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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Cream: Disraeli Gears


1) Strange Brew; 2) Sunshine Of Your Love; 3) World Of Pain; 4) Dance The Night Away; 5) Blue Condition; 6) Tales Of Brave Ulysses; 7) SWLABR; 8) We're Going Wrong; 9) Outside Woman Blues; 10) Take It Back; 11) Mother's Lament.

General verdict: Psychedelic blues-rock has never been more catchy, intelligent, AND, most importantly, bittersweet than this.

Few things illustrate that unique magic of 1967 better than the creative process that resulted in the first track on Disraeli Gears. In the beginning... well, not really in the beginning, but somewhere in the middle of the road, there was a Junior Wells / Buddy Guy reworking of the old blues standard ʽHey Lawdy Mamaʼ that they recorded for Junior's 1965 classic LP Hoodoo Man Blues: a cool, upbeat blues-rocker, made somewhat special by the combination of Junior's idiosyncratic harmonica style with Buddy's chuckling-chugging electric guitar. Good enough for 1965 — but not something that couldn't have been recorded in 1964... or even 1963... or...

...anyway, it got picked up by Cream soon after they came together, and was played in much the same variant, only without the harmonica, in concert (you can hear an early version on the BBC Sessions). Nothing special, either — Eric Clapton still in his Bluesbreakers shoes. As they went into the studio in mid-'67 to put it to tape, though, the song had changed drastically, mostly under the influence of several outstanding Albert King singles such as ʽCrosscut Sawʼ. Eric was now in his Albert King period, playing thinner, sharper, edgier leads; but together with Jack, they were already thinking as well about how to make the formula less formulaic — how to latch on to that «frightening» component of classic blues and make it even more explicit. So you get the electric ZAP! ZAP! ZAP! from the rhythm guitar, and you get the don't-mess-with-me gruffness of the bass guitar, and you get the tricky drum pattern that transforms the regular 4/4 into something more somber and ritualistic.

But you are still not quite there, because in the end this ʽLawdy Mamaʼ, as heard on the Live Cream record, is still primarily a blues tune. Enter Felix Pappalardi, a 28-year old freelancer with a keen eye and ear for new trends in contemporary music, and his wife, Gail Collins, a skilled lyricist with a tiny strain of proto-Stevie Nicks in her — and the transformation is complete. A new production style is upon us: echo, fuzz, reverb, «woman tone», all conspiring to turn the song into a mind-bending witchy brew. And with that, come new lyrics, still in touch with the old blues foundation, but just as strongly in touch with the psychedelic era — "she's a witch of trouble..." (old school) " electric blue" (new school), "she's some kind of demon" (old school) "...messin' in the glue" (new school). And the vocals? Eric now delivers most of them in a seduc­tively dangerous falsetto, a perfect contrastive fit for the still-ZAPping rhythm guitar. The only thing that still directly ties the song to the past is the guitar solo — a deadpan, though slightly more sharp and complex, Albert King imitation. Everything else has been turned to glittery, otherworldly magic. Take the polish off, of course, and the blues foundation is as plain as day; but why should you want to take the polish off? The old ʽLawdy Mamaʼ played with your feels; the new one takes you to a different reality.

This, in a nutshell, is what's so cool about Disraeli Gears, the only album by Cream that can be directly and unequivocally called «psychedelic» (Wheels Of Fire would only retain bits and patches of this atmosphere, not to mention that Bruce and Clapton were already clearly heading in different directions by that time). Like The Rolling Stones, like The Hollies, like a thousand other British bands sucked inside that vortex in 1967, Cream were entangled in the psychedelic revolution by accident — all they really wanted was to propagate the values of blues (and, to a smaller extent, jazz) music without being hardass-conservative about it; and if you are not being hardass-conservative about something, you will roll along with the times, want it or not.

Hence, Disraeli Gears, an album whose very title came along by accident (a mispronounced take on derailleur gears from one of the band's roadies) and probably left stupefied even all those people who are quite familiar with the history of 19th century Britain, let alone those who are only capable of getting an association with Israel or just stare at the title with complete bewilder­ment. A record with its own unique sound, influenced by many but reproduced by none; a record that feels slightly wiser, more introspective, more restrained, more ironic, than most of its com­petition (including both The Beatles and Hendrix); a record where the combination of a modest, but brilliant blues guitarist, a melancholic, but hard-working jazz bassist, and an eccentric, but iron-disciplined drummer brought about an almost mathematically perfect formula for the ultimate Apollonian psychedelic experience — as opposed to the typically Dionysian psychedelic experience of just about everybody else (Beatles excluded, but The Beatles' brand of psychedelia was generally much lighter and more «child-like»).

It will probably also go down in history as the single least generic-12-bar-blues-oriented project that Eric Clapton has ever been involved in — although I, for one, would not necessarily judge this as an obvious virtue. Altogether, there are but two standard blues tunes here, and we have already seen the miraculous transformation undergone by ʽStrange Brewʼ. The other one, ʽOutside Woman Bluesʼ, remains more traditional: lifted by Eric from a 1929 record by Blind Joe Reynolds, it even preserves the original's distinctive slide guitar riff playing off the vocal lines, although application of the «woman tone» still gives the phrase a much more psychedelic flavor. However, everything else has been reworked: a new syncopated rhythm guitar track (also based on the same ZAP! technique as ʽStrange Brewʼ), Jack's free-flowing jazzy bass, and Ginger's calm, disciplined, but complex drum rolls that keep drawing attention away from the string players — generic 12-bar blues had rarely been this exciting.

On the whole, however, Disraeli Gears is more of a landmark in the evolution of hard rock (and, consequently, heavy metal) than generic blues-rock. While it may be hard to observe the direct influence that Hendrix had on succeeding waves of hard rock bands (for most of whom he was more of a symbol/mascot than a guitar teacher), the direct influence of something like ʽSunshine On Your Loveʼ can hardly be denied — we can probably find dozens of songs that had adopted its riff as their foundation (at the moment, the clearest example in my head is Black Sabbath's ʽN.I.B.ʼ, but I'm sure there are others). In fact, the very art of the «massive», «elephantine» riff driving the song probably originated with ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ — we can find plenty of great rock riffs in previous years, but I have a hard time thinking of one that would boast this kind of thickness, stability, sheer epicness: the slow, lumbering, brutal monster at the heart of the song that makes all of its other aspects look insignificant in comparison.

The difference between Cream and Sabbath, though, is that Sabbath would use slow, lumbering, brutal riffs to construct slow, lumbering, brutal moods: ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ, in comparison, is really a romantic tune, one that never pretended to expressing any other feels than love and longing and yearning and... okay, that line about how "I'll stay with you 'til my seeds are dried up" does suggest something pretty physical, but still, the odd disbalance between the innocent lyrics and the ominous riff (it really used to creep me out a bit when I was little) remains an intriguing feature. Perhaps Jack and Eric still felt uncomfortable, at that point, to be writing songs about sex that would openly and unequivocally state so — a taboo soon to be broken with ʽWhole Lotta Loveʼ and the like — and so it came about that one of the heaviest numbers of 1967 took on the guise of a nearly elegiac, romantic serenade.

But ultimately, what makes Disraeli Gears truly lovable is that behind all the professionalism, behind all the psychedelic flavor, behind all the innovative riffage, behind all the fluctuation between bluesy, jazzy and poppy structures lies a sensitive soul. Fresh Cream, for all its merits, was an album that was hardly endowed with a lot of personality — it was too much of a «let's take all those awesome influences and take it from here» record, a starting point that showed promise but did not yet fully deliver the goods. Disraeli Gears is where Jack Bruce arrives as a successful artist, and the entire team (not just Eric and Ginger, but also Pappalardi, Gail Collins, and lyricist Pete Brown) rallies behind him to help maintain and solidify that personality. Disra­eli Gears is not a concept album, but it is an escapist album — like Piper and like Electric Ladyland, it is busy constructing its own alternate universe for you to take refuge in when the going gets too rough. In this world of pain, see, we're going wrong, so take it back, take that thing right out of here and dance the night away. With some tales of brave Ulysses, if possible.

For that matter, ʽDance The Night Awayʼ, to me, is unquestionably the best song on the album today — not ʽSunshineʼ, not ʽUlyssesʼ, but this unabashedly poppy, and also unbelievably sad ode to disillusionment and reclusiveness. The verse melody, punctuated by Eric's power chords and Ginger's resounding tom-toms, has the protagonist blindly circling around, bumping into corners — then, in the chorus, Clapton launches a guitar rocket across the sky, reaching higher and higher with each new refrain until it finally (probably) disappears out of view somewhere beyond the horizon: "dance myself to nothing, vanish from this place" indeed. It's one of those brilliant combinations of words and music where sadness and joy are so tightly intertwined that you can offer half a dozen different emotional interpretations of what is going on, from orgasmic to suicidal; not even the best psychedelic music of 1967 could consistently contain that many different layers of meaning.

Songs that are less ambivalent can still retain a degree of uniqueness: ʽWe're Going Wrongʼ is a deeply internalized lament, musically engineered in such a way as to picture a genuine emotional thunderstorm — Ginger's ferocious pouncing, Eric's angry power chords and desperately high-pitched blueswailing solos — over a slow, almost ceremonial tempo and vocals that suggest an atmosphere of deep mourning rather than tumultuous aggression. Nowhere near as explicit in its bleakness as, say, contemporary Doors material, ʽWe're Going Wrongʼ manages to build up a wall of dreariness that is just as successful (if not as titillating) as ʽWhen The Music's Overʼ. And maybe the song is not even about the end of the world — maybe it is about the end of a romance, or about the future of Cream themselves — but who could doubt that "I found out today we're going wrong" could not be applicable to every single year so far after 1967, especially when set to those deep earth rumblings generated by Eric?

In short, there is no better way to summarize that awesome mix of colorful psychedelia and existential sadness scattered throughout Disraeli Gears than with the chorus of ʽSWLABRʼ: "you've got that rainbow feel — but the rainbow has a beard". Even the band's sense of humor has a bitterness to it: they let us down gently, with the twin funny pack of ʽTake It Backʼ and ʽMother's Lamentʼ, but ʽTake It Backʼ is funny-hysterical and ʽMother's Lamentʼ is, after all, a moral tale with a sad-happy ending. (Come to think of it, ʽMother's Lamentʼ is just the traditional folk root of ʽDance The Night Awayʼ — "your baby is perfectly happy, he won't need a bath anymore" sits in the same house as "gonna dance myself to nothing, vanish from this place"). This is what separates great psychedelia from run-of-the-mill psychedelia — mixed emotions, no straight answers, an overall subtle intelligence that lets you look at the same song from different angles and shape it in accordance with your own inner world.

Personally, I have not always loved this album — I grew to appreciate it quite gradually, as compared to instant loves like The Beatles or Creedence Clearwater Revival — but even at the tender age of 10-12 I could feel there was something very, very special about it, some sort of odd magic that was not there in anything else I'd heard. That magic was never properly recaptured, though small traces of it can be found on Wheels Of Fire and some of Bruce's early solo albums; apparently, it took a lucky star alignment to produce Disraeli Gears. And this, precisely, is what makes me feel so angry inside whenever I (occasionally) see people dismissing the record as too boring, too bluesy, too unadventurous, too derivative — I mean, just because Clapton refused to maniacally let loose with feedback à la Hendrix or Syd Barrett, preferring cleaner and more restrained tones, does not mean that he was incapable of conveying comparable depth of feeling; and just because Jack Bruce's artistic personality was not as bent on self-destruction does not mean that it was incapable of reaching the same levels of high tragicness. In some respects, I would say that Disraeli Gears relates to Are You Experienced? and the like in the same way as Pet Sounds relates to Revolver — a «cleaner», «calmer», more lyrical take on worldly (and otherworldly) issues that prefers to blow your mind in a subtler, less obvious manner. Strange brew, kill what's inside of you — or, at least, rearrange some of it.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

David Gilmour: About Face


1) Until We Sleep; 2) Murder; 3) Love On The Air; 4) Blue Light; 5) Out Of The Blue; 6) All Lovers Are Deranged; 7) You Know I'm Right; 8) Cruise; 9) Let's Get Metaphysical; 10) Near The End.

General verdict: As close to «The (Not So) Great Lost Pink Floyd Dance Pop Album» as it ever gets.

Sometimes I cannot help feeling that, through some subconscious bond, Roger and David had agreed to turn the Eighties into that one decade that would once and for all decide who of the two could sink to the lowest depths of suckdom. It's not that the music they both made on their own was always cringeworthy on its own merits — in all fairness, it was no better or worse on the average than the output of most of their boomer peers. It is simply that both of them lost all traces of that intangible Floyd magic. Using the same ingredients, pursuing largely the same goals, but no longer fed by the spirit that elevated them high above most of the competition in the previous decade. Tired? Disoriented? Losing focus? Perhaps someday somebody will write a good piece of musico-psychological non-fiction about it. In the meantime, here is David Gilmour's second solo album — of which only a very naïve and easily impressed listener could expect to rectify the wrongs caused by The Final Cut.

Curiously, About Face turned out to be the single most dynamic, «lively» record in Gilmour's career (including the Waters-less «Stink Floyd» period). Since the self-titled album had been written and produced in an era when Floyd was still very much alive, simply as a distracting intermis­sion, it was not until the clouds began truly gathering on the horizon that David began to think more seriously of a possible solo career. And a possible solo career, if it were to be a career rather than a hobby, had to take the pop market into consideration — thus, more vocal numbers, more catchiness, more sing-along bits, more toe-tapping, and a few extra tricks to lure the customer in. Put together the general musical environment of 1984 and the usual personality of David Gilmour (the sad, mopey, introvert, but sentimental blues genius guy), and the results are predictably disappointing, though, perhaps, not downright catastrophic.

As a representative example, let us take ʽBlue Lightʼ, the first single off the album. Naturally, it has a trademark Gilmour element — the echoey, delayed rhythm guitars creating that atmosphere of inescapable doom — but on top of those guitars, you have a lively, funky, robotic brass section dominating the song, so that it ultimately sounds like a cross between ʽRun Like Hellʼ and ʽSussudioʼ. Throw in a few cryptic lyrical lines that could have been written about anybody from Margaret Thatcher ("she steals your savings from under your bed") to Gilmour's wife ("under her mantle you feel safe from the cold"), a trendy musical video with dancers a-plenty, and you get an easy recipe for a bona fide hit song — but one for which there is absolutely no necessity. It has neither the dread of ʽRun Like Hellʼ nor the mindless fun of ʽSussudioʼ: it is a clear example of somebody desperately trying to be somebody else, and even though the song still became a minor hit (hey, it's Dave Gilmour, and you can dance to it!), ultimately it becomes just another brick in the (memorial) wall of The Great Eighties' Artistic Self-Humiliation.

Much more true to the artist's heart was the second single, ʽLove On The Airʼ, one of the two songs on the album for which Gilmour had commissioned the lyrics from Pete Townshend — and the lyrics actually sound as if Pete could have written them after a good, solid listen to The Wall, and who could be a better substitute for Waters in terms of bleak misanthropy (and, more speci­fically, misogyny) than Mr. I-know-you-deceive-me-now-here's-a-surprise? The interesting news is that if you do not concentrate too hard on the lyrics, the song might be mistaken for a heart-on-the-sleeve serenade (when it is really about getting out of love). The not so inspiring news is that the song is not very good — quite a flat and simple acoustic progression whose only attempt at a hook is to raise the volume and pitch during the chorus; little wonder, then, that the song flopped commercially, because... well, you couldn't even very well dance to it.

And that's pretty much it: most of the album consists of relatively simplistic and usually over­produced rhythmic ballads, interspersed with the occasional quirky and uncomfortable dance-rocker. The overproduction does a disservice to Gilmour's singing voice, blending it in together with the bombastic percussion and cheap synthesizers; and the pop market orientation does a dis­service to Gilmour's guitar playing, too often downplayed because guitar solos were not supposed to be a big market-driving force in 1984.

Much to Dave's honor, About Face is all about doing an about-face, but rarely about downright losing face — ʽBlue Lightʼ is about as close as it comes to that, and even that song is saved by decent lyrics, imaginative arrangements, and the fact that, at the very least, Gilmour is not trying to dance himself in the accompanying video. It is clear that the man is still committed to his ideals of marrying blues music to psychedelic vision, and no amount of electronics or metallic riffage à la ʽOwner Of A Lonely Heartʼ is going to stop him from honoring that commitment. Thus, ʽUntil We Sleepʼ may start the album with a completely stereotypical Eighties' vibe (big drums, crunchy guitars, electronics), but its intentions are noble — a song about vanity and transience of being, with an epic combination of keyboards, guitars, and dreamy inner-demon vocals. Ten years earlier (or perhaps even ten years later), its arrangement might have been more adequate to those intentions. It's only Fate that commanded it to be recorded in 1984.

Unfortunately, the magnificent list of guest musicians on the album — including both tried-and-true rock horses such as Jon Lord and Steve Winwood, and new stars such as Art Of Noise's Ann Dudley — is squandered away under the circumstances. Likewise, Bob Ezrin, co-producing the album with Dave, was unable to put his classic macabre spin on it, either: About Face can be morose and it can be aggressive, but there is nothing here even remotely approaching the spooki­ness and tension of the better parts of The Wall. Worse, its several moments of social and politi­cal activism almost make Dave look like he'd taken a bit of envy to Roger's Final Cuttisms (ʽMurderʼ has him venting some four-year-late frustrations over Lennon's killing, and ʽCruiseʼ is an ironic take on the nuclear shield), but the man has never had true venom running in his blood, and neither being super-angry nor being super-sarcastic comes as naturally to him as it does to his big-nosed partner. (Also, the more he focuses on lyrical subjects, the less interesting his melodies get — ʽMurderʼ sounds like an old Greenwich Village folk ballad).

In short, this whole thing is as «okay» as it gets, but it is hard to imagine who could be particular­ly fond of it these days: I mean, David Gilmour cautiously selling out for peanuts? If you happen to like Dave's solo career in general, About Face will probably be your least favorite of his albums, just because so much of it is «not him». If you are generally bored by Dave's solo career, it is not likely that the upbeat and poppy nature of so many of these songs will be a great relief: clearly, it would make sense to run to a couple hundred other Eighties artists for these values before you realize that yes, even David Gilmour had a little bit of Phil Collins dormant inside him for all those years.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Chambers Brothers: Feelin' The Blues


1) Girls, We Love You; 2) I Got A Woman; 3) House Of The Rising Sun; 4) Don't Lose Your Cool; 5) Just A Closer Walk With Thee; 6) Blues Get Off My Shoulder; 7) Travel On My Way; 8) Undecided.

General verdict: Another decent bunch of decent outtakes, no more, no less.

Guess what — another Vault Records release, and this time I cannot find any definitive info at all on where and when these studio and live recordings come from... and, frankly, nobody should really care just as nobody gave a damn back in 1970, when the very last thing on anybody's mind probably was to listen to half-decade-old outtakes from The Chambers Brothers' career. (Well, actually, it turns out that Rolling Stone gave the record a glowing review, right at the same time that they were busy trashing Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath).

In all honesty, this one, too, is a mess, as it continues to present The Chambers Brothers as dashing dare-devils, always unafraid of experimenting onstage — regardless of whether the experiment in question would end up boring, embarrassing, or inspiring. The first track is quite seriously inauspicious: ʽGirls, We Love Youʼ is a musical mish-mash of ʽMemphis, Tennesseeʼ and ʽThat's Alright Mamaʼ with new lyrics, a relatively low level of rock'n'roll energy and decent harmonica playing (which is still nothing that even Mick Jagger couldn't do). This is followed by the stupidest intro to ʽI Got A Womanʼ yet (stretching out on the opening "weeeeeeell..." until it becomes offensively out of tune) — fortunately, the main performance mostly redeems for that with some wild Hammond organ improvisation, and the brief inclusion of the chorus to ʽToo Fat Polkaʼ in the middle is actually a funny touch that could have been emphasized more sharply (as it is, most people will probably not even take notice).

The record then arguably hits its peak with the slow-dark-brooding six minute take on ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ — this performance actually earned some gushing comments from the few people that heard it, and the lead / back vocal arrangements are indeed impressive, but the instrumental work seems sluggish, except for the drummer, who is the only band member here trying to rise above the «just sit and play it» approach. Another problem, perhaps, is the lack of context: it is hard to take this version of ʽHouseʼ with all the seriousness it deserves when it is wedged in between so many tracks that rather have a comedic disposition or, at least, a positive outlook on life. (Admittedly, the second side of the LP does feature a cover of Bobby Parker's ʽBlues Get Off My Shoulderʼ — which sounds exactly the same as the cover of ʽHouseʼ, just shorter by three minutes).

In the end, the record's most redeeming quality — typical of all Vault Records releases — is the diversity: we have blues, rock'n'roll, R&B, doo-wop, polka, soul, gospel, in short, a nice mini-ency­clopaedia of everything that was cool about the Fifties. Why precisely we had to get it in mid-1970 remains a bit of a mystery, but that's all water under the bridge anyway. Well worth listening to at least once for a bit of peculiar fun; otherwise, chalk this one up for completists who are on a quest to hear every song ever made performed by The Chambers Brothers.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

George Harrison: Living In The Material World


1) Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth); 2) Sue Me, Sue You Blues; 3) The Light That Has Lighted The World; 4) Don't Let Me Wait Too Long; 5) Who Can See It; 6) Living In The Material World; 7) The Lord Loves The One (That Loves The Lord); 8) Be Here Now; 9) Try Some Buy Some; 10) The Day The World Gets 'Round; 11) That Is All.

General verdict: A mix of rather stereotypical preachiness and unique melodicity — fortunately, the latter can make you forget all about the former.

There is one big reason why George's follow-up to All Things Must Pass could never conjure up quite the same level of emotion as its predecessor did — and you already see part of that reason in the album's title. All Things Must Pass was a deeply spiritual album, and most of its songs were concerned about the brevity and transience of human existence; nevertheless, it was, above and beyond everything else, an album about human existence. But by 1973, apparently disgusted with everything that it was possible to get disgusted about — his family life, his litigations with fellow Beatles, the dire financial consequences of the Concert for Bangla Desh affair, let alone political and social concerns of the day — George no longer seemed to care much about human existence. Most of the songs on this album are about "my salvation from the material world", for which there is seemingly no redemption.

With their typical aversion to religious preaching and generally secular attitudes, many leading critics of the day had no choice but to focus on George's shortcomings as a lyrics artist this time around — and not without reason. Naturally, George Harrison, the quiet kid from lower-middle-class Liverpool, could never be mistaken for a first-rate religious philosopher, but his lyrics on All Things Must Pass were generally not bad; compared to them, the outlook presented on Living In The Material World is downright primitive, with Christian, Hindu, and Krishnaite clichés all over the place, as if the artist were consciously surrendering his independent mind to some synthetic-eclectic religious dogma. A critical outlook on the world's problems and on the inherent flaws of the human species? Acceptable. An appeal to The Lord Sri Krishna to come around and deliver the suffering artist from this horrible place? Ehhhh...

Since George produced the album himself this time around (all the songs with the exception of ʽTry Some Buy Someʼ, which was originally intended for a Ronnie Spector solo album and had been recorded in early 1971), there is also the noticeable change in the overall sound — the effect is far more personal, with George's voice no longer consistently obscured and overridden by the huge wall-of-sound ambience. Instead of having his music come down on you as some sort of overwhelming heavenly host, it feels more like letting him in to pray in the middle of your living room, which can feel uncomfortable. And it certainly gets worse if you remember that the «quiet Beatle», in his everyday life, was not at all averse to material existence and material possessions: his passion for Formula 1 racing, for instance, clearly shows that sometimes, at least, his senses were quite fully gratified in the material world, rather than in the spiritual sky.

And yet, none of this truly matters as long as we try and focus on the music. Recorded by more or less the same team that had worked on All Things Must Pass (with the notable addition of Nicky Hopkins on piano, whose presence is vital to some of the tracks), the album consists more or less of newly written material, which is still consistently excellent: the Beatle school of thought is not easy to get rid of so quickly, and no amount of disgust with the material world could let old George forget the essentials — namely, that any message you wish to impart works twice as well if it is imparted in the form of a solid musical hook. Without the wall-of-sound rumble at your heels, Living In The Material World also has a decidedly «rootsier» flair to it: folk, country, and blues influences abound, especially since George mostly plays dobro and slide, yet the melodies themselves are quite far from «generic» 12-bar blues.

The first of these melodies is also the most well-known: ʽGive Me Loveʼ was the first and only single from the record, the only song from it to be regularly played live whenever George played live (which was not often), and also pretty much the only one to carry a 100% positive and optimistic message, not only through its lyrics, but also through the twin joy of Nicky Hopkins at the piano and George doing some amazing slide runs. Almost deceivingly positive, I might add: while the last song on All Things Must Pass and the first song on Material World are both straightforward prayers to the Lord, ʽHear Me Lordʼ is in F minor, while ʽGive Me Loveʼ is in F major, and there is nothing about George's tender "give me love, give me love, give me peace on Earth" that would suggest peace and love are impossible, or even that peace and love are not already here, and that the artist is merely asking the Lord to help keep them rather than help bring them about out of nothing. The song's emotional core is, in fact, so simple that, while it is hardly possible not to be comforted by its warmth (probably the warmest he got since the days of ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ), it is quite possible to miss a certain element of psychological depth that was already there in the first opening chords of ʽI'd Have You Anytimeʼ — and subconsciously prepare yourself to be somewhat disappointed with the rest of the album as well.

Shockingly contrasting cold showers, however, begin to hit you as soon as the glowing intro is over. First, there is anger, as George vents his feelings over the ongoing Beatle-related litigations in ʽSue Me, Sue You Bluesʼ — a song whose main riff I remember directly creeping me out when I had first heard it as a small kid (and, accordingly, had not the slightest idea of what the man was actually singing about); to this day, there is something distinctly gruff-voodooistic about this particular combination of dobro and piano, even more unsettling than any given Black Sabbath riff (most probably, it's all about that brisk downward dobro swoop, as efficient in its way as the Sabbath tritone). Anger and bitter sarcasm: emotions that were not attested at all on All Things Must Pass, and are so much at odds with the atmosphere of ʽGive Me Loveʼ — in fact, this is probably the second most-pissed off ex-Beatle song after ʽHow Do You Sleepʼ in that three-year interval — that even if you happened to fall asleep in paradise during the first song, the second one will get you back on your feet in no time. (And look out for some awesome drum work from Jim Keltner on the song's numerous stop-and-start parts).

That anger vibe never truely reappears again in such an explicit form, but the mood is «spoiled» once and for all: from then on, the prevailing ambience is that of constant sorrow, the only joy being provided by the hope of eventually getting out of this place. Formally, the distinction between «rockers» and «ballads» is more or less blurred here, but most of the record spends its time in the state of a slow, solemn, spiritual procession, only speeding up to the state of a steady ʽGet Backʼ-ish gallop on the blues-rocking title track — which is, perhaps, appropriate, since it is the one song on the album presented as a decisive public pledge: "got a lot of work to do, try to get a message through, and get back out of this material world". If you do not think too hard about it, the song is kinda fun, but unlike ʽGet Backʼ, it does not consciously try to be fun — and the seriousness of its message does not quite agree with the playfulness of its rhythm, or, let's face it, the almost infantile crudeness of the lyrics (an attempt to merge personal experience with the gist of the already-not-too-original teachings of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada), so I actually think of it as one of the album's weakest numbers.

But instead, let me point out that among all the preaching, there are some heartbreakingly aching moments to be found on the album — primarily in its slowest ballads. In particular, ʽWho Can See Itʼ is no less than a musical miracle: in its purest form, over just a few bars the melody starts out as quiet, reclusive sorrow, rises to sharp, throbbing pain, and then rises higher to blissful, triumphant revelation. George later admitted being influenced by Roy Orbison for this particular composition, but there is a certain element of utterly non-formulaic, non-commercial honesty here that would be hard to find on any Roy Orbison song, no matter how poignant or masterful (or, perhaps, this is simply admitting that George sings it like a flawed human being, rather than like a perfect angel from heaven). Although a bit less anthemic, ʽThat Is Allʼ, closing the album, is no less beautiful — a simple love confession to God or to a lady, upon first sight, but so much deeper when you put its clichéd lyrics to that mournful music and understand that the lines "that is all I want to say, our love could save the day" actually mean that "our love cannot save the day", no matter how hard you try.

Generally speaking, though, there is something to like on just about every track here. Simply the presence of Nicky Hopkins trading solos with George is enough to aurify ʽThe Light That Has Lighted The Worldʼ, as are Jim Horn's brass arrangements on ʽThe Lord Loves The Oneʼ and the last remnants of grandiose Phil Spector production on ʽTry Some Buy Someʼ. If you break these melodies down and run formal musicological algorithms on them, my gut feeling is that they will stand up tall and proud against any chosen sequence on All Things Must Pass; there is really nothing other than that vague feeling of Cosmic Epicness (for much of which the responsibility falls on Phil's, rather than George's, shoulders) to separate them from each other. It is an impor­tant feeling, for sure: despite the general recent re-appraisal of Living In The Material World, there is no way that it will ever escape from under the shadow of its so much more monumental elder brother, with its smaller sound, poorer lyrics, narrower message, and briefer gestation period. But all those who treasure George Harrison's melodic gift over formal musical innovation might ultimately think of the album as far more timeless than quite a few cutting-edge releases from the progressive or glam-rock camps of 1973 — and as much as I admire, say, Peter Gabriel or David Bowie as the leading boundary-pushers of the day, neither of them could sing "I only ask that what I feel should not be denied me now" with that much trembling passion.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Allen Toussaint: The Bright Mississippi


1) Egyptian Fantasy; 2) Dear Old Southland; 3) St. James Infirmary; 4) Singin' The Blues; 5) Winin' Boy Blues; 6) West End Blues; 7) Blue Drag; 8) Just A Closer Walk With Thee; 9) The Bright Mississippi; 10) Day Dream; 11) Long Long Journey; 12) Solitude.

General verdict: Consistently brilliant reinventions of old classics — nostalgia at its most creative.

Toussaint's output after his comeback in the Nineties is somewhat chaotic and confusing: mainly collaborations with other artists, ranging from authentic soul people like Billy Preston and Irma Thomas to whitey wannabes (hah!) like Elvis Costello, but also seemingly original recordings that are hard to locate and probably of little interest, such as a Christmas album in 1997. By the mid-2000s, however, he had re-developed some interest in classic jazz, even forming a short-lived team called «Allen Toussaint's Jazzity Project» with which he made an album called Going Places — wasn't any particular place where that sucker went, as far as I know, but it did pave the way for a bigger, grander, and obviously better remembered project: The Bright Mississippi, Toussaint's heartfelt, complex, and overall brilliant tribute to an age when jazz music was your everyday soundtrack, rather than a niche thing enjoyed by intellectual snobs, nostalgists, and non-discerning musical omnivores.

There are no original compositions here, no blatant signs of «modernity», and almost no vocals (other than a bluesy delivery on Leonard Feather's ʽLong Long Journeyʼ). But there is a lot of tasteful, seductive, inspired piano playing on old jazz standards, typically running around 5–6 minutes to achieve complete effect and plunge you into an atmosphere of... well, probably the closest musical analogy I can come up with is those mid-Sixties Duke Ellington records like Far East Suite, which had the distinction, on one hand, of sounding with a «pre-war» vibe, on the other hand, being even more sophisticated, not to mention better produced, than the old Blanton-Webster classics. So, The Bright Mississippi is, on one hand, a thoroughly nostalgic record, but on the other hand, it also tries its hand at rejuvenating some of those sounds — with modern production standards and a sort of felt-rather-than-heard idea of not having to tie yourself down with any old conventions.

Thus, even if ʽWinin' Boy Bluesʼ is credited to Jelly Roll Morton, it is, in fact, much more of an Allen Toussaint original variation on the ʽWinin' Boy Bluesʼ theme — the original was a full-band shuffle with Morton's piano almost inaudible behind the brass section, but this six-minute piece is really a long slab of solo piano improvisation that has Toussaint doing more «rolls» than you'd actually hear on any Jelly Roll Morton LP. Django Reinhardt's ʽBlue Dragʼ is not trying to copy or outdo Django's gypsy chords or Stephane Grappelli's violin moans, but replace them with different piano and acoustic guitar parts that preserve, yet also partially modify and update the spirit of the original in ways that seem surprisingly fresh and vibrant.

That acoustic guitar, by the way, is played by none other than Marc Ribot himself — a clear indication that Toussaint wanted to keep things edgy here, and for that reason he also brought about Brad Mehldau to play extra piano, Joshua Redman to blow some sax, Don Byron to handle the clarinet, and a bunch of other people who are all younger than Toussaint by a good twenty or thirty years but still completely fall in line behind the old man's conducting baton and understand perfectly well what he wants them to do. And what does he want them to do? Well, how about take an original composition by Thelonious Monk, off his fabulous Monk's Dream album way back in 1963, and put the ʽMississippiʼ back into ʽThe Bright Mississippiʼ — by actually making that theme sound all New Orleanian, with a bit of trumpet-piano interplay (instead of sax) that would have surely brought a smile to the face of the late Professor Longhair? Some might say that Toussaint and the boys trivialize these pieces — others might just as reasonably object that they are simply putting them back on the street and breathing real life into them. The only thing that matters, really, is that there's a lot of real reinvention going on here, and this is what elevates The Bright Mississippi over tons of competition.

The whole thing feels so lively that it is not until the decision to end the album with a hushed, guitar-and-piano-only cover of Duke Ellington's ʽSolitudeʼ that you discern some real sadness and nostalgia for a bygone era — a once poignant ode to a lost lover here seems to readdress its poignancy towards something larger and more elusive in scope. We no longer live in the Jazz Age, after all, and even the Mississippi is probably not as bright as it used to be: the grass may not have been greener, but the times were definitely a bit more innocent, and it does not happen often in the 21st century that artists, be they old or young, manage to successfully recapture some of that innocence and make it sound a little deeper, yet just as immediate as it used to be. I hesi­tate to call the album an original masterpiece — but it is a masterpiece of interpretation, and probably Toussaint's single greatest achievement since Southern Nights. And the fact that it became the last original recording to be released in his lifetime is quite impressive, too.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Marvin Gaye: Trouble Man


1) Main Theme From Trouble Man (2); 2) 'T' Plays It Cool; 3) Poor Abbey Walsh; 4) The Break In (Police Shoot Big); 5) Cleo's Apartment; 6) Trouble Man; 7) Theme From Trouble Man; 8) 'T' Stands For Trouble; 9) Main Theme From Trouble Man (1); 10) Life Is A Gamble; 11) Deep-In-It; 12) Don't Mess With Mister 'T'; 13) There Goes Mister 'T'.

General verdict: A soundtrack, but not so much to a movie as to the artist's own troubled relations with the world at large.

A peculiar fact of Marvin's career is that he only acted as sole writer and producer on two full LPs in his lifetime, and the first one of these was a soundtrack — although even here, the pro­posal to compose it came from Motown, what with «blaxploitation» movies being all the rage in the early Seventies and soundtracks such as Shaft and Superfly being legitimately counted among the great masterpieces of contemporary R&B and all. Most of those actual movies had far more social value for their time than artistic merits, and allegedly Trouble Man, a crime flick about a private detective exploring the bowels of life on the black-and-white fringe, was no exception. But the soundtrack has survived, and despite its predictably low share of actual songs, endures as sort of a minor classic in the Marvin Gaye canon.

Since, unlike Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, Marvin's emphasis was almost always confined to the soul aspect of the business rather than to the harsh-rockin' grooves, Trouble Man emerges or, rather, looms as an anthemic suite of suspense, foreboding, dark alleys, shady deals, neuroses, panic attacks, and necrologies. In fact, it makes for a perfect companion to What's Going On: if that record was more of a general prayer for the healing of the world's troubles, Trouble Man opens up an actual window on those troubles themselves — it is grim, bleak, mournful, with not really a single melody or vocal piece that would offer a ray of light; sorrow and melancholy are probably the sweetest emotions that could be associated with this music.

The centerpiece is ʽTrouble Manʼ itself, a song whose lyrics apply equally well to «Mr. T», the movie protagonist, and to Marvin himself. Compositionally, it's not much to speak of — a crude, simple blues-rocker that might as well be written by Bad Company; what matters is the arrange­ment — half-muted, creepy-sinister bass, piano, guitar and brass that seem to be stalking the listener from the shadows — and Marvin's falsetto delivery: this is not the tender-loving kind of falsetto, but rather the painfully-weeping kind of falsetto, the get-your-balls-in-a-vice-for-three-and-a-half-minutes kind of falsetto. The key moment of the song is the key change from "there's only three things for sure — taxes, death and trouble" to "this I know, baby, this I've known, baby"; the way he says it, you almost get the feeling that Marvin Gaye truly knows more about taxes, death and trouble than anybody else, even if it might be factually incorrect. There's also a musically impressive rise and cliff-jump at the end of each chorus — not on progressive rock level, perhaps, but a good suspenseful hook that finally turns the melody into something bigger than a proto-Bad Company blues rocker.

Several variations on the same melody are made into two different versions of the ʽMain Theme From Trouble Manʼ, not very different from each other and featuring extended sax solos from different session musicians. However, the other instrumental tracks are surprisingly diverse and actually seem to show a bigger interest in pure music-making on Marvin's part than even What's Going On. There are some smooth funky grooves on which Gaye himself is credited for playing synthesizers (ʽT Plays It Coolʼ, ʽT Stands For Troubleʼ); ballads (sometimes with minimal vocals) that walk a thin line between smooth jazz and avantgarde classical (ʽPoor Abbey Walshʼ, with its paranoid dissonant piano chords unexpectedly breaking the smoothness of the flow); Moog solos that sound as if they were taken out of prog-rock's textbook (ʽDeep-In-Itʼ); and sentimental passages that seem influenced by Sixties' soundtracks to French romantic movies (ʽDon't Mess With Mr. Tʼ). None of this stuff is truly breathtaking on its own, but the tracks do fall together in such a way that the album looks like a musical portrait — of one man's physical hassles and never ending spiritual torment.

It seems obvious to me that the album might have gained even bigger acclaim if its soundtrack status never existed in the first place — it is definitely more of a soundtrack to Marvin's own state of mind and, even bigger, to the state of things in the world of 1972's black America than to some long-forgotten movie about an African-American private detective. And it offers an excellent reflection of Gaye's character, too: the man was never about anger or violence as he was about sorrow and pity, so that Trouble Man spends most of its time weeping rather than cursing, mourning rather than calling to action — the title character is a person hopelessly locked in a karmic cycle with little hope of redemption. Even if there are musical elements here that instantly date the package (the use of this particular mix of strings, horns, and Moogs is a bit of a musical cliché), it still stands out from the typical fare of 1972, just because the artist has bothered to put a little bit more of his own soul in the music than was usually required for such matters.

But the more you think about it, the more unsettling it becomes — it's as if the naïve inner child of What's Going On, asking his innocent questions and hoping for a little bit of light, has matured here into a psychologically unstable and thoroughly pessimistic desperado. It is no surprise, perhaps, that Marvin would almost completely abandon «socially relevant» subjects in the following years and totally concentrate on amorous subjects instead: Trouble Man is the album of somebody who is so deeply disgusted in the world around him that the only possible solutions are either to take your own life, or to stop paying this undeserving world any attention. Ultimately, I guess, Marvin chose both (if you look at his killing not as an unfortunate accident, but as a sort of inevitable denouement).

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Anna von Hausswolff: Dead Magic


1) The Truth, The Glow, The Fall; 2) The Mysterious Vanishing Of Electra; 3) Ugly And Vengeful; 4) The Marble Eye; 5) Källans Ateruppståndelse.

General verdict: Your local "Ghosts, Inc." take on prog- and post-rock, also known as banshee-wagonjumping.

So, last we heard from Anna she was busy indulging in the kinkiest sexual fantasy of all time — making love to the hugest (pipe) organ in the world, which is probably as close as one can get to tentacle rape in real life. The process was certainly exciting but, as I mentioned in the previous review, once the novelty of approach wears off, the general sound waves of the album remain far more important than its specific musical themes. Whether or not this is a problem, the same approach not only remains valid for Dead Magic, but is made even more obvious. With only five tracks, two of them approaching epic prog-rock lengths, the artist very clearly states that a single static theme, very slowly evolving across time, is consistently preferable to arrays of hooks quickly tossing your mind from one emotional field to another. You know — some people live for the moment, others embrace eternity, that sort of thing.

I am not sure if the Acusticum was used again for the sessions (the liner notes just say «pipe organ»), but regardless, the big difference is that Dead Magic actually sounds less like a sound check and more like the actual performance. By not getting dissipated over multiple, equally atmospheric and equally not-too-memorable compositions, Anna succeeds in making these pieces sound like they actually matter. The main themes are fairly trivial: a repetitive waltz motif in ʽThe Truth, The Glow, The Fallʼ, an industrial-doomsday grind in ʽThe Mysterious Vanishing Of Elektraʼ, a New Age-style ambient chord sequence in ʽUgly And Vengefulʼ. But as time goes by and instead of fading away, they get further and further entangled in all sorts of psychedelic overdubs, a feeling of epicness and importance might come over you the same way it often takes a Grateful Dead psychedelic jam fifteen minutes or so to begin terraforming your conscience. And while this might speak of the benefits of technical craft and persistence more than it does of musical genius, it is also not true that any atmospheric 12-minute track by any artist works that way. This is a big risk she takes here, and it seems to pay off.

Anna's weakest spot seems to be confined to the lyrics now: the words she chooses for her sonic panoramas look especially pathetic on paper ("after the fall I'll find you", etc.), but by this time it should be perfectly clear that she only needs those words as an excuse to add her voice to the overall array of instruments. The only thing that matters is that the words do not stray from the chosen path. Like all her other records, this one, too, is also about loss, death, spirits, and wuthering heights, because this is what she wants to be: Stevie Nicks, (early) Kate Bush, and Lisa Gerrard all rolled in one and slightly updated for 2018 — for one thing, because 2018 can allow itself to be more tolerant towards a long, unhurried, even pretentious manner of unveiling one's story, by letting you clearly understand that music like this has no chance whatsoever of major commercial success and earning you a little extra freedom for that.

When I dropped that word «static» again, I was actually setting myself up, because, for instance, ʽThe Truth, The Glow, The Fallʼ is a three-part suite, moving from the Atmospheric Opening (ʽTruthʼ) to the Ghostly Waltz (ʽGlowʼ) to the Apocalyptic Coda (ʽFallʼ). (I think it's about a fair maiden who mourns for her loved one in the first part, follows his ghost in the second part, and transcends the chains of being in the coda; if you have a more logical interpretation, you are a better overthinker than I am). That build-up and tear-down, however, is so slow that there are no mental separators between the three parts — no big surprises, no epiphanies or revelations, more like a somewhat predictable ritual of solemn self-destruction on the part of the protagonist. No actual terror, either: perhaps some easily impressionable listeners might find the organ / voice combination here intimidating, but I sincerely hope that Anna's intention was never to «terrify» the listener as much as it was to try and simply push him over the threshold of the earthly realm into a different kind of reality. And why should life beyond the grave be terrifying, anyway?

ʽThe Mysterious Vanishing Of Elektraʼ (not sure if the reference is to the Greek tragedy or to the Frank Miller comic books or to both or to neither, but if I spend any more time researching Anna von Hausswolff-related trivia, I might end up having to propose to her or something) — anyway, ʽThe Mysterious Vanishingʼ, chosen as the album's single, is easily the most direct, attention-drawing number here: if the relentless battle-ramming, seismic-probing rhythm does not get through to you, then Anna's banshee-like whooooooos certainly will. It's a bit of a cheap trick, but it is also refreshing to see some sheer brutality in action: too many goth-rock performers believe that «going crazy» on record or on stage is not a dignified action on the part of the undead, and it is nice to realize that at least one undead performer has not yet forgotten about the simple power of histrionics. Not that she ever really abuses that power.

The longest piece on the record is ʽUgly And Vengefulʼ, essentially one huge, drawn-out cres­cendo notably reminiscent of the masterpieces by Godspeed You! Black Emperor — only with organ and vocals at the forefront rather than guitars, keyboards, and strings, which, of course, radically shifts the atmosphere. "I'm restless, I'm older, I'm heavy like a stone", she confesses here, making the entire composition look like some passing-of-age exorcism ceremony, with a lengthy ominous setup period and a polyphonic thunderstorm at the core. Not very original, perhaps, but at least the sixteen-minute length is justified — it's not as if you can really perform a proper exorcism in under three minutes. It does get pretty intense at the end, enough so that the last two tracks are completely given over to calmer moods (the organ instrumental ʽMarble Eyeʼ and the ultra-slow, ultra-New Agey ʽ Källans återuppståndelsʼ = ʽResurrection of the sourceʼ).

So, is there a reason why Dead Magic should be prioritized over dozens of similar goth-themed albums, apart from, you know, placing this particular emphasis on the organ and having a really powerful vocalist? As I compare it with, for instance, the latest Chelsea Wolfe albums, I think that the crucial difference is that, somehow, Anna makes it more about the music than about herself. She is engaging here in an original form of rock theater, rather than trying to make it all sound personal — and in that, she is an honorable disciple of Kate Bush (whom I love) rather than Tori Amos (whom I am cautious about). You can like this form of rock theater or you can be indifferent to it, but it is almost impossible to get offended by it, as it often happens with the mediocre «singer-songwriting» type. Of course, it also precludes the listener from empathy and catharsis, but no catharsis is always preferable to simulated catharsis. Truly, Dead Magic is high quality B-grade entertainment and should be taken as such — but it is also risky, uncommercial, and a few notches more challenging than anything in the same genre.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Jonny Greenwood: Phantom Thread


1) Phantom Thread; 2) The Hem; 3) Sandalwood; 4) The Tailor Of Fitzrovia; 5) Alma; 6) Boletus Felleus; 7) Phantom Thread II; 8) Catch Hold; 9) Never Cursed; 10) That's As May Be; 11) Phantom Thread III; 12) I'll Follow Tomorrow; 13) House Of Woodcock; 14) Sandalwood II; 15) Barbara Rose; 16) Endless Superstition; 17) Phantom Thread IV; 18) For The Hungry Boy.

General verdict: Greenwood's most ambitious raid on classical territory so far, but still hardly a replacement for your Deutsche Grammophon collection.

Just another Greenwood soundtrack for just another Paul Thomas Anderson movie? Certainly not by the way that the music community at large seems to have responded to it: everywhere you go, Phantom Thread is almost unanimously hailed as Jonny's best soundtrack so far (even if he still lost the Oscar to Alexandre Desplat), and is often ranked as one of the best musical achievements of 2018 (not that this would mean much — but worth a mention at least).

And not without reason. First, the album returns to the format of a cohesive musical suite: despite the relative length, all of the music here is Jonny's exclusively, and works perfectly well outside of the context of the movie (which I have not seen so far... lots of catching up to do on my P. Th. Anderson). Second, the musical scope and instrumental textures of the album are extremely diverse: although the format is classical throughout, the music encompasses a variety of styles, from baroque to romantic to impressionist to avantgarde to minimalism, with Greenwood now seemingly, if moderately, competent and qualified in all of them. Third, it may be the best produced and most sonically rewarding album of his career, though that is certainly the most subjective and intuitive opinion of them all.

I would like to add «fourth, the music is just great», but am somehow stopped in my tracks by the realization that none of the themes stuck long enough in my mind or shook me right down to the bottom — however, once again, that is just me. There is clearly a big difference here: Jonny is definitely stretching out and attempting to paint on an epic scale rather than a local one. The title track alone goes through four different variations, starting out as a small chamber orchestra piece, then reprised as a sonata-for-piano-and-violin movement, then getting the full symphonic treat­ment (brass, timpani, the works), and finally closing out as a solo violin piece — four different aggregation states of the human soul, if you want a pompous metaphor. In the context of the entire history of classical music, ʽPhantom Threadʼ might not be that great a theme: once you get through to the solo violin variation, it comes across as a nice tribute to some single movement of a J. S. Bach violin sonata. But in the context of the album, those four states are legit parts of a musical journey taken by... (I guess this is where one is supposed to fall back on the movie, but we do want to make Jonny Greenwood's allegedly best album to look like a musically self-con­tained piece of art, right?).

The piano-based pieces are delicate and exquisite Glass-ian / Budd-ian pastiches, well framed by chamber strings (ʽThe Hemʼ, ʽSandalwoodʼ); or, vice versa, melancholic excourses into string-based baroque soul with minimalistic piano at the fringes (ʽAlmaʼ). Explicit dissonance is hit very rarely (ʽBarbara Roseʼ is, I think, the most prominent example, with little pizzicato splatterings all around its clumsy bass strut), but there is just enough depth and complexity in the «normal» pieces to avoid sliding down into cheap sentimentality — this is a tasteful stylistic exercise, not a manipu­lative «Hollywood» orchestral puddle.

Still, yet again I reserve any kind of definitive judgement, because, like most of Jonny's sound­tracks, this one, too, feels more like a Greenwood display of humble adoration for the history of classical music up to the late 20th century rather than a meaningful and challenging Greenwood contribution to the history of classical music. This is, I believe, why he saves all of that creativity of his for soundtracks — as an original soundtrack, this type of art is perfectly alright and just about impermeable to serious criticism; were this, however, to be The Greenwood Oratorio, Jonny would run some serious risks (though not as serious, perhaps, as Paul McCartney did, because Greenwood has had more training with this sort of thing). And yet, at the same time, you are not obliged to look at this as a soundtrack — you can have it either away and get away with it through any loophole you like.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Nile Rodgers: B-Movie Matinee


1) Plan-9; 2) State Your Mind; 3) The Face In The Window; 4) Doll Squad; 5) Let's Go Out Tonight; 6) Groove Master; 7) Wavelength; 8) Stay Out Of The Light.

General verdict: Funny electronic grooves, but bring back that guitar, goddammit.

For his second album, Nile chose Alfa Anderson instead of Bernard for his resident «memory of Chic» — bass credits go to Jimmy Bralower, a hot Eighties jack-of-all-trades known not so much for his guitar, bass, and drum playing as he was for his production and electronic programming. As you can understand, there is not much by way of impressive bass playing to be found on the album. Instead, there is a very glossy, synthetic sound, occasionally warmed up by Nile's color­ful licks — but overall, quite robotic; think Duran Duran with a slightly funkier edge.

Nevertheless, Rodgers lost neither his sense of humor nor his knack for delightfully lowbrow entertainment, and even if he is not playing to his usual high standards, he almost makes up for this with the fun quotient. The title of the record is not arbitrary: it is actually a semi-conceptual piece, stuffed with memories of and impressions from various cheesy B-movies, as if telling us not to take the music too seriously, either. Titles like ʽPlan-9ʼ and ʽDoll Squadʼ are self-explana­tory; others take attention to understand, like ʽStay Out Of The Lightʼ, filled with samples from Raiders Of The Lost Ark, even though the main content seems to be unrelated (not that I cared to follow the lyrics too closely, you understand). It all fits in kind of nicely into the general hedo­nism and entertainment spiral of the mid-Eighties, but always in a light, inoffensive, mildly funny way: Nile Rodgers is, after all, a nice and polite fellow whose career still peaked in the suit-wearing age, so he ain't going to pull no Alice Cooper or Mötley Crüe shit on you.

The only track to reach the single charts was ʽLet's Go Out Tonightʼ, which could thematically be the B-side to Madonna's ʽInto The Grooveʼ — a simple, unadorned dance-pop number with one synth bass line, one synth keyboard hook, one vocal earworm, and some Japanese vocal samples that modern audiences will probably love even more. Predictably, my interest only perks here when Nile begins to replay the hook on his guitar, at first strictly limiting himself to repeating a single phrase, then, towards the end, finally getting tired of it and launching into some inspired variations... that is, before they fade him out way too early (people are here to dance, goddammit, not to listen to creative guitar playing). Unfortunately, I wouldn't mind if they let him stretch out somewhere else, but that charmingly optimistic ringing guitar riff is about as much as you are getting from Nile Rodgers, the master of funky melody, on this album. So I do mind.

Still, it would be unfair to bypass the fact that there are some nifty grooves on the record — sometimes with a strong futuristic touch, e. g. ʽGroove Masterʼ (where Nile is going all mecha­nistic-robotic-Kraftwerkish on our asses), or ʽThe Face In The Windowʼ, whose interchange of dark and threatening electronic pulse in the verse with the pure and shiny dance groove in the chorus sounds almost frighteningly modern (all those purveyors of Eighties' nostalgia who some­times think they are expanding on what their forefathers taught them are way too often just repeating the achievements of tracks like this). Nothing really stands out in particular, and then there is always the occasional boring ballad like ʽWavelengthʼ, but on the whole, the grooves show a certain level of complexity and involvement — and when you combine, say, the not-so-trivial interlocking of bass, keyboards, guitar, percussion, and backing vocals on ʽDoll Squadʼ with the inherent light-hearted humor, you get a track that can cozily rally itself under the Prince banner and carried out of the burning house of Eighties' dance-pop as a good example of why it actually mattered as a creative force. To some small degree, at least.

It makes even more sense when you think about the relative artistic disasters Nile was producing for white guys at the time — Jeff Beck's Flash, Mick Jagger's She's The Boss — and just goes to show how important it is not to take yourself too seriously when you are investing in overtly commercial projects. Somehow, of these three projects, B-Movie Matinee is the only one where my own emotional response has been positive rather than negative. Still, it does not change the fact that my overall involvement in any Nile Rodgers project is proportionally dependent on the amount and quality of his guitar playing, and in that respect, B-Movie Matinee disappoints. In contexts like these, having a bigger ego couldn't actually hurt, Mr. Rodgers.