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Monday, July 31, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Back Home In New Orleans


1) When I'm Drinkin'; 2) Lonesome Bedroom; 3) I Don't Know; 4) Calcutta Blues; 5) Freedom; 6) My Woman Left Me; 7) Broken Hearted; 8) Way Down; 9) The Blind Man; 10) No Future.

The title says it all. After thirty years of living all over the place in Europe, now aged something like 80 (because nobody knows his birthday properly), Champion Jack Dupree finally finds him­self back in his hometown — for a brief while, for sure, but well enough to make his way to the nearest recording studio and lay down a bunch of tracks that would serve as the basis for his last albums. Exactly what he had been doing in between 1977 and 1990 is hard to ascertain: disco­graphies for that period are just as messy and conflicting as for the earlier years, usually mixing together re-releases of old material, part-time collaborations with other artists, and genuinely new stuff — although for Dupree, «genuinely new» usually means just another take on something from about 1940, with new session players and more modern production techniques. In any case, whatever he did produce in the Eighties is fairly hard to get these days, and only the most rabid of completists should probably bother getting it.

These records from the early 1990s, though, having been released on the Bullseye Blues label (run by keyboardist and producer Ron Levy), have the distinction of being American and, thus, somewhat easier to locate. Most of the musicians backing Dupree on this one are Louisiana natives, except for guitar player Kenn Lending — this guy comes from Denmark, yet another blues aficionado who'd struck a friendship with the Champ sometime in the early Eighties, back when his own Kenn Lending Blues Band was hailed as «the hardest working blues band in Den­mark». Like most of Dupree's collaborators, Lending sounds like a respectable bluesman, but one that is completely derivative of B. B. King and Eric Clapton, and therefore, just another humble sideman for Dupree.

The album is a big band affair, with plenty of brass overdubs, but the only outstanding thing about it depends on the context — I would be hard pressed to name another blues album from 1990 that would be recorded by a genuine pre-war artist with that much verve: Dupree's vocals sound completely unaffected by time, and although they have never been particularly special, the age of 80 is precisely that moment where the «nothing special-ness» has a good chance of being converted to greatness, as the record becomes an arrogantly time-defying moment in history. At this point, he can re-write and re-record his (or other people's) material all he wants, anything will sound awesome as long as he still hits those keys with full force and belts out those blues clichés with the voice of... well, with the voice of a grizzled old black man, but now that he's eighty and all, this voice serves him better than ever.

Commenting on individual tracks is pointless: by this time, we are expected to almost precisely guess the ratio of lush blues ballads to straightahead 12-bar blues to jump blues and rockabilly numbers on a CJD record, and apart from that, the album features no specific diary-style surprises: perhaps the very pleasure of recording in his homeland again automatically limited Dupree to the most basic styles of self-repetition. From the opening dance-blues chords of ʽWhen I'm Drinkin'ʼ to the closing slow blues of ʽNo Futureʼ, Back Home In New Orleans is one big party where even the sorrowful numbers surreptitiously ring with joy, and the best I can do is acknowledge that this happy feel exuded by the old man ends up being infectious. Above and beyond every­thing else, Champion Jack Dupree is a smiling survivor — and this is why it is so important for us to have this album from him, even if it does not truly deserve more than one listen.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Hollies: Would You Believe


1) I Take What I Want; 2) Hard, Hard Year; 3) That's How Strong My Love Is; 4) Sweet Little Sixteen; 5) Oriental Sadness; 6) I Am A Rock; 7) Take Your Time; 8) Don't You Even Care; 9) Fifi The Flea; 10) Stewball; 11) I've Got A Way Of My Own; 12) I Can't Let Go; 13*) Running Through The Night; 14*) Bus Stop; 15*) Don't Run And Hide; 16*) A Taste Of Honey; 17*) After The Fox; 18*) Non Prego Per Me; 19*) Devi Aver Fiducia In Me; 20*) Kill Me Quick; 21*) We're Alive; 22*) Schoolgirl.

It cannot be said that The Hollies marched into 1966 without giving much of a damn about what was going around. As «lightweight» a band as they were, they did keep their ear down to the ground, and in between the advent of Rubber Soul and the mass popularity of Simon & Garfun­kel it was clear that acoustically based folk-rock with a strong «singer-songwriter component» was the word of day, or, at least, one of those words. The differences between Hollies and Would You Believe? (another one of those strange albums where the supposed title track would only turn up on a later record, like The Doors' Waiting For The Sun) are subtle and nuanced, but they do exist and are easily located — yes, The Hollies did evolve, because back in 1966, nobody could stay alive and not evolve, unless they were Elvis or something.

In terms of consistency, Would You Believe? does suffer from the same issues as Hollies, con­taining some definitively «progressive» tracks alongside stuff that would have made sense in 1964, but certainly not in 1966 — for instance, who the heck wanted to hear yet another version of ʽSweet Little Sixteenʼ, taken at face value, in the year of Revolver and Blonde On Blonde? Not that Allan Clarke couldn't do the song justice, but, I mean, come on now! and the same pretty much goes for Buddy Holly's ʽTake Your Timeʼ, although here at least I can understand the moti­vation: after The Beatles had shown, with their treatment of ʽWords Of Loveʼ, how Buddy Holly masterpieces could be brought up to modern recording standards without losing an ounce of their original spirit, it was only natural that The Hollies, located in the same Abbey Road Studios, should eventually follow their example. They do not do that much of a great job with ʽTake Your Timeʼ, though, because the thick, colorful electric guitars are a little wobbly, a far cry from the needle-thin precision of Harrison's lead guitar on ʽWords Of Loveʼ.

These choices, much like ʽMickey's Monkeyʼ last time around, are all the more strange consi­dering that the band members continue to grow as songwriters. Acoustic folk-pop balladry rarely gets better than ʽHard, Hard Yearʼ, a slow, but defiant shuffle with strong harmonies, lyrics that may have actually related to the band members themselves ("so I've gotta get back on my feet, and prove to myself I'm a man!"), and, on top of it all, a quasi-psychedelic screechy guitar solo from Hicks that sounds more like Jefferson Airplane than classic Hollies. ʽOriental Sadnessʼ only toys with true «oriental» chord sequences briefly in the intro and outro sections, but this adds a touch of intrigue to this otherwise normal, but very catchy pop tune. ʽI've Got A Way Of My Ownʼ is an uplifting pop waltz and another great showcase for the band's tripartite harmonies. Only ʽFifi The Fleaʼ is a misstep — more of a Graham Nash solo tune than a true Hollies song, it is a corny simplistic acoustic ballad that may have been inspired by watching one too many art cinema flicks (like Fellini's La Strada) and, instead of raising pity for its circus protagonists, chokes on its own lyrical clichés and musical ineptitude. (Alas, it would be far from the last cringeworthy song that Graham would write in his career — he has this nasty habit of overstep­ping his natural boundaries and putting on unnecessary seriousness).

And yet the best songs here are still covers, want it or not. Sam & Dave's ʽI Take What I Wantʼ is honestly done by these guys better than the original — Allan Clarke, apparently, had decided that he would give it his all to sound like a ferocious predator this time, and that he does: his "and baby, I want you!" is one of those mating calls that deserves either an immediate surrender or an immediate punch in the balls, but remaining completely immune to it is simply not an option. It is one of their most openly rocking numbers, ever, and for the second time in a row, opens the album with a mega-ballsy kick. The situation with Simon & Garfunkel's ʽI Am A Rockʼ is more delicate, since the song was all about Paul Simon, and it is somehow less easy to think of Allan Clarke as somebody who "builds walls, a fortress deep and might" (nor does he give a particular­ly strong impression of somebody who has his books and his poetry to protect him). Nevertheless, he does know a thing or two about bitter sarcasm, irony, and haughtiness, so the band's interpre­tation is worth respect, not to mention its perfection from a purely technical angle (harmonies, etc.) — plus, anything to popularize S&G in Britain is always welcome.

The best comes last, though: ʽI Can't Let Goʼ, a great song originally recorded by little-known singer Evie Sands — The Hollies faithfully follow her version, but tighten everything up to their strongest level, making a far more complex, winding vocal arrangement that summarizes every­thing you need to know about crazy, head-spinning passion, resolving in a high sustained note from Nash that, according to apocryphal information, either Harrison or McCartney, depending on the particular version of the story, originally mistook for a trumpet blast. Whoever thought the band could never top the anthemic power of ʽI'm Aliveʼ would be mistaken — ʽI Can't Let Goʼ is just as strong an anthem, but it's also MAD. And the ringing guitar riff, resonating all over the place like a fire alarm, adds even more fuel to the fire.

Just a few months later, ʽI Can't Let Goʼ was followed by ʽBus Stopʼ, now conveniently added as a bonus track to the CD release of the album — probably one of the band's most iconic songs, something like their equivalent of ʽWaterloo Sunsetʼ in the subtle Britishness of its romantic message. What makes the song so eerily special is its A minor tonality, setting up an atmosphere of melancholy and sadness even as the lyrics allegedly narrate a happy love story — yet the «rainy» atmosphere of the song and the subtle trick of always using the past tense in the lyrics (" August, she was mine") make it seem as if the singer is reminiscing about past happiness by the side of his lover's / wife's grave or something. No idea if that was Graham Gouldman's original intention when he wrote the tune, but that definitely is the way it came out — and, you know, the best love songs are always tragic ones, so no wonder that even the American audiences were captivated, turning it into The Hollies' first big chart success across the ocean.

Other than ʽBus Stopʼ, the bonus tracks are not all that appealing — some forgettable B-sides and rarities, mostly, including two predictably awful performances in Italian — but lovers of Sixties' oddities will probably appreciate ʽAfter The Foxʼ, the title track to a Peter Sellers movie that was actually performed as a duet between The Hollies and Sellers (and written, along with all the other music to the movie, by Bacharach/David). It is arguably one of the goofiest things the band ever did — and they would probably spend a lot of time scratching their heads and wondering hy on Earth would they ever consent to doing something like that. Still, a bit of mindless goofiness never hurt anybody in the long run, and it certainly does not bring down the album's rating (at least it is still tons more fun than ʽFifi The Fleaʼ) — another firm thumbs up for these guys.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Anathema: The Optimist


1) 32.63N 117.14W; 2) Leaving It Behind; 3) Endless Ways; 4) The Optimist; 5) San Francisco; 6) Springfield; 7) Ghosts; 8) Can't Let Go; 9) Close Your Eyes; 10) Wildfires; 11) Back To The Start.

Leave it to Anathema to be inspired by the sleeve of one of their own albums (A Fine Day To Exit), enough to base the entire concept of another album on it. Allegedly, The Optimist is a musical saga whose protagonist is the unseen car driver from A Fine Day To Exit — last seen on the Silver Strand Beach in San Diego County, whose coordinates form the title of the introduc­tory track. That record was made in a transitional era, when Anathema had already largely broken out of their metal carapace, but had not yet seen the light of Heaven, so from a purely theoretical standpoint, it sort of makes sense to revisit an old friend — whom we'd earlier left behind in deep depression and disillusionment — and introduce him to the sort of Platonic bliss in which the Cavanaghs have been dwelling since 2010.

From a practical point, though, I am keeping my promise: I gave Distant Satellites a thumbs down and swore that any future album of theirs that would sound more or less the same way would never hope for a better rating. With the melodic and atmospheric qualities of The Opti­mist, I have no choice but to deliver upon the oath. This is approximately one hour of very gene­ric late-period Anathema music; the only new thing that it offers is a series of programmed per­cussion tracks (you will hear one right from the start, on ʽLeaving It Behindʼ), an element that seems completely gratuitous in this kind of music — but I suppose that Anathema just have to show the kids that they, too, can use computers.

Other than that, this is just another day in the life of Father Vincent and Father Daniel as they make another sermon for the already converted. You know what to expect: Beautiful Romantic Piano Phrasing, multiplied by Inspired Heavenly Vocalizing, augmented with High-Pitched Angelic Guitar Wailing, aggrandized by Sky-Soaring Symphonic Strings. (This is the complete package, and it is only present on select tracks, like the title one, but everything else just reads like a partial deconstruction of the complete package). Hardcore fans will be delighted; myself, I only see total stagnation and self-repetition — at least stylistic, although I'm pretty sure there are quite a few melodic self-rip-offs as well.

I have read reviews of the album that delight in giving out detailed descriptions for all the tracks; I can honestly offer no new insights, just state that everything that you hear here has already been done before — be it the tearful Lee Douglas-delivered ballad (ʽClose Your Eyesʼ), or the moody piano-based instrumental fugue (ʽSan Franciscoʼ), or the grand pathetic finale (ʽBack To The Startʼ). I'm happy for their imaginary character whom they decided to return to the right track and set straight, but I'm also feeling a bit cheesy about this. And I am honestly tired of the preachiness: there is only so many times you get to hear "stop feeling dead inside tonight!" (ʽLeaving It Be­hindʼ) before you get the urge to punch the preacher in the throat. I am not feeling dead inside, and even if I were, it would take far more than a third-rate Anathema album to make me stop. Signed, sealed, and delivered: thumbs down.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Charlatans: Simpatico


1) Blackened Blue Eyes; 2) NYC (There's No Need To Stop); 3) For Your Entertainment; 4) Dead Man's Eye; 5) Muddy Ground; 6) City Of The Dead; 7) Road To Paradise; 8) When The Lights Go Out In London; 9) The Architect; 10) Glory Glory; 11) Sunset & Vine.

Many people rate this album as the absolute nadir of The Charlatans' career, and I think I can see why — for the first time ever, they sound hopelessly lost. They clearly want more change, and can find none. Return to their Madchester roots? Even for the oh-so-permissively eclectic 21st century, that's a bit of a stretch. Go on post-modernizing Bob Dylan and his peers? They have probably taken all the ridicule they could with this schtick. Try that smooth'n'sexy falsetto dance vibe of Wonderland one more time? Now that the world has got Franz Ferdinand, who the heck would need the feeble shadow of The Charlatans?...

Up At The Lake seemed like a breather, an album made on-the-spot without too much thought behind it, and perhaps too many people noticed it, because on their next record, the band goes for a louder, more in-yer-face sound — and it is strangely ineffective. The first track is arguably the best one: ʽBlackened Blue Eyesʼ opens with a nervously paranoid piano riff, explosive guitar whippings, and dramatic synthesized strings to announce personal tragedy ("and there won't be a dry eye in the house tonight!", proclaims one of the least tear-inducing frontmen in Britpop his­tory, although he does mean that ironically). There's a bit of a "New Romantic" flavor to the track, but with solid melodic hooks and crunchy production, that is actually a plus. But after that, things start getting really messy.

The dance-rock novelty number ʽNYC (There's No Need To Stop)ʼ sounds like a ridiculously cocky attempt to write something in between classic Blondie and modern Franz Ferdinand, with neither the bitter humor of the former or the hip modernity of the latter. It is a strange number, yet it is still miles above their several attempts to incorporate ska and reggae elements into their music: ʽFor Your Entertainmentʼ, ʽCity Of The Deadʼ, ʽRoad To Paradiseʼ, ʽThe Architectʼ — somebody must have been on a serious diet of Bob Marley, Madness, and UB40 to get all that stuff on the album, and while I would not go as far as to call the results awful, they are pretty un­remarkable. When you get ska riffs, deep bass vocal harmonies, and a not-too-convincing howl of "it's burning, burning love in the city of the dead!", the results are stuck exactly midway between comic and tragic, and the song becomes ineffective.

Elsewhere, the album fluctuates between slow, power-chord driven pop-rock (ʽDead Man's Eyeʼ), banal trip-hop (ʽMuddy Groundʼ), and exercises in modernized rootsiness (the gospel-stylized ʽGlory Gloryʼ). None of these are interesting in any particular way — the only good thing I can say is that everything is played in an atmosphere of tired resignation: "I sit on the muddy ground, waiting for you... I'm still waiting for you" describes the general mood of the record pretty fine. Maybe this is why they went for reggae — the sounds of the oppressed and humiliated ones. The problem is, it is hard for me to sympathize with the plight of a band as mediocre as The Charla­tans, especially when they tackle styles where almost everything depends on personal charisma rather than notes and chords.

The fascination with reggae is this time reflected even in the closing instrumental, ʽSunset & Vineʼ, which at least gets a fun moody keyboard theme, but otherwise reads like an exercise in breaking the barriers between reggae and adult contemporary. On the whole, it is probably a suitable ending for such a limp and tired record — and this definition does not so much contradict its previously mentioned loud, in-yer-face nature as render it meaningless. Here, they're loud and powerless. The songs aren't hopeless — they are just deadly boring.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Art Bears: Winter Songs


1) The Bath Of Stars; 2) First Things First; 3) Gold; 4) The Summer Wheel; 5) The Slave; 6) The Hermit; 7) Rats And Monkeys; 8) The Skeleton; 9) The Winter Wheel; 10) Man And Boy; 11) Winter / War; 12) Force; 13) Three Figures; 14) Three Wheels.

Art Bears' second album is a fun initiative, much appreciated by the band's small handful of fans, but from that particular perspective which does not simply follow the rule of «the weirder, the better», Winter Songs is, mildly speaking, a bold, yet barely successful experiment. According to the most common story, all the texts here were written by Chris Cutler, based on series of car­vings on the facade of Amiens Cathedral in France — and then rather quickly, almost spontane­ously, set to music by Fred Frith and then recorded in a matter of 14 days in a Swiss studio. This inevitably means that, compared to the refreshing diversity of Hopes And Fears (a record whose content gradually accumulated over several different periods), Winter Songs is more mono­tonous, and its songs, despite the usual intricacy and complexity, give the impression of having been dashed off way too quickly.

Although the whole thing consists of 14 short tracks (one per day?), something that should help comfort prog-wary passengers, they feel more like variations on a single given theme than 14 completely different entities — an album like Thick As A Brick is infinitely more diverse in its movements. Much of this has to do with Dagmar's singing streamlined and restricted to a single style, the stream-of-consciousness avantgarde-free-verse one, which has by now stepped over the dead body of Kurt Weill and is not turning back. Double-tracking and having different vocal lines overlap each other is a common trick here; reversing the vocal tapes is much less so, but when it does happen, it is seriously irritating (ʽFirst Things Firstʼ). Eventually, I find myself tiring of this vocal style, whereas on Hopes And Fears Krause's voice stayed inspirational from start to finish. And while the actual pronounced words are intriguing (I mean, let's confess this, who of us has never dreamed about being treated to a cycle of haiku-like poems inspired by Amiens Cathedral?), it is hardly good for one's sanity to spend 37 minutes listening to the Sibyl's rantings. And at any rate, Chris Cutler sure ain't the new Nostradamus.

As for the music, much of it consists of slow, labored avantgarde textures, sometimes with a bluesy base (ʽFirst Things Firstʼ again), sometimes growing out of vaudeville (ʽGoldʼ), some­times out of jazz-fusion (ʽThe Summer Wheelʼ), sometimes presaging post-1983 Tom Waits (ʽThe Slaveʼ, tearing blues-rock a new one), and sometimes still reflecting Fred Frith's obsession with Celtic folk (ʽThe Hermitʼ). This sentence seems to directly contradict the accusation of monotonousness, yet Art Bears put their own stamp on everything they touch, meaning that every song stutters and stumbles along as if on the verge of falling apart — which never happens, since these guys are professionals, but it can still make you sea-sick.

Amusingly, the band even put out a single from the album, and even more amusingly, it kind of made sense, because ʽRats And Monkeysʼ is indeed the most clearly outstanding track here. Un­like everything else, it rushes forward at an insanely fast tempo — something to be valued in the era of punk and post-punk — and with its noisy and echoey production, Dagmar's psychotic wailing, and screechy violin runs that occasionally degenerate into feedback, it is easy to see the track appealing to the fanbase of, say, Siouxsie & The Banshees. It is a fun romp (think gypsy music on real strong amphetamines!), yet also fairly atypical of the rest of the album; one could, in fact, throw ʽRats And Monkeysʼ away as a «joke» number on a record that generally takes itself far more seriously. But at least it gives the reviewers something to cling on to.

For its conceptuality, abrasiveness, and total lack of compromise Winter Songs may be easily construed as the apex of Art Bears' short career, but this is not my way of thinking: I think the best art bears imprints of a good balance between the conventional and the experimental, and Winter Songs breaks the balance that existed on Hopes And Fears. With multiple listens, the album may become enjoyable even for laymen, but I have not been able to break through so far: it always seems as if the level of pretense and bombast here fails to match the rather thin and quiet sonic textures, and the effect is irritating. Still, avantgarde fans will find a plethora of challenging ideas in these arrangements, and, you know, if you ever get sick listening to legions of normal Celtic folk albums, you can always come back to ʽThe Hermitʼ for salvation from routine. Also, good enough publicity for the Amiens Cathedral, I guess.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Carpenters: Close To You


1) We've Only Just Begun; 2) Love Is Surrender; 3) Maybe It's You; 4) Reason To Believe; 5) Help!; 6) (They Long To Be) Close To You; 7) Baby It's You; 8) I'll Never Fall In Love Again; 9) Crescent Noon; 10) Mr. Guder; 11) I Kept On Loving You; 12) Another Song.

It should hardly come off as a big surprise that the first song to break Carpenters big was a Burt Bacharach number. What does come off as a surprise is that the song in question, first recorded by Richard Chamberlain in 1963 and then re-done by Dionne Warwick and Burt himself, actually sounds good in this arrangement — Richard (Carpenter) gave it more of a beat, bringing it closer to a lively music hall number, and Karen sang it like only Karen could: with a pinch of dark de­spair, implying that being "close to you" is more of an unattainable dream than a reality. I could very well live without the last minute and a half of dreamy la-las and wah-wahs that try to dis­solve memories of Karen's dark-golden voice in regular syrup, but the first three minutes prove decisively that even a Burt Bacharach song can be turned to first-rate pop art if it is done properly. (Ironically, the second Bacharach song on here, ʽBaby It's Youʼ, is done in a slower, soapier, and far more generically melodramatic manner — definitely not the right way to cook this goose, so do right unto yourself and check the Beatles' version instead).

The second big hit that confirmed and solidified their pop star status was ʽWe've Only Just Begunʼ, a song that had just skyrocketed the career of... Crocker National Bank! (having been used, alongside wedding imagery, in a TV commercial) — and yet again, Karen was able to make something bigger out of this than just a sappy wedding ditty. The key to this version is that, by her very nature, she was almost incapable of sounding perfectly happy: there are no false sugary notes in this voice as she sings about "white lace and promises" — instead, there is a note of pensive introspection, an implicit understanding that some out of the "so many roads to choose" may not necessarily be the right ones. Even the flute riff somehow manages to combine tender­ness with a warning intonation, and this mix of happiness and worry is precisely what separates the Carpenters' version from just about any other cover of this song that you might encounter. In short, this performance has psychological depth, even if none of this was an intentional decision on the part of either the brother or the sister. (For that matter, just how many people, I wonder, upon hearing the song and seeing the album sleeve back in 1970 thought of Richard and Karen Carpenter as husband and wife rather than siblings?).

In between these two classics (yes they are), Richard and Karen insert all sorts of randomized material that suffers either from being too lightweight and flimsy (Offering-style), or too boring, or both. The idea to repeat the formula of ʽTicket To Rideʼ with another Beatles song falls flat: not only is their slowing down of ʽHelp!ʼ sort of plagiarizing Deep Purple, but, unlike ʽTicket To Rideʼ, ʽHelp!ʼ was actually a showcase for desperation from the very beginning, and there are no new dimensions to be opened here (plus, Karen is mixed way too low for her magic to work pro­perly this time). Pop fluff like ʽLove Is Surrenderʼ and ʽI'll Never Fall In Love Againʼ (Bacharach again!) passes by quickly and inconspicuously, and Richard-led pop fluff like ʽI Kept On Loving Youʼ passes by slowly and painfully. Tim Hardin's oft-covered ʽReason To Believeʼ is quite nice and gives a good hint at how Carpenters could have sounded with a country-western career (not too country-westernish, I'd say), but the definitive version of the song still belongs to Rod Stewart: this one is just way too fragile.

Curiously, the most interesting two songs past the big hits actually belong to Richard, although ʽCrescent Noonʼ would not have been anything other than a midnight piano ballad without Karen: this is her technically strongest and, perhaps, most nuanced performance on the entire album, not to mention the most depressing — it would have been a stroke of genius to place it at the very end, so that the record could go from "we've only just begun to live..." to "all our green Septem­bers burn away, slowly we'll fade into a sea of midnight blue", but I imagine that such grim con­ceptuality would have been banned by the industry people; after all, this is family entertainment here, not an airbrushed take on Jim Morrison. So the song is buried deep in the middle of Side B, immediately followed with ʽMr. Guderʼ, an amusing personal attack on a Disneyland boss who had the nerve to fire Richard once — and, by extension, a general attack on all kinds of corpo­rate behavior, ever so ironic because it does not seem to me that Richard was particularly averse to shining shoes, neat haircuts, coats and ties, either. Still, it is always fun to hear a soft-pop artist go soft-poppily vicious on The System, more so than just have another love ballad from them.

To conclude: Close To You is where the duo truly arrives, especially considering that Karen is handling most of the lead vocals now, and while they would have slightly more consistent albums in the future, on the whole, this is really as good as it gets — for all their career, they had exactly one great asset at their disposition (some people also like to gush about Richard's skill in arrange­ments, but complex and perfectly organized fluff is still fluff), and they did not always use it with wisdom. When they did, though, I can pardon them everything else for it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Cat Stevens: Catch Bull At Four


1) Sitting; 2) Boy With A Moon & Star On His Head; 3) Angelsea; 4) Silent Sunlight; 5) Can't Keep It In; 6) 18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare); 7) Freezing Steel; 8) O Caritas; 9) Sweet Scarlet; 10) Ruins.

Okay, this one is definitely not for the little children. Almost as if to intentionally distance him­self from the lightweight attitude of the last record, here Stevens offers us a cycle of really «heavy» songs that ultimately combine in a sort of multi-part proclamation of spiritual intent. From the first to the last track, a few interludes notwithstanding, Catch Bull At Four is focused on conveying the following two truths: (a) the world around us is evil, corrupt, and degraded; (b) the artist Cat Stevens takes this state of the world as a personal challenge and is going to do every­thing in his power to at least avoid being contaminated by its evil and degradation, and at most, even lend a helping hand in partially remedying its problems.

This is a noble and admirable intent indeed, perhaps going even further than similar projects like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On; but it could easily suffer from the same problem — too much spirituality and not enough striking musical ideas. In terms of arrangements, Catch Bull At Four goes well beyond its predecessor: there is more orchestration, more emphasis on loudness and bombast, and Cat has also developed a serious interest in keyboards, playing everything from standard and electric pianos to organs and even minimoogs. But in terms of melodic basis, he seems to be seriously stuck in two modes — piano balladry and the Renaissance folk tradition; both of which are respectable, but only when you really try to experiment with these forms rather than simply letting them carry you with the current, while you yourself are way too busy questio­ning your reasons for existence in this sad, sordid world.

The record never really gets better than its opening song, ʽSittingʼ, and even that one is no masterpiece. Its most prominent element is not its ringing piano riff, which is a fairly trivial exer­cise in folk-pop, but rather Cat's ultra-serious and surprisingly gruff vocal tone: his voice may have gone through a natural lowering by that time, but it seems to me that he is very self-con­sciously moving away from the «fairness» of his vocal intonations, replacing them with a stern Biblical scruffiness to make the whole thing sound more like a sermon, or, rather, a personal religious confession: "I feel the power growing in my hair" is, after all, a line fit for a modern day Samson, and you can't really voice a Samson with the voice of young Joseph. But even so, the song — as a musical entity — seems very lazy, especially since the chorus, being just a small up-the-scale variation on the verse, never capitalizes upon the promise of the latter.

This «laziness», however, is even more pronounced on the interminable ballad ʽThe Boy With A Moon & Star On His Headʼ — six minutes of the exact same folksy acoustic riff, during which time you are treated to an odd (and, I'd say, quite morally ambiguous) story of cheating on one's fiancée for the sake of getting a bastard offspring from a gardener's daughter. Curiously, even though the "moon and star" reference would seem to be very directly pointing towards Stevens' conversion to Islam, that was definitely not in the works yet as of 1972; and yet, in a way, the story may be interpreted as a prophetic allegory of his future conversion. For all its artistic intrigue, though, it is just a generic six-minute folk ballad with no development whatsoever — there is one point midway through when the acoustic lull is suddenly interrupted by a crash of percussion and flutes, but it is just for a couple bars to simulate the "merriment" during the protagonist's wedding. Granted, I can pardon these things to Bob Dylan if he has the unique sonic atmosphere to go along with them (ʽSad-Eyed Ladyʼ, etc.), or to Fairport Convention if they raise and sustain the nervous tension (ʽMatty Grovesʼ, etc.), but this is just too... sleepy.

As the first single from the album, Cat chose ʽCan't Keep It Inʼ, one of the album's livelier tunes with a bombastic arrangement, overwhelming vocal harmonies, and danceable rhythm, not to mention the grandiose message that pops out almost immediately: "Oh I can't keep it in, I've gotta let it out, I've got to show the world, world's got to see, see all the love that's in me". It is unclear, though, why he would choose the same gruff tone to deliver the message — the song, once again, sounds more like a professional church sermon than a heartfelt personal plea, and the more I listen to it, the more I understand that the church, rather than a club or an arena, is a perfect set­ting in which to perform it, and that is not a good sign.

The three most interesting songs on the album would probably have to be ʽAngelseaʼ, a love­struck folk dance whose acoustic verses are oddly woven together with dark Moog oscillations (the «folktronica» style here is strangely prescient of Jethro Tull's work from the early Eighties); ʽ18th Avenueʼ — another apocalyptic narrative with loud piano and string interludes, probably influenced by Elton John but also strangely prescient of... Meatloaf?; and ʽO' Caritasʼ, another «world gone wrong» type song with multi-tracked vocals that were specially translated for Cat into Latin, so that the final result would have a Carmina Burana-like flair (though the acoustic melody is more Spanish / Greek folk than medieval stylization). However, these musical ideas are not enough, per se, to completely redeem the album; and it ends on an even more anti-climactic note than it began — ʽRuinsʼ is 100% pumped-up preachy feeling, with clichéd lyrics to boot ("don't stop that sun to shine, it's not yours or mine" is simply no way to end a good record).

Surprisingly, the record sold fairly well, and it even became Stevens' only No. 1 in the US — probably following in the footsteps of Teaser; critics, however, have rarely liked it for its rela­tive dearth of musical ideas and its unveiled populism, and this time I must concur — Catch Bull At Four is a classic example of a songwriter overrating his own importance, even if doing this in good faith and out of a sincere desire to help get things right. Still worth a listen or two, but I would be surprised if more than one or two songs off it got stuck around in your head for too long; and I would be downright embarrassed if you told me that, in its time, it helped you to become a better person and begin campaigning for waste sorting or world peace or something.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Hamhark & Limer Beans


1) Hamhark & Limer Beans; 2) Let Me In I Am Drunk; 3) Somebody's Done Changed The Lock; 4) My Combi­nation For Love; 5) Walkin' The Road; 6) Phone Call; 7) (Tell Me) Who Do You Love; 8) Let's Try Over Again.

Sources documenting Champion Jack Dupree's life and travel in the Seventies are even more scarce than those that document it for earlier periods, and discographies after 1969 become even more confusing, as occasional new recording sessions get hopelessly interspersed with repacka­gings of and outtakes from earlier sessions. To the best of my understanding, after the release of The Heart Of The Blues Is Sound his productivity began to drop down; by the mid-, if not early Seventies he was back in continental Europe, too, and thus deprived of the company of rising stars on the British blues-rock scene.

The only definitively new album by the man, recorded and released in the 1970s that I know of and have access to is Hamhark & Limer Beans, allegedly dating back to a January 24, 1977 session in Paris, held by Dupree with a bunch of musicians with English and French names, not a single one of which is in any way familiar to me — so, essentially, it is back to square one and those lonesome Copenhagen sessions of the early Sixties. At least, he does have a full band, with additional keyboards, electric guitars, and a steady rhythm section. And it is also reassuring to hear that the old man's spirits had not drooped a bit: happy to go on doing what he'd already been doing, he is offering us even more rewrites of old classics and even more recyclings of old ideas, without, so it seems, getting even the slightest doubt that maybe the world around him may have finally had enough of him. Him? Champion Jack Dupree? No way. Couldn't possibly happen.

Thus we get another ʽDrinkin' Wine Spoo-Dee-Oo-Deeʼ (title track, with a fresh gastronomic twist to the lyrics and the guitarist seemingly aiming to imitate a young Keith Richards circa 1964 or so, with dubious results); another ʽLet's Try It Over One More Timeʼ (crudely retitled ʽLet's Try It Over Againʼ); another half-funny, half-silly talking blues piece (ʽPhone Callʼ, in which the old geezer briefly discusses the current political situation in America in an imaginary conver­sation with Gerald Ford on the issue of Jimmy Carter!); and a bunch of other 12-bar blues, blues ballads, and boogie standards. In short, nothing has changed, except for some names of some American presidents spinning around the immobile constant of Champion Jack.

The backing band is at least slightly fun: organist Michel Carras and lead guitarist (either Larry Martin or Paul Pechenaert, I do not know which) have a good chemistry and honestly try to intro­duce some energy and sharpness into the proceedings — but either it is the rhythm section that drags them down with lethargy, or bad production, or they just do not have the balls for the job themselves, anyway, even when the guitarist tries to sound «gruff», he is still caressing that guitar rather than whipping it, and the end result is tepid. Not that this ever bothered The Champion — he ain't here to play rock'n'roll, he is only here to tell us that, no matter what, he is still alive and no silly dilemmas like «prog vs. punk» are ever going to deter him from jotting down in his musical diary the simple everyday joys of eating baked beans, drinking corn whiskey, bedding (or, more frequently, failing to bed) beautiful (or ugly) women, and simplistically wisecracking on political matters. And the musicians — they may keep up, or they may fall out, this is not going to influence his mood one single bit.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Small Faces: Small Faces


1) Shake; 2) Come On Children; 3) You Better Believe It; 4) It's Too Late; 5) One Night Stand; 6) What'cha Gonna Do About It; 7) Sorry She's Mine; 8) Own Up Time; 9) You Need Loving; 10) Don't Stop What You Are Doing; 11) E To D; 12) Sha-La-La-La-Lee.

Although the Small Faces' debut was not released on the market until May 1966, by its very nature it properly belongs in 1965: most of the recordings were produced in the latter half of that year and, more importantly, occupy the same style-shelf as the early Yardbirds and Who: at the time, Small Faces subscribed to the same Mod subculture as the Who and, for whatever it's worth, were commonly regarded as The Who's junior partners. Considering that Small Faces is essen­tially a mix of straightfaced R&B and rebellious garage rock, without the tiniest smidgeon of psychedelia, for mid-'66 it already sounded a tad anachronistic — which should not, however, prevent us from still enjoying the hell out of it more than half a century later.

It is hard, actually, to discuss the merits of Small Faces without inevitable comparisons to The Who's My Generation — at this point, the preferences and goals of both bands were almost the same, except that Small Faces would lose to The Who on almost all counts. They did not have as crazy a drummer as Keith Moon (Kenney Jones was competent and energetic, but utterly sane); as dexterous a bassist as John Entwistle (Ronnie Lane could play it mean and thick, but ultimate­ly went down in history as more of a songwriter than a player, let alone singer); or as intellectual and inventive a guitar player as Townshend (Steve Marriott knew how to produce feedback, but not how to destroy the listeners with it). They were far less accomplished songwriters, too, with most of the «originals» on this album recycling stolen musical ideas — ʽWhatcha Gonna Do About Itʼ, for instance, simply rides the riff of Solomon Burke's ʽEverybody Needs Somebody To Loveʼ — and the subject matters rarely transcending the usual love/sex subjects: no ʽMy Genera­tionʼ-style ideological anthems for these guys.

They did have one unquestionable advantage over The Who, though, which is precisely the one that makes the album sound cool even today: Steve Marriott — not as a guitar player, but as one of the greatest white vocalists of his era. Many people at the time strove to imitate the great black R&B screamers and crooners, but almost everybody ended up sounding pathetic (Roger Daltrey included); Marriott, long before Rod Stewart and Joe Cocker carried on the tradition, was among the first, if not the very first white R&B belter across the Atlantic (ocean) that could hold his own against anybody on Atlantic (label) — to which he further added an overtone of garage aggres­sion that you'd never hear from the well-behaving Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett. In 1965/66, Marriott blew away all competition on that scale — well, maybe with the possible exception of Van Morrison. (There was also Steve Winwood of the Spencer Davis Group, but his approach was always far more restrained and polite).

The key track to understanding early Small Faces is arguably ʽYou Need Lovingʼ — a stepping stone, as most would see it, on the way from Muddy Waters' original to Led Zeppelin's ʽWhole Lotta Loveʼ; but while this version does lack the quintessential-iconic heavy metal riff that would elevate Zep to a whole new level, there is not a single reason I could think of that would make me honestly prefer Robert Plant's performance over Steve's. Except Plant's voice is much higher, so I guess that his "I'm gon' send you back to schoolin'!" is far quicker registered in your ear than Steve's somewhat lower-pitched histrionics. Nevertheless, the combination of heavy bass, power­house drums, and rabid vocalizing makes the Small Faces' version an important milestone in the evolution of heavy soul music, opening certain dark Freudian depths that were closed to even the best British bands of the epoch. Ironically, one other thing in which Small Faces also happened to precede Led Zeppelin was shameless pilfering of credits — ʽYou Need Lovingʼ was far closer to Muddy Waters' ʽYou Need Loveʼ in all respects than ʽWhole Lotta Loveʼ, and yet Willie Dixon never sued them for copyright breaching. I guess there are certain advantages to not being a mega-million-dollar superstar team, after all.

What with all the fresh energy scattered around and with Steve Marriott at his most unhinged, the shady issue of songwriting can get easily lost in the fray — even though, by modern standards, the band is really not behaving well, adding insult to injury as, for instance, they pillage James Brown (ʽThinkʼ) for their ʽCome On Childrenʼ; as for their instrumentals such as ʽOwn Up Timeʼ, they all seem to be taken right out of the Booker T. & The MG's songbook, a fact that is hardly covered up by the band «disguising» the acquisitions with extra feedback. The few true originals that they managed to place on the record, usually credited to Marriott/Lane in Lennon / McCart­ney or Jagger / Richards style, are nothing special, second-rate pop-rock or blue-eyed soul only distinguished by Steve's permanently-over-the-top vocal deliveries; there is nothing here yet to suggest that pretty soon they'd be growing into Britain's finest pop songwriters of the decade. But like with many other such debut albums, songwriting should be far from the first reason why one should get interested in this stuff.

Or, at least, not the band's own songwriting: three of the most professionally written tunes here were contributed to the band by Kenny Lynch, either on his own or in tandem with Jerry Rago­voy or Mort Shuman. ʽYou'd Better Believe Itʼ and ʽSorry She's Mineʼ are catchy, but shallow soul-pop tunes; however, real gold was struck with ʽSha-La-La-La-Leeʼ, essentially a stupid (and, unfortunately, quite irony-free) novelty number with more surface appeal to 6-year olds than 16-year olds. The band, especially Marriott, hated its bubblegummy guts, but since it went on to be­come their biggest hit so far (and stayed that way until finally vindicated by the No. 1 status of ʽAll Or Nothingʼ), they had no choice but to stick with it. Even so, it says a lot about Marriott as a vocalist that the song avoids being completely cringeworthy due to the powerhouse effect of his vocal cords — in the hands of Manfred Mann, a song like this would be specifically targeted to the pre-pubescent part of the audience, whereas Steve almost makes you take it seriously. Almost, because no amount of vocal magic can reverse the damage done by an endless string of "sha-la-la-la-lee"s, or by the song's Mother Goose-like lyrical level.

Still, once all the damage has been properly assessed, Small Faces deserves its modest thumbs up. Listening to it once again, I can't help wondering what sort of an album could have been pro­duced in late '65, had The Who decided to dump Roger as their vocalist and replace him with Steve (not that I'd dare dismiss Roger, but he truly did not come into his own properly until Tommy and those late Sixties / early Seventies live shows). Such a decision, perhaps, would have rendered Small Faces completely superfluous — and yet, on the other hand, it might also be true that this slightly re-written bunch of classic R&B standards agrees better with Steve's vocal style (owed to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding) than, uhm, ʽMy Generationʼ. In other words, it is good to be able to have them all, especially now that you can make yourself a mixed playlist of Pete Townshend originals and Steve Marriott covers — and enjoy the best of both worlds.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Anna von Hausswolff: Singing From The Grave


1) Move On; 2) Track Of Time; 3) Pills; 4) Above All; 5) Singing From The Grave; 6) Lost At Sea; 7) Old Beauty / Du Kan Nu Dö; 8) The Book; 9) I Am Leaving.

It is not difficult, I presume, to guess the first impression recorded by an eye that happens to fall upon an album called Singing From The Grave and credited to an artist by the name of Anna von Hausswolff. Dark, metallic, doom-laden Gothic chants, right? Like a modern day Nico or something, and probably with all sorts of occult and witchy references, too, what with "Hauss­wolff" sitting so close to "werewolf" and all. I have no doubt that the lady in question nurtured these connotations, even if the album sleeve, with its quasi-Pollockian sketchings, adds no direct evidence. Therefore, it is the first and foremost duty of any honorable reviewer to begin with the obvious: nope, not a single zombie was harmed during the recording and production of this album. Furthermore, von Hausswolff is Anna's real name (none of that «Lana Del Rey» crap in this story of artistic growth), and she is not even German, but Swedish. Though she does claim to be a fan of Burzum, but then again, who doesn't?

Although the lady's ambitions were clearly set on the international market from the start, given that she sings everything (with the exception of one short snippet) in English rather than Swedish, her debut album never got an international release — in 2010, it was too early, and later on, as she changed her style significantly, it was much too late. It did, however, make her a star in her native country, which was up to that time running rather low on talented singer-songwriters of the female persuasion that also happened to be aspiring for something more substantial than shallow pop glitz (although this is more of an assumption than factual knowledge on my part). The lady could compose, play (piano and organ mostly), sing, and even produce the artwork for her album (admittedly, the latter endeavor did not require too much talent), so here was a Swedish Kate Bush / Tori Amos / Fiona Apple / Joanna Newsom all rolled in one, and with an advantage, too, because neither of those four ever thought about singing from the grave. Well, except Kate in her ʽWuthering Heightsʼ incarnation, but that was way back when.

In the light of Anna's subsequent output, Singing From The Grave is the quintessential «teenage first effort», even though she was 24 when it came out. Her chief instrument is the grand piano, which she does not play with a lot of invention or dexterity, largely restricting herself to repetitive fugue-style chord runs that she probably had all figured out while practicing her classical pieces on the black and white. Her instrumental melodies are difficult to tell from one another and also tend to go on much longer than necessary even after you get that they are difficult to tell from another. Her lyrics, although not as ridden with clichés as your average romance/loss/redemption cycle, are not particularly insightful for those who want a fresh, 2010-worthy take on these mat­ters for their crash course in «Breakup 2.0». And her singing... well, it would not be totally inac­curate to call her a slightly lower-pitched equivalent of Joanna Newsom, at least at this early stage in her career.

This is, however, just the right point to roll the tape in the opposite direction: I like her singing more than that of Joanna Newsom. What Newsom does as a gratuitously irritating artistic mannerism, von Hauss­wolff does naturally — her voice is not particularly powerful, but she has a solid range, an infal­lible technique, and plenty of versatility: it is clear that her influences are much wider than Kate Bush-inspired art-pop, and also include country (watch out for the chorus of ʽAbove Allʼ), blues, and gospel (not that Kate Bush did not have some of these influences herself, but we are talking stereotypes here, people). At the same time, she strives to keep things reasonably simple, not considering herself above and beyond the concept of a vocal hook in the chorus; and largely (though not always) avoids direct manipulation, singing with just the right amount of detachment to not lose herself to the listener and not to overwhelm him. It does not usually take me much time to shoot down a pompously operatic or manneristic singer, but she does not count. At the end of the day, she is merely carrying on the tradition of grand old ladies like Sandy Denny or Annie Haslam, rather than doing this «I am going to sound very weird and mysterious because publicity» schtick.

As for the songs themselves, after a short while you might realize that, while not much of a pianist or an organist, she has a good instinct for seductive vocal modulation — already on the second song, ʽTrack Of Timeʼ, she is able to develop one single line ("you lose it all the time") into something epic. In ʽPillsʼ, she goes into a trance admitting that "I made love with the devil", and it is almost believable — the trance, I mean, not the devil part which is a very obvious hyper­bole. ʽAbove Allʼ, as I already said, makes me envision a collaboration with The Dixie Chicks or somebody like that, but the country waltz element is given a tragic sheen, as she seemingly recounts the last moments in the life of her grandmother. The most hysterical performance is in ʽLost At Seaʼ — the song that is most dependent on her higher range and, therefore, the most re­miniscent of Kate Bush, but also the most openly rocking number on here, and with awesome production that does indeed create a (slightly vaudevillian) illusion of a raging sea storm in which the protagonist's lover is supposed to be getting lost.

The culmination of all these broodings is the 10-minute epic ʽThe Bookʼ, which takes all that time to tell us that "I'm happy for what I found", that "I'm understanding more of me", and that "I will never turn back now". After a few listens, I finally got what it reminded me of — some of the piano chords sound almost directly lifted from The Smiths' ʽNever Had No One Everʼ, and even if that is just a coincidence, the brooding, broken-hearted atmosphere is still the same for both, except that von Hausswolff is willing to be more optimistic about the perspectives of going on (well, it's pretty hard to beat Morrissey in the pessimism department anyway). In any case, her performance is stellar — going from whisper to scream back to whisper back to scream, she gives a first-rate theatrical delivery. A small problem is that not a single ounce of the music really gives credence to the line about finding "a book about the happy way of living life", but let us count this as a small — and surmountable — problem indeed. I could also live without the atmospheric five-minute piano jam at the end (her little team does not have the means yet to create a suitably grand wall of sound), but that, too, is nitpicking.

I suppose that the record should be penalized for being monotonous and musically lazy (just how many of these two-chord piano runs is it possible to tolerate in one go?), yet I still give it a thumbs up — for what, I don't even properly understand myself. Some hooks, some first-rate singing, perhaps, and above all, this strange atmosphere of believability and a complete lack of superficial gimmickry. It just sounds like an honest record, that's all.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Charlatans: Up At The Lake


1) Up At The Lake; 2) Feel The Pressure; 3) As I Watch You In Disbelief; 4) Cry Yourself To Sleep; 5) Bona Fide Treasure; 6) High Up Your Tree; 7) Blue For You; 8) Loving You Is Easy; 9) Try Again Today; 10) Apples And Oranges; 11) Dead Love.

This is, I think, the first ever Charlatans album that is totally neutral — at long last, they just give up trying to impress you with their mastery of a certain style or with their cool and not-so-subtle appropriation of classic motives and tropes, and simply make an album of music, in whatever shades and under whichever sauces it happens to come to them at the moment. This results in no miracles — even humility and simplicity cannot make up for lack of genius — but it cures some of the itchy irritation I often get when listening to their quotation-infused rewrites or to the more stylistically monotonous albums in their catalog. Compared to those, Up At The Lake at least seems artistically healthy and wholesome.

They do not abandon the neo-electro-pop-funk-whatever vibe of the last album, but now it is only one integral part in a properly reassembled stylistic kaleidoscope, along with elements of music hall, classic power pop, distorted alt-rock, and acoustic folk. The title track that opens the album seems more influenced by Todd Rundgren and Cheap Trick than Prince, and sets the proper tone for much, if not most, of what is to come: steady, reliable, professional, but not tremendously exciting pop-rock. Not tremendously exciting, because once again The Charlatans hesitantly me­ander on the threshold of completing the achievement — ʽUp At The Lakeʼ is a study in love­struck desperation that only gets the bronze prize because neither the guitar work of Mark Collins nor the vocals of Tim Burgess truly convey that desperation. Cool fast tempo, nice vocal hooks, but everything stops just short of greatness — not the first and far from the last time in Charlatan history, might I add.

They even turn to a form of pub rock on ʽAs I Watch You In Disbeliefʼ, where Burgess concocts a character-asassinating story with a Dylanesque twist (but, fortunately, no more direct lifts from Dylan lyrics) and narrates it in strings of lengthy verses to the grind of a thick-heavy pop riff; and here, too, you feel the whole thing could be more fun if... if... well, either if it had been written and recorded in 1965, or if they'd handed it over to Cheap Trick. Preferably in 1977. Still, even in this version it is fun, and I would rather have the Charlatans doing power pop than sentimen­tal power balladry: ʽCry Yourself To Sleepʼ is slow, dreary mope balladry in alt-rock format that should probably be featured on Coldplay rather than Charlatans albums.

The toned-down funky vibe still resurges on ʽFeel The Pressureʼ, the album's most openly moder­nistic number and, ironically, also the one where they can't help slipping in another lyrical refe­rence: "Am I old enough, am I young enough, am I tough enough... to feel the pressure?" swiftly brings to mind the Stones' ʽBeast Of Burdenʼ, especially coupled with the same overall message of getting out of your other's suffocating grip. At the end of the day, the song's danceable chorus might be the single most memorable moment on the album — meaning that, no matter how much they get out of their skin to recreate the dashing pop vibes of the Sixties and Seventies, they are still, by their very nature, a dance-oriented Madchester-bred outfit, and that the falsetto-laced R&B spirit of Wonderland was no fluke, but should, perhaps, have been nurtured and developed to a far higher degree on Up At The Lake.

Although the record is surprisingly short for a band that liked to take its time in the Nineties, the last bunch of songs just passes me by without a trace — way too formulaic and even, I'd say, sim­plistic, so that I actually find myself missing their traditional streams of borrowing (at least those gave some food for the starving reviewer). All of it is listenable, though, and I guess that hardened fans of the band will not be disappointed in the end; but ultimately, there is simply nothing to write about.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Art Bears: Hopes And Fears


1) On Suicide; 2) The Dividing Line; 3) Joan; 4) Maze; 5) In Two Minds; 6) Terrain; 7) The Tube; 8) The Dance; 9) Pirate Song; 10) Labyrinth; 11) Riddle; 12) Moeris Dancing; 13) Piers.

Although the career of the Art Bears is inextricable from that of Henry Cow, it might be argued that the quintessential Henry Cow — the band that had previously engaged in some of the most convoluted and inaccessible avant-jazz-rock-fusion on the Legend album — had already ceased to exist by the time their second album, In Praise Of Learning, started making waves. From that point of view, it is not altogether clear if Hopes And Fears could/should be called the last Henry Cow album, or if In Praise Of Learning should be dubbed the first Art Bears one. Perhaps the former, since the recording actually started out in the name of Henry Cow (the first sessions in Switzerland in January 1978) — but ultimately ended in the name of Art Bears (the last sessions in London three months later). But maybe the latter, since one only has to remember ʽWarʼ from In Praise Of Learning to realize that that was truly the first Art Bears composition in all but name.

So let us bow down to naming technicalities and start it off from a clean slate: Art Bears were Fred Frith (all melodic instruments except for occasional guest spots by fellow Henry Cowherders), Chris Cutler (all percussion), and Dagmar Krause (all lightly German-accented English vocals), breaking their commitment to Henry Cow by systematically making commercial, openly marketable music — well, marketable to about a few thousand people, at least, which would already be a huge fuckin' sellout compared to Legend. The hopes were to produce an intelligent synthesis of hard rock, free-form jazz, Celtic folk, modern classical, and Kurt Weill that could appeal to lovers of adventurous sound explorations all over the world; the fears, on the other hand, were largely confined to the contents of the album, whose first track title — ʽOn Suicideʼ (with lyrics conveniently adapted from Bertolt Brecht) — already suggests that, despite the jarring surrealism of the music, its emotional and artistic content was supposed to make some perfectly earthly sense.

As somebody who usually wastes little time in becoming pissed off at the senseless pretentious­ness of much avantgarde music, I will have to state, right at the very start, that Hopes And Fears is so directly focused upon catching you off guard now and again, that the windows of opportu­nity for getting pissed off are quite tiny. Its main inspiration, as evidenced primarily in the vocal style and mannerisms of Krause (but also in the instrumental music as well), is neither rock nor jazz music, but rather the pre-WWII German scene, everything from the cabaret-meets-high-art style of Kurt Weill to the atonal experiments of Alban Berg. If you «get» that kind of musical attitude, you will have absolutely no problems assimilating most of the record — wild, desperate, ablaze with angry Teutonic passion but also deeply humanistic at heart. That the vibe would, of all people, happen to be revived by a bunch of English musicians at a time when conditions for it could not be less auspicious, is curious by the standards of the late Seventies, but completely irrelevant now that time has finally all but flattened out in the 2010s.

However, as I said, Hopes And Fears is really a synthesis, and by no means a «Kurt Weill with rock instrumentation» kind of record. A good example is the album's wonderful nine-minute epic, ʽIn Two Mindsʼ. Starting out as a sort of acoustic avant-folk oratorio in which Krause offers a passionate character study of a «fallen woman», it goes through a number of sections, one of which sounds as a barely veiled tribute to The Who — with Townshend-style power chords propped up by Keith Moon-style powerhouse drumming, reminiscent of the Quadrophenia vibe. These «two minds», alter­nating with each other several times, create an odd contrast that totally catches you off guard upon the first time, but eventually becomes perceived as a natural up-and-down trajectory of the human spirit. And Krause, whose natural vocal timbre is not the most pleasant thing in the world but agrees well with the long-standing tradition of «masculine singing» by self-empowered Ger­man ladies, does a great job vocalizing in lamenting / anthemic ways on both parts.

Much of the work is still instrumental, although short bits of vocalization tend to be present everywhere, contributing to the various moods. ʽMazeʼ, true to its title, is an avantgarde track that loyally recreates the sensation of being trapped and disoriented in a labyrinthian structure (of your own mind, no less), with dissonance, wild time signatures, and Berg-like strings paranoi­dally humming in tandem with electronic feedback; ʽThe Tubeʼ is even more claustrophobic, with waves of Metal Machine Music-like heavy guitar feedback given a cavernous production, giving you that cool feel of standing in a post-apocalyptic metro tunnel populated with giant acid-spitting cockroaches, rather than merely getting caught up in the hurly-burly of underground traffic. (The obsession with twisted underground corridors is, apparently, not coincidental, since further on down the line you also find ʽLabyrinthʼ, a two-minute synthesis of Weillesque singing, atonal feedback, and an odd industrial percussive track).

On the other hand, there is ʽThe Danceʼ and later still, ʽMoeris Dancingʼ, tracks that reflect Fred Frith's interest in traditional Celtic music and feature an avantgarde reinterpretation of the jig-and-reel pattern — although when it comes to the wild violin stylizations on the latter track, it is hard to tell if it is really the Celtic vibe that remains prevalent or if a Mid-Eastern wave of in­fluence has caught up on it, as even Krause succumbs to dropping her Lotte Lenya skin and doing a bit of a spinning-dervish imper­sonation instead. Never a dull moment with these guys for sure.

Does it all make grand sense? Hard to say, but at least there is no nasty feeling here that the musicians are simply fucking with you for their own egotistical reasons. Because of the various stylistic influences, there are moments here that sound genuinely tragic, others that sound sincere­ly rebellious, and still others that betray romantic yearning and lust for freedom (ʽPirate Songʼ and ʽPiersʼ with their marine references — and, as it happens, yet another allusion to Weill). It also helps that most of the tracks, with the understandable exclusion of ʽIn Two Mindsʼ, are reasonably compact, as, I believe, most openly experimental compositions should be: be it Krause's passionately free-form arias or Frith's chaotic mixes of jazz chords, feedback, and gypsy violin, they never give any individual track sufficient space to irritate the beejesus out of an un­prepared listener (although even a fully prepared listener might find oneself secretly longing for a cool glass of ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ midway through the album marathon).

All in all, this is quite an ambitious and adventurous affair that finds itself, strangely enough, almost completely free of the clutches of contemporary New Wave conventions — despite occa­sional use of electronics that still brings to mind old-fashioned Faust rather than Gary Numan — and is, of course, forever doomed to linger on the taste fringes of those who like their modern classical converted to popular genre formats: a small, small bunch indeed, but one that would probably enthusiastically approve of this thumbs up rating. Not that there's anything bear-like about this music, though: Art Chameleons might have been a far more appropriate moniker for these guys.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Carpenters: Offering


1) Invocation; 2) Your Wonderful Parade; 3) Someday; 4) Get Together; 5) All Of My Life; 6) Turn Away; 7) Ticket To Ride; 8) Don't Be Afraid; 9) What's The Use; 10) All I Can Do; 11) Eve; 12) Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing; 13) Benediction.

The main problem with the Carpenters' generally forgotten debut album is simple, as long as you subscribe to the world view that has been gradually consolidating around the duo's post-mortem reputation — namely, that «Carpenters» (as a concept) were shite, while Karen Carpenter was anything but. Admittedly, it is a flawed and incomplete view, but, unfortunately, I cannot help drifting towards it myself, and nowhere is it more evident than on Offering (what a posh title!), the duo's first big, er, offering to the A&M label. Today, it is better known as Ticket To Ride, after its only minor hit single, but I am keeping the original title for honesty's sake, especially since «honesty» is generally a big concern for bands like these.

Technically, the album was a transitional affair, recorded very soon after the breakup of Richard and Karen's band Spectrum and still containing traces of a «band» rather than «duo» (or, even better, «solo») approach to business. More than half of the songs were actually written by Richard, with lyrics by former bandmate John Bettis — even though Richard never was and never would be a talented songwriter; and about half of the songs are sung by Richard, even though I always end up feeling like a three-year old every time I hear a Richard vocal. The syrupy-upbeat atmo­sphere ends up infecting Karen's performances as well (ʽDon't Be Afraidʼ, etc.), and the result is not so much «soft rock» as it is «Sesame Street rock», a subgenre that the Carpenters would never fully relinquish voluntarily, but Offering is really their only album to have been recorded almost completely in that genre.

There are exceptions, of course — two or three of these, pointing the way to future moments of triumph, and, as anybody can guess, it is first and foremost the songs that put Karen's rich, dark lower range overtones in proper focus, with an aura of near-tragic melancholy that hinted at a very troubled soul (not to mention physiology) even back when Karen Carpenter was, formal­ly, still a lively, fun-loving, drum-toting tomboy. A particular highlight, long forgotten in favor of future hit songs in the same style, is Richard's ʽEveʼ, a lush Euroballad that is, unfortunately, spoiled by too many overdubbed harmonies and strings in the chorus, but sounds near-perfect when it's just Karen and the piano (or, in later verses, a bit of overdubbed harpsichord on top): here, already, she is able to woo the listener with merely the opening "Eve, I can't believe that you would mean what you just said..." — few singers are able to combine special vocal technique with fully believable realism of the delivery, and here we witness the combination of a capable singer, a perfect actor, and a captivating human being.

Compared to ʽEveʼ, the far better known title track is not nearly as impressive. The idea to put the "sad" back into "I think I'm gonna be sad" is brilliant per se — whatever you could say about the original ʽTicket To Rideʼ, you could never truly suspect the song of disseminating an atmosphere of genuine sadness (the irony was, of course, best captured in the Help! movie where it was per­formed to footage of all four Beatles enjoying themselves like ecstatic kids while skiing in the Alps — so who's got a ticket to ride, once again?). Problem is, they lay it on a bit too thick, slowing the song down to an almost ridiculous crawl, and the theatricality here actually over­shadows the realism — much as I'd love imagining the song as a far more hard-hitting retort by somebody like Cynthia Lennon ("the boy that's driving me mad is going away... he's got a ticket to ride, and he don't care" — sound familiar?). Still, the purpose is a noble one, as is their other tasteful choice of a cover: Buffalo Springfield's mournful ʽNowadays Clancy Can't Even Singʼ, another broken down lady tale that they smother in strings and woodwinds, but without sacrifi­cing its tragic-humanistic spirit. Too many Richard vocals, though!

As for the rest... well, stuff like ʽYour Wonderful Paradeʼ is the kind of stuff I would rather be dead than caught listening to by even the closest friends and relatives (fortunately, I always have a «reviewing purpose only» excuse for anything, and you don't!), even if it is a somewhat catchy pop song, with appropriately cartoonish tin soldier drumming from Karen who, at this point, still considered herself strictly a «singing drummer»; but the atmosphere of cutesy-whimsy is unbea­rable — if you're gonna do it, just go all the way and get an ʽAll Together Nowʼ or a ʽYellow Sub­marineʼ out of your system, rather than this middle-of-the-road crap that is too boring as a kiddie tune and too corny as an adult one. The same applies to most of the other songs written by Richard, ʽEveʼ excepted — but when he wants to write a sentimental ballad, he often falls flat, too, as on ʽSomedayʼ, a mushy Broadway tune whose spineless nature cannot even be redeemed by Karen singing it without outside help.

Concerning the overall «coating» of the record, it is clear that it was at least as much influenced by The Beach Boys as it was by show tunes and Bacharach, but the latter influences still prevail, and despite frequent praise for Richard's talents as an arranger, the pretty effects that he got with multiple overdubs of his and Karen's vocals are consistently offset by Mantovani-type strings and the overall silky softness of pretty much every instrument played (yes, even Karen's drums — despite all the quirkiness and even sexiness of her «singing drummer» image, she was no Keith Moon when it came to hitting... uh, caressing that drumkit). Jazz influences are also obvious (the siblings' first work together was actually within a jazz setting), as on the brief jazz-pop experi­ment ʽAll I Can Doʼ, but... well, you know.

In the end, Offering clearly seems to deserve its reputation — a failed first attempt that misuses the duo's talents and is more often boring and/or embarrassing than illuminating; it is much to the siblings' credit that they were able to understand which elements had to be cut down and which ones had to be emphasized in such a record short time. But, like almost any first failure by a future great artist, it does have its flashes of occasional brilliance — and it is at least an intriguing failure, sounding so notably different from whatever would follow. So, one of those cases where a formal thumbs down might still warrant interest for those who find up-and-down curves more fascinating than all-the-way-up-the-hill trajectories.