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Thursday, January 30, 2020

Elvis Presley: For LP Fans Only


1) Thatʼs All Right; 2) Lawdy, Miss Clawdy; 3) Mystery Train; 4) Playing For Keeps; 5) Poor Boy; 6) My Baby Left Me; 7) I Was The One; 8) Shake, Rattle And Roll; 9) Iʼm Left, Youʼre Right, Sheʼs Gone; 10) Youʼre A Heartbreaker.

General verdict: Messy leftovers, but totally sweet — a hodge-podge of Sun and RCA-era material.

It is rather funny that it took Elvis Presleyʼs induction in the US army to familiarize many of his fans with some of his best material from the early days at Sun Records. As part of RCAʼs strategy to keep the manʼs legacy fresh in the public eye before the eagerly awaited triumphant return of the national hero, two LPs of «leftovers» were released in 1959, featuring very, very heavily randomized selections of previously issued singles, occasional album tracks, and an even more occasional previously unreleased track or two. Neither of the two has its proper place in todayʼs world of careful chronological compilations, but it is worth mentioning them anyway, if only to remember what a weird world it was back in 1959.

Plus, this is as good a place as any to begin turning our attention back to those neglected Sun classics — ʽThatʼs All Right Mamaʼ is the song that pretty much invented rockabilly, after all, but it is nothing compared to ʽMystery Trainʼ and what they did to the Junior Parker original. That original, by the way, is a classic slow-jump-blues tune in its own right, with a particularly sweet and sorrowful vocal delivery; and so is — if we really want to pay all our dues — his proto-rockabilly sound of ʽLove My Babyʼ, which was essentially chosen as the basis for Elvisʼ arrangement of ʽMystery Trainʼ. The difference is that Elvisʼ ʽMystery Trainʼ has less soul, but it actually has mystery, as represented by that strange, strange, strange echoing sound that Scotty Moore and Bill Black get from their instruments: an oddly reverberating rocking effect where each new chord relentlessly pushes you around, and each new «hiccup» from the yet-to-be-crowned King awakens something brutally rebellious inside you. It is the kind of sound that would be picked up and amplified by Gene Vincent, but while Gene would certainly make his own advances in terms of loudness, wildness, and sheer maniacal energy, I would not presume to say that the pure class of ʽMystery Trainʼ — its subtle combination of restraint with hidden menace — has ever been outdone by any guys in leather jackets.

At the same time, sitting next to ʽMamaʼ and ʽMystery Trainʼ we have RCAʼs own ʽMy Baby Left Meʼ and ʽShake, Rattle & Rollʼ — for those who want to hear a more «modern» Elvis, louder, angrier, and with an actual drum sound (very important for both of those songs). There is no more mystery in ʽShakeʼ, though — just relentless maniacal rockʼnʼroll, crowned by a Scotty Moore guitar solo that sounds like a rapid shoot-out in the streets between two equally talented and equally bulletproof gunslingers. Which one do you prefer, esteemed teenager of 1959? Looks like you will have to become a true LP fan to make that choice. Or, more accurately, become an even truer LP fan if you simply refuse to choose.

Having said that, this point in Elvisʼ discography is also as good a time as any to remind the reader about some of the songs that Elvis specifically pre-recorded in 1958 before his army stint in Germany to serve as true all-national reminders that the King was merely taking a break. Right before For LP Fans Only, in late 1958, we had ʽOne Nightʼ (a «cleaner» re-recording of ʽOne Night Of Sinʼ) with ʽI Got Stungʼ as its twin A-side — a totally hardcore two-minute stunner from Schroeder which is as close to noise-rock as it could be at the time, at least in terms of production which combines a breakneck pace, a set of bumbling back vocals that fuse together with the bassline, a minimalistic head-drilling piano riff whose power would not be beat until John Caleʼs one-note piano part on the Stoogesʼ ʽI Wanna Be Your Dogʼ, and a lead vocal part that is barely comprehensible — rapid, mumbly, slurry, delirious, and dangerous. One quick listen to this thing, and any fan worrying about Elvisʼ post-army future could rest easy... deluded, yes, but comfortably happy in said delusion. 

Interpol: Our Love To Admire


1) Pioneer To The Falls; 2) No I In Threesome; 3) The Scale; 4) The Heinrich Maneuver; 5) Mammoth; 6) Pace Is The Trick; 7) All Fired Up; 8) Rest My Chemistry; 9) Who Do You Think; 10) Wrecking Ball; 11) The Lighthouse.

General verdict: Catchier songs, better vocals, slightly more diversity than before — but not enough to sneak through a second window of opportunity.

If someday the dust settles, the cards are reshuffled, and the memory of Interpol as «one of those bands that spearheaded the short-lived garage / post-punk / indie revival in the 2000s with their groundpoking debut album» is erased from the public conscience — in that case, I would not be too surprised if Our Love To Admire, rather than its two predecessors, became the most highly appreciated Interpol album. Admittedly, this does not mean much, but if there ever really was an aesthetic agenda that could be called Interpolʼs own, my own sixth sense tells me that it was here where they really came closest of all to proving this.

Upon first listen, Our Love Was To Admire may feel like an obvious slump — a pretty grim feeling for those who werenʼt too overwhelmed with the earlier records in the first place. The engine is winding down, the songs are getting slower and more soulful, with more emphasis on Paul Banksʼ vocals than ever before and romantic sentimentalism frequently overshadowing the tightness of the rhythm section. Itʼs not quite the safe zone of «adult contemporary» yet, but one might easily get the feeling that this is the direction in which the band is moving, and that the measly five years separating Our Love from Bright Lights should not be enough time for the band to earn the right to cuddle up by the fireplace.

Surprisingly, though, with repeated listens this record began growing on me — not a lot, but, well, letʼs say there was clearly some positive dynamics involved, as opposed to Bright Lights where each new listen just made it a more and more annoying experience. What is the difference? After some consideration, I think I count two. One, the album actually shows a bit of musical growth: the songs can no longer be reduced to the same «hold down those two chords for eternity» pattern. There are still quite a few exercises in minimalism, but some songs rather prefer to follow the jangly folk patterns of the Byrds-to-Smiths legacy, others adopt a grittier, harder rocking sound closer to the Black Keys, and the final number, ʽLighthouseʼ, brings them closer to psychedelic, dreamy shoegaze than anything they ever did before. One may or may not favor the results, but at least they are trying to expand the formula, that much is obvious.

Second and even more surprising, the vocal melodies are getting better — to the point where some of the songs begin featuring clear vocal hooks, even if Paul Banks is still Paul Banks and his singing voice is still nothing to write home about. This is most likely the main reason why I manage to remember (at least temporarily) and feel content about the first two songs. ʽPioneer To The Fallsʼ is arguably the best straightahead love song they ever did, largely because of Banksʼ vocal inflections on bits like "the soul can wait..." and "you fly straight into my heart" — and they must have felt it, too, because sometimes Banks slips into pure a cappella mode, and it is good, though still no Ian Curtis (at least a semi-octave lower would be nice, thank you). In any case, it is the first time where I actually feel like I care about their stonefaced melancholia, and am ready to consider, if not accept, their attempts to slip into the spirit of a two-hundred year old literary romantic. Weird, but true.

What is even more true, I suppose, is that my favorite song on the album, ʽNo I In Threesomeʼ, is most likely my favorite because it comes closest of all to imitating the sound of classic Arcade Fire. That introduction — repetitive bass, then guitars, then pianos, then lots of extra noises in the background — is the kind of tension-raising strategy that made Arcade Fire so outstanding, and this is a pretty decent attempt to do the same thing without ten thousand people in the studio. The hilarious thing about it is that if you do not keep a close watch on the lyrics (including ignoring the song title, duh), the punchline — "alone we may fight, so just let us be free" — will make the song look like some anthemic battle cry; but if you do keep a close watch, particularly at the moment when "let us be free" becomes "let us be three", you realize that the song is really about trying to save a failing romance by introducing, um, an extra element into the relationship, which gives the whole experience a sarcastic-ironic angle that adds depth to the anthemic atmosphere. Anyway, the most important thing is that, to me, the song has its own face, which is something I could never admit about any given tune on Bright Lights.

It was also released as a promotional single, but, unfortunately, the two main singles from the album showed the somewhat more familiar, less sentimental and rockier face of Interpol, though, again, if you listen very closely, the vocal melodies of both ʽThe Heinrich Maneuverʼ and ʽMammothʼ are more poppy than ever before — and that ghostly falsetto introduction of "spare me the suspense..." in ʽMammothʼ, along with the blues-rock guitar riff that signs off each verse with a flourish, hints that now they may be looking to Sixtiesʼ rather than Seventiesʼ garage rock for inspiration. They are both decent songs, but they do not have that special soulful substance of the two openers. Iʼd rather place my trust in the slow, tired trudge of ʽRest My Chemistryʼ, whose chorus is emotionally captivating and linguistically intriguing.

Do not get me wrong: all the kind words above in no means imply that, all of a sudden, Interpol have matured into a truly interesting band. The only point is that they traveled a certain road from their first album to their third one, and I differ here from the critical consensus stating that the road was downhill all the way; much as Iʼd like to agree — because so much of recent pop music can be described as «one good album and fifteen inferior clones» — in this case I just think it was largely a matter of Zeitgeist: somehow, for some reason, the musically and spiritually dull Bright Lights did capture it, but by the time they grew themselves some musical muscle and some relatable emotionality, the window was closed. This record was simply too much of a departure from their «golden standard», yet not enough of an artistic success to attract new legions of fans (for instance, from emo circles — or even from the National Geographic audience, despite the seductive album cover).

Monday, January 27, 2020

David Byrne: David Byrne


1) A Long Time Ago; 2) Angels; 3) Crash; 4) A Self-Made Man; 5) Back In The Box; 6) Sad Song; 7) Nothing At All; 8) My Love Is You; 9) Lilies Of The Valley; 10) You & Eye; 11) Strange Ritual; 12) Buck Naked.

General verdict: Meet the new David "Schopenhauer" Byrne, now putting his musical legacy in the service of pessimistic sociology and whatnot.

A self-titled album in the middle of an artistʼs career frequently implies a self-reboot, some sort of impulsive awakening which may or may not work, but at least shows that the artist is trying. In the case of David Byrne, however, it almost looks like this lack of a title was merely meant to agree that the artist no longer has anything particularly interesting to say, period.

This is not a bad record, mind you. It may sound very boring first time around, then it may slowly begin to grow as you realize that it is very deeply personal, and that being subjected to a deeply personal experience experienced by somebody with the talent, intellect, and life story of a David Byrne is, at the very least... useful, if not necessarily enjoyable. But this is what it is: much more of a personal confession in a state of mid-life crisis than a musical piece. Once you come to terms with the fact that almost nothing worthy of serious attention goes on here, musically, it may be easier to accept everything else that is of value. Yet I cannot help feeling a little weird, and sad, when it turns out that even the frickinʼ Tom Tom Club has finally made a jump on David Byrne in terms of musical experimentation and innovation.

I do not really know what was going on in Davidʼs life at the age of 42, but I have recently been through that age myself, and that state of mind is relatable. He is not exploring any issues here that he hadnʼt had at least a small brush with previously, but he is now picking at them with melancholic ferociousness: "I kept my feelings to myself / Until the perfect moment comes", he states on the very first track. I am not sure why that "perfect moment" had to be 1994, a year that, to the best of my memory, was hardly one of those surrender-all-hope years — and this, in fact, might be one of the main reasons why David Byrne disappointed just about everybody and is still rated fairly low on the Byrne-o-meter by critics and fans alike. Ironically, the record just might feel closer to home in 2020; or maybe it is simply my own growing old, because, had I actually heard it fresh from the oven, Iʼd probably dismiss it just as well.

But oh yeah, music comes first. And musically, this is not just a complete departure from the odd Latin-funk-pop synthesis that Byrne curated all through the Eighties; this is actually a mish-mash of styles — Talking Heads styles, solo Byrne styles, other artistsʼ styles — where it is obvious that David tries not to bore you with a monotonous approach, but is also obvious that he is just rewriting old patterns. Many of the songs have evident progenitors. ʽAngelsʼ, for instance, uses a bass pattern very similar to ʽOnce In A Lifetimeʼ. The playful rhythmics and screechy guitar of ʽBack In The Boxʼ take cues from the upbeat material on Little Creatures (hilariously, though, I just realized that the main melody may very well have been subconsciously influenced by Genesisʼ ʽI Canʼt Danceʼ!). The long atmospheric start to ʽStrange Ritualʼ, with its delayed guitars running ghostly circles around your ears, is something directly out of Brian Enoʼs textbook — think one of those instrumentals on Another Green World. And so on.

No wonder, then, that if you approach the album from a position of musical experience, the songs will not look like much of anything. Worse, even a dude with razor-sharp wit and God-given inspiration might eventually cease to be interesting if he just keeps making the same artistic points over and over again — and I cannot promise that this album will let you know anything about Byrne, the thinking personʼs artist, that you, the thinking person (you are a thinking person, right?), have not already known or at least suspected before. But if you want yourself just a few nifty nuances, and if you want to hear a David Byrne who is a little unusually more quiet and contemplative than ever before, the record is worth your while.

The album lives under the shadow of ʽA Long Time Agoʼ, a sort of jazzy meditation with astral overtones — lots of tricky guitar lines overloaded with echo effects, against the background of which the voice of David slowly drifts in space. Curiously, it shares stylistic similarities with Bends- and OK Computer-era Radiohead, though the instrumental arrangements are nowhere near as attention-attracting; the overall message is much the same, though — a sad farewell to the old world and a bit of discomfort and trepidation at the coming of a new one. Listen hard enough and it is difficult not to feel pity at the songʼs conclusion — "itʼs only the singing of the stars, they burned out a long, long time ago...". This is genuinely the saddest and gloomiest that Byrne ever got, which is not really a compliment — so far, the guy has always worked best when he was hiding his depression under a spastic coat of irony and eccentricity, and while taking off oneʼs mask is always an act of bravery, the end result always has a 50/50 chance of amazing people or severely disappointing them. In this case, the typical reaction might be relative indifference: we know, really, that melancholic nostalgia and fear of the future have been two of Byrneʼs primary building blocks for the previous ten years, so this «coming out» with an explicit confession is, if not totally predictable, at least somewhat to be expected.

Later on, we learn that "there are no angels left in America anymore", which does not exactly set your mind reeling as strongly as it did when the same song was ʽOnce In A Lifetimeʼ. We get a ʽHeavenʼ-type acoustic ballad where we learn that "weʼre living in a dump, trying to figure out what sex we are" (no, this is not about transgender issues). We get that odd ʽI Canʼt Danceʼ clone in which we learn that "the sun shines on the evil, the sun shines on the good, it doesnʼt favour righteousness, although you wish it would" and that the protagonist is "going back in the box again", though, honestly, heʼd never left it in the first place. We have ʽNothing At Allʼ, a song that begins with the same gloomy bass swoop as Aimee Mannʼs ʽSave Meʼ would a few years later — totally not a coincidence, because both artistsʼ aesthetics are dangerously close at this time. We do get a thin thread of romance and sentimentalism, too, like in the short acoustic ballad ʽMy Love Is Youʼ which sounds exactly like a Ray Davies trying his hand at bossa nova — but we do get the message that this cuddly sentimentalism is just one way of alleviating the heroʼs pains and shutting him off from the outside world.

What we also get, unfortunately, is a sort of half-assed attitude when it comes to developing and realizing all these ideas. In a recent appreciation of the late David Bermanʼs Purple Mountains, I was struck by how it was possible to express such a decided and resolute state of self-ejection from the world through such friendly and worldly musical means, making you deeply respectful and genuinely terrified of the artist at once. This album, on the contrary, is not resolute at all — it meanders, it hobbles around from one shred of musical depression to another, and even though, fortunately enough, it is not at all self-pitying, it... well, letʼs just say it sprays its message all around you in faint whiffs of aerosol, rather than sending it flying like a bullet in your skull. Itʼs not that Byrneʼs musical muscles have become flabby; it is rather that he has consciously allowed them to atrophy without thinking of a way to make the best use of it. Of course, with anybody less talented than Byrne this entire «more existentialist philosophy, less musical invention» strategy would be aural and intellectual torture. With Byrne, it is more like «hmm, nice change of direction, David, but did you really have to let your hair grow that long to do it?»

Saturday, January 25, 2020

King Crimson: B'Boom - Live In Argentina


1) VROOOM; 2) Frame By Frame; 3) Sex, Sleep, Eat, Drink, Dream; 4) Red; 5) One Time; 6) BʼBoom; 7) THRAK; 8) Improv: Two Sticks; 9) Elephant Talk; 10) Indiscipline; 11) VROOOM VROOOM; 12) Matte Kudasai; 13) The Talking Drum; 14) Larksʼ Tongues In Aspic, Part II; 15) Heartbeat; 16) Sleepless; 17) People: 18) BʼBoom (reprise); 19) THRAK.

General verdict: Excellent live document of the Double Trio period, but fairly short on surprises of any kind.

This live album, subtitled The Official Bootleg, was allegedly released as a remedy to the evil circulation of a poor quality Italian bootleg documenting the Double Trioʼs Argentinian shows (which does make one wonder if Robert Fripp was so far out of touch with the world that he had never seen a King Crimson bootleg prior to 1995). It may be worth noting that the Discipline lineup did not put out a live album upon dissolving at all (Absent Lovers would not see the light of day until 1998), let alone all those almost defiantly short and not particularly representative live albums from the Seventies — as if one of the greatest live progressive rock acts of all time believed that The Time Has Not Yet Come for the entire world to absorb all that awesomeness, and that all those tapes, diligently recorded and preserved, should be allowed to stew and ferment, biding their time... and now, all those hopes and dreams quashed by some Italian bootlegger. (For the record, the bootlegger was eventually tracked down, hacked in little pieces, and scattered all across the country with each limb bearing a tag saying THE CRIMSON KING SAYS HELLO. Police are still trying to crack the case.)

Anyway, as it stands, BʼBoom now holds the dubious honor of having been the very first ever officially released King Crimson live album to be fully representative of a contemporary touring event — 26 years after the groupʼs formation. For longstanding fans of the band, this must have been a very significant event, but, of course, in retrospect it has been completely overshadowed by the flood of archival releases. The Double Trio period was hardly the most liked period in the bandʼs history, and today the relevance of the album will essentially depend on how damn hard you want to hear most of the material from THRAK performed live. To be frank, I do not hear a whole world of difference, the way it would be between the Discipline-era studio records and Absent Lovers. Either this is because they had already seriously emphasized the aggressive RAWK aspect of the songs in the studio, or because technology had reached such a level that they were now able to perfectly reproduce on stage all of their studio effects, something that was not quite there yet in the mid-Eighties — probably both reasons.

The only track that is significantly different is ʽBʼBoomʼ itself, seriously stretched out past its original running length — but this is largely because it consists of an initial atmospheric-ambient part, which can be easily extended to any length it takes to keep the psychedelic haze strong, and a following drum duet, which can be easily extended to any length it takes to let the people decide who kicks more ass, Bruford or Mastelotto. For that matter, to keep things fair and just there is also a bass duet here — ʽImprov: Two Sticksʼ is a surprisingly tender exchange of amicable sentiments between Levinʼs and Gunnʼs instruments, kept short and sweet. On the whole, though, there is a surprisingly small amount of improvisation, which almost gives the album a mock-commercial feel; the non-concert goers would have to wait until THRaKaTTaK to learn how deeply they were mistaken in thinking that Fripp & The Gang had decided to take it easy and transform themselves into a bunch of pop song performers. (Here, the little improvised bit in the middle of ʽTHRAKʼ is just some harmless marimba fun).

Other than THRAK, the Double Trio predictably digs back into the Discipline-era catalog, with ʽIndisciplineʼ as the most sonically adventurous track from the old days — everything else is mostly «weird pop»-style chestnuts like ʽElephant Talkʼ and ʽFrame By Frameʼ. ʽSleeplessʼ gets a re-arranged bridge section, with Fripp adding ʽDisciplineʼ-style jagged-angle guitar leads to the formerly vocal-and-percussion-only arrangement; I do not think this works well, because it disrupts the contrast between loud and quiet that was so important in the first place. ʽHeartbeatʼ gets a romantic piano introduction... wait, of course it ainʼt piano, it is just Adrian adding one more of those beastly effects to his guitar (The Guitar As Orchestra came out in 1995, so I suppose he was only too happy to demonstrate some of that potential to a larger audience than his solo fans). And the only true «oldies» are ʽRedʼ and ʽLarksʼ Tongues In Aspicʼ which they had already played with the Eightiesʼ lineup — except that these ʽLarksʼ are actually preceded with ʽThe Talking Drumʼ, successfully restored from the grave in all its demonic beauty.

On the whole, though, BʼBoom shares the dubious distinction of being that particular live King Crimson album that is perfectly listenable and enjoyable all the way through — and at the same time almost completely expendable. If there ever was a reason to own and cherish it back in 1995, that reason has long since evaporated with the release of tons and tons more interesting and less predictable stuff. Instead of hunting after the audio album, it would probably make much more sense to track down the (still widely available) video Deja VROOOM, documenting the bandʼs 1995 concert in Japan — it has almost the same setlist and gives you the added bonus of seeing the Double Trio in hot action.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Elvis Presley: King Creole


1) King Creole; 2) As Long As I Have You; 3) Hard Headed Woman; 4) Trouble; 5) Dixieland Rock; 6) Donʼt Ask Me Why; 7) Lover Doll; 8) Crawfish; 9) Young Dreams; 10) Steadfast, Loyal And True; 11) New Orleans; 12*) Danny.

General verdict: Elvis goes New Orleans on our asses — with somewhat mixed, but generally exciting results.

Perhaps King Creole is not the most consistent LP in Elvisʼ career — it is still a soundtrack, after all — but it would be hard to deny that it marks the peak of that very brief period where Elvis actually had a chance to grow into something significantly bigger than ʽHound Dogʼ and ʽLove Me Tenderʼ. As great as all those songs were, the true potential of rockʼnʼroll still remained largely untapped — and the future looked really bright for the partnership between Elvis, Leiber, and Stoller, as they began writing songs for his next movie, which would go on to become his best, too. King Creole, directed by none other than Casablancaʼs own Michael Curtiz, actually managed to go beyond clichés, give its protagonist a nice, biting social angle, and become that one Elvis movie that you are always recommended if... well, if you actually want to go see Elvis in a good movie. Rather than just go see Elvis. Or go see Elvis and a bunch of hot girls in bikinis. I mean, far be it from me to renounce the power of either, and King Creole ainʼt no Kubrick, either, but as far as general entertainment with soul and brains in 1958 is concerned, you could hardly do any better.

In any case, whatʼs a better choice than ʽKing Creoleʼ to pull Elvis out of his safety zones and make him explode just as credibly in a completely new musical setting? A brand new type of rockʼnʼroll, diligently crossed with elements of New Orleanian music, a song that you can headbang to just as heartily as to ʽTutti Fruttiʼ, but featuring a completely different type of beat, jazzy energy, and a guitar solo that seems more influenced by Django Reinhardt than any of the old jump-blues heroes. Above all, it continues to ooze Elvisʼ sexiness, as each verse seems to rise out of the ground, line by line, gaining in intensity with each second — and the man really gets into it, chomping out the line "he holds his guitar like a Tommy gun" with the toughness of a mafia hitman and then getting all properly tiger-ish on "he starts to growl from way down his throat". The rhythm section is much softer here than on the similarly anthemic ʽJailhouse Rockʼ, but it is hard to shake off the feeling that ʽKing Creoleʼ goes deeper and darker — that somehow we are past comedy here and making our way in much more dangerous territory.

That feel of danger is even more expressly stated in ʽTroubleʼ, Leiber and Stollerʼs second and equally fabulous contribution. It is essentially a Chicago blues number dressed up in a bombastic New Orleanian big band jazz arrangement, and the ruckus generated by the percussion and brass section in the chorus and particularly the sped-up "Iʼm evil, evil, evil as can be" coda is quite intoxicating, but a large part of the song is completely quiet, featuring nothing and no-one but Elvis in his self-aggrandizing big-bad-boy-of-the-blues mode, inspired by Muddy Waters and the like. Of course, this here is nothing like the mystical, voodoo-drenched terror of the big African-American dude, and Elvis is not even trying to emulate the swag of a Muddy or a Howlinʼ Wolf; this is the battle stance of a rough white kid from a tough neighbourhood, but Presleyʼs deep bass rumble somehow communicates well enough both the idea of the man being dangerous and a certain nobility of intent — "Iʼve never looked for trouble, but Iʼve never ran", that sort of thing. When he pulls all the stops with "Iʼm evil, evil, evil", it sounds nothing like the ʽEvilʼ of Howlinʼ Wolf — it just goes to show that the man means business if you got his back to the wall. Itʼs a fun, cocky, menacing, life-asserting, happy-licious song, with all these psychological layers to it and more. I remember being mildly disappointed by it after first hearing it on a compilation in deep childhood — who needs all that Vegasy jazz brass? whereʼs a Scottie Moore guitar solo? — but even back then I already knew this was something special.

It is a bit disappointing, of course, that Leiber and Stoller only contributed those two numbers to the soundtrack (the third one, ʽSteadfast, Loyal And Trueʼ, is a rather silly acappella school anthem that can only be appreciated by those who are not alergic to any sort of school anthems in principle), because none of the other numbers come close to the inspirational punch of ʽKing Creoleʼ and ʽTroubleʼ. Well, for those who donʼt mind some good old misogyny in their soup, there is always ʽHard Headed Womanʼ, another little Claude DeMetrius classic delivered by the King at such a breakneck tempo that you will find it quite a challenge to sing along — and here you do get a Scottie Moore guitar solo, although it is still eventually overtaken by a wild brass onslaught. But Schroederʼs ʽDixieland Rockʼ is a disappointment, a transparent attempt to remake ʽJailhouse Rockʼ New Orleans-style that takes most of the bite and anger out of the original and replaces it with even more brass soloing — not good at all.

In general, the weak spot of King Creole is that too much of the album is subjugated to one simple formula: let us take the average Elvis Presley record and cross it with New Orleans jazz. It does result in an album that is almost conceptual in nature, but if you just throw your big band arrangements on top of everything, well, be prepared that sometimes it will work and sometimes it wonʼt. Not surprisingly, perhaps, one of the albumʼs true hidden delights is ʽCrawfishʼ, a short and almost minimalistic «exotic» shuffle about... well, the lyrics speak for themselves, donʼt they? "See I got him, see the size, stripped and cleaned before your eyes" — howʼs that for a from-the-waist-up Ed Sullivan show? Never mind, even if you read past all the innuendos (and I myself thought for quite a long time it was just a song about fishing down on the bayou), the Kingʼs drawn-out howl of "craaaawfish!", lustfully echoed back by Kitty White, is still enough to ignite something. Too bad the whole thing is over much too quickly and there is nothing else even remotely like it on the record.

Still, even if ʽDixieland Rockʼ does not work, and even if several of the ballads are second-hand shadows of earlier successes, individual flaws do not spoil the general feel. Discounting the couple of compilation LPs released while Elvis was in the army, King Creole is the very last blast of a young, cocky, and still relatively free true King of rockʼnʼroll — who may have been on the verge of something even greater, if not for the combined counteraction of the Armed Forces and «Colonel» Tom Parker; and while we are all aware that one of the «Colonel»ʼs worst deeds was confining Elvis to the movie set, an even worse one may have been his isolation from Leiber and Stoller — who allegedly did not wish to sell themselves into Parkerʼs servitude and were consequently banned from access to Elvis by the Memphis Mafia. A sad story, alas, in no way predictable based on the lively exuberance of King Creole. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Interpol: Antics


1) Next Exit; 2) Evil; 3) NARC; 4) Take You On A Cruise; 5) Slow Hands; 6) Not Even Jail; 7) Public Pervert; 8) Cʼmere; 9) Length Of Love; 10) A Time To Be So Small.

General verdict: Slightly more diverse and just a tad more challenging than its predecessor, but still mired down in self-gratifying existentialism and self-torturing formula.

There are two reasons why I think that, if we really really really want to play this game here and now, Antics is a better Interpol record than Turn On The Bright Lights. First, I might be mistaken and wouldnʼt want to repeat this statement under oath without a metronome, but I think that the songs roll in with a larger variety of tempos (essentially, this means that there are more slow tunes here, but still not as many as to ruin the experience completely). Second, some of the new songs actually have guitar riffs which — dare I even suppose it? — go beyond the typical paradigm of «hey man, just hold down this chord while the engineer goes to the bathroom» that almost literally kept nailing my head to the wall all through the duration of Bright Lights.

Thatʼs about it, though. Because even if that opening punk-pop riff in ʽNARCʼ does employ more than one chord, this does not automatically imply that it is a quality riff; again, it just sounds like a slightly simpler, deconstructed little brother of your average Television riff — and even so, it still tends to melt down into a single-chord jangle every time the chorus comes along. Actually, I find myself more partial to the monotonous, but genuinely aggressive two-chord jangle of ʽLength Of Loveʼ, where Banks finds just the right tone to go along with Dengler and Fogarinoʼs neo-disco rhythm section. That song, for what itʼs worth, is one of their most believable clones of the Joy Division sound, though no matter how low Banks goes with his vocals, he still does not reach the doom-prophet heights of Curtis.

Ironically, I do believe that Interpol were seriously dead set on making Antics surpass the effect of Bright Lights — make it a bigger, more anthemic, more sprawling experience that would cement their torch-bearing status. At the very least, this idea is very explicitly suggested by the opening track. ʽNext Exitʼ is notably slow, stately, and declares its creatorsʼ intentions right from the get-go: "We ainʼt going to the town / Weʼre going to the city / Gonna trek this shit around / And make this place a heart to be a part of". This way, you get to know that before the coming of Interpol, the City had no proper heart to speak of — but now, well, roll over Manhattan, a new brand of hipsters is taking over. The lyrics overall have a Springsteen vibe to them ("so baby make it with me in preparation for tonight..."), but, unfortunately, the song troddles along at such a funereal pace that where Bruce is able to conjure a mental image of the romantic working class protagonist zipping on his bike at light speed with his baby by his side, ʽNext Exitʼ is more of a super-slow ride on a stinky suburban train through all those grey-colored piles of rotting slums that you have to stare at for hours. Not uplifting. Not depressing. Just monotonous and dull, made even worse by the never-breaking air of glum solemnity conjured by the vocals.  

And it is still better than the three completely interchangeable songs (ʽSlow Handsʼ, ʽEvilʼ, ʽCʼmereʼ) that were released as the first three singles from the album — the best I can say about these is that they might be doing a tiny bit better job at separating verses from choruses, which is not really much to say and could, in fact, be completely wrong and misleading because I am listening to the chorus of ʽSlow Handsʼ right now and things may easily change by the time I press the «publish» button. I do like the groove power of the rhythm section — I think it takes its cue more from Blondie than from Joy Division — but then again, I could hardly picture an organic hybrid of ʽHeart Of Glassʼ with ʽShadowplayʼ in the first place, so what could be said about this particular marriage of tranquilized existential sorrow with swaggy dancefloor rhythms?

But once again, I will repeat that the albumʼs saving grace is its relative diversity. At least when only a third of your record sounds like monotonous, uninspired post-punk, while the other third tries to rock out and yet another third plays out like an homage to every second-rate shoegazing act that ever gazed at its shoes, fourty minutes of this stuff is somehow easier to sit through, and by the end of it all you might even begin to think that, you know, God did a good job sending us Interpol just so somebody could say, «hey guys! weʼre here to end it all! weʼre here to tell you that these musical formulae are done, done, done forever, and this is why try to sound so sad and clueless even if weʼre doing a pretty piss poor job of it». Of course, then you remember that at the very same time Arcade Fire were putting out Funeral and inventing a great recipe of combining sorrow with optimism — everything that a song like ʽNot Even Jailʼ does wrong, a song like ʽRebellion (Lies)ʼ does right with almost the same ingredients. But then even Arcade Fire turned out to be a dead end rather than an inspiring beginning. 

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Tom Tom Club: Dark Sneak Love Action


1) Love Wave; 2) Sunshine And Ecstasy; 3) You Sexy Thing; 4) Who Wants An Ugly Girl; 5) Say I Am; 6) Irresistible Party Dip; 7) Dark Sneak Love Action; 8) Innocent Sex Kiss; 9) Dogs In The Trash; 10) My Mama Told Me; 11) As The Disco Ball Turns; 12) Daddy Come Home.

General verdict: The one Tom Tom Club album with a definite edge to it, even if the label reads «creepy dance-pop for the age of Basic Instinct».

Pretty much the only thing you can very easily dig up about this album from Internet sources is that it includes a cover of Hot Chocolateʼs ʽYou Sexy Thingʼ — which, in all fairness, only makes sense to those who were of the right age when ʽYou Sexy Thingʼ was a thing in 1976. Apparently, after the lackluster performance of Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom most people in the world came to think the most sensible thing — that Tom Tom Club was a limited-time joke act, that its time had expired, and that following the musical future of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz in the next decade would be the epitome of the Losing Game.

These most people, though, they couldnʼt be more wrong. Dark Sneak Love Action, an album totally and completely buried in time, is actually... Tom Tom Clubʼs best album. Mind you, the stress here is on album. It does not contain any immediate gems like ʽWordy Rappinghoodʼ, it cannot boast a single track with the hit potential of ʽGenius Of Loveʼ, and I do not even think there are that many hooks here on the level of ʽSuboceanaʼ. But it sets itself a perfectly clear and interesting goal — write a cycle of sexy, seductive, sublimely naughty dance tracks — and carries out the prescribed task in twelve moves with nary a single obvious miss. And if ever there was an album title in this groupʼs history to perfectly match its musical content... well, guess what, it certainly wasnʼt Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom.

Compared to their previous records, this one was recorded in very small company: Tina and Chris are accompanied by guitarist Mark Roule and keyboardist Bruce Martin, plus a couple backing vocalists — no Byrne, no Jerry, no Belew, just a very barebones edition of Tom Tom Club left completely to their own devices. Maybe because of this, precisely, they really stick to just one device: get a good dance beat, set up a dark, suspenseful, mischievous funk vibe, and use all the limited instrumental and vocal means at their disposal to build up an atmosphere that suggests dark corners, dirty winks, casual encounters, illicit substances, adultery, and all sorts of kinks a-plenty. If the album had just a wee bit more recognition in its time, I am pretty sure somebody would have come up with the idea to license it for the soundtrack of a «Middle Aged Couple Seduces Innocent Teens» porn movie or something.

One might play the puritan and find such a purpose disgusting, or one might play the highbrow intellectual and find it ridiculous and cheap, but the record does have a unique flavor — it isnʼt overtly sexy, with its reliance on heavy bass grooves, whispered vocals and innuendos, itʼs more like an album for some really really shy people with some really really gross hidden desires. Actually, you will not notice anything particularly indecent going on if you just browse through the lyrics, even the ones for songs with really suggestive titles such as ʽInnocent Sex Kissʼ; itʼs all in the little details of singing, arrangements, and production. But in the end, youʼll still walk away feeling dirty and ever so slightly shocked — I mean, we all had our suspicions, but we never thought thereʼd be that much of this kinky stuff in Tinaʼs and Chrisʼ basement.

Speaking of individual songs, like I said, there are no clear highlights, but almost each title has something going for it. ʽLove Waveʼ is a slow, cocky, funky rap embellished with a few surf guitar lines (is «surf-funk» actually a thing?) to metaphorically remind you of all the oceanic connections of sexual attraction. ʽSunshine And Ecstasyʼ, the first single from the album, is arguably one of the weakest numbers, being closer than most other songs to generic early 1990s dance pop, but even that song is quirked up by stealing the guitar riff of ʽYou Really Got Meʼ and inserting a fun jazzy piano break in the middle. ʽYou Sexy Thingʼ actually sounds nothing like the original, being given a synth-pop edge and a whiff of stalkerish atmosphere by means of Tinaʼs ghostly-mechanical falsetto vocals. ʽWho Wants An Ugly Girlʼ chooses a reggae beat to tell a simplistic, endearing narrative that would most likely be tabooed in 2020, but possibly lets us in on some of Tinaʼs personal complexes — with a catchy chorus to boot.

Skipping ahead to a couple of songs that are particularly juicy, the title track is arguably the culmination of this style — all hush-hush, herky-jerky percussion, quiet bubbly synth riffs in the background, menacing blues-rock lead guitar lines roaming on the edges, and backing vocals with purring curves. The songʼs message is basically the same as Madonnaʼs ʽBurning Upʼ ("strip me down and burn me to the core"), with the important distinction that Madonna is offering herself to you right in front of everybody in the middle of Times Square, whereas Tina is doing that in the darkest, most secluded corner of the club, away from the lights and crowds — itʼs up to you to decide which of the two approaches is hotter, even if in the long run both are probably fatal. At the other end of the spectrum is ʽDogs In The Trashʼ, a hilariously corny «nightmarish» account of a jilted lover stalking a socialite (or something like that), with the howling dog trope exploited both vocally and instrumentally (if that ainʼt a Termenvox providing the main counter-riff, it sounds damn close to one).

It is possible that the consistent dark-sneak atmosphere might wear you out by the end of the album, but somehow they never ever run out of little ideas to help get you going — right down to the very las song, ʽDaddy Come Homeʼ, which is graced with... bagpipes, marrying together the old Celtic folk vibe with contemporary dancefloor rhythms. Seriously, more care and inspiration went into the making of this record than into most of David Byrneʼs solo albums from that same period — Dark Sneak Love Action is a light-art pop piece with a purpose, and it should be holding up rather proudly next to hundreds of completely generic dance-pop products of the time. Too bad they pretty much gave up on it: ʽYou Sexy Thingʼ was the only number, I think, that they regularly performed live for a while, and it isnʼt even the most representative track from the record. Then again, if it is largely a «dark corner» record, maybe Tina and Chris just gather in secret to perform these tunes for each other every once in a while. (There definitely is quite a bit of potential here to spruce up a middle-aged coupleʼs sex life, thatʼs for sure). 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

King Crimson: THRAK


1) VROOOM; 2) Coda: Marine 475; 3) Dinosaur; 4) Walking On Air; 5) BʼBoom; 6) THRaK; 7) Inner Garden I; 8) People; 9) Radio I; 10) One Time; 11) Radio II; 12) Inner Garden; 13) Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream; 14) VROOOM VROOOM; 15) VROOOM VROOOM: Coda.

General verdict: A slightly cellulitish variant of King Crimson for the Grunge Age — but the mix of nostalgia with then-current production trends still works fine for me.

No band has ever proven itself to be so adaptable to each new musical time period as King Crimson has — that is, of course, if we are talking intelligent adaptations that still allow the music to be easily recognizable and identifiable, while at the same time reflecting and honoring the most serious new musical developments of each period. But as years, and decades, went by, adaptation to new musical developments became harder — simply because it became harder to identify these new developments. And it is not merely old age that has resulted in a lack of properly «iconic» new albums from King Crimson past their third (or was that fourth?) traditional resurrection. It is also the fact that in 1994-95, it was not exactly clear who could serve as Frippʼs new source of inspiration. Last time we checked, it was Talking Heads. But in the mid-1990s? Kurt Cobain? Black Francis? Alanis Morissette?

Still, far be it from us to suggest that Frippʼs brain cells might have gotten too rusty or confused in a period which was, after all, more or less the very last hooray period for rock music in general. On the formal scale, change was reflected in the adoption of a «Double Trio» format — all the players from the Discipline lineup were back, but now augmented with a second bassist (Trey Gunn, an actual graduate of Frippʼs Guitar Craft school) and a second drummer (Pat Mastelotto); apparently, Fripp had acquired this love for weird symmetries, or, perhaps, it was just a part of his evil plan to tone down the presence and influence of Bruford, who was almost supposed not to be part of this new show, but allegedly shamed Robert into letting him back in.

On the substantial scale, the very title of the album (THRAK), as well as that of the mini-album which preceded it with several alternate versions of the same songs (VROOOM), already sort of suggests something fairly brutal and violent — and while it would be pushing things way too far to call this phase King Crimsonʼs «grunge period», I am absolutely certain that the grunge and alt-rock explosion of the early 1990s could not have gone unnoticed by the man who had already, to a large degree, predicted the New Wave revolution, and to an even larger degree, embraced it more wholeheartedly than any of his peers when it did come. In a way, THRAK is a synthesis of the heavy, infernal math-rock of KCʼs Larksʼ Tongues / Red period with the polygonal futurism of their Discipline era — you can think of it as a more structured and disciplined take on Larks or as a heavier, more metallic take on Discipline, it works in both directions. The problem is that when you are able to slap on such a precise definition, the effect becomes predictable, and so THRAK no longer has the capacity of blowing your mind in the same sudden ways as the three previous incarnations of King Crimson could.

Which is not to say that THRAK is not an excellent, consistent, thoroughly enjoyable set of tunes for which I have the same type of love and admiration as, say, the Stonesʼ Voodoo Lounge — we know very well what to expect at this point, but there is still enough inspiration from the general spirit of the times to keep on infecting you even 25 years later. With the exception of a few minor transitional links, every major composition on THRAK has plenty of energy, one or more thick instrumental hooks, and tons of atmosphere. The doubled rhythm sections make the songs seem lumpy and bulgy, but the professionalism of the players gives them all the precision and agility of a raging hippo — or, perhaps, a T-Rex would be a better analogy, given the title of one of the albumʼs most memorable songs, to which we will be coming shortly.

The meat part of any KC album are always the instrumentals, whose titles this time around bring on associations with Batman comics or Jackie Chan movies more than anything else: ʽTHRAKʼ, ʽVROOOMʼ, ʽBʼBoomʼ, ʽVROOOM VROOOMʼ (for all I know, they might be hidden acronyms, but whoʼs crazy enough to want to find out?). And already the first one of these, ʽVROOOMʼ, is an absolutely shameless variation on the melodic structure and atmosphere of ʽRedʼ — one fanfare-like opening riff, one slowly winding main riff, a quiet mid-section (though here, more than anywhere else, the jangly geometry of Discipline is being shown off), and then coming back around full circle for the coda. The riffs are memorable and the band still pushes ahead with all the ferocity of a freshly oiled old Panzer, but one listen to this track is also enough to understand why THRAK will never be remembered with the same sense of awe as its predecessors — as brutal as it may sound, the level of self-plagiarism is through the roof here. That may have been the intention — here we are, making up a new ʽRedʼ for a new generation of music players and music listeners — but these intentions are limited by definition. I actually think that the extended ʽCoda: Marine 475ʼ conclusion to the track is more interesting — unlike the self-plagiarizing ʽRedʼ-based main body of ʽVROOOMʼ, this part sounds more like a King Crimson attempt to put together the codas of ʽI Am The Walrusʼ and ʽI Want You (Sheʼs So Heavy)ʼ and see what happens when you give them the «double trio» treatment.

The impression does not change much when you go through the rest of the instrumentals. Heavy echoes of ʽLarksʼ Tongues In Aspicʼ (both parts), on one hand, and ʽThela Hun Ginjeetʼ and the like, on the other, resonate all through ʽTHRAKʼ and particularly ʽVROOOM  VROOOMʼ; only ʽBʼBoomʼ is different in that it is mainly a skill show for the bandʼs percussionists, with a tribal jungle sound that, for once, does not seem to have any direct analogies in KCʼs past — but letʼs admit it, we have hardly come here with a primary goal of hearing Bruford and Mastelotto play off each other for four minutes.

In the end, THRAKʼs main attraction are its vocal numbers — not entirely original, either, but not as blatantly ripping off past frameworks as the instrumentals. I suppose that Belew should be taking a lot of credit for these. Over an entire decade separating Three Of A Perfect Pair from THRAK, Adrian had grown into a major solo artist in his own right, with four first-rate albums of neo-Beatlesque pop under his belt, and although the base aesthetics of King Crimson strictly prohibits him from sneaking any of those blatantly pop melodies past Inspector Fripp, some of that classic Beatles spirit, particularly its moody and psychedelic parts, still manage to get smuggled in — see ʽPeopleʼ, for instance, with its ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ-influenced back­ward guitar solos and ominously repetitive riff in the coda (once again, highly reminiscent of ʽI Want Youʼ). On the other hand, even Belew slips into formula every now and then: the gently dreamy ballad ʽWalking On Airʼ borrows many elements from ʽMatte Kudasaiʼ, a fact that is hard to hide even behind all the extra layers of guitar complexity that this new decade has brought in. (Amusingly, its lyrics also make reference to "sheltering sky", as if we really needed one more reminder of the greatness of Discipline).

Still, the album does contain two of my favourite KC vocal numbers of all time. The already mentioned ʽDinosaurʼ reflects Belewʼs usual eco-minded themes, though the lyrics are clever enough to yield to both universal (inevitable extinction of man) and personal (inevitable extinction of ME) interpretation — what matters most, though, is the slow, lumbering, brooding atmosphere, with lots of dry, creaky, sustained notes that make you picture this very large, very old, very rusty entity that is nevertheless still clinging to life with all the power it can muster, still strong enough to shoo away all the petty youngsters.

Even more catchy — and more terrifying, when you stop for long enough to truly ponder its symbolism — is ʽSex Sleep Eat Drink Dreamʼ, the portrait of the human being as a simplistically programmed genetic machine with severely limited functionality, hung high up on the nail of one of the most distinctly memorable bass riffs in KC history and featuring Belew in total meat zombie mode: "sex... sleep... eat... drink... dream... sex... sleep... eat... drink... dream..." (listen closely and you will see that only the word ʽdreamʼ in this chain is slightly drawn out, with a tiny bit of tenderness involved — creepy, lately I have been noticing it too that dreaming is becoming the most enjoyable part of my life). If the entire album is nowhere close to a masterpiece, ʽSex Sleep Eat Drink Dreamʼ might arguably be the last properly great song in King Crimsonʼs entire catalog — at least, it is definitely the last King Crimson song that has managed to etch itself a permanent position in the back of my brain.

Summing up, I must point out that normally I experience a sense of disappointment with albums like these — seeing great artists clearly making an effort to progress and ultimately failing because even the greatest ones have their natural limits. But despite its obvious shortcomings, THRAK still holds up as a positive, rather than pathetic, experience. It is an album that says to you, «my main goal is to tell you that King Crimson are still alive and that they are aware that musical fashions have shifted once again», but it is written and produced by people who still have not run out of impressive riffs, catchy vocal melodies, and well-disciplined collective energy to pull it all off with gusto. Fripp himself, as far as I know, does not like to remember this period with too much fondness (probably because he never thought reteaming with Belew and Bruford would be such a great idea), and in the overall critical eye it also seems to somehow have slipped through the cracks, but I think that in the general perspective, it was still more innovative and creative than the Construkction Of Light period, for instance. At the very least, like I said, it would be a pity to have the 1990s, arguably the last properly creative decade for rock music, to have remained without an actual King Crimson incarnation — and it would be rash and silly to expect such an incarnation deliver anything better than these results. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Beatles: On Air - Live At The BBC Vol. 2

THE BEATLES: ON AIR: LIVE AT THE BBC VOL. 2 (1963-1966; 2013)

CD I: 1) And Here We Are Again (speech); 2) Words Of Love; 3) How About It, Gorgeous? (speech); 4) Do You Want To Know A Secret?; 5) Lucille; 6) Hey, Paul... (speech); 7) Anna (Go To Him); 8) Hello! (speech); 9) Please Please Me; 10) Misery; 11) Iʼm Talking About You; 12) A Real Treat (speech); 13) Boys; 14) Absolutely Fab (speech); 15) Chains; 16) Ask Me Why; 17) Till There Was You; 18) Lend Me Your Comb; 19) Lower 5E (speech); 20) The Hippy Hippy Shake; 21) Roll Over Beethoven; 22) Thereʼs A Place; 23) Bumper Bundle (speech); 24) P.S. I Love You; 25) Please Mister Postman; 26) Beautiful Dreamer; 27) Devil In Her Heart; 28) The 49 Weeks (speech); 29) Sure To Fall (In Love With You); 30) Never Mind, Eh? (speech); 31) Twist And Shout; 32) Bye, Bye (speech).
CD II: 1) 1) I Saw Her Standing There; 2) Glad All Over; 3) Lift Lid Again (speech); 4) Iʼll Get You; 5) She Loves You; 6) Memphis, Tennessee; 7) Happy Birthday Dear Saturday Club; 8) Now Hush, Hush (speech); 9) From Me To You; 10) Money (Thatʼs What I Want); 11) I Want To Hold Your Hand; 12) Brian Bathtubes (speech); 13) This Boy; 14) If I Wasnʼt In America (speech); 15) I Got A Woman; 16) Long Tall Sally; 17) If I Fell; 18) A Hard Job Writing Them (speech); 19) And I Love Her; 20) Oh, Canʼt We? Yes We Can (speech); 21) You Canʼt Do That; 22) Honey Donʼt; 23) Iʼll Follow The Sun; 24) Green With Black Shutters (speech); 25) Kansas City / Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!; 26) Thatʼs What Weʼre Here For (speech); 27) I Feel Fine (studio outtake).

General verdict: Pitiful, really. Just pitiful.

Look, we get it, many of us still have these delightful sexual fantasies of waking up in bed with a brand new Beatles album. But when the original Live At The BBC was officially released in 1994, for all its relative freshness and historical importance it was not for nothing that the compilers actually selected material from several preserved shows, rather than simply taking the first few in their entirety and saving the remaining ones for later. They were actually working on choosing the better takes, the less heard rarities, even the funniest studio banter between the boys and their BBC host Brian Matthew. And back in 1994, there were clearly no plans in the air for a sequel: they took the best and let the worst lie.

Who would have guessed, alas, that either popular demand, or corporate greed, or both, would ascend to such lamentable peaks by the second decade of the 21st century that Apple would renege upon its unspoken pledge, and make the «dregs» officially available as well? Well... okay, anybody with the most basic predictive powers and a healthy amount of cynical attitude most probably could. And in all honesty, there is nothing inherently wrong in making the entirety of archival content preserved from the greatest pop band of all time publicly available. But this is simply not how you go about it.

If you want to have a proper historical document, what you actually do is take all the stuff, arrange it in proper chronological order and release it, as a «deluxe package» or «special limited time release only» whatever. Such a Live At The BBC Complete Edition would be objectively unimpeachable — aimed at history buffs, mostly, but actually doing its job properly for all the history buffs, you know, the way they do with all those latest mammoth-size King Crimson or Bob Dylan releases. On Air does precisely the opposite: it gives you a chronologically bizarre mish-mash of mostly second-rate performances that were rejected the first time around, leaving the completist still yearning for more and the more casual fan confused as to what the hell s/he has just been offered.

If, for some reason, you have never heard the original Live At The BBC, you will find here many live versions of Beatles classics that are inferior to the studio originals, but worth hearing just for that special brand of youthful Beatles enthusiasm that still oozed out of the Fab Four even within the confines of a radio program. If, for some totally incomprehensible reason, you have never heard any songs from the Beatles, period (or, at least, their early period), On Air is, of course, a five-star album, because hearing these songs even with flubbed notes and occasionally off-key vocals still does not detract from their ultimate greatness. But if you are saddled with all that experience, well, I am sad to say that:

(a) the only two completely «new» songs are a cover of Chuck Berryʼs ʽIʼm Talking About Youʼ and of Tony Orlandoʼs interpretation of the old standard ʽBeautiful Dreamerʼ. Both are taken from early 1963 performances for Saturday Club, featuring very shitty sound quality. Chuckʼs song at least features a credible John performance, but also shows how little suited George was to the position of a lead guitarist in a blues-rock band — the Stones kick the shit out of them with this kind of material anyway. ʽBeautiful Dreamerʼ is about as good as ʽMy Bonnieʼ was, which is hardly a compliment. Thatʼs all you get, folks;

(b) the absolute majority of the other songs was already featured on the original Live At The BBC — at worst, in equally competent versions, at best, in vastly superior ones as far as playing and recording quality were concerned. Sure, I only really listened to the album once, and I may have missed some subtle cute nuances every now and then, but who really expects subtle cute nuances from the Beatles in concert?;

(c) of the numerous bits of studio banter between the boys and Matthew, I do not remember even a single one that would match the occasional humor and wittiness of the original. Most of this is just stupid trash-talk that needed to be spoken because you had to say something into those mikes, and you couldnʼt always be expected to come up with something funny and/or intelligent even if you had the dirty mind of a John Lennon. Oh, they sing "Happy Birthday Dear Saturday Club" at one point. If that ainʼt a true Beatles highlight, I donʼt know what is.

Honestly, it is a little sad to realize that this might be the final review for the final official album release of previously unheard Beatles material — even sadder to realize that this might not be such a final review, because who knows what the future still has in store for us. Having Fun With The Beatles On Stage? Eight Hours Of Relaxing Nature Sounds — The Beatlesʼ Footsteps On The Threshold Of Abbey Road Studios? The Beatles Live At Wherever There Was No Recording Equipment In The First Place, But You Can Feel Their Presence All The Same? Come to think of it, the possibilities are endless.

In the meantime, do not waste your time on this shameless scam. There is actually a 9-CD bootleg edition out there called The Complete BBC Sessions, which does precisely what I was talking about — collect everything the band did in chronological order and provide you with a wholesome, historically cohesive perspective, if not necessarily give you nine hours of thorough musical enjoyment. Just get your thieving hands on this package instead, and show those money-grabbing capitalists at EMI what social justice, artistic taste, and personal accuracy are all about.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Elvis Presley: Jailhouse Rock


1) Jailhouse Rock; 2) Treat Me Nice*; 3) I Want To Be Free; 4) Donʼt Leave Me Now; 5) Young And Beautiful; 6) (Youʼre So Square) Baby I Donʼt Care; 7) Poor Boy*; 8) Let Me*.

General verdict: Short, but essential — the culmination (or, at least, the beginning of the culmination) of the Elvis + Leiber/Stoller teamwork.

Although, for some reason, the soundtrack to Jailhouse Rock never got expanded to the status of a full-blown LP, it is still well worth making a brief stop for this short 5-song EP — if only because both the movie and the title track were such iconic landmarks in the Elvis legend. The movie, despite the clichéd plot, still remains as one of the few genuinely watchable Elvis films, and the title track... well, just one more great result of the Elvis + Leiber & Stoller collaboration. Unlike ʽHound Dogʼ, ʽJailhouse Rockʼ does not really bite: its main melody is a fairly harmless, comical piece of boogie, and the maniacal energy of its vocals is rowdy, but not aggressive — it is, after all, the manifesto of jailbirds who just want to have some fun, not beat up the warden or anything. But still, it is a call for fun from the other side of the bars — already the opening beat brings on associations with truncheons hitting against polished steel — and this definitely takes us at least one step further than, say, ripping it up on a Saturday night.

Recent assessments of ʽJailhouse Rockʼ often tend to dwell on the homoerotic connotations of the tune (and especially the movie sequence), of which there are plenty, but I think that the prison theme in general is more essential here — Leiber and Stoller always liked subtly playing around with issues of social justice, and if they could infuse the music of the countryʼs most popular rockʼnʼroll performer with such a subject, even in a purely comical manner, how could they have bypassed the chance? Up until then, the jail theme was largely the domain of old bluesmen and weathered country-western performers; ʽJailhouse Rockʼ introduces it to the prom-party-oriented genre of rockabilly, and in such a way that it would be impossible not to take notice — the production is right in your face, without the slightest traces of echo on the Kingʼs voice and Scottyʼs simple boogie rhythm guitar downtuned and distorted just enough to make the song join the long queue of pretenders for the «proto-metal» sound. Such a friendly atmosphere, but still enough to piss off your parents — and this right at the very moment when theyʼd nearly come to terms with the man for all his Christmas and gospel offerings.

This is not to demean the quality and importance of the other songs here — if anything, the short length of the EP guarantees its consistency. There is ʽTreat Me Niceʼ, which has easily the best combination of piano and quirky percussion on any Elvis record, and a hilarious blend of Elvisʼ bass mumble and The Jordanairesʼ backing vocals — always a touch of ecstasy when his "if you donʼt behave..." rockets out of this confusing vocal soup. There is ʽBaby I Donʼt Careʼ, on which Elvis himself plays bass — and although the bassline is as simple as you could predict, it still somehow ends up making the song. There is ʽI Want To Be Freeʼ, a song which does for Elvis pretty much the same thing as ʽHelp!ʼ would do for The Beatles — formulaic love song on the surface, subtle and painful cry for assistance at the bottom: the way he modulates that "I want to be FREE, FREE, FREE - EE - EE... I want to be free, like the bird in the tree" goes from aching to hysteria and back to yearning pain in an amazing emotional somersault. (Did he ever perform the song live? I donʼt think so — I donʼt think the Colonel would have approved). There are also two more ballads by Aaron Schroeder that are not as good as the Leiber/Stoller material, but there is still enough first-rate vocal acrobatics on ʽDonʼt Leave Me Nowʼ to pardon its rather generic doo-wop characteristics.

On a technical note, Jailhouse Rock did make it to CD on its own, expanded with a bunch of alternate takes (not essential — for instance, the movie version of ʽJailhouse Rockʼ with backing vocals from the «inmates» somewhat smoothes out the punch of the single version) and also throwing on the earlier EP Love Me Tender, with four songs from Elvisʼ first movie. It is a bit amusing to be reverted to that year-old sound and hear how different it was — though, allegedly, Love Me Tender was a cowboy movie, accounting for the generally C&W nature of the sound­track. ʽPoor Boyʼ, ʽLet Meʼ, ʽWeʼre Gonna Moveʼ — rowdy campfire material, all of them, and produced in such an intimate manner that you can almost feel yourself sharing a drink with the King after a hard day of rodeoing or whatever.