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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Pink Floyd: Meddle

PINK FLOYD: MEDDLE (1971)

1) One Of These Days; 2) A Pillow Of Winds; 3) Fearless; 4) San Tropez; 5) Seamus; 6) Echoes.

General verdict: ...in which Pink Floyd finally unveil their master plan to take over the galaxy.

Meddle both closes a whole era in Pink Floyd history, and opens a new one — but if we were forced to make a clear-cut classification that does not allow for transitional states, I'd say that Meddle still belongs in the 1968-70 pool, and, together with the famous Pompeii concert, closes the door on psychedelia, avantgarde, and surrealism as the leading notions in the band's art. After this album, the band would begin to make music that made sense, from a philosophical and / or social standpoint — and it wasn't entirely because of Roger Waters assuming the reins, because everybody else joined in of their own free volition.

Meddle carries little by way of a profound (or not so profound) spiritual / intellectual message. Like the records preceding it, it is full of moments that are just bizarre, or enigmatic, or comical, or mind-blowing, but there is no ʽTimeʼ or ʽMoneyʼ here to guide people through crises of faith, no ʽShine On You Crazy Diamondʼ to bring on manly tears, no ʽPigsʼ or ʽDogsʼ to nourish our political beliefs and build up our social determination. Well, come to think of it, there is a pig — or, at least, part of a pig, in the form of a pig's ear on the Hipgnosis album cover. And, come to think some more, there is a dog — wailing and howling the blues on ʽSeamusʼ, in an innocent era when a popular act could still get away with this without bringing on the ire of animal rights activists. The difference is, nobody can claim to understand why there is a pig and dog on Meddle. They simply are. By 1973, Pink Floyd would be far more rational in their approach.

However, despite the fact that the themes of Meddle remain pretty much the same (you could say that ʽEchoesʼ simply continues the line of ʽA Saucerful Of Secretsʼ, and that ʽOne Of These Daysʼ builds up on the legacy of ʽCareful With That Axe, Eugeneʼ, etc.), the musical means of Floyd have by now evolved immensely — and the array of instrumental tones, production tech­niques, and melodic moves that is displayed here is much closer to Dark Side Of The Moon than to Atom Heart Mother. Roger's double-tracked bass that opens the album is as good a herald of a new era as anything: it has a sinister, merciless aura to it that had not been previously heard, but would be heard many more times on everything from ʽSheepʼ to ʽRun Like Hellʼ. More than anything, perhaps, Meddle has discipline — as the textures become denser and deeper, so does the level of rigid control behind them increase progressively as well. That funky mid-section in ʽEchoesʼ? Never before had the band gelled so tightly as a team — on this particular track, they might even have made proud such formerly untouchable competitors as Can.

Which means that I can very easily see where for some people Meddle might be the perfect Floyd experience — they have achieved top rank here as musicians, yet still remain completely free of the preaching / proselityzing / mentorial overtones, commonly associated with Waters and causing nasty rashes for those who like their music a bit more ambiguous and inscrutable. Heck, it might have been the perfect Floyd experience for myself — if not for the nasty realization that the album still sags in the middle, in a rather unpardonable fashion.

In between ʽOne Of These Daysʼ and ʽEchoesʼ, the two high points to which we will return later, Meddle squeezes four songs that range from «just good» to «somewhat silly», and I believe that most Floyd fans would agree that ʽSan Tropezʼ, a fluffy bit of jazzy vaudeville with Waters singing like Chet Baker, and ʽSeamusʼ, two minutes of generic 12-bar acoustic blues accompa­nied by Steve Marriott's collie dog (poor, poor thing!), tend to incline towards «somewhat silly», and not even particularly humorous, because, unlike The Beatles in their silliest moments, Pink Floyd always struggled with their sense of humor.

ʽA Pillow Of Windsʼ and ʽFearlessʼ are significantly more serious, but still, both of these pieces belong in that part of Floyd's pleasant past that is (a) more about atmosphere than truly memo­rable melody and (b) very much not exclusively Floydian in nature. ʽPillowʼ has a really nice bedrock of ʽDear Prudenceʼ-like acoustic picking, electric slide howls, and minimalistic bass zoops, but everything is a bit too soft and smooth to elicit any strong emotions — the song con­tinues the string of «lazing on a sunny afternoon»-style ballads that Waters was so oddly fond of in those years of transition. ʽFearlessʼ is more often acknowledged as a forgotten classic, but its biggest hook (the little upscaling, stuttery riff played against the acoustic rhythm) appears out of nowhere and is a bit too repetitive to make a proper impression; and the sudden transition of the song into a field recording of a Liverpool stadium chanting ʽYou'll Never Walk Aloneʼ makes preciously little sense, if you ask me.

Certainly all four of these are a tad anti-climactic after the opening stun of ʽOne Of These Daysʼ, easily the most aggressive Floyd track created up to that point — reflecting Eugene's maturation from a dangerous sleepwalker who is sometimes not very careful with his axe into a terrifying psychopath, now well awake and hellbent on cutting you into little pieces. The entire six minutes of this song is a relentless chase through the forest, as you keep running away from Death Incar­nate, its personality largely shaped by Waters' pulsating iron bass and Gilmour's heavily distorted blues soloing — although there is no discounting Rick's doom-spelling Hammond organ, either. They may not have started out this song with the intention of posing as the Four Horsemen, but that is the way it plays out, and I can see how it could still be possible to be creeped out by parts of this tune even in the 21st century. It even has one of the earliest examples of growling death metal vocals ever, and by Nick Mason, of all people! (Granted, when you get down to the bottom of it, it's all just a matter of slowed down tape — but who can tell the difference between slowed down tape and a death growl, anyway?).

As for ʽEchoesʼ, Floyd's second and last stab at a side-long progressive suite... well, the worst thing I can say about ʽEchoesʼ is that the composition truly came to life on stage. The studio version sounds positively docile when compared to the way they played it in Pompeii — or, for that matter, to the way Gilmour and Wright played it on their last tour together. With the live versions in hand, I am ashamed to say that I rarely come back to the mother — which, of course, does not make it any less monumental in terms of structure and emotional impact. Unlike ʽAtom Heart Motherʼ, ʽEchoesʼ is perfectly thought out, and could be interpreted as either a musical interpretation of The Creation (something vaguely alluded to in the Pompeii movie, where the music is cleverly intertwined with footage of volcanic eruptions, among other things), or a musical portrait of a passionately romantic human being — actually, the first verse of the song is about the former, and the second is about the latter, so it works all possible ways.

This is where everything, all the long years of toil and experiment, finally pay off — the build-up is fantastic, the thunderous wave-crashes following the verses take one's breath away (particu­larly in the late live versions, where they are accompanied by killer laser shows) — so much so that when the song seamlessly slides into its harsh, clenched-teeth, funky groove part at 7:00 into the show, it's like a breath of relief from all the tension. Many prog epics start and end great, but lag and sag in the middle — ʽEchoesʼ completely avoids that trap by sewing together several completely different components, going from gorgeous atmospheric ballad to epic Olympic rock to gritty funky jamming to ambient seascape painting (with Gilmour's guitar posing as the Alpha Seagull) and then completing the circle, with everything at top power level required.

It is surprising to me that after such a tremendous success, Floyd would never again properly revisit this territory — by the time they'd return to epic-length songs with Animals, their vision was already far more grounded and focused on the little people rather than the cosmic forces dominating the universe. But then again, I also doubt they would be capable of making another masterpiece of the same caliber: ʽEchoesʼ is their equivalent of Mahler's 8th (well, not literally, of course, just in relative terms of ambitiousness), and not wanting to spoil the effect with a pale shadow of the same thing is a respectable decision.

Even if everything else on Meddle sucked, the album would still deserve a high rating just for its second side — and I understand that, with all their forces probably concentrated on making this Gargantuan thing work, they may have earned the right to include a few passable pieces on the first side. Whatever be, as far as «Cosmic Pink Floyd» is concerned, Meddle represents the final triumph of Ambitious Reason over Barely Controlled Chaos — it succeeds totally, where every single one of their post-Piper records only succeeded in a humbly compromising manner. And, of course, it is the direct antipode of ʽPiperʼ: play ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ and ʽEchoesʼ back to back to see how random Brownian motion differs from mighty Intelligent Design. Which one do you prefer? It should probably depend on one's degree of intoxication.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Paul McCartney: McCartney

PAUL McCARTNEY: McCARTNEY (1970)

1) The Lovely Linda; 2) That Would Be Something; 3) Valentine Day; 4) Every Night; 5) Hot As Sun/Glasses; 6) Junk; 7) Man We Was Lonely; 8) Oo You; 9) Momma Miss America; 10) Teddy Boy; 11) Singalong Junk; 12) Maybe I'm Amazed; 13) Kreen-Akrore.

General verdict: A one-of-a-kind stroll through one genius' melodic junkyard.

While John's and George's solo debuts, all released towards the end of 1970, were immediately acknowledged as contemporary classics and continue to be revered almost as highly as any given Beatles album, McCartney's self-titled debut could never, ever aspire to that honor. There is a historical reason behind that — public opinion of Paul was fairly low in early 1970, since circum­stances had forced him to be the first to announce his leaving The Beatles, leading people to blame him for breaking up the band when, paradoxically, he suffered worst of all from the breakup. This, coupled with the constant ridicule of being the «sappy» member of the band, led to a natural, if totally wrong-headed, bias, the consequences of which are still felt to this day.

But it is also true that of all the records to appear out of the Beatles' implosion, McCartney is the most raw and chaotic one — essentially made by Paul on his own, in an atmosphere of secrecy, with lots of undercooked ideas and unfinished production: in other words, something that Paul McCartney, a pop perfectionist if there ever was one, would hardly be expected to do. It has never been made perfectly clear whether Paul truly intended the final results to be so patchy or if he had simply rushed the recording in order to be the first Beatle to make a solo album (techni­cally, the honor still falls to Ringo, but I guess nobody ever had a problem with Ringo if he decided to be the first Beatle to do anything). It is evident, though, that there is no other album as patchy as McCartney in his entire catalog, which should make its exploration fairly intriguing even if you do not like it much.

According to Paul's own memories, he was tremendously depressed as of late '69, close to a nervous breakdown, and in a way, McCartney is as close to a «mad Paul» record as we are ever going to get — although by the time he took his demos to Morgan Studios, in February '70, he had recovered enough to be able to work on them professionally, and without much help from anybody but Linda. Spontaneity, a concept not all that much explored during his tenure with The Beatles, ruled supreme here — thus, ʽThe Lovely Lindaʼ was originally intended to be just a short sound check, yet ended up opening the album. Some of the tunes dated back to Abbey Road sessions or even earlier (ʽJunkʼ and ʽTeddy Boyʼ were both from 1968); some were instrumentals quickly scrambled together to fill up space; only about a couple of songs were specifically written with the album in mind. A recipe for disaster to any lesser artist — in fact, probably a recipe for disaster to Paul himself, had he still not been in the absolute prime of his songwriting powers.

As it is, the amazing thing about McCartney is that I can still remember how every track goes, despite not having listened to it in years, and despite some of them being so fluffy and fillerish that it just boggles my mind how, at his peak, this guy could literally pull seductive musical ideas out of his songwriting ass by the dozen. Take ʽLovely Lindaʼ — it is basically just one vocal flourish, repeated several times over a simple acoustic backing, but what a flourish! Not only have you never heard it before, but its small, sly «dip» in the beginning and rush to a near-falsetto ending is lovable in a specifically McCartney way — sappy sentimentality counterbalanced with cheerful humor. Could he have woven it into an actual song? Perhaps not. Only the composer knows for sure. Sometimes one tasty morsel might do just as much good as a whole meal.

One thing I do dislike about the album is its sequencing: essentially, the songs seem to have been put on record in more or less the same order as they were put down on tape. In a perfect world, the filler-type instrumentals should have been clustered together around the center of the record, while its conclusion would consist of an ultra-punch (ʽMaybe I'm Amazedʼ), immediately followed by a cold shower (ʽJunkʼ). ʽMaybe I'm Amazedʼ, as pretty much everyone knows, is one of Paul's greatest power ballads — coming hot off the heels of ʽLet It Beʼ, it is the loudest, most anthemic love declaration he'd written up to that point (all the more ironic being the fact that he had to record it all by himself in the studio — in my opinion, the perfect version of the song to listen to is the live version from Wings Over America, with Jimmy McCulloch, the young guitar god, really giving Paul's original parts their due). Its lyrics, like most of Paul's lyrics, aren't particularly great, but the important thing about them is just the word amazed, because his musical figures here, and the way the song soars up during the chorus, are all about capturing that feeling of amazement at being so uplifted by his loved one... actually, for the first time in McCartney history, if I recall it right.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, we have ʽJunkʼ — a song so deeply depressed, so utterly gloomy, that it is hard to understand how on earth he'd managed to come up with it in India in 1968, of all times and places. It is easier to understand how it finally landed on McCart­ney — by early 1970, it must have been a perfect reflection of how he felt about the passing of his band; "broken hearted jubilee", "memories for you and me"... Not since ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ and ʽFor No Oneʼ had we experienced Paul in such a mood, and somehow ʽJunkʼ feels even more personal and intimate, partly due to its stripped-down production, partly due to its minor-major alternations and weird, slow waltzing tempo — the last solitary dance after the party is over and there's nothing but empty bottles (and other "sentimental jamboree") littering the floor. Inclusion of two versions, a vocal one and a karaoke one, was unnecessary though — I'd rather have just merged both, with an extended instrumental coda at the end. To have the song end the album as a quiet afterthought, past the Grand Uplifting Finale, would have been a masterstroke...

...but perhaps McCartney himself was not prepared to end proceedings with such a downer. (Not yet, at least — less than two years later, he'd finally do it with ʽDear Friendʼ). Because on the whole, McCartney is quite sunny — sunny, homely, and cozy. ʽMan We Was Lonelyʼ, one of the few other completed songs here, also explores the theme of loneliness, but as something that is better left to the past. Its chorus, sung by Paul and Linda in a somewhat corny-country manner, may be off-putting to some, but this is one case where the verse (bridge?) is actually the main point of attraction — Paul's "now let me lie with my love for the time, I am home" bit is the first in a series of his humble declarations of love for country solitude (to be continued in ʽHeart Of The Countryʼ and ʽCountry Dreamerʼ), and arguably the single most poignant one; I particularly adore the contrast between the quiet "I am home" and the final triumphant "HOME!" that resolves the melody. Simple, deadly efficient, and deeply moving.

Even the instrumentals, none of them serving any purpose bigger than filling space, are fun in one way or another. The Polynesian music-inspired ʽHot As Sunʼ has one of Paul's happiest and funniest acoustic riffs ever. ʽMomma Miss Americaʼ starts life like a mute Gothic cousin of ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ before evolving into a blues jam with Paul turning into Jimmy Page for a couple minutes (well, not very successfully). ʽKreen-Akroreʼ makes little sense before you learn that the composition was inspired by Amazonian Indian hunting practices that Paul and Linda watched in a TV documentary — at the very least, you have to admit that this little piece of avantgarde experimentation is more fun to listen to than anything John and Yoko ever did together in their «Unfinished Music» period. And who ever takes two minutes of raw, aggressive swamp rock and calls it ʽValentine Dayʼ? The cuddly Beatle, that's who.

One song I have never cared for here is ʽTeddy Boyʼ — probably because it seems like this is something that should have been worked on longer in order to become one of Paul's «message songs», but has not. Some embryos retain their attraction even without being hatched, but ʽTeddy Boyʼ does not manage to figure out where it is going until the song is over. There is no humor in it, so it can't hope to become the next ʽRocky Raccoonʼ, nor is there any particular love for its characters — Paul simply narrates the bland story about a boy and his mother without making us care for them. The chorus is still catchy, but it is easy to see how the tune was rejected for inclu­sion on Let It Be — it is just as «homebrewn» as ʽTwo Of Usʼ, but without the sentimental charm or subtle melancholia contained in the latter. I even like it less than ʽOo Youʼ, a rather inane jab at writing a heavy, «macho» blues-rocker — until you start thinking of it as pure parody (I sometimes imagine Brian Johnson of AC/DC singing "look like a woman, dress like a lady", and Angus Young playing that riff, and it just makes me giggly all over).

Anyway, enough with the particularities. McCartney is the work of a melodic genius at the top of his powers — but a genius racked by a crisis of faith and temporarily unfocused. I am glad this album exists: we would see a far more tight and polished McCartney very soon anyway, so there is nothing wrong about us catching a glimpse of the man in his undies for once, particularly if the glimpse is consensual. «Objectively», of course, it could not be rated above Ram or Band On The Run — but I'd rather take the snippets and crumbs of a great man at his peak than the fully baked pies and tarts of mediocrities. And the self-produced, self-sufficient nature of the record also helps, at least symbolically: it makes the record into a bold-but-humble statement of total inde­pendence — in fact, Paul needed to prove it to himself more than any other Beatle that he could stand alone in these tough times, and no dismissive reviews could probably dissolve that sense of satisfaction he must have felt when the record finally hit the stores. A modest beginning, for sure, but totally essential.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Marvin Gaye: A Tribute To The Great Nat "King" Cole

MARVIN GAYE: A TRIBUTE TO THE GREAT NAT "KING" COLE (1965)

1) Nature Boy; 2) Ramblin' Rose; 3) Too Young; 4) Pretend; 5) Straighten Up And Fly Right; 6) Mona Lisa; 7) Unforgettable; 8) To The Ends Of The Earth; 9) Sweet Lorraine; 10) It's Only A Paper Moon; 11) Send For Me; 12) Calypso Blues.

General verdict: The album title pretty much says all you need to know here.

Just as things were finally starting to look good for Marvin in the LP department, his admired idol and mentor Nat "King" Cole had to go and die (February 15, 1965) — and, as a loyal disciple, Marvin simply had to honor his passing with a tribute album, his fourth one in the «easy liste­ning» department. An understandable and admirable gesture, for sure, but it is quite clear that if you are not a big fan of Nathaniel Adams Coles, you will have no use for these covers, and if you are a big fan, why in the hell would you listen to Marvin Gaye doing Nat "King" Cole instead of listening to the real thing?

At the very least, this record has a couple of things going for it. Most of the musical backing is provided by The Funk Brothers, which is a big improvement after the syrupy orchestrations of Hello Broadway. And, also predictably, the record has a jazzier and less Broadway-ish feel to it, though some of the genre excourses are silly — like rounding out the title selection with ʽCalypso Bluesʼ, for instance, so that you can ascertain for yourself that Mr. Gaye can do the Jamaican accent thing just as naturally, and ridiculously, as Nat himself.

On the other hand, this is quite expressly a tribute, and a rather slavish one: Marvin tends to imitate, rather than interpret, Cole on most of the tracks — and while on the overall scale Marvin Gaye, as a soon-to-be artist with a big musical vision, scores much higher with me than Nat King Cole, the consummate lounge entertainer, it is impossible for a visionary artist to beat a master of lounge entertainment at his own game. He simply does not have the appropriate seductive charms: the art of delicate phrasing, the subtle touches of vocal modulation, the velvety-Vegasy charisma, whatever. We may not count those as particularly great values in themselves, but once the rules are selected, even if they are bad rules, the winner is he who can follow them better than anybody else, and Marvin was never cut out for that sort of thing.

He could also bring more diversity to the proceedings — sappy ballads were not the only thing in Cole's repertoire, but non-ballad material here is restricted to the playful jump blues of ʽStraighten Up And Fly Rightʼ and ʽIt's Only A Paper Moonʼ, the Latin rhythms of ʽTo The Ends Of The Earthʼ, and the abovementioned ʽCalypso Bluesʼ. Naturally, Marvin does not play much piano, either, so if, for some reason, your introduction to Nat happens to be via this album (a very unlikely probability, but still), you will never know that the man was first and foremost a great piano player, and a crooner only in the second place. (Imagine Marvin Gaye doing A Tribute To The Great Jimi Hendrix five years later?.. that's right, neither can I).

The good news is that we are finally done with this shit. A Tribute would be Marvin's last ever attempt to harness the legacy of pop standards, Broadway show tunes, lounge jazz and Vegas glitz — perhaps it is most appropriate to treat this as a certified last goodbye to that whole sphere of business, set in the form of a farewell to one of his most beloved teachers. From now on, it would be modern-and-improved R&B all the way — not always great, not always truly cutting edge, but never looking back on an age that the man so obviously loved, but whose spirit he could carry on with just about the same level of passion and conviction as, say, Florence And The Machine demonstrate these days when covering Fleetwood Mac.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Songs For Christmas

SUFJAN STEVENS: SONGS FOR CHRISTMAS (2006)

Noel: 1) Silent Night; 2) O Come O Come Emmanuel; 3) We're Goin' To The Country!; 4) Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming; 5) It's Christmas! Let's Be Glad!; 6) Holy Holy, Etc.; 7) Amazing Grace.
Hark!: 1) Angels We Have Heard On High; 2) Put The Lights On The Tree; 3) Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing; 4) I Saw Three Ships; 5) Only At Christmas Time; 6) Once In Royal David's City; 7) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!; 8) What Child Is This Anyway?; 9) Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella.
Ding! Dong!: 1) O Come, O Come Emmanuel; 2) Come On! Let's Boogey To The Elf Dance!; 3) We Three Kings; 4) O Holy Night; 5) That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!; 6) Ding! Dong!; 7) All The King's Horns; 8) The Friendly Beasts.
Joy: 1) The Little Drummer Boy; 2) Away In A Manger; 3) Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!; 4) The First Noel; 5) Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!); 6) The Incarnation; 7) Joy To The World.
Peace: 1) Once In Royal David's City; 2) Get Behind Me, Santa!; 3) Jingle Bells; 4) Christmas In July; 5) Lo! How A Rose E'er Blooming; 6) Jupiter Winter; 7) Sister Winter; 8) O Come O Come Emmanuel; 9) Star Of Wonder; 10) Holy, Holy, Holy; 11) The Winter Solstice.

General verdict: Santa Sufjan is coming to town, and for those of us who still celebrate Christmas, he's A-OK.

I confess that, going against my own rule of thumb, I have only managed to listen to this behe­moth once — after all, it is a whoppin' two hours of Christmas music, and it's not even Christmas season at the moment. It might have been easier to make five separate short reviews for the five Christmas EPs that Sufjan had diligently and meticulously presented for his fans from 2001 to 2006 (for some reason, missing 2004) before merging them all together in this one mega-package; but such an approach might make Sufjan look like a professional Christmas caroler, occasionally diverting the audience with a few minor side projects (Illinois, etc.), and make me look like I'm taking the message of Roy Wood's ʽI Wish It Was Christmas Every Dayʼ way too seriously.

In any case, my lack of diligence may be redeemed by an overall positive evaluation: ironically, this was the easiest and most enjoyable collection of Sufjan Stevens tunes I have had to sit through so far. The man may be a formulaic and mono-moody songwriter alright, ambitious be­yond actual capacity and smooth beyond reasonable tolerance, but in the context of Christmas celebrations, all of this actually plays to his advantage. I mean, all this time I have been talking about pixie dances in the everglades and about teddy bears playing chimes in dollhouses — well, in a way, that is what Christmas is all about, and Sufjan fits right in here: gimmicky enough to give the old standards some new spins, but not arrogant enough to spoil the Christmas mood with too many modernist or avantgardist deconstructions.

Each of the five volumes is a mix of traditional carols and Sufjan originals, with the latter gradu­ally taking over the former so that Joy, the last volume, is almost completely comprised of new music. If you wanted to, you could easily isolate the originals and end up with a full extra CD of new music — but you shouldn't want to, since the very idea is to integrate the old with the new, and some of the arrangements that Stevens comes up with for the oldies are just as important to the experience as his own songs. As usual, many of them are based upon drones / vamps with endless repetition of the same chord, but at least now you can explain that away as imitations of sleigh bells. Santa has a long journey through snowy roads ahead of him, after all.

In between standards, Sufjan weaves in occasional humorous vignettes — ʽGet Behind Me, Santa!ʼ, in particular, is a funny dialog between Santa and a protagonist who is sick to death of the Christmas season ("I don't care about what you say Santa Claus / You're a bad brother breaking into people's garages"), presided over by a poppy horn riff that might, in fact, be more memorable than any such stuff on Illinois. There is also a bit of space for intimate sentimentalism: ʽDid I Make You Cry On Christmas Day?ʼ is a song of semi-repentance for a strained relation­ship, with a tender falsetto chorus that is more oriented at people listening in dark reclusion than people having fun over a family Christmas dinner.

Most of the tracks are reasonably short, too, which is a plus in my eyes, since I have never con­sidered Stevens to be a master of extended mesmerizing codas. The most obvious exception is ʽStar Of Wonderʼ off the last EP, of which he probably thought that its piano-based groove, when properly sprinkled with additional kaleidoscopic bursts of falling stars, made for a good hypnotic experience. It really does not — the production, as is usual with Sufjan, does not have sufficient depth, and the "I see the stars coming down there..." singalong harmonies are too wispy and ghostly; but if we are just talking straightahead Christmas ambience, why not?

I suppose it also goes without saying that, since the material covers a five year period, you will see some signs of Sufjan's musical evolution — particularly noticeable if you play Noel and Joy back-to-back: the first EP is quite minimalistic, relying more on banjos and acoustic guitars for accompaniment than anything else, whereas the last one is in full-fledged Illinois mode, with multiple overdubs of keyboards, strings, woodwinds, and whatever else is available. However, on the whole the transition is so gradual that if you choose to listen to all five EPs in a row, like I did, you might not even notice it. Sure, Sufjan's arsenal of musical technologies may have increased significantly over the years, but his butter-smooth personality has remained stable and monolithic: from the opening anthemic declarations of ʽO Come O Come Emmanuelʼ to the closing anthemic declarations of ʽHoly, Holy, Holyʼ we witness the exact same rock-steady meekness of spirit — which gets so annoying on so many of the man's Big Artistic Statements, but seems so adequate on his Christmas offerings.

Bottomline predictions: if you like Sufjan Stevens in general, you will like Songs For Christmas in parti­cular. If you consider Sufjan Stevens a Holy Man of God, you will play Songs For Christ­mas at least once every year. And if you are indifferent to Sufjan Stevens, but Christmas has some sentimental value for you, you might want to try and give this one a spin — it is quite a possibility that Sufjan's way into some people's hearts might lie through their chimneys.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Radiohead: Hail To The Thief

RADIOHEAD: HAIL TO THE THIEF (2003)

1) 2 x 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm); 2) Sit Down, Stand Up (Snakes & Ladders); 3) Sail To The Moon (Brush The Cobwebs Out Of The Sky); 4) Backdrifts (Honeymoon Is Over); 5) Go To Sleep (Little Man Being Erased); 6) Where I End And You Begin (The Sky Is Falling In); 7) We Suck Young Blood (Your Time Is Up); 8) The Gloaming (Softly Open Our Mouths In The Cold); 9) There There (The Boney King Of Nowhere); 10) I Will (No Man's Land); 11) A Punchup At A Wedding (No No No No No No No No); 12) Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury & Executioner); 13) Scatterbrain (As Dead As Leaves); 14) A Wolf At The Door (It Girl. Rag Doll).

General verdict: No better way to fight The Enemy than weep into your sleeve to a bunch of MOR grooves, eh?

Some of the readers might suspect that my falling out with Radiohead, rapidly accelerating since Kid A, is simply due to an organic «rockist» rejection of electronic textures. But just as it was never a sin for somebody like, say, Pete Townshend to immerse himself in the magic of the syn­thesizer after years of playing Guitar God, so Radiohead's transition to a new type of sound was never a sin in and out of itself. And if all sorts of pop bands, from Portishead to Broadcast, could organically and emotionally integrate analog and digital, why couldn't Thom Yorke and his bunch of gloomy progressives?

Hail To The Thief is usually discussed in the context of Radiohead taking a wary step back, and reintegrating their dashing achievements with some of the more traditional elements of a rock band, so you might want to make the prediction that my assessment of this «comeback» would be more positive. And you'd be right — at the very least, it is certainly an improvement over the killing-me-bluntly, bored-robot-on-pension atmospheres of Amnesiac. But... not by much. Alas, the miracle has not happened. OK Computer was a balloon full of hot air; Kid A was the same balloon with a freshly punched hole; Amnesiac was the aftermath of the punching; and with Hail To The Thief, it kind of sounds as if they were trying to re-inflate the balloon, but forgetting to patch up the hole before doing so.

Like many other records of the same period, Hail To The Thief was inspired by the rise of neo-conservatism, Bushism, Iraq war etc. — art tends to thrive in and on hard times. Whether this inspiration truly matters is, however, debatable: Radiohead had been a gloomy, pessimistic team from day one, and it is dubious that their OK Computer-era vision of the world could be signi­ficantly exacerbated by ongoing events. At the very least, if you listen to all their records in a row outside of historical context, I doubt that Hail To The Thief will elicit any kind of "oh, now they are really sad and pissed off!" reaction. Actually, I'd even like to forget about this myself, because it is very difficult and unnatural for me to think of Radiohead as a «protest band». The artistic persona of Thom Yorke is not that of a protester — it is that of an anguished weeper, and I'd rather have him weep in anguish over global causes than picking local ones.

But fine, let us accept that contemporary events at least gave the band some fresh food for artistic thought, and even pulled them out of a bit of songwriting rut in which they'd found themselves after Kid A. How are they cooking that food? Sure, Hail To The Thief is a complex, multi-layered record that has a little bit of everything that used to make Radiohead great or at least intriguing. But everything that there is here has already been done before — and better. For all my reservations about Kid A / Amnesiac, the band was pushing forward there, astounding their fans with results that nobody could have foreseen. Hail To The Thief, in comparison, clearly marks the waterline where Radiohead slid off the cutting edge.

Not that they had any obligations: after all, you could say the same thing about The Beatles after Sgt. Pepper, because, frankly, how much cutting edge is there in the White Album? It's just a collection of very good songs, that's all, certainly nowhere near the level of musical innovation seen in contemporary Hendrix, Zappa, or Led Zeppelin releases. And so it was with Radiohead: after a groundbreaking streak extending from The Bends to Kid A, they could certainly allow themselves to just relax and write songs the way those songs came into their heads, without giving much of a damn about whether they were still stretching out to new horizons or not. But this also means that the songs have to be... well, you know. And are they?

As we get into the sphere of the personal, I am sorry to say that, once again, not a single one of these tunes does anything for me except being «listenable» and «atmospheric». Soft or hard, light or heavy, sentimental or aggressive, the music on Hail To The Thief altogether gives the impres­sion of pale-shadow-afterthoughts to everything that came before it. All the ingredients are there; they simply never come together in a satisfactory manner. Doing a song-by-song run­through would be too painful; I will simply illustrate the feelings (or, rather, lack thereof) on a few select examples, starting with the album's four singles.

ʽThere There (The Boney King Of Nowhere)ʼ was the first out, probably because of its slightly tribal groove and heavy emphasis on the guitars. Said to be influenced by Can, Siouxsie & The Banshees, and the Pixies, it is a stuttery, heavily syncopated rocker that has neither the precision and ruthlessness of Can, nor the theatricality and aggressive energy of Siouxsie, nor the humor and absurdity of the Pixies. The grumbly, repetitive guitar riff is a poorly adapted companion to Yorke's nasal falsetto (as an example of how such things are done right, take Tom Waits' ʽGoing Out Westʼ which boasts a slightly similar percussive groove, but where everything clicks because all the instruments and vocals are in tune with each other); the vocal part lacks any interesting dynamic shifts (a.k.a. «hooks»); and by the time the song kicks into high gear, with Greenwood letting loose some of his guitar demons in classic Bends mode, my lack of interest has become so total that the effort is wasted — too bad, because some of those climactic guitar overdubs kick notarially certified ass.

The second single was a return to acoustic form — ʽGo To Sleepʼ, alternating between 4/4 and 6/4 to take the fun out of your toe-tapping, is a bass-heavy neo-folk freakout with a clearly spelled out political message ("we don't want the loonies taking over"). We certainly do not, but instead of putting the loonies to sleep, it nearly succeeds to do the same thing for me — the guitar melody of the song is repetitive, monotonous, and bluntly refuses to employ any variations or flourishes that would deviate it from the formula; and try as he may, but Thom Yorke has spent so much time whining that when the need finally arises to send out a few angry barks, he cannot mobilize the necessary resources for this.

So perhaps the opening number, ʽ2 x 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm)ʼ, released as the third single, might remedy the situation? Hardly. Its opening melody is played in a fairly typical picking style for Radiohead (think ʽStreet Spiritʼ); midway through, it becomes a heated-up alt-rocker with para­noid overtones, but never properly picks up steam because the acoustic basis does not allow it to, and also because Yorke's "you have not been payin' attention" bit is ugly as hell. Not desperate, not thunderous, not aggressive — at best, you can take it as part of his «mental patient» persona, and I just don't feel that he is as credible in it as he is in his «desperate romantic» guise. ʽLuke­warmʼ is a perfect subtitle for it — lukewarm it is, as is everything else on the album.

ʽA Punchup At A Weddingʼ was the fourth (promotional) single, and it is probably the best of the four, but that is not saying much. There is a meaty, blues-based bass / piano groove at the heart of the song, but it does not go anywhere in particular (other than being reinforced with somewhat comically-sounding heavy guitar «grunts» midway through) and, once again, offers nothing by way of vocal hooks other than a few more examples of Thom's familiar falsetto. Worst thing is, there is nothing truly punchy about this song. The lyrics sound like they want to tear George W. Bush and his friends a new one — "you had to piss on our parade... hypocrite opportunist, don't infect me with your poison" — but the music has no energy, bite, or venom to it whatsoever. Perhaps if they were willing to go along with this funky spirit, they should have, you know, invited some actual funk session musicians to play on it? Because the song just drags.

I do believe that is enough for now, because I could probably write up similar impressions for any other song on here. Some have industrial overtones (ʽMyxomatosisʼ), some are purely atmo­spheric ballads (ʽWe Suck Young Bloodʼ — actually, that song has at least some symbolic value, because Thom's terminally-ill delivery emphasizes the ridiculousness of the situation in which the old and obsolete feed on the hopes and futures of the newer generations; still lethargic, though); all share such common values as feebly depressed mood, repetitive sonic patterns, lack of vocal hooks, and a feeling of «I've heard this before, and it used to be much better».

It does feel more cohesive and purposeful than Amnesiac, and it has a smaller percentage of songs about which I openly wish that they'd never corrupted the fabric of space and time. But a small part of me even secretly wishes that it would be crazier than Amnesiac — with an album like this, active hatred might even be preferable to bored indifference. Hail to the new Radiohead, the only band in existence endorsing musical sleeping pills as a weapon against The System.

Those who have accepted the endorsement will be sleepily happy to know that the expanded version of Hail To The Thief (2009) adds a few B-sides (such as the humorously titled ʽPaperbag Writerʼ — unfortunately, just as comatose as all its better known brethren), as well as the entire Com Lag EP from 2004, which includes some remixed and live versions of Thief numbers. No separate review will be provided for this entity, for understandable reasons.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Joy Division: Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979

JOY DIVISION: LES BAINS DOUCHES 18 DECEMBER 1979 (2001)

1) Disorder; 2) Love Will Tear Us Apart; 3) Insight; 4) Shadowplay; 5) Transmission; 6) Day Of The Lords; 7) 24 Hours; 8) These Days; 9) A Means To An End; 10) Passover; 11) New Dawn Fades; 12) Atrocity Exhibition; 13) Digital; 14) Dead Souls; 15) Auto­suggestion; 16) Atmosphere.

General verdict: A kick-ass slab of prime Joy Division live power — just a little too short for perfection.

So much of the officially and semi-officially released Joy Division archival material is prime sonic crap that Les Bains Douches squarely falls in the «where have you been all my life» cate­gory. After all the audience-recording quality stuff that was made available on Heart And Soul or as bonus packages for other albums, all of a sudden, in 2001 we get nine tracks and thirty-six minutes of live Joy Division in their prime — in fabulous sound quality, at least when compared to everything else. The mix is a bit rough, the balance between the band and the audience is not perfect, but for the first time ever (discounting some of the radio sessions that were recorded in studio environments), you actually get to hear the guitar, the bass, the drums, and the vocals as connected, but separate entities, loud and clear. Why, of all places, this had to be a small dance club in the heart of Paris, converted from an older public bath facility (hence the name), remains a bit of a mystery — but at least it had some great acoustics to it.

Even better, the band was hot on that particular night, playing well-tested material from Un­known Pleasures along with a few newer tracks from the upcoming Closer with such verve that the show occasionally seems almost oriented at traditional «classic rock fans» than modernist New Wavers. It does not take more than the first track to understand the difference — ʽDisorderʼ, opening both Pleasures and this concert, sounds like two completely dissimilar entities. Morris and Hook, in particular, are energetic beasts in this setting, rather than a couple of Kraftwerkian robots under Hannett's titular supervision; and Sumner's guitar tone can't help but be thicker and gruffer in order to hold its own against the power punch of the rhythm section. Does this make the live versions better? No — it simply makes Joy Division qualify for that small category of rock bands whose «live face» and «studio face» emphasize different strengths and aspects of their songs; and if we have their producer to thank for it, well, this is who we are going to thank.

Among the various highlights here is ʽShadowplayʼ (simply because it is probably my favorite JD song, and it makes me happy every time they do it justice); a noisy, over-the-top, and fairly rare performance of ʽDay Of The Lordsʼ, not as Sabbath-esque as in the studio version, but drowning the audience in non-stop barrages of power chords; and a «tempest take» on ʽA Means To An Endʼ, where even Curtis is infected by the vicious and violent playing style to the point of showing a few teeth — his "I put my trust in you!" here is the implicit equivalent of "I put my trust in you, BITCH!!", and he even pulls that off convincingly. A relative lowlight is ʽLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ, but only because Sumner's synth is horrendously out of tune — and so loud and whiny that it brings an unnecessarily amateurish flavor to the concert. But it is possible to learn to live with that once the original shock has passed.

Sadly, the entire show, or the entire salvageable part of the show, was so short that the album had to be beefed up by tracks from two other performances (in Amsterdam and Eindhoven) — quite comparable in the level of energy and dedication, but not in terms of sound quality: these last seven tracks are murkier, dirtier, and more reminiscent of what we already knew. Their inclusion does make the whole experience more comprehensive, throwing in Closer-era material like ʽAtrocity Exhibitionʼ and soulful favorites like ʽAtmosphereʼ; but only the tracks from the real Bains Douches, I am afraid, will warant repeated listens. Still, even a half-hour show in profes­sional sound quality from these guys is a blessing — and considering how few classic live albums there are in general from the «Silver Age of Rock Music», Les Bains Douches, despite coming twenty years late to the party, might make a strong contender for the top five.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

King Crimson: Earthbound

KING CRIMSON: EARTHBOUND (1972)

1) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 2) Peoria; 3) The Sailor's Tale; 4) Earthbound; 5) Groon.

General verdict: Awful sound quality, odd selection of material, and head-scratching historical importance.

Clearly, this is one of rock music's most historical ironies — that the gloriously gargantuan live biography of King Crimson (as of 2017, counting so many hours of officially released material that listening to King Crimson should be added to the list of best-paying, and also most dangerous, jobs in the world) should begin with a record captured on cassette tape, in such lo-fi quality that it would rank dishonorably even on any given list of contemporary bootlegs. As we all know, the early Seventies were a period of great excess, with classic double and triple live albums from all the best and worst progressive rock outfits of the time — and with both the old and the new lineups of King Crimson enjoying a pretty solid onstage reputation, one could certainly hope to get a package that would put Yessongs, or at least Genesis Live, to shame.

Unfortunately, Yessongs had not yet been released at the time, and many bands were still heavily restricted by limited budgets and technological deficiencies. This did not apply to King Crimson all the time, and, frankly, now that we have many more documents from the 1971-72 tour coming up (such as the ones represented on the Ladies Of The Road package, for instance), it is unclear to me why, of all things, it had to be these tapes, handpicked from a selection of US shows in February / March '72, to be approved for official release, with Fripp granting his consent. Actual­ly, even Atlantic Records declined to distribute the album on the American market at the time; and Fripp himself has allegedly strived since then to delete it from the catalog — to no avail, because Crimsonians may allow themselves to forgive, but never to forget.

Anyway, here it is. The band only allowed itself a single album, with emphasis on improvisation and experimentation — only ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ got permission to participate in this as a proper representative of KC's studio catalog, plus a faded-in snippet from ʽThe Sailor's Taleʼ that is fairly indistinguishable from the band's improvisational pattern anyway. ʽGroonʼ had also been released previously as the obscure B-side to ʽCat Foodʼ, but this particular 15-minute version has more to do with drum solos and instrumental ruckus than the studio original. The one thing that tied together all of King Crimson's lineups — namely, that the band's life on stage must be a dynamically evolving event, quite separate from its studio creation — is firmly in place here; on the other hand, the minimalistic packaging of the record, in stark contrast with the colorful album sleeves from the previous years, indicates a move to a more austere aesthetics — not sur­prisingly, coinciding with Fripp's decisive break-up with Sinfield over the artistic direction of the band. From now on, Spartan style would be typical of most, if not all, KC sleeves.

On the whole, the Burrell / Collins / Wallace line-up of King Crimson, while probably the weakest in terms of internal cohesion and energy in the band's entire history, still managed to kick plenty of ass on the stage. Problem is, even if we manage to get over the cardboard-ish sound quality (which no modern-age remaster can properly overcome), the «new» music here is simply not all that interesting. In particular, ʽPeoriaʼ and ʽEarthboundʼ are little more than decent, mid-tempo, chuggy, abrasive funk jams (sometimes with Boz rather comically scatting across the melody) that could have been generated by at least a couple dozen heavy rock acts at the time — you certainly do not need to have Robert Fripp in your band to play that kind of stuff. More than anything else, it shows the technical and visionary limitations of Fripp's colleagues: Boz could hold that groove, but not run with it, Collins was a fairly traditional sax blower, and Ian Wallace was... well, no Bill Bruford when it came to putting a mathematical spin on the art of drumming.

That said, this incarnation worked pretty damn well for ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ: Burrell added a gargly roar to Lake's end-of-the-world vocal bravado, Wallace added power and volume to Michael Giles' fussy drumming (though I'd call him a somewhat sloppier drummer than Michael on the whole), and Fripp's dueling with Collins reached a whole new level of hystrionics. Even the lo-fi production somehow adds to the charm of this particular performance — raw, dirty, mucky, probably just the way that the Schizoid Man would love it himself. As great as the next version of King Crimson would turn out to be, their variant of the song would end up somewhat more stiff and sterile than the glorious chaotic nightmare captured on Earthbound.

And yet, this does not even begin to explain why 15 minutes of this short record is given over to ʽGroonʼ, more than half of which consists of a drum solo — and a drum solo that simply shows Ian Wallace to be a disciple of Ginger Baker, except for the very end when he complements the drumming with psychedelic electronic effects (that sound like crap anyway). In the future, Fripp would either eliminate the need for drum solos completely or at least approach it far more crea­tively (three drummers!), but this particular performance almost seems imposed on the band by the average requirements of the epoch. As, for that matter, is some of the full-band instrumental jamming, as well. Just not the kind of stuff that would make them stand out from the rest of the pack, guns blazing and all.

Something deep down in my heart even tells me that this might have been Robert's intentionally sour put-down of his own band — that the release of Earthbound somehow gave him a docu­mental justification for letting everybody go home and taking some time to refresh, renew, and reboot. With time healing the usual wounds, subsequent archival releases of material from the same tour eventually restored a bit of justice, and the 1971-72 KC is still an unerasable and integral part of history, but I do agree with Fripp that it had to go, if ever King Crimson was to ever rise up to the challenge of making another album as mind-blowing and revolutionary as In The Court. If ever, in fact, King Crimson were to save the face of the entire progressive rock genre, still going reasonably strong in 1972 but already on the verge of sinking into its own quicksand. One thing is for certain — there's no way they'd do it with Boz and Mel.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Syd Barrett: Barrett

SYD BARRETT: BARRETT (1970)

1) Baby Lemonade; 2) Love Song; 3) Dominoes; 4) It Is Obvious; 5) Rats; 6) Maisie; 7) Gigolo Aunt; 8) Waving My Arms In The Air; 9) I Never Lied To You; 10) Wined And Dined; 11) Wolfpack; 12) Effervescing Elephant.

General verdict: A last-minute nursing assistant attempt to squeeze genius from madness.

Surprisingly, Syd's second and last studio album, sanctioned by EMI in light of the positive response to Madcap, actually sounds a little more like a regular pop/rock record than the con­fused mess that Madcap represented. Doubtless, this has to do with the slightly more cohesive nature of the recording sessions: spread over five months rather than an entire year, and with a permanent backing band, which included Gilmour, Wright, and Jerry Shirley on drums, plus a couple guests here and there. This does not mean that Syd himself was in much better shape: according to David's and Rick's memories, the sessions largely consisted of them following Syd around and trying to bottle up occasional flashes of genius emerging from the general decay — with mixed results, to say the least.

They did eventually come up with the idea of laying down their own basic tracks and letting Syd play or sing against them, which explains why so many songs this time around have steady rhyth­mic grooves that you can tap your foot to — one reason, perhaps, why some people prefer Bar­rett to its predecessor. The problem with this, of course, is that you can never tell if the final result was something that Syd really wanted himself; but, clearly, it was either that or nothing, and overall, I remain amazed at the kind of sacrifice these guys were making for their poor old friend — more artistically satisfying, perhaps, than changing the diapers on an immobilized patient, but also far more depressing.

That said, it is interesting that the three tracks laid down during the first session, February 26, are almost normal — even Gilmour reportedly noticed that and became afraid that they were losing the «Barrett-ness»... so he immediately rushed out and got Syd a pack of Mandrax, just to make sure. (Well, I did make up that last part, so don't get any ideas). ʽBaby Lemonadeʼ and ʽGigolo Auntʼ could have both made excellent singles, with their upbeat attitudes, catchy choruses, and clearly, if briefly, returning Mother-Goose-on-speed spirit. Granted, ʽGigolo Auntʼ runs out of lyrical ideas midway through and becomes an extended blues jam, with Syd in surprising control of his electric lead (Gilmour restricts himself to bass), not quite able to come out with a smoothly flowing solo, but at least consistently staying in key and sometimes churning out «biting» licks that clearly show the spirit was still there. The first half, however, is a nifty little Brit-pop nugget, once again touching upon the complicated and rather psychotic relations between Syd and the female sex: that line about "I almost want you back" is subtly cutting, as it encapsulates the man's tormenting indecisiveness about everything.

On the opposite side of the fence from ʽBaby Lemonadeʼ and ʽGigolo Auntʼ is ʽMaisieʼ, a dark, gloomy blues tune that is essentially Syd's personal tribute to Howlin' Wolf — he even adopts the deepest, bassiest tone that he is capable of for the performance. The groove is never allowed to develop into anything larger than just a groove, but it is interesting to see Syd actually doing impersonations: judging by the style of Madcap, you'd think that theatrical artistry would be the very last thing on his mind at the time. Yet he was strong enough to put on a couple faces for these sessions, and pretty cool faces at that — I'm sure Captain Beefheart, of all people, would have appreciated the grumpy grumble of "Maisie... Maisie... bad luck... bride of a bull...".

As time went by, though, control and focus were inevitably lost, and already tracks like ʽLove Songʼ and ʽIt Is Obviousʼ sound like unfinished ramblings, hastily molded into some sort of shape by the rhythm session of Gilmour and Shirley but, perhaps, more treasurable to us in their rawest form — a hypothesis that you can verify for yourself, since the CD edition of Barrett comes loaded with bonuses, including early acoustic takes on both of these songs and more. Both of them are really just okay in any form, but the man did hit the nail on the head with ʽDominoesʼ: the single saddest moment of this entire record is hearing Rick's quiet, mournful organ swirl by as Syd utters the line "you and I... you and I and dominoes..." Somehow that one line just perfectly captures the idea of total isolation and seclusion, more so than ʽDark Globeʼ or ʽLate Nightʼ, just by way of its tranquil melancholy and obedient submission to one's doom.

One might take offense at Gilmour and Wright's decision to end the album with ʽEffervescing Elephantʼ, a brief nod to circus / music hall music with lyrics that would make Dr. Seuss blush; however, they did so more or less in their own tradition (ʽBikeʼ, remember?) — one final bit of deflation always works wonders for serious statements, and, who knows, perhaps they saw the song as a good luck charm of sorts: with Syd actually writing at least a few songs on general absurdist themes rather than about his own sorry condition, one could entertain a very weak hope that one day he'd be strong enough to snap out of it...

Alas, that day never came. Who knows what might have become of Syd Barrett, had he actually made it and regained a bit of psychic health? Could he have gone on to become a wise and humble and ironic singer-songwriter, something like a UK equivalent of Randy Newman? Would he have embraced New Wave and hired Robert Fripp to play on his sessions? Or are these idle and meaningless questions, since the man was destined not to outlive the Sixties, having died in spirit, if not in body, around the same 27-year mark as Janis, Jimi, and Jim? Whatever be the case, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett together constitute a short, strange, and — when you carefully consider the context — rather terrifying artistic legacy that, hopefully, will not be forgotten as long as people still cut off their own ears and run around naked in the rain and snow.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ringo Starr: Sentimental Journey

RINGO STARR: SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY (1970)

1) Sentimental Journey; 2) Night And Day; 3) Whispering Grass (Don't Tell The Trees); 4) Bye Bye Blackbird; 5) I'm A Fool To Care; 6) Stardust; 7) Blue Turning Grey Over You; 8) Love Is A Many Splendoured Thing; 9) Dream; 10) You Always Hurt The One You Love; 11) Have I Told You Lately That I Love You; 12) Let The Rest Of The World Go By.

General verdict: So, not a fan of the avantgarde liaison between John and Yoko? Go back to Ringo singing Hoagy Carmichael, you pop slut!

In the place of the age-old and fairly boring «Paul is dead» conspiracy theory, I offer you a new one: The Beatles were broken up not by the egotism of John Lennon, not by the stubbornness of Paul McCartney, not by the resent­ment of George Harrison, not by the ruthless business deals of Allen Klein, not even by the witchcraft of Yoko Ono. Instead, The Beatles were broken up by Elsie Starkey, who had been patiently waiting for ten years only to plant a carefully planned and perfectly targeted strike at a time when it hit the deadliest — so that her allegedly misled and mis­guided offspring could finally come to his senses and start recording decent music for a change. What else could explain the irrefutable fact that Sentimental Journey, Ringo's grand entry into the world of bearded pop oldies, became the first «properly musical» album by any solo Beatle, even beating McCartney's self-titled debut by about three weeks?.. Nothing, and in a world of simplified logic, this proves the theory beyond the slightest shred of reasonable doubt.

Now, in general, Ringo's solo career should not be slighted too much. Ringo's always had charisma, solid drumming potential, and decent taste in pop music. As a songwriter, he came to the table fairly late and never engaged in the deed too often, but when he did write, he was a bit above average (I mean, you'd have to be mentally challenged to work with John and Paul for so long and not having at least a tiny bit of all that talent rub off on you). And even the very idea of Ringo doing some Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael on the side is not abominable per se: his limited singing skills could be effectively attuned for comic effect, which could have been a re­freshing change from hearing so many crooners overkilling the material.

The problem with Sentimental Journey is that no effort was undertaken to try and make it «special» in any way. The one and only gimmick of the album was the idea to give each of the twelve songs to a different arranger — ranging from close allies (Paul himself on one track, and George Martin on another) to more distant friends such as Maurice Gibb to classical-pop digni­taries such as Elmer Bernstein to truly unpredictable choices like Quincy Jones (who, apparently, remembers this incident largely in the context of Ringo not being able to properly hold a simple percus­sion groove — grumpy old man). Unfortunately, it is as if the invisible and terrifying presence of loving Mum haunted the studio day and night, night and day, because in the end, despite heavier orchestration on some tracks and lighter on others, you'd have to be a wizard of perception to tell which track was arranged by Maurice Gibb and which one by Quincy Jones. (Cue: ʽBye Bye Blackbirdʼ begins with a strummed banjo and ʽLove Is A Many Splendoured Thingʼ opens with a bass flourish — your associations?).

Furthermore, Ringo's biggest strength — his friendly goofiness — is totally wasted here, since it is painfully clear that, while he most certainly loves his Mum and probably respects this material, he has very little by way of «true intimate connection» with it. (I mean, if he had, what would be the chances of his joining a skiffle band back in 1957?). He is neither able to sing these songs professionally (which is predictable), nor to put a properly goofy spin on them — the best he can do is try to stay in tune (most of the time) and maintain a moderately cheerful attitude. I'm sure Mum and Stepdad must have been delighted, but the rest of the world could only take this as one further sign of Ringo's general incompetence and lack of direction as an artist.

"The great thing was that it got my solo career moving", Ringo later said of the album himself, which, I guess, is as close to an implicit agreement that the album was shit as possible. Techni­cally, he might be right, because Sentimental Journey sold well — after all, it was a Beatle album, and a Beatle album with no genitalia on the front cover and with an actual, obvious song list on the back cover, which was enough to propel it to #7 on the UK charts, a higher position than any subsequent Ringo solo album with the exception of the self-titled Ringo from 1973. Of course, this does not explain why it could not have been possible to get his solo career moving with something just a tiny bit more exciting than a bunch of boring covers of standards. Neither is it a matter of time healing all wounds: the arrangements and vocal performances remain just as corny in retrospect as they were in innovation-heavy 1970. You'd really have to be in (peace and) love with Ringo to be able to get your kicks here.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Marvin Gaye: How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You

MARVIN GAYE: HOW SWEET IT IS TO BE LOVED BY YOU (1965)

1) You're A Wonderful One; 2) How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You); 3) Try It Baby; 4) Baby Don't You Do It; 5) Need Your Lovin'; 6) One Of These Days; 7) No Good Without You; 8) Stepping Closer To Your Heart; 9) Need Somebody; 10) Me And My Lonely Room; 11) Now That You've Won Me; 12) Forever.

General verdict: Some terrific singles, surrounded by respectable almost-not-filler. Down with adult standards, long live teen pop!

With all those easy-listening LPs that Motown allowed Marvin to make, it is almost possible to forget the steady line of minor and major hit singles that the man was churning out for the label. It took almost three years for Motown to come to its senses and put out Gaye's second «proper» R&B album — one that collected all those singles in one place. Not that it is hard to understand the logic behind this strategy: 7" singles with teen-oriented music for poor teens vs. LPs with adult-oriented music for well-to-do adults. But what are you going to do when well-to-do adults just cannot be interested in yet another set of passable takes on old standards? You change your strategy — and see it work: How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You became Marvin's very first album to make the tiniest blip on the charts (peaking at #128, but at #4 on the R&B charts).

The track sequencing pulls no punches: the first four tracks are squarely the four Marvin Gaye singles from 1964, in the exact same chronological order, if not necessarily in the order of their respective awesomeness. ʽYou're A Wonderful Oneʼ was somewhat shamelessly credited to Holland-Dozier-Holland, even if its base melody is directly copied from Chuck Berry's ʽMemphis, Tennesseeʼ; however, the standard trick of pairing Marvin's ecstatic vocals with playfully sexy girl backups works as fine as always — in this case, it is The Supremes supporting the idea that "you're a wonderful one" on an aerobics-worthy slice of teen pop. Somewhat more original (or, at least, less recognizable as a direct rip-off) is the title track — slower, more soulful, with lots of help from The Funk Brothers and The Andantes, and unforgettable because of its sloganeering chorus: just tweak the lyrics a bit, and the whole "how sweet it is to be loved by you" thing could be a ready-made church anthem.

Berry Gordy's ʽTry It Babyʼ (this time, with male backup vocals from The Temptations), in com­parison, is a not particularly exciting blues ballad (its most unusual moment comes in the form of a trumpet solo by Maurice Davis — not the most common thing you encounter on a pop single); but the real breakthrough comes with ʽBaby Don't You Do Itʼ, one of the first Marvin Gaye songs that totally blew the minds of young British teenagers — from The Who to Small Faces to, even­tually, even The Band, everybody was covering it, and for a very good reason: it was arguably the most «tribalistic» song released on Motown to that date. Its groove is based on the standard Bo Diddley beat, somewhat smoothed out for pop consumption but still heavy on the loud drums, angry, choppy guitar chords, and syncopation a-plenty. On top of this, Marvin is singing about dejection, desperation, and suicide, going all-out crazy with negative emotions — which, let's face it, is far more appealing to the rebellious teen than gushing all over the place with romantic sentiment. I personally confess that I far prefer the 1971 cover by The Who, with Leslie West on additional guitar — just because all four members of the band perfectly understood all the poten­tial of the respective instrumental parts, and made good on that; on the other hand, The Who's version does not have those delightful hoo-hooing backup harmonies from The Andantes (and it is a good thing that it does not, because they would sound cheesy against the increased heaviness of the track), and we are not going to make a disservice to either Marvin or Roger by comparing their respective vocal strengths and weaknesses.

As good as the singles are, though, the LP is well worth owning in full, because some of the LP-only tracks are quite interesting on their own. Mickey Stevenson's ʽNo Good Without Youʼ has a certain dark moodiness around it, enough to be spotted by the short-lived British band The Birds (Ronnie Wood's musical birthplace) and turned into a classic «nugget». Another Stevenson track, ʽNeed Somebodyʼ (a collaboration with Ivy Hunter), has an oddly distinctive «electro-acoustic» guitar lick that sounds like the prototype of a ringtone or a PC speaker blip in an arcade game — the song in general is pretty standard, but the guitar part really sounds like nothing else recorded at the time, though, allegedly, that does not have much to do with Marvin Gaye's persona. On the other hand, such tracks as ʽMe And My Lonely Roomʼ and ʽNow That You've Won Meʼ are com­pletely made by Marvin's persona: with this kind of material, he is free from any adult-oriented conventions and can allow himself to go mentally unstable, like, well, a normal human being.

There are still a few concessions to easy-listening every now and then, and the closing track, in my opinion, is highly unsatisfactory: ʽForeverʼ is built according to the already obsolete Fifties doo-wop model, which may have still been somewhat operational in, say, 1962, but in 1964-65 seems completely out of place next to far more exciting models. But then again, I am not saying that the LP as a whole is a flawless masterpiece — rather, as a whole it is a qualitative improve­ment on the filler-padded Stubborn Kinda' Fellow, let alone Marvin's cheerless string of Broad­way records, and a generally healthy musical environment surrounding his big single successes.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: The Avalanche

SUFJAN STEVENS: THE AVALANCHE (2006)

1) The Avalanche; 2) Dear Mr. Supercomputer; 3) Adlai Stevenson; 4) The Vivian Girls Are Visited In The Night By Saint Dargarius And His Squadron Of Benevolent Butter­flies; 5) Chicago (acoustic version); 6) The Henney Buggy Band; 7) Saul Bellow; 8) Carlyle Lake; 9) Springfield, Or Bobby Got A Shadfly Caught In His Hair; 10) The Mistress Witch From McClure (Or, The Mind That Knows Itself); 11) Kaskaskia River; 12) Chicago (adult contemporary easy listening version); 13) Inaugural Pop Music For Jane Margaret Byrne; 14) No Man's Land; 15) The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake; 16) The Pick-Up; 17) The Perpetual Self, Or 'What Would Saul Alinsky Do?'; 18) For Clyde Tombaugh; 19) Chicago (multiple personality disorder version); 20) Pittsfield; 21) The Undivided Self (For Eppie And Popo).

General verdict: Second Illinoise, same as the first.

The subtitle Outtakes And Extras From The Illinois Album! is generally correct, except for one important detail: many, if not most, of the songs on this follow-up were actually written with the idea of a double album in mind — in fact, a triple one, if we remember that Sufjan typically makes 70-minute long CDs, roughly equaling three sides of traditional vinyl. The idea was even­tually scrapped, although I do not understand why: Sufjan's fans were already quite well used to the man's sprawl, and I cannot imagine any of Sufjan's reviewers actually listening to all of his records attentively all the way through anyway.

In any case, The Avalanche is simply the second half of Illinois — a little less liked by Sufjan himself, for obvious reasons of selection, and also containing some genuine moments of overkill (such as the three additional versions of ʽChicagoʼ), but on the whole, it goes without saying that if you loved the style, ideas, and feels of Illinois, you are dutifully obligated to give a little love to its younger brother as well. Unfortunately, it also makes the predicament: there are no new general words I can say about Avalanche that have not already been said about Illinois — and very few specific comments I could make about any of the individual tracks, since they, too, tend to cuddle together into one big sentimental glop, setting exactly the same mood of a never-ending Carnival of the Melancholic Woodland Pixies.

As a single example, I will take the title track — after all, it wasn't selected as the title track for nothing, so it must be somewhat symbolic of the entire experience. If you listen hard enough, you might note that the distinctive three-note chord sequence of the song, appearing around the 1 minute mark, is actually an exciting musical idea, slightly disrupting the supersmooth flow of the song and giving it a sharper edge. But it never gets properly explored — and the song, suppo­sedly describing a one man's hopeful journey to Illinois and culminating in a series of anthemic come-ons ("come on, Stone! come on, Star! come on, Snow! come on, Car!") is ultimately bogged down in monotonous and expressionless stomp. Yes, I fully admit that there might be people who like being urged on by a voice seemingly belonging to a human being who had been thoroughly and meticulously decalorized for months and months. Myself, I am still amazed at how it is even possible to write so many quasi-anthemic songs whose power cannot be measured even in a single joule.

In a general setting like this, it only gets worse when the songwriter throws in symbolic quota­tions from his betters — such as the "1-2-3-4-5-6-7 all computers go to heaven" line in ʽDear Mr. Supercomputerʼ, obviously referring to you-know-what; the song itself, however, reminds me more of the plaintive streak of The Kinks (Sufjan's "Oh-my-God-I-can't-believe-it..." shares similarities with ʽMr. Pleasantʼ), except that, once again, there is absolutely nothing to get riled up about here. Not a whiff of anger, not the slightest touch of offensiveness, not the smallest bit of evidence that this singer is a human being of flesh and blood and not a disembodied spirit or a Platonic idea. Come to think of it, is it really a sign of total humility when you sing like that, or a subtle demonstration of unprecedented arrogance?..

Maybe it would not be oh so painful like that if not for the additional insult of the long-winded song titles that float out so gratuitously, senselessly, and pretentiously. ʽInaugural Pop Music For Jane Margaret Byrneʼ, for instance. Clearly, the first female mayor of Chicago might very well deserve some pop music in her honor, but what do these minute and a half of elevator-ish key­board tones, closely resembling the kind of muzak that plays when you are accidentally redirected to some sleazy phishing website, has to do with true «pop», let alone «inaugural»? Gimmicks like that, strewn all over Sufjan's catalog but particularly viciously festering in his Illinois stage, only further my conviction that the man's art exists primarily in order to give critics something to write about, rather than give ordinary people something to enjoy from the bottom of their hearts.

Subsequently, even when Sufjan pokes a bit of fun at himself and subtitles two of his alternate arrangements for ʽChicagoʼ as «adult contemporary easy listening version» and «multiple perso­nality disorder version», respectively, I am inclined to take this at far stronger face value than we are supposed to. Because that first version, want it or not, is adult contemporary easy listening (as is a very large chunk of Sufjan's standard catalog, to tell the truth), and that second version, peppered with vocal overdubs a-plenty, does suggest that, while Stevens is probably (and hope­fully) not truly suffering from multiple personality disorder, he is somewhat obsessed with the concept. The only problem is that he is not very interesting as a vocalist all by himself, and it is not clear whether this issue can be solved by recording multiple vocal parts and having them bounce off each other. Like, when you multiply boring by boring, does boring squared equal exciting and involving? Not for me it doesn't.

As an optimistic and excusatory conclusion, I do have to add that I totally admire and respect the man's working ethic. To do so much research on the history and culture of Illinois, to spend so much time writing so many songs, to play most of the instruments in the studio himself — in terms of dedication to an idea, Sufjan should be a source of inspiration to us all. And it is not his fault, after all, that he does not possess the slightest spark of songwriting genius — in fact, I would be somewhat surprised if he did, because meticulous and hyper-productive work like this rarely, if ever, goes hand-in-hand with true genius. Herein lies the importance of Avalanche: far more significant is the mere fact that it exists, rather than the emotional and artistic value of its actual songs. Like, some people probably learned who Adlai Stevenson, Saul Bellow, and Saul Alinsky were from listening to it (let alone Jane Byrne) — surely there is something to be said about pure educational value, too.