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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)


1) The Floppy Boot Stomp; 2) Tropical Hot Dog Night; 3) Ice Rose; 4) Harry Irene; 5) You Know You're A Man; 6) Bat Chain Puller; 7) When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy; 8) Owed T'Alex; 9) Candle Mambo; 10) Love Lies; 11) Suction Prints; 12) Apes-Ma.

By late 1974, I think, music lovers worldwide must have given up on the Captain, who'd seemed to guide his ship into the rocks — losing his loyal Magic Band, his artistic integrity, and any signs of respect from the formerly receptive critical base. The only reason for optimism was that, even at his least adventurous, Beefheart had always followed his own muse and nobody else's: «simplistic» and «commercial» as they might be, even the 1974 records sound like they could not have been produced by anybody else. Of course, the man had his original set of influences, all the way from Chicago blues to free jazz, yet once his musical vision had solidified, he seemed to pay very little attention to whatever else was going on in the musical world around him — interested in doing his own thing and nobody else's, and even if he was going to «sell out», he'd still do it the Beefheart way, rather than take a cue from The Doobie Brothers.

A good boost of confidence came from Frank Zappa, with whom Beefheart spent a lot of time together in 1975-76 (including an appearance as vocalist and occasional songwriter on Bongo Fury from 1975), and by 1976, the Captain felt resuscitated enough to put together a properly assembled new Magic Band and begin recording again — the result was Bat Chain Puller, an album of completely new material that was to see the light of day in 1976, yet ended up on inde­finite hold after a conflict between Zappa and his manager Herb Cohen resulted in all sorts of legal difficulties. Fortunately, this did not suffice to destroy the good spirits of the Captain once again, and by 1978, he was back on his feet, with a new deal with Warner Bros. (you know, the most avantgardist record label in the world) and a new album, consisting partly of re-recorded songs from Bat Chain Puller (hence the double title) and partly of completely new material.

And it is like 1974 never existed. No, scratch that — it is as if the Seventies never existed as a decade altogether: Shiny Beast picks up precisely where Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals left off, and feels like a superb reboot of the Captain Beefheart franchise. Basically, Beef­heart returns to the idea of «continuing to make weird music, but making it more accessible»; however, instead of steering his musicians towards more blues, more funk, and (ultimately) more pop, he remains more closely attached to the original idiom of TMR, except that certain angles get smoothed — less tricky time signatures, musicians seemingly playing more in tune with each other, grooves that take sufficient time to develop and sink in the mind: often catchy without ever sounding simplistic, and fairly adventurous without ever sounding irritating and pointless. Not to discriminate against The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, but this is probably the kind of sound that the Captain should have had going for himself in 1972 — although, this being 2017 and all, who really should care about a decade-long delay now? Particularly since the Captain always preferred to live in his own time anyway.

From the most basic point of view, we have our Captain back showcasing his insanity, paranoia, otherworldly creepiness, and, occasionally, «alternate sentimentality». The very first song, subtly hinting at the dawn of the computer age as Beefheart happily exploits the many meanings of the word ʽbootʼ, is a post-modern cartoonish apocalyptic vision in its own rights: with the Captain's new guitarists, Jeff Morris Tepper and Richard Redus, playing bluesy rings around each other and drummer Robert Williams playing complex polyrhythms with the verve of a good Keith Moon disciple, ʽThe Floppy Boot Stompʼ is not one of the album's most melodically memorable num­bers, but it is all that it takes to immediately ascertain — yes, the Captain is back, and it looks like he hasn't been that excited about being back since ʽFrownlandʼ, gleefully painting meltdownish pictures of how "the sky turned white in the middle of the night" and "hell was just an ice cube melting off on the ground". (Essentially, it's about a battle of characters between The Farmer and The Devil... spoiler: The Farmer won. But that shouldn't be a surprise; after all, Don Van Vliet is a plain old God-fearin' man at heart).

From then on, the record never lets go, and each new song is brimming with ideas. If it is a Latin-style dance number (ʽTropical Hot Dog Nightʼ), it will come equipped with a slightly dissonant trombone lead part (courtesy of Bruce Fowler), an overloud marimba part (courtesy of Art Tripp III, the only member from the old band who came back for these sessions), and a message that the Captain is "playin' this song for all the young girls to come out to meet the monster tonight" — sure, what else? It wouldn't be fun any other way. ʽBat Chain Pullerʼ rides a groove that actually gives the impression of somebody or something (a bat?) being rhythmically pulled by its chain, apparently with great difficulty, and the song keeps adding more and more layers as it goes on, descending into an ocean of controlled psychedelic chaos at the end. And as silly as a title like ʽWhen I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummyʼ might sound, musically the song sounds like a cross between a New Orleans funeral march, a Black Sabbath riff-rocker, and a free jazz impro­visation — but with a basic groove to which you could toe-tap if you wanted to, and with a couple of highly melodic riffs that you could whistle if you needed to. As for the title, well, it is not the first time that the Captain sings to us about his inborn fear of women; personally, I think that whoever «Mommy» is, she should be proud of causing such a complex bunch of emotions to be encoded in such a bizarre musical synthesis.

Somewhat simpler pieces also rule — ʽCandle Mamboʼ is indeed the Captain's personal interpre­tation of what a proper Latin dance number should sound like (and the solution is: more marim­bas!); ʽLove Liesʼ has distant melodic ties to Ray Charles' ʽI Believe To My Soulʼ (and, transi­tively, to Dylan's ʽBallad Of A Thin Manʼ as well), but the Captain's take on melancholic soul-blues has to have much more Mardi Gras-style brass in it; and just for diversity's sake, ʽHarry Ireneʼ is an almost completely normal music hall number that sounds more Ray Davies than Captain Beefheart, but it is a totally charming interlude, a well-placed moment of sad sentimen­tal calm in between all the madness. Predictably, there are a few instrumentals as well, and they all rule: ʽIce Roseʼ may be a little too derivative of Zappa (I think everybody can hear echoes of ʽPeaches En Regaliaʼ in there), but ʽSuction Printsʼ is totally Beefheart, a crazy blues-rocker that actually manages to rock in between all the complex rhythmic patterns.

I should probably mention as well that production values for the record are much higher than they used to be — despite the near-cacophonous melange of instruments on most of the tracks, every single guitar, every brass part, each puncturing of the marimbas remains perfectly distinct, and there's tons of replay value here as you can trace all the cool flourishes of one guitar, then con­cen­trate on the one in the other speaker, then try to assimilate the marimba melody... somehow, these songs turn me on in ways that Trout Mask Replica never could, and as unqualified as I am to discuss the musicological aspects of both records, I will just have to ascribe the difference to a smart type of compromise that Beefheart achieves here, as well as the dense nature of the arran­ge­ments — who knows, perhaps what TMR really needed for success was more horns, marimbas, and a cleaner mix.

Then again, no: it may well be possible that it simply had to take Beefheart several more years to understand properly how that ideally-visualized, but not ideally-reproduced alternate musical world of his could come to emotional life. And I wish I could ascribe his success to the dawning of a new musi­cal age — but the fact is, Shiny Beast sounds absolutely nothing like any New Wave record at the time, and thus, remains absolutely timeless. It ends on a depressing note (the forty-seconds long ʽApes-Maʼ is one of Beefheart's most pessimistic bits of declamation, espe­cially if he is referring to himself, which I think he is), but then, it's not as if the entire record were contrastively uplifting: there's plenty of melancholy and desperation hiding in these grooves, they are just not openly «whiny» or «hysterical», and that's a good thing, because in order to suc­ceed, Shiny Beast had to show some teeth, first and foremost — otherwise, people would just say «oh, he's bitching about being down on his luck and out of talent». Nope: Shiny Beast is all set to kick your ass, then give you a friendly pat on the head, then kick your ass some more, and only then retreat in the corner and let out a few hard-to-hold-back sighs... "Apes-Ma, Apes-Ma, you're eating too much and going to the bathroom too much... and Apes-Ma, your cage isn't getting any bigger, Apes-Ma". Don't we all feel like that sometimes? Thumbs up.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Carla Thomas: Love Means...


1) Didn't We; 2) Are You Sure; 3) What Is Love; 4) Daughter, You're Still Your Daddy's Child; 5) Love Means You Never Have To Say You're Sorry; 6) You've Got A Cushion To Fall On; 7) Il Est Plus Doux Que; 8) Cherish; 9) I Wake Up Wanting You.

Well, it's nice to know that Carla Thomas was a major fan of Love Story, though in the grand scheme of things it is probably not a very significant detail. It is less nice to know that her first and only album in the Seventies pretty much gave up on harsh funky grooves altogether, as she decided to comfortably settle in the green fields of lush, orchestrated, sentimental pop music — not too surprising, though, considering she'd started out in that vein anyway, and always felt more comfortable with sweet lyrical tenderness than with the get-up-and-fight vibe. The problem is, she was still on Stax, and it is a bit strange to see the muscular talents of the MG's and other Stax session musicians go to waste on this kind of material.

Surprisingly, the title track, despite its title, is exactly the one song on here that still gets by on groove power — nothing particularly unusual about the groove, a simple blues bassline, but it sets a gritty tone for all the subsequent brass and orchestral interludes and adds a nice touch of ambiguity to the message. Apparently, something about love and its nature was bugging Carla at the time — this is one of only two songs that she herself (co-)wrote for the album, the other one being ʽWhat Is Love?ʼ, a much less interesting pop tune, but with a decent vocal build-up to the chorus at least. However, she does get solid songwriting help from her brother Marvell, who also contributes the album's lengthiest, quasi-epic number — the conventionally heartbreaking family relation tale ʽDaughter, You're Still Your Daddy's Childʼ, culminating in a two-minute ecstatic coda where Carla is trying to steer the entire band into ripping it up; unfortunately, this is also precise­ly where you remember that Carla Thomas is no Aretha Franklin, and I find it hard to get caught up in the excitement for that reason.

This is all sweet and at least tolerable, but the album also offers some inexcusable crassness: Tony Hester's ʽIl Est Plus Doux Queʼ, with quasi-French sentimentality and poorly pronounced French phrasing sprinkled all over the tune, is unbearable, and so is the awful B-side ʽYou've Got A Cushion To Fall Onʼ (you thought ʽStand By Your Manʼ was, um, questionable? Here's a sample of the lyrics to this one: "Good evening, dear, do you feel okay? / How are things on the job today? / Sit right down and kick off your shoes / Supper will be ready in a minute or two / I can tell your promotion didn't go through / And I can see it got you feeling sad and blue... /'ve got a cushion to fall on / you've got me, I'm in your corner". From the We Three song­writing team, welcome to the progressive Seventies). In an era when Afro-American music, male and female, generally strove to expand, break out, and assert its individuality, this kind of style was clearly regressive, if not straightahead reactionary.

In any case, be it the lack of chart success or a personal feeling of «not belonging» to this new age of music-making, Love Means... turned out to be the last full-fledged musical effort from «The Queen of Soul»: by 1972, Carla had pretty much retired from music (although she conti­nued to give occasional performances and even mini-tours well into the 2000s). As such, it re­mains the last testament to a pleasant, but mediocre talent that was, unfortunately, never provided with the proper conditions to mature into anything above mediocre. Essentially, I would conclude that the Carla / Stax match was a mismatch from the very beginning — she might have thrived as a pop star, perhaps even an art-pop one if things had gone right, but trying to place her some place in between lush pop star and fiery R&B diva just made her fall through the cracks alto­gether.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St.


1) Rocks Off; 2) Rip This Joint; 3) Shake Your Hips; 4) Casino Boogie; 5) Tumbling Dice; 6) Sweet Virginia; 7) Torn And Frayed; 8) Sweet Black Angel; 9) Loving Cup; 10) Happy; 11) Turd On The Run; 12) Ventilator Blues; 13) I Just Want To See His Face; 14) Let It Loose; 15) All Down The Line; 16) Stop Breaking Down; 17) Shine A Light; 18) Soul Survivor.

I cannot decidedly join the strong chorus proclaiming Exile On Main St. to be the greatest album ever put out by The Rolling Stones — but what I can do is put it in that vague category of «One Last Sideways Blast», you know, where you kind of feel like the artist's peak is probably behind the artist, and then the artist suddenly pulls out some concealed weapon and gives one last, totally unpredictable, and kinda-sorta-different kind of shot. Like Pete Townshend did with Quadro­phenia. Like Ray Davies did with Muswell Hillbillies. Like Brian Wilson maybe did with The Beach Boys Love You — «dead end», one-of-a-kind albums that flashed a different kind of genius, stunned you into not even understanding well enough what it was all about, and then... not really followed by anything comparable in quality, or even anything in the same style.

Exile On Main St. is a pretty good title for the record, but perhaps an even better one would be something like Shine A Light On Torn And Frayed Turds On The Run — or, if you think this is a bit Fiona Apple-ish, Sympathy For The Devils would qualify just as well. After the wild party of Sticky Fingers, this is the hangover: a double album of tunes that give you... nay, the «downside of a life of rock'n'roll excess» definition probably wouldn't be sufficient, because we'd already peeked into that darkness on tracks like ʽSwayʼ and ʽSister Morphineʼ. Exile is deeper than that, and, in fact, there's hardly anything scary or shocking about these tracks — no spooky musical effects, no mock-Satanic grinning, no cheap thrills to warn you about committing sin and make you feel like you've already committed (to) it at the same time. Exile is not about how cool sinners are: it's about how even sinners are people, and about how you can have pity on them even if they're filthy rich sinners.

The circumstances in which Exile was recorded are well known: the Stones really went into «exile» in 1971, so as to avoid those draconian British tax laws, and temporarily holed them­selves up at the Nellcôte villa near Nice, where much of the album was recorded in the proverbial "dirty, filthy basement" in an atmosphere of total chaos, spontaneity, and drug haze (where Keith was not even the primary offender — allegedly, his big friend Gram Parsons had to be thrown out in July for taking heroin in such doses that seemed way over the top even for Mr. Richards. Then again, look who is still alive today and who is not). All of this may be seen as just another ridi­culous and disgusting episode in the life of rich-boy decadent Stones, and it certainly was: even from a basic moral point, it would probably have been more generous to give all that money to the British government than to spend it on white powder. Yet somehow, it all came together in a magnificent set of songs that definitely transcended the questionable circumstances of 1971-72, and has remained as a timeless source of inspiration.

There seems to have been no pre-defined concept, no strategic plan for Exile, and, indeed, some of the tunes ended up there just because, well well... just because. Like the cover of Slim Harpo's ʽShake Your Hipsʼ, for instance. Why is it there? Just because. Just because they probably jam­med  around it absent-mindedly and thought that it was good (and it was), so they put it there. But even so, there is clearly an overriding theme to the album, and it's a good one — a theme of sur­viving, clutching like crazy to those last straws, pulling out of seemingly insurmountable odds, getting up and going on even when iron logic tells you to lay down and die. If you want to really understand why The Rolling Stones are still active as a band in the second decade of the 21st century — put on Exile On Main St. and you will get your answer.

A simple (maybe even simplistic) view of the album states that it is good because it is so encyclo­paedic — because it takes all those bits and pieces of Americana, from rock'n'roll to blues to folk to country to gospel, roughly sews them up together in one huge tapestry, and puts an irreverent Stonesy twist on everything. That may be so, but a perspective like this would not suffice to ex­plain the album's greatness. After all, with the possible exception of the gospel touch that is really quite new to the album, the Stones had already proven themselves as masters of «Americana with a twist» on the 1968-69 records, and «much more of the same» wouldn't necessarily translate to «better than the same used to be». Yes, essentially the bad boys of rock'n'roll just wanted to get together one more time and record some more of that rootsy music — but the hand of fate en­sured that this time at least, there would be a common tug, a common yearning, a common spirit behind that music: the spirit of suffering, escape, relief, and redemption.

For some people, maybe, a song like ʽSweet Virginiaʼ is merely «the Stones doing another country number», and why should anybody bother with the Stones doing country at all, when everybody knows the Stones can't do country as good as Merle Haggard? For me, though, ʽSweet Virginiaʼ merely uses the country idiom to convey a totally one-of-a-kind feeling. The slow, draggy tempo; the gutter-soaked harmonica blasts; vocals that suggest total loss of blood and its complete replacement by alcohol; lyrics painting a picture of being totally and utterly wasted — "tryin' to stop the waves behind your eyeballs" — where even the promised land of California no longer offers any respite; and, most importantly, that hard-to-describe feeling of «being on the brink» — the slightly stuttering tempo, the slightly disorganized network of lead and backing vocals that still somehow manages to pull itself together in time for the chorus and its forceful resolution: "come on, come on down, you got it in ya, got to scrape that shit right off your shoes". And if even that resolution does not suffice to put you back on your feet in your darkest hour, then how about Bobby Keys' sax solo? The most powerful and disciplined melodic element in the song, it crashes down from the sky like God's voice when you most need it. And the weirdest thing of all — everything about the song seems perfectly inspired, credible, convincing to me. There they were, this bunch of guys with their personal problems, but still, a bunch of rich, famous, snobby, spoiled guys in the throes of rock stardom... and they sing about themselves as if they were miserable tramps and losers, and you believe them. This, really, is what makes it all so incredible.

To me, the whole record really stands on two spiritual pillars of hope, one of which is ʽSweet Virginiaʼ (yes, so much more than «just another country song»), and one, near the end, is ʽShine A Lightʼ — dare I say it, the best gospel song ever written and performed like this by mortal man, and I am not taking these words back even in the presence of half a dozen Mahalia Jacksons. The reason why is simple: traditional black gospel, more often than not, is steeped in fire-and-brim­stone Old Testamental values, with a bit of formulaic happy-as-shit Christianity on the side. What the Stones do here is write a song about what really matters — humane compassion for the fallen. "When you're drunk in the alley with your clothes all torn / And your late night friends leave you in the cold grey dawn / Just seemed too many flies on you, I just can't brush 'em off / Angels beatin' all their wings in time / With smiles on their faces and a gleam right in their eyes / Thought I heard one sigh for you / Come on up now, come on up now" — had to take the time to type that all up, because it is probably the most beautiful, tear-inducing verse ever written by Mr. Jagger, and one for which I'd be ready to forgive a million of "I bet you keep your pussy clean"'s. If you have not already done so, do take the time to listen to the song more attentively — it is not «just a gospel number», it is a song where the transition from slow, sloppy, dying-dog verses to the ecstatic chorus really matters. Who is it all about? Brian Jones? Marianne Faithfull? Gram Par­sons? Keith Richards? All of them, really — and all those other people who could not resist temptation, yet even in their worst, filthiest moments deserve all the compassion that they can get from us. Remember — "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance"; this is pre­cisely what ʽShine A Lightʼ is all about, and it's gorgeous Christian bliss, at least from the point of view of this particular not-too-Christian reviewer. (Good thing young Mick Taylor understood that, too — his soloing on the song also seems to transcend the usual blues limitations and soar straight to Heaven like an overpowered set of fireworks).

Neither ʽSweet Virginiaʼ nor ʽShine A Lightʼ, the two songs that have always moved me to tears on the album (though it took some time to come up with an explanation for that), could probably have been written before the «tax exile» period. Some of the other songs here were; but even they, in the context of Exile, took on a whole new meaning. Thus, ʽLoving Cupʼ was originally recor­ded in the spring of 1969, during the Let It Bleed sessions (with Mick Taylor already in the band), but if you listen to that early version, you will find out that it is... just a song. Mick's vocal delivery on that version is quite straightforward and devoid of flourishes or ecstatic overdrive: in 1972, he sang lines like "Yes, I'm stumbling, and I know a play a bad guitar" with a far more personal feel, and his "give me a little drink!... just one drink!... and I'll fall down drunk!" really sounds now like a request from a hopeless figurative alcoholic — a hopeless, degraded, humilia­ted case whose only chance of salvation is pure love, and even that, ultimately, may not suffice. Again, ʽLoving Cupʼ is not «just another love song» — not just another cocky assertion of sexual power or a lustful voodoo ritual — it's about love as a pain reliever, love as a potion of immorta­lity, love as the drug that can save or kill or do both at the same time. The orgasmic moment is in the middle section, exploding on the "what a beautiful buzz, what a beautiful buzz..." lines where the ecstasy is complete, and you still don't know if it's Heaven or Hell.

This feeling — it's all over the place, it's in almost everything. On the opening ʽRocks Offʼ, the sinner confesses that he "only get my rocks off while I'm dreamin'", and although the song is essentially a straightahead blues-rocker, they are not afraid to interrupt it with a freaky psyche­delic mid-section ("feel so hypnotised...") that seems to suggest that dreaming might help you get your rocks off, but it can also make you go crazy. ʽTorn And Frayedʼ — a little less impressive in terms of Mick's vocal performance, but it still suffices to make you feel even more pity for the band members with their sorry autobiography ("who's gonna help him to kick it?"). Or ʽLet It Looseʼ — I've never been able to warm up to it on the level of ʽShine A Lightʼ (with which it shares the gospel feel, but not so much the tightness and catchiness of the structure), yet there is a feel of deep, eternal sorrow engraved in those Leslie cabinet-enhanced guitars, and even if nobody has ever been able to properly decode the lyrics, Mick still sings them like a man posses­sed, ripping himself out of the straightjacket he'd been locked in on ʽI Got The Bluesʼ (one reason why I never thought so highly of that song) and playing the «crazy sinner» card to his full poten­tial. "Let it all come down tonight" indeed.

Not to undermine or underestimate all the rock material on the record, of course. Despite the re­lative scarcity of riff-oriented classic rock hits, three songs at least from here turned into peren­nial stage favorites: ʽHappyʼ is the ultimate Keith Richards showcase ("never want to be like papa, working for the boss every night and day"), with one of his classic minimalistic riffs and a keep-it-simple-stupid groove about baby keeping me happy that works because it's, well, genius; ʽAll Down The Lineʼ is a great choo-choo train-type melody, a cock-rocker with plenty of class and good old sublimation ("we're gonna open up the throttle", right), plus Mick Taylor gives us one more great showcase of slide guitar playing; and ʽTumbling Diceʼ... well, ʽTumbling Diceʼ is just one of those anthemic «program statements» that are so obvious, it's not clear I can add even one iota of further clarification. (Just for the record, though, all you ladies happily singing along to the chorus at every Stones show, it's about how you're all cheaters anyway, so Mick Jagger is going to dump you first because that's the way he is. And yes, the poor bastard still deserves our sym­pathy, much like a modern-day Don Giovanni. He's a rebel, see).

After all these things, it hardly matters if some songs here are worse than others. So I've never quite gotten the point of the ode to Angela Davis (ʽSweet Black Angelʼ), a fun acoustic throw­away that is occasionally singled out as a high point by leftist critics, despite everything about it being so firmly tongue-in-cheek (you want real political fervor? go check out John Lennon's Sometime In New York from the same year!), and I've always found the voodoo ritual imitation on ʽI Just Want To See His Faceʼ too repetitive and murky, and I still cannot bring myself to really love ʽSoul Survivorʼ as the album's final track — that trill-based riff, later shamelessly recycled on Under­cover's ʽIt Must Be Hellʼ, is pretty cool, but the song on the whole is anti-climactic, coming right off the heels of ʽShine A Lightʼ. And then there's the highly problematic aspect of production — even today I still think that the album was poorly mixed, and even if its overall murkiness, with Jagger's voice too often blending in with the instruments, symbolically fits in with the spirit of the record, I am still convinced that Jimmy Miller could have done a much better job without betraying that spirit. But I guess that by this time, he was suffering from a drug problem at least as heavy as Keith's, and was no longer the same Jimmy Miller, really, who'd truly masterminded their previous three records.

But none of that really matters. Is the album overlong? Did it really need to be stretched across two LPs (even though it barely goes on for 67 minutes — for comparison, The Beatles went well over 90)? I don't know, it never really struck me as a «proverbial» double album anyway, because I never gave in to the «encyclopaedic» assessment: any real comparison to The Beatles would never make sense anyway, because The Beatles never had any single underlying idea, accidental or intentional, while Exile is really all about «turds on the run», and if this means adding a few actual «turds» to the songlist, so be it — who really cares when you have so many masterpieces falling together in a formally chaotic, but substantially cohesive manner? There are many records out there that do a good job glorifying the «bad guy» image, but how many are there asking for compassion for the «bad guy», how many are able to take the cartoonish rock'n'roll façade and show the delicately crumbling spirit behind it? This is the kind of album that shows precisely why somebody like, say, AC/DC are AC/DC, and why the Stones are the Stones — a band that is not only capable of looking deep within themselves, but of understanding what they found there, and able to convert it to music so that we could understand it, too.

All the more ironic, and tragic, is the realization that the sinner did not reach the coveted salva­tion. All those great bits of introspection, ambiguity, psychological self-evaluation, and even oh-so-skill­ful manipulation of our feelings that are so all over the place on Exile, would be almost completely (with but a few scattered exceptions) gone, beginning with the next album. It's as if this was really the last time in Stones history when Mick and Keith allowed themselves to bare it all, disclosing themselves before the public. Perhaps it was the relative lack of critical success at the time (reviews were mixed, with too many critics not getting the spirit of the record and con­demning it for various technical reasons) that served as the final blow to Mick's ego: in subse­quent interviews, he usually seemed quite cold about the record himself — who knows? perhaps, deep down inside, he was uncomfortable about showing so much of «the true himself» to all that "swirling mass of gray and black and white", and felt more secure when it was show business as usual, with ʽStarfuckerʼ and ʽHot Stuffʼ and ʽMiss Youʼ walling off that odd moment of acci­dental self-disclosure. Or maybe it was something different, I don't know. Whatever it was, Exile On Main St. has always been and probably will always remain the single greatest tribute to all «Victims Of The Rock'n'Roll Life Style», transcending clichés and being as great a statement of the Stones' ragged, earthly humanism as, say, Abbey Road is of the Beatles' luminescent, heavenly, idealized one. But do remember that it might take you a decade or so to come to that conclusion, as it took me — I'd always thought of it as a bona fide thumbs up album, but putting the finger on what is so essential about it was not so easy.

PS. On a slightly anti-climactic note, I am quite disappointed about the 2010 reissue, with 11 extra tracks — some of them are quite interesting from a historical point of view, but the band almost sacrilegiously doctored most of the outtakes by re-recording Jagger's vocals (! — yes, ima­gine that, a 67-year old Jagger wiping out the vocals of a 29-year old Jagger) and adding extra overdubs (backing vocals by Lisa Fischer, some new lead guitar parts from Mick Taylor, etc.); perhaps they thought this would make for an interesting experiment, but, considering that these are outtakes that weren't nearly as good as the cuts that made it to the album in the first place, and are largely important for their historical value, this seems like a quintessentially fucked-up deci­sion. In any case, with the possible exception of ʽPlundered My Soulʼ, most of those outtakes sound like hookless grooves where they were unable to find the proper angle, so I can understand why they never made the final cut. Some priceless photos included in with the liner notes, though: the band really did look like a pack of ragged, wasted sinners during those sessions, and if you stare at them long enough with ʽSweet Virginiaʼ, ʽTorn And Frayedʼ, and ʽTurd On The Runʼ blasting out of your speakers, fairly soon you'll begin feeling like a ragged, wasted sinner your­self — with a strong urge to throw a TV set out your window or something like that. Ah, that good old rock'n'roll lifestyle... so infectious, isn't it?

Saturday, January 28, 2017

ABBA: Live At Wembley

ABBA: LIVE AT WEMBLEY (1979; 2014)

1) Gammal Fäbodpsalm; 2) Voulez-Vous; 3) If It Wasn't For The Nights; 4) As Good As New; 5) Knowing Me, Knowing You; 6) Rock Me; 7) Chiquitita; 8) Money, Money, Money; 9) I Have A Dream; 10) Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight); 11) SOS; 12) Fernando; 13) The Name Of The Game; 14) Eagle; 15) Thank You For The Music; 16) Why Did It Have To Be Me; 17) Intermezzo No. 1; 18) I'm Still Alive; 19) Summer Night City; 20) Take A Chance On Me; 21) Does Your Mother Know; 22) Hole In Your Soul; 23) The Way Old Friends Do; 24) Dancing Queen; 25) Waterloo.

Oh wouldn't you know it — almost thirty years later, the dudes return to bring an originally half-assed job to perfection. The reason why, even after ABBA's popularity had resurged and their classic hits proved to stand the test of time, they waited so long to put out a proper live album from the vaults, is that the band members themselves never saw ABBA as a truly great live band, and had largely shyed away from extensive touring even at their peak (it is no coincidence that the majority of «live» performances of ABBA from various TV shows that you can catch on YouTube these days are actually lip-synched). Yet the botched legacy of ABBA Live, sewn to­gether from various sources and cursed with poor mixing and electronic drum overdubs, must have finally pushed Benny and Björn into unearthing the old tapes, and ultimately, as part of the band's 40th anniversary celebrations, they settled upon the November 10, 1979 show from the Wembley Arena to be released in its entirety, «as was», with nothing but a proper remastering procedure to separate us from the alleged truth.

Since it was the Wembley shows that also constituted the bulk of ABBA Live, a significant chunk of the tracks overlaps between the two releases (and I am talking exact same performances, not just the same songs) — but even the most basic comparison shows the new release to be far superior, with a much cleaner, juicier mix and no silly electronic doctoring. In fact, it pretty much renders ABBA Live expendable, with the exception of the tracks from 1980 recorded at the Dick Cavett show performance (and still historically important as ABBA's last live show). It is also a major improvement on the equally eviscerated ABBA In Concert video, also culled from the Wembley shows and largely giving us snippets of the concert (less than half of the songs that were actually performed, and some in abbreviated versions and interspersed with the usual crap­ola like backstage chatter and fan ravings). Basically, it is the first and, so far, only official docu­ment of a complete, authentic, uninterrupted ABBA show from their peak period.

Okay, well, maybe not exactly «peak», because we were still living in the disco era back then, and the band was busy promoting Voulez Vous, which, let's admit it, was their weakest offering in the entire 1975-82 period of pop glory — precisely because of too much disco influence. So the setlist, as we now learn, is quite heavy on tracks from that album (6 out of 10 songs), and I am still not sure if these, clearly less polished and mechanical, versions of songs like the title track and ʽAs Good As Newʼ actually improve on the studio originals (by adding an element of natu­ral roughness) or detract from them (because these were songs whose intended impact depended on a complete avoidance of all roughness and on total mechanical precision). In any case, this is a minor encumberance, but it also reflects on the rest of the performances: classic songs from the pre-disco years now have a shade of the «been through that, time to move on» spirit — a feeling impos­sible to justify properly, but one that still makes me yearn for a proper live release from, say, the Australian tour of 1977 (which, judging by what we know from ABBA: The Movie, was the true peak of ABBA as a live band).

Nevertheless, on the whole, it's a lot of fun. Yes, many studio nuances inevitably get lost in the live setting, but the crystal clear mix reveals a beautiful balance of technical precision and human feeling in the singing — if anything, the girls in the band were working it much harder on the stage than the guys (Björn was never a great guitarist, and most of the complicated guitar parts are played by Lasse Wellander; Benny gets his big break with ʽIntermezzo No. 1ʼ, but otherwise is mainly just busy tracing out the basic melodic contour of the songs), never missing a note and taking good care of all the parts that require special effort (such as Agnetha's ear-piercing high B on ʽHole In Your Soulʼ). Special mention should be made of: (a) ʽMoney Money Moneyʼ, with Frida and Benny running rings around each other until an «angry» Frida retorts with "It's my song!" and sets things straight; (b) ʽWhy Did It Have To Be Meʼ, which gets a ʽKansas Cityʼ type of introduction to prove they're playing rock'n'roll which they are not, but it's still hilarious; (c) ʽI Have A Dreamʼ, performed with the assistance of a local children's choir — cute to the point of almost puking, but I still cannot blame them for rewarding the choir with an encore, since every kid deserves his/her taste of encouragement for a job well done; (d) ʽThe Way Old Friends Doʼ, receiving here a nice friendly preview with Benny's accordeon; (e) Lasse Wellander's Rock God Guitar Solo on ʽEagleʼ, although that one has already been discussed in the context of ABBA Live (I think it's the exact same performance — and the guy had quite a difficult job to perform, considering he had to do it with Frida and Agnetha wrapping themselves around his legs, accor­ding to mainstream conventions of «sexy» at the time).

Overall, the only thing that spoils the experience a bit is the stage banter — there's nothing really bad I can say about the performances, it is only the little things in between that show how unac­customed the band really was to arena-size performing (an example from Frida: "I only want to ask you one question... WHAT DO YOU THINK OF OUR BAND?" — uh, Frida, nobody really came there for your band, did they?). I also suppose that Björn's official introduction of Agnetha as «the blond one» would not be looked upon with benevolence by the feminist-oriented mindset of today, but, honestly, I suppose he just did that because introducing her as «Agnetha» would be too boring, and he just couldn't think of anything more inventive — thank God at least he did not refer to her as «the blond one with the big bum» or something like that.

Bottomline: you can safely throw away your ABBA Live now and replace it with this, far more comprehensive, document — although, while I certainly do not think that ABBA deserve to have a large archival live catalog, I still think that they owe us one more live release from the 1976-77 vaults to complete the picture. Ten years from now? 50th anniversary? We'll be waiting; in the interim, thumbs up for this Wembley experience, anyway.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Anathema: Universal


1) Untouchable, Part 1; 2) Untouchable, Part 2; 3) Thin Air; 4) Dreaming Light; 5) Lightning Song; 6) The Storm Before The Calm; 7) Everything; 8) A Simple Mistake; 9) The Beginning And The End; 10) Universal; 11) Closer; 12) A Natural Disaster; 13) Deep; 14) One Last Goodbye; 15) Flying; 16) Fragile Dreams; 17) Panic; 18) Emotional Winter / Wings Of God; 19) Internal Landscapes; 20) Fragile Dreams 2.

The title and track listing for Anathema's first live album may be a little confusing. Apparently, it was first released under the title Untouchable, on four sides of vinyl, with 12 tracks in all. Later, the entire concert, recorded at the Theatre of Philippopolis in Plovdiv, Bulgaria (don't ask me why, but I guess it has something to do with traditional Eastern European and Soviet enthusiasm for mass-marketed Crunchy Spiritual Rock), was released on DVD and Blu-ray under the title of Universal — and some of the video editions also featured the entire audio of the concert, which comes up to a whoppin' two hours and sixteen minutes of Anathema bliss. This is the edition I will be talking about: I couldn't bear watch the entire show (spirituality overload!), but I did listen to the entire concert, though, frankly, I'm not sure why.

Because even with the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying these guys, their live shows (at this point, at least — I have no idea about the early doom metal days) merely recreate the studio originals, as close as possible, which is still not close enough if you remember that they have no Steven Wilson with them on stage. Some of the trickiest studio overdubs cannot be recre­ated at all (for instance, the «electric storm» in ʽThe Storm Before The Calmʼ, here pretty much shorn of the electronics that made that instrumental interlude so great), and those that can... well, since this is not about improvisation, or about toughening up the original sound, or about giving the songs additional dimensions, all you can say is, "gee, well, at least here's proof that somebody actually loves Anathema!" Because the audience does go wild.

At the very least, they could have arranged an interesting setlist — seeing as how Anathema's entire career gradually and logically went from «pitch black» to «moody dark» to «light angelic», it would have been a great idea to arrange the whole show in precisely that order: start off with some early metal, then gradually lighten up and land the show with ʽUniversalʼ or any of those other anthemic we-saw-the-light tracks. Instead, they do exactly the opposite: the first half of the show consists of almost nothing but songs from the last two albums, and the second half consists of a bunch of earlier hits, so that you start out with hope and finish with despair — how rational is that, given that the band's current agenda is to give hope rather than take it away? I admit that there are no reasons whatsoever to expect particularly intelligent decisions about musical logis­tics from a band as naively idealistic as Anathema, but come on guys — do not undermine your own artistic ideology at least.

No comments on individual songs whatsoever, but I am glad that the album is an official ack­nowledgement of the fact that ʽFragile Dreamsʼ is this band's quintessential signature song for all times: not only do they finish the show with it, but they play two versions of it (first the reworked soft one and then the original hard one). Allegedly the fans were quite happy about it. Everything was nice, the vibes were great, the band members were very polite and friendly, we all went to Heaven and back, and the degree of spiritual enlightenment in the country of Bulgaria tempora­rily went through the roof, even though the ancient Theatre of Philippopolis probably does not have a roof, which makes things even easier. Bottomline: you probably had to be there to make the experience worthwhile, but then why on Earth should anyone bother going to an Anathema con­cert? They don't even provide space for a mosh pit or anything.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Camper Van Beethoven: Key Lime Pie


1) Opening Theme; 2) Jack Ruby; 3) Sweethearts; 4) When I Win The Lottery; 5) (I Was Born In A) Laundromat; 6) Borderline; 7) The Light From A Cake; 8) June; 9) All Her Favorite Fruit; 10) Interlude; 11) Flowers; 12) The Humid Press Of Days; 13) Pictures Of Matchstick Men; 14) Come On Darkness.

With this album, the first stage of the existence of Camper Van Beethoven comes to a — rather somber — close. Apparently, the group began to splinter even before the recording started, with the loss of Jonathan Segel being a particularly heavy blow: they do their best to mask his absence by hiring non-member Don Lax and, later still, temporary member Morgan Fichter to play the violin, but it is, perhaps, not so much the presence/absence of the fiddle sound as it is a certain intuitively felt disappearance of one shade of rainbow that is the main problem.

Every review of Key Lime Pie that you read is going to focus on two aspects of this record: (a) it is noticeably darker and less idealistic than before (as if you couldn't tell, what with the very last track being named ʽCome On Darknessʼ and all); (b) it is less musically diverse, with most songs molded in a relatively traditional Americana pattern, with heavy folk, country, and blues influen­ces. Throw in a bunch of politicized lyrics every now and then, and you'd easily get the impres­sion that Lowery and his pals are trying to get «serious» and «make a statement», essentially betraying Camper's original un-ideology, either in the vain hope to score extra financial success (which they actually did, since Key Lime Pie sold noticeably better than they used to), or be­cause they have outgrown their adolescent phase and are no longer so obstinate about making «art for art's sake».

Certainly this impression is at its strongest with the album's first song, ʽJack Rubyʼ, which uses the title character as an abstract allegory for the mess we're in ("now we think it's a virtue to simply survive / but it feels like this calm it's decaying / it's collapsing under its own weight"). It's a long, repetitive, gloomy folk-rock ballad, one that probably begs to be covered by a Joan Baez or, who knows, even a Bob Dylan (certainly wouldn't feel out of place on one of his late period albums like Modern Times). With a sparse arrangement, largely reduced to a ringing rhythm guitar and an angry distorted lead guitar track with a penchant for sustained notes and whammy bar abuse, this is as close to an apocalyptic mood as the Campers ever get.

Skip ahead several tracks, though, and songs like ʽJuneʼ will show you that essentially, it's just David Lowery in a really, really bad mood. "Are you weary of the lengthening days?", he asks, "do you secretly wish for November's rain?", and goes on to conclude, "there is nothing in this world more bitter than Spring". Musically, this is probably the album's most interesting and innovative number, a dark waltz that shifts keys and becomes even darker midway through, all the time staying very heavy on the strings, with a psychedelic chamber arrangement somewhere in between country-western and modern classical — but its words and its basic mood suggest, first and foremost, that something just went really rotten on the inside. It's like the band just doesn't feel like having fun any more — not some sort of conscious decision to «get deeper and darker», but merely an instinctive reflection of some nasty virus eating up the soul.

The only track on the album that is not altogether infused with this nasty feel is (in yet another nod to the great god of unpredictability) the band's cover of Status Quo's ʽPictures Of Matchstick Menʼ, with the slide guitar riff lovingly recreated by Morgan Fichter's violin, but otherwise fairly loyal to the original. However, in its lonely position, stuck in between a bunch of morose tracks, it sounds more like a melancholically nostalgic tribute to long gone days of hippie happiness than an idealistic attempt to bring those days back. And how could it be taken with a light heart, really, after all these songs that deal with pissed-off loser dreams (ʽWhen I Win The Lotteryʼ — "when the end comes to this old world / the rats will cry and the rest will curl up"), venting frustration accumulated at the bottom of the social ladder (ʽI Was Born In A Laundromatʼ), the impossibility of getting satisfaction even from blessed escapism (ʽBorderlineʼ — ska rhythms return with a gritty, snappy vengeance and conclude that "on the borderline everything is empty, even you and I"), and the uselessness of romance (ʽAll Her Favorite Fruitʼ, said to be based around a love line from Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, but applicable to any situation in which a pair of lovers feel like "we are rotting like a fruit underneath a rusting roof")?

All in all, this was clearly not a happy period in the band's life, but the album on the whole still qualifies as a good one — there's plenty of catchy choruses, enough tracks like ʽJuneʼ that can still grab your attention with unusual and beautiful textures, and Lowery is as good at transmit­ting the aura of weariness and dissatisfaction as he is at being a smartass cynic with a sharp sense of humor. Not every band that started out with such effective absurdity as ʽThe Day That Lassie Went To The Moonʼ could bring it to such a convincingly morose finale as ʽCome On Darknessʼ, even if it does make you wonder if there's a certain natural law that inevitably leads The Joker on to becoming The Undertaker (then again, so far it hasn't really worked on Weird Al Yankovic, to say the least). I give it a thumbs up, but beware — you will only enjoy it if you did not dig all those previous Camper records merely for being «hilarious».

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Candi Staton: Candi Staton


1) Looking For Love; 2) Halfway To Heaven; 3) One More Try; 4) If You Feel The Need; 5) The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game; 6) It's Real; 7) Betcha I'm Gonna Get Ya; 8) Living Inside Me.

Usually the appearance of an album titled after the artist's name in the middle of the artist's career symbolizes a reboot of sorts — but there's nothing rebootable whatsoever in this record, a stereo­typical dance-pop successor to Chance, so I'm guessing this rather reflects a complete lack of inspiration. Yes, it is sad when the album's best track turns out to be a 14-year old cover (ʽThe Hunter Gets Captured By The Gameʼ), and, furthermore, one that adds practically nothing to the original — at least when Blondie covered the same track two years later, they completely rewor­ked the arrangement, but this here is a fairly loyal reproduction, weakened only by sterile touches of early Eighties' production.

Candi is a little more involved than usual this time, writing three of the songs and even self-pro­ducing a part of the album, but it does not help. Of these three songs, two (ʽHalfway To Heavenʼ and ʽIt's Realʼ) are generic ballads, one «modern» and one «retro», but both equally forgettable; and one (ʽBetcha I'm Gonna Get Yaʼ) is a dance-pop number so bland and faceless, it would probably make even the elevator cringe at the idea of having it played in it. For the single, they chose a composition by Andy Schwartz, the part-time keyboardist of Chic, ʽLooking For Loveʼ, and the best I can say about it is that it has a memorable-through-repetition chorus, oh, and disco bass king Norbert Sloley slaps up some cool lines, but that's about it. The single charted very modestly on the US R&B charts, then disappeared without a trace.

Supposedly this is the absolute nadir of Candi's career — here, her gradual reduction from a nice human being with a sharp sense of taste to a simplistic «musical roach» is complete, and even such a nice gesture as transferring some control over the creative process into the lady's own hands does not work: her songwriting talents are insufficient to overcome the bland standards of commercial R&B in 1980, and as a producer, well, she's no Prince for sure. At least the album cover photo does not strain so heavily to «sexualize» the artist, but then again, boring songs and not even any cleavage to make up for that? This is an insult for male chauvinist pigs worldwide, so clearly, a thumbs down is the only possible reaction. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Bluejeans & Moonbeams


1) Party Of Special Things To Do; 2) Same Old Blues; 3) Observatory Crest; 4) Pompadour Swamp; 5) Captain's Holiday; 6) Rock'n'Roll's Evil Doll; 7) Further Than We've Gone; 8) Twist Ah Luck; 9) Bluejeans And Moonbeams.

Maybe I'm going too soft or too crazy, but I see more signs of life on Beefheart's second «faux-commercial» album of 1974 than on the first one — even though, by that time, the entire Magic Band had deserted him and was replaced by a bunch of really obscure musicians (Dean Smith on guitar, Micheal /sic/ Smotherman on keyboards, Ty Grimes on drums, Ira Ingber on bass, if you like names and all that), earning the popular moniker of «Captain Beefheart's Tragic Band». But... despite that, or because of that? In a way, replacing your loyal apostles, trained in the ways of the avantgarde, with a bunch of nobodies might have been the right way to go if you truly wanted to make a conventional record — at least, that way you would reduce tension in the studio.

And as a conventional record, Bluejeans is better than its predecessor because it does not sound so painful — not only is Beefheart in healthier vocal form throughout, but fewer songs sound like misguided, clumsy attempts of a deranged innovator to change his train at the speed of 200mph. Case in point: there's a cover of J. J. Cale's ʽSame Old Bluesʼ, and it's a good one — a normal dark blues song, done by the Captain with his usual growl and every bit as convincing as the ori­ginal, though, perhaps, not very necessary. But there's some confidence here, and a suggestion that, perhaps, Beefheart would have fared better at the time if he had simply switched to standard blues or blues-rock. Something like an album of Howlin' Wolf covers, for instance.

As usual, he insists upon starting the record with an evil-grin of a nasty funk-rocker, and as usual, the opening number is one of the best things here — ʽParty Of Special Things To Doʼ holds its own against not only ʽUpon The My-Oh-Myʼ, but against ʽI'm Gonna Booglarize Youʼ and ʽLow Yo-Yo Stuffʼ as well. Surrealist lyrics ("the camel wore a nightie"), evil cackle, nasty riff, what's not to like? I do miss the fascinating guitar interplay between left and right channel, but if you can cope with the simplified approach, it's a good, reliable groove — unfortunately, the only one of its kind on the entire record.

The Captain also gets more sentimental than he's ever been, with three surprisingly decent tracks. ʽObservatory Crestʼ has a certain meditative aura about it — a song about really doing nothing except watching the city from an observatory crest, to the sound of quasi-psychedelic chimes and relaxing slide guitar phrases; ʽFurther Than We've Goneʼ suffers from an unfortunately hysterical vocal delivery (dear Captain, if you're trying to be soulful and sentimental, please do not scream about it on one of those laryngitis-stricken days!), but makes up for it with a surprisingly good extended guitar solo; and best of the three is the title track, melodically and emotionally stuck in somewhere be­tween James Taylor and Blood On The Tracks-era Bob Dylan, but with an excep­tional vocal performance this time — in fact, this is a tune that would not have sounded out of place on the funeral day for the Captain, what with its peacefulness and a feeling of finally accep­ting life as it is ("I'm tryin' in all ways and learnin' in between"). Yes, it's fairly generic mid-1970s soft rock, but it does work, together with the supporting guitar work and almost Emersonian Moog synth solo from the keyboard man.

On the down side, ʽRock'n'Roll's Evil Dollʼ is a fairly lame attempt at learning the «dance-rock» moves of the day (the Captain treading on Bee Gees territory? certainly not the right thing for him), and then there is what might be the total nadir for Beefheart — the incredibly lame, New-Orleans-meets-German-cabaret, nearly instrumental ʽCaptain's Holidayʼ, which might have been the perfect welcoming music for a whorehouse if the Captain ever bothered setting one up ("ooh captain captain, lay your burden down"). It is a fairly tight groove, but one that sounds sleazy, pimp-wise, without being intelligent, and it has been rumored that Beefheart does not even play his own harmonica on that one, so it remains to be understood if he has any relation to the track whatsoever, or whether it was just a stupid joke played on him by «The Tragic Band». Not that he'd noticed — apparently, he was in such a daze at the time that they could have invited Neil Diamond to guest on a couple of tracks and he'd probably be all right with that.

Regardless, the record is not a total waste — it's just that there is no reason whatsoever to go for it if you are interested specifically in Captain Beefheart, rather than just a few examples of decent, emotionally resonant mid-Seventies soft-rock that could just as well have been delivered by Jack­son Browne or somebody even less individualistic. And, objectively, it does mark a particularly low point in the man's artistic career, because he'd pretty much stopped being Captain Beefheart: in all actuality, this record should really have been credited to «Don Van Vliet & The Tragic Band». It's no big crime to dissolve your artistic identity — it might even be a useful exercise in humility — but it's no good, either, if you don't stand to gain anything in return, and this album flopped even worse than Unconditionally Guaranteed. Still, yet another curious chapter in the Captain's history, there's no denying at least that.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Carla Thomas: Memphis Queen


1) I Like What You're Doing (To Me); 2) I Play For Keeps; 3) Don't Say No More; 4) More Man Than I Ever Had; 5) I've Fallen In Love With You; 6) He's Beating Your Time; 7) Unyielding; 8) Strung Out; 9) How Can You Throw My Love Away; 10) Guide Me Well; 11) Precious Memories; 12) Where Do I Go.

The difference between Queen Alone and Memphis Queen, other than the switch from «alone» (as in «I don't need Otis Redding by my side to prove that royal status... or do I?») to «Memphis» (as in «assertion of Southern identity couldn't hurt those sales... or could it?»), is that this 1969 record is a little less poppy and generally goes for denser and harsher arrangements, funkier grooves, and, overall, more of that swampy soulful black magic. Loud brass, thick syncopated bass, gospel backing vocals, the works. Classy Stax sound and all — problem is, by 1969 we were already living in the world of Aretha Franklin, and in this world, the need for Carla Thomas is almost non-existent.

Unless she or her collaborators could contribute some top-level songwriting, that is; but in this respect, Memphis Queen is no better or worse than a thousand other deep (or not so deep) soul records released the same year. Carla herself writes only two songs, the Motown-ish pop-rocker ʽDon't Say No Moreʼ and the lush ballad ʽI've Fallen In Love With Youʼ, and both are perfectly stereotypical. Even worse, the Hayes/Porter well of goodies has clearly run dry as well — with Hayes now busy full time with his own solo career, the only contribution is ʽGuide Me Wellʼ, a slow waltz whose first half is merely recited rather than sung by the lady, and everything about which, including the arrangement, could have been created in a matter of five minutes by any seasoned professional.

Arguably the finest court songwriter of the bunch here is Bettye Crutcher, who contributes ʽI Like What You're Doing (To Me)ʼ, the poppiest and catchiest song of the whole bunch (sounds not unlike early Christine McVie before she learned to properly sharpen those hooks), and the funk-pop anthem ʽMore Man Than I've Ever Hadʼ, where the gentle and romantic Carla Thomas is beginning to learn the basics of lusty, carnal music — still not quite up to the standards of Bessie Smith, but she does make the transition to a deeper, rougher range in order to explain how her man keeps her satisfied. It's fun, but, unfortunately, not very believable from a performer whose brightest moment still remains ʽGee Whizʼ, a starry-eyed and purely innocent account of teenage love — the teenager may have grown up, but not into a sex-crazed lady who'd be ready to eat you alive at a moment's notice. Nice try, though.

The record remains a good example of classic 1969-era Stax: everybody is tight, brass and string parts gel perfectly, and there is even some fine wah-wah funk playing on a few of the numbers (ʽUnyieldingʼ), so there are no special reasons to put it down. But it did not succeed in making Carla Thomas more relevant and star-powered in the new era of black music, and the idea of putting out the slow, barely noticeable ʽGuide Me Wellʼ as the lead single only meant that no­body really gave a damn any more.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers


1) Brown Sugar; 2) Sway; 3) Wild Horses; 4) Can't You Hear Me Knocking; 5) You Gotta Move; 6) Bitch; 7) I Got The Blues; 8) Sister Morphine; 9) Dead Flowers; 10) Moonlight Mile.

Unlike Exile On Main St., Sticky Fingers does not reflect any particularly cohesive, specially-flavored single moment in Stones history. A large part of the record was written and even recor­ded before Altamont, and an even larger chunk already after the band had survived Altamont and emerged as the most notorious and still-overpowered survivor from the Sixties, with The Who still on their tail as a close second. Sometime around 1970-71 The Rolling Stones unofficially became rock music's Royalty Incarnate, a band that, from now on, would be granted complete pardon from any artistic sins — I mean, all their albums from 1971 to 1981, no matter how good or bad they were, went straight to No. 1 on the US charts (UK audiences were a bit more discer­ning, but not by much), yes, even Emotional Rescue. Essentially, of course, it was the 1965-69 legacy that provided them with a decade of full credit (and then three more decades of partial credit); still, for a while, even with the heavy weight of those crowns on their heads, they did continue to work towards paying off that credit rather than sinking in debt.

By 1971, things had changed in many, many different ways. The Rolling Stones had their own label now, their own tongue logo, their complete freedom to do whatever and whichever way they wanted to. They were beginning to see far more money than usual — and more money also meant more drugs for Keith and whoever wanted to follow in his footsteps. And they were also part of that whole new world that saw glam, shock, decadence, and hedonism as the legitimate inheritors of the hippie worldview — heck, if the idea of loving your neighbor turned out so hard to imple­ment, then what about the idea of loving yourself? An idea that, for the Stones, was even easier to implement than for the others, since there was very little about loving your neighbor in their music anyway — unless it's a "brown sugar, how come you taste so good?" way of loving your neighbor, that is.

This is the big reason why I have always felt a little... reserved about Sticky Fingers, regardless of the sheer number of magnificent tunes on that record. Many people might not even sense the thin, but solid line that separates Sticky Fingers from Let It Bleed, but I am fairly sure it is there, in all those little things. The zipper cover. The occasional crude line like "sometimes I'm sexy, move like a stud, kicking the stall all night". The small touches of hedonism and pretentiousness, and the relative lack of subtlety of approach. It has its advantages, too — the sheer sonic depth of the music at its best overrides even the most complex dynamics of Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed — but it is a record which is generally easier for me to admire than to make friends with, or to deposit its echoes deep in my bone marrow, as was done with Let It Bleed. In a way, this is the beginning of the end for the Stones, although, in another way, few things can be more fascina­ting or intriguing than «the beginning of the end» for the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world.

A bit of clarification is in order. As the leading creative forces in the band, Mick and Keith had both reached full artistic maturity around 1966-67, and were at the height of their imaginative powers for the rest of the decade. But as things became easier around them, and less and less was left to be proven with the passing of time, their personal demons began the gradual task of over­riding them. For Mick, demon #1 was theatrical narcissism — an unbeatable drive to place him­self, or, rather, his stage personality at the center of things, where it could easily end up sounding self-parodic rather than self-ironic. For Keith, demon #1 was simply letting himself go, without tempering his desire to play balls-out rock'n'roll with musical inventiveness and intelligence — and that demon, too, was perhaps stimulated by the arrival of Mick Taylor, whereupon Keith could relax from the challenge of Let It Bleed and think of himself largely as The Riffmeister, whose main duty would be to supply The Crunch and then watch his young disciple throw in additional ingredients. Quite tempting, especially in the light of how much free time such an approach could provide for scoring another shot.

Both of these demons are already quite evident on Sticky Fingers, but here they are still made to behave, if only because Mick's narcissistic tendencies largely work in his favor on songs like ʽSwayʼ and ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, and because Keith's grade-A riffage, combined with Taylor's grade-A blues soloing, cannot be blamed. Like, technically, there might not be a lot going on in a song like ʽBitchʼ — the stereotypical Stones riff-rocker, the kind of song to be praised by the traditional critics and loathed by the "it's only rock'n'roll, so I hate it" type of fans — but the sheer nastiness of that riff, its «we-mean-business, get-out-of-our-way» attitude knows no rivals, and to this must be added the power of the horn section that somehow found itself totally attuned to Keith's message. The climactic moment is the instrumental break, where Keith remembers and reconfigures every Chuck Berry lick, but sets them in the service of the slash-and-bust-and-burn party rather than the high school hop circle — once the man soaks himself in kerosene and lights that match, you just totally forget that this is a song about sex drive, because if it still were, the poor lady would have to be scraped from the ceiling in bits and pieces. (For that matter, while far from all live versions of the song live up to the studio recording, a few actually manage to exceed it in terms of raw viciousness — everybody should check out at least this performance from Feb. 26, 1973 in Sydney: Keith must have been doing cold turkey or something, because he sounded like a total maniac, and the rest of the band got totally caught up in the proceedings).

It would not take long for the exact same approach to acquire a sillier, more harmless entertain­ment-oriented sheen (think ʽStar Starʼ or ʽDance Little Sisterʼ), but on Sticky Fingers everybody could still get in focus and conjure up some real inflammatory anger — although, come to think of it, it is rather startling that the whole album only has something like two straightahead rockers: ʽBitchʼ is one, ʽBrown Sugarʼ is another, and, for that matter, the original version of ʽBrown Sugarʼ still sounds rather soft and tame compared to what the song would soon become in live performance. (The expanded edition of the album adds a different version, recorded in 1970 rather than 1969, with Eric Clapton sitting in on slide guitar — that one is actually faster and crunchier, beginning with the three-chord rather than two-chord intro, more familiar to Stones show goers, but one reason why they might have wanted to go with the earlier one is to preserve the «studio / live» difference that was always so characteristic of their hits).

Speaking of ʽBrown Sugarʼ, this song, more than anything, symbolizes why this is the end of one phase for the band and the beginning of a new one. The big rock'n'roll hits of 1968-69, starting with the traumatic message of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ and ending with the barroom glee of ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ, were not «just» nasty riff-rockers — there was always a story, a vibe, a positive or a thoughtful feeling behind each of them. The vibe of ʽBrown Sugarʼ, however, is nastiness and nastiness alone: it is a 100% cock-rocker with lyrics that were deeply provocative even for the politically incorrect standards of 1971 (and it is a huge testament to the override-all power of the Rolling Stones that they have performed them unchanged for 45 years, with the exception of exactly one line — "you should have heard him just around midnight" instead of "hear him whip the women just around midnight", although, to be fair, Mick already sang it with the amended lyrics as early as 1971). It is perversely delicious, unbeatable, unforgettable, insulting, and per­haps super-indicative of the arrival of a whole new era, but there is also a certain aura of point­lessness around this song that I could never shake off. Although, considering how "brown sugar" is also a street term for heroin, it is hilarious to hear stadiums choked to the brim with hundreds of thousands of people joining in the "brown sugar, how come you taste so good?" refrain — no­body except Sir Mick Jagger could get away with something like that.

If there is one single overriding topic to the album, it is decay and decadence: about half of the songs are about decaying and falling apart, and the other half is about trying to put the pieces back together and starting anew. This is not how it used to be — even on Let It Bleed, their darkest album to that point, the dangers seemed to come from the outside, and the protagonist seemed strong and healthy enough to fend them off (it is not he who is bleeding, but others who can do it on him). But in 1971, this demon life has finally got the lyrical hero of the Stones in its sway, he got the blues, he watched his loved one suffer a dull aching pain, he's been begging on his knees, he's stuck in his basement room with a needle and a spoon and a head full of snow... in short, life's not too good, and it isn't just a matter of Altamont — it's a matter of rock stardom, whose harsh price had already been paid in full by the first members of Club 27 and was already being paid on a yearly installation plan by Mick and (especially) Keith.

The saving grace of Sticky Fingers is how real all that trouble is made to seem. It is very easy to blame all the Stones' problems on the Stones themselves if you want to play it rough, and it is just as easy to absorb them from all responsibility if you want to play it merciful — but what matters is not the objective truth, but rather how convincingly Mick and Keith are able to plead their cases. The best songs on the album are infused with a dark, perceptive psychologism, and if you concentrate on it long and hard enough, you may, indeed, fall in love with Sticky Fingers for the right rather than the wrong reason — like, for instance, the reason that no previous Stones album ever had a song like ʽSwayʼ on it before. A slow, lazy-moving, introspective self-analysis of a self-destructive rock'n'roll hero? They were too young for that before, but now the time is right to subject themselves to a bit of homebrewn psychoanalysis. Narcissistic, but not unreasonable.

And for all the creepiness of dark horror fantasies like ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ and the overwhelming awe of apocalyptic visions like ʽGimme Shelterʼ, nothing beats ʽSister Morphineʼ as arguably the scariest song in the Stones' entire catalog. Of course, the song was written much earlier, at the end of 1968, and originally given to Marianne Faithfull (more accurately, said to be co-written with Marianne, who is probably responsible for at least some of the lyrics; the most eerie thing about the song is that her single was released in February '69, approximately half a year before she overdosed on barbiturates and narrowly escaped with her life while staying in Australia with Mick). But where Marianne's version concentrated on the pain aspect of the experience — phy­sical and emotional — Mick, ever the playful pawn of Satan, focuses on the demonic aspect of it, and all the carefully orchestrated build-up of the song illustrates the hero's gradual descent into Hell, even if we have little idea of which particular circle would drug addicts be assigned to. Al­though the recording features one of Mick's finest vocal performances (he gets in character so vividly that the experience far transcends the boundaries of rock theater), and although Ry Coo­der turns in an equally disturbing performance on slide guitar, top prize goes to Jack Nitzsche, who plays his specially treated piano as if it were the doorbell on Hell's own gates. In the process, ʽSister Morphineʼ becomes a song about retribution — a Shakespearian soliloquy from the tragic hero's dying bed — and God only knows what was going through the heads of our heroes while they were recording this. I'd be mighty surprised — and disappointed — to learn that no trepida­tion whatsoever was felt in the studio.

As a sidenote, it would be unjust not to mention Mick Taylor and the difference that his full status made on Sticky Fingers. Taylor, it must be said, was always an outsider to Stones-ism, and this was not only reflected in his image (on the stage, he preferred to side with Bill Wyman as the quietly-standing Stone) but also in his sound — unlike Keith Richards, the highway rogue of rock'n'roll, Mick was a near-academically trained bluesman, more interested in developing the lyrical potential of the blues-rock solo than in creating an aura of roughness, nastiness, and de­bauchery. The good news is that one did not necessarily contradict the other, as we'd already witnessed on the live performances on Ya-Ya's, and here it is further confirmed in the lengthy instrumental passages on ʽSwayʼ and, most notably, on the record's grandest number, ʽCan't You Hear Me Knockingʼ.

The latter is a particularly fine example of everything that was best in both Keith Richards and Mick Taylor in their prime. The opening of ʽCan't You Hear Me Knockingʼ is what I never get tired of calling «rock'n'roll incarnate» — the twenty seconds of raw, dry, powerful riffage before Mick steps in with the vocals is something that might seem quite simple and generic, yet never in my whole life have I heard a piece of rock'n'roll riffage that would better qualify as a piece of timeless art. Note how, over these few bars, Keith never repeats the same phrase twice — he starts out and ends at about the same chords, but every individual phrase is different, making the passage sound like an improvised, discontented, grizzled, grumbly guitar monolog. It might be a drunken stroll along the alleyway, or an intentionally confusing show-off from a martial arts student, or whatever you'd like it to be, but mostly, it is just an arrogant one-man show of how we set them rules up and then we break them — compare this to, say, a tightly disciplined riff-rocker from AC/DC or Judas Priest, executed with the precision of a well-trained Wehrmacht officer, and that's Keith Richards for you.

The song itself, once the vocals come in, is a classic tale of cocaine-eyes decadence, but its lyrics do not matter so much in the overall context: the band did not initially intend to transform it into an instrumental jam (there's an alternate short version in the deluxe edition), but once this actually happened, almost by accident, the tune became much more than just a blues-rocker about drugs and decay. The groove sustained by the rhythm section is Latin in texture, but Stones-like in spirit, and gives Taylor ample space to shine with a guitar solo that is positively minimalistic for him, favoring tone over complexity. With the first lick coming in around 4:57, even if you were sort of drifting during the brass section interlude, it is all but impossible not to be drawn to the speakers: if anything, it is Taylor's first and last attempt to conjure the Devil on a Stones record, and even though his Devil is far more polished and clean-cut than Keith's, it can sound no less dangerous. The result is one of the most mysterious tracks in the band's catalog — it would be easy to say that they were just trying to produce something long-winded and sophisticated in the era of jam bands and prog rockers, but they really had their own agenda in this, and there's a feeling of sus­pense, inherent danger, confusion, menace, attack, and terrified flight in this jam that is the logical successor of ʽGimme Shelterʼ and ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ. Imagine yourself knockin' all around your town, late at night, when, all of a sudden, the Mick Taylor Solo Demon swoops upon you right out of the blue. Hey, it can actually get scary.

I have never been much of a fan of the band's interpretation of Fred McDowell's ʽYou Gotta Moveʼ (straightahead blues covers were way past the Stones' primary zone of interest at the time), yet the song's judgement-day sentiment fits right in with the album's message — older bluesmen may have been singing the line "you may be rich, child, you may be poor" with emphasis on "poor", and the Stones may have been singing it with emphasis on "rich", but, you know, when the Lord gets ready, you gotta move. On the other hand, after all these years I am still not attuned to the alleged magic of ʽI Got The Bluesʼ, which seems to me a melodic and spiritual misstep compared to the far more convincing ragged gospel of Exile On Main St. The best thing about the song is probably Billy Preston's inspired organ break, but compositionally, it is way too deri­vative of ʽI've Been Loving You Too Longʼ (which they'd already covered anyway), and most importantly, Mick's vocal delivery is modeled way too much on formulaic soul singing: he seems too tied up by convention here to come up with a truly moving performance.

Where he is not tied up by convention is on the album's most beautiful song — and no, that is not the overplayed (if still beautiful) ʽWild Horsesʼ, but the closing ballad ʽMoonlight Mileʼ. If there is really at least one fantastic progressive achievement on Sticky Fingers, it is that, for once, the Stones found just the proper grand epic note to bring things down to a close, even if it took them hiring Elton John's string arranger (Paul Buckmaster) to provide it.

What makes these early Seventies' Stones albums so outstanding is how Mick Jagger, despite already being a super-rich, spoiled rock star with (allegedly) not a care in the world, was still capable of convincing you how, behind all these riches, he could be miserable and suffering, and how, beyond that misery and suffering, he could discern salvation — and how he could so effort­lessly transfer these feelings to the listener. ʽMoonlight Mileʼ was the first of several great, great Stones songs that could act like soothing balm on one's aching soul, and a large part of that was owed to Mick Jagger, the singer. Here, he is not aping Otis Redding or Solomon Burke — in fact, terrible as it may seem to even suggest this, I would still suggest that here he is being Mick Jagger, honestly complaining about "the sound of strangers sending nothing to my mind", yearning for peace and relief. The song reaches its climax around 4:00, after a series of orchest­ral «thrusts» that suggest an attempt to throw one's burden down... but it is never really made clear if the final resolution represents true salvation or if it's merely a matter of optimistic vision.

In any case, it is ʽMoonlight Mileʼ that ties together all the loose ends and takes on the function of ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ for this record — something grand, something that transcends the relatively mundane concerns of the rest of the songs, something that offers redemption from the sins of ʽBrown Sugarʼ and ʽBitchʼ. When Mick, having started out with a soft, languid, relatively calm intonation, finally winds himself up to the last ecstatic "just about a moonlight mile... on down the road, down the road, down the road!", it's like the perfect moment we've all been waiting for: the coming out moment, when the mask is removed and the grinning sinner flings himself to the ground in tears, relieving himself of all the built-up pressure. Which also makes ʽMoonlight Mileʼ the perfect song for everybody who'd like to empathize to some soul-blues classic but does not feel guilty enough to put oneself on the same level with afflicted blues dudes — ʽMoonlight Mileʼ is about making you feel good after making you feel bad even if you're a million-dollar-per-day spender. You may be rich, child, you may be poor, it don't matter, Mr. Jagger has just invented his personal confessional genre and opened it up for everybody. Does any of that make sense? Maybe it doesn't, but I've just listened to the song one more time, and one more time, I had tears swelling in my eyes at the conclusion, so at least that much is an objective fact.

Without ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, Sticky Fingers would be a great album and a small step down from Let It Bleed. With ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, Sticky Fingers is still a small step down from Let It Bleed on the whole, but a step up in some particulars — namely, it adds personal psychologism to the table, on the same level as John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band or Joni Mitchell's Blue or any of those other renowned singer-songwriter albums from the early 1970s, psychologism of the same quality, if certainly not in the same quantity. And it is made all the more fascinating if you simply consider the emotional / atmospheric distance from ʽBrown Sugarʼ (the epitome of snarling, grinning nastiness) to ʽMoonlight Mileʼ — no other artist in musical history could muster the same antipodes of ugliness and beauty of such high quality on the same album. (Those American apostles of the Stones, Aerosmith, certainly used the contrast as a blueprint for their own records, but much as I love Rocks, I wouldn't even begin to dare bring the contrast between ʽBack In The Saddleʼ and ʽHome Tonightʼ into comparison: perhaps ʽBack In The Saddleʼ could compete with the cockiness of ʽBrown Sugarʼ, but ʽHome Tonightʼ could never stand up to ʽMoonlight Mileʼ).

Anyway, it is really pointless to ask yourself whether Let It Bleed is better than Sticky Fingers or vice versa, because, as I said, they represent two different stages of the band. Let It Bleed was a record by a band that was not yet 100% sure whether they made it to the top of the world or not. Sticky Fingers is a record by a band that knows for a fact that it is sitting on top of the world, and wants you to know that (a) it quite enjoys sitting on top of the world, thank you very much, and (b) you know, actually, sitting on top of the world can be quite a drag sometime, but (c) it's not really that much different from sitting anywhere else, because all the problems essentially remain the same. Agree with the message? Then it's a thumbs up all the way.