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Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Hollies: Evolution

THE HOLLIES: EVOLUTION (1967)

1) Then The Heartaches Begin; 2) Stop Right There; 3) Water On The Brain; 4) Lullaby To Tim; 5) Have You Ever Loved Somebody; 6) You Need Love; 7) Rain On The Window; 8) Heading For A Fall; 9) Ye Olde Toffee Shoppe; 10) When Your Light's Turned On; 11) Leave Me; 12) The Games We Play; 13*) Carrie Ann; 14*) Signs That Will Never Change.

The Hollies did not manage to either properly adapt to the psychedelic revolution, or even to sur­vive it. They endorsed some of the formal trappings — just look at the album cover, designed by «The Fool», who were also the regular providers of psychedelic visual gimmicks for The Beatles; but nobody in the band ever had the gumption to plunge into the proper spirit. Clarke was a pop­ster, Nash was a folkie, Hicks was the portrait of Dorian Gray, and the rhythm section never developed any ambitions of their own; thus, even if the sessions for Evolution were literally taking place a few doors away from those for Sgt. Pepper, what the band did on this album was altogether not very different from what they'd been doing in 1966.

The problem is that they were still a bit confused about it, and the final results, though definitely not bad, were a step down from the smash quality of For Certain Because. Not so much because the band was derailed by psychedelia — this resulted in only one small specific disaster, to which we will return in a moment — but rather because, not being ready to fully embrace it, they hesi­tatingly fell back on the old formula, and produced too many tunes that sounded like inferior variations on what they'd done previously. The album's title is really misleading: Evolution does not feature the band evolving at all, other than adding a few superficial touches that actually show The Hollies being notably afraid of evolution.

A good example would be the song ʽRain On The Windowʼ, a rather pathetic attempt to write another ʽBus Stopʼ — the tune borrows not just the gray melancholic mood of the original, but even some of its vocal phrasing, rhythmics, and arrangement details. It is still kinda cute, and the French horn solo is a nice touch, but the vocals are so limp in comparison that there can be abso­lutely no competition. On the more anthemic songs, the old build-up trick — start out soulful and slow, gradually rise to a bombastic chorus — is no longer as effective on new songs such as ʽYou Need Loveʼ as it used to be on, say, ʽPay You Back With Interestʼ. And some of Nash's folkie stuff is beginning to get too cloying and cutesy for its own good (ʽStop Right Thereʼ), as if he'd already forgotten that his potential audience could consist of somebody other than small toddlers ready to be tucked into bed.

The record is still eminently listenable, because The Hollies are still playing energetic pop-rock rather than submitting to easy listening standards — and at least a small handful of the tunes should be eligible for classic status. ʽThen The Heartaches Beginʼ is an excellent album opener, for instance, and one of the few songs here that did benefit from psychedelic innovations — Tony Hicks has an excellent raga-influenced distorted guitar part here, and it forms a dizzying combi­nation with the band's falsetto harmonies. ʽLeave Meʼ is an outstanding angry rant of the kind that Clarke is really good at, except that he was doing fewer and fewer of those as time went by. And I'm pretty sure that any of the other songs could become a personal favorite for anybody: hardly any of them, however, could hope for well-earned collective popularity — because, really, there's a superior song from the 1965-66 period for each of them, and this is where it becomes obvious that The Hollies have not simply lost the race to The Beatles (something they did way back in 1963), but that they fell out of the race altogether.

Still, they carry on, and the only song here that could make me reconsider the thumbs up rating is the above-mentioned disaster — ʽLullaby To Timʼ (yes, more toddler stuff: allegedly written by Clarke for his son, but still given over to Nash, because, you know, it's his game). Not because it is a bad song, but because of the horrendous distorted effect that they put on Graham's vocals to make them sound «psychedelic». Hit up the explanation of the concept of «datedness» in any textbook on art, and chances are you'll get a soundbite of this — what might have sounded super­ficially curious in the early days of recording technologies is impossible to perceive these days as anything but an accidental penetration of «chewed tape» onto the studio master. Honestly, if I were in charge, I'd spit on respect for artistic legacy, recover the original tapes, and delete that effect from all remasters of the album; but I guess they lost the original tape anyway, because that is the only humane explanation of why this travesty has not been remedied. Of course, this is only one song, but it is fairly symbolic — as if for this band, «going psychedelic» simply meant «pick out a random song and put some shitty effects on it».

At least the CD edition is kind enough to throw on ʽCarrie Anneʼ as a bonus (a song that should have been ʽMarianneʼ, since Nash planned to dedicate it to Marianne Faithfull but chickened out at the last moment) — the single from May '67 that is better than almost all of Evolution com­bined, a song that combines catchiness, kiddie innocence, marimbas, and the bitter irony of what would be condemned these days as «slut-shaming» (yes indeed!) in one excellent little package, and temporarily restores the band's reputation as providers of intelligent British pop-rock that could at least compete with the catchy sarcasm of the Stones and the Kinks, if not necessarily with the mind-blowing progressions of ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ. And, if anything, the next LP would show that the band was handling the Era of Change better than most of their B-grade com­petitors from the early days of Merseybeat. But the Golden Age of the Hollies was irretrievably over with this album, even if, commerce-wise, it surprisingly managed to chart higher than For Certain Because. Perhaps The Fool made a difference, after all.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Blondie: Pollinator

BLONDIE: POLLINATOR (2017)

1) Doom Or Destiny; 2) Long Time; 3) Already Naked; 4) Fun; 5) My Monster; 6) Best Day Ever; 7) Gravity; 8) When I Gave Up On You; 9) Love Level; 10) Too Much; 11) Fragments.

Okay, I am going to assume that the album title is a simple reference to Debbie Harry's interest in beekeeping (something that was also reflected in the accompanying tour)... because if it is not, some very disturbing implications are on the way. Then again, we certainly live in a world when the ripe age of 72 is by no means a rigid impediment on the way of, um, some good old pollina­tion, or is it? Anyway, let us not forget that, for all of Debbie's legendary sexuality, the songs were always much more about emotional than physical proximity, and Pollinator is no exception. The important question is not how Debbie handles her sexuality at this time — it is whether, after two disappointing albums in a row, there is any reason at all to be concerned about yet another album from a band that almost ridiculously refuses to die.

Of one thing I am totally sure: Pollinator is a surprising improvement over its two predecessors. Surprising, yes, but perhaps not unpredictable: one could have guessed that after a long period of trying to «adapt» to current fashions, the band would eventually just fuck it and return to their roots — good old pop-rock with steady Seventies' beats. For the first time since No Exit, they seem fully content to simply sound like themselves, with one questionable exception: their new keyboard player, Matt Katz-Bohen, who still seems bent on not only privatizing the band's sound, but also on turning them into as much of a 21st century synth-pop ensemble as possible. Perhaps if he had a knack for extracting simple, but emotionally effective patterns from those keyboards (something like Arcade Fire's ʽSprawl IIʼ, for instance), it would have been okay, but too many of these synth barriers just sound like formulaic techno-pop, and end up robotizing Harry's presence as well. But yes, it is also true that his keyboards are the only thing that put the music squarely into the modern age — that, and the singer's aging voice.

Once again, very few songs are written by Blondie members themselves. The Harry/Stein duet is represented on only two tracks, the first of which, ʽDoom Or Destinyʼ, opens the album on a par­ticularly retro note — they even feature Joan Jett on backing vocals! — with big Clem Burke drums, fast chugging guitar, and Debbie's vocals ever so slightly cosmetized to get her back that sardonic, spitfire flavor of youth. It does not really work, of course: the chorus hook is just an endless repeat of the question "is it doom or destiny?", and there is no way that the enthusiasm of youth could be properly rekindled now, but already the fact that they are able to run through it without falling flat on their faces speaks for something. The second one, ʽLove Levelʼ, is also a stand out due to its heavy dependence on brass fanfare, which still has to clash with Katz-Bohen's bubbling electro-pop synth brew, but is fun nevertheless.

On the other end of the spectrum is the album's most, if not only, modern-sounding number: ʽFunʼ, provided for Blondie by a bunch of corporate songwriters and the producer of TV On The Radio, sounds like a 2010s take on Modern Talking and could be done by just about any dance-pop outfit in the world. Forty years ago that vibe, though it always sounded silly, was at least novel; these days, it no longer has the benefit of starry-eyed innocence. But I can understand, somebody told them that they still had to grind out a hit single and they obliged — in fact, they did make it into a hit single, their highest charting one since ʽMariaʼ, making the idea of Hot Dance Rhythms For Young People all the more ironic. Can't help admiring the achievement, though: even Cher was only 52 when she recorded ʽBelieveʼ.

Personally, I am much more a fan of the B-side, ʽMy Monsterʼ, written by none other than Johnny Marr himself, who also contributes his trademark guitar to the recording (unfortunately, it is once again all but swallowed up by the synthesizers). This is a much more Blondie-like song, from the steady 4/4 beat to the opening "human beings are stupid things when we're young" to the oh-so-well-known Blondie ability to go from bitter irony to gentle romanticism and back at a moment's notice. There are several more songs like that here — ʽBest Day Everʼ, co-written with Nick Valensi of The Strokes; ʽWhen I Gave Up On Youʼ, written by YouTube resident musical comedians The Gregory Brothers specially for Blondie in Blondie style (but also featuring their trademark Autotune tricks on Debbie's voice); ʽLong Timeʼ, co-written by Debbie with Dev Hynes of Blood Orange with obvious echoes of ʽHeart Of Glassʼ embedded in the rhythmic patterns and in the keyboard melody. None of this is great, but all of it is more fun than ʽFunʼ, and the textural diversity is quite refreshing.

Above and beyond everything, I am very happy about how Debbie sounds throughout this, even when they are torturing her voice with unnecessary autotuning. Unless you concentrate very hard upon comparison with classic Blondie songs, complaining about how much of her former range she has lost, there are really very few indications of how old that voice is — there are, however, plenty of indications that the fire of life is still very, very bright within the old girl. Those catfight dramas, those emotional turmoils, those fits of ecstasy or ire that made the original records so much more than just a collection of empty hooks — they are all here, even if the hooks them­selves are far less stronger than they used to.

It all comes together on the final track, ʽFragmentsʼ, taken by Blondie from an unknown song­writer, Adam Johnston: ironically, the songwriter was 17 years old when he wrote the song, yet its message — "you can't create more time, you just make it" — agrees more than perfectly with the mindset of the aged diva, and the frantic chorus-question, "do you love me now? do you love me now?", sounds as if it is really addressed to all of us rather than some imaginary lover figure. Don't worry, Ms. Harry: you could have done a lot worse than this, we do love you still, and here's a thumbs up to "fucking prove it". (But could you please bring back Jimmy Destri for your next album? This Katz-Bohen guy is just untenable).

Friday, October 20, 2017

Chelsea Wolfe: Mistake In Parting

CHELSEA WOLFE: MISTAKE IN PARTING (2006)

1) Inside A Girl; 2) Nothing, Noone; 3) Sleeping; 4) Mistake In Parting; 5) Your Name; 6) Hallelujah; 7) No Luck; 8) Lay Me Down; 9) Winter; 10) Dreamer.

Ever since achieving dark-stardom, Chelsea Wolfe has been trying to erase the memories of her first album from public conscience — deriding it as a "shitty singer-songwriter breakup album" made by a 21-year old, the sooner forgotten, the better. Then again, you know, Adele made a "shitty singer-songwriter breakup album" and actually called it 21, and God saw that it was good (so good that he made her do a really shitty one four years later, to compensate), so why couldn't Chelsea Wolfe's? Moreover, she does admit that the songs she wrote for the album were quite personal — too personal, in fact, for her own tastes — and this inevitably means that any fan of the lady should lay hands on it sooner or later, if only in order to understand where this particular idol is coming from.

In all honesty, this is not nearly as bad as Chelsea herself makes it out to be — though, probably, I'd be angrier at these songs if I did not hear the artist in person get angry about them. Much of the record is just harmless (and usually boring) acoustic folk, the kind that aspiring young ladies and gentlemen like to film themselves playing in their bedroom and then hanging out on YouTube for their five minutes of glory — «sincerity» probably being the most, if not the only, interesting part about it. From time to time, she goes electric, and then it is like your average alt-rock crunch, though, fortunately, not drowning in Nickelbackish distortion. The lyrics and vocal intonations suggest a heavy Radiohead influence — which, unfortunately, never translates to compositional complexity or catchiness: most of the songs are atmospheric poetic rants that very rarely have any dynamics, usually just going round and round until the tape runs out.

In this context, the somewhat colorless voice hovering above the arrangements is a good thing, because, despite my confessed bias against "singer-songwriter breakup albums", somehow the record still manages not to cross the line from «boring» to «irritating», even when the artist's Big Ego is placed square in the center of everything, as it is on the opening number — ʽInside A Girlʼ, a fairly provocative title in its own right. She just uses a few impressionist keyboard lines and some strings here to tell her own story of seduction and betrayal, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that: everybody has a right to that story if it's the truth, or, hell, even if it's not the truth. I cannot remember anything about that song once it's gone, but while it was playing, it did not make me want to go, «who are you to be manipulating me with your bullshit». It sounded fairly natural — as does everything else here.

The downside is that there is really nothing to write about, as most of the songs are strictly neither good nor bad. The arrangements are okay (she would later complain about the album being over­produced, but I don't really hear it — I mean, pianos? strings? chimes? alt-rock guitars? what exactly is the source of complaints?), the voice is okay, the melodies offer no surprises, the lyrics show that she can come up with a pretty decent analysis of both her own and her ex-boyfriend's problems... end of story. Only one track, ʽWinterʼ, shows brief hints at the future developments of her sound, with a slightly doomier guitar tone than usual and lyrics like "lay in my grave with me my love / we'll die side by side, hand in hand" foreshadowing the morbid veils of her mature career (and no, these lines are not among the album's finest, but if you're young and you have your whole life ahead of you, hell, why not include them anyway?), yet even that is just a solitary foreshadowing. But now at least we know why Chelsea «Joy» Wolfe has such a grim vision of the universe at large: her boyfriend dumped her, and things would never be the same. This is, you know, where Batman begins and stuff.

One technical reason why this record could be wiped from discographies is that it never had a real label, being self-released in CDr format with only a few hundred copies or so. But then, 2006 is not like the underground Eighties: she had herself the luxury of a properly equipped Californian studio, a professional backing band, there's, like, album art and all — and it is very cleanly pro­duced, so that the songs never give the impression of raw demos. And I do not think this record is something that she'd need to be particularly ashamed of: at least this way, her fans have this nice little opportunity to get a quick peek inside her real soul, rather than always have to deal with her «alien» artistic persona. Not that you'd find anything particularly outstanding there, but... well, anyway, I do not want to create the impression that Chelsea Wolfe is a genius, let alone that Mistake In Parting is some sort of underappreciated, heart-wrenching spiritual masterpiece. In fact, it might have been more fun if it turned out to be some campy embarrassment, like the early dance-pop records of Alanis Morissette, or Y Kant Tori Read. As it is, it's largely just a blank.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Chameleons: John Peel Sessions

THE CHAMELEONS: JOHN PEEL SESSIONS (1990)

1) The Fan And The Bellows; 2) Here Today; 3) Looking Inwardly; 4) Things I Wish I'd Said; 5) Don't Fall; 6) Nostalgia; 7) Second Skin; 8) Perfumed Garden; 9) Dust To Dust / Return Of The Rednecks; 10) One Flesh; 11) Intrigue In Tangiers; 12) P. S. Goodbye.

As befits every second-rate band, The Chameleons have a huge number of live albums out, most of them released in semi-official status on various tiny labels, and trying to trace them all down and discuss each one separately would be taking this completism thing way too far. But this reasonably concise and high-quality package from the ubiquitous John Peel is worth mentioning, especially because it came before everything else and could be regarded as a comprehensive summary of the band's legacy — put out at a time when there was no talk of a Chameleons come­back, and the fans could hardly hope for anything better.

In brief, there are two things about this compilation that make it particularly attractive for me. First, the setlist: these tracks are taken from three separate sessions — four songs from 1981, way before they got around to recording their first album; four from 1983, promoting Script Of The Bridge; and four more from 1984, promoting What Does Anything Mean. At this point, the sessions stop, meaning that there is nothing from Strange Times, which is quite a relief. But it also gives you a couple of early songwriting attempts that cannot be found elsewhere (well, they can now, but not back then): ʽThe Fan And The Bellowsʼ, a good punk-pop romp with a healthy dosage of youthful protest energy, before it began mutating into acid depression already on their first LP; and ʽThings I Wish I'd Saidʼ, which sounds, well, like any other fast early Chameleons song, but at least it's better than any slow late Chameleons song.

Second and maybe even more important, the fact that these takes were recorded live for radio broadcast means — yes, you guessed it right: a relative liberation from the confines of glossy Eighties production. The biggest beneficiary of this is drummer John Lever (and his predecessor Brian Schofield, captured on the first four tracks), who is here able to fully and openly participate in the ritual, now that his fills are less robotic and you actually get to feel the effort he puts into every bit of his pummeling. The performances themselves are not at all different from the studio versions, so, for future reference, I'd simply take these versions of ʽHere Todayʼ, ʽDon't Fallʼ, etc., over their regular studio equivalents.

Other than these two points, there is little that could be added to this brief evaluation. Given the spotty record of The Chameleons, it is nice to see a package that managed to concentrate on all their good sides and largely avoid the bad ones — it is nice, in fact, to be able to say anything good about a live album by a band whose live shows were seemingly not all that different from the way they played in the studio.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Carpenters: As Time Goes By

CARPENTERS: AS TIME GOES BY (2001)

1) Without A Song; 2) Superstar / Rainy Days And Mondays; 3) Nowhere Man; 4) I Got Rhythm Medley; 5) Dancing In The Street; 6) Dizzy Fingers; 7) You're Just In Love; 8) Karen / Ella Medley; 9) Close Encounters / Star Wars; 10) Leave Yesterday Behind; 11) Carpenters / Como Medley; 12) California Dreamin'; 13) The Rainbow Con­nection; 14) Hits Medley '76; 15) And When He Smiles.

Still another decade goes by, and just so that the world could be reminded, at the start of a brand new millennium, that Carpenter rule is not quite over yet, Richard is scraping together some more odds and ends from all over the place — going as far back as 1967, with a 17-year old Karen singing on a piano-and-harmonica demo version of ʽNowhere Manʼ and showing how much of a penchant they had for turning Beatlish pop-rock into easy listening material from the very start. Actually, it is one of the more endearing numbers on this collection.

In a way, this is far more listenable than Lovelines in general, because very few of the songs are truly «new»: for the most part, these are alternate takes, demos, and TV show versions of the siblings' big hits, and that is far more enjoyable than listening to subpar material they recorded in the late Seventies. So there are at least three medleys from the Carpenters' TV Special and the Perry Como Christmas Show, and as sickening as the concept of a medley can be, I'd rather listen to a brief snippet of ʽSuperstarʼ trickling into a brief snippet of ʽRainy Days And Mondaysʼ than... then again, the obvious question is what exactly these new versions bring to the table, and the obvious answer is — a desire to go on YouTube and browse for old videos of the Carpenters' TV Special, because the sight of Karen singing these versions is the only reason why anybody should bother with them in the first place.

Anyway, here is a brief rundown of the most curious stuff on this release. First, a few tunes off Music, Music, Music, the duo's 1980 program for ABC TV: there's a Gershwin medley (Karen is not at all bad on ʽI Got Rhythmʼ), a highly impressive, quasi-virtuoso performance of ʽDizzy Fingersʼ by Richard (who actually had great playing technique — but preferred to keep it low-key on studio recordings), and another medley of oldies where Karen alternates with none other than Ella Fitzgerald herself — Ella is already way past her prime, but holds her own ground very well, plus, well, it is Karen who was really dying at the time, not Ella. Second, the old demos — be­sides ʽNowhere Manʼ, there's also ʽCalifornia Dreamin'ʼ, both of them sung with great under­standing (unfortunately, Richard just felt he had to tamper with the old demos and load them with extra string arrangements and whatnot). Third, just a couple of previously unavailable numbers, such as Kermit the Frog's ʽRainbow Connectionʼ — not sure if Karen is much of an improvement over Kermit, but she is at least an improvement on Debbie Harry...

Anyway, despite Richard's useless overdubs, and despite the totally unnecessary inclusion of a ʽClose Encounters / Star Warsʼ medley from their Space Encounters special, this rag-taggy collection remains listenable; however, I do believe that casual listeners have absolutely no use for it, while dedicated fans will probably despise it for all the tampering — indeed, why not re­lease something a more systematic instead, like a proper collection of untampered demos, or at least a proper soundtrack from one or more of the TV shows, preferably in correct chronological order? As it is, the result is simply a mess, and if this happens to be the last archival issue released in Richard's lifetime, it would be fairly ignominious.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Chambers Brothers: Now!

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: NOW! (1966)

1) Introduction To; 2) High Heel Sneakers; 3) Baby Please Don't Go; 4) What'd I Say; 5) Long Tall Sally; 6) Bony Maronie; 7) It's Groovin' Time; 8) You Don't Have To Go; 9) C. C. Rider; 10) So Fine.

All right, this one is eminently skippable. Maybe the decision to stick to live recordings can be qualified as a gesture of toughness and determination, and I have nothing against this in theory, but in practice, this is pretty disappointing. Seemingly recorded at the same venues in Boston and L.A. as last time, Now! would sound as just a bunch of outtakes that did not make it onto the first album — except I think that these are different dates, because the recording quality is much worse: there is an ugly echo marring all the performances, creating the illusion of a deep well, rather than an intimate club, and also completely obscuring any musicianship that may or may not have been concealed behind the singing.

Another problem is the setlist: less diverse and original than last time, it consists mainly of covers of well-known standards, ranging from the early rock'n'roll of ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ and ʽHigh Heel Sneakersʼ to Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles. As much as I respect the vocal prowess of The Cham­bers Brothers, I really do not need another (and poor quality at that) version of ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ in my collection; nor do I need an extended, monotonous, slowed down version of the pop song ʽSo Fineʼ which, for several minutes, they try to transform into an ecstatic soulful groove without much success.

The only «new» tune is ʽIt's Groovin' Timeʼ, which, judging by its title, should be a fast, exciting rave-up, but in reality it is a slow, harmonica-driven piece of Chicago blues, as generic and for­gettable as they come; next to its drabness, the covers of ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ and ʽBony Maronieʼ are true salvation in the flesh... if only I could hear those guitar solos on the latter, though — the guitarist almost seems to intentionally wish to remain unheard.

Technically, you can dance to this, and I can even imagine the album having some use in college parties around that time — especially the ones where nobody needs anything but a good beat, anyway — yet in career terms, especially considering that this is frickin' 1966 we're talking about, with Hendrix on the horizon and shit, they pretty much shot themselves in their brotherly feet. It is highly likely, though, that Vault Records simply released this crap without the artists' explicit permission: I cannot imagine why they'd want to have this out on their own. Regardless, this is as proverbial a thumbs down as they ever come (for some reason, Bruce Eder gave it a positive review in the All-Music Guide — but the man has a passion for praising obscurities just because they are obscure and ever so slightly out-of-field; I also like to engage in musical archaeology from time to time, but have no interest in overstating its delights).

Monday, October 16, 2017

Allen Toussaint: Toussaint

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: TOUSSAINT (1971)

1) From A Whisper To A Scream; 2) Chokin' Kind; 3) Sweet Touch Of Love; 4) What Is Success; 5) Working In A Coalmine; 6) Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky; 7) Either; 8) Louie; 9) Cast Your Fate To The Wind; 10) Number Nine; 11) Pickles.

Throughout the Sixties, Toussaint was too busy writing and producing hit songs for a host of artists to ever focus on a solo career, releasing only a tiny handful of singles under his own name (the most famous of which was probably ʽGet Out Of My Life, Womanʼ in 1968, and even that one was first made into a hit by Lee Dorsey two years before). However, as the Seventies came along and established a pattern of formerly behind-the-scenes songwriters coming out to lay claims to full-fledged artistry (Carole King probably being the most famous examples), Toussaint apparently decided that it wouldn't hurt to try. Backed by his good friend Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, on guitar and organ (all piano duties are understandably handled by Allen himself), as well as a dozen seasoned, but little-known session players (Merry Clayton of ʽGimmie Shelterʼ fame is here on backing vocals, as a matter of fact), Toussaint makes his first big move as a solo artist — and immediately falls flat on his face!

Well, no, not quite. True, the record sold poorly, was barely noted in its own time and even today remains more or less a collector's item, to the extent that even the basic discographic information on it tends to vary from source to source (from what I can reconstruct, the original title was simply Toussaint, the recording sessions took place in 1970, and the LP was released in 1971;  more than a decade later, it was re-released as From A Whisper To A Scream, with one extra track on Side B, and this is the version I have). It is also true that the record is quite low-key, and does not have even a third part of the exuberance and youthful aggression of The Wild Sound: this new sound of Allen's is anything but wild, particularly when you compare it to his funky competitors such as James Brown or Funkadelic; in the dizzy, explosive context of 1971, when «thunder gods» still ruled the world of pop, rock, and R&B, it could hardly be hoped that a lot of people would pay attention to anything this humble.

But apart from these historic considerations, Toussaint is a pretty decent album. Allen's motto for it is established with the last number on Side A — ʽEverything I Do Gonna Be Funkyʼ — yet he establishes it in such a quiet, unpretentious, and calm manner that I am automatically reminded of J. J. Cale: had old J. J. decided that he, too, wanted to be funky from now on, he would probably have recorded something precisely like this. The song is not even properly «funky» by itself, just a regular 4/4 groove with minimal bass, quiet interplay between a distorted rhythm guitar and lead slide licks, and brief, punctuating touches of brass. Absolutely nothing special — but, some­how, still burning with a quiet, steady, and very determined fire that really makes you want to believe the man.

Everything else on the first side is done according to the same approach: quiet, relying on short and sweet melodic guitar phrases — but, unfortunately, also downplaying Toussaint's talents as a piano player; his biggest break comes on Harlan Howard's ʽChokin' Kindʼ, but even there Dr. John quickly overshadows him on the organ. All in all, the songs do not even sound much like the product of a singer-songwriter, because Toussaint's singing voice, while pleasant, friendly, and versatile, is strictly defined as one out of many sonic ingredients: Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields on backing vocals are just as loud as the frontman, and Toussaint never resorts to ad-lib­bing, never jumps out of his seat to attract attention — which is, admittedly, very cool and noble of him, but also depersonalizes him to a large degree. And although his ʽWorking In The Coal­mineʼ is a catchy and poignant song, his version here hardly improves on Lee Dorsey's original, although the arrangement is oddly more carnivalesque, with brass fanfare and slick funky guitar framing Allen's so naturally optimistic and friendly voice that the whole thing becomes ironic: surely Lee Dorsey did not sing about the sufferings of a coalmine worker that cheerfully.

The entire second side of the album is left for instrumental compositions, and this is where we could hope, perhaps, for some let-your-hair-down wildness: but no dice — these funky instru­mentals are quite restrained, too, and focused on band interplay rather than showcasing individual skills, with the lone exception of Vince Guaraldi's ʽCast Your Fate To The Windʼ, where Allen finally takes center stage and lets his piano do most of the talking, with some cool key changes and a beautifully fluent and expressive solo in the middle. Everything else is just groove after groove, tasteful and pleasant, but not much to write about: no flash (except at the end of ʽPicklesʼ, where Toussaint wraps things up with a few Chopin-esque flourishes), just business.

All in all, this is an inauspicious, but respectable start to a true solo career; I would only recom­mend it, though, to those who like their funky grooves very low-key and restrained, speaking through subtlety and ellipse, rather than loud, sweaty, and punchy. Oh, and with a brassy New Orleanian flavor, of course — the kind of atmosphere that teaches you to always look on the bright side of things, no matter how much they suck.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Small Faces: Small Faces

SMALL FACES: SMALL FACES (1967)

1) (Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me; 2) Something I Want To Tell You; 3) Feeling Lonely; 4) Happy Boys Happy; 5) Things Are Going To Get Better; 6) My Way Of Giving; 7) Green Circles; 8) Become Like You; 9) Get Yourself Together; 10) All Our Yesterdays; 11) Talk To You; 12) Show Me The Way; 13) Up The Wooden Hills To Bedford­shire; 14) Eddie's Dreaming.

Those who like their conceptuality mature and their maturity conceptual will always prefer Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, but to me, this is the band's unquestionable masterpiece, their only LP that deserves to be mentioned as a legitimate and fully privileged companion to all the other masterpieces from 1967. Its only flaw may be a certain lack of personality: by this time, Steve Marriott's dominance as a frontman was becoming somewhat resented by the rest of the band, and this is most evident from the fact that Ronnie Lane, a much less powerful, but a subtly charisma­tic, singer, now takes the lead on about half of the tracks — this results in a less distinctive vocal sound, and since the band never had a unique instrumental sound to speak of, Small Faces bears no easily identifiable tags on it. But then again, wasn't Sgt. Pepper, too, a conscious effort to get rid of identifiable tags and dissolve the band members' individual and collective personalities in something bigger than ourselves? The important thing is that Small Faces never sounds like a rip-off of somebody in particular — and, as a matter of fact, this is where the band most definite­ly parts ways with The Who: Small Faces has very little in common with The Who Sell Out.

Despite the American title of this album, there are, in fact, but two small faces. One is that of Steve Marriott, who has pretty much renounced his career as a Muddy Waters-adulating blues­man and is now concentrating on becoming the British equivalent of Otis Redding. The other is that of Ronnie Lane, who has developed a keen interest in those smelly old roots, and is busy incorporating folk, baroque, and music hall elements in the band's music. On the other hand, it might also be argued that the third face, the one gluing the other two together, is Ian McLagan, whose keyboards support both the soul-wailing of Marriott and the folk-burrowing of Lane. Only Kenney Jones, now that the band is no longer interested in cranking up the amps on metallized cover versions of Booker T. & The MG's, remains in the dangerous position of being left without a job, uh, I mean, a face of his own — but at least they left him one instrumental (ʽHappy Boys Happyʼ) where he can still kick some ass.

As tight, rowdy, bawdy R&B'ers, even if this style was already slightly antiquated for the boys, this is where they hit their peak, too: ʽ(Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Meʼ, with its alternation between a despairing Marriott, frantically trying to knock through his loved one's skull, and the hear-hearing  boys, unsuccessfully trying to cheer him up, is instantaneously memorable — and on the second side of the album, the song is echoed by the equally frantic ʽTalk To Youʼ, where each verse-chorus bundle is a tense, sweaty, veins-bulgin' drive to the explosive final statement: "all I want to do is talk to you!", Marriott blurts out before the front door of his girlfriend (who wisely keeps it shut because with a tone like that, you never really know if the loverboy does not clutch a shotgun behind his back). But every now and then, Steve is also capable of quieting down and musing in a more optimistic manner: ʽThings Are Going To Get Betterʼ works as a becalming, self-directed lullaby, gently adorned with McLagan's harpsichord — only towards the end does Steve wind himself up in a bit of a frenzy — and, for what it's worth, since the title begs for such a comparison, this is really a song about things getting better, unlike The Beatles' ʽGet­ting Betterʼ, which is completely in the domain of King Sarcasm in comparison. (I'm not saying that Small Faces have the better song — just a happier one).

But it is the emergence of Ronnie Lane as a competent, competitive, and maybe even visionary songwriter in his own right that really sets the album apart from everything previously done. In stark contrast with the burly Marriott, Ronnie is a sweet, vulnerable soul, and although, as a sin­ger, he is professionally miles below Steve, his voice has a homely-friendly attitude that will immediately appeal to all those introverted people who can be somewhat put off by Marriott's proto-arena-rock swagger (which he would later, predictably, invest into actual arena-rock during his days in Humble Pie).

Already on his first song here, ʽSomething I Want To Tell Youʼ, he presents a courtly alternative to Marriott's angry ranting — they both have trouble with girls, but Ronnie prefers to voice his in a much less egotistic manner. The song reveals a solid Dylan influ­ence — its rhythmics, lyrical moves, and Ian McLagan's «Al Kooper style» organ all bring back to mind the days of Highway 61 Revisited — but Dylan would never end one of his verses with something like "you forget what we've found together, you forget what we've found is love", and even if he did, he would certainly never give the impression of tears in his eyes by the way he'd be singing them. Curiously, that organ part of McLagan's, starting out solemnly and slowly, even­tually picks up steam, going from J. S. Bach mode to Franz Liszt mode, if a classical analogy may be pardoned; Ronnie, however, never lifts his voice into anything even remotely resembling a scream — partly because he is technically unable to, and partly because he'd probably like the music to speak for his feelings, rather than risk making a pompous ass of himself. Repeat with ʽAll Our Yesterdaysʼ, where Dylan is replaced with an old-fashioned vaudeville arrangement, but the vulnerability stays the same, while the sneering, bullying Marriott cannot resist making fun of poor Ronnie by starting the song off with an exaggerated Cockney announcement: "...the darling of Wapping Wharf launderette, Ronald Leafy-a Lane!"

I have not mentioned the word «psychedelic» yet, and for good reason, because Small Faces never got truly hooked on to the psychedelic craze (even less so than The Who, who did record several Pink Floyd-influenced tracks for The Who Sell Out). However, the album would still be nowhere near as impressive had the open-your-mind wave completely bypassed these guys; in actuality, they saddled it in their own impressive manner, somewhat close to The Kinks — by merging elements of «Britishness», particularly the retro ones, with the magic of studio techno­logy. That way, a song like ʽGreen Circlesʼ marries the folk narrative approach ("and with the rain a stranger came...") with psychedelic attitudes, reflected mainly in the complex vocal har­mony patterns, the stereo panning fun, and the mantra gimmick ("green circles, green circles, green circles!..." until said circles really do begin to appear before your eyes) — actually, Syd Barrett and friends did this too (ʽThe Gnomeʼ, etc.), but Small Faces never go properly whacko. ʽUp The Wooden Hills To Bedfordshireʼ, a song written and sung by McLagan, tells you to "leave your body behind you with a different feeling", but somehow Ian's idea of a transcendental, poetic dream is to be slipping away "up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire", an idiomatic British expression with which parents used to shoo their kids away to bed, and which had already been previously immortalized in a Vera Lynn song. So it's another song about Going To Sleep, but with a more pronounced local flavor than, say, ʽI'm Only Sleepingʼ or Bill Wyman's ʽIn Another Landʼ — and also reading more like a dark lullaby than an account of one's personal experience ("when you're slipping into sleep, there's a world you fill find...", with the song's steady beat and McLagan's unfurling organ magically pulling you along some yellow brick road or other). Funny bit of trivia: on the US edition, the ʽto Bedfordshireʼ part was omitted from the song title — possibly by accident, but more likely because the publishers did not want to confuse American audiences with lengthy English toponyms, even though it made the title meaningless.

The idea of sleeping and dreaming is, in general, quite popular with the boys on the album: even the final track, despite its rather lively, even Caribbean-flavored, arrangement is called ʽEddie's Dreamingʼ (who's Eddie?) — implying that (a) life is a carnival and (b) life is only a dream, so nothing makes more sense than combining both in one short package. (In a way, this is what the Stones also did with their ʽOn With The Showʼ conclusion to Satanic Majesties, even if that song did not expressly mention the idea of dreaming — it was more of a common theme that linked together all the songs on the album). Somehow I think that this twist may not have been all that much to Steve's liking; but, as I already said, on this particular occasion his songs seem to mesh fairly well with Ronnie's and Ian's.

The US version of the album, retitled There Are But Four Small Faces, predictably cut out several songs in favor of the band's contemporary singles — ʽItchycoo Parkʼ, ʽHere Come The Niceʼ, and ʽTin Soldierʼ — thus seriously skewing the balance in favor of Marriott and the R&B groove, which, it may have been felt, would be taken more benevolently by American listeners. These songs are all classics, for sure (and one of them even provided the name for one of Britain's earliest progressive rock acts), but all of them follow more or less the same principle — the hook is primarily determined by the loudness level: quiet «preparatory» verses followed by explosive choruses — and, in my opinion, they do not reflect the true progression of the band nearly as well as the song selection and sequencing on the original UK edition of the album. I mean, ʽTin Sol­dierʼ is a kick-ass anthemic song and all that, but its constituents are fairly well understandable; ʽGreen Circlesʼ remains far more strange for my comprehension. Regardless, it is all too natural that my thumbs up would go out to either the UK or the US version in any case: almost every­thing that Small Faces did during this peak year of theirs sounds just as powerful or just as magi­cal today as it did fifty years ago.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Bent Knee: Say So

BENT KNEE: SAY SO (2016)

1) Black Tar Water; 2) Leak Water; 3) Counselor; 4) EVE; 5) Interlude; 6) The Things You Love; 7) Nakami; 8) Commercial; 9) Hands Up; 10) Good Girl.

It is quite surprising to me that I do not love Bent Knee as much as all the aspects of their music are supposing I should. Goddangit, this is provocative, experimental stuff, with a huge diversity of approaches, not afraid of throwing in extra ferocity or a tad more vulnerability; great singer, challenging melodies that do not, however, make any serious transgressions against harmony, intelligent lyrics, no blatantly obvious nods to trendy fashions... but somehow, somewhere, some­thing about it all still isn't right.

For some reason, on their third album, Say So, Courtney Swain and her friends seem even more distant than they used to be. The music, if anything, gets even more complex and unpredictable: what can you say about a band that sounds like King Crimson on one track, sings in Japanese on the next one, and then goes into a Beyoncé-style R&B workout? And yet, behind all the ambition and the superficially unquestionable presence of soul, I sense surprisingly little real feeling — at the very least, I totally fail to connect with any of this stuff emotionally.

My personal hypothesis, which might, perhaps, seem surprising to other listeners, is that at this point, Swain's vocal artistry and the band's music not so much complement each other as clash with each other. The music here is, by and large, experimental: Bent Knee explore rare time signatures, non-standard instrumental combinations, and genre soups that could somehow synthe­size dark folk, ambient, math-rock, and vaudeville all in one. However, in this they do not reach the efficiency level of, say, somebody like the Mothers of Invention, because the music always has to remember that it serves as the backdrop to Swain's performance — there are very few pure instrumental passages here, and Swain has such a strong presence that whenever she sings, it is dang hard to concentrate on the music. And when the music is experimental, how can one «get it» without concentrating?

On the other hand, Swain all by herself is not quite capable of climbing the golden pedestal re­served for outstanding female performers. Why, I do not really understand: she has a great range, she's got some cool word combos at her disposal, and she has plenty of alluring theatrics in her approach. Yet as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder for her to stay put in the shoes of Mad Ophelia without revealing herself as a certified impostor. For me, the album pretty much crashed from the false start of ʽBlack Tar Waterʼ — like ʽWay Too Longʼ, it also opens the re­cord with ecological metaphors, but where ʽWay Too Longʼ worked as an angry rant, ʽBlack Tar Waterʼ gives us broken-hearted numbness as its chief emotion, and this is a much tougher emo­tion to tackle. Anger is something that we all have; true broken-hearted numbness is rare, and even simulating it convincingly is a task that Courtney Swain struggles with. "I made myself strong / By getting my skin numb" she sings... and I don't believe her. Likewise, "I try to speak but I only leak water" on the next track is sung with a certain enigmatic pretense, but the tonality of that statement seems so artificial that I am left utterly cold.

The cumulative result is that Say So is a very busy, fussy, pulsating album, filled to the brim with ideas; but as a challenging musical statement it falls flat, because there's way too much of the «primadonna factor» in it — and as a primadonna album, well, there's too much fuss and pulsa­tion in it. I share Swain's concerns: for the ecology, for the broken-hearted, for the commercia­lism and insanity of 21st century life (ʽCommercialʼ), I even appreciate the irony when the re­cord's most Beyoncé-like song (ʽHands Upʼ) turns out to be a lyrical condemnation of the cheap thrills of technological progress ("we'll be so progressive darling / solar cell on our roof", "texts loop like a mantra through me / buzzing blasts of dopamine"). But it is an intellectual conundrum, this record, not a feast for the senses, and this is not what counts as great music in my own text­book. I even have trouble talking about individual songs — because it is no fun to praise their deep conceptuality or complex structures or layered arrangements unless it all makes emotional sense, and almost none of it does.

But as an example, I will take the album's nine-minute centerpiece, ʽEVEʼ. It starts out on a cool note — fire alarm-like guitars and see-sawing violins — then, as the note quickly gets tedious, at 1:40 into the song the big drums and distorted guitars kick in, but the expected impression of destruction and chaos never materializes. Why? Because the guitars are not loud enough, dammit; because there is no feeling that the musicians are really into this, because these guys have neither the compositional genius of King Crimson nor the animal drive of, say, Nirvana. In addition, they do not like to operate in terms of individualistic guitar riffs, so there is no single «line» anywhere in sight that you could hang on to in order to weather the storm. Midway through, in one of those rare intervals where the primadonna clams up for some time, there is another chaotic section, with guitars and violins frantically accelerating and finally dissolving in a puddle of ambient noise from which the primadonna is reborn again — see, it might even sound intriguing on paper, but I'd rather go back to The Velvet Underground for my chaos...

I will not give the album a thumbs down: Bent Knee is one of the most daring and challenging American rock bands of our time, and Say So shows no signs of resting or slacking in those de­partments. But after the first two records where their ambitions were still kept in reasonable check, I feel like they may have overstepped their limits and boundaries — without adding any­thing fundamentally new to the table, they have become too entangled in their own cobwebs. But then again, maybe it's just me, and I never liked Tales From Topographic Oceans, either; so if you like yourself a good musical challenge, be my guest; just do not feel surprised when nobody ends up remembering a single thing about this record in five years' time.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Xoa

ANAÏS MITCHELL: XOA (2014)

1) Any Way The Wind Blows; 2) Out Of Pawn; 3) Your Fonder Heart; 4) Why We Build The Wall; 5) Now You Know; 6) If It's True; 7) Namesake; 8) Young Man In America; 9) Two Kids; 10) The Pursewarden Affair; 11) His Kiss, The Riot; 12) Come September; 13) You Are Forgiven; 14) Our Lady Of The Underground; 15) Cosmic American.

This is not much of an album, really: mostly re-recorded versions of songs from all across Mit­chell's back catalog, plus exactly three new tunes, none of them promising any new directions or revelations. Anaïs herself stated that this one was strictly for the fans, and this was confirmed by the limited status of the release — although these days such things get confusing, since in the digital / streaming age the line between «limited» and «full-scale» (or whatever) release is getting increasingly blurred. Good excuse for a husband-beater snapshot, though.

The new songs consist of good poetry and dull melodies: ʽThe Pursewarden Affairʼ must have been written specifically to get potential readers interested in the works of Laurence Durell, but even though I admit to having never read a single line from The Alexandria Quartet (I am not proud of this, but am not exactly losing sleep, either), this does not stop me from tipping my hat to lines like "Percy Pursewarden, open up your door / I haven't come to break your cadence or to mix your metaphor". And ʽAny Way The Wind Blowsʼ makes a nice addition to the list of songs by that name, from Zappa to J. J. Cale, being probably the first one to depict a chaotic-apocalyp­tic vision based on that idiom. However, neither of the two has the kind of impact that Mitchell's best musical stuff does, like ʽYoung Man In Americaʼ, which cuts deep and sharp even in this stripped-down variation.

And speaking of stripped down, I have no idea what exactly these new versions of ʽOut Of Pawnʼ or ʽNamesakeʼ bring to the table, but at least it makes sense that four of these re-recordings come from Hadestown, giving Anaïs a chance to present the songs according to her personal vision rather than in the context of a collectively engineered musical project. Personally, I'm all too happy to hear ʽIf It's Trueʼ without Justin Vernon, and I think that, although the rowdy ʽOur Lady Of The Undergroundʼ was done with more balls by Ani DiFranco (because, from a purely feminist standpoint, Ani DiFranco simply has more balls than Anaïs Mitchell, for better or for worse, you decide), anyway, I am partial to this subtler, more vulnerable version. On the other hand, ʽWhy We Build The Wallʼ, with Greg Brown's «earthwall» voice, certainly worked better on the original version — although I understand the desire to reiterate how much the message of the song actually means to the songwriter in person.

In terms of rarities, there's ʽCome Septemberʼ, a track originally released on the 2008 EP Country, a collaboration between Mitchell and fellow folk-writer Rachel Ries: pleasantly moody and melancholic as usual, but nothing to make me rush out and hunt for that lost EP. And in general, Xoa produces a strange impression: it has all the makings of an «unplugged» album — mostly just Anaïs and her acoustic guitar, playing fresh and depply personal variations — but considering that Anaïs Mitchell has almost always been an «unplugged» artist, it would make more sense if she played them all as polkas, or at least as Nickelback tributes or something. And she is not even all that old now, to get proper justification for looking back over her shoulder on the confessions of her youth and replaying them as per the wisdom accumulated in those grey hairs and facial wrinkles. In other words, you have to really be a fan to thank her for this, instead of harboring the nasty suspicion that, perhaps, she simply stumbled upon writer's block... which, by the way, seems to be ongoing at the time that I am writing this: 2016-2017 saw her get all too busy with the production of Hadestown as an off-Broadway musical, and altogether we have not heard a proper new Anaïs Mitchell album since Young Man In America. Then again, there's so many people in the world who do release new music even though they are suffering from even worse attacks of writer's block that the decision to release a bunch of re-recordings might count as a noble example of artistic honesty these days.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Chameleons: Strange Times

THE CHAMELEONS: STRANGE TIMES (1986)

1) Mad Jack; 2) Caution; 3) Tears; 4) Soul In Isolation; 5) Swamp Thing; 6) Time/The End Of Time; 7) Seriocity; 8) In Answer; 9) Childhood; 10) I'll Remember; 11*) Tears (full arrangement); 12*) Paradiso; 13*) Inside Out; 14*) Ever After; 15*) John, I'm Only Dancing; 16*) Tomorrow Never Knows.

The one and only album that The Chameleons released for Geffen Records would also be their last one for more than a decade: immediately after the death of their manager Tony Fletcher, they disbanded, although I suppose that there must have been something more to that — lack of com­mercial success, for instance, or personal friction between the band members. Could hardly have been personal dissatisfaction with the record, considering that Mark Burgess still regards Strange Times as the group's best album — an opinion with which, unfortunately, I cannot agree.

The record is indeed a fan favorite, but the only thing that I could «objectively» agree upon with the admirers is that this is a stab at Creative Maturity, and if you think that the very act of thrus­ting your lance against the dragon of Creative Maturity automatically calls for a Medal of Art Rock Valor, feel free to call Strange Times a masterpiece — even if, as far as I can see, the brave knights were charred to a crisp by the dragon's mature fire breath. What this means, basi­cally (no pun intended), is that some of the songs are longer; some of the songs are slower; some of the songs are more soulful; and some of the lyrics are more introverted.

But if your long, slow, soulful, introverted songs share all the problems that used to pester the band's short, fast, playful, extraverted songs, is this really a meaningful achievement? Namely, the production values remain absolutely the same — despite, or, more likely, because of the band now working with The Cure's own production David M. Allen: big drums, cavernous guitars, and typically Eighties synthesizers converge on almost every track. The melodic underbelly of each song follows the same principle — complete monotony from start to end, and, unlike The Cure, The Chameleons know very little about creative overdubbing, so there is none of the intricate and intriguing sonic layering which Robert Smith bakes in his cakes and which can often make even the most melodically simple and straightforward Cure song into a sonic masterpiece. And, as before, Mark Burgess only plays one role: an earthier, more realistic, but less emotionally rousing spiritual relative of said Robert Smith.

I will admit that the opening song, ʽMad Jackʼ, is an energetic pop rocker in the best traditions of Script Of The Bridge and remains as the high point of both this album and The Chameleons' original career in general. Except for the awful production (really, this is one song that deserved a proper in-yer-face sound, rather than the usual lost-in-the-forest atmosphere), it's got all the decent ingredients: a rousing and catchy opening riff, interesting lyrics that are open to all sorts of inter­pretations (you could just as easily associate ʽMad Jackʼ with Ronald Reagan as you could with Timothy Leary), a rowdy barroom chorus, and a steady, fast beat to keep it all together. Too bad there is not another song like that on the entire record.

Because once it is over, your hopes come crashing down with ʽCautionʼ, an insufferable, eight-minute-long quasi-Goth monster that thinks it can boil up and keep hot an air of apocalyptic depression just by repeating the same predictable minor key jangle over and over and over. Any musical development in the song? Sure. Midway through, it gradually fades out, and then begins to fade in again, and then there's, like, a crescendo, with, like, John Lever putting in more fills and Burgess actually rising to a whiny scream, and the guitars playing at louder volume, but without ever changing their initial jangly pattern. Unless one is immediately struck by lines like "One by one by one / We disappear / Day after day / Year after year... We have no future / And we have no past / We're just drifting / Ghosts of glass", I cannot see how one could regard this song as anything but a gigantic — or maybe not even so gigantic — failure to get oneself elected into the Mope'n'Roll Hall Of Fame, next to The Doors, Pink Floyd, and The Cure.

Alas, the album never truly recovers from that crash. Subsequent tunes may be shorter (although at least ʽSoul In Isolationʼ still tries to repeat the same feat, with a slightly faster tempo, but equally monotonous results), may be speedier, may suddenly switch from electric post-punk to acoustic post-folk (ʽTearsʼ) — nothing helps. Departure from the simpler, but shapelier pop format of Script has simply not been compensated by any positive factors: now the songs are almost completely hookless, but the arrangements and production values stay at the same old, boring level. With a little effort, I can single out ʽSwamp Thingʼ, which does sound a bit like its title — with a bunch of «twangy», delay-driven chords and ghostly echoes creating a nervous, suspenseful atmosphere for the first couple of minutes, although eventually it still mutates into the same old jingle-jangle. "Now the storm has come / Or is it just another shower?", asks Bur­gess in the chorus; well, as far as my opinion is concerned, the whole record is an unending series of drizzling showers that never gather enough force to convert into a proper storm.

My only guess is that the lyrics, and the utter conviction with which Mark delivers them — the good old Joe Strummer bark when necessary, the Robert Smith wail when not — are that single factor which tips the scales in favor of the record for its fans. When I look at the words for ʽChild­hoodʼ, for instance, they are really good: it is not easy to write a song about preserving the innocence of the child state and not make it sound like a bunch of high school clichés, but "I saw innocent kids turn cruel / In the playground at school" is a good start. If only the «climactic» invocation "just a little more heart now!" could match it sonically, but it just gets lost in the air, like everything else here.

I give the record a thumbs down. I imagine that with better musicians, more creative producers, and, most importantly, at some other time better than 1986, Strange Times might have ended up a moody atmospheric masterpiece, maybe not on the level of, say, Talk Talk, but, heck, who knows, at least on the level of U2. As it is, I can only see it as a disappointing end for the first stage of an initially promising career. Nor does the expanded CD edition make things any better, with its bunch of bonus tracks that culminate in Strange Time-ified covers of Bowie's ʽJohn I'm Only Dancingʼ and the Beatles' ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ (the latter also including a snippet of ʽEverybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkeyʼ, a cool idea in theory but not at all working in practice). Altogether, this makes for about sixty minutes' worth of Dullsville '86, and I'd honestly even take Phil Collins over this.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Carpenters: Lovelines

CARPENTERS: LOVELINES (1989)

1) Lovelines; 2) Where Do I Go From Here; 3) The Uninvited Guest; 4) If We Try; 5) When I Fall In Love; 6) Kiss Me The Way You Did Last Night; 7) Remember When Loving Took All Night; 8) You're The One; 9) Honolulu City Lights; 10) Slow Dance; 11) If I Had You; 12) Little Girl Blue.

Apparently, one still largely untapped source for extra Carpenters material was their TV specials, for which they'd recorded some exclusive tracks in the late Seventies — few of them deemed worthy of inclusion onto any of the regular studio LPs; but since, as of the late Eighties, there seemed to still be some nostalgic demand for more Carpenters, Richard went ahead and released this collection of tunes that he probably knew very well was subpar, but completism probably got the better of him (and this time, it is useless to even begin to accuse him of money-grabbing: the album did not chart at all, and only a complete idiot might have hoped it would). Another source were tracks from a planned, but shelved solo album from Karen, recorded in 1979 but not re­leased in its entirety until 1996; for certain reasons, in 1989 Richard only went as far as to take a few favorite selections.

For the most part, this is all just tepid, utterly generic adult contemporary pap: I am not saying that sentimental balladry from the disco era is worthless by definition, but unless it is on a Bee Gees level, with unbeatable hooks that transcend formulaic limitations, it is worthless, and the professional songwriters employed here seemingly did not have that purpose. Rod Templeton's ʽLovelinesʼ, chosen as the title track, is romantic disco on such a soft level that even Olivia Newton-John can sound like AC/DC in comparison — because this material, in order to trans­cend anything, needs at least a powerhouse vocalist with plenty of visible fire; Karen, with all her fires always burning on a purely internal level, hardly qualifies. Unfortunately, things hardly get any better on the slow ballads (there's even a Barry Manilow hit on here), or on oldies like ʽWhen I Fall In Loveʼ: too much sugar and happiness, too few hooks.

Surprisingly, the last three songs offer a tiny bump up in quality. ʽSlow Danceʼ, written by Philip and Mitchell Margo, is the usual pablum, but at least graced with a single attractive touch — there is something quite distinct about Karen's phrasing on the "it's a slow dance..." introduction to each verse, a strange, barely noticeable, possibly unintentional whiff of what could be either reproach or ecstasy, something that promises an intrigue which, unfortunately, never comes to pass, but at least having this unfulfilled promise is better than having nothing at all. ʽIf I Had Youʼ gives a tiny, tiny bit of that old melancholic spirit — there's an aching swell in the middle of the verse that is probably the only trace of Karen's greatness on the entire album. (The song also has a strange, almost ghostly coda for a slow dance number, with miriads of tiny cloned Karens overdubbed in a hypnotic-hallucinating style). Finally, it was a good idea to end the record with ʽLittle Girl Blueʼ — naturally, Karen is no Nina Simone, but she gets the spirit of the song, and it feels far more alive than everything else on Lovelines put together.

All of this comes too late and is far too insufficient to redeem the record as a whole; once again, it is recommendable only for huge fans of Karen who also have a high tolerance level for glitzy late Seventies pop. For everybody else, this will be a thumbs down, but, given the nature of the album, not a vicious one — had Karen lived, chances are that most of the songs here would never be released in the first place.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Chambers Brothers: People Get Ready

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: PEOPLE GET READY (1965)

1) Yes, Yes, Yes; 2) Tore Up; 3) Reconsider Baby; 4) You've Got Me Running; 5) The Family Story; 6) People Get Ready; 7) Money (That's What I Want); 8) You Can Run (But You Can't Hide); 9) Hooka Tooka; 10) Call Me; 11) Summertime; 12) Your Old Lady; 13) It's All Over Now.

The Chambers Brothers were probably more interesting as a cultural phenomenon than a creative musical outfit: a bunch of hard-working folks from Mississippi that, instead of choosing a predic­table career as a vocal band, specializing in gospel and spirituals, decided to become... well, not exactly a «rock'n'roll band» as such, but a fairly eclectic ensemble, choosing their own material, playing their own instruments, and breaking as many stereotypes of «Southern African-American boys» as could be found to break.

Even this debut album of theirs, though hardly spectacular on its own, is an unusual artefact. Having relocated from Mississippi to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, the four Chambers brothers did not actively seek to record as long as they were still performing acoustic versions of tradi­tional folk and gospel tunes — but everything changed once they witnessed Bob Dylan going electric. That same year, they signed up with the small surf-rock (!) label Vault, and put out an LP of recordings culled from two live shows — one in their now-native L.A., and one in Boston, as they now actively sought to expand their presence to the East Coast as well. Thus, People Get Ready is a fully live, electric, eclectic album of cover tunes by four African-American guys from Carthage, Mississippi, who had only recently exchanged their washtubs for Danelectros, and were also supplemented by white guy Brian Keenan on drums. Interesting, right?

The eclecticism does not run too deep, actually: most of the numbers represent various forms of R&B, from the minimalist blues-rock of Jimmy Reed to the soulful rave-ups of the Isley Brothers and the gospel-influenced compositions of Curtis Mayfield. But with Motown (ʽMoneyʼ), pure blues (ʽReconsider Babyʼ), hully gully (ʽHooka Tookaʼ), and the inescapable omnipresent ʽSum­mertimeʼ, it is quite clear that these guys are not going to box themselves into any one single corner; nor do they shun provocatively jarring moments of unpredictability — for instance, I would say that it actually takes guts to launch from ʽPeople Get Readyʼ straight into ʽMoney (That's What I Want)ʼ: not that ʽMoneyʼ was ever a non-ironic song, of course, but still there is something potentially unsettling about singing "don't need no baggage, all you need is faith" one moment and then "just give me money, that's all I want!" the very next one.

As for the actual musical merits, well, these are all competent, but unexceptional renditions. As instrumentalists, the brothers show no special gifts and only very basic training — the only musi­cian worth paying attention to is brother Lester on harmonica, which probably makes sense, since this is the only instrument here that one of the brothers had played for more than a decade prior to these concerts; however, he does not get the spotlight to himself very often (the slow blues ʽRe­consider Babyʼ being the only exception). As vocalists, they have a rough, gutsy collective sound going on, with none of the suaveness typically associated with doo-wop or Motown acts, but they never really work themselves up to an ecstatic state; individually, they can trade baritone and tenor passages effectively (ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ), but not awesomely. Yet somehow, through their clever alternating of different sub-genres, an overall above-average level of energy, and a certain «protest charm» stemming from the very ruggedness of the performances, they may be able to keep your attention up throughout the whole show.

Midway through, in order to endear themselves to you even more, they give a brief rundown of their life story ("people sometimes ask if we're really brothers...") which, although I usually do not approve of extended banter passages on live albums, totally belongs here: the whole idea of The Chambers Brothers is to show how a deep country family, without losing its roots, can adapt to living and creating in the big city, adapting to modern times, and their brief summary of what it used to be back then and what it is now is perfectly suitable as an extended intro to the odd pairing of ʽPeople Get Readyʼ with ʽMoney (That's What I Want)ʼ. Perhaps it is still not enough to earn the album a thumbs up rating, but, after all, this was only a rough beginning for the boys, and the truly important thing here is that there is sufficient intrigue concealed in this LP in order to warrant further exploration of their discography.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Allen Toussaint: The Wild Sound Of New Orleans

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: THE WILD SOUND OF NEW ORLEANS (1958)

1) Whirlaway; 2) Up The Creek; 3) Tim Tam; 4) Me And You; 5) Bono; 6) Java; 7) Happy Times; 8) Wham Tousan; 9) Nowhere To Go; 10) Nashua; 11) Po Boy Walk; 12) Pelican Parade; 13*) Chico; 14*) Sweetie Pie (Twenty Years Later); 15*) Back Home Again In Indiana; 16*) Naomi.

Most people only come across the name «Allen Toussaint» in parentheses — credited for such well-known hits as ʽFortune Tellerʼ and ʽI Like It Like Thatʼ (and even then, it is not always obvious, since some of them were officially credited to «Naomi Neville», so that the royalties could generously go to the man's parents). Those who are somewhat more interested in the cultu­ral life of New Orleans after the rock revolution know his solo LPs, a small, but steady stream of which only began to emerge in the early 1970s. But I'm pretty sure that very few have ever heard the one and only solo record that he cut in 1958 — young, beardless, suit-and-tied, and still going by the moniker of «Al Tousan».

Which is, frankly, a shame, because believe you me, this is one of those cases where the lauda­tory title does not lie — The Wild Sound Of New Orleans, in this instance, does indeed trans­late to «that particular type of sound from New Orleans that can be really wild», rather than «this is the way they all sound in New Orleans, and we're calling it ʽwildʼ because it's, like, wild, man! Wild — good word, that! Could be ʽgroovyʼ, but we didn't have space for two more letters on that sleeve». Although the entire album consists of nothing but instrumentals, and even though most of those instrumentals begin to sound pretty samey after a while, this is far closer in spirit to truly rebellious rock'n'roll than any of its spiritual predecessors, from Amos Milburn all the way up to even Fats Domino.

Some part of it belongs to Toussaint's backing band, including Domino's baritone sax player Alvin "Red" Tyler, and bombastic drummer Charles "Hungry" Williams, both of whom raise so much hell on the faster numbers here that it is a wonder how the flimsy walls of New Orleanian studios never fell apart during any of them. It almost feels as if they were so completely happy to get this chance to emerge from the shadow of Fats Domino as a frontman and develop their own grooves instead of having to humbly support the pop melodies of Domino / Bartholomew, that they really went wild all the way: just throw on the opening ʽWhirlawayʼ and be ready to ack­nowledge that few compositions from the early rock era can match this in energy, tightness, and pure, dizzy, giddy fun.

The main culprit, however, is Toussaint himself, who, at 20 years old, was already a fine rival to Fats — actually, his chief inspiration was not so much the straightforwardly boogie-oriented Domino as the somewhat more sophisticated Professor Longhair, from whom he'd learnt some of the quirky New Orleanian flourishes; but Professor Longhair, as befits a Professor, was far more restrained and never let his hair down as much as Toussaint lets down his (figuratively speaking, that is: they didn't call him Longhair for nothing, while Toussaint's growth never went beyond the usual curly style). Anyway, Toussaint is unquestionably the primary hero of ʽWhirlawayʼ — he knows that the perfect way to handle a boogie is not to let the listener hang loose for even one second, and he has a speedy, breathless way of keeping it up that probably does not resonate with the punkish fever of a Jerry Lee Lewis, but he also spends far less time banging his thumbs against the same two keys than Jerry does — a trick that might quickly get irritating if you did this twelve times in a row on an instrumental album. He does have his trademark tricks that crop up repeatedly, but that is more so that you recognize the sound than because he is running out of ideas. And when he does begin to run out of ideas, he knows exactly where to cede the spotlight to the sax player for a few bars.

Not all of the album consists of fast boogie numbers: some are relaxedly mid-tempo, including what is arguably the best-known composition here — ʽJavaʼ (the spirit of which would later be brilliantly conveyed by the Muppet Show sketch); others can even be slow, like the blues shuffle ʽPo' Boy Walkʼ, with an odd «buzzing» electric guitar lead part for a change, or the country waltz ʽUp The Creekʼ. In fact, despite the similarity of arrangements creating the illusion of mono­tonousness, Toussaint runs through a pretty impressive set of styles: rock'n'roll, blues, country, gospel-soul (ʽHappy Timesʼ), top-hat vaudeville (ʽMe And Youʼ), and flat-out Mardi Gras an­thems (ʽBonoʼ; ʽNashuaʼ, semi-quoting ʽWhen The Saints Go Marching Inʼ). And my personal favorite was not even on the original album in the first place: the bonus track ʽChicoʼ, although it spends much of its time on mariachi sax solos, has an awesome piano lick («ringing doorbell») that I do not think I have even heard before on any other song.

Bottomline is: The Wild Sound Of New Orleans is a wonderful record that, sadly, could pro­bably not avoid falling through the cracks — as a «pop» album, it could never be popular due to the lack of vocals, and as a «serious» album, it was way too much oriented at the pure entertain­ment sector. But surely this type of music has to have its own niche, too, so let this thumbs up rating be a small contribution to the Allen Toussaint Preservation Society.