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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Chelsea Wolfe: Pain Is Beauty

CHELSEA WOLFE: PAIN IS BEAUTY (2013)

1) Feral Love; 2) We Hit A Wall; 3) House Of Metal; 4) The Warden; 5) Destruction Makes The World Burn Brighter; 6) Sick; 7) Kings; 8) Reins; 9) Ancestors, The Ancients; 10) They'll Clap When You're Gone; 11) The Waves Have Come; 12) Lone.

General verdict: Diet depression for those (fortunately) unfamiliar with the real thing.


I assume that by saying "pain is beauty", the artist is not intending to state that all pain is beauty, unless she's been on a serious BDSM roll lately. The problem is that even if we agree with her artistically hyperbolic statement, Pain Is Beauty is a record that suffers from a significant lack of both «pain» and «beauty» — something that I might not have noticed all that acutely, were it not for the brash album title reminding me of these notions, and how they are supposed to have some­thing to do with the music we hear.

As usual, I cannot help but judge... not judge, but actually feel this music in the overall context of all the endless hours of gloomy, depressed, end-of-the-world confessions and introspections recorded in the past half-century, from Sinatra to Siouxsie, from Jim Morrison to Beth Gibbons, from Robert Smith to Brendan Perry. And the consequences are unhealthy. At least on her first two albums, Chelsea was still lazily hunting for bits of melodic freshness, rarely, but steadily falling upon haunting chord sequences and vocal moves that could be pushed all the way to the front and hint at a burgeoning songwriting talent. On Pain Is Beauty, the day's motto is: «I have perfected my Awesome Atmosphere, and you are going to get it — and nothing else — on every single one of these tracks».

It's an okay atmosphere, by the way — not awesome per se, but nice, even more reminiscent of the morbid variety of the Eighties' sound, now that she has thoroughly surrouned herself with synthesizers, programmed percussion, and multi-tracked echoes that extract the singer from her own body and place the spirit in the middle of dark magical forests and at the bottom of deep mystical lakes. Given the technical advantages of the 2010s over the Eighties, the results actually sound a little more «organic», and there is a chance that even half a century from now, they might seem less thoroughly «dated» than anything from 1985. Unfortunately, this is where the good news end and the no news begin.

The very first track, ʽFeral Loveʼ, is a very typical example of everything you are going to en­counter on this record — and its first five seconds are a very typical example of everything you are going to encounter on this song: an echo-laden, two-chord electronic pulse whose tone is slightly reminiscent of a Jew's harp or a didgeridoo («feral» = «tribal» = «wild, creepy, dangerous, arousing, exciting», etc.). The first lyrics: "Run from the light / Your eyes black like an animal / Deep in the water" — check ʽrun from the lightʼ, check ʽblack eyesʼ, check ʽdeep waterʼ, every­thing in its right place. The voice — slow, tired, ominous, sexy, suggestive of mysteries to be explored and hidden danger to be experienced. The musical development — add thin, but solid veils of heavenly synth textures, ghostly falsetto background vocals, maniacally loud percussion. The coda — back to the opening electronic pulse bringing life full circle.

All the elements have been properly located and utilized, for sure; the only problem is that the core of the song — that rising-falling electronic pulse — is simplistic and stupid. It relies on minimalism without understanding that it is actually much harder to come up with a great mini­malist pattern than with a good complex one, what with all the limitations you place on yourself and what with the long story of minimalism that has made it so damn harder to come up with cool new minimalist melodies with each passing year. Nor is that selected boink-boinky tone parti­cularly haunting or creepy in and out of itself — more symbolic than gut-wrenching (she might have done better with a grand piano, but not necessarily). And when that simple, not particularly interesting core is embellished with well-worn arrangement and production tricks from the Mor­bid Stockhouse, it sure as hell does not save the situation.

Fast forward to the second track, ʽWe Hit A Wallʼ, and we face very similar things: this time, it is a two-note guitar riff, and the development plan differs in formal technical details, but the overall impact is precisely the same, right down to the climactic sequence of the song consisting of the same mantraic chorus ("how is it the world, how is it the one" in this case instead of "we press for the water", but who really cares?). Fast forward to almost any of the other tracks, and if you find even one melody here that sinks right to the bottom of your heart and does not let go... well, I might understand you if you are 16 to 18 years old and your girlfriend / boyfriend has broken your heart and you don't have a vinyl player to listen to your parents' stocks of Cure records and you also happen to think that listening to anything recorded before 2010 makes as much sense as reading The Epic of Gilgamesh. But if even one of these conditions is not met, well...

Just a couple more observations. One: ʽThe Waves Have Comeʼ goes on for eight and a half minutes — eight and a half minutes of simple, repetitive piano chords; simple, repetitive wave of chamber orchestration; simple, repetitive lyrical vocalize. The arrangement might be a little reminiscent of the Arcade Fire type of sound — big, sprawling sonic panorama with loud per­cussion, screechy strings and bombastic keyboards — but the performance is nowhere near the level of energy typical of Arcade Fire, and the core melody is nowhere near the hooking level of Arcade Fire at their best. And while the song calls out for you to accept its depth, tragedy, pain, beauty, whatever, it's all utterly derivative, and it feels insincere.

Two: ʽDestruction Makes The World Burn Brighterʼ is ripped straight off Nirvana's ʽDrain Youʼ, which would be okay if the melody were given a different and acceptable «edge», but, like almost everything else here, it all sounds as if the protagonist were sleepwalking. Granted, the most predictable cop-out would be to state that the sleepwalking effect is intentional, and that the entire record, with its dreamy haze, is supposed to be indicative of a dazed and confused and emotionally numbified state of mind. But at this point, I am all but ready to state that 99% of the «dazed and confused and emotionally numb» artistic statements made today merely hide a creative and emotional poverty — the artist simply has nothing (or, at best, very little) to say, so, to compensate, s/he plays the «less is more» game by taking the Less and draping it in the over­garments of More. Bottomline: this is a very, very dull record.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Thom Yorke: Tomorrow's Modern Boxes

THOM YORKE: TOMORROW'S MODERN BOXES (2014)

1) A Brain In A Bottle; 2) Guess Again!; 3) Interference; 4) The Mother Lode; 5) Truth Ray; 6) There Is No Ice (For My Drink); 7) Pink Section; 8) Nose Grows Some.

General verdict: Electronic sludge that mostly just shuts off brain cells, rather than properly depress them.


People tend to like the word "tomorrow", and people tend to like the word "modern", so even if the meaning behind the title of Thom Yorke's second album is that the people of today and of tomorrow have traded in their liberties and creativity for «living in boxes» (one possible inter­pretation), it can still create vaguely positive associations in the minds of people, particularly those people who still think of Radiohead and its frontman in 2014 as being on the cutting edge of modern music, despite the fact that more than twenty years now separate them from the day when ʽCreepʼ first made a bit of a difference.

In reality, though, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes is little more than just a side companion to The King Of Limbs, just with all of the band's playing replaced by programmed electronics. And this time around, there is no saving grace in the form of gorgeously lilting vocal melodies that occa­sionally elevated The Eraser to the heights of genuinely-great Radiohead quality; no, this time Yorke makes sure that most of the vocals are delivered in his trademark depressed mumble, while the lyrics are as cryptic as ever, not to mention more and more grammatically twisted ("I'm fighting in the darkness, the one that can't be killed, unless you get behind it" — gee, what's up with that pronoun usage?).

I will admit that the man retains and even amplifies all of his artistic integrity — by that time, he'd begun to cultivate a «homeless» visual appearance that goes very well with this musical style — but the problem is that, next to all these songs, ʽEverything In Its Right Placeʼ (a) sounds like Beethoven in comparison and (b) begs the question of why all these mood-clones of that track even need to exist. Same boring programmed beats, same dull looped electronic samples, same atmospheric, totally predictable vocal harmonies. Precisely the same sonic symbolism that we'd seen on everything that Radiohead had been doing for the previous 14 years. No development whatsoever: every song ends exactly the way it began, completely static throughout. Minimalism without hooks, emotion without motion, numbness without terror, and even the words literally have to be begged to yield associative meaning — like, I am sure that Thom was probably very pleased with himself for coming up with the line "when it all becomes too much, spread your last legs", but just as sure that he himself would have a hard time understanding what that meant. At least Bob Dylan, you know, used to have a sense of humor about that.

Not for the first time, I find myself at a total loss trying to write specifically about any of these tracks — on the surface, they use different samples, come at different tempos, and explore different sub-styles of electronic music (some are closer to ballads, some to dance tracks), but the emotional core is always precisely the same. Honestly, I have a very hard time understanding how it is at all possible to «accept» this art if you are already well aware of what preceded it. The same sort of problem plagued late-era Cure releases: at some point, after you have spent years and years and years slowly and thoroughly dying and decaying and dissolving in pools of tears on your records, you are bound to reach a certain impasse when even some of your biggest fans will have a hard time taking you seriously, because, well, living might take a long time, while dying is, after all, a short-time event (this is why AC/DC never had that kind of problem). And it certainly does not help that all you can think of by way of finding new ways to musically die and decay is a bunch of boring electronic samples.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Chic: Tongue In Chic

TONGUE IN CHIC (1982)

1) Hangin'; 2) I Feel Your Love Comin' On; 3) When You Love Someone; 4) Chic (Everybody Say); 5) Hey Fool; 6) Sharing Love; 7) City Lights.

General verdict: More decent electrofunk grooves that do not play to the band's biggest strengths.


Continuing the by-then unstoppable slide into irrelevancy, the blatantly awfully titled Tongue In Chic stalled at #173 on the US charts and at #47 on the R&B charts — too bad, because the lead single, ʽHangin'ʼ, was actually one of the band's best grooves in the post-disco era. With a slight whiff of menace rather than one of sentimentality, it is sternly ruled by an amusingly «popping» funky rhythm track from Nile, and brings back the atmosphere of friendly swag that was sorely lacking on ʽStage Frightʼ. It's still not on the level of ʽLe Freakʼ (with disco in the dumps, nothing could ever be, though), and they probably should have the leading ladies do the vocals instead of Bernard, but the guitar/brass interplay is cool, especially when Nile comes in with that little squeaky-pitched jazzy solo at the end.

After that, though, it is very much a case of one's general attitude towards generic dance music of the early Eighties. Depending on that, ʽI Feel Your Love Comin' Onʼ may seem to be a forget­table piece of dancefloor fodder, or a curious exploration of the possibilities of the synthesizer in introducing that robot strain to traditional African-American dance patterns. Years earlier, I would probably have hated Bernard's synthetic bass sound on this one, but now I am able to appreciate its calculated cool — at the same time, every time I go back in my mind to Chic's first albums, it is hard to get rid of the feeling that they have pretty much traded in the joyful, life-asserting extravagance of their early dance tracks for the common exaggerated android futurism of the Eighties, which sort of puts synthetic implants in your bloodstream rather than organic stimulators. But hey, to each his own.

Elsewhere, there is a very dubious attempt to blend in with the hip-hop crowd (rapping on the pseudo-live ʽChic (Everybody Say)ʼ — along with nice orchestral swirls, but overall, probably their weakest self-referential composition); some Luther Vandrossian sleazy swill (ʽSharing Loveʼ — this bland and instrumentally unappealing piece could have come from the hands of any of the million R&B outfits existing in 1982); some okay balladry (I like the tense, insisting, near-epic bass riff of ʽWhen You Love Someoneʼ, and Alfa Anderson's vocal performance is some­what touching, but on the whole, it's just a ballad like so many others); and a fun closing instru­mental (ʽCity Lightsʼ) that will be highly appreciated by all fans of our favorite bass/guitar combo, but does not have a particularly strong hook to go down in history as a classic.

In short, the problems that they had to deal with on Take It Off persist and turn out to be insur­mountable — in this new age of musical and spiritual values, Chic simply cannot allow them­selves to let their hair down enough to attract a new generation of listeners; and their greatest strength, instrumental virtuosity, has to be (partially) sacrificed again in order to adapt to this new age. As far as taking a retrospective look at this stuff is concerned, I'd still rather listen to this kind of music than anything by Bruno Mars, for instance, but the real choice is not between early Eighties Chic and retro-style 2010s R&B, it is between early Eighties Chic and early Eighties Prince and Michael Jackson, or even Madonna, and there can be no debate here about which one remains more exciting to ears that have evolved past 2000. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Robert Fripp: The League Of Gentlemen

ROBERT FRIPP: THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN (1981)


1) Indiscreet I; 2) Inductive Resonance; 3) Minor Man; 4) Heptaparaparshinokh; 5) Dislocated; 6) Pareto Optimum I; 7) Eye Needles; 8) Indiscreet II; 9) Pareto Optimum II; 10) Cognitive Dissonance; 11) H. G. Wells; 12) Trap; 13) Ochre; 14) Indiscreet III.

General verdict: Robert Fripp as the Link Wray of New Wave music — there's something amazing about that.


Perhaps Fripp sees this album as too lightweight and silly — it has never been released on CD in its entirety, although a few tracks did make it onto the God Save The King compilation. But it is fun! This is just Robert having some good plain fun while exploring contemporary trends with his short-lived touring outfit, The League Of Gentlemen — featuring, in addition to himself, little known but largely talented bassist Sara Lee, ex-XTC keyboard player Barry Andrews, and absolutely unknown drummer Kevin Wilkinson (who, as web sources tell me, went on to hang himself eighteen years later, so I presume it had nothing to do with his being acquainted with Robert Fripp). In addition, the album features contributions from all sorts of aspiring young people — avant-gardist Danielle Dax contributes robotic vocals on ʽMinor Manʼ, Maggie and Terre Roche are featured on the spoken interludes, talking about the nature of rock music and making sexual innuendos about Fripp (yes indeed!), and Robert's spiritual guru J. G. Bennett, who passed away in 1974, is used for vocal samples.

The overall result is even more hilarious and crazy than anything on Exposure; in fact, it brings back memories of The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles & Fripp — or, to put it differently, think of this as a demented soundtrack to the Benny Hill Show, had Benny ever come up with the idea to commission one from Fripp. Most of the musical tracks are danceable grooves, but, of course, they are not here for you to dance, but rather for Fripp to use them as launchpads for all sorts of tricky guitar weaving — precisely the kind of guitar weaving you would very soon hear on Discipline, and, in fact, many of these chord sequences would later make their way, almost unchanged, onto tracks such as ʽDisciplineʼ and ʽThela Hun Ginjeetʼ (one more reason, perhaps, why he preferred not to keep the album in the catalog). Here, though, coupled with all the disco basslines, they have a positively humorous flair to them... and I love it, because there's nothing like one of the greatest guitar players in the world unleashing his internal clown on us.

The presence of Barry Andrews is actually very welcome: his Farfisa organ blends in very effec­tively with Robert's guitar, because normally the Farfisa sounds a bit cloying, like a drunk robot trying to show you his best dance moves, but here it is precisely what is needed — correct me if I'm wrong, but I do believe that the idea was to make some sort of «Eighties go Fifties» record, using New Wave ideas to create a new type of post-rockabilly music: silly, funny, rhythmic, energetic, danceable, and bizarre. "How do I dance to this music?" one of the Roche sisters asks at the beginning of ʽInductive Resonanceʼ; "close, very close", replies somebody, and then the band launches into Robert Fripp's impersonation of a New Wave Duane Eddy.

I am not sure if the little excerpts from J. G. Bennett's speeches spiritually belong together with anthemic statements like "rock and roll is about fucking!" (the Roches again), followed by some actual sounds of fucking; I am not sure if the looped keyboard samples of ʽPareto Optimumʼ, sounding like a bunch of arcade machines spilling their coins, make any sense; but I am definitely sure that the try-anything-once ideology of the album is more than redeemed by the sheer fun and, when you come to think of it, the musical innovation present in these tracks. Of course, the overall musicianship here is nowhere near the level of the soon-to-be King Crimson (although it does make me wonder what the Discipline-era King Crimson would sound like, had Fripp decided to bring Andrews along for the ride). But for these purposes, it does not need to be.

It is quite telling, really, when an obviously «jokey» album from an era long gone by feels so fresh and exciting — what matters here is not so much the music itself as this collective excite­ment about actually making a difference, pouring some of that old wine into brand new con­tainers. It is even more mindblowing when you come to realize that at the heart of that excite­ment resides a 34-year old eccentric British gentleman, consenting to carouse with a bunch of young New York hipsters while still politely keeping his distance. All in all, just another intriguing and barely predictable chapter in the Fripp Chronicles. If it ain't somewhere in your dad's collection by accident (and if it is, you have one hell of a dad), be sure to locate a vinyl rip — it all sounds even more hilarious with pops, crackles, and hisses throughout.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Richard Wright: Wet Dream

RICHARD WRIGHT: WET DREAM (1978)

1) Mediterranean C; 2) Against The Odds; 3) Cat Cruise; 4) Summer Elegy; 5) Waves; 6) Holiday; 7) Mad Yannis Dance; 8) Drop In From The Top; 9) Pink's Song; 10) Funky Deux.

General verdict: Nice MOR soundscapes, but not really worthy of a Pink Floyd graduate.


Rick Wright's first solo album was, in some ways, even more of a rebellious reaction against Roger's full artistic control of Pink Floyd than Gilmour's self-titled debut. After all, there was plenty of David on Animals: his knack for angry blueswailing fit in well with Waters' penchant for mean aggression, even if altogether, as a person, Dave was far more friendly and less cynical. But there was very little Rick Wright there — that particular Rick Wright with his love for idyllic, soothing, meditative, subtly transcendental keyboard passages and vocal harmonies, the kind of Rick Wright without whom there would be no ʽEchoesʼ or ʽUs And Themʼ. In a world according to Roger Waters, there was no space for this attitude on Animals. And thus, it is even less sur­prising that once the Animals tour came to an end, Rick finally decided to break it out on his own. In fact, recording sessions for Wet Dream began even before the sessions for David Gilmour — it simply took Wright far more time to get Harvest to release it.

Very honestly, this is not a Pink Floyd album; this is a Richard Wright album. The two principal side players enlisted for the session were guitarist Snowy White (who would also perform as «backup» guitarist on The Wall tour, and briefly served in Thin Lizzy during its final years) and sax and woodwind veteran Mel Collins, of King Crimson fame. Although both get plenty of studio time, with Wright nicely allowing both to stretch out on guitars and saxes whenever they like, they do not steal the spotlight away from him — provided, of course, that you can actually call this a spotlight. As a whole, the album gives much the same impression as David Gilmour: nice, tasteful, perfect for background usage, but not in the least memorable.

Four out of ten songs here have vocals, but the record still feels largely «instrumental», because Rick's vocals have a way of blending into the general woodwork. And technically, the instrumen­tals do not depart too far away from Floyd-style: slow, stately, melodic, minor-key-favoring rivers of sound, typically with guitars and saxes soloing over bluesy or jazzy piano or organ rhythm tracks (more rarely, the rhythm tracks are based on acoustic guitar, with Rick adding keyboard embellishments throughout — that's how it goes with ʽWavesʼ). Towards the end of the album, the band gets a little funkier, first on ʽDrop In From The Topʼ with its jumpy bassline, and then on the give-it-away-titled ʽFunky Deuxʼ; even so, the rise in «danceability» does not really disrupt the calm, soothing flow of the album.

And that, of course, is also its major problem. Calmly and soothingly flowing keyboard-based music can be magnificent in the hands of a genius such as Brian Eno, who knows exactly how to get to the core of things and make the listener get there together with the artist. But Wright, on his own, does not have that kind of depth, and his solo instrumentals never pierce the barrier that separates pleasant from breathtaking. The opening track, ʽMediterranean Cʼ, is a prime example of that style, with both Mel and Snowy taking turns to solo over Wright's piano melody. Every­thing is professional, but the atmosphere is... well, maybe fit enough to be used for a cheesy romantic dinner (champagne, candlelight, evening gown, and whatever follows — hey, the record isn't called Wet Dream for nothing!). There is nothing even remotely reminiscent of the turbulent ups-and-downs of ʽUs And Themʼ here — the point is to stay cool and calm, with a humble pinch of happy-sad, all the time.

The vocal numbers preserve and cherish that atmosphere, with the theme of parting being central to most of them: "Something's gotta give / We can't carry on like this / One year on and more unsure / Where do we go from here?", starting off ʽSummer Elegyʼ, was probably regarded as Rick's farewell menace to his Floyd buddies, but it does not even sound like a menace, because the melody and the vocals are so relaxed — a bit sorrowful, but still friendly in the long run. If there is deep, soul-tearing torment here, one must assume that Richard Wright, the polite and well-bred gentleman as he is, thought it way beneath him to let it show; and while that decision, if there really was such a decision, might command admiration on its own, it just does not make for a particularly harrowing listening experience.

It is interesting to note that one of the vocal numbers is named ʽPink's Songʼ — and no, it does not have anything to do with The Wall, since that project was not even on the horizon at the time of recording. Rather, it is a fairly obvious musical tribute to Syd ("quiet, smiling friend of mine / thrown into our lives"), as if, for some reason, ʽCrazy Diamondʼ was not enough and Rick just couldn't live without paying his own individual respect to the man. Alas, like everything else on here, the slow, sorrowful ballad, adorned by Mel's flute solo, is tepid at best, and when Rick draws a subtle parallel between Syd and himself, implying that he, too, may have to follow his own path eventually ("and I must go, be on my way... let me go, I cannot stay"), this is delivered so quietly and with so little expression that even the fabled «less is more» principle remains unapplicable. At the very least, my heart does not cry out for him the way it should.

In a way, all of this is predictable, yet it is still vaguely amusing how two out of three key ingre­dients in the Pink Floyd sound, within the exact same year, went all the way to demonstrate just how insignificant each of these ingredients is on their own. In comparison, one might get seriously irritated by the individual styles of early solo John Lennon or Paul McCartney, but at least what those guys did in 1970-71 was take those individual characteristics and amplify them all the way to eleven. Gilmour and Wright, on the other hand, made the surprising choice to take them and turn them all the way down — as if they were so nervous about coming into the studio on their own that they each had to swallow a bunch of sedatives in preparation. It must take a really, really dedicated Floyd fan to want to immerse and lose oneself in these lukewarm sonic pools — though, I am sure of that, after a while even lukewarm might seem to become the new searing hot or ice cold, if you work hard enough on your reaction.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Paul McCartney: Wild Life

PAUL McCARTNEY: WILD LIFE (1971)

1) Mumbo; 2) Bip Bop; 3) Love Is Strange; 4) Wild Life; 5) Some People Never Know; 6) I Am Your Singer; 7) Bip Bop Link; 8) Tomorrow; 9) Dear Friend; 10) Mumbo Link.

General verdict: Keep-it-simple unshackled insanity on parade — some great ideas marred by the crudeness of approach.

Time and time again, Paul has proven to the world that not only is he a perfectionist, but that the only working mode in which he gives his finest results is perfectionist mode. Every now and then, though, he still gets the urge to toss off something quick and dirty — you know, recapture that old rock'n'roll spirit, grab Lady Luck by the tail, make good on a passing electroshock of fleeting inspiration, that sort of stuff. Such was his dream in early 1969, when he tried to give The Beatles a jolt by reminding them of their Hamburg days. That one did not work out. But once Ram was completed, and working with Hugh McCracken, Denny Seiwell, and other musicians made him confident enough to try and put together a new band, the old dream was reinvigorated — and this time, there was nobody authoritative enough to dissuade him from the idea.

Wild Life was recorded in approximately one week's time, with five out of eight songs recorded in one take — sweet visions of Please Please Me probably haunting the man most of that time. Not counting Linda, the musicianship was provided by a rather minimalistic trio: Paul McCartney of Beatles fame on bass and everything else, Denny Laine of Moody Blues fame on guitars and something else, and Denny Seiwell of... Ram fame on drums and nothing else. Unfortunately, neither of the two Dennys could exactly replace John, George or, hell, even Ringo — and even if they could, the odds of producing another Please Please Me in 1971 would not be high.

Two bewildering things about Wild Life immediately come to attention. One, that even if it is the first album explicitly credited to «Wings», it actually sounds less like a band-type album than Ram — its bare-bones, underproduced nature places it closer to McCartney, even if it does reflect the results of four people working in close proximity to each other. Two, that it genuinely sounds as if Paul wrote everything here in about half an hour: most of the tracks are almost offensively short on musical ideas, often looping just one or two of them for four or five minutes, a far cry from those blessed days when minimal ideas would get adequately minimal representa­tion, as they did on the Abbey Road medley. Want it or not, the effect is starkly anti-climactic after Ram: in retrospect, we know that this was a misstep rather than a demise, but back in 1971, it may very well have looked to people that the Paul McCartney treasury of melodic nuggets had finally been exhausted.

It's not even as if those ideas are total crap. For instance, I like ʽBip Bopʼ — its sole little comic verse is harmless catchy fun, in the same way that something like ʽWild Honey Pieʼ was fun. But ʽWild Honey Pieʼ had the good sense of being fifty seconds long; ʽBip Bopʼ, having laid out its core musical joke in about the same time, drags on for four minutes without adding anything other than random sighs, moans, and distant background chatter to diversify the effect. Why does it do that? Just to fill out album space? More likely, this was simply a case of Paul and the boys casually jamming along, waiting for extra inspiration — and then convincing themselves that somewhere along the way, that inspiration might have come. Perhaps somebody, somehow, some­day will sense it. In the meantime, we'll just put it out as it is.

The really weird thing is, there is not a single truly bad song on Wild Life — but there is not a single song on Wild Life that was performed, arranged, and recorded precisely the way it should have been. Some of the tracks are in desperate need of overdubs; some require extra bridges, intros, or outros to work better; most require severe trimming. Adding insult to injury, Paul actually returned to Abbey Road Studios to produce the record — one can only hope that George Martin was away on vacation in the summer of 1971, or his heart might not have stood to witness this profanation of sacred Beatle values. Of course, this was not the first time that Paul came up with a disastrous decision (the Magical Mystery Tour movie?), but, arguably, it was the first time when the decision concerned the one thing that he used to be good at — recording music.

Side A of the album bears the brunt of the damage: in addition to ʽBip Bopʼ, there's ʽMumboʼ (four minutes of barely coherent jamming, with everyone giving the impression of being sloppy drunk — the worst thing about this is, they obviously weren't even sloppy drunk), the overlong cover of the Mickey & Sylvia / Buddy Holly oldie ʽLove Is Strangeʼ, and the even more overlong eco-rant of the title track. And they are all good! They all have something to cherish. ʽMumboʼ has that wonderful falsetto woooh! echoed by the organ chord; ʽBip Bopʼ is just as impossible to forget as "one two three four, can I have a little more"; ʽLove Is Strangeʼ is «adorkable» in its own fruity way and has one of the finest guitar solos ever played by Denny; the title track has soulful depth that is not even impeded by Paul overscreeching it. Yet in the long run, none of these songs are defensible against criticism — I rarely have the patience to trace them all the way to the end, as they typically run out of ideas midway through or earlier. (Yes, I ask myself the question "what's gonna happen to wild life?" from time to time, too; but repeating it twenty times in a row is not going to produce an answer, or even get people to start thinking about the answer twenty times as efficiently).

To redeem the record, one has to flip over to the second side, which is altogether more reasonable, though still subject to the same problems. The much underrated sleeping beauty of the record is there — ʽSome People Never Knowʼ is the best sample of classic McCartney melodic genius on Wild Life, hopelessly lost in the depths of this confused opus. A folksy pop ballad, it has got the ʽHere There And Everywhereʼ touch to it, admittedly a bit less magical, but do wait until he hits that middle eight section: the transition from the smooth falsetto "I'm only a person like you, love..." to the ever so slightly accusatory, but still loving "...and who in the world can be right all the right times?" makes my heart jump nine times out of ten. And later, once you think the band has already switched to go-to-fade-out jam mode, they suddenly dive into the bridge again, only now it is a wordless vocalise (the worded melody is nearly muted in the background), and the magic repeats itself with pure feeling. This is how you work out a masterpiece, and how, I think, all the other songs on the album should have been approached.

At least both ʽI Am Your Singerʼ and ʽTomorrowʼ refuse to share the main problem of their peers: they are both short and concise pop songs, the former a surprisingly melancholic love declaration (I sometimes think it might have been conceived as, you know, the blackbird's answer to ʽBlack­birdʼ: "someday when we're singing, we will fly away, going winging..."), and the latter a... dang, another surprisingly melancholic love declaration (I guess the weather was not so good in those July '71 days, after all).

The one song that even the haters usually acknowledge is ʽDear Friendʼ, Paul's somewhat oblique, at times accusatory, at times reconciliatory answer to Lennon's ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ — at least, that was how it seemed at the time, because in reality the song was written during the Ram ses­sions (in fact, Imagine came out already after the Wild Life sessions had been held). You don't need to go farther than the first thirty seconds of it — the rest is just repeat, sometimes with embellishments in the form of orchestral crescendos — but those thirty seconds are powerful, another great example of how Paul can crush the deepest strings with the simplest chords. Later on, Paul would say that the song was an attempt to reconnect with John — he must have either been fooling interviewers or fooling himself, because lines like "are you a fool, or is it true?" are quite a giveaway, and most importantly, that doom-laden final chord just spells out "it's over" better than any words can. Incidentally, this is the single most tragic — most devastating — ending to a Paul solo album, ever. Leave it to the man to lure us in with something as utterly stupid as ʽMumboʼ and leave us hanging out to dry with something as gloomy as ʽDear Friendʼ (if there ever were to be a music video to the song, it would probably have to feature Paul at the bar past closing time, all dim lights and manly sobs).

As you can tell, I have a real love-and-hate relationship with this record. It wants to work, it is unable to work, it works despite everything, it breaks down, it knocks its head against the wall... in the end, there just might be something to this raw, unshackled approach that we would never see again once the regular Wings aesthetics began to kick in around 1973. One thing that is for certain — the album still features plenty of McCartney genius, as much as McCartney himself is allowing to show from behind all the fake camaraderie. Another certain thing is that the whole enterprise was just a brief moment of insanity: Wings' very first singles, now available as bonus tracks on the album, were already a much more polished affair, be it the unexpected political escapade of ʽGive Ireland Back To The Irishʼ (catchy, but crude) or the «some people want to fill the world with nursery rhymes, what's wrong with that?» debacle of ʽMary Had A Little Lambʼ (which, amusingly, rips off the chord sequence of Pink Floyd's ʽEchoesʼ for the post-verse flourish — guess we now know what Paul had been listening to in between recording, touring, and shearing sheep). Allegedly, Wild Life is just, well... a bit wild. It still holds a special place in my heart for that reason, even if I never listen to it for sheer pleasure in the same way I listen to Ram or (in a different way) to Band On The Run. Do not dismiss it right out of hand before giving it a fair chance.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Marvin Gaye: M.P.G.

MARVIN GAYE: M.P.G. (1969)

1) Too Busy Thinking About You; 2) This Magic Moment; 3) That's The Way Love Is; 4) The End Of Our Road; 5) Seek And You Shall Find; 6) Memories; 7) Only A Lonely Man Would Know; 8) It's A Bitter Pill To Swallow; 9) More Than A Heart Can Stand; 10) Try My True Love; 11) I Got To Get To California; 12) It Don't Take Much To Keep Me.

General verdict: Way too much recycling here — a well-meant, diligently executed slump.


Although it is hard to find a single stretch in the life of Marvin where he would find himself perfectly content with life, the general consensus is that 1969-1970 was a particularly tough period, with the man torn between his career problems (the «Motown grip» stiffening more than ever, now that he was their biggest selling star) and his woman problems — deteriorating family life with wife Anna Gordy and rapidly deteriorating health of «little sister» Tammi. In cynical practice, this kind of trouble often translates to great art, but certain other conditions have to be met for that — creative freedom, for instance, which was not on the list of Motown's priorities for Marvin and for which he was not yet able to struggle in 1969.

M.P.G., thusly named after Marvin's initials, reflects all these things nicely: listen to it carefully and all that pain and torment will get across to you — yet the songs are still too carefully crafted in accordance with the regular Motown formula to act as fully credible vehicles for Marvin's emotional state. Case in point: ʽThat's The Way Love Isʼ, a friendly warning to a broken-hearted lover from the Whitfield/Strong team, originally recorded by the Isley Brothers. Marvin's "I've been hurt by love so many times..." must have singed him real hard when he delivered it in the studio, and all of the song's components strive hard to brew up a psychotic atmosphere — gritty bass line, dark-cloudy strings, tribal percussion, grimy organ... then, of course, you realize that in the big scheme of things this was nothing but a calculated attempt to capitalize on the success of ʽGrapevineʼ, which had all the exact same ingredients, right down to the vocal harmonies and the exact same verse structure with similar expressions and rhymes. Except, of course, the hook was tougher and the mood was creepier.

By contrast, the second big hit single off this album, ʽToo Busy Thinking About My Babyʼ (again, a well-worn tune, previously recorded by The Temptations), is intentionally happy, with a joyful hook that is more carried by the strings and The Andantes than Marvin's lead. He does his best impression of an overjoyed fellow, yet it seems clear that he has to work hard with himself to get into this kind of mood — play it back to back with something like ʽPride And Joyʼ, made way back in the long gone years of innocence and wild love for Anna Gordy, and feel the difference that half a decade can make. He is far more natural on ʽThe End Of Our Roadʼ, a jerky, synco­pated R&B groove (rather than the straight pop of ʽToo Busyʼ) with a tiny bit of «experimenta­tion» in the form of a nagging, nasty sitar riff carrying the song (at least, seems very much like a sitar to me — don't have any direct confirmation at hand). But even that song, too, was a second hand contribution: another former hit from Gladys Knight & The Pips, again remade from a fiery, hatred-turned-to-joy, invigorating dance number into a darker, more disturbing personal confes­sion by the Whitfield/Strong team.

So you see where I am going here: M.P.G. has a lot going in its favor (an artist in turmoil; a well-oiled team of songwriters, producers, and musicians working at the height of the rock / R&B era), but it also suffers from the typical sophomore curse — Motown found the strength to provide their best solo artist with a refreshed formula, and then immediately made him redo it all over again with predictably diminishing results. As few complaints as there can be about the overall quality of the sound, as the tracklist goes on, there is simply not much to say about these songs: most of the other tracks rehash the recipes of The Temptations, The Miracles, The Four Tops, sounding cool while they are on but not leaving much of a lasting impression. Just as ʽI Heard Through The Grapevineʼ made a bold claim about re-establishing Marvin as an artist with his own voice, so does M.P.G., once again, succumb to the threat of re-establishing him as a first-rate second-hand re-interpreter of other people's voices. He cannot be blamed for that in person (considering all that he was going through, it is a miracle that he could work at all, much less still sing as if his life depended on it), but Motown executives certainly can. That said, fans will most certainly see through the superficial blandness and feed on the sharp shards of real feeling — in a way, an anguished and tormented Marvin Gaye doing second-hand material might be a better proposition than a peaceful and contented Marvin Gaye engaged in original and experimental work. (Not that the latter combination ever took place, though).

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Sufjan Stevens (and others): Planetarium

SUFJAN STEVENS: PLANETARIUM (2017) (w. Bryce Dessner et al.)

1) Neptune; 2) Jupiter; 3) Halley's Comet; 4) Venus; 5) Uranus; 6) Mars; 7) Black Energy; 8) Sun; 9) Tides; 10) Moon; 11) Pluto; 12) Kuiper Belt; 13) Black Hole; 14) Saturn; 15) In The Beginning; 16) Earth; 17) Mercury.

General verdict: This is NOT going down in history as the definitive musical guide to the planets; any old textbook on astronomy is about ten times as exciting.


As early as 2012, Stevens took part in a collaborative project with contemporary classical com­poser Nico Muhly and with Bruce Dessner, guitarist of The National, commissioned by a Dutch concert hall — a conceptual piece about no less than the entire Solar System. After an actual live performance in Amsterdam, the piece lay dormant for five more years before the principal parti­cipants decided to reconvene and (with the final addition of drummer James McAlister) finalize the art piece in a recording studio. The result is Planetarium, an album credited to all four guys at once — but since Sufjan's name comes first on the cover, and also since he sings all the vocals, I am assuming that it belongs in his discography anyway, regardless of the actual percentage of his own melodic themes. And it is hardly likely I will ever tackle Nico Muhly on his own, any­way, although it turns out that I have briefly run into him on occasion — in particular, he had collaborated with the late Antony Hegarty (now known as Anohni) on three of his (as-of-then) records. Besides, the album was deemed important enough to be released on the 4AD label — the unspoken king of all things Cosmic and Transcendental — and that should spell quality.

The concept of the record basically just involves writing an ode to each of the planets (Pluto generously included), as well as the Sun, the Moon, and a few accompanying phenomena for the sake of diversity. In itself, it is simple and elegant and respectable and it has been a whole century anyway since Holst's The Planets, so it is odd that nobody thought of the idea earlier. Lyrically, though, Sufjan barely even touches planetary subjects — mostly, he uses the celestial bodies as starting reference points for all sorts of personal ruminations (for instance, ʽNeptuneʼ refers to "strange waters" and "drowning" and that's about it; ʽMercuryʼ mentions "running off with it all", meaning that Greek mythology matters much, much more to this man than little globes of cosmic dust pointlessly revolving around some silly hot star). But musically, the arrangements are ambitious enough so that you could think of the compositions in... astronomical terms, so to speak. Or, should we say, astrological?

There is but one problem with Planetarium, or, rather, all of its small problems boil down to one big problem. An album like this — a large, 76-minute long musical canvas presuming to connect matters celestial and terrestrial, transcendental and personal — should do one of two things: it should dazzle, or it should not exist, period. Saying «yeah, I've heard this monster of an album that covers the entire Solar System, and it's kinda ok» just feels stupid. You might dislike Holst's Planets and consider them a poor man's crass and pompous attempt to outdo the magnificence of Gustav Mahler — but in the event that you like Planets, you will probably want to close your eyes and get transported away into space at some moment. This is the precise thing that an album like Plane­tarium needs to do to you, too. But does it?

Honestly speaking, apart from Sufjan's voice and lyrics, the music reminds me more of the afore­mentioned Anthony Hegarty. There are plenty of watery, echoey, glib-shaped, keyboard-based ballads here, from ʽNeptuneʼ to ʽMercuryʼ, that are about one hundred percent atmosphere and ultimately depend on whether the singer manages to convert you or not. And then there are the «loud» numbers like ʽJupiterʼ, electronic workouts with heavy use of sampling, Artistic Auto­tune, and overdub-till-you-drop vocal harmonies and keyboard loops. Both approaches eventually combine on ʽEarthʼ (geocentrism in action!), a 15-minute piece that begins as a New Age cascade of smooth-'n'-stately musical winds, then turns into a heavily autotuned prayer, and finally becomes an alien dance number. Not a single one of these parts, not for a single moment, ever feels particularly profound or engaging. If this is the best these guys can come up with to prove the value of ʽEarthʼ to our potentially hostile neighbours in space, expect to be obliterated upon arrival. At best, this track is boring; at worst (particularly when those uglified vocals come in), it is excru­ciating.

I mean, it is not often that a 76-minute long album passes by in such a way that I cannot latch on to a single second of it — heck, I even enjoyed parts of Ayreon's epic enterprises, because they were, well, epic. Corny as hell, sure, but enjoyable the same way as one enjoys one's Star Trek or Clifford Simak. This album demands to be taken much more seriously, but how can you take seriously an album with a ton of autotuned Sufjan Stevens vocals? I can barely take him serious­ly when he's clean! And when you are given clean vocals, other problems surface. ʽPlutoʼ, for instance, slowly builds upwards from a quiet, bubbly, kaleidoscopic texture to a loud orchestral waltz, awash in strings and brass, but the sound is so compressed and flattened that the strings have absolutely no volume / depth to them, and the whole thing feels fake and artificial. I under­stand that they are simply following current trends in production, while at the same time probably thinking of how innovative this whole approach is, but these are ugly trends, and this approach ain't innovative in the slightest.

Since I have no intention of wasting my brains on trying to explain why each of these tracks sucks on an individual basis, I will end this with a slightly warped conclusion: Planetarium is like The Age Of Adz, but with more strings, more Autotune, and more pretense — each of these three points not working in its favor. Oh, yes, and a couple of the songs, such as the stripped down, arpeggio-favoring ʽMercuryʼ, could have fit right in on Carrie & Lowell, too, but for me this is not a plus, as you already know. But if you are a Stevens fan, by all means take note, because, despite the collaborative nature, Planetarium does feel very much like a bona fide Sufjan Stevens album. I mean, I even have no idea what exactly is Bruce Dessner's contribution to the record supposed to be — and I don't even think I want to know.