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Thursday, March 15, 2018

King Crimson: USA


1) Walk On... No Pussyfooting; 2) Lark's Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2; 3) Lament; 4) Exiles; 5) Asbury Park; 6) Easy Money; 7) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 8*) Fracture; 9*) Starless.

General verdict: A solid sample of the band's mid-Seventies live power, though fairly obsolete for the true fan.

These days, all (both) live albums that King Crimson released back in the day look pitifully pitiful and obnoxiously obsolete against the huge, painstakingly assembled, comprehensive box­sets such as Starless and The Road To Red — in fact, USA, a record originally assembled from two shows (Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Providence, Rhode Island) played on June 28 and 30, 1974, has by now been completely integrated inside The Road To Red, including the restoration of shortened tracks to their full running length (yes, now you actually get to hear how the improvisation on ʽEasy Moneyʼ got brought to a suitable conclusion, rather than just fade out). However, it is unlikely that I will be listening to those boxsets in their entirety any time soon, much less provide meaningful reviews for them — on the other hand, a short record such as USA is perfect as a representative sampler, and while it certainly does not disclose all the secrets of the Bruford-Wetton-Cross era King Crimson, it does a good job of capturing most of their good moments, coasting on some of the questionable ones, and omitting all of the bad ones. (My own edition — the 30th anniversary one — also adds ʽFractureʼ and ʽStarlessʼ to the original LP: very grateful for the latter, still in doubt about the former).

Since there was no tour for Red, most of the material here is taken from Larks' Tongues In Aspic, plus a live take on ʽLamentʼ and ʽSchizoid Manʼ as the obligatory crowd favorite — the only track from the original line-up to have survived into the math-rock age. For the typical symph-prog band, this would have probably resulted in a mere multiplication of entities; but King Crimson always seemed to grow an extra pair on stage, and with the sound quality finally being up to par (after the shameful Earthbound debacle), USA played its significant part in 1975, as a well-rounded epilogue to classic King Crimson, a band whose self-burial, it could be argued, was highly symbolic of the end of the Golden Age of rock music in general.

You do have to wait quite a bit, though. The first three tracks (not counting the brief atmospheric introduction, «loaned» by Fripp from his joint album with Brian Eno) are good, but not specta­cular — well, ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2ʼ is always spectacular, but I have yet to hear a version that would honestly kick the ass of the snappy studio original (largely because Fripp has never bothered to reproduce the poisonous tones of the guitar riff). Neither ʽLamentʼ nor ʽExilesʼ were fabulous songs to start with, and the live performances do not do much to save them; some­how, I feel that they were included primarily in order to raise the percentage of vocal numbers on the final record (sort of a parting gift to Wetton), although ʽExilesʼ has a stronger, fuller vocal performance from John here and a pretty guiding electric solo from Robert.

Things start really cooking on the second side, though. ʽAsbury Parkʼ is an improvisation, named after the venue where it was played, and now that I am relistening to it, I am pretty damn sure that this is the track that should have replaced ʽProvidenceʼ on Red in order to rid it of the last traces of imperfection. Although the funky groove of the track is far from the most complex pattern ever played by these guys, the groove itself is beastly, and Fripp plays some of his wildest passages here — launching into frenzied fits of shredding one minute, stretching out with psychedelic jazzy noodling the other, while the rhythm section is doing its own thang in proto-metallic mode. Compared to the improvisations on Earthbound, this is a completely different matter — tighter, heavier, nastier, even punkier, if I might borrow the term for a bit. (And I appreciate the truncated version, by the way: the full 12-minute performance has them unnecessarily going into free-form chaotic mode at one point).

Meanwhile, the truncated version of ʽEasy Moneyʼ annihilates the studio version, tightening it up, bringing Wetton's vocals more up front, putting extra fuzz on the bass, and, eventually, turning into a long, slow, meditative jam, with more of those howling guitar tones offset by Cross' Mellotron playing. I am not sure why they edited out the ending (perhaps Fripp felt that the LP side was running out of space already), but in any case, ʽEasy Moneyʼ is one of those vocal numbers that really came to life on stage rather than in the studio.

And, finally, the ʽSchizoid Manʼ thing. Since they did not have a brass section with them, and since David's violin was way too feeble-sounding for such heavy numbers, the burden is entirely on Fripp's shoulders here, and he gives the performance of a lifetime — the solo is positively smouldering, as he launches into head-spinningly speedy runs, turning that guitar into an atomic spinning top at times, before bringing the band to an even more frenetic noisy climax midway through the song. Nothing truly tops the apocalyptic siren calls of the original in terms of sonic depth, but in terms of sheer maniacal energy, this here is one of the best ever versions of this song, even by the generally high standards of the 1973-74 concert performances.

And back in 1975, it probably made sense that King Crimson would say its final goodbye to the world with the same song with which it originally said hello — and bringing it «up to eleven», no less. Overall, there was a sense of disillusionment in the air of 1974-75, a general feeling that the intellectual and spiritual ambitions of rock music might have somewhat overstepped its actual capacity for progressive development; and while bands like Yes, drawing most of their inspiration from idealism, were rather ill equipped to fight that feeling, King Crimson, especially in their post-Sinfield days, were the perfect vehicle to embrace it and let it explode them from within. They entered this life with a big fuck-you to humanity, and then they left it with the exact same fuck-you, only a bigger one. And with a guy as serious and inscrutable as Robert Fripp, nobody at the time could say for sure that this was not really the end of the road for KC.

Technical footnote: with Road To Red now available for Crimheads worldwide, I suppose the only — strange — reason for them to own USA separately is for the violin overdubs that were laid down in the studio by Eddie Jobson, presumably because Cross' parts were poorly captured; it is Eddie's, rather than David's, work that you hear on ʽLarks' Tonguesʼ and ʽSchizoid Manʼ, and I guess it fits in just as well as David's. On the other hand, I do not suppose that USA will ever get deleted out of the catalog, because there is still such a thing as judging a band's live potential by a well-rounded, economical live album, rather than the millstone of their entire touring history placed around your neck and usurping all of your private life.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here


1) Shine On You Crazy Diamond (parts 1-5); 2) Welcome To The Machine; 3) Have A Cigar; 4) Wish You Were Here; 5) Shine On You Crazy Diamond (parts 8-9).

General verdict: The most elaborate and heartfelt funeral for a living friend in rock history.

In almost any account of Pink Floyd history, the genesis of Wish You Were Here is inextricably linked to The Dark Side Of The Moon — usually in the context of a question like «what do you do when you have just released one of the most commercially succesful and critically revered albums of all time?». Somewhat ironically, the original plan could not have been more different from the final results: in 1974, perhaps somewhat confused and dismayed by the enormity of their own success, the band took the decision to go back to their avantgarde-experimental roots and release an album of musique concrète, all of which would be played on various household objects, from wine glasses to hand mixers. Although some of the explored effects made their way onto WYWH in the end, ultimately the idea did not work — and perhaps it could not have worked: after all, once you cross the line that separates esoteric intellectual underground from accessible mass acclaim, going back like nothing happened is not a realistic option. However, the attempt was not totally wasted: it did manage to put them in a special kind of creative-imaginative mood that helped a lot once they started working on the real thing.

Although by 1974-1975 the «progressive» streak in popular music was beginning to wear thin, with critical admiration for bands like Yes and Jethro Tull gradually turning to disappointment, the immense success of Dark Side pretty much guaranteed to make Floyd an exception to the rule — that is, only as long as their epics «made sense», which meant having lyrics that ordinary people could relate to and melodies that would not stray too far away from the basic blues idiom at the heart of the rock culture. So then, what do you do when you have all these invisible constraints imposed on you, including the obligation to prove that your recent masterpiece was not just a happy fluke, but a significant claim for the title of the Best Band of the Decade?

In historical terms, Wish You Were Here and its follow-up, Animals, began at the same time: ʽShine On You Crazy Diamondʼ was premiered live in 1974, along with ʽRaving And Droolingʼ and ʽYou Gotta Be Crazyʼ that would go on to become ʽSheepʼ and ʽDogsʼ in 1977. However, conceptually the three were found not to belong together — the mournful nature of the former did not merge well with the aggressive dynamics of the latter two, and so, over the course of the 1975 sessions, ʽShine Onʼ, written as a tribute to Syd, was incremented by several other new tunes, all of which had to do with either the perils and humiliations of the music business or with nostalgia and sorrow, turning the whole thing into a much tighter conceptual piece than even Dark Side itself. The sessions marked the return of Dick Parry on saxophone, and also featured Roy Harper as guest lead vocalist on ʽHave A Cigarʼ, which somehow neither Waters nor Gilmour decided was suitable for their voices (a strange decision, since there is not a great deal of vocal difference between it and, say, ʽMoneyʼ, but they probably knew better). Alan Parsons was too busy with his new band to engineer the project, but Brian Humphries, his replacement, did a fine enough job. And, of course, one can never write about this album without mentioning the June 5, 1975 visit of the ghost of Syd Barrett into the studio: although they were already finalizing the mix of ʽShine Onʼ at the time, I have no doubt that some of the feelings experienced by everybody on that day must have somehow, in some way rubbed off on at least some parts of the album.

Commercially, the record stood little chance of ever outselling Dark Side Of The Moon — with but five songs on it and a smaller variety of covered topics, its appeal would be less obviously universal. Nevertheless, unlike Dark Side, it actually reached No. 1 both in the UK and in the US, and garnered almost as much praise as its predecessor. Part of this should probably be credited to the mysterious influence of the Hipgnosis album cover, but essentially Wish You Were Here sways us over so much because it is the closest that rock music ever came to producing a meticulously structured and engineered, yet also totally heartfelt requiem mass — and that, I think, is the angle under which one should always judge it.

As in any large, multi-part piece of music, there will be parts that stun you and parts that let you breathe; climactic melodies that hit every nerve and auxiliary melodies that are not so great by themselves, but are content to simply play their bridging roles in the overall story arc. But it really does come across as a single powerful piece — the didactic tale of the rise and fall of a great hero. You can give the great hero a restraining name if you like, such as Syd Barrett, yet I suppose that a huge number of people who cherish and love this album do not even have the faintest idea of who Syd Barrett was (fuck 'em, of course, but ultimately that is irrelevant to our subject matter here). The factual side of the story, like a flashback, is inserted right in the middle of the requiem — ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ, using an industrial factory as an all-too obvious metaphor for the musical business, and ʽHave A Cigarʼ, a sneery-ironic conversation with the Uberboss, take care of that — and the rest takes place in the now, as we pay our last respects to The Piper, whoever he was. A morality play, no less!

None of that would matter per se, of course, if ʽShine On You Crazy Diamondʼ — all the 25 minutes of it, split in two — weren't one of the most quintessential musical pieces of the 20th century.  If I were to compile a personal «Top 10 Most Aching Moments in Pop History» list, that moment in 2:08 where Gilmour's guitar enters stage dramatically to the subdued, respectful tones of the VCS3 and the Hammond organ played in unison would be among the first candidates for inclusion. That first solo, concluding part 1, without a single wasted note, still makes me shiver every time, no matter how much I relisten to it — and it is certainly not just the notes themselves: formally, Gilmour does not seem to be playing anything particularly outside of the standard Claptonesque blues idiom. Rather, it is the fatherly care that goes in each single note — the tone, the duration, the reverb, the relative strength of the pick; this is true mournful bliss that is all built on cliches and overcomes every one of it. The same goes for the famous four-note «Syd theme» that follows. Its timing is perfect — give a little time for the previous solo to soak in and the keyboards to slowly fade out a little, then make a second grand entrance with a laconic musical phrase that sounds like a triumphal fanfare, a warning alarm, and a meditative mantra all at the same time. It is one of those "everybody rise!" moments where a minimal, but genius effort is made to let you know that this is going to be important, as in really important — a tale of something grand and terrifying, even if you are not aware of the factual details.

Some people have complained that the composition is stretched out too much — that the vocals come in much too late, for one thing (a complaint that Gilmour partially recognized by agreeing to delete one of the guitar solos on most of Floyd's post-Waters live shows). Maybe it is, and maybe two similar-sounding guitar solos, interrupted by a keyboard solo, give undue advantage to Gilmour's guitar voice over the rest of the band — but there is not another track in Floyd's entire repertoire that would be comparable in human sentiment and transcendental majesty at the same time (ʽComfortably Numbʼ is, after all, an arena rocker first and foremost, and does not have as much «internalized emotion»). Besides, it's not as if he were noodling all over the place for hours or anything, and both Wright (on keyboards)  and Waters (on vocals) pay their equally comparable share of the tribute, not to mention Parry's sax solo.

The idea to split ʽShine Onʼ in two did not have Gilmour's initial approvement — but in the end, it turned out to be an excellent move, because of the possibility to arrange those following two songs as «flashbacks». ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ, due to the nature of its metaphor, is as close as Floyd ever came to creating an «industrial» piece of music — of course, it uses all of its noisy ideas as a setting for the dark-folksy melody rather than a goal in itself, but isolate the synth loops and all the steamy explosions and you get yourself quite a scary experimental track that could easily hold its ground against any Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle track. ʽHave A Cigarʼ, on its own, is not a great song —  it has a fairly common blues-rock riff, Harper's vocals aren't particularly affected by any kind of emotion, and on the whole, this sort of aggressive-frustrated blues railing would only be perfected by the band for Animals. But it is still decent enough, and it obviously works as part of the story — in fact, I like to picture ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ as a long, creepy, but breathtaking elevator journey to the top of The Factory, with the souls of miriads of unfortunate victims trapped on the countless stories; and then, at the very top of it all, you are greeted by the Uberboss, a somewhat ignorant ("by the way, which one's Pink?"), but totally efficient Lucifer model in its own right. (Maybe they should have brought in Alice Cooper to sing the song instead... or Meatloaf?..)

Ideally, the transition from the «flashbacks» back to ʽShine Onʼ, I think, should be made before ʽWish You Were Hereʼ rather than after it — it is just so natural when The Fallen Hero's journey to the top segues right into the chilly wintery winds of Part 6, and how we have that ominous part, highlighted by the reverberating bass and Gilmour's Evil-Joker-style slide solos and representing the devilish fate that awaits The Hero, finally seguing into the last reprise of the vocal section: "Nobody knows where you are, how near or how far...". In my own (if I may be so bold) ideal vision of the album, the title track is the post-scriptum — something to be quietly hummed to the soft strum of the acoustic after the ceremony has ended and the last of the stunned spectators has left the building. Then comes the moment when, out of nowhere (or, to be more precise, out of the lo-fi crackle of a radio transmitter), you get this last bit of homely, cozy, intimate respect for the departed. I guess there must be a certain logic to the sequencing that we have, but I have a harder time perceiving it; not that it's a big problem or anything.

A final special mention should probably be made for the «effects» — in particular, the use of the glass harp on the opening segments of ʽShine Onʼ, which went all the way back to the failed «Household Objects» project, but fit in so wonderfully here: clearly, the tinkling glass effects are in agreement with the «diamond» thing, adding one more sonic allegory on top of everything else. When you listen to those bits in headphones, as loud as possible, you can actually picture yourself in some sort of majestic funeral chamber, with dazzling-sparkling riches everywhere and the proverbial Napoleon's Tomb in the middle. Also, there is no other Floyd album on which they would put the VCS3 to better use — their electronics now are alternately God-like and Devil-like whenever they choose: more generally God-like on ʽShine Onʼ, totally Devil-like on ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ — remember the creepy whizz at the end of the ascending acoustic guitar solo? You're going up there, floor after floor after floor, and then the industrial wind hits you flat in the face at the top, as you get your general view of the grim robotic panorama. Ultimately, all these gimmicks have their proper purpose, and remain inseparable from the melodic base of the album.

Other than the not-too-satisfactory track listing (like I said, I would prefer to see the acoustic title track as a post-scriptum, even at the expense of a slight violation of the symmetry), the only problem with Wish You Were Here is that it is... well, too short. Where their second concept album about the unfortunate fate of a musical loner would arguably suffer from an overabundance of musical ideas, good and bad, this one finds itself obliged to allocate so much space to the proper unfurling and development of its musical themes that, in the end, these musical themes are reduced to but a small handful; and this is also considering that the theme of ʽHave A Cigarʼ, though similar in purpose, structure, and execution to ʽMoneyʼ, does not have that song's immediacy or originality, and that it is all too easy to even not properly notice the theme of ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ behind all the industrial hustle-bustle.

Conceptually, the record also loses to both Dark Side and Animals in terms of scope: where Dark Side was dealing with nothing less than the meaning of human life in general (yay, pretentious!), and Animals laid out a whole socio-political vision (hardly an original one, but very originally encoded in animalistic and musical metaphors), Wish You Were Here relates to a more narrow, specific situation. But then again, so did Citizen Kane, which never prevented it from becoming a masterpiece not only for conceptual reasons — and besides, who'd really want to put down a musical record merely because it is less conceptually ambitious than any of the surrounding pieces?.. Not really. Much more problematic is the fact that the vocals throughout aren't all that good, be it Roy Harper or Roger Waters, yet even that can sometimes turn to the band's advantage (for instance, Waters' somewhat annoying wailing on ʽMachineʼ is perfectly suitable if you imagine that it is being collectively delivered by all the miserable souls trapped in The Factory, communicating with our hero telepathically as he rides up in that goddamn elevator: warning given, but not heeded). 

In the end, there is a very special place for Wish You Were Here in that near-perfect streak of «intelligent art-rock with mass appeal» records that Floyd delivered throughout the 1970s. Dark Side Of The Moon had its share of tragic notes, but it was not a tragic album as a whole; Wish You Were Here marked the band's transition into the bleakest, most cynical period of their creativity. Stunned horror, cruel cynical irony, and deep, incurable sorrow are the record's chief, if not only emotions — the last verse of ʽShine Onʼ, with its "pile on many more layers and I'll be joining you there" bit shows that bliss and rest exist only beyond this world, never within it. At the same time, though, it is relatively free of anger as a basic emotion: many people tend to turn away from Animals and The Wall simply because they find it hard to stand Waters' never-ending streams of bile and poisoned spit (and let us not even begin talking about his post-Floyd career). Sorrow is the base word here, not anger; and the music uses stateliness and solemnity to convey that sorrow, with such finesse and delicacy that I really cannot think of anything comparable. (Much later on, in The Division Bell, Gilmour and Wright tried to recapture some of that magic — but it was already too intentional, too manipulative, too nostalgic, too predictable to work with the same efficiency). Overall, I would say, this is an album that every one of us wishes (or should wish) he/she could have it played in its entirety at our funeral ceremony — but then most of us probably have to deserve that right, and if the necessary pre-requisite is getting a welcome from The Machine and a cigar from Roy Harper, then maybe we'd rather not.

Technical post-scriptum: predictably, the album has been re-released in various anniversary editions, and in 2011, like Dark Side, it also received the expanded treatment with a 2-CD «Experience» package and a huge «Immersion» box set. Compared to Dark Side, however, these packages offer comparatively less material — if you are a potential buyer, I would probably advise hunting for the Experience set, which adds an enjoyable and historically significant live sub-set from the 1974 Wembley concert (with the three abovementioned early tracks performed in a row); an excerpt from the Household Objects project, which will help you see how the wine glass experiment was eventually woven into the textures of ʽShine Onʼ; a Waters/Gilmour sung version of ʽHave A Cigarʼ; and a ʽWish You Were Hereʼ with none other than Stephane Grappelli himself guest-playing a violin part that they later erased because it did not fit in with the overall mood of the song. (Amusingly, Grappelli was recording with Yehudi Menuhin in an adjacent studio on that day, but when challenged to improvise, Yehudi declined — classical players are such party poopers next to jazzmen, right?).

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

John Lennon: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band


1) Mother; 2) Hold On; 3) I Found Out; 4) Working Class Hero; 5) Isolation; 6) Remem­ber; 7) Love; 8) Well Well Well; 9) Look At Me; 10) God; 11) My Mummy's Dead.

General verdict: Yep, still kicking major three-chord ass after all these years in all of its beautiful naked brutality.

The legend of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, once hailed as the one post-Beatle album to put to shame all other post-Beatle albums, has become slightly dimmed in recent decades, largely due to a re-balancing of values. Back in the early Seventies, John was critically acclaimed as the Rough, Rugged, Sincere Heart of the Beatles, praised for the brave, gritty, and oh-so-substantial minimalism of his singer-songwriting spree — while Paul McCartney, at the same time, was getting critical flak for being too wussy, too fussy, too focused on petty bourgeois values, cheap sentimentality, and absurd absurdity. (On George, critical opinion was divided, some praising him for spiritual depth and others condemning him for too much preachiness).

These days (and by «these days» I'm actually saying «for about twenty or so years now»), with Ram being viewed as the grandfather of indie pop and traditional rock critic values à la Christ­gau or in the vein of Rolling Stone becoming way too stale, one-sided, and granddaddish, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band seems to have, if not exactly lost part of it appeal, then at least slight­ly receded into the background as just another good album from a solo Beatle. It still remains a milestone in the history of confessional, autobiographical songwriting, and is probably just as big an influence on every unhappy indie kid as Ram is on every happy indie kid. But John's brand of primal musical psychotherapy is now looked upon as naïve and dated, if not downright ridiculous, and his sincerity is just as often perceived as narcissistic, egotistic, and undeservingly offensive... at least, more often than it used to be.

And I believe this because even in my own case, the record no longer thrills me nearly as much as it did, say, twenty years ago — at the very least, its cracks and shortcomings are more obvious, and the occasional bouts of self-righteousness on the part of its author are more irritating. There is no subtlety here whatsoever: this is John Lennon, the atomic bomb, blasting away everyone and everything that stands in his way, not caring all that much if he blasts away you, the innocent listener, along with everything else — then again, you might not be that innocent, either, because chances are, there is something in this world that you have done, you fuckin' peasant, for which Mr. Lennon hates you together with all your fellow countrymen. The only thing in this world that Mr. Lennon does not hate is Yoko Ono, who systematically crops up on one song after another and acts as his guiding angel through a life of misery, frustration, and disillusionment.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band has no double bottom, no mystery to unravel — chances are that if you have heard it once, subsequent listens are not going to improve your reaction. The songs themselves certainly did not appear out of the blue: elements of this «primal» approach were sprinkled all over John's Beatles catalog, from ʽHelp!ʼ to ʽYer Bluesʼ, but in those past days the feelings were usually masked behind partially irrelevant or formulaic lyrics, and it was never clear just how much of himself John actually put into the songs (later on, he dropped plenty of clues himself — basically, whether or not he put himself into his songs determined which Beatle songs he'd call shitty and which ones he'd call passable). Now that he was no longer a Beatle, the album was all about John — John's parents, John's memories, John's loneliness, John's passions, John's life philosophy, John's adversaries, John's fears and hopes.

As I try to recycle the brief, but turbulent rock history pre-1970, I struggle to remember anything that would even remotely come close to the same level of «confessionalism» as captured here. People certainly wrote (usually masked) autobiographical songs, but the late Sixties' singer-song­writer was more of a Leonard Cohen or a Nick Drake — the wise, sophisticated romantic who was either too shy to bare it all, or thought this too cheap to merit his attention. John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band is, therefore, arguably the first album in rock history that sounds based on an auto-interviewing session: for all we know, John could listen to an hour-long interview with him­self on all things mundane and supernatural, and then go on to write a bunch of songs, each circling around a phrase or two taken from such an interview. "God is a concept by which we measure our pain", "a working class hero is something to be", "there ain't no Guru who can see through your eyes", "don't feel sorry the way it's gone", "when you're by yourself, you just have yourself and you tell yourself just to hold on" — doesn't that sound like a bunch of citations from some bed-in session, or a TV chat with Dick Cavett?

Whether these and other aphorisms are cleverly worded, original, intelligent, etc., is a matter of subjective opinion and lengthy discussion — there is little doubt as to their sincerity, but every­thing else is debatable. However, this is John Lennon we are talking about, the man whose way with words (which he tended to forget anyway) always took second place next to the music; what matters is not exactly what he says, but whether he chooses the right notes to go along with it. And here, too, the record delivers. Most of the melodies, in stark contrast to George Martin's Beatles, are bare-boned — usually featuring Ringo on drums, Klaus Voormann on bass, and John himself on either guitar or piano, almost never on both (except for ʽLoveʼ). The minimalism is symbolic: there should be nothing whatsoever to draw your attention away from the pain (or the love, or whatever). But it works — when you have a truly great melody going on in your mind, you might just strip it down to the root notes, and it will still work.

Something like ʽMotherʼ, I think, probably shouldn't even be catchy — its verses mostly do not rhyme, its last line is nearly out of sync with the rest, and the pauses between verse lines are so long, your mind might not keep the beginning by the time you get to the end. But catchy it is, and its catchiness comes through in the little things — like, for instance, the two completely different "goodbyes" that end each verse: the first one, with the strong accent on "BYE", is determined and categorical, the second, with more force on the falsettified "GOOD", is soft and sentimental: love and hate, hate and love, all in one. And maybe it is not even the simple C-G-C chord pattern on that piano that matters, but the sheer physical force with which John bangs out that melody: each chord falls down like a heavy hammer, to bring the message home. (An earlier version, played on acoustic guitar and released on the Anthology boxset, fails to produce the required shattering effect). With a song like that, do you really want to get into the details of how much John's character was really shaped by the traumatic experience of his youth, and how much he is merely self-pitying himself because Arthur Janov taught him to? All that matters is how convincing the performance itself happens to be — and it probably wouldn't be until The Wall and its own ʽMotherʼ that we'd get a comparably powerhouse delivery on the parental issue.

The minimalism works just as well on the more rocking material: ʽI Found Outʼ, the most vicious song on the album, charges forward like a mad bull, thanks to the kick-ass rhythm section — Ringo and Klaus really get into the spirit of things, playing a clenched-teeth dark boogie that fits in with John's pissed-off grumble and quietly dry, snappy, fuzzy electric guitar croaking. (I some­times wonder if Ringo found it comfortable for himself to play on an album like that — but then again, while we have this image of him as an eternally sunny, peace-and-love guy, the man had a pretty mean streak in him, too, especially around the Beatle breakup time, and I am pretty sure, considering how viciously he sometimes bashes his kit around here, that he took that chance to exorcise some of his own demons, too). The stakes are raised even higher on ʽWell Well Wellʼ, perhaps the most violent song ever recorded about doing nothing — there's few things more meaningless in this world than "well well well oh well", and few things more meaningful than turning that chorus into the single most intense session of throat-shredding in the history of rock music (not even Iggy Pop has anything on that — every time I hear the song, I feel like I have to go rinse my own vocal cords afterwards).

But rockers are still relatively few on the album, whose main focus is on quietly understated piano, acoustic and clean electric guitar hooks. We have our self-comforting, colorful electric guitar swirl on ʽHold Onʼ (and I swear that I still jump up occasionally when that COOKIE! thing jumps out of nowhere in the middle of the soft solo break); our dustbowl acoustic folkie thing on the eternally relevant rage-against-the-machine-ish ʽWorking Class Heroʼ; our steady rising-and-falling piano riff on ʽLoveʼ (something that would very soon also reappear in a slightly more complicated form as ʽImagineʼ); our Donovan-style ʽDear Prudenceʼ-like picking on ʽLook At Meʼ; and, perhaps most stunning of all, our rise-and-rise-and-rise-till-you-break-and-scatter-all-over-the-place piano melody of ʽIsolationʼ, one of the most terrifying songs from that era about loneliness — along with Harry Nilsson's ʽOneʼ, which surpasses ʽIsolationʼ in terms of pure drama, but not in terms of its claustrophobic aura.

That said, all these songs form part of a greater whole. By the time we reach ʽGodʼ, the singer-songwriter has crossed all sorts of territories and passed through all sorts of stages, and ʽGodʼ decidedly feels grander and more purposeful as a stately conclusion to the record than it would ever feel on its own — after all, it isn't so much a song as it is a psychological culmination. The melody here is crystal-clear R&B, or maybe even close to gospel, with Billy Preston expressly brought in to get more «feels» on the piano, but the message is pure solipsism, and it totally agrees with the rest of the album: "I just believe in me, Yoko and me" is really the overall theme here — according to John Lennon circa 1970, it makes no sense to sing about anything other than yourself because you really don't know anything except yourself. It is also a statement of rebirth, and while we have every right to chuckle to ourselves, it does sound like a statement of rebirth — and, for that matter, the entire start-from-scrap arrangement and production of the album sounds like a statement of rebirth, with John deconstructing all of his musical legacy and starting anew. It might not have worked out smoothly in the future, but it was a damn good start.

So has time really diminished the significance of the record? With the explosion of bare-bones singer-songwriting that followed in its wake, it is probably quite hard for us these days to under­stand just how goddamn different it must have sounded back in 1970 — right down to the brashly lo-fi coda of ʽMy Mummy's Deadʼ, which pretty much invented indie lo-fi back then but today might seem rather ordinary. Even so, play it back to back with just about any modern «complai­ning» indie songwriter and you will see that the chief difference is in the power aspect: aside from the minimalistic brilliance of the melodies, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is one hell of an ass-kicker, even in some of its tenderest moments ("loooooook at meeeeee!.... [bitch]"). The sheer strength, conviction, brute force, whatever, of these songs is what makes them come alive with so few expended efforts — here is a man who is not afraid of mincing his words or taking full responsibility for his actions, no matter how questionable. In the end, it is not John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band that became less attractive as time went by — it is merely that the other albums, by Paul and George, inspired enough confidence to climb out from under its shadow, and that, too, was a very good thing. This one, as far as this reviewer is concerned, remains every bit as monumental as it used to be — and a never-ending source of inspiration, though, seemingly, not for the majority of today's singer-songwriters.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Marvin Gaye (w. Tammi Terrell): United

MARVIN GAYE: UNITED (1967) (w. Tammi Terrell)

1) Ain't No Mountain High Enough; 2) You Got What It Takes; 3) If I Could Build My Whole World Around You; 4) Somethin' Stupid; 5) Your Precious Love; 6) Hold Me Oh My Darling; 7) Two Can Have A Party; 8) Little Boy, Little Ole Girl; 9) If This World Were Mine; 10) Sad Wedding; 11) Give A Little Love; 12) Oh How I'd Miss You.

General verdict: Some of the liveliest duet singing in Motown history captured here.

Thomasina Winifred Montgomery, better known as Tammi Terrell (because alliterations are good for you, as per Berry Gordy), had two things going for / against her: she was gorgeous, and she died at the age of 24 from a brain tumor. For, because this is why she is still being remembered; against, because, well, first of all, dying at the age of 24 from a brain tumor really sucks, and second, because this kind of posthumous fame naturally makes one question whether there is anything else to her, you know? (The same kind of question that would, three decades later, be asked about Aaliyah).

Of course, it is often hard to tell with classic Motown performers: there were so many of them, and so many of them completely depended on their songwriters, musicians, arrangers, and pro­ducers, that assessing the degree of «raw talent» in each one of them is a very difficult and highly subjective matter — in a way, you could argue that it wasn't until the next decade that everything properly fell into place, and by the time that decade started, Tammi was already dead anyway. But one thing is for certain: United is the first really, really good album of duets between Marvin and another lady singer — and, although it shows great promise, it would not be topped ever again, sadly, for reasons beyond anybody's control. After the somewhat lukewarm chemistry with Mary Wells, and after the promise with Kim Weston that was sadly undermined by the subpar quality of the material, third time is the charm: with Tammi at his side, and with a few song­writing remedies applied, Marvin finally hits gold, or at least silver.

Like its predecessors, United is unabashed sentimental teen-pop, but, like the best of sentimental teen-pop (think Supremes or Shangri-La's), it finally manages to bottle some of the spirit of the times — upbeat, optimistic, playful, innocent, harmless, and generally clad in solid hooks, this time mostly courtesy of the songwriting team of Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol (who also co-produced the record). I suppose that Kim Weston could have handled the partner role in such a venture, too, but now that Tammi is here, she proves to be quite a versatile and worthy compa­nion: she can belt it out when the song requires for a belt-out, she can coo and croon, and she can build up a perfectly credible musical relationship with Marvin (in real life, it never came to that, since Marvin preferred to structure their friendship along the «caring elder brother / sympathetic younger sister» line — probably just as well, since both of Tammi's previous relationships, with James Brown and David Ruffin respectively, used to end up in beatings).

ʽAin't No Mountain High Enoughʼ, announcing the arrival of the Ashford & Simpson songwriting team to Motown, was the first single from the album, and I believe that the original version is still more frequently played on the radio than the puffed-up, gospelized, monumentalized Diana Ross version from 1970 — which does have its place in the universe as well, but there is really no beating the steady, danceable build-up of the first take. Its placement here as the first track is almost symbolic, too: the song is a grandiose, chivalrous pledge, and while ʽIt Takes Twoʼ was a breathtaking, fun, sexy romp between two singers, here you get the subconscious feeling that something far more special is taking place. And it would have been simple to just record the song as a slow, sappy romantic serenade — instead, there is a wild beat, and the vocal lines come on like gradually surging waves, building up to the chorus release: quite spectacular.

Motown was so swayed by the success of the single that they followed it up with another Ashford & Simpson composition, ʽYour Precious Loveʼ — which charted even higher, despite being much less explosive; more of a traditional slow doo-wop number, it has a fairly standard, though enjoyable, descending guitar melody and an equally standard, though enjoyable, descending vocal hook ("heaven... must have sent you... from abo-o-ove..."). There is a spark to it, though, just as there is one in the third single, ʽIf I Could Build My Whole World Around Youʼ, whose «hook» is actually limited to some doo-doo-doo's in the chorus. Simply put, there is a lot of life in Tammi's vocals — the sort of life that even inspires surrounding musicians to play with more verve, and inspires Marvin to sing with even more verve and openness than usual. (It is said that Tammi, with her love of public performance, actually pushed Marvin to overcome his stage fright, which would later return in full force once she passed away).

In compositional terms, these songs are nothing special, but when you cannot invent an original genre, it always makes sense to be influenced by the best possible ones — thus, ʽYou Got What It Takesʼ emulates the Ike & Tina Turner approach, and although Tammi could never hope to have Tina's swagger, the two produce quite a respectable approximation. ʽTwo Can Have A Partyʼ is infectiously fun Sam-Cooke-meets-Supremes stuff; and ʽSomethin' Stupidʼ is faster, bouncier, cheerier, and groovier than the Sinatras' version. As for Marvin himself, he only contributes one song, ʽIf This World Were Mineʼ, and while it is not one of his best compositions on the whole, the only thing that really matters is the call-and-response "if this world were mine..." hook between Marvin and Tammi — in fact, I'd have no problem with it if the entire song just featured them bouncing that line back and forth between each other.

All in all, it's all fairly slight and giggly, but it is very difficult not to smile when listening to this album — and you certainly do not need to be aware of its contrast with the tragic future of both members of this duet in order to smile; but the very contrast between how much pulsating life this record contains and how much death would follow in its wake certainly adds an extra dimension to the experience. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Silver & Gold


Gloria: 1) Silent Night; 2) Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You From Christ­mases Past; 3) Coventry Carol; 4) The Midnight Clear; 5) Carol Of St. Benjamin The Bearded One; 6) Go Nightly Cares; 7) Barcarola (You Must Be A Christmas Tree); 8) Auld Lang Syne.
I Am Santa's Helper: 1) Christ The Lord Is Born; 2) Christmas Woman; 3) Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light; 4) Happy Family Christmas; 5) Jingle Bells; 6) Mysteries Of The Christmas Mist; 7) Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates; 8) We Wish You A Merry Christmas; 9) Ah Holy Jesus; 10) Behold! The Birth Of Man, The Face Of Glory; 11) Ding-A-Ling-A-Ring-A-Ling; 12) How Shall I Fitly Greet Thee?; 13) Mr. Frosty Man; 14) Make Haste To See The Baby; 15) Ah Holy Jesus; 16) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; 17) Morning (Sacred Harp); 18) Idumea (Sacred Harp); 19) Eternal Happiness Or Woe; 20) Ah Holy Jesus (A Capella); 21) I Am Santa's Helper; 22) ʽMaoz Tzurʼ (Rock Of Ages); 23) Even The Earth Will Perish And The Universe Give Way.
Christmas Infinity Voyage: 1) Angels We Have Heard On High; 2) Do You Hear What I Hear?; 3) Christmas In The Room; 4) It Came Upon The Midnight Clear; 5) Good King Wenceslas; 6) Alphabet St.; 7) Particle Physics; 8) Joy To The World; 9) The Child With The Star On His Head.
Let It Snow!: 1) I'll Be Home For Christmas; 2) Santa Claus Is Coming To Town; 3) The Sleigh In The Moon; 4) Sleigh Ride; 5) Ave Maria; 6) X-mas Spirit Catcher; 7) Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!; 8) A Holly Jolly Christmas; 9) Christmas Face.
Christmas Unicorn: 1) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; 2) It Came Upon A Midnight Clear; 3) Up On The Housetop; 4) Angels We Have Heard On High; 5) We Need A Little Christmas; 6) Happy Karma Christmas; 7) We Three Kings; 8) Justice Delivers Its Death; 9) Christmas Unicorn.

General verdict: Another confusing walk between heartful reverence and creative irreverence.

Well, he might have been somewhat slacking with full-fledged original concept albums through the second half of the 2000s, but it turns out that one thing Sufjan Stevens held on to on a very steady basis was his Christmas schedule — from 2006 to 2010, not a single December passed without a new mix of traditional and original compositions that not only confirmed the man's commitment, but also, in a way, served as a diary of his own musical (and, of course, SPIRITual) evolution. At first, they were produced in a very crude manner and distributed for fans on CDrs or something, but in 2012, all five EPs got officially packaged and numbered releases — and then were also put together in a single mammoth package, which also included an 80-page booklet that elaborately presented Sufjan's ideological stance on Christmas, plenty of artsy junk for the modern Christian's consumption, and a naked chocolate Santa having rough sex with a couple of chocolate reindeer (well, actually, no, this is still in the plans for future boxsets).

I am not even going to pretend to be capable of an honestly detailed and meticulous review here: 170 minutes of Christmas-related music is overkill even in the proper season, while tackling each of these EPs separately would create the illusion of being way more obsessed with Sufjan Stevens than I could possibly ever see myself becoming. However, I did listen to all of this from first to last track (not in one sitting, of course), and, once again, I confess to being more intrigued by Sufjan as a Christmas Philosopher than by Sufjan as a General Artist.

Most probably, he is not going to make himself a lot of new fans with these releases. His take on Christmas is virulently anti-traditional — Silver & Gold is even less acceptable as a Christmas utensil for your grandparents than Songs For Christmas; at the same time, all those people for whom Christmas is either nothing at all or merely a holiday, without any religious significance, will probably want to ignore an album so full of religious symbolism. In other words, Sufjan runs a heavier risk of «falling through the cracks» with this stuff than he does with his religious vibes on his usual records — clearly, he sees himself as one of those «modernizers of Christianity» whose life usually consists of endlessly getting torn apart by atheists, on one hand, and traditional conser­vative believers, on the other. This sort of dooms all of his Christmas-izing right from the start, and also finds me empathizing with the man more than I'd like to.

The project in total is very diverse. There is a lot of old-fashioned religious devotion on these discs, for sure, but also a lot of humor, a lot of irony, some carnivalesque irreverence, and, above all, a burning desire to not merely record another Christmas album, but do something challenging and, um, progressive. As the years go by, you can see that the sessions reflect Sufjan's current musical hobbies — by the time Christmas Infinity Voyage (2008) comes along, Sufjan is already deeply involved with electronic textures, turning standards like ʽDo You Hear What I Hear?ʼ into the same Animal Collective-influenced psycho-electronic rampages that would cul­minate in The Age Of Adz. And the very last track, ʽChristmas Unicornʼ, not only summarizes all of the internal contradictions and complexities of the Christmas ritual in its lyrics, but also weaves the chorus of Joy Division's ʽLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ inside its lengthy coda — because that song, too, largely consisted of internal contradictions, and because who else other than Sufjan Stevens would think of merging the figures of Santa Claus and Ian Curtis?

That said, Sufjan Stevens cannot help being Sufjan Stevens, and for all the diversity, I find it hard as usual to comment on any of the individual songs — they mostly just sound nice, regardless of whether he is freaking out with electronic samples, playing pretty baroque piano, picking the banjo, or, very rarely, trying to rock out (ʽDing-A-Lingʼ has weird Marc Ribot-like screechy dissonant guitar all over it, making me suspect that Tom Waits might be lurking around the corner, but, alas, no dice). We could analyze the original lyrics — or we could just read the 80-page long booklet — to try and gain new insights into the nature and modern reinterpretations of Christmas, but I doubt that we could find anything truly illuminating; if there is one person out there who would walk away from these three hours of music with a forever changed perspective on how to spend his/her next holidays, I'd like to see that person. As for the music, well... it is always inventive, but the inventions are not necessarily meaningful.

If you have no time to spare for this project, or if you are simply not enough of a Sufjan Stevens fan, you can put together a pretty good idea of what it looks like by simply browsing through the song titles — you have your ʽSilent Nightʼ, but also your ʽHappy Karma Christmasʼ; your ʽWe Three Kingsʼ, but also ʽNo One Can Save You From Christmases Pastʼ; your ʽAve Mariaʼ, but also your ʽParticle Physicsʼ (!). This is enough, I think, to understand that the world at large will not be celebrating Christmas according to St. Sufjan any time soon; but, you know, at least he tried. To the best of my knowledge, however, no new Christmas-related material was released by Sufjan after 2012 — either he meant for ʽChristmas Unicornʼ to serve as a tie-up-all-loose-ends coda that puts a full stop to his Christmas canon, or he just burned out. In the latter case, as a man with a mission myself, I fully empathize with my brother-in-silliness from faraway Michigan — but this still does not mean that I will be adopting that canon any time soon.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Radiohead: In Rainbows


1) 15 Step; 2) Bodysnatchers; 3) Nude; 4) Weird Fishes / Arpeggi; 5) All I Need; 6) Faust Arp; 7) Reckoner; 8) House Of Cards; 9) Jigsaw Falling Into Place; 10) Videotape; 11*) Mk 1; 12*) Down Is The New Up; 13*) Go Slowly; 14*) Mk 2; 15*) Last Flowers; 16*) Up On The Ladder; 17*) Bangers + Mash; 18*) 4 Minute Warning.

General verdict: The new, improved, adult contemporary look of Radiohead: wake me up when it's over

If you are a Radiohead fan and still, for some reason, have been following these reviews even after Kid A and Amnesiac, then you probably must sense that my personal beef with this band goes significantly beyond a mere issue of liking / not liking something. Whether I like it or not, Radiohead are the quintessential band that took rock music out of the 20th century and readjusted it for the 21st century — throughout the 2000s, we were living in the Radiohead age just as assuredly as we were living in it throughout the second half of the 1990s. (For all I know, we might still be living in it, because if not, I have no idea whatsoever in which age we are living in the 2010s anyway). And this, in a way, implies that whoever says «I really don't empathize with the direction that Radiohead's music took after OK Computer» is close to saying «I am not that much a fan of rock / pop / whatever music in the 21st century, period». Hyperbolic exaggeration, for sure — not to be taken at face value — but it does make a certain sense; at the very least, I certainly feel that my problems with Radiohead could be easily extrapolated on a very large number of bands and artists following in their footsteps, consciously or not.

One might, perhaps, think that at least a part of these problems would go away with the release of In Rainbows, the band's first new project after a three-year break — better known to outsiders, perhaps, as the /in/famous «self-release» adventure, when the band decided that they might be strong enough to deal the final blow to the record industry by simply offering their production directly to the fans over the Internet under a pay-what-you-want agreement. (In the process, they pissed off quite a few of their lesser peers who rightly pointed out that only a few select «titans» like Radiohead could afford this kind of marketing). The gesture caused an immense news stir, tons of discussion, generated plenty of publicity, but ultimately had the same influence as The Flaming Lipsʼ decision to change the face of music with Zaireeka — i.e., none.

However, as the dust settled, In Rainbows seems to have remained in public conscience as the best Radiohead album of the 21st century (since Kid A, technically, was still in the 20th). On the average, it got more accolades from critics and casual fans than either of its two predecessors, and typically sits higher than them on various best-of lists. The main reason for this, I think, is that In Rainbows goes much easier on the ears — it announces a return to relatively simpler and more traditional values, with a much less cluttered production, fewer weird effects, more understan­dable chord changes, all the while staying true, of course, to the familiar Radiohead spirit of beauty, moping, whining, depression, and alienation. And isn't that precisely what this reviewer has been clamoring for all this time?

In a way, yes. But what this reviewer has never been asking for is for Radiohead to begin to sound like a professionally registered «adult contemporary» outfit. Every time I come across yet another raving account of the wonderful, heart-tugging melodies at the heart of In Rainbows, I cannot help wondering how the same people would react if an album like this were released by the likes of, say, Sting (who, I insist, is perfectly capable of writing at the same level of musical intelligence — which is not necessarily an endorsement). And while this assessment, like any other, does not have the audacity to pretend to «observer-independent objectivity», one objective fact about the album is as follows: over the past decade, I have listened to it at least a couple dozen times, and the only song on it that left the vaguest, the faintest, the tiniest imprint in my brain was ʽHouse Of Cardsʼ (and see below on the odd reasons behind that).

The songs here do sound slightly more «normal» than before — if you strip them down to the bare melodies, they will be classifiable into relatively typical jazz, folk, and sometimes even good old rock (ʽJigsawʼ) patterns. Not a single one of these tracks causes acute mental irritation of the «what the heck am I listening to and why am I wasting my brain cells on this?» kind. For guitar lovers, the news is especially good, because most of the songs are guitar-driven rather than, say, Ondes Martenot-driven; and sometimes, when they had problems coming up with the best pos­sible arrangement, the final decision was to leave it simple and straightforward, as in the case of ʽVideotapeʼ, where they tried lots of stuff but ultimately left just one simple piano line and a draggy percussion sample. But «normal» is not the same as «exciting»: the whole album is so utterly lukewarm and devoid of dynamics that Kid A sounds like Motörhead in comparison.

I mean, if I want pleasant ambient sounds, I have Brian Eno. The songs on In Rainbows pretend to be songs — they have rising and falling melodies, they have verses and (sometimes) choruses, they have different types of instrumentation, but they have absolutely nothing to lock my attention. Let us just look at the singles for example, shall we? The first one was ʽJigsaw Falling Into Placeʼ, a somber rocker about the perils and consequences of poorly engineered relation­ships. It starts out promisingly, at a fast tempo and with a tightly coordinated rhythm section, but it never delivers — Thom's voice rises slightly and gets a bit angrier, some strings and falsetto harmonies join in, but the band's idea of an emotional crescendo in the context of a fast pop-rock song is either so far ahead of its time that us poor mortals cannot grasp it, or — more likely — they just haven't rocked out in such a long time that they forgot all about it. I mean, play this back to back with frickin' ʽNational Anthemʼ, and this will seem like a severe consequence of acute muscle degeneration in comparison.

ʽNudeʼ is a little better (perhaps because it was a reject from the OK Computer sessions?), but other than Thom's bitter-honey-dripping voice on the "now that you've found it" refrain, there is nothing about the song that even begins to make it feel special: four minutes of pleasantly lulling drift through the atmosphere on a space cab, driven so professionally that safely drifting off to sleep is the easiest thing to do. Compare something like ʽHigh And Dryʼ, which had the exact same ingredients of tenderness and sadness, but actually told a cleverly unfolding story as it went on. ʽNudeʼ, in comparison, is four minutes of floating jello, not even saved by the unusually loud, trip-hoppy, Portishead-ish bassline (wasted — now that I've mentioned Portishead, I feel a desperate urge to throw on ʽRoadsʼ and remind myself that this kind of music can be emotionally devastating when done right).

This was followed by ʽHouse Of Cardsʼ which, as I have already mentioned, is the only song that I have vague reminiscences of after so many listens — partially because its guitar intro announces it as some sort of Sheryl Crow-style country rocker, but the subsequent production turns it into something more like a cross between the echoey spiritualism of Peter Gabriel and the echoey romanticism of Sade. Apparently, the "denial... denial..." chorus turns out to be the single most successful hook of the album — except that, confusedly, it is the one moment on the album that sounds the most like classic adult contemporary. I like it — Greenwood's synthesizer waves, strung one upon another in the background, add a cool psychedelic texture to the suspiciously roots-rockish guitar riff. But hundreds of songs that are just as good were written and recorded in 2007; and its single companion, ʽBodysnatchersʼ, another attempt at the long-forgotten art of «rocking out», does not attenuate it positively from any chosen angle, either.

I would guess that Yorke's vocal part on ʽReckonerʼ, the last non-promotional single from the album, could be counted as his single best performance on the album — Yorke's falsetto modu­lations can melt the heart of the toughest skeptic. But what's with the music? Is that faint, barely audible folkish picking pattern supposed to be the ideal companion for the falsetto just because they match each other in softness of tone? The result is another five-minute lullaby that has no dynamics whatsoever. Deep in my mind, I can picture how the same basic melodic ideas would have been treated in the Bends era — the production would be sharper, louder, the hooks better defined, the moods more penetrating...

...anyway, you get the gist. I could make more comments like these on ʽWeird Fishesʼ or ʽVideotapeʼ or anything else here — the album features the same stultifying smoothness all over the place. There is an ideological approach that invites you to simply accept this as a given — yes, there are no sharp hooks, yes, everything is very smoothly lubricated, yes, falling asleep to this wisened-up mid-age rejection of jagged angles and unpredictable perks is officially allowed — but even from my personal mid-age wisened-up perspective, I feel like one should either go all the way and simply make records labeled as «Ambient» or «New Age» or «Post-Soft Rock», or try to at least go for a few adrenaline shots every once in a while.

Whatever bad things I may have said — perhaps undeservedly so — about Amnesiac or Hail To The Thief, at least those albums were enigmas. You could hold heated discussions about whether songs like ʽPackt Like Sardinesʼ had a right to exist, whether they had any meaning, whether one could be trained to enjoy them from a state of original total reject, etc. The difference with In Rainbows is that this is, conversely, quite a simple little record. There's no hidden magic here, no odd secrets to uncover. The fact that many people go head over heels over it is far more baffling to me than whatever people feel about Kid A; it even makes me suspect that there is such a thing, after all, as the «Radiohead magic» where, if a certain person falls under the charm of one Radio­head song, this unlocks a special corridor in the back of his mind, and then... on the other hand, the same people did hate The King Of Limbs, which, to my ears — though I am running a little ahead here — is an utterly logical continuation of the direction taken on In Rainbows. Meaning that no scientific conclusion is forthcoming here, not at the moment.

For the record, once In Rainbows was finally released on CD, there was a special limited «discbox» edition with several additional tracks from the same sessions — and, predictably, this is just 25 extra minutes of the general In Rainbows style: no alarms and no surprises. So just let me out of here. This is my final bellyache.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Norma Jean: Norma Jean


1) Saturday; 2) Having A Party; 3) I Believe In You; 4) Sorcerer; 5) So I Get Hurt Again; 6) This Is The Love; 7) I Like Love.

General verdict: Well... gotta say I much prefer chick-less Chic to Chic-less Chic (sorry, couldn't resist).

Although separate reviews for everybody who has ever been a part-time member of Chic would mean taking this band way too seriously — we will still make a brief detour to give a few com­ments on the first and last solo album by Norma Jean Wright, the band's original and arguably best lead vocalist who took her leave in early 1978 in hopes of building up a successful career as a solo artist. Nobody can blame her — even her partners in crime never did, and the departure was on such amicable terms that Edwards and Rodgers actually wrote most of the songs for her solo album, and played on it, which pretty much makes Norma Jean a Chic album in all but name. Alas, despite some mild early successes on the R&B charts, that career never properly took off — in the end, Norma Jean lost everything and gained next to nothing.

Actually, the record, now available on CD (only released officially in the UK, though), is not precisely the kind of album you would expect from Chic. Although the material is more or less evenly divided between slow ballads and fast dance numbers, there is a sensuous, sentimental vibe to all of its tracks — which is, I guess, not so surprising when coming from a former front­woman who was revered and remembered for her sensuous and sentimental singing rather than her dance moves or rebellious behavior. A very typical example is ʽSaturdayʼ, the biggest (and only) hit — it is a dance groove, and it is redeemed by the usual quality bassline from Bernard, but if this were a Chic song, Bernard and/or Nile would be far less restrained: here, they make it clear that they are content to stay on as rigorous Protectors Of The Groove and nothing else. The main hook isn't even ensconced in the lead vocal — it is formed by the ghostly-romantic "I just can't wait till Saturday" refrain, which is... corny. The best thing about the song is David Fried­man's vibraphone solo, possibly a nostalgic throwback to the tinkly-dinkly keyboard solo on ʽDance, Dance, Danceʼ.

Everything that follows is nice, but nothing more. Bernard and Nile may have been happy to help, but they couldn't be blamed for keeping their best stuff for their own project — consequently, such dance grooves as ʽSorcererʼ and ʽI Like Loveʼ are fairly unremarkable. Worse, Norma Jean herself never rises to the heights of ʽEverybody Danceʼ: sometimes she tries to sound tougher than her vocal registers and human nature recommend her to be (ʽSorcererʼ), and at other times she goes too far in the screamy-soulful direction, again, without really having the power for that. With all due respect, her most natural (or, at least, most attention-grabbing) tone is a sexy purr, and it never appears on these songs. Throw in a near-complete lack of hooks for the ballads, and what you get is just an average batch of very typical late Seventies' pop material — with very good intentions, but disappointing results.

The album's sole unexpected bit of creativity comes in the form of a tight disco rearrangement of Sam Cooke's ʽHaving A Partyʼ — something very much in the spirit of the times, but in this particular case, a total failure, because you can actually feel that the slow tempo of the vocals is not well aligned with the fast tempo of the instrumental track. It's simply as if they took the original vocal track, remade it close to the original, and decided to throw out the original instru­mentation, because who needs it in 1978? Creating a somewhat cheesy and disrespectful impres­sion in the process. (For an example of a disco rearrangement of an oldie done respectfully and successfully, I refer everybody to Boney M's ʽSunnyʼ — or, hell, to Walter Murphy's ʽA Fifth Of Beethovenʼ, if we really want to get serious about it).

All in all, if you are on a quest to collect every bass groove that Bernie Edwards ever laid on tape, Norma Jean has a lot of those. Otherwise, do not bother: this is not «the great lost Chic album» as a few obsessed collectors would have you believe. (If you do locate it, make sure to get the complete 2000 reissue, which also throws on the non-album single ʽHigh Societyʼ, released a year later — arguably, it's got the single best groove of 'em all).