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Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Kinks: Kinks

THE KINKS: KINKS (1964)

1) Beautiful Delilah; 2) So Mystifying; 3) Just Can't Go To Sleep; 4) Long Tall Shorty; 5) I Took My Baby Home; 6) I'm A Lover Not A Fighter; 7) You Really Got Me; 8) Cadillac; 9) Bald Headed Woman; 10) Revenge; 11) Too Much Monkey Business; 12) I've Been Driving On Bald Mountain; 13) Stop Your Sobbing; 14) Got Love If You Want It; 15*) Long Tall Sally; 16*) You Still Want Me; 17*) You Do Something To Me; 18*) It's Alright; 19*) All Day And All Of The Night; 20*) I Gotta Move; 21*) Louie, Louie; 22*) I Gotta Go Now; 23*) Things Are Getting Better; 24*) I've Got That Feeling; 25*) Too Much Monkey Business; 26*) I Don't Need You Any More.

Fortunately for the world, all of the Kinks' classic albums have been re-released on CD in ex­panded versions, containing all of their contemporary singles (as well as some hitherto unreleased demos and outtakes) as bonus tracks and saving us from the Rolling Stones problem of having to hunt down the individual scattered gems, and/or relying on the parallel American catalog to get a more comprehensive, but also more confusing, picture of the band's output. In the case of The Kinks, just as in the case of The Hollies or, in fact, the case of pretty much every British Invasion band with the exception of The Beatles, this is particularly important since, for the first few years of their existence, true gold from this band only came in the form of 45 rpms.

Not in the form of their first 45 rpm, though, which was just an inexplicably slowed down cover of ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ, not even beginning to compare to the maniacal Little Richard original or, for that matter, the Beatles' version — the slow tempo does make it stand out from the rest, but not in a good way. Not in the form of their second 45 rpm, either: in retrospect, ʽYou Still Want Meʼ is a pretty little bit of power pop, but way too imitative of the Merseybeat sound to be considered a landmark — rather comparable, in fact, to bands like Gerry & The Pacemakers and Herman's Hermits than the Fab Four (or, on the other side of the planet, to the Dave Clark Five, but bereft of the solid wall-of-sound and professional tightness of the DC5).

Neither of these two songs happened to chart, and so neither was included on the band's first LP. Third time around, the Davies brothers decided to go with something edgier — and ended up inventing garage rock with ʽYou Really Got Meʼ, the song that launched a thousand ships and is still a matter of controversy among those who insist that the guitar solo was played by Jimmy Page rather than Dave Davies. Well, it was not, but the drums, apparently, were played by session man Bobby Graham rather than The Kinks' regular drummer Mick Avory. Not that it is some technical marvel of a solo or anything — it merely features Dave setting himself on fire and acting a bit Neanderthal, which, in the timid days of 1964, was still a novel thing to do. There is also not the least doubt on my part that the solo was heavily influenced by Keith Richard's simi­larly Neanderthal break on ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ, considering that the Stones' single had only just come out (in June) and must have been in heavy rotation in the Davies' camp.

Regardless, it is futile to deny that the riff of ʽYou Really Got Meʼ acted as the fuckin' mother­lode — especially the realization that you could record something like that in the studio, get it distributed through an official network and make some royalties on it. Up to this day, Ray and Dave Davies continue fighting about the song, which Ray defends as quintessentially his song, one that helped him form his own artistic identity, and Dave treasures as that one song that helped him find the quintessential hard rock sound of the Kinks, what with the semi-legendary story of poking the band's little amplifier with a pin. I would say the dispute is a little futile, considering how quickly the band would move away from that sound altogether — it is, in fact, quite ironic that they would forever be branded as the «forefathers of hard rock» when the absolute majority of their greatest songs would have nothing to do whatsoever with hard rock (and in their latter day career, the harder they tried to rock, the more they usually failed at it). But the early Sixties were a great time for all sorts of wonderful historical accidents and absurdities, and Ray Davies as a dangerous, hard-rocking, sexually menacing caveman was one of them.

That the Kinks were not able to immediately capitalize on the success of ʽYou Really Got Meʼ with a consistent LP is no big surprise. Brothers Ray and Dave were still only learning their song­writing craft, and, as it happens, once the single began to took off, Pye Records and producer Shel Talmy immediately pushed them into the studio where they did not have enough time to come up with much of anything. Sure, six out of fourteen songs were still credited to Ray Davies — a re­spectable recognition of the man's talent by the industry superiors — but of these six, ʽRevengeʼ (co-credited with manager Larry Page) is a Link Wray / Ventures-style harmonica-driven blues-surf instrumental, and ʽSo Mystifyingʼ, once you get to the bottom of it, is a hilariously embar­rassing — and utterly pointless — rewrite of the very same ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ that also influen­ced the guitar solo. Of the remaining originals, ʽJust Can't Go To Sleepʼ is another clumsy piece of Merseybeat, with crudely swallowed syllables ("every night I jes can't goat sleep...") and an ut­terly unconvincing atmosphere; ʽI Took My Baby Homeʼ is an irony-free, corn-enhanced rewrite of Allen Toussaint's ʽFortune Tellerʼ (with only the last line of each verse rewritten to give the song more of a nursery-pop feel); and only ʽStop Your Sobbingʼ has endured, more or less, as a minor Ray classic, with the first emerging signs of his pop genius — at the very least, here we see some real tenderness in his voice, and some real soothing optimism in the melody.

In between, we have the usual stuff. A couple of Chuck Berry covers — ʽBeautiful Delilahʼ opening the album with an immediately off-turning early example of brother Dave's ugly nasal voice (making him sound like the local snotty teenage wimp trying to pull off a tough guy image), and ʽToo Much Monkey Businessʼ partially compensating for this with the best lead guitar Chuck Berry impression this side of Keith Richard. A couple of R&B grooves — ʽGot Love If You Want Itʼ trying and failing to paint The Kinks as devil-ridden Afro-American womanizers, and Bo Diddley's ʽCadillacʼ showing that, while they could be as musically tight as The Animals if the stars aligned all right, the lack of a convincingly raunchy singer of the Eric Burdon type in the band still rendered their Animalisms essentially useless. Tommy Tucker's ʽLong Tall Shortyʼ, an obscure rarity (actually, just a re-write of his own ʽHi-Heel Sneakersʼ, and sounding on the whole like a completely generic Jimmy Reed blues-rock number), could be passable if not for another one of Dave Davies' barely bearable vocal performances. And, honestly, there is no reason to listen to Dave's equally un-artistic take on ʽI'm A Lover Not A Fighterʼ if you can lay your hands on the obscure original by Lazy Lester from way back in 1958.

Adding insult to injury are two «songs» forced on the band by Shel Talmy, in a standard-for-the-time arrangement that helped the producer make more cash from the record sales — ʽBald Headed Womanʼ and ʽI've Been Driving On Bald Mountainʼ, both of them just covers of old blues / folk tunes with no copyright restrictions. Actually, ʽBald Headed Womanʼ does not really sound that bad — the band, augmented by several distinct keyboard parts (it is rumored that Jon Lord himself, of future Deep Purple fame, plays the organ here), gets a cool wall-of-sound going on by the end, somewhat presaging the controlled chaos atmosphere of The Who's debut a year later (not that surprising, considering that it would also be produced by Shel Talmy... and that The Who would be another band to whom he'd peddle ʽBald Headed Womanʼ). But the very fact of presenting this stuff as Shel Talmy songs, along with references to bald mountains and bald headed women on both of the tracks, makes the whole thing look ridiculous.

Still, on the whole, Kinks is not such a complete embarrassment as it is often made out to be. ʽYou Really Got Meʼ and ʽStop Your Sobbingʼ act as anchors here, showing that the band had already found its main voices — the hard rock groove and the tender pop serenade — and simply did not have enough time in store to follow them exclusively. The rock'n'roll covers already show Dave Davies as a fiery-spirited, crunchy guitar player with garage-punk ambitions (check out especially the alternate take of ʽToo Much Monkey Businessʼ on the expanded CD issue, where they rip through the song at double speed like some early version of The Ramones), even if his singing leaves a lot to be desired (then again, there are people who really appreciate the timbre of his voice here, considering it to be suitably arrogant and obnoxious for this material). And even when they are at their worst, the record remains listenable — there's a healthy rock'n'roll vibe running through it all, showing that they really wanted to take after the Beatles and the Stones, rather than their softer, housewife-friendlier counterparts.

So I guess you could call it an auspicious debut, if nothing else; and in this particular case, even the bonus tracks are of questionable quality, concentrating on the early, under-cooked singles, although I certainly recommend ʽYou Do Something To Meʼ as one of their best multi-tracked vocal Beatles imitations... and ʽIt's Alrightʼ as their funniest original take on a simple R&B groove where Ray seems to be intentionally trying to pull off an Eric Burdon and almost suc­ceeds... and ʽAll Day And All Of The Nightʼ, no matter how much of a stylistic shadow of ʽYou Really Got Meʼ it is... and the sinister acoustic groove of its B-side ʽI Gotta Moveʼ, even if it is really just ʽI Wish You Wouldʼ with new lyrics... well, not so bad after all, is it? The bonus tracks also include all of the Kinksize EP, so you can hear ʽLouie, Louieʼ sung with comprehensible lyrics, and ʽI've Got That Feelingʼ, which is about as much of a collective rip-off of all sorts of music ideas from A Hard Day's Night as one could stomach (then again, The Beatles repaid them pretty well five years later, stealing the title for their own ʽI've Got A Feelingʼ... nah!). Well, this is still nowhere near the stupendous quality of the bonus material for Kinda Kinks, but you do see that the band has a future. Somehow. If they only stop thinking of themselves as an R&B band, an image they could never uphold seriously in the presence of high-level contenders such as The Rolling Stones, The Animals, or, heck, even The Yardbirds. (I mean, Keith Relf may have been a fairly run-of-the-mill R&B vocalist, but I'd still rather to listen to him blueswailing on ʽGot Love If You Want Itʼ in his own Keith Relf manner, than to Mr. Ray here trying to ape the high-pitched intonations of Slim Harpo).

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Aimee Mann: Mental Illness

AIMEE MANN: MENTAL ILLNESS (2017)

1) Goose Snow Cone; 2) Stuck In The Past; 3) You Never Loved Me; 4) Rollercoasters; 5) Lies Of Summer; 6) Patient Zero; 7) Good For Me; 8) Knock It Off; 9) Philly Sinks; 10) Simple Fix; 11) Poor Judge.

Bad omen #1: Aimee Mann's new album is going to be called Mental Illness. Given that Aimee Mann had pretty much been singing about various kinds of mental illness since at least her first solo album, and maybe even before that, it is not a good sign when, more than twenty years into her solo career on the whole, she puts out a record called Mental Illness. It's like The Rolling Stones putting out an album called We Like To Rock, or KISS putting out an album called Made Up Again, or The Pogues putting out an album called For Those Who Like To Drink. It does not spell tragedy, but it brings on inescapable associations with a lack of ideas.

Bad omen #2: the new album is going to be almost entirely acoustic-based. While in her live performances, Aimee had drifted towards quieter, less and less amplified sounds for the entire past decade, on most of her studio output the sound of the electric guitar, be it played by herself or additional members of the band, was very crucial: she always had a great ear for tone, and always knew how to make that electric guitar pick on, amplify, and send deep into space all that emotional tension that began in her singing. A completely unplugged performance from her can never have that kind of strength — it suggests whining without anger, light depression without a vortex to pull in the listener.

Unfortunately, all these premonitions come true when you actually put on the record and give it a loyal spin — or two spins, or three and four spins; it will not take long, since the eleven songs clock in at under forty minutes. Mental Illness, Aimee's first proper solo album in five years, is a nice-sounding record consisting of earnestly written and carefully performed material, but it never amounts to anything more than a pleasant background listen if you're in the mood for a slice of lazy, intelligent, introspective, unobtrusive melancholy. The songs simply do not stick around this time: while such highlights from Charmer as the title track, ʽSoon Enoughʼ, and ʽLabradorʼ, still keep me going and I find myself returning to them on a very regular basis, here there is never a feeling that you receive some fresh insight — for the most part, everything feels like an inferior retread of past glories.

Now, perhaps, it's just me. If you have never been a major admirer of Aimee and just find her stuff to be modestly pleasant, listenable, routine singer-songwriter product, then Mental Illness is just more of the same old crap, interchangeable with everything else she's done. If, however, you agree with me that she has been one of the most talented, melodic, intelligent, insightful song­writers of the 1990s and the 2000s — probably in the top five or so singer-songwriter spots from that period — then you cannot help holding unreasonably high expectations, and experiencing sharp disappointment when they are not realized. I mean, after all, she is getting on in years, older than the Stones in their Bridges To Babylon phase and McCartney in his Flaming Pie era, so it is unwise and ungenerous to expect her musical genius to keep re-flaring over and over. But then, in order to re-flare, the genius has to receive favorable conditions; and this idea of going all quiet and acoustic is not a favorable condition.

If you have heard the first song and the first single of the album, ʽGoose Snow Coneʼ (the name actually refers to the facial expression of an Instagram cat called Goose — see, she wastes her time on Internet kitties, too!), you know exactly what is in store for you: simple, quiet, tender, melancholic folksy melodies without any melodic adventurousness. The chords all stay close to each other, the vocal modulation is kept to a minimum, and there is basically just one melodic phrase sung throughout the entire song, with minor variations. Tasteful arrangement — acoustic guitar, a bit of chimes, a bit of a chamber effect with added strings, nice harmonic interplay with the backing vocalists — but nothing whatsoever to remind you of the fire that once used to burn bright and angry underneath all the melancholic coating.

It would be too easy, perhaps, to deride an artist for being ʽStuck In The Pastʼ, as she admits on the second track in a mixture of self-aggrandizement and self-derogation ("Guess I'm the last / I live in memory of vapor"), but there is nothing wrong with grass-was-greener nostalgia for old veterans as long as you got that proverbial fire heating it up; this song, however, offers very little except a lulling slow waltz tempo and a few examples of Aimee's aging, but still lovely falsetto on the chorus — even as she keeps falling back on the same old chord changes that she'd already explored many times. Rinse and repeat: this easy-flowing, insufferably-even, pleasantly forget­table current will carry you on for forty minutes before safely and carefully depositing you on some sandy bank without a single bruise or tear in your pants. It is not a matter of being different: on the contrary, it is a matter of not being able to make a proper difference, coming up with a pack of tunes that, atmosphere-wise, sound like raw demo versions for the same old classics.

On the adulatory side of things, she is still going very strong as a lyricist — this is, in fact, her first album where I'd definitely insist that her poetic talents took serious precedence over her musicianship, and even though the major themes of her poetry remain the same, she is capable of finding new ways to express them, ranging from simple clever lines like "falling for you was always falling up" (ʽPoor Judgeʼ) to morose character portraits like ʽPhilly Sinksʼ (if you don't listen carefully, it's about a broken guy, and if you do, it's about a conniving womanizer). And repeated listens slowly, very slowly bring out some subtly nuanced hooks, like on the chorus of the aforementioned ʽPhilly Sinksʼ, or on the accept-your-miserable-fate refrain of ʽLies Of Sum­merʼ — except that, at best, each of these hooks still sounds like a weak shadow of some of her classic hooks, and no matter how I coax myself into it, the magic never comes.

It is still nice, and each new release from Aimee is a bit of a present anyway, but at this point, after the mediocre work with Ted Leo (who, by the way, is still here, contributing background  vocals), it looks like she might never again rebound the way she did with Charmer — granted, it is not impossible that all she needs to do is pick up that electric guitar again, but it really seems as if her spirit might have mellowed up to the point of no return. Which is not a tragedy, because we still have all the old records, but... sad.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Cass McCombs: Mangy Love

CASS McCOMBS: MANGY LOVE (2016)

1) Bum Bum Bum; 2) Rancid Girl; 3) Laughter Is The Best Medicine; 4) Opposite House; 5) Medusa's Outhouse; 6) Low Flyin' Bird; 7) Cry; 8) Run Sister Run; 9) In A Chinese Alley; 10) It; 11) Switch; 12) I'm A Shoe.

Still padded to some extent, but on the whole, Mangy Love is probably the single most coherent and straightforward body of depressed pop songs in McCombs' entire career so far. The most striking thing about it is how evenly balanced it is — not too fast, not too slow, not too hooky, not too hookless, not too ravaging, not too lethargic, not too lyrically obscure, not too verbally simplistic. Under different circumstances, this might have meant a very boring, ordinary, white-noise-like experience. But Cass spent so much time trying to «distinguish» himself with rub-it-in-yer-face minimalistic gimmicks that it all sounds good now. It's like a, «what, you mean there's not a single eight-minute long, two-chord wide, totally lyric-oriented ballad on the album? Oh, bles­sed be the ways of the Lord!»

There's plenty of darkness, for sure, but darkness is hardly a gimmick in an era where more and more people begin to realize that darkness never really went away, it simply camouflaged itself for a while. The first song on Mangy Love is about unstoppable bloodshed; the last song is about getting out of this place and lying low; and in between are ten more odes to depression, repres­sion, oppres­sion, and suppression. (I think that ʽSwitchʼ is the sole attempt to write something a little more cheerful, like an homage to romantic Eighties' pop à la Duran Duran, but in the con­text of the album, even that song feels dark and cold). Since, as usual, the arrangements are quite low-key, and the lyrics require an almost philological degree of analysis to be decrypted, there is no chance whatsoever of mass success, but at least he won't be pissing off people with low atten­tion spans for repetitive simplicity masked as poignant art.

Genre-wise, he still hops from one corner to another. We have some rough, distorted blues-rock (ʽRancid Girlʼ, with a nasty Seventies-style distorted riff and oddly retro-stylized misogynistic lyrics); an attempt to put bossa nova rhythmics at the service of political paranoia and aggravation (ʽRun Sister Runʼ — this one, on the contrary, contains explicit feminist elements, culminating in "be­tween me and my brother stands our sister, don't shoot!"); what sounds like a bona fide tribute to the classic Smiths sound (ʽIn A Chinese Alleyʼ — the only thing missing is Cass adopting the vocal mannerisms of Morrissey); and a lite-jazz / folk-rock hybrid with arguably the loveliest vocal melody on the whole album — ʽLow Flyin' Birdʼ has a gorgeous chorus that has me won­dering, again and again, why McCombs does not resort to that falsetto more often.

In a way, the record feels like a short musical summary of several distinct styles popular in the late Seventies and early Eighties — on one song he sounds like a jaded, sold-out prog-rocker trying to survive in a new world, then on the next one he sounds like a young aspiring musician trying to take an active part in the dance or synth-pop revolution. Actually, the first description probably applies to more songs here than the second one: much of Mangy Love gives me the same intuitive impression as late-period albums from bands like Camel or Caravan, tiptoeing on one foot across the border of miserably empathetic and smoothly boring. The saving grace is that Cass really bothers about his hooks this time: almost every song has something to offer in the area of vocal hooks, even dance-pop numbers such as ʽCryʼ and ʽSwitchʼ.

The main problem, however, never goes away: the album clearly wants to make a big statement, but there seems to be no other way to make it than run it through some complex cloaking mecha­nism that makes protest songs into invisible protest songs and anthems into un-anthems. A song like ʽItʼ, for instance, is slow, ponderous, employs big gospel-like vocal harmonies, and even opens with lines that come dangerously close to clichés (at least, by McCombs' own standards): "It is not wealth / To have more than others / It is not peace / When others are in pain" (DUH). But if it is an anthem, and if it seems to be directed at arousing our emotions and empathies, why the hell is it so lethargic? Why are the main vocals sung as if he were dictating a paper to his secretary? Where are the bombastic guitar breaks? Why does the gospel choir never ever come out of the shadow? It's a good, melodic piece that would not have lost any of its charm if it were a little... you know... amplified. As it is, it is not likely to replace George Harrison's ʽIsn't It A Pityʼ in my «Cry For The World» playlist any time soon.

Nevertheless, it, and the rest of it, is good enough to warrant a thumbs up from me — I'd really go as far as to say that it is his second best album of all time, though still a far cry from the stroke of luck that was A. Apparently, as long as he stays away from the temptation to keep on pulling off a 21st century Dylan, and remains content to pull a 21st century mix of Andy Latimer and Mor­rissey, it'll work.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Candlemass: Dactylis Glomerata

CANDLEMASS: DACTYLIS GLOMERATA (1998)

1) Wiz; 2) I Still See The Black; 3) Dustflow; 4) Cylinder; 5) Karthago; 6) Abstrakt Sun; 7) Apathy; 8) Lidocain God; 9) Molotov.

I have no idea why Edling would want to name an album after cock's-foot grass (last I heard, it did not have any Satanic associations, so maybe he just accidentally mixed it up with Cannabis sativa), but as long as a bit of refreshing change is introduced, he can call it anything he likes. In fact, the record was not even supposed to be issued in the name of Candlemass — the band had been inactive since 1994, leaving Edling busy with his new project, called Abstrakt Algebra and featuring a seriously different metal brand, one that combined doom and thrash influences with elements of heavy prog and even math-rock (before it was called math-rock). They'd already re­corded their second album when, suddenly, Edling decided to fire all of the band members except for the drummer, recruit new ones, call the revamped band Candlemass, and re-record most of the songs. Because commercial thinking and all that.

This all sounds like a recipe for disaster, but, strange enough, it isn't. Most everywhere you go, you will find a sharp decline in interest on the part of the fans, for obvious reasons. There's a new lead singer (Björn Flodkvist), there's a fully paid keyboard player (Carl Westholm), and the guitar work on the album is handled by none other than Michael Amott, of Carcass and Arch Enemy fame — a solid metal warrior in his own rights, but hardly a great match for the classic slow, dreary, stoned-out Candlemass vibe. (Not sure how well Candlemass and Arch Enemy fans see eye-to-eye, but I wouldn't be surprised to find the two groups largely non-intersecting and accu­sing each other of hyper-ridiculous drama and cheesiness). Anyway, for those interested in doub­ling, tripling, and quadrupling their stocks of Epicus Doomicus clones, none of these elements should look inviting, so people are perfectly within their rights to brand Dactylis Glomerata with a decisive «this is not Candlemass! this is sellout crap!» judgement and walk away.

I like quite a bit of it, though. The vibe on the opening track, ʽWizʼ, and many that follow it, is somewhat less Sabbath-ish, leaning more towards sludgy stoner metal (the kind that would enjoy a luxurious revival in the 21st century) and featuring, in my opinion, more memorable riffs on the whole than any of the «classic» Candlemass records. The new lead singer is as far away from the operatic pomp of Marcolin as possible — belonging rather to the grunge / nu-metal school of ragged-raspy warriors of the light; combined with awful music, it only helps to emphasize its awfulness (Nickelback, etc.), but combined with decent riffs, it is preferable to bullshit pathos. And the keyboard player — I was afraid that the album would be swamped in ugly synth tones, but the keyboard work here is actually cool! Instead of synthesizers, Westholm generally uses the organ, well heard in the mix but never drowning out the guitars; and sometimes, as in the quiet interludes on ʽI Still See The Blackʼ, he thinks up little music-box melodies with spooky over­tones, giving the whole thing a sort of Stephen King-like atmosphere. (The brief instrumental ʽCylinderʼ, made to sound as if it were really recorded on a wax cylinder, is an autonomous example of the same approach). And on ʽDustflowʼ, they even bring in an extra keyboardist to contribute a Theremin part for the intro.

All of these changes, in my mind, are very welcome, even if the final results do not sound like classic Candlemass at all. The average tempo of the record is «mid» rather than «slow», and some of the songs are tremendously tempestuous compared to how it used to be — ʽDustflowʼ, for in­stance, culminates in a sea of guitar overdubs, creating an angry psychedelic spectrum that is more Bardo Pond than Candlemass, with Michael Amott showing off his talents in a way that, for some reason, he could never allow himself in Arch Enemy. Another highlight is ʽAbstrakt Sunʼ, fluctuating from guitar-based walls-of-sound with a martial flair to slower, atmospheric passages where Westholm does shift to synthesizer, but uses it in a pensively Gothic manner, generating dark melancholy rather than plastic synth bliss favored by various average power metal teams. And it all ends with ʽMolotovʼ, a short instrumental based on a thunderous ʽFor Whom The Bell Tollsʼ-style riff adorned with minimalistic lead vibrato lightning bolts — brief and efficient.

Naturally, we're not talking about a masterpiece of music making, but we are talking about an album that has more diversity to it than anything previously issued under the name of Candle­mass, and also one as thoroughly purged of straightforward cheese elements as is technically possible on a heavy metal album (which means there's still plenty of cheese, but nothing as directly embarrassing as the mock-Teutonic bombast of ʽWhere The Runes Still Speakʼ). It's too bad this version of the band did not last, what with Amott going back to his duties with Arch Enemy and the fans' irritating, but predictable displeasure with the new twists — I think the new style had some future to it, if only they'd managed to find a proper fanbase in its time. Anyway, I do give the album a thumbs up in retrospect; hope that helps.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Caravan: The Album

CARAVAN: THE ALBUM (1980)

1) Heartbreaker; 2) Corner Of My Eye; 3) Watcha Gonna Tell Me; 4) Piano Player; 5) Make Yourself At Home; 6) Golden Mile; 7) Bright Shiny Day; 8) Clear Blue Sky; 9) Keepin' Up De Fences.

By the early Eighties, Caravan were in a total state of flux: their Arista contract fizzled out, some of the band members quietly quit, and so it was almost by accident that somehow, in 1980, they found themselves in the studio once again — and with Dave Sinclair in person returning for the third time, no less. Now they found themselves signed exclusively to Kingdom Records, the small label of their former manager Terry King (which used to distribute their recordings in Europe), they had three of the original members, and they split the songwriting three ways, with Hastings, Sinclair, and Richardson each taking a near-equal share. Perhaps one could hope for a slight improvement over the mediocrity of Better By Far?

Well, look no further than ʽHeartbreakerʼ, the opening single (no relation to Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones), for the revelation. It opens with a broken-hearted (yeah right) bluesy riff, so muffled, so glossy, so tight-wedged in the hum-hum-humming of the synthesizer wraps, that it is clear from the first fifteen seconds: whatever melodic potential there is here, it is going to be smothered by awful production, and once again what used to be the strong side of Caravan — a sense of sentimental humility — is going to work to their absolute disadvantage. But that is only the beginning of our problems: by the time we get to the chorus, it is clear that Caravan have pretty much mutated into Air Supply, or America, or any of those limp soft-rock outfits who thought that the more shallow they made their tenderness, the more appeal it would find among those people for whom even ʽHere, There And Everywhereʼ was too deep. The hookline of ʽHeart­breakerʼ — "while with you was a heartache, without you is a hell" — is not only barely grammatical and barely pronounceable, but is also unsingable with a straight face.

Still, at least Pye's other two contributions are arguably the highest points of this sorry mess of an album: ʽBright Shiny Dayʼ has him in solid McCartney mode, with a sunshiny chorus that makes good use of his high-pitched modulation and heavier emphasis on catchy guitar licks than on the synthesizers, and ʽKeepin' Up De Fencesʼ — if you can make peace with the idea of disco bass­lines on a Caravan song (and we all knew it was coming, sooner or later... in 1980, though? what a bunch of retards!), it is the only song on this album that genuinely rocks, with a fine flashy guitar solo at the end and true proof that Richard Coughlan can keep a fast, steady, tight beat and ornate it with expressive fills at the same time.

I wish I could be just as empathetic to Richardson; but ʽCorner Of My Eyeʼ is just another one of these taking-itself-too-seriously soft-rock cornballs, not helped much by the surprising transfor­mation into rollickin' pop-rock in the bridge section — and ʽClear Blue Skyʼ is Caravan's first and last foray into the distant world of reggae, a track that they try to make more psychedelic by adding «cloudy» synth swirls all over the place, but Richardson's strained vocals are awful, his scat singing over the syncopated rhythm chords is even worse, and at six and a half minutes, the song tries to present itself as something epic when in reality it seems to simply follow the guide­line of "hey wait, we've never done a reggae song yet? come on now, everybody's done at least one reggae song! this will be fun, like a ʽBob Marley goes to Canterburyʼ kind of thing!"

Which leaves us with the Dave Sinclair songs, and I don't remember much about them after three or four listens, except that they kinda sounded like a mix of Elton John and Billy Joel (heck, one of them is even called ʽPiano Playerʼ, for Chrissake!). ʽMake Yourself At Homeʼ is ʽHonky Catʼ-like funk-pop that could really benefit from a strong singer like Elton, but has absolutely no future with these totally disinterested vocals (is that bass player Dek Messecar singing? he has no personality whatsoever).

I would not say that The Album is a significant drop down from the level of 1977 — the only difference is that here, there is not even a single superficial attempt to retain the «progressive» legacy of classic Caravan, but then, this is not necessarily a bad thing: from a certain point of view, it makes them more honest about what they are trying to do. The problem is that Caravan as a bona fide pop band, with no additional ambition, is a suicidal proposal — they never had the cockiness, the energy, the great guitar tones, the vivaciousness that should go along with a great pop band. They almost succeeded with Blind Dog, though, but then they ran out of inspiration and sheer power altogether, and now all we have is utter blandness. Thumbs down.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The 5th Dimension: Portrait

THE 5TH DIMENSION: PORTRAIT (1970)

1) Puppet Man; 2) One Less Bell To Answer; 3) Feelin' Alright?; 4) This Is Your Life; 5) A Love Like Ours; 6) Save The Country; 7) The Declaration / A Change Is Gonna Come / People Gotta Be Free; 8) Dimension 5ive.

Not a lot of departures here from the formula of Aquarius, but the ones that do get noticed are not particularly auspicious. But first, the good news: ʽPuppet Manʼ is not only the best opening song on a 5th Dimension album, period — it also beats the shit out of both Neil Sedaka's original and Tom Jones' Vegas-ized version. With a sharp-stinging electric guitar lead, the band's usual stunning multi-part harmonies, and particularly the girls' fiery, well-empowered lead vocals, the song definitely rocks here — which is kind of amusing, considering how the lyrics are all about personal submission. (Then again, there's nothing more powerful in the world than voluntary total and absolute submission, I guess — just look at ʽVenus In Fursʼ).

Alas, the song also gives you false hopes — that, perhaps, the rest of the album might, too, con­form to this «electric soul» idiom, not too far removed from classic Funkadelic in terms of juici­ness and intensity. Nope! Released as a single, ʽPuppet Manʼ only made it all the way up to No. 24; and when the band resorted to its usual weapon of choice and followed it up with a typically excellent Laura Nyro cover, ʽSave The Countryʼ, it fared even worse and stalled at No. 27, de­spite all the upbeat gospelishness, all the enticing organ swirls and brass fanfares, all the enthu­siasm poured into the "we could build the dream with love" chorus. Oh, you can never tell with the American public: first they raise you up with ʽWedding Bell Bluesʼ, then they bring you down — harshly — when you give them something equally catchy and tasty.

So what's a poor fifth dimension to do in a situation like this? Fall back on sappy, shapeless sen­timentality and release ʽOne Less Bell To Answerʼ, a slow Bacharach/David tear jerker of the «ultimate housewife» variety — technically, sung to absolute perfection by Marilyn McCoo, but substantially, containing absolutely nothing but atmosphere, an empty vessel for whoever is more or less able to imbue it with dramatic content (of the soap variety, mostly). Naturally, it was that song that had to become the biggest commercial success from the album, and pretty much set the basic development trends for the band in the next few years. (I admit to having never been a big fan of Burt Bacharach — the Johann Strauss Junior of the Great American Songbook, from a certain point of view — but he did write quite a few better songs than this piece of thoroughly unmemorable mush).

In between these commercially low / artistically high and commercially high / artistically low points, Portrait wobbles and vacillates, largely depending on source material. The obligatory Jimmy Webb song this time around is ʽThis Is Your Lifeʼ, unfortunately, also slow, mushy and way too pompous to be taken seriously. The cover of Traffic's ʽFeelin' Alrightʼ is decent, and Billy Davis Jr. gives a good Otis Redding-ish soul take on the original vocal part, but is nowhere near close to the «interestingly personal» Joe Cocker version. Then there's a guy called Bob Alcivar, apparently responsible for the orchestration and also saddling the band with two of his own compositions — the lush pop ballad ʽA Love Like Oursʼ (so-so) and the lite jazz / lite clas­sical mash-up ʽDimension 5iveʼ, somewhat ambitious but still way too corny for my tastes (I guess the idea was to produce something like the band's own take on the Pet Sounds instrumen­tals, but the results are much cuddlier and kiddish).

Worst of the lot, though, and deserving to be registered as a legendary embarrassment in the history of hippie muzak, is the idea to set to music nothing less than The Declaration Of Indepen­dence itself — in a three-part medley with Sam Cooke's ʽA Change Is Gonna Comeʼ and The Young Rascals' ʽPeople Gotta Be Freeʼ. While the Cooke cover, like the Traffic cover, is decent (but adds nothing to the glorious original), the vocal performance of ʽThe Declarationʼ simply has to be heard to be disbelieved: they really do rip through a large part of the Preamble, alternating between male and female leads and trying their best to squeeze the dense prose of the text into soul music phrasing. The most horrible thing about it is that — who knows? — there might well be people out there inspired by this brand of starch-heavy, gluten-rich musical corn. But, I mean, yeah, who else but a band of superficially-minded, commercially-oriented, family-friendly pseudo-hippies to remind society of certain self-evident truths?..

All in all, here be a mixed bag if there ever was one — swinging all the way from the coolness of ʽPuppet Manʼ to the catastrophe of ʽThe Declarationʼ, from the upbeat, catchy inspiration of ʽSave The Countryʼ to the instantly forgettable mush of ʽOne Less Bell To Answerʼ, and so on; a classic case of up and down thumbs outcanceling each other, but this is precisely what compila­tions and self-made playlists are there for these days.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Blues From The Gutter

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: BLUES FROM THE GUTTER (1958)

1) Strollin'; 2) TB Blues; 3) Can't Kick The Habit; 4) Evil Woman; 5) Nasty Boogie; 6) Junker's Blues; 7) Bad Blood; 8) Goin' Down Slow; 9) Frankie And Johnnie; 10) Stack-O-Lee.

Probably the single best known album of the Champion's career — if only for being, well, the first album of the Champion's career: Blues From The Gutter, released at the tail end of the Fifties, opens a long, long, long, and largely ignored string of LPs, and back then it had the benefit of intro­ducing Dupree to a fresh new audience, one that was actually interested in hearing him play, as opposed to all those singles from the 1940s, released in the face of a largely indif­ferent and highly limited New York public. Above all, it was his debut for Atlantic Records, and that in itself was a guarantee that the man would be heard world-wide — in fact, reliable sources state that Blues From The Gutter made a fairly deep impression on none other than Brian Jones himself, even if in the grand scheme of things it was probably not too significant.

Part of that impression was owed not to the Champ himself, but to his backing band, which here included such seasoned session players as Pete Brown on sax and Wendell Marshall (who'd played with Duke Ellington and a boatload of other jazz notables) on double-bass, and particular­ly Ennis Lowery (who later took the name of Larry Dale) on electric guitar. For those used to Dupree's near-solo performances, or his low quality recordings with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the image of the Champion recording with a full-and-willin' blues band under profes­sional modern studio conditions must have been a revelation — in fact, it was probably a revela­tion to Dupree himself, who took the opportunity to re-record a couple of his old classics (ʽTB Bluesʼ, ʽJunker's Bluesʼ — the latter leaving all of its drug-related lyrics completely intact), throw in a few more time-honored standards (ʽFrankie And Johnnyʼ, ʽStack-O-Leeʼ), and introduce a decent level of variety, ranging all the way from slow soulful blues (ʽGoin' Down Slowʼ) to rol­lickin' boogie-woogie (ʽNasty Boogieʼ).

The addition of Lowery is indeed a good touch: the man is a disciple of B. B. King, well versed in the art of sharp, stinging electric blues leads (ʽTB Bluesʼ is a particular highlight), and he adds an element of «Chicago blues danger» to the relaxed, leisurely stroll mode of Dupree, even if the two do not look all that much like a match made in Heaven upon first sight; and he does not get to solo on the album's merriest piece, ʽNasty Boogieʼ, which is instead dominated by the piano / sax duet, and where even the bassist is allowed to take the spotlight for a few bars, but not the lead guitarist — who prefers to stick stubbornly to the slow blues idiom, and for a good reason, I guess: not every great blues player is an equally great boogie player, and vice versa. Then again, it's a sensible distribution of labor: get the sax guy to be your partner on the lighter numbers, and the guitar guy to be your foil on the darker ones.

As for Dupree himself, he is arguably at his best on the opening number, a simple New Orleanian shuffle called ʽStrollin'ʼ and featuring neither guitar nor sax — just the Champ taking his time, improvising a leisurely syncopated jazz rhythm and alternating it with a couple of brief ragtimey solos as he hums out whatever is on his mind. Not exactly the kind of sound you'd expect to come out «from the gutter», but then again, a gentleman like Champion Jack Dupree probably has to keep his cool even in the gutter — considering the dignity and reservation with which he narrates his protagonist's drug problems on ʽJunker's Bluesʼ and ʽCan't Kick The Habitʼ. And, by the way, the title of the album is fully justified if one simply counts the number of songs about drugs, decay, and death — cocaine, tuberculosis, and cold-blooded murder are the norm of day on this album, which certainly was not true about the average Chicago blues album in 1958, where themes of woman-hunting ruled high above everything else. All in all, even if the music as such is hardly exceptional here (just average even by contemporary standards), the very fact of an old pre-war urban blues piano man really making it in the nearly-modern era is quite admirable, con­sidering that Dupree, on the whole, represents a blues-playing tradition that is older than that of  B. B. King or, in a way, even that of Muddy Waters. Definitely a thumbs up, on the grounds of mild enjoyability amplified by strong curiosity.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Hollies: Stay With The Hollies

THE HOLLIES: STAY WITH THE HOLLIES (1964)

1) Talkin' 'Bout You; 2) Mr. Moonlight; 3) You Better Move On; 4) Lucille; 5) Baby Don't Cry; 6) Memphis; 7) Stay; 8) Rockin' Robin; 9) Watcha Gonna Do 'Bout It; 10) Do You Love Me; 11) It's Only Make Believe; 12) What Kind Of Girl Are You; 13) Little Lover; 14) Candy Man; 15*) Ain't That Just Like Me; 16*) Hey What's Wrong With Me; 17*) Searchin'; 18*) Whole World Over; 19*) Now's The Time; 20*) Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah; 21*) I Understand; 22*) Stay; 23*) Poison Ivy.

Most of the early British Invasion acts had a role model or two from across the Atlantic before they'd start to carve out their own identities — it was only a matter of how early that carving-out process would start, especially relative to that defining moment when the band in question would first set foot in a proper recording studio and land its first record contract. From that point of view, The Hollies landed theirs a bit too early in the game (imagine, for a second, The Beatles getting theirs in late 1960 rather than late 1962), and although, in retrospect, this does not sound like that much of a problem, Stay With The Hollies set them off on the wrong foot in the LP business department — an inauspicious move whose consequences, it might be argued, would reverberate through the band's entire career.

The role model in question was, of course, The Everly Brothers — in fact, The Hollies pretty much started out intentionally as the UK's answer to Phil and Don, with Allan Clarke and Gra­ham Nash modeling themselves as a folk-rockish singing duo; and even if the band's debut album does not include any of the Everlys' songs as such, most of its material is delivered very much in the Everlys' style. Sound-wise, The Hollies played a very polite, anger-less, family-friendly ver­sion of rock'n'roll that went light on electric guitars and heavy on two-part vocal harmonies: like Phil and Don, they were not at all averse to taking lessons from Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but they always emphasized the melodic, rather than punkish, sides of these guys, and the Hollies followed suit — their cover of Little Richard's ʽLucilleʼ here is almost 100% identical to the way the Everlys did it, and that's the way it would always be.

That said, even without any original ideas and without any significant attempts to write their own songs, already at that earliest stage The Hollies had a major advantage of their own — a lead singer blessed with a voice every bit as distinctive as that of John Lennon, Mick Jagger, or Eric Burdon. As the record opens with a standard guitar introduction to Chuck Berry's ʽTalkin' 'Bout Youʼ, the very first line, "let me tell you 'bout a girl I know...", even though it is sung in harmony by Allan Clarke and Graham Nash (and maybe Tony Hicks as well?), totally belongs to Allan, as does almost everything else on this album. It is not a deep, rumbling tone of the Eric Burdon variety, or a sharp, guttural, devilish tone of the Mick Jagger one — it is a high, ringing, and ever so slightly raspy tone that suggests inoffensiveness and friendliness, yet ones that go along with punchiness if necessary. It is a tone that stands out loud and proud in a sea of millions, and one that can't help drawing your attention, just because you instinctively feel how extreme it is. And it is pretty damn hard to be extreme in the middle of a soft-melodic vibe, yet somehow Clarke's singing is that one element which makes words like «wimpy» or «sissy» inapplicable to The Hollies, and words like «kick-ass» fairly reasonable.

And there's not much to say other than that, really, about the fourteen songs on this record — but then, nothing else is needed, because The Hollies' taste in covers was good, and with Allan giving it his all, they succeed in producing sharp, deeply enjoyable, and far-from-superfluous versions of many of them. Not many people, for instance, could have competed with the exuberance of The Contours, permeating every second of ʽDo You Love Meʼ — Mike Smith of The Dave Clark 5 sang the song as close to the «black-voiced» original as possible, which was indeed superfluous, but Clarke, adding a funny bit of gurgle to his razor-sharp voice, delivers it exactly as it should be delivered by a sneery, snotty, cocky, yet ultimately good-natured British teenager, coming up with the single best cover of the song until the maniacal cover of The Sonics a year later.

Another highlight is Roy Orbison's ʽCandy Manʼ: this is a particularly happy choice, because Roy wrote a good handful of excellent rock'n'roll songs without, however, being much of a rock'n'roll singer — and this provides Clarke with a great chance to squeeze all of the tune's implied sexua­lity onto the surface. Is «cock pop» even a term? If it is not, it should be invented specifically for this hilarious performance: musically cuddly, no match for even the Beatles, let alone the Stones, but vocally... hoo boy, just lock up your daughters when Allan mouths "let me be... mmm, your own cande-e-e-e... candy ma-a-a-an", even if, to the best of my knowledge, the UK press never saw much of a threat in the Hollies (probably because they never had themselves an Andrew Loog Oldham to market their threat-ability).

Sure, some of these covers work worse than others: just as in the case of the Beatles, for instance, it is hard to understand the love they all had for ʽMr. Moonlightʼ (here spoiled even further by the unlucky choice of Nash as the lead vocalist — doesn't seem to be the right kind of material for him at all), and Bobby Day's novelty-nursery hit ʽRockin' Robinʼ is one of these proto-bubblegum numbers that is very hard to take seriously with its tweedle-dees. The only original composition on the album is ʽLittle Loverʼ, delivered with plenty of fire but songwriting-wise, largely just a minor variation on the Chuck Berry formula (although the resolution of the chorus, with the un­expected twist of "come on and discover... my lo-o-o-o-ve for you!" is quite indicative of future pop songwriting ideas to come). But on the whole, there are very few open embarrassments / misfires compared to the number of good songs done in classy Hollies style.

Admittedly, that style has not yet been fully worked out: somewhat parallel to the earliest recordings by The Beach Boys, it took the band some time to become experts in studio multi-part harmonizing, so most of the entertainment here is simply provided either by Allan solo or by Allan propped up and thickened by the two other singing guys. Likewise, guitarist Tony Hicks is not at the top of his game, either, although his brief, well thought-out leads compete rather well with contemporary George Harrison. Yet even so, the album still sounds remarkably fresh and enjoyable, rather than boring and generic, after all these years — a decent career start, well worth a modest thumbs up, in the face of the typically cool critical reaction.

The expanded CD reissue is essential for completists, throwing on the band's first three singles from 1963, but I am not a major fan of The Hollies covering The Coasters — they did not really have that band's innate sense of humor, so ʽAin't That Just Like Meʼ and ʽSearchin'ʼ come off somewhat stiffer than necessary — so in this particular case, you won't be uncovering any hidden gems, as opposed to subsequent albums where the bonus tracks are essential, since many of them represent the band's finest, single-oriented songwriting efforts.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Don't Get Lost

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: DON'T GET LOST (2017)

1) Open Minds Now Close; 2) Melody's Actual Echo Chamber; 3) Resist Much Obey Little; 4) Charmed I'm Sure; 5) Groove Is In The Heart; 6) One Slow Breath; 7) Throbbing Gristle; 8) Fact 67; 9) Dropping Bombs On The Sun; 10) UFO Paycheck; 11) Geldenes Herz Menz; 12) Acid 2 Me Is No Worse Than War; 13) Nothing New To Trash Like You; 14) Ich Bin Klang.

At this point, I am beginning to question myself whether or not this recent explosion of BJM albums might be due to Anton Newcombe misunderstanding the meaning of the classic Latin recommendation of Festina lente. Where most people would understand it sort of figuratively, as a call to focused and efficient action tempered by prudence and accuracy, Newcombe seems to take it more literally — as an appeal to release as many new records in the upcoming years as possible, containing as many slow-moving, hyper-draggy songs as possible.

At least the previous three albums were all short; Don't Get Lost clocks in at approximately 72 minutes — admittedly, not a record length for Newcombe, who used to be famous for slowly and meticulously bleeding out his grooves until the CD begged for mercy; but the last time he did that was in the era of the band's artistic «rebirth» with My Bloody Underground and Who Killed Sgt. Pepper, almost a decade ago. Since then, Newcombe experienced no new rebirths, largely returning to the original style of BJM, occasionally diversified by stylistic references to groove styles past 1967, and Don't Get Lost is no exception to the rule: the fourteen tracks captured here will give you no new insights whatsoever.

And me, too, I find myself at a loss once again. Clearly, the only way this sloth-like guy could churn out such a huge record about four months after his previous one was by quickly working out a few grooves and sticking to them — indeed, the opening track, ʽOpen Minds Now Closeʼ, rides on for eight minutes without a single deviation from its established formula. It's like a metronomic, unnerving groove by Can, but simplified to the core and with absolutely no room left for improvisation: elevator muzak for dark psychedelic types. Naturally, with this approach it is the easiest thing in the world to stretch a potentially 30-minute long record to 70 minutes. But then again, I reserve harsh judgement, because BJM always goes best with mushrooms (this is an objective fact, scientifically verified by the band's leader), and I'm not much of a mushroom man, so I cannot verify if the textures of Newcombe are truly a perfect psychological fit with chemi­cally altered brain activity or not.

In the sphere of ideology, Anton is still pretending that some of his songs should function as manifestos, hence such titles as ʽResist Much Obey Littleʼ (a bit paradoxical, since the steady, cyclical, descending-ascending acoustic rhythm pattern of the song is so mind-numbing that it only makes you want to resist little and obey much, at best) and ʽAcid 2 Me Is No Worse Than Warʼ, one of the album's few excursions into soft techno, drum machines, sampled vocals, and siren-themed synthesizers. ʽDropping Bombs On The Sunʼ is another title that might trigger poli­tical associations, and yet again, the track is a slow, totally stoned groove, ruled by minimalistic brass-imitating tones and lead vocals from Tess Parks, who still retains the status of Anton's muse by managing to sound twice as stoned as he does. («And far sexier», I wanted to add before rea­lizing that having sex with Tess Parks, judging from the perspective of her musical output, would probably only be efficient in an alternate universe where one minute of their time equals one hour of ours. «Slow down, you move too fast» is definitely not about these guys).

In his struggle to retain his cool, Newcombe does things that I hardly understand at all — for instance, calling one of the tracks ʽThrobbing Gristleʼ, even though Throbbing Gristle themselves would probably have regarded the entire brand of BJM production as a cheap profanation of the genuine avantgarde aesthetics (the track itself is just another monotonous psychedelic groove with Parks yawning and groaning all over the place). The next-to-last track, ʽNothing New To Trash Like Youʼ, is surprisingly faster than the rest — pretty much a generic rockabilly number buried under the generic layers of BJM production, and still somehow managing to sound as lethargic as everything else. One other track, ʽGeldenes Herz Menzʼ, sounds like modern lounge jazz put through the same motions — fussy jazzy drumming and tons of soft sax overdubs, hardly a subgenre where the man might make much of an impression.

Overall, just another year, just another album: nothing too bad, nothing too revelatory. And brace yourselves, because the guy is not about to stop — he's gonna crawl on and on and on, because the number of same-sounding draggy grooves with tons of wobbly overdubs that he can theoreti­cally produce is infinity.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Cass McCombs: Big Wheel & Others

CASS McCOMBS: BIG WHEEL & OTHERS (2013)

1) Sean I; 2) Big Wheel; 3) Angel Blood; 4) Morning Star; 5) The Burning Of The Temple, 2012; 6) Brighter!; 7) There Can Be Only One; 8) Name Written In Water; 9) Joe Murder; 10) Everything Has To Be Just-So; 11) It Means A Lot To Know You Care; 12) Dealing; 13) Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love; 14) Satan Is My Toy; 15) Sean II; 16) Home On The Range; 17) Brighter!; 18) Untitled Spain Song; 19) Sean III; 20) Honesty Is No Excuse; 21) Aeon Of Aquarius Blues; 22) Unearthed.

I wonder if I should or should not go the «ambitious is always good» route here? After all, it is not true that this last decade is completely free of grand, larger-than-thou musical gestures: from Arcade Fire and all the way to Kanye West, people are still trying to bite off more than they can chew, even as natural selection causes their jaws to keep shrinking with each new generation. And after a string of serious musical disappointments, could it be the right decision for Cass McCombs to gamble it all on a sprawling, two-disc collection of twenty songs in half a dozen different musical styles, presenting his own, contemporary mega-take on Americana?..

As usual, the absolute majority of other people's positive opinions that I have seen focus almost exclusively on the lyrics. And they are really good lyrics, yes: the man is now capable even of finding a non-clichéd way to deliver a sermon on the age-old problem of peace, love, and mutual understanding (ʽEverything Has To Be Just-Soʼ), let alone continuing to find fresh metaphors to lay on the age-older problem of him-and-her (ʽSooner Cheat Death Than Fool Loveʼ) or, inciden­tally, deliver some of the most viciously offensive anti-religious (anti-clerical, to be accurate) chastushkas to come out of the progressive camp (ʽSatan Is My Toyʼ), though you have to listen really carefully to get it. And you have to listen even more carefully, sometimes, to understand if he is using redneck imagery directly and scornfully, or as a metaphor for something completely different altogether (ʽBig Wheelʼ). Anyway, the guy continues to be a good poet...

...but does he continue to be a good musician? That's a far more difficult question. Despite the sprawling length of this collection, it manages to avoid both the unending lethargy of Wit's End and the simplistic repetitive crudeness of Humor Risk. With a couple tolerable exceptions, the songs do not seriously overstay their welcome, run along at steady, energetic rootsy tempos, and occasionally feature vocal and instrumental pop hooks, so it's not really much of a chore sitting through all of this in one go. And, as somewhat inferior, derivative resuscitations of age-honored musical styles, they work all right. ʽBig Wheelʼ will appeal to anybody who'd like to know how Chuck Berry would sound when played by Fairport Convention (but with musicianship that would probably make Richard Thompson cringe). ʽAngel Bloodʼ and a whole bunch of other country-tinged tracks here will warm the heart of all Gram Parsons fans (on the whole, I'd say that Gram Parsons could all but be proclaimed this record's mascot). ʽJoe Murderʼ is Joy Division bleakness peppered with avantgarde sax blasts à la original King Crimson. ʽDealingʼ and a couple more acoustic ballads recycle the old Donovan / ʽDear Prudenceʼ chord sequences... all in all, these reworked influences are okay, and it is clear that Cass is not interested in pushing any boundaries — he just wants himself some tasteful backdrops for his statements.

Which, much as I am trying to fight this, inevitably brings us back to the lyrics and the whole conceptual shenanigan — especially since the album is introduced (and then twice more inter­rupted) with bits of dialog sampled from the 1969 documentary Sean, a series of dialogs between a filmmaker and a 4-year old kid raised by his hippie parents in Haight-Ashbury (apparently, Cass had been a fan of the documentary for quite a long time, since some of his songs were used for the soundtrack of a follow-up, Following Sean, as early as 2005). Given that the dialog re­veals the little boy to be a grass smoker, a police-hater, and a God denier, you could say that Big Wheel & Others revolves around some sort of anti-establishment frame, but Cass is too smart and too hip to come out with any unambiguous judgements... too smart and hip, really, so much so that, ultimately, the record still suffers from a certain emotional vacuum. Is he angry? Is he sad? Is he from another planet? Is he just telling it like it is? Does he agree with Sean on all the philo­sophical points the boy makes? Does he eat grass, or smoke it? Who knows?

Anyway, I'd be totally wasted if I started waxing philosophical over all these songs, so let's just skip over to the last one — you know, the coda, the finale, the denouement, the unveiling of The Truth, whatever, and hey, it's called ʽUnearthedʼ, so it might really reveal something. What have we got here? Acoustic, slightly lo-fi, slow ballad, "it won't be too long, it won't be too long", so there's some sort of blind prophet apocalypse vibe... "I moved 75 thousand tons of earth with my teeth... I met a toad that belched up a bottle" (this is sung a bit close to the motif of ʽA Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fallʼ), "and in the bottle was a note, a note I knew you wrote... how come you keep your true feelings so well hidden?". Uh... that's it? This is how our long journey ends? This is why I had to sit through nine minutes of ʽEverything Has To Be Just-Soʼ and seven minutes of ʽHome On The Rangeʼ? Boy, what a downer.

The biggest problem with the album is that it is long, it is meandering, it is trying to tell us some­thing important — and it never really seems to understand what it is trying to tell us. It's one of those respectable, but wasted efforts where the smart artist outsmarts himself by focusing too much on his own enigma. On the bright side of things, it is a sort-of-timeless statement that is in no way bound hands-and-feet to the year or decade in which it was released, so who knows? per­haps, in fifty years time or less, critics will dig it out, dust it off, and declare it a major master­piece that was way ahead of its time, a time when reviewers either praised it without understan­ding it (like the Pitchfork people) or simply confessed to not understanding it (like yours truly). But my guess is that even fifty years from now, Big Wheel & Others will, at the very best, be one of those albums that everybody tips a hat to for the effort but nobody really listens to because it all kind of seems more impressive on paper than in the air.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Candlemass: Chapter VI

CANDLEMASS: CHAPTER VI (1992)

1) Dying Illusion; 2) Julie Laughs No More; 3) Where The Runes Still Speak; 4) Ebony Throne; 5) Temple Of The Dead; 6) Aftermath; 7) Black Eyes; 8) End Of Pain.

It seems to me that standard critical reaction to Candlemass albums follows a pretty simple block diagram, consisting of just one question — «Was there any bad shit going on with the band at the time of recording?» — and, depending on yes or no, the album is judged as good or bad. With Chapter VI, there was most definitely some bad shit going on: after some dispute with Marcolin whose details I am not interested in, Messiah left the band (or should the correct phrasing be «ascended away from the band», in this case?) and was replaced by Thomas Vikström, another relative newcomer to the world of metal — who lasted for only this one album. And since this was not perceived as an obvious change for the better, many people bypassed alternate logical choices and declared this as an obvious change for the worst.

As in the case of Ancient Dreams, I desperately fail to see what is so clearly wrong with Chap­ter VI. First, the new vocalist is in no way inferior to Marcolin. Technically, he can hit all the right notes, he can growl and scream, and his overtones fit right in with the band's music. Sub­stantially, it's all just overblown metal theater, and it's not like either of them are expected to genuinely awaken your sleeping emotions and bring out your undercover instincts — but here, too, I will say that at least Vikström has a bit of that snarly rasp in his voice that brings him closer to «metal punk» Dio or Bruce Dickinson territory: at his best, he is less of a pompous operatic screamer than Marco­lin and more of a brutal warrior type, even though you'd probably expect the opposite, given his origins (apparently, he is the son of a real Swedish opera singer).

More importantly, Chapter VI is generally faster than all previous Candlemass albums. There is a bit more thrash and power metal vibe here than usual, which is one reason why it might not appeal to serious doom metal aficionados. ʽDying Illusionʼ, after a brief atmospheric intro, opens with the same flying punch as Sabbath's ʽNeon Knightsʼ (perhaps, given the arrival of a new lead singer, they also felt the need to switch from an Ozzy-like Master Of Reality vibe to a Dio-like Heaven And Hell vibe?), and is a pretty impressive song on the whole, with numerous time and tempo changes, going from speed metal madness to funeral march and back in a surprisingly smooth and credible manner. It definitely does not sound like an Epicus-style track — but so much for the better, I'd say.

Elsewhere, there are quite a few decent riffs as well, such as the ones that open ʽEbony Throneʼ, ʽBlack Eyesʼ, and ʽEnd Of Painʼ — a bit more complex than usual, a bit less crazy about soun­ding like the Hand Of Doom closing in on you, more intent on simply sounding menacing and foreboding in a somewhat more abstract manner. Actually, I would say that it is the most tradi­tional Candlemass-style songs that suck the most on here, a particular nadir being ʽWhere The Runes Still Speakʼ — now that is one truly miserable ode to the magical mysteries of their mythical Teutonic past; nothing but a leaden guitar tone churning out the same repetitive slow chords over and over, and tons and tons of overblown mock-Wagnerian sentimentality. ʽTemple Of The Deadʼ, another lengthy epic, is at least marginally better due to a faster tempo and a more agile and complex riff; however, the overall rule of thumb here is that the shorter the song is, the more chances it has at being successful.

It's not as if I insist that the album deserves a thumbs up, but I think it will appeal to all those who really really really love their metal riffage, and I certainly disagree with all those who accuse Chapter VI of low energy or lack of inspiration (one could certainly accuse Candlemass in toto of a lack of inspiration — or, at least, originality — but not of low energy). Certainly not the worst chapter in their history, even if, at the time, so many people believed this, apparently, that the band had no choice but to break up soon afterwards.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Caravan: Better By Far

CARAVAN: BETTER BY FAR (1977)

1) Feelin' Alright; 2) Behind You; 3) Better By Far; 4) Silver Strings; 5) The Last Unicorn; 6) Give Me More; 7) Man In A Car; 8) Let It Shine; 9) Nightmare.

Okay, so if you want a proverbial example of what a «major drop in quality» truly means, look no further than the alarming gap that divides Blind Dog At St. Dunstan's, an energetic, inspired, and emotional pop album with progressive overtones, from Better By Far, a limp, mechanical, openly boring exercise in radio-friendly MOR music with no overtones whatsoever. It is always a puzzle to me how the exact same band can go from exciting to insipid in the short span separating one record from another, but yes, these things do happen.

First, this record does not rock, not in the slightest. Where Blind Dog gave us some nifty funky grooves, nicely steeped in a sharp, sarcastic attitude, Better By Far is almost completely given over to quiet, inoffensive soft-rock workouts, with completely conventional musical skeletons, generic (and heavily synth-based) musical arrangements, and energy levels that often sound pitiful compared to The Eagles, let alone the new blood of the punk movement of 1977. The opening number, ʽFeelin' Alrightʼ (not a Traffic cover), should be getting me up on my feet, cheering and clapping and welcoming a brand new day — instead, despite all the formal upbeat­ness, it feels drab and colorless, most of the «excitement» provided by Schelhaas' ugly and boring synth tone, and Pye's vocals inexplicably drowning in the sea of lackluster instrumentation instead of soaring on top of them. And that chorus? Other than a slight, predictable, pitch rise on the "feeling alRIGHT" bit, it does not even try too hard to separate itself from the pedestrian march of the verses. Awfully disappointing.

And it never gets better — all of these songs sound as if Pye and the others wrote them in about half an hour. The second song, ʽBehind Youʼ, rests on the same melodic foundations as ʽFeelin' Alrightʼ and tries to produce the exact same mood, except that it also incorporates a funky mid-section, again, dominated by ugly keyboards. The title track leads us into balladeering territory and ends up sounding even more like contemporary Bee Gees than like contemporary Wings, Pye's sweet voice being pretty much the song's only saving grace as it finally manages to elevate itself above the MOR arrangement. But all of that is nothing compared to Richardson's ʽSilver Stringsʼ, which actually seems to intentionally sound like modern Bee Gees — disco basslines, falsetto harmonies, and a silly artistic gimmick where the "let me hear the silver strings" refrain is followed by some lazy mandolin plucking.

Some of the (usually just as bitterly disappointed) reviews of the album single out the last track, ʽNightmareʼ, as the LP's high point — most likely because it is the longest, most complex, and most «progressively oriented» song of the lot (and also features the most enigmatic, introspective, and noticeably troubled lyrics on the album). My impression, however, is that it is just as boring and mushy as everything here — a slow trotter, all atmosphere and very little proper melody, not to mention zero energy: even the violin and guitar solos, though technically melodic, mostly just meander on the spot and never end up going anywhere. I mean, you'd think a song called ʽNight­mareʼ should have something nightmarish about it, right? Well, there's hardly anything more «nightmarish» about it than there is about, say, an Elton John ballad from Blue Moves.

Vainly do I try to find anything here that would even remotely repeat, for instance, the triumph of the chorus of ʽAll The Wayʼ — now there, too, was a slow, sentimental, conventionally written epic ballad, but it did sound epic: it was an anthem, played out with a winning mix of tenderness and determination, gaining more and more strength and spirit as it went by. Strength and spirit are sorely lacking on this sucker, though — and, okay, if you don't have strength and spirit, give us bleakness, weakness, and chaos, show us a shining example of depression, but do not feed us with this gray blandness. Better By Far? «Better by far» than what, I wonder? The title alone is so irritating that I have no choice other than to give the record a thumbs down — the first truly bad record in Caravan history; yes, this is definitely one of those albums that may be counted as «one of the reasons punk had to happen», except the commercial fortunes of Caravan were so low at the time that most punks probably never heard it in the first place.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The 5th Dimension: The Age Of Aquarius

THE 5TH DIMENSION: THE AGE OF AQUARIUS (1969)

1) Aquarius / Let The Sunshine In; 2) Blowing Away; 3) Skinny Man; 4) Wedding Bell Blues; 5) Don'tcha Hear Me Callin' To Ya; 6) The Hideaway; 7) Workin' On A Groovy Thing; 8) Let It Be Me; 9) Sunshine Of Your Love; 10) The Winds Of Heaven; 11) Those Were The Days; 12) Let The Sunshine In (reprise).

If there was at least one good influence that Hair made on the musical world (outside of its social impact — making parents finally shed a tear for their hippie kids and all), it came in the form of a serious improvement of The 5th Dimension's fourth album over their third one. Not that anybody really gives a damn in 2017, but, on the other hand, the band's cover of ʽAquarius / Let The Sun­shine Inʼ is pretty much the only thing that the average customer these days might remember about the band in general, so at least there's that. Obviously, Hair and The 5th Dimension were made for each other, and here, the band commits to the experience one hundred percent, with soaring vocal harmonies and brass fanfares blaring Ennio Morricone out of the sky, while Billy Davis Jr. pulls his finest son-of-a-preacher-man impression on the ad-libbed part of ʽLet The Sunshine Inʼ — with an energy level easily matching that of Otis Redding (in fact, it would not be impossible to mistake him for Otis on this one).

If it were just the single, though, we'd have to count it as a fluke; surprisingly, the entire album is significantly more consistent than Stoned Soul Picnic, which probably had to do with the band and Bones Howe retaining the best of their songwriters and firing the worst ones (yes, we're sort of looking at you, Jeff Comanor). The best remains the best: there are two more Laura Nyro songs here, brilliantly sung by the band's female vocalists — ʽBlowing Awayʼ is upbeat soul-pop at its catchiest, funnest, and most powerful, while ʽWedding Bell Bluesʼ mixes that upbeatness and melodic optimism with a streak of sadness and yearning (it is, after all, about a girl losing hope of ever getting married), and Marilyn McCoo's vocals on both songs do full justice to Laura's originals (Marilyn is clearly more powerful and disciplined than Nyro, but that does not mean these are just technical, soulless renditions — she clearly understands Laura's messages, and is as perfect and loyal an interpreter as Laura could ever get).

Predictably, they are less successful when tackling genres they don't really know what to do with: while Cream's ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ cannot lose all of its sexy menace as long as the main riff stays relatively intact, it is obvious that the only thing this band and this production team can do with it is water it down — which they do, with happy harmonies, more of those brass fanfares, and a silly conga-driven break in the place of Clapton's solo. It made even less sense to put it near a bombastic, Vegas-style arrangement of ʽLet It Be Meʼ (I wonder if Billy Davis Jr. had to wear a rhinestone suit in the studio to properly get into character?), though, perhaps, not as little sense as ending the album with a cover of a cover of a cover — it was not enough that Mary Hopkin got herself a hit with ʽThose Were The Daysʼ after Gene Raskin had converted it from an old Russian gypsy-themed romance, no, the song also had to get a 5th Dimension seal on it (then again, it's personal here, since I hate stereotypical Russian romances and drinking songs with the same pas­sion that is usually reserved for intellectual Yankees hating stereotypical country music).

Still, misfires aside, there's a surprisingly large number of cool tunes here even beyond the title track and the Nyro covers. Michael and Ginger Kollander's ʽSkinny Manʼ is a chunk of charming bubblegum pop with intricate call-and-answer vocals between the boys and the girls in the band. Rudy Stevenson's ʽDont'cha Hear Me Callin' To Yaʼ has a tense, resolute Latin groove (stylisti­cally similar to Santana's ʽEvil Waysʼ, even though that song had not yet been released at the time). The only (but obligatory) Jimmy Webb cover, ʽThe Hideawayʼ, is a Randy Newmanesque Tin Pan Alley-ish family pop number that avoids Jimmy's sentimental excesses, even if its vocal hooks leave something to be desired. And as much as I am supposed to despise Neil Sedaka, I cannot deny that ʽWorkin' On A Groovy Thingʼ is a really well-written pop song, even despite sharing the subliminal message of rejecting intercourse before marriage ("let's not rush it, we'll take it slow" — yeah right, how about singing this with special guest Grace Slick on parallel lead vocals for extra sincerity?).

Subsequently, even if there are no signs whatsoever here that the band was somehow aware of changing musical fashions circa 1969 (and maybe that's a good thing — imagine Bones Howe trying to pull a Jimi Hendrix or a Led Zeppelin on us!), at least The Age Of Aquarius could not help but get pulled into the overall mega-healthy vortex of whatever was going on, when even thoroughly commercial songwriters, about as rebellious in nature as the local tax inspector, some­times produced musically challenging and tasteful material. Oh well, just a very good year on the whole, and for The 5th Dimension in particular — thumbs up, with the usual minimal reserva­tions here and there.