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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Paul McCartney: Back To The Egg


1) Reception; 2) Getting Closer; 3) Weʼre Open Tonight; 4) Spin It On; 5) Again And Again And Again; 6) Old Siam, Sir; 7) Arrow Through Me; 8) Rockestra Theme; 9) To You; 10) After The Ball/Million Miles; 11) Winter Rose/Love Awake; 12) The Broadcast; 13) So Glad To See You Here; 14) Babyʼs Request.

General verdict: An album that sounds like it was made to be hated; whether you will cash in on the hatred or not depends on how much respect you have for pure and shallow melodic craftsmanship.

Here it is — the album that was supposed to triumphantly open a new era for Paul McCartney and Wings, and instead ended up rather embarrassingly closing an old one. With new band members Laurence Juber on second guitar and Steve Holley on drums, by mid-1979 Wings were fully back on track as a self-sufficient rock band, and although it was probably futile to hope for the same type and scope of reception that the band enjoyed in 1975–76, Paul was definitely set upon thrusting it back into the spotlight, now competing for popularity with disco, punk, and New Wave acts rather than glam- and prog-rockers from half a decade ago.

The infamous marijuana bust in Japan brought those plans to a halt, but while the bust is often mentioned as the main reason behind the dissolution of Wings, something tells me that the main reason must have rather been a combination of the colder-than-cold critical reception and relative commercial failure of Back To The Egg, multiplied by the ten days that Paul had spent in Japanese prison and by the refreshing experience of working solo once more on McCartney II after the arrest. Over the subsequent decades, Paul would pretty much disown Back To The Egg entirely: not a single track from the record would reappear in his live shows, even when he began digging back into the depths of his catalog to haul out forgotten nuggets (though he did re-record ʽBabyʼs Requestʼ for Kisses On The Bottom). Ultimately, it looks like the record eventually convinced him that the format of a pseudo-democratic rock band with stadium ambitions would no longer be in demand in the Eighties — or ever after, for that matter.

Now it is very, very, very easy to condemn, ridicule, despise, and just shrug off Back To The Egg as a typical exercise in «blind dinosaurism» — 35-year old fart with zero relevance for the changing times, trying to fit in without properly understanding and cleverly assimilating all the new developments. The single biggest problem with the album is that it really wants to succeed at everything: Paul wants to do the arena rock thing like Boston or Foreigner and he wants to do the smooth dance-pop thing like Hall & Oates and he wants to do the punk thing like the Buzzcocks and he wants to do the retro-vaudeville thing, too. In short, he wants to do so much of everything that the only thing he clearly forgets to do is to be himself — meaning that Back To The Egg has exactly zero of the despondent charm that made London Town so special. It is more of an exercise in genre-hopping, an oddly grotesque theatrical show that is downright impossible to empathize with on any level.

One thing and one thing only explains why, despite all of its troubles, the album has always had the potential to be fun and still retains it: in 1979, Paulʼs knack for churning out memorable and inventive hooks was still fully intact. Each and every one of these songs is a solid piece of work in its own right, able to get by through the sheer power of well-fitted musical chords. There is nothing like the hope-through-despair atmosphere of a ʽDonʼt Let It Bring You Downʼ, nothing like the get-on-your-feet-and-begin-life-anew attitude of a ʽJuniorʼs Farmʼ, nothing like the hypnotizing minimalistic innocence of a ʽLet ʽEm Inʼ — nothing, that is, that elevated the best of Paulʼs solo output from the status of generic pop music to the «proudly carrying the badge of an ex-Beatle» status. But even as generic pop music, Back To The Egg is anything but a collection of boring stereotypical patterns.

As a first example, take ʽOld Siam, Sirʼ, the heaviest rocking song on the album that was also released as the lead single from the album. It is slow, bulky, and overproduced; it features a screech-based vocal performance that might be more annoying than exhilarating; it has odd lyrics that try to be half-comical, half-dramatic but could instead be construed as clumsy and racist (though, arguably, telling a tale of a Thai hookerʼs adventures in the UK is hardly racist by itself: itʼs just that Paul ainʼt no Lou Reed when it comes to telling tales from the wild side). But even with all these sins, its leaden see-saw riff is physiologically unforgettable — and its symphonic bridge, pumping the air up with more and more tension until it finally explodes in your face, is a cool musical invention on its own. There are probably ways in which one could turn the song into an actual masterpiece — fiddle with the production, change the words, find a more threatening attitude with the vocals — but this is such a glaring triumph of form over substance that, as it sometimes happens, form becomes substance, and I simply forget about any obvious or intended original purposes for the song and get into the groove as if it were doom-laden or something.

On the other side of the equation, we have ʽArrow Through Meʼ — a song that commands attention already in its first fifteen seconds, during which Paulʼs spiraling bassline really conveys the feeling of «arrowing» through something, leaving a fuzzy taint of humming synth noise in its track. As the rhythm section steps in, we understand that this is just a slightly disco-ified track for a cheesy midnight dance with your current passion, but it is still hard to resist the infiltrating power of the vocal melody, and even in these circumstances, Paul still has a surprise for you in the form of an almost Stevie Wonder-like anthemic brass riff coming in for the middle section and stealing the day. Hardly a true feast for the feels, but sometimes it feels cool to sing along to it and picture yourself as this cartoonish smooth seducer.

Or take the much-maligned experiment of ʽRockestra Themeʼ, in which Paul packed a ton of super-powered musicians, including Pete Townshend and David Gilmour, in the same room and then made them all play a fairly simple theme in unison, as if posing an experimental question: «would a composition like that sound any different if all the players were guitar greats rather than average session players?» I honestly do not know the answer to that question — to answer it properly, we would need to have it re-recorded by an army of hacks — but what I do know is that ʽRockestra Themeʼ is fun. It sucks, it is a failure, it is a musical joke rather than a musical storm, but I like that theme — it puts Paul back in his thunderous ʽLive And Let Dieʼ mood, and it totally works as, say, a potential opener for a football game, with plenty of pumped-up power but no Queen-style pathos whatsoever.

Whenever you go on this album, be it on the soft side or on the hard side, the proverbial Egg always cracks up exactly the same way — the songs do not mean all that much, but it is hard to get them out of your head after a couple of listens. Even a veteran listener like myself, who likes to pick up on all the faint signs of mystery and psychologism in seemingly «shallow» McCartney tunes, has a hard time fishing anything truly serious from this collection. The only exception to the rule, though it might be surprising to hear that, is the brief acoustic interlude ʽWeʼre Open Tonightʼ — it has always sounded weird how this little jingle, formally just a terse announcement that "weʼre open tonight for fun, so bring all your friends come on", is set to the same acoustic chords as the coda to Genesisʼ ʽDancing With The Moonlit Knightʼ and, in a way, shares some of its melancholic gorgeousness. Like, what is the meaning of setting this kind of announcement to a bit of music that sounds more like a meditative invocation of the Lady of the Lake? This is one mystery about this album that I have never been able to solve — too bad itʼs just one, where, for instance, London Town had at least half a dozen of those.

On the other hand, in terms of true disappointments I would have to admit that Back To The Egg really sags in the sappy department. Almost two-thirds of the record are squarely in the rock or at least the power pop idiom, and it is only towards the end that Paul remembers how he has not yet properly serenaded anybody and lets loose with a cannonade of mini-ballads — a two-track, four-song medley — and all of them are quite subpar, be it the high school prom wooing of ʽAfter The Ballʼ or the dark brooding of ʽWinter Roseʼ, unconvincingly followed up by the cheery optimism of ʽLove Awakeʼ. It all reminds me of the closing medley on Red Rose Speedway, except that the songs were far better fleshed out and more coherent than these raw snippets. Even so, I still could not accuse the snippets of being utterly devoid of genius; it is simply that they do not penetrate deep enough, and it might not even be their own fault as much as it is a combined failure of incorrect sequencing, unsatisfactory production, and occasional blunders such as singing ʽWinter Roseʼ in a strangely unnatural, hoarse tone that mars the impact (perhaps Paul just had a sore throat on that day, but surely he was in no rush?).

Another quibble — and, perhaps, one that is at least partly responsible for Wingsʼ demise — is the unexpected seppuku of Denny Laine as a credible songwriter. From Band On The Run and all the way to London Town, he kept on showing signs of occasional brilliance, from the epic runs of ʽNo Wordsʼ to the folksy gloom of ʽDeliver Your Childrenʼ; and his share of writing steadily went up from album to album, so that you might have expected him to strike some gold on Back To The Egg as well. Instead, he comes up with but one song — and that song is ʽAgain And Again And Againʼ, an exercise in intentionally moronic arena-pop whose sarcasm, if there is any, is easily lost on the listener. Perhaps he took the title of the album too seriously and decided that it was time to get back «to the roots», meaning writing a song from the perspective of a horny Fiftiesʼ teenager — but that was a long time ago; at least if he made it sound like Gene Vincent, I would understand, but he makes it sound like a soft-rock version of Slade, and this attitude just does not work for Wings at any time.  

But petty issues aside, Back To The Egg still finds its way into my listening list from time to time, which is so much more than I could say about Pipes Of Peace or Press To Play — unlike the former, it does not try to replace strong hooks with corny sentimentalism, and unlike the latter, its experimental nature does not allow to define it as «McCartney trying harder than necessary to not be McCartney». Once you have dealt with the obvious — namely, that this is the most psychologically shallow record that Paul had released up to this point — you are still left with the option to enjoy it for what it is (which kind of brings it close in nature to the Stonesʼ Emotional Rescue from about the same time, although Back To The Egg is still better). And when, after all the pointless turmoil, the curtain falls on the hush-hush, cuddly, lovable vaudeville piece ʽBabyʼs Requestʼ, it feels like there still definitely is some life around — so try to stick around with this guy for at least the next few years and see if he succeeds in redeeming himself...

Monday, April 29, 2019

Cheap Trick: Christmas Christmas


1) Merry Christmas Darlings; 2) I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day; 3) I Wish It Was Christmas Today; 4) Merry Xmas Everybody; 5) Please Come Home For Christmas; 6) Remember Christmas; 7) Run Rudolph Run; 8) Father Christmas; 9) Silent Night; 10) Merry Christmas (I Donʼt Want To Fight Tonight); 11) Our Father Of Life; 12) Christmas Christmas.

General verdict: Not so much a ʽChristmasʼ as a ʽmeta-Christmasʼ album — whether this is enough to make it artistically interesting is another matter, though.

Whatʼs an Elder Statesman of pop/rock without a Christmas album? Absolutely nothing, so it seems; thus reasoned Zander and Nielsen, enriching the bottomless pool of already released Christmas gifts (I swear, even if you limited yourself to rockers alone, you could have yourself a non-stop Christmas soundtrack throughout the whole year without repeating). The basic model remains conventional — take Christmas-related songs written by other artists and put your own unique spin on them. In the case of Cheap Trick, we are, of course, talking a bottle spin — hard liquor preferably, but cheap champagne will do just as well, provided it fuels you hard enough to annoy the hell out of your neighbors and throw all the empty bottles over their garden walls.

That said, there is a slightly unusual decision here that makes the record stand out among its peers. Namely, the cover material here consists not so much of golden Christmas standards (ʽSilent Nightʼ is the sole exception) as it does of Christmas songs written by rock artists over the past half century or so. Zander and Nielsen go through their dusty LP shelves quite meticulously, honoring Chuck Berry (ʽRun Rudolph Runʼ), the Kinks (ʽFather Christmasʼ), Roy Wood (ʽI Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Dayʼ), Harry Nilsson (ʽRemember Christmasʼ), the Ramones (ʽMerry Christmasʼ), and even, ugh, Jimmy Fallon (ʽI Wish It Was Christmas Todayʼ). This does make for a somewhat special Christmas experience — you could even say that the band is trying to make an ambitious move towards uprooting the fossilized canon and building up a new, far more modern one in its place. They are bound to fail, of course, but it never hurts to try.

On the listening rather than overthinking front, the album is straightforward rockʼnʼroll fun — nothing less and nothing more. Zander is in good shouting shape, Nielsen is in good hellraising shape, the rhythm section is stable, and if you are too young for the authentic Chuck Berry sound, this heavy-driving, thick-muscled version of ʽRun Rudolph Runʼ might become your favorite instead. But on the other hand, having artists as diverse as the Ramones, Wizzard, and the Kinks reduced to pretty much the exact same sonic formula can rather quickly wear you down (though, for some strange reason, on ʽMerry Christmasʼ Zander adopts a more Johnny-Rotten-type than a Joey-Ramone-type persona — something I could understand if he was British, but last I checked, Illinois was still closer to Queens than to London).

The monotonousness only breaks down on ʽSilent Nightʼ, when the rhythm section goes away and Zander sings the track as a gospel anthem, backed mostly by thick feedback from Nielsenʼs power chords (think Metal Machine Music-lite — very lite); and, later, on the self-penned ʽOur Father Of Lifeʼ, where Nielsen switches to acoustic and the vocals are provided by a childrenʼs choir while Zander goes to the bathroom. Both are pleasant enough diversions, but they will not detract us from generalizing the recordʼs spirit — this is, after all, the kind of Christmas album that is meant for somebody whose goal on Christmas is to visit each single open bar in his part of town and then pass out one minute before midnight, so as to not have to go through the ʽAuld Lang Syneʼ ritual, because who the fuck needs that, really.

Summing up: this is a record that I will probably never listen to ever again (not for Christmas, not for anything), but at the very least it does its best to avoid opening its bare chest to the throwing knives of sarcastic criticism. They probably should not have recorded it, but they have not tainted their reputation by recording it — the track selection is a neat (cheap) trick that allows them to save face at the last moment.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada


1) Moya; 2) Blaise Bailey Finnegan III.

General verdict: The subtle, but important transition from cowboy post-rock to symphonic post-rock.

This relatively short (ultra-short for GY!BE standards, actually) EP tends to get lost between the two monumental albums that surround it, but it doth have its place in the bandʼs history — its two tracks are quintessentially transitional between the mournful ghosttown soundscapes of F♯A♯∞ and the monumental tsunamis of Lift Your Skinny Fists. Admittedly, if you are not a major fan of the band, it is skippable; but if you ever wondered about any «missing links» on the way from out there to over here, Slow Riot is just the thing to supply you with the necessary evidence.

ʽMoyaʼ, the track named after the bandʼs guitar player, is arguably the very first «trademark» crescendo in GY!BE history — slowly growing out of a half-harmonious, half-dissonant pool of drawn-out cello and violin chords and eventually werewolfishly transforming itself into crashing barrages of shoegazing guitar pandemonium. All it lacks to ascend the heights of Lift Your Skinny Fists is the production: overdubs and echoes have not yet been mastered to the level where they become subconsciously associated with Olympic gods. (I would also add that the hook potential of the riffs and drones is weaker than whatever would come to be, but this is subjective).

The second track largely milks the same kind of groove, except that this time the proceedings are occasionally interrupted by field recordings — this time, we get a guy who goes under the moniker of ʽBlaise Bailey Finnegan IIIʼ, complains about the evil nature of The System, and then reads one of his «poems» that happens to be a variation on the lines of Iron Maidenʼs ʽVirusʼ (written by their then-current vocalist Blaze Bayley). This is good, actually — it shows that the band has a subtle sense of humor, and that their social agenda had not completely turned them into one-track minded zealots. Other than that, the track is twice as long as ʽMoyaʼ and therefore allows itself not one, but two crescendos — the two-crescendo thing would become standard for Lift Your Skinny Fists — before slowly and smoothly fizzling out with Gorecki-influenced romantic string passages.

The most important step forward is that Slow Riot pretty much drops any signs of «dark country» that were so prevalent on the first album, instead opting to take most of its inspiration from two sources — shoegaze and contemporary classical. By doing this, GY!BE make a serious claim to universal rather than regional appeal — and, as it would soon turn out, set the stage for their masterpiece, though at this point it is not yet clear if they are truly capable of one. After all, both tracks set pretty much the same mood and achieve the same goal with the same means (crazy guy rambling on the second track notwithstanding). But even at this point, nobody else in 1999 really had the guts and the means to pull off anything on this grandiose kind of scale.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

David Byrne: Rei Momo


1) Independence Day; 2) Make Believe Mambo; 3) The Call Of The Wild; 4) Dirty Old Town; 5) The Rose Tattoo; 6) Loco De Amor; 7) The Dream Police; 8) Donʼt Want To Be A Part Of Your World; 9) Marching Through The Wilderness; 10) Good And Evil; 11) Lie To Me; 12) Office Cowboy; 13) Women Vs. Men; 14) Carnival Eyes; 15) I Know Sometimes A Man Is Wrong.

General verdict: More or less what happens when you relocate a consummate NYC dweller to Havana or Rio de Janeiro, and then force him at gunpoint to blend in with the locals. Except thereʼs no gun.

Well, looks like it took our friend David a decade and a half of artistic work to get to the main point of it all, which he bravely states in the opening lines of the opening track of his official full-fledged solo debut: "Now and then I get horny — at night you do". Like, we could only guess previously that all that incredible Talking Head bliss was just sublimated expression of pent-up sexual energy, because there was no way in hell that a guy like David Byrne could ever hope to get laid; and, funny enough, how coincidental is it that the bandʼs music began to calm down and smooth out at about the same time that the man finally started dating? (Honestly, though, I have no idea when or how David lost his virginity, and I donʼt think I want to know).

Anyway, itʼs not like Rei Momo is any more specifically autobiographic or confessional than any other Talking Heads or solo David Byrne album; it is simply that with age comes a natural desire to get more serious, philosophical, and introspective, and what better way to involve you in your philosophical conceptions than by saying "we know what will make us happy, we know what will ease our pain"? ...and no, he ainʼt talking about universal peace or transcendental meditation, if you know what I mean. There does seem to be a fairly strong theme of male / female relationship running across the entire record — even the sequencing of the titles matters, from ʽWomen Vs. Menʼ to the tellingly closing ʽI Know Sometimes A Man Is Wrongʼ — but surely this is nothing new to those who had been following David through the years and seeing him gradually mellowing out and morphing his lyrical hero from paranoid asshole to quirky penitent.

What is somehow, if not definitively, new about Rei Momo is Byrneʼs decision to fully embrace the trend of «world music» and make a record that would go beyond carefully synthesizing Anglo-American pop genres with musical styles outside of that region and simply dive into that style pool head first. This time, though, his primary inspiration would be Latin America rather than Africa: each song on the album is based on one or more traditional dance genre from the Caribbean or Brazilian area, ranging from common forms like samba or cha-cha-cha to ever more rare variations (like the Puerto Rican mapeyé). Assisting him in this endeavor is, predictably, an enormous bunch of South American musicians — I counted around 50 names in the credits — and, for some reason, the English-Scottish singer Kirsty MacColl, who largely just sings back­ground vocals but does so on at least half of the tracks. Perhaps David thought that a random Transatlantic touch like that was just the right flourish on the way to total perfection.

With this kind of record always naturally comes the question — does the artist do this in a perfunctory manner, driven more tightly by an intellectual desire to step out of his comfort zone and pay a liberal tribute to the «underdog section» of the planet, or does he do this out of actual untainted emotional love for this kind of music that came to him naturally and without any sort of preplanned calculation? In the hypersensitive world of the 21st century, both types of situations are often indiscriminately confused and slapped with the unwashable stigma of «cultural appropriation», one of the most stupid terms that the art of political correctness has ever come up with; but any truly reasonable person would point out that only the first type deserves proper castigation — though, admittedly, it may be very hard to objectively distinguish between the two without a very detailed study of the matter.

Rei Momo should probably remain on the safe side. After all, it represents a fairly natural evolution of Byrneʼs musical tastes — in fact, there is a very smooth road that leads to it from Naked, which, in turn, is the logical successor to True Stories and Speaking In Tongues, and so on. Admittedly, the wholesale shift to Latin America is a bit unexpected, but since most of those genres are rooted in African music as well, it may have been only a matter of time before David switched from Fela Kuti to Jorge Ben as a major source of inspiration. And even if, this time around, the instrumental tracks bear no traces whatsoever of Talking Head history, the vocals and the words attached to the vocals certainly do. Think of this as a situation where The Byrne City Dweller is suddenly forced to relocate from his NYC comfort zone to the hot open spaces of Rio de Janeiro, where they do not typically play any of that gringo rock music.

It certainly helps that quite a few of the songs are still well written and work fine as intelligent pop songs with hooks rather than meaningless dance grooves where rhythm, energy, and hot sex drive is all that matters. Not that there ainʼt plenty of rhythm and energy in these grooves, but I think — far from being an expert on samba, mambo, and salsa — I think that if you really want to shake your booty off with vehemence, you are much better off with the real thing, your possible lack of knowledge of Spanish and/or Portuguese notwithstanding. Here, the samba and mambo rhythms, while done professionally and authentically, are still subjugated to ideas of melodic hooks and catchy choruses on subjects that are quite far removed from the typical lyrical subjects of Latin American pop music (i.e. love, poverty, revolution, and more love). But there is also something about Byrneʼs voice and personality that makes it a natural fit for these arrangements, something that could not have been provided by the likes of, say, Mick Jagger or even David Bowie, whose inescapable Englishness would definitely mar the landscape. Byrne, with his fairly cosmopolitan voice and the ability to combine college-style intelligence with hyperbolic emotionality, fits this musical costume like a glove.

Take something like ʽDirty Old Townʼ, for instance. It is a friendly salsa, with all the expected brass and percussion support you could ask for, but its memorable chorus is the same old mix of desperation and hope that we still remember from Little Creatures and its anthems such as ʽRoad To Nowhereʼ: "We wanna live in a dirty old town / Building it up, tearing us down" — the music and the lyrics help each other nicely, the former supporting the latter with good rhythm and energy and the latter ennobling the former in much the same way as, say, Bob Dylanʼs lyrics around 1963 helped enliven and deepen the traditional folk patterns.

Some ideas seem to just come out of nowhere, but are still fun: ʽThe Dream Policeʼ, for instance, is a personal favorite of mine — a cute, leisurely cha-cha-cha number with a delightfully seductive brass riff at the center, and, for no reason at all, a vocal delivery that has to count as one of the sweetest Big Brother confessions on record: "We are the watchdogs of your mind / We are the dream police", rendered in the sexiest falsetto that Mr. Byrne is capable of. Yes, I think he just woke up one morning and thought, «hey, wouldnʼt it be cool to write a song about dream control and set it to a Cuban dance track?» (No offense to Fidel Castro intended, Iʼm sure). Some tracks could actually trigger a different kind of police in our times — ʽOffice Cowboyʼ, a pagode by definition, seems to be about sexual harassment at the workplace, at least in the beginning, before the lyrics take an even whackier turn. Some are about Lord-help-me-if-I-know-what, like ʽRose Tattooʼ, which may refer to the Tennessee Williams play, but may as well absolutely not; in any case, the sentimental, but bitter-powerful chorus is impressive enough even if you do not understand a word of it.

I could not honestly admit that any of the tracks is singularly overwhelming; the synthesis works in general, but the songs flow so smoothly that nothing in particular stands out. I tend to favor the «darker» bits, such as the slightly sinister atmosphere of ʽWomen Vs. Menʼ ("no one knows how it started / and God knows how itʼll end / the fightinʼ continues / women versus men" seems to have majorly increased in relevance since 1989), but if you are not on your third or fourth attentive listen, you might not even notice that there are bits that sound more sinister than others. In any case, Rei Momo as a whole is a success — it may have been somewhat arrogant for Byrne to crown himself as the King of the Carnival, but it is his personal carnival, after all, and if fifty or so musicians from those fine traditions all agreed to take part in his social, philosophical, and (figuratively!) sexual fantasies, we may assume, with reasonable safety, that it wasnʼt all about the money. A fun experience overall, although it also confirmed that Byrne would never again be returning to the fight for awesome monumentality — not with the Heads, not on his own. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

George Harrison: George Harrison


1) Love Comes To Everyone; 2) Not Guilty; 3) Here Comes The Moon; 4) Soft-Hearted Hana; 5) Blow Away; 6) Faster; 7) Dark Sweet Lady; 8) Your Love Is Forever; 9) Soft Touch; 10) If You Believe.

General verdict: An album about finding inner and outer peace — turns out all you need is a good woman, a nice sports car, a holiday in Waikiki, and, uh, the Lord by your side, of course.

This is the story of a man named George. He had married a beautiful woman once, but she left him for his best friend, and his world broke down. The only thing that could comfort him is that it was a rotten, stinking, disgustingly material world in the first place, and he kept going around telling this to everybody until people really got tired of it and began avoiding him in the streets, saying "there goes the anti-material George again, save yourself who can!" He even lost his voice over it, and when they brought him to court to defend himself over a song he stole from a girl group, he couldnʼt articulate properly, so he lost the lawsuit.

But then one day this poor man named George met another beautiful woman, and suddenly, life was not so gloomy and depressing any more. She bore him a son. They got married. The awful, repulsive material world began to look like Godʼs marvelous creation rather than just a bunch of illusive temptations to lead one astray. Holidays in Hawaii, travels with Formula 1, peaceful domestic bliss... everything was right again, and so this is where our story winds up with a happy ending. As a postscriptum, the man named George went into the studio and recorded an album about it all, which he appropriately called George, because it symbolized the beginning of a whole new life. His salvation IN the material world, not FROM it.

The result is almost too sweet: not even 33 & 1/3, Georgeʼs most relaxed record so far, was that openly bursting with happiness and cuddliness. Fortunately, with total sincerity being Georgeʼs main weapon at all times, there is never any feeling that this cuddliness is being somehow forced on you; and even more fortunately, Georgeʼs songwriting instincts were still functioning quite well at the time, so that at least half of these songs have unique catchy bits that will help store that cuddliness in your brain cells until you become fully at peace with it.

Take ʽLove Comes To Everyoneʼ, the opening manifesto whose message is already perfectly expressed in the title. Its verse-a-chorus is really just one long, winding, twisted, and smoothly resolved musical phrase that pushes you, the grumpy depressed listener, inside a musical glass retort and pops you out at the other end in a purified and redeemed state of mind. "Go do it / got to go through that door / thereʼs no easy way out at all" indeed, but "still it only takes time / ʼtil love comes to everyone". Cheesy, but admirably so. Even Steve Winwoodʼs Polymoog solo seems to send up psychedelic rainbows in the air. But what really clinches the deal is the overall production: somehow, despite all the overdubs, the song sounds as if it was recorded in Georgeʼs backyard garden, very cozy and homely.

Ditto for ʽBlow Awayʼ, the lead single from the album; a little more conventionally divided into strict verses and choruses — the former slowly floating, the latter picking up the tempo to an almost ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ-ish effect — it pretty much makes the same point. I remember first hearing this song on a best-of compilation, back when most of my solo George experience was restricted to All Things Must Pass and Living In The Material World, and thinking, «wow, somebody has really gone all soft and cuddly on this one» — yet even despite all my natural teenage alergy to saccharine, there was something about the vibe and the pacing that made it perfectly acceptable for the rebel heart. The only thing that still irritates me is the exaggerated simplicity and the intentional repetitiveness of the chorus — thereʼs only so many "all I gotta do is to love you"ʼs that one can deliver before overstating the point. (Word from the wise: if you want to repeat the same chorus twice in a row, at least take the trouble to write different words for each bar. Itʼs not like you have to be a Bob Dylan to succeed or anything).

Both of these songs essentially count as universalist messages, which very much warranted their release as singles; however, Georgeʼs gratitude to the one who saved his life should have also been expressed in a more personal manner — the bulk of Side B consists of three love serenades in a row whose exhibitionist nature cannot be denied. They hardly count among Georgeʼs best ballads — the vocal twists of ʽDark Sweet Ladyʼ make it sound too much like a variation on ʽLearning How To Love Youʼ from the previous album; ʽYour Love Is Foreverʼ is too slow, takes too much time to develop, and is never properly resolved; and ʽSoft Touchʼ, true to its name, has a much too relaxed Hawaiian vibe to be seriously viewed as much more than a good soundtrack to a frozen daiquiri. But all three songs still present you with additional occasions to enjoy Georgeʼs guitar tricks, the honest beauty of his (now cured) singing voice, and a slick, but natural production style, unspoilt by any trends of the era: since the overriding goal here is intimacy and sincerity, any toying with contemporary fashions would have ended in a disaster.

This «happy diary» approach is only interrupted thrice. ʽFasterʼ is a somewhat unexpected ode to Formula 1 — perhaps it was bound to come sooner or later, given Georgeʼs preoccupation with the subject, but in any case it does not properly hold up, looking more like a belated realization of a personal fetish than an actual musical success. ʽSoft-Hearted Hanaʼ, another reflection of the trip to Hawaii, is more of a comical vaudeville interlude in the spirit of Georgeʼs beloved Monty Python — fun, and well in line with the overall light-hearted tone of the album, but nothing to keep around in your back pocket on cold and lonely winter nights, so to speak. Still, both songs do their best to vary the flow of the album in general, and anything that reminds us about Georgeʼs interests other than «love of God» and «love of my wife» is at least theoretically welcome on any album of his — some day, I guess, they will just have to release a George Harrison Sings About Secular Matters compilation to battle the stereotypes.

The really odd number in the sack is ʽNot Guiltyʼ, a long-forgotten (though not by loyal fans and trusty bootleggers) outtake from The White Album whose reasons for resurrection at this particular point in time kind of evade me. A decent tune that suffers from a somewhat clumsy construction of the vocal melody (probably the reason why it was rejected in 1968), it shares the desperate, world-weary attitude of ʽWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsʼ and would have fit in much better on something like Extra Texture, perhaps even scoring a whole extra (texture) point for that album. Most likely, this was simply done on a whim (George was going through some old tapes while writing his autobiography); be it as it may, the song curiously disrupts the albumʼs flow much the same way as ʽIʼm Losing Youʼ disrupts the mood of Double Fantasy, on which see more below — fortunately, since both songs are strong in their own right, the disruption causes no permanent damage, but rather helps offer a window into another part of life that is generally excluded from our listening pleasure.

Last, but not least, is the somewhat infamous ʽHere Comes The Moonʼ, a song whose title really does all the talking and this is a bit sad — it is very evocative in its own right, with George trying as hard as possible to paint a musical picture of the starry skies, but in the end it really "looks like a little brother to the sun", that is, to ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ, merely an honest reflection of one person peacefully contemplating heavenly beauty, rather than a veritable anthem to resurrection and rejuvenation. Ironically enough, the message of ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ, a song written in 1969 at a time when the smiles were actually doing anything but returning to the faces, was at no other time more relevant to George than in 1979 — and yet in 1979 he was no longer capable of writing a song with that particular kind of power, no offense intended to the likes of ʽLove Comes To Everyoneʼ or ʽBlow Awayʼ.

One last curious observation is that George happened to reach that state of domestic musical bliss almost at the same time as John — just a wee bit earlier, which almost makes one wonder if listening to George Harrison could not have become one of the incentives for John to go back into the musical world (and get killed, so here is a great way to spin the thread all the way back and blame Johnʼs death on George, if you have a knack for exploring conspiracies and/or causalities). Indeed, this is Georgeʼs own equivalent of Double (well, single, in his case — George, of all people, had the good taste to never let his wives get involved in his music) Fantasy, and comparing his reflection of peaceful domestic bliss with Johnʼs is an interesting topic in its own right. One observation that can be made is that Johnʼs approach is far more egocentric and introspective — Double Fantasy is really all about himself (even Yoko is primarily regarded in her John-altering function), whereas George Harrison, curiously, is all about describing the beauties of the world around the describer. Indeed, the «quiet Beatle», despite his reputation for shyness and reclusiveness, has always preferred to cast his gaze around and observe, whereas the «rowdy Beatle» was far more prone to cast those looks inside his own soul.

But neither of these approaches has a monopoly on greatness, and if the songs on George Harrison ultimately lose out to Lennonʼs material on Double Fantasy (in my opinion), it mainly has to do with the amazing fact that John had somehow managed to retain his sharpness and strength, while George is acting totally relaxed here — the entire record sounds as if the artist never got out of his hammock while recording it. Which does work relatively fine this time around, admittedly, but would soon backfire when George would try the exact same trick for Gone Troppo.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Cheap Trick: We're All Alright!


1) You Got It Going On; 2) Long Time Coming; 3) Nowhere; 4) Radio Lover; 5) Lolita; 6) Brand New Name On An Old Tattoo; 7) Floating Down; 8) Sheʼs Alright; 9) Listen To Me; 10) The Rest Of My Life; 11*) Blackberry Way; 12*) Like A Fly; 13*) If You Still Want My Love.

General verdict: By-the-book power pop that is only recommendable to those who listen to nothing but power pop.., but who ARE those people, anyway?

I seem to recall that sometime around the release of Bang, Zoom, Kerplonk Nielsen and Zander went on record, proudly proclaiming that they are going to put both their peers and the youngsters to shame by returning to the time-honored custom of releasing a new album each year — a pro­mise that they overkept in 2017 by releasing not one, but two albums, and then broke in 2018 by not releasing anything that year... so it sort of evened out, and now we will have to see how well it goes in 2019, and whether they will have to bring in any more relatives to help keep up. But in any case, their ability to keep up is not the point. The point is that no amount of grueling self-discipline can bring back the magic if the magic is no longer in the air.

One really good thing that I can say about this period in Cheap Trick history is that they have seemingly locked themselves into this never-win-never-lose mode where, as long as they keep pushing in this manner, they are never going to release anything that is not loud, fun, and in generally good, old-fashioned rockʼnʼroll taste. Gone forever are the days of The Doctor and other awful projects where the band was forced by the times to sound like musical clowns drowning in makeup. Unless, of course, they repeat the same kind of blunder and decide to «modernize» their sound by embracing trap and outsourcing their songwriting to Max Martin — but something tells me that if this has not happened in twenty years, there is absolutely no reason for it to happen now. The guys are just having fun making their own music, purely and sincerely, and I am very happy for them.

The only problem is, none of these songs mean anything. Breaking the Beatles / Stones cycle, the boys here have come up with another loud, headbanging album — rocker after rocker after rocker, the only point of all these rockers being to raise the roof and nothing else. I do not even care to bother remembering where all those riffs come from: off the top of my head, ʽLong Time Co­mingʼ plainly rips off The Kinksʼ ʽAll Day And All Of The Nightʼ (hey, itʼs more than fifty years old, who the hell remembers it anyway?), ʽRadio Loverʼ uses the chords of AC/DCʼs ʽThunder­struckʼ (or, if not, then some other AC/DC song for sure), and the aptly-titled ʽBrand New Name On An Old Tattooʼ is strikingly similar to Aerosmithʼs ʽSight For Sore Eyesʼ... but, again, the devil here is nowhere near the details, it is simply in the fact that songs which used to count as filler on Cheap Trickʼs classic albums — songs that had nothing but the most basic rockʼnʼroll drive and acted as fun interludes in between the somewhat more meaningful stuff — now form the basis and essence of any Cheap Trick record.

Hilariously, midway through the record it looks like somebody actually realized the problem and slapped himself across the wrinkled forehead — "hey, these songs of ours really all sound the same now, we gotta do something about it quick!" — and so they threw in ʽFloating Downʼ, a mega-clichéd psychedelic pop song if there ever was one (heavy phasing on guitars, multi-tracked falsetto vocals, the word ʽfloatingʼ in the title)... too bad it still ends up sounding more like Boston meets The Beatles rather than just The Beatles, period. But we have a remedy for that, too! The next one, ʽSheʼs Alrightʼ, actually sounds like The Beatles circa 1965-66, though, for some reason, with Dylanish rather than Lennonish vocal intonations. But then it is back to business, and ʽListen To Meʼ once again dips into Angus Young waters.

The expanded version of the album, with three more bonus tracks, has a passable cover of The Moveʼs ʽBlackberry Wayʼ (for the small surviving bunch of Cheap Trick fans who have forgotten what the original sounded like) and a song called ʽIf You Still Want My Loveʼ — which makes about as much sense as seeing Paul McCartney include a song called ʽEleanor Rigby Got Marriedʼ on his latest album. (I know I should rather be talking about the music, but I cannot remember a thing about that darned song, other than that it was cumbersomely slow).

Do not get me wrong: I liked the record — it rocked my presumably rockist boat and everything. But I do not believe, not for one second, that Nielsen and Zander, even at this respectable old age, are incapable of coming up with something at least a wee bit more interesting. Mind you, I donʼt want much, I just want a little bit — a teeny-weeny bit of songwriting that is not entirely based on rehashing classic riffs, lyrical clichés, and pompous attitudes. They still had that extra bit going for them as late as Rockford; it is pretty sad to see them transformed into this stereotypical rocking machine — even if the machine is still well-oiled, and even if, I am guessing, they have fairly few competitors in the old-fashioned power pop genre who could outdo this kind of quality in 2017. But In Color and Heaven Tonight still have a good chance at becoming temporarily immortalized; Weʼre All Alright!, despite its arrogantly self-referential title (and, partly, because of it), seems to have been forgotten a few days after its release. 

Friday, April 5, 2019

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: F♯A♯∞


1) The Dead Flag Blues; 2) East Hastings; 3) Providence.

General verdict: Fifteen Canadian bohemians mixing modern classical, industrial, and ambient with dark country — and creating one of the most convincing, if a bit overdrawn, sentimental goodbyes to the old world.

Curiously, GY!BEʼs debut exists in two completely different versions. The first, shorter one, was originally released on vinyl in August 1997; a year later, as the band had started generating some buzz, a Chicago-based indie label offered to release the record on CD, and this was used as a good pretext to not only extend the running time by about twenty minutes, but also swap around some of the individual sections and, most importantly, completely re-record everything. I have not heard the original vinyl release (and, doubtlessly, there must be people around who would swear about its being superior), but I would like to put off this experience for now, at least until the time when Godspeedyoublackemperology is formally introduced as a new Liberal Arts discipline. Besides, this is GY!BE we are talking about; their whole point is about being big, big, big, so a 40-minute version of a 60-minute album seems almost insulting.

Although F♯A♯∞ is not nearly as ambitious, multi-layered, and intricately crafted as the bandʼs later output, it is still one of those records that has to be heard just once to fully understand what these guys are all about and would go on to be all about. The musical approach embraced here, and then refined and perfected on subsequent albums, is something I could only define as maximalist minimalism — a term that I have so far only encountered applied to interior design, but for lack of a better equivalent, let us drop it here and see what happens. Actually, what does happen when you take a bunch of twenty or so musicians, most of whom are quite far away from virtuoso standards, but are still driven by the desire to create something grand and unforgettable? Thatʼs right — maximalist minimalism happens.

The three tracks into which the CD version has been organized feel seriously more crude and disjointed than the bandʼs future output; and, frankly speaking, some of the sections, particularly the ones that consist of field recording samples, are fillerish and bring the total a bit closer to the insufferable «anything-goes» ideology of performance art. But these are forgivable sins as long as you can develop and maintain the feeling that, essentially, GY!BE know very well what they are doing — taking certain kinds of anti-music (so to speak) developed by the likes of Talk Talk or Slint, expanding them into drawn-out, slowly expanding epics and using them to paint a picture of Earth where life as we know it has pretty much ceased to exist. If anything, F♯A♯∞ could be envisaged as the perfect soundtrack to Cormac McCarthyʼs The Road (which had not even been written yet, but talented people at the border of the millennium tend to think in similar directions).

"The car is on fire, and thereʼs no driver at the wheel, and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides, and a dark wind blows..." When an album opens on a single bent note of synthesized gloom and this kind of not-too-cheerful narration, you could probably expect the music to take a quick turn into either soft Gothic darkness or harsh doom metal. But this is not exactly what those quirky Canadians had in mind. The intro to ʽDead Flag Bluesʼ is essentially a dark country waltz, lightly crossed with baroque elements (represented by the cello pattern, presumably played by Norsola Johnson, though in the case of GY!BE, I am always afraid to associate specific instruments with specific people — Iʼm pretty sure even the album credits might be occasionally wrong, with so many people coming and going all the time). The second section, ʽSlow Moving Trainsʼ, consists of actual sounds of trains over which they slap distorted string samples — so that the moving trains might come across as fuzzy memories or hallucinations rather than the actual experience. ʽThe Cowboyʼ brings back the country blues sound with a vengeance, painting a soundscape dominated by violins and slide guitars; and the ʽOutroʼ brings back the waltz tempo, with soothing xylophones and peaceful violins to end the day.

The singularity of it all lies precisely in the fact that they are establishing a mournful, somber, desolate mood with the same means that are typically used to establish its opposite. The only vocals on the entire track are contained in the introductory narration — which seems to be coming out of a tape recorder, just to confirm the suspicion of nobody left alive. Everything that comes next is the musical equivalent of a vast, desolate panorama where you can still see traces of manʼs activity on this planet, but with man itself thoroughly removed from it. Itʼs like records are still spinning, musical boxes are still grinding, carousels are still rotating, trains are still moving, but in creepy, ghostly, inertia-based ways. It is very important that «solo voices» are almost completely absent from the music — even when a single instrument actually steps out from the overall mass, like the slide guitar in ʽCowboyʼ, it moves carefully and slowly in well-planned and predictable patterns, so as not to spoil the impression of total mechanicity. The end result is a very realistic, believable picture of «soft apocalypse» — heck, just take a stroll through a random American ghost town, and this soundtrack will come very much in handy.

ʽEast Hastingsʼ, coming fresh off the trails of ʽDead Flag Bluesʼ, is not nearly as revelatory in comparison to its predecessor, but the ʽSad Mafiosoʼ part is important in that it contains the first of what would soon become GY!BEʼs trademark crescendos: this one is fairly short and a bit fussy, but already does the job well, with the strings, guitars, and percussion gradually gaining in intensity and speed until the whole thing starts furiously rolling off the hill at hundreds of miles per hour and finally crashes head first into the start of the ʽDrugs In Tokyoʼ section. The parts that surround it, however, are somewhat too minimalistic and field-ish to deserve any special analysis — like, for instance, ʽBlack Helicopterʼ pretty much does exactly the same thing as ʽSlow Moving Trainsʼ, and so on.

ʽProvidenceʼ is essentially more of the same: a quick dialog about the end of the world, a tragic dissonant violin dialog that gives way to a doom-soaked crescendo (ʽDead Methenyʼ), a ghostly vocal interlude that segues into a short bolero-style passage (ʽKicking Horse On Brokenhillʼ), and an industrial noise finale that unexpectedly samples the "where are you going?" line from the Godspell musical — as if there werenʼt enough religious references in the previous narrations already. (If you stick around for a few minutes of silence, there is also a hidden outro track, but it is nothing particularly special — just another stereotypical crescendo).

In the end, it all boils down to the question of whether this debut effort truly deserves its length, and this, in turn, boils down to the question of how one is supposed to experience the experience: sit back and give it your full attention? treat it as background music and let it surreptitiously influence your conscience? smoke a joint and lie under that big shady tree in your back yard? crank it up to eleven and blast it from your living room windows to give all the neighbors a solid chance at an epiphany? The first of these approaches would not be very productive, because at this point, the band has not yet properly mastered all the fifty shades of post-rock that would appear on their subsequent releases; any of the other three, however, might be quite promising in comparison.

Overall, since this is easily the single most «roots-influenced» recording this band ever made, I think that the people who could prefer it over their later, more heavily acclaimed releases, are those who have a prior penchant for rustic Americana, with the emphasis on the ʽrustʼ in ʽrusticʼ, if you see what I mean. None of these end-of-the-world references really work in turning F♯A♯∞ into a properly cosmic-psychedelic experience, but this is not necessarily a flaw: sometimes contemplating a broken-down vehicle rotting away in some gutter can put you in a much more eschatological frame of mind than reading the Book of Revelation, and this is quite comparable with the effect that these softly sad sonic panoramas set out to produce. Where a contemporary masterpiece like OK Computer would lament the oncoming dehumanization of society, F♯A♯∞ is, instead, a lengthy dirge for the depopulation of empty spaces — both Radiohead and GY!BE, then, use progressive elements to complain about the side effects of progress, but do so from different angles and in vastly different ways. And, of course, OK Computer is a far more accessible (since it is song-oriented) record, but still, even with all its flaws (such as too many field samples in place of more melodies), feel free to add F♯A♯∞ to the list of cool, serious, thought-provoking, innovative late-Nineties releases that gave this short period of music-making a distinct face, the likes of which — who knows? — we might not be seeing again until the year 3000 appears on the horizon.