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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Tom Tom Club: Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom


1) Suboceana; 2) Shock The World; 3) Donʼt Say No; 4) Challenge Of The Love Warri­ors; 5) Femme Fatale; 6) Born For Love; 7) Broken Promises; 8) She Belongs To Me; 9) Little Eva; 10) Mighty Teardrop.

General verdict: One good song and a lot of bizarrely failing experiments — this is the "unfunny" antipode of the old Tom Tom Club, and how would it be possible to find a market for that?

Run a quirky idea into the ground — boom boom chi boom boom! — and what you get is this album, one that sounds almost like a parody on early Tom Tom Clun and next to which Naked begins to feel like an underrated masterpiece. You could sort of smell the trouble a-cominʼ when you saw one of the production credits go to Arthur Baker, the man who had made a career in the musical world largely by churning out dance remixes for Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, and Hall & Oates, as well as mixing the tracks on Bob Dylanʼs Empire Burlesque. But even so you could never guess what kind of nasty surprises were waiting just around the corner.

There is one good track on this album, and that is ʽSuboceanaʼ — at the very least, Tina and Chris still retain their capacity for drawing us in with a catchy, enticing opener. Although its plastic percussion and plastic-funk guitars sound quite dated now, the song itself is an inoffensive and subtly mystical piece of funk-pop with a classic «mystery girl» delivery from Tina (which works even better in the company of the musical video, where she was appropriately dressed as a huge anthropomorphous jellyfish). If the entire album followed that suspenseful, sexy vibe, it could at least be seen as a legitimate, slightly inferior successor to the early Eighties vibe.

Unfortunately, even though not everything is completely hopeless, for most of its duration Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom is busy hopping from one bad idea to another. They are so grotesquely bad that they are actually worth listening to at least once. ʽChallenge Of The Love Warriorsʼ, for instance, sounds precisely like its title suggests: a lot of sexy puffing and panting accompanied by nothing but tribal African percussion — because, of course, what exactly is tribal African per­cussion supposed to arouse other than oneʼs primal instincts? ʽMighty Teardropʼ opens with a distorted guitar riff that largely apes Claptonʼs ʽCocaineʼ, except it is done in a much cheesier pop-metal fashion; and the entire song seems to be Tom Tom Clubʼs attempt at getting good with the «heavy pop» scene, which sort of goes against their entire agenda. Songs like ʽBorn For Loveʼ and ʽBroken Promisesʼ attempt to ape the older sound of Blondie and The Police, just with louder drums — going absolutely nowhere, because once Tom Tom Club loses touch with the kiddie, absurd, cartoonish style that had always been its greeting card, they lose any reason to exist. Who needs these songs if you had an entire decade of better artists making them?

But the worst is yet to come, and that is the decision to cover a couple of classics: Bob Dylanʼs ʽShe Belongs To Meʼ and The Velvet Undergroundʼs ʽFemme Fataleʼ. The former I can only explain through the Empire Burlesque connection, and the song does sound precisely the way it might have ended up had Bob written it in 1985 rather than 1965, except that the vocals are much more awful (Iʼm guessing that is Chris Frantz himself reciting the lyrics in full-on «bad actor» mode?). The latter is even more sorrowful, because not only does it feature Jerry Harrison and David Byrne on guitars, keyboards, and backing vocals — thus making it a legitimate Talking Heads recording in all but name — but even Lou Reed himself walks by to provide an extra guitar part, and itʼs a disaster: awful production, sloppy guitarwork, and a vocal performance by Tina that, once again, sounds more like one of the millions of unfortunate experiments on The Voice than a thoughtful take on a classic. If there is anything that the drawn out, goofy "heeeere she comes!..." at the beginning reminded me of, it was probably Laura Palmerʼs double-reversed voice track in The Black Lodge. Yes, «hilariously bad» is the ticket.

The problem is, there never was the slightest reason in the first place why a joke band like Tom Tom Club should even have considered covering these songs — or trying to take this whole business so much more seriously. Perhaps they were sensing that the days of Talking Heads were numbered, and that it was high time they started putting the Tom Tom Club twist on deeper and denser issues. Perhaps, having gone five years without a proper new album, they forgot what Tom Tom Club used to be all about, and decided to start anew. Whatever the reason, the result is misguided and pathetic. And I havenʼt even mentioned that there is not a single song that could be called outstanding for its rhythm section — a pretty harsh blow for a band consisting of a drum-bashing husband and a bass-pounding wife. Plenty of chi to go around — definitely not enough boom boom to make a difference.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Ringo Starr: Bad Boy


1) Who Needs A Heart; 2) Bad Boy; 3) Lipstick Traces; 4) Heart On My Sleeve; 5) Where Did Our Love Go; 6) Hard Times; 7) Tonight; 8) Monkey See – Monkey Do; 9) Old Time Relovinʼ; 10) A Man Like Me.

General verdict: How does a real man answer to punk and New Wave? With a glass in his hand, Dr. John in the studio, and doo-wop covers from the dawn of time.

Okay, before we rip this one a new asshole, let us get this out of the way: Ringo Starr has never, not once in his life, released a genuinely offensive album. Boring, yes; ridiculous, for sure; but never ever has he truly attempted to become something completely different from what he really is — perhaps because he is simply incapable of such a masquerade — and never ever has he betrayed his own tastes and likes for something for which he did not have the slightest passion or of which he did not have the slightest understanding. In real life, his behavior was frequently far from saintlike; in his music, the sweet innocence and naïve unpretentiousness that ooze from every note he sings pretty much makes him impenetrable to the sharpest, most vicious stings of criticism. Beating up on Ringoʼs music is like beating up on peace and love itself.

With all this out of the way, letʼs get to business and beat up on Ringoʼs music. Bad Boy is very frequently mentioned as the absolute nadir of the manʼs solo career — sometimes it is a toss-up between Bad Boy and Ringo The 4th, but the two constitute a stylistic pair anyways — and I tend to agree with this assessment. This time, there is not even a single half-hearted attempt to honor contemporary trends: probably the closest thing to a disco track is the limp, sentimental pop rocker ʽTonightʼ, whose bassline seems to want to switch into pure disco mode all the time, but always stops short of this (perhaps because the bass player is Elton Johnʼs former partner Dee Murray — who was fired by Elton right before Elton himself switched to, umm, letʼs say, more danceable formats of music). Nevertheless, this does not help matters much...

...because refusing to submit to the disco craze does not necessarily mean one has something worthwhile to offer instead. What Ringo offers us here is the same unstable mix of the old with the new, begging the question of «why?» when it comes to the old and the reaction of «oh, gross» when it comes to the new. Some of the old (and some of the new) has a laid-back, New Orleanian vibe to it, no doubt due to the presence of Dr. John on keyboards; Allen Toussaintʼs ʽLipstick Tracesʼ, which was released as a single, is the most prominent example, and it is quite passable. But the title track, which is not a re-recording of the Larry Williams song as once famously covered by The Beatles — but rather a cover of an old doo-wop standard by The Jive Bombers — once again gives us a somewhat confused performer on a track where powerful vocals could be the only redeeming factor, so, of course, it just had to be sung by Ringo. That "Iʼm just a bad boy-oy-oy-oy-oy" bit sounded cheesy even in the hands of professional doo-woppers. Another odd choice is ʽWhere Did Our Love Goʼ — Ringo Starr as Diana Ross? For comedy? For tragedy (given the still fresh memories of the divorce from Maureen)?.. Whatever.

Of the new material, the slow funky burn of ʽMonkey See – Monkey Doʼ works better than most of the rest, largely because of the strength of the backing band, but still, the song should perhaps be best enjoyed in its original context, that is, on Michael Franksʼ The Art Of Tea, a first-rate jazz / soft-rock album that most people (including myself) will probably only learn of because of this Ringo cover. Ringo himself is credited for only two songs, co-written with Poncia: ʽWho Needs A Heartʼ, another unremarkable sentimental pop rocker, and ʽOld Time Relovinʼ, another unremarkable sentimental pop shuffle — both songs almost senile in their atmosphere, so you can imagine the warm welcome they must have enjoyed in the generally rejuvenating musical climate of 1978. The only thing worse than that could have been the album closer — the waltz ʽA Man Like Meʼ, by "multi-instrumentalist and photographer" Ruan OʼLochlainn, arranged as some sort of anthemic gospel number but with a very cringy, maudlin attitude.

Overall, the best that can be said about Bad Boy is that it is one of those «disaster albums» where the artist does not seem to give a damn. There are few, if any, signs of depression or desperation; few, if any, signs of a loss of control; and not a single sign of the artist actually understanding what goes on around him and having remorseful fits over this. Taken out of its historical context, Bad Boy is just a mediocre pop album like so many others, no more, no less. It is only because we know that 1978, mildly speaking, was much better than this, and also because we know that at his best, Ringo is actually capable of producing first-rate, energizing entertainment value, that the album remains at the absolute bottom of the pile. But remain there it does, and while it does happen every now and then that I pull out a few long-forgotten Ringo tunes to brighten my mood, no such tunes happen to dwell on Bad Boy. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

Neutral Milk Hotel: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea


1) The King Of Carrot Flowers, Part 1; 2) The King Of Carrot Flowers, Parts 2 & 3; 3) In The Aeroplane Over The Sea; 4) Two-Headed Boy; 5) The Fool; 6) Holland, 1945; 7) Communist Daughter; 8) Oh Comely; 9) Ghost; 10) Untitled; 11) Two-Headed Boy, Part 2.

General verdict: Introducing St. Anne Frank as the Holy Protectress of all vocally challenged indie kids.

[Note: This is a slightly revised and restructured version of an older review that originally appeared in the short-lived Important Albums series.]

For all the solid memories that this album left behind it, there is not a whole lot of significant background to its appearance. In 1998, the world sure as hell was not expecting to be taken by storm by a slightly non-conventional singer-songwriter, armed largely with just an acoustic guitar and a bunch of his trumpet-blowing friends — the taste-based, creatively demanding part of that world was getting accustomed to living in the age of King Yorke and Queen Björk, and the indie kids, I suppose, were mostly happy that the massive «underground sellout wave» of the early 1990s, spearheaded by Nirvana, was finally over and they could now have their new basement idols all to themselves, to be shared and admired in small insider circles. That seemed largely to be the deal with the Elephant 6 bands — largely due to the self-conscious «archaicness» of their sound, as well as an intentional lack of excessive promotion, their fanbase was never too huge, but it was loyal, and critics tended to respect them, too.

Nevertheless, out of all the impressive musical baggage that the Elephants had accumulated over more than two decades of existence, not a single piece of product earned as much retrospective admiration as Neutral Milk Hotelʼs second and last record. Its rise to fame did not occur until sometime around the mid-2000s, by which time it began to be proclaimed as not only the best Elephant 6 album ever made, but one of the best albums of the 1990s and, eventually, one of the best albums ever (and I have even seen with my own eyes written fan claims to it being the best album ever, period). Consequently, it might make more sense to discuss not the background of the record itself (which is largely a personal matter of Jeff Mangumʼs), but the reasons why it took so long for it to break out of the cult classic status into a much more mainstream conscience;  and, indeed, when you confront it with the indie rock scene of the 2000s, everything from Arcade Fire to Beirut and beyond, it is possible to see how it was really somewhat ahead of its time in 1998, and how it would better appeal to an early 21st century conscience than a late 20th century one. But read on to find out.

Almost symbolically, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was recorded at the Pet Sounds Studio in Denver, Colorado, installed there by Robert Schneider — who also continued to serve as producer for these sessions, which took place in the summer of 1997. Although Neutral Milk Hotel had previously been just cover-up name for Mangum, at this particular stage the «band» was officially expanded to include Julian Koster on keyboards, Scott Spillane on brass and woodwinds, and Jeremy Barnes on drums, with all three musicians playing a very significant part and largely responsible for the majority of stylistic changes from On Avery Island. (Several additional musicians are also credited, including Schneider himself on piano and organ, Michelle Anderson on bagpipes, and Laura Carter on a wonderful instrument called the Zanzithophone — I mean, surely you do not expect a band called Neutral Milk Hotel to exist and not to use the Zanzithophone? Itʼs a phonetic match made in Heaven!)
That said, a huge chunk of the album does consist of nothing but Mangum and his acoustic guitar, which is why the «singer-songwriter» moniker can still safely stick around — the bombastic arrangements tend to be secondary compared to the sparsely arranged parts, and the music is largely taking orders from Mangumʼs poetic and artistic vision, rather than vice versa: a vision that was largely inspired by the manʼs immersion into The Diary Of Anne Frank, even if his own reaction to it, as could be expected, was seriously different from the average laymanʼs perspective. Nor is it unexpected that Mangum would disband Neutral Milk Hotel the very same year that the album was released: a perfectly natural move for a certified loner/maverick who feels much better on his own than surrounded by bandmates. The fact that he has made very few public appearances or released any new music ever since only confirms the mystery (and makes him an even tastier object of admiration for the wound-up hipster in need of a holographic companion with a permanently broken heart).

Naturally, the album did not sell much upon its original release; today, however, Billboard charts mark more than 140,000 copies sold as compared to but a measly 5,000 for the recordʼs less fortunate predecessor, and — perhaps not surprisingly — most of these copies seem to be vinyl ones rather than CDs: cool works of art like these should be owned on something more classy (and long-lasting) than a cheap laserdisc. (For even better effect, I do believe that the vinyl LP should be sold in a twin package with a bottle of Domaine De LʼEcu Muscadet — double the charm in an unforgettable mix of pleasure and misery!). Likewise, the amount of panegyrical reviews on professional and amateur websites has been increasing in geometric progression for the past 10 years, pretty much burying the entire Elephant 6 scene under them: poor Robert Schneider (a very cool and talented musician himself) only wishes, I guess, that he could have at least a dozenth part of those accolades, and by now it seems that his case is pretty hopeless. Let us try and see why that is for ourselves.

First things first: it is useless for me to try and pretend to be an admirer of this album — for the most part, its charm fails to work on me, and without that magic touch, its flaws vastly outnumber its virtues, or, at least, are so serious as to throttle its chances of being counted as a masterpiece, let alone «the greatest album ever made». But still, virtues first, and the first virtue of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is this: IMHO (which stands for «in my honest opinion»), Jeff Mangum is anything but a poseur. And, yes, that is an important point. Any dickhead (excuse me) can pick up an acoustic guitar, glue some generic chords together, write some bad poetry, and pretend to be making us all a generous donation of the unique, insightful vibes of his unique, insightful personality. Some of these dickheads might even be lucky to grab a recording contract, and a few are luckier still to get airplay and publicity — and this almost automatically guarantees some sort of fanbase, because people are plenty and people are strange. (Then thereʼs truly magical stuff, like the combination of a dickhead, a beard, and a secluded log cabin... oh, do not get me started). Well, to cut to the chase, I am certainly not Jeff Mangumʼs biggest fan, but he ainʼt a dickhead — ʽEverything Isʼ had already shown us that he has got some talent to burn, and he is not burning it in a conventional, mass-marketed furnace, which usually comes along with the instruction «whine and bleed and mix tears and blood and write IʼM SO VULNERABLE with them on your sleeve» (the recordʼs, that is). He is definitely a more intriguing figure than that.

I am also not going to pretend that I «understand» any of the manʼs intriguing lyrics, or even properly «get» whatever it is for which he is using Anne Frank as a symbol (because, if anything, In The Aeroplane is not a Holocaust tribute, not even a thickly veiled one). I do not think they matter nearly as much as the majority of the albumʼs printed or web-published descriptions would have you believe — in fact, I do not even think that there are any specific «key lines» here, like there are in Dylan songs, to act as primary stimulants, and I do believe it is pointless to make wild guesses about why the boy is two-headed, or why "semen stains the mountain tops" (this seems to be the most commonly debated and discussed line in the whole album, BECAUSE GROSS GROSS GROSS) and what precisely this has to do with the communistʼs daughter. What matters is that he sings it as if it all made sense — with intonations that alternately suggest blunt peasant admiration of some heavenly beauty, unmotivated outbursts of passionate village idiocy ("Jesus Christ I love you" is a prime example — not the words, of course, but the way they are delivered), insistent, tense pleading (the entire ʻOh Comelyʼ is one large tearing plea), and an odd brand of sermonizing, as when you get chased in the street by some crazyass sect member who does not even speak your language too well, but he knows he just got to make you understand, or his soul will be forfeit.

Roughly speaking, this is a sincere album, communicated to us in its own tongue that makes as little sense verbally as it does musically. From a musical standpoint, the one thing that stands out about Aeroplane is its odd stylistic melange — at its heart lie some very simple, very repetitive acoustic guitar patterns, and if the only thing to disrupt them were the occasional breaking out of thick distorted power-pop electric guitar, that would be comprehensible; but much of the time, the music is accompanied with zydeco accordeons, the already familiar New Orleanian brass (the guy was born in Louisiana, after all, remember?), various old-fashioned organ overdubs, and all sorts of disconcerting, disorienting sound effects that give the feel of a hot, damp, lazy afternoon, teaming with organic life but no sense of direction or purpose whatsoever. No wonder that the individual songs are rarely memorable, and the entire record runs on atmosphere/feel rather than actual melodic hooks. Although, admittedly, I would not be so honest if I said the record is completely devoid of them: ʻHolland, 1945ʼ is as good a folk-pop song as any, and would have sounded great on any country-western album with a banjo on my knee. It is certainly the merriest song about Anne Frank ever written, that is for sure, and is bound to send her spirit pirouetting in the sky. (Actually, here is a great idea for an aspiring filmwriter: how about a script where Jeff Mangum dies from a broken heart and goes to Heaven and actually finds Anne Frank and plays her In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and... and...?..)

Anyway, it is pretty easy to see why the record was singled out of the entire Elephant 6 backlog: it obviously makes an effort to suck you inside this guyʼs personality, offering you a certain spiritual vibe to adopt for your own purposes, and it is quite intimate — unlike any track by, say, Apples In Stereo, many of which are musically superior but never convey the impression of «coming straight from the guts». It is more of a singer-songwriter album than a psychedelic pop album, and yet, at the same time, it has enough elements of psychedelic pop to make it superficially more attractive than the average folkie confessional. And although Mangum still comes across as way too normal to truly qualify as «1990ʼs Syd Barrett», there is a definite echo of Syd in him — the aura of childishness, the ability to move from happiness to depression in a twinkle, and that passionate, unquenchable desire to tell you something, make you understand at all costs, even if it is practically hopeless because we do not really speak the same language. And he does that without being too gloomy, like Elliott Smith, or too romantically distant, like Jeff Buckley. I mean, you could probably have this guy as your friend, even if youʼd probably have to keep an eye on him lest he burn down the kitchen or something. Right?

But here come the problems. Let us pick at a single song for starters: to my ears, ʻOh Comelyʼ sounds plain unbearable. Six minutes of musically trivial acoustic strum, accompanied with sincere, but sonically brutal singing from a guy who — let us put it mildly — was not born and reared for this kind of singing; good old Keith Richards couldnʼt have done a worse job than what Mangum does here, especially when he tries to go real high at the end of each verse. Honestly, I do not know about you, but to me, this is plain sonic torture, and I have no idea why I should be enduring it, or why I should respect this awful off-key vocal racket as a symbolic representation of sincere, unadorned suffering. (And I do not even have a proper idea of what he is suffering about — is it horror at Anneʼs fate? or desperation at the fact that she is there and he is here and she canʼt "let her skin begin to blend itself with mine"?).

The thing is, I am as much of a sucker for sincerity and originality as anyone, and I heartily welcome unconventional approaches to singing and playing (I do love Björk, remember?), but the problem with Aeroplane is that its approach is not «unconventional» — it is simply un-existing. There are no special instrumental or vocal techniques that Mangum is cherishing, he simply plays and sings it as it is, to the best of his knowledge and skill, and, well, his best is just not good enough. Most of the instrumental guitar melodies here could be played by a kid after several months of training in folk music, and most of the vocal melodies could be nice if they were sung by somebody who actually bothered just a bit. (And let us not even start on people like Dylan or Tom Waits, who could sing and did it with gusto, unconventional as their approaches were). Worst of all is the inadequacy — if you canʼt, donʼt, but he still does. I do believe that if only these songs were delivered in a more quiet manner, without the man trying to set off a nuclear chain reaction with his vocal cords, they would have produced a more positive impact (in fact, when he is quiet, his voice can even be pretty: the "what a beautiful face I have found in this place..." start to the title track is one of the albumʼs loveliest moments). As it is, he just ruins his own sincere image with this pushing-too-hard trick. Of course, it is not much of a problem if you are tonedeaf (which seems to be quite a regular case with indie kids... okay, never mind), but what about the rest of us?..

Another thing that seriously bugs me is that the sincerity and artistic vision of Mangum is way undercut by the superficial trappings of «cool». Whatʼs up with all those song titles? What do carrot flowers have to do with Anne Frank? For that matter, what has Anne Frank to do with anything, and isnʼt he confusing her with Alice in Wonderland? Why does the lady on the album cover have no face? Why are we supposed to believe that quasi-New Orleanian big band instrumentation provides the perfect interludes between primitive acoustic folk patterns? Where, for that matter, does the artistʼs sincerity end, and at which particular point is it replaced by «empty cool»? Every time I want to trust this guy and empathize with him, he offsets me with some bit of nonsense or other, and, honestly, I just do not have the time or wish to go over that nonsense and interpret it as symbolic wisdom (thereʼs tons of text written on that by amateur admirers over the Web, with hundreds of interpretations that all contradict each other and are just about equally worthless).

Finally, a truly great album is supposed to be irreplaceable within a niche of its own; but at least in purely musical terms, the albumʼs mix of street folk, jazz, and big brass arrangements has certainly been one-upped since by Beirut — and, for that matter, Zach Condon as a romantic loner is hardly that less intriguing than Jeff Mangum, although he is clearly quite the better musician and singer, which is probably why he does not get nearly as much veneration as Neutral Milk Hotel (nor does he torture his voice to generic acoustic guitar patterns). In other words, I just fail to get the exclusiveness of this proposition. Outstanding melodies? No dice (if thereʼs any catchiness here, it is mainly because Mangum has done some folksy homework and seems to be heavily pilfering from folk and country-western). Unique arrangements? Somewhat, but not that unique any more. Haunting vocal tones? You bet — haunting enough to lead one to an early grave. Mind-blowing concept? Couldnʼt really say, and there is something pretty disturbing about the way he slobbers over Anne Frank, to tell the truth. So is there anything left?.. Well, technically, yes, but certainly not enough for me to regard this album as much more than a curiosity, with occasional shots of loveliness scattered across a sea of failures. 

I do know for a fact that many people sincerely love this record, and there is certainly no harm in that (at least, it is definitely less offensive than late period Aerosmith), but it does worry me a little, because the albumʼs musical backbone is really thin, and if its meteoric rise to popularity in the early 2000s really reflects a certain Zeitgeist, it would just show how little people care about the actual music these days, and how much they care about «self-expression», even when the «self-expression» in question is clearly a mystery, and it is hard even to understand when the guy is being sincere and when he is being tongue-in-cheek, let alone be certain of yourself — that you are really getting in tune with whatever it is he is trying to communicate. (This Iʼm saying simply because, no matter how many texts there have been written about Aeroplane, not a single one of them has made me believe that the author truly «gets» Mangum's message — and, as a result of that, that the «message» even exists in the first place).

So why not just take it off the frickinʼ pedestal already, one that even Mangum himself could not probably have dreamt of in his worst nightmare, and just take it for what it is — not one of the greatest albums ever made, but an interesting fusion of the impressionistic singer-songwriter with the starry-eyed psychedelic troubadour, seriously flawed, at times overwrought, more personal and intimate than its Elephant 6 brethren, but much less musically competent than oh so many of them? To quote the (quite undeniably) wise Albert King, "had you told it like it was, it wouldnʼt be like it is". Quite a peculiar situation, really, although far be it from me to hold any kind of grudge against the record or blame Jeff himself for all the inadequate reaction. For consolation, I would like to state that ʻHolland, 1945ʼ at least belongs on any respectable, representative compilation of 1990s psycho-pop or Elephant 6 anthology, and perhaps the title track as well.

Ayreon: Ayreon Universe


1) Prologue; 2) Dreamtime; 3) Abbey Of Synn; 4) River Of Time; 5) The Blackboard; 6) The Theory Of Everything; 7) Merlinʼs Will; 8) Waking Dreams; 9) Dawn Of A Million Souls; 10) Valley Of The Queens; 11) Ride The Comet; 12) Star Of Sirrah; 13) Comatose; 14) Day Sixteen: Loser; 15) And The Druids Turned To Stone; 16) The Two Gates; 17) Into The Black Hole; 18) Actual Fantasy; 19) Computer Eyes; 20) Magnetism; 21) Age Of Shadows; 22) Intergalactic Space Crusaders; 23) Collision; 24) Everybody Dies; 25) The Castle Hall; 26) Amazing Flight In Space; 27) Day Eleven: Love; 28) The Eye Of Ra.

General verdict: Listening to this condensed history of Ayreon in two hoursʼ time will probably not make you a fan. Watching it with your own eyes might do the trick... but perhaps not in the way Arjen himself would want it.

As we all know, Ayreon does not perform live all too frequently... in fact, Ayreon almost never performs live, because he does not have a sufficient budget to feed all the guest singers and to replace himself with a set of live musicians and the fireworks and the dry ice and the big screen with psychedelic visuals and the buckets of chicken blood... okay, could do without the buckets of chicken blood, perhaps, but not without the big shiny robot costumes and all the Star Trek hairdressers. And yet, on the other hand, somehow we saw it coming: all that immense legacy of fantasy had to come out onstage sooner or later.

A first taste had already been presented a couple years earlier, with the audio and video release of The Theater Equation, which, as you can guess, was a theatrical staging of The Human Equation in its entirety. But surely just one measly rock opera cannot cover the breadth and scope of Ayreonʼs vision that encompasses everything that the corny sci-fi genre is capable of. And so, two years later, welcome to Ayreon Universe: a gala-level grand presentation of the entire legacy of Arjen Anthony Lucassen, recorded over two days in September 2017 with the aid of ten musicians and sixteen guest vocalists — including such luminaries as Blind Guardianʼs Hansi Kürsch, The Gatheringʼs Anneke van Giersbergen, Nightwishʼs Floor Jansen, and Katatoniaʼs Jonas Renkse. (Unfortunately, Paul McCartney of The Beatles couldnʼt make it. He was supposed to appear, but they asked him to sing ʽDay Sixteen: Loserʼ, and he took offense at this veiled hint at the artistic failure of Press To Play on the sixteenth year of his solo career).

The setlist, as you can see, tries to justify the album title as much as possible: it puts together highlights from every single Ayreon record, and not one of them seems to be preferred over the others — although, by some strange coincidence, Universal Migrator, which I usually select for my top Ayreon pick, somehow gets the short end of the stick, each of its parts being represented by only one song (and the one song from the first part is not ʽThe Shooting Company Of Captain Frans B. Cocqʼ, which is still probably my single favorite Ayreon track of all time). More than that, it seems to me that they have tried to forge an entirely new, somewhat cohesive, story out of these highlights — at least such is the implication of having a booming-voice narrator intrude from time to time and explain what might be going on. But this, of course, is of more importance to the true fans of Ayreon (all nine thousand of them that were in the audience on those nights) than to somebody like me, who is always more amused by this music than impressed by it.

Many of the songs still have to be significantly truncated — selecting two hoursʼ worth of content from Ayreonʼs 12-hour legacy is a delicate matter — but it is more interesting that at least when it comes to the early material, some of these live renditions sound much better, bypassing some of Ayreonʼs past problems with glossy and stuffy productions, featuring more intricate vocal harmonies, less cheesy synthesizer tones, and livelier drumming. This is, however, the absolute maximum of what I can say about the music — commenting on individual tracks might make it seem like I actually care, which I absolutely do not.

I did watch a couple of video previews that Arjen himself posted on YouTube, and if you are a fan, by all means get this in video rather than audio form, because this is, like, the ultimate in clichéd nerdy fantasy: waves upon waves of guys and girls in black leather and ridiculous sci-fi cosplay gear, miles and miles of long hair waving in the winds of time, and gallons upon gallons of futuristic pomp. Sure, itʼs been that way ever since the invention of progressive and power metal, but if you need an overdose rather than just a simple fix of that, Ayreon Universe is a great bet. Besides, for some reason it makes me happy that a thing like this is at all possible in the modern world — I mean, geeky nerds worldwide deserve their own brand of buffoonery, donʼt they? Truly, this is some Superbowl level shit, I could totally get into Ayreon going out there and having a blast with ʽAmazing Flight In Spaceʼ instead of Beyoncé or Katy Perry. 

Talking Heads: Naked


1) Blind; 2) Mr. Jones; 3) Totally Nude; 4) Ruby Dear; 5) (Nothing But) Flowers; 6) The Democratic Circus; 7) The Facts Of Life; 8) Mommy, Daddy, You And I; 9) Big Daddy; 10) Bill; 11) Cool Water.

General verdict: Nice, diverse, and toothless grooves, more fit for a carefree holiday session than a solid farewell statement. And totally abusive of the chimpanzee stereotype.

Talking Headsʼ last album is often viewed as a compromise of sorts between their classic funky style and the pop-oriented twist of the previous two albums — a compromise that can often be seen within a single track; already at the very beginning, the tribal rhythms of ʽBlindʼ and its avantgarde electric guitar bring back memories of ʽBorn Under Punchesʼ, but the merry merry brass section could not exist without the prehistory of Little Creatures and True Stories. The problem with this interpretation is that, most likely, there was never any conscious decision to reach a compromise. The only decision that there seems to have been was as follows: go to Paris, have yourself a good time, invite lots of friends into the studio, and let fate take its course and guide us into the world of spontaneous bliss.

It is interesting to hear at least one Talking Heads album like this — without the kind of grueling self-discipline and meticulous calculation that their music usually suggests. But interesting does not necessarily equal successful. By letting their hair down and loosening up, the band seemingly lost its focus; and by compromising between the two successful modes of operation they had previously known, they made sure that the funky parts are no longer all that tense and terrifying, while the pop parts are no longer so openly endearing. Of all Talking Heads albums, this is the only one that has no easily discernible face — other than the monkey on the front cover, whose facial expression is a suitable illustration to the point made in ʽThe Facts Of Lifeʼ: «I dare you to think that you are really superior to me, motherfucker!» But if, as that song states, "Iʼm afraid that God has no master plan", then neither does David Byrne on this album; and without a master plan, Naked looks kind of... naked.

This does not mean that the songs are not likable. ʽBlindʼ is driven by a cool, tight groove — it is simply that there is no menace, no bite, no shivery epicness to that groove. It simply rolls along and invites you to dance. Byrne sings something that could be interpreted as a rant against police violence (though the lyrics have absolutely no matching points with the surrealistic video), a Cameroonian guitarist plays a Belew-style outro solo, but... letʼs face it, anybody could have recorded this track — at least, any respectable R&B combo with a good sense of groove. It does not help matters that instead of bringing back Eno, they put Steve Lillywhite in the producerʼs seat — the man partially responsible for the success of Peter Gabriel III and U2ʼs early albums, but also the man behind the disaster of The Rolling Stonesʼ Dirty Work; in any case, for these sessions he decided to keep a low profile, since there are almost no signs of the classic electronic coating that he used to smear on everything he came in contact with. Nothing spoiled — and nothing gained. On the other hand, nobody really knows if Eno could have done anything with this kind of material, either. If there is no cosmic mystique in the embryo, what can you expect from even the most talented of all midwives?

By the time ʽMr. Jonesʼ comes around, it becomes a little more clear what is going on: Naked is not an album of dark frenzy or domestic bliss, but rather one of «cozy sarcasm». Its grooves are nominally sunny and friendly, but offset somewhat by Davidʼs incessant rambling jabs against no one in particular and everyone you can think of. ʽMr. Jonesʼ here might very well be related to Dylanʼs Mr. Jones from ʽBallad Of A Thin Manʼ, except that the something that was happening here long ago is definitely over, and now "itʼs a big day for Mr. Jones, he is not so square". In the meantime, the music has surreptitiously mutated from familiar funk into all-out Latin territory, with no fewer than seven brass players supplying the rucus — all nice and well, but where are actual Talking Heads behind all this?

The nail-that-genre game continues with boppy ska on ʽTotally Nudeʼ, whose message mimicks the Kinksʼ ʽApemanʼ; the Bo Diddley beat on ʽRuby Dearʼ, a song that could have very easily been written by Bo himself (so, again, what is it doing on a Talking Heads album?); and, later on, with more excursions into country and blues territory, revealing that the «return to funkiness», heralded with ʽBlindʼ, was essentially a decoy, and that Naked is a return to nothing in particular. In a way, it represents progress, but blind progress — groping at anything that comes along, as long as the groove can be made playful, sarcastic, and accessible.

The horrible thing is that I like all these songs while they are playing — I just can never shake up any memories of them once they are gone. Nice and tasteful grooves; clever lyrics that poke fun at everything from family values to rich socialites to politicians to Homo sapiens as a whole; clean, but raw production that completely ignores 1988 outside the window and makes the album sound like it could have been made in 2018 — whatʼs not to like? But liking is one thing, and feeling profound, game-changing impact is another. By Talking Heads standards, all of these songs are trifles. ʽThe Facts Of Lifeʼ, which runs longer than everything else, might claim to be an exception — a slow, solemn, epic condemnation of the human race — but the music has such a comic sheen, instead of sending even the slightest hint of doom, that you kind of expect Byrne to slip into Bee Gees-ish falsetto at one point, and that he does. ʽ(Nothing But) Flowersʼ, the second single off the album and probably the most often played one, is another bit of shallow Latin dance that is quite enjoyable (and also continues the «naturalistic» message of ʽTotally Nudeʼ) and just as quickly forgettable.

The biggest disappointment is probably the grand finale: ʽCool Waterʼ is a surprisingly serious, humorless lament about the fate of the underprivileged — arguably the most straightforward social statement on a Talking Heads album ever — and it totally misses the mark. The music is some kind of barely registering indie-folk shuffle that is more Smiths than Talking Heads (not surprisingly since Johnny Marr is in guitar control on this one) and much more monotonous than the average Smiths song; and, as you can probably tell, Byrneʼs vocal style is really no good for direct social indictments in the plaintive genre. As not only the last song on a Talking Heads album, but the last song on the last Talking Heads album, ʽCool Waterʼ is a pretty pathetic way to fizzle out a great career (though arguably not much worse than ʽCity Of Dreamsʼ).

One idea that struck me while contemplating the monkey cover is that less than a year from then, another album with a monkey cover and a monkey theme would begin making the rounds — Pixiesʼ Doolittle — and that, for all it is worth, this was officially the time when Talking Heads would pass the crown of the worldʼs zaniest pop band to Black Francis and his own bass-wielding lady. Once formed, the analogy becomes so strong that it is almost impossible not to compare the pleasant, but tired and unfocused jamming of Naked to the freshness, rawness, and new brand of wit and humor offered by Pixies. And if Talking Heads could indeed be dubbed «the Beatles of New Wave», then this is where they inevitably lose out — even if they may have very well suspected that Naked could become their last album, they did not find it in them to make it their Abbey Road (at best, it became a self-completed Let It Be... a Let It Be... Naked!! har har har). Admittedly, it could have been much worse — they could have been lured away into generic synth-pop, for instance — but still, this is no way for a great band to end its career.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Paul McCartney: London Town


1) London Town; 2) Café On The Left Bank; 3) Iʼm Carrying; 4) Backwards Traveller; 5) Cuff Link; 6) Children Children; 7) Girlfriend; 8) Iʼve Had Enough; 9) With A Little Luck; 10) Famous Groupies; 11) Deliver Your Children; 12) Name And Address; 13) Donʼt Let It Bring You Down; 14) Morse Moose And The Grey Goose.

General verdict: Subtly creative and uncharacteristically bleak — always fun to catch Paul McCartney in one of his less-than-happy moods.

This record opens a brief and somewhat underrated mini-stage in McCartneyʼs musical biography: The Autumnal Season of Wings. It is not just about the album cover, featuring gray skies over London, Paul visibly shivering in his overcoat, and a somewhat battered line-up of Wings, once again reduced to the «core trio» with Denny and Linda after everybody else had split. It is also about the music, which has once again performed an about face and left all of its glam-rock aspirations stranded in the dirt, many miles behind.

London Townʼs generally poor critical reputation is primarily due to the chronological context: 1977–78, with their revolutionary developments everywhere, were not particularly favorable to «dinosaur rockers» (only the Stones somehow managed to make the grade with Some Girls), and a record that did not rock out, stayed away from social issues, and made whatever points it had to make in cute, subtle, inobtrusive ways could hardly make it in the same month that also saw the releases of Patti Smithʼs Easter and Elvis Costelloʼs This Yearʼs Model, among others. As in so many other cases, time has been kind to the album — but not enough for Paul himself, who has pretty much shut it out of his own memory.

Oddly enough, things had started out quite auspiciously: ʽMull Of Kintyreʼ, released as a single in late ʼ77, became one of the biggest songs of its time, as its Scottish overtones and anthemic nature were too overwhelmingly impressive to dismiss — not to mention the Christmas season release, which effectively turned it into a modern substitute for ʽAuld Lang Syneʼ and boosted both sales and confidence. You would really be hard pressed to find a better compromise between Celtic folk and British pop — or a better example of Paul and Dennyʼs collaboration, with Paul providing the pop hook and Denny indulging his folk appetite. Even the bagpipes manage to sound glorious here, rather than traditionally irritating for the non-Scottish ear.

But the triumphant beginning had a less-than-perfect ending, as this particular Tale Of Two Singles ends up ʽWith A Little Luckʼ — or, more likely, without a little luck, since that particular song, in many peopleʼs minds, remains typical of everything that was worst about Wings: cuddly softness, inoffensiveness, sentimentality, and technological dependency — what with its use of synthesizers so reminiscent of all the generic trends of the time. Indeed, this was like a minor inept brother of ʽSilly Love Songsʼ — without that songʼs unbeatable hooks, impressive musical ideas (the bass is nowhere near as melodic and expressive), or endearing arrogance. Perhaps the songʼs biggest fault, in addition to all that, is that it tries to pass itself for an anthem of love and hope, but these anthemic aspirations clash way too harshly with the clinically sterilized production and the central role of generic Seventiesʼ synthesizers. I still think itʼs a good song after all, with a nicely unique central melody line that is pure McCartney — but it definitely could have used a livelier arrangement.

What is really sad is that the (in)famous popularity of ʽWith A Little Luckʼ has pretty much eclipsed everything else you can find on the album — and not only does it feature a wealth of interesting, less-than-trivial ideas, but it has a general vibe of its own: the slightly cold, damp, quiet, foggy vibe of an autumnal morning after a solid night of steady rain ("silver rain was falling down upon the dirty ground of London Town"). Calm sadness, light melancholia, friendly introspection, shy reclusiveness — with the occasional exception of a more straightforward rocker or too, London Town clads you in rags, puts you under an umbrella and puts you out in the street to observe frequently less-than-happy pictures of everyday life. It is as much anti-glam as Venus And Mars was pro-glam: the perfect hangover antidote to a few years of drunken glitz. And it has a kind of depth to it that was really lacking in the previous two records.

I like to think of ʽLondon Townʼ as a sort of subconscious remake of ʽPenny Laneʼ — another gentle piece of solitary life inspection with equal parts love and pity for all of its characters. I am not even sure that its base melody is objectively worse than ʽPenny Laneʼ: it simply has a slower, lazier, less emotionally pinching vibe, which kind of makes sense if we are talking ten years later. It is also being more realistic about its dreams of escapism: the bittersweet "Oh, where are there places to go? / Someone somewhere has to know" conclusion to each verse stresses just how impossible imaginative escapism has become. Listen closely to the song, and in time you will discern a disturbing streak of gloom under its superficially soothing keyboard coating — a streak of gloom that sets the defining tone for the entire album.

Take the very next song, the slightly funkified dance-rocker ʽCafé On The Left Bankʼ — which, admittedly, takes us from London to Paris, but the general autumnal vibe does not change much. Right-wingers might want to interpret it as a rant against the emerging globalization ("English-speaking people drinking German beer, talking far too loud for their ears"), but it really sounds more like one desperate manʼs commentary on the pointless fuss of socializing, and everything about the song, from the minor chords to Paulʼs wailing vocals to the frantic solo (still played by Jimmy McCulloch), screams «panic!», which is not what you usually expect at all from a song centered around Parisian nightlife.

Another piece of weirdness is the ʽBackwards Traveller / Cuff Linkʼ medley — one short mid-tempo pop rocker about an "ancient wool unraveller" busy "sailing songs, wailing on the moon", one slightly longer gruff funk instrumental with a nagging, but memorable sinister Moog riff pushing it forward. Why are they together? What is their significance? What does he mean when he says that "Iʼm always going back in time"? Whatever it be, I really like how the two pieces complement each other: I would guess that ʽCuff Linkʼ probably began life as a random experi­mental jam (like ʽZoo Gangʼ or one of those other classic era Wings instrumentals), but then, in an Abbey Road-esque move, they associated it with this little snippet about time travel so that the mystery quotient could go up a notch, and it does.

Then thereʼs the oddness of ʽGirlfriendʼ. Allegedly, Paul wrote it specially for Michael Jackson, but ended up recording it first, one year prior to Off The Wall. If you only heard the Jackson version, you will think of the song as a feather-light sentimental ditty — and that is precisely the way it begins in Paulʼs version as well. But Paul adds an extra middle eight section, after which comes a guitar solo that begins by imitating the vocal melody — then, all of a sudden, takes a 180-degree turn into dark, bleak, mope-rockish territory for a few bars, before trotting back to safe, fluffy territory. If there is a better comparative example of why Paul McCartney is a great songwriter, while Michaelʼs primary talents are in other departments... well, there is no better comparative example. It is precisely this ability to surprise and stump the listener, even in small details like these, that elevates Paulʼs Wings-era stuff above most of his «soft rock» competition.

Foggy doom-and-gloom stuff accumulates even denser as the album reaches the midway point. ʽWith A Little Luckʼ notwithstanding, the two best tunes on the second side are ʽDeliver Your Childrenʼ and ʽDonʼt Let It Bring You Downʼ — both co-written with Denny (who also gets lead vocals on the former), both featuring titles that seemingly advocate for hope even as the music throughout remains painfully depressing. ʽDeliver Your Childrenʼ, not coincidentally bearing an uncanny melodic similarity to ʽRichard Coryʼ (which Denny, as you remember, sang on the Wings Over America tour), is a speedy acoustic folk-rocker with some of the most cynical confessional lyrics you can ever find on anything McCartney-related — fast, tight, tense, bitter, with a vocal arch on each verse that begins on a note of hysterical desperation and ends on one of gloomy disillusionment. Special praise goes to the bass-heavy acoustic solo that takes all the points stated by the vocal melody and emphasizes them fifty-fold. Arguably, this is the very best song Denny Laine ever wrote — and I never really know if it is a good thing or a bad thing that it is so deeply concealed in the cracks of a not-too-popular McCartney record. Probably good, since it still has a bigger chance of discovery than Dennyʼs solo version.

ʽDonʼt Let It Bring You Downʼ, another highlight, is a slow, stubborn, frigid waltz whose lyrics propagate hope in the face of seemingly unsolvable problems, but whose music is one of the most vivid portrayals of a broken-hearted person wallowing in his own pain. The quietly nagging, monotonous electric guitar part that accompanies the main acoustic riff throughout the song (and is only allowed to break into a real solo in the coda) hangs in there like some dull toothache that refuses to let go; the counterpoint flute riff breaks in from time to time like some ancient Greek funeral march; the quietly mournful tone of Paulʼs falsetto is the epitome of bleakness. If I knew nothing whatsoever about chronology, I would have easily made a blind guess that the song was recorded for Driving Rain, Paulʼs answer to Lindaʼs death — as it is, he happened to write the most convenient song about the harshest event in his life twenty years before the fact.

In between all these subtle emotional peaks, London Town places lighter elements, such as the fairly straightforward pop-rocker ʽIʼve Had Enoughʼ (which could just as well have been written around 1963), the somewhat gross send-up vaudeville number ʽFamous Groupiesʼ (one of those songs that would today earn a death sentence from the cultural police), and the nostalgic Perkins-meets-Vincent rockabilly tribute ʽName And Addressʼ. These are all nice, but something special; the albumʼs true wildcard is ʽMorse Moose And The Grey Gooseʼ, a frantic mix of disco rhythms, prog noodling, folk harmonies, and nonsensic lyrics that ends the whole thing on a note of total confusion and disarray — a far, far cry from the melancholic tranquility of ʽLondon Townʼ. I am not a big fan of this track (it lacks both the apocalyptic overtones of ʽ1985ʼ and the sorrowful absurdism of ʽMonkberry Moon Delightʼ), but it does show Paul trying to apply creativity and imagination to new musical formulae, rather than just doing it the common way on tracks like ʽGoodnight Tonightʼ.

In the end, London Town might take more time to grow on you than is usual with Wings, but its autumnal charms easily make it, perhaps, the second most intelligent Wings album after Band On The Run. If you are not convinced, play it side by side with something like Pipes Of Peace, just to see what it is that separates an inventive McCartney record from a flat and formulaic McCartney album. It may be so that its very «grayishness» and persistent melancholy have blocked Paul from revisiting any of its songs in concert, or maybe he just remembers it as the single most Denny Laine-dependent project of his life; whatever be, London Town deserves to be dusted off and properly enjoyed — particularly on those gray, dull, rainy days on which you are tempted to wonder if itʼs all really worth it.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Cher: Dancing Queen


1) Dancing Queen; 2) Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight); 3) The Name Of The Game; 4) SOS; 5) Waterloo; 6) Mamma Mia; 7) Chiquitita; 8) Fernando; 9) The Winner Takes It All; 10) One Of Us.

General verdict: Yes, it is an album of ABBA covers by Cher. Yes, that which hath been done is that which shall be done, and there is no new thing under the sun.

It is so heartwarming to see ABBA, after all these decades of critical despisal, stand loud and proud on the pop pedestal as icons of melody and emotion to the new generations of the 21st century, and to hear their songs constantly rediscovered and reinvented by fresh, young artists bursting with talent and energy... oh wait a minute.

Yes, just like you, dear reader, I do not have the slightest idea as to why this album came into actual existence in this particular universe — some sort of quantum aberration, no doubt. Cher did appear in the sequel to Mamma Mia!, where she performed a couple of songs, but the distance between a brief role in a musical and a full album of cover tunes is substantial, and the only incentive to cover it that I can think of is financial: since, apparently, these days anything ABBA-related is almost bound to turn to gold, Cher and her producers must have jumped at this oppor­tunity to make a Cher album sell. Not that Closer To The Truth didnʼt sell, but it had been five years since that one made the grade, and in 2018 an old pop diva is not expected to succeed unless she gets a duet with Nicki Minaj, and apparently Cher does not get along with Nicki Minaj, so whatʼs the alternative? Get along with Benny and Björn.

The recipé for the record is fairly simple and consistent. First, assemble a good bunch of solid ABBA hits — God forbid you grab a song that is somehow not on ABBA Gold, each tune must be a single with a solidly established commercial reputation. Second, re-record them as close as possible to the original versions, but modernize the production a bit: replace some of the guitars with keyboards, put more emphasis on the harsh bass for extra danceability, replace the old-fashioned drums with electronic percussion... strangely enough, though, this «modernization» does not give the impression of being particularly «modern», but rather reflects the sophisti-level of Cherʼs own work around the age of Believe. I mean, do modern kids really continue to dig the umts-umts techno beats that were all the rage twenty years ago? Somebody got stuck in a time loop, and it ainʼt the ABBA time loop.

Anyway, third and last and rather predictable part of the recipé is that it all gets to be sung by Cher — who herself is following the rules of the game and trying to very faithfully reproduce all of Agnethaʼs and Anni-Fridʼs lines and intonations, sometimes with a little help from the trusty old Autotune, but more often not. With powerhouse anthems like ʽDancing Queenʼ it kind of works; with stuff that requires more subtlety, like ʽS.O.S.ʼ and ʽThe Winner Takes It Allʼ, it most definitely does not. It hardly matters, though: successful or not, this is all about reproduction rather than reinterpretation. And why anybody in this whole wide world should care about a 70-year old Cher reproducing a bunch of hits from the 1970s is beyond my understanding. (Minor correction: ʽOne Of Usʼ at the very end is reinterpreted as a piano and orchestral synth ballad, subtracting the rhythm section of the original — not a suitable change, in my opinion, since the rhythm was one of the songʼs strongest attractions).

Surprisingly, the album not only sold really well, but also found favor from the critics, a fact that I can blame neither on political correctness nor on the old Cher voodoo. More likely the people just do not give a damn any more — like, hey, this is a new record, and it has some great songs on it, and the singer isnʼt too bad. Who cares if there are all those old originals still lying around? Who cares about comparing? Who gives a damn about anything when you can just dance, you can jive, having the time of your life?

It makes me a little sad that, apparently, Benny and Björn themselves were involved in the project and are listed as co-producers. But they are the same age as Cher, and it is likely that they, too, do not give much of a damn anymore. It is much more instructive, however, to realize that, as of 2018, we live in a world where a random record of ABBA covers, as long as it is carefully marketed as «brand new», can make it all the way to #3 on the Billboard charts. From now on, I shall be impatiently waiting for The Osmonds to release Strange Magic, an album of cover versions of ELO hit singles; and for Sha Na Na to produce Weʼve Only Just Begun, finally giving The Carpenters their long-awaited dues. But in reality, the possibilities are endless here.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Neutral Milk Hotel: On Avery Island


1) Song Against Sex; 2) Youʼve Passed; 3) Someone Is Waiting; 4) A Baby For Pree; 5) Marching Theme; 6) Where Youʼll Find Me Now; 7) Avery Island / April 1st; 8) Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone; 9) Three Peaches; 10) Naomi; 11) April 8th; 12) Pree-Sisters Swallowing A Donkeyʼs Eye.

General verdict: Lo-fi singer-songwriter stuff with psychedelic overtones — the doctor may have ordered this back in 1996, but it is unclear just how long it is going to last.

Recorded in Denver and produced by Robert Schneider of The Apples In Stereo (Schneider is also the second most important musician on this record after Mangum, despite never having been an official member of Neutral Milk Hotel), this is Mangumʼs first and next-to-last fully fledged LP — whose title is a geographical reference to Louisiana, but whose music is anything but, unless one counts the musicʼs overall loudness, bragginess, and occasional use of the trombone as an indirect or subconscious tribute to New Orleans.

On Avery Island never quite reached the level of critical or fan adoration that would be heaped on its follow-up, but truly the only difference between it and Aeroplane is that it is expectedly less ambitious — well, less ambitious on everything but the final track, a 14-minute long drone whose actual musical content could be summed up in twenty seconds: I think that even most of Mangumʼs most devoted admirers would, at best, mutter something about the possible conceptual importance of this piece, and that it takes a very special kind of person to sit through the trackʼs main «ringtone-on-endless-loop» section even once, let alone twice. I have no idea what Mangum had against The Pree Sisters, a short-lived musical outfit that released a few long-forgotten soft pop singles in the early 1970s, but if the composition does really convey the effect of swallowing a donkeyʼs eye, I advise everybody to stick to larksʼ tongues instead.

With that silly piece of «letʼs-find-out-what-that-button-does-while-weʼre-still-young-and-stupid» crap out of the way, what we are left with is about 35 minutes worth of real music that is a very good reflection of the mid-1990s indie spirit: worship of the psychedelic Sixties + in-yer-face lo-fi values + cryptic post-modernized lyrics + non-trivial annoying personality tottering between mental instability and narcissism. One listen to the album is well enough to understand that Jeff Mangum is not your usual average person, and that he is very talented; many more — in my case at least — are needed to get a feeling of what it is that he actually has a talent for.

It would be very difficult to find an argument for melody: pretty much all of these songs seem to be constructed from fairly time-honored chord sequences that Mangum must have lifted from his heroes. Thereʼs a little Dylan here, a little Donovan, some Syd Barrett, a bit of Fairport Convention, perhaps (or any other Celtic folk-influenced band from the past), and quite a bit of The Incredible String Band, though Jeff could only wish for the kind of musicianship that Robin Williamson and Mike Heron demonstrated in their prime. And since most of the arrangements are quite similar — the usual trick is to have a clean acoustic guitar ringing in one channel and a heavily distorted semi-acoustic in the other — it takes quite a while to learn the differences between the songs, other than «fast» and «slow».

A few of the numbers try to incorporate elements of poppiness, like the opening ʽSong Against Sexʼ, but while on Everything Is the future direction was not yet quite clear, On Avery Island makes it perfectly obvious that, despite hiding behind a «band» moniker, Mangum clearly tries to model himself after the singer-songwriter pattern (quite unlike his pal Schneider), and many of the tunes are slow confessional ballads whose effectiveness fully depends on Mangumʼs words and Mangumʼs sonic clothes for said words.

The words, ultimately, are what matters: Mangum comes across here as a skilled and curious lyricist, able to find fresh ways of looking at birth, life, love, death, and whatever shit might lie in between. Letʼs face it, not just anyone is able to express oneʼs feelings with lines like "Someone is waiting to swallow all the halos out of you" or "And I love you and I want to / Shoot all the super heroes from your skies", regardless of whether you find this imagery pretentiously stupid or amazingly witty. It is not as if any such word-weaving has not been tried before, but it seems to me to be a much better reflection of Mangumʼs own individuality than whatever musical back­ground he tries to set these words to. Much of it feels like improvised streams of consciousness, where it is useless to try and decipher every line (unless you have a degree in psychology) but useful to latch on to occasional keywords and key phrases that represent the lyrical heroʼs journey through the ups and downs of life.

Interestingly, at this point the ups still seem to outweigh the downs — quite a few of the songs, like ʽNaomiʼ, are straightforwardly psychedelic love serenades ("Iʼm hoping she will soon explode into one billion tastes and tunes"), though still somewhat offset by the love-and-hate relationship that the lyrical hero has with himself ("my emptiness is swollen shut"). On Avery Island is still quite obviously a record by a person who likes to see the world in colors rather than whine about how nobody else does, which is, by the way, a circumstance that makes me more at peace with Mangumʼs voice on this record than on the follow-up — although he still isnʼt much of a singer (or a player... or a composer... but yep, he is an artist all right). For that reason, the album still has some officially certified ties with the Elephant 6 movement, and I guess it can be legitimately brought out with you to a picnic site or something.

A few of the songs are psychedelic instrumentals, most notably ʽMarching Themeʼ that sort of sounds like a ton of Scotsmen on amphetamines (spoiler: amphetamines win by the end), and ʽAvery Island / April 1stʼ, whose half-pop, half-baroque trombone solo by Rick Benjamin might be the most purely musical moment on the entire album. They do work primarily as interludes, though, just in case you happen to forget that this is a psychedelic experience and not just a set of impressionistic songs about moms, sons, girlfriends, and bathroom reflections. On the other hand, it is hard to take that statement seriously when the very first track on the album is called a ʽSong Against Sexʼ — insert the required joke about how difficult it really must be to get laid when you are making this kind of music in the first place — anyway, whoever in his right mind would make an anti-sexual psychedelic album?..

If you did not get this already, I do not think that On Avery Island is a particularly good album. Mangumʼs poetry deserves attention, but it is hard for me to understand how this manner of presenting it could be endearing to anybody who was not 16–18 years old at the time when it came out. The biggest deficiency, though, is the personality. You could argue, if you really wanted to, that composition-wise, the stuff on Syd Barrettʼs solo albums was nothing to write home about either, but the combination of childlike innocence, deep melancholia, and drugged-out immobility in his voice was haunting even when the material was rotten. Mangum never had the same sad, terrifying magic in his voice, and for the most part, his singing is very neutral: not too pretty, not too awful, nothing in particular (except when he wrings out his higher notes, which can be murder on sensitive ears). In the end, it all comes down to the right attitude in the right chronological context — and geographical, too, so you might really want to read up on your Avery Island history before committing to this experience.