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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Pink Floyd: Obscured By Clouds


1) Obscured By Clouds; 2) When You're In; 3) Burning Bridges; 4) The Gold It's In The..; 5) Wot's... Uh The Deal; 6) Mudmen; 7) Childhood's End; 8) Free Four; 9) Stay; 10) Absolutely Curtains.

General verdict: Not really a proper soundtrack: simply the least ambitious of all of Floyd's great albums.

Stuck in between the cosmic awesomeness of ʽEchoesʼ and the philosophical sermons of Dark Side is this minor little gem — a side project, a quick detour to help out an old friend, undertaken at a time when the bulk of Dark Side was already completed and played live, so, clearly, there are certain mood and texture overlaps between the two. Since it is a soundtrack (to yet another Barbet Schroeder movie), it usually gets the same amount of attention as More (close to nothing, that is), which is unjust: if we simply allow the music to speak for itself, without being heavily burdened by an explicit concept or by lyrical invocations, much of Obscured By Clouds might reveal emotional depths that are quite comparable to Dark Side. In 1972, Pink Floyd were on a roll — they had finally found themselves, and pretty much everything they touched at the time was guaranteed to be, if not gold, then at least silver.

The movie itself, although I have not seen it, is usually described as just another hippie flick, typical of the times, about the never-ending search for the meaning of life — this time, seen through the eyes of some rich French gal retreating to the very heart of New Guinea, where she can finally get some glimpses of The Truth by communicating with people living innocent, primal, Rousseauish lives, free from shackles of civilization and phoney morality (so, lucky for all the viewers, there is also a lot of free sex involved). A lot of Castanedan crap, etc. etc. Looking back at this from the cynical (but wisened up) heights of 2017, we probably cannot admire Pink Floyd for going along with the idea, but, fortunately, the only direct and unavoidable connection of the music with the movie is at the very end, where ʽAbsolutely Curtainsʼ finishes with a lengthy «ethno-musical» slice of the Mapuga tribe performing a ritual chant. (By the way, although the movie was truly shot in New Guinea and the natives there are native, I can find no reference to any «Mapuga» in existing literature on Papua — most likely, all the names were changed to protect the innocent and deflect the wrath of the local spirits).

So forget all about the insultingly exotic mysticism of the hippie era, and Obscured By Clouds will simply remain as a short, moody, evocative experience: nowhere near as aggressive on the soul as the classic 1973-79 period would turn out to be, but truly representing a certain «gathering of the clouds» — brilliantly pictured by the electronic and electric guitar soundscapes of the title track, produced in such a way that the listener truly gets the feeling of a steady, unbreakable wall of dark clouds slowly filling up the sky. Together with the following ʽWhen You're Inʼ, which is basically just a variation on the same theme, but with a powerful «martial» riff thrown in, these five minutes actually announce a new era in the Floyd sound — darker, denser, less dependent on folk stylistics, more dependent on electronic ambience, yet never letting that ambience swallow up and annihilate the dynamics: Gilmour may not play a lot of notes, but the ones that he does play are played with fire, and sometimes there is a lot more going on while he is busy bending or sliding along a single string than there is in a shredder running all across the scale.

However, in addition to bouts of hypnotism, there is also intrigue in Obscured By Clouds, as the album wobbles back and forth between these quiet, but stern doom-laden paintings of gathering thunderclouds — and a bunch of pretty pop melodies that run the gamut from cheerfully uplifting to tenderly sentimental. Thus, ʽWot's... Uh The Dealʼ is one of their most touching moments from that period: a very vulnerable, beautifully sung ballad about aging and missed opportunities, co-credited to Roger and Dave and potentially functioning as a softer, more intimate, and maybe even a little sadder companion to ʽTimeʼ — appropriately revived as a live number on Gilmour's 2006 tour with Wright. Less touching, but more curious is ʽFree Fourʼ, where serious stakes are placed upon the contrast between the upbeat, almost care-free, toe-tappy acoustic strum of the verses and the threatening blues-rock punch of the bridges (although the darkness is further per­petuated by the odd «industrial» synth explosions in the verses, let alone Roger's early aphorisms like "life is a short warm moment / and death is a long cold rest"). This could be seen as a highly transitional moment — there were plenty of times in Floyd's earlier catalog where Waters sounded nice and friendly with an acoustic guitar in tow, but it wouldn't be long before the venom would become completely ubiquitous.

On the other hand, ʽChildhood's Endʼ, with its jagged, broken-up guitar chords, leisurely, but mean blues stomp, bitter accusatory vocals and screechy Gilmour guitar, already sounds like prime time classic Floyd — in fact, highly prescient of ʽHave A Cigarʼ from Wish You Were Here, so much so that I could easily imagine a medley of both, where ʽCigarʼ would be the boss man's manifesto and ʽChildhood's Endʼ would be the exploited Floydman's response ("you shout in your sleep, perhaps the price is just too steep" is a perfect retort to "did we tell you the name of the game boy?", isn't it?). One of the two hard-rocking (or soft-rocking, whatever) vocal numbers on the album, it is utterly salvageable — unlike the much less satisfactory ʽThe Gold It's In The...ʼ, which, conversely, sounds a bit too close for comfort to generic middle-of-the-road Seventies rock: too many power chords, too much half-assed breathy screaming from Dave, too much empty, out-of-context optimism. Leave this stuff for Styx or Kansas, I say.

Overall, the album may feel a bit disjointed, especially compared to everything that followed in its wake, but the important thing is that it feels fully autonomous — unless you are specifically informed of its soundtrack origins, you will never suspect that any of the songs were written around specific passages in Schroeder's movie. The compositions may not be as catchy or deep as whatever followed, but — and this is an important butObscured By Clouds is also the very last time where Pink Floyd, the band originally put together by Syd Barrett, would be interested in the macrocosm, i.e. would sound at least marginally psychedelic. Starting with Dark Side, almost everything that Floyd did was about people: sad people, angry people, frustrated people, crazy people, mean bastards, broken down ex-heroes, misanthropes, victims of The System, perpetrators of The System, and so on. Obscured By Clouds, though they probably did not even realize this at the time, was their final goodbye to a world where you could curl up under a tree on a lazy summer day, roll a joint, put on some headphones, and warp away to a previously unreachable dimension in spacetime.

Ironically, it was also the very moment when they began to feel perfectly comfortable in the studio, achieving a clarity and depth of sound that was unimaginable in 1967 and unreachable in 1969. Some of Gilmour's guitar work here (particularly on the heavenly ʽMudmenʼ), at least in terms of purity of tone, blows away pretty much everything they did before, so much so that I cannot help wondering what we might think of the band's transitional period, had they suddenly decided to re-record all of their 1968-71 output after Dark Side. (An issue that would be partially remedied on stage — I already mentioned how Gilmour's later era performances of ʽEchoesʼ pretty much annihilate the studio original). In any case, this is what gives the album its edge: if you want to get at least a small glimpse of how the «cosmic Floyd» would have sounded given the production techniques and accumulated experience of the Dark Side period, your best and only bet is this record — Obscured By The Dark Side, as it should probably have been called post-'73. Not perfect by definition, no, but neither should it be ejected from the consistently great run that started in 1971 and went all the way to 1979.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ringo Starr: Beaucoups Of Blues


1) Beaucoups Of Blues; 2) Love Don't Last Long; 3) Fastest Growing Heartache In The West; 4) Without Her; 5) Woman Of The Night; 6) I'd Be Talking All The Time; 7) $15 Draw; 8) Wine, Women And Loud Happy Songs; 9) I Wouldn't Have You Any Other Way; 10) Loser's Lounge; 11) Waiting; 12) Silent Homecoming; 13*) Coochy Coochy; 14*) Nashville Jam.

General verdict: If you know nothing about country music, being a Ringo fan is probably not going to improve your relations with the genre.

As The Beatles broke up, the entire attention of a world thrown into darkness and despair was thrown at the one man who could still give a little light to the suffering Beatlemaniacs. John Lennon? Bewitched and corrupted by Yoko Ono. Paul McCartney? Officially broke up The Beatles, not to mention being dead. George Harrison? Sold out to the Indian market. Clearly, it was up to the steady, unnerving, hard-as-a-rock drummer — the one who put the beat in The Beatles and without whose subtle, but firm guidance The Beatles would be nothing more than a slightly less intelligent-looking version of Herman's Hermits.

At least, such is my version of why Ringo had to put out not one, but two mildly embarrassing solo albums in 1970, while John and George were still getting their bearings and Paul couldn't even put a proper new band together. Essentially, it looks like a two-step algorithm of bringing down public expectations — «I'm Ringo Starr, and I have fewer ambitions in this life than Paul McCartney's left toe, so don't go around demanding anything from me!» If Ringo's Sentimental Journey into the world of tuxedos and bonnets did not quite get the job done, then Beaucoups Of Blues, his trip down to Nashville, completed it with distinction: the resulting album did not chart at all in the UK, and performed far more poorly in the US than Sentimental Journey (perhaps some of the American fans regarded this as a direct insult to their native country).

To be fair, it didn't have to be a failure. In Beatles' days, as we all remember well, Ringo always had a knack for country-western material — from ʽAct Naturallyʼ to ʽWhat Goes Onʼ to ʽDon't Pass Me Byʼ, John and Paul always gave him the green light on that: country-western was a goofy genre anyway, so why not deliver it in the hands of the band's lovable goof? Eventually, Ringo even learned to be creative within that paradigm, coming up with ʽDon't Pass Me Byʼ on his own and making it work in a catchy-silly-funny-ironic manner. An entire album of ʽDon't Pass Me Byʼs would hardly have been epochal or anything, but it could have been good enough for a well-placed chuckle or two.

Unfortunately, it did not work. Having come up with the idea to release a country album after working with Nashville pro Pete Drake on George's All Things Must Pass, Ringo originally planned to make one in England — but Drake convinced him to go to Nashville, where, predic­tably, a whole gang of country veterans was readily available not only to play for him, but even to write a bunch of new songs for him (primarily guitar players Chuck Howard and Sorrells Pickard). Ringo must have been seriously flattered by this decision — so flattered that he completely failed to notice how bland and boring all that material turned out to be.

There is not a single one out of the twelve tunes on this album that would be even remotely inte­resting — well, apart from a few cases of Pete Drake's pretty pedal steel playing, for which you really need not bother procuring a Ringo Starr album. It is mostly slow, melodically generic, and almost completely humorless country fare — I mean, the entire album was recorded in one week, and, most likely, the musicians were just composing on the spot, because what Nashville cat would want to spend more time on an odd little drummer from Liverpool? However lively and goofy Ringo used to make his country stuff in the old days, there isn't a shred of that here: instead, he goes for a sentimental, pseudo-sincere approach where the only redeeming quality could be a great and unique singing voice... and, well, while Ringo's singing voice is definitely unique, he has a long way to go to be compared to Hank Williams. Or, heck, even to Jeannie Kendall, with whom he duets on ʽI Wouldn't Have You Any Other Wayʼ and gets sung under the table even if he has the front mike and she is standing outside the studio.

Only one good thing came out of the sessions. The title track, a generic waltz with Ringo strug­gling all the way to land the "beaucoups of blues" chorus, is garbage; however, its B-side was the only number contributed by Ringo himself — a simple, lively, nonsensical jam, appropriately titled ʽCoochy Coochyʼ and perfectly capturing the good old Carl Perkins vibe, ten times more suitable for Ringo than all the slow sentimental waltzing on the LP itself. The Nashvillers get behind him, contributing fun little parts on harmonica, fiddle, and pedal steel, and five minutes are spent with people smiling at each other, playing off each other, getting it on and giving you a good time without any inhibitions whatsoever.

Apparently, a lot of directionless jamming was going on at the studio — the CD reissue of the album, in addition to ʽCoochy Coochyʼ, throws on almost seven minutes of a ʽNashville Jamʼ, slower and more relaxed than the Perkins homage, but still far more exciting than all the proper «songs» on the album — even throwing on a bit of funkiness to wipe out some of that strong cowboy flavor. In all honesty, my opinion is that Beaucoups Of Blues, as a collection of country ballads, should be deleted from the catalog, and replaced by a bunch of jams from those sessions. Because the only purpose of having a Ringo album is if it's fun. If it ain't fun... well, hell, I am no country fan, but at least Patsy Cline has a stellar singing voice.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Marvin Gaye: Moods Of Marvin Gaye


1) I'll Be Doggone; 2) Little Darling (I Need You); 3) Take This Heart Of Mine; 4) Hey Diddle Diddle; 5) One More Heartache; 6) Ain't That Peculiar; 7) Night Life; 8) You've Been A Long Time Coming; 9) Your Unchanging Love; 10) You're The One For Me; 11) I Worry About You; 12) One For My Baby.

General verdict: A formulaic collection this time, but at least the formula is right.

There is an abundance of hit singles on this record — five out of six songs on Side A, to be precise, and another one on Side B, all of them landing within the Top 50 on the general charts and within the Top 20 on the R&B charts, meaning, cumulatively, the highest recognition Marvin had received to that date. Nevertheless, in retrospect I would say that Moods Of Marvin Gaye is not a particularly great album from that period. It does have maybe one or two moments of utter pop brilliance, but too many of these songs seem content with repeating the formula of previous successes — and then, too, there are occasional sightings of the Broadway ghosts that do not make things easier (now that Marvin had given up on the idea of fully «adult-oriented» LPs, he was still trying to sneak in a couple lounge / show tunes, hoping in vain that such inclusions would somehow ennoble the overall listening experience).

The best, as it often happens, comes first: ʽI'll Be Doggoneʼ, contributed by Smokey Robinson and his co-writers from The Miracles, is a prime example of old-school male chauvinism masquerading as adorable pop catchiness — the transition from cheerful verse to riled-up bridge and to the oddly pacified chorus is a fine catch of one man's confused and contradictory feelings. Not a lot of chances you'll be hearing that one on a contemporary vocal talent show (who in his right mind would want to sing how "every woman should try to be whatever her man wants her to be?" these days), but that does not make the vocal melody, spiced up by perfectly placed response vocals from The Miracles and The Andantes, any less of a knock-out. The funniest thing is that the accompanying instrumental melody is not so much R&B as it is folk-pop, almost directly ripping off the basic chords of ʽNeedles And Pinsʼ — something that The Searchers never failed to notice, and faithfully returned the service by covering ʽI'll Be Doggoneʼ themselves almost as soon as the single came out in 1965 (and a pretty good cover that was, too).

After that, however, things take a turn for the... well, somewhat less exciting. This is still very decent Motown fare, written by the usual professionals, recorded by the usual session greats, backed by the usual wonderful teams of back vocalists, and sung by Marvin as best he can, but it can hardly be denied that the Motown factory recycled trends even more often than it set them, and here there is a bit too much recycling for my tastes. For instance, ʽAin't That Peculiarʼ, one of Marvin's biggest hits, clearly recycles vocal and instrumental parts from ʽCan I Get A Witnessʼ, but without carrying over that song's subtle sense of irony — this here is a soulful-sentimental declaration that will not put a smile on your face (yet is still too bouncy and poppy to put a tear in your eye). And on the other side of the LP, ʽYour Unchanging Loveʼ is an open attempt to repeat the formula of ʽHow Sweet It Isʼ, but without an equally penetrating and convincing hook.

In fact, I would say that, in general, much of this album sounds like an inferior preview of Mar­vin's upcoming duet albums with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell — the songwriting is more or less equally formulaic in both cases, but at least the duet setting opened up more room for lively drama and artistry. As it is, ʽLittle Darling (I Need You)ʼ sounds like Marvin covering The Supremes; ʽTake This Heart Of Mineʼ sounds like Marvin covering Martha & The Vandellas; ʽOne More Heartacheʼ sounds like Marvin covering The Temptations; and ʽNight Lifeʼ sounds like Marvin covering Ray Price... oh wait a minute, it is Marvin covering Ray Price. It's all good enough, but the music offers few emotional revelations or technical advances, and the level of soulful depth is beginning to get just a tad too shallow for 1966 (although, admittedly, half of these singles were released in the much more innocent 1965 — isn't it amazing how, back in that time, one tiny year in music seemed like an entire epoch?).

The overall level of fun, however, only begins to seriously drop down by the time we reach the last bunch of songs — for some reason, Marvin decided to finish the record on a serious Broad­way note, burrowing himself into oldies such as ʽI Worry About Youʼ and ʽOne For My Baby (And One For The Road)ʼ, the latter dragging on for an interminable four and a half minutes as Marvin slowly and stubbornly tries on Frank's nicely polished shoes. Then you remember that the title of the album, after all, is clearly a throwback to the title of his first album (The Soulful Moods), and, once again, the suspicion arises that Marvin felt himself restricted and cheapened by Motown's teen formula, and that all those covers of oldies were some sort of subconscious protest against that... admirable, perhaps, but just not particularly exciting. In any case, Moods Of Marvin Gaye is still a good proposition for those who simply want more Marvin Gaye rather than a new-and-improved Marvin Gaye. Fortunately, the times kept a-changin', and the new-and-improved Marvin Gaye was also waiting just around the corner.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: The BQE


1) Prelude On The Esplanade; 2) Introductory Fanfare For The Hooper Heroes; 3) Move­ment I: In The Countenance Of Kings; 4) Movement II: Sleeping Invader; 5) Interlude I: Dream Sequence In Subi Circumnavigation; 6) Movement III: Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise; 7) Movement IV: Traffic Shock; 8) Movement V: Self-Organizing Emergent Patterns; 9) Interlude II: Subi Power Waltz; 10) Interlude III: Invisible Accidents; 11) Movement VI: Isorhythmic Night Dance With Interchanges; 12) Move­ment VII (Finale): The Emperor Of Centrifuge; 13) Postlude: Critical Mass.

General verdict: If somebody expects me to evaluate a neo-classical symphony on the pressing issue of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, I'd say too much honor for me.

It is highly likely that the huge effort made for Illinois wore Sufjan out — on the whole, over the next twelve years he only came out with two «proper» LPs, and the first one of these was sepa­rated from Illinois by half a decade (not to mention that he had to openly abandon the «50-state project», realizing that the endeavor was a tad more than he could chew). Nevertheless, that entire interim is filled with all sorts of side projects, collaborations, and occasional goofs, some of which are, if not necessarily better than the high points of the man's career, then at least nearly as intriguing — like this one, for instance.

Apparently, the Brooklyn Academy of Music commissioned Sufjan to make a movie about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway — along with a complete orchestral soundtrack. For somebody not living within a ten miles' radius of the BQE, this probably does not sound like a particularly hot proposal; and having watched about a couple of minutes from the completed documentary, I have to state that visually, it is hardly that more exciting than simply taking a seat on the ramp and watching cars go by for about fifty minutes — though, admittedly, there is plenty of artsy editing, some psychedelic montages, and plenty of subtle visual aggrandizing that guarantees life will never be the same again if you ever decide to take a ride on the Interstate 278.

However, Stevens is a music-maker first and a movie-maker l... never, and what matters here, if anything ever matters at all, is the orchestral suite he wrote for the occasion: a forty-minute piece rehearsed and performed live on November 1–3, 2007, then properly recorded, allegedly also in one live take, in the studio. On the whole, one should probably think of the piece as a grand symphony, written very much in the vein of traditional American classical music — think Ives or Copland — despite featuring some trademark Sufjan elements as well (heavy emphasis on chimes and woodwinds, for one thing), as well as poking its nose into more modern elements: ʽTraffic Shockʼ, for instance, is a near-completely electronic movement. Another very obvious influence, since it also refers to both the aural and visual aspects, is that of Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi suite: it is almost always mentioned in conjunction with BQE, but we should also remember that Glass is primarily a minimalist, while Sufjan, at least after his earliest works, has clearly moved on to a much more dynamic frame of reference.

Just how good this work is is simply not for me to state. As pleasant background accompaniment to your chores, it does its job dutifully: as a stand-alone piece of art, I guess it can hardly be judged without reference to its lofty predecessors, and something — though I could never formu­late it explicitly — something suggests to me that once the dust clouds settle, Ives, Copeland, Reich, and Glass are not exactly going to huddle together on that shelf to make free room for Sufjan Stevens. The orchestra does a good job in that this is probably the first of Sufjan's projects that does not give off that «music in a dollhouse» effect, but at least the dollhouse was his perso­nal know-how, and now that he has crossed into symphonic territory, we can, at best, confirm that the man has done his homework and paid his dues — but has he created something outstanding here? has he innovated, has he discovered some fabulous new musical themes that link the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway straight to Heaven? I have no idea.

I do believe that if you happen to love both Sufjan and the American classical music tradition, the Expressway might take you higher, after all — since the music combines the legacy of jazz-and-vaudeville-influenced classical motifs with Sufjan's own friendly-whimsical personality, at least in spots. But if you are not a big fan of either (like myself)? Tough luck. In any case, I reserve my right to make a better judgement for after I have pronounced one on ʽAppalachian Springʼ, which is probably not coming any time soon.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Jonny Greenwood: Bodysong


1) Moon Trills; 2) Moon Mall; 3) Trench; 4) Iron Swallow; 5) Clockwork Tin Soldiers; 6) Convergence; 7) Nudnik Headache; 8) Peartree; 9) Splitter; 10) Bode Radio / Glass Light / Broken; 11) 24 Hour Charleston; 12) Milky Drops From Heaven; 13) Tehellet.

General verdict: A highly diverse and knowledgeable soundtrack, but not exactly a source of major excitement.

Say you are one of those people who likes Radiohead, or would like to like Radiohead, but happen to think that Thom Yorke is one of the most obnoxious singers on this planet, and how much more cool Radiohead would be if it had a different vocalist, or maybe even no vocalist at all. If so, could this be a remedy — Jonny Greenwood's body of movie soundtracks, which pretty much works as the substitute for his solo career? After all, Jonny is the musical genius behind Radiohead, or so it is typically assumed, and it is clear that he does so many soundtracks not in order to make a quick extra buck or because he has a secret affair with Paul Thomas Anderson, but simply because this gives him a chance to run a few of his ideas past band control without straining any of his relationships with the other members of Radiohead.

Most importantly, the soundtracks actually work on their own. This first try, for instance, was used in the art-doc movie Bodysong, directed by Simon Pummell and, according to Wikipedia, telling «the story of an archetypal human life using images taken from all around the world and the last 100 years of cinema» — one of those projects that typically commend gushing admiration from The Serious Art Lover, venomous cynicism from The Bullshit Hound Critic, and utmost indifference from 99.99% of the total population of the planet. I have not seen it, so count me within the 99.99% for now, but I did hear the soundtrack and I confirm that the soundtrack can be listened to, enjoyed, and assimilated without any visual accompaniments — or, rather, you can easily make your own visuals up as you go along.

Or not, actually. If you thought Kid A and Amnesiac went all the way to derail Radiohead from the tried and true rock band formula, think again: as a solo artist, Jonny Greenwood cares even less for polished structures, rhythm tracks, and firmly established musical themes. Instead, he goes on to honor as many of his witty influences as possible — starting with modern classical idols such as Messiaen and Penderecki, going on to Coltrane and Miles Davis, and ending with all sorts of electronic wizards. To that effect, The Emperor Quartet has been called on to provide chamber backing, some important brass players have been called on to provide jazz backing, and Jonny himself plays a lot of Ondes Martenot to keep us firmly in the digital age.

It's all cool, and Greenwood's compositional skills are nothing to laugh about — I have no idea what Messiaen himself would have said about tracks like ʽTehelletʼ or ʽIron Swallowʼ, but they have a fairly serious feel, and I have certainly heard plenty of neo-classical pieces that were much more boring, despite being strictly academic. Above everything else, the soundtrack is really and truly startingly diverse. Its classical pieces can be minimalistic (ʽMoon Trillsʼ), neo-romantic (ʽGlass Lightʼ), or epic (ʽTehelletʼ). Its electronic passages may be glitchy (ʽTrenchʼ), trip-hoppy (ʽClockwork Tin Soldiersʼ), or just wobbly-psychedelic (ʽMoon Mallʼ). ʽMilky Drops From Heavenʼ is avantgarde jazz that sometimes devolves into murky cacophony. ʽConvergenceʼ is four minutes of wild tribal percussion, while ʽ24 Hour Charlestonʼ is banjo-led swamp music pep­pered with electronic bleeps that make Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot marriages of the past and the future seem like childplay in comparison. Quite literally, this is the work of a single guy who seems wildly pleased about letting completely loose, for the first time in his life — taking the time to cram all of his passions into a single package.

However, the main problem with Bodysong is not that it is a soundtrack, but that, for all of its endless pool of ideas, it is still underwhelming. Listening to it actually helps me understand why I do not care all that much for post-Kid A Radiohead a bit better — Greenwood may be a musical prodigy and a musical wizard, not to mention a brave conqueror of new frontiers, blah blah blah, but he just isn't a musical genius. Most of these melodies are technically admirable, but I'd be hard pressed to name one which would amount to more than pleasant / respectable / mildly intri­guing background music. Whatever moods these pieces are supposed to convey, they do not convey them with sufficient passion — it is more like a quietly percolating kettle.

See ʽMoon Trillsʼ, the opening piece. It is nicely atmospheric; a quiet, stable, simple piano line as the anchor, and lots of tinkling keyboard starlets, string gusts, and Ondes Martenot whisps whizzing around it. But it is basically just a chunk of ambience, and it never gets the chance to grow into something more significant. I mean, if this were a Steve Reich piece, it would probably go on for 15 minutes instead of 5, and would have ended in some place that would be vastly distant from the beginning — even if we'd never notice that while listening. If this were a Brian Eno piece, it might have been even more stripped down, but the simple piano line would be louder, stronger, and more meaningful and emotional. But this is Jonny Greenwood, and all I can say is... the man gets his job done, and then switches to the next one.

Every other track, be it electronic, classical, jazz, or maniacal tribal percussion, likewise, feels like a job well done and nothing more. For each of these experiments, you can name a dozen people who did something like this earlier and better — their saving grace is that few, if any, people did them all at the same time and in one place. Just quickly skimming over the tracks once more doubles my respect for Greenwood — but not my heartfelt admiration for the music that he is producing. All of a sudden, I begin to miss Thom Yorke... and all of a sudden, I begin to suspect that you can either write great rock guitar riffs or the Turangalîla, but that nobody can do both with the same level of naturally coming greatness.

Returning to the movie, there is a quote from Paul Thomas Anderson about it, describing the experience as «a moving, scary and hypnotic potpourri of images». Perhaps that might be true about the visual aspects (I cannot say anything here), but Greenwood's music, as presented here, is quite far from scary, and only tiny bits of the score demand to be described as «moving» or «hypnotic» (ʽMoon Trillsʼ, despite all its shortcomings, is probably the best of those anyway). Classy, yes; intriguing, yes; definitely worth taking into consideration for a Radiohead fan, yes. But like so many pieces of 21st century A-R-T, its overall ambitions seem to overwhelm its eventual accomplishments. Perhaps if the album weren't labeled Bodysong, but rather went under a title like Purification Music For Your Living Room, the effect would be more adequate.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Chic: Chic

CHIC: CHIC (1977)

1) Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah); 2) São Paulo; 3) You Can Get By; 4) Everybody Dance; 5) Est-Ce Que C'est Chic; 6) Falling In Love With You; 7) Strike Up The Band.

General verdict: Very silly, sure, but still some of the best musicianship from when even lowly dance pop entertainers still played their sweaty instruments...

It has never been formally explained, I think, whether there are any significant general musical differences between «Euro-disco» and «American disco», other than merely a matter of geogra­phical disparity. Subconsciously, we would probably think that «American disco» is closer to its funk roots, emphasizing a livelier and slightly more free-form approach to performing, while «Euro-disco» is more robotic and more strictly disciplined, with even more emphasis on the mechanistic strings and no deviations from the formula. Think Gloria Gaynor vs. Boney M, or something like that. But is there some strict waterline dividing the two?

Chic are probably the best example of a band that took a big piss on that waterline, if you pardon the language. Guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, the group's perennial back­bone, were based in New York — the least American of all American cities — and while both were outstanding musicians, they were also quite open to the idea of musicians dissolving them­selves in the music, chained to and ruled by the supreme power of the immovable groove. The ideological emphasis is on being cosmopolitan: with Chic, you can name one of your tracks ʽSão Pauloʼ, give another one of your tracks a French chorus, and quote "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing" on yet another one. But above everything else, Chic asks the question, "is it possible to exercise creative and spiritual freedom while writing some of the tightest, rigid-est dance music in the universe?" — and attempts to give a positive answer.

These songs ain't ʽHeart Of Glassʼ, and they ain't even ʽStayin' Aliveʼ — it would be useless to search for hidden meanings or subtle layers of irony or paranoia. This is dance-pop par excellence, whose primary purpose is to lighten up the life of a Tony Manero. But the coolness of Nile and Bernard is that, in between the endlessly repeating vocal hooks, they find plenty of space to assert themselves as a couple of merry, spritely, expressive spirits. ʽDance, Dance, Danceʼ, the album's lead-in track and the band's first successful single, is at its greatest not when they chant the enigmatic "yowsah yowsah yowsah!" refrain, but when the vocals die down and you get to lose yourself, with no strings attached, in the amazing bass groove — that bit when it's literally just Bernard laying on the zoops and Nile chicken-scratching his way through could go on endlessly, as far as I'm concerned. It is the sound of life itself.

Almost every track here works, one way or another, even if most people probably only remember the hits (ʽDance Dance Danceʼ and, uh, ʽEverybody Danceʼ — another case where I much prefer Norma Jean Wright's vocals on the verses to the corny chorus, and where Edwards' little bass solo blows everything else away anyway). ʽSão Pauloʼ, I guess, with its slightly more relaxed pacing, could be considered elevator-ish filler, and ʽEst-Ce Que C'est Chicʼ is almost impossibly ridi­culous with its French choruses and vaudevillian descending riffs, but it is hard to forget either the former or the latter. Perhaps the most obvious candidate for filler is the ballad ʽFalling In Love With Youʼ, very BeeGees-Olivia-Newton-Johnish in flavor and all, but its saving grace is the cooing delivery of Norma Jean Wright, the band's lead lady singer at the time — most likely, it will either irritate the living daylights out of you or seriously boost your sex hormones (regard­less of your gender identification). In other words, everything here is shallow, stupid, dated, and absolutely adorable nevertheless.

Most importantly, it is a textbook example of why it is wrong to generalize «disco» as an in­herent­ly inferior successor to «funk». Sure, at its core disco relies on simplification — like boogie-woogie — but with some effort and dedication, it can easily be re-complexified, as Mr. Edwards will be glad to show you on most of these tracks. I said «stupid», yet there is really no sense that any of this music was written and recorded with the direct goal of insulting our intel­ligence — most of the arrangements are multi-layered and melodic, and most musicians would kill to be able to lay down some of that mean, mean Edwards bass. It is largely the lyrics that have not stood the test of time ("strike up the band / makin' music is our plan" is bad enough when spoken once — and they just had to turn it into the song's main hook!); but now that it is not 1977 any more, and nobody remembers what Studio 54 was all about, Chic can be taken out of the glitzy context and simply enjoyed for the awesome musicianship. Like, who is the guy playing that terrific smooth keyboard solo on ʽDance, Dance, Danceʼ?..

King Crimson: Larks' Tongues In Aspic


1) Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 1; 2) Book Of Saturday; 3) Exiles; 4) Easy Money; 5) The Talking Drum; 6) Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2.

General verdict: An unsurpassed lesson in combining innovative complexity with gut-kicking awesomeness.

And here comes the creative rebirth. As much as I respect the opinions of certain loyal fans claiming to love Lizard and/or Islands as much as any other Crimson release, there can hardly be any doubt that with those records, Fripp was largely riding the waves, as much of a follower as he was a creator. But having reached the end of his rope, and having parted ways with every single other member of the Crimson team, Fripp finally took about half a year off his frantic schedule — and re-emerged with a radically new vision, in what might have been the single most revolu­tionary move in the musical world of 1972-73.

The first three years of King Crimson were all about synthesizing: pop, rock, jazz, and classical influences came together in a package where the classic notions of melody and harmony still ruled supreme, and the atmosphere of romanticism, sometimes even romantic pathos, was nearly always dominant. Larks' Tongues In Aspic chuck all of that out the window: on this album, Robert Fripp invents what would later become known as math-rock — music that is thoroughly ruled by sophisticated geometric patterns, convoluted crossings of unusual time signatures and uncommon musical modes, while at the same time strictly sticking to fierce, stable, and perfectly disciplined (poly)rhythmic structures. And when I say «invents», I am not exaggerating: many progressive musicians had previously done bits and pieces of this style, but it took Fripp to put all these ideas together and concretize them in the form of rigid musical science.

The big difference, though, the one making it possible to describe Fripp as a genius and his crowds of math-rocking followers as (at best) craftsmen — the still amazing difference is that much, if not most, of King Crimson's math-rock never feels like a hollow technical exercise in musical complexity. Such a thing, after all, would not be worthy of a man who had earlier come up with progressive rock's most kick-ass, aggressively terrifying anthem. Larks' Tongues In Aspic, like every other KC album that followed it, has a weird sound, but behind that weirdness always lurks (larks?) some genuine, and not particularly esoteric, emotion. Anger, frustration, sadness, depression, even some vulnerable sentimentalism — Fripp never rejected any of these things; he simply took it upon himself to think up some very special forms in which he could present them to his audiences so as not to insult their presumed intelligences.

The newly assembled band was all but perfect for the task, too, despite featuring two as-of-yet completely unknown members — violinist David Cross and wildman percussionist Jamie Muir, the most Dionysian element of the band that, predictably, did not last long within its discipline-oriented environment, but is allegedly said to have been the main visual attraction of the KC live show during his brief stint with them. John Wetton, the new bass player and singer, had already built up a bit of a reputation with Family, but it took the KC transition to properly uncover his talents. And the major acquisition, of course, was Yes' own Bill Bruford, who had become just as disillusioned with the «symph-prog» style as Fripp himself and was eager and willing to try out something completely different.

One interesting thing about the various stages of King Crimson is that, while the music is almost always wildly original, it always shows perfect awareness of contemporary trends. In the early Eighties, that trend would be New Wave; in the mid-Seventies, that trend was heavy rock — and Fripp is definitely not above employing guitar tones and chords typical of such «plebeian» artists as Black Sabbath, for instance. As the lengthy, slightly mystical-tinged percussion solo played by Muir on various types of exotic chimes fades away and is replaced by Cross' alarm-raising violin motif, Fripp «pours in» one of the most evil-sounding riffs in King Crimson history — it's 21st century schizoid man time all over again, only now he seems even more intent on ripping out your guts and stuffing them back down your throat, rather than just pompously announcing his imposing presence. That's ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspic, Part Iʼ for you, a track largely overshadowed by the second part (because only the second part persisted in the band's setlist until 2016, due to technical difficulties in reproducing it on stage), but as awesome an announcement of the new look King Crimson as humanly, or inhumanly, possible in 1973.

If I were ever to produce a musical video for that 13 minute long opus, it would probably be something like a long, exhausting crawl through a set of underground tunnels — or maybe a journey to the center of the Earth in a heatproof elevator, with various elements, elementals, and terrifying forces of nature encountered along the way. The feeling of heavy pressure is very much persistent throughout the track, even when it segues into one of David's quiet violin solos: it is all about suspense — you never know when the entire band is going to kick in with the next atomic bomb explosion, and this element of cunning musical intrigue is something that would, from now on, forever remain a key part of King Crimson magic.

The second part of ʽLarks' Tonguesʼ is much better known, but for subsequent tours it mostly survived on its own, without the preceding ʽTalking Drumʼ — although the two of them, in my opinion, are an integral complex: ʽThe Talking Drumʼ is basically just another suspenseful seven minute build-up before the shit hits the fan. Here, the emphasis is on relative simplicity: almost the entire instrumental rides on Wetton's quietly trotting bass riff, with Cross and Fripp taking turns or joining forces to solo across it, gradually climbing higher and higher up the scale — essentially, this is another elevator ride to Hell, only this time, faster and not bothering to take any detours or sight-seeing stops along the way.

Then, once you have arrived at your destination, old guy Satan gets to business with you imme­diately: ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2ʼ has very explicit sexual overtones, and even courteous gentleman Robert Fripp himself has always acknowledged that its bumpy, punchy riff is as much inspired by The Rite Of Spring as it is by elements of intercourse (little-known, but funny bit of trivia — the track was illegally appropriated by the creators of Emmanuelle to accompany one of the more brutal sex scenes). This is one of the most perfect syntheses of primal wildness and total control in progressive rock history — every move is calculated, each note is in its right place, all the sections rigged for geometric perfection, yet it all translates into breathtaking, fiery passion that gets you right in the feels (too bad Stravinsky never lived to hear this — I'd actually be interested in hearing his reaction).

Of course, it is not as if King Crimson were complete strangers to carefully built-up nightmarish soundscapes in the past: ʽThe Devil's Triangleʼ is one thing that immediately comes to mind, among others. But with all those Mellotrons, that track still had a symphonic feel to it; nor did it feature any funky interplay in the rhythm section. This here is something completely different: a near-perfect merger of the African-American tradition with an academic / classicist disciplinary approach, something that many, if not most, people would probably think of as an impossibility, a stark contradiction in terms — in fact, most «white funk» recorded in the 1970s tends to sound drab and boring precisely because it tries to groom and tame an ungroomable style of music. The sheer intellectual genius of King Crimson is in that somehow, someway, they made it work. Larks' Tongues In Aspic rocks and grooves — you will tap your foot to it (as hard as it is to do so in 5/4), you might even want to headbang to it, and yet at the same time it is complex, intellec­tually challenging and rewarding music with deep, sometimes scary, Freudian overtones.

And so far, I have not even mentioned any of the vocal numbers squeezed in between the instru­mentals — not because they suck, but because they feel inevitably inferior to your lengthy rides in express elevators to Nibelheim. However, they are also important, in that they add a more human (humanistic?) side to the band — the epic-romantic ʽExilesʼ is an atmospheric carry-over from early King Crimson, even with the Mellotron dutifully returning, and both Cross and Fripp contributing some beautifully sad instrumental passages, while Wetton steps forward as the best singer since Lake that this band ever had. On the other hand, ʽEasy Moneyʼ, taken from the ʽCat Foodʼ type of songbook, is a jazzier piece dripping with sneer and sarcasm — somewhat ironi­cally, it had to appear in the exact same year that Pink Floyd had their own ʽMoneyʼ out, and the themes and moods of both songs are somewhat similar; King Crimson's song is, of course, far more ambiguous lyrically and far more tricky and complex musically, meaning it could never achieve the same level of popularity — also, it is somewhat tame here compared to the much louder and aggressive live versions.

A very special mention must be made of Jamie Muir, though. Despite his presence on only one King Crimson studio album, and despite his «madman» image created by the biographical narrative (culminating in his leaving to join a monastic cult, of all things), he seems to have been very actively engaged in the creation of Larks' Tongues — contributing tons of ideas and playing just about any type of percussive sound source he was able to lay his hands on. Because of that, Larks' Tongues holds a very special place in the catalog: its textures are richer and arguably even more psychedelic than the comparatively austere production on Red, and, predic­tably, it has a more openly tribalistic / ritualistic sound than whatever followed. It is literally a «talking-drum» type of record, and despite all the magnificence of Bill Bruford and his pet poly­rhythms, one might argue that not until the overkilling 3-drummer lineup of the 2010s would percussion play such a heavy role in KC history again. And since drums are Satan's tools of choice, as every God-fearing person knows, this should pretty much make Larks' Tongues In Aspic into Satan's favorite King Crimson album, too. Just how much more of an endorsement does one really need?

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Pink Floyd: Meddle


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

General verdict: 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


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


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.