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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Bent Knee: Shiny Eyed Babies


1) Shiny Eyed Babies; 2) Way Too Long; 3) Dry; 4) In God We Trust; 5) I'm Still Here; 6) Dead Horse; 7) Battle Creek; 8) Untitled; 9) Sunshine; 10) Democratic Chorale; 11) Skin; 12) Being Human; 13) Toothsmile.

On their second album, Bent Knee pull all the stops and unleash their full power on the world, or, more accurately, on the tiny percentage of humankind that has willed to learn of the band's exis­tence. And while I still cannot say that I am totally sold on this sound, I am totally sold on the intensity of their burning desire to sell it to me. Yes, very few people overall have heard this album, but, as far as I can see, the majority of those who have were floored, overwhelmed, devastated, and all set to dump their girlfriends, divorce their wives, and spend the rest of their lives camping under the windows or hiding in the dumpster of Courtney Swain. (Unless they were female, but somehow methinks that even girls would sway over Courtney rather than Ben Levin, the all-important, mostly-silent sidekick).

Progression is clearly visible here in that it is no longer that easy to deconstruct the record into the sum of its influences: somehow these new songs, while preserving all the fury and controlled chaos of the debut, feel more independent of the past to me. Most likely, they have simply tried out a more complex synthetic model: where Bent Knee sounded like a hybrid of the 1970s with the 1990s, Shiny Eyed Babies throws in elements of 21st century electronic genres and even modern R&B, with a truly all-encompassing palette that celebrates total freedom of choice — without, however, making the music seem like a pretentious mish-mash of complexity for com­plexity's sake, which would be all too easy.

Because Bent Knee still have the same agenda, and while they are clearly interested in the tech­nical side of trying out new sounds and styles, their chief purpose is to stun the listener emo­tionally. Subtly alternating between the horrors of life as a whole and the horrors of personal relationships, they portray a schizophrenic, psychopathic mode of existence as the default one to exist in — at least, for people like Courtney Swain's artistic character. Moments of beauty and tenderness flash through their lives only in suspense-thriller mode, because danger, violence, aggression lurks behind each corner. The final prognosis is voiced quite discretely in the final song: "And I will rot / Screaming behind my thick hair / With a toothsmile on my face". Every single musical motive they have in these songs, every unexpected change of key or style works towards confirming that prognosis, one way or another.

Does it work? Does it work better than it used to? I am not sure, and here's why: despite all the unquestionable talents of the band's musicians, Shiny Eyed Babies does not have the feel of a proper indie-rock, or art-rock, or prog-rock «band»: it feels like a solo project of singer-songwri­ter Courtney Swain, supported by a talented, but humble bunch of sidemen that intentionally make camp in her shadow. Although the songs (and the album as a whole) are usually quite lengthy, there are very few instrumental passages, except for occasional noise or ambient codas: most of the time, the music, no matter how complex or inventive it is, is primarily a backdrop for Courtney's singing, and I have a hard time replaying any of the guitar riffs or cello or flute parts in my memory (unlike, say, the situation with Portis­head's Dummy, which would still be a great musical record even if you wiped out all of Beth Gibbons' vocals).

And that is not necessarily bad, given how fine Courtney Swain is as a singer, and even how cre­dible she is as a modern day Lucia di Lammermoor, throwing out one mad scene after another as a distinguished patient of a luxurious, one-client mental hospital. Or perhaps a modern day Ophe­lia would be an even better comparison: the brief, tender, and monstrous opening title track, supported only by her voice and a deceivingly caressing piano part, is the 21st century sophi­sti­cated madman's symmetric response to "he is dead and gone, lady, he is dead and gone". It does not particularly matter whether she rants and raves about the environment (ʽWay Too Longʼ), about sexual contact (ʽDryʼ), about religion (ʽIn God We Trustʼ), about drugs (ʽSkinʼ), or about death (ʽBeing Humanʼ) — a mad rant is a mad rant, and all that matters is whether we allow ourselves to believe in the mad rant and be scared by the mad rant, or whether we think of the mad rant as a ridiculous way to attract unwarranted attention.

In Courtney's case, the strong argument in favor is how technically endowed and downright cool she is as a vocalist — listen to her wind herself up, banshee-wise, in the middle of ʽDryʼ, for in­stance, where she is that close to scaling the epic heights of Clare Torry in ʽGreat Gig In The Skyʼ. But there is an almost equally strong argument to the contrary, namely, that for all her pre­dilection toward madness, Courtney Swain is most definitely not mad: she is a talented actor who puts on an intriguing and insightful show, yet I do not get the sense that she herself is actually part of that show. When I hear her solemnly belt out "my right side is twisted, numb, dead, dis­tant" on ʽI'm Still Hereʼ, and then coo out "I still love you in my heart" in the refrain, I interpret this as more of a theatrical gesture than a straightahead cry from the bottom of said heart. And no, this is not a crime and it does not make the songs any less interesting or artistic: this is just an attempt at explaining why I do not find myself shaken to the core of my spiritual being every time that Courtney unleashes one more of her raging fits.

One particularly bad decision in this respect is the band's cover of ʽYou Are My Sunshineʼ, done in precisely the same style — alternating between quietly psychotic and loudly psychotic, with a delayed-echo guitar rhythm of Floydian origins (think ʽAnother Brick In The Wall, Pt. 1ʼ), tur­bulent string arrangements, and an almost power-metal-like climax at the end. In a bizarrely iro­nic twist of fate, this is the second non-standard reinterpretation of this song that I know of for 2014 — the first one was on Cat-Yusuf Stevens' Tell 'Em I'm Gone; and both are failures, be­cause the song's inherent cheerfulness does not allow any revisions of it that try to magnify and inflate its tiny speck of potential darkness to be perceived as anything above a bizarre musical joke. Bottomline: the band should stick to original material (and, for that matter, this is but one of the many, many, many examples of classic oldies treated very poorly and unconvincingly by otherwise competent and interesting musical acts of the 21st century).

Overall, I think the record loses my intent attention at about four songs into it. I love the thrashing hard-rock-meets-match-chamber-pop style of ʽWay Too Longʼ; am at least theoretically impres­sed by the dramatic crescendos of ʽDryʼ; and appreciate the schizo-pop (no other term that I can think of) of the multi-part ʽIn God We Trustʼ. From then on, the record does not offer any parti­cularly startling ideas — as unpredictable as the band is in terms of specific ideas, the style stays the same: a big, sprawling sound, more dependent on strings, keyboards, and a powerful rhythm section than on electric guitar, and always pushing «Theatrically Mad Courtney» to the front... nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered, including the one of getting quite actively bored by the time we get around to the last three songs.

Still, if you think that it all points to a thumbs down rating, you could not be more mistaken, because, for all their flaws, Bent Knee have almost succeeded here in inventing a new musical genre — call it anti-post-rock, if you wish, because they take all the atmospheric trappings of post-rock, inject them with a new sense of dynamics, yet instead of returning to the «pre-post-rock» era, actually move one step forward. I am still not sure if this is necessarily a good, working thing, and the band has not made enough of an impression on the world to make their example infectious anyway... but, love it or not, this is an outstanding achievement for 2014, and fully deserving of an intellectually respectful thumbs up.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Young Man In America


1) Wilderland; 2) Young Man In America; 3) Coming Down; 4) Dyin Day; 5) Venus; 6) He Did; 7) Annmarie; 8) Tailor; 9) Shepherd; 10) You Are Forgiven; 11) Ships.

It was clearly a tough affair for Mitchell to follow up Hadestown with anything of comparable status: on one hand, you don't really want to go down in history as a writer of folk musicals, but on the other hand, how can you just go back to an acoustic guitar after having just achieved such a major breakthrough? Keeping in mind both that dilemma and the fact that flashiness and nota­bility are never a trademark of her songwriting, Young Man In America does a fairly good job of getting her out of this situation. Without sacrificing a certain aura of grandness and importance that she'd struck out of Hadestown, she goes back to solo performance centered around contem­porary, rather than ancient, mythology and culture, and gives us a cold and bitter look at the state of affairs in this world rather than the next one, maybe from a semi-detached perspective of the ghost of Eurydice, I don't really know — the important thing is that now she has enough self-confidence to make major statements from the top of a fairly tall tower.

The very first track is far from consoling: a minimalistic, dirge-like performance of gloomy, stuttering acoustic chords, scraping, muted strings, and howling vocal harmonies — in this case, perfectly suited to the lyrics about howling winds, howling wolves, and lost children singing ooh-ooh in the wilderlands. That, my friends, is the state of things: maybe, living in America in 2012, you have failed to notice that "your cities are a wilderland", but Anaïs Mitchell is here to remind you, and if the first time does not succeed, then the title track will pick up precisely from where ʽWilder­landʼ leaves off, informing you that the correct definition for a "young man in America" is "hungry, hungry, running every which way". It is a pretty good track, too, with moments of climactic emotional outbursts (every time Mitchell drives the chorus home) and moments of static, draggy gloom, epitomized by the narcoleptic brass solos at the end (I think, once again, that she inherited this somnambulant jazz pattern from Ani DiFranco, but she can be much better at it than Ani DiFranco — though not always). Thus, eight minutes into the album the sun will have no business shining into your room, and the three years of Barack Obama's presidency so far will seem petty and insignificant compared to the apocalyptic dog-eat-dog picture painted by the all-seeing wife of Orpheus.

This is Mitchell's Dust Bowl Ballads here, an album far more musically and lyrically advanced than Woody Guthrie's — but also, perhaps, taking this misery thing a bit too far; after all, the depression of 2008 was nowhere near comparable in horror to the Great Depression, and for all the ongoing troubles of the human society in the USA as of 2012, I have a touch of difficulty feeling convinced by Mitchell's attempt to squeeze all that moroseness out of herself. Fortunately, the remainder of the album is either more subtle or less expressly tied to the current times — or to America, for that matter (ʽDyin' Dayʼ, I think, with its clever twist on the sacrifice of Isaac, once again refers to the situation in Palestine). But on the other hand, the remainder of the album is also not nearly as vivid — sooner or later, Mitchell is bound to get bogged down a bit in pure atmosphere, and as far as I'm concerned, it already happens on the third track, ʽComing Downʼ, which is just a sleep-inducing adult contemporary throwaway piece (soft piano, soft acoustic guitars, soft vocals, wake me up when it's over).

Still, the lyrics are consistently good, and every now and then, the album still gathers enough potential to awaken the listener — as it does on the upbeat folk-pop ditty ʽVenusʼ, or on the gorgeous «traditional» folk ballad ʽShepherdʼ (although, re-reading its lyrics, I still can't quite understand the moral of the story — is it deploring the poor state of mother-and-child care condi­tions in rural vicinities?). And she also manages to top it off in fine fashion with ʽShipsʼ, a slow, purely romantic ballad about a girl seeing her lover off to sea, replete with a post-rock crescendo that finally puts all that brass to good use.

On the whole, the record definitely deserves a thumbs up for the effort, but it is patchy, and if you only know Mitchell through Hadestown, it can be quite a letdown because it does not even come close to the inventiveness of the lady's masterpiece. The worst thing, really, is that it fails where Hadestown succeeded: putting ancient mythology in a modern setting, apparently, was a far more believable deed than putting a modern setting in not-so-ancient culture. If you are happy about your life, Young Man In America might irritate you rather than depress you; if you are already unhappy about your life, I just do not see it as an adequate soundtrack to that unhappiness. The best way to enjoy it, I think, is to take it completely out of context.

The Chameleons: Script Of The Bridge


1) Don't Fall; 2) Here Today; 3) Monkeyland; 4) Second Skin; 5) Up The Down Escalator; 6) Less Than Human; 7) Pleasure And Pain; 8) Thursday's Child; 9) As High As You Can Go; 10) A Person Isn't Safe Anywhere These Days; 11) Paper Tigers; 12) View From A Hill.

Oh no, not another band from Manchester! Well, from Middleton, to be precise, a town with but 42,000 inhabitants (as per 2011), meaning that approximately as much as 0.001% of the Middle­ton population came together as The Chameleons back in 1981 — a pretty impressive figure, if you ask me. Led by bass player, singer, and primary songwriter (I guess, although credits are democratically shared among all four members) Mark Burgess (no relation to Tim Burgess of The Charlatans, though who knows, if you go real deep in the past?..), The Chameleons also consisted of two guitarists, Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding, with no clear separation between rhythm and lead guitar duties; and drummer John Lever, a strong and passionate fellow who was, unfortunately, born in the wrong era of electronic enhancement.

These days, you do not hear all that much about The Chameleons, and there is a reason for this: while their ambitious debut, Script Of The Bridge, is often hailed as their best album, it really does not make that much of an impression if you arrive at it already after having dutifully dige­sted all the big New Wave / post-punk names of the era — starting with Joy Division and ending with early U2 and The Cure. The Chameleons were intelligent lads and they made good music, but in terms of style, they were followers, not leaders: nothing on this record sticks out as highly individualistic, a performance that you could never for the life of you confuse with somebody else — I mean, they didn't call themselves «The Chameleons» for nothing, right?

Nevertheless, once you have accepted the fact that this is «just another early Eighties band», it is also easy to accept the next few — that the guys were good songwriters, capable of coming up with their own hooks, clever lyrics, and reasonably optimistic / pessimistic moods that never went all the way up to the giddy heights of U2 or sunk down to the heavy depths of The Cure, but, in the process, also avoided the «inadequacy risks» commonly associated with either of these bands; that is, whenever Burgess and the boys sound uplifted or depressed, it comes across as less open­ly theatrical than when Bono or Robert Smith do it. Which is not necessarily a plus (at their best, Bono and Robert Smith blow these guys out of the water), but it works wonders on the consis­tency front — there is not a single song on Script Of The Bridge that would disgust or irritate me in any imaginable way.

The single worst thing about the album is the production: that big Eighties sound is present every­where, with all the songs thoroughly drenched in echo, all the drum parts futuristically enhanced by electronic processing, all the guitars steeped in reverb — co-producer Colin Richardson, who, odd enough, has almost exclusively worked with heavy metal bands outside of The Chameleons, made sure that fashions be respected and that the band be recognizable on the same arena-rock circuit as U2. Given the length of the record — its twelve songs clock in at just under an hour — this makes the first couple of listens fairly tedious for anybody who is not thoroughly enamored of «mullet pop». It does not make things easier that most of the songs are attached to the same type of rhythmic patterns — you know, «the U2 chug», where you spend most of the time metro­nomically bobbing your head up and down, with a twist to the right or to the left here and there when a chord change comes on. It starts out with ʽDon't Fallʼ and never really shifts that much right until the very end — making you wish that they'd at least include a Black Sabbath cover on there or something, because they are chameleons, aren't they?.. For a bunch of chameleons, these guys show a remarkably stubborn aversion to changing color.

Got that out of our system? Good, because when all is said and done, ʽUp The Down Escalatorʼ is a great pop single: fast, energetic, anthemic, rebellious, with Burgess' rough, salt-of-the-earth, post-Paul Weller voice building up his set of complaints, ever faster and ever more aggressively, until it all comes down in the climactic hook of "there must be something wrong boys!" This, bar the dated production, is the kind of sound that never dies — inherited from The Clash and The Jam, it goes all the way up to Arcade Fire and beyond, and ʽUp The Down Escalatorʼ can have a proud spot in this parade-of-the-disillusioned chart.

Overall, Burgess and Co. do a fine job at bottling the protest spirit without turning the record into an exaggerated «Goth» experience à la Bauhaus — most of the songs combine a spirit of despe­ration with that of defiance: ʽDon't Fallʼ is defined by a cackling vulture riff swooping up and down, but its message is "I'm running for the door, I'm out on the edge, but I'm not defeated yet... don't fall, my friend, all nightmares have an end", even if the second song already shows that this last phrase is an example of wishful thinking: ʽHere Todayʼ was apparently inspired by the shoo­ting of John Lennon (surprisingly, it shares its title with the Paul McCartney song inspired by the same event — coincidence or adulation?), and it does a good job at applying the same playing and production style to painting a musical portrait of a dying man's state of mind, even if the tempo might be a tad too fast for a dying man.

There is no need to speak about the individual properties of every song: the very titles such as ʽMonkeylandʼ and ʽLess Than Humanʼ speak for themselves as far as The Chameleons' artistic philosophy is concerned, and most of what there is to say is usually in connection with whichever other artist it reminds me the more of — for instance, ʽSecond Skinʼ is one of the best Cure songs that The Cure never wrote ("cold, numb and naked I emerged from my cocoon"), and the album's second single, ʽAs High As You Can Goʼ, with slightly less cavernous production could occupy a respectable position on any Duran Duran or even A-Ha record. For the last number, ʽView From A Hillʼ, they slow down the tempo a bit and provide the song and the album with an extended instrumental coda — atmosphere, atmosphere, and more atmosphere, all very Eighties and maybe just a little psychedelic, wrapping things up with a few moments of frozen melancholic beauty that seem to rely too much on stock tricks than inspiration, but how could they not end things on a suitably epic note? One thing that Script Of The Bridge has in spades is existentialist philo­sophy, and I'm sure Kierkegaard has already added the record to his little collection, wherever he might be at past, present, or future.

The album certainly deserves its thumbs up, although it also firmly establishes The Chameleons as a «B-grade» level artist, above which they would never be able to rise — however, solid B-grade is nothing to sneer at, and, for instance, if you want intelligent and meaningful lyrics rather than hyperbolic wallowing in self-misery or cryptic pseudo-poetry, these guys might be far pre­ferable to Robert Smith or David Thomas. In any case, ʽUp The Down Escalatorʼ at least deser­ves a rightful place on any compilation of «flagman tunes» from the early Eighties, and ʽHere Todayʼ will be a standout on any Me, Me, Me And John tribute album.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Carpenters: Voice Of The Heart


1) Now; 2) Sailing On The Tide; 3) You're Enough; 4) Make Believe It's Your First Time; 5) Two Lives; 6) At The End Of A Song; 7) Ordinary Fool; 8) Prime Time Love; 9) Your Baby Doesn't Love You Anymore; 10) Look To Your Dreams.

As is usual in such cases, this album, first and foremost, provides you with an awesome opportu­nity to waste time in trying to make a choice — did Richard Carpenter release this (and all the following) Carpenters albums to cash in on Karen's unfortunate fate and replenish his own thin­ning pockets, or did Richard Carpenter release this (and all the following) Carpenters albums out of noble loyalty to both Karen and her fans, swearing a solemn oath that not a single note she had ever captured on tape would go to waste? The correct answer, of course, is that when you are Richard Carpenter and capable of combining both at the same time, you'd probably not be able to answer this question correctly yourself.

This review will be short and sweet. Had Voice Of The Heart been released in Karen's lifetime, it would have been dreadful — the entire record is almost nothing but outtakes from various sessions stretched over the 1976-82 period, and since, other than Passage, not a single album they did back then could count among their best, it is easy to imagine what the discarded material should sound like. The only two new songs, recorded during Karen's intense struggles with her illness (but, fortunately, she was able not to show this to the microphone), are ʽYou're Enoughʼ, which begins suspiciously like a slowed down version of ʽClose To Youʼ, but then turns into something far more bland and rose-colored; and ʽNowʼ, her last ever recording, the best thing about which is how fine she could still sound until almost the very end — otherwise, it's just generic easy listening pablum, like balladeering ABBA but without the terrific hooks.

There is exactly one song here that I would tentatively single out: ʽTwo Livesʼ, a 1977 single by Bonnie Raitt (written by Mark Jordan) about which I wrote, back when I was reviewing Bonnie, that «the Carpenters would have made it lovelier», without actually realizing, if you can believe it, that the Carpenters did cover it! — and that they did make it lovelier, because Karen's "but I believe whoever wrote that song, never had a broken heart" is one of the few lines on this album to feature her trademark «noble desperation»; most of the other songs are too drowned in syrup to show any depth or ambiguity, and some are so corny from the outset that no ambiguity could ever save them in the first place ("give yourself a bit of some prime time love" is a particularly strong line given to her by songwriting couple Danny Ironstone and Mary Unobsky who, no doubt, have had their own fair share of prime time, chef-recommended love over the years).

But enough sarcasm: honestly, this is as good a tribute to Karen as Richard probably was able to quickly assemble from the scraps, and as good a cover photo as he could find too, what with that weird «unsmiling smile» on her face. There is a lot of lush balladry here, which means that if you love her voice, you will take it just for all the overtones and all the modulations and all the aura, never mind if the songs themselves suck to high heaven, which they largely do. As a gesture of respect, I will refrain from thumbing it down, because of the special circumstances and the spe­cial destination of the album (to provide the devastated fans with one final goodbye and one final advice to ʽLook To Your Dreamsʼ). But just to show you how terrible I really am, I must confess that I am somewhat relieved about not having to seriously deal with Carpenters in the Eighties, when the wave of synthesizers, electronic drums, and bad hairstyles would have engulfed them with three hundred percent certainty. I only wish we could have such luck without anybody dying: anorexia is not something you'd wish upon anybody, not even Meatloaf.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Cat Stevens: Tell 'Em I'm Gone


1) I Was Raised In Babylon; 2) Big Boss Man; 3) Dying To Live; 4) You Are My Sunshine; 5) Editing Floor Blues; 6) Cat & The Dog Trap; 7) Gold Digger; 8) The Devil Came From Kansas; 9) Tell 'Em I'm Gone; 10) Doors.

There's not a lot of original material on Yusuf's third Allah-circumventing musical offering — just five new songs — but this time, instead of reworking his own back catalog, he falls back upon a selection of oldies, both from the early rock and the pre-rock era. The idea, as can easily be seen, is to make an old-timey, rootsy, dark and foreboding record that would establish a direct link to Cat-Yusuf from people like Blind Willie Johnson and Leadbelly, with a mix of gloomy «this world is forever trapped in sin» pessimism and cheery «there must be a better place out there somewhere» optimism.

It must be said, though, that the album leans very heavily to the gloomy side of things, its optimism largely coming in a few patches of sunlight, most important­ly on the anthemic conclusion of ʽDoorsʼ. This is distinctly different from the attitude of the last two records, which had their shares of sorrow and melancholy, but, as I already indicated, largely relied on a new-found serenity and tranquillity that comes with old age and (in Yusuf's case at least) with alleged religi­ous enlightenment. All of a sudden, things have changed, though, and the old man resumes a series of laments and complaints that are far more turbulent and even vicious than anything he'd done on An Other Cup and Roadsinger. The only thing I can ascribe this change to is Stevens' getting out into the limelight once again — as he resumed touring, public speaking, and inter­acting with the musical industry and the media sharks, his temper must have been provoked far more frequently than it used to ever since 1978, and Tell 'Em I'm Gone finds the man... well, not exactly snapping, but clearly in a pissed-off mood.

Which, at least, makes the record more fun than Roadsinger. Once again, there is hardly any musical experimentation here, and even the subtle lyrical and atmospheric references to Islamic themes are all but gone — formally, because it is hard to invoke the spirits of Leadbelly and the Prophet at the same time, but substantially, because you do not really have to refer to the tenets of Muslim faith in order to rant and rave about a world gone bad. ʽI Was Raised In Babylonʼ is quite a telling title for the first song on the album: even though the lyrics refer to the actual historical Babylon, taking it as an approximate start for human civilization (and finishing the last verse with, appropriately, a reference to "the Empire on which the sun sat never"), the title by itself gives you Baby­lon as a symbol, and implies that the more it changes, the more it stays the same. This whole record is about Babylon and the harshness of life in it.

To further draw you in with the intrigue, Stevens invites no less than Richard Thompson himself to guest on that first track — you will clearly discern that it is not just Stevens handling the acoustic guitars, but that there's a hand of one real master of the instrument in there somewhere, and all of Richard's fans need this track in their collection: he adds some gorgeous color to the main melody, both with some naughty, flashy arpeggios and tortured «dying dog» string bends that convey a strange mix of sadness and coziness. Beyond that, producer Rick Rubin adds odd sound effects and ghostly harmonies (provided by Tinariwen, a Tuareg band from Mali) that give the track a bit of an otherworldly feel — while at the same time leaving the vocals and guitars safe and sound. It's a quirky arrangement, and it sets a good tone for everything that follows, even if nothing that follows probably lives up what pre­cedes it, and not just because Richard Thompson has left the building.

Some of these covers just do not work that well. The surprising choice of Jimmy Reed's ʽBig Boss Manʼ is not even as surprising as the decision to arrange it in a swamp-country-rock fashion, with quietly gritty guitars, shrill harmonicas, and frisky tempos — at least Elvis made it punkish, but this combination simply does not click, because, heck, it's a good soundtrack for whacking alligators down on the bayou, and where the hell do you find big boss men in the bayou? In the same way, the decision to turn ʽYou Are My Sunshineʼ into a gloomy blues-rocker, with grumbly faraway keyboard comets passing over murky guitar jungles, is weird and misguided: the song does nothing good in this tonality, as much as we'd appreciate a healthy musical oxymoron.

Others are more successful: Procol Harum's ʽThe Devil Came From Kansasʼ (a song that Stevens probably remembered well back from his youth — Salty Dog came out in 1969, right as he was convalescing from tuberculosis) is an energetic performance on which Yusuf is backed by Bonnie ʽPrinceʼ Billy and his band, including even a thick, distorted, psychedelic guitar solo from Matt Sweeney; and Edgar Winter's ʽDying To Liveʼ, a potentially gorgeous ballad in its original incar­nation, finally gets a soft, subtle, touching interpretation instead of the overwrought oh-so-blue-eyed-soul of the original. But the real reason why they work is that Stevens is capitalizing on the songs' initial strength, rather than trying to deconstruct them into something they cannot possibly be — suggesting that, at this point, his powers as humble interpreter might be superior to the ones he tries to show as unpredictable creator.

Because the original songs are hit-and-miss, too, the low point being ʽEditing Floor Bluesʼ, a long rant that he begins to the melody of Marvin Gaye's ʽBaby Don't You Do Itʼ and finishes with that of Muddy's ʽRolling Stoneʼ — all the while complaining about the goddamn media and their distortion of the truth (fake news, fake news)! Honestly, it's a tedious experience — repetitive, not very powerful, not too hard rocking (despite all the low-pitched distorted riffage), and coming across as way too whiny for somebody who's allegedly found inner peace more than thirty years ago. I much prefer something like ʽCat & The Dog Trapʼ, a serene, stable ballad that warns pre­cisely against things like that — getting too excited, and making a fool of yourself in the process. The downside is that such a song is also much less memorable.

For all the ups and downs, I am glad that he decided to put out something this «turbulent»: at the very least, it shows that even at this advancing age, Cat-Yusuf is not interested in putting out carbon copies of the same record all over again, but neither is he interested in following trends and fashions just for the sake of it (otherwise, we'd probably be knee-deep in Islamic dubstep by now). This particular stab at the oldies and their injection with the Cat Stevens spirit (most bla­tantly illustrated with the title track, which simply adds new lyrics to the old folk standard ʽTake This Hammerʼ) is uneven and hardly likely to make much of an impression — but hey, if Bob Dylan can do it, why not old Yusuf?..

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Chantels: There's Our Song Again


1) I Can't Take It; 2) Never Let Go; 3) Believe Me My Angel; 4) C'Est Si Bon; 5) IFIC; 6) My Darling; 7) I'm The Girl; 8) I; 9) My Memories Of You; 10) I'll Walk Alone; 11) I'm Confessin'; 12) Goodbye To Love.

In between The Chantels' first and second album, a lot of things happened to the band: they re­leased a few more, commercially unsuccessful, singles; they lost Arlene Smith, who embarked upon an even more obscure solo career, and carried on as a harmony-singing trio for a short while; and, finally, re-emerged around 1961 with a new lead singer (Annette Smith) and a bit more com­mercial luck, scoring a decent hit with ʽLook In My Eyesʼ. Not all of these changes are reflected on their second LP, which, I assume, they only got awarded from End Records after having al­ready left the label — predictably, it consists of A- and B-sides and leftovers recorded in 1959-1960, both with Arlene still at the top and after she'd already gone, and also including a couple of tracks marking the arrival of Annette in Arlene's place. At least, this is what I can establish from a brief comparison of conflicting sources (I do so believe, for instance, that the current Wikipedia article on The Chantels confuses their second and third LP, and online discographies are an even bigger mess).

Anyway, what cannot be confused is the quality of the material, and if you liked the girls in their solid doo-wop era, you will almost certainly like them in the transitional period as well, since the songs are predictably more diverse. ʽI Can't Take It (There's Our Song Again)ʼ, with a mighty bomb of high-to-low-range desperation from Arlene, starts things off in very traditional doo-wop fashion; but already ʽNever Let Goʼ shows them coming to terms with the twist movement, and that Arlene could easily belt it out at faster tempos without diluting any of the passion. With ʽI'm Confessin'ʼ, on the other hand, they make a retro move, covering an old standard, but upgrading it to modern soul standards; not that it helps a lot or anything.

Group harmony is king on ʽC'Est Si Bonʼ, an almost inescapable (for most pop outfits of the time) attempt to «frenchify» (or, more correctly, gallicize) the sound, because, you know, there's no­thing sexier than hearing a bunch of African-American girls from the Bronx fight their way through a couple of seductively mispronounced French phrases. (Actually, ʽC'Est Ci Bonʼ was even the title of an EP released by End Records in 1958, with the same cover of the girls in Southern Belle outfits that they used for We Are The Chantels — crass!). Much better is ʽIFICʼ, a jolly fast kiddie R&B romp in the style of ʽJim Dandyʼ or, more accurately, Elvis' ʽTeddy Bearʼ (the song title is actually an abbreviation for "terrific", but don't ask me why).

The new singer, Annette Smith, is introduced with the strictly doo-wop single ʽBelieve Me My Angel / Iʼ, both sides written by Barrett and featuring a sharp turn towards smoother-sappier from the original desperate-powerful: however, Annette does have a great voice for smooth-sappy, with a cooing, buttery falsetto that Arlene was incapable of, and she performs some impressive vocal gymnastics on both songs that should have raised some eyebrows back at the time — I have no idea why the single was not a hit. That said, neither the older material nor the new one are strong enough to call this period in the band's life underrated: most of the time, the songwriting is too formulaic and subpar to rank along with the contemporary masterpieces from the forges of Motown or Atlantic Records. Perfectly listenable and interesting in light of the presence of two widely different lead vocal styles, but not much to make it stand out other than just a few more cases of Arlene Smith's mighty voice.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Eric Burdon: Eric Is Here


1) In The Night; 2) Mama Told Me Not To Come; 3) I Think It's Gonna Rain Today; 4) On This Side Of Goodbye; 5) That Ain't Where It's At; 6) True Love (Comes Only Once In A Lifetime); 7) Help Me Girl; 8) Wait Till Next Year; 9) Losin' Control; 10) It's Not Easy; 11) The Biggest Bundle Of Them All; 12) It's Been A Long Time Comin'.

This strange and generally forgotten album is not even all that easily allocated within any one particular discography. One one hand, it is credited to «Eric Burdon & The Animals», just like Winds Of Change, Eric's second album from 1967; on the other hand, Winds Of Change, like the three albums that followed it, at least did feature an actual band that Eric decided to call «The Animals» — with Vic Briggs and Danny McCulloch — whereas on Eric Is Here, the only other officially credited «Animal» is drummer Barry Jenkins, retained by Eric from the 1966 lineup. All the other credits go to Benny Golson and Horace Ott — arrangers and conductors, responsible for the orchestral treatments of the songs. (Allegedly, a few other members of the old Animals are said to be featured on some of the tracks, but nobody can properly confirm who or where).

In the end, misleading labels aside, it is perhaps easiest to simply treat this record as the first of Eric Burdon's solo projects — a side mission for the beginning of 1967, something to keep him busy until his next band was properly assembled. In fact, he did begin work on it as a solo album; I think it was largely because of his contractual obligations to MGM Records that he was forced to keep the word «Animals» on the cover somehow, despite the album title very clearly hinting at the solo nature of the project. And a pretty bizarre project at that: Eric would probably be the first to agree that it was the farthest thing from a proper «Animals» record that he could have come up with at the moment.

Although Eric was not a sworn enemy to pop music (wasn't ʽWe Gotta Get Out Of This Placeʼ written by Mann/Weill, after all?), nobody could have guessed that his first move upon getting out of the proper Animals would be to release a pure pop record — an orchestral pop record at that, with nary an electric guitar in sight, although, admittedly, there are rhythm sections, key­boards, and brass-based rather than string-based arrangements as well, so that much of it sounds like Motown rather than Mantovani. Anyway, such a record could be expected of Tom Jones, or Cher, or from Manfred Mann at least, but the sight of wild bluesman Eric Burdon suddenly len­ding his talents to a bunch of would-be show tunes must have been much too much to take for even those music fans who, in early 1967, thought themselves ready for anything.

But leaving preconceptions aside, Eric Is Here is not nearly as bad as it is sometimes depicted; at the very least, it is far more comprehensible and less irritating than Eric's subsequent first attempt at psychoambition with the embarrassingly amateurish Winds Of Change. There are some good songs here, albeit mixed in with bland filler, and Burdon's voice is quite well suited for soul-pop (not that ʽDon't Let Me Be Misunderstoodʼ left much to worry about), especially if the soul-pop in question comes from the hand of Randy Newman, Mann/Weill, or Goffin/King.

The album yielded only one single: ʽHelp Me Girlʼ, written by yet another American songwriting duo, Scott English and Larry Weiss — and it is an attractively depressed anthem, with a creative arrangement of melancholic organs and triumphant brass, never mind the fact that few people could match Eric for the sheer Geordie intensity of his "cause aaaaaaaim going insaaaaaaane!...". It is at least as good as a Kinks love song circa 1965-66, and Eric does it full justice. But he is also good at getting into the spirit of Randy Newman songs, be it the antisocial comedy of ʽMama Told Me Not To Comeʼ or the bitter sarcasm of ʽI Think It's Gonna Rain Todayʼ (whose arran­gement, heavy on brass fanfares typical of optimistic jazz-soul, only further attentuates the irony); aw heck, he is good at getting into everything, provided the material is decent enough.

The material is not always decent enough, though. Some songs are silly optimistic romps (Ritchie Cordell's ʽBiggest Bundle Of Them Allʼ), some are spoiled by unnecessary rosiness (ʽTrue Loveʼ does not require a kid choir chanting the title — what is this, Sesame Street?), and some do not represent the songwriters at their best (Goffin/King's ʽOn This Side Of Goodbyeʼ, first recorded by The Righteous Brothers, sounds like one of Carole's lazier efforts from her usually hook-filled decade). In all honesty, such is probably the fate of every «pure pop» album from those (or any other) times, at least those that paired professional songwriters with professional singers; but given that Burdon was never a professional pop singer, it's very much a matter of roulette about whether he gets it right or not, and he certainly cannot redeem a weak tune just by belting it out as loud as he can. Yet at least he shows signs of good tastes when he gives Randy Newman a clear preference over everybody else (3 out of 12 songs are Randy's) — for the record, I do not know whether Eric Is Here or A Price On His Head, Alan Price's second solo album, came out earlier, but it can hardly be a coincidence that both of the former Animals got so infatuated with Newman at just about the same time.

Still, since we're on it, Price definitely did the pop schtick better than Burdon — after all, he was a keyboard player, well accustomed and attuned to the music hall ideology despite largely having to cover it up in the blues-based Animals; for Eric, this was still a largely alien genre, although you can certainly hear echoes of it all through the «Eric Burdon & The Animals» years and even later. I will not give the record a thumbs up (though I'd be happy to do so for some individual songs, like ʽHelp Me Girlʼ), because it is clearly not a win-win type of experiment; but neither is it a complete failure, and among the long list of bizarre things done by various people in the age of Aquarius, it is worth a listen or two.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Barenaked Ladies: Ladies And Gentlemen


1) Narrow Streets; 2) Gonna Walk; 3) Don't Shuffle Me Back; 4) The Old Apartment; 5) Keepin' It Real; 6) For You; 7) Some Fantastic; 8) Good Times; 9) Odds Are; 10) Sound Of Your Voice; 11) When I Fall; 12) Maybe Katie; 13) One Week; 14) Four Seconds; 15) I Can Sing.

Yes, well, okay, this is Barenaked Ladies using the pretext of performing with the veteran vocal band The Persuasions to re-record a chunk of their back catalog — or, perhaps, Barenaked Ladies using the pretext of re-recording a chunk of their back catalog to perform with The Persuasions. Hell if I know, hell if anybody knows. Why The Persuasions? Well, apparently a chance meeting with Kevin Hearn led them to appear at a Barenaked Ladies show in 2016, and supposedly there's been chemistry and all that, and now we have a lengthy, triumphant title: Ladies And Gentle­men: Barenaked Ladies And The Persuasions. And we are supposed to give a damn.

To be honest, I never heard The Persuasions before — as a strictly a cappella band, they never had much chart success, despite being put on the map by no less than Frank Zappa himself back in 1968 (come to think of it, maybe that is why they never had much chart success), and, as far as I can tell, their only more or less remembered minor hit was 1972's ʽGood Timesʼ, which happens to be the only Persuasions song covered here, with an entirely new rapped bridge creeping in mid­way through. This is probably not a major omission: the guys predictably generate slick, com­plex, pro­fessional harmonies, devoid of individuality. Why did Hearn and Robertson decide that utilizing these harmonies for Barenaked Ladies songs would make a lot of difference?

Well, it is probably not a matter of whether it is The Persuasions, The Impressions, The Tempta­tions, or The Fornications (spot the odd one out): it is more a matter of the band expressing a de­sire to remake some of its songs in a more consciously retro style. Look at ʽNarrow Streetsʼ, ope­ning the record: on Silverball, it opened in the style of classic New Wave, with a post-punkish guitar riff and a Cars-style organ dominating the sound, whereas here it opens with barbershop quartet vocals, and the entire arrangement consists of minimalistic bass, drums, and piano, with the vocals of the Ladies and the Persuasions bearing the main brunt of the melody, as if this were 1958 all over again or something. This does not mean that the entire album is going to be that way. Later on, we get our acoustic and even our electric guitars, and the style is not retro enough to make them re-write all the melodies in ways that would be appropriate for the Fifties — for instance, the hard-rocking swagger of ʽKeepin' It Realʼ is preserved fair and square — but the general idea is clear: to introduce the old, innocent vibe of the pre-rock era (the «authentic» vibe, that is!) into music that once used to herald the post-rock vibe (not in the Sigur Rós sense of the word «post-rock», but rather in the They Might Be Giants / Ween sense of it, of course).

Does it work? Well, not enough to make me judge that the action was really worth it. For starters, they could have sure picked a better setlist: I appreciate that they did not completely focus on the post-Page era, but on the whole, they picked quite a few boring clunkers — couldn't they have done ʽBrian Wilsonʼ instead of ʽWhen I Fallʼ, for instance? For another thing, too many tracks just do not differ that much from the originals, Persuasions or no Persuasions: much too often, «Ladies and Gentlemen» just sing in unison with each other (ʽOdds Areʼ), rather than thinking of more interesting ways — or even labyrinths — to distribute their collective vocal power. And finally, even when they do get it right (ʽMaybe Katieʼ, etc.), this is not enough to turn the songs into anything radically different. They were light, friendly, romantic, and humorous in the first place; spicing them up with soulful / doo-woppy vocals is, at best, like adding a splash of whipped cream on top of your icecream cone — most of the time you barely notice it is there.

None of this ain't bad, though. Well, a few of the songs are, but, fortunately, they did not take a lot of their dreary adult contemporary ballads (hardly suitable for Persuasions contributions any­way), so the record is largely listenable all the way through. And I guess that these days, Bare­naked Ladies still get more fans than The Persuasions do, so it should be counted as a generous gesture towards a hard-working bunch of vocal veterans who probably deserve better. But clearly this is just a stop-gap release, another harmless, but expendable oddity in the band's catalog that will not be remembered. And I have a deep fear that those few reviews for the album that I have encountered were all positive simply because the critics had already forgotten how those songs sounded or even where they all came from in the first place, and simply had fun listening to them all over again; so here's hoping that Hearn or Robertson do not run into Diana Ross or the re­maining Jack­son brothers any time soon, because there's still plenty of backlog tunes left to re­record for people with long term memory loss.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Hadestown


1) Wedding Song; 2) Epic (Part 1): 3) Way Down Hadestown; 4) Songbird (intro); 5) Hey, Little Songbird; 6) Gone, I'm Gone; 7) When The Chips Are Down; 8) Wait For Me; 9) Why We Build The Wall; 10) Our Lady Of The Underground; 11) Flowers; 12) Nothing Changes; 13) If It's True; 14) Papers (Hades Finds Out); 15) How Long; 16) Epic (Part 2); 17) Lover's Desire; 18) His Kiss, The Riot; 19) Doubt Comes In; 20) I Raise My Cup To Him.

When the thousands of modern artists are replaced by tens of thousands of the artists of tomorrow, and when cultural memory becomes but a feeble phantom next to digital memory, Hadestown, I hope and believe, will still be the album that Anaïs Mitchell is going to be remembered by. Not because it is necessarily the best thing she did, but simply because this is where she showed the bravery to step out of a certain predictable comfort zone — trying to make an arrogant mark on the world that was all her own.

Hadestown is a «folk opera» that builds upon the premise found in ʽHades & Persephoneʼ, a song from The Brightness where Mitchell came up with an imaginary dialog between the two characters, and sang both of their parts. Apparently, the track was an excerpt from the already existing first draft of the entire cycle, but this now is the final draft, a complete musical version of the Orpheus myth, this time inviting plenty of guest stars to take up all the parts. The musical arrangements would be the most complex in her career so far, yet the music itself would strictly follow «pre-rock» patterns: some folk, some country, some blues, some vaudeville, and almost nothing that could have it labeled as either a «rock opera» or a «musical». I would not dare say that she was the first to come up with such an idea — though nobody else springs to mind at the moment — but what with the chosen theme, and the peculiar guest assembly, and the stylistic diversity, and elements of her own personality, Hadestown is definitely a 2010 record like no other 2010 record, and 2010 has seen plenty of records.

But bad news first: as brilliant as the idea might sound on paper, I would not say that it has been perfectly realized in the studio. The biggest flaw are the guest vocalists, who mostly just suck at their roles. Mitchell herself plays the role of Eurydice, which inevitably means that she does not get to sing a lot (what with being either dead or undead, but wordless most of the time). Else­where, what we get is:

(a) Bon Iver's Justin Vernon as Orpheus — I have no doubt that the guy thought himself capable of getting into such a natural (for him) character, but he has as much personality as a bowl of farina, and if I were Hades and he came knocking at my door, I'd feed him to Cerberus with a relieved sense of 10,000-year satisfaction;

(b) Ani DiFranco as Persephone — look, I respect Ani DiFranco and I understand that, her being the boss of Mitchell's record label and all, Anaïs felt obliged to get her a spot and all, but her raunchy-flapper delivery on ʽOur Lady Of The Undergroundʼ is cringeworthy; and she murders (in the bad sense of the word) the old ʽHades & Persephoneʼ, here retitled ʽHow Longʼ — just put on the original version and compare Mitchell's desperate "how long, how long, how long?" with Ani's muffled and confused verse conclusions. She simply does not fit this concept, period;

(c) Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem as Hermes — his moment of glory is on the opening verse of the rowdy drinking song ʽWay Down Hadestownʼ, but, unfortunately, he only manages to come off as a very second-rate Tom Waits. What, was the budget too low to get the real thing? I'm sure Tom wouldn't particularly object to taking part in this, particularly since this kind of pro­ject is right up Kathleen Brennan's alley;

(d) Greg Brown, an Iowan folkie, as Hades — his croaky bass voice is the only one that I have no problems with, but since the idea here is to complain about all of them, I will play up the racial card and ask the naturally pending question: how come they did not invite some grizzled old black bluesman to sing this part? Okay, so John Lee Hooker was already dead by then, but surely there must have been others available. This part is just screaming from some African-American presence — no offence to Greg, who is actually one of the coolest guys on the invitee list.

All these miscastings are bothersome, yet they do not take away from the sheer delight of the story. Individually, each piece is not exactly a revelation, but as they come together and you begin associating the various musical styles with parts of the Orphean myth, we suddenly have a completely new way of looking at the classical Greek tradition — through the prism of 20th century folk culture (rather than rock culture or avantgarde). Thus, ʽWay Down Hadestownʼ becomes the wobbly path of drunken sailors, with gang choruses, banjos, and accordeons; Hades himself, as pictured in ʽHey, Little Songbirdʼ, is associated with a down-on-his-luck salt-of-the-earth person, stuck in some Louisiana shithole or other; The Fates, played by The Haden Triplets, apparently spin their web from some rundown casino in a shady part of town (ʽWhen The Chips Are Downʼ, spicing things up with its lively Cuban rhythms); ʽWhy We Build The Wallʼ, a song whose relevance has seemingly increased in the Trump era, is a clever attempt at inserting a bit of contemporary political significance — and by now, I suppose, we have all guessed that «Hades­town» and «The Underground» are the United States of America, and Orpheus is a poor Latin immigrant trying to sneak in after his US-born wife... oh, well, that is probably carrying the alle­gory too far. Anyway, the idea of Hades and Cerberus chanting "we build the wall to keep us free" in unison is quite a fresh take on the Greek views on life after death.

The music that accompanies the ideas, as I already said, is not exceptional, but is suitably ambi­tious. Sparse arrangements are rare: more frequently, we have use of strings over acoustic guitars and/or pianos, giving the whole thing a «chamber folk» feel; there are also more experimental bits of music-making, usually in the form of instrumental links (ʽPapersʼ, for instance, is a bass-driven jazzy interlude with dissonant brass and strings and even a brief drum solo; ʽLover's De­sireʼ is one half neo-country and one half French street music), but I suppose that, like most operas, this one, too, is going to be remembered not so much by the stand-alone quality of its instrumental melodies as by how much they reinforce and complete the vocal parts. In this re­spect, the musical score is a total success, and, frankly, none of her previous records suggested that she could pull off something this big.

In all honesty, the work deserves not just a thumbs up, but a far more detailed critical description (which is more than I can say about plenty of other equally pretentious, but not equally self-adequate conceptual pieces); for now, I will simply conclude by saying that, as someone with an old passion for Greek mytho­logy and a big love for creative tinkering with traditional folks of American music, I thoroughly endorse Hadestown — at least as a stimulating symbolist piece, even if nothing here makes me shed bitter tears for the fate of Orpheus. (I mean, getting Justin Vernon, of all people, to make me feel for Orpheus? He's got about as many chances at this as Happy Frog).

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Celtic Frost: Monotheist


1) Progeny; 2) Ground; 3) A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh; 4) Drown In Ashes; 5) Os Abysmi Vel Daath; 6) Temple Of Depression; 7) Obscured; 8) Domain Of Decay; 9) Ain Alohim; 10) Triptych: Totengott; 11) Triptych: Synagoga Satanae; 12) Triptych: Winter (Requiem, Chapter Three: Finale).

That Celtic Frost, upon dissolving in the early Nineties, would eventually come back again, even if it took them about a decade to do so, is hardly a surprise for the world of well-established musi­cal brands. That their next album would be significantly different from everything they did before was not a surprise, either: self-reinvention was as much a given for Celtic Frost from the start as makeup was for KISS, so it was hardly realistic to expect them to return to the «black thrash» style of Mega Therion or, God have mercy, to the «ugly glam» style of Cold Lake. But it would be disappointing, wouldn't it, for the band to leave us completely without surprises? Celtic Frost live and breathe surprise. And so they went ahead and did it, surprising us by putting out their best album — not as in «best in several years / a decade / since their last good one», but as in «best ever, period». For all the innovation and experimentation they showed in the reputation-establishing Eighties, Monotheist is something completely else.

The reason why I feel this way is simple: to me, Monotheist is the only Celtic Frost album that demands to be taken seriously — on a gut level, that is. All of their previous stuff could be inno­vative, or kick-ass, or fun, or dull, or embarrassing, but (like most of heavy metal, to be sure) it never really went beyond the state of hyperbolized rock theater. This record, though it can also be reasonably characterized as theatrical, is where Tom Warrior seems to have sat down and come up with a plan — this would be music that would genuinely, rather than symbolically, scare the shit out of the listener. No mean feat, considering that genuine fear in rock music is usually sought in regions far subtler than heavy metal (from Pink Floyd to Peter Gabriel), yet abandoning the heavy metal sound is the last thought on Tom's mind here.

The two key components of this «authentically scary» brand of metal that he has decided upon are (a) guitar tone and (b) vocals. Neither of these actually comes out of nowhere: before the Celtic Frost reunion, Tom Warrior spent some time playing and recording with his new band, Apollyon Sun, together with a second guitarist, Erol Uenala, whom he would also recruit into the reunited Celtic Frost; and they played a brutal type of metal that was very heavily influenced by the industrial sound. This is precisely what you get here as well: slow, pounding, monotonous grooves with «industrialized» distortion, arguably the heaviest possible sound of 'em all, and even if it was not invented by Celtic Frost, Tom has figured out how to use it better than most — in the context of simple, repetitive, doom-laden riffs that remind one of the primal purity of Sabbath rather than the confusing complexity of Opeth-like or Tool-like ensembles. It does not take more than the opening twenty seconds of ʽProgenyʼ to understand that there is something going on here that tries to tap inside your darkest fears and complexes.

But maybe even more impressive than the industrialized guitar riffs are the vocals. Although they, too, are sometimes industrialized through production effects that professionally turn human voices into demonic ones (see ʽTotengottʼ, the first part of the ʽTriptychʼ — which is actually delivered by Martin Eric Ain rather than Tom), more often it is simply all about a strategic positioning at the mike, with Tom singing in a gurgly, guttural, but not demo­nically grow­ling voice that, at its roughest and toughest, is honestly more reminiscent of an enraged Adolf Hitler than a cartoonishly constipated Lucifer. This, too, is a direct carryover from the industrial scene (think Ministry at their finest), but it is impressive how he gets these chilling results without having to resort to a lot of post-production sonic makeup — that Tom Warrior can sound brutal and evil when he wants to is no revelation, but that he can do this without sounding like a brutal and evil and thoroughly inebriated stinky hobo certainly is. Even when this style is seemingly wasted on such trite refrains as "oh God, why have you forsaken me?", the wall-rattling power is so strong that he still manages to imbue some new life (or, perhaps, un-life) into these age-old questions. (Let us just hope the Catholic church never turns its vigilant eye in the direction of ʽGroundʼ, because Jesus Christ Superstar this sure ain't: the same guy who addresses this ques­tion to God begins with such cheerful statements as "I am hatred, seeping blood... I am rage becoming flesh...").

As deliciously and creepily brutal as the first few tracks are, enduring a 70-minute long album that consists of nothing but the likes of ʽProgenyʼ and ʽGroundʼ would be a tough affair; so, pretty soon some atmospheric elements begin to creep in — ʽA Dying God...ʼ begins with a quiet Gothic intro, a two-minute cemetery-bound dirge with an ominous soft bass punch to warn you that sooner or later, the ground will open and festering zombies will begin to crawl out (which they do exactly as the song hits the two-minute mark). Then the Gothic atmosphere is spread all over ʽDrown In Ashesʼ, with haunting female backup vocals and psychedelic guitar overdubs in the background — ultimately, this is more Bauhaus than anything heavy metal-related. From then on, depressing romantic atmosphere and crushing industrial metal riffs largely go hand in hand, with only a few songs (ʽDomain Of Decayʼ, ʽAin Alohimʼ) offering no salvation from the demon Panzer onslaught.

The most ambitious affair is saved for last: ʽTriptychʼ is a 23-minute long suite that pulls all the stops — the first part is an ambient-industrial monster in the old spirit of Coil and Current '93, with perhaps not the most original, nut one of the most blood-curdling vocal performances  you are liable to hear from the metal community; the second part is what you get when the slowness and fatality of doom metal are crossed with the evil cackle and hateful aggression of black metal; and once the damage is done, nothing is left but to sadly survey the carnage with the ʽRequiemʼ part, which is not a great neo-classical composition by any means, but does a good job of calming down your nerves after all the earthquakes and artillery barrages. It may be wise, though, to listen to the whole thing on its own, separately from the rest of the album, because after the first 45 minutes of brutality, its impact may be numbed; on its own, it is a perfect synthesis of industrial nightmare, metal warfare, and ambient nerve-care.

With a record like this, it is almost impossible to tell what exactly constitutes high class and what is filler, even if you do feel that 70+ minutes is a bit harsh for the system. But, of course, Mono­theist has to be taken as a single, multi-movement opus, most of which consists of bodies ripped to pieces by heavy metal bombshells and pecked by vultures in the short interims — and such things might take a long time, before the attacking side runs out of ammo. Most importantly, it is vividly efficient in its imagery, and that is all it takes to get a thumbs up; but boy, am I glad they decided not to follow it up with anything else — because (a) it would have been twice as exhaus­ting and (b) they wouldn't be able to top it anyway. The difference between Morbid Tales and Monotheist is that the former mischievous imps have matured into demons of death and destruc­tion, and the most frightening part of death and destruction is when you do not repeat it on an everyday basis, but simply leave the ruins behind as a reminder of what might yet happen again. (For that matter, Tom Warrior's latest extreme metal band, Triptykon, makes music that is some­what similar to Monotheist but sounds far more conventional).

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Carpenters: Made In America


1) Those Good Old Dreams; 2) Strength Of A Woman; 3) (Want You) Back In My Life Again; 4) When You've Got What It Takes; 5) Somebody's Been Lyin'; 6) I Believe You; 7) Touch Me When We're Dancing; 8) When It's Gone (It's Just Gone); 9) Beechwood 4-5789; 10) Because We Are In Love.

There is not much that can be said, at least meaningfully, about the last Carpenters album re­leased in Karen's lifetime. Apparently, already after her death Richard went on the Larry King show and declared that this was both his and her favorite record of everything they'd done — a statement that I can only ascribe to a particular sentimental value that he'd placed on it, as well as the recording sessions still being fresh in his memory. Because even if Christmas Portrait could be written off as a one-time special project, Made In America clearly showed that the slightly experimental and unpredictable direction they took on Passage had been abandoned for good, and now, at the start of a new musical decade which they were not to survive, they'd slipped back to the level of Horizon and A Kind Of Hush — something that was even less forgivable for the early Eighties than it was for the mid-Seventies.

All the hallmarks are right here. There is very little original songwriting (only the opening and the closing songs are credited to Richard and Bettis). There's one Roger Nichols cover and one Burt Bacharach cover, and they are both boring. There is one obligatory lively cover of a Motown oldie — this time it is ʽBeachwood 4-5789ʼ from The Marvelettes backlog — and it is as fun and as forgettable as ever. And then there's a lot of help from outside professional songwriters and some covers of recent hits, mainly from the easy listening circuit, with nothing even remotely approaching the «edge» of ʽB'wana She No Homeʼ or ʽCalling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craftʼ. Made in America, for sure, but not necessarily something of which the American nation should be particularly proud.

Surprisingly, I have several times encountered the word «comeback» in conjunction with this re­cord — which, honestly, I can only understand in the most straightforward sense, namely, that this was the first album of «original» material they managed to get out in four years. But as in «artistic comeback»? Hardly. Yes, they managed to score one significant hit with ʽTouch Me When We're Dancingʼ, a cover of an earlier (and lesser) 1979 hit by the short-lived Muscle Shoals session band Bama, but it is just a sappy para-disco ballad, rendered in a style that was never well associable with Karen Carpenter and, for that matter, not improving one bit on the original. And yes, the opening lyrical country-pop flow of ʽThose Good Old Dreamsʼ is seductive enough, but I could not say the same for the closing ʽBecause We Are In Loveʼ, a corny wedding song consisting of nothing but well-harmonized rose petals. Nor, in fact, could I say it about any other song on this album.

Putting it in context — the fairly wretched life of Richard, suffering from his addictions, and Karen, suffering from her anorexia — only makes things worse, because it seems as if they spe­cially designed Made In America so that it could take them as far away from their problems as possible. Basically, this is the happiest-sounding Carpenters album ever (the single exception being Randy Handley's slightly deeper, but not very memorable ballad ʽWhen It's Goneʼ), full of shallow statements of romance and devotion, nothing even remotely reminding you of the psycho­logical depths these guys were once capable of reaching with songs like ʽSuperstarʼ or, heck, even ʽRainy Days And Mondaysʼ. And perhaps it is an understandable gesture, to create a joyful panorama of musical optimism in order to conceal all the pain, but the fact of the matter is, the Carpenters were always better at sadness than they were at happiness; and I would take their grimly stoned facial expressions on Horizon any day over the plastic smiles and happily patriotic expressions of the Made In America painting.

In the end, this is not the kind of thumbs down that could somehow be retracted because the singer died an awful death two years later — the album does everything in its power to assure us that "we've only just begun" once again (ʽBecause We Are In Loveʼ was played at Karen's wed­ding, one that ended in embarrassment and disaster one year later), but does it far less efficiently and believably than, say, John Lennon's Double Fantasy. In mild defense, neither Karen's voice nor Richard's arranging skills have deteriorated one bit, so the record is still recommendable to all those who are always ready to take the duo at face value.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Cat Stevens: Roadsinger


1) Welcome Home; 2) Thinking 'Bout You; 3) Everytime I Dream; 4) The Rain; 5) World O' Darkness; 6) Be What You Must; 7) This Glass World; 8) Roadsinger; 9) All Kinds Of Roses; 10) Dream On (Until...); 11) Shamsia.

Perhaps Yusuf thought he'd gone too far in the «flashy» direction with his return to the world of big neon lights; in any case, the follow-up to his comeback is significantly more low-key, retur­ning us to stripped-down times when it used to be just Cat and his acoustic guitar, and everything else was strictly secondary. We still have strings, and rhythm sections, and backing vocals, and even horns on occasion, but they never drown out the basics — and he further accentuates this with the album title and cover, implying that, when all is said and done, Cat-Yusuf is essentially a wise old street busker, and only those few intelligent souls whose instincts are attuned to the words of the wise will bother to stop and listen for a few minutes — for the rest, these sounds will simply blend in with the background noise.

I regret to say that on this occasion, I have not properly managed to ascend to the status of the chosen few. While the material here is definitely comparable with the «average» Cat Stevens balladry of the classic years, nothing has either the immediately captivating nature of ʽMiddayʼ or the curiously experimental nature of ʽThe Belovedʼ or the «odd factor» of ʽDon't Let Me Be Misunderstoodʼ. The nature of most of the songs is still calm and pensive rather than turbulent, which is good, because this serenity and peacefulness seems to come very naturally to the aging Cat-Yusuf these days; but unless you are able to slip into the state of a little kid cuddling up on his grandfather's knee and taking in the words of wisdom, or, perhaps, unless you are a grand­father yourself, it will not be easy to assign the record to any specially marked shelf in your memory closet.

The record is very clearly structured around the lyrics this time — little parables or allegories, occasionally confessions, heavily influenced by Arabic and Persian religious and literary tradi­tions, but, ultimately, with relatively simple morals: the central point of the opening number, ʽWelcome Homeʼ, is that "time rolls on, ain't no good to sit and moan", but musically, well, the song could have been written by anybody — probably was, a couple dozen times already — and so, unless you find consolation in the subtle and exclusive magic of the minimalistic slide guitar overdubs, there is nothing but Cat-Yusuf's intangible charisma to feed your pleasure centers. And it's not as if he's lost any of it (inshaʼallah, his voice is pretty much immune to the ravages of time), but it's not as if all those years of religious devotion made it all that more mesmerizing, either. More calm and peaceful he may be, aye, but the «Majikat» stays the same.

Actually, as fun as it is to drop an occasional chuckle about Yusuf's Islam, the idea of putting together the basics of British medieval folk / piano pop and African-American acoustic blues, then cross them with elements of Arabic music and insert some second-hand Sufi wisdom sounds pretty cool; what surprises me is that Roadsinger has way too much Cat Stevens and way too little Yusuf Islam to make a difference — and what surprises me even more is feeling that this is a flaw of Roadsinger, not a virtue. For instance, ʽWorld O' Darknessʼ, dedicated to the fate of Shamsia Husseini, a girl nearly blinded by Taliban goons for attending school in Kandahar, is technically a dark medieval-stylized ballad (with a fairly bad, Eighties-adult-contemporary key­board solo at the end) — with no Eastern musical elements in sight, sympathetic in tone but simply not too interesting in composition or execution. (For that matter, a return to the same theme in the guise of ʽShamsiaʼ, a brief instrumental to close the album, is more curious — a tiny chamber piece with romantic strings adorning Cat's piano — but also totally a Western thing).

Then again, it's okay. After all these years, we see that Cat Stevens is really the same ʽRoadsin­gerʼ that he used to be — aw hell, maybe his embracing of the Qur'anic way of life was just an excuse to skip the Eighties (I, for one, am very much glad that we never got to have a 1986 Cat Stevens album), and then only those 60s/70s stars who did make their 80s albums had to atone for this by making something better in the 90s. And here we have him now, just making more of those acoustic ditties about being completely lonely (title track), always misunderstood (ʽEverytime I Dreamʼ), and still hopelessly romantic at heart (ʽThinking 'Bout Youʼ). He just seems to accept this peacefully now, rather than complaining about it, implying that religion and old age do not make your problems away — you just learn to live with them. Not an amazingly mind-blowing lesson, but at least it is delivered in a non-obnoxious way.