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Friday, May 17, 2019

David Byrne: Uh-Oh


1) Now Iʼm Your Mom; 2) Girls On My Mind; 3) Something Ainʼt Right; 4) Sheʼs Mad; 5) Hanging Upside Down; 6) A Walk In The Dark; 7) Twistinʼ In The Wind; 8) The Cowboy Mambo (Hey Lookit Me Now); 9) Monkey Man; 10) A Million Miles Away; 11) Tiny Town; 12) Somebody.

General verdict: Back to a normal routine of churning out smart pop statements — but without any big surprises, unless an emphasis on vague sociopolitical commentary actually counts.

This is a very nice sounding record, but if there ever was one moment where you could very clearly state that David Byrne had ceased to be an advanced creative force in the world of pop music, then the appropriately titled Uh-Oh, coming just three months after the official dissolution of Talking Heads, is the best candidate for such a moment. There is no doubt that David wanted to make this record, that it still captures him in a state of enjoying and nurturing his personal muse, but it looks like the days of having wild sex on the kitchen table are over, and we are now at the stage of courtly, leisurely, and regulated lovemaking in the bedroom.

A lot of this still sounds like Rei Momo, except that now David does not press the issue: Latin American associations are absent from the title, from the cover, and from most of the individual song titles and lyrics (with the exception of ʽCowboy Mamboʼ which isnʼt even a mambo). The musicianship is very mixed, with a large crowd of Brazilian, American, and European players involved in the sessions; and the overall spirit is still quite carnivalesque with an occasional darker streak, but the song structures veer more closely to the traditional pop in the same way it was on Little Creatures — no amount of lively brass overdubs can mask that.

Actually, at least some of the songs, in some subtle ways, are more creative and thought-provoking than the ones on Rei Momo. Thus, ʽNow Iʼm Your Momʼ, opening the record, is a song about sex change, in which Byrne not only manages to present the entire spectrum of views on that issue (from critical to embracing), but also makes the melody go through corresponding mood shifts, from harsh menacing funk in the verses to happy nonchalant pop in the chorus, not to mention a musically brilliant instrumental passage in which several polyphonic horn overdubs seemingly try to musicalize the «birds and bees» metaphor. The only thing that prevents the song from becoming a true classic is the exact same thing that is now common for Byrneʼs material: an invisible feel of «fluffiness», a sense that Byrneʼs sweet falsetto on the "birds and the bees" chorus is not exactly the man at his deepest. But if we can somehow bypass that problem for Paul McCartney, I guess it can eventually be bypassed for Byrne as well.

Or perhaps not, because when it comes to songs with less complex time signatures and fewer shifts in tonalities and more straightforward lyrics, it is hard to rate them anything higher than «passable fun» — ʽGirls On My Mindʼ is just such an example. Davidʼs excited and perturbed singing tone on that one makes it look as if he is trying to recapture the inspiration from the early days of Talking Heads (and, for that matter, it is hardly a coincidence that Uh-Oh apes the start of the title of the first track of Talking Headsʼ debut album), but where songs like ʽUh-Oh, Love Comes To Townʼ were introducing a brand new sound and a brand new artistic way of looking at the world, ʽGirls On My Mindʼ is now just an inferior variation on a very old strategy, and could be construed as a misguided attempt at self-aggrandizing from an old perv, rather than the mental confusion of a young city dweller, incapable of understanding or controlling his urges. Not that it ainʼt still fun — even an old perv deserves compassion — but, you know, anybody who has girls on his mind is probably capable of writing a toothless song like this one. (For comparison, it takes some real teeth to write something like, say, Oingo Boingoʼs ʽLittle Girlsʼ!).

That said, it is hard to find serious individual flaws with most of the songs as long as they are playing. The playful madhouse of ʽSomething Ainʼt Rightʼ with its crazy cicada whistles. The subversion of the Bo Diddley beat on ʽSheʼs Madʼ, and the songʼs eventual transformation from a paranoid rocker into a sentimental Latin dance. The creepy vaudeville of ʽA Walk In The Darkʼ, which sounds like a song Byrne might have written for Alice Cooper before deciding he could have his own way with it just as well. The possible dylanism of "I ainʼt gonna work here no more" at the start of ʽA Million Miles Awayʼ. The odd muezzin modulations in the middle of the otherwise still-latinized ʽTiny Townʼ — aw shucks, really quite a few of these tasty moments that make it all seem worth the while.

It is just weird how quickly they tend to slip away from memory once the album is over — per­haps it is just a matter of not being able to get thoroughly enthralled by these time signatures and big band arrangements. Another nagging suspicion is that, as the years go by, David wants to share more and more of his accumulated political wisdom with us, and though he takes extreme lyrical care so as not to sound too preachy or straightforward, ʽTwistinʼ In The Windʼ is still an inescapable rant against political bigwigs and ʽMonkey Manʼ is still a rant about the mistreatment of war veterans (remember, the album was released right after the Gulf War), and somehow it feels like fairly shallow pickings for a character of Byrneʼs level of depth. It happens to us all — he was probably undergoing the same loss-of-sharpness phase here that occurred, for instance, in Ray Davies sometime in the early Seventies — and it did not hit David as harshly as it hits many of us, but still, thematically Uh-Oh feels like a walk in the park next to, say, Fear Of Musicʼs trip through the most inner depths of your subconscious.

Nevertheless, tripping through your subconscious is not necessarily incompatible with a pleasant walk in the park — and for those who thought, for instance, that Rei Momo was OK, but placed too much emphasis on the Brazilian carnival thing, Uh-Oh might turn out to be the superior proposition. At any rate, it has excellent production, features enough diversity, is sufficiently smart, funny, and sentimental in places, and profoundly offends the Church with its album cover: what else should one look for in a solo David Byrne album?

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Paul McCartney: McCartney II


1) Coming Up; 2) Temporary Secretary; 3) On The Way; 4) Waterfalls; 5) Nobody Knows; 6) Front Parlour; 7) Summerʼs Day Song; 8) Frozen Jap; 9) Bogey Music; 10) Darkroom; 11) One Of These Days; 12*) Check My Machine; 13*) Secret Friend.

General verdict: A brave experiment in which Paul demonstrates that the Eighties might not be the best decade for him to keep up with trends and fashions.

Although Paulʼs first official solo album of the post-Wings era was released only in May 1980, most of the actual recordings were from the summer of the previous year; it is interesting, and quite telling, that he apparently had no intention of making them public before the Japanese bust and the souring of relations with his Wings companions. The solo sessions, recorded at his private studio in Sussex, were just a small part of Paulʼs, let us say, playful and erratic behavior throughout 1979 — beginning with the rather silly and somewhat tasteless flirt with «cocktail lounge disco» on ʽGoodnight Tonightʼ (far from the best of his singles) and ending with the rather silly and somewhat tasteless flirt with «Sesame Street electronica» on ʽWonderful Christ­mastimeʼ, which, by the way, was the only one of the 1979 solo recordings that he actually decided to release in 1979.

As the thought of seriously going solo once again crept into his mind sometime after (or, who knows, maybe even during) Tokyo jail time, he decided that it would be OK to return to the recordings he made earlier, rather than starting anew. This made the entire experience a little less improvisational and spontaneous than the recording of the original McCartney, but the two albums definitely share something — like the willingness to offer the public a rawer, less glossy side of himself, where pop perfection could be sacrificed for the sake of an extra personal touch and an atmosphere of friendly intimacy. What definitely makes McCartney II stand out, of course, is Paulʼs increased interest in elements of electronica — of all his records, this is the one that most directly reflects the influence of New Wave, although it would be an exaggeration to say that Paul ever had any big ideas on how to change the rules of the game and make his own unforgettable mark on contemporary music fashion. After all, it all started out as just a bit of harmless fun in his basement.

In terms of individual songs, only one song off McCartney II has legitimately «survived» through the ages, and, ironically, it was the least solo number on the album: although this parti­cular version of ʽComing Upʼ was indeed recorded on his own, it started life as a Wings number, and a live performance from 1979 was included as the B-side on the corresponding single. True enough, it sounds like nothing ever done previously by Paul: the funky guitar riffs clearly reflect a Talking Heads influence, although the melody is far happier than anything that the grim, sarcastic New Yorkers had produced (it does feel more at home with the later, more pacified years of the bandʼs and David Byrneʼs careers). But it is still a lively, catchy, sing-along-ish pop anthem, which, in Paulʼs case, means almost inevitable popularity and a long, healthy life on the radio and in the live setlists. My only problem with it is the awful production on the vocals — it is quite likely that Paul intentionally wanted to make himself sound like a green goblin and a sucking up choir of will-oʼ-wisps, but we are under no obligation to respect that artistic decision. If not for that bit of silly vocal circus, ʽComing Upʼ could have become a perfect opening state­ment for the new decade — along with Johnʼs ʽStarting Overʼ and the Stonesʼ ʽStart Me Upʼ, all of them songs that optimistically opened up the curtains on a brand new morning (which, for most of these guys, never properly resolved into a brand new day).

Get beyond ʽComing Upʼ, though, and what you have is a severely disappointing experience — albeit unusual and unpredictable enough, to the point of garnering McCartney II a devoted cult following, typically from people who value the art of «going beyond oneʼs comfort zone», no matter what the cost, above the art of staying true to oneʼs traditional self. In reality, it can never be perfectly predicted which choice is the better one to take; and as for history in general, it has not been as kind to McCartney II as it has been, for instance, to Bowieʼs Berlin trilogy or certain other attempts by «old school artists» to go all «new school» on us in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And the reasons for that go way beyond the proverbial pop-McCartney bias.

Starting off on a personal note, I find it weird how McCartney II is the very first McCartney record from which I can never even vaguely remember even half of the songs. Some of this, I think, has to do not with the fact of Paul employing electronica, but rather with the fact of his relying on clichéd songwriting templates — ʽOn The Wayʼ, for instance, is a surprising excourse into the territory of dark, almost heavy, blues-rock, but a one-man Led Zeppelin with muffled, echoey production is not quite the same as a four-man Led Zeppelin with crystal clear production; ʽNobody Knowsʼ is fast, bawdy country-rock whose attempt at creating a drunken barroom atmosphere by means of overdubs is nowhere near as fun as the real thing; and ʽBogey Musicʼ (sic!) is indeed an attempt to cross «boogie» with a bit of «bogey», with Paul transforming himself into a hologram of Elvis and then cloning the hologram. Like most of Paulʼs musical jokes, these ones would have worked much better if they were fully surrounded with material of substance; unfortunately, most of this album feels like a musical joke, with but a tiny drop of substance encountered from time to time.

A true gentleman could certainly say that something like ʽTemporary Secretaryʼ feels like a ʽPaperback Writerʼ for the new decade — a classic light-hearted character vignette from Paul, with a touch of sarcasm, a touch of hipness, and plenty of inventiveness. It is certainly a serious effort to master the art of synth loops, and it certainly sounds like nothing else around it: modern electro-pop, yet imbued with the half-quirky, half-innocent vibe of our old friend Paul McCartney from Liver­pool. The problem is that these two vibes do not mix in a way that would make much sense. The effect is neither futuristically scary or mind-blowing, nor properly humorous. The synth tones and artificially treated vocals clearly go for comical effect, but Paul was never a true comical genius, and in the end, ʽTemporary Secretaryʼ is just a bizarre oddity.

And it is also arguably the best of Paulʼs electronic exercises presented here. Anybody remember ʽFront Parlourʼ or ʽFrozen Japʼ? If not, hardly surprising: the former is essentially three and a half minutes of inobtrusive elevator muzak, and the latter buries a potentially rewarding, but way too simplistic and repetitive, crystal-clear synth-pop melody under a grimy layer of over-loud percussion. I will admit that in purely objective terms of complexity of composition ʽFrozen Japʼ is probably quite comparable to something like ʽHot As Sunʼ from McCartney; but the simple acoustic theme of ʽHot As Sunʼ was jumping out at you and naughtily seducing you with its beachy leisureness, while the synth theme of ʽFrozen Japʼ never breaks out of the background. (The name of the instrumental is spot-on, though — it really does sound like a refrigerated variation on a Japanese pop melody).

In the end, I can only name two songs on the entire album that still sound acceptable today — ʽComing Upʼ is one, obviously, and then there is ʽWaterfallsʼ, not one of Paulʼs best ballads (a bit too child-like in both melody and lyrics) but managing to combine sentimentality and sadness in a way that, even in 1980, remained open for McCartney on a completely exclusive basis (there is that mournful, no-escape wisp in the line "people who jump waterfalls sometimes can make mis­takes" that goes all the way back to ʽFor No Oneʼ and ʽFool Of The Hillʼ). Okay, throw in ʽTemporary Secretaryʼ if you really want to remember what McCartney II was all about, but I still do not like that thing.

Curiously, what might arguably have been the best result of those electronic sessions never made it to the LP itself, being instead relegated to dark B-side space: ʽCheck My Machineʼ, sampling dialogue from an old Tweety and Silvester cartoon, is a leisurely shuffle whose unnerving vaudeville tempo really fits in with Paulʼs echoey falsetto to produce a genuinely creepy effect, something that ʽTemporary Secretaryʼ or any other tracks on McCartney II totally failed to do. It may have been unintentional, of course, but reality states that I, for instance, was seriously creeped out by this track when I first heard it, and I still do not recommend anybody to play it to their kids if they have a frail and sensitive nature. It is perfectly possible that Paul did not include it on the LP precisely because he did not want the songʼs disturbing atmosphere to clash with the jolly optimism of ʽComing Upʼ or the sentimental innocence of ʽWaterfallsʼ — but then whatʼs the use of a nice, risky titillation if all you do is stick it away on a B-side?..

Compared to ʽCheck My Machineʼ, the other B-side that you will find tacked on as a bonus track to the CD edition — the ten-minute long opus ʽSecret Friendʼ — is another disappointment. Its length and repetitiveness introduce it as an otherworldly soundscape, but it ends up reminding me rather unfortunately of the kind of experimental stuff youʼd meet on, say, Canʼs Future Days, and guess who wins that competition. Again, this is Paul trying to set up a tent on somebody elseʼs turf, straying away from his strengths and confessing his weaknesses; as an electronic suite, ʽSecret Friendʼ is no more alluring than Paulʼs classical exercises like Liverpool Oratorio — this is simply not what he was sent into this world to do.

All in all, regardless of whether this experiment is to your liking or not, it is quite telling that even after going solo, Paul would never again return to this format (even his Fireman works with Martin Glover would be a collaborative project). This was not due to a lack of sales: on the success wave of ʽComing Upʼ, McCartney II fared much better than Back To The Egg, and the critical reception was slightly warmer (though still mixed). This may have been, however, due to feeling that, after all, this was only a slight distraction of a project — and that there were many other people around who could do this kind of stuff much better. I have no doubt that McCartney II will continue to live on as an attractive, intriguing oddity, but I still tend to rate Paulʼs albums by how often I get the urge to relisten to any of them rather than by how formally unusual they are — and according to this simple criterion, McCartney II always finds itself at the bottom of the heap. In the end, I fully agree with that mixed look of amazement, suspicion, terror, and disgust that Paul shares with us on the sleeve photo. 

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Cat Power: Wanderer


1) Wanderer; 2) In Your Face; 3) You Get; 4) Woman; 5) Horizon; 6) Stay; 7) Black; 8) Robbin Hood; 9) Nothing Really Matters; 10) Me Voy; 11) Wanderer / Exit.

General verdict: Sympathetic, but annoyingly vague and melodically unmemorable, confessions of an innovative-cum-traditional singer-songwriter.

The six-year interval between Sun and Wanderer had to do with Marshallʼs family matters (childbirth) and health issues (she was diagnosed with hereditary angioedema, a disease almost as nasty as it is unpronounceable), but also with a conflict between her and her old label, Matador Records. Allegedly, as she tells the story herself, the label was displeased about her not being able or willing to churn out «hits» — to the point where, at one time, she was presented with Adeleʼs 25 and told that this is how you make a record nowadays, or something like that. In other words, same old story, big frickinʼ surprise, but the odd thing is that Matador had always been an indie label by definition, and even if some of their acts did end up with Billboard hits from time to time, it is unclear why they should have subjected Cat Power or anybody else to this old school «give-me-hits-or-get-dropped» treatment.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about the situation (which eventually led to Marshall leaving the label) is that Wanderer displays no intentional aversion to commercial elements. For one thing, Cat Power even covers a Rihanna song — granted, ʽStayʼ was possibly the most old-fashioned of all Rihannaʼs hits, but still, a Rihanna song is a Rihanna song. For another, ʽWomanʼ is a duet with none other than Lana Del Rey, she of the big sultry lips and the fake Spanish aristocracy heritage: kindred spirit or not, it is clear that people these days are much more likely to hear of Lana than of Chan, and that Lanaʼs presence of the record is pretty much the only chance for Marshall to attract new audiences these days.

However, the essence of Wanderer is not in its alleged commercialism masquerading as anti-commercialism (especially since the lines between the two are so awfully blurred these days anyway), but in its traditionalism. As usual, she plays almost everything herself, but this time she completely eschews electronics, modern beats, and any sort of synthetic gloss, mainly sticking to acoustic guitar and piano — the classic singer-songwriter album, going all the way back to Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, with echoes of Joan Baez in the distance (the purely conventional medieval folk ballad form of the title track would be right up Joanʼs alley). So, clearly, this is meant to be more of an intense personal experience than an exploration of forms and textures. Which is quite understandable in light of everything that happened with Chan over the previous six years. She wishes to share, and we are given a chance to empathize.

Unfortunately, there is not all that much on the album beyond its reasonably well crafted call to empathy that would deserve detailed comment. If your listening quotas on singer-songwriter stuff have already been filled up, you might find yourself thinking something like I do at the beginning of ʽHorizonʼ: "Well, she starts off by borrowing the chords to Aimee Mannʼs ʽWise Upʼ... and now she goes ʽmotheeeeeeeeer...ʼ ʽfatheeeeeeer....ʼ just like John Lennon on ʽMotherʼ... and this chord change is sort of Pink Floydish...". If these sorts of synthesis resulted in something truly fresh and startling, thatʼd be one thing; however, the big textural difference is that all the songs on the album are quiet, smooth, and carefully polished around all the sharp edges so you do not hurt your feelings too much — a little surprising, Iʼd say, for an artist who prides herself on being independent and honest, but then again, her honesty is never in doubt here, only her ability to provoke a strong emotional response in the listener.

The acclaimed duet with Lana, unflinchingly named ʽWomanʼ, is another good example of how this record succeeds in making an artistic statement, but does not succeed in making it an exciting or memorable statement. The lyrics are vague and gauzy, lightly and nonchalantly accusing somebody of something; the chords are flimsy and generic, wasting a perfectly good Leslie pedal in the process (check out Aimee Mannʼs ʽLost In Spaceʼ for a good example of how a thing like that is not wasted in a singer-songwriter context); the climactic surge in energy is a Chan-Lana mantra consisting of nothing but the word "woman" repeated so many times youʼd think there was an inexhaustible store of mana in it or something... well, maybe there is, but if I want a real woman to rock my boat in this manner, I will go to Stevie Nicks instead (any chosen ten seconds of the coda to ʽRhiannonʼ or ʽGold Dust Womanʼ have more tension to them than the entirety of this dull mantra). It is not cringeworthy bad — it is simply a song that will pass me by like millions of them; the only bad thing about it is that it is more pretentious than many others, yet wastes its pretense with poor lyrics, monotonous vocal deliveries, and unimaginative chords.

The entire album is like that: the mood never changes once from song to song, the arrangements never stray to far away from the piano / acoustic guitar routine, and the lyrics always run this weird line between desperately wanting to fling out some bitter truth and taking good care not to offend anybody and to avoid unambiguous interpretation. The underlying artistic motif of being unable to settle down and seemingly afflicted with a Wandering Jew-like curse does recur fairly explicitly, over and over again, from the two versions of the title track to the gypsy balladeering of ʽMe Voyʼ, but everything is nostalgically rooted in the melancholic spirit of the late Nineties, where most of these songs truly belong. I do like bits and pieces — the gritty sarcasm of the "donʼt you forget it, donʼt you dare forget it" chorus of ʽIn Your Faceʼ, the somnambulant sorrow of the repetitive "you will get, you will get what you want" chorus of ʽYou Getʼ, etc. — but on the whole, this is not a successful demonstration of Chan Marshallʼs unique and inspirational artistry. Granted, she was never graced with genius even at her best, but on albums like these, where it is all about soul and spirit rather than bells and whistles, the shortcomings stare you in the face much more brightly. 

Monday, May 6, 2019

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven


1) Storm; 2) Static; 3) Sleep; 4) Antennas To Heaven.

General verdict: And they said Yes was "pretentious"... then again, maybe Heaven just loves symphony more than virtuosity.

[Note: This is a slightly reworked and adapted version of a review that was previously posted in the Important Album series.]

While it is now perfectly clear that GY!BEʼs unquestionable masterpiece did not exactly appear out of thin air — for six years, the band had been meticulously laying down all the necessary foundations — this seems to have really been the first time when our Canadian friends had the perfect opportunity and the full capacity to say everything they had to say and say it precisely the way that they wanted to. I might be slightly biased here, of course, having a bit of personal history with that album: I remember all too well how in the early 2000s, desperately craving for fresh ideas and new insights in music, I was sent the record, lovingly burnt on CD-R, by a music fan who set himself the tough goal of convincing cranky old (actually, still young) me that there was still quite a bit of mind-bendingly innovative music being produced in our time, and included GY!BE among the specimens — and out of all the specimens, this was the one that made the most impression on me at the time. And not just on me: you could easily trace the huge, huge influence of that record on the entire musical decade following it — pretty much every British, Canadian, or US indie band with grandiose symphonic ambitions, from Arcade Fire to British Sea Power, owes a large chunk of its spirit to Lift Your Skinny Fists. (The major difference being that GY!BE wisely preferred to keep their mouths shut, heh heh).

In terms of sheer scope, the world already had certain predecessors to this experience, all of them in the «post-rock» aesthetics — a close match is Sigur Rósʼ Ágætis Byrjun, whose own influence on the planning and construction of GY!BEʼs soundscapes can hardly be denied. And yet the genre had not yet truly produced its own Tales From Topographic Oceans — a sort of mega-statement that would cause people to sit up and not simply go «ooh, what a heavenly slice of beauty!», but crank it up to an «ooh, what a glorious way to summarize all the mysteries of the Universe!» And ultimately, it was only a matter of time before somebody would get the gall to go for oneʼs own «symphony of a thousand» — well, in GY!BEʼs case, «symphony of nine» would be more accurate, but add the appropriate decibel power and you can get a thousand-like effect in no time anyway. Like it or not, the result was one of the most important albums of the year, whose repercussions would be heard loud and clear over the next decade.

For all its scope and ambitiousness, the album in its entirety was recorded in a very pedestrian location (Chemical Sound Studios in Toronto) and over a rather short period of time (February 2000), which is probably responsible for the recordʼs semi-spontaneous nature, since only its basic themes were pre-composed, while many of the drones and crescendos that form its bulk were largely improvised in the studio. Since this is their masterpiece, after all, let us briefly recall the bandʼs core line-up at the time: Efrim Menuck (guitar and general leadership), David Bryant and Roger Tellier-Craig (guitars), Mauro Pezzente and Thierry Amar (bass), Bruce Cawdron and Aidan Girt (drums), Norsola Johnson (cello), Sophie Trudeau (violin; not to be confused with Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, who plays Justin). There were also a couple of semi-anonymous guest horn players, going by the names of Alfons and Brian (although where the hell is the C in this alphabetic sequencing?). Also, the producer was Daryl Smith, who (as of 2019) does not even have his own Wikipedia page, so fuck him (okay, just joking — he must have done quite a bit of a job to get all that noise to sound properly coordinated); and the record label was Kranky, whose main alternate claims to fame since then were probably acts like Deerhunter and Tim Hecker, but otherwise I am largely ignorant of all those other obscure artists they had harbored.

The album was originally conceived as a coherent and symbolist statement — improvised or not, it has a certain masterplan of which only vague hints are given by way of the track titles (and also the lengthy subtitles to individual sub-sections of each track, including such cryptic sequences as ʻCancer Towers On Holy Road Hi-Wayʼ and ʻEdgyeswingsetacidʼ) and album art (including a diagram of each of the four movements, personally written by Menuck and included in the vinyl edition of the record). Each of the movements occupies one side of vinyl (so the Topographic Oceans reference is at least formally spot on) and is supposed to be appreciated in its entirety, although the album as a whole, I believe, may be cut up into four distinct listening experiences stretched over four days — in fact, this would probably be the right way to soak it in at first, rather than let you get lost and confused in its no-ship-on-the-horizon ambient infinity. But, in any case, there is no direct, unambiguous meaning to any of the musical parts, all of which are wide open to emotional and intellectual interpretation.

Upon release, the album got almost nothing but positive reviews; however, due to the enigmatic and attention-demanding nature of the music, critical success was not enough to turn the band into a viable commercial proposition, and even after their relatively recent reunion (by which time the legend had enough time to take root, mature, and stabilize) album sales continue to be rather low — not that, honestly, anything else could be expected from a band that specializes in 20-minute long droning instrumentals, no matter how inventive, unique, or emotionally shattering they might be. (Which does make it fun to compare them with Arcade Fire, who have always had an instrumentally comparable lineup, but who also, from the very start, were setting their minds on the pop format in order to, quite intentionally, break on through to a larger audience to spread the good word. This, by the way, kind of makes GY!BEʼs achievement all the more amazing, since it takes far more guts to hold together a large bunch of people with no initial hopes of commercial success than a bunch of people who at least had the explicit hope of becoming a household name some day).

One ugly reservation that I always hold against post-r..., uh, symphonic-ambient bands is the nagging suspicion that, you know, they really play like this mainly because they cannot really play their instruments all too well, and so they mask their lack of technical skill through sheer numbers: number of people in the band, number of decibels collectively produced by all the instruments, number of minutes it takes them to finish, etc. etc. Then I have to remind myself that the reason why Keith Richards is (or, at least, was) such a cool guitar player is because he couldnʼt play the guitar all too well, and the argument subsides. It is probably true that no subsection of GY!BE could ever properly cover a Rush or even a Talking Heads tune if they were pressed to, but that is not the point. The point is: when they get together, all nine of them (eleven if you throw in the mysterious Alfons and Brian on horns) — is it actually worth getting together? Is there a certain «band of angels» feel emanating from these tracks, or does it all seem like primitive and/or puffed-up sonic nonsense?

On the whole, you can predict that the question here is largely rhetorical and the expected answer is an overwhelming yes — although I will not deny that chunks (even large chunks) of the record tend to lose my attention every once in a while, but then again, so do large chunks of Mahler symphonies, where some parts often act, sometimes intentionally, as catch-your-breath interludes where you are allowed, by the composer himself, to let your mind freely roam for a while before it is thrown and stunned once more by the next onslaught. The entire record has an intelligent flow — from the first and most regal crescendos of ʻStormʼ to the dirge-like and catacomb-like sounds of ʻStaticʼ to the howling nightmare ghosts of ʻSleepʼ and, finally, the somewhat anti-climactic (but probably intentionally so) mix of romanticism and noise psychedelia on ʻAntennas To Heavenʼ. You could construe it as anything: a multi-stage journey through various phases of enlightenment, a soundtrack to an imaginary documentary on the private and public life of Gandalf the Grey, a set of impressionistic musical comments on a set of paintings in an art gallery, but there is a sense of unity to all four pieces that means more than just being played by the same people. We do have a symphony here, with an expected alternation of tempos, moods, and purposes all working towards the same goal, and it is your own, wholly subjective, job to try and figure out what that goal might be.

To increase the sense of seriousness, GY!BE often use sampled voiceover passages that are quite pretentious all by themselves — an impassioned sermon in ʻStaticʼ, an old codgerʼs nostalgic reminiscences on the former beauty of Coney Island in ʻSleepʼ, a somewhat sadistic folk song at the beginning of ʻAntennasʼ — none of which seem to be of particular importance individually, but collectively they serve to reinforce the very feeling of importance: Religion, Memory, and Folklore are all invited to come together and cast their blessing on the music. So if the music did not qualify, it would all be one heck of an embarrassment; and if you are used to short and concise pop songs, or even to complex progressive epics with lots of dynamic surges, rousing tempos and twisted time signatures, as your default style for enjoying music, it might be very easy to get the impression that the music absolutely does not qualify. But it does. To continue the classical analogy, even while form-wise the closest analogy is an 80-minute Mahler symphony, substance-wise this is rather the symph-ambient equivalent of what could happen if a Debussy or a Ravel would want to come up with a Mahler-like 80-minute symphony. (Most likely, a thing like that would get very mixed responses — but then again, so do these guys, unless you only count reactions from top dog critical sources).

The top trick of the band is the trademark GY!BE crescendo, the art of which they had mastered to near-perfection on this album and would never again top on any subsequent releases. On the opening track, ʻStormʼ, thereʼs two of them: first, a six-minute triumphant one, as if announcing the arrival of some royalty (God of Art?) on the scene, and then comes the second, properly "stormy" one, with a distorted echoey guitar rising high above the other instruments and the whole thing eventually speeding up into a mad gallop. But the individual instrumental parts, even when they are playing a pretty melody (and quite often they are — in between all the droney pretty melodies on here, they have pretty much written the blueprints for the entire career of Beach House), are denied serious meaning: it is only the build-up that counts, the way additional instruments are slowly and meticulously piled up and up and up and all the different guitar and string drones are woven into a single complex pattern and then the drums and horns give them extra muscle and... well, might as well regard this as a metaphor for the Emergence and Evolution of Life Itself, from the first living cell and all the way up to Homo Sapiens, though, as I have said, there can be any number of possible symbolic interpretations here.

The most powerful crescendo on the album, however, is ʻSleepʼ (the ʻMonheimʼ section), where everything is taking place around one incredibly sad looped riff played on... well, I actually have no idea what the instrument is before the drums kick in and the tempo speeds up. A specially treated guitar sounding like a musical saw? Regardless, the track makes perfect local sense coming off the old manʼs rant about the faded glories of Coney Island, as if it were some sort of lonesome spin on an abandoned Ferris wheel, going slowly round and round until, at about 9:20 into the track, some devilish force grips it and sends it into a much faster spin — accelerating, accelerating, until the mad force rips it out of the foundation and just sends it spinning into outer space, with detached flaming bits and pieces hitting the ground. This is a prime example of the magic touch these guys have: the main melody is simple and monotonous, but they can bind you to your seat for about ten minutes with it, just by adding here and subtracting there and playing with the volume level and the constantly changing role of different instruments in the mix.

By the time the album is over — especially if you managed to take it all in one go — you might not be exactly certain what it is that you have just experienced, but there will be a feeling of epic monumentality that no Sigur Rós album can provide (not that it tries to). It might be fanboyish to declare the entire experience as a complete compendium of the human emotional spectrum, but, actually, it does not pretend to be human. Very clearly, to me at least, it pretends to be an approximation of Godly Music — you know, of the Valar, of the Olympian Gods, whatever; sounds produced by Gods, consciously or subconsciously, as they initiate, witness, or remember some important processes of the Universe. Nobody sings; nobody even really «plays», more like «spins» the music the same way the Moirai spin their threads of fate. Who knows, maybe they just spun your personal thread somewhere in there, too. Could take a couple hundred extra listens to find it in the haystack.

If we are in the mood for some dirt, then complaining about the songs not being catchy would be by far the stupidest accusation one could fling against the album — (a) because this style is not supposed to be catchy and (b) because these melodies are repeated so many times over, theyʼre all catchy anyway. What bothers me more is that those parts of the record that are not crescendos do tend to lose my attention and dissipate the accumulated effect. The last chunk of ʻStaticʼ, for instance, completely passes me by (the one that is dominated by bass rumbles and industrial percussion — not tremendously original), but the biggest disappointment is the last track, where, at the end, right after the cool little bit of The Return Of The Son Of Dark Country that reminds me of the first album, you sort of expect an arch-monumental conclusion and instead get a few minutes of minimalistic electronics that sound like a deconstructed fugue for digital organ in a bombed out cathedral. (Hmm, that description now reads more cool to me than the actual sonic part). A bit anti-climactic, though it is also true that with an ambient / drone / minimalist aesthetics like this one, ending the record with a pompous power chord was probably not an option, no matter how you look at it.

More problematic is the issue of ambition: the record almost literally insists that you take it very, very seriously — I mean, Yes and ELP are practically painted clowns next to the religious fervor of Efrim Menuckʼs gang here, and I am not sure if I completely subscribe to this. What bugs me quite a bit is that the album is, indeed, monumental, but it is rarely intimate: individual instruments are not properly permitted to speak out against others, and even if they start quiet and sensitive, everything is eventually drowned in loudness: their strength and weakness at the same time, as if they were a Pink Floyd that never allowed itself to move past the ʻCareful With That Axe, Eugeneʼ phase. Lots of gorgeous soundscapes here, yes, and yet, not a single one that would actually grip my heart tightly and wring out some tears, even abstract ones, you know, for the sake of all humanity or whatever. (This, by the way, is where the Mahler analogy fails completely, and youʼd do better to seek a new one, maybe with something like Renaissance choral oratorios or Baroque cantatas). I guess that the skinny fists in question are lifted like antennas to Heaven, and that the signal is properly received, but maybe there is simply too much Heaven and not enough skinny fists in the record to make me fall in genuine love with it, rather than be awed by its monumental presence. Alas, such may be the reasonable price of monumentality.

In any case, I have no doubt whatsoever that Lift Your Skinny Fists was one of the most important albums of the year 2000, and possibly the best candidate (much better than Kid A, for that matter) for the hotly contended title of «album most likely to point out a new way for music in the coming millennium» (in the long run, it did not, but who could have made predictions at the time?). The problem is that it could not avoid the fate of becoming a niche product: too simplistic to merge rock instrumentation with classic symphonic values, too pretentious and long-winded to satisfy the basic tastes of pop/rock fans en masse, and probably too rockish to interest the already small bunch of avantgarde/modern classical followers. Not that it doesnʼt continue to have a large enough fan base — its legacy in the «canon» seems assured by now (it is one of the very few albums from 2000 onward to make it into the Top 50 albums of all time on the democratically voted RateYourMusic list, for instance), not to mention the already stated durable influence that may be seen on almost any indie band that has more than five playing members in it. Plus, there is absolutely nothing wrong about being a niche product, either (almost any good album in the 21st century is one); and I am perfectly fine with people calling it a masterpiece and finding no flaws in it whatsoever.

Somehow I feel that the album could have been even better than it was, if only they didnʼt stick to their guns with such utmost fervor — but how, I am not sure. Make it a little shorter? throw in a few guitar solos? vary the tempos? add vocals? This all seems like it could threaten their Olympian God identity, which is not something I would like to have happened. Still, you know, I might be just a tad happier if they could at least invite a lowlife like Hercules for a drink every once in a while. Then again, perhaps Lift Your Skinny Fists is not altogether about exceptional events — it is more like a diary of the everyday, routine life of supernatural entities, and maybe we should all count ourselves lucky to be invited to share that particular «day in the life».

Friday, May 3, 2019

Jerry Harrison: Walk On Water


1) Flying Under Radar; 2) Kick Start; 3) I Donʼt Mind; 4) Confess; 5) Sleep Angel; 6) I Cry For Iran; 7) Never Let It Slip; 8) Cowboyʼs Got To Go; 9) If The Rains Return; 10) Remain Calm; 11) Big Mouth; 12) Facing The Fire; 13) The Doctors Lie.

General verdict: Some decent, if formulaic, genre experiments that have to be captured through a smokescreen of shamefully dated dance-pop.

Since ʽRev It Upʼ became a minor hit, and critical reception of Casual Gods turned out fairly warm, Jerry wasted little time to follow it up with another effort, seemingly in the same vain — this time, basically adopting «Casual Gods» as an official name for his unstable band, and putting even more effort into religious self-aggrandizing with the title Walk On Water for the LP itself. Unfortunately, lightning never struck twice, and whether he did really walk on water or not had no effect on the critics refusing to acknowledge the album as the Second Coming. Both the LP and its lead (and only) single, ʽFlying Under Radarʼ, flopped badly, got ignored or ridiculed by the media, and ultimately led to the cancellation of the solo career of Jerry Harison; most of his musical work post-1990 focused on production for other artists.

The reaction was understandable, but perhaps a tad unfair; personally, I think that Walk On Water is mildly more interesting than Casual Gods, though definitely not to the point where you could ever begin to think «wow, they stomped out Jerryʼs career just when the man finally began to come up with something refreshing for the next decade... such a pity!» However, to share that impression with me it is imperative to get past the first four tracks — the album suffers from really horrible sequencing, where the first 15 minutes are completely given over to very generic, very un-out-standing electropop. As usual, Jerry may have been generously motivated by the likes of Funkadelic and Prince, but the results, with aerobic synths and percussion plastered all over the place, are closer to the lower tier — like those early Alanis Morissette records, long forgotten and disowned even by those who still have fond memories of Jagged Little Pill. That lead single, ʽFlying Under Radarʼ, unfortunately happens to be the first of these four tracks, and its lack of chart success is easily explained by the fact that buyers could choose from a pool of hundreds, if not thousands, in the same vein in 1990.

Once we get past the oh-so-HOT-HOT-HOT groove of ʽConfessʼ, however, things suddenly start to branch out and become progressively more interesting. Firmly within existing genres and patterns, for sure, but not necessarily within the trendiest ones. ʽSleep Angelʼ is a pleasant soul-pop ballad with ringing Smiths-like guitars; ʽNever Let It Slipʼ is a pure optimistic pop-rocker that might have easily been a Little Creatures outtake for all I know; ʽIf The Rains Returnʼ is a weak, but surprising, exercise in sentimental reggae; ʽRemain Calmʼ is a psychedelic instrumen­tal with Near Eastern, Far Eastern, and African elements at the same time, featuring lots of rather delicate polyphonic synthesizer work; ʽBig Mouthʼ is a slightly more thoughtful and inventive take on the electropop vibe, slowing down things just enough to stop making you think about all the favors Jerry must have been currying from club owners.

One particular standout is ʽI Cry For Iranʼ, a long and clearly heartfelt message, though the lyrics are vague to the point of not being able to understand where Harrisonʼs sympathies lie precisely (Iʼd guess this is more of a general lament on the devastation of the Iran-Iraq war, but then again, the lyrics might be using Iran as more of a general metaphor than anything). Like everything else here, it is not a great song and is probably more worthy of, say, Duran Duran than Talking Heads, but its morosely trudging pop-reggae rhythm and quasi-Sufi synth overdubs succeed in weaving an atmosphere of weary desperation. At least as far as political statements go, this one is much more credible than ʽCowboyʼs Got To Goʼ — also rhythmic, but atmospherically bland and barely comprehensible (probably some sort of anti-Bush diatribe, but who really cares now in these Trump-riddled days?).

It also feels good that, all those opening HOT GROOVES aside, Jerry has toned down the gruff macho elements that plagued Casual Gods and never really fit his character, concentrating instead on the image of the quiet dance-pop philosopher — this way, there is very little by way of straightforward objective accusations that you could fling at those songs. Perhaps if he got Byrne to sing on some of them, they could have caught more attention from the public eye; as it is, Walk On Water will just have to wait until a convinced Talking Heads fan will want to subject it to repeated listenings — something that probably occurs with just a slightly higher frequency than Halleyʼs comet. Expendable, but at least he went out with relative grace.