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Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You

THE ROLLING STONES: TATTOO YOU (1981)

1) Start Me Up; 2) Hang Fire; 3) Slave; 4) Little T&A; 5) Black Limousine; 6) Neighbours; 7) Worried About You; 8) Tops; 9) Heaven; 10) No Use In Crying; 11) Waiting On A Friend.

But see, this is why you can never properly give up on the Stones. In 1976, they seemed gross, antiquated, and ridiculous — and they could still groove better than most of their competition. In 1978, they proved capable of riding the new trends under a bittersweet sarcastic sauce — and thus re-ensured their survivability. In 1980, they recorded a lazy album of renovated outtakes — and fell flat on their faces. What would be the next logical move? Why, naturally: record yet another album of even more deeply rooted outtakes — and end up with an absolute winner. Whoever thought that ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ was a sign of a formerly great band in its final death throes, was in for a pleasant surprise.

Not that Tattoo You could ever hope to recapture the attitudes and atmospheres of the band's golden age — even if it tried, it couldn't, and, wisely, it does not even try. In fact, Tattoo You does not try much of anything: it is oddly de-personalized, and, apart from the opening track, does not focus too significantly either on Mick's swagger or on Keith's riffage. The entire album, as it happens, was quickly cobbled together from various leftovers (mostly selected by associate producer Chris Kimsey) as an excuse to go on tour — there was no time to rethink the image, to put together a statement, to suck in any of the latest trends; the only «conceptual» element of Tattoo You, other than Mick's and Keith's Polynesian mugs on the sleeve, is the separation of the material into a «rockier» Side A and a «balladeering» Side B (which, surprisingly, turns out to be quite a good sequencing idea in this case).

And this, apparently, is precisely what they needed at the time. Already with Black & Blue, it was quite obvious that «overthinking» their records was generally a bad idea for the Stones, since it usually led them to a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude, and, consequently, to songs that sounded more like silly impersonations of others than proper Stones material. These songs, how­ever, were unearthed by Kimsey's well-discerning eye, glossed up a bit to match current produc­tion standards, and released before Jagger had a proper chance to rethink them as mock-synth-pop, pseudo-hardcore punk, or suave disco. They're just... songs.

The «rocking» side, first and foremost, is striking in terms of diversity — even on Some Girls, you had songs like ʽLiesʼ and ʽRespectableʼ that were genristic clones of each other, whereas here, all six have their own identities. ʽStart Me Upʼ, the record's best known and most radio-friendly classic, is unimpeachable as perhaps rock'n'roll's finest aerobic number — it's almost impossible to resist its stop-and-start structure, although as far as classic Stones rockers go, this one is one of their most toothless ever: it's not so much about sex per se as it is about using sex as an allegory for push-ups and sit-ups (I think even the accompanying video sort of reflected that). ʽHang Fireʼ is punk-pop like all those failed attempts on Emotional Rescue, but here it is made good by a tight, catchy structure, infectious falsetto harmonies, and a welcome return to social provocation ("In the sweet old country / Where I come from / Nobody ever works / Nothing ever gets done" — hey, that doesn't quite sound like The Clash, now does it?). And while many people seem to cringe at ʽNeighboursʼ, one of only two songs that was largely written during the sessions rather than before them, I don't get it — not only is it an extremely catchy pop rocker with great sax solos from Sonny Rollins, but it is also a hilarious look at the problem of living like a rock star in the middle of everyday people. It's tight, it's danceable, and its sneer and bark is smarter and funnier than, say, ʽSummer Romanceʼ.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's ʽSlaveʼ, a riff-based blues-rock jam dating back to the Black & Blue sessions and also featuring Sonny Rollins on the sax. Keith's riff here is probably one of the best things about the entire album: slow, gruff, loose, and mean, perhaps the slowest and gruffest since the days of ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ, and the band jams around it like crazy. Trivia bits such as Pete Townshend providing backing vocals for the sessions aren't nearly as important here as the realisation of how tough and cool the Stones could sound even on complete autopilot in the heroin-soaked mid-Seventies — and the inclusion of this track adds a nice, chilly feel of that old sexual menace, already practically non-existent on Some Girls and turned into toilet humor on Emotional Rescue. Next to this, even Side A's weakest track, the Keith Richards solo spot ʽLittle T&Aʼ, sounds more respectable than it would have on Emotional Rescue, for which it was originally recorded — texturally quite close to ʽShe's So Coldʼ, but even less poli­tically correct in terms of lyrics (even Keith Richards in 1981 can hardly be excused for referring to a lady as "my tits and ass with soul"); still, I'd rather have a dirty, but tight rocker from Keith than a shapeless sentimental ballad like ʽAll About Youʼ.

The truly neglected gem on the first side is ʽBlack Limousineʼ, a song that few people pay atten­tion to just because it is a generic 12-bar blues (16-bar blues, actually) — in reality, it is way above generic: a tight, concentrated blast of spite and loathing... self-loathing, one could even say, if you allow yourself to not interpret the song in the key of ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ (Mick taunting a former flame for wasting away her life), but as one that refers to the Glimmer Twins them­selves: "look at you and look at me!" is basically Mick addressing Keith, which is only natural, conside­ring that if you looked at Keith's face in 1981 and compared it to Mick's, you'd clearly see who of the two got more beat up by Mother Nature for a life of sin. What's even better, the whole playing team gets behind Mick — Ronnie gets a flurry, scorching solo, Ian Stewart's piano lines never sounded better, and then Mick himself blows some of the most shrill harmonica blasts since those early days. Arguably their best pure blues number here since 1972's ʽStop Breaking Downʼ, and perhaps the last great pure blues number they ever did.

The second side, meanwhile, incidentally turns out to feature a weird spiral — with three num­bers in a row that go from strange to stranger to strangest ever, far from your average platter of Rod Stewart ballads. ʽWorried About Youʼ, also dating back to the Black & Blue sessions (in fact, they'd already played it live at El Mocambo in 1977), features Mick in full-fledged falsetto mode (more accurately, slowly winding his way from falsetto to growling, handling this quite masterfully), not to mention a great solo from Wayne Perkins (the same guy who also played lead guitar on ʽHand Of Fateʼ). Then there's ʽTopsʼ, an outtake from Goats Head Soup — for some unexplainable reason, this great song was left off in favor of rubbish like ʽHide Your Loveʼ, but now it gives you a chance to hear some more lead guitar from Mick Taylor, as well as an odd mix of recited ad-libbing and sung verses; they tried to make a Spinners-style soul number out of it, but with Mick's barking and Taylor's bluesy symphonies, it becomes significantly more dark and dangerous, a ballad straight out of hell, if I might say so.

And then there's ʽHeavenʼ, which is, hands down, the weirdest piece of music from the Stones camp since... well, probably since 1967 or so. I have no idea where it came from, and even less of an idea where it is going. I know they also began recording it during the sessions for Emotional Rescue, and I'm almost glad they never put it on that album — sitting in between ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ and ʽSend It To Meʼ and all that crap. It has no Keith on it (it's mostly a Jagger / Wyman collaboration, with Bill on synth and guitars, and should have been credited as such instead of the usual Jagger / Richards credit), it almost has no discernible vocals, it's all drenched in special effects, it's totally unrecognizable as a Stones song, and it totally rules. Take the lyrics literally (once you locate the sheet, that is), and it's a love ballad: "smell of you baby, my senses be praised...". Take them figuratively, and it's a religious anthem: "nothing will harm you, no­thing will stand in your way". Disregard them completely, and the song is a bona fide psychedelic experience — is this the Rolling Stones or the Cocteau Twins? With those guitar tones, those phased vocals, the soft kaleidoscopic electronic tinkling in the background, it creates an atmos­phere of «mortally dangerous celestial beauty» that is as art-rockish as they come, and up to this day remains one of the most bizarre and overlooked sonic gems in the band's catalog.

Next to this psychedelic oddity, ʽNo Use In Cryingʼ is a return to more traditional R&B balladee­ring (and also bears an uncanny resemblance to ʽHeart Of Stoneʼ in its basic chord sequence), but the perfect final touch is ʽWaiting On A Friendʼ, a song that, for the first time since ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, ends a Stones album on a deeply positive note — though not necessarily on a deep note, considering how ʽMoonlight Mileʼ gave you the atmosphere of final blissful relaxation after a torturous journey; ʽWaiting On A Friendʼ just gives you an atmosphere of relaxation as such, and not particularly blissful — still, it might be one of those perfect, straightforward buddy anthems that get you with their simplicity and open-hearted nature (in the accompanying video, we saw this personalized in the form of Mick actually waiting for Keith down at St. Mark's Place, and it just isn't possible that anybody who saw this video at the time could have previewed the deep rift between the two that had already begun to spread open).

And really, that's what Tattoo You is all about. It's a simple, fun-lovin' record, tempered with a bit of intelligence and spiced with a couple weird surprises. There's no agenda to it, no special conceptuality, no intuitive understanding and artistic expression of their «band on the run» status as there was on Exile, and no conscious selection of songs according to the principle of «let's include this because it makes us sound like 15-year olds peeping in the girls' bathroom». There's just 45 minutes of non-stop good music, for the last time ever in Stones history. Thumbs up.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Bats: The Deep Set

THE BATS: THE DEEP SET (2017)

1) Rooftops; 2) Looking For Sunshine; 3) Rock And Pillars; 4) Walking Man; 5) No Trace; 6) Diamonds; 7) Antlers; 8) Busy; 9) Steeley Gaze; 10) Durkestan; 11) Shut Your Eyes; 12) Not So Good.

Just another six years, just another Bats album. Yes, these guys are tenacious — they really are bent on earning their «AC/DC of jangle-pop» status. Same stable lineup, same pleasant sound, and... you know, as I am listening to these songs more than three years after I'd written my last Bats review, I realize that I remember very well what the overall Bats sound used to be, but I do not remember how even a single one of those Bats songs went. Not one. Not even the very best ones that I praised in those reviews.

So I am going to make this very short — yes, I listened to The Deep Set thrice, and I liked it, and I can guarantee any Bats fan that if he/she is buying this record, he/she is buying an authentic Bats record and not a polka or a death metal or a modern classical version of The Bats. Conse­quently, you will get yourself some steady mid-tempo jangle-pop (ʽRooftopsʼ), some slow stut­tery jangle-pop (ʽLooking For Sunshineʼ), some bouncy Merseybeat jangle-pop (ʽRock And Pil­larsʼ), some heavily overdubbed mid-tempo jangle-pop (ʽWalking Manʼ), some fuzzy, sharp-edged jangle-pop (ʽNo Traceʼ), some slow jangle-pop with elements of electronica (ʽDiamondsʼ), some jangle-pop mixed with power chords and shit (ʽAntlersʼ), some jangle-pop with a busier lead guitar part than usual (ʽBusyʼ), some jangle-pop with dreamy overtones (ʽSteeley Gazeʼ), some politically-oriented jangle-pop (ʽDurkestanʼ), some adult-contemporary jangle-pop (ʽShut Your Eyesʼ), and some totally non-descript jangle-pop for the last number, because God forbid you take this record off with memories of an outstanding finale (ʽNot So Goodʼ).

Needless to say, all of this should be taken as a hearty recommendation for those Bats fans who feel themselves strong and able and are in no danger of having their stomachs pumped from an overdose of jangle-pop. Everybody else please remember that The Bats in 2017 sound exactly like The Bats in 1987, and that this is the only significant point that this record makes.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Cass McCombs: Dropping The Writ

CASS McCOMBS: DROPPING THE WRIT (2007)

1) Lionkiller; 2) Pregnant Pause; 3) That's That; 4) Petrified Forest; 5) Morning Shadows; 6) Deseret; 7) Crick In My Neck; 8) Full Moon Or Infinity; 9) Windfall; 10) Wheel Of Fortune.

I do not think this was the right way to go. I loved A — it was essentially an album of mantras, and it hypnotized me to a point, depending on how well the singer was able to fine-tune his voice to find that one perfect pitch for the mantra in question. Now, by the time he gets around to his third album, Cass McCombs presents us with his first indisputable collection of pop hooks, and, unfortunately, that just does not work too well.

ʽLionkillerʼ opens the album with a couple of seconds reprising the annoying car siren at the end of ʽAll Your Dreamsʼ — implying, allegedly, that Dropping The Writ has to be taken as a direct sequel to PREfection, but this is not really the case. ʽLionkillerʼ itself is a three-chord grunge-folk rocker, with an endlessly spinning wash cycle that seems to promise some thunderous reso­lution, but never really does — and, what is even worse, McCombs himself is reduced to the role of a boring murmurer, spinning some figuratively autobiographical jumpin'-jack-flash-in-reverse-like tale about his safe middle class upbringing, but without even once making full use of his beautiful voice. Essentially, the song's ominous atmosphere is wasted.

As we proceed further, it becomes obvious that the age of mantras has passed, and that we have entered the age of art-pop instead. That would be okay if we had outstanding musicianship, ori­ginal and memorable melodic lines, or gorgeous vocal hooks — instead, we have tasteful musi­cianship, traditional melodic lines, and such timidly understated vocal hooks that it's almost like having no vocal hooks whatsoever. First time I sat through the record, I believe the melodies just managed to slip through my perception centers altogether; second time, I had my mind nets all polished and ready, but still ended up with slim pickings. I mean, something like ʽMorning Shadowsʼ is really nothing but dream-pop atmosphere: falsetto sweetness, soft guitar jangle, brushed percussion, light summer breeze that fades away as quickly as it comes. Pleasant, but definitely not the reason I'd endorsed Cass McCombs in his original artistic campaign.

Honestly, I do not think this album can seriously catch anybody's eye until the seventh song: ʽCrick In My Neckʼ is the first one to have a silly, but fun chorus, focusing on the protagonist's «body problems» preventing him from floating away in his imaginary psychedelic world. At the very least, this tune actually conforms to what we expect of a pop song — all the previous ones, while also pretending to be pop songs, do not. It helps that the song is propelled by a strong beat and plenty of Townshend-esque power chords, but it is the "brother, could you wait a sec? crick in my neck, crick in my neck!" climactic bit that makes all the difference.

From there on, the songwriting seems to take a turn for the better — ʽFull Moon Or Infinityʼ has an exciting contrast between low-key verses, falsetto choruses, and folksy acoustic picking with a troubled message; ʽWindfallʼ is a welcome return to ultra-slow waltzing tempos where Cass' vocal powers are finally laid out for all to see; and ʽWheel Of Fortuneʼ at least has sonic depth, with several layers of instrumental and vocal overdubs, to provide a good finale. I could not describe any of these songs as «outstanding» on any level, but at least they sound like composi­tions that care about surprising the listener, which is far more than I could say about the first half of the album, with all those telling titles like ʽPetrified Forestʼ (yes, much of that stuff really does sound petrified).

On the whole, Dropping The Writ is an even bigger disappointment than PREfection. Part of the blame, I guess, lies on the strange decision to de-individualize the vocals — there's so much echo, reverb, and other effects placed on them throughout the record, often quite gratuitously, that you almost get the impression of an artist intentionally sabotaging his greatest asset (like Eric Clapton renouncing the status of a guitar god or something like that). Obligatory kudos for trying to branch out, of course, but branching out at the expense of losing something precious without gaining anything is hardly a smart move.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Candlemass: Nightfall

CANDLEMASS: NIGHTFALL (1987)

1) Gothic Stone; 2) The Well Of Souls; 3) Codex Gigas; 4) At The Gallows End; 5) Samarithan; 6) March Funebre; 7) Dark Are The Veils Of Death; 8) Mourner's Lament; 9) Bewitched; 10) Black Candles.

Only their second album, and already they have a new record label (Axis Records), a new drum­mer (Jan Lindh), a new lead guitarist (Lars Johansson), and a new vocalist (Messiah Marcolin; and no, "Messiah" is not his real name, just a sacrilegious substitute for the much more difficult to pronounce Bror Jan Alfredo). And has this changed anything? Heck no! This is still Leif Ed­ling's band, and its primary purpose is still to craft an atmosphere of theatrical doom, because there's no better way to distract yourself from the mundane apocalypse of your own universe than to immerse yourself in a magical mystery apocalypse of a universe where old men in crypts of despair form circles of magic and prayers, where your life will be put to the test as you drink the chalice of divine ambrosia, where the Devil's fingers dance upon the strings like fire, where only the vultures will come to see you hang... well, you get the picture.

As far as the technical and personnel changes are concerned, I would not define these as drastic. The new vocalist is rather a change for the worse — Marcolin is a higher-pitched quasi-operatic screamer without the tiniest speck of grit to his voice; Längqvist was cheesy enough, but at least the man could shoot out a good growl or bark, whereas Marcolin seems dedicated to the idea that Candlemass are producing a doom metal version of Tristan, and that his task is to get into charac­ter. On the other hand, the new lead guitarist is a good acquisition: they are still quite parsimo­nious with their solos, but Johansson, coming from the Van Halen school of thought, has a good way of combining first-rate technique with melodicity, and on those rare occasions when he is given full rein, I like what he is doing (for instance, the solo on ʽDark Are The Veils Of Deathʼ). However, the production still largely sucks: the new drummer gets the same tinny tone as the old one, and the guitars still have a «lo-fi» feel to them that does not allow to fully appreciate the good old Crunch worked out by Björkman.

The riffs, as usual, alternate between leaden-slow doom and thunderous mid-tempo doom, of which I far prefer the latter (ʽDark Are The Veils Of Deathʼ, which sometimes develops into chuggin' thrash) and am somewhat indifferent towards the former (ʽWell Of Soulsʼ, ʽMourner's Lamentʼ, whatever). The overall number of tracks here is higher due to the presence of short instrumental interludes, sometimes decent (ʽCodex Gigasʼ, where they seem to try to recreate the atmosphere of a Gregorian chant with heavy metal guitars) and sometimes not (ʽMarch Funebreʼ: whoever said it was a good idea to make a doom metal arrangement of Chopin?), but the overall makeup of a Candlemass song remains the same — five to seven minutes of a leaden riff, a tale of medieval woe, a couple of short solos, and maybe a nice key change or two in the middle. And again, Eidling and Björkman demonstrate that they are no Tony Iommi when it comes to crafting a nicely thunderous doom metal riff — they have the tone right, they have learned their Devil's interval, but it does not work nearly as well. I believe one reason for this might be that they are too influenced by classical music: some of these melodies, if you mentally transpose them to orchestration, almost seem like Wagnerian leitmotifs, and it never does anybody any good to play Wagnerian leitmotifs with heavy metal guitars.

Still, once they get in a bit of speed and energy, the results are decent — ʽDark Are The Veils Of Deathʼ, for instance, is a really cool song as long as the wounded Tristan keeps his mouth shut (and he does not do it for too long), with a howling doom riff sliding into a funkier one and then into a chuggin' third (gotta love the mood shifts). And on the whole, I do appreciate the musician­ship — I just find it hard to get excited about it even on a cheap fantasy level. (Also, the lyrics are atrocious, but that kind of goes without saying; once again, I miss the deep poetic level of Geezer Butler).

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Caravan: For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night

CARAVAN: FOR GIRLS WHO GROW PLUMP IN THE NIGHT (1973)

1) Memory Lain, Hugh / Headloss; 2) Hoedown; 3) Surprise, Surprise; 4) C'Thlu Thlu; 5) The Dog, The Dog, He's At It Again; 6) Be All Right / Chance Of A Lifetime; 7) L'Auberge Du Sanglier / A Hunting We Shall Go / Pengola / Backwards / A Hunting We Shall Go (reprise).

Good or bad, the Waterloo Lily formula just did not stick, and the new configuration fell apart pretty quickly — with new member Steve Miller leaving for good and taking veteran member Richard Sinclair with him (or, actually, vice versa), forming Hatfield & The North, a band with its own distinct agenda, very different from the Caravan sound. This essentially left Hastings in full control over the remains of the band; however, the rule «no Caravan without a Sinclair pre­sent» still managed to work, since Dave Sinclair rejoined the group in the wake of Richard's de­parture, bringing a much-welcome return back to the organ sound instead of Steve Miller's elec­tric piano. Richard, in the meantime, was replaced by formerly unknown John G. Perry, and in order to expand and thicken the sound, Geoff Richardson was added on electric viola: an auxi­liary musician at first, he then went on to become one of the most permanent fixtures of the Caravan sound for the next four decades.

Simple logical calculations should lead us to expect that the results would suck: without Richard's songwriting and musicianship and with Pye's well-known penchant for a softer, poppier sound, Caravan could have been immediately reduced to sappy-sounding generic mush. Well, that sort of did happen later, but in 1973, Caravan hit back with a vengeance — releasing what was probably their second greatest album, and on certain auspicious days, I'd even say that Girls is more fun and consistent than In The Land Of Grey And Pink, although the latter will, of course, forever remain their most... shall we say, «programmatic» artistic statement.

With all power concentrated in his hands, Pye goes here for a little bit of everything. From basic rock'n'roll (ʽMemory Lain, Hughʼ opens the record with a looped riff groove sounding not unlike the beginning of CCR's ʽRamble Tambleʼ) to elements of Traffic-style roots-rock to bits of spooky hard rock to sentimental pop to multi-part progressive suites, For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night is truly a wonderful gift to all them girls who grow plump in the night (and take good care of the future eclectic musical tastes of their offspring while still in the womb), no matter how many crude sexual jokes Mr. Hastings might want to introduce in the lyrical content of his creations (if you ever wondered what the title ʽThe Dog, The Dog, He's At It Againʼ might be referring to, head straight for the worst possible hypothesis and you'll be hitting it). The re­formed lineup sounds rested, refreshed, and energetic; the songs combine hooks and atmospherics in that classic British manner; and there are neither any signs of the band «selling out» to the commercial pop machine, nor any signs of their ambitions overclouding their capacities — the curse of being «too progressive for their own good», already applicable in 1973 to such bands as Jethro Tull or Yes, does not apply to this record at all.

The very first track, a merger of two heavily rhythmic, uplifting pop-prog compositions, seems to represent the wish for a new beginning — "I just want the chance to try and find me", Pye sings on the ʽMemory Lainʼ part, and although I have no idea whether he did it on this track or not, the devotion sounds sincere and powerful enough. Richardson's viola on the instrumental parts fits right in with Sinclair's returning organ and brother Jimmy's flute soloing, and on the faster ʽHeadlossʼ groove, is a good fit for Pye's own wah-wah soloing. There's no boundary breaking here, just a few good-natured vocal hooks and life-asserting, inspired jamming in between, seemingly shooing away the odd darkness of Waterloo Lily and ushering in a new wave of sunshine without too much sappiness.

The friendly atmosphere carries over to ʽHoedownʼ, a song clearly inspired by country-western stylistics (especially in terms of Richardson's fiddle-like viola solo) but essentially pop-rockish when it comes to the vocal melody; ʽSurprise, Surpriseʼ, one of Pye's best exercises in pure sen­timental pop-rock; and, of course, the already mentioned ʽThe Dog, The Dogʼ, probably the single most controversial example in history when an essentially salacious matter would be pre­sented as a sunny-sweet pop singalong, steadily moving to a vocal harmony-filled crescendo climax in ʽHey Judeʼ mode. The song clearly invites the listener to join in the angelic choir of "oh, medicine gone, it's coming on strong", experiencing a state of loving bliss over lyrics that might make even Howlin' Wolf reconsider, had he ever been offered a line like "legs and thighs, hellos and goodbyes it's all there". It's like Pye Hastings took a good look at Mick Jagger singing stuff like ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ and said, "oh, great goals, crude methods, we'll try it subtler". Of course, this didn't exactly help him gain a lot of teenage girl fans, but in the ideally comprehensive encyclopaedia of «sexuality in music», with tracks like these, Caravan have certainly deserved their own and nobody else's chapter.

In the middle of all the sunshine comes an unexpected blast of creepiness — ʽC'Thlu Thluʼ, clearly a jumbled homage to H. P. Lovecraft, is a horror-themed track, driven by a deep bass riff that sounds like Sabbath-lite and panicky lyrics that would be quite appropriate for Ozzy. Not that Caravan could really be capable of a genuine «the-Devil-is-after-me» atmosphere: the song's chorus, with a funky change of key and an excited rather than scared vocal performance, subverts the whole thing and makes it deeply ironic. But that does not mean that the track does not rule anyway — with its abundance of cool heavy riffs, Sinclair's medievalistic organ playing, and a crashing coda, this is as close to «metallic» as these guys ever got, and in the context of the re­cord, it works great in between all the sunshine-oriented songs.

The «old school Caravan» is probably best represented on the final multi-part suite. With sub­titles like ʽA Hunting We Shall Goʼ you'd probably expect to find some influences from ye olde British folk or at least court music from the Tudorian era, and, indeed, the suite begins with a medieva­listic acoustic melody, but then quickly jumps into paranoid jazz-rock mode and finally settles on a slow tempo, grand orchestration (for which purpose they spared no expense and hired master orchestrator Paul Buckmaster), Wagnerian brass, and psychedelic swirling Davolisint hums. With a reprise of the jazzy ʽHuntingʼ section at the end, the suite, for once, sounds like a thematically oriented, smoothly flowing musical journey, sensibly organized from beginning to end rather than just being mindlessly pasted from several available bits and pieces. In fact, in a certain way the entire album could be taken for such a journey — beginning on a fairly light note, then picking up elements of deeper seriousness as it goes along, and finally culminating in the grand finale.

With Caravan's ongoing low-key profile and lack of stage flashiness, there was hardly any hope for the record to become more noticed than its predecessors — but in retrospect, it stands out humble-and-proud as one of the best progressive-themed albums of 1973. If we stick to chrono­logically based comparisons, I'd go as far as to call it the «high comedy» counterpart to the «high tragedy» of Selling England By The Pound: tackling some of the same matters (including the sexual obsessions of both frontmen), but substituting Peter Gabriel's melancholy and bitterness for Pye Hastings' warm irony and optimism. And if we don't stick to chronologically based com­parisons, it is just a charming piece of British progressive rock, and Caravan's last great hurrah in an epoch that was already rapidly moving to a close. So, a big thumbs up before it's too late!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Bat Chain Puller

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: BAT CHAIN PULLER (1976; 2012)

1) Bat Chain Puller; 2) Seam Crooked Sam; 3) Harry Irene; 4) 81 Poop Hatch; 5) Flavor Bud Living; 6) Brick Bats; 7) Floppy Boot Stomp; 8) Ah Carrot Is As Close As Ah Rabbit Gets To Ah Diamond; 9) Owed T'Alex; 10) Odd Jobs; 11) Human Totem Pole; 12) Apes-Ma; 13) Bat Chain Puller (alternate mix); 14) Candle Mambo; 15) Hobo-ism.

The latest and, probably, the most arduously expected archival release from the Captain is this: the original Bat Chain Puller, recorded in 1976 but shelved due to personal and technical prob­lems before being reborn in an entirely new coating three years later. In 2012, it finally got an official stamp of release on Gail Zappa's Vaulternative label, set up to handle Frank's archives — and, as it turned out, a little bit of Don Van Vliet's as well. Of course, veteran fans had already known all of this for a long time from their bootleg copies, but now, here's the Captain sending you one more gift from the grave without having you break the law or anything.

As you already know, most of the songs from Bat Chain Puller eventually became Shiny Beast, but a couple short instrumentals (ʽCarrotʼ and ʽFlavor Bud Livingʼ) and one vocal number (ʽBrick Batsʼ) had to wait until Doc At The Radar Station, and two more (ʽ81 Poop Hatchʼ and ʽHuman Totem Poleʼ) had to wait all the way until Ice Cream For Crow. Considering that ʽOdd Jobsʼ was already available on Grow Fins (albeit in demo form and very poor sound quality), the only song I do not recognize at all is ʽSeam Crooked Samʼ, another of Beefheart's beatnik recitations set to a background of gently noodling avant-jazz guitars. Additionally, the album is expanded with a few bonuses, such as an alternate mix of the title track and a lengthy improvised piece, ʽHobo-ismʼ — eight minutes of acoustic blues guitar, harmonica, and the Captain in Son House / John Lee Hooker mode, mumbling, growling, and howling out strings of neo-blues lyrics to an «authentic» dark country blues backing. Admittedly, it's fun for a couple minutes, but gets tedious very quickly if you're not too deeply into that kind of thing.

So what's the deal, anyway? Does this old recording still deserve its own place under the sun, or has it been rendered completely superfluous by Shiny Beast? From one point of view — given that the Captain was always very specific about preserving the compositional structure and arrangement details of his songs, and never really favored improvised variations on any of his songs once they were finished — it is superfluous: although the new recordings, considering both the complexity of the songs and the fact that everything had to be redone from scratch under new studio conditions, could not help but sound somewhat different, they are still exceptionally close, enough to make the comparison more interesting for the Beefheart historian than the average fan. On the other hand, the two albums were recorded by significantly different lineups of The Magic Band — for instance, Bat Chain Puller did not have Bruce Fowler on trombone, whereas Shiny Beast did not feature John French — and this makes the original version sound a bit more raw and less cluttered with extra instrumentation than Shiny Beast. So it's not like you aren't really offered a choice: some people did complain about a slight overproduction problem on Shiny Beast, and this gives them a chance to rejoice and pick a new intimate favorite.

I do have at least this to say: although I am still largely indifferent to ʽHuman Totem Poleʼ, this version of it here sounds far more tight and energetic than the one on Ice Cream For Crow, largely because John French is a better drummer (or, at least, a better Beefheart-style drummer) than Cliff R. Martinez, and is able to lock himself in a better coordinated groove with the two surrounding guitar players. Also, the track works better without the Captain's ugly sax blowing all over it (sorry, all you best friends of the Beefheart-'n'-saxophone alliance). The rest, well — I frankly don't care all that much, but since I like Shiny Beast, it's nice to be able to hear a few highlights in slightly edgier, though not necessarily better, versions. Anyway, no enlightening revelations here, but a pleasant souvenir for the fans and a useful piece of the Beefheart puzzle to put together with the rest.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Barbara Lewis: The Many Grooves Of Barbara Lewis

BARBARA LEWIS: THE MANY GROOVES OF BARBARA LEWIS (1970)

1) Baby, That's A No-No; 2) Windmills Of Your Mind; 3) Slip Away; 4) How Can I Tell; 5) Break Away; 6) Oh, Be My Love; 7) Just The Way You Are Today; 8) Anyway; 9) But You Know I Love You; 10) You Made Me A Woman; 11) The Stars; 12) Do I Deserve It Baby.

Before fading out completely, Barbara Lewis got one last chance at parading her muse with this record, released on the Enterprise label — a subsidiary of Stax, founded largely to accommodate the early production of Isaac Hayes, even though Barbara was never much of a Hayes protege (at least, I am not aware of any of his songs that she'd covered). Once again, for some reason, the emphasis is on the «groove» side of Lewis, an artist whose smooth balladry had always been as far removed from «grooving» as possible — but if you understand «groovy» in the sense of "life, I love you, all is groovy", then you just might have something there.

The record continues well in the vein of its predecessor: pure ballads aside, there's quite a few rhythmic tracks with some energy and «bottom» to them, enough to compete at least formally with classic Motown material, if never in terms of catchiness or originality — not surprisingly, since, once again, most of the writers here are professional pop (and sometimes blues) experts, in touch with formulas but largely out of touch with the spirit. Once again, despite the label change, Lewis gets no chance at advancing her own songwriting techniques — and, who knows, perhaps she simply did not care by this time.

A few of the songs seem to want to feature a refreshed, revitalized Barbara Lewis singing in a deeper, more powerful voice — ʽBaby, That's A No-Noʼ opens the album on precisely this note, and Morris Dollison's ʽBreak Awayʼ (alas, nothing to do with the classic Beach Boys song of the same name) is a relative highlight in the same vein, although the former song has Barbara stan­ding her ground against The Guy, while ʽBreak Awayʼ has her standing her ground against her­self, because she can't break away from The Guy. Funky, soulful, lightly tragic, well framed by ghostly backing vocals, this is, I guess, every bit as good as any contemporary Diana Ross song, but there's a problem — Barbara Lewis as a strong-tempered character just does not come across as perfectly convincing; you can still tell that suave, sentimental numbers like ʽOh Be My Loveʼ and ʽAnywayʼ represent her natural turf. Therefore, on one hand, it is a relief to see a record that has more funky guitar, well-syncopated bass, and toe-tappy rhythms than all of Barbara's pre­vious career put together — on the other hand, it is sad to see how unfit she is, in general, for feeling at home with this music.

It works fairly well as a finale to a mediocre, but inoffensive and mildly charming career: after this record, nothing whatsoever would be heard from Barbara in the music world, apart from an occasional nostalgic emergence (as of the 2010s, she can still be seen performing). Nevertheless, despite the mediocrity, there is still a certain small market for albums like these — clean, taste­ful, thoroughly derivative, but full of tiny individual nuances that will not go unnoticed by serious fans of «soft R'n'B» — and while most of the world will probably only remember Barbara Lewis for ʽHello Strangerʼ and ʽBaby I'm Yoursʼ, a tiny smidgen of the world still might want to remem­ber her for her many grooves, and there'd be nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Emotional Rescue

THE ROLLING STONES: EMOTIONAL RESCUE (1980)

1) Dance (Pt. 1); 2) Summer Romance; 3) Send It To Me; 4) Let Me Go; 5) Indian Girl; 6) Where The Boys Go; 7) Down In The Hole; 8) Emotional Rescue; 9) She's So Cold; 10) All About You.

I must confess: I have absolutely no idea how an album like Emotional Rescue could have been put together in the Stones' camp right on the heels of an album like Some Girls. For all their fluctuations, the Rolling Stones rarely leave me baffled and bewildered, but even after all these years, forcing myself to relisten to this total pile of crap (at least, by the average Stones' standard of the time) is as uncomfortable as looking at Mick Jagger with a full-grown beard, no matter how well he tries to hide it on the thermographic picture on the front cover. Goats Head Soup may have been a disappointment, and It's Only Rock'n'Roll may have been an unpleasant exer­cise in debauchery, and even Some Girls was more comical than rebel-rousing, but Emotional Rescue is the first — and, in fact, the only one of just two — Rolling Stones albums that flat-out sucks. Essentially, it sounds like a parody on the Rolling Stones, written and recorded by a bunch of guys who have no idea how to make a proper parody on the Rolling Stones.

What's really puzzling about this is that the record began life as an attempt to repeat the winning formula of Some Girls. Like its predecessor, it flirts with disco (twice now, first on ʽDanceʼ and then on the title track), country (ʽIndian Girlʼ), slow blues (ʽDown In The Holeʼ), New Wave-influenced pop-rock (ʽShe's So Coldʼ), and punk rock (ʽSummer Romanceʼ, ʽLet Me Goʼ); in fact, much of its material comes from songs that were first tried during the Some Girls sessions and then rejected in favor of better material. That, in itself, is a warning sign — for some reason, the Stones did not bother to prepare a fresh batch of compositions before going to Nassau and then back to Paris to start work on the new album. But it is not the main problem, either.

The main problem is that Emotional Rescue just sounds... dorky. It is one of the few Stones albums where I honestly wish to strangle Mick on every second song — and where, which may be even worse, I barely recognize Keith on every second song. If you listen to early versions of such rockers as ʽSummer Romanceʼ and ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ from the 1978 sessions, they're still mediocre songs, rightfully rejected in favor of much stronger tunes like ʽLiesʼ and ʽRespec­tableʼ, but at least they clearly sound like classic Stones. The sound on Emotional Rescue, mean­while, is blatantly wimpy, with Keith in particular — for no reason at all! — taking a liking to the kind of contemporary rhythm guitar playing typical of, say, Ric Ocasek: a thin, nerdy, «clucking» sound that was perfect for The Cars, but is simply ridiculous in the case of the Stones. It's the tone you hear at the beginning of ʽLet Me Goʼ or ʽShe's So Coldʼ, as well — see, it's good for ʽMy Best Friend's Girlʼ, but not the creator of ʽCan't You Hear Me Knockingʼ. In the end, this sound does not even let them preserve the biting sarcastic qualities of the rock'n'roll of Some Girls. It just makes them sound like jokers.

But the situation is exacerbated with the «shit-artistic» inclinations of Mick, who must have written and recorded all his parts in some odd drunken haze, because with his lyrics and vocal deliveries over Keith's skeletal riffs, most of this record is the pop-rock equivalent of taking your pants down in the ladies' bathroom and posting the results on Youtube. No previous Stones record had ever contained that much toilet humor and flat sexual braggadoccio reflecting the mental level of a 14-year old hick. In the place of a rough, offensive, politically incorrect, but smart and meanly aggressive ʽWhen The Whip Comes Downʼ, we now have ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ, offi­cially one of the top three or four worst Stones song ever, a limp variation on ʽLiesʼ whose only goal is to wind itself up to the triumphant barroom sloganeering at the end — "where the boys go, for a little piece of ass! where the boys go, for a little piece of cunt!". («Hey, Mick, guess what? We're now allowed to say ʽcuntʼ on record! Goodbye for good, 1964!» «No kidding? Go for it, quick, before they change their mind or something!»).

ʽSummer Romanceʼ, well fit for a soundtrack to one of those dumb teen sex comedies of the Eighties that only worked as an excuse to see some boobs, is hardly any better — no decent riff, a weak drive, and a laughable imitation of uncontrollable adolescent lust by somebody who used to be a subtle and devious Casanova, but has now willingly reduced himself to the image of a drunk flasher, scaring little girls with his bad breath rather than his midnight rambling. The sex drive extends to other genres as well — ʽSend It To Meʼ, the band's first original experiment with reggae, is an anthem to mail-order brides who could be Rumanian, could be «Bubarian» (? does he mean Bulgarian?), could be The Alien, and, in any case, seem to represent a socially relevant, artistically important topic to cover for the 1980 incarnation of the Rolling Stones. At least if they gave it to somebody like Randy Newman, he could probably find the right tone for this tune: Jagger almost makes it sound like he's serious, and in the process, ruins a bad joke by making it even worse. The only consolation here is that the band members probably understand very well how inescapably idiotic all these tunes are — when was the last time you ever saw them doing any of this stuff in concert?

The disco bits are equally disappointing. With ʽMiss Youʼ, you actually had to remind yourself that you were listening to a disco tune — so peripheral was its bassline to its general atmosphere of longing and yearning. Here, we get ʽDanceʼ, which is not even a song: it is just a dance groove, peppered with boring Jagger ad-libs. At some point, it turns out to be a less memorable variation on the funky ʽTrampled Underfootʼ rhythm, but at no point ever does it turn out to have a riff as memorable as, say, the one on ʽHot Stuffʼ, and at no point does it ever sound like something that could not have been churned out by half a million funk/R&B outfits, black or white, around the globe. Meanwhile, the title track is truly an attempt at crafting a totally superficial, suave, sexy disco-pop song, with Mick embracing Bee Gees-ish falsetto and ad-libbing stuff about being your knight in shining armor on an Arab charger. Clearly, it's all tongue-in-cheek, but it's only clear if you place it in the overall context of the Stones — on its own, it is just a bad disco song, trying to woo you over with yet another falsetto vocalise; but where the "whoo-ooh-OOH-ooh ooh-ooh-ooh" of ʽMiss Youʼ combined sexiness with a pinch of pain and yearning, the "uh-UH uh-uh uh uh-uh-UH" of ʽEmotional Rescueʼ is merely the projection of the rhythm of the lead vocalist's throbbing dick, trying to break free from the knight's shining armor, which is not that easy to do while you're being borne full speed by an Arab charger. Stupid!

In the middle of all this puerile bacchanalia, unexpectedly come two decent songs that sound so totally out of place here, it's like some other band replaced them for a brief while (or, more accu­rately, it might be the band briefly coming out of paralysis to shoo away their evil grinning twins, usurping the studio). ʽIndian Girlʼ, while still probably at the bottom list of their escapades into country, is a sweet-and-sad rumination on Latin American politics, largely restricted to just one repetitive melody line, but still poignant; and ʽDown In The Holeʼ is a slow, dark, harmonica-driven, socially-critical blues with Mick in surprisingly fine and fiery form — making it almost impossible to believe that this is the very man who has just spent twenty minutes entertaining you with toilet humor of the lowest variety. He still overbarks it, but I'd rather take this overbarking, thank you very much, in the context of a bitterly wailing harp and Ronnie's and Keith's equally bitter, soulful interplay, than in the context of a never-going-anywhere ʽSummer Romanceʼ.

On a sidenote, I admit being somewhat partial to ʽShe's So Coldʼ. Although the song dutifully fits the dumb sexist pattern of the rest of the album (this time, we find Mick complaining about the frigidity of his partner — what's next in line, ʽShe's So Not Into Analʼ?), it features a lighter, poppier tone than ʽSummer Romanceʼ or ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ, and with a slightly slower tempo, lengthier instrumental passages, and a generally more quiet Mick, gives Keith and Ronnie a good chance to practice their weaving technique — I might like it even more if it were completely in­strumental, but even as it stands, there's a bit of charm and genuine humor about it that I find completely lacking in the other raunchy songs on the album.

On a mixed note, though, the album closer ʽAll About Youʼ, handed over to Keith, returns us to the world of mushy Keith ballads that was born with ʽComing Down Againʼ seven years before and is usually appreciated by those fans to whom the very idea of «soulful Keith», singing com­pletely out of tune but completely with his heart on his sleeve, is enough to forgive everything else. Personally, I think Keith's ballads work fine when they are fully shaped and hookful, like ʽSlipping Awayʼ, but ʽAll About Youʼ is basically just a groove and a long, long string of tune­lessly delivered lyrics that may or may not be about his breakup with Anita Pallenberg (or, if you think deeper, may or may not be about his impending breakup with Mick Jagger). Nice, but Keith could probably cut a dozen pieces like that in a single session.

Bottomline is: I have managed to find plenty of redeeming factors for post-'72 Stones albums over the years, going from one-time total rejection to provisional or even unconditional endorse­ments of much of the stuff that I once thought of as «below the belt territory». It is, after all, hypocritical to confess to liking AC/DC and at the same time condemning ʽIt's Only Rock'n'Rollʼ or ʽCrazy Mamaʼ for not being «deep enough» or something. However, even now it remains very hard to find anything redeeming about Emotional Rescue — a total misstep that could, perhaps, only have originated in the turbulent, value-redefining atmosphere of transition from the 1970s to the 1980s (and it is no coincidence that 1980, after a brief period of convalescence, also brought a veritable turn for the worse in Jagger's scenic image, but you will have to wait for my review of Still Life to hear more on that). Again, it is hardly surprising that, with the exception of ʽShe's So Coldʼ, perhaps, not a single song from this record so far has managed to earn itself even a tem­porary spot in the band's post-1982 live repertoire (barring a few occasional performances of ʽDanceʼ and the title track, mostly out of boredom) — kudos to Mick and Keith for implicitly recognizing, on their own, how stupid and wasted most of this stuff has sounded from the begin­ning. Alas, a major thumbs down here, folks.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Austra: Future Politics

AUSTRA: FUTURE POLITICS (2017)

1) We Were Alive; 2) Future Politics; 3) Utopia; 4) I'm A Monster; 5) I Love You More Than You Love Yourself; 6) Angel In Your Eye; 7) Freepower; 8) Gaia; 9) Beyond A Mortal; 10) Deep Thought; 11) 43.

First time I put this on, it absolutely sucked, the verdict being simple: it took Stilmanis but two records to become so full of herself that on the third one, she simply pushes forward her socio­political agenda (which is not too different from your basic leftist values, just stated in her own way) without caring too much about how good the music is. Sound familiar? Yes, many people took that same road before, so why shouldn't she, as a responsible Canadian citizen?

Fortunately, this did not turn me off to the point of not allowing for further listens — and even­tually, it became possible to warm up to Future Politics. See, it's still quite a decent pop album, with plenty of vocal hooks and a nice shot of personality. It seems self-evident to me that at this point, the lady is much less interested in the intricacies of musical textures than she is in stating her beliefs, issues, and manifestos through the musical medium — but the one thing that conti­nues to separate her from much of the competition is that she still has her own style, and that style is... well, suitable enough for the expression of beliefs, issues, and manifestos without causing an irrepressible urge to use a waterhose on the expressor (expressionist?).

The opening track, ʽWe Were Aliveʼ, is proof enough of that. The entire synth palette here is restricted to about two chords, plus a trip-hoppy percussion track that almost seems out of place (Katie herself said she was inspired by Massive Attack, but if you smoothen out the percussion and replace her vocals with something less shrill, you will rather get Enya) — the emphasis is placed squarely on the chorus hook, where, in the most plaintive tone imaginable, she asks you "what if we were alive?", transparently suggesting that we are not, because "I believed in nothing before". This immediately sets up a somewhat more realistic tone for the rest of the album, even more realistic than on Olympia, and opens up a more human dimension to her voice and general aura — not exactly a «compensation» as such for the lack of musical depth, but at least some­thing to keep you respectfully distracted from the drop in pure musicality.

On the other end of the atmospheric pole, the title track is a techno-stylized dance number with predictably, perhaps even generically bubbling synth loops, but a catchy chorus ("I'm never coming back here, there's only one way — future politics!" she chirps with the accent placed on the last syllable of "politics" and the mood of a little girl, innocently hopping from tussock to tussock), reflecting pretty utopian beliefs in a kind world ruled by socialist technology. Again, this is melodically simple, but it states its point in a non-obnoxious way, which, paradoxically, might make you want to take it seriously — efficient, not stupid, simplicity.

The rest of the album veers and wobbles between these «balladeering» and «rocking» extremes: I do not see even a single song here that would approach the unusual sonic overlays and interesting classically-influenced chords of Feel It Break, but even without that, most of the tracks have some emotional tug. ʽUtopiaʼ is a broken-hearted-falsetto-laden obituary to the «old Toronto» disappearing under the alleged onslaught of mindless urbanization; ʽI'm A Monsterʼ has the line "I don't feel nothing, anymore" delivered in a creepily believable manner; and ʽI Love You More Than You Love Yourselfʼ is an excellent ballad whose troubled and caring verse melodies make a cool contrast with the strangely grandiose delivery of the chorus hook — reminds me of all that arch-deeply-felt Sinead O'Connor dark romanticism, except this is better.

Without spending too much on this, let me just summarize the main points. These songs are not at all musically challenging or original. Most of them are also intentionally non-enigmatic, with lyrics that could easily be decoded even by those who shun, detest, and close their minds to any sort of symbolism. The system of beliefs and values behind the music is quite standard: socialism, environmentalism, compassion, and a bit of New Age to tone down the anger. But Stilmanis is a natural talent, if not exactly genius, and when she asks me, "do you acknowledge what I'm saying?" on the last track, I'm tempted to reply in the positive. I still like the atmosphere, I admit she still uses her voice as a cool and experimental musical instrument, and, aw shucks, I just think there's plenty of catchiness in these choruses to merit a thumbs up. At the same time, I'm also pretty sure that if she does not recapture proper composer's inspiration in the near future, any subsequent albums are bound to get much worse — there's only so long you can sustain public interest in a rigid formula if you just keep simplifying it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Cass McCombs: Prefection

CASS McCOMBS: PREFECTION (2005)

1) Equinox; 2) Subtraction; 3) Multiple Suns; 4) Tourist Woman; 5) Sacred Heart; 6) She's Still Suffering; 7) Cuckoo; 8) Bury Mary; 9) City Of Brotherly Love; 10) All Your Dreams May Come True.

Already he is moving away from the formula established on A — only a few songs here, such as ʽCuckooʼ and the closing ʽAll Your Dreams Come Trueʼ, give us the same dreamy tempos and repetitive verses... and I sort of miss it. The general idea here is that if you speed up the tempos, pump out a bit more energy, throw in even more instruments (often bringing the atmosphere to Phil Spector kind of standards), and make your vocal melodies more similar to Roy Orbison pop than to Leonard Cohen balladeering, this gives you an entire new face. And it does, but somehow it does not feel as uniquely enchanting as it did on the first record. Maybe because deep-booming dream-pop with lush overtones is something that is constantly on the market, be it courtesy of British Sea Power or Sufjan Stevens, while something as ridiculously simple and entrancing as "I heard my Master, spoke with your Master..." is not. Or maybe some people are born for captiva­ting simplicity and some people are born for challenging complexity. I have no idea.

Anyway, that is not to say that Prefection, or, rather, PREfection, as they prefer to stylize it, is bad or boring. In fact, Cass is good at carefully preserving his essence while pouring it into a new bottle — one offered to him by the 4AD label, to which he was now signed, and given 4AD's emphasis on all things dreamy, from Cocteau Twins to Dead Can Dance, the shift in style may have come automatically and subconsciously. ʽEquinoxʼ greets us with big bashing drums, deep echoes, a subliminal synth river tone that runs through it, and vocals that are just as beautiful as they used to be, but are now so echoey and delicate that sometimes you almost feel them rather than hear them. Meanwhile, the lyrics become even more cabbalistic than they used to be ("deep in the heart of Fontainebleau / the marriage of a whore and a Jew"? which hidden episode in French history have I missed?), and I prefer to distance myself from them altogether and simply enjoy the sentimental mysticism of it all. If there's black magic involved, I don't want to know, but the melody certainly suggests nothing of the kind.

On ʽSubtractionʼ, he takes the base rhythm of ʽYou Can't Hurry Loveʼ and, again, adapts it for his own purposes, as he does with a lots of things subsequently — except that ʽSubtractionʼ has no catchy chorus; instead, just as the prolonged synth tone colored ʽEquinoxʼ, so is ʽSubtractionʼ colored by equally long-winded organ notes, giving the song a religious rather than amorous aura and culminating in a howl of "please leave me alone!" that subtly suggests, like ʽA Comedianʼ on the previous record, that the artist does have painful concerns of his own, and is not always re­signed to the role of outside observer.

The musical experiments, rooted in accumulated experience, continue with ʽMultiple Sunsʼ, spun around a martial bassline and prog-rockish synthesizers in the background; ʽTourist Womanʼ, the man's first attempt at a really fast song, with hideously distorted guitars, a frantic rhythm track shamelessly appropriated from The Jam's ʽPrivate Hellʼ; ʽSacred Heartʼ, all jangly-like and soulful and sounding like The Smiths with extra Mellotron; and ʽShe's Still Sufferingʼ, with the biggest wall-of-sound on the album, largely due to the overpowering drums and the keyboards and vocal harmonies now completely taking over the guitars — with wave-like / veil-like psyche­delic textures that sound like My Bloody Valentine with keyboards.

Sorry, that might just be one too many references out there, but this is also what constitutes the record's problem — it brings on too many outside associations instead of focusing squarely on Mr. McCombs and his own distillation of reality. Where A had the balance just right, on PREfection he sometimes ends up lost in his own songs, trying, perhaps, too hard to gain respect as a musi­cian at the expense of standing his own ground as an artist. Oh, and one obvious influence I still have to mention (sorry) is Wilco — that mix of surrealist electronics with a country-pop sensi­bility that was so lauded in the case of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is evidently inspiring the introduc­tions to ʽSacred Heartʼ and ʽAll Your Dreams May Come Trueʼ, the latter of which melodically sounds inspired by ʽThings We Said Todayʼ. Okay, I'll shut up now.

I like each of these songs — am not enthralled by any of them, but they're tasteful, original, and deep enough to earn an unquestionable thumbs up. But I guess they also illustrate how doggone hard it is for an obviously talented artist to make a mind-blowing record in the 21st century, and, perhaps, explain why for so many talented artists of the 21st century their first album turns out to be their best — it is the one album that comes to them totally naturally; as they begin to force themselves to come up with something that expands on the beginnings, though, they immediately fall upon well-trodden paths and become less «themselves» and more of a pale mix of themselves with somebody else. Still, let us not allow too much theorizing to distract us from the simple melancholic beauty of ʽCuckooʼ or the grandiose scope of ʽCity Of Brotherly Loveʼ (a song where I do not understand even a single line, except for "yes I've read my Plato, too", which, however, does not make life for you any better even if you've also read your Plato).

On a final note, be sure to turn your player off right at the end of the musical part of ʽAll Your Dreamsʼ, because, as a bonus, you get six minutes of street noises dominated by a car siren that will not go off. Apparently, six minutes of a car siren making hell in the middle of a busy street is supposed to symbolize something, and you are welcome to spend the rest of your life decoding that symbolism, or debating the issue of whether you are more partial to dumb artists or intelli­gent artists... and thinking about the thin line that separates ones from others.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Candlemass: Epicus Doomicus Metallicus

CANDLEMASS: EPICUS DOOMICUS METALLICUS (1986)

1) Solitude; 2) Demon's Gate; 3) Crystal Ball; 4) Black Stone Wielder; 5) Under The Oak; 6) A Sorcerer's Pledge.

I confess that I have never read any interviews with Leif Edling or any other members of Candle­mass, let alone any official or unofficial biography of the band — and therefore, I have no idea of how deeply serious they are themselves about their music. But whatever they have to say about it, it would be very hard for me to accept that anybody who names their first album Epicus Doo­micus Metallicus could do it without a tongue-in-cheek attitude. Really, this is within the same sphere as «Biggus Dickus» or something like that. And it makes me happy, too, because a solid healthy tongue-in-cheek attitude is the only thing that can save Candlemass from a massive face­palm, all of their historical importance notwithstanding.

Apparently, the entire genre of «doom metal» owes its formalization to the title of Candlemass' debut — and when it appeared, it did sound significantly different from earlier purveyors of the style, such as Saint Vitus and Pentagram. They were one of the first Scandinavian (in this case, Swedish) bands to open up the floodgates for Valhalla-Ragnarök-inspired heavy music, and, like every pioneering outfit, might sound a little crude, unpolished, and naïve in comparison with their followers — much like Black Sabbath, their chief source of inspiration, might also seem in com­parison with the general heavy metal scene that followed. But they have their advantages, too, a chief one being driven by the excitement that accompanies trying out a new formula.

A formula it is, of course, as bassist Leif Edling (who writes most of the music) and his pals capitalize on but one aspect of Sabbath — the slow, solemn, earth-shattering brutality of impen­ding doom — and expand it to forty-three minutes of dungeon-crawling music for your paganistic pleasure. Since the songs are slow, they are also long (just six tracks in all), and mood-wise, their goal is always exactly the same, making it understandably hard to come up with separate judge­ments for individual tracks. Differences include the presence/absence of acoustic intros and inter­ludes; the presence/absence of slightly sped up parts; increased/understated presence of lead guitar; increased/diminished function of the synthesizer (yes, a few tracks are marred by Queens­rychian keyboards, but, thankfully, not all of them, and I do believe that the credits do not even include a special listing for keyboards).

Typically, the weakest link in Candlemass is the vocalist: in their minds, the style calls for a pompous screamer rather than a vulnerable-street-guy like Ozzy, but they couldn't lay their hands on anybody of at least Ronnie James Dio caliber, either, so they had to settle for a Tony Martin look-alike instead and go along with Johan Längqvist, a large-piped loudmouth who is trying to deliver the apocalyptic / medievalistic lyrics with as much pathos as his pipes allow him, but also happens to be endowed with below-zero charisma and personality. Unfortunately, there's a lot of the lyrics on the album: were they to simply confine him to singing one opening and one closing verse and then devote the rest of the time to instrumental magic-making, things would get more tolerable and interesting — as it is, he happens to be all over the place, and it's bad.

What is good, then? The riffs. Edling's melodic skills are not directly comparable to Iommi in his prime — there is not a single passage here that would come close to the immediate visionary brilliance of an ʽElectric Funeralʼ or an ʽInto The Voidʼ — but he is still close to a perfect adept of the Iommi textbook, and rhythm guitarist Mats Björkman is able to reproduce that metal-melting, Hell-raising tone that, for some reason, had all but vanished off the Earth's surface after Sabbath's peak years. Meanwhile, lead guitarist Klas Bergwall, although kept amazingly quiet most of the time, occasionally erupts with new-generation metal solos that try to combine old school fluency and melodicity with a more technical, post-Van Halen attitude. The result is an interesting update on the Sabbath sound that is nowhere near as memorable as the original, but does not sound like mere slavish imitation, either.

If only one song needed to be singled out of the overall sludgy mass, I'd probably go for ʽUnder The Oakʼ, which is melodically as close to (slow) thrash metal as they ever get here and, because of that, gets an extra aggressive angle — most of these tunes just growl and grumble under your feet, but the opening riff of ʽUnder The Oakʼ actually snaps at your feet. If it weren't for the ne­ces­sity to somehow erase the vocal track from the corresponding channel in your brain ("MY HEART! BLEEDING FOR MY RACE!" — don't worry, they actually mean ʽmankindʼ under ʽraceʼ here, there are no traces of Aryan supremacy or anything like that, but it still sounds very, very ridiculous), this would be close to the perfect Candlemass song... unfortunately, since most of the vocals on Candlemass songs are dorky, there is no such thing as a perfect Candlemass song. As for the Iommi-style riffs, the best ones are probably on ʽSolitudeʼ (which is not a cover of the Sabbath tune, but the fact that they have a song by that name is probably not a coincidence) and ʽDemon's Gateʼ, but really, most of these slow sludgy monsters are interchangeable.

For all its alleged importance, still, Epicus is hardly the best possible Candlemass album. For one thing, even if the formula is established here 100%, it suffers from mediocre production values: the drums sound too tinny, and the guitars sound oddly distant, as if they had microphone prob­lems — worse, in fact, than those fifteen-year old Sabbath albums on which they were modeling themselves. Strangely, it may have something to do with the shittiness of Stockholm's studios at the time: Bathory's debut, recorded two years prior to this, suffered from the same problem. Even­tually, they'd get it straight, but for now, Epicus Domicus is more like Crapicus Sonicus in certain respects. Oh, and I can't really remember a single song, either, but for that one, I was fully prepared. Just as I was for brilliant lines like "The dawn was to come with the sunrise" and "Cursed be the sun / The women will weep for his fun / In the name of his magic so strong". What I was not prepared for was how oddly «homebrewn», in a way, this whole thing sounds: a problem that would not be overcome for quite some time yet. Still, I guess that the combination of an overall cool sound and historical importance should account for a mild thumbs up, despite production issues, lyrics that make Geezer Butler sound like Keats in comparison, and a vocalist whom I would very gladly "let die in solitude" if he'd only let me. Why shouldn't he? Death is his sanctuary, he seeks it with pleasure, his lifeblood is exhausted anyway...

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Caravan: Waterloo Lily

CARAVAN: WATERLOO LILY (1972)

1) Waterloo Lily; 2) Nothing At All; 3) Songs And Signs; 4) Aristocracy; 5) The Love In Your Eye; 6) The World Is Yours.

For some reason, this album tends to receive a colder welcome than its neighbors on both sides of the chronology, and I still can't quite figure out why. I can certainly see where a pop lover would dismiss it — what with the album taking such an odd turn for jazz-rockish jamming and all — but surely prog fans should be overjoyed seeing the group, if not exactly return to the style of If I Could Do It All Over Again..., then at least capitalize on the more challenging aspects of In The Land Of Grey And Pink. But apparently, no, Waterloo Lily finds relatively few defenders on both sides of the fence, so go figure.

The first of the major lineup changes happens here, as Dave Sinclair (temporarily) leaves the band and is replaced by Steve Miller, a former session player with a good taste for jazz, blues, and folk. Occasionally, one might encounter the opinion that it was Miller who steered the band in a jazzier direction, but the only pieces on the album that are explicitly credited to him are the folksy-bluesy ʽIt's Coming Soonʼ movement within the ʽNothing At Allʼ suite and the sentimental ballad ʽSongs And Signsʼ, delivered by Pye in his sweetest falsetto — it does feature some jazz chords in its base melody, but does not really feel like a significant departure from the band's overall sound of the past. Nevertheless, it is true that he has a bluesier side to his piano playing than Sinclair had — in fact, his extended solo passages on the electric piano are often eerily similar to Ray Manzarek: I have no idea if he was a fan or not, but there's a dark, murky passage in the middle of ʽWaterloo Lilyʼ that seriously reminds me of the "Mr. Mojo Rising" part of ʽL. A. Womanʼ, while the solo on ʽThe Love In Your Eyeʼ is reminiscent of ʽRiders On The Stormʼ.

Still, the significant shift in style must have been a collective undertaking of the band, and one for which they really should be praised — refusing to repeat the formula of Grey And Pink, they tried their hand at something slightly grittier and darker, in all respects. Where the previous album began with the soft, simple innocence of ʽGolf Girlʼ, here the title track apparently begins with an invitation to a friendly brothel, and the music, a mid-tempo blues-rocker with some magnificent bass work from Richard, is suitably bawdy and menacing, with both Pye and Miller choosing some thick-heavy tones for their instruments — before turning down the shades, bringing down the volume, and feeding us a bunch of sleazy wah-wah insinuations. Sinclair takes the vocals, too, and it's almost as if he is atoning for the angelic exuberance of ʽGolf Girlʼ, playing the devil's advocate here instead. With relative success, if you really put your mind to it.

Most of the rest of the album is given over, once again, to two extended suites, one of which (ʽNothing At Allʼ) is completely instrumental, and the other (ʽLove In Your Eyeʼ) went on to become a stage favorite and arguably the only track from here to survive for a long time in the repertoire. It is not difficult to see why the former was forgotten and the latter became revered: ʽThe Love In Your Eyeʼ is pure Pye Hastings, all friendly humility and sweet melancholy, whereas ʽNothing At Allʼ, theoretically at least, is a jazz-rock jam the likes of which could be produced by dozens of British and American bands at the time. But issues of originality aside, it is a fine jazz-rock jam — Sinclair gives an unusual variation on the boogie bass line, Hastings gets a chance to show how versatile he can be with the wah-wah (or, perhaps, that is guest player Phil Miller, Steve's brother and a future member of Hatfield & The North, too), and there's a fine soprano sax solo by another guest player, Lol Coxhill, to complete the picture. On the whole, it might seem less challenging than the more avantgarde jazz experiments in 1970, but it works better: they concoct a thicker, darker, sicker mood with this approach, which also contrasts nicely with the unexpected break into Steve Miller's melancholic piano interlude.

As for ʽThe Love In Your Eyeʼ, it is essentially a lush pop song (replete with an extremely clumsy set of lyrics — "drink it down and do yourself"?, "mind in hand you'll find a way"?, "in dreams of you I wish a song on everyone"?, you'd think these weren't really written by a native speaker; if this was on purpose, I cannot for the life of me figure out what that purpose was), eventually turning into another lengthy blues-rock jam. The first section is great; the second one might seem superfluous after an already similar passage on the first suite, but yes, that's Caravan for you — the same accusation is valid for their masterpiece as well. Here, though, the benevolent and loving spirit of the «pop» part is in sharp contrast with the darker instrumental movements, and the composition fades out on an aggressive, turbulent jamming part, as if to suggest that Pye's post-Lennon "all you need is love in your eye" advice is not really working. Or, more likely, they just didn't have the strength to give the tune a proper finale (which is why you will probably find the best version of the tune on the live album with the New Symphonia, where it is obligatorily given a grand ending).

As usual, in between the lengthy pieces we find shorter, more «commercial» chunks that were, for some reason, not released as singles — Pye's ʽAristocracyʼ could have made a good one, with its energetic tempo, catchy chorus, and, uh, Englishness; surely just as good as any contemporary Bowie hit, even if Hastings has never been able to make himself noticeable as a vocalist, unlike David. ʽThe World Is Yoursʼ is another nice folk-pop tune, a simple and bright conclusion to the album after all the anger and darkness in the longer suites.

All in all, I don't really see how this record «interrupts» Caravan's classic run with a weaker link. It was an attempt to try something a little different, and if, in the process, it neutralized the band's identity for a little bit, all the searching and diversification more than make up for it. Unless you really hate long instrumental jams, Waterloo Lily remains totally accessible and paints the band as a highly competent outfit that could have easily competed with the heavy rock scene of the time, had it wanted to; it just didn't want to. Perhaps it is not as focused as Grey And Pink on weaving a fantasy land enchantment spell, but these guys knew how to sound earthy, too, and if they felt the need to outbalance their Golf Girls with their Waterloo Lilies — hey, I can totally understand them. Subsequently, a solid thumbs up here, and disregard the naysayers.