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Friday, August 31, 2018

Ringo Starr: Goodnight Vienna


1) (It's All Down To) Goodnight Vienna; 2) Occapella; 3) Oo-Wee; 4) Husbands And Wives; 5) Snookeroo; 6) All By Myself; 7) Call Me; 8) No No Song; 9) Only You; 10) Easy For Me; 11) Goodnight Vienna (reprise); 12*) Back Off Boogaloo; 13*) Blindman; 14*) Six O'Clock (extended version).

General verdict: A bit too much on the silly pop side, but still fairly consistent and fun as far as silly pop goes. Too bad the «Ringo as Klaatu» idea never got reflected in the music — hey, it could work.

The success of Ringo was a turning point in the man's career — from that point onwards, Ringo adopted the «Magnet Approach» as his primary guideline in creating new music. Namely, Ringo himself would be the magnet, and all sorts of famous musical people, preferably including one or two of his older bandmates, would be the objects of attraction. Even if the approach would not always work, it was pretty clear to Ringo that this would be the only way for his albums to sell, or, if not sell, then at least have some sort of reason for existence. Or maybe it was never all that clear to Ringo, but that is what he did anyway, drunk or sober.

Since Goodnight Vienna was recorded in more or less the same circumstances as Ringo — still in Los Angeles, still accompanying John Lennon on his «lost weekend», still featuring the same player line-up — one would expect it to be comparable in quality to its predecessor, and it is. Yet at the same time, there is a slight overhang of the balance towards the whimsical vaudeville side, and I would make a guess and blame this on the absence of one particularly important and crucial friend: Marc Bolan. The heaviest and most seriously-sounding song on the CD edition of Vienna is ʽBack Off Boogalooʼ, a single-only rocker that had actually been recorded in 1972 and was still heavily influenced by Marc — not just because of the lyrics ("boogaloo" was one of Bolan's favorite words), but because of the overall bombastic, snapping, snarling approach; Harrison's slide guitar playing, coupled with some of the loudest and fiercest drumming in Ringo's entire career, is a classic example of the no-holds-barred principle.

Compared to that heavy (but still fun) stuff, Goodnight Vienna is a bit of a letdown if you come looking for maniacal energy and party wildness. It is still a party album, but it looks like the party is winding down — if Ringo captured the guests in full heat, then Vienna is that late hour thing when it is not quite time to go yet, but the heavy stuff is already starting to wear off. So there is less heavy rock and more flat-out pop, less flashy guitar and more honky-tonk piano: Bolan is on his way out, but Elton is still in, with ʽSnookerooʼ sounding like something out of the ʽLove Lies Bleedingʼ textbook, only in a clown version this time.

The one song that most people probably remember from the album is the ʽNo No Songʼ, though it was really a cover — Hoyt Axton's original was a little more blatantly Caribbean-stylized, both in the singing and the musical arrangement, whereas Ringo's band goes for a more straightforward pop angle. There is a bit of self-irony in listening to Ringo consequently renounce all of Earth's nasty pleasures in the middle of a recording studio in 1974 Los Angeles ("ten pound bag of cocaine" — how could one refuse a ten pound bag of cocaine under those circumstances?), and the irony is further increased with a vocal and instrumental melody that would make the song perfect for Sesame Street... well, it's never too late to teach kids about the harmful side effects of heavy drugs, I guess. The whole thing may be dumb as heck and even sacrilegious if you want to think in those kinds of terms, but damn is it ever catchy, and Ringo is the perfect guy to sing it. (Though it is also a good incentive to check out more of Hoyt Axton's stuff — nobody ever remembers the guy, but he did record quite prolifically in the 1960s and beyond, and wrote some good songs that we usually know from other performers, such as Steppenwolf's ʽPusherʼ).

Other than that, most of the material is enjoyable and forgettable. The Lennon-written title track is a novelty toss-off — ʽI'm The Greatestʼ was at least swimming in irony, whereas ʽGoodnight Viennaʼ is just drunken nonsense sung against a banging piano riff that John might have thrown out while recording his version of ʽYa Yaʼ or something. Paul and George are no longer present; instead, we have the bright New Orleanian sound of Allen Toussaint (ʽOccapellaʼ), the Nashville sludge of Roger Miller (ʽHusbands And Wivesʼ, a fairly poor choice because Ringo very much sucks at slow, sentimental country waltzes), and the melancholic balladry of Harry Nilsson (ʽEasy For Meʼ — which you can hear on Nilsson's own album anyway, so there is really no reason to hunt down a Ringo version). All nice enough, but without quite the same atmosphere of total craziness that permeated Ringo.

Still, compared to the late Seventies' slump that would follow, Goodnight Vienna is quite a salvageable record. If we agree that we like to have Mr. Starkey clowning around as long as he understands that he is clowning and lets us in on the joke, then this album perfectly fits the concept. It rarely, if ever, tries to be serious; rarely, if ever, demands for any exceptional singing feats to be performed; totally respects the quality-pop laws of catchiness and professionalism; and still has that slightly dimmed (and, by now, a bit forced) party feel. You do get the impression that, perhaps, a nasty hangover would be just around the corner, and it was; but as of late 1974, the party was still on, and it is never too late to join in, not even in 2018.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Jerry Harrison: The Red And The Black


1) Things Fall Apart; 2) Slink; 3) The New Adventure; 4) Magic Hymie; 5) Fast Karma / No Questions; 6) Worlds In Collision; 7) The Red Nights; 8) No More Reruns; 9) No Warning, No Alarm.

General verdict: A «Remain In-Lite» for those who prefer Diet Coke and nicotine-free cigarettes to, you know, the real bad thing.

In order to measure the amazing amounts of genetic and social diversity on planet Earth, you could dig deep into the world of genetic samples and anthropological studies. Or you could take a trip around the globe, not forgetting all the important spots such as the Kalahari Desert or Papua New Guinea. Or, to save yourself time, money, and brain cells, you could take a quick look at some Internet reviews and see that there are real people on this planet who consider Jerry Harri­son's solo debut, The Red And The Black, to be a better album than Remain In Light. And I think to myself — what a wonderful world!

Not that The Red And The Black is a worthless effort or anything. It is simply a clear-cut attempt on one guy's part to bite off more than he can chew. Where Chris and Tina deliberately chose a different, almost antithetical route to Byrne's vision, Harrison made a record that just as deliberately claimed direct descent from the musical and general artistic stem of both Fear Of Music and Remain In Light. The funky rhythms, the avantgarde solos, the alarmingly alarmed mindset, the worried-and-or-ominous vocals, the cryptic lyrics — everything is here in more or less the same dosage as you would see on traditional Talking Heads records. The big difference is that the only Talking Head here is the head that rarely talked: Jerry himself.

He does invite some of the same people that played an important role in the greatness of Remain In Light: the ubiquitous Adrian Belew on guitar, Nona Hendryx on backing vocals (she also contributes some of her own lyrics), and, although that does not quite count, Bernie Worrell on keyboards (who had already joined the Heads' touring roster after Remain In Light was released, and would stay on with them for the next several years). But there is no Tina, no Chris, no David, and, last but definitely not least of all, no Brian Eno to work the same magic for his songs that he did for the Heads. Instead, the album is co-produced by Jerry with Dave Jerden, Remain In Light's sound engineer — technically close, but no cigar.

The difference is felt as early as on the first track. It has a nicely suitable title (ʽThings Fall Apartʼ) and a suitably paranoid mood, but the whole thing is just not too exciting. A slightly slower tempo than required. A fairly simple, metronomically-oriented rhythm section. A lilting funky guitar rhythm that is, without explanation, pushed so far back in the mix it hardly even begins to matter. Vocals that try to sound ominous but are neither deep enough to be spooky nor jerky enough to be unsettling. Moderately catchy, but not amazing hooklines. In other words — a good imitation of the real thing, but the spirit just isn't there, really.

In a way, the lyrics to the second track, ʽSlinkʼ, are self-explanatory. "Don't you rush it, don't you push it, don't you shove it, don't you lose control — you must keep it cool, keep it smooth" is the chorus recipe, and while it is obvious that our man Jerry here is simply giving you some good advice on how to survive in the insane modern age, it is hard to get rid of the feeling that the same applies to his own music as well — The Red And The Black being a non-rushing, non-pushing, non-shoving, never-losing-control reply to Remain In Light, what with ʽSlinkʼ itself built upon a steady, semi-tight ska rhythm with a perfectly normal, not-too-agitated guitar riff running through it and a perfectly normal melodica part cheering up your spirit. Besides, do you really want Jerry Harrison to give you reasonable psychological advice — and, in the process, confirm himself as the boringly sane counterpart to David Byrne's psycho persona? Next thing we know, you will be siding with Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader or something.

But enough with the criticisms. While all the songs on the album suffer from the same problems, most of them also have their virtues — Harrison is not the last person in the world when it comes to moods and hooks. ʽMagic Hymieʼ, for instance, is a lot of fun, a sort of cartoonish funky take on the vibe of ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ (I have no idea who is meant by ʽHymieʼ, but the song paints a credible picture of how it feels to be pushed to the brink). ʽWorlds In Collisionʼ, starting off with a threatening sonic vibe not unlike the one in ʽMemories Can't Waitʼ, is Jerry's grim-faced post-punkish revolutionary update of the message of ʽTimes They Are A-Changin'ʼ, with Adrian supplying most of the real revolution while Jerry is mainly busy shouting out ominous slogans ("all you mothers, show your children you're not afraid to die!"). There is even some odd charm in the neo-Chuck-Berry-like proto-rap of ʽNo More Rerunsʼ, though there is little to distinguish it properly from a hundred other similar New Wave tracks.

By the end of my third listen I was actually liking the album or, at least, the effort that went into making it. If anything, it does show that Jerry Harrison was not just a replaceable cog in the Heads machine, but a serious contributor to the global whole, with a very modern vision that was very different from Byrne's, but not at all incompatible. But it also shows that Harrison was essentially a normal guy, interested in exploring new avenues but not at all willing to run down them like crazy, with no shoes and no shirt on. Indeed, some people like such characters better — these are the ones willing to say that The Red And The Black is superior to Remain In Light — yet these are the people to whom I would rather entrust driving cars than making critical evalua­tions. Bottomline: The Red And The Black is a worthy effort that sheds some much-needed light on the persona of a most important «man in the shadows», but it does not really stand out on its own — only in the overall context of Talking Heads' history.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Syd Barrett: Opel


1) Opel; 2) Clowns & Jugglers; 3) Rats; 4) Golden Hair (vocal version); 5) Dolly Rocker; 6) Word Song; 7) Wined And Dined; 8) Swan Lee (Silas Lang); 9) Birdie Hop; 10) Let's Split; 11) Lanky (part I); 12) Wouldn't You Miss Me (Dark Globe); 13) Milky Way; 14) Golden Hair (instrumental).

General verdict: A generally unsatisfactory collection of outtakes — unless you have a very special feeling for Syd at his most stripped-down.

I am not sure why it took Harvest eighteen years to release this collection of outtakes from Syd's solo recording sessions — even less sure why they finally agreed to do so in 1988, which was a bit earlier than the «archival craze» that hit the labels in the advanced CD age — but the fact remains that Opel is a problematic, but legitimate final chapter to Syd's career. Altogether, there are eight songs here that had never been officially released before; six alternate raw takes on the previously published originals from The Madcap Laughs and Barrett; and, if you get the 1993 reissue, six more alternate raw takes to satisfy your hunger for bloody Barrett meat.

The actual value of this LP, however, will sorely depend on how much you love Syd Barrett as the blisteringly badly tortured demented soul that he was around 1968–70. Some people love that kind of Syd Barrett more than their own, so disgustingly sane and rational, fathers and mothers; such people are fully in their right to claim that the rawer it is, the better, and therefore these embryonic, even-sloppier-than-usual takes on ʽDark Globeʼ and ʽOctopusʼ (here given in its original title, ʽClowns & Jugglersʼ) are actually preferable to the «overproduced» versions, where Syd's pure, pristine vision was contaminated by the likes of Gilmour, The Soft Machine, Malcolm Jones, Peter Jenner, and whoever else. Or that ʽOpelʼ, whose six minute-long acoustic strum is technically reminiscent of the first bars of Dylan's ʽIt's A Hard Rain A-Gonna Fallʼ, is actually the quintessential confessional Syd Barrett song, a prolonged, intense, straight-in-your-face call for love, help, and sympathy.

From that kind of perspective, it is Opel, not the older records, that constitutes the perfect ideal for the indie singer-songwriter — I would go as far as to say that I hear the echoes of Opel the album (and ʽOpelʼ the song) in every hipster icon from Jeff Mangum (passable) to Conor Oberst (abysmal). Truly and verily, these outtakes are Syd Barrett at his rawest, and I could never bring myself to calling them unlistenable — after all, he isn't that sloppy on his acoustic guitar, and even in that totally wasted state he could generally hold a note once he'd started it, so that all the drawn-out "I'm liiiiiiiving, I'm giiiiiiiving..." wails on ʽOpelʼ reach the mark.

However, that one reason why The Madcap Laughs still holds up after all these years is that, no matter how crazy and wasted the artist was, at that point he was still a songwriter. It is all too easy to forget that Syd Barrett not only had a soul and a vision — he also had talent, and he could think of touching, intriguing, and diverse melodic twists on a regular basis... except when he was too stoned, too sick, too catatonic to concentrate on more than one or two finger movements. And as far as «rawness» is concerned, Syd was never the «loner genius with an acoustic guitar» — he loved loudness, distortion, psychedelic effects, and a general fullness to the sound, meaning that «Syd and his guitar» were very much just a technical inevitability at the stage where Syd himself was no longer capable of adding extra layers to his sound.

Consequently, when it comes to the salvaged outtakes laid out on Opel, I cannot share the opi­nion that they represent «true Syd» and could in any way be considered superior to what we already had available before that. I find ʽOpelʼ (the song) to be an ambitious, but failed, epic, whose six-minute length is not in the least justified by its allegedly mesmerizing capacity. I think that ʽDolly Rockerʼ is a bare skeleton of something that could be a lively and exciting pop rocker in an alternate dimension, but, as it is, is not even saved by such lyrical lines as "she's as pretty as a squirrel's nut". I insist that ʽWord Songʼ is three minutes of gibberish that would be of more interest to a psychiatrist than an average listener.

In fact, I believe that the only track here that even begins to approach an «accomplished» status is the grim blues-rocker ʽSwan Lee (Silas Lang)ʼ — perhaps because, unlike the others, it features a few extra overdubs, including a sly little slide guitar flourish that makes all the difference; or perhaps because there is a little bit of impassioned role-playing going on, as Syd weaves a mock-Indian epic that almost seems to predict the future solo career of Nick Cave (I think the song would have fit in perfectly on any of Nick's early albums). Actually, I stand corrected: another song with multiple players is the instrumental jam ʽLanky (Part 1)ʼ — five and a half minutes of quiet psycho-blues noodling that has no reason to exist in between the legacy of, say, Cream, and, say, Grateful Dead. If this was some sort of attempt to awaken Syd's classic demons — the ones that used to turn the UFO club into a daughter branch of Purgatory — it can only be classified as an unfortunate failure. More likely, it was just a warm-up. At any case, it is at least better than the unreleased ʽLanky (Part 2)ʼ, which is allegedly said to consist of two drum tracks running over seven minutes. (Not that it wouldn't fit on this album, mind you).

In the end, it is probably best to think of Opel as simply an archival add-on for completists, rather than a record that could stand on its own — an accidental collection of outtakes, regardless of how much it might remind us of certain brands of indie songwriting that do this kind of crap intentionally. But, like any such archival add-ons, it is good to have access to it if you are at all interested in the strange and inscrutable ways in which one sick person's affected mind might work. Like everything that Syd has ever done, it is capable of eliciting a mixed admiration-cum-pity reaction from the listener — except this time around, there is clearly much more pity than admiration.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Amorphis: Queen Of Time


1) The Bee; 2) Message In The Amber; 3) Daughter Of Hate; 4) The Golden Elk; 5) Wrong Direction; 6) Heart Of The Giant; 7) We Accursed; 8) Grain Of Sand; 9) Amongst Stars; 10) Pyres On The Coast; 11*) As Mountains Crumble; 12*) Brother And Sister; 13*) Honeyflow.

General verdict: Is «stagnating in pomp» a better way to go than «stagnating in humility»?

We interrupt our regular schedule of events to bring you this brief update: as of May 2018, the band Amorphis is still very much alive — and not only that, but with their old bass player, Olli-Pekka Laine, returning in the place of Niclas Etelävuori, this is the first time in more than twenty years that the original lineup has reconvened in its entirety (with the continuing addition of Tomi Joutsen on vocals). In all honesty, though, I cannot think of any serious theoretical conclusions to be drawn from that fact — except that old-time fans will probably be happy for the live shows. Because other than that, Queen Of Time is just another Amorphis album.

Re-reading my brief account of Under The Cloud, I am (not) surprised to see that all the brief notes made on it apply equally well to Queen Of Time. Again, it is produced by Jens Bogren. Again, it has a significant proportion of growling vocals, mixed in with clean singing, and again, there is a female guest on one track — this time, they involve no less than Anneke van Giers­bergen (of The Gathering), but in the context of the album, she is really no better or worse than Aleah Stanbridge. Again, there is a straightforward hybrid between melodic death metal and pipe-led Celtic dance tracks (ʽMessage In The Amberʼ), and more such motives crop up in the intros and intermissions of other songs as well (ʽWe Accursedʼ). However, in contrast with the previous album, there are no piano-dominated tunes at all, and not a single title coincides with the name of a Taylor Swift pop hit — can you believe this?

It is quite telling that even the most positive accounts of the record that I have consulted have little, if anything, to say about the individual aspects of any of the songs — at best, it is all written in a «yes, it is Amorphis, you know what to expect, if you like that style, you will like the album» style. At the very best, it is, «oh wow, look, there is a guest saxophone player on ʽDaughter Of Hateʼ!» (spoiler: he is audible for about fifteen seconds out of six minutes). But I am in an okay mood today, and so I will confirm that at least the production and playing are totally professional and that there are no technical grudges of any sorts that I could throw against any of the songs. It is simply that the record in no way added anything to my knowledge, understanding, and enjoy­ment of Amorphis.

Tom Tom Club: Tom Tom Club


1) Wordy Rappinghood; 2) Genius Of Love; 3) Tom Tom Theme; 4) L'Elephant; 5) As Above, So Below; 6) Lorelei; 7) On, On, On, On...; 8) Booming And Zooming; 9*) Under The Boardwalk.

General verdict: Funky synth-pop for Eighties kiddos with open minds and senses of humor — the KISS equivalent of Talking Heads, and yes, that's a compliment.

I bet it is a fairly common thing for all those who watch Stop Making Sense for the first time and keep forgetting to unglue themselves from the screen and then ʽGenius Of Loveʼ comes along and we are, like, "EH????" I mean, depending on your general feel for such music, you may be delighted with Chris' and Tina's performance, or you might feel totally embarrassed by it, but one thing is most probably certain: the appearance of Tom Tom Club in the middle of the regular Talking Heads setlist is like The Osmonds interrupting a Rolling Stones show, or, more accurate­ly, the appearance of a juvenile J-pop act in, say, a Peter Gabriel performance, while he is busy changing costumes or digging in the dirt.

Personally, I fall in the category of people who found it embarrassing (and I am still trying to unsee the image of Tina doing the squat dance); in fact, I used to suspect that it was a wicked plot on Byrne's part, to have the band do a Tom Tom Club number while he was busy diving in the Big Suit, just so that the people would clearly understand: without Byrne, Talking Heads are instantly reduced to a bunch of nonsense. And despite the immense reputation of ʽGenius Of Loveʼ as one of the most heavily sampled tunes in history, it is obvious that I was not in a hurry to check out the remainder of the catalog.

But in the end, it is all about the context. Essentially, Tom Tom Club was just a lightweight (and totally unpretentious) diversion, a way for the happily united couple of Frantz and Weymouth to have some fun while on vacation from their main business — after all, the very name of the band comes from a dancehall in the Bahamas, so how more carefree can you get? And the first album released by the group is a charming, if typically early-Eighties, exercise in what could only be called «twee-funk»: a mixture of involving (and not always simplistic) dance rhythms with mock-infantile lyrics and nursery vocal melodies, sung in everything from English to French to Japa­nese (or pseudo-Japanese). In fact, I would dare say that the aesthetics of Tom Tom Club, although it borrows plenty from Blondie, comes much closer to Japanese kawaisa than to any­thing associated with Talking Heads — the saving grace being a sense of humor and irony that shows that the band is quite serious about not taking themselves seriously.

It is interesting that, although the very idea for the band was inextricably tied to the Caribbean and there are at least two major reggae musicians invested in the recording and production of the album (keyboardist Tyrone Downie and engineer Steven Stanley), Tom Tom Club vehement­ly oppose reggae mechanics and aesthetics — guitar duties are largely handled by Adrian Belew, who was never much of a reggae fan himself, and, from the opening bars of ʽWordy Rapping­hoodʼ, prefers to do his trademark chicken-scratch funk. Most likely, this has to do with the fact that Tom Tom Club's job is to make defiant, in-yer-face pop music, celebrating the simple joys of life with a whimsical spirit that may indeed be found in the Caribbean environment, despite all the troubles that the region is notorious for (twenty five years later, by the way, both the pain and the whimsy would be perfectly encapsulated in Arcade Fire's ʽHaitiʼ). And as long as this thing is done right, who really cares where it is done?

As far as the album's hit singles are concerned, I actually find the first one, ʽWordy Rappinghoodʼ, more interesting than ʽGenius Of Loveʼ — and think that a live performance of it might have fit  better within the general context of Stop Making Sense. It is deliciously funky (a solid and very Talking Head-ish weaving two-guitar pattern runs its way throughout), it has Tina doing a funny «nursery rap», it glues together Moroccan, American, and Japanese nonsense for the silly catchy chorus, and it actually carries a message — the continuous refrain of "what are words worth?" can be understood as either satire or a way of self-positioning (since words are not worth much in any context, should we actually care what we sing about?). Next to this, ʽGenius Of Loveʼ's reve­latory "who needs to think when your feet just go?" feels a bit embarrassing in comparison, and the song's constant suck-up references to funk, soul, and reggae heroes reek of misguided product placement. Which is not to say that the song's message of "what do you consider fun? — fun, natural fun!" comes across convincingly; but the atmosphere of light-headed jubilation that the tune conveys is way too thin and see-through for the song to make a lasting impression.

Anyway, I may never get over my personal bias against ʽGenius Of Loveʼ, but I like almost everything else on here — precisely because almost every other track has at least a tiny strip of weirdness, not allowing the record to be qualified as pure vapid entertainment. ʽL'Elephantʼ, behind its kiddy French-pop vocal melody, actually tells a serious story with a moral, and keeps up a good balance between the ska-like boppy rhythm and Belew's «keep-the-motor-running» guitar solos (I am also thinking that the concept behind the song is Belew's, given his well-known love for African fauna that he would carry over to his King Crimson career as well). ʽAs Above, So Belowʼ gives you a bit of darkness in the form of Tina's broken-up, merciless bassline and ice-cold declamation of the title in the chorus — the lyrics may largely be mystical crap and the whole thing may be completely in jest, but dark-tinged jests are always more exciting than bland light jests anyway. ʽLoreleiʼ introduces a slightly psychedelic twist with its thin webbing of keyboard and guitar overdubs; ʽOn, On, On, Onʼ shows the band trying its hand at an invigora­ting twee-rock anthem ("on and on we will come, there are scores of us!"); finally, ʽBooming And Zoomingʼ ends the album on a decidedly non-joyful note — this is another seriously Belew-ish track detailing a plane crash with a chilly radio voiceover while the keyboards and guitars are busy impersonating the erratic behaviour of a flying machine in its last minutes.

If anything, this is an impressively diverse collection of songs — more diverse, in fact, than any early Talking Heads album, reflecting the band members' wildly eclectic circle of musical and literary influences. Add to this that Tina turns out to be a surprisingly sexy singer, that her two sisters contribute conveniently sexy backing vocals, and that Belew and Stanley try to keep that up by using smooth tones and keeping the dissonance to a minimum, and Tom Tom Club becomes one big «adorkable» musical purr where specific virtues or flaws of individual songs do not matter all that much behind the general aesthetics — so I can easily allow myself, for instance, to go on shunning ʽGenius Of Loveʼ but digging the album in general. That said, it must be stressed, over and over, that if there is any lasting charm to Tom Tom Club, it all has to do with that wispy, barely detectable thread of weirdness, irony, and occasionally over-the-top absurdism wriggling its way from beginning to end. Shallow entertainment hardly ever gets better than this, when its main ingredients are siren singing, African percussion, post-punk guitar, and Jamaican synth-pop. The only thing that befuddles me, no matter how hard I try to wave it off, is that this stuff is made by the exact same Tina Weymouth who first entered pop music lore with the decimating look given to David Byrne during a live performance of ʽPsycho Killerʼ, popping out bullet-bass notes with the intensity of a Stalingrad defender. Tom Tom Club was, I think, the first time that the people at large got to see her softer side — even though there is still enough of the old icy bitch in this newborn sex kitten.

Too much of the old icy bitch, perhaps, as this is the only reasonable explanation for why, on some editions of the album, the ominous lead-out track ʽBooming And Zoomingʼ was replaced by their thoroughly purry cover of ʽUnder The Boardwalkʼ — another charting single, to be sure, but not much of a lasting achievement, other than demonstrating how old-school poppy R&B could be adapted to modern playing and production standards. (Spoiler: it could, but in 2018 those standards might seem more dated than the ones of 1964). Which, in a way, predicts the eventual downfall of Tom Tom Club — the success of this little game is still directly dependent on how much personality, rather than technology, you imbue in the material. Fortunately, the self-titled debut at least proudly stands that test.

Friday, August 17, 2018

John Lennon: Walls And Bridges


1) Going Down On Love; 2) Whatever Gets You Thru The Night; 3) Old Dirt Road; 4) What You Got; 5) Bless You; 6) Scared; 7) #9 Dream; 8) Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox); 9) Steel And Glass; 10) Beef Jerky; 11) Nobody Loves You (When You're Down And Out); 12) Ya Ya.

General verdict: Dreams, fears, complaints, rants, melancholy, ironic party swirl — this album has a bit of everything, even if not all the experiments are equally successful.

This album is sometimes hailed as a «comeback» for John — largely because it got him the best critical reviews since Imagine — but the word «comeback» feels a little strange now that we know that in less than a year, John would disappear off the radars of the musical world for half a decade anyway. It certainly feels strange to me personally, since I do not think that the overall quality of this material is that much stronger than it was on Mind Games. The only difference is that this time around, the sessions find John deeply entrenched in one of his personal crises, as he continues to deal with his US status issues, general depression, alcohol, and lack of Yoko by his side (who, apparently, could not be replaced by the collective presence of May Pang, Harry Nils­son, Ringo, and Keith Moon — all of them nice guys in their own right, but could any of them hammer a nail into a wooden board with that much class?).

The difference is pretty substantial: it is hardly possible that such great songs as ʽScaredʼ and ʽNobody Loves Youʼ could have been written by John prior to his drunken binges in LA clubs. But I have always insisted that a calm, peaceful, and self-assured Lennon could be just as honest and touching in his songwriting as a perturbed and hysterical Lennon — you just have to approach Plastic Ono Band and Double Fantasy with different goals in mind. Obviously, Walls And Bridges comes closer to the first one in attitude, although, due to John's life circumstances, it has to walk this thin line between personal agony and party spirit now — although it soon becomes clear that both are just two sides of the same coin anyway.

ʽScaredʼ is a particular standout here, perhaps the single most underrated song in John's catalog: not too surprising, since there was never any idea of releasing it as a single, and the sentiments expressed in it are such a far cry from the candy, the political propaganda, or the easy-access guruism of his biggest hits that popularity is not an option. Nevertheless, it is a perfect mood piece: from the opening wolf howl and down to the well-coordinated musical howl of the guitars, pianos, and brass, it is a chilling midnight confession — one that you normally reserve for your own inner self, too afraid to open it up to anybody else. Nobody who has ever lived through a midlife crisis could stay totally indifferent to this music or these words. And it is only recently that I actually noticed how the verse / chorus pair is structured like a dialog between John A and John B, or, perhaps, John and the Devil, the latter telling him about how "you don't need to worry / in heaven or hell / just dance to the music / you do it so well, well, well" (with a self-reference to ʽWell, Well, Wellʼ, I'm sure!).

Most importantly, the arrangement perfectly fits John's mood, and this is a general thing about the album — he has assembled a more dedicated team of players here than he had for Mind Games, including blues guitar king Jesse Ed Davies, Bobby Keys on sax, and Nicky Hopkins back on the piano (though the latter is not featured too often, but I think that any experienced listener will immediately recognize his style on ʽOld Dirt Roadʼ and ʽNobody Loves Youʼ). With Harry Nilsson and Elton John as additional collaborators, this is his strongest backing outfit since Imagine, and one that can equally well indulge in a party atmosphere as it can pile up the spookiness or hit upon heavy romance. Indeed, one of the strongest aspects of Walls & Bridges is all the diversity — it seems as if John was intentionally experimenting with genres here, getting funky, folksy, or glammy at will, which is actually pretty impressive considering how thoroughly wasted he himself and much of his entourage must have been at the time. (Actually, not so much: apparently, Lennon harshly restricted life's pleasures to the West Coast — once the musicians got to New York from LA to make the record, there was discipline all around).

This diversity is best illustrated with the two big hits from the record that are equally glorious, but could not be more apart from each other. ʽWhatever Gets You Thru The Nightʼ is probably the most perfect collaboration there could ever be between two Johns: Elton lends it his sense of unabashed, wild-riding rock'n'roll glamor, and Lennon corrects it with his snarky sense of humor. It is pure frantic vaudeville, a track that speeds along at such a speed that it is barely possible to even dance to it — nothing like a «Lennon goes disco», as some grumblers had it (the rhythmic patterns are jazzy rather than funky), but a spluttering, dizzy, controlled-chaotic mess of guitars, pianos, and saxes, with each band member striving to out-energize the rest, though Elton and Bobby Keys are clearly in the lead. The atmosphere is as close to glam as John ever got, but the vocal delivery is clearly sarcastic — both Johns are poking so much fun at the party attitudes that it is a wonder how the song never explodes into bursts of uncontrolled belly-laughs.

But if ʽWhatever Gets You Thru The Nightʼ is easily the whirligiggiest party anthem that John ever (co-)wrote, then ʽ#9 Dreamʼ is one of the most gorgeously psychedelic soundscapes he ever created — almost on par with ʽLucy In The Skyʼ and the like, though, perhaps, not as strictly unconventionally magical as the former. The idea was to bring forth a musical reproduction of one of John's actual dreams, and with a little studio trickery on the string arrangements, Nicky Hopkins' electric piano, and Jesse Ed Davies' wah-wah guitar intro, that goal is achieved — in fact, I would definitely call this a quintessential early precursor of the dream-pop genre; the only previous song in John's catalog that approaches this atmosphere is ʽAcross The Universeʼ, but that one had a very sharp, tangible guitar sound that still brought it down to earth, whereas on ʽ#9 Dreamʼ everything, from rhythm section to vocals, comes to you in a foggy haze. Throw in a catchy vocal melody, the sexiest whispers of "John, John" imaginable (actually, May Pang does a better job with this than Yoko), and an incomprehensible mantra for the refrain — and the whole thing sticks out as perfect proof that even in his mid-life crisis, John was capable of gorgeous abstract artistry, equally removed from his political agenda and personal problems. It also shows that, despite having openly renounced and rejected his Beatle-days psychedelic games, that particular strain within him was still alive and aching to break through — too bad that most of the time, he was actively suppressing it in favor of «realism».

Walls And Bridges does not, however, begin and end with the hits. I have already singled out ʽScaredʼ as the underdog highlight, but this should not diminish the importance of ʽSteel And Glassʼ — John at the top of his vicious emploi, tearing into an unnamed victim (reportedly it was Allen Klein, but that knowledge is unnecessary if you want to arm yourself with the song in order to vent your feelings against some son of a bitch or other) with fangs, claws, and occasionally breathtaking up-the-scale string buildups. This should not obscure the soulseeking brilliance of ʽOld Dirt Roadʼ, co-written with Nilsson (who also sings harmonies) and graced with the trade­mark piano touch of Nicky Hopkins, somewhat making it into ʽJealous Guy, Pt. 2ʼ, a little less catchy but, arguably, a little more deep. (Nicky's glissando after the "cool... clear... water" inter­mission is actually one of the most unforgettable short passages in John's solo catalog for me). And this should not conceal the deeply depressed introspection of ʽNobody Loves You (When You're Down And Out)ʼ, which takes the classic premise of Jimmy Cox's ʽNobody Knows Youʼ and updates it for a different kind of situations — unlike professional bluesmen, John Lennon would find it weird to sing about lack of money, so he makes a grim prediction instead: "Nobody loves you when you're old and grey... Everybody loves you when you're six foot in the ground".

There are a few relative clunkers, of course: ʽWhat You Gotʼ is a heavy funk-rocker that could have worked better without John overscreaming it; ʽBless Youʼ is a nice atmospheric ballad that is too slow and lethargic compared to the quiet, but cathartic piano turbulence of ʽOld Dirt Roadʼ; nobody remembers much about the short pop-rocker ʽSurprise, Surpriseʼ (a rather lackluster ode to May Pang) or about the quasi-R&B instrumental ʽBeef Jerkyʼ; and while it is adorable to hear Julian Lennon trying to keep the drum rhythm on the brief snippet of ʽYa Yaʼ, that closing track is more of a special family signal than a suitably de-pompifying coda to the album. (The brooding heaviness of ʽNobody Loves Youʼ might call for a ʽHer Majestyʼ-style anti-finale, but the father-son ʽYa Yaʼ isn't even particularly funny — although I am still tempted to call it the single greatest Julian Lennon performance on record ever).

But even the clunkers contribute to the album's impressive level of diversity, and even clear throwaways such as ʽBeef Jerkyʼ still possess Lennon's unorthodox style — like, what genre is that song? It's like part-time Shadows, part-time Stevie Wonder, and part-time subconsciously Paul McCartney's ʽLet Me Roll Itʼ (whose riff is partially borrowed for the bridge section). I could not say that I like it, particularly, but I respect the odd corners into which Lennon's jam spirit could lead him every now and then, as opposed to the straight and predictable roads trodden by the majority of professional blues / rock / R&B genre specialists.

In the end, Walls And Bridges is just another good and honest solo Lennon album, with the added benefit of shitty times' experience to help the songwriting and of a great company of musical friends to help with the arrangements (there is a certain naked charm to hearing the same songs in their raw versions on Menlove Ave. and other archival releases, but I am deeply impres­sed by the finished product all the same). And, for those of you to whom this is important — it is the only solo Lennon album without any input from or explicit mention of Yoko, even if his longing for her does permeate several of the songs. Ultimately, the record is more about walls than it is about bridges, and this is good, because John is always at his most convincing when he is staying behind a wall rather than crossing a bridge.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Pink Floyd: Delicate Sound Of Thunder


1) Shine On You Crazy Diamond; 2) Learning To Fly; 3) Yet Another Movie; 4) Round And Around; 5) Sorrow; 6) The Dogs Of War; 7) On The Turning Away; 8) One Of These Days; 9) Time; 10) Wish You Were Here; 11) Us And Them; 12) Money; 13) Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2; 14) Comfortably Numb; 15) Run Like Hell.

General verdict: Passable live album — great songs, bad decisions, questionable atmosphere.

I certainly cannot be sure, but I think there must have been an uneasy vibe about Dave Floyd's 1987-89 tour in support of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. Not only because it was their first tour in seven years, but also because without Roger they had to make a fresh start — with Gilmour, Wright, and Mason now having to take upon themselves all the creative, visual, choreo­graphic, presentational decisions, and managing to stay true to the Floyd spirit as well as take into account the (not so precious) popular tastes of the mid-to-late Eighties.

Ironically, at their peak Pink Floyd did not even bother to think about live albums — or, if they did, nobody ever pushed strong enough to make it come true. Arguably the main reason behind this was that a Pink Floyd live show had to be seen, not heard: and, indeed, Delicate Sound Of Thunder was both recorded and filmed, although, unlike the album, the film has long since been out of print. But it may also be true that, at their peak, the band simply regarded the perspective of a live album as an excess, a sign of artistic weakness — and so, Delicate Sound Of Thunder may have easily become a nice weapon in the hands of Gilmour detractors. Like, what is the point of releasing (inferior) versions of classics like ʽMoneyʼ or ʽComfortably Numbʼ, if not to simply re-establish your claim on them, showing the world that the current lineup of Pink Floyd is the true, genuine item even without its primary creative driver?

It may have been just like that, yes. But in retrospect, Delicate Sound Of Thunder stands out as Floyd's (including Gilmour solo) weakest live album not because it had some inferior-ulterior motives behind its production, but because of two other things: an unbalanced and rather banal setlist, and an inability to think of any great ways to rejuvenate and re-embellish their legacy. This new Floyd was clearly still getting its bearings, and perhaps the late Eighties were not the best time for getting them.

The setlist is particularly telling. After a nice opening teaser with the first part of ʽShine Onʼ (probably the single best performance on the album, largely because it stays true to the original without any serious changes in tones or arrangements), the first part is essentially a complete re-run of Momentary Lapse, while the second part is a crudely put together mix of Big Classic Hits and nothing else. The implied feeling is clear: "If you are patient enough to sit through all of our new shit, we will be nice and play ʽTimeʼ and ʽMoneyʼ and ʽwe don't need no educationʼ for you, because this is what you came for, is it not?" And while they were all perfectly in their own right to adopt this attitude, we are perfectly in our own right to say that, because of this, Delicate Sound Of Thunder at times feels stiff, at times unsecure, at times give-the-people-what-they-want-ish: not the kind of record that you make when you have to prove the usefulness and relevance of your continued existence.

I would be perfectly willing to forget them all the theoretical transgressions if the Big Classic Hits were played well, but I have at least three unsurmountable problems here. Number one: what the hell are they doing with ʽMoneyʼ — who was the genius that told David to include a lax, slippery reggae section in the middle? Number two: what's up with the «experimental» twiddling of the guitar solo in ʽTimeʼ, replacing the harmonically perfect flow of the original with poorly improvised ugliness? Number three: is there anybody out there who actually likes what they did with the lead vocals on the verses to ʽComfortably Numbʼ? That part is not supposed to be a duet, and it is not supposed to be sung in that particular key: it is a doctor speaking to his patient, not a drowning sinner calling from the deep.

These are just some of the most glaring examples of things that went wrong here — things that, admittedly, would all be corrected by the time of the next tour, but since Pink Floyd concerts are not like Who concerts or even like Fleetwood Mac concerts and the songs generally stay the same, it makes misguided decisions such as the ones taken on this album stand out in a particu­larly unfavorable light. Most likely, there will rarely be a time when you are going to be in the mood for a live Floyd album, but once that time does arrive, the probability that you will pull out Delicate Sound Of Thunder instead of Pulse or the archival Wall Live seems quite low to me. Pulse, in particular, obliterates the need for Thunder completely — it has all the Big Classic Hits in superior versions, removes some of the biggest Lapse Of Reason stinkers like ʽDogs Of Warʼ, and generally feels more cohesive and purposeful.

Of course, one cannot take away the historical importance: visually, «live Pink Floyd» is almost certainly going to be the 1987–1995 Pink Floyd, since the band never liked filming their shows in the classic days — and the record does introduce the by-now familiar extended Floyd lineup, with regulars such as Guy Pratt on bass, Tim Renwick on second guitar, and Jon Carin on additional keyboards (the guy who went on to play with both Gilmour and Waters). Plus, on the whole the album is certainly listenable: Gilmour will have to be totally disintegrated before he can do a bad ʽComfortably Numbʼ solo (he does quite intentionally botch the one on ʽTimeʼ, as I said), and there was never a time when Wright did not sound adorable and cathartic when singing on ʽUs And Themʼ. It's just that the only reason to listen to it may have been when you were faced with the uneasy choice of paying top dollar for a brand new blinking copy of Pulse or fishing out a used copy of Thunder from the two-dollar bin. And now, in this brand new streaming age, you might never be faced with such a choice again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Alice Cooper: Paranormal


1) Paranormal; 2) Dead Flies; 3) Fireball; 4) Paranoiac Personality; 5) Fallen In Love; 6) Dynamite Road; 7) Private Public Breakdown; 8) Holy Water; 9) Rats; 10) The Sound Of A; 11*) Genuine American Girl; 12*) You And All Of Your Friends.

General verdict: Just some light-hearted fun this time around, with some old and new friends. The only thing that is truly paranormal about this record is Alice's endorsement of its production.

It is nice to know that Mr. Cooper is alive, well, and has not lost his energy, humor, and desire for further creativity at the ripe age of 69. This is probably all you need to know about Paranormal, a record that adds nothing whatsoever to our general understanding of Alice Cooper — if you are not planning to listen to it. If, however, you are enough of an Alice fan to still bother, do not make the mistake I made — even after three sub-par studio albums in a row, I still subcon­sciously keep expecting a Cooper album to bite me, if not with the bite of Killer, then at least with the bite of a Last Temptation or a Dragontown. But perhaps this is my problem and not the artist's; and if we do acknowledge the right of toothless kitsch to count as an art form alongside ironic satire, how could the artist be blamed for jumping from one to another at random?

Paranormal is a very lightweight record; so lightweight, in fact, that even Alice's voice here sounds strangely more youthful than before — when, after the long intro of the title track, he comes in with "I'm condemned to the long, endless night", I almost got the impression that he set himself the goal of emulating the average emo teenager. Later on, you do get the screechy growl and the guttural howl, but for the most part, Paranormal is all about the 69-year old Alice Cooper trying to convince you that, deep down in his heart, he is still just a nasty, reckless, and badassfully charming teenage brat from Detroit. Aiding him in this noble goal are several members of the original Alice Cooper band — all except Glen Buxton, who passed away twenty years before he could get this chance to rejuvenate himself — although they only play on a few of these tracks, with Dennis Dunaway also credited as co-writer.

This noticeably forced youthfulness is pretty much the only conceptual element about the record: otherwise, it is merely a collection of pop-rock songs about issues ranging from getting some to getting wasted to getting used to the imminent end of the world as we know it. It could, in fact, be legitimately seen as the conclusion to a sort of «Detroit trilogy» that began with The Eyes Of Alice Cooper and continued on Dirty Diamonds — with Paranormal never managing to recapture the grit and venom of the former, but arguably putting a slight improvement on the relative blandness of the latter. Music-wise, the worst thing about the album is the production: in between all the sound compression and all the unimpressive session musicians, there is not a lot of truly gritty-crunchy joy to be found in those rockers — ever so often, it sounds like you are not listening to a classic hard rocker, but rather to alt-rock in the vein of Ash. Which is not the worst thing in the world, but slickness in hard rock is generally a crime, and particularly if all your riffs and solos are essentially the result of a third or fourth cycle of recycling.

Still, I must stress that while I was very disappointed upon my first listen, by the time my ears adjusted to the slickness, Paranormal began to occasionally provide small bursts of fun. It is hard to resist the pure intelligent silliness of Cooper slipping into old school rockabilly on ʽRatsʼ (a song that, in a measly two minutes, manages to ironically lambast both politicians and their entire electorate — well, Alice never really concealed his belief that 90% of the people are idiots), or the catchy onslaught of the Dunaway-cowritten apocalyptic anthem ʽFireballʼ. On ʽFallen In Loveʼ, Alice engages Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, producing a bona fide ZZ Top non-classic in the process. ʽDynamite Roadʼ, sounding like a brief retelling of the storyline from Tarantino's Death­proof, is campy to the extreme, but it is such a speedy, over-the-top, utterly ridiculous rock'n'roll monolog that it is hardly possible to either get bored or offended by it.

Only once, at the very end, Alice decides to go serious on our asses and offer an atmospheric, mournfully creepy ballad (ʽThe Sound Of Aʼ) — not very effective, and not just because it steals its vocal lines from Pink Floyd's ʽBrain Damageʼ, but mainly because after all the giddy, over­slicked fun of the previous songs, this last out-of-nowhere attempt to make us feel genuinely uncomfortably feels misplaced. I ended up liking the song anyway, but it is no ʽPass The Gun Aroundʼ or ʽWe're All Crazyʼ when it comes to serious-soulful moments in the Coop's life.

Perhaps all of this could be better with a different bunch of producers: Tommy Henriksen and Tommy Denander, who had already worked with Alice on the Welcome 2 My Nightmare disaster, are fairly generic dudes, mostly known for bringing «rock» elements into the sound of Kesha and Lady Gaga, and their presence on the album very much overshadows that of Bob Ezrin, also credited as co-producer, but why, I do not exactly know — apart from ʽThe Sound Of Aʼ, nothing here has the deep spookiness that used to characterize Ezrin's best work with Cooper and Pink Floyd. Even with better production, though, Paranormal would never pretend to anything higher than recycled nostalgia — but Alice Cooper is still capable of putting the fun back into recycled nostalgia, and a dude who can have this much fun at the age of 69 certainly deserves respect.

Talking Heads: Remain In Light

1) Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On); 2) Crosseyed And Painless; 3) The Great Curve; 4) Once In A Lifetime; 5) Houses In Motion; 6) Seen And Not Seen; 7) Listening Wind; 8) The Overload.

General verdict: One little paranoid Scotsman in the lap of so many terrifying African gods.

[This is a slightly revised version of an older review in the abandoned "Important Album Series", from June 26, 2016].

Even after the major critical success of Fear Of Music, Talking Heads had little chance of turning into a household name — in fact, this would not properly happen until they'd record ʻBurning Down The Houseʼ in 1983, a track that made all the difference because, finally, ordinary people could dance to it. However, the first three albums firmly established them as not only one of America's most unique and innovative bands, but also one of its finest New Wave-themed European exports. Instead of reggae, which somehow turned into a primary point of attraction for so many European New Wave acts, they had put their money on R&B and funk —capitalizing particularly on the nervous / paranoid associations of the funk groove, so that it could be flawlessly integrated with David Byrne's psychotype. The peak of this approach was reached on Fear Of Music, an album that for most bands, would be impossible to top — in fact, most bands would probably not even set themselves such a goal, and instead just stay forever happy after having mastered such an intricate formula.

The one big advantage of Talking Heads was that they happened to be interested in music as much as they were interested in art — that is, from a perspective where we do not simply regard «music» as a subcategory of «art», but instead associate the former with technique and texture, and the latter with symbolic / philosophical meaning. The first three albums by the Heads featured some very fine music, but most of it was very much overridden with Byrne's personality: when you think of those records, probably the first thing that comes to mind is his vivid character impersonation rather than, for instance, the (actually no less impressive) polyrhythmic guitar interplay between Byrne and Harrison. The band did have a unique sound, and it was never against making it more and more unique by transcending its «rockist» limitations, but it would not be too inaccurate to state that most listeners probably wondered what that plural marker was really doing at the end of Talking Heads.

At the same time, interest in «world music» (understood as «predominantly white European or American pop/rock musicians appropriating elements of other musical traditions full-scale — for artistic, humanitarian, and educational needs only, no personal financial gain whatsoever!») seemed to be on the rise among all sorts of audiences, largely because it was high time music did some more cross-breeding to prevent from stagnating — and Talking Heads, who had already once dabbled seriously and successfully in crossing real African (rather than Afro-American) music with rock on ʻI Zimbraʼ, were more than happy to explore that interest. For one thing, at a time when some of the band members had begun expressing discontent about Byrne's vision monopolizing the band's career, it gave them all a chance to democratically expand beyond a Byrnocentric world — by making The Byrne Identity merely one of the integral elements of the process, maybe a bit more equal than the others, but not crucially so. Byrne himself had made the first step by working with Brian Eno on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, where he had learned to tame and restrain his personality, and so, by mid-1980, the stage was set for one of the strongest concentrations of talent ever assembled in one place.

Indeed, for the Remain In Light sessions, as well as for the ensuing tour to promote the album, Talking Heads actually had to become The Talking Head Consortium, adding: Brian Eno (who, in addition to retaining his production duties, also played select bass and keyboard parts); Adrian Belew (crazyass lead guitar beyond the capacities/imagination of either Byrne or Harrison); Jon Hassell (trumpets, horns, solid knowledge of world music theory); Robert Palmer and José Rossy (percussion); and the illustrious Nona Hendryx (backing vocals). Some of the songs actually give the impression of a much larger ensemble of musicians, but that is due largely to Eno's masterful overdubbing (although for the ensuing tour they still managed to get away with a nine-piece ensemble in order to reproduce the album in most, if not all, its sonic density).

In their basic form, the tracks were originally laid down in Nassau (Compass Point Studios), not too far away from Jamaica and Haiti where Chris and Tina spent a holiday socializing with voodoo and reggae people while Harrison, at the same time, was producing an album for Nona Hendryx and Byrne was recording My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with Eno — the same kind of merging collective profit with individual pleasure that preceded the Sgt. Pepper sessions in late 1966/early 1967, to use a perfectly appropriate reference. However, the album turned out to be even more of an «assembly» thing than Sgt. Pepper: Byrne's vocals were added separately, as were Nona's and, finally, Hassell's brass overdubs. What you are hearing on the final product is not at all the sound of a tight, well-drilled band (which the Heads certainly were), but the results of a tremendously complex cut-and-paste procedure, which makes it all the more astonishing how they were ultimately capable of transferring it all to the stage with perfect mutual coordination (Talking Heads Live In Rome is a terrific DVD from the tour that is every bit as worth seeing as is the far better known Stop Making Sense — at least, for the regular fan). In any case, Eno's contribution to the record is every bit as important as George Martin's was for Sgt. Pepper — not a single subsequent Heads album would boast such a multi-layered sound.

Once released, the album was an immediate critical hit, but it did not sell that much compared to the band's previous output: ʻOnce In A Lifetimeʼ charted fairly high in Europe, but not in the homeland, and the LP showed only a very modest rise in the charts compared to Fear Of Music — apparently, the strange new sounds were still way too incomprehensible (and disturbing) for the sitting majority and far too complex for the dancing minority to make a wave-like impact. It is also a matter of debate precisely how influential this record has been: it did not exactly invent «worldbeat» as such, and it still had too much of that strong Talking Head essence in it to be properly imitable — probably the closest followers would be Discipline-era King Crimson with the same Adrian Belew manning one of the guitars, but King Crimson never went for that African / Haitian voodooistic angle, and vocals in general were nowhere near as important for KC as they were for the Heads here. But one thing is for certain: Remain In Light was perceived as a major event in music when it appeared, and its classic status has not become even faintly dimmed with the passing of time.

The very first thing you might feel, as the poly-pulse of ʻBorn Under Punchesʼ is fully established, is that proverbial Jungle Sensation — the song's multiple guitar and keyboard bits symbolizing all the friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) tongueless creatures of said Jungle and the tribal woos and hoos representing its humanoid inhabitants. Of course, it is not a real jungle: with Byrne at the wheel, it is more of an allegory for an Urban Jungle, where tribal Africa is taken as an allegory for the general hustle-bustle of life in a perfectly modern industrialized society. But at the same time, nothing about Remain In Light is truly «chaotic»: all the polyrhythms, all the multi-layered vocal overdubs are strictly coordinated and disciplined — in fact, Byrne's singing / talking / screaming is pretty much the only element that keeps on disrupting the rigorous patterns, and so the whole album (or, at least, most of it) can be viewed as the solitary hysterical madness of an individual helplessly caught in the grinding cogs of perfectly tuned machines (not exactly an artistic breakthrough for these guys). Although, admittedly, they are tuned so perfectly that getting caught up in them might sound like an exciting proposal.

The first three tracks here are probably the single most thrilling, tension-mounting sequence in the band's entire catalog: ʻBorn Under Punchesʼ sets up The Jungle, ʻCrosseyed And Painlessʼ introduces The Panic, and finally ʻThe Great Curveʼ descends into utter ferocious emotional hell. The first of the songs is cleverly subtitled ʻThe Heat Goes Onʼ, where «heat» may (and should) refer at once to jungle heat and government heat — and where the weird, lilting, sounding-like-nothing-else-at-the-time guitar solos by Adrian Belew are somewhere in the middle between the sounds of merrily, but mechanically chirping birds in the trees and the sounds of phones, ticker tapes, alarm sirens, automatons, and whatever other analog and digital contraptions have been invented by cruel humanity to confuse and enslave the poor human.

But despite the colorful, bedazzling sound, it is still merely an introduction to the "sharp as a knife" sound of ʻCrosseyed And Painlessʼ, where Tina's bass actually does sound like a cutting knife, making one careful, but brutal incision after another — again, the whole thing is either a relentless run-through-the-jungle or a grinding, never-ending musical lobotomy performed on the protagonist as he is "still waiting, still waiting", but there's really nothing to wait for because it's already over, to the mock-lullaby of "there was a line, there was a formula..." sounding like the equivalent of a good dose of sleeping gas to help ease the pain. This stuff works on so many levels of perception that it is almost scary.

What is scarier is that next is ʻThe Great Curveʼ, which makes ʻCrosseyed And Painlessʼ sound like a kiddie dance round the mulberry bush by comparison. The call-and-response dialog between the ringing guitar line and the answering bass is worth gold alone (the dark and the light? two sides of the coin? the optimist and the pessimist?), but when you have all those different vocal melodies gradually laid on top of them, one by one (useless trivia detail — I always heard one of those not as "night must fall, dark-ER, dark-ER", but rather as "night must fall, dark pearl, dark pearl!", which sounds way cooler to me), the result is a kind of sonic bliss / sonic nightmare that must be heard to be believed — and it actually worked live as well (but maybe not nearly as effective when stripped of Eno's supernatural production)! And in between that, you get some of the craziest solos ever devised by Adrian Belew — yet, believe it or not, they sound like moments of respite, allowing you to actually catch your breath between all those rounds of vocal basketball. And Jon Hassell's brass overdubs? And "the world moves on a woman's hips"? This is one of the greatest songs ever written, and maybe the best ever use of vocal polyphony in a rock setting, period. This is not really a Talking Heads song — it's a Mother Nature song (feat. Talking Heads), capturing Mother in one of her not-too-pretty tantrum states.

It is, consequently, not surprising that I have always found the other songs of the album allocated on the other side of ʽThe Great Curveʼ, right past the peak; nothing surpasses the fury of the opening three, and, in fact, despite the obvious greatness of ʻOnce In A Lifetimeʼ, this is clearly the first (and only) song here that fully returns us to the well-accustomed Talking Heads idiom: a somewhat tame funk rhythm guitar instead of the maddening polyrhythms, exclusively male vocals, and a lead singer once again at the forefront of things. I always used to think that ʻOnce In A Lifetimeʼ did not really mix too well with the rest of the album, that it might have been inserted there just because somebody felt a need to have a «proper» Talking Heads single for commercial purposes — well, I mean, it probably was. Which does not make it any less great as a great Talking Heads song (but not a Mother Nature song this time) — and has anybody ever come up with a more friendly, optimistic, philosophically ambiguous song on the subject of ʻNobody Knows You When You're Down And Outʼ, anyway? I don't really think so.

The second side of the album almost inevitably pales in comparison, just because all of the strategy has already been laid out on Side A, and most of the brutal energy has been expended. ʻHouses In Motionʼ does one more good job of building up some «jungle-style paranoia» with clever parallel alignment of reggae and funk guitars, but then we largely get mellow — first, with arguably the record's single weakest number, ʻSeen And Not Seenʼ (atmospheric, but too much keyboard wiggling from Eno, too many talking vocals and not enough hooks), then with the album's only formal «ballad», ʻListening Windʼ, and finally, with its most «Goth-style», «Joy-Division-like» coda, ʻThe Overloadʼ. It is clear why none of these three songs were performed in concert: compared to the lively, if scary, «dance» numbers of Side A, these are slow, subtle, a nasty smoky hangover after the devilish party, something, perhaps, to be played only after a non-stop 12-hour rave party to calm down the nerves of a hysterical crowd. Their charm will probably become more obvious with time, but they do serve their proper function: after playing out the storm, you have to say a few words about the calm, even if it is only relative — ʻThe Overloadʼ, with Eno's pulsating synths and whirring engines and industrial hums, does sound like the equipment could blow apart at any minute, yet it builds up its tension and takes it away with it in a fade-out, rather than ending things with a nuclear blast or something.

Because, you see, Remain In Light is not the announcement of a catastrophe — like most of the band's output, it is a warning, and no other Talking Heads album ends on a more alarming note than Remain In Light. (Is it a coincidence that the band's commercial fortunes only really improved when they began ending their records with shiny optimistic instead of depressing tunes, like ʻThis Must Be The Placeʼ?).

On the whole, the best thing that can be said about the album is that it works equally well as a collection of hooky individual songs (the choruses, the riffs, the polyrhythms — there are so many earworms here, you could catch yourself a boatload of earfish with them) and as a cohesive conceptual thematic suite with a rational internal structure: nervous-hysterical build-up, post-nervous depressed wind-down, and a perfect synthesis of native African stylistics and the Western civilization pop tradition in terms of execution, and by «perfect» I mean one that sounds smooth and fluent and has a reasonable intellectual symbolic interpretation at the same time. You can simply enjoy the hell out of it, or you can subject it to musicological analysis, you can decode and explain its philosophy, and it will all make perfect sense.

Of course, few albums are perfect, and although there is no «filler» as such on Remain In Light (every song has its purpose and loyally fulfills it), every once in a while a song might overstay its welcome, or get a little too lost in atmospheric beeps and bleeps to remember about preserving the hookline. The grooves on Side A are so tight, powerful, and mesmerizing that each of them could go on for 15 minutes and I wouldn't have a care in the world; but ʻThe Overloadʼ should probably have been at least a minute shorter, and I have already indicated that ʻSeen And Not Seenʼ is too much special effects and not enough melody (could it actually be left over from the sessions for My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts? It rather sounds like it belongs on that album, what with all the isolated keyboard pings and spoken vocals). But on the other hand, it is precisely because of all the risks, experiments, and outside collaborators that Remain In Light avoids the common flaws of most other Heads albums —such as they used to be when most of More Songs About Buildings And Food, for instance, used to sound like one interminable macro-song. This is definitely different.

I do believe that the album is a stunning achievement in the history of modern music — easily the best record of 1980 and, who knows, a good contender even for best album of a decade that had barely started when it came out. It really pointed out a brand new direction that very few (if any) other artists would manage to follow successfully, just because it takes a great deal of time, talent, and tact to properly re-integrate modern musical genres with their «ancient» predecessors. Most importantly, the biggest flaw of «world music» is that it tends to be very pretentious, commanding you to revere and admire it just because it liberally acknowledges the musical merits of our cultural ancestors and faraway brothers. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not. The genius of Talking Heads here is that they were the first to show that «world music» can be perfectly relevant and vital in a completely modern setting — not a museum artefact, made bright and shiny by means of neon lights and computer-assisted simulations, but a real artistic weapon that can be used to describe the conflicting, turublent emotions of a contemporary, urbanized, Western (or Eastern, or Northern, or Southern, etc.) human being. Too often, musical synthesis is being carried out just for the sake of synthesizing — as in, we get bored, we put together something that has never been put together before (remember Monty Python's Society For Putting Things On Top Of Other Things?). Remain In Light avoids that trap and, in doing so, remains every bit as vital, inspiring, and relevant today as it was when it first came out.