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Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers

THE ROLLING STONES: STICKY FINGERS (1971)

1) Brown Sugar; 2) Sway; 3) Wild Horses; 4) Can't You Hear Me Knocking; 5) You Gotta Move; 6) Bitch; 7) I Got The Blues; 8) Sister Morphine; 9) Dead Flowers; 10) Moonlight Mile.

Unlike Exile On Main St., Sticky Fingers does not reflect any particularly cohesive, specially-flavored single moment in Stones history. A large part of the record was written and even recor­ded before Altamont, and an even larger chunk already after the band had survived Altamont and emerged as the most notorious and still-overpowered survivor from the Sixties, with The Who still on their tail as a close second. Sometime around 1970-71 The Rolling Stones unofficially became rock music's Royalty Incarnate, a band that, from now on, would be granted complete pardon from any artistic sins — I mean, all their albums from 1971 to 1981, no matter how good or bad they were, went straight to No. 1 on the US charts (UK audiences were a bit more discer­ning, but not by much), yes, even Emotional Rescue. Essentially, of course, it was the 1965-69 legacy that provided them with a decade of full credit (and then three more decades of partial credit); still, for a while, even with the heavy weight of those crowns on their heads, they did continue to work towards paying off that credit rather than sinking in debt.

By 1971, things had changed in many, many different ways. The Rolling Stones had their own label now, their own tongue logo, their complete freedom to do whatever and whichever way they wanted to. They were beginning to see far more money than usual — and more money also meant more drugs for Keith and whoever wanted to follow in his footsteps. And they were also part of that whole new world that saw glam, shock, decadence, and hedonism as the legitimate inheritors of the hippie worldview — heck, if the idea of loving your neighbor turned out so hard to imple­ment, then what about the idea of loving yourself? An idea that, for the Stones, was even easier to implement than for the others, since there was very little about loving your neighbor in their music anyway — unless it's a "brown sugar, how come you taste so good?" way of loving your neighbor, that is.

This is the big reason why I have always felt a little... reserved about Sticky Fingers, regardless of the sheer number of magnificent tunes on that record. Many people might not even sense the thin, but solid line that separates Sticky Fingers from Let It Bleed, but I am fairly sure it is there, in all those little things. The zipper cover. The occasional crude line like "sometimes I'm sexy, move like a stud, kicking the stall all night". The small touches of hedonism and pretentiousness, and the relative lack of subtlety of approach. It has its advantages, too — the sheer sonic depth of the music at its best overrides even the most complex dynamics of Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed — but it is a record which is generally easier for me to admire than to make friends with, or to deposit its echoes deep in my bone marrow, as was done with Let It Bleed. In a way, this is the beginning of the end for the Stones, although, in another way, few things can be more fascina­ting or intriguing than «the beginning of the end» for the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world.

A bit of clarification is in order. As the leading creative forces in the band, Mick and Keith had both reached full artistic maturity around 1966-67, and were at the height of their imaginative powers for the rest of the decade. But as things became easier around them, and less and less was left to be proven with the passing of time, their personal demons began the gradual task of over­riding them. For Mick, demon #1 was theatrical narcissism — an unbeatable drive to place him­self, or, rather, his stage personality at the center of things, where it could easily end up sounding self-parodic rather than self-ironic. For Keith, demon #1 was simply letting himself go, without tempering his desire to play balls-out rock'n'roll with musical inventiveness and intelligence — and that demon, too, was perhaps stimulated by the arrival of Mick Taylor, whereupon Keith could relax from the challenge of Let It Bleed and think of himself largely as The Riffmeister, whose main duty would be to supply The Crunch and then watch his young disciple throw in additional ingredients. Quite tempting, especially in the light of how much free time such an approach could provide for scoring another shot.

Both of these demons are already quite evident on Sticky Fingers, but here they are still made to behave, if only because Mick's narcissistic tendencies largely work in his favor on songs like ʽSwayʼ and ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, and because Keith's grade-A riffage, combined with Taylor's grade-A blues soloing, cannot be blamed. Like, technically, there might not be a lot going on in a song like ʽBitchʼ — the stereotypical Stones riff-rocker, the kind of song to be praised by the traditional critics and loathed by the "it's only rock'n'roll, so I hate it" type of fans — but the sheer nastiness of that riff, its «we-mean-business, get-out-of-our-way» attitude knows no rivals, and to this must be added the power of the horn section that somehow found itself totally attuned to Keith's message. The climactic moment is the instrumental break, where Keith remembers and reconfigures every Chuck Berry lick, but sets them in the service of the slash-and-bust-and-burn party rather than the high school hop circle — once the man soaks himself in kerosene and lights that match, you just totally forget that this is a song about sex drive, because if it still were, the poor lady would have to be scraped from the ceiling in bits and pieces. (For that matter, while far from all live versions of the song live up to the studio recording, a few actually manage to exceed it in terms of raw viciousness — everybody should check out at least this performance from Feb. 26, 1973 in Sydney: Keith must have been doing cold turkey or something, because he sounded like a total maniac, and the rest of the band got totally caught up in the proceedings).

It would not take long for the exact same approach to acquire a sillier, more harmless entertain­ment-oriented sheen (think ʽStar Starʼ or ʽDance Little Sisterʼ), but on Sticky Fingers everybody could still get in focus and conjure up some real inflammatory anger — although, come to think of it, it is rather startling that the whole album only has something like two straightahead rockers: ʽBitchʼ is one, ʽBrown Sugarʼ is another, and, for that matter, the original version of ʽBrown Sugarʼ still sounds rather soft and tame compared to what the song would soon become in live performance. (The expanded edition of the album adds a different version, recorded in 1970 rather than 1969, with Eric Clapton sitting in on slide guitar — that one is actually faster and crunchier, beginning with the three-chord rather than two-chord intro, more familiar to Stones show goers, but one reason why they might have wanted to go with the earlier one is to preserve the «studio / live» difference that was always so characteristic of their hits).

Speaking of ʽBrown Sugarʼ, this song, more than anything, symbolizes why this is the end of one phase for the band and the beginning of a new one. The big rock'n'roll hits of 1968-69, starting with the traumatic message of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ and ending with the barroom glee of ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ, were not «just» nasty riff-rockers — there was always a story, a vibe, a positive or a thoughtful feeling behind each of them. The vibe of ʽBrown Sugarʼ, however, is nastiness and nastiness alone: it is a 100% cock-rocker with lyrics that were deeply provocative even for the politically incorrect standards of 1971 (and it is a huge testament to the override-all power of the Rolling Stones that they have performed them unchanged for 45 years, with the exception of exactly one line — "you should have heard him just around midnight" instead of "hear him whip the women just around midnight", although, to be fair, Mick already sang it with the amended lyrics as early as 1971). It is perversely delicious, unbeatable, unforgettable, insulting, and per­haps super-indicative of the arrival of a whole new era, but there is also a certain aura of point­lessness around this song that I could never shake off. Although, considering how "brown sugar" is also a street term for heroin, it is hilarious to hear stadiums choked to the brim with hundreds of thousands of people joining in the "brown sugar, how come you taste so good?" refrain — no­body except Sir Mick Jagger could get away with something like that.

If there is one single overriding topic to the album, it is decay and decadence: about half of the songs are about decaying and falling apart, and the other half is about trying to put the pieces back together and starting anew. This is not how it used to be — even on Let It Bleed, their darkest album to that point, the dangers seemed to come from the outside, and the protagonist seemed strong and healthy enough to fend them off (it is not he who is bleeding, but others who can do it on him). But in 1971, this demon life has finally got the lyrical hero of the Stones in its sway, he got the blues, he watched his loved one suffer a dull aching pain, he's been begging on his knees, he's stuck in his basement room with a needle and a spoon and a head full of snow... in short, life's not too good, and it isn't just a matter of Altamont — it's a matter of rock stardom, whose harsh price had already been paid in full by the first members of Club 27 and was already being paid on a yearly installation plan by Mick and (especially) Keith.

The saving grace of Sticky Fingers is how real all that trouble is made to seem. It is very easy to blame all the Stones' problems on the Stones themselves if you want to play it rough, and it is just as easy to absorb them from all responsibility if you want to play it merciful — but what matters is not the objective truth, but rather how convincingly Mick and Keith are able to plead their cases. The best songs on the album are infused with a dark, perceptive psychologism, and if you concentrate on it long and hard enough, you may, indeed, fall in love with Sticky Fingers for the right rather than the wrong reason — like, for instance, the reason that no previous Stones album ever had a song like ʽSwayʼ on it before. A slow, lazy-moving, introspective self-analysis of a self-destructive rock'n'roll hero? They were too young for that before, but now the time is right to subject themselves to a bit of homebrewn psychoanalysis. Narcissistic, but not unreasonable.

And for all the creepiness of dark horror fantasies like ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ and the overwhelming awe of apocalyptic visions like ʽGimme Shelterʼ, nothing beats ʽSister Morphineʼ as arguably the scariest song in the Stones' entire catalog. Of course, the song was written much earlier, at the end of 1968, and originally given to Marianne Faithfull (more accurately, said to be co-written with Marianne, who is probably responsible for at least some of the lyrics; the most eerie thing about the song is that her single was released in February '69, approximately half a year before she overdosed on barbiturates and narrowly escaped with her life while staying in Australia with Mick). But where Marianne's version concentrated on the pain aspect of the experience — phy­sical and emotional — Mick, ever the playful pawn of Satan, focuses on the demonic aspect of it, and all the carefully orchestrated build-up of the song illustrates the hero's gradual descent into Hell, even if we have little idea of which particular circle would drug addicts be assigned to. Al­though the recording features one of Mick's finest vocal performances (he gets in character so vividly that the experience far transcends the boundaries of rock theater), and although Ry Coo­der turns in an equally disturbing performance on slide guitar, top prize goes to Jack Nitzsche, who plays his specially treated piano as if it were the doorbell on Hell's own gates. In the process, ʽSister Morphineʼ becomes a song about retribution — a Shakespearian soliloquy from the tragic hero's dying bed — and God only knows what was going through the heads of our heroes while they were recording this. I'd be mighty surprised — and disappointed — to learn that no trepida­tion whatsoever was felt in the studio.

As a sidenote, it would be unjust not to mention Mick Taylor and the difference that his full status made on Sticky Fingers. Taylor, it must be said, was always an outsider to Stones-ism, and this was not only reflected in his image (on the stage, he preferred to side with Bill Wyman as the quietly-standing Stone) but also in his sound — unlike Keith Richards, the highway rogue of rock'n'roll, Mick was a near-academically trained bluesman, more interested in developing the lyrical potential of the blues-rock solo than in creating an aura of roughness, nastiness, and de­bauchery. The good news is that one did not necessarily contradict the other, as we'd already witnessed on the live performances on Ya-Ya's, and here it is further confirmed in the lengthy instrumental passages on ʽSwayʼ and, most notably, on the record's grandest number, ʽCan't You Hear Me Knockingʼ.

The latter is a particularly fine example of everything that was best in both Keith Richards and Mick Taylor in their prime. The opening of ʽCan't You Hear Me Knockingʼ is what I never get tired of calling «rock'n'roll incarnate» — the twenty seconds of raw, dry, powerful riffage before Mick steps in with the vocals is something that might seem quite simple and generic, yet never in my whole life have I heard a piece of rock'n'roll riffage that would better qualify as a piece of timeless art. Note how, over these few bars, Keith never repeats the same phrase twice — he starts out and ends at about the same chords, but every individual phrase is different, making the passage sound like an improvised, discontented, grizzled, grumbly guitar monolog. It might be a drunken stroll along the alleyway, or an intentionally confusing show-off from a martial arts student, or whatever you'd like it to be, but mostly, it is just an arrogant one-man show of how we set them rules up and then we break them — compare this to, say, a tightly disciplined riff-rocker from AC/DC or Judas Priest, executed with the precision of a well-trained Wehrmacht officer, and that's Keith Richards for you.

The song itself, once the vocals come in, is a classic tale of cocaine-eyes decadence, but its lyrics do not matter so much in the overall context: the band did not initially intend to transform it into an instrumental jam (there's an alternate short version in the deluxe edition), but once this actually happened, almost by accident, the tune became much more than just a blues-rocker about drugs and decay. The groove sustained by the rhythm section is Latin in texture, but Stones-like in spirit, and gives Taylor ample space to shine with a guitar solo that is positively minimalistic for him, favoring tone over complexity. With the first lick coming in around 4:57, even if you were sort of drifting during the brass section interlude, it is all but impossible not to be drawn to the speakers: if anything, it is Taylor's first and last attempt to conjure the Devil on a Stones record, and even though his Devil is far more polished and clean-cut than Keith's, it can sound no less dangerous. The result is one of the most mysterious tracks in the band's catalog — it would be easy to say that they were just trying to produce something long-winded and sophisticated in the era of jam bands and prog rockers, but they really had their own agenda in this, and there's a feeling of sus­pense, inherent danger, confusion, menace, attack, and terrified flight in this jam that is the logical successor of ʽGimme Shelterʼ and ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ. Imagine yourself knockin' all around your town, late at night, when, all of a sudden, the Mick Taylor Solo Demon swoops upon you right out of the blue. Hey, it can actually get scary.

I have never been much of a fan of the band's interpretation of Fred McDowell's ʽYou Gotta Moveʼ (straightahead blues covers were way past the Stones' primary zone of interest at the time), yet the song's judgement-day sentiment fits right in with the album's message — older bluesmen may have been singing the line "you may be rich, child, you may be poor" with emphasis on "poor", and the Stones may have been singing it with emphasis on "rich", but, you know, when the Lord gets ready, you gotta move. On the other hand, after all these years I am still not attuned to the alleged magic of ʽI Got The Bluesʼ, which seems to me a melodic and spiritual misstep compared to the far more convincing ragged gospel of Exile On Main St. The best thing about the song is probably Billy Preston's inspired organ break, but compositionally, it is way too deri­vative of ʽI've Been Loving You Too Longʼ (which they'd already covered anyway), and most importantly, Mick's vocal delivery is modeled way too much on formulaic soul singing: he seems too tied up by convention here to come up with a truly moving performance.

Where he is not tied up by convention is on the album's most beautiful song — and no, that is not the overplayed (if still beautiful) ʽWild Horsesʼ, but the closing ballad ʽMoonlight Mileʼ. If there is really at least one fantastic progressive achievement on Sticky Fingers, it is that, for once, the Stones found just the proper grand epic note to bring things down to a close, even if it took them hiring Elton John's string arranger (Paul Buckmaster) to provide it.

What makes these early Seventies' Stones albums so outstanding is how Mick Jagger, despite already being a super-rich, spoiled rock star with (allegedly) not a care in the world, was still capable of convincing you how, behind all these riches, he could be miserable and suffering, and how, beyond that misery and suffering, he could discern salvation — and how he could so effort­lessly transfer these feelings to the listener. ʽMoonlight Mileʼ was the first of several great, great Stones songs that could act like soothing balm on one's aching soul, and a large part of that was owed to Mick Jagger, the singer. Here, he is not aping Otis Redding or Solomon Burke — in fact, terrible as it may seem to even suggest this, I would still suggest that here he is being Mick Jagger, honestly complaining about "the sound of strangers sending nothing to my mind", yearning for peace and relief. The song reaches its climax around 4:00, after a series of orchest­ral «thrusts» that suggest an attempt to throw one's burden down... but it is never really made clear if the final resolution represents true salvation or if it's merely a matter of optimistic vision.

In any case, it is ʽMoonlight Mileʼ that ties together all the loose ends and takes on the function of ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ for this record — something grand, something that transcends the relatively mundane concerns of the rest of the songs, something that offers redemption from the sins of ʽBrown Sugarʼ and ʽBitchʼ. When Mick, having started out with a soft, languid, relatively calm intonation, finally winds himself up to the last ecstatic "just about a moonlight mile... on down the road, down the road, down the road!", it's like the perfect moment we've all been waiting for: the coming out moment, when the mask is removed and the grinning sinner flings himself to the ground in tears, relieving himself of all the built-up pressure. Which also makes ʽMoonlight Mileʼ the perfect song for everybody who'd like to empathize to some soul-blues classic but does not feel guilty enough to put oneself on the same level with afflicted blues dudes — ʽMoonlight Mileʼ is about making you feel good after making you feel bad even if you're a million-dollar-per-day spender. You may be rich, child, you may be poor, it don't matter, Mr. Jagger has just invented his personal confessional genre and opened it up for everybody. Does any of that make sense? Maybe it doesn't, but I've just listened to the song one more time, and one more time, I had tears swelling in my eyes at the conclusion, so at least that much is an objective fact.

Without ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, Sticky Fingers would be a great album and a small step down from Let It Bleed. With ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, Sticky Fingers is still a small step down from Let It Bleed on the whole, but a step up in some particulars — namely, it adds personal psychologism to the table, on the same level as John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band or Joni Mitchell's Blue or any of those other renowned singer-songwriter albums from the early 1970s, psychologism of the same quality, if certainly not in the same quantity. And it is made all the more fascinating if you simply consider the emotional / atmospheric distance from ʽBrown Sugarʼ (the epitome of snarling, grinning nastiness) to ʽMoonlight Mileʼ — no other artist in musical history could muster the same antipodes of ugliness and beauty of such high quality on the same album. (Those American apostles of the Stones, Aerosmith, certainly used the contrast as a blueprint for their own records, but much as I love Rocks, I wouldn't even begin to dare bring the contrast between ʽBack In The Saddleʼ and ʽHome Tonightʼ into comparison: perhaps ʽBack In The Saddleʼ could compete with the cockiness of ʽBrown Sugarʼ, but ʽHome Tonightʼ could never stand up to ʽMoonlight Mileʼ).

Anyway, it is really pointless to ask yourself whether Let It Bleed is better than Sticky Fingers or vice versa, because, as I said, they represent two different stages of the band. Let It Bleed was a record by a band that was not yet 100% sure whether they made it to the top of the world or not. Sticky Fingers is a record by a band that knows for a fact that it is sitting on top of the world, and wants you to know that (a) it quite enjoys sitting on top of the world, thank you very much, and (b) you know, actually, sitting on top of the world can be quite a drag sometime, but (c) it's not really that much different from sitting anywhere else, because all the problems essentially remain the same. Agree with the message? Then it's a thumbs up all the way.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Adolescents: Manifest Density

ADOLESCENTS: MANIFEST DENSITY (2016)

1) Escape From Planet Fuck; 2) Hey Captain Midnight; 3) Unhappy Hour; 4) Silver And Black; 5) Nightcrawler; 6) Jacob's Ladder; 7) American Dogs In Europe; 8) Spring Break At Scar Beach; 9) Catfish; 10) Lost On Hwy 39; 11) Bubblegum Manifesto; 12) Rat Catcher; 13) Vs.

Two things: (1) no, that is not a typo in the album title, it's a brave, unrewarded swipe-in-the-dark at clever­ness; (2) ʽEscape From Planet Fuckʼ is a noble and understandable wish, but a fairly crude song title that would have been more appropriate in 1980 than it is in 2016. Then again, it is perfectly appropriate for a band that called itself The Adolescents in 1980 and made it a major ideological point not to change that name in 2016.

Other than that, I have to say that I find this record even less deserving of a discussion than La Vendetta. More than ever now, it looks like Tony Reflex and his friends have invented them­selves a long-term ice bucket challenge — how long will they be able to go on making hardcore records like this before they run out of extra dole money? And the fact that the playing is as mus­cular, the screaming as furious, and the lyrics as anti-establishment-vicious as ever, no longer plays to their advantage, because every song sounds like it wants to change the whole world, yet there is probably only a tiny smudgeon of people who even know of its existence in the first place. And this time, there's not even a single attempt at doing something out of the ordinary — song after song after song, it is the same fast tempo, the same fuck-the-system scream, the same anthe­mic refrain, the same generic melodic lead guitar, and the same 100% lack of that hardcore magic that, thirty-six years ago, set them apart from the pack.

Really, it's so humiliating, they even have their Manifest Density page on Wikipedia marked for potential deletion because of «lack of notability» — what a frickin' shame for a band writing songs like ʽAmerican Dogs In Europeʼ. But honestly, enough with these ever-deteriorating clones of The Fastest Kid Alive already! And see, this is why, when all other parameters are levelled out, good old hard rock like AC/DC wins over punk rock — at least the Young brothers, even in their least inspired days, still tried to come up with a slightly different riff for every song; on this record, I struggle to find even one half-decent guitar melody. Thumbs down.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Anathema: Weather Systems

ANATHEMA: WEATHER SYSTEMS (2012)

1) Untouchable, Part 1; 2) Untouchable, Part 2; 3) The Gathering Of The Clouds; 4) Lightning Song; 5) Sunlight; 6) The Storm Before The Calm; 7) The Beginning And The End; 8) The Lost Child; 9) Internal Landscapes.

We got the point last time, but perhaps we were not fully convinced, so here are the born-again Cavanaghs with yet another heavenly oratorio on your front lawn — and this time they unleash the full force of the Light upon your unholy skeptical ass. From beginning to end, Weather Systems is as straightforward an album about the temporary nature of earthly life and the imma­nent nature of heavenly existence as they come: and if you needed scientific proof of that, they even enlist Joe Geraci, an original survivor with a near-death experience, for a brief recital on the last track. It's a more or less routine story of experiencing white light and transcendental beauty before being brought back to life, and the only thing it does is to reinforce the impression that the Cavanaghs are no longer content with constructing the musical equivalent of Eternal Bliss, but that they actively believe in it and want you to believe in it, too.

The problem is, it would be easier for me to get manipulated into this if it weren't for that subtle, but pervasive aspect of cheapness that has always accompanied every single Anathema album, from the early doom metal days all the way to this «let the light eternal chase away the darkness supreme!» transformation. In their zealous verve to make us all fall on our knees and pray to the Great White, even if its name is Nameless rather than Jesus, they forgot — or, rather, they pro­bably did not even begin to remember — that the best recruiters are those that work over their prey in indirect ways, rather than going for one frontal assault after another. Thus, although they still take plenty of cues from the post-rock movement and they might be technically getting better at this with each new record, I still find far more genuine spirituality in the ambiguous sound­scapes of Sigur Rós or Godspeed You! Black Emperor than in Anathema's pompous chorales ("Love is the life breath of all I see / Love is true life inside of me").

Musically, we are still on the same level — largely static compositions, revolving around one endlessly repeated phrase, often with a crescendo effect achieved in the same manner as GY!BE do this, but with less diverse instrumentation. This time, the emphasis seems to be more firmly placed on swift, perfectly picked acoustic arpeggiated chords, starting with the very first track (ʽUntouchable, Part 1ʼ) and reappearing quite frequently: a good sound, but neither innovative in any manner nor responsible for any particularly memorable themes. Piano-based songs (ʽThe Beginning And The Endʼ) are more rare, but that does not in any way improve their quality (all the piano playing is extremely simplistic and, more than usual, seems to be getting in our face: «see? we're playing piano! not any of these darn Casios! accept no substitutes for classically-approved heavenly beauty!»).

I count precisely one track whose musical features managed to attract my attention: ʽThe Storm Before The Calmʼ, allegedly an allegory of the death experience, after a tense, cold introduction transforms into an instrumental jam with a cool use of electronics, as the main piano/bass/drums track is enhanced with buzzing electro-static tones and wind-imitating white noise. Midway into the song, it goes away and is replaced with the usual boring attempt at an orgasmic crescendo, but that three-minute part in the middle is arguably more sonically inventive than any other piece of music created by Anathema in the I-saw-the-light period: as a musical analogy of a «storm», it is quite original, making you feel trapped in an electric field that just went crazy on you.

Other than that, it's just spiritual business as usual. Interestingly, they let Lee Douglas take more lead vocals than usual: she even takes solo lead vocal on ʽLightning Songʼ, and is generally more audible on tracks where she duets with Vincent — strange that they did not do this before, since her vocal tone certainly correlates better with «heavenly» than Vincent's (she is no Sandy Denny, though, and she usually stays in a lower range that is perfect for folk-rock, but probably not for Heavenly Exaltation). This, and the increased function of acoustic picking, and the occasionally inventive use of electronics all suggest that the band is still searching, which is a good thing: I do retain the right to be generally unimpressed by their methods of search, or the territory to which the search is confined — but I also have to admit that, by their own standards, Weather Systems is a small step forward rather than a clear-cut case of creative stagnation, so if you are already a fan, and if textbookish images of Paradise™ suit your feelings just fine, this record will be as in­dispensable to you as, say, Time Out Of Mind would be to a Dylan fan.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Camper Van Beethoven: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart

CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: OUR BELOVED REVOLUTIONARY SWEETHEART (1988)

1) Eye Of Fatima (pt. 1); 2) Eye Of Fatima (pt. 2); 3) O Death; 4) She Divines Water; 5) Devil Song; 6) One Of These Days; 7) Turquoise Jewelry; 8) Waka; 9) Change Your Mind; 10) My Path Belated; 11) Never Go Back; 12) The Fool; 13) Tania; 14) Life Is Grand.

Always, always comes that day when the miserable reviewer, hungry for words, subjects and hooks, finally gets the chance to write: «Major changes on band so-and-so's most recent album! Finally, they have been able to secure a major label contract and professional recording quality, and so...» ...then you allow yourself a few seconds to take the decision whether it made them great or it made them suck (usually the latter), and from then on it's a fairly smooth ride.

The problem is, I did not even notice anything that would suggest Camper Van Beethoven had such a bout of fortune. And it's not like I couldn't have noticed — on second listen, you do notice a much louder drum sound than before, and a denser, yet cleaner mix than before, courtesy of pro­ducer Dennis Herring, assigned to them by Virgin Records. And it's not as if I haven't noticed some stylistic changes, either, as the band takes on a slightly more serious face than before, and comes up with a much larger number of «normal» songs than before. But never for the life of me would I want to ascribe that change to a commercial urge — Lowery and friends normally act as if the division between «commercial» and «non-commercial» never existed for them in the first place. It's not as if they began largely playing free-form jazz and then slowly migrated to pop formats; there was nothing self-consciously «weird» about their music, other than a never-ending drive to freely translate stuff from one musical idiom into another.

And so, on this first album for Virgin, the band simply gives us more of the same, except that the selected musical forms are now almost completely restricted to whatever was en vogue a good fifteen years ago — retro pop-rock, retro folk-rock, retro prog-rock, with a bit of glam and proto-punk thrown in for good measure. All too often, Lowery's guitar and Segel's violin combine to give things a definite country-and-western slant, but whenever that happens, psychedelic effects and melodic overdubs, as well as surrealist lyrics, are added to make sure that the band properly sounds like "cowboys on acid" (ʽEye Of Fatimaʼ), combining hillbilly paraphernalia with a hippie attitude: I'm sure somewhere out there, off some lonesome cloud, Hank Williams is surreptitious­ly eyeing them with fondness in his heart.

A few songs would suggest that the band is taking a darker turn — early on, their slow country dance take on the traditional ʽO Deathʼ sounds both ironically irreverent and a bit creepy, because you never can tell with these guys if they are doing a parody or a parallel-universe reinvention; and the fact that they took this old Appalachian dark folk number and turned it into a catchy folk-pop tune somehow makes it creepier. But there is no generally underlying dark current to the al­bum — in fact, the final song explicitly states that "and life is grand... and I will say this at the risk of falling from favor / With those of you who have appointed yourselves / To expect us to say something darker". Behind all of these gestures really lies the same old — a stark desire to never be pigeonholed: considering that «college rock» or «underground rock» is typically associ­ated with a punkish or at least just a generally mopey attitude towards life, Lowery and Co. feel like they have to present themselves as optimists, even if ʽO Deathʼ might seem to suggest the opposite. Why they never went out with a passionate cover of ABBA's ʽDancing Queenʼ, though, I have no idea.

That's all fine, though; more questionable is their decision to include some instrumentals where the emphasis is not on genre-mashing as it used to be, but rather on pure atmospherics — the second part of ʽEye Of Fatimaʼ is not unlike some pseudo-Led Zeppelin folk-metal experiment, with a mix of acoustic picking and blazing electric guitar god soloing, and later on they pretty much repeat the same thing with ʽWakaʼ; still later, ʽThe Foolʼ is a psycho-metallic waltz that you could probably hear from the likes of Jeff Beck in one of his particularly eccentric periods. It's okay, but Greg Lisher, responsible for lead guitar, is hardly a great guitar virtuoso, and if I am not all that tempted to play air guitar on these songs, then I am not sure what they really are there for — I'd rather go back to my Led Zep and Fairport Convention records.

Less questionable is the decision to just write some nice, fun songs — ʽNever Go Backʼ, ʽOne Of These Daysʼ, ʽChange Your Mindʼ, and the somewhat mysterious ʽTaniaʼ (whose messy lyrics seem loaded with the Jean-Luc Godard spirit) are all friendly, catchy and just sound cool on those front porches where Garth Brooks would not fit in. There's nothing too deep or pretentious con­cealed in them — merely an attempt to create conventional, but not boring roots-rock that could be palatable to the highly demanding listener. I'm really not sure how to follow this with an in­appropriately deep-sounding conclusion, so I'll just leave you with another thumbs up, though perhaps a less excited one than on the band's debut, where it did look like they wanted to subvert conventional musical rules — here, all they want to do is to follow them creatively.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Candi Staton: Chance

CANDI STATON: CHANCE (1979)

1) Ain't Got Nowhere To Go; 2) When You Wake Up Tomorrow; 3) Rock; 4) Chance; 5) I Live; 6) Me And My Music.

Well, here's your oh-so-obvious answer to the question about what it is that makes a good or a bad disco album — the difference between House Of Love and its follow-up, Chance, pretty much says it all. For some reason, Dave Crawford is out, both as producer and songwriter, and the album ends up being nominally self-produced by Candi herself, with the supervising of Jimmy Simpson — the brother of Valerie Simpson of Ashford & Simpson fame. Meanwhile, the songwriting is largely taken care of by Candi herself, or by a bunch of corporate donors who clearly have neither any interest in Candi Staton as an artist, nor in doing anything except supply­ing a steady stream of body-oriented grooves.

The result is an album as uninspired and stupid as House Of Love was inventive and supportive of the artist's personality. The only song worthy of some attention is ʽI Liveʼ, contributed by Ashford & Simpson in person — a slow, funky ballad rather than a straightahead disco groove, with a chance for Candi to burn some authentic soul, even if the arrangement still leaves much to be desired (no instrumental parts deserving of special attention). Everything else ranges from passable to ridiculous: ʽAin't Got Nowhere To Goʼ is at least reasonably short and reasonably complex, but the single ʽWhen You Wake Up Tomorrowʼ is completely dependent on its single musical phrase, never brought out of stasis due to the lame sound of the synthesizer — and then there's ʽRockʼ, which might just be the nadir of Candi's entire career. Here is a representative sample of the lyrics: "Why? Not? Rock? Rock! Rock! Why ? Not? Rock!", and it does not get much better when the lead vocal comes in, especially since the song has nothing whatsoever to do without «rock» in any possible meaning of the term, unless you really stretch it out to cover «corny disco shit» as well.

Neither the title track nor ʽMe And My Musicʼ on the second side make much of a difference: in fact, pretty much everything is interchangeable and never goes one step beyond the simple «give 'em a good vibe» message. And that smart touch of having Candi wrap things up with a strong gospel number? Apparently, it never caught on, even if it is precisely little things like that which make a world of difference. The less said about this Studio 54 blandness, the better; thumbs down without any further questions or comments. And you gotta love how they gave her that hip urban look on the photo, but never forgot about showing some cleavage all the same: trying to sell music like this without a bit of boobs is a marketologist's nightmare.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Unconditionally Guaranteed

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: UNCONDITIONALLY GUARANTEED (1974)

1) Upon The My-O-My; 2) Sugar Bowl; 3) New Electric Ride; 4) Magic Be; 5) Happy Love Song; 6) Full Moon Hot Sun; 7) I Got Love On My Mind; 8) This Is The Day; 9) Lazy Music; 10) Peaches.

1974 was unquestionably the strangest year in the history of Captain Beefheart — the year in which he came out with a pair of albums that turned out to be his most «normal» recordings ever, and that, in itself, makes this the most bizarre and unpredictable turn of events for the man. Other artists could be expected to go «commercial», perhaps, and genuinely sacrifice the search for new sounds and experiences to boring, but financially rewarding, conventionalism: Don Van Vliet, however, seemed like one of the few select artists for whom «going commercial» was as easy to do as it would be for a fish to walk on land. Not because he was so vehemently and ideologically against it, but because he'd spent so many years not speaking that language at all.

His failure in 1974 was not in «selling out», but rather in the fact that he had no idea whatsoever how to sell out. Apparently, the slightly more accessible grooves of The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot failed to increase public interest in his music: if the former did very briefly put him on the charts, the latter only brought back the plunge, and something more drastic had to be resorted to if the poverty-eliminating strategy remained in place. And so, with a hint of self-irony on the album sleeve where the Captain is holding some crumpled dollar bills with a semi-stupefied look of total incredulity, Unconditionally Guaranteed arrives as a fully normal record of contemporary pop-rock, blues-rock, and roots-rock songs — genre-wise, probably standing closer to mid-Seventies «pub-rock» than anything else.

The results are nowhere near as bad as they are usually advertised: had this album been recorded by anybody but Captain Beefheart, the typical reaction would probably vary from mild pleasure to absent-minded indifference, rather than disgust and horror. The worst thing, however, is that even if this somehow happens to be the first Captain Beefheart album in your life, it will still not take long to understand that something is very wrong — that this is either a mediocre commercial artist feigning artistic madness, or (as was actually the case) that this is a formerly mad artist trying, but not knowing how to sound «normal». Where his previous two records observed the balance between craziness and conservatism quite loyally, here the craziness is largely restricted to some of the lyrics (occasionally) and some of the vocals (many of which suffer from what seems like a bad case of laryngitis, though perhaps it was merely an effect of suffering from supreme depression at the idea of what he was doing). And that's a piss-poor balance — if you ask me, the only choice to make this record good would be to go all the way, and take proper care of all the arrangements, inflections, and modulations.

At least it begins nice enough: ʽUpon The My-O-Myʼ is a mean-'n'-lean funky workout in the tradition of ʽBooglarize You Babyʼ and ʽLow Yo-Yo Stuffʼ, though with less interesting and complex guitar work — but a nice flute and sax interlude from guest musician Del Simmons to compensate. The self-addressed question, "now tell me, good Captain, how does it feel / To be driven away from your own steering wheel?" sort of gives you a first hint at whatever is coming up, but the groove as such still has plenty of snap, and Beefheart's vocal performance is probably his best on the record. Skip ahead, though, and the next track is ʽSugar Bowlʼ, a pedestrian country rocker with exactly one musical phrase to make sense of — and not even a phrase that was invented by Beefheart or any of his musicians. But if that song is simply «nothing special», then ʽNew Electric Rideʼ is a monotonous, repetitive groove whose lyrics suggest an air of joyful exuberance — "here we go again, baby, on the New Electric Ride... I could barely hold my pride..." pride in what? the fact that it is possible to sing in some sort of a dying croak and still manage to stay on key? The problem is that the music, the lyrics, and the vocals on this song just do not belong together — you might as well invite Pavarotti to sing on a Clash track, or, more to the point, Stephen Hawking to sing ʽHey Judeʼ, or maybe forget it, because the former would at least be novel, and the latter disturbing. ʽNew Electric Rideʼ is just pathetic.

With song titles like ʽHappy Love Songʼ and ʽI Got Love On My Mindʼ, it is as if the befuddled Captain were hopelessly lost somewhere in between the art of parody and the desire to generate a bunch of genuine generic love ballads — the results being equally unpalatable to his old fans and to the general public. Weirdest of all, he is not totally incapable of creating a good love ballad: ʽThis Is The Dayʼ, on which he sings with an unusually clean and convincing voice, and graced with a very pretty lead guitar melody, is a really good track whose lyrics do not try to make use of commercial clichés, and ʽMagic Beʼ almost comes close, although his voice is still too shaky on that one to normalize it completely (and, like I said, only total and utter normalization would allow these songs to have a proper emotional effect). But for every track like that, there's one or two silly «happy-exuberant» numbers like ʽFull Moon Hot Sunʼ that simply feel sick.

I do not deny the catchiness of the melodies, but it would be shameful to call Unconditionally Guaranteed a good album just because the Captain took care to insert some earworms — which were never his preferred specialty in the first place. The closing ʽPeachesʼ, a musical variation on Wilbert Harrison's ʽLet's Stick Togetherʼ, is kind of a guilty pleasure to me, but it would still work better with a different vocal performance. Otherwise, the best I can do is not condemn the record: it is essentially listenable, and there is something deeply intriguing in its artistic failure that still makes it an unexpendable part of Beefheart's total legacy, much as the Captain himself would want all of us to forget it.

It is said that upon hearing the final results, the Magic Band was so shocked of its own wrong­doing that it simply stood up and left the good Captain — and that the good Captain subsequently disowned the record himself and, once his contract with the Mercury label ran out, urged every­body who bought it to return it for a proper refund. Even so, there is no getting away from the fact that Don Van Vliet wrote these songs, and the Magic Band recorded them (and later on, the Captain even took a few of the better ones on the road), and it wasn't merely to placate the record industry bosses. There is also no getting away from the fact that this record is not boring — if you want boring American music from 1974, try Kansas or, I dunno, Carly Simon. It is an artistic disaster, but when the artist is of Don Van Vliet's caliber, disaster has its own special fascination that can even be more memorable than success.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Carla Thomas: The Queen Alone

CARLA THOMAS: THE QUEEN ALONE (1967)

1) Any Day Now; 2) Stop Thief; 3) I Take It To My Baby; 4) I Want To Be Your Baby; 5) Something Good (Is Going To Happen To You); 6) When Tomorrow Comes; 7) I'll Always Have Faith In You; 8) All I See Is You; 9) Unchanging Love; 10) Give Me Enough (To Keep Me Going); 11) Lie To Keep Me From Crying.

The meaning of the title is that Otis Redding and Carla had only just recently completed a duets album called King & Queen, where Carla's role was somewhat more supportive, so it was only fair to give her an autonomous chance — while making the «queen» moniker stick, particularly since Aretha was only on the verge of her national breakthrough, and the proverbial crown was pretty much up for grabs, whoever claimed it first.

As usual, nothing particularly outstanding is going on, but the record is a bit more consistent and fun than Carla, the real good news being that the Porter/Hayes duo are now contributing a good half of the songs instead of just two, as it used to be. Unsurprisingly, this half is the best half of all, with playful grooves, hooky choruses, and plenty of charming entertainment value, most of it due to the composers rather than the players and the singers. ʽStop Thiefʼ ("give me back my heart") features smart usage of the cleptomaniac metaphor; ʽI Take It To My Babyʼ uses an oddly nagging cowbell to bring the message home; ʽSomething Goodʼ recycles the lead-vs.-backing vocals trick previously used on ʽB-A-B-Yʼ to raise the seductiveness of the tune above average level; ʽWhen Tomorrow Comesʼ rides a slightly modified version of the ʽMy Girlʼ bass riff that gives this love ballad a funky edge; and only the straightforward waltz ʽUnchanging Loveʼ looks like it took about two minutes to piece together, though Carla still gives it her best.

The non-Porter/Hayes songs tend to drift into schmaltz, sometimes of a pretty variety (ʽGive Me Enoughʼ, with gorgeous falsetto harmonies), sometimes of a boring one (ʽAll I See Is Youʼ). In­terestingly, neither of these tunes, nor the even schmaltzier ʽAny Day Nowʼ, a strings-heavy Bacharach cover, were chosen as the singles — the first single was ʽSomething Goodʼ, clearly attesting to the fact that Atlantic/Stax were trying to repeat the success of ʽB-A-B-Yʼ; unfortu­nately, the success proved to be unrepeatable, with R&B audiences growing less and less interes­ted in such «bubblegummy» stuff.

The album was, nevertheless, fortunate enough to be oficially remastered and released in an ex­panded CD package on its 40th jubilee, with five bonus tracks that seem to have been outtakes (I do not see them listed as contemporary singles or anything), including a minor pop gem called ʽMe And My Clockʼ and more of the same ordinary, but listenable R&B grooves. All in all, very disappointing for a true «queen-level» album (the real queen was just minutes away from show­ing the true meaning of R&B royalty), but a solid treat for any solid fan of conventional mid-Sixties R&B.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!

THE ROLLING STONES: GET YER YA-YA'S OUT! (1970)

1) Jumpin' Jack Flash; 2) Carol; 3) Stray Cat Blues; 4) Love In Vain; 5) Midnight Rambler; 6) Sympathy For The Devil; 7) Live With Me; 8) Little Queenie; 9) Honky Tonk Women; 10) Street Fighting Man.

The Rolling Stones' second live album is not simply their best live album ever — much like its only serious competition from the same year, the Who's Live At Leeds, it is a unique sonic and, dare I say it, spiritual experience that either defines «Rolling-Stonism» or transcends it, depen­ding on your default feelings for this confusing term. As far as live performances go in general, the Stones have had their ups and downs, depending on a mix of factors such as drugs, musical fads, and age, yet on the whole, one way or another, a Stones show has always been a terrific experience, especially if you were there in person. However, there was a brief period — a very brief period, largely limited to the Stones' American tour of 1969 — when a Stones show was something bigger, deeper, and perhaps even scarier than just a Stones show.

Two documents capture this brief glimpse best, and can hardly be discussed separately from each other: Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, the live album culled from the band's performances at Madison Square Garden on November 27-28, and Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers' documentary of the North American tour in general, culminating with footage from the Altamont disaster and the ensuing reactions. Gimme Shelter is the more complete of the two, of course — Ya-Ya's only offers you the first chapter of the story, whereas Gimme Shelter focuses just as heavily on the inevitable denouement. The reason why Gimme Shelter remains such a fascinating experience after all these years, proudly retaining its status of one of the best musical documentaries ever made, is because it was brilliantly molded by its creators in the shape of a Faustian story — here is this supremely powerful, transcendent, God-like musical force that holds an entire young nation in its magical grip... and here comes the payoff, when the Devil, to whom they have alle­gedly sold their souls, finally arrives to collect. Of course, it is all largely a matter of clever editing — from Jagger's opening triumphant "Welcome to the breakfast show!" to the final ex­pression on his face as he gets up and walks away, stunned, from watching the murder footage — but no artistic hyperbole could have such a psychologically devastating effect if it hadn't been at least partially rooted in some deep truth.

There is actually a very deep, though not immediately obvious, rift between the Stones' functio­ning as a live touring band at the end of 1969 and everything they did later — starting off with the infamous touring debaucheries of 1971-72 and beyond. Already in 1972, as can be easily seen in the Ladies And Gentlemen movie, or heard on the classic Brussels Affair release from the next year, the Stones' live show was precisely that — a live show. The glam era had settled in, and the emphasis was placed on extravagance, «going crazy», glitzy costumes, running around, simula­ting totally drunk behavior, and doing much of this at the expense of musicality (although as long as anchorman Mick Taylor was still in the band and Keith was still too constrained by drug intake to do as much jumping and flailing around as he'd begin doing post-clean-up, the musical side still remained impressive). Yet, in a certain way, that, too, could look like a subconscious result of Altamont: one might go as far as to say that Jagger's firm switching to the "It's only rock'n'roll, but I like it" mentality was caused by a deep wish to prevent any further Altamonts. After 1970, The Rolling Stones went on stage to give you a good time. That was all. Could they be blamed for that after what happened on December 6, 1969?

But these here tracks — they were recorded one week earlier than December 6, and at that time The Rolling Stones were a different band. They had only just overcome a huge crisis, and come out completely on top — having established the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership as the No. 1 partnership in the world (now that the Lennon/McCartney one was over), having acquired a fresh new second guitarist whose well-honed blues-rock chops gave them added confidence in an era of rock guitar gods, and, most importantly, having understood that the world as everybody knew it was really changing, and that they, the brand-new reformed, arrogant, talented, self-confident Rolling Stones, could be spearheading that change the way they liked it.

This is, in fact, the first thing I hear in Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! — the gleeful pride, the self-con­fidence, the ecstatic feel of a freshly trained magician who realizes that the whole world now lies at his feet. And to do that, they did not even have to begin the album with a set of overdubbed introductions from their road manager, Sam Cutler, announcing "the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world, The Rolling Stones!", a somewhat self-obvious fact at the time — the opening chords to ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ would have sufficed alone.

Amusingly, some people have complained over the years about the slowness of the performances as a detrimental factor in their enjoyment of the record — comparing it unfavorably with bootlegs and semi-bootlegs from the subsequent Taylor-era tours of 1971-73, where the average tempo of the songs would be sped up and they would allegedly acquire more «kick-ass power». I have always found this argument to be completely laughable, because it is precisely the slowness, the willingness to take the extra time to unfurl the demonic potential of this material, the chance to properly savor every distorted lick from Keith's guitar and every grinning snarl from Mick's mouth, that gives Ya-Ya's its unique power. It is, of course, very important that all the classics played there were still so fresh at the time — when you have five thousand performances of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ and ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ behind the belt, it must be damn hard to find yet another chunk of your soul that you could invest in the five thousand and first one — but it is not even the freshness, per se, that matters so much, as an instinctively felt belief that what they did actually mattered, that these performances could double as entertainment and a certain wake-up call-to-action addressed to the audience at the same time. The Stones were not alone in this, of course: The Who, Hendrix, The Doors, and a host of lesser performers all shared the same drive, but The Stones had a certain advantage over all of them.

Two players were absolutely essential for «the breakfast show» — Mick and Keith. These days, whenever you watch a 1969 clip on YouTube, the average comment usually goes «thank God for Mick Taylor», but, at the risk of causing the ire of all the guitar god aficionados out there, I would say the greatest thing that Taylor brought to the band was a sharpening of the senses and instincts of Keith, who'd felt himself threatened — there was no way he could easily pick up on all the subtleties and complexities of Mick Taylor's fretwork, so, unless he wanted to become reduced to a mere helping hand on the stage, he had to somewhat compensate for this in other ways; and the sound that he came up with, based on open tunings, distorted tones, and a serious modernisation of Chuck Berry's signature licks, became the epitome of classic hard rock, combi­ning the atmosphere of The Barroom, The Battlefield, and The Seventh Circle of Hell. "Watch it!" goes Mick at the opening notes of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ, and regardless of what he really meant, I've always interpreted it as "Stand back! One step closer to those amps and you go down in flames, mortal!" And the speed — yes, they play it significantly slower than they would do in 1972, but that is just so that you can taste the complete, unabridged power of each single chord in Keith's riff. The mid-section and the outro, too, consist of little other than Keith driving home, one after another, bar after bar of the same repetitive bridge riff (if Taylor is playing lead over it, it is intentionally left inaudible by the engineer), but it has all the brutality of a Tony Iommi, ex­tended with an extra feel of recklessness and rustic hooliganry.

It is for this exact reason that they slow down two Chuck Berry covers — again, both in the past and in the future they would play Chuck as fast as Chuck would play himself, but on this occa­sion, ʽCarolʼ and ʽLittle Queenieʼ are placed in «draggy» mode, for two reasons only: (a) so that Keith can flash his new-found jagged, angular, dirty-offensive post-Berry sound in your face — each of his lead guitar responses to each of Mick's lines on the verses is a priceless slice of nasty arrogance; (b) so that Mick can flash his drawn out, insulting, insinuating, swaggery tone in your face — give him one more year and his on-stage singing would largely shift to faux-drunk barking and brawling, but here he is still capable of gleefully extending and swirling his creaky vowels ("it's not too far back on the highway, not so long a ri-i-i-i-i-de..."). Next to this sound, both of Chuck's originals fall on the innocence level of Chubby Checker: where, in the past, "go, go, go, little queenie!" could really sound like it actually had something to do with a girl dancing, here the implied activity is clearly a much less sublimated one than a rock'n'roll dance. And it sure has everything to do with the fact of Mick changing the infamous ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ line from "I can see that you're 15 years old" to "I can see that you're 13 years old", too.

While I am certainly not implying that the songs here are all superior to their studio versions (like all great studio/live bands at the time, the Stones knew very well how to bring out some aspects of their tunes in the studio and others on stage), they are all clearly far more ferocious than the studio equivalents. Cue ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ, which inevitably loses its subtle, suspenseful, quiet-creepy nocturnal atmosphere, but gets an entirely new and equally exciting coat of tough, gritty, sinister rumble, with a lower, growlier, thicker tone from Keith and a sharp blues-rock lead reply from Taylor — additionally, it also becomes a highlight in illustrating the band's newly found jam power, with Keith and Charlie hacking it out with machine-like precision on the long race after the first two verses; and the "well, did you hear about the Boston... WHAM!" mid-section, so quiet and understated on the studio version, is here turned into a macabre, bloody execution, as Jagger (probably) whips the stage with his long red scarf. Again, by the way, they take the song at a slower tempo than they would on the ensuing tours — a tempo that is perfectly suited to bringing out its chilling potential, instead of just making it look like yet another basic rock'n'roll number, for some reason, extended way out of proportion.

In a context like this, even a supposedly innocent tune of barroom happiness like their latest single, ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ — which, in its original studio recording, with the cowbell and the brass backing and the somewhat subdued guitar tones, did really sound like a bunch of drunken sailors having harmless sailor fun in the local tavern — acquires an unusually sinister sheen: here, Keith's opening riff plainly states, "don't fuck with me, or I swear to God I'll kill ya", and Mick's sexual boasting, with each syllable perfectly enunciated from the back of his throat, gets all Me­phistophelian, as if, you know, he were pledging to have sex with each member of the audience right then and there, male, female, or otherwise, because he's got enough of that demon seed to satisfy everybody. Ask Keith's guitar for confirmation of said fact.

But just so as not to go completely overboard and make it seem like darkness, sexuality, and hidden menace are all that matters, there are also some performances that invest very heavily in sheer musicality — one of these, paradoxically as it sounds, being ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ, here reinterpreted as more of a funk than a samba number and, consequently, featuring some of Charlie's funkiest drumming ever (he does a very steady and convincing, if not particularly in­ventive job), and a Richards/Taylor sparring lead guitar duel that has long since passed into legend, with people debating even today over which of the two solos is superior — Keith's or Mick's. At least this is unquestionably Keith's finest lead break on the stage, ever: instead of the broken, «sputtering», high-pitched banshee shrieks on the studio version, here he delivers a more tightly integrated melodic passage that follows an impeccable, mistake-free musical logic, goes through a couple of ecstatic climaxes, and finally goes down in a perfect resolving flourish, like an immaculately rehearsed public speech, oriented at maximum effect. Taylor then picks it up from the exact same notes, demonstrates his technical superiority, and makes the song climax a few more times before it ends — but for Taylor this is more or less a routine job, whereas Keith would never ever deliver another solo like that, period. (By the way, it is very easy to think of Keith as a horrible lead guitar player based on the past thirty years or so — you should always go back to 1969 to remember that there was a time when the man could churn out fluent, coherent lead melodies with almost the same ease with which he churned out those riffs).

Taylor's properly stellar moment arrives with ʽLove In Vainʼ, where the slow blues nature of the song gives him his real chance to shine — again, what they have here is neither better nor worse than the studio recording, with its mix of psychedelic slide licks and archaic mandolin trills, but simply different, focusing on Taylor's gift to convert 12-bar blues into uplifting lyricism (unsur­prisingly, perhaps, ʽLove In Vainʼ is the only song from Ya-Ya's that would sound every bit as good on the subsequent Taylor tours, mostly because Mick was the only member of the band to have not undergone any serious stylistic changes post-1970).

And so we arrive at the most interesting, and disturbing, question of all: so was it really this music, with all of its demonic power, that was responsible for the Altamont debacle? The easiest answer is to simply brush it off — after all, Altamont trouble started out even before the Rolling Stones arrived at the concert, not to mention that answering «yes» without any scientific proof would only play into the hands of idiots blaming rock music for the end of the world. But behind that easiness, there still lurks some un-easiness as well — and at the very least, I can vouch for myself, namely, that I have always felt some sort of presence behind the music on Ya-Ya's. Of course, I am not talking about anything supernatural (though it would be fun, wouldn't it?): I am saying that the element of provocation, as delivered over the course of a Rolling Stones show in November 1969, even if it may superficially look weaker than their completely over-the-top behavior of the following decade, is actually much stronger in terms of sheer sonic substance. (And visual, too: just compare this shamanistic clip of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ from Gimme Shelter with this speedier, rowdier, bawdier version from Ladies And Gentlemen two years later and then tell me which one's got more mesmerizing power).

No, it is not really about provoking you into sleeping with 13-year olds, shoving knives right down somebody's throat, fighting in the streets, or even (horrors!) beginning to take tea at three — but it is about provoking you to «think dan­gerous», whatever that might mean for anybody in particular. For some girls (and boys), it might mean wanting to have sex with Mick Jagger; for some, it might mean wanting to go out there and fight the system; for some, it might mean wanting to pull a knife or a gun — you never really know. Whatever be the case, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! is a far more disturbing record than all those comparatively mild albums by Prince, AC/DC, and Twisted Sister that would fuel the ridiculous discussion over ratings and parental control in the Eighties — precisely because it transcends the vaudeville limits of «shock rock» and taps into certain Freudian zones where people should not always be admitted without a legal guardian of sorts. I do know that for me, this is the perfect record to play when I get the serious urge to kill somebody — there's nothing as spiritually refreshing and morally relieving as a good old murder in open-G tuning, you know. A juicy, dirty, bloody thumbs up for an experience that could never again be properly replicated — although, after Altamont, I couldn't really blame the Stones for switching the genre tag from «dark ritual» to «glitzy vaudeville».

PS. Technical detail: if you are seriously interested in the deluxe CD reissue of the album, it is not worthy of much attention unless you are a fanatical completist. All you get is an extra set of five live songs from the same shows (including acoustic performances of ʽProdigal Sonʼ and ʽYou Gotta Moveʼ) that, with the exception of a completely re-tuned ʽSatisfactionʼ, do not have the intensity of the originally released material; and mini-sets from the Stones' supporting acts — B. B. King and Ike and Tina Turner — that should probably be enjoyed within the context of those artists' own careers (though, I must say, Tina's quasi-pornographic performance of ʽI've Been Loving You Too Longʼ as captured in Gimme Shelter totally fits in with the atmosphere). Perhaps with time, we might be lucky enough to get cleaned-up and remastered versions of addi­tional performances from the same tour, but there's no telling how long we have to wait for that.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Bon Jovi: This House Is Not For Sale

BON JOVI: THIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE (2016)

1) This House Is Not For Sale; 2) Living With The Ghost; 3) Knockout; 4) Labor Of Love; 5) Born Again Tomorrow; 6) Roller Coaster; 7) New Year's Day; 8) The Devil's In The Temple; 9) Scars On This Guitar; 10) God Bless This Mess; 11) Reunion; 12) Come On Up To Our House; 13*) Real Love; 14*) All Hail The King; 15*) We Don't Run; 16*) I Will Drive You Home; 17*) Goodnight New York; 18*) Touch Of Grey.

And by "this house", I am assuming, they mean "our safe New Jersey home", because on this first proper post-Sambora album, Bon Jovi move closer to Bruce Springsteen than they ever did before — and considering how Bruce Springsteen, on his past few albums, also moved somewhat uncomfortably close to Bon Jovi, I would not be surprised to eventually hear a joint statement from the two, especially in this upcoming Trumpian universe of ours. The problem is, there is exactly one area in which Jon Bon Jovi's skills might sometimes stand up to the Boss's - the concoction of anthemic, powerful, memorable vocal hooks. Everything else, be it lyrical sophistication, or the ability to sound like a man possessed and infect the listener with a quasi-religious drive, or the massive, multi-layered, super-tight sound of the E Street Band, remains an unattainable standard of quality. So who is it that you would allow yourself to be enlightened by: a former hair metal icon who used to have the looks or a street poet who used to have a bandana? Tough choice for 2016.

Nevertheless, This House Is Not For Sale is Bon Jovi's best album since at least Crush. It's not a good record at all — there is nothing particularly fresh or unusually appealing about it — but it is smart enough to concentrate on the band's strongest aspect, the one I already mentioned. For the most part avoiding over-sentimentalized power ballads and rootsy country-rock excursions, and also, perhaps, striving to show that Bon Jovi's music was not all about Richie Sambora (who has not returned, and now Phil X is taking over his place on a permanent basis), Jon and the re­maining company write a set of tight, catchy, and, dare I say it, occasionally inspired pop-rock songs: traditional, musically conservative, and with an attempt at introspection rather than arena-rock swagger. Could be awful, but it's... tolerable. At the very least, in terms of class they are now fully comparable with contemporary U2 (not that big of a compliment, because it says more about U2's decline than Bon Jovi's ascent — still, ever imagine me putting Slippery When Wet and The Joshua Tree on the same shelf? By the way, speaking of U2, one of the songs here is called ʽNew Year's Dayʼ, and no, it is not a cover, but it does look like a tribute because the guitar parts are quite... edgy, if you know what I mean).

Most of the songs have a philosophical slant... most? Heck, all of them: even ʽLabor Of Loveʼ, the record's only patented love song, puts a poor-boy-Wagnerian slant on boy-girl relations — although leave it to Jon Bon Jovi to dig his own grave with awful lines like "if I need some sugar, I'll get it from your lips" (is it really such a long way to the local store, or does his partner suffer from sugar cravings?) and vocal modulation that places too much emphasis on his high register, by now creaky, croaky, and irritating. Apart from that song, though, it's all about coming to terms with whatever there is to come to terms with: modern times, politics, disillusionment, personal mistakes, or changing hairstyles.

The sound... well, if you happened to hear the title track, you've heard it all. The big rhythm guitar crunch is back, as is the thunderous «split-that-log-in-one-blow» drum sound of Tico Torres. New lead guitarist mostly plays short, reserved, traditional solos, possibly not wishing to compete with the departed Sambora, so the point is that you should headbang to these songs (drummer boy helps you out with this) and sing along. Like: "I'm coming ho-o-o-ome! Coming ho-o-o-o-ome!" Because you want to come home. Or: "I ain't living with the ghost! No future living in the past!" Because you... uh... don't want to come home. Or: "Here comes the knockout! My time is right now! I'm throwing down!" Because whether you want to come home or not, you gotta fight for the right to come home. Or not to come home. Or: "God bless this mess, this mess is mine!" Because your home actually looks like shit, but it's your shit, and if you can't be proud of your shit, then who can?

I don't think it would make sense to discuss any of these songs seriously: the more I do, the more cringeworthy it all becomes, so, fair moment, linger awhile and don't let me give this record a thumbs down when I actually had some fun listening to it. In fact, I will say something cringe­worthy myself: as Bon Jovi inevitably mutate into the category of «elder statesmen», Jon's output begins to show some deeply human qualities that transcend the simplicity, cheesiness, and con­servatism of the band's musical values. This here is a survivor's record, and behind the shallow catchiness, there's a glimpse of determination and power that I cannot help admiring, if only a little. I have no reason to doubt the man's sincerity, and sometimes even a simple cliché may not be so boring if it is delivered with full force. So when the man finishes the record with a formally bland gospel waltz (ʽCome On Up To Our Houseʼ — again, nothing in common with the Tom Waits song of nearly-the-same-name), I cannot not acknowledge the real emotion behind it; I do not know if "all are welcome at our table" indeed, but it does not bother me — let alone the fact that I'd never volunteer to sit at Bon Jovi's table in the first place, the real issue is why he is singing that? I'm pretty sure the man is on a good will spree this time, and that the whole record is a noble try to offer some musical consolation in a very shaky, uncertain, insecure period of our being (yes, even if the album was released several days before the presidential elections).

Anyway, if, to you, the pop and the power aspects of Bon Jovi had ever had some significance, do not be afraid to pick this one up (you can even go for the deluxe edition, which adds six extra songs, all in the same style). But if you've never cared about the band even one bit, and would rather accept ghost writing for Ann Coulter than having to hear ʽLiving On A Prayerʼ just one more time, then this house is very much for sale: there is absolutely no sense in getting it unless you are somewhat familiar with the band's history and are able to evaluate it in context.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Anathema: Falling Deeper

ANATHEMA: FALLING DEEPER (2011)

1) Crestfallen; 2) Sleep In Sanity; 3) Kingdom; 4) They Die; 5) Everwake; 6) J'Ai Fait Une Promesse; 7) Alone; 8) We The Gods; 9) Sunset Of Age.

Another attempt at re-writing their legacy (as if somebody really cared), this relatively short album finally finds Anathema doing exactly the kind of thing they should have done much earlier: going all the way back to their beginnings as a doom metal band and reinventing those old black tunes in the vein of their new neo-symph-prog image. And although Steven Wilson is no longer with them to lend a helping hand directly, they retain the affiliation with the Kscope label; also, their new engineer is Andrea Wright, who'd had a long history of work with everybody from Black Sabbath to Marillion to Clinic to Coldplay, and could certainly get the job done well on an album that places its entire trust in atmosphere.

To complete the picture, the band secures the services of veteran progger Dave Stewart, formerly of Egg, Hatfield & The North, National Health, and Bruford fame — the man used to play key­boards for some of the most twisted and adventurous prog bands in the Golden Age, but the 21st century largely sees him as a strings arranger for various neo-prog outfits, including, of course, Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson, from whom he was «passed down» to Anathema. Actually, he'd already worked for them on We're Here, but on that album, the strings were nowhere near as prominent as they are on these remakes — you might as well credit the record to «Anathema Feat. Dave Stewart», or you might even reverse that order.

The result... well, the result could have been great if the songs we are talking about were great songs in the first place, but they weren't, so it couldn't. Atmospheric background remains atmos­pheric background, no matter whether you are constructing it with heavy metal guitars or pianos and strings, and I cannot say that, having been transferred to a new medium, they managed to uncover previously concealed plains of spirituality or valleys of bliss. (For the record, only a few of the tunes come from LPs like Serenades or The Silent Enigma; most are taken over from even more obscure early EPs that I have not talked about or even heard, so it is perfectly possible that some of the songs began life as embarrassing trash heaps, before they were all recast in this single mold. I doubt it, though).

It's not as if these are lazy recreations or anything: no, the songs are completely reworked, and the new arrangements are often more complex and sprawling than they used to be — ʽJ'Ai Fait Une Promesseʼ, for instance, which used to be a brief non-metal acoustic interlude, is stripped of its original vocal (by one of the band's lady friends called Ruth) and recast as a pseudo-baroque chamber orchestra performance; and ʽAloneʼ from The Silent Enigma gains at least a couple extra levels of sonic depth, even if you only consider the resplendent, deeply resonant production on the acoustic guitar sound alone — not to mention all the rich overlays. Next to these recrea­tions, the originals sound like pale sketches, and then, on top of the cake, you get the heavenly vocals of Anneke van Giersbergen (fresh out of The Gathering and ready to grace some former fellow competitors with her cordial presence) on two of the tracks.

This should all be very rich and rewarding, yet, as it happens with Anathema so much more often than I'd like to, it still ends up plain and «pretty» from a textbookish point of view, enough to make for some tasteful background muzak, but never memorable in the least, since everything flows so smoothly. The only track where I am ready to accept that they did a stellar job is the album closer, ʽSunset Of Ageʼ, extracted from its original metal sheen and recast as a slightly Eastern-influenced mix of turbulent strings and wildly unleashed colorful electric guitars: the coda is a supercool bit of sturm-und-drang that will at least perform the good deed of kicking you awake from the slumber in which you have most likely been finding yourself for the previous half hour. Nothing else even begins to approach this performance's intensity.

One curious feeling I have noticed is that the songs have largely been remade in keeping with the band's new-found spirit of calm, sad optimism — even tracks like ʽCrestfallenʼ, beginning with telling lyrics such as "I cry a tear of hope but it is lost in helplessness, the darkness eats away at the very embers of my blah blah blah", use tonalities and timbres that suggest a streak of light ahead, and the formerly growling vocals have been replaced by high-pitched «whisper vocals» (reminiscent of recent post-blackgaze artists like Alcest) that clearly suggest a change of scenery: used to be Mordor, now it's more like Lothlorien. Problem is, your everyday routine in Lothlorien is hardly more of an adventure than said routine in Mordor — you just do your whining and com­plaining in a more gallant manner, but who ever said that a melancholic elf is more of a show-maker by definition than a pissed-off goblin? In a contest of mediocre songwriting, I'd probably find myself pining for the goblin anyway.