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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Jonny Greenwood: The Master

JONNY GREENWOOD: THE MASTER (2012)

1) Overtones; 2) Time Hole; 3) Back Beyond; 4*) [Ella Fitzgerald] Get Thee Behind Me Satan; 5) Alethia; 6*) [Madisen Beaty] Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree; 7) Atomic Healer; 8) Able-Bodied Seamen; 9) The Split Saber; 10) Baton Sparks; 11*) [Jo Stafford] No Other Love; 12) His Master's Voice; 13) Application 45 Version I; 14*) [Helen Forrest] Changing Partners; 15) Sweetness Of Freddie.

General verdict: Another bunch of those quiet neo-classical soundscapes for your (lack of) attention.


All hail the return of Sire Jehonathan Grenewode, he of the neo-classical persuasion, as he once again flings his talents at the feet of Paul Thomas Anderson, the preeminent movie maker of the turn-of-the-century generation. Unlike There Will Be Blood, I have yet to see The Master, a movie that allegedly explores the subject of mind control, indoctrination, and submissiveness through the parabolic example of a religious cult story — and, most likely, a respectable perfor­mance from the dear departed Philip Seymour Hoffman. But just like the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood, the soundtrack to The Master can readily stand on its own as a 35-minute suite, once you have filtered out the four tracks that do not belong to Jonny and do not mesh at all well with his music — old vocal jazz standards, three of them taken directly from classic diva recor­dings (Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, Helen Forrest) and one sung (quite poorly, but bravely) by Madisen Beaty, one of the movie's actresses.

Since this is, once again, a piece of classical music, I guess we can only discuss it in comparison with There Will Be Blood — and, frankly speaking, I hear no major differences in approach. If you mixed together tracks from the two albums, you would probably never figure out which tracks belong to which theme. Nevertheless, The Master is not an uninspired carbon copy: my overall feelings about the first album («really don't know what to say but it feels very much alive and kicking») more or less apply to the second as well. As before, most of the compositions flow smoothly and gracefully, but every once in a while there is a dynamic leap — ʽAble-Bodied Seamenʼ introduces a powerful, thunderous bassline and wildly cavorting, dissonant cellos and violins; ʽBaton Sparksʼ, after a pompous Beethovenesque opening, transforms into a moder­nist spiralling whirlwind of psychedelic proportions; ʽHis Master's Voiceʼ, after a couple minutes of quiet string and clarinet interplay, suddenly bursts out with an intense violin solo that threatens to channel Mendelssohn's spirit (if you grant it the appropriate permission). These things, rare as they are, keep the suite from degrading into a lullaby.

On the whole, though, I would generalize that the soundtrack is a bit more serene and placating this time around — I guess crazy cult leaders are ultimately deemed less of a threat than ruthless oil dealers — and that this makes it even harder to comment upon individual tracks, especially without having previously honed one's verbal skills on Brahms and Bartók. With a bit more ten­sion throughout, the suite's come-to-terms-with-oneself conclusion (ʽSweetness Of Freddieʼ), ripples upon ripples of strings and horns reaching a mini-peak and slowly fading away, would probably have carried more impact. As it is, it's... prepare yourself... nice. It may be even nicer if you think of it as an involuntary requiem to Philip Seymour Hoffman, but that's purely optional, of course. One might speculate whether Jonny's inability (or unwillingness) to create angry, jerky drama with his classical experiments had anything to do with his gradual loss of capability to create angry, jerky drama with Radiohead — but that is a question you should rather ask him in person, if you ever get the chance and are willing to risk your health over it.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Chic: Take It Off

CHIC: TAKE IT OFF (1981)

1) Stage Fright; 2) Burn Hard; 3) So Fine; 4) Flash Back; 5) Telling Lies; 6) Your Love Is Cancelled; 7) Would You Be My Baby; 8) Take It Off; 9) Just Out Of Reach; 10) Baby Doll.

General verdict: An attempt to reroute the circuits from «disco» to «post-disco» that largely fails.


Chic's slide into mediocrity begins here. While Real People showed them moving away from disco formalities into a comfortable world of pop hooks and teasing, seductive excitement, Take It Off takes another step forward... and ends up spraining an ankle. Several sources classify it as «post-disco», a typically vague term that is, however, quite correct in this case — Bernard and Nile were obviously searching for ways to modernize and adapt their dance grooves, and on a purely formal level, they succeeded. The big problem, however, was that they were a couple of musical near-virtuosos applying their art to a musical age in which virtuosity no longer mattered; the sci-fi age was coming on, with more and more demand for robotic backing tracks that could provide a solid launchpad for one's futuristic dance moves. Take It Off is the band's first signi­ficant attempt to yield to those requirements, and it comes off as forced — no wonder, because how many stars of the disco age could actually adapt to changing musical values? The new decade required new faces.

A certain whiff of problematicity is felt here right from the opening lines: not only is "my stage fright holds back me all night!" syntactically hideous, but the hook is delivered in an odd manner, so that it is hard to tell if the singers want to get you all excited for the dance floor or if they are really feeling insecure and panicky. The bass/guitar interplay is technically solid, but somewhat perfunctory — neither of the two instruments is playing any particularly sharp or memorable lines, they are just busy syncopating like crazy. As time goes by, Luci Martin does nothing to make you more certain of whether she is happy or afraid, of whether the song should be taken socially or personally; the silly magic of ʽLe Freakʼ is just not there. I have no idea why this song was selected as the single and not the follow-up, ʽBurn Hardʼ, which is at least a much better defined dancefloor bitch of a tune — "slap your bass", "burn hard", "Brahms gonna do the charm" (indeed!), a bit of brass, some classy distorted riffage in the mid-section, all the works. Maybe they thought that this was too reminiscent of the vintage disco days for the tastes of 1981; if so, the time has come to set things straight and understand that the more Eighties' Chic sounded like Seventies' Chic, the better they were.

Unfortunately, there just aren't too many of these nice throwbacks. The title track has all those sexy-sleazy lyrics ("your package is nice, but I've got to look twice..."), but the vocals do not agree with them all too well, and all such tracks pale hopelessly next to contemporary younger artists like Prince — considering that Take It Off was released one month after Controversy, pretty much the only thing that these guys have on Prince now is the raw monster power of their bass lines, and indeed, the only thing that makes ʽTake It Offʼ (the track) still worth a listen is the sheer amazing strength with which Bernard keeps slapping these strings. Well, no, it's a solid groove overall, but there is very little fun in it, if you know what I mean.

Another problem is that sentimentality rears its boring head again: there are lots of dance-ballad stuff here (ʽWould You Be My Babyʼ, ʽJust Out Of Reachʼ, etc.), for which they have neither the proper vocal talent nor the right type of melodic hooks. Too much of it sounds like the band's former protegé  (and by 1981, a big star in his own right) Luther Vandross — stiff, plastic soul, poorly hidden behind a formalistic dance groove. It is possible to seek comfort in instrumentals or semi-instrumentals (ʽSo Fineʼ, a bit of simplistic vocalizing allowing Nile to stretch out with a nice jazzy solo; ʽBaby Dollʼ, a short vehicle for the band's brass section), but these are too few and too insignificant in the grand scheme of things to make a difference.

Still, in a way, any Chic album is salvageable and even lovable as long as it has Bernard's bass slapped all over it — they did not dare to de-personalize and mechanize their music to the degree when the players behind it would become completely insignificant. If you are a true sucker for funky rhythm, Take It Off belongs in your collection. But if you are just looking for the best-of-the-best in early Eighties' dance music, this is where you probably should definitively draw the line on these guys: much like all the early rock heroes of the Fifties who couldn't handle the transition into a new musical era, the Chic aesthetics was way too deeply rooted in the basement of Studio 54 to be able to survive into the next decade.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Robert Fripp: God Save The Queen / Under Heavy Manners

ROBERT FRIPP: GOD SAVE THE QUEEN / UNDER HEAVY MANNERS (1980)

1) Red Two Scorer; 2) God Save The Queen; 3) 1983; 4) Under Heavy Manners; 5) The Zero Of The Signified.

General verdict: Fripp's first attempt at a one-man show: limited in terms of scope, but successful in terms of vision.


The first half of this album has never been released on CD, which either means Fripp now regards it as a failure, or, more likely, he just regards «pure Frippertronics» as something that is better experienced in concert than in recorded format (very few of those experiments saw the light of day as LPs, and almost none did as CDs). The second half is available as part of a «Robert Fripp and The League Of Gentlemen» retrospective called God Save The King; and it does make sense since, after all, that second half is generally more accessible. But all in due course.

The album's constitution is actually quite interesting. Just as Exposure bridged the gap between the Bruford-Wetton era heavy rock Crimson and the Belew-Levin era New Wave Crimson, so do the two sides of this LP bridge the gap — or, rather, sit across the two sides of the gap, leisurely dangling their legs in the air — between the ambient sonic experiences in which Fripp indulged with Eno in the 1970s, and the neo-psychedelic sonic textures that Fripp and Belew would go on to explore in the following decade. At the same time, it is very much an anti-thesis to the «pop» format of Exposure — these here pieces have nothing to do with pop hooks and everything with the power of meticulously induced trance.

The concept of «Frippertronics» may sound gimmicky (a complex tape-loop delay system that makes you look like some freaky multi-handed musical juggler) as well as dated (with the advent of computers, any young idiot can engage in one's own version of Frippertronics as long as there's money to pay for the software) — but in the end, it all depends on the talents of the human being behind the tape manipulations. And just as the results achieved by Fripp and Eno on No Pussy­footing could succeed in linking your conscience to something cosmic, so do these tracks, recorded live at different venues in 1979, also succeed in creating their own phantasmagoric universe. Perhaps it's not genius, but it works.

Technically, the Frippertronic side is «wallpaper music»: unless you are a pothead or a New Age type of meditative person, focused mental burrowing inside those thirty minutes of interlocking guitar pulses is not so much not recommended as it is physically impossible. But when used as mere sonic background, these tracks go beyond experimentation for experimentation purposes and actually create a weird sonic environment; they would work great, in fact, as «music for installations» (I don't think the genre, popularized so much by Brian Eno, actually existed back in 1980), were they to accompany some particularly outlandish visual artistry.

There is even a subtle and clever mood twist midway through. The first two tracks are friendly and soothing in terms of guitar tones and selected chords — the loops are like warm summer breezes and lazily fluttering butterflies. (Never mind the ʽGod Save The Queenʼ title: although the track was inspired by an audience member's request to do a tribute to Jimi's ʽStar Spangled Bannerʼ and it does borrow the opening notes of the anthem, most of it has nothing to do with the pride of Britannia, except, of course, that the pride of Britannia is playing the track). The third track, ʽ1983ʼ, introduces a darker strain, with more distortion and heaviness to the base riffs and more frenzied larks-tongues chaos to the «lead» licks — it is as if the relative calm and serenity of the world of Frippertronics were shattered midway through, giving way to something more ominous and apocalyptic and closer to the man's musical vision of 1973-74.

In other words, it is all translatable into the language of mental visions, and that is enough for me. Would those be even better, sharper, clearer visions if the tracks had been recorded «properly», with regular overdubbing instead of the gimmicky self-replicating technique? Perhaps. But the thing about gimmicks is that they are inherently risk-based entities: a gimmick that does not work is doubly irritating, whereas one that does work might be twice as amazing — I mean, all these impressive soundscapes were created live? in one sitting? with minimal studio post-processing? like, no shit!...

That said, I can perfectly understand why Robert eventually relegated the Frippertronic side to the dustbin of history, while choosing to preserve the second, «Discotronic» side for posterity. Also based on the Frippertronic paradigm, these other two tracks add dance grooves to the mix — funky, almost disco-ish grooves that turn the sonic paintings into club-ready workouts; in addi­tion, ʽUnder Heavy Mannersʼ also features dramatically spoken, though lyrically nonsensical, overdubs by David Byrne himself — performed in classic Talking Heads style. If you ever wondered how an early Eighties' King Crimson incarnation with Byrne instead of Belew on vocals might have sounded, this is the place to turn to (hint: it would have sounded very much the same, but then again, Belew was chosen by Fripp because of his Talking Heads connection).

With the toe-tapping element thrown in, these tracks certainly become more fun — although, Byrne or no Byrne, it is not ʽUnder Heavy Mannersʼ but ʽThe Zero Of The Signifiedʼ that is the real shit here, an absolutely ferocious groove for the first seven minutes of its duration, as long as Fripp is pumping out the never-breaking thread of the speedy arpeggiated riff and the rhythm section of Michael ʽBusta Cherryʼ Jones and Paul Duskin is laying down the dance groove and the regular electric pulses of Frippertronics are flashing in the background. Eventually, it all dies down and only the faint echoes of Frippertronics remain, too happy with themselves to go away before they begin to try your patience, but as long as the whole virtual band is in full flight, ʽZero Of The Signifiedʼ cooks — and cooks in an entirely new type of way, paving the road to the brand new look King Crimson to come.

It might be strange of me to say that I actually prefer this kind of approach to the improvised style of 1973-74 live King Crimson (with a few exceptions) — but the more I think about it, the more I conclude that a big problem with that period was that the band did not always gel well. I might even have held a higher opinion of something like ʽFractureʼ, I think, if it was just Fripp playing that guitar melody, without the others clunking it up. A solo album like God Save The Queen, on the other hand, is completely dominated by one man's vision, so that nothing comes into conflict with the general scheme of things as envisaged by the creator. It certainly puts a lot of limitations on the final product — limitations that would eventually be overcome by the perfect construction of Eighties' King Crimson — but I guess I could live with that.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

David Gilmour: David Gilmour

DAVID GILMOUR: DAVID GILMOUR (1978)

1) Mihalis; 2) There's No Way Out Of Here; 3) Cry From The Street; 4) So Far Away; 5) Short And Sweet; 6) Raise My Rent; 7) No Way; 8) It's Deafinitely; 9) I Can't Breathe Anymore.

General verdict: The not-so-lofty beginnings of the Floyd-Lite style. Should go well with antidepressants.


If you want to have a deeper understanding of why Pink Floyd without Roger Waters became just another band of professionals, it makes perfect sense to start with Gilmour's self-titled solo debut. He made this right after the Animals tour, while everybody was taking a break and Roger was writing up demos for The Wall and Pros And Cons Of Hitch-Hiking at the same time — in an effort to gain more confidence and build up a tad of personality, much needed after Roger had pretty much hijacked all the creative seats in the building for himself. No other Floyd members were involved in the process: David played most of the guitars and keyboards himself, with Rick Wills (a former partner of Peter Frampton and a future member of Foreigner) on bass, and Willie Wilson (an old friend back from Gilmour's school days) on drums.

The result was... decent, but underwhelming. Gilmour is a blues musician by trade, which was always fairly evident on Floyd albums, so it is no surprise that David Gilmour can be officially classified as a soul-blues record, albeit with a deeply personal and intimate imprint: one thing Gilmour never cared about is regurgitating traditional clichés, drawing instead upon his own emotional and intellectual experience. This is most definitely a good thing. The bad thing is that none of this experience can push him to the same kind of sharpness and expressivity that he is able to reach while working with Waters. Essentially, this is not just a bluesier, but a softer, smoother, less energetic variant of Pink Floyd, one that tends to leave a much lesser imprint on the soul when it is over — and it would not be that much of an exaggeration to say that the same applies to everything that David has done since parting ways with Waters, whether it was within the formal framework of Floyd or as part of his solo career.

Already the opening track, ʽMihalisʼ, makes it clear that it would be unacceptable on any Floyd album with Waters. A quiet mid-tempo blues groove, for the first minute and a half it does nothing except hammer out its simple, repetitive riff. Eventually, Gilmour lets rip with a bunch of different solos in different keys and with different tones, most of them evoking a sense of sub­dued, inoffensive melancholy — never ever rising sky-high. The whole thing is about as exciting as a romantic instrumental ballad by, say, Brand X. Had Gilmour been Jeff Beck, he might have been able to come up with more technically challenging and substantially innovative licks, but since David is neither a tech wiz nor a «Master of Rare Chords», this is all fairly standard fare, albeit very recognizable as Gilmouresque due to his trademark feel for guitar tone.

The vocal numbers are no different. ʽThere's No Way Out Of Hereʼ is the album's programmatic statement: "there are no answers here / when you look out you don't see in", he declares in his usual friendly, sympathetic, tired, pessimistic tone, backed up by a friendly, sympathetic, tired, pessimistic doubled guitar-harmonica riff. This style would later be repeated many, many times over. It is a tasteful and meaningful style, but when compared to the bleak heights of Floyd, this is a homelier, cozier kind of bleakness, one that might go well hand in hand with a nice warm evening, a comfy rocking chair, a cup of tea, and not a care in the world. It's okay for, you know, coming down — definitely not okay for going up.

In terms of diversity... the album does not even begin to think in these terms, to be honest. A few of the songs rock moderately harder than others: ʽCry From The Streetʼ rides on a fat, distorted, snappy guitar riff which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a slight variation on ʽI Ain't Superstitiousʼ — but does not really approach the snappiness of something like ʽHave A Cigarʼ. ʽNo Wayʼ (wait... hasn't there just been a track called ʽThere's No Way Outʼ already? talk about a goddamn limited vocabulary!) has a more acutely stated folk-blues pattern and ends up playing like a Dire Straits outtake (although Dire Straits themselves would not really begin to sound like that until a few years later, once Knopfler had exhausted his original bag of inspiration). ʽIt's Deafinitelyʼ (sic!) sounds like Weather Report making a sequel to the coda of ʽSheepʼ — meaning it's fast-paced, jazzy, and about as exciting as a smooth express train ride through pastures of plenty.

The longest song on the album is ʽSo Far Awayʼ, a bit of a fan favorite because it is melodically similar to ʽComfortably Numbʼ — except, once again, it is a song of smooth, tepid melancholy without the kick-in-the-gut aspect that makes ʽComfortably Numbʼ a classic. In other words, this is all dangerously close to «easy listening». It is almost as if all the anger and fury of Animals was too much for David — so much that he decided to make an anti-Animals of sorts, a record for the exclusive purpose of quiet, mildly mournful relaxation. Which, you know, is an acceptable goal, but also a good reason for why so few people today remember about the record. One thing I gotta say, though: the mood of the front sleeve photo is a perfect match for the mood of the album. (As somebody who looks out the window in the last days of March and sees pretty much the same things, I can really feel this drabness). 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

John Lennon: Imagine

JOHN LENNON: IMAGINE (1971)

1) Imagine; 2) Crippled Inside; 3) Jealous Guy; 4) It's So Hard; 5) I Don't Want To Be A Soldier Mama; 6) Give Me Some Truth; 7) Oh My Love; 8) How Do You Sleep?; 9) How?; 10) Oh Yoko!.

General verdict: The raging spirit of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, slightly sugar-coated by a superb team of qualified sugar-coaters.


Imagine there's no Beatles (it's easy if you were born after 1980, and even easier if you were born after 2000), no Paul McCartney to shake a stick at, no progressive or punk rock, imagine all the people living without access to Rolling Stone or Pitchforkmedia or any snarky media source that seems to have figured it all out about the greatest musical minds of the 20th century, and try to simply go ahead with your gut feelings. There is a good chance that in such a context, Imagine might seem like the finest pop music album ever made. Unfortunately, such a context is almost as impossible to generate as an antimatter gravitational field in your living room.

The problem with John is that he is very much an artistic gambler. Every now and then, he would raise the stakes so high that he'd be hardly able to call — and in order to enjoy his catalog through and through, you constantly have to deal with moments of hypocrisy and falling back on his own potential. Thus, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band ruptured with his past and established a whole new formula for aspiring singer-songwriters; no sooner had it come out, though, that John went back to a much less ascetic, much more smooth and conventional type of pop sound — all the while continuing to pinch and harass those who, like Paul, never backed away from that type of sound in the first place. Many people cringe at Imagine because it is too soft; many more, I think, cringe at it because it is soft stuff produced by a hard-ass guy accusing others of being soft.

Yet I have never found it to be a big problem. From 1971 and all the way to 1980, issues of creative and challenging musical arrangements did not bother Lennon as much as the issue of saying precisely what he wanted to say at any given moment. Granted, even in his Beatle days he was always more preoccupied with base melody and «idea» as opposed to sophisticated arrange­ment and «innovation» — on his own, he was thoroughly dependent on whatever technical masterminds were at hand, and never bothered much to check whether the final product came out as experimental, artsy, or commercial. Fortunately, the professionalism of the technical master­minds was rarely in doubt, and even if John did frequently sound out of time, this is no longer a problem, now that time has pretty much leveled all genre conventions.

Anyway, even if you have not heard Imagine the LP (not hearing ʽImagineʼ the song would be definitely un-imaginable), you must have guessed by now that this was a perfectly accessible, «normal», regularly produced and arranged pop album, unmarred by avantgarde influences and expanded beyond the stark minimalism of John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band. This time, John had assembled a fairly large team — and what a team it was: Harrison on guitar, Nicky Hopkins on piano, Alan White and Jim Keltner on drums, Klaus Voormann on bass, and even the mighty King Curtis himself dropped in to add saxophone parts to two of the songs (by the way, this was one of King's last, if not the last ever, recording sessions — he'd be stabbed to death one month prior to the album's release). Even Moody Blues fans should be interested, since Mike Pinder is credited for shaking the tambourine on ʽI Don't Want To Be A Soldierʼ (maybe that is why I've always been so partial to that track?..).

No amount of session talent would have saved a bad album, of course, but John was still on a roll: every single song here is at least memorable and/or fun, and quite a few are masterpieces. There is no single theme, but most of the songs are centered around the usual subjects — sarcastic put-downs of those who have it wrong (ʽCrippled Insideʼ, ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ), political protests (ʽI Don't Want To Be A Soldierʼ, ʽGive Me Some Truthʼ), personal crises (ʽIt's So Hardʼ, ʽHow?ʼ), relationship issues (ʽJealous Guyʼ), and Yoko (ʽOh My Loveʼ, ʽOh Yoko!ʼ). At the very least, this certainly gave John the advantage of being able to claim that all of his art is still directly related to significant personal experience, rather than, you know, singing about dogs with three legs, monkberry moon delights, and eating at home.

Prefacing all that is the title track, sincere and innocent enjoyment of which has been rendered impossible by incessant profanation — miriads of bland covers, radio overplay, commercials, and, most importantly, ripping out of context. Personally, I can still enjoy ʽImagineʼ just fine when it sits close to the acidic-venomous ʽCrippled Insideʼ, rather than finds itself in the company of church hymns, Amazing Graces, ʽTake Me Home, Country Roadsʼ, and other similar setlists created by and for very idealistic, very boring, and (typically) very obnoxious young people who prefer a very straightforward approach to the idea of spiritual enlightenment. But there is no getting away from the simplistic magnificence of the piano melody — a stately, but humble escalator to Heaven — or from the awesomeness of the "yoo hoo" falsetto hook, whose personal magic I am not able to explain in words, because it does not fall neatly under any type of emotion I am aware of. As for the «communist» lyrics of the song, which are so off-putting to all those who never fail to point out that John Lennon himself had always been quite particular about his "possessions", for some reason, they have never bothered me — maybe because the song in general is such a cloud-walking musical utopia that it never came across as «preachy» to me, even despite the "I hope someday you'll join us" line.

Anyway, ʽImagineʼ is just one out of ten songs on Imagine — and it is pretty hard for me to pick a favorite. The whole thing is evenly divided into a «tender John» and a «nasty John» part, so evenly, in fact, that sometimes I think it would have been great fun to amend the sequencing so that each of the two would inhabit a separate side of vinyl. But although the tender-nasty dicho­thomy would persist all the way up to Walls And Bridges, John was always particular about interweaving those two sides of his personality in his art, just as they were so tightly interwoven in his real life. There is nothing surprising that the biggest dick in the world can also be its most passionate and sympathetic lover, after all.

The real good news here is that John's team, assembled for the album, was able to perfectly amplify both of those sides. A large part of my own love for Imagine is due not to John's tor­mented personality, but to the little things that his friends contribute to the expression of said personality. For instance, ʽIt's So Hardʼ could be a fairly generic blues-rocker, if not for King Curtis' panicky sax solo, conveying the idea of all of life's problems much more explicitly than John's vocals — but the best bit is John's guitar duet with the strings of The Flux Fiddlers, first in call-and-response form and then as they bring it down together in a single joint wail of despe­ration. (There is also the irony of using the line "sometimes I feel like going down" in both of its possible senses, but that's just a bit of classic John hooliganry).

One song that is typically discarded even by fans of the album is ʽI Don't Want To Be A Soldierʼ: too long, too noisy, too repetitive, too simplistic, too «ugly». It is all of that, for sure, and perhaps I am too influenced here by childhood memories when I used to be transfixed and terrified by it, but even today it strikes me as something musically unique — not just in Lennon's catalog, but in general. If there is one single influence for that song, I'd go ahead and place my bets on Bitches Brew: a long, multi-layered, controlled-chaos jazz-rock jam functioning as a tribalistic ritual, except that certain complexities are sacrificed in order to make the effect spookier. With Harrison contributing some of the most aggressive slide licks he ever laid down, with Nicky Hopkins doing those agitated, paranoid piano runs in the background, with Jim Keltner causing minor earthquakes with his drum patterns, with King Curtis creating total saxophone havoc in the solo sections with multiple overdubs, how could anyone in his right mind be bored with this apocalyptic sonic panorama? Perhaps John's single repeated vocal line with minimal variations is what pisses people off, but it is so insignificant next to that voodoo they all do so well — and speaking of "well", some of John's "we-e-e-e-e-ell, I-I-I-I..." are creepy as hell here. As far as I am concerned, never again would the man rise to the same levels of sonic nightmare — and this on one of his «tenderest» albums, too.

Then there is the case of ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ. God knows I admire Paul McCartney and his genius as much as is permissible without getting too embarrassed about it, and clearly, the venom in John's lyrics is mean, offensive, disturbing hyperbole. But who are we to judge, particularly when that venom is being spewed from the mouth of somebody who used to know McCartney a hundred times better than all of us combined? And do not throw all the blame on John, either: a major part of ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ is made up by George's inventive, melodic, and equally poisonous and vicious slide guitar lines — every time I listen to that solo, I can just feel Harrison grinning from ear to ear as he is finally given the chance to take a shot of sweet revenge at the one man who once forced him to "play anything you want". Sure, it's mean and dirty, but it's just so damn classy at the same time — and although some of the lyrics are too explicit and dated, the song itself has never lost its relevance. (In fact, it was a very natural association to me after my initial impressions of Adele's 25).

Switching topics and skipping over to «tender John», we also find consistently great stuff. ʽJealous Guyʼ is ample evidence that the man who can toss out the sickest and dirtiest insults in the musical world can also issue the sweetest, most moving pleas for forgiveness — the whole song is a letter-perfect exercise in psychological therapy. (I also do believe that Nicky Hopkins should have been co-credited for the song, which is totally made by his piano — even if the song originally started life as ʽChild Of Natureʼ back in India, it never properly came to life until Nicky worked out the piano pattern). ʽOh My Loveʼ reprises the minimalistic approach from Plastic Ono Band, but is again much aided by Hopkins' piano — providing the perfect reali­sations for John's parsimonious musical genius: a classic case of how to make a tender love ballad without lapsing into the sin of sugary sentimentality. And ʽHow?ʼ, which some people have shrugged off as four minutes of soft pap, actually aches and throbs as much as ʽMotherʼ — it has simply been sugarcoated a little bit, with pleading and complaining instead of screaming, and with extra strings and vibraphones softening and dulling, but not eliminating the pain. Besides, "how can I feel something if I just don't know how to feel?" is such a good question, we should probably ask it of ourselves far more often...

With ʽCrippled Insideʼ featuring even more first-rate guitar and piano work from George and Nicky, and with ʽGive Me Some Truthʼ containing some of the finest-worded insults in Lennon history ("short-haired yellow-bellied son of tricky dicky" takes the cake), the only song on the album that is less than perfection is... well, you know. Not because of the word "Yoko", even: more because there is an oddly grating dissonance between the triumphant, ecstatic tone of the lyrics and the production of the song, which fails to properly realize that anthemic potential. The melody is suggestive of some long-winded tell-tale country ballad (think Dylan's ʽFrankie Lee And Judas Priestʼ, or something — it might not be a total coincidence that this is the only song on the album to feature a harmonica solo), while the words are a hyperbolic love prayer — the final combo just does not seem to "turn you on" precisely as promised. (ʽDear Yokoʼ on Double Fantasy would be somewhat more successful in that respect). Not to mention, of course, that the song is somewhat anti-climactic, especially compared to the stately coda of ʽGodʼ and the creepy post-coda of ʽMy Mummy's Deadʼ. It is just one of those things that added extra fuel to the fire: was it really necessary to end the album with such a blunt and straightforward pledge, when it already had the far subtler and far more touching ʽJealous Guyʼ and ʽOh My Loveʼ — songs that did not mention Yoko's name directly but expressed their feelings far less formalistically? It comes across not so much as a love anthem as a gesture of public self-humiliation.

Nevertheless, despite a slightly lackluster conclusion, Imagine as a whole is nearly perfect. Like almost any of John's records, it could have proudly born the title of Songs Of Love And Hate, had the title not already been appropriated by Leonard Cohen that same year — and, frankly, Imagine is more worthy of the title, because there are very few records in this world whose love songs are more full of love and whose hate songs are more full of hatred, and both of them feel so totally organic. Chalk it up to the crazy power of this guy that I, with a lot of love for Paul McCartney and a lot of, er, um, mixed feelings towards Yoko Ono, can so naturally get behind the emotions on both ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ and ʽOh My Loveʼ without a second thought. Rich melodies, classy arrangements, talented backing band, supreme depth of feeling — really, I cannot understand anybody who still has a problem with this record. Sure, it would be much nicer if more of those American Idol or The Voice contestants chose ʽI Don't Want To Be A Soldierʼ instead of ʽImagineʼ, but this is merely one more incentive to stay away from classic rock radio, TV commercials and reality shows, right? Once you do, who knows, not only ʽImagineʼ, but maybe even ʽYesterdayʼ might begin to come in their original colors once more... 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Marvin Gaye: In The Groove

MARVIN GAYE: IN THE GROOVE (1968)

1) You; 2) Tear It On Down; 3) Chained; 4) I Heard It Through The Grapevine; 5) At Last; 6) Some Kind Of Wonderful; 7) Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever; 8) Change What You Can; 9) It's Love I Need; 10) Every Now And Then; 11) You're What's Happening (In The World Today); 12) There Goes My Baby.

General verdict: Three cool singles against a bunch of filler. But the cool singles have the upper hand.

To be perfectly honest, this record is really all about the three hit singles — but the three hit singles are way more than just three more hit singles this time around. In The Groove, later re-released as I Heard It Through The Grapevine (for fairly obvious reasons), was released at the dawn of a new era for R&B — one that took it to more somber depths and added all sorts of heavy, acid, and psychological elements to the mix, spurred on by the Jimi Hendrix revolution and numerous other factors. And while the LP as such is clearly transitional — the second side in particular contains plenty of soft covers that already seem antiquated next to the biggies — it is still a watermark, allowing us to observe Marvin Gaye's evolution from artistic adolescence to musical maturity. A big part of this is personal: Tammi Terrell's onstage collapse in October '67 left Marvin a deeply changed man, and I could swear I actually hear some of that pain on many of the songs here. But there is also no getting away from the fact that the changes coincided with a lot of general changes in the overall Motown / Atlantic / black R&B sound around 1968-69 — a magnificent epoch for that label, before the soft-rock turnaround came along and ate it all away.

The change should have been announced with ʽI Heard It Through The Grapevineʼ, of course, but that song has a very strange history — it was recorded first by The Miracles, as early as August '66, but vetoed by Berry Gordy and shelved until late 1968. Then it was recorded by Marvin, in April '67, but again vetoed by Berry Gordy and also shelved until the release of the album in late 1968. Then it was recorded by Gladys Knight & The Pips, but in an entirely different arrange­ment that lacked the distinctive organ riff and generally sounded happier and livelier — the first version to actually get an official release. Then it was finally approved by Gordy for Marvin, and became one of his biggest selling records of all time. And, of course, to complete the saga, then it was appropriated by Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1970 and became the basis for their most fabulous jam session of all time. One hell of a journey.

Anyway, Fogerty and company chose to model their sound after Marvin's rather than Gladys', and for a good reason. The organ riff, played by Earl Van Dyke of The Funk Brothers, is one of the grumbliest, most subtly menacing organ riffs of all time — it gives the song a sharp, scary angle that seriously hints that the protagonist got madness in his soul and murder on his mind (whereas Gladys Knight only had agitated indignation). This is also the first time that Marvin sang in a much higher vocal register than usual, occasionally rising to falsetto, spurred on by the song's author Norman Whitfield, and the effect is radical — it's as if he'd finally agreed to open up the cage where all those proverbial «inner demons» had been tranquilised up till now. Throw in the marvelous orchestrating job (Gordon Staples directing the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and telling Tchaikovsky the news), and you get a completely new set of feels here — not just for Marvin, whose heartbreakers had been relatively inoffensive before (even ʽBaby Don't You Do Itʼ was a whine, not a menace), but for Motown  in general. Me being such a sucker for juicy electric guitar and powerful drumming, I'll generally stick with the CCR version anyway, but for the shorter, vocally-dominated approach, Marvin's take here has no equal.

As it happened, though, ʽGrapevineʼ was denied the chance to become the first single; that honor went to ʽYouʼ, written by Ivy Jo Hunter and a couple other guys. While that song does not have such a distinctive hook as ʽGrapevineʼ, it is subject to the same shift in mood anyway — the frantically pumping bass, the tense strings, the harpsichords, glockenspiels, and recorders creating an agitated symphonic effect, and, on top of that, another high-pitched, falsetto-happy perfor­mance that may well have been influenced by Marvin's feelings about Tammi ("you, you I see in my mirror in the mornin' / Instead of seein' me / I see you, I see your face / And inside me is a growing need for your embrace" — even if they never really had a romantic involvement, it is hard to picture him singing that into the microphone and not thinking back on his own situation). The other single, ʽChainedʼ, largely repeats the same approach, although here the big badass brass arrangement takes precedence over «baroque» elements, and the bass groove has much more freedom to roam, taking your attention away from the vocals and directing it more towards the instrumental track.

As I already said, though, the LP itself is clearly transitional. Some of the non-single tracks are in the same vein (ʽIt's Love I Needʼ also establishes a ʽChainedʼ-like heavy groove), but others are happy-dippy soulful pop concoctions without a single trouble in the world — Goffin & King's ʽSome Kind Of Wonderfulʼ, the Four Tops' ʽLoving You Is Sweeter Than Everʼ, the Drifters' ʽThere Goes My Babyʼ, all these nice songs just sound fluffy in the company of ʽI Heard It Through The Grapevineʼ, and there is hardly any reason to treasure Marvin's take on them when you have the superior originals available.

Therefore, as an album, In The Groove still suffers from the same old inconsistency, and it would still take a bit of time before Marvin Gaye learned — and/or was allowed to — profit from the LP form for bona fide artistic purposes. But at least there are no obvious gaffes: the filler might seem uncomfortable next to the kick-ass singles, sure, yet they kept him away from bland Boradway schlock, and there is nothing morally wrong to hear ʽThere Goes My Babyʼ one more time, if only just to remind you how good that song is. So, perhaps there are no good reasons to keep the album in your collection if you have all the good stuff on an anthology, but I'd rate it pretty high anyway — the high points are awesome, and the low points do not succeed in making the high ones seem any slighter. After all, we get to hear a new, improved Marvin Gaye here, so what's the problem if the old one has not quite finished moving out yet?..

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell Live


SUFJAN STEVENS: CARRIE & LOWELL LIVE (2017)

1) Redford (For Yia-Yia And Pappou); 2) Death With Dignity; 3) Should Have Known Better; 4) All Of Me Wants All Of You; 5) John My Beloved; 6) The Only Thing; 7) Fourth Of July; 8) No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross; 9) Carrie & Lowell; 10) Drawn To The Blood; 11) Eugene; 12) Vesuvius; 13) Futile Devices; 14) Blue Bucket Of Gold; 15) Blue Bucket Outro; 16) Hotline Bling.

General verdict: An attempt to make those songs more personal and more cosmic at the same time.

In order to let us know how truly special the Carrie & Lowell experience is to his conscience, Sufjan had one of the shows from the tour recorded, videotaped, and eventually released as his first live album. The title does not lie — this is, indeed, Carrie & Lowell recorded live in its entirety, albeit with the songs in an alternate order, and with a few nods to The Age Of Adz at the end of the show. The idea, however, was not to simply cash in on the critical success, but to emphasize that the intimacy and personality of the C&L songs really only come out properly in a live setting, when the feelings are being directly expressed to somebody, rather than through the hindering medium of the recording studio.

I will be brief, but honest, and, perhaps to the surprise of some of the readers, admit that the idea partially works — the live performances may not be making a much bigger Carrie & Lowell fan out of me, but the unavoidable lack of studio gloss, and particularly the lack of subtly dehumanizing vocal effects, makes the songs more touching, and their protagonist slightly more sympathetic (although I sure wish he'd take that stupid-looking baseball cap off his head while performing). At the same time, there are multiple arrangement changes for particular songs, with extra strings, percussion, and electronics, provided by a large backing band and, again, establishing a stronger bridge between the sparse minimalism of Carrie & Lowell and the psychedelic fuss of The Age Of Adz — like in ʽThe Fourth Of Julyʼ, for instance, which gets a whole brand new Animal Collective-style kaleidoscopic-carnivalesque coda. This, in my opinion, is not necessarily an improvement — but formally, it does present an excuse for the official release of the album.

Rephrasing the above-said, Carrie & Lowell Live is a bit of a contradiction — Sufjan is working at the same time on making these songs even more introspective and psychological, and on expanding their sonic base so that they could be better integrated in his electronic art-pop scheme of things. This culminates at the end, when ʽBlue Bucket Of Goldʼ gradually grows out of its New Age-y shell into a monumental epic, and then gets a twelve-minute «outro» in the form of a post-rockish crescendo, with all the instruments eventually merging into a pile of deafening electro-acoustic noise — nothing we haven't heard before, really, and I would dare say that the crescendo of ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ achieved the same goal in about twenty seconds, but it's not as if Sufjan or his audience were in a hurry, right?

I have absolutely no idea, though, what was the meaning of covering Drake's recent hit ʽHotline Blingʼ as an encore, and with an entirely straight face at that — that Sufjan's idea of humor or something? (You don't need to tell me that he actually likes and endorses the song, my opinion of his artistic integrity is low enough as it is). Things like that only show how thin is the line today between making «bold, but meaningful» artistic moves and ridiculously embarrassing oneself for no reason whatsoever. Anyway, you can always turn the album off before the encore, so we are not going to hold a stupid gaffe like that against the dude. Perhaps it's just the effect of some virus cleverly implanted in the baseball cap.

Finally, I have watched parts of the video, and there is nothing in particular to recommend it over the audio experience — Sufjan's light show and image accompaniment are nothing to lose sleep about, and his own onstage presence is always restrained, so unless you really have the hots for him (he is handsome, isn't he?), it might be just better to listen.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Radiohead: The King Of Limbs


RADIOHEAD: THE KING OF LIMBS (2011)

1) Bloom; 2) Morning Mr. Magpie; 3) Little By Little; 4) Feral; 5) Lotus Flower; 6) Codex; 7) Give Up The Ghost; 8) Separator; 9*) Supercollider; 10*) The Butcher.

General verdict: I'll have to postpone it until at least three seconds of this album make any imprint on the mush that used to be my brain.

Yeah, more like The King Of Limps (sorry, I guess we all saw that one coming). The first record to ruin Radiohead's up-till-then immaculate reputation with critics and fans alike, it was made over a period of a year and a half — and ended up being a measly 37 minutes long at that. All of a sudden, people found themselves struggling to confess to liking the album — particularly people who got paid for writing their impressions of it and who had not, until then, realized that there was a remote possibility of Radiohead releasing something that could not be written about in glowing terms, regardless of whether you liked the album or not.

I have it easy here: as far as my perspective is concerned, The King Of Limbs is merely the culmination of a long-term decay process that began around 2000 and took ten years to complete. I do not see any earth-shattering difference between this record and In Rainbows, or Hail To The Thief, or just about anything Radiohead did since Thom Yorke put on his exosuit and drifted away into a world populated by non-violent, melancholic, pot-smoking AIs. Its eight songs, or, rather, its eight abstract sonic paintings are as inoffensive and listenable as always, and some­times they are even pretty. Its work with tape loops and interconnected acoustic / electronic textures is marginally creative. Some of the atmospherics work better than others. I kinda like the piano in ʽCodexʼ... sounds like something Peter Gabriel might have done.

The problem is, I have absolutely no idea what to write about these songs: every single one of them is like a total non-entity, just a bunch of melancholic or emotionless sounds strung together, and we'd been through that many times before and it usually worked a little better. Critics and fans were disappointed because The King Of Limbs offered no development, and they were right; even more seriously, it becomes unclear why exactly should we spend serious attention on this album when there's, like, probably fifty thousand indie rock records in 2011 alone that have a similar type of sound. A little folk, a little jazz, a little electronics, a little mope... and there you have it. Not every band has a singer of Thom Yorke's caliber, it is true (ʽGive Up The Ghostʼ has some lovely lilting elements to it), but with a little Autotune you can work wonders anyway.

While it is possible to subject the songs to repeated listens and extract «interesting» bits and pieces, the overall effort is just not worth it. So, for instance, ʽMorning Mr. Magpieʼ, an accusa­tory rant against somebody who has "stolen all the magic, took my melody" (excuses, excuses), has a fussy, restless guitar track (built on playing with delay, I think), but how exactly does this improve on the art of, say, Adrian Belew, who did all this stuff earlier and better? The interplay between electric and acoustic and bass guitars on ʽLittle By Littleʼ recreates the usual Radiohead mix of tenderness and sorrow, but I'd take Morphine over this any day...

...anyway, this is simply very, very, very boring. If you want it to become even more boring, grab the edition that adds the 7-minute long ʽSupercolliderʼ as a bonus track — nothing more exciting in this world than seven minutes of the same three-chord electronic loop turning over on a spit (probably the last thing you'd expect to associate with a supercollider, but Radiohead have been all about unpredictable associations for a very long time now). But if you want me to go ahead and say that The King Of Limbs makes In Rainbows as exciting as a Sparks album in compa­rison, then no, I will not say that. Terminal boredom comes in different colors.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Chic: Real People


CHIC: REAL PEOPLE (1980)

1) Open Up; 2) Real People; 3) I Loved You More; 4) I Got Protection; 5) Rebels Are We; 6) Chip Off The Old Block; 7) 26; 8) You Can't Do It Alone.

General verdict: Some razor-sharp funky grooves here, despite the heavy consequences of the disco curse.

By the time Chic's fourth album came out, disco was legally pronounced dead  — and although dance-pop in general carried on, evolved, and in various forms thoroughly engulfed the Eighties anyway, artists that bore the disco stigma suffered anyway. Real People only got as high as #30 on the charts (still somewhat respectable compared to the drastic slide of whatever followed) and, more importantly, apart from a gracious pat on the back from disco apologist Robert Christgau, never got much critical attention. Such is the fleeting glory of commercially-oriented music genres — anything created according to their formula gets correlated with the time when said formula was en vogue. Risqué was made at the height of the disco movement, so it must be good. Real People was made when the wave had passed, so it must be bad.

Actually, I think that, purely in musical terms and in that elusive «fun quotient», Real People was an improvement over (Not So) Risqué. Most importantly, Real People is not even a disco album — not a single track here features the proverbial disco bass groove. It is funk, R&B, dance-pop, whatever, but it shows no signs of clinging to a stale old formula: Rodgers and Edwards seem to be well aware that the world of entertainment is changing around them, and while they might be somewhat slow to adapt to the changes, they are adapting enough to not totally look like sad old farts in the overall context. And — also importantly — Real People just sounds sharper, snappier, less overtly sentimental and romantic than Risqué, which put way too much soul in the dance-pop numbers at the expense of humor and quirkiness.

The change was heralded by ʽRebels Are Weʼ, a single whose title becomes much less threate­ning when you hear the song but whose ska-influenced groove actually sounds like it belongs in the 1980s, with all the dance-oriented New Wave outfits, rather than anywhere in the vicinity of Studio 54. The chorus sounds a bit silly — too much chest-pounding defiance and too little musical substance — but Rodgers lays down some nifty licks in the instrumental mid-section that are far more invigorating than any amount of "we are the rebels, rebels are we, we want to be free, my baby and me". For that matter, the lyrics are a fairly weak point on this album, a problem made far more serious when chorus lines like "I got protection / From your infection / I got pro­tection / Got to pass my inspection" act as major repetitive hooks. But what can one do if there is actually no protection against the infection of the groove? ʽI Got Protectionʼ is six minutes of pure Chic chic, with one of the sharpest clavinet riffs this side of ʽSuperstitionʼ and brilliantly overlaid guitar parts — one minute Nile is playing a smooth, expressive blues-rock solo, the other minute he is throwing out several interweaving riffs with super-robotic precision, and the whole thing rocks harder and crunchier than anything on Risqué.

The title track, with its gospel-influenced chorus, is closer to classic Chic, but precisely because it remains more infected with the smooth 'n' soulful spirit of Risqué, I find myself enjoying it less than ʽRebels Are Weʼ or ʽI Got Protectionʼ — at the same time, the short slow ballad ʽI Loved You Moreʼ strikes me as being sharper and more emotionally tense than ʽAt Last I Am Freeʼ and its ilk: Luci Martin gives a great vocal performance, and Nile wraps things up with another blazing and tasteful guitar solo... actually, one reason why I might be so seriously enthralled with this album is the sheer amount of Rodgers' lead guitar work — for some reason, more than half of the songs have him blasting off into space on his own, in stark contrast with Risqué where he intentionally blended into the woodwork most of the time. But that does not mean the band has no time left for musical experimentation in other spheres — for instance, the ʽOpen Upʼ instru­mental overture to the album has a brilliant orchestral arrangement, in which Bernard and Nile actually try to funkify the strings themselves rather than have them play the typical sentimental accompaniment to the disco groove.

The record does fizzle out towards the end: the Bernard-sung ʽ26ʼ is a catchy, but slight dance number whose silliness overrides its groove power ("on a scale of 1 to 10, my baby's a twenty-six"? why not a "sixty-nine"?), and the final dance ballad ʽYou Can't Do It Aloneʼ, sung by the band's not-too-expressive backing vocalist Fonzi Thornton, is boring schlock. But no Chic album has ever been perfect, and if you concentrate on the strong rather than the weak bits, I am pretty sure that Real People will hold more appeal for those who like their dance music sharp, snappy, and hot, whereas Risqué would be more comfortable for those who like it smooth, inoffensive, and a good pretext to woo the ladies rather than, well, turn them on. The real good news is, we are living in a world where it no longer matters if it's 1979 or 1980 — all the more reason to throw all the old rankings in the dumpster and re-evaluate these old records from a music-only, fuck-all-that-entourage position.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Robert Fripp: Exposure


ROBERT FRIPP: EXPOSURE (1979)

1) Preface; 2) You Burn Me Up I'm A Cigarette; 3) Breathless; 4) Disengage; 5) North Star; 6) Chicago; 7) NY3; 8) Mary; 9) Exposure; 10) Haaden Two; 11) Urban Landscape; 12) I May Not Have Enough Of Me But I've Had Enough Of You; 13) First Inaugural Address To The I.A.C.E. Sherborne House; 14) Water Music I; 15) Here Comes The Flood; 16) Water Music II; 17) Postscript.

General verdict: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the latest musical digest from your local chef, Mr. Robert Fripp.

It is a tad reassuring to know that Robert Fripp is, after all, a creature of flesh and blood and not some sort of super-robot who always knows things better than you and is completely aware of all his goals and tasks at any given moment. If you listen to Red, or if you listen to Discipline, you will probably not get that feeling. But Exposure, Robert's first solo album, released at a time when King Crimson still seemed like a thing of the past and the future of music in general and Fripp in particular was more than a bit blurry, is an amusing mess — one that probably would not make much sense outside of its historical context, but is an obligatory must-hear if you ever wondered about all the empty space in between Mark '74 and Mark '81 King Crimson, and about whether it was truly empty in the first place.

In reality, Fripp kept himself seriously busy throughout the second half of the Seventies. The emerging punk and New Wave scene, as much as they confused some of the earlier rockers, re-invigorated his own passion for discovery, and in this he shared a common interest with such venerated colleagues as Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, and Peter Hammill — all of whom, unsur­prisingly, are featured on this album. He'd spent plenty of time working on Eno's and Gabriel's projects — and even more time dwelling in New York, absorbing the local scene. He made a lot of friends in those years, too, which almost seems odd, given the man's personal reputation; yet he was able to get on with pop bands like Blondie the same way he could get with haughty art-rockers. In the end, the amount and variety of collaborative talent on Exposure is overwhelming: Eno, Gabriel, and Hammill represented in the same space with Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates), Terre Roche (of The Roches), and XTC's Barry Andrews.

Thematically, the album was supposed to be the third part of a «trilogy» that also included Hall's Sacred Songs and Peter Gabriel's second album — with Fripp as the creative glue to join them all, and the main ideology declared as spreading progressive and challenging ideas through the medium of the short pop song, something that Robert obviously held in disdain during the first five years of King Crimson, but which was now coming back and relegating the lengthy suites and stretched-out improv jams to the dustbin of history. However, all these albums still reflect the character of their primary artists more than any sort of common ideology — and Exposure, in particular, serves as an important missing link between 1974 and 1981 far more than it serves as the logical completion of something that began as ʽSacred Songsʼ and went on as ʽOn The Airʼ.

We do have Fripp integrating with Hall and Gabriel far closer than one would expect from a solo Fripp album. In particular, ʽYou Burn Me Up I'm A Cigaretteʼ, the second track and first song-like song on the album, is the last thing we'd expect on that album — a glammified Fifties-style rocker with Jerry Lee Lewis-like piano and, seemingly intentionally, not a single original musical idea (except for a tiny bit of sonic weirdness in the mid-section). And ʽHere Comes The Floodʼ was not even co-written by Fripp — it is a straightahead Peter Gabriel original that had been released on his first album, in the form of a bombastic power ballad; here it is taken in a stripped-down piano demo form that I actually like more, but that still does not make it anything like a Fripp song (although he contributes some Frippertronics in the background).

Ultimately, Exposure is not so much about King Crimson or Robert Fripp as it is something of a «general musical landscape circa 1979 as observed through the eyes of a clever and slightly weird British gentleman». That landscape is definitely not free from the influence of a certain disbanded outfit that used to be known as King Crimson — for instance, the instrumental ʽBreathlessʼ is built on a riff that is itself just a slight variation on the ʽRedʼ riff — but against that landscape, that outfit is just one piece of rock out of many. Some are ridiculously old, like the rockabilly of ʽYou Burn Me Upʼ; some are antiquated-modernized, like ʽMaryʼ, a neo-folk tune co-written by Fripp and Hall and sung by Terry Roche in a startlingly Joni Mitchell-like manner; some are openly modernistic, like the title track, a slow funk groove with Krautrock-influenced synthe­sizers moaning and groaning in the background; and some point the way to the future, like the arpeggiated guitar intro to ʽI May Not Have Enoughʼ — which sounds like something straight out of any King Crimson album circa 1981-84.

I do not think there is any persistent theme to Exposure other than, well, «exposure» of all that pulsating musical life in 1979 — and Fripp does a great job pasting together all these elements (and did I mention ambient yet? I don't think I mentioned ambient, but there's plenty of it here, particularly towards the end, with stuff like ʽUrban Landscapeʼ and ʽWater Musicʼ). The album will never stand as a masterpiece in its own right, but it is a masterpiece of the art of previewing: nearly each single track acts like an excellent «sample» of a separate musical paradigm, and together, they celebrate musical diversity like no other record from the New Wave era that I know of — primarily because, for all their importance, most New Wave artists worked strictly within one specific paradigm.

On the level of individual songs or amazing technical bits, I have little to recommend: the record is very even, and for every track here, you can easily find something that's better in the same vein — it is useless to disentangle Exposure and decide which of its bits would work best on a repre­sentative Frippology collection. (Case in point: ʽNorth Starʼ is a nice ballad, lovingly sung by Hall, but it is rendered quite superfluous by the soon-to-come ʽMatte Kudasaiʼ in the same vein). Perhaps ʽBreathlessʼ is the one track here that would be most important to KC historians, as it really sounds like an attempt to re-do ʽRedʼ in a style that closely approaches Eighties' King Crimson — with electronically treated guitars and even more «angular» chord changes. But as an indivisible, multi-colored experience, let alone an experience that nobody expected from Fripp in 1979 and that can still take some Crimheads by surprise even today, Exposure is just a lot of fun from an epoch when making new music could still be a tremendously exciting and unpredictable kind of enterprise.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Pink Floyd: Animals


PINK FLOYD: ANIMALS (1977)

1) Pigs On The Wing 1; 2) Dogs; 3) Pigs (Three Different Ones); 4) Sheep; 5) Pigs On The Wing 2.

General verdict: An ideal three-part musical crash course in how to hate, despise, and alienate all types of people — should be an obligatory part of your high school curriculum.

Somewhere in between 1975 and 1977, Pink Floyd, formerly a democratic conglomeration of different, but compatible minds, evolved in the direction of a one-man band. In the long run, this would turn out to be the beginning of the end: one-man bands have an unfortunate tendency to either stagnate in the slower-and-slower-flowing channel of the one man's brain (Jethro Tull is the most classic example here), or to heat up and explode if the other members begin resenting their submissiveness — Floyd chose the second route, although, curiously, it took Waters and Gilmour almost a decade to openly declare war on each other.

In the short run, however, no matter how many useless accusations of dictatorial assholishness one might fling at Roger, assuming full control within the band gave him the chance to express himself, for a brief while, with such power and clarity that everything the band released prior to Animals would look like a happy walk in the clouds by comparison. While Gilmour and Wright, both of whom probably had a better ear for melody and a better understanding of sheer sonic beauty than Waters, seemed to languish in relative passiveness, Waters' activity only grew in the Seventies from album to album — a negative-tinged activity, sprouting from his personal, seemingly unfriendly and unstable, character, and seriously fueled by outside circumstances; to the point that, by late 1976, it is safe to state that Roger Waters, the «dinosaur art-rocker» by contemporary standards, was more frustrated, spiteful, vengeful, and misanthropic than the punkiest of all punk bands in existence, and he did not need no chainsaw buzz to make that known to humanity.

Already on Wish You Were Here, we saw the first signs of what would soon become a full-fledged hatred for (nearly) all humanity, albeit still seriously tempered with such «purer» feelings as deep sorrow and sincere empathy for those who are (were) not able to withhold the cruel pressure of this rotten world. But really, Floyd had yet to come out and do it — and it wouldn't be at all possible, had Waters not assumed complete control: Rick Wright, one of the gentlest and mellowest souls on Earth, would only have gotten in the way, and Gilmour, even if the man is perfectly capable of expressing anger and indignation in his work, never had even a dozenth dose of the asphyxiating, kill-on-the-spot bile that Mother Nature had synthesized in Waters' soul; amusingly, the more money they were making on their records, the denser and the bitterer was the poison, with Waters getting madder and madder at both the music business (and business in general) and the band's audiences who, he felt, were either not getting the message at all or would not be changed in any way upon getting the message.

But even if we think of all that accumulated anger as stupid, unhealthy, or hypocritical, one thing is for sure: anger — waves of uncontrollable, barely rational, overwhelming anger — is precisely the one thing that provided the band with a second (third?) breath, and helped them retain their creativity, vitality, and popularity in the New Wave era, when most of their peers either disbanded, or sold out in embarrassing ways, or retreated into niche markets. And so — thank you, Roger Waters, for being such an asshole.

As is usual with Floyd, the songs had a lengthy gestation period (ʻDogsʼ was previously played live for months as ʻYou Gotta Be Crazyʼ, and ʻSheepʼ as ʻRaving And Droolingʼ, widely available then and now on numerous live bootlegs), and the recording process itself took half a year (actually, not atypical for the band's usual level of perfectionism). No additional musicians or technical personnel were involved at all, except for Brian Humphries helping out with the engineering duties (and this gives the album a somewhat claustrophobic feel at times, compared to the more expansive soundscapes of their previous two masterpieces).

The story of the album as such is well-known — how several different ideas eventually coalesced in a loosely Orwellian concept album about three types of animals, and how the album sleeve photo was actually shot with a real floating pig in the air, and how the floating pig flew away and scared off all the cows on a farm in Kent (just another one of Waters' mean practical jokes on the world, oh yes) — but it should also be kept in mind that all these conceptual and packaging elements are quite secondary to the music, which merely takes Animal Farm as a formal framework and uses it for Roger's own purposes (in a way, perhaps, even darker purposes than Orwell's own).

Upon release, the album was not as commercially successful as its predecessors — not so much, it seems, due to essentially being a Waters ego trip (The Wall would be even more of an ego trip, and that did not prevent it from being a smash success), but rather because it was not accompanied by any singles, and the imposing length of the LP tracks made it way too «dinosaurish» for the public, already in the strong grip of the back-to-simplicity movement. Even so, it still rose to No. 2 in the UK and to No. 3 in the US: no mean feat for a record that shows so little love for humanity as a whole or individual humans in their own right.

One interesting consequence of the album's lapsing into a relative gap between such massive hit generators as Dark Side,  Wish You Were Here, and The Wall, though, was its acqusition of a certain cult status — for example, quite a few sophisti-prog fans who usually wrinkle their noses at hearing the sellout name of Pink Floyd are often willing to give Animals an extra chance precisely due to its «anti-commercial» flavor, and I can certainly understand them (at one point in life, it was my personal Floyd album, too, and even though I have also mellowed with age, I certainly do not hold it in any less respect than I did back when I thought it brave and cool to invent various reasons to «despise» Dark Side for its unabashed banality, etc.). Basically, this here is «hipster-targeted Floyd» rather than «mass-targeted Floyd», which does not automatically make one better than the other... it is simply fun to have both side by side.

One thing, and one thing only really matters on Animals: hatred. Yes, there is a very brief acoustic introduction that opens the album on a note of tenderness (in the style of ʻWish You Were Hereʼ), and an equally brief acoustic outro that closes it on the same note. But both of these bits feel like they have been tackled on at the very last moment — intentionally, perhaps, to provide more of a «mock-happy-ending» (and beginning) than any real positive effect, so short and frail they are when compared to the huge bleeding epics in between. For almost forty minutes, Animals breathes nothing but pure hatred, despisal, or contempt for all of its heroes, and since there are so many ways to hate, despise, and hold in contempt, the subject never becomes boring. And, of course, it is not just the lyrics, and not even the way they are delivered (although the vocals, most of them handled by Roger with minor exceptions, are vituperative throughout): most of that green fire is contained in the music, where Gilmour becomes Waters' unwilling accomplice, and only Rick Wright tries to hold his own ground, usually without success (the organ intro for ʻPigsʼ and the electric piano intro for ʻSheepʼ reflect Rick's usual introspective mournfulness, but both very quickly give way to Hell's fury).

The first two epics are those with which most of the listeners can easily find common ground, because, after all, the "dogs" and the "pigs" of this world are relatively scarce compared to its "sheep", and I'd imagine that not a lot of them frequently listen to Pink Floyd anyway. ʻDogsʼ takes a big gamble by occupying most of Side A, but it is also the most complex construction of the three — for some reason, out of all three classes, "dogs" hold Roger's interest for the longest period, as he examines the average dog's motivations, actions, and ultimate fate ("dragged down by the stone") over at least three very different musical sections. The basic task is simple — give a spine-chillin' musical account of the "dog eat dog" ideology — but the way it is accomplished is definitely not, as the song takes plenty of time to build up, evolve from fidgety-nervous folk-prog-rocker in the Canterbury style to a slow bluesy jam and then to an atmospheric, super-slow, keyboard-dominated mid-section, almost pedantically illustrating the actual process of being "dragged down by the stone". Gilmour shines the most on the slow blues jam (he uses more or less the same rhythmic base as in ʻShine On You Crazy Diamondʼ, but this time as a launchpad for vicious and violent, rather than solemn and mournful soloing, culminating in my personal favourite evil cackle bit around 6:20); Wright gets to show his skill on the «drowning» section, arguably their most openly psychedelic bit of music since ʻEchoesʼ; but ultimately, of course, it is all Roger's show, even when Gilmour is singing lead vocals. The "have a good drown / as you go down / all alone, dragged down by the stone" bit gets my personal vote for «most vicious musical bit of the year», just because it sounds so horrendously natural and deep-felt. (Ironic bit of trivia: the proverbial dog, at the end of the song, is described as "who was trained not to spit in the fan", which is precisely what Waters would do at the end of the band's ensuing tour, even if we are talking different sorts of fans here).

ʻPigs (Three Different Ones)ʼ is my personal favorite of the three, even if musically, it is the most simple and straightforward one, never really straining away too much from its funky base. The reason for this, I believe, is that it is on this track that the «hatred» motif reaches its apogee — the syncopated guitar chords slash away far more viciously than the furious, but harmless acoustic strum on ʻDogsʼ, Waters' vocals range from evil-grinning spiteful taunts on the verses to clenched-teeth aggressive insults in the chorus, and then, of course, there's the talkbox... simply put, ʻPigsʼ features the single best use of the talkbox effect in music history, if only because the talkbox naturally sounds like a pig, so what could be a possibly better place for it than on a song directed against all the allegorical pigs of this world? Musically, the single most chilling moment on the album is at 5:10, when, after a cleverly outstretched, carefully built-up suspenseful passage, Dave lets loose with a MONSTROUS talkbox grunt — as if, out of nowhere, a giant, smelly, bloodthirsty, 3000-pound-heavy pig landed right on your head and pummeled you six feet under the ground with all that weight. The overall feel of disgust and ugliness hangs so heavy above the entire track, you almost feel the need to take a shower once it's over. By the way, personally, I am not sure if poor Mary Whitehouse really belonged in the "pigs" category ("house proud town mouse" is a far more apt description), but apparently, Roger had to sweep all the ideological leaders into one foul heap, so a-gruntin' we'll all go. (It also helped immensely forty years later, when the song suddenly got a whole new life from Roger's anti-Trump campaign — and the line "hey you, Whitehouse!" effortlessly acquired a far more relevant meaning).

And then, of course, there is ʻSheepʼ, which should have earned Pink Floyd a death sentence, but apparently half of the fans never understood what it was about in the first place, and the other half thought it was about the first half, so everything turned out all right in the end. Musically, it is somewhat of a predecessor to ʻRun Like Hellʼ — same running tempo, similarly paced bassline, similar echoey fanfare effects on the guitar lines — and, essentially, it is about running like hell, as the poor sheep blindly follow the pigs and end up running away from the dogs, to no avail. The entire track is permeated with paranoia (best illustrated by the bassline) and terror (best illustrated by the way the vocals at the end of each line mutate and crossfade into an electronic banshee wail, only to be abruptly cut off with a thunderblast), but the creepiest and most insulting moment at the same time is the deconstruction of Psalm 23 — one of Waters' smartest anti-religious jabs, by the way: how many of us have ever thought that "The Lord is my shepherd" would quite logically surmise that, soon enough, "with bright knives he releaseth my soul, he converteth me to lamb cutlets"? The track does insinuate that, eventually, the sheep rise up, generate some brain activity, and get rid of their oppressors, but somehow it still seems more like a sarcastic dream than a reality (I mean, who ever saw a sheep "through quiet reflection and great dedication master the art of karate"?), and the triumphant martial guitar riff that fades out at the end of the song never feels anything like a glorious, optimistic conclusion to the whole concept.

And that conclusion? ʻPigs On The Wing 2ʼ, which essentially admits that the only way to get away from the unholy triumvirate of dogs, pigs, and sheep (in which pigs play a particularly disgusting part) is to find yourself an understanding partner and go hide in the woods or something like that. In a way, it is a pretty happy ending, and I will not deny that sometimes I feel exactly the same way...

If I were the Dalai Lama, I would probably reserve a harsh judgement for the album's concept and its unflattering stance on all human castes. Not having the honor, I do reserve the right to share opinions that are close enough to Waters' and, therefore, cannot blame Animals for any conceptual or ideological flaws. I could probably complain about the tracks being somewhat overlong, but instead of that, I would rather take the other way round and complain that there are simply not enough tracks — personally, I'd love to see more perspective on other inhabitants of the Farm as well, including horses, donkeys, cows, chickens, and whoever else was there in the original Orwellian world; more precisely, it just seems that Waters was on such a roll, surely he'd be able to find even more creative ways to ridicule and satirize even more categories of people, and I would love to see Animals, rather than The Wall, develop into the band's spatially grandest opus. Essentially, it is over much too quickly, yet I would not insist on getting ʻDogsʼ cut down to size in order to fit one or two additional pieces.

As for technicalities, I have always thought that, for some reason, the production standards on Animals were slightly below ideal, and that parts of it sound murkier than we'd come to expect. Compared to the crystal clear, heavenly ring of Gilmour's guitar on ʻShine Onʼ, for instance, the lead guitar parts on ʻDogsʼ are spoiled either by unnecessary timbre effects or by poor mixing, and overall, the record sometimes suffers from too much overkill on the effects. Maybe the presence of an Alan Parsons or even a Bob Ezrin could have helped, but, apparently, this was the way they (or at least Roger) wanted it to sound at the time, and perhaps the extra effects, distortion, and general murk were thought to accentuate the overall feel of disgust and contempt. That does not prevent us from applauding all the fantastic production decisions (the talkbox, the crossfades, the doom-laden looping of "stone... stone... stone..."), but I still think that a sharper sound couldn't have hurt in many individual places on the record; of all of the band's classic albums from that decade, I think Animals suffers the most in terms of production.

In conclusion, I would be the first to agree that a view of Animals as a «Roger Waters Vs. Mankind» kind of album would not only be oversimplifying stuff, but also would be portraying Waters, perhaps without proper justification, as a sort of monster. However, (a) I would never rule out such an interpretation, either and (b) it is a fun interpretation — and nobody said it was illegal to hold all mankind in one's contempt, anyway: Timon of Athens got away with this, so why shouldn't Roger Waters? The cool thing about art, anyway, is that we never have to agree with the artist — the only thing that matters is how effectively the artist gets his point across, and Animals passes that test with flying colors, an epic distillation of pure negativity in three parts. Had the record been made by anybody other than Pink Floyd, it would have probably sold less than a hundred copies; Floyd, however, played a cruel joke on their audiences, first transforming millions of people into their own loyal adepts by giving them a brief glimpse at The Meaning Of Life with Dark Side, and then suddenly turning around and delivering this mean blow right under the belt — perhaps the only reason why it did not eliminate their fanbase once and for all was that in early 1977 the average person felt so shitty about everything around him that the vibe seemed perfectly appropriate, even if it meant acknowledging one's own sheepishness. And although it would be hard to call the record particularly innovative or influential, it would be futile to deny that its relevance to this world of ours only continues to grow with each passing decade, because, let's face it, the place is still populated to the brink with Brahmin Pigs, Kshatriya Dogs, and Vaishya Sheep, and how many of us could firmly claim that we do not belong to any of the three categories?..