Search This Blog

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Ringo Starr: Ringo's Rotogravure


1) A Dose Of RockʼnʼRoll; 2) Hey Baby; 3) Pure Gold; 4) Cryinʼ; 5) You Donʼt Know Me At All; 6) Cookinʼ (In The Kitchen Of Love); 7) Iʼll Still Love You; 8) This Be Called A Song; 9) Las Brisas; 10) Lady Gaye; 11) Spooky Weirdness.

General verdict: The cracks are clearly showing, but still a decent enough application of Ringoʼs classic mid-Seventies formula — a last stab at decency before the slump.

The final entry in Ringoʼs «With A Little Help From My Ex-Bandmates» trilogy was, not too surprisingly, the weakest. Paul was busy touring with Wings and trying hard to dethrone Led Zeppelin from their «jet kings» pedestal; George was busy sulking, litigating, and generally having the shittiest time of his life; and John had just announced his retirement from music altogether. In the middle of it all, Ringo himself was far from being in fine shape, since most of his free time in that period was largely spent collaborating with Keith Moon on various ways of destroying oneʼs own organism. And the album, produced for a new deal with Atlantic Records, was to be made on the spot in coke-rich L.A., under the supervision of Arif Mardin, who had just made himself a big name by producing the first disco hits of the Bee Gees.

Taken together, all these factors could result in one of the most awful experiences ever, or, by some curious chance, in one of those fascinating trainwrecks that are extremely interesting to experience, since they happen to convey a particularly deranged state of mind at a certain time period. Ringoʼs Rotogravure, however, is neither. It is, in fact, disappointing largely because it is so mediocre — smooth, passable, occasionally catchy, with almost no highlights and very few straightforward embarrassments. Various accounts tell us of how wild the life of British drummers could be in mid-Seventiesʼ L.A., but you do not really get any glimpses of it here: you do get a few on Keith Moonʼs solo album that came out a little earlier, but Ringo was just too shy in comparison. You can like this record or hate it, but you can be assured that it will tell you very little about Ringoʼs true state of mind in mid-ʼ76.

Arguably the most likable song on the album has nothing to do with John, Paul, or George anyway: it is the opening title, ʽA Dose Of RockʼnʼRollʼ, contributed by the little known Austra­lian songwriter Carl Groszman. Containing not one, but two deceptive starts, it takes twenty five seconds to settle into its lazy, nonchalant, friendly mid-tempo groove and just a few more to fully lay its cards on the table: "if your mama donʼt feel good / if your daddy donʼt feel good / take a dose of rockʼnʼroll / and wash it down with cool, clear soul". While I am not exactly sure that the message should be taken literally, and that the recipé could genuinely aid your parents on their deathbeds, the simple charm of the catchy chorus is impossible to resist, and I know for sure it helped raise my mood just a little bit a couple of times. (Put together two and two and you will see how it could probably raised Ringoʼs own mood at the time — not that I am implying that you can actually see a desperate man behind the smile without actively using your imagination, but thereʼs no harm in whipping up a little tragism to spice up a Ringo Starr record).

As for the old bandmates, there are signs of slacking. Paul actually worked with Ringo on the backing track for ʽPure Goldʼ (with Linda singing back vocals), but the song simply works over the old doo-wop progression with a slightly glitzy comical twist — unlike ʽSix OʼClockʼ, a song with clear traces of McCartneyʼs pop genius, ʽPure Goldʼ is more of a Fiftiesʼ homage that brings back Ringoʼs antiquated image instead of trying to adapt him to modern times. Johnʼs ʽCookinʼ (In The Kitchen Of Love)ʼ is better, a fun little pop romp that would be Johnʼs last contribution to the world of music until 1980 — but, funny enough, already shows a bit of that relaxed, pacified, at-ease-with-the-world spirit which would define the sound of Double Fantasy; apparently, getting back with Yoko and nursing baby Sean made a pretty quick impact on the man, or maybe it was always like that for him in Ringoʼs presence (maybe if they had moved in together as early as 1975, weʼd have Triple Fantasy four years earlier?).

The weirdest story concerns Georgeʼs ʽIʼll Still Love Youʼ, a song that actually dates all the way back to the All Things Must Pass sessions and which George originally intended for Shirley Bassey, then gave away to Cilla Black. Apparently, with George unable to come up with new material for Ringo and with Ringo being an old fan of the song, they decided they would give it a go. The attempt was noble, and there is even some fabulous guitar work by session player Lon Van Eaton that is every bit as deserving as anything George and Eric did on All Things Must Pass themselves — the bad news is, of course, that Ringo bravely fails the test of capturing Georgeʼs broken-hearted spirit, and his "Iʼll still love you!" at the end of each verse is pedestrian; compare this version with the much worse produced demo original from the 1970 sessions, and you will clearly see what distinguishes a great singer-songwriter from run-of-the-mill showtune level performance. Simply put, this is not Ringo in his right emploi — and I am certainly not implying that the man could not feel pain and spiritual torture; he simply lacked the means to make us feel that feel. He knew what it means, he just couldnʼt explain.

Everything else on the album ranges from «okay» to «okayish». Claptonʼs ʽThis Be Called A Songʼ captures Eric at the peak of his reggae-country-soft-rock period and predictably sounds like an outtake from Thereʼs One In Every Crowd — mildly catchy, professional, totally unexciting. Ringoʼs own songs cover old-fashioned country balladry (ʽCryinʼʼ), corny Mexican mariachi music (ʽLas Brisasʼ), and straightforward pop that abuses the hell out of its repetitive chorus (ʽLady Gayeʼ). I welcome this diversity, but it does not exactly turn the record into a White Album — although, in a funny way, it has its own brief equivalent of a ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ: the last minute and a half are given over to ʽSpooky Weirdnessʼ, a mix of mock-creepy musical hooliganry and cheesy-scary voiceovers that might suggest an influence of Welcome To My Nightmare, perhaps placed on a turntable during one of Team Ringoʼs drunken binges at one of the local LA clubs. It is a totally innocent twist, but then again, we do not often get twists of any kind on Ringo Starr records — plus, its goofy messiness may be pretty symbolic.

The record was seriously panned upon release, and its commercial failure and critical backlash drove Ringo to abandon the formula and try something new for his next two albums — but in retrospect, it is way better than whatever followed, and the backlash itself was more due to changing times than decreasing quality; to be sure, Rotogravure rocks much less than Ringo, but it is not just because of Ringo — it is because the glam-rock aesthetics that Ringo conducted so fine was becoming stale. It is curious, actually, that Arif Mardinʼs role in the albumʼs sound turned out to be purely passive: there is no guarantee whatsoever that Ringo could be made to churn out fun disco singles with the same passion that he had for T. Rex-style singles, but the very fact that this was not even attempted is quite telling of the general situation. Now that we are not in 1976 anymore, Rotogravure can be enjoyed a bit more openly and freely outside of that context — but, of course, it is still far from the standards of «fabulous simplistic pop».

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Autechre: NTS Session 2


1) elyc9 7hres; 2) six of eight (midst); 3) xflood; 4) gonk tuf hi; 5) dummy casual pt2; 6) violvoic; 7) sinistrailab air; 8) wetgelis casual interval; 9) e0; 10) peal ma; 11) 9 chr0; 12) turbile epic casual, stpl idle.

General verdict: Messy, unpredictable, unreliable, and ultimately boring — so much more like the good old Confield-era Autechre to which we have gotten used to in this century.

Unfortunately, Autechreʼs second week of residence at NTS seems to have... not exactly drain their inspiration, but rather steer them back into their comfort zone of predictable unpredictability. It is almost as if they suddenly realized that things were becoming way too structured and orderly, to the extent that, God forbid, somebody other than a hardcore Autechre devotee could begin to enjoy their music — and so NTS Session 2 hastily corrects that embarrassing mistake by making the beats more fussy and complex, the sonic effects more percussive and jarring, the programmed melodies more dissonant and disjointed; in short, everything we have known, loved, and hated about Autechre since Confield.

This means that, theoretically, all I could do is try and make a few comments on individual tracks, but even those are hard to come up with, since nothing about these particular compositions sounds particularly fresh or original to my ears. Sometime after the first hour of the usual casseroles clanging against each other in a randomly teleported kitchen, the session begins to chill out: lengthy tracks such as ʽe0ʼ introduce an element of ambience, which is a relief after all the chaos, but except for giving your ears a break, there is nothing particularly interesting about that ambience, either.

Since there is not a single track here that managed to strike a chord with me, I will just say what I think about the five of them that go over the ten-minute mark and, thus, must have been of special importance to Booth and Brown. The first one, ʽelyc9 7hresʼ, is a good example of the general judgement offered above: ten minutes of nearly melodyless explosive electronic percus­sion, with no buildup whatsoever, so you learn all about those festering sonic bubbles in the first twenty seconds and then have to repeat your lesson for ten more minutes. The 15-minute long ʽviolvoicʼ sounds like a fine-tuned digestive system of a stationary android: for fifteen minutes, you get to hear him swallow, digest, burp, fart, and defecate, very occasionally taking short quiet breaks as the next cartload of food is brought in. (If it sounds intriguing on paper, believe me, it will not sound nearly as intriguing once you get the actual hang of it). ʽe0ʼ is the first lengthy ambient track, with a nice swirling, spiraling rhythm track that sounds like nothing Brian Eno has nor already introduced to the world a dozen times. ʽ9 chr0ʼ is fifteen more minutes of messy electronic digestion, except in a slightly more claustrophobic environment.

Finally, the pièce de résistance on the album is arguably its final track — it has the (actually meaningful) word ʽepicʼ in the title, it clocks in at 21:30, and its soundscape is clearly supposed to be the most creepy and intimidating on the record, with a suspenseful vision of some hellish alien environment that, for once, takes you outside the borders of Autechreʼs computerized micro­cosm and transfers you into a parallel dimension. I really wish I could enjoy it more than I do; unfortunately, twenty minutes of an almost unchanging soundscape have largely outlived their value ever since we learned all about the limits of the ambient genre in the Seventies and the Eighties — and, even more unfortunately, the atmosphere in question does not so much trigger any fresh associations in my mind as it reminds me of certain (not half-bad, actually) generic soundscapes in old PC games (say, Phantasmagoria II: A Puzzle Of Flesh, if you ever happen to remember that one from more than twenty years ago).

I can admit that there may be quite a few fans out there who will enjoy the second session more than the first, since it so much less rhythmic and, therefore, gives the riff-raff nothing to latch on. But to me, it seems that at this point, even if Autechre have clearly ceased to be a relevant force in modern music, they are still doing more interesting things when they are doing them to a beat than when they are doing them to a primordial soup.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

My Bloody Valentine: Loveless


1) Only Shallow; 2)  Loomer; 3) Touched; 4) To Here Knows When; 5) When You Sleep; 6) I Only Said; 7) Come In Alone; 8) Sometimes; 9) Blown A Wish; 10) What You Want; 11) Soon.

General verdict: "All you need is love" as seen from the perspective of Schrödinger's cat.

[This is a slightly expanded and modified version of a review previously written for the short-lived Great Albums series.]

From a certain point of view, the year 1991 should probably be counted as the true beginning of the «modern» era in popular music — in the most natural sense of the word: «one that is still going on as of the moment of this write-up» — and My Bloody Valentineʼs Loveless, along with Nirvanaʼs Nevermind (and despite being nowhere near as popular or commercially successful), is one of the few albums that really brought that era about. After all, the 1980s had been a weird, excessful decade whose main flaw may have been in that it took its outrageous discoveries far too seriously, and asserted its love for futuristic technology and outlandish fashions way too strongly for the average human being to adopt it once and for all without criticism. A touch of counterbalancing restraint, intelligence, and even healthy cynicism were in order; and in a way, what Nirvana and the grunge bands did for the basic rock scene (namely, planted its feet back on the ground), My Bloody Valentine did for the art-rock scene.

Loveless, the bandʼs one and only masterpiece, was made at a time when the quintessential atmospheric art-rock band was probably Cocteau Twins — a great act that was not, however, much of a proper «rock» band anyway, so the challenge was understandable: could a new rock album, made at the beginning of a new decade, genuinely rock out and colorfully blow your mind at the same time, like, you know, Hendrix could a couple decades ago? And could such an album combine its magical mystical sound with enough intelligence, so that the artists do not come across as a new reincarnation of Hawkwind, and drive away listeners who have become way too demanding to accept generic starry-eyed psychedelia?..

Notoriously, the album took almost three years to complete, and is said to have cost the bandʼs label, Creation, more than 200,000 pounds (precise sum remains uncofirmed, but pretty damn impressive for a label whose highest commercial client at the time were The Jesus And Mary Chain). This is an important point to consider, especially for those of us who tend to perceive the songs as too primitive, noisy, and sloppy; and it is also indirectly (or directly) responsible for the fact that the band found it impossible to record a follow-up — not only because of the resulting financial problems, but also due to Kevin Shieldsʼ Brian Wilson complex: as the poor guy felt obliged to follow the record up with something even more mind-blowing, he ended up almost blowing his own mind to smithereens instead.

Needless to say, the complicated nature of these sessions, and the bandʼs subsequent retreat into the shadows for more than twenty years has contributed a lot to the albumʼs now legendary status. Although Loveless only reached No. 24 on the UK charts upon release, and made very little impact on the American market, its critical reputation has only grown with time — primarily because it is such a tasty choice for all sorts of mythologising scenarios. The actual influence of Loveless on musicians world-wide, I think, has been more spiritual than substantial, because the sound of Loveless is almost impossible to copy and useless to imitate — but as far as ambitious and otherworldly guitar-based soundscapes are concerned at all, it seems clear that MBV are the ancestors of any other art-rock band with «modern» guitar sound, starting with Radiohead and ending with... well, with any art-rock band that still plays art-rock guitar today, as this seems to become a relative rarity. Naturally, this does not mean that they are exclusively entitled to that kind of praise; yet I can think of no post-1991 album that would redefine, far from the first but quite likely for the last time, the whole sound of the electric guitar.

Whether you like it or not, Loveless sounds like nothing else ever produced in the music business: ever. I might go as far as to state that, in a world where the word «psychedelia» gets randomly applied to everything from The Monkees to Aphex Twin, it is Loveless that could be considered the quintessential psychedelic album of all time, despite being released more than twenty years after the decline of the original Golden Age of psychedelia. Why? Merely because I have a hard time remembering any other record which, when played loud enough in headphones, would drive me so much out of my mind — literally, not figuratively. Take my word for it: if you want to know what «dazed and confused» is without resorting to any of the health-damaging substances, Loveless will work like a charm. You may not end up falling in love with it, but if you do not feel it having a disorienting, disconcerting, chemical-level effect on you, you are probably not doing it right, or maybe you are not designed for music listening in the first place.

The basic technique behind this is simple — the glide guitar effect, already in use on Isnʼt Anything but perfected and amplified by Shields as he is now almost constantly abusing the tremolo bar while strumming the strings. Throw in the novel use of the sampler to multiply and procreate feedback; add MBVʼs now-standard approach to the vocals, delivered in gently lulling falsettos and then mixed deep below the rumbling surface — and what you get is a bunch of songs that are here, there, everywhere, and nowhere at the same time: rock musicʼs ideal answer to the quantum theory. At first, I found this frustrating. «Where are the songs? This is like gliding through melted sonic butter, over and over again!» Only after several listens, when I was all but ready to give up and dismiss the whole thing as an overrated piece of junk, did it dawn on me that I had adopted the wrong attitude. Instead of instinctively fighting these sonic waves, you need to learn to ride them — and once you master the technique, they will take you places where no other piece of music can. Most likely, these words do not do the album proper justice; in that case, just go and stare at the album cover, intensely, for about five minutes, because it is a perfect visual correspondence for the sonic textures of the music.

The actual songs are, indeed, not particularly complex or challenging as compositions — although it would be wrong to insist that they completely lack individual hooks. Something like the twirling, belly-dancing high-pitched guitar riff on ʻI Only Saidʼ, for instance, is quite clearly a hook, as is the similar, but somewhat more cheerfully optimistic lead melody of ʻWhen You Sleepʼ or the pulsating dance pattern of ʻSoonʼ. However, they rarely jump out at once, and even after they do, it is clearly not the specific note sequences on these songs that constitute their greatest achievements. Had the album been produced in a completely different matter, the catchiness of the guitar hooks and the beauty of the vocal modulations might have stood out more distinctly — but whether the record would have gained from this is questionable; more likely, it would have simply gone down in history as one more melodic indie-rock production, barely distinguishable from, say, fifty thousand interchangeable records from New Zealandʼs «kiwi-pop» acts of the time. As it is, I prefer to acknowledge Loveless as a single, barely divisible whole, where some parts occasionally rise above others only by a split inch.

Sometimes Shieldsʼ mono production verges on the edge of lo-fi, not because it is lo-fi, but because all the gliding and twirling and panning and phasing threatens to reduce music to a bunch of static; on ʻTo Here Knows Whenʼ, for instance, the band really goes over the top, even burying the drums so deep in the mix that the rhythmic dream-pop song becomes a distorted air siren every time you cease straining your ears to capture all of the instruments. The good news is that you do not need to do any straining — like I said, the secret is in learning to ride the wave, and forget all about the rhythm section, which just acts as a strong underwater current to keep you going and prevent you from going under.

At the same time, it is also important to remember that Loveless, despite its title, is actually directly the opposite — it is a record that is very much filled with love, a fact that you do not have to debate once you get to, say, ʻBlown A Wishʼ. Half a dozen listens to that song will reveal the warmth and beauty of the Beatlesque vocal melody, as soon as you learn to extract it from the eggshell of what sounds like a thousand resonating guitars (but is probably only just one or two). Pretty much all of the songs, no matter whether louder or softer, are really love ballads, even if sometimes this can only be decoded by means of scattered keywords and key phrases ("love", "smile", "soft as a pillow", etc.): this is probably the albumʼs most obvious connection to Cocteau Twins, but Shieldsʼ vibes are even more straightforward and less treacherous than those of the Twins (where you sometimes think you are listening to an Elfish lady ballad, but are in fact listening to a «song of the Siren»). Loveless is really all about being lovestruck — with emphasis on struck, as the entire point is on transmitting the confused and disbalanced emotional state of a person who has just lost complete control of the senses.

Even the final track, ʻSoonʼ, which moves faster and funkier than everything else, and could be seen as MBVʼs slightly belated answer to The Stone Roses, is still first and foremost a happy-trance-vibe psychedelic epic, and only secondarily a dance number (its distinctive character is also due to the fact that it was written and recorded earlier than everything else, having first appeared on the Glider EP in 1990). It is a monotonous, repetitive, but enthralling conclusion — interestingly, where most people would probably want to use something energetic like that to open the album, ʻSoonʼ acts as its closing number, sort of a bouncy reward for all those who «suffered» through the slower numbers. All the more reason to see the entire album as a cohesive psycho-reflection on the many facets of love, culminating in a psycho-tribal psycho-epic psycho-dance. "Wake up, don't fear, I want to love you". Who exactly ends up Loveless here?

If there is one general problem about the record, it is fairly common for all such «one-trick albums»: as admirably as it performs its schtick, the schtick may not deserve to last for forty-eight minutes. The problem is not that you have to wait for the songs to «click»: the problem is that, even after they have clicked, they all employ more or less the same approach to sound-making and they all share the same vibe and set the same mood. The melodies of the songs are either not too great, or their greatness is completely eclipsed by the atmospheric production, with a classic paradox — the album needs to be vague, murky, and disorienting to achieve greatness, yet all these qualities also hinder us from seeing the virtues of the individual tunes. At first, only ʻSoonʼ sounds any different from the rest, due to its ferocious «post-Madchester» rhythmic thud. Then you begin, slowly, slowly, to uncover the individual hooks — but even today, I have a hard time bringing up the chords of something like ʻLoomerʼ in my memory, for instance, or about a third of the other songs.

Clearly, this also raises the question of whether the album deserves the scope of its reputation (such as featuring in the current «top 10 albums of all time» rating on RateYourMusic). Kevin Shields is obviously a guy with a vision, but, like most indie kids of his or any other era, not a particularly great musician or note-weaver, for which lack of talent he found quite an awesome way to compensate. However, for honestyʼs sake, the same accusation could be flung at 99% of people working in «shoegaze», «post-rock», «drone-core», whatever, idioms — some people are good at writing great melodies, and some people are good at writing average melodies and then making them sound great with fabulous production skills. You could say that Loveless is so much more about the sauce than it is about the meat... but then, you could probably say the same about not a few gourmet French restaurants, couldnʼt you?

As far as general popularity is concerned, Loveless has always been, and will always remain, an acquired taste. There is no immediate appeal to its songs like there was to Nirvanaʼs tormented youth laments back in 1991, and the impressive walls of sound that the band constructed for these tunes will forever keep away more people than they will contain within. Critics and musicians will always find more to cherish here than the average music lover, too lazy to scoop the sunny beauty of the songs out of the wobbly, disconcerting production — and, honestly, once you have scooped that out, you will probably want to immediately put it back in, because Loveless Naked might end up sentimentally embarrassing. But even if you unclothe it and embarrass it and dissect it and dismiss it, it is hard not to admire the sheer artistic arrogance that went into the making of this record. Every day we get to hear albums where people fruitlessly attempt to mask their lack of songwriting talent by loudness, pathos, distortion, and clichéd «epic» chord sequences — somehow, though, I have yet to hear an album where lack of songwriting talent would be masked by making a guitar sound like the collective movement of a well-organized pixie squad in the night. With a musical fantasy like that, could not even the simplest written song eventually end up sounding like a work of absolute genius? Whatever. The best news is, I have listened to Loveless more than twenty times in my life, and I still end up confused — by it, about it, and in spite of it.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense


1) Psycho Killer; 2) Heaven; 3) Thank You For Sending Me An Angel; 4) Found A Job; 5) Slippery People; 6) Burning Down The House; 7) Life During Wartime; 8) Making Flippy Floppy; 9) Swamp; 10) What A Day That Was; 11) This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody); 12) Once In A Lifetime; 13) Genius Of Love; 14) Girlfriend Is Better; 15) Take Me To The River; 16) Crosseyed And Painless.

General verdict: Excellent live album, but listening to it without watching the movie makes about as much sense (no pun intended) as reading the collected edition of Bob Dylanʼs lyrics on paper.

If you have never listened to Stop Making Sense as the second live album by Talking Heads, this is not a tragedy — it will never hope to surpass the monumentality of The Name Of This Band. If you have never watched Stop Making Sense, the concert movie, what you need to do right now, this very instance, is drop everything you are doing (and at this moment, you are obviously wasting your time reading this review anyway, rather than pulling people out of burning buildings or something) and go watch it immediately, because, well, chances are that you might not truly understand anything about Talking Heads, New Wave, intelligent dance music, or post-1975 artistic values in general until you have been properly worked over by the movie.

I am not exactly sure if the two shows in question from which Jonathan Demme drew the material for his movie, held in December ʼ83 at one of the theaters in Hollywood, were typical of that particular tour — there must have been specific elements, conceived exclusively for the cameras; however, they were definitely a lot different from all previous concerts by the band, with a lot more emphasis on the visual / choreographic side of the business. Even on the 1980 tour, when the Heads had first padded themselves with tons of side musicians, the main reason for that was to be able to reproduce all the growing complexities on their studio albums. On Stop Making Sense, the swarms of side musicians continue to almost overwhelm the main core of the four band members — but this seems to be much more skewed toward a general effect of fussiness and camaraderie: the movie shows very well how all those extra people were needed on stage not just (and not so much) for their playing, but rather for their kick-ass behavior.

Above everything else, though, this is David Byrneʼs show: every single song, with the natural exception of ʽGenius Of Loveʼ, belongs to him 100% of the time, even when he is neither singing nor playing. Speaking of playing, he has dropped his guitar for more than half of the songs on here — now that there are so many side players, he really does not need it that much — in favor of jumping, running, mugging, rolling around, playing games with Big Suits or Electric Lamps, setting up slideshows, you name it. This is Rock Theater in a way that you probably have not seen since the heyday of Alice Cooper and Peter Gabrielʼs Genesis, only with an updated and mdernized sensitivity that (unlike elements of Aliceʼs and Peterʼs shows) has not aged one day even thirty-five years later: rewatching the movie recently, I was struck by how not a single frame, not a single movement by anybody in the picture could make me go «oh, thatʼs a bit of Eightiesʼ corniness out there». Was the movie ahead of its time? Probably not; but no other experience has managed to catch up with it in all the time thatʼs elapsed since then.

As good as the audio soundtrack is, it does not convey the almost perversely manipulated excite­ment that grows and grows as you watch the show slowly unfold before your eyes. Life begins from an egg hatched inside Byrneʼs boombox as he gives you the most minimalistic performance of ʽPsycho Killerʼ ever (and no audio track can give you the spazz moves he makes at the end of the song, as if being pummelled over and over again by an invisible enemy). Life goes on as Tina joins him on bass for an almost equally stripped down rendition of ʽHeavenʼ; life gallops on as Frantz hops onstage for a short, but rousing take on ʽThank You For Sending Me An Angelʼ; life becomes a familiar guitar-weaving pattern as Jerry joins David for ʽFound A Jobʼ (again, far from the best rendition aurally — the coda is much too short and simplified — but impossible to look away); and then life ascends to properly climactic heights on the next three songs. The backup singers, Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry, grinning demonically and playing air guitar like a mirror image to David on ʽSlippery Peopleʼ; David and Alex Weir running on the spot and tearing up the strings on ʽBurning Down The Houseʼ; and, of course, Byrneʼs aerobics in (and particularly the little snake dance on the second verse of) ʽLife During Wartimeʼ — these are all iconic images that cannot be erased from oneʼs memory.

Many people correctly latched on to Byrne in their original assessments of the movie, but not always for the right reason — Roger Ebert, for instance, simply commented on his "physical presence", saying that "he seems so happy to be alive and making music", a description that would be more apt for, I dunno, Freddie Mercury. Most of the time Byrne is, of course, giving us his paranoid act — always true to himself, this is a show about the challenges of the modern world and the common manʼs reaction / adaptation to those challenges. He plays a whole number of different personas, from the shitless-scared jogger on ʽLife During Wartimeʼ to the confused intellectual on ʽOnce In A Lifetimeʼ to the clueless socialite on ʽGirlfriend Is Betterʼ, he might even become a little Hitlerish on ʽSwampʼ, but it always comes down to the same issue — what the hell am I doing here, and how the hell am I supposed to carry on? Every single gesture, every single vocal inflection redirect you to that question; and although you could certainly say that David is very happy to be able to ask it, Stop Making Sense is, well, about a life that has pretty much stopped making sense, rather than about a happy and understandable kind of life. Which is, perhaps, one more reason why the movie — paradoxically — makes even more sense today than it did back in the movie theaters in mid-ʼ84.

A few words, I suppose, should still be said about the music. The new, 2.1 expanded version of Talking Heads (as opposed to the 2.0 version of the Remain In Light tour) still sounds brilliant: no matter how much emphasis is placed on the visuals, the Heads could allow nothing less than absolute perfect discipline from all the players. But since the lionʼs share of the playlist falls on material from Speaking In Tongues (six out of its nine songs are performed), this means that the chief strength of classic live Heads, the insane math-rockish interplay between David and Jerry, is largely eliminated — that teeny bit of guitar fencing at the end of ʽFound A Jobʼ is but a whiffy reminiscence of how it used to be. Meanwhile, the place of Belew is occupied by Alex Weir, a swell guy having a lot of fun and looking like heʼs been best friends with the Heads forever, but not quite the futuristic sonic wizard of Adrianʼs caliber. This might be one of the reasons why Remain In Light is so snubbed with this setlist — they still manage to end the show with a convincing take on ʽCrosseyed And Painlessʼ, but on the whole, the band was hardly up to the challenge (additionally, it is possible that the ambitiously cosmic aspirations of Remain In Light were a bit outside of Davidʼs scope of intentions for that evening).

That said, as is usual for the Heads, almost every single performance of the Speaking In Tongues songs is superior to the studio original — more energy, more sass, more sweat, and, yes, the visuals: ʽGirlfriend Is Betterʼ takes on a whole new life with Byrne turning on autopilot in the Big Suit, and ʽThis Must Be The Placeʼ features the tenderest handling of an electric lamp ever known to mankind, worthy of being enshrined together with Charlie Chaplinʼs globe. The lone­some inclusion from Byrneʼs solo Catherine Wheel soundtrack, ʽWhat A Day That Wasʼ, also fits right in with its frenetic pace and paranoid verse / joyful chorus contrast.

The only thing that never truly fits in — and I am pretty sure they all knew it from the start — is the Tom Tom Club spotlight with ʽGenius Of Loveʼ. Not because the song itself is not very good (itʼs okay, I got used to it), and not because Frantzʼs invocations of James Brown still sound silly (itʼs just a couple of bars), and not even because Tinaʼs dancing moves are comically gross (at one point, she is squatting as if suffering from severe IBS), but mainly just because it has no place in the middle of Byrneʼs overriding, egotistical, despotic, but fully cohesive and coherent artistic vision. It certainly gives him enough time to change into the Big Suit, but I am not sure if we really needed such a strong reminder of why Talking Headsʼ music is genius, while Tom Tom Club is an endearing one-time joke. It is a bit of a mood breaker, and I am always tempted to skip the track, no matter if itʼs audio only or the movie itself.

By the time we get to end the main part of the show with ʽTake Me To The Riverʼ, the song has truly earned its cleansing power — now it has been turned into the last act of David Byrneʼs personal confession, a prayer for salvation and redemption whose appearance in the Talking Heads catalogue now seems like an act of Providence rather than some strange, unexplainable accident. The expanded band, with all the African-American performers on stage, provide an authentic gospel-soul glossing, but they do not transform the song back into an Al Green cover, because Byrne is still wearing the Big Suit on his shoulders and on his vocal cords; he is still being the same old nervous big city dweller, to whom the act of being taken out to the river and dropped in the water means something radically different from what it used to mean to the black son of an Arkansan sharecropper. Whatever it is, it is the perfect conclusion to a perfect show where so many talented men and women, each with his or her own identity, come together to complete the fractured personality of one creative genius.

In conclusion, I can only repeat that, to me, Stop Making Sense (the movie) symbolizes every­thing that can be exciting, involving, and deeply meaningful about modern art (a little ironic, of course, to be calling a thirty-five year old performance «modern art», but I guess weʼre stuck with the term for good now anyway). The best thing about it is that you can refrain from overthinking and just dance like crazy along to everything that is going on, giving in to the excitement without a second thought; or you can actually sit and watch, sucking in each golden frame of the movie and coming up with your own interpretation of what it is all supposed to mean — interpretation that will make sense, no matter how much the title tries to convince you of the opposite. The only thing that truly stopped making sense to me ever since I got the DVD (or, at least, permanent YouTube access) was listening to the audio album without the accompanying picture... although I do believe that I got most of the frames memorized anyway.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Paul McCartney: Wings At The Speed Of Sound


1) Let ʼEm In; 2) The Note You Never Wrote; 3) Sheʼs My Baby; 4) Beware My Love; 5) Wino Junko; 6) Silly Love Songs; 7) Cook Of The House; 8) Time To Hide; 9) Must Do Something About It; 10) San Ferry Anne; 11) Warm And Beautiful.

General verdict: A safe, sound, and smooth pop album with plenty of hidden depth to it once you let go of the "THIS was released in the year of punk rock?" attitude.

In retrospect, the most irresponsible thing about this album seems to have been its title. There is little doubt that it was reasonably inspired by having been recorded in the middle of Wingsʼ biggest international tour ever, with all the glitzy hustle-bustle and all the glamorous jet flights befitting a rock star in the age of Led Zeppelin. But 1976 was also the year of The Ramones — the real band playing «at the speed of sound» — and whatever Paul was doing back then, he should have refrained from provoking critical ire by inadvertently giving people one more pretext to compare his tired, old, conventional brand of safe pop with the exciting new sounds coming from a new generation of fresh young punks, all set and ready to kill their idols.

The strangest thing about this album, then, is that, despite coming right off the heels of Wingsʼ single most rock-oriented record and Wingsʼ single most arena-oriented rock tour, Wings At The Speed Of Sound has a very quiet, almost homely vibe to it — as if they were intentionally (or subconsciously) offering us a musical antidote to the brash loudness of its predecessor. With the exception of ʽBeware My Loveʼ, there is not a single song here that would rock as hard as ʽRock Showʼ, ʽMedicine Jarʼ, or ʽLetting Goʼ. Youʼd think that for a record that is known for being the most democratically structured Wings record ever, with all members of the band contributing to songwriting and lead singing, it could have been just a wee bit raunchier than this, but no way: even Jimmy McCulloch with his obligatory anti-drug statement is content to provide a quiet pop song rather than a loud rock anthem.

All of these circumstances have tarnished McCartneyʼs reputation circa 1976 to such an extent that even today, unlike Ram and Venus And Mars, this particular record has not properly recovered its status in the public eye. But in reality, it is not that difficult to get partial to its subtle charms. Words of the day are «simplicity» and «minimalism»: almost every song here that is credited to Paul tends to be based on something very plain and skeletal, either musically or lyrically or both, and so runs the risk of being either hailed for laconic genius or ridiculed for being so unworthy of a former Beatle. There is even an element of defiance here, best expressed in the lyrics of ʽSilly Love Songsʼ ("whatʼs wrong with that?"), but actually manifesting itself all over the place, from the barebones chromatic progression of the opening ʽLet ʼEm Inʼ to the elementary level music exercise of the closing ʽWarm And Beautifulʼ. Despise it, or embrace it? Both strategies are understandable; I will go ahead with the latter, though — even if I do have some reservations about some of the tracks.

For starters, I have never had any problems about embracing the two big hit pop openers on both sides of the album. ʽLet ʼEm Inʼ is a little kitschy, with Paul having all the guys pretty much impersonate a Sesame Street marching band; but it has been a pretty long time since he last wrote an «all-inclusive» pop anthem that could make his fans feel like part of his big family, and there is no need to resist the party spirit in this particular instance, especially when it is crafted with such reserve and humility — the song invites everybody to join in the fun, but from a very personal, almost reclusive standpoint. Besides, it is not that simple: its cumulative effect comes from the juxtaposition of the piano, woodwind, and brass melodies, each of which is simple on its own, but together they weave and twist into a series of interconnected lifelines, one of which might belong to sister Suzie and the next one to brother John, for all we know.

Likewise, ʽSilly Love Songsʼ also has a fairly complex layering of vocal harmonies — at its peak, the song reaches a level of vocal polyphony that is almost reminiscent of Talking Headsʼ later work (albeit in a completely different style) on Remain In Light, and that is not even mentioning Paulʼs stupendous bass line, arguably his most memorable and melodic bass part in the entire history of Wings. The cutely cheery disposition of the song, its title and its lyrical message are too much for a lot of people to bear, but it is beyond me to understand how one could reject the tightness of the bandʼs groove here — the perfect integration of the brass section, the almost mathematically precise handling of the overlapping harmonies, the way that bassline always keeps drawing attention to itself, no matter how much other stuff gets piled on top of it. For some reason, ʽSilly Love Songsʼ has never appeared on any of Paulʼs touring setlists after the 1976 tour, and I have never managed to understand if this was because of the critical backlash against the lyrics, or (more probably) because it required a high level of precise live bass playing that Paul was no longer able to maintain after returning to live performing in 1989 — but, in any case, you have not truly lived until you have seen the man rocking that bass in the videos from 1976.

For that matter, the third biggest song on the album (only briefly released as an A-side, before it got swapped with ʽLet ʼEm Inʼ), ʽBeware My Loveʼ, also had the misfortune of forever disap­pearing from Paulʼs setlist after 1976 — this time, doubtlessly because of the insane level of vocal pressure that it would require. This one has always been a personal favorite of mine, even if for the wrong reason: with the conspicuous lack of a comma after ʽBewareʼ and without having direct access to the lyrics, I always took it to be a threatening song — Paul impersonating some kind of dangerous romantic madman, acknowledging his passion as a destructive force that can bring his loved one happiness or ruin at any given moment. The truth is much more boring — in reality, it is ʽbeware, my loveʼ, just a farewell admonishment for the girl who is in the process of dumping the protagonist — but I still refuse to acknowledge the comma. Try it this way, and what you get is the finest «mad scene» in Paulʼs entire repertoire: psychologically disturbing, downright scary in places, totally thunderstormy when the screaming vocals, the ghost-like woo-woo vocal harmonies, and the aggressive wah-wah lead guitar all fall into place. Melodically, this is still «pop» rather than proper «hard rock», but nevertheless, this song rocks harder than anything else in Wings history, with the possible exception of ʽ1985ʼ — it is the «out-of-control madness» element that brings them close to each other and separates them from the rest.

(Side­note: an early demo version of the song with John Bonham himself on drums, now available on the expanded reissue of the album, is often claimed to be a superior take, but do not believe the hype: Bonhamʼs drumming style is not particularly fit for this pop song, and the lack of fire-breathing wah-wah guitar is extremely detrimental to the overall effect as well. I mean, heck, not everything is necessarily better with some Led Zeppelin in it).

With the big three out of the way, we are left on shakier ground: nobody really truly remembers much of anything about the other songs — because they are either not Paulʼs (five in total), or because the other songs by Paul are way too short or too flimsy (three in total). This is not really very just: simply because something was written by Denny Laine on a Wings album does not automatically make it inferior to everything else because, you know, even living gods have to use the bathroom from time to time, and even mediocre songwriters can occasionally become inspired in the presence of living gods. High prize, however, goes not to Denny, but once again to Jimmy McCulloch, whose other anti-drug song, ʽWino Junkoʼ, rocks nowhere near as hard as ʽMedicine Jarʼ, but might even be more sympathetic — this time, largely because of Jimmyʼs gorgeously melancholic vocal part, so classy in its humble, but determined, weariness. The effect of «going down» is perfectly conveyed by the contrast between the lively and bouncy verse / chorus sequences and the slowed-down, psychedelic bridges — head under water in the bridge, head out of water as you go back to the verse; it is very easy to miss all this evocativeness on the first few listens, but stay with the song a little longer and it will probably click.

Dennyʼs contributions, in comparison, are more lightweight, but still faithfully convey the manʼs generally grim and pessimistic approach to life which would arguably peak with ʽDeliver Your Childrenʼ on the next record; here, ʽThe Note You Never Wroteʼ is good at cooking up a stranded, lonesome, Robinson Crusoesque atmosphere, and ʽTime To Hideʼ should probably have been used for the opening (or closing) credits on any documentary on the life of Denny Laine — "I've been on the run / Since the Good Lord knows when / And the day I die / Iʼll still be running then" is a pretty good description for the man whom fortune has condemned to the role of a permanent second fiddle / sidekick for all his life. Pretty catchy, too. Which leaves us with drummer Joe English (ʽMust Do Something About Itʼ — nice, relaxed, and also about loneliness; yes, kids, rockʼnʼroll lifestyle and private jets tend to do this to you) and... oh yes, Linda.

Now I must admit here that while, «objectively», I could agree that ʽCook Of The Houseʼ may be the worst thing Wings ever did, it is also «objectively» and transparently just a short musical joke, unfortunately, one that is too often taken symbolically to illustrate the assumed hideousness of this record in general. A bit of old timey vaudeville, perhaps not unintentionally made to sound similar to The Bonzo Dog Bandʼs ʽDeath Cab For Cutieʼ from Magical Mystery Tour, with Lindaʼs lead vocals heavily disguised by reverb and echo, it parodies the «kitchen woman» stereotype and even somehow contributes to the overall homeliness of the record. Clumsy and awkward as it is, it was never intended not to be clumsy and awkward, and somehow it even gets across a tiny fleck of Lindaʼs personal charisma — she never really wanted to be a musician, but she was happy enough to work as Paulʼs personal muse, and her presence on the album, as horrendous as it might seem from a purely musicological standpoint, does not feel alien.

That said, this time around her presence did not particularly inspire Paulʼs genius: his two songs that could be construed as addressed directly to Linda are quite questionable. ʽSheʼs My Babyʼ is bouncy and catchy, but features a very strange distorting effect on his voice (not sure if he just adopted a special tone or tinkered with the tapes, but it all sounds very unnatural) — and the line "like gravy, down to the last drop, I keep mopping her up" might be the cringiest case of double entendre in the entire history of Paul / Linda relations (is he talking about oral sex? is he taking lessons from Bessie Smith? whatever...). As for the already mentioned ʽWarm And Beautifulʼ that concludes the album, its clichéd lyrics and «trivial» piano chord sequence can easily split listeners — Elvis Costello really liked the song, for instance — but I am not sure that Paul is really at his best when he is writing material that seems oriented at almost kindergarten level music training. At the very least, ʽLong Haired Ladyʼ it is not. Though, I do agree, it forms a pretty symmetrical conclusion to ʽLet ʼEm Inʼ, fully agreeing with the overall quiet and homely tone of the album.

As you can see, whether or not At The Speed Of Sound is truly such a letdown as was originally proclaimed by critics and is still maintained by a lot of listeners, one can still write quite a lot about it. One thing is for sure: no matter how smooth and safe Wings were becoming, at this point they still had a spirit of adventurousness to their music — adventurousness that did not come from observing fashions and catching up with the times (it is clear from the music that Paul was no frequent guest at CBGB), but from mining the backs of their own brains and following their own muses. In 1976, this was considered a tad criminal; today, it really does not matter, so we might as well appreciate Wings At The Speed Of Sound for exactly what it is, rather than not appreciate it for something that it was never intended to be.