-peep. Just send them kids off to school, and we'll get to work right away.

In the process, the 34-year old Princess of Pop will first send you out an ʽInvitationʼ, politely inquiring ʽDo You Wanna Come Over?ʼ for a ʽSlumber Partyʼ, as she wants to "take it back to my room" because she "just wants you to make me move... back and forth, like this was all ten­nis" (ʽMove Meʼ). The action gradually intensifies — "slide down my pole, watch me spin it and twerk it" (ʽPrivate Showʼ, with the additional crime of rhyming "satisfy" with "apple pie"); "I love how you go down, head first and style it out" (ʽClumsyʼ — no, in case you're worried, it's ultimately about getting rather than not getting sexual satisfaction); and by the end, we under­stand that the end is only a technical break, because "One time just ain't enough, won't let this fade / I got that good, good stuff you can't erase" (ʽWhat You Needʼ — but I sort of thought it was, you know, time that was supposed to be erasing the good, good stuff? Or is she trying to tell us that her partner is intentionally trying to wear her out? Whatever. I'm confused now... blame it all on lack of sexual education in Soviet school, I guess).

Okay, so it's just the words, and if we simply stay on that level, it would be only too natural to accuse the reviewer of sexism — so what's fine and good for a male band like AC/DC, is shame­ful for a female performer? Not at all. The difference is that the important thing for AC/DC is their rock and roll drive, which, all by itself, is (a) genuine and (b) inoffensive. For Glory, the important thing is to give us an artist who, all things considered, ultimately sounds like a blowup doll equipped with a Siri-like component. I mean, listen to ʽPrivate Showʼ or ʽWhat You Needʼ and tell me if this pitch even sounds as if it were produced by a human being — the vocoding effects squeeze the last drops of humanity out of the woman, so much so that I wouldn't want to be caught dead while listening to even ten seconds of either. (What makes it ten times as offen­sive is, I think, the intentional similarity of the basic stop-and-start pattern of ʽWhat You Needʼ to Jimi Hen­drix's ʽFireʼ — if they really want to drop us a hint that Glory is what should pass for the modern equivalent of fiery rock'n'roll, they should rather just all drop dead instead). There's not even a drop of humor or irony anywhere in sight to offer salvation (not that Britney Spears has ever been capable of a drop of intelligent humor or irony).

When you come to think of it, did they really have to go down all the way like this? I mean, even in 2016 there must be ways for a 34-year old female artist to express her sexuality without getting totally reduced to that sexuality. Heck, even Madonna knows how to do better. What could be somewhat excusable at the time of In The Zone (at least on ʽToxicʼ she really sounded like she was having honest fun with it), under the condition that the scope would eventually expand, now sounds — please excuse me for the extra harshness, but somebody has got to do it — like the symbolic convulsions of an aging whore, trying to make herself more attractive to customers with extra layers of makeup and provocative clothing. And it's not even a matter of Britney's actual age (I mean, 34 years is nothing these days — the peak of sexuality for some!), it's a matter of how it all sounds and feels, with all these plastic electronic overdubs, ridiculous vocals, trashy lyrics, and, above all, the complete and total and utter reduction of all human qualities to one big bag of sexual urges. If this is really, in her own words, "the best thing I've done in a long time", wouldn't it be more honest to simply switch to pornography?

But forget about Britney herself, whose intellectual brightness was never legendary in the first place; and forget about several dozen highway robbers and agents of Satan masking as «produ­cers», «writers», and even «musicians» on this insult to humanity. The most awful thing, of course, are the «critics» who, according to Wikipedia, all gave «generally positive reviews» of the album. Almost nobody even began to look at the obvious — perhaps out of fear of being accused of sexism? — and almost everybody concentrated on the superficial aspects, faintly praising the (undeniable, but still cringeworthy) pop hooks and even, God help us, some of these vocals. It is not the dismal, trashy quality of the album that makes me so worried — it is the fact that it still seems to attract mainstream media attention in a respectful frame. If this is what our liberal framework has come up to — a complete robo-objectification of the woman under the false guise of «sexual empowerment» — then I must say that even conservatively grabbing women by the pussy seems like an innocent prank in comparison. A highly bleargh-style thumbs down here, and a hearty recommendation to retire — if the last ten years of Britney's career were all leading up to this, she should have been sent back to Mississippi a long, long time ago, because, in the immortal words of Timmy Shaw, "Girl that's where you belong — since you've been gone to the big city, girl you started doing wrong".

Friday, November 25, 2016

Anathema: Eternity

ANATHEMA: ETERNITY (1996)

1) Sentient; 2) Angelica; 3) The Beloved; 4) Eternity Part I; 5) Eternity Part II; 6) Hope; 7) Suicide Veil; 8) Radiance; 9) Far Away; 10) Eternity Part III; 11) Cries On The Wind; 12) Ascension.

«Inspired» (is this the right word here?) by the illness and death of the Cavanaghs' mother, Eter­nity is the first Anathema album that is quite hard to technically classify as heavy metal at all, even if I wouldn't go as far as to label it «progressive rock» instead. Rather, they preserve and amplify all the soft elements that may be typical of artistically inclined metal bands — the dark folk atmospheres, the acoustic guitars, the mournful vocals, the quiet gloom — while at the same time downplaying the deep-black distorted rumble of the metal guitars, in the place of which you will here frequently find a guitar sound much closer to grunge and alt-rock. So it's more like «de-metallized metal» than a 180-degree transition to some other genre — and, of course, the one thing that stays completely the same is the band's total commitment to the bleakness and depres­sion of their vision. The mark of Cain is not to be washed off that easy.

This is not necessarily bad — imagine, say, Black Sabbath releasing an entire LP of ʽPlanet Caravansʼ, ʽSolitudesʼ, and ʽLaguna Sunrisesʼ with just a couple of ʽWheels Of Confusionʼ in between — but on their first try, Anathema do not seem to be doing a very good job with it. In terms of pure atmosphere, Eternity is indeed a major step forward, and the lack of growling vocals makes it possible to put it on in the neghbors' presence without excessive blushing. But as far as memorable themes or unique personality is concerned, the album is fairly boring. The textures are easily comprehensible — some minor bass chords, some dark acoustic strum, some overdubs with wailing-weeping electric guitars and some distorted feedback for background canvas — but the songs, subsequently, are largely indistinguishable from each other.

The only exception is ʽHopeʼ, sounding more like a righteous prayer than a depressed lament and having the good sense to arm itself with some cool riffs, including a shrill siren-like four-note electric sequence that provides the song with a stronger, calcium-enriched skeleton. Ironically, this is the only song not written by the band — it's a Roy Harper cover, with Harper himself appearing as a guest star with some spoken narration in the intro, which pretty much tells us all we want to know. And speaking of the Harper / Pink Floyd connection (ʽHopeʼ itself was co-written by Harper with Gilmour), yes, Eternity is the first of many Anathema albums where Floyd influence becomes very clearly visible, but it is one thing to be influenced by your prede­cessors, and quite another thing to show that you yourself are worthy of being influenced by them. As it is, I have not found any particular musical touches on this record that would even begin to approach the melodic genius of Floyd.

They do have the best of intentions, but neither brother Vince's vocals (too dusky and mid-rangey to compete with a Robert Smith, too autumnal and sentimental to have the grip of a Roger Waters) nor brother Danny's guitars (too often relying on metal / alt-rock / ambient-prog clichés) are stun­ning on their own, and multiplying one so-so by another in this world violates the laws of math: instead of so-so squared, you get the square root of so-so squared. Except in specific cases like the truly awful ʽSuicide Veilʼ, where you put brother Vince totally upfront, so that for most of the time, he just bleeds out of your speakers on a pallet of hushed symph-synths and minimalistic bass — here we have the square root of so-so, period, and a desire to rush him off to the ER as fast as you can, before his veins run empty due to theatrical overcalculation. Elsewhere, he at least operates under a more respectable musical cover (over-emoting on your guitar, for some reason, is always less of a crime than over-emoting on your vocal pipes), but still, that does not make any of these songs easier to describe and identify as specific meaningful entities. The good news is, they would learn to do better in the future; the bad news is, in between their brief wobble on the stepping stone of Silent Enigma and their landing on the relatively safe coast of Alterna­tive 4, they had to make the plunge, and Eternity is it — thumbs down, unless you just happen to be an instant fan of every song that propagates some form of suicide.

P.S. Oh, and, by the way, the producer on this album was Tony Platt — incidentally, the very same guy who was responsible for producing Cheap Trick's The Doctor back in 1986. Coinci­dence? Not what I'd like to believe, no.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Cheap Trick: Special One

CHEAP TRICK: SPECIAL ONE (2003)

1) Scent Of A Woman; 2) Too Much; 3) Special One; 4) Pop Drone; 5) My Obsession; 6) Words; 7) Sorry Boy; 8) Best Friend; 9) If I Could; 10) Low Life In High Heels; 11) Hummer.

So, having just summarized the first quarter-century of their career, Cheap Trick are left free to turn over the page, clean up that slate, and embark upon the difficult journey of proving their ongoing relevance to the 21st century — something that is hard enough to do even for Radiohead, never mind a band that had always preferred to look back to the past rather than forward into the future for inspiration. And how do they fare?

Judging by contemporary reviews, not too good: most critics viewed Special One as a serious disappointment, bombarding it with one bad rap after another, and as I am quickly browsing through the various assessments, I find myself a little stumped, because, as far as my ears tell me, the worst thing that can be deduced about Special One is that there is nothing particularly special about it — and that might be a good thing, too, since we don't really want Cheap Trick to be in­fluenced by Radiohead or the Beastie Boys or Godspeed You! Black Emperor; we just want them to turn out juicy, crunchy, reliable, old-fashioned power pop if they still can. And that is pre­cisely what they do here, for forty-six minutes.

Make just one little amendment: we want power-pop with just a few subtle deviations from a narrow formula every now and then, so that we can slap a «creativity» label on the record, and in that regard, Special One does deliver. There's electric pop and there's acoustic pop; there's faster and slower tunes (maybe with a little too much emphasis on slow); there are tinges of psychedelia, there are violations of the classic pop structure, there's some humor, and there are no power bal­lads whatsoever. Throw in decent production standards and the fact that all the band members are still in good shape (Zander's roar is as roar-ish as it ever roared), and what else do you want?

What I believe is that few reviewers ever really made it past the opening track. ʽScent Of A Womanʼ is not the worst Cheap Trick song ever written, but it takes its subject way too seriously, and it does make Zander sound a bit like Roger Daltrey, as suggested by some of the reviewers, only while singing lyrics that were sure as hell not written by Pete Townshend: "A man don't add up to much next to a woman / A man can't ever forget the taste of a woman" — silly and gross, especially when it is sung without the least bit of irony in the singer's voice. You'd think these words and that exuberance would fit in just all right on any of their pompous glam-Eighties albums, but now it is not clear what they are doing at all in the middle of a perfectly valid power pop track, other than prove that when Cheap Trick are committed to show themselves as old-fashioned, they go all the way, warts and all.

Really, though, Special One is much more than just ʽScent Of A Womanʼ. The acoustic-based tracks, for one thing, are quite lovely — and, for that matter, Cheap Trick are rarely ever remem­bered for the beauty of their acoustic melodies. But the title track has an excellent slide lick cut­ting across its gentle stomp, and the song has an aura of gallant delicacy, rather than blunt crude­ness of the past; and ʽWordsʼ is arguably the best imitation of Lennon's balladry style that they had managed to turn out at that point.

On the noisy rocking front, ʽPop Droneʼ, ʽSorry Boyʼ, and ʽBest Friendʼ all qualify, but pay special attention to ʽBest Friendʼ — foregoing the verse/chorus structure, this song gradually un­furls as a nasty egotistic paranoid crescendo, vocals and instruments going hand in hand, until, for the last two minutes, it simply becomes a hail of grinning "yeah yeah yeah"'s and Zander's hys­terical screams of "leave me alone, I'm my best friend!". If you let yourself caught up in this, it's one hell of a way to disperse frustration, and as for the lyrics, even if they give the impression of being largely improvised on the spot ("I can't slow down cuz down we'll go / Where I step you don't wanna know"), they do generate an atmosphere of mean, sickly craziness of a thoroughly confused and pissed-off mind, which seems so welcome in 2016. And although some probably find the slow, murky, distortion-drenched progression of ʽSorry Boyʼ a disappointing example of alt-rock influence on the boys, I hear echoes of genuine ruthless cruelty (of course, in a thorough­ly ironic presentation) in the song and think that it passes the basic quality test.

The funniest, if not necessarily the best, is saved for last: nobody ever pays any attention to ʽLow Life In High Heels / Hummerʼ, probably brushing it away as a 7-minute long musical joke that overstays its welcome to the point of aural cruelty, but I love it. It's one of those ʽWhy Don't We Do It In The Road?ʼ thing throwaways, where the success/failure of the joke crucially depends on the quality of its underlying groove, but this here groove is flawless — the band tightens itself up to AC/DC level and somehow makes the repetitiveness of Zander's ʽhmm-hmmʼ seem cool all the way. Along which way Nielsen hits upon quite a few extra cool riffs (the six-note pattern which he runs through four different octaves is priceless!), and Cheap Trick's rhythm section earns an extra star for making even a dead man tap his toes. It might be the silliest thing they ever did in their career up to that point — but it's actually surprising that it took them so long to get around to it, considering that the Beatles always were their main idols, and the Beatles were always game for some delightful silliness.

Probably a few of the songs still qualify as filler, and probably none of the good songs are on top level when it comes to sharpness, poignancy, relevancy, and depth for these guys; and maybe this is not quite up to the level of middle-age maturity that they displayed on the 1997 album. But it should, by all means, qualify as a solid, thoughtful entry into the catalog, and for what it's worth, I actually like it more than the somewhat overrated Rockford, so thumbs up it is.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The City: Now That's Everything Been Said

THE CITY: NOW THAT EVERYTHING'S BEEN SAID (1968)

1) Snow Queen; 2) I Wasn't Born To Follow; 3) Now That Everything's Been Said; 4) Paradise Alley; 5) A Man Without A Dream; 6) Victim Of Circumstance; 7) Why Are You Leaving; 8) Lady; 9) My Sweet Home; 10) I Don't Believe It; 11) Hi-De-Ho; 12) All My Time.

To round things out with Carole King, it is more than appropriate to include a mention of this record in her section — because it is only a pure technical formality, actually, that prevents one from including this, the first and last ever album of «The City», as the first entry in her regular discography. Indeed, before she went completely solo with Writer, there was this rather curious attempt, perhaps driven on by humility and shyness, to pass as just a piano-playing and singing member of a rock trio, with future husband Charles Larkey on bass and Danny Kortchmar on guitar. (Incidentally, the guest drummer here is Jim Gordon, of future Derek & The Dominos fame, though he hardly gets to swing and shine as efficiently here as he would there).

Actually, the only significant difference between Now That Everything's Been Said and Writer is that Danny gets to sing a couple of the songs — other than that, the sound is pretty much iden­tical, and all the songwriting comes from Carole and her lyrical co-writers: mostly Goffin, but also Toni Stern and David Palmer, all of whom would contribute words for Carole's music in the future as well. Importantly, this is where you will find Carole's first recorded versions of ʽSnow Queenʼ, ʽWasn't Born To Followʼ (already done by The Byrds), and ʽHi-De-Hoʼ (soon to be appropriated by Blood, Sweat & Tears); but even more importantly, this is the only place where you will find a small bunch of quite exquisite King originals that cannot be found anywhere else, and each of which is worth far more than any complete post-1982 Carole King album.

One is ʽParadise Alleyʼ, a simple-innocent pop rocker with an intricate arrangement of vocal overdubs in the chorus — from a time when heart-tugging moves came to the lady's imagination more naturally than earthquakes come to the Ring of Fire. Another is ʽWhy Are You Leavingʼ, with equally poignant vocal work on the chorus (the task is to sing the line "why are you lea­ving?" in as many different ways as possible, and it is accomplished). And still another great vocal move is found on the closing ʽAll My Timeʼ, where she plays around with her own echo: few people can just take a single line like "all my time, all my time belongs to you" and make it sound like an inspiring religious mantra, but this is exactly what is happening here, with a little help from that echo, of course.

That said, none of these songs is great from top to bottom: mostly we are dealing with a beautiful idea enclosed in a merely-okay setting. Although the record was already produced by Lou Adler, which means that the overall sound is tasteful and pleasant, Carole does act fairly shy, and there are no tracks where she and her piano would be in primary focus — most of the time, the «ca­mera» tries to put her in the context of her musician friends, yet the musician friends, too, try to keep it humble in order to give the piano lady her due, and so in the end it all comes down to a set of «after you, sir»'s and «after you, Ma'm»'s that is not highly satisfactory. In addition, what with Carole's writing style being so personal, it simply made no sense in the first place to not behave as a full-fledged solo artist, and I guess the public must have sensed that, too — «The City» never really managed to get decent publicity or to sell a significant amount of records. Heck, it even took more than thirty years to get it released on CD, and good luck trying to find a physical copy these days: if it weren't for the digital era, Now That's Everything Been Said would simply be forgotten. As it is, hopefully we will still remember it as a timid, but important first step in King's self-realization, and treasure it lightly for its share of proverbially heart-warming, oh-so-Carole King moments, so a thumbs up all the same.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Cake: A Slice Of Cake

THE CAKE: A SLICE OF CAKE (1968)

1) Have You Heard The News 'Bout Miss Molly; 2) P. T. 280; 3) Sadie; 4) Tides Of Love; 5) Walkin' The Dog / Something's Got A Hold On Me / Big Boy Pete; 6) Extroverted Introvert; 7) Under The Tree Of Love And Laughter; 8) Annabelle Clarke; 9) Who Will Wear The Crown; 10) Island Of Plenty.

Cake's second and last album was even shorter than the first — just ten tracks, clocking in at around 26 minutes — but it also was a big step forward for the group, and certainly makes you wonder what the future could have in store for them if the record had at least a little bit of com­mercial success. Here, the seeds that were sown with the three-song «medieval suite» of The Cake optimistically spring up with a whole series of such compositions, as the ladies write more than half of the songs on their own and significantly cut down on the Phil Spector / Motown as­pects of the debut — and the results are almost surprisingly astonishing. (I write almost, because in this age we seem to be finally accustomed to the idea that women even in the Sixties could be accomplished songwriters; the element of surprise rather concerns Decca executives, all of them probably male, who allowed Jacobs, Morillo, and Barooshian to record and release their own stuff. Now that's thinking progressively!).

Baroque, psychedelic, and even Kinks-style Brit-pop influences are all over this platter, as the girls weave a fully credible, if not tremendously original, musical tapestry of isolation, melan­cholia, and claustrophobic amorousness. Like many other artists at the time, they often prefer the detached role of a Greek chorus onlooker — even the song titles, preferring to refer to ʽMiss Mollyʼ and ʽAnnabelle Clarkeʼ rather than ʽIʼ, indicate that, and it gives the songs an aura of extra depth and wisdom; more importantly, they are simply fine songs. ʽMiss Mollyʼ, woven out of acoustic guitars, harpsichords, clarinets, chamber strings, and intricate relations between lead and backing vocals, goes through several tempo shifts and several personal stories — all it lacks is a particularly heart-tugging hook, but even in the absence of that the whole thing just oozes class and distinction on a general level. ʽAnnabelle Clarkeʼ, on the other hand, is a little less interesting in terms of atmosphere, but goes for that hook with gusto — "Annabelle Clarke has learned to live life better" cuts across almost as sharp as "what a drag it is getting old" or "he's a dedicated follower of fashion".

Probably the most unusual tune of them all is ʽExtroverted Introvertʼ, preserving the group har­mony principle but also multiplying it with a wild samba beat, baroque string flourishes, and a poppy vocal melody at the same time — a crazyass combination that somehow works, creating an atmosphere of amicable madness and, for that matter, fully corresponding with its musical weird­ness to the paradox expressed in the title. But that is not to undermine the coolness of the nearly accappella ʽUnder The Tree Of Love And Laughterʼ, a tune that sounds far more grim and de­pressing than the title suggests; or the psychedelic swoop of ʽP. T. 280ʼ, switching between tight rhythmic pop and atmospheric folk sections and throwing every instrument they could lay their hand on in the studio into the mix; or ʽIsland Of Plentyʼ, ending the record on a touchingly opti­mistic note that can probably be traced all the way back to oldies like ʽBig Rock Candy Moun­tainʼ, only here its burly country roots are all overgrown with psycho-baroque weeds.

Even the few R&B leftovers are fun — the big medley in the middle is, for some reason, intro­duced with a few out-of-tune bars of ʽThe Wedding Marchʼ, and then they tie three different tunes to the same rhythmic pattern, as if subtly mocking the genre that got them started; and Dr. John's ʽWho Will Wear The Crownʼ is a good energy ball to explode in the middle of all that baroque mopeyness, just as it begins getting a bit too mopey-ish. This is precisely the kind of pro­portion that was needed on the first album — except it was reversed there, downplaying the girls' strengths in favor of their ordinariness. A Slice Of Cake, on the other hand, does it precisely right, and ends up as a charming way to spend 26 minutes of your Sixties-lovin' time, and a good reason for an enthusiastic thumbs up. Sure, it wasn't that big a crime to have it overlooked in mid-1968, when masterpieces sprung out of nowhere on an almost daily basis — but in our modern era of «anything goes», it certainly makes more sense to dig it out, dust it off, and give it a fair reappraisal rather than go on a hunt for those present day artists who try to make it sound like 1968 all over again without having a clue of what it was actually like in 1968.

Alas, once the record was done, the girls pretty immediately vanished into total obscurity — for a little while more, their heads still occasionally bobbed above the water, either backing up Dr. John on his tours or even working, of all people, with Ginger Baker's Air Force (hey, I told you they were special, didn't I?), but, unfortunately, the lack of recognition just ended up killing off any songwriting ambitions that Jacobs, Morello, and Barooshian may have had. Too bad — with a little more perseverance and a little luck, they could have had quite a progressive future waiting for them, but I guess you can't have your Cake and eat it too. (Sorry, couldn't resist).

Monday, November 21, 2016

Cher: It's A Man's World

CHER: IT'S A MAN'S WORLD (1995)

1) Walking In Memphis; 2) Not Enough Love In The World; 3) One By One; 4) I Wouldn't Treat A Dog (The Way You Treated Me); 5) Angels Running; 6) Paradise Is Here; 7) I'm Blowin' Away; 8) Don't Come Around Tonite; 9) What About The Moonlight; 10) The Same Mistake; 11) The Gunman; 12) The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore; 13) Shape Of Things To Come; 14) It's A Man's Man's Man's World.

Stuck in between Cher's two triumphant eras (the ʽIf I Could Turn Back Time /And Bring The Fishnet Look Into The Sixties/ʼ one and the ʽI Believe /In Plastic Surgery/ʼ one), It's A Man's World is kind of an odd record, largely overlooked and forgotten, but not without its own special twist. By the mid-Nineties, glam-pop was dead and gone, so trying to release a follow-up to Love Hurts would have made no sense; however, latching on to some new fashionable direction did not seem to be an easy task, and was made even harder by a personal crisis she was going through at the time (diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, among other things). Going the alt-rock route would not be natural, yet neither would be turning into Celine Dion (what with Cher still sticking to a few crumbs of «rock authenticity» that she had always had in her).

In the end, signing up with Warner Bros. for this record, she went for a «soulful» approach: It's A Man's World kind of walks the line between neo-soul, neo-country, modern R&B and adult con­temporary. I know, I know — sounds awful, right? Well, this is definitely no masterpiece: for starters, most of the songs are slow, lazy on the hooks, conventional in terms of arrangement, and there's fourteen of them, meaning that the record drags on for over an hour, when the typical length for a Cher record used to be 35-40 minutes. Add to this the usual reliance on corporate songwriters (though, fortunately, her love affair with Diane Warren, Desmond Child, Michael Bolton, and Bon Jovi has come to an end) and the unusually somber / introspective mood on many of the tracks (not the best emotional setting for Cher), and it is easy to see why the album was both a commercial and critical letdown at the time.

On the other hand, revisiting it in retrospect shows quite definitively that it is at least an attempt to make something serious — not merely a conveyer-produced glossy pattern like «The Trilogy», but a collection of songs somehow reflecting Cher's own state of mind at the time. Even the title, as well as the decision to cover the respective James Brown chestnut, reflects that, as she said something about the wish to sing a bunch of «men's songs» from a woman's standpoint. Granted, portraying herself as Eve on the front sleeve, snake-clad and ready to tempt her man with the big red one, is not necessarily as «self-empowering» an image as one might think, but then again, you never can tell with feminist / anti-feminist standpoints (was Eve the first «self-asserting woman» or the first «dumb bitch» in existence? Or both?...). Anyway, on the whole It's A Man's World is not an emphatic feminist statement — just a collection of pensive, occasionally intriguing, but usually rather languid and dull songs about... uh... relationships.

The first song already illustrates all that is good and bad about the record — Cher's take on Marc Cohn's ʽWalking In Memphisʼ stays fairly close to the original, retaining its Roy Bittan-ish key­board melody and glossy production, and although the intention is good (a sincere tribute to the «Memphis feel» is always welcome), the realisation hardly ever makes it come across as some­thing special. The line about "he said, ʽTell me, are you a Christian?ʼ, and I said, ʽMan, I am tonight!ʼ" certainly does not have that special appeal for Cher that it has for the Jewish heritage of Marc Cohn, but she delivers it with all the strength she can gather, and the desire to churn up a rootsy-spiritual aura is clearly felt — too bad that she and her backing band did nothing to actual­ly make the music ring out with at least a bit of that good old Memphis vibe.

The second single from the album, and the only one that charted, was ʽOne By Oneʼ — not sur­prisingly, since it is one of the few songs here that would have fit in with the upbeat glam formula of the previous three records. Originally written by Antony Griffiths of The Real People and recorded by Eurovision hero Johnny Logan... okay, it's not really a musical horror: it's actually fun when it gets to the chorus, and it's also fun to see Cher aim for these falsetto notes in the verse while at the same time going for her bottom range on the chorus. She also does okay turning blues-rock into dance-pop (ʽI Wouldn't Treat A Dogʼ), and even some of the slower ballads have special touches of moodiness (ʽThe Gunmanʼ, with a mildly threatening funky guitar line), but in the end, there is only one song here that I would be taking home with me — ʽShape Of Things To Comeʼ, nothing to do with the old Mann/Weil classic, but rather an entirely new composition by none other than the Buggles' Trevor Horn and 10cc's Lol Creme.

That number is actually a mini-masterpiece of moodiness — fast, tense, paranoid, literate, and ambiguous (you can't even lay a definitive claim to the song being all about man-woman rela­tionships — after all, no song whose hookline is based on the phrase "shape of things to come" can be centered exclusively around personal stuff). There was nothing like this on any part of The Glam Trilogy, and there would never be again — in musical and atmospheric terms, it is arguably the best thing to come out of the Cher camp in the past thirty years. And then she follows it up with a really good reading of the James Brown track — this time, adding in some extra layers of tragedy, with a rip-roaring guitar break and a hushed, husky coda that turns the tables radically against the song's protagonist: "He's lost in the wilderness... he's lost in the bitterness".

Ultimately, my rating shifted from a thumbs down to neutral as I was writing this review. Trim some obvious filler, replace some of the drum machines with normal drumming, get her a good guitar player, speed up one or two tempos, and it might be real close to a thumbs up — and, as it usually happens with Cher, this is precisely the album that nobody rushed out to buy, because no­body wants a Cher that's getting too serious for her britches: everybody just wants the glitzy pop diva of ʽTake Me Homeʼ and ʽIf I Could Turn Back Timeʼ. Three years later, she'd give them what they wanted, but this one, it seems, was made more for herself, and, fortunately, it still shows after all these years.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Rolling Stones: December's Children (And Everybody's)

THE ROLLING STONES: DECEMBER'S CHILDREN (AND EVERYBODY'S) (1965)

1) She Said Yeah; 2) Talkin' About You; 3) You Better Move On; 4) Look What You've Done; 5) The Singer Not The Song; 6) Route '66 (live); 7) Get Off Of My Cloud; 8) I'm Free; 9) As Tears Go By; 10) Gotta Get Away; 11) Blue Turns To Grey; 12) I'm Moving On (live).

Even a mediocre Rolling Stones album from 1965 is still more impressive than 90% of the com­petition; but only a religious fanatic would probably refuse to admit that this was the first time when the American market strategy finally backfired. The obligatory demand for a «little extra» for the Christmas season (so that every loving parent can go out there and buy the kid a brand new record from the filthiest guys in the business) made Decca cobble together this package, assembled from (a) leftovers from the UK edition of Out Of Our Heads (including the sleeve photo), (b) leftover A- and B-sides from 1965; (c) a couple of exclusive American-only tracks; (d) excerpts from EPs going all the way back to 1964 (ʽYou Better Move Onʼ).

In short, this one does not even pretend to be anything other than a total mess, and it is no sur­prise that, despite the presence of a few classics and minor gems, it also features some of the weakest Stones material from their formative period. I am talking primarily of their forays into folk- and baroque-pop with songs like ʽThe Singer Not The Songʼ and ʽBlue Turns To Greyʼ, nei­ther of which has ever sounded convincing to my ears. This is basically the Stones intruding into Beatles territory, where, without a George Martin to guide them and without either Lennon's or McCartney's gift of soul-to-melody conversion, they blunder — Jagger's "everywhere you want, I always go..." almost echoes Lennon's "you know you made me cry...", but with an aura of timid stiffness that gives them away for the struggling disciples that they are. ʽBlue Turns To Greyʼ re­veals a higher level of craft — the way they merge together the verse and the chorus by making their last and first lines overlap is certainly admirable — but, again, the song is seriously under­mined by Mick's performance (he doesn't really get to play any of his favorite characters and just walks his way, uncomfortably, through the tune), not to mention that "and you know that you must find her, find her..." disappointingly leaves the chorus without a proper resolution.

I wish I could say that ʽAs Tears Go Byʼ, the band's alleged «answer» to the success of ʽYester­dayʼ (though in reality the song was written about a year earlier), is definite proof that they were capable of brilliance in that genre — but the truth is, I have never been overtly fond of Mick handling the vocals on that one, either. It is really a lovely baroque-pop ballad, but it is just so totally «anti-Stones»: for Mick Jagger, to convey the impression of a grief-stroken broken heart without even a pinch of anger, rage, jealousy, paranoia, etc., thrown in just does not cut it. This was a perfect tune to donate to Marianne Faithfull, who in those years was the ideal com­plement to Mick Jagger in all these terms — nowhere near as versatile or unique as a performer, she was at least a natural when it came to broken hearts, whereas Mick never was. A song like ʽTell Me (You're Coming Back To Me)ʼ works because its protagonist is essentially having a nervous breakdown, raging at the idea that somebody could have had the gall to leave him; ʽAs Tears Go Byʼ does not work because I do not feel the sincerity of those pangs of grief. (For the record, one of the corniest things ever was the performance of this song as a duet between Mick and Taylor Swift on their 2013 tour — Ms. Swift may share certain visual similarities with a 19-year old Marianne Faithfull, but she sounds about as believable doing this song as Mick).

Cutting it short, December's Children is just way too heavy on novice-level sentimental ballads to qualify as a truly great Stones album, and the addition of B/C-grade tunes such as ʽYou Better Move Onʼ (the band's early cover of a great Arthur Alexander song that should have been left to Arthur Alexander — again, the Beatles did a much better job with Arthur on their cover of ʽAnnaʼ) and ʽGotta Get Awayʼ (a clumsily written folk-rocker whose chorus line seems quite poorly screwed on to the verse melody) does not exactly help out, either.

Fortunately, there's still enough excellent stuff here to save the final product from a poor rating. For starters, Larry Williams' ʽShe Said Yeahʼ is a high-speed, high-testosterone-level, loud and brash explosion of rock'n'roll energy that, in all of its 1:30 glory, pretty much presages the ideo­logy of the Ra­mones (all it needs is some chainsaw buzz to complete the picture). The two live performances from the Got Live! EP are early live Stones at their best — ʽRoute '66ʼ is just a worthy live supplement to the studio version (gotta love the audience going wild at the beginning of Richards' guitar break!), but the reinvention of Hank Snow's country standard ʽI'm Moving Onʼ as a growling hard rock monster should probably have its little spot reserved somewhere out there in the extensive history of heavy metal — if only for Wyman's funky fuzz bass that opens and dominates the tune and sounds one hundred percent like a certified Lemmy bassline in some Hawkwind or Motörhead classic. However, you will never find Lemmy basslines combine with such a style of slide guitar playing as done by Brian on this one, so all the more reason to ping that little spot for the uniqueness parameter. I'm not even sure of what they're all doing in the coda: is that Brian sliding away as Richards bangs out distorted power chords, or is it all Brian? Whatever, that's some shitload of a sonic ruckus they get going on there, enough to bring the teenage crowd to total ecstasy if they weren't already in total ecstasy before the show started.

And then, of course, no Rolling Stones album that has ʽGet Off Of My Cloudʼ on it can get a bad rating — or ʽI'm Freeʼ, for that matter, which is not nearly as good a song, but works in perfect tandem with it, with two anthemic declarations of personal freedom that initiate the Rolling Stones' long story of conflict with The System. These days, some of us might find ourselves sympathizing with the poor neighbors driven out of bed by rock'n'roll hooligans making noise at 3A.M., or, hell, even with the cops dutifully sticking parking tickets on the window screen of the not-so-law-abiding citizen — but we'd still be enjoying the steady left-right, left-right, left-right roll of the song's riff and the ring-echo, ring-echo lilt of the chorus' vocals. And while the proto-rap-style verses clearly reveal some Dylan influence, the basic ring of them is very British, very naughty, very Stonesy, and just a little bit stoned, too, though all these indirect hints like "imagi­ning the world has stopped" might be easily ignored if you just want to see the song as a big fuck you to the system, rather than the first step towards legalize.

So, ultimately, there is no way that December's Children is not getting a thumbs up — the least excited one as far as the first five albums are concerned, though, and if you have all the good stuff on compilations, having the LP / CD occupy a place of honor on your shelves just for the sake of owning a physical encapsulation of ʽThe Singer Not The Songʼ may not be the most rational idea in the world. Considering the giant leap forward that was only months away, this is pretty much the equivalent of barrel-scraping — on the other hand, it might seem like a prudent move to have your barrel bottom thoroughly scraped before sending it to recycling and rolling out a new one. (It would take another decade and the release of Metamorphosis, though, to let the world know how much residue they left around the edges anyway).