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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Cactus: Black Dawn

CACTUS: BLACK DAWN (2016)

1) Black Dawn; 2) Mama Bring It Home; 3) Dynamite; 4) Juggernaut; 5) Headed For A Fall; 6) You Need Love; 7) The Last Goodbye; 8) Walk A Mile; 9) Another Way Or Another; 10) C-70 Blues.

SET FIRE TO THE NIGHT! BRING ON THE BLACK DAWN! SET FIRE TO THE NIGHT! BRING ON THE BLACK DAWN! Hmm, not a bad message for the last day of 2016. The song's lyrical message mostly has to do with ecology, but it does not take a great leap of imagination to give it an overall apocalyptic interpretation — ecology, economy, politics, whatever — and with that opening near-thrash metal riff, this is one heck of an apocalyptic tune, far heavier than any­thing on Cactus V or, for that matter, pretty much anything this band ever put out in its prime. Simple, brutal, tense, melodic, and catchy, it's, like, the perfect song to summarize 2016, and the only question is: how come it had to take a band like Cactus, of all people, to bring it out?

Particularly since I was hasty enough to thank this new line-up for staying away from the studio — which they did for ten years, but the temptation to say something new must have been too hard, and here they are again, with the notable exclusion of Tim Bogert, still present on two of the tracks but essentially replaced by new bass player Pete Bremy, who currently performs the honors for both the resuscitated Cactus and Vanilla Fudge. In situations like these, you can never really guess the odds, but there is always a higher-than-zero chance that the musical revenant will hit upon something vital, and Black Dawn at least makes sure to correct certain mistakes that were committed with their previous comeback effort. Namely, it is shorter, which always helps with one-trick ponies like Cactus; it is heavier, which always helps with brawny bastards like Cactus; and it is more riff-centered, which always helps with anybody in the hard rock business.

That still does not make it any sort of masterpiece, but throw in some fast tempos (the band really sounds on a high energy kick here) to complete the picture and somehow, defying all expecta­tions, this 21st century Cactus ends up with their best studio album ever — in forty-six years, that is. No other track has the same level of intensity as ʽBlack Dawnʼ, probably the first and last Cactus song that I might actually be tempted to take seriously, but ʽHeaded For A Fallʼ is a fast-going, fun-loving romp, sewing on a poppier chorus to a riff that feels like a variation on AC/DC's ʽWhole Lotta Rosieʼ; ʽYou Need Loveʼ honors the legacy of Rod Stewart's ʽYou're My Girlʼ, with similar stuttering exciting interplay between the guitars and the drums; and ʽMama Bring It On Homeʼ is an exercise in copping the precision and tightness of the New Wave of Heavy Metal-era bands like Judas Priest, though McCarty still cannot resist the temptation of drowning everything in excessive thick distortion.

The slower, bluesier tracks are predictably less impressive, although ʽC-70 Bluesʼ is probably as close as they come to recapturing the absurdly feedback-choked sonic textures of their early slow blues — completely impossible to distinguish, in fact, from the way they used to play in 1970, right down to the most minute details of the drum patterns. The acoustic guitars are brought out only once (ʽAnother Way Or Anotherʼ) as an element of contrast to the aggressive wah-wah guitar; and the album's other instrumental piece, ʽThe Last Goodbyeʼ, is a life-threatening blues jam that takes the Beatles' ʽI Want Youʼ as a reference model, with similar doom-laden descen­ding chord sequences and hell-borne hystrionic solos on top — slow, but still fun.

All in all, Black Dawn seems to succeed where its predecessor failed; and it does so, first and foremost, because Cactus have no high standards to match — where something like Black Sab­bath's 13 sounds like such a tremendous disappointment because it aims at bringing back the magic of 1970 and fails, Cactus had no «magic» to begin with, and it is far easier for them not only to bring back the atmosphwere of their 1970, but even to top it, provided they show some discipline and capitalize on their strongest points. And they do. And, as the title track shows, they clearly have a bone to pick with society today, and it helps, too: at least in the studio, they never really used to sound as pissed off as they do on some of the tracks here. Not that this signals a rebirth for classic hard rock or anything (I've long given up believing in «rebirths» anyway), but it is a good hard rock record, the likes of which in 2016 you can only encounter among living fossils like these. Thumbs up.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Anathema: Hindsight

ANATHEMA: HINDSIGHT (2008)

1) Fragile Dreams; 2) Leave No Trace; 3) Inner Silence; 4) One Last Goodbye; 5) Are You There?; 6) Angelica; 7) A Natural Disaster; 8) Temporary Peace; 9) Flying; 10) Unchained (Tales Of The Unexpected).

After the release of A Natural Disaster, Anathema took a long break from releasing new LPs, but this seems to have been largely caused by technical reasons — such as the closing down of their record label, Music For Nations, upon which they found it hard to negotiate another contract, seeing as how their albums had always had only a minor cult following, and even all that gloomy Floyd/Radiohead vibe did not manage to attract a sufficient number of Thom Yorke devotees. (Should have known better than to establish their initial reputation as a death metal band — it's like a porn actor's struggle to start a new life in mainstream cinema). They even had to resort to Internet publishing at one time, recording and promoting occasional songs on a minor basis, but eventually managed to capture the attention of Kscope, a small label originally established by Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree and largely used to promote «neo-prog» artists, a role for which the new weep-and-moan-based Anathema fully qualified.

Their first project for the new label was, however, quite tentative: a compilation of re-recorded older «classics» in de-electrified versions — acoustic guitars, pianos, strings (including heavy participation of the band's friend Dave Wesling on cello). A symbolic move on their part, it was clearly supposed to confirm and strengthen their conversion to symph-prog values, focusing all our attention on the Ethereal Beauty of the world-weary melodies instead of the power roar of the metal guitars — sure it was highly restricted on the past two or three records already, but this is the first time that they have completely eliminated anything that could even vaguely remind us of their metallic past. Here, you are simply expected to sit back, relax, wallow in the sorrow, and appreciate them for the tragic romantic melodicists that they are.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that the elimination of electric distortion has resulted in making their songs better or worse, with one exception — I am fairly certain that I would have thought much less of ʽFragile Dreamsʼ, had I first heard it in this toothless arrangement. Wesling captures the spirit of the original riff just fine on his cello, but it was the power onslaught of guitars and drums that truly made it work, and this pensive, indecisive reimagination of the theme just guts it out: when we begin working in «piano trio» mode or something like that, you expect far more depth and melodic complexity, and that is hardly Anathema's forte.

Everything else, despite all the rearrangement work, is just about as good or bad as its former electric counterparts — I cannot say that Wesling's cello or anything else brings out any particu­larly subtle / hidden nuances in the tracks. Actually, it is puzzling why they decided to concen­trate on relatively recent material from the past two albums, what with its being «soft» in the first place: this version of ʽA Natural Disasterʼ, for instance, is practically indistinguishable from the original, and the fact that ʽAre You There?ʼ now has a prominent acoustic guitar part replacing cloudy synthesizers changes nothing about the basic emotional perception of the ballad. It would have been far more fun if they'd returned all the way back to Serenades, and offered us some recreations of their heaviest melodies — but the earliest reinvented song here is ʽAngelicaʼ from Eternity, which already heralded their transformation.

As is usual in such cases, the album does feature exactly one new song, to give a bit of an incen­tive for veteran fans — ʽUnchainedʼ is another acoustic guitar / piano / cello ballad with an over­all pretty sound, but hardly worth getting particularly excited about. And speaking in general, I am not really disappointed, because everything is executed in Anathema's usual good taste. Clever mixing, giving each instrument its own voice; restrained, pleasant lead vocals with a touch of nobility and no signs of crude emotional manipulation; excellent string parts — all in all, this is yet another high-quality mood soundtrack to that never ending funeral party. It's just that, plugged or unplugged, Anathema have always been and will probably forever be a band that is way too trapped by formula and way too unencumbered by artistic imagination.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Camper Van Beethoven: Telephone Free Landslide Victory

CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: TELEPHONE FREE LANDSLIDE VICTORY (1985)

1) The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon; 2) Border Ska; 3) Wasted; 4) Yanqui Go Home; 5) Oh No!; 6) Nine Of Disks; 7) Payed Vacation: Greece; 8) Where The Hell Is Bill?; 9*) Wasting All Your Time; 10*) Epigram #5; 11*) At Kuda; 12*) Epigram #2; 13*) Cowboys From Hollywood; 14*) Colonel Enrique Adolfo Bermudez; 15) Vladivostock; 16) Skinhead Stomp; 17) Tina; 18) Take The Skinheads Bowling; 19) Mao Reminisces About His Days In Southern China; 20) I Don't See You; 21) Balalaika Gap; 23) Opi Rides Again; 24) Club Med Sucks; 25) Ambiguity Song.

Those unfortunate (or fortunate) souls whose youth was not spent in Eighties' America would pro­bably, in retrospect, think of «college rock» as represented by either leftist hardcore bands or leftist folk-rock bands (of the more subtle variety, like R.E.M., or of the more straightforward one, like 10,000 Maniacs). As one begins digging a little deeper, though, all sorts of oddities begin to come out — including acts that are fairly hard to categorize, since one of their intentions was to avoid becoming easily pigeonholed, at all costs. And among such acts, few can boast a higher level of oddball-ness than the oddball-some-titled Camper Van Beethoven (originally — Camper Van Beethoven and The Border Patrol), founded by a bunch of eccentric Californians with guitar player and singer David Lowery at the core center.

Unlike the abrasive, avantgarde-influenced young noisemakers dominating the underground, Camper Van Beethoven did not seem to care much about pushing forward musical boundaries (being largely content with however wide they'd already been pushed) or about making their music as basically «inaccessible» and «unlistenable» as possible. With minimal exceptions (only a tiny handful of these tracks experiment with dissonance, e. g. ʽNine Of Disksʼ), all the music on this album is well within certain established traditions — Camper Van Beethoven like various forms of pop, punk, punk-pop, pop-punk, and country-western, though their major love spot is reserved for the venerable musical form of ska (or polka, if you'd rather like an Eastern rather than Western hemisphere analogy, although Campers don't exactly huddle the accordeon).

The ska-based tracks on the band's debut largely seem to function as instrumental interludes — but do not make the mistake of writing them off as insignificant, because if there's anything truly exciting and original about Camper's musical agenda, most of it is concealed in these instrumen­tals. With two guitarists and a talented multi-instrumentalist (Jonathan Segel on violin, mandolin, and various keyboards) involved, they present humorous and inventive twists on just about every musical genre that ends up on the roulette wheel. Beginning fairly innocently with some pop elec­tric guitar on ʽBorder Skaʼ; they follow it up with a country twist on ʽYanqui Go Homeʼ; go Near Eastern on ʽAt Kudaʼ; zip into Mexico for ʽColonel Enrique Adolfo Bermudezʼ (there are some spoken vocals on that one, but it falls in the same ska-based category); try to summon a Russian vibe — in my opinion, somewhat unsuccessfully — on ʽVladivostockʼ; later try to do it again, with slightly more satisfactory results, on ʽBalalaika Gapʼ (that's a mandolin, though, hardly an authentic balalaika); and reach an absolute climactic peak on ʽMao Reminisces About His Days In Southern Chinaʼ — a less smart band would probably just slap a title like this onto any random piece of improvised shit, but the Campers actually make an effort to play a doubled guitar/violin melody that is reminiscent of a Chinese folk melody. It's catchy, it's funny, and, strangest of all, it is actually touching in some way — I'm still trying to figure out why, though.

It would be very easy to just write off this «jamaicaization» of various music genres as a cheap gimmick, and I cannot, in fact, exclude that, given the band's general penchant for satire and irony, all of this was essentially performed as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the «world music» scene that was shaping up in the mid-Eighties. But there's too much thought and genuine feeling behind it all to reduce all the spectrum to just humor and parody — you might as well say that the band breathes new life in these clichéd old genres by grafting them onto an ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ kind of stock. And although there is not a lot of complexity involved, the performances are sur­prisingly diligent and well-rehearsed: these guys took the DIY ethics seriously — if you really have to do it yourself, you might as well do it fuckin' good.

In between all the instrumental fun, you have the actual songs — also with a fairly wide range, though not nearly as all-encompassing as the ska bits. As could be expected, most of these are written in an absurdist paradigm, but not a particularly nonsensical or dadaist one: this is an Ame­rican band, and the situations they invent are more Saturday Night Live than Monty Python, be it Lassie's self-sacrificing journey to outer space (ʽThe Day That Lassie Went To The Moonʼ), the brainless spasms of youth rebellion (ʽClub Med Sucksʼ), or lazy indignation at the absence of a band member for the rehearsals (ʽWhere The Hell Is Bill?ʼ, referring to the original drummer Bill McDonald, who actually left way before these sessions even started — "maybe he went to see The Circle Jerks!"). Musically, they sound strangely more rugged and amateurish than the ska pieces — almost as if this were a completely different band playing at times — but no less odd, particularly when they cover Black Flag's fifty-second hardcore classic ʽWastedʼ as a slow roots-rock number with a prominent fiddle part; and the best of these tunes also happen to be insanely catchy and even uplifting — ʽTake The Skinheads Bowlingʼ is rightfully considered a classic not because it deals with skinheads, but because it is a terrific piece of jangle-pop, and once again, Segel's violin work is highly commendable.

Things are neatly tied together with the closing number, ʽAmbiguity Songʼ, something that would not sound out of place at your local hoedown, but whose main point is to deliver, in condensed form, the main message of the entire album: "Everything seems to be up in the air at this time / One day soon, it'll all settle down / But everything seems to be up in the air at this time" — deli­vered in an ever so slightly worried, but ultimately calm and ironic fashion. All the more ironic, that is, considering how it was all baked way back in 1985, yet still seems so relevant at the end of the distantly futuristic 2016: the album sounds every bit as charming now as it did back then, and I am absurdly happy to render a well-deserved thumbs up verdict.

(Technical note: the 24-track CD issue of the album is actually much longer than the original due to the insertion in its middle of the entire contents of the contemporary EP Take The Skinheads Bowling, including an early version of the classic ʽCowboys From Hollywoodʼ. Another tech­nical note is that the album itself was supposed to be named Telephone Tree Landslide Victory, but apparently the label guys messed up and got Free instead of Tree — which, in my as well as the band's opinion, actually improves on the original proposition.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Candi Staton: Young Hearts Run Free

CANDI STATON: YOUNG HEARTS RUN FREE (1976)

1) Run To Me; 2) Destiny; 3) What A Feeling; 4) You Bet Your Sweet, Sweet Love; 5) Young Hearts Run Free; 6) Living For You; 7) Summer Time With You; 8) I Know.

It is a little unlucky that Candi's big break had to come with the onslaught of the disco era, but at least she got her big break, unlike many less lucky souls — with a little help from producer and professional songwriter David Crawford, who ended up writing almost everything on her second LP for Warner Bros. The shift in tone is abrupt — while, technically, most of the songs here are «proto-disco» rather than proper disco, without the diagnostic basslines, Young Hearts Run Free is clearly a club-oriented dance record; and even if, at the time, this shift could be regarded by Candi herself as a fun change of image, in retrospect it joins the large number of similar shifts that ended up completely eroding the artist's personality and making him/her just another faceless face in the exuberant, carefree dance-pop crowd.

Yet, as it also often happens, it was not half bad the first time around. Crawford might be just a commercial hack, but he hacked out plenty of fun hooks for this record — mood-wise, 70% of these songs are interchangeable, yet some of them could stand their ground next to contemporary Bee Gees material. First in line is, of course, the title track, which seems to be pretty much the only thing that people remember about Candi Staton today — I'd much prefer her to be remem­bered by something like ʽI'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheartʼ, but it's hard to fight the appeal of a well-polished proto-disco groove when it is combined with a good vocal hook and a message of youthful optimism rather than bitter pragmaticism. (Actually, the song is pretty bitter — sung from the perspective of an abused wife envying the young people their freedom — but on the instinctive level, the only thing that matters is the anthemic "young hearts!... run free!" slogan).

Next to that one, ʽRun To Meʼ, ʽDestinyʼ, and ʽI Knowʼ sound like weaker clones of the big hit, but the vocal hooks are different enough to simply offer the people more of what they want with­out directly self-plagiarizing oneself. Slower ballads like ʽWhat A Feelingʼ are less exciting, but decently recorded — as is the cover of Al Green's ʽLiving For Youʼ, for which a pleasant bedrock is built out of tonally similar brass lines and slide guitars. The only properly corny song in the lot is ʽSummer Time With Youʼ, where they seem to be intruding on the Europop turf with dubious results (or maybe it's just that Candi tries too hard to be subtle, sensual, and seductive, with too much sexy breathiness — hardly the style of a gospel-bred R&B belter who once used to be a minor competitor for Aretha's crown).

Outside of all context, I would probably pass the record by in the end, but in the framework of her overall life trajectory, Young Hearts Run Free is a bit of a rejuvenating step forward — she may not be too responsible for the songs or the sounds, but Crawford seems to have been working in her interests, and gave her all this energetic, uplifting material to both alleviate her personal prob­lems and get her out of the rut she'd settled into by 1974. And while I can't properly put my fin­ger on it, or explain what it is exactly that makes these party-ready romps a tad more spiritualized than the average run-of-the-mill party-ready romps, I still trust that old intuition and give the record as a whole (not just its title track) a moderate thumbs up.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Captain Beefheart: Mirror Man

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: MIRROR MAN (1971)

1) Tarotplane; 2) Kandy Korn; 3) 25th Century Quaker; 4) Mirror Man; 5*) Trust Us; 6*) Safe As Milk; 7*) Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones; 8*) Moody Liz; 9*) Gimme Dat Harp Boy.

Well, here go the magic words: This is the album that Strictly Personal should have been three years earlier. These are the original tracks that were recorded in late 1967 for Buddah Records and went down together with the band's respect for Buddah Records. Yet for all their displeasure with the results, Buddah executives did not erase the tapes or anything, and after the Captain got all solidified in his status of a living legend, they ultimately went ahead and released some of them in 1971 as Mirror Man; the entire package did not, however, see the light of day until well into the CD age — although bootleg versions probably circulated around, it was only in 1999 that the world got to properly experience the Captain's «original vision» for It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper, this time entitled Mirror Man Sessions and containing enough material for a bona fide double LP.

Not that it comes loaded with a double-LP-quota of great musical ideas, mind you. On the cont­rary, it is the direct opposite of Trout Mask Replica: instead of dozens of short, carefully pre­constructed tunes, Mirror Man consists of a small handful of super-long bluesy jams that act as an arrogant challenge to contemporary Cream and Grateful Dead — ʽTarotplaneʼ alone, opening the album, clocks in at over 19 minutes, and the other three jams from the 1971 record collective­ly occupy another 33 minutes (bonus tracks on the 1999 release are generally shorter). And this is not some kind of over-the-top avantgarde jamming, either: this is relatively standard blues-rock jamming, without any psychedelic overtones. Even Ry Cooder could have joined in the fun, had he not already had his full share of the Captain's antics and left the band in favor of Jeff Cotton.

So why do I find it, despite all these hideous time lengths, every bit as engaging as TMR and maybe even more so? Part of the issue is contextual: after the (largely meaningless) excesses of the Captain's 1969-70 period, almost anything more «normal» sounds like a relief. But another part is that I really, really like whatever it is that Beefheart is doing in this genre — he is for Chicago blues what Bob Dylan was for folk music in 1964, a respectful adept intent on catapul­ting tradition into the future, and here he finds himself untampered with time limitations, free to carry on a particular idea or groove for as long as he thinks necessary, even if occasionally he tends to overthink it. But this kind of modernist shamanism does look more logical when it comes in the form of ritualistic, groove-based improvisation than when it comes in the form of brief chunks of inverted and distorted chord sequences — in other words, I can let myself go and float on the rough, but natural current of Mirror Man, whereas Trout Mask Replica is more of a con­voluted labyrinth where you have to stay alert and watch your step every minute, unless you wanna end up with a bloody nose and stubbed toes in a matter of minutes.

As I already said, the sheer strength of these grooves totally trumps the much less inspired re-recordings on Strictly Personal — not to mention the awful production of the latter, with its poor mixing that somehow manages to downplay the role of every player, and its psychedelic effects that try to amplify the already present weirdness of the tracks but instead detract from it. Here, the bass and the interplay between Cotton's and St. Clair's guitars are perfectly audible, and you can actually groove to the funky sounds of ʽMirror Manʼ rather than just sit there and try to make sense of what is going on. Beefheart himself, with his sandpaper-voice declamations and swamp harmonica playing, is an integral part of the sessions, but there are long periods of time when he almost disappears from sight, letting the musicians carry on without his participation, and so he seems more of a general conductor and overseeing spirit rather than the be-all-end-all motor of the sessions, and that's okay by me, especially on tracks like ʽKandy Kornʼ where there's more of an overall structure to the proceedings, and the musicians alternate between two distinctly dif­ferent melodies (the «bluesy suspense» and the «pop resolution»).

ʽTarotplaneʼ may be harder to tolerate due to the ridiculous length, but it is also the roughest track on the album, closer in spirit to pre-war Son House-style blues rituals than anything else, and there are patches of sensual delight when the straightahead electric guitar, the slide guitar, and the Captain's swampy harmonica weave their magic together. Another track that has no equivalent on Strictly Personal is ʽ25th Century Quakerʼ, compiled around a strange musical figure that is alternately played by the slide guitar and the bass and sounds like an African-Indian hybrid, part time blues riff and part time sitar drone — like one of the great blind bluesmen offered to write a soundtrack for a snake charmer. Call me too conservative (and I wouldn't even deny the charges), but somehow most of these melodic themes seem to make much more sense (and generate much more fun) for me than almost any of the twisted themes on the 1969-70 albums.

I will not pretend that the long jams justify their existence through players exploring all possible corners and branching out in all possible directions — they most certainly do not, and if you have a tendency to be bored by any theme that goes on longer than five minutes, the brevity of TMR will probably have more appeal to you. But when all has been said and done, and when all the praise has been lavished, I stick to the simple statement that behind all the madness, the Captain had always been a great bluesman at heart — and that Mirror Man is the one record in his cata­log where he is more than happy to both acknowledge and deconstruct all the clichés and forma­lities of the genre. In fact, while I have no evidence to properly suggest this, I wouldn't be in the least surprised to learn that it was this chance to reacquaint himself with his own legacy and re­freshen that blues sound in his mind, upon the (unauthorized?) release of Mirror Man in 1971 that ultimately led to the «re-blues-ification» of his music on The Spotlight Kid a year later, and, personally, if that were so, I'd consider that a healthy stimulus. Thumbs up.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Carla Thomas: Gee Whiz

CARLA THOMAS: GEE WHIZ (1961)

1) Gee Whiz; 2) Dance With Me; 3) A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening; 4) Your Love Indeed; 5) Fools Fall In Love; 6) To The Aisle; 7) The Masquerade Is Over; 8) A Love Of My Own; 9) Promises; 10) It Ain't Me; 11) For You; 12) The Love We Shared.

On one hand, this was straightforward nepotism in action: the main reason why we got to hear Carla Thomas' voice is that father Rufus wielded enough influence to promote her as a serious act, first as part of an attractive father/daughter duet, then as a solo performer in her own right. On the other hand, who cares as long as there actually was something serious to promote? Carla had the looks, the voice, the charisma, and even a certain amount of composing talent — at the very least, the song that made her a star was always credited to Carla herself and nobody else.

Not that ʽGee Whizʼ is some sort of outstanding masterpiece, but it helps to contrast it with the other ʽGee Whizʼ, a soft teen-pop number done by The Innocents that very same year — just to remember how passionately wild this Carla Thomas vocal would have sounded back then on the radio, next to the precious china of the vocal harmonies by a bunch of sweet, cuddly white boys. The right word would probably be juicy — she's got that slightly raspy, deep, thick coating on her vocal cords, neither like the blues mamas of the day nor like the jazz crooners, but much more in line with sweet-hot teenage romance, like a blueprint for the soon-to-be typical female voice of Motown or Phil Spector's girl groups (Ronnie Spector is probably the closest one in timbre). Back in 1961, she was probably a unique presence on the Atlantic label — their other performers were either too soft (Barbara Lewis) or too hard (Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker), so there was nobody like Carla to get that teenage blood boiled to the proper temperature.

Throw in some teenage slang (the title of the song), some passionate orchestration for the song's waltzy tempo, and an intentionally seductive tone in every detail, and there's little wonder why ʽGee Whizʼ became such a success. The problem, as always, was with following it up: Carla was immediately set up for a full LP of material that she simply did not have — and so the majority of the tunes here are covers, most of which just sound like ʽGee Whizʼ, but are less interesting, e.g. ʽYour Love Indeedʼ by father Rufus, a very similar waltz but without any prominent lyrical/vocal hooks. She performs everything with honor — the fast-paced cover of The Drifters' ʽFools Fall In Loveʼ is every bit as fun as the original — but the arrangements are generic and monotonous, and even Carla's vocals eventually become a bit grating.

Her own songwriting is further represented on the second side of the album, where it turns out that the girl is actually far more somber than ʽGee Whizʼ would suggest: ʽA Love Of My Ownʼ has her complaining about being unable to score, ʽIt Ain't Meʼ lets us know that even when she does score, she still ends up cheated, and only ʽFor Youʼ reinstates some hope that everything might eventually end up fine (but might also not). None of these songs stray too far away from the Fifties Progression or other clichés of the era, though, so Carla's vocal timbre is pretty much the only reason why they might still be worth a listen. And, as I said, the orchestrated arrange­ments are all typical of the era — the first side ends with an orchestral florish concluding ʽTo The Aisleʼ, and then the second side opens with precisely the same florish for ʽThe Masquerade Is Overʼ, which sounds fairly comical in the digital age when you no longer have the benefit of a slight table-turning pause.

Ultimately, this is skippable — and you can always have ʽGee Whizʼ by itself on the unexpen­dable Atlantic Rhythm'n'Blues compilation — but it does signal the arrival of a substantial talent, and it would be fairly easy for a fool to fall in love with the sound of that lovely voice even if it were made to sing twelve variations on the theme of ʽThe Itsy Bitsy Spiderʼ. Not that the record executives were too happy about nurturing and promoting that talent at first — she did not get her second chance at an LP until four years later, and in the meantime, was occupied by such odd cash-ins as 1963's ʽGee Whiz, It's Christmasʼ (which has nothing whatsoever to do with the original ʽGee Whizʼ, but merely reflects the record industry's treatment of record buyers as trai­nable Pavlov dogs).

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties' Request

THE ROLLING STONES: THEIR SATANIC MAJESTIES' REQUEST (1967)

1) Sing This All Together; 2) Citadel; 3) In Another Land; 4) 2000 Man; 5) Sing This All Together (See What Hap­pens); 6) She's A Rainbow; 7) The Lantern; 8) Gomper; 9) 2000 Light Years From Home; 10) On With The Show.

I always feel uncomfortable about joining in the choir and calling Satanic Majesties' Request the Stones' «weirdest» album. This somehow implies that there are certain things we typically expect of the Stones — and certain things we definitely do not expect of them. But these expec­tations themselves are due to nothing else than the Stones eventually setting themselves in a pre­dictable crea­tive rut with the oncoming of middle age, much like every other artist, and isn't it a bit ridiculous to judge the Rolling Stones of 1967 by the future standards of, say, the Rolling Stones of 1976? In a way, it would almost be weirder if the Rolling Stones did not go psychedelic in 1967, like almost everybody else did at the time, except for a few stubbornly obstinate heroes (Somethin' Else By The Kinks — now there's a truly weird album by that year's standards!). And seeing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in kaftans was, after all, no more weird than seeing Eric Clapton with frizzed hair, or The Hollies wielding sitars and playing with tape effects.

There are two reasons why, when discussing the Golden Age of the Stones (1966-72, and not one year less), one should never make an embarrassing exception for their psychedelic suite. One: even despite all the personal troubles that they had in 1967, Jagger and Richards had only recent­ly reached top songwriting form, and top songwriting form does not go away that easily once it has been reached — even if one finds plenty of things to complain about in the arrangement and production departments, it is hard to deny the sheer quantity of compositional ideas contained in these songs. Two: claims that the Stones were «aping the Beatles» with their psychedelic crea­tivity are ridiculously simplistic. The Stones did embrace psychedelia, but they put their own and nobody else's stamp on it. As I quickly run the usual gamut of psychedelic classics of the era in my mind (Sgt. Pepper, Are You Experienced, Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Eleva­tors, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Days Of Future Passed, etc.), there is not a single one of these that could be selected as a «blueprint» for Satanic Majesties. Because this was not a simple case of «hey, let's just drop everything we did before and go play some sitars!» This is a case of taking everything they had learned in the previous three years — the darkness, the nastiness, the art of the guitar riff, the unpredictable experimental instrumentation — and applying it to the emerging new musical idiom: a synthesis like no other.

Contrary to a widespread opinion that Satanic Majesties was largely the brainchild of Brian Jones (because who else could push the Stones to far-out psychedelia but the guy who originally brought sitars, marimbas, and dulcimers to the table?), Mick and Keith were just as responsible for the shift as Brian — Keith would later regret this explicitly, but Mick, always on the lookout for all sorts of shifts in musical fashions, seems to have retained more love in his heart for this album than he has for Between The Buttons. In any case, all the songwriting credits still go to Mick and Keith, with the notable addition of Bill Wyman as the sole author responsible for ʽIn Another Landʼ (now there's an actual bit of first-rate weirdness — Bill's only songwriting credit on a proper Stones album!), and there is not a single shred of evidence to suggest that either of the two did not have great fun recording it — with all due reservations, of course, considering that 1967 in general was hardly a lot of «fun» for the Stones with all their drug trials and impen­ding jail terms hanging over them, Damocles-style, for a large part of the year.

That nervous tension and (not unjustified) aura of paranoia are often quoted as the spirit that pervades Satanic Majesties, and, indeed, it makes sense to wonder if the album would have been less tense and dark without the drug busts — then again, history knows no ifs: first, in 1967, the Stones were quite predictably selected as the scapegoats, what with their «dangerous» public image and general notoriety, and second, who could genuinely expect the Rolling Stones to sit there with happy, careless, cozily-stoned smiles on their faces and sing about the gorgeous bliss of Flower Power? Who could even begin to imagine an idealistic Mick Jagger joining in the exuberant camara­derie and clapping and singing along to hippie bullshit like "all you need is love, love is all you need" like there was no tomorrow?..

Oops, never mind. Anyway, speculations and alternate scenarios aside, the fact remains: Their Satanic Majesties' Request gives us a darker, more uncomfortable, more psychologically dis­turbing brand of psychedelia than most other brands at the time. It does share a certain concep­tuality with Sgt. Pepper — in terms of having an encircling framework: I like to think of it as a «dream journey», where things begin in real life (ʽSing This All Togetherʼ as a party anthem or a mock-shamanistic merry-go-round-the-bonfire ritual), lead the protagonist into a nightmarish trance, when, like an adult version of Alice in Wonderland, he passes through alternating sur­realist visions of mystery, beauty, and danger (not necessarily in that order), and then finally awaken him to the crude, happy-sad reality of life's hustle and bustle (ʽOn With The Showʼ). But the fantasy world of the Rolling Stones is much less pleasant than that of the Beatles — instead of traveling circuses and Lucys with diamonds and lovely Ritas, your companions will be odd types like 2000 Man and Gomper, cloaked in incomprehensibility and menace — and much of the time, you won't even have any companionship at all, being two thousand light years away from home and all that. It's so very lonely, you know.

Actually, the «no fun» thing begins at the very beginning. A title like ʽSing This All Togetherʼ would normally imply an atmosphere of collective merriment — but there is nothing like that here. Instead, the song agrees very well with lyrics like "Pictures of us beating on our drum / Never stopping till the rain has come" — it does sound like a slightly disorganized collective prayer for rain (or, perhaps, something a little stronger), a seance where nobody can be truly sure of the possible outcome. The odd, «bubbly» sound of the melody, emphasizing the tribalistic rhythm over harmony with every one of the instruments involved, is further enhanced in the in­strumental break, which gives the impression that we are now being temporarily dragged under the water — or, at least, through some purple haze — an experience that could either lead to enlightenment or turn out to be lethal. As we emerge from the haze into a reprise of the chorus, it's like gasping for air — see, that spice trance wasn't so bad after all — but it does not take long before real life, with one last whiff of the horn section, once again transitions into the nightmare part, and this time, it sort of stays there almost until the end.

What happens next is a sequence of events and impressions so strange, so scattered, and yet so meaningful that it is not even clear to me where to start. So why don't I start with a personal favo­rite of mine, a song that is rarely listed as a particular highlight, but one that has always looked to me like it contained the key to the entire album — and maybe even to a large part of the Stones' entire career? ʽThe Lanternʼ is one of those «shine-a-light-in-the-dark» tunes to which I have often recurred at various bad moments in life, and whose compositional brilliance I cannot cease to admire. Distant tolling of the bells, suggesting something mournful — then several bars of a minor-key funereal melody, searching for a resolution — then a strange, stuttering melody, com­prised of an insecure acoustic guitar part, searching for the right groove, and an odd broken sound that I have never been able to decipher. Guitar? Organ? Mellotron? Whatever it is, in just a few bars they have effectively created the atmosphere of a lost, terrified soul making its lost, terrified way through some pitch-black cavern... and then, out of the distance, with a soft, but stern crack of the drums, in fade those hope-giving vocals: "Weeeeeee.... in our present life...". That thing alone would be pretty awesome, but the climactic part is the mid-verse, with Mick forcefully counting the beats on "...that IF you are the FIRST to go, you'll LEAVE a sign to LET me know", each of the heavily accentuated syllables raising the tension. As far as I'm concerned, this is the first — and far from the last — of his genuinely «spirited» vocal performances, those that would probably hit the ceiling on ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, ʽShine A Lightʼ, and ʽWinterʼ, the ones that some­how tie together Earth and Heaven by combining sarcasm, decadence and naughtiness, on one hand, with a call for hope, optimism, and salvation, on the other. You can give the song a literal interpretation — a departed spirit comes back to her lover at night, preparing him for the road to take — but I prefer a more general and abstract one: a song about a beacon of hope in pitch-black darkness, and goddammit if I know of a more beautiful musical metaphor (at least, in the realm of pop music) than this one, opening a still underrated — in my mind — tradition of Heartbreaking Humanism in the Stones' career.

There are other occasional chunks of Light and Beauty on the album, of course, the most obvious of which is ʽShe's A Rainbowʼ — a song that largely belongs to Nicky Hopkins and his Mozar­tian piano, not to mention an exquisite baroque string arrangement from the soon-to-be-famous-for-other-endeavors John Paul Jones, and is usually lauded even by the album's detractors as one of the Stones' most resplendent ballads ever. Indeed, on this one it is practically impossible to find any subtle hints at a darker side — other than, perhaps, the odd «alarm-like» distorted guitar chords that generate an unpredictably eerie coda to the song (but also alleviate its transition into the darkness of ʽThe Lanternʼ) — but then again, even the bleakest of interminable nightmares may be allowed to have its moments of respite, and being so hemmed on all sides by eeriness only helps further accentuate the baroque elegance of the song. This is the only time in the band's career that they wrote a paean to Abstract Beauty — good luck trying to find a real-life addressee of the song — and, lo and behold, it is as gorgeous as any of the masterpieces of the baroque-pop era, with a piano / strings / brass mix that even a Brian Wilson could have envied, though this lively and somewhat pompous approach is rather distant from his usual pensive style.

But other than that, what we have here is one unsettling experience after another. There's the sci-fi, proto-Hawkwind hustle and bustle of a complex and dangerous-looking futuristic "concrete hills" city in ʽThe Citadelʼ, a song that by-the-book Stones fans respect a little more than the others because it is the only one to feature a monstrous hard-rock riff from Keith but which is actually so much more than just one riff — the harpsichords, the Mellotrons, the hell-raising drums, the merciless vocals, and, above all, that odd ringing sound, the one that gives the impres­sion of droplets of liquid gold repetitively dripping from a huge faucet in the sky... again, what the hell is it, and why is it there? Still a mystery to me. There's Wyman's ʽIn Another Landʼ, which is very much like a dream-within-a-dream sequence — that harpsichord never sounded quite that cold without the winter winds howling around it, and we never even get to understand what's better: getting caught up in a dream like that or waking up to find out that it was all "some kind of joke" (I assume that the former is still preferable, given how the song ends with some authentic, and fairly impressive, snoring that the band allegedly diligently captured on tape from Bill himself one day in September). There's ʽ2000 Manʼ, an almost «progressive» mini-suite that not only contains three equally catchy, but totally distinct, melodic parts, but also functions as a smart foresight into the technological future — "Oh daddy, your brain's still flashing / Like it did when you were young / Or did you come down crashin' / Seein' all the things you've done / Oh, it's a big put on" seems to resonate quite painfully these days, for a number of reasons.

And then, «the darkest hour is right before dawn» — ʽ2000 Light Years From Homeʼ is an ab­solute gem of the sci-fi subgenre. Pink Floyd had already told us that "stars can frighten" a short while ago, but if I had to make a choice between the compositional and sonic weirdness that is ʽAstronomy Domineʼ and the somewhat more conventional sound of ʽ2000 Light Yearsʼ, I'd still go for the latter. ʽAstronomy Domineʼ was an ambitious sonic painting — an approximate musi­cal re­pre­sentation of the grandness, complexity, and randomness of the Universe — but largely a depersonalized one, with the artist as an uninvolved spectator, maybe glued to a telescope or something. ʽ2000 Light Yearsʼ is not about the wonders of the Cosmos — it is a deeply personal impression of how terrifying it feels to be alone in a galaxy far far away, and by «galaxy» one might just as well mean «bad acid trip» or «solitary cell in a London prison». Everything about the song is dark, cold, repellent, destined to spook or frighten (including the first forty seconds of atonal piano clanging, which is arguably as close as the Stones ever got to true avantgarde; or the amazing guitar solo, all of it played in the lowest range of the instrument and sounding like the digestion process of some giant ugly space slug) — the bassline is building up suspense, the Mellotrons are pumping up mystery, and Mick makes his best effort to sound out of a cryogenic chamber. In certain contexts, ʽ2000 Light Years From Homeʼ might sound absolutely terrifying (this is definitely not a song I'd recommend for astronauts to take with them on their missions for entertainment) — and while fairly soon we would be getting plenty of psychological singer-songwriter stuff on the issue of cosmic loneliness and isolation, from ʽSpace Oddityʼ to ʽRocket Manʼ and beyond, none of these songs would be bent on inducing sheer psychic terror through purely musical means. I guess we do have something to thank that judge for, after all — allegedly, Mick came up with the basic concept and lyrics of the song during his 24 hours in Brixton Prison.

With all these great performances in sight, I no longer seriously bother about the «excesses» of the record — such as the interminable psycho-jamming of ʽSing This All Together (See What Happens)ʼ and the Eastern-influenced droning on ʽGomperʼ. In fact, I definitely seem to under­stand and even enjoy them much better than, say, the average improvisation by the Grateful Dead; and I certainly do not understand how it is possible to condemn them while at the same time singing hipster praise for something like the Velvet Underground's ʽEuropean Sonʼ or ʽSister Rayʼ from that same year. Of course, the Stones were not well-versed in contemporary avant­garde or modern classical, but then again, everything was instinct rather than science back then, and I'd say that in both of these cases their instincts worked all right — ʽSee What Happensʼ, introduced with an innocuous, but insightful question of "where's that joint?", is like the sound­track to a guided (or mis-guided) trip through some surrealist freak show (all it lacks is a Salvador Dali gallery for visual accompaniment), and ʽGomperʼ is like... well, like a typically Stones-like interpretation of an Indian raga. Imagine Ravi Shankar and friends suddenly having a freaked-out panic attack in the middle of a concert, and that's ʽGomperʼ for you. It's fun! And even if it isn't, you still have to admit that they have a pretty freaky combination of instruments out there.

By the time we emerge — almost literally emerge — into the grounded, down-to-earth conclu­sion of ʽOn With The Showʼ, you might feel relieved, really shaken awake from a nasty, but un­forgettable dream that just showed you the flipside of ʽLucy In The Sky With Diamondsʼ. Do not let yourself be fooled by the preconception that, since this is the Stones' psychedelic album, Their Satanic Majesties' Request is about glorifying psychedelia and propagating the pleasures of that whole mind-opening business: there is nothing of the kind there, and there is not a single song on the album of which anybody should feel «ashamed» after all these years. This is an astute, intelligently designed and completely self-sufficient piece of musical art — featuring some of the band's most interesting lyrical, melodic, and textural ideas of all time, and having certain analy­tical qualities of its own; in fact, I'd go as far as to say that it has a much more intellectual nature to it than Sgt. Pepper, and that its release, at the tail end of the magic year 1967, makes it a per­fect wrap-up offering for the psychedelic excesses of that year, sending up some of these excesses and already containing certain antidotes for others. Even the album sleeve, when seen from that perspective, would look like a tongue-in-cheek reaction to Sgt. Pepper and the like (though it probably wasn't, and, in fact, the album sleeve is probably the corniest element of all here — I still love its furious colors, though).

In recent years (decades?), Satanic Majesties, after having for a very long time been regarded as the band's biggest blunder in their peak years, started gaining a rather large cult following — particularly among those hipsters who like to declare themselves professionally bored with the «typical» blues-rock of pre-1966 / post-1967 Rolling Stones and are only interested in stuff that would allow the band to be, at least temporarily, aligned with either the Kinks or Syd Barrett's Floyd or the Zombies or whatnot. This is, I believe, a different kind of extreme, and I have no desire whatsoever to sing this praise of Satanic Majesties at the expense of Beggars Banquet — or vice versa. The thing is, the sheer greatness of the Stones, and their ability to hold their own beside the Beatles, lies precisely in their ability (at one time) to put out a record like Satanic Majesties, and then to follow it up with a record like Beggars Banquet. Only a rough-hewn, harsh, blues-rock-raised rock'n'roll band could have made a dark psychedelic album like Satanic Majesties — and only a band that had just made a dark psychedelic album like Satanic Majes­ties could go on and inject some of that darkness and artistic pretense into their subsequent blues-rock records like Beggars Banquet. One simply does not exist without the other, and in order to truly «get» the Stones, the blues-rocker in you has to be complemented by the art-rocker, and vice versa — this, in my opinion, is the primary reason why this band gets so criminally underrated today by so many fans on both sides (whereas in their actual prime, when target groups for dif­ferent musical styles were not so harshly delineated, their popular reputation was unassailable). In short, as the Stones say themselves — "open your heads, let the pictures come". And here comes a thumbs up for a creative masterpiece that I think I love even more these days than when I first got my mind blown by it some thirty years ago.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Third World Pyramid

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: THIRD WORLD PYRAMID (2016)

1) Good Mourning; 2) Government Beard; 3) Don't Get Lost; 4) Assignment Song; 5) Oh Bother; 6) Third World Pyramid; 7) Like Describing Colors To A Blind Man On Acid; 8) Lunar Surf Graveyard; 9) The Sun Ship.

The fourth Brian Jonestown Massacre album in three years? What, is this 1966 all over again or is this merely the compensatory energy-outburst result of coming clean? I almost feel like advi­sing Anton Newcombe to slow down, if only that did not sound so comical when addressed to a man whose favorite musical tempo has always been «hallucinating adagio». At least he seems to be sticking to the short form: this new record is only a few minutes longer than Mini Album Thingy Wingy, so that both could probably fit on a single CD if necessary — but instead of melting down our brains with one huge close-to-eighty-minutes platter, the man has mercifully agreed on two small platters instead.

And I don't just mean a technical gesture — the compositions on Third World Pyramid are conceived and executed in the exact same vein as those on Mini Album, despite having been recorded at different sessions (and even with different guest stars). This here is just another batch of psychedelic drones, with exactly one musical idea per song, because, you know, having two ideas in one song is not such a prudent thing to do — I mean, what if they contradict each other? What if they start to fight? What if the second one makes you forget about the first — then the first one would be, like, wasted? What if the second one is not as good as the first? What if it spoils your concentration, or breaks the hypnotic spell? What if somebody says, "I like how they are so influenced by Sixties' bands, but you know, they have way too many key changes in their songs, that's no longer influence — that's slavish plagiarism!"

So have no fear, Third World Pyramid is not going to swamp you with a dazzling kaleidoscope of sounds and textures. Especially now that Anton seems to have found a new muse — a young Canadian psycho-artist called Tessa Parks, specializing in pretty much the same kind of music (dark, starry-eyed drones with stoned-enchanted vocals at the bottom); they ended up touring together for a while, and on this record she is handling some of the vocal duties. In between the two, they double their efforts at retrieving the atmosphere of soul-searching French movies from the 1950s/1960s, joining it with the essence of mind-opening music from London's UFO club, and presenting the results for 21st century audiences who are so desperate for something new that they will agree to revive anything old if it helps.

Unfortunately, the results suffer from the same problems as Mini Album. Newcombe, now a consummate professional in this business, gets a great sound going — the acoustic guitars, the Mellotrons, the woodwinds, the brass fanfares — but remains unable to push this anywhere be­yond simply having a «great sound». All the core melodies are based on the same blues-rock and folk-pop chord sequences that we have heard a million times, and it hurts particularly bad when the song length is extended for no reason — ʽAssignment Songʼ drags on for nine minutes, an interminable tribute to the likes of Donovan, survivable only if you get yourself in the mood soon enough. The second half, once the vocals have died down, is awfully mushy: no single instru­mental part stands out at the expense of others, and the result is a spineless psychedelic mess, equally polyphonous and cacophonous. (For comparison, remember the stylistically close an­themic coda to something like George Harrison's ʽIt's All Too Muchʼ — where all the multiple overdubs were clustered around a very tight melodic spine that chained you to the song's rhythm while at the same time blowing your mind with all the kaleidoscopic effects).

On some very rare occasions, like the title track, they increase the tempo, but it does not help much, because the bass remains barely audible, and the truly important functions are left to the humming electronics and the mystery ghost vocals. Slow or fast, the difference between these tracks and their spiritual predecessors always remains the same: Newcombe writes atmospheric mood pieces rather than songs, and that is his stated schtick that you can take or leave. As long as I have to listen to the record to give it a brief assessment, I can take it — but I am unsure why, ten years or even ten days from now, I would still want to prefer this secondary, derivative, mono­tonous material to a classic album by, say, The 13th Floor Elevators, where I can get moods and hooks and genuine original excitement. I mean, I might be on the same wavelength with New­combe — we both acknowledge the psychedelic Sixties as one of the greatest eras of music and a guiding light for one's musical tastes and hopes — but that does not imply agreeing on how we should be dealing with this musical legacy in 2016. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Anathema: A Natural Disaster

ANATHEMA: A NATURAL DISASTER (2003)

1) Harmonium; 2) Balance; 3) Closer; 4) Are You There?; 5) Childhood Dream; 6) Pulled Under At 2000 Metres A Second; 7) A Natural Disaster; 8) Flying; 9) Electricity; 10) Violence.

This is the first Anathema album to feature three Cavanaghs at the same time: Vincent and Danny are joined by third brother Jamie on bass — who, as it turns out, did play with them in the earliest incarnation of the band, but left it prior to any serious recording engagements. Now this is so much of a family affair that drummer John Douglas humbly retreats back to his drums, leaving the songwriting almost completely in the hands of the brothers; actually, Danny takes almost ex­clusive credits for everything. (Which is all the more odd, considering that he briefly left the band in 2002, joining Antimatter — and then returned and became its dictatorial songwriter).

With Douglas out of the creative picture, the songs begin leaving somewhat more of an impres­sion; yet, at the same time, the band really mellows out now — even when the guitars are techni­cally heavy, they are still tuned high as hell, and cold, soft, static atmospheres, driven by acoustic guitars and electronics, now serve as the default weapon at Anathema's disposal, with heavy passages only introduced as quasi-climactic red lights, occasionally. Vincent's vocals also con­tinue to mellow out — by this time, memories of those days when he tried to sound like a blee­ding demon kid, pushed into a corner by squads of angels, are worn pretty thin, and most of the time he just oozes eternal sadness without any traces of anger or menace.

The good news is that they remember to try and keep things spiced up. Thus, ʽBalance / Closerʼ (two separate tracks, but united by a common theme) sees them taking lessons from Kid A, with multiple vocal overdubs and samples that create a complex mosaic out of falsettos and breathy murmurs, and plenty of electronics to place it in the middle of a cold, robotic atmosphere. ʽChild­hood Dreamʼ is a half-ambient, half-Gothic interlude with echoes of babies rising out of a deep memory well. ʽPulled Under At 2000 Metres A Secondʼ is a speedy disaster-rocker, bringing in a brief respite from all the slow psychological moodiness — and, not surprisingly, sounding a hell of a lot like Pink Floyd's ʽSheepʼ in the process. The title track is a doom-laden waltz sung by guest star Anna Livingstone — and, with her high-pitched, trembling, fear-stricken vocals and a particularly depressing set of keyboard and wah-wah guitar overdubs, not surprisingly, sounding quite a bit like classic Portishead.

Finally, by the time we reach the end — a ten-minute suite called ʽViolenceʼ whose only real bit of (musical) violence is a relatively brief and loud rocking passage in the middle — we are out of art-rock and deep into post-rock territory, heck, we might even be in frickin' Angelo Badalamenti territory, considering how much that romantic piano melody in the final movement reminds me of the Twin Peaks theme. It's not at all bad, though, and, in all honesty, at this point I am far more glad to get a «heavenly» finale, where peace and graceful optimism is mixed with only a faint trace of sadness, from these guys, rather than yet another reminder of how life sucks and how the very fact of one's being here on Earth should already be regarded as punishment. Actually, you could very well interpret ʽViolenceʼ as representing a bit of Armageddon, after which everybody relaxes and enjoys eternal heavenly bliss, but that's okay, too — in this case, they are at least willing to look into the eternally blissful future, rather than remain forever cursed in the present, like a bunch of Wandering Jews or something.

As a whole, the record has quite a decent feel to it — all the stylistic twists and imitations of various styles at least seem to guarantee that you probably will not be bored. That said, there is no bypassing the usual limitation: every single one of these twists happens to have already had far superior antecedents, and I do not see myself revisiting this stuff much in the future as long as I still have access to all those Floyd, Radiohead, and Portishead albums (or as long as I can still watch Twin Peaks, for that matter). The problem with sadness and tragedy is that they only really work if they are capable of pulling you way, way deep under the surface, but this here is more like A Really Lightweight Disaster — all the songs are so smooth, restrained, inobtrusive, care­fully shorn of any brusque rises or falls, that I cannot imagine the album working on any other level than a simple sonic background. On the other hand, I guess if you are holding a wake or something like that, it might make for a decent soundtrack: not particularly cheesy and not parti­cularly involving.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Cheap Trick: Bang, Zoom, Crazy... Hello

CHEAP TRICK: BANG, ZOOM, CRAZY... HELLO (2016)

1) Heart On The Line; 2) No Direction Home; 3) When I Wake Up Tomorrow; 4) Do You Believe Me?; 5) Blood Red Lips; 6) Sing My Blues Away; 7) Roll Me; 8) The In Crowd; 9) Long Time No See Ya; 10) The Sun Never Sets; 11) All Strung Out.

And the story goes on. In one of the most crass acts of nepotism in rock history, Zander and Niel­sen kicked Bun E. Carlos, the one and only «Bookkeeper-Drummer» of all time, out of the band, replacing him with Rick's son, Daxx Nielsen. Allegedly, this might be part of a far-reaching plan to ensure the immortality of the band (Ian and Holland Zander should probably be getting ready, too, once their father's vocal cords finally give way), but in the short term, this was a rather nasty story, rife with lawsuits and shattered friendships... and what for?

Honestly, Cheap Trick's latest record (more precisely, the one that replaces The Latest as, well, the latest) is not all that drum-dependent, as they return once again to the overproduced style of Rockford. It seems as if they have developed this alternating pattern, late in their lives — one album Beatles-style, one album Stones-style — and this, once again, puts us into non-stop head­banging mode, just to assure the population that no energy has been dissipated since Rockford brutally kicked our asses exactly ten years back. No more psychedelic excursions, no more or­chestration, just bombastic, glam-tinged rock'n'roll and power pop all the way.

Consequently, everything grumbly that I have said in reference to Rockford applies to this album as well. It is one half fun and one half an attempt to prove to the world that they still got it, and every once in a while the second half obscures the first half with its obnoxiousness — but if you get it out of your mind and trample on the context, then it's just another set of big, brassy, brawny rock'n'roll for those who can't get enough of it. They can still play, Robin can still sing (although I sure wish they gave him a little breathing space every now and then without clogging all the frequencies with fat, distorted guitar overdubs), the new drummer can keep time — what else do you need for happiness? Psychological depth? That was last year's model.

As a little bit of nostalgic surprise, another veteran hero, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, joins the band on ʽDo You Believe Me?ʼ for some hystrionic guitar pyrotechnics — just in case 2016 came along and erased your last memories of what it used to be a «guitar hero» — and, as an even odder nostalgic surprise, they do a hard rock version of ʽThe In Crowdʼ, a song originally per­formed by Dobie Gray but possibly even better known to audiences through the Mamas & Papas cover. No idea whatsoever about the motivation — but the song's sarcastic tone and ridiculing of trends and fashions agrees perfectly fine with Cheap Trick's conservative ideology, and Zander gives a spirited, tongue-in-cheek performance. He can still sound cocky and smart at the same time — too bad this here album usually puts cocky first and smart last.

Everything else basically sounds like a mix of... well, I'd say AC/DC (ʽLong Time No See Yaʼ), Slade (ʽBlood Red Lipsʼ), T. Rex (the album closing ʽAll Strung Outʼ is a dead ringer for Bolan's ʽ20th Century Boyʼ), and even Bowie — ʽWhen I Wake Up Tomorrowʼ has a tinge of that old Ziggy melancholia lurking in the back of Zander's voice. Once or twice, we still get psychedelic vocal harmony overdubs (ʽThe Sun Never Setsʼ), almost like a leftover from the previous album, but this does not upset the prevalent party spirit. If you do not set your expectations too high, Bang, Zoom, Crazy, just like Rockford before it, will be perfectly enjoyable and one more proof that you can still produce «authentic» 1970s style glam-rock in 2016 (well, you can pretty much produce anything in 2016), but I couldn't swear that the record made that much of an impression on me as a whole, and somehow I hope that they still have it in them to come up with a less slight swan song for their career, unless they really plan on gradually passing on the banner to succes­sive generations of Zanders and Nielsens.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Candi Staton: Candi

CANDI STATON: CANDI (1974)

1) Here I Am Again; 2) Your Opening Night; 3) A Little Taste Of Love; 4) Going Through The Motions; 5) Stop And Smell The Roses; 6) We Can Work It Out; 7) As Long As He Takes Care Of Home; 8) But I Do; 9) Can't Stop Being Your Fool; 10) Clean Up America; 11) Six Nights And A Day.

For this album, Staton switched to Warner Bros., yet the recording sessions were still held at Muscle Shoals, so, technically, very little has changed, except for a divorce with Carter, meaning that the man was also removed from her professional life as well. (She did not repeat the mistake of mixing personal and professional, but allegedly she did marry an even bigger bastard in 1974, a promoter by the name of Jimmy James, who would torture her for about three years). Substan­tially, though, Candi continues a gradual slide into the realms of smooth soulful pleasantness, where everything sounds just about equally neat, tasteful, and interchangeable.

The only in-yer-face standout on the album is ʽClean Up Americaʼ, a lone statement of demand for social justice that is so thoroughly ambiguous in its demands, I'm frankly surprised why it for­got to be used in Trump's presidential campaign ("we gotta pitch in, and clean up America!" just sounds like such a perfectly Trump-ready slogan, and delivered by a black woman, no less) — sure it's a far less familiar song than ʽYou Can't Always Get What You Wantʼ or ʽRockin' In The Free Worldʼ, but with such a passionate, anthemic hook it would have caught on in no time. In the context of Candi, however, its major problem is that it stands alone — and gives the impres­sion of a last minute addition, to inject some social value, because Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder are doing it and if you, a female Afro-American performer, are not doing it, then you are compromising The Cause. Please be reasonable about it and observe the correct quotas, though. You are expected to deliver 1 song about social injustice and 11 songs about personal relationships — that's the expected female quota.

Speaking of personal relationships, I find it funny that (a) there is a song here called ʽWe Can Work It Outʼ, a lush piano ballad with string and brass support that has nothing to do with the Beatles' song of the same name; (b) the very next song, ʽAs Long As He Takes Care Of Homeʼ, is driven by a looping riff that is very similar, though not exactly coinciding, with the riff of ʽDay Tripperʼ — which, as we know, was the B-side to the original ʽWe Can Work It Outʼ! Coinci­dence, or a subtle joke on the part of the producers, with no deep meaning behind it whatsoever? Oh well, at least this gives us something to write about, because other than that, Candi stimulates no individualistic emotional reaction whatsoever. A few decent ballads, a few soft funk-rockers, well played and convincingly sung, but nothing new, and for each song you can find a sharper equivalent elsewhere.

For instance, ʽSix Nights And A Dayʼ, lifts the funky riff directly from ʽSuperstitionʼ, but the song does not even begin to approach the tension level achieved by little Stevie — remember, kids, it's not all about just the melody, it's largely about killer performance, and here, I am sorry to say, the musicians rallied behind Candi consistently let her down even when compared to the raw-gritty sound of her first record, let alone contemporary standards of some of the bigger names in the R&B industry. But on the positive side, there are some energetic numbers with cool syncopated guitars and brawny brass — which is a good thing to have in an era when even some of the bigger names in R&B (like Aretha Franklin) were beginning to drown in soft-rock mushi­ness and schlocky sentimentalism. So, by the average standards of 1974, Candi is doing quite fine, even as she finds herself ʽGoing Through The Motionsʼ.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Captain Beefheart: Lick My Decals Off, Baby

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY (1970)

1) Lick My Decals Off, Baby; 2) Doctor Dark; 3) I Love You, You Big Dummy; 4) Peon; 5) Bellerin' Plain; 6) Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop; 7) Japan In A Dishpan; 8) I Wanna Find A Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go; 9) Petrified Forest; 10) One Red Rose That I Mean; 11) The Buggy Boogie Woogie; 12) The Smithsonian Institute Blues (Or The Big Dip); 13) Space-Age Couple; 14) The Clouds Are Full Of Wine (Not Whiskey Or Rye); 15) Flash Gordon's Ape.

This relatively short album, whose public fate also happened to be somewhat undermined by a very long period of being unavailable on CD (due to technical legal issues), is actually every bit as essential for the Captain as Trout Mask Replica — yet even today, judging by such telling observations as the ratio of amateur reviews on various websites, it regularly continues to be snubbed in favor of TMR. Even Beefheart himself admitted that Lick My Decals came much closer to realizing his true vision, but with the mainstream critical consensus on TMR as the re­presentation of his artistic peak, its fate was sealed. 90% of the people who learn the name «Beef­heart» head straight for Trout Mask Replica, and since 90% of these 90% never want to hear another Beefheart album for as long as they live, its equally important follow-up does not stand a chance — not until the time comes when we all begin wearing trout masks to work because of a strict dress code requirement.

Anyway, in many ways Lick My Decals Off is simply a shorter sequel to its more expansive and ambitious elder brother. Once again, we have a set of short tunes based on bizarro time changes, avantgarde chord sequences, discordant musical parts, and evil-grinning half-spoken lyrical reci­tals with no mercy for the common music listener. In certain other ways, however, it is signifi­cantly different from TMR. For one thing, it seems more influenced by contemporary avantgarde jazz and even modern classical — which may have to do with such personnel change as the de­parture of guitarist Jeff Cotton (who originally joined the band to substitute for the bluesy talents of Ry Cooder) and the arrival of percussionist Art Tripp, a former member of the progressive Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as a full-time member of The Magic Band. This makes some of the music even more complex and challenging, as you'd expect from any band where at least one of the members holds an actual Bachelor of Music degree.

But what seems to me even more important is that at the same time, there is a rather conscious effort on Beefheart's part to return to his blues roots — if not always in form, then at least in spi­rit. The record is far more seriously loaded with dark sexual overtones, Howlin' Wolf- and John Lee Hooker-style, than TMR, where the surrealism was more of the psychedelic / absurdist type, and Beefheart's lyrics are full of salacious innuendos, even if they are still heavily «modernized»: the very title of the album, in fact, comes across as a salacious innuendo — although Beefheart him­self explained it as a general call to «get rid of labels», for some reason, the image of Captain's baby licking his decals off seems a bit dirtier than that. Especially when the composition is so thoroughly soaked in dirty blues riffs and dirty blues vocals. There are other lyrical themes here as well, of course — some of the songs, like ʽPetrified Forestʼ, tangentially deal with environ­mentalism, for instance — but the overall impression is that on Lick My Decals, Beefheart is really embracing the image of an avantgarde Howlin' Wolf, as if Chester Burnett himself got tired of all the conventional ways to express his essence, and switched to all the unconventional ones. I mean, "Mama, mama, here comes Doctor Dark!" — isn't that the kind of lyrical line that a Willie Dixon would always have been on the brink of coming up with?

Some of the tracks are, in fact, very light deconstructions of traditional blues patterns — ʽI Love You, Big Dummyʼ, for instance, with its harmonica blasts and all-pervasive signature blues riff, almost verges on the fully conventional (predicting some of the stylistic «regression» on The Spotlight Kid). Most of the time, however, the deconstruction process goes all the way, with basic meters sometimes shifting every several bars, instruments playing in different signatures and tempos at the same time, percussion and bass going in opposite directions, etc. etc., which is cool, but will not be appreciated by just about anybody: in particular, I feel that the atmosphere of extra «darkness» and «sexuality» gets disrupted by the experimental approach more often than it gets assisted by it — and, even worse, that the musicians get too concentrated on getting those harmonic shifts and overdub coordinations right to equally concentrate on making the riffs sound powerful, energetic, and properly insinuating.

There are a couple very interesting instrumental tracks on here — I would definitely recommend the flowery-titled interludes ʽPeonʼ and ʽOne Rose That I Meanʼ higher than ʽHair Pieʼ. The two bakes of the latter were rather messy avant-blues jams; these two are more in the avant-folk terri­tory, consisting of two overlaid guitar parts, playing complex sequences in unison (acoustic guitar and bass on ʽPeonʼ, acoustic and electric on ʽRoseʼ) that sound like a folk troubadour desperately banging upon the doors of perception. Whether he succeeds in smashing them open or not is up to you to decide, but I somehow feel that it is because of the stripped nature of these instrumentals that they somehow show more poignancy and individuality than the rest — just a subjective im­pression, of course, but how could one ever retain the chance of warming up to a record like this without resorting to subjective impressions even of the silliest kind?

The closest this album gets in spirit to free-form jazz is on the tracks where Beefheart himself plays the brass instruments — he is credited for both clarinet and tenor/soprano saxes, and they are all over the last and longest track on the record, ʽFlash Gordon's Apeʼ, winding things up with a mighty ruckus, although, to be honest, I am not sure why anybody who is already a fan of Eric Dolphy or, say, Alexander von Schlippenbach (to make things a bit more esoteric) should be in­terested in the same kind of music spiced up with the Captain's evil-bluesy vocal declamations. Still, I guess we can say he at least passes the test — to my ears, these chaotic spasms of windy ugliness are no better and no worse than the average free-form jazz composition.

Yet both the avant-folk and the avant-jazz experiments are still subdued to the main task of the mission — avant-blues — and that may be a good thing, because deep down at heart, the blues is the core of Captain Beefheart, ever the yearning, dissatisfied searcher for peace, love, and under­standing, even if this comprises finding a woman who will hold his big toe until he has to go (and he does proclaim it with such conviction that you begin to wonder if he wasn't secretly in love with a female podiatrist). If you manage to enjoy the things his musicians do to the blues here — then it's great, because you may have just upgraded your conscience to the «post-Howlin' Wolf» level. I, unfortunately, do not: as is the case with TMR, I respect and endorse the effort, but am incapable of listening to this stuff «for fun».

One thing, however, is certain: any person who owns and claims to like Trout Mask Replica, but has no knowledge whatsoever of Lick My Decals Off, is a rotten poseur, and unless proper atonement has been made, will have to suffer the punishment of listening to nothing but the Backstreet Boys and One Direction for one hundred thousand years. Because if you really enjoy TMR on a level where you seriously begin empathizing with the Captain and entertaining the fast and bulbous way of thinking, then not finishing the experience with Lick My Decals Off will be like prematurely pulling out, if you pardon my metaphor. Safe, perhaps, but... no fun.