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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Eric Clapton: John Mayall's Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton

ERIC CLAPTON: JOHN MAYALL'S BLUESBREAKERS WITH ERIC CLAPTON (1966)

1) All Your Love; 2) Hideaway; 3) Little Girl; 4) Another Man; 5) Double Crossing Time; 6) What'd I Say; 7) Key To Love; 8) Parchman Farm; 9) Have You Heard; 10) Ramblin' On My Mind; 11) Steppin' Out; 12) It Ain't Right.

Formally, this album belongs in John Mayall's discography, not Eric Clapton's. However, with all due respect, it was not because of Mayall that history chose it to count as one of the seminal blues-rock records of the Sixties — and there is not a single reasonable discography or Eric Clapton, pure or annotated, that would omit it or place it in parentheses, either. It is no incident that, out of all (quite numerous) Mayall albums, this is the only one, ever, that would explicitly mention another band member in its title: cynics will say that John understood that such a move would boost sales, while idealists will counteract that John was simply willing to acknowledge the unquestionable superiority of his partner.

Prior to the «Beano» album (informally titled this way because of the comic that Eric is reading on the front sleeve photo, already staging one of his «I'm-not-really-with-these-guys» moods), Mayall only had one record out — the live album John Mayall Plays John Mayall, with Eric's predecessor Roger Dean on guitar (not the Roger Dean of the Yes artwork fame). It was one of Britain's first blues / blues-rock albums, but that's about it: together with Alexis Korner and a few other chaps, Mayall represented the sincere, hard-working, educational side of the British blues movement that, honestly speaking, was of more interest to purists and snobs than people vying for genuine excitement and innovation.

Mayall himself, a solid musician in his own right, would remain that way until the present day; but things briefly took a different, and quite sharp, turn when a young Eric Clapton, having freed himself from any obligations to the «pop-going» Yardbirds, was convinced to join Mayall's Blues­breakers. He actually served two brief stints with the band — in mid-'65 for the first time, and then again in 1966 (in between, he had a weird side project with «The Glands», while his position in the Bluesbreakers was being filled in by Peter Green). The problem with Eric, as is slightly hinted at by his biographies and autobiographies, is that he was regularly caught between fits of modesty/humility and severe egoism — as shy and reclusive by nature as he was also ambitious and determined to have his own way. No band in which he'd ever served before going full-time solo in 1974 could be said to be completely dominated by him, yet none of these bands ever gave him complete satisfaction. But his relations with John Mayall and his gang seem to have been particularly tense — ultimately, it was Beano all the way.

Nevertheless, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton, at least nominally, sounds precisely like the kind of record that would have made Eric totally happy. Unlike in The Yard­birds, he is given almost complete control over the most powerful aspects of most tracks, his only «competing» instrument being Mayall's harmonica, and that's not much of a competition. Unlike  in Cream, the Bluesbreakers play straightforward blues and R&B, without any jazzy edges or psychedelic experiments. Unlike in Blind Faith, the musicians — including the rhythm section of John McVie and Hughie Flint — sound like a tightly focused outfit, rather than a pack of super­heroes that got together by accident. And while the atmosphere in the band is predictably conser­vative and the music is formulaic, there are no bans on approaching the material with a creative, experimental edge that allows Eric to preserve that duality — humble and modest relative to his predecessors, ambitious and narcissistic relative to his peers.

It might not be easy, more than half a century after the fact, to understand the link between this record and the ensuing «Clapton Is God» legend, what with the large army of superb electric guitar players that arose over the next five years and made Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton into just another electric blues record. It becomes easy enough if you line up a whole series of electric guitar records from 1965-66 across both sides of the Atlantic, of course. In the UK, only Jeff Beck, who had, ironically enough, replaced Eric in The Yardbirds, could probably make up for some healthy, juicy competition; certainly Jeff was already taking blues guitar to places where Eric neither could nor would take it, ranging from Indian ragas to European avantgarde. But when it came to «regular» blueswailing, combining soul, technique, and a little help from those over­driven Marshall amps, not even Beck could compete.

The greatness of the album becomes evident in its first three seconds — three seconds. The mag­nificent Otis Rush had penned ʽAll Your Loveʼ back in 1958, a unique example of tango-blues that converted aching yearning into music like few things did that year. But like with so many other things in the Fifties, technology and spiritual restraint did not allow the song to play out to its full potential. Eric's guitar has a thicker, juicier tone, each of the notes feels more «fulfilled», and, unlike Otis, Eric has learned a thing or two about the power of sustain. Where that guitar used to prick and bite, Clapton's guitar groans and moans: as he reaches the first solo, each phrase has a «sinking» effect, creating the atmosphere of a living hell. The sharp, crisp, dry nature of the tone that he gets out is really as good as blues guitar ever gets; in this department, his sound would later be frequently matched, but never surpassed.

Some of Eric's finest soloing is captured on the slow blues tunes here — ʽDouble Crossing Timeʼ on Side A and ʽHave You Heardʼ on Side B in particular, generic blues-de-luxe frameworks populated by new lyrics for songwriting credits and elevated to heavenly status by blues guitar fireworks from Eric's Gibson Les Paul. A lot of these licks, for sure, were copped from Albert King and Freddie King records — but, much as I revere and enjoy those giants, Clapton took the formula to a whole new level here, with richer, thicker, more resonating phrasing, and, most importantly, borrowing some spirit from the garage-rock movement, using mild distortion and wild-high screechy pitch to make the songs burn. (It is safe to say, I think, that while early Clap­ton was unquestionably highly influenced by Freddie King, late Freddie King was likewise back-influenced by early Clapton — compare Freddie's playing in the early Sixties with his barn-stomping live shows in the early Seventies and you'll know what I mean).

Freddie gets directly Claptonized on the cover of his classic instrumental ʽHideawayʼ, which is, again, a vast improvement on the original: Freddie laid down several cool riffs (with a relatively «thin» guitar tone), but did not significantly improvise — the Bluesbreakers version faithfully reproduces all the riffs with a thicker, more aggressive tone, and on top of that, Eric lays down some improvised solos that make this version, too, a quasi-garage classic. More difficult would be the comparison between this version of ʽSteppin' Outʼ and the Memphis Slim original, because they are so stylistically different — the old variant was piano- and sax-driven, with a very interes­ting jazzy acoustic solo from Matt Murphy. The Bluesbreakers (despite preserving the sax part for rhythm) transform the composition into a vehicle for more of Eric's maniacal soloing, and it assumes an anthemic «don't-mess-around-with-me» quality in the process — good enough to have smoothly made it over into Cream's live repertoire a few months later.

So much for Clapton; but what, may you ask, about the record in general — what is it worth as a sample of the general British blues scene at the time? And what about Mr. Mayall? Well, this is where assessments become a bit more ambiguous. Mr. Mayall is primarily a blues singer, whose singing voice is not a personal preference of mine — it is much too high and «whiny» for the general purpose of the blues, where the vocalist is supposed to be a bit tougher — but is at least individualistic and recognizable. He can also blow a mean harmonica, but, alas, not mean enough to blow Little Walter off the map (ʽIt Ain't Rightʼ); and his solo spot on ʽAnother Manʼ (actually a lyrical rewrite of ʽBaby Please Don't Goʼ), where it's just him, his harmonica, and somebody's handclapping, is nothing more than professional. (Compare Cream's ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ and Jack Bruce's escapades on the mouth harp — the quintessential difference between professional homage and crazyass inspiration).

On the other hand, Mayall certainly has to be commended for making an intriguing, diverse set­list. Where lesser pundits would see no problem in populating the record with nothing but similarly arranged 12-bar blues, Mayall cares about attracting a wider and more exploratory audience, as the track listing, in addition to slow 12-bar stuff, features Mose Allison's jazz-blues (ʽParchman Farmʼ), Ray Charles' R&B (ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ — with most of the sex stuff replaced by a drum solo, unfortunately, but also slyly incorporating the riff from the Beatles' ʽDay Tripperʼ), and some blues-rockers in which brass instrumentation plays a prominent role (ʽKey To Loveʼ, credited to Mayall and actually featuring a perfectly constructed brass melody). In the end, it means that, while some of the recordings are in themselves fairly expendable on a global scale, the album never becomes boring. Every time you think they might be running out of ideas, John adds a tiny nudge — like, for instance, urging Eric to sing on ʽRamblin' On My Mindʼ. Admittedly, Eric was a poor singer, suffering from lack of confidence, but his nervousness serves him right on this cute, stripped-down performance, and it is a nice one-time change from the ever-present Mayall as lead vocalist anyway.

So, as a British blues-rock record, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers is a decent stab at the genre, certainly a huge advance over Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and less predictable than, say, the first Fleetwood Mac records with Peter Green. But there is no getting away from the plain truth that it is Clapton's presence only that advances it to the status of a masterpiece — one that still sounds totally fresh today, with some of the best blues tones to ever be captured on record, and, as far as I'm concerned, deserves an unconditional thumbs up outside of any historical con­text, because that lead guitar simply rips through the speakers.

Completists and fans of that Sixties' sound should probably hunt for the deluxe 2-CD edition of the album which, in addition to both mono and stereo editions of the album (personally, I'm a sucker for stereo, since proper separation only lets the lead guitar ring out louder and clearer), collects just about every piece of Clapton's legacy with the Bluesbreakers — most importantly, two non-LP singles (ʽI'm Your Witchdoctorʼ is an absolute classic: dark, tense, voodooistic, and featuring a proto-psychedelic solo that is nothing but sustained woman-tone howling, as far re­moved from stereotypic Clapton as possible), and some live tracks, including those recorded during Jack Bruce's brief stint with the Bluesbreakers. These are, however, mainly interesting for historical reasons, since the sound quality of the recordings from London's Flamingo Club is pretty poor — but still, indispensable for a brief history of musical relations between Bruce and Clapton. All in all, the package radiates an aura of excitement from an era where things that we take for granted nowadays were, like, totally happening — and an era when young Eric Clapton, still working his way up to God status, was not yet afraid of letting a bit of distortion and punkish anger spoil his blues credibility.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Ani DiFranco: Binary

ANI DIFRANCO: BINARY (2017)

1) Binary; 2) Pacifist's Lament; 3) Zizzing; 4) Play God; 5) Alrighty; 6) Telepathic; 7) Even More; 8) Spider; 9) Sasquatch; 10) Terrifying Sight; 11) Deferred Gratification.

Just three more years, and here is Ani DiFranco once again showing us how she has totally not forgotten the art of juggling a moderately pleasant and inventive record with a milk-curdling piece of soft-jazz doodling. Judging by the number of professional and amateur reviews that Binary got upon release, the quantity of people still on the lookout for a brand new Ani DiFranco record has probably decreased to a three-digit number at best, a two-one at the most probable — all the more ironic, considering how the lady has not lost her penchant for progressive preaching one single bit... it is simply not clear who she is preaching to at the moment.

Of the few reviews that did appear, not a single one bothered to say more than one sentence about the musical aspects of the record, and that is no surprise — they are non-descript. Ani plays with a full band throughout, but it does not help much. The musical emphasis is on groove rather than melody: tracks like ʽBinaryʼ, ʽPlay Godʼ, and some others are jazzy and funky, except that there is no true hotness to any of that funkiness. Everything is quiet, smooth, nocturnal, carefully played so as not to upset your neighbors — even the nasty-sounding wah-wah guitars, when pre­sent in the mix, are carefully brought down in the mix so that, God forbid, they overpower Ani's acoustic rhythm and semantically significant vocals.

Result: not a single memorable melody, not a single groove that would truly make you want to move, and a general feeling that every bit of string vibration here is just a coaster for the lyrical content — even if the backing band contains no less than ten different musicians, frequently adding string and bass overdubs. The sense of importance is further heightened by bringing in people such as Gail Ann Dorsey (best known as the bass player for the late David Bowie) and Justin Vernon (best known as The Log Cabin Monster) on backing vocals — each one for only one track, so as not to cheapen their symbolic value. (Something tells me, though, that Bon Iver audiences are not going to flock together in the direction of Ani DiFranco at the moment — they are probably not over their Kanye West phase yet). But this theoretical importance has no bearing on the general mood of the album, which is just dull.

Let us, therefore, just get this out of the system: the music here exists solely as a soft, atmospheric wrapping for the next batch of DiFranco's socially-conscious poetry. Is the poetry any good? Well, some of it is fairly flat: ʽPacifist's Lamentʼ is a bit too straightforward and predictable: "there is nothing harder than to stop in the middle of a battle and say you're sorry" sounds like something that the Dalai Lama must have probably already said at some time. ʽPlay Godʼ is a pro-choice statement that may be as relevant today as ever, but is delivered as a political mani­festo, not as a properly metaphorical work of art. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we get cryptic post-beatnik lyrical flows like ʽSpiderʼ that sound like they belong in some Greenwich Village cafe circa 1960 (I honestly have no idea what this one is about). In other words, not much has changed, as we are still on the same old progressive, feminist, anti-religious crusade: "Next time I watch a man give birth / I'll try to picture the creator as a dude with a beard" (ʽAlrightyʼ) is as deep as this stuff truly gets.

Although the album was released in June 2017, all of the songs were written and recorded prior to the elections of 2016, meaning that DiFranco's crusade takes place irrespective of the technical details of the political configuration — which, I believe, is a good thing. The bad thing is that I fail to see how this «tepid» approach to music-making can help her reach a wider audience than the one that has already been converted for a long time. These days, most likely, if you still listen to Ani DiFranco, you are already a progressively thinking, pro-feminist, pro-choice, anti-chau­vinist, anti-Trump, etc. etc. kind of person; do you really need an extra dose of that to help you get through the day? I certainly do not — so here's another thumbs down.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Charlatans: Who We Touch

THE CHARLATANS: WHO WE TOUCH (2010)

1) Love Is Ending; 2) My Foolish Pride; 3) Your Pure Soul; 4) Smash The System; 5) Intimacy; 6) Sincerity; 7) Trust In Desire; 8) When I Wonder; 9) Oh!; 10) You Can Swim / On The Threshold / Sing The Body Eclectic.

Good question, boys; although it may be worth noting that this record charted much higher than its predecessor, and on the whole, commercial fortunes of The Charlatans in the 2010s have shown a steady increase compared to the fairly unhappy 2000s. One could argue that by 2010, The Charlatans, like most formerly famous Britpop bands that managed to clench their teeth and survive, had simply passed into «semi-legendary» status — that in their native homeland, people simply buy up Charlatans records like they'd buy up Paul McCartney and Rolling Stones records, without even giving them much of a listen. But wouldn't that be too much honor for these guys? Then again, the idea of a good Charlatans single might have gotten heavily ingrained in the sub­conscious of the average 1990s teenager...

...anyway, this is all pointless digression. Who We Touch is a nicely polished record of catchy, polite, not particularly exciting alt-pop tunes. Curiously, they chose Youth (Martin Glover) as their producer this time, so feel free to pick on similarities with The Verve, or Embrace, or what­ever other alt-rock group he produced — the problem is, whatever The Charlatans used to be, they just aren't that any more. Most importantly, Tony Rogers' organ has been pushed so low in the mix that they have lost this last trademark of their original sound. Instead, emphasis is placed on multi-tracked vocals, multi-tracked acoustic and electric guitars, synthesized and (occasionally) non-synthesized strings, in short, anything to get these guys a massive wall of sound that will make them sound loud, proud, and completely anonymous.

The songs are not bad, though; I'd say they are doing something on the level of classic Ash now, and while I'm not a fan of either, this is far from the worst pop-rock produced in that period. It's all about catchy choruses now, and many of them are in good taste — as long as you have the patience to sit through the opener, ʽLove Is Endingʼ, where the chugging alt-rock guitar drone pretty much kills off any attempt to make its chorus into anything special. It is just one of those generic tunes, you know, that justify the entire «guitar rock is on its way out» approach.

But ʽMy Foolish Prideʼ, coming right on its heels, is a big improvement. With pianos and strings taking the place of big bad guitars, it manages to create just the right atmosphere of tenderness and repentance in the chorus. The decision to culminate each chorus with the acappella delivery of the line "make love, not war" is questionable, but since it comes right after the Beatlesque descending line of "sweet emissary tapping at my door", I guess we can forgive it even if we disagree with it. Here, then, is a nice side effect of The Charlatans aging and getting more senti­mental and self-critical — they become capable of occasional moments of touching beauty, even if they do tend to get unnoticed behind the regular veil of mediocrity. (Frankly, there is nothing in this song beyond the chorus that is salvageable).

Whatever happens after these two not-so-far-removed extremes falls somewhere in between, and, frankly, does not deserve lengthy discussions. Personally, I fall asleep now whenever they try to recapture a bit of that old funk vibe (ʽYour Pure Soulʼ), get positively offended when they slap the title ʽSmash The Systemʼ onto a song that has nothing to do with Rage Against The Machine, but come alive again for ʽIntimacyʼ and ʽSincerityʼ: the former is a slightly mystical, somewhat Roxy Music / ABC-inspired decadent power ballad, the latter a fast and tightly focused pop-rocker with retro-futuristic synths and a cool shout-out chorus — a successful completion of the task initiated and provisionally failed with ʽLove Is Endingʼ. As the album nears the end, though, it begins to bog down again, particularly with the interminable ballad ʽOh!ʼ and the droning atmospheric mood piece ʽYou Can Swimʼ (whose entire melodic base is more in line with blowing bubbles at the bottom of the swimming pool rather than actually swimming).

Adding insult to injury, the band ends up proceedings with a hidden track that consists of perfor­mance artist Penny Rimbaud delivering a lengthy lyrical piece to a repetitive, quasi-Gothic musi­cal background. I have nothing against the art of Penny Rimbaud (of which, admittedly, I know quite little, since beat poetry is not really my thing), but I have no idea why he has to be featured on a Charlatans record rather than, say, a Patti Smith one. Isn't it too late for these guys to buy up creed from aging beatniks, anyway? This could never be a good idea, let alone the fact of its total incompatibility with the bulk of this fairly normal pop record. Admittedly, it is a hidden track, so it is legitimate for us to pretend it does not exist.

The good news, therefore, is that The Charlatans have tightened up their craft, and are now pro­ducing a conveyer line of pop songs, some of which might even stick in your head. The bad news is that, well, just about anybody could have done this record, given a skilful producer and a few years of musical expertise behind their backs. The surprising news is how they persist — five LPs over ten years? in the twenty-first century? this kind of tenaciousness is bound to get you somewhere — I mean, look at Brian Jonestown Massacre, for instance, where every once in a while Anton Newcombe comes out with a masterpiece, stuck between several pieces of utter boredom. And so, at the expense of a complete loss of identity, Who We Touch is probably their best offering since Wonderland, though still not worthy of a thumbs up, in my opinion.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Celtic Frost: Morbid Tales

CELTIC FROST: MORBID TALES (1984)

1) Human / Into The Crypts Of Rays; 2) Visions Of Mortality; 3) Dethroned Emperor; 4) Morbid Tales; 5) Procrea­tion (Of The Wicked); 6) Return To The Eve; 7) Danse Macabre; 8) Nocturnal Fear; 9*) Circle Of The Tyrants; 10*) Visual Aggression; 11*) Suicidal Winds.

Celtic Frost used to be Hellhammer, a notoriously extreme metal band from Zürich, of all places: I know of no precedents before them for Swiss metal, and, in fact, I deeply suspect that many people might have confused them with Swedish metal bands in the early years. But then if they were Swedish, they'd have probably called themselves Nordic Frost (sidenote: apparently, there is a band now called Nordic Frost, and they are Swedish, so go figure). As it is, «Celtic» was pro­bably chosen because of Switzerland's Celtic past, and «Frost» because of their proximity to the Alps. Or because «frost» brings on associations with death — purely verbally, considering that the music of Celtic Frost is anything but frosty in nature.

For their first EP, Morbid Tales, the band lineup consisted of Thomas Gabriel Fischer, a.k.a. Tom Warrior, on guitars and vocals, and Martin Stricker, a.k.a. Martin Eric Ain, on bass — these two, with the exception of a short one-time break for Martin, would forever remain the core of the band. The drum work was handled by session musician Stephen Priestley, since by late 1984 the core duo had not yet settled upon a permanent percussionist. The original release was short, con­sisting of only six tracks; two more, including the title track, only appeared later on the expanded US version. Finally, the current CD edition usually throws on three additional bonus tracks, taken from the band's subsequent EP, Emperor's Return, which is a good thing, because that EP is usually rated very highly by the band's fans, yet hardly deserves a review of its own.

Assessing the originality and the impact of Celtic Frost's debut is a little hard these days, now that «black metal» is just a cliché and most of these bands are pathologically indistinguishable one from another. Apparently, though, the band was at the forefront of this subgenre, together with Bathory (who also released their first album in 1984) — the idea being that of combining the insane tempos and complex musicianship of thrash metal with the occultist / apocalyptic spirit of everybody from Black Sabbath to Venom. (Actually, Venom are usually credited with the inven­tion of «black metal» as such — if anything, that was the title of their second album — but they were certainly less extreme in their approach than Celtic Frost). In other words, Celtic Frost are a cross between Slayer and Venom, with a bit of Black Sabbath-y sludginess and a pinch of Mötor­head's blunt jackhammering thrown in for good measure.

That said, to me there are primarily two respectable subgenres of metal — «terrifying metal» and «comedic metal» — and early Celtic Frost are undeniably closer to the second one. One reason behind this are the vocals: Mr. Warrior, perpetuating the black metal stereotype, always sings as if he is either possessed by Satan's proxy, or suffering from a really bad case of constipation — which, come to think of it, may be one and the same from a certain philosophical point of view. (Check out the introduction to ʽDance Macabreʼ, where such a unity of process and purpose actually makes perfect sense). The second reason, of course, are the insane tempos, a problem most common to all forms of thrash or thrash-influenced metal; however, Celtic Frost are more reasonable here than Slayer, understanding the value of slowing down and even that of an occa­sional psychedelic interlude, to act as a bookmark between all the same-sounding gymnastics of heaviness. Still, nothing here is even remotely «morbid» or properly terrifying; in the end, it all depends on just how cartoonishly evil they can make their riffs and atmospheres, in order for us, future listeners, to get our healthy kicks.

And I will be the first to admit that Morbid Tales has its share of solid metal riffs. I do not care that much for stuff like ʽInto The Crypts Of Raysʼ: it owes its whole schtick to Mötorhead without sharing Mötorhead's level of catchiness (as a singer, Lemmy is downright Pavarotti next to Tom Warrior), and simply gallops along without offering anything fresh. Conversely, ʽVisions Of Morta­lityʼ is just too slow, and sounds like a slightly more high-pitched and boring rehash of some of classic Sabbath's ideas. But things begin picking up by the time ʽDethroned Emperorʼ comes along — also owing its existence to ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ, it finally manages to offer us a useful variation on that eternal chugging theme (largely thanks to an awesome snake-like arpeggio flourish in between the main iterations of the riff). And finally, the first truly awe­some song arrives in the guise of ʽProcreation (Of The Wicked)ʼ, where Tom teaches his guitar to alternate between painful howling and fierce growling (I suppose that this is meant to represent the birth pangs of the alleged "wicked", but could be more of that constipation thing — who really cares?).

Too bad that, from there to the end, only three tracks remain, one of which (ʽDance Macabreʼ) is, as I already mentioned, more of an avantgarde noise collage, something like a tentative musical representation of a Bosch painting of hell — and it's pretty cool that way. But, as a bonus, you do get the other tracks from Emperor's Return; recorded approximately one year later, they feature slightly improved production values and at least one solid riff-rocker (ʽSuicidal Windsʼ) that tries to eschew the boredom of generic thrash by slightly slowing down the tempo and trying to intro­duce some moderately discernible chords into the structure...

...ah well, who am I kidding? Most of these songs are ultimately one, and modern young metal audiences will probably not be impressed with it, considering how far beyond it the technical boundaries of speed / thrash / black metal have been pushed since. In reality, the album is more interesting from a purely historical perspective: it made a truly deep impression back in the day, and marked merely the first chapter in the surprisingly versatile, almost chameleonic career of these rugged Swiss warriors. But ʽProcreationʼ is a genuinely cool song, regardless of historic context, and in limited doses, their overall sound might even be more fun than Slayer's — pre­cisely because they are somewhat less technical and somewhat more punkish in their musical retelling of the world's innumerous evils. That said, far be it from me to recommend this stuff to anybody who is not already deeply immersed in the tempting intricacies of heavy metal.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Carpenters: A Song For You

CARPENTERS: A SONG FOR YOU (1972)

1) A Song For You; 2) Top Of The World; 3) Hurting Each Other; 4) It's Going To Take Some Time; 5) Goodbye To Love; 6) Intermission; 7) Bless The Beasts And Children; 8) Flat Baroque; 9) Piano Picker; 10) I Won't Last A Day Without You; 11) Crystal Lullaby; 12) Road Ode; 13) A Song For You (reprise).

My original review of this album was surprisingly cruel — or perhaps I did get mellow as time goes by, after all? Not sure how it happened, but now that I am giving A Song For You another chance, it is not clear even to myself how a Carpenters record without a single Bacharach tune on it, but with at least one Leon Russell and one Carole King original, could get such a low assess­ment. Of course, it is just another Carpenters album, which means there is no escaping mushy fluff at times, but it does host some of the duo's loveliest moments as well; released at the height of the soft-rock era, it is almost inevitably infected by a certain psychological subtlety that was omnipresent in 1970-72, and then, as the formula became a formula, pretty much evaporated from the spirit of long-haired dudes and dudettes with acoustic guitars and pianos.

A whoppin' half of the songs from here were released as singles (most of them high-charting ones), but, funny enough, not the title track — the most serious and solid composition on here, and another great vehicle for Karen to apply her talent. Like ʽSuperstarʼ, the song clearly must have meant much more to its composer and original singer than to Karen Carpenter, but she does a fine job adapting it to a womanly perspective, and she is believable when she sings "I've been so many places in my life and time", even though most of these places were in Connecticut and California. Heck, she even sounds believable when she sings "I've made some bad rhymes", even though she hadn't made any rhymes. The important thing is, she gets this message of repentance and redemption through pure love across in a clean, accessible, and realistic manner, without underdoing it or overdoing it — perfect phrasing all way 'round. The moody sax solo, lacking in Leon's stripped-down piano version, complements her appropriately.

The biggest hit was ʽTop Of The Worldʼ, featuring the duo in their countriest mood yet, with Nashville pro Buddy Emmons on pedal steel and Karen probably sporting her jauntiest cowgirl hat in the studio. The original intention was to use this Richard original as a (filler?) track on the album, but they changed their minds after Lynn Anderson had a hit with the song on the country charts — surprisingly, general pop audiences were only too happy to snap it up with Karen on vocals, perhaps seeing her presence as an excuse to satisfy their internalized country fetish. There is not a lot of space in this happy country romp for Karen's brooding melancholia, but she does at least as good a job with it as Lynn Anderson, sounding slightly more serious and stately in her own way. But on the whole, it is probably good that they did not latch on to this success and make a complete transition to country(-pop): pledging allegiance to cotton fields and rodeos would have ruined the last shreds of their credibility.

Of the other singles, ʽIt's Going To Take Some Timeʼ is nice, but completely unnecessary, since it is all but impossible for Karen to improve on Carole King's personal delivery (cute flute solo, though); the theme song for Stanley Kramer's Bless The Beasts And Children is lush, formless schlock, with the likes of which Karen can do very little; and the cover of Ruby & The Roman­tics' ʽHurting Each Otherʼ is too pompous and overblown to truly make one feel sorry for its protagonists. On the other hand, the obligatory Nichols/Williams contribution ʽI Won't Last A Day Without Youʼ has the catchiest chorus of 'em all; and ʽGoodbye To Loveʼ seems to be one of the finest songs Richard ever wrote — an elegantly flowing proto-ABBA ballad with a couple of brilliant fuzz guitar solos by guest star Tony Peluso; apparently, those solos were the reason that (a) some adult contempo­rary radio stations refused to play the song because of its «hard rock» content, and (b) some critics name it as the first, or at least the prototypical, «power ballad». Both points are fairly ridiculous (no ballad with Karen on vocals can be a true «power» ballad, because her strength is in subtlety, not power), but the solos are truly good, working as faithful outlets for burning emotion that is only subtly hinted at in the vocals.

In addition to the romantic elegance and the slushy schlock, the album features bits of unneces­sary silliness (ʽIntermissionʼ — "we'll be right back after we go to the bathroom"; its chief purpose is not so much to let us know that Carpenters can harmonize like the Beach Boys as it is to let us know that Carpenters, like regular mortals, are endowed with urinary tracts) and goofi­ness (the Richard-dominated interlude ʽFlat Baroque / Piano Pickerʼ, an educated musical joke that probably needs somebody like Saturday Night Live-era Bill Murray to make it work), but they are short, and sometimes they almost seem necessary to cut through some of the schlock. On the whole, though, the tone of A Song For You is set by the spiritually heavy title track — re­prised at the end so the framework could be complete — and despite the goofiness and the happy tunes like ʽTop Of The Worldʼ, most of the time the album wades through sorrow and melancho­lia, culminating with ʽRoad Odeʼ, not the best song here but certainly the most depressed one. Naturally, simply being sad and depressed all or most of the time does not necessarily make for a great album, but this is the best possible state for Karen as a performer, and from that point of view, A Song For You is one of the band's most adequate and well-rounded records, though, clearly, not at all free from poor musical choices and fluffy soapiness. At least ʽA Song For Youʼ, ʽGoodbye To Loveʼ, and maybe even ʽTop Of The Worldʼ, for a happy change, should clearly make it to that top-notch compilation — the rest is up to you.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Cat Stevens: Buddha And The Chocolate Box

CAT STEVENS: BUDDHA AND THE CHOCOLATE BOX (1974)

1) Music; 2) Oh Very Young; 3) Sun/C79; 4) Ghost Town; 5) Jesus; 6) Ready; 7) King Of Trees; 8) A Bad Penny; 9) Home In The Sky.

Almost as if he suddenly woke up and became terrified at what 1973 did to his ego, Stevens hur­riedly backtracks — and ends up with a far more predictable, but just as problematic sequel to Catch Bull At Four. Paul Samwell-Smith is back in the producer's seat, the trusty old band with Alun Davies at the forefront is restored, and Jamaica is abandoned in favor of good old London. We are also back to the custom of weird album titles: this one, apparently, is due to Cat finding himself traveling on an airplane with a statuette of Buddha in one hand and a box of chocolates in the other, and implies being caught in a gap between the spiritual and the material. Although, it might be argued, the real Buddha would just wince back at him and ask, hey Cat, are you sure you can truly tell one from the other?

The main problem is that he got so busy telling one from the other, he hardly even noticed that he'd come out with one of his weakest albums to date. By this time, he'd graduated to Mr. Spiri­tual Incarnate, and where his records from the early 1970s could qualify as bold anti-commercial artistic statements (ironically, they sold pretty well), this record is largely a collection of sermons where the man frankly does not give a damn about anything else — be it catchy pop hooks or challenging chord sequences. He may have gone back to shorter songs, but at least the ʽForeigner Suiteʼ was not so utterly loaded with pretense as these tunes, where he comes forward as some master guru — and, let me add, without truly deserving it. In fact, this is the first record to contain Cat Stevens songs that I openly consider detestable.

Fortunately, that opinion does not concern the album's only single and Cat's last big original hit, before his commercial fortune abandoned him completely: ʽOh Very Youngʼ, sometimes called Stevens' response to ʽAmerican Pieʼ (since it also takes Buddy Holly as its pivot character), is a short and harmless acoustic ballad that implicitly suggests God might be a big fan of ʽWords Of Loveʼ (well, not exactly, but you can read the lyrics that way if you wish to). The preachiness is present here, too, but at least it has a decently written chorus; that said, I can certainly think of some better songs written by James Taylor, and that thought alone makes me shiver.

But almost everything else is simply dreadful: raw, poorly slapped together melodies that Cat tries to fatten up with ecstatic arrangements and vocal deliveries that suggest spiritual enlighten­ment, but ring hollow. ʽMusicʼ is a gospel-rock construct where Stevens tries going black once again, and the results are pitiful when viewed in context. ʽJesusʼ sounds like he's talking to the little kids again, so let us keep this one for the kindergarten hour. (As a sidenote, I will mention that the subject matter of the song — the unity of all religions — is the same as in George Harri­son's ʽLife Itselfʼ; the difference between the two is that Harrison fully redeems himself with the brilliant melodic lines in the opening thirty seconds of the song, a short, but beautiful guitar journey that is fifty times as spiritual as any of the words these guys come up with).

Worst of the lot is ʽKing Of Treesʼ, an eco-anthem that drags on for five minutes without any­thing interesting going on — the only thing that is supposed to attract attention is the tension and worry in the singer's voice as he violently and vehemently protests against cutting down trees, laying down the roads, and, I suppose, also against putting up the cozy Sound Techniques Studios where the album was recorded. Again, it is not the naïve, but admittedly sincere nature-loving lyrics that are embarrassing (although I would say that Joni Mitchell's ʽBig Yellow Taxiʼ at least has more original imagery): it is the fact — okay, the suspicion — that the song was quickly thrown together around the lyrics, not the other way around. And ultimately, all the talents of Joanne, Judy, Sunny, Ruby, Barry, Joy, Brigette, Suzanne, Jacqui, and other family-deprived singers recruited by Cat to give him gospel choir support go to waste.

I will not even try to discuss the rest of the songs. Melody-wise, even after four listens to this short collection of songs I cannot remember any of them. Lyrics-wise, they go from ecological rants to odes of salvation to condemnations of socialites (ʽA Bad Pennyʼ) that do not mean any­thing unless they are being put to good music. Perhaps the only exception is the lightweight ʽGhost Townʼ, a bit of harmonica and slide-driven country-rock used by Cat as an excuse to name some of his deceased favorites, from Chico & Harpo all the way down to Anne Boleyn. But it is clearly a throwaway, although it certainly does not offend me the way ʽKing Of Treesʼ does with its puffed-up seriousness.

Bottomline is: this time around, the man honestly does not even try. He used to fiddle about with odd combinations of folk melodies and Latin rhythms, dabble in medieval balladry, translate his verses into Latin, send cryptic messages that were a chore to decode, but here he just says to hell with it, assembles himself a gospel choir and presumes that as long as he preaches peace, love, and humility, this should be enough for anybody who is ready to follow. Well guess what? In this context, I definitely choose the chocolate box over Buddha. Thumbs down.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Forever And Ever

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: FOREVER AND EVER (1991)

1) They Gave Me Away; 2) Hometown New Orleans; 3) Skit Skat; 4) Poor Boy; 5) Forever And Ever; 6) Yella Pocahontas; 7) Third Degree; 8) Dupree Special; 9) Spoken Introduction; 10) Let's Talk It Over.

Same producer, same musicians, same studio, same artist at more or less the same age — see previous review. This one, on the whole, is slower: the only fast boogie number is ʽSkit Skatʼ, where the Champ indulges a bit in fun, but unimpressive scatting (he ain't no Ella Fitzgerald, after all), plus the wild, tribal, politically incorrect groove of ʽYella Pocahontasʼ, meshing together bits of Bo Diddley with elements of the Creole skit ʽOoh La Laʼ that he'd recorded decades ago. All the other songs are slow blues numbers, the most striking of these probably being a cover of Eddie Boyd's ʽThird Degreeʼ — alas, much as I sympathize, a cover that would be utterly des­troyed in three years by Clapton's version on From The Cradle (I do have to wonder if he'd had a chance to be inspired with this version at all, since many of the licks played here by Kenn Len­ding find faithful, but superior, equivalents in Eric's performance).

At least this time we receive our «marking time» number: ʽHometown New Orleansʼ, predictably set to the melody of ʽSweet Home Chicagoʼ, symbolizes Dupree's triumphant re-entry into his town of origin — one last time before the final kick. I only wish the accompanying musicians would have been more enthusiastic about it, instead of sounding like working for money and little else. Too bad he could not involve Dr. John, at least, since the role of the piano player was already occupied (then again, a duet between the Champ and the Doctor might have broken up the boredom quite efficiently).

Other than that, Lending's guitar skills may be appreciated finer than usually on the long opening number ʽThey Gave Me Awayʼ (really subtle, thin, fragile tone on some of these licks, though still utterly Claptonesque), and Dupree's skills as a piano player are at their best on the aptly titled ʽDupree Specialʼ, where, midway through, he launches into a couple of nimble and fun solos that are more playful than technically perfect, but playfulness is his strong spot, and even if he ain't no Artur Rubinstein at age eighty, hearing him engage in a bit of ivory silliness at a time when most of his contemporaries would be fading away in nursing homes is still heart-warming. And this, I think, is the best possible conclusion for a laconic review like this.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Yardbirds: Roger The Engineer

THE YARDBIRDS: ROGER THE ENGINEER (1966)

1) Lost Woman; 2) Over, Under, Sideways, Down; 3) The Nazz Are Blue; 4) I Can't Make Your Way; 5) Rack My Mind; 6) Farewell; 7) Hot House Of Omagarashid; 8) Jeff's Boogie; 9) He's Always There; 10) Turn Into Earth; 11) What Do You Want; 12) Ever Since The World Began; 13*) Psycho Daisies; 14*) Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.

The first Yardbirds album to be properly conceived and recorded as an album, rather than a bunch of disconnected singles, was supposed to be simply titled Yardbirds — fate, however, has deter­mined that it be forever known as Roger The Engineer, after a short clarifying scribble by Chris Dreja who wanted all the world to know that the grotesque figure on the front sleeve was Roger Cameron, the band's audio engineer. Unfortunately, as tempting as it is to imagine the album as a conceptual rock opera about the adventures of a humble studio technician in the psychedelic age, this is not to be, because The Yardbirds were simply too disjointed and confused to care about any sort of cohesiveness and conceptuality. Instead, Roger The Engineer is a total mess, retro-oriented one minute and sloppily futuristic the next one — a potential disaster turned into a glorious delight because of the presence of at least one musical genius in the group, and also because it was friggin' 1966, when «messy» and «visionary» were just two sides of the same coin.

In a decisive departure from past times, all the material here was written by the band members themselves — which, naturally, ensured that much of it was very derivative in terms of basic melody, since the creative instincts of most of The Yardbirds did not venture too far away from their R&B foundations. However, after two years of distinguished service they were capable of an occasional great riff; of cool ideas on atmospheric overdubs and psychedelic sound effects; and of projecting their eclectic experience onto LP territory, as just about every sub-genre that was explored on their 1965-66 singles is also represented on the album, from bone-crushing hard rock to sinister Gregorian chants to top-of-the-line blueswailing.

The album gets off to a solid, but inauspicious start: ʽLost Womanʼ is merely another in a stable line of their R&B rave-ups, with a noisy, but not too ecstatic crescendo in the middle and a memorable rolling bass line from Samwell-Smith. Possibly not the best way to immediately make an impression on the progress-spoiled audiences of '66 — ʽOver Under Sideways Downʼ would have made a far more efficient opener: the combination of a rousing "hey!" and a snakey Indian-inspired riff from Beck (incidentally, a similar pattern, but played already on a real sitar, can be heard on Harrison's ʽThe Inner Lightʼ two years later) sounds really novel even for The Yardbirds, as does the marriage of a catchy-bouncy pop melody in the verse with the somber Gothicness of the "when will it end?" reprise. Throw in a bunch of lyrics that deal with liberation, hedonism, and retribution, and all of a sudden, the song stands out as a laconic artistic masterpiece from both the formal and the substantial points of view.

This is the frustration and the charm of Roger The Engineer — you never know what's coming next, a predictable reenactment of some long gone glory or a dazzling futuristic twist. Sometimes both of them come within the confines of the same tune: ʽThe Nazz Are Blueʼ begins as the 5,000th rewrite of Elmore James' ʽDust My Broomʼ, but quickly turns into a playground for some provocative guitar experimentation from Beck that remains exciting to this day (ah, that sweet sustained note at 1:24! it is also interesting that Jeff takes a rare lead vocal on the song himself, something that he would very rarely follow up on in the future). Sometimes the odd twist ends up sounding stupid, at least in retrospect: the contorted Oompa-Loompish Africanisms of ʽHot House Of Omagarashidʼ, made to look even sillier by the «bubbly» effect (are we supposed to have visions of five live Yardbirds, all plucked and boiling in a steamy cauldron?), can hardly be saved even by Beck's shrill psychedelic solo.

But then you also have The Yardbirds surprisingly successfully competing with Manfred Mann in the «ironically sunshine pop» category (ʽI Can't Make Your Wayʼ, whose bounciness makes it a prime candidate for Britain's slyest pop sellout to cover); engaging in melancholic piano Brit-pop with a music hall flavor (ʽFarewellʼ); expanding the borders of heavy rock with a simple, proto-metallic descending fuzz bass riff (ʽHe's Always Thereʼ); capitalizing on the success of ʽStill I'm Sadʼ with another moody piece of Gregorian chant (ʽTurn Into Earthʼ); and pretty much inventing classic Black Sabbath with the first part of ʽEver Since The World Beganʼ: "Ever since the world began / Satan's followed every man / Trapping evil if he can / I tell you now his greatest plan" — tell me, with a straight face, that these lyrics have not been written by Geezer Butler and have not been delivered by Ozzy Osbourne. Okay, so they weren't, but that is the entire Sabbath formula, in a nutshell, over one minute, just without the heavy riffs. Come to think of it, even the unexpec­ted transition into a fast rave-up is Sabbath-like to a certain degree, considering how the bad boys of Birmingham liked to introduce boogie bits in their slow metallic drawls.

Keith Relf, predictably, remains the weakest link. Nice guy overall and a competent singer by the book, he remains incapable of injecting the songs with strong emotion or distinct personality, and this is, perhaps, the harshest blow to the potential of Roger The Engineer — it is all but impos­sible to get deeply involved in them, unless they are flat-out instrumentals (ʽJeff's Boogieʼ). But, in all fairness, this whole thing should have really been credited to «The Yardbirds Featuring Jeff Beck», or even «Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds», the same way John Mayall's Bluesbreakers were smart enough to put «With Eric Clapton» on their quintessential record from the same year — and once you have settled into accepting the vocals as largely a side accompaniment for the lead guitar, rather than vice versa, Roger The Engineer will be on the verge of slipping into the masterpiece category. Because, truly and verily, some of the most outstanding pre-Hendrix era guitar work can be found here, be it the spiralling Indian riff of ʽOver Under Sideways Downʼ, or the beastly sustain of ʽThe Nazz Are Blueʼ, or the finger-flashing arpeggios of ʽJeff's Boogieʼ, or the sick acid tone of the six-string on ʽHe's Always Thereʼ — the first, and one of the finest, full-scale demonstrations of the genius of Mr. Beck.

Whether you are buying the CD or downloading a digital copy, make sure that it is (admittedly, a rare) edition that also adds one slightly later single as a couple of bonus tracks — ʽPsycho Daisiesʼ, the B-side, is a Chuck Berry pastiche with angry garage rock guitar splattered all over it, but the real deal is ʽHappenings Ten Years Time Agoʼ, the only A-side of theirs that features dual lead playing from Beck and the freshly joined Page and remains one of the quintessential psyche­delic tracks of 1966 — in fact, the chaotic, earth-rattling solo in the middle is one of the very few instances of a typically Hendrix-like sound prior to Hendrix, although its most memorable ele­ment is probably the fussy descending guitar riff, which, to me, seems borrowed out of the Link Wray or Duane Eddy textbook, but transferred to a whole new level of intensity (those guys would probably just use the «toppling» chords as a gimmick, whereas here they are put at the skeletal center of the song).

Together with ʽShapes Of Thingsʼ, this song was The Yardbirds' best bet at becoming messiahnic prophets for their generation — with epic and ominous declarations like these, even the lack of a great lead singer was not much of a problem — but, alas, this was not to be because, so it seems to me, nobody in The Yardbirds ever had anything resembling a cohesive, transparent «vision» for the band's music. Roger The Engineer is a clear example of that — it's a mish-mash and a hodge-podge, often brilliant despite the intentions of its authors rather than according to them, or so it reads to me. Naturally, a thumbs up rating is self-evident here, but I also understand why the album never managed to become a timeless 1966 classic along the same lines as contem­porary albums by the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, or the Kinks. Fortunately, it has always enjoyed a cult status among connoisseurs, and let us keep it that way.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Anna von Hausswolff: Ceremony

ANNA VON HAUSSWOLFF: CEREMONY (2012)

1) Epitaph Of Theodor; 2) Deathbed; 3) Mountains Crave; 4) Goodbye; 5) Red Sun; 6) Epitaph Of Daniel; 7) No Body; 8) Liturgy Of Light; 9) Harmonica; 10) Ocean; 11) Sova; 12) Funeral For My Future Children; 13) Sun Rise.

Many, if not most, of the reviews of Ceremony use words like «dark», «Gothic», and «ice queen» — which is quite understandable for a record made by a Swedish femme fatale, with song titles such as ʽFuneral For My Future Childrenʼ and a grim, almost hellish photo of one part of a church organ on the front sleeve, the church organ being her primary instrument of choice for most of the songs. Now I do not know if this album is really «great» or just another minor varia­tion on the soul-seeking singer-songwriter saga, but I do know the most interesting thing about it — formally, it deserves all these epithets, and yet, at the same time, it feels totally light, lively, and, in some ways, even cheerfully optimistic to me.

It is no more «dark», in fact, than the average organ fugue or vocal cantata from J. S. Bach: just because the airwaves happen to be choked up by somber overtones from metal pipes, and the lyrics deal with issues of suffering and repentance, this does not imply glorification of the Dark on any rational level. And just because on her second album Anna von Hausswolff has expanded beyond the fiefdom of the personal into the realm of the universal does not imply that she inevitably has to sing and play about the upcoming end of the world. On the contrary, darkness is seen by her as something fairly casual, almost like an acceptable prerequisite of the light — and, as you may notice, for all the morbid imagery in the song titles ("epitaph", "deathbed", "funeral") there are a few important references to "light" and "sunrise" as well.

That this is a musical record first and foremost, and a theatrical one-woman show only in the second place, is immediately made clear by the first two tracks — ʽEpitaph Of Theodorʼ is com­pletely instrumental, and the epic ʽDeathbedʼ is only interrupted by a brief vocal interlude in the middle, so that for the first ten minutes you do not have any singing at all. According to Anna herself, she was more influenced by the drone metal scene (e. g. Earth) than her female peers in the singer-songwriting department, and it shows: ʽEpitaph Of Theodorʼ is slow, draggy, minima­listic, cherishing slowly congealing atmosphere over dynamic musical development — but if you are scared / bored shitless of drone metal for its colorless heavy guitar palette, have no fear: the church organ is a marvelous replacement, and, what's more, somehow she manages to find her own way for tuning and processing it, so the old instrument takes on a new life, reimagining itself as a synthesizer (note: sometimes she actually plays real synthesizers, and it is not always easy to distinguish one from another). Eventually, some guitars drop in, but they are not metal guitars: one of her session musicians plays a mean pedal steel that adds an element of serene, angelic beauty to the stern solemnity of the first part.

I think I like ʽEpitaph Of Danielʼ even better, though — no idea who the Theodor and the Daniel in question are here, but Daniel gets the luckier deal, with an even prettier pedal steel part: the guitarist may be a big fan of David Gilmour or it may just be a coincidence, but he has a true talent of squeezing emotion out of a limited number of notes. And in both cases, the «epitaphs» are done in excellent taste: stern, but light sorrow overridden with musical hints at The Light Eternal. There is probably not much going on here in terms of active musical innovation, but the sonic palette mixed up by Anna and her associates is fresh, and certainly among the most inspiring ones to come from the 2010s.

The obvious downside is that more or less the same palette is used throughout the entire album, and the entire album goes on for about an hour — not too surprising, considering how long some of the themes have to take in order to unwrap their whole potential. But this I can live with. For one thing, there are a few helpful diversions along the way — for instance, ʽNo Bodyʼ is two and a half minutes of sonically impressive experimentation, an industrial/avantgarde track where Anna is busy farting into the leftmost organ pipe and then catching the exhaust on the rightmost one. Or if she is not, at least it's something from that area; amusing rather than properly terrifying, but an intrigue all the same. And ʽHarmonicaʼ, with its handclap and conga rhythms accompanied by dense synth patterns, is an intrusion onto New Age / World Music turf that does not work as well as the organ-based tracks, but is competent and compatible with the rest.

For another thing, she still has a knack for occasional vocal hooks, although now they are less in the shape of catchy choruses and more in the shape of particularly sharp and beautiful phrasing, like on ʽOceanʼ, whose toppling "I take it ba-a-a-a-a-a-ack, my honor..." lines are head-spinning; or the tense, admonishing "it's written all around" resolution of the verses on ʽLithurgy Of Lightʼ; or the whoah-whoah-ing on ʽFuneral For My Future Childrenʼ, an odd hybrid between her church style and country music, with waltz tempos, a small pinch of yodeling, and a pretty happy into­nation as the lady declares her intention to "bury all my children" — actually, the song is not so much about death inevitable as it is about life eternal, hence all the subtle happiness. She's a strange one, but I admire how she manages to get through all this pretense without becoming truly annoying on the ears or offensive to the mind.

And as for the monotonousness, well, she said it herself that the whole album was to be some­what conceptual and «soundtrackish», with a common thread running through all the songs, and she was pretty right about it, too. I am not sure what kind of movie should have hosted this sound­track — something by Terrence Malick, perhaps? probably would be unwatchable — but since the entire thing has a ghostly atmosphere, let's assume that, in the end, it should be a movie about ghosts. Friendly ones, you know, those who come to you in your dreams and teach you that earthly life is only the beginning of true existence. For what it's worth, by the way, Ceremony gives the impression of being a very Christian album without a single explicit shred of Christi­anity — something that always commands my respect. Even better, I simply like it without putting too much thought in it, meaning a thumbs up from all sides of consciousness. And championing a moderately new kind of sound in 2012 ain't no slouch, either.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Charlatans: You Cross My Path

THE CHARLATANS: YOU CROSS MY PATH (2008)

1) Oh! Vanity; 2) Bad Days; 3) Mis-Takes; 4) The Misbegotten; 5) A Day For Letting Go; 6) You Cross My Path; 7) Missing Beats; 8) My Name Is Despair; 9) Bird; 10) This Is The End; 11*) Blank Heart, Blank Mind; 12*) Set Me Free.

It is unfair to say that by the mid-2000s, the world did not need The Charlatans any more: even Simpatico, despite the fairly obvious dip in quality, still hit No. 10 on the British charts, indica­ting that the band had become fairly institutionalized, a «second-rate legend» that could, from now on, never worry about starving as long as they periodically reminded the world of their exis­tence. From that point of view, their next move towards the world was actually quite bold: You Cross My Path, their tenth studio LP, was made freely available as a digital download for a few months, before getting a physical CD release. Of course, nasty tongues said this was merely to draw some much-needed public attention to their wrinkled asses, but hey, at least it was a safer and nobler trick than drowning one of the band's members in a swimming pool or something. The album did only reach No. 39 on the charts as a result, though.

And this time, things were back to positively normal. No more fiddling around with reggae or other musical genres that The Charlatans felt uncomfortable with — You Cross My Path is just a through-and-through modern pop record, nothing less, nothing more. Distorted power-pop guitars, classic keyboards, straightforward 4/4 beats, disillusioned love lyrics, the works. The whole thing is even more simple and streamlined than Up At The Lake, since the band tends to stay away from funkiness this time around, and makes not the slightest pretense of appealing to contemporary dance crowds: you can dance to most of these tunes, but essentially this is an album to be enjoyed alone in the dark. Or, perhaps, not enjoyed, but merely taken into considera­tion, because the songs are... guess what... not very interesting.

Once again, the listener's general feel towards the record will most likely be determined by the feel towards the opening track. ʽOh! Vanityʼ tells what looks to be a personal message (using a posh-poseur interface to deal with life's troubles? something like that) to a steady beat, a modestly catchy (but very quiet) organ riff, and through Tim Burgess' usual colorless vocals. Again, this is a good song that I wish I could get more excited about, but all the standard blocks apply. Not even the weird talkbox-like keyboard solo can properly save the day: there is not a single ingre­dient here that gets the blood boiling, and Tim's singing nearly puts me to sleep.

The worst thing about it all, perhaps, is that with each passing year The Charlatans find themselves tighter and tighter in the grip of depression, and a mediocre depressing band goes far harsher on one's feelings than a mediocre cheerful one. Titles like ʽMissing Beats (Of A Genera­tion)ʼ are pretty self-explanatory, but even if Tim Burgess' mopey mix of nostalgia and disillu­sionment is technically more realistic and closer to the ground than, say, Robert Smith's end-of-the-world apocalyptic rantings, how could I prefer the former over the latter when the form in which this mix is presented is so sterile? The guitar churns out a monotonously quiet syncopated rhythm, the organ whines out the same repetitive chords, the expressionless chorus winds on and on and on, and the entire band, even if it may have written a potentially promising song, just sounds terminally bored doing it.

On the whole, the record is far more consistent than its predecessor, simply because it makes no stupid suicidal risks, but it does not have even one song of the ʽBlackened Blue Eyesʼ caliber. The only potential standout is ʽMy Name Is Despairʼ, when the band slows down, puts tons of echo on the drums and vocals, throws in a bunch of heavy piano chords, and makes a sort of tribute to Joy Division (the vocals, in particular, briefly remind me of ʽI Remember Nothingʼ). Maybe if the organ weren't so inconveniently happy-sounding, and if the vocalist were closer to Ian Curtis or Jim Morrison, it would have worked. As it is, it is only on the verge of working, lacking that special something which separates professional craft from great art.

And it is true, I cannot deny the professional craft: with decades of experience behind them and a solid sense of taste that had only very rarely let them down, The Charlatans have reached a stage here where they would be capable of effortlessly making «non-bad» records for several more decades to come. Problem is, no matter how much you listen to such records, there is very little chance that any subtle charming nuances — the only ones that make B-grade art worth returning to — are going to jump out at you and make you re-evaluate the whole thing.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Art Bears: The World As It Is Today

ART BEARS: THE WORLD AS IT IS TODAY (1981)

1) The Songs Of Investment Capital Overseas; 2) Truth; 3) Freedom; 4) (Armed) Peace; 5) Civilisation; 6) Demo­cracy; 7) The Song Of The Martyrs; 8) Law; 9) The Song Of The Monopolists; 10) The Song Of The Dignity Of Labour Under Capital; 11) Albion, Awake!.

I always found it hard to comprehend how it is that alt-left, pro-Marxist ideological attitudes so frequently go hand in hand with viciously avantgarde music (and not just music). Punk rock — no problem, this is something with which the suffering working class can identify in a matter of moments. But dissonance, atonality, weirdass time signatures, total disdain for the bourgeois attraction of a pop hook? It only really works with a thoroughly idealized concept of the «new worker», such as might have been entertained by occasional Soviet dreamers in the turbulent 1920s and never ever existed in reality. Instead, the main audience for this kind of music can only consist of relatively well-to-do middle class kids with intellectual yearnings. In between the Clash for the rebels and the Bee Gees for the rest, Art Bears, with their political agenda, never stood a real chance, not even when they pulled their act together and released a thoroughly politicized musical manifesto — right on the heels of their fling with the RIO movement, which never evolved beyond a couple of declarations and a couple of friendly get-togethers.

This is not to say, mind you, that pro-Marxist avantgarde rock has no place in art (or under the sun in general). At least in the case of this last album by Art Bears, it seems to me that ideologi­zation has played a positive role — after the somewhat sleepy Winter Songs, The World As It Is Today sounds almost demonically imbued by a new-found energy, and not just because Dag­mar Krause turns into a raging fury when rattling out Chris Cutler's lyrics, but because Fred Frith, too, seems dedicated here to producing an atmospheric masterpiece of doom, chaos, and atonal apocalypse. The result is a record that is, yet again, nowhere near as diverse or unpredictable as Hopes And Fears, but far more violent and overwhelming than Winter Songs.

Although a song title such as ʽThe Songs Of Investment Capital Overseasʼ is prone to making one giggle rather than sit up and take stern notice, the actual music is nowhere near comical — for­tunately, it is not entirely without its own warped sense of humor, but you will have to spend some time sniffing it out, in certain small corners of the musical arrangements and occasional ironic lyrical twists. As it stands upon first sight, though, the band takes its agenda very seriously, with dramatic piano chords strung together in bass-heavy phrases, waves of amplified piano resonance, and scurrying percussion creating a stormy atmosphere right from the very start — as if they really took that "overseas" aspect seriously, with visions of greedy capitalists crossing treacherous waves in sailships, their holds creaking and straining with chests of money expropri­ated from exploited workers.

Starting from the second track, the song titles get shorter and seem to be aimed at dismantling the propagandist lies behind such concepts as ʽTruthʼ, ʽFreedomʼ, ʽPeaceʼ, ʽCivilisationʼ, ʽLawʼ, and ʽDemocracyʼ. Once again, Krause plays the role of the Sibyl, but this time, a very mad, eccentric Sibyl, who might even resort to long periods of screeching like Yoko Ono's twin sister (ʽFree­domʼ — fortunately, her voice is a little lower than Yoko's) if it helps her get her point across. At the same time, Fred Frith is chopping down the pillars of Western civilization with his threate­ning soundscapes, three key elements of which are the bass section of the keyboard, screechy avantgarde violin playing, and guitar feedback. On ʽDemocracyʼ, in particular, the band raises the biggest ruckus up to date, despite the track being very short: first, we quickly learn that demo­cracy, according to Cutler's words and Krause's dramatic declaration of them, is a venom of scorpions bred from the bodies of a lion and a snake who killed each other, and then, in confir­mation of the judgement, a minute and a half of a musical tempest that pretty much equates democracy with anarchy... except these guys are supposed to love anarchy.

Despite my somewhat ironic assessment of the contents (you guessed, right?), there are plenty of fascinating musical ideas here, especially when the songs pick up steam, which they do quite often: ʽThe Song Of The Martyrsʼ, for instance, has a ferocious bassline accompanying the mes­sage of "things seem worse than ever", and ʽLawʼ is a brief funny snippet of avant-vaudeville, delivering its message in less than a minute's time and in the most hooliganish terms available to anybody with a loud set of pipes and a piano. ʽThe Song Of The Dignity Of Labour Under Capi­talʼ is a hilarious deconstruction of a stereotypical «worker song», culminating in a fulminous battle of two out-of-tune pianos — almost enough to get me thinking that, perhaps, they can't really be too serious about all this. And, according to Cutler, the original lyrics to ʽAlbion Awake!ʼ were so violent that even Krause refused to sing them (eat your heart out, Sex Pistols!), leaving the song as an instrumen­tal cobweb of aggressive, but minimalistic keyboard parts, a more appropriate title for which should have been ʽEverything Is Brokenʼ.

That said, I am not altogether sure that I want to equate the positive effect of this album with the one of Hopes And Fears. In spite of the band's best efforts, the blunt political framework gives the whole thing a comic flavor — sometimes intentional, sometimes not — and the theatrical power of the work is undermined by this confusion. If it is serious, why is it all so over the top? If it is ironic, why is there such an atmosphere of seriousness? At times I begin to suspect that, perhaps, all of this album and not just its last track would have worked better if it were purely instrumental (and note: this has nothing to do with the anti-establishment / revolutionary nature of the lyrics, and everything to do with the ways they are integrated into the music). As it is, this forced marriage of political radicalism and avantgarde musical exploration now seems dated... heck, it must have probably seemed dated even way back in 1981 (didn't Jefferson Airplane, after all, try to do something similar in their Volunteers phase?).

It is unlikely that Art Bears split up due to creative differences — the project was never intended to become a long-term one in the first place — but it might be argued that The World As It Is Today, with its rigid political agenda in danger of overriding the music, got them cornered, and splitting up was the best way to get out of this place. Whatever be, I am not putting the album down: as I said, it can be musically fascinating right down to the point of kicking first-rate avant­garde ass, and the concept as such is at least amusing, if not exactly intriguing. But even so, and even against the potential arguments of the band's hardcore fans, I would insist that it promotes a more close-minded understanding of avantgardism than Hopes And Fears, a record that (per­haps incidentally — but who cares?) was much less afraid to weave together the challenging and the conventional, whereas The World As It Is Today, with its decisive lack of compromise, is not only less enjoyable, but even ends up making less sense.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Carpenters: Carpenters

CARPENTERS: CARPENTERS (1971)

1) Rainy Days And Mondays; 2) Saturday; 3) Let Me Be The One; 4) (A Place To) Hideaway; 5) For All We Know; 6) Superstar; 7) Druscilla Penny; 8) One Love; 9) Bacharach/David Medley; 10) Sometimes.

By now, it is hardly difficult to predict the final verdict on the Carpenters — with that paradigm in place, the duo was fundamentally incapable of recording a consistently great album, because the goodness or badness of a Carpenters tune essentially depends on the degree of Karen's in­volvement in it, and it is unreasonable to expect 100% involvement all over the place. Yet it is also true that almost every Carpenters album would go on to feature at least one or two fantastic atmospheric masterpieces, shallow on the surface but infused with a certain disturbing darkness that seems to undermine those very «family-oriented values» they seem to promote.

For the self-titled Carpenters, these masterpieces are fairly obvious. There's ʽRainy Days And Mondaysʼ, another perfect offering from the Nichols/Williams songwriting team and even more double-edged than ʽWe've Only Just Begunʼ. The verses are poised for an intense build-up, and Karen does a great job going from a deep, dark and brooding start to an expressive, lilting finish. The middle-eight, offering the protagonist a happy cop-out ("funny but it seems that it's the only thing to do / run and find the one who loves me"), seems Hollywoodish on paper, but Karen's talents allow her to do this in «dignified consolation» mode, so that she always seems a bit con­tent in her melancholic brooding, and always a bit unhappy in her romantic gushing. It does not hurt, either, that each verse forms a nice catchy pattern, and that the "rainy days and mondays always get me down" bit is brilliant phrasing all by itself.

The second single was Leon Russell's ʽSuperstarʼ, which had earlier been tried by Delaney & Bonnie, Joe Cocker / Rita Coolidge, and Bette Midler, but did not reach iconic status until Richard nicked it for Karen. His arrangement of the "don't you remember you told me you loved me baby..." chorus is nothing particularly special, and his decision to amend the original "sleep with you again" to "be with you again" warrants a good snicker, but the "long ago and oh so far away..." verses literally send chills down my spine. As an experiment, it is instructive to listen to Rita Coolidge and Karen back-to-back — the first version is all about power and passion, but Karen's is all about bearing the curse of doom. Quiet, deep, mournful, with full emphasis on realistic suffering rather than theatrical technique. Upon hearing ʽSuperstarʼ, it becomes obvious that this sort of tragically soulful material was the perfect choice for Karen; unfortunately, it just wasn't the kind of material to keep on keeping stereotypical «housewives» (and Richard Nixon) happy, and so what we get in addition is...

..."Saturday began just the same as other days... love is in my world since Saturday... sing to the sounds of the day after Friday"... well, you get the drift (hello from the past, Rebecca Black!). This piece of vaudeville fluff, cooed by Richard, is at least short and inoffensive; far worse is ʽDruscilla Pennyʼ, another (in addition to ʽSuperstarʼ) song about a groupie, but this time just a piece of corny mockery, not even saved by being set to a baroque harpsichord melody — and could somebody please explain to me why Richard is lisping on the verses? "I've theen your fathe at leatht a thouthand timeth..." — did somebody smack him in the chops on the day of recording or something? In any case, it results in making an already dumb song sound even more embar­rassing, and its positioning immediately after ʽSuperstarʼ is one of the greatest incentives ever to divorce the amazing sister from the shameful brother (which, I admit, is not entirely just, seeing as how in so many cases Richard's arrangements worked perfectly for Karen).

Anyway, so as not to pin all the bad stuff on Richard, the only really good song on the album other than the big two is ʽLet Me Be The Oneʼ, another offering by Nichols and Williams; and this one is more due to the catchy chorus than any profound psychologism in Karen's perfor­mance. ʽHideawayʼ and ʽFor All We Knowʼ are mushy Euroballads that do not do justice to her voice; Richard's ʽOne Loveʼ is a bit more ambitious, featuring echoes of Brian Wilson in the vocal melody, but somehow still firmly lodged in the rosey my-prince-will-come paradigm; and then there's a five minute Bacharach/David medley that truly deserves no comment other than KILL IT WITH FIRE. Gosh, what a disgrace.

I would not hesitate giving the record a thumbs down if it wasn't for the obvious — on a certain level, all Carpenters albums deserve a thumbs down, so let us keep this option in stock for those records that do not have a smash duo of the ʽRainy Days And Mondaysʼ / ʽSuperstarʼ caliber to redeem it. From an optimistically benevolent perspective, this was a period in which Karen Car­penter was capable of jaw-dropping greatness and occasionally demonstrated it; history will chew over the rest without a blue-type verdict on my part.