Search This Blog

Monday, March 27, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Vol. 1 - 1940-1941

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: VOL. 1: 1940-1941 (2009)

1) Gamblin' Man Blues; 2) Warehouse Man Blues; 3) Chain Gang Blues; 4) New Low Down Dog; 5) Black Woman Swing; 6) Cabbage Greens No. 1; 7) Cabbage Greens No. 2; 8) Angola Blues; 9) My Cabin Inn; 10) Bad Health Blues; 11) That's All Right; 12) Gibing Blues; 13) Dupree Shake Dance; 14) My Baby's Gone; 15) Weed Head Woman; 16) Junker Blues; 17) Oh, Red; 18) All Alone Blues; 19) Big Time Mama; 20) Shady Lane; 21) Hurry Down Sunshine; 22) Jackie P Blues; 23) Heavy Heart Blues; 24) Morning Tea; 25) Black Cow Blues.

William Thomas Dupree was quite an interesting character back in his days — for one thing, it's not that often that a musician temporarily abandons his career to become a boxer, which he did in the late 1920s and from which he gained his "Champion Jack" nickname. Eventually, he got beat up, and since that happened at about the same time that he crossed paths with fellow blues pianist Leroy Carr, he seemingly decided that punching them keys was, after all, a safer job than pun­ching faces — nevertheless, he was smart enough to keep the "Champion" moniker for PR rea­sons, even if there was hardly anything champion-like about his playing the blues.

Well, one thing that does look champion-like is the sheer quantity of recordings that the man had done: spanning the pre-war era of shellac 78"s and onwards all the way until his death in 1992, he kept pumping out product at a breathless pace, despite never having shown any compositional genius or truly outstanding musicianship. Hunting down all of his mammoth discography is a nearly hopeless and, most importantly, thoroughly ungrateful task. That said, there is nothing particularly unpleasant about his style either: in small doses, Champion Jack Dupree is always palatable, and his historical importance cannot be denied.

Most of the man's pre-LP-era output is now conveniently available in the form of a 4-volume CD package, released in 2009 on the JSP label and annotated by blues expert Neil Slaven; since these 4 volumes cover more than a decade of music-making, I will comment on each separately, even if you can probably guess that the Champion's style did not evolve too seriously over those years. That style is simple — blues and boogie piano playing, with minimal accompaniment: on the first 17 tracks here, the only additional player is bassist Wilson Swain, with guitarist Jesse Ellery joining the duo for the last eight. Dupree is a fun player, a decent entertainer, but with fairly simple technique (well, I guess you can't easily combine piano practice with a boxing career) and a nice, but unexceptional, singing voice, so there's not much difference between all these tracks, except for the base patterns — here he plays slow 12-bar, there he plays fast barrelhouse boogie, and here he... oh no, not another slow 12-bar?...

Anyway, there are a few tracks here that still deserve special mention. ʽCabbage Greensʼ, recor­ded here in two slightly different versions, is a variation on the old ʽCow Cow Bluesʼ boogie that most people probably know as Ray Charles' ʽMess Aroundʼ — and this gives us a good pretext to compare Dupree's playing with Ray himself, not to mention its more than obvious influence on a certain white guy named Jerry Lee Lewis: make the necessary chronological adjustments and you will see that this is as wild as it gets for 1940, just as Jerry Lee was as wild as it could get for 1956. In terms of fun and recklessness, he clearly beats Leroy Carr (who wasn't much about rompin' and stompin') and is closer in style to Pete Johnson, the notorious sidekick of Big Joe Turner, although I'd say that Dupree's playing is rowdier and more «populist», whatever that could mean under the circumstances.

More importantly, there's ʽJunker Bluesʼ here, written by Dupree's piano mentor Willie Hall (better known under the professional moniker of Drive 'Em Down) and, as far as I understand, originally recorded by Dupree himself. This one is particularly important for launching the career of Fats Domino nine years later — when he borrowed the melody wholesale and changed the controversial lyrics from "They call me, they call me the junker / Cause I'm loaded all the time" to the far safer "They call me, they call me the fat man / Cause I weigh two hundred pounds". If you had any doubts, the song goes on to be loaded with references to reefer, cocaine, needles, and feeling high, so god bless good old OKeh records for having the guts to release it in 1940, when, apparently, middle-class white audiences were not the target audience for this kind of stuff.

For that matter, the very titles of the songs alone show that Champion Jack was not the kind of guy to shy away from socially relevant topics and spend all his time on woman issues: there's ʽChain Gang Bluesʼ, there's ʽAngola Bluesʼ (referring to Louisiana State Penitentiary, not the African country), and there's ʽWeed Head Womanʼ (hmm, is this one more of a woman issue or a weed issue?). As time goes by (and the Champ's slowly rising popularity makes him more of a household name), these rough subjects do get more and more eclipsed by standard, polite-mouthed blues thematics, though, and ʽJunker Bluesʼ becomes ʽHeavy Heart Bluesʼ, with a slight accompanying drop in tempo and energy. Still, on the other hand, he gives Leroy Carr's ʽHurry Down Sunshineʼ a faster and rockier spin (as well as a completely different set of lyrics), meaning that, even if he was willing to tone down the scathingness of the words, the same did not apply to the boogie power of the music.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You

THE ROLLING STONES: TATTOO YOU (1981)

1) Start Me Up; 2) Hang Fire; 3) Slave; 4) Little T&A; 5) Black Limousine; 6) Neighbours; 7) Worried About You; 8) Tops; 9) Heaven; 10) No Use In Crying; 11) Waiting On A Friend.

But see, this is why you can never properly give up on the Stones. In 1976, they seemed gross, antiquated, and ridiculous — and they could still groove better than most of their competition. In 1978, they proved capable of riding the new trends under a bittersweet sarcastic sauce — and thus re-ensured their survivability. In 1980, they recorded a lazy album of renovated outtakes — and fell flat on their faces. What would be the next logical move? Why, naturally: record yet another album of even more deeply rooted outtakes — and end up with an absolute winner. Whoever thought that ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ was a sign of a formerly great band in its final death throes, was in for a pleasant surprise.

Not that Tattoo You could ever hope to recapture the attitudes and atmospheres of the band's golden age — even if it tried, it couldn't, and, wisely, it does not even try. In fact, Tattoo You does not try much of anything: it is oddly de-personalized, and, apart from the opening track, does not focus too significantly either on Mick's swagger or on Keith's riffage. The entire album, as it happens, was quickly cobbled together from various leftovers (mostly selected by associate producer Chris Kimsey) as an excuse to go on tour — there was no time to rethink the image, to put together a statement, to suck in any of the latest trends; the only «conceptual» element of Tattoo You, other than Mick's and Keith's Polynesian mugs on the sleeve, is the separation of the material into a «rockier» Side A and a «balladeering» Side B (which, surprisingly, turns out to be quite a good sequencing idea in this case).

And this, apparently, is precisely what they needed at the time. Already with Black & Blue, it was quite obvious that «overthinking» their records was generally a bad idea for the Stones, since it usually led them to a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude, and, consequently, to songs that sounded more like silly impersonations of others than proper Stones material. These songs, how­ever, were unearthed by Kimsey's well-discerning eye, glossed up a bit to match current produc­tion standards, and released before Jagger had a proper chance to rethink them as mock-synth-pop, pseudo-hardcore punk, or suave disco. They're just... songs.

The «rocking» side, first and foremost, is striking in terms of diversity — even on Some Girls, you had songs like ʽLiesʼ and ʽRespectableʼ that were genristic clones of each other, whereas here, all six have their own identities. ʽStart Me Upʼ, the record's best known and most radio-friendly classic, is unimpeachable as perhaps rock'n'roll's finest aerobic number — it's almost impossible to resist its stop-and-start structure, although as far as classic Stones rockers go, this one is one of their most toothless ever: it's not so much about sex per se as it is about using sex as an allegory for push-ups and sit-ups (I think even the accompanying video sort of reflected that). ʽHang Fireʼ is punk-pop like all those failed attempts on Emotional Rescue, but here it is made good by a tight, catchy structure, infectious falsetto harmonies, and a welcome return to social provocation ("In the sweet old country / Where I come from / Nobody ever works / Nothing ever gets done" — hey, that doesn't quite sound like The Clash, now does it?). And while many people seem to cringe at ʽNeighboursʼ, one of only two songs that was largely written during the sessions rather than before them, I don't get it — not only is it an extremely catchy pop rocker with great sax solos from Sonny Rollins, but it is also a hilarious look at the problem of living like a rock star in the middle of everyday people. It's tight, it's danceable, and its sneer and bark is smarter and funnier than, say, ʽSummer Romanceʼ.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's ʽSlaveʼ, a riff-based blues-rock jam dating back to the Black & Blue sessions and also featuring Sonny Rollins on the sax. Keith's riff here is probably one of the best things about the entire album: slow, gruff, loose, and mean, perhaps the slowest and gruffest since the days of ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ, and the band jams around it like crazy. Trivia bits such as Pete Townshend providing backing vocals for the sessions aren't nearly as important here as the realisation of how tough and cool the Stones could sound even on complete autopilot in the heroin-soaked mid-Seventies — and the inclusion of this track adds a nice, chilly feel of that old sexual menace, already practically non-existent on Some Girls and turned into toilet humor on Emotional Rescue. Next to this, even Side A's weakest track, the Keith Richards solo spot ʽLittle T&Aʼ, sounds more respectable than it would have on Emotional Rescue, for which it was originally recorded — texturally quite close to ʽShe's So Coldʼ, but even less poli­tically correct in terms of lyrics (even Keith Richards in 1981 can hardly be excused for referring to a lady as "my tits and ass with soul"); still, I'd rather have a dirty, but tight rocker from Keith than a shapeless sentimental ballad like ʽAll About Youʼ.

The truly neglected gem on the first side is ʽBlack Limousineʼ, a song that few people pay atten­tion to just because it is a generic 12-bar blues (16-bar blues, actually) — in reality, it is way above generic: a tight, concentrated blast of spite and loathing... self-loathing, one could even say, if you allow yourself to not interpret the song in the key of ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ (Mick taunting a former flame for wasting away her life), but as one that refers to the Glimmer Twins them­selves: "look at you and look at me!" is basically Mick addressing Keith, which is only natural, conside­ring that if you looked at Keith's face in 1981 and compared it to Mick's, you'd clearly see who of the two got more beat up by Mother Nature for a life of sin. What's even better, the whole playing team gets behind Mick — Ronnie gets a flurry, scorching solo, Ian Stewart's piano lines never sounded better, and then Mick himself blows some of the most shrill harmonica blasts since those early days. Arguably their best pure blues number here since 1972's ʽStop Breaking Downʼ, and perhaps the last great pure blues number they ever did.

The second side, meanwhile, incidentally turns out to feature a weird spiral — with three num­bers in a row that go from strange to stranger to strangest ever, far from your average platter of Rod Stewart ballads. ʽWorried About Youʼ, also dating back to the Black & Blue sessions (in fact, they'd already played it live at El Mocambo in 1977), features Mick in full-fledged falsetto mode (more accurately, slowly winding his way from falsetto to growling, handling this quite masterfully), not to mention a great solo from Wayne Perkins (the same guy who also played lead guitar on ʽHand Of Fateʼ). Then there's ʽTopsʼ, an outtake from Goats Head Soup — for some unexplainable reason, this great song was left off in favor of rubbish like ʽHide Your Loveʼ, but now it gives you a chance to hear some more lead guitar from Mick Taylor, as well as an odd mix of recited ad-libbing and sung verses; they tried to make a Spinners-style soul number out of it, but with Mick's barking and Taylor's bluesy symphonies, it becomes significantly more dark and dangerous, a ballad straight out of hell, if I might say so.

And then there's ʽHeavenʼ, which is, hands down, the weirdest piece of music from the Stones camp since... well, probably since 1967 or so. I have no idea where it came from, and even less of an idea where it is going. I know they also began recording it during the sessions for Emotional Rescue, and I'm almost glad they never put it on that album — sitting in between ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ and ʽSend It To Meʼ and all that crap. It has no Keith on it (it's mostly a Jagger / Wyman collaboration, with Bill on synth and guitars, and should have been credited as such instead of the usual Jagger / Richards credit), it almost has no discernible vocals, it's all drenched in special effects, it's totally unrecognizable as a Stones song, and it totally rules. Take the lyrics literally (once you locate the sheet, that is), and it's a love ballad: "smell of you baby, my senses be praised...". Take them figuratively, and it's a religious anthem: "nothing will harm you, no­thing will stand in your way". Disregard them completely, and the song is a bona fide psychedelic experience — is this the Rolling Stones or the Cocteau Twins? With those guitar tones, those phased vocals, the soft kaleidoscopic electronic tinkling in the background, it creates an atmos­phere of «mortally dangerous celestial beauty» that is as art-rockish as they come, and up to this day remains one of the most bizarre and overlooked sonic gems in the band's catalog.

Next to this psychedelic oddity, ʽNo Use In Cryingʼ is a return to more traditional R&B balladee­ring (and also bears an uncanny resemblance to ʽHeart Of Stoneʼ in its basic chord sequence), but the perfect final touch is ʽWaiting On A Friendʼ, a song that, for the first time since ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, ends a Stones album on a deeply positive note — though not necessarily on a deep note, considering how ʽMoonlight Mileʼ gave you the atmosphere of final blissful relaxation after a torturous journey; ʽWaiting On A Friendʼ just gives you an atmosphere of relaxation as such, and not particularly blissful — still, it might be one of those perfect, straightforward buddy anthems that get you with their simplicity and open-hearted nature (in the accompanying video, we saw this personalized in the form of Mick actually waiting for Keith down at St. Mark's Place, and it just isn't possible that anybody who saw this video at the time could have previewed the deep rift between the two that had already begun to spread open).

And really, that's what Tattoo You is all about. It's a simple, fun-lovin' record, tempered with a bit of intelligence and spiced with a couple weird surprises. There's no agenda to it, no special conceptuality, no intuitive understanding and artistic expression of their «band on the run» status as there was on Exile, and no conscious selection of songs according to the principle of «let's include this because it makes us sound like 15-year olds peeping in the girls' bathroom». There's just 45 minutes of non-stop good music, for the last time ever in Stones history. Thumbs up.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Bats: The Deep Set

THE BATS: THE DEEP SET (2017)

1) Rooftops; 2) Looking For Sunshine; 3) Rock And Pillars; 4) Walking Man; 5) No Trace; 6) Diamonds; 7) Antlers; 8) Busy; 9) Steeley Gaze; 10) Durkestan; 11) Shut Your Eyes; 12) Not So Good.

Just another six years, just another Bats album. Yes, these guys are tenacious — they really are bent on earning their «AC/DC of jangle-pop» status. Same stable lineup, same pleasant sound, and... you know, as I am listening to these songs more than three years after I'd written my last Bats review, I realize that I remember very well what the overall Bats sound used to be, but I do not remember how even a single one of those Bats songs went. Not one. Not even the very best ones that I praised in those reviews.

So I am going to make this very short — yes, I listened to The Deep Set thrice, and I liked it, and I can guarantee any Bats fan that if he/she is buying this record, he/she is buying an authentic Bats record and not a polka or a death metal or a modern classical version of The Bats. Conse­quently, you will get yourself some steady mid-tempo jangle-pop (ʽRooftopsʼ), some slow stut­tery jangle-pop (ʽLooking For Sunshineʼ), some bouncy Merseybeat jangle-pop (ʽRock And Pil­larsʼ), some heavily overdubbed mid-tempo jangle-pop (ʽWalking Manʼ), some fuzzy, sharp-edged jangle-pop (ʽNo Traceʼ), some slow jangle-pop with elements of electronica (ʽDiamondsʼ), some jangle-pop mixed with power chords and shit (ʽAntlersʼ), some jangle-pop with a busier lead guitar part than usual (ʽBusyʼ), some jangle-pop with dreamy overtones (ʽSteeley Gazeʼ), some politically-oriented jangle-pop (ʽDurkestanʼ), some adult-contemporary jangle-pop (ʽShut Your Eyesʼ), and some totally non-descript jangle-pop for the last number, because God forbid you take this record off with memories of an outstanding finale (ʽNot So Goodʼ).

Needless to say, all of this should be taken as a hearty recommendation for those Bats fans who feel themselves strong and able and are in no danger of having their stomachs pumped from an overdose of jangle-pop. Everybody else please remember that The Bats in 2017 sound exactly like The Bats in 1987, and that this is the only significant point that this record makes.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Cass McCombs: Dropping The Writ

CASS McCOMBS: DROPPING THE WRIT (2007)

1) Lionkiller; 2) Pregnant Pause; 3) That's That; 4) Petrified Forest; 5) Morning Shadows; 6) Deseret; 7) Crick In My Neck; 8) Full Moon Or Infinity; 9) Windfall; 10) Wheel Of Fortune.

I do not think this was the right way to go. I loved A — it was essentially an album of mantras, and it hypnotized me to a point, depending on how well the singer was able to fine-tune his voice to find that one perfect pitch for the mantra in question. Now, by the time he gets around to his third album, Cass McCombs presents us with his first indisputable collection of pop hooks, and, unfortunately, that just does not work too well.

ʽLionkillerʼ opens the album with a couple of seconds reprising the annoying car siren at the end of ʽAll Your Dreamsʼ — implying, allegedly, that Dropping The Writ has to be taken as a direct sequel to PREfection, but this is not really the case. ʽLionkillerʼ itself is a three-chord grunge-folk rocker, with an endlessly spinning wash cycle that seems to promise some thunderous reso­lution, but never really does — and, what is even worse, McCombs himself is reduced to the role of a boring murmurer, spinning some figuratively autobiographical jumpin'-jack-flash-in-reverse-like tale about his safe middle class upbringing, but without even once making full use of his beautiful voice. Essentially, the song's ominous atmosphere is wasted.

As we proceed further, it becomes obvious that the age of mantras has passed, and that we have entered the age of art-pop instead. That would be okay if we had outstanding musicianship, ori­ginal and memorable melodic lines, or gorgeous vocal hooks — instead, we have tasteful musi­cianship, traditional melodic lines, and such timidly understated vocal hooks that it's almost like having no vocal hooks whatsoever. First time I sat through the record, I believe the melodies just managed to slip through my perception centers altogether; second time, I had my mind nets all polished and ready, but still ended up with slim pickings. I mean, something like ʽMorning Shadowsʼ is really nothing but dream-pop atmosphere: falsetto sweetness, soft guitar jangle, brushed percussion, light summer breeze that fades away as quickly as it comes. Pleasant, but definitely not the reason I'd endorsed Cass McCombs in his original artistic campaign.

Honestly, I do not think this album can seriously catch anybody's eye until the seventh song: ʽCrick In My Neckʼ is the first one to have a silly, but fun chorus, focusing on the protagonist's «body problems» preventing him from floating away in his imaginary psychedelic world. At the very least, this tune actually conforms to what we expect of a pop song — all the previous ones, while also pretending to be pop songs, do not. It helps that the song is propelled by a strong beat and plenty of Townshend-esque power chords, but it is the "brother, could you wait a sec? crick in my neck, crick in my neck!" climactic bit that makes all the difference.

From there on, the songwriting seems to take a turn for the better — ʽFull Moon Or Infinityʼ has an exciting contrast between low-key verses, falsetto choruses, and folksy acoustic picking with a troubled message; ʽWindfallʼ is a welcome return to ultra-slow waltzing tempos where Cass' vocal powers are finally laid out for all to see; and ʽWheel Of Fortuneʼ at least has sonic depth, with several layers of instrumental and vocal overdubs, to provide a good finale. I could not describe any of these songs as «outstanding» on any level, but at least they sound like composi­tions that care about surprising the listener, which is far more than I could say about the first half of the album, with all those telling titles like ʽPetrified Forestʼ (yes, much of that stuff really does sound petrified).

On the whole, Dropping The Writ is an even bigger disappointment than PREfection. Part of the blame, I guess, lies on the strange decision to de-individualize the vocals — there's so much echo, reverb, and other effects placed on them throughout the record, often quite gratuitously, that you almost get the impression of an artist intentionally sabotaging his greatest asset (like Eric Clapton renouncing the status of a guitar god or something like that). Obligatory kudos for trying to branch out, of course, but branching out at the expense of losing something precious without gaining anything is hardly a smart move.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Candlemass: Nightfall

CANDLEMASS: NIGHTFALL (1987)

1) Gothic Stone; 2) The Well Of Souls; 3) Codex Gigas; 4) At The Gallows End; 5) Samarithan; 6) March Funebre; 7) Dark Are The Veils Of Death; 8) Mourner's Lament; 9) Bewitched; 10) Black Candles.

Only their second album, and already they have a new record label (Axis Records), a new drum­mer (Jan Lindh), a new lead guitarist (Lars Johansson), and a new vocalist (Messiah Marcolin; and no, "Messiah" is not his real name, just a sacrilegious substitute for the much more difficult to pronounce Bror Jan Alfredo). And has this changed anything? Heck no! This is still Leif Ed­ling's band, and its primary purpose is still to craft an atmosphere of theatrical doom, because there's no better way to distract yourself from the mundane apocalypse of your own universe than to immerse yourself in a magical mystery apocalypse of a universe where old men in crypts of despair form circles of magic and prayers, where your life will be put to the test as you drink the chalice of divine ambrosia, where the Devil's fingers dance upon the strings like fire, where only the vultures will come to see you hang... well, you get the picture.

As far as the technical and personnel changes are concerned, I would not define these as drastic. The new vocalist is rather a change for the worse — Marcolin is a higher-pitched quasi-operatic screamer without the tiniest speck of grit to his voice; Längqvist was cheesy enough, but at least the man could shoot out a good growl or bark, whereas Marcolin seems dedicated to the idea that Candlemass are producing a doom metal version of Tristan, and that his task is to get into charac­ter. On the other hand, the new lead guitarist is a good acquisition: they are still quite parsimo­nious with their solos, but Johansson, coming from the Van Halen school of thought, has a good way of combining first-rate technique with melodicity, and on those rare occasions when he is given full rein, I like what he is doing (for instance, the solo on ʽDark Are The Veils Of Deathʼ). However, the production still largely sucks: the new drummer gets the same tinny tone as the old one, and the guitars still have a «lo-fi» feel to them that does not allow to fully appreciate the good old Crunch worked out by Björkman.

The riffs, as usual, alternate between leaden-slow doom and thunderous mid-tempo doom, of which I far prefer the latter (ʽDark Are The Veils Of Deathʼ, which sometimes develops into chuggin' thrash) and am somewhat indifferent towards the former (ʽWell Of Soulsʼ, ʽMourner's Lamentʼ, whatever). The overall number of tracks here is higher due to the presence of short instrumental interludes, sometimes decent (ʽCodex Gigasʼ, where they seem to try to recreate the atmosphere of a Gregorian chant with heavy metal guitars) and sometimes not (ʽMarch Funebreʼ: whoever said it was a good idea to make a doom metal arrangement of Chopin?), but the overall makeup of a Candlemass song remains the same — five to seven minutes of a leaden riff, a tale of medieval woe, a couple of short solos, and maybe a nice key change or two in the middle. And again, Eidling and Björkman demonstrate that they are no Tony Iommi when it comes to crafting a nicely thunderous doom metal riff — they have the tone right, they have learned their Devil's interval, but it does not work nearly as well. I believe one reason for this might be that they are too influenced by classical music: some of these melodies, if you mentally transpose them to orchestration, almost seem like Wagnerian leitmotifs, and it never does anybody any good to play Wagnerian leitmotifs with heavy metal guitars.

Still, once they get in a bit of speed and energy, the results are decent — ʽDark Are The Veils Of Deathʼ, for instance, is a really cool song as long as the wounded Tristan keeps his mouth shut (and he does not do it for too long), with a howling doom riff sliding into a funkier one and then into a chuggin' third (gotta love the mood shifts). And on the whole, I do appreciate the musician­ship — I just find it hard to get excited about it even on a cheap fantasy level. (Also, the lyrics are atrocious, but that kind of goes without saying; once again, I miss the deep poetic level of Geezer Butler).

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Caravan: For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night

CARAVAN: FOR GIRLS WHO GROW PLUMP IN THE NIGHT (1973)

1) Memory Lain, Hugh / Headloss; 2) Hoedown; 3) Surprise, Surprise; 4) C'Thlu Thlu; 5) The Dog, The Dog, He's At It Again; 6) Be All Right / Chance Of A Lifetime; 7) L'Auberge Du Sanglier / A Hunting We Shall Go / Pengola / Backwards / A Hunting We Shall Go (reprise).

Good or bad, the Waterloo Lily formula just did not stick, and the new configuration fell apart pretty quickly — with new member Steve Miller leaving for good and taking veteran member Richard Sinclair with him (or, actually, vice versa), forming Hatfield & The North, a band with its own distinct agenda, very different from the Caravan sound. This essentially left Hastings in full control over the remains of the band; however, the rule «no Caravan without a Sinclair pre­sent» still managed to work, since Dave Sinclair rejoined the group in the wake of Richard's de­parture, bringing a much-welcome return back to the organ sound instead of Steve Miller's elec­tric piano. Richard, in the meantime, was replaced by formerly unknown John G. Perry, and in order to expand and thicken the sound, Geoff Richardson was added on electric viola: an auxi­liary musician at first, he then went on to become one of the most permanent fixtures of the Caravan sound for the next four decades.

Simple logical calculations should lead us to expect that the results would suck: without Richard's songwriting and musicianship and with Pye's well-known penchant for a softer, poppier sound, Caravan could have been immediately reduced to sappy-sounding generic mush. Well, that sort of did happen later, but in 1973, Caravan hit back with a vengeance — releasing what was probably their second greatest album, and on certain auspicious days, I'd even say that Girls is more fun and consistent than In The Land Of Grey And Pink, although the latter will, of course, forever remain their most... shall we say, «programmatic» artistic statement.

With all power concentrated in his hands, Pye goes here for a little bit of everything. From basic rock'n'roll (ʽMemory Lain, Hughʼ opens the record with a looped riff groove sounding not unlike the beginning of CCR's ʽRamble Tambleʼ) to elements of Traffic-style roots-rock to bits of spooky hard rock to sentimental pop to multi-part progressive suites, For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night is truly a wonderful gift to all them girls who grow plump in the night (and take good care of the future eclectic musical tastes of their offspring while still in the womb), no matter how many crude sexual jokes Mr. Hastings might want to introduce in the lyrical content of his creations (if you ever wondered what the title ʽThe Dog, The Dog, He's At It Againʼ might be referring to, head straight for the worst possible hypothesis and you'll be hitting it). The re­formed lineup sounds rested, refreshed, and energetic; the songs combine hooks and atmospherics in that classic British manner; and there are neither any signs of the band «selling out» to the commercial pop machine, nor any signs of their ambitions overclouding their capacities — the curse of being «too progressive for their own good», already applicable in 1973 to such bands as Jethro Tull or Yes, does not apply to this record at all.

The very first track, a merger of two heavily rhythmic, uplifting pop-prog compositions, seems to represent the wish for a new beginning — "I just want the chance to try and find me", Pye sings on the ʽMemory Lainʼ part, and although I have no idea whether he did it on this track or not, the devotion sounds sincere and powerful enough. Richardson's viola on the instrumental parts fits right in with Sinclair's returning organ and brother Jimmy's flute soloing, and on the faster ʽHeadlossʼ groove, is a good fit for Pye's own wah-wah soloing. There's no boundary breaking here, just a few good-natured vocal hooks and life-asserting, inspired jamming in between, seemingly shooing away the odd darkness of Waterloo Lily and ushering in a new wave of sunshine without too much sappiness.

The friendly atmosphere carries over to ʽHoedownʼ, a song clearly inspired by country-western stylistics (especially in terms of Richardson's fiddle-like viola solo) but essentially pop-rockish when it comes to the vocal melody; ʽSurprise, Surpriseʼ, one of Pye's best exercises in pure sen­timental pop-rock; and, of course, the already mentioned ʽThe Dog, The Dogʼ, probably the single most controversial example in history when an essentially salacious matter would be pre­sented as a sunny-sweet pop singalong, steadily moving to a vocal harmony-filled crescendo climax in ʽHey Judeʼ mode. The song clearly invites the listener to join in the angelic choir of "oh, medicine gone, it's coming on strong", experiencing a state of loving bliss over lyrics that might make even Howlin' Wolf reconsider, had he ever been offered a line like "legs and thighs, hellos and goodbyes it's all there". It's like Pye Hastings took a good look at Mick Jagger singing stuff like ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ and said, "oh, great goals, crude methods, we'll try it subtler". Of course, this didn't exactly help him gain a lot of teenage girl fans, but in the ideally comprehensive encyclopaedia of «sexuality in music», with tracks like these, Caravan have certainly deserved their own and nobody else's chapter.

In the middle of all the sunshine comes an unexpected blast of creepiness — ʽC'Thlu Thluʼ, clearly a jumbled homage to H. P. Lovecraft, is a horror-themed track, driven by a deep bass riff that sounds like Sabbath-lite and panicky lyrics that would be quite appropriate for Ozzy. Not that Caravan could really be capable of a genuine «the-Devil-is-after-me» atmosphere: the song's chorus, with a funky change of key and an excited rather than scared vocal performance, subverts the whole thing and makes it deeply ironic. But that does not mean that the track does not rule anyway — with its abundance of cool heavy riffs, Sinclair's medievalistic organ playing, and a crashing coda, this is as close to «metallic» as these guys ever got, and in the context of the re­cord, it works great in between all the sunshine-oriented songs.

The «old school Caravan» is probably best represented on the final multi-part suite. With sub­titles like ʽA Hunting We Shall Goʼ you'd probably expect to find some influences from ye olde British folk or at least court music from the Tudorian era, and, indeed, the suite begins with a medieva­listic acoustic melody, but then quickly jumps into paranoid jazz-rock mode and finally settles on a slow tempo, grand orchestration (for which purpose they spared no expense and hired master orchestrator Paul Buckmaster), Wagnerian brass, and psychedelic swirling Davolisint hums. With a reprise of the jazzy ʽHuntingʼ section at the end, the suite, for once, sounds like a thematically oriented, smoothly flowing musical journey, sensibly organized from beginning to end rather than just being mindlessly pasted from several available bits and pieces. In fact, in a certain way the entire album could be taken for such a journey — beginning on a fairly light note, then picking up elements of deeper seriousness as it goes along, and finally culminating in the grand finale.

With Caravan's ongoing low-key profile and lack of stage flashiness, there was hardly any hope for the record to become more noticed than its predecessors — but in retrospect, it stands out humble-and-proud as one of the best progressive-themed albums of 1973. If we stick to chrono­logically based comparisons, I'd go as far as to call it the «high comedy» counterpart to the «high tragedy» of Selling England By The Pound: tackling some of the same matters (including the sexual obsessions of both frontmen), but substituting Peter Gabriel's melancholy and bitterness for Pye Hastings' warm irony and optimism. And if we don't stick to chronologically based com­parisons, it is just a charming piece of British progressive rock, and Caravan's last great hurrah in an epoch that was already rapidly moving to a close. So, a big thumbs up before it's too late!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Bat Chain Puller

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: BAT CHAIN PULLER (1976; 2012)

1) Bat Chain Puller; 2) Seam Crooked Sam; 3) Harry Irene; 4) 81 Poop Hatch; 5) Flavor Bud Living; 6) Brick Bats; 7) Floppy Boot Stomp; 8) Ah Carrot Is As Close As Ah Rabbit Gets To Ah Diamond; 9) Owed T'Alex; 10) Odd Jobs; 11) Human Totem Pole; 12) Apes-Ma; 13) Bat Chain Puller (alternate mix); 14) Candle Mambo; 15) Hobo-ism.

The latest and, probably, the most arduously expected archival release from the Captain is this: the original Bat Chain Puller, recorded in 1976 but shelved due to personal and technical prob­lems before being reborn in an entirely new coating three years later. In 2012, it finally got an official stamp of release on Gail Zappa's Vaulternative label, set up to handle Frank's archives — and, as it turned out, a little bit of Don Van Vliet's as well. Of course, veteran fans had already known all of this for a long time from their bootleg copies, but now, here's the Captain sending you one more gift from the grave without having you break the law or anything.

As you already know, most of the songs from Bat Chain Puller eventually became Shiny Beast, but a couple short instrumentals (ʽCarrotʼ and ʽFlavor Bud Livingʼ) and one vocal number (ʽBrick Batsʼ) had to wait until Doc At The Radar Station, and two more (ʽ81 Poop Hatchʼ and ʽHuman Totem Poleʼ) had to wait all the way until Ice Cream For Crow. Considering that ʽOdd Jobsʼ was already available on Grow Fins (albeit in demo form and very poor sound quality), the only song I do not recognize at all is ʽSeam Crooked Samʼ, another of Beefheart's beatnik recitations set to a background of gently noodling avant-jazz guitars. Additionally, the album is expanded with a few bonuses, such as an alternate mix of the title track and a lengthy improvised piece, ʽHobo-ismʼ — eight minutes of acoustic blues guitar, harmonica, and the Captain in Son House / John Lee Hooker mode, mumbling, growling, and howling out strings of neo-blues lyrics to an «authentic» dark country blues backing. Admittedly, it's fun for a couple minutes, but gets tedious very quickly if you're not too deeply into that kind of thing.

So what's the deal, anyway? Does this old recording still deserve its own place under the sun, or has it been rendered completely superfluous by Shiny Beast? From one point of view — given that the Captain was always very specific about preserving the compositional structure and arrangement details of his songs, and never really favored improvised variations on any of his songs once they were finished — it is superfluous: although the new recordings, considering both the complexity of the songs and the fact that everything had to be redone from scratch under new studio conditions, could not help but sound somewhat different, they are still exceptionally close, enough to make the comparison more interesting for the Beefheart historian than the average fan. On the other hand, the two albums were recorded by significantly different lineups of The Magic Band — for instance, Bat Chain Puller did not have Bruce Fowler on trombone, whereas Shiny Beast did not feature John French — and this makes the original version sound a bit more raw and less cluttered with extra instrumentation than Shiny Beast. So it's not like you aren't really offered a choice: some people did complain about a slight overproduction problem on Shiny Beast, and this gives them a chance to rejoice and pick a new intimate favorite.

I do have at least this to say: although I am still largely indifferent to ʽHuman Totem Poleʼ, this version of it here sounds far more tight and energetic than the one on Ice Cream For Crow, largely because John French is a better drummer (or, at least, a better Beefheart-style drummer) than Cliff R. Martinez, and is able to lock himself in a better coordinated groove with the two surrounding guitar players. Also, the track works better without the Captain's ugly sax blowing all over it (sorry, all you best friends of the Beefheart-'n'-saxophone alliance). The rest, well — I frankly don't care all that much, but since I like Shiny Beast, it's nice to be able to hear a few highlights in slightly edgier, though not necessarily better, versions. Anyway, no enlightening revelations here, but a pleasant souvenir for the fans and a useful piece of the Beefheart puzzle to put together with the rest.