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Friday, November 17, 2017

Chelsea Wolfe: Apocalypsis

CHELSEA WOLFE: APOKALYPSIS (2011)

1) Primal / Carnal; 2) Mer; 3) Tracks (Tall Bodies); 4) Demons; 5) Movie Screen; 6) The Wasteland; 7) Moses; 8) Friedrichshain; 9) Pale On Pale; 10) To The Forest, Towards The Sea.

This is the record that properly put Chelsea Wolfe on the map — her first well-produced, fully coherent, patently conceptual album, completely unafraid of its own pretentiousness, but, perhaps, somewhat too unaware of its own corniness. I will not argue that any specific year in our lifetime is a better or a worse year to put out an album called Apokalypsis, but I will argue that spelling the name out in Greek alphabet is gimmicky (unless you are actually exploring Greek musical elements, or at least are capable of reading the New Testament in its original form), and do not get me started on that album cover — too much time spent watching The Exorcist?

The music itself also starts and ends with a gimmick: ʽPrimal / Carnalʼ starts the show off with twenty five seconds of thoroughly non-scary hissing, sputtering, and roaring — Chelsea's not-too-subtle way of letting you know that on this record, we will be exploring the darker corners of your violent subconscious and animal instincts — and after we're done, ʽTo The Forest, Towards The Seaʼ wraps things up with three minutes of rather amateurish ghostly ambience, constructed mostly of electronic echoes; at the very end, the protagonist whispers "what's happening to me?" because otherwise, you wouldn't be able to guess that something is happening to her. Oh well, at least the album cover shows no signs of lycanthropy.

In between all this, Chelsea Wolfe positions herself as the Alanis Morissette of Goth-rock (pop, folk, whatever): her melodies are barely enough interesting not to write her off as a total disaster, her originality and individuality are extremely questionable, her balance between commercial appeal and artistic expression is shaky and unsatisfactory, yet there is sufficient evidence on the whole that she is really trying to make her mark, and that she is engaging in this stuff without as much cold-hearted market calculation as, say, the artist exotically known as Lana del Rey. Most of the reviews of the album were predictably crammed to the brim with references to Chelsea's predecessors and influences, from Siouxsie & The Banshees to Portishead to The Knife and even to PJ Harvey, but her saving grace is that there is no single overriding influence here: a direct comparison with any one of these artists would immediately bring on obvious differences. On the other hand, there is no clear indication that Chelsea Wolfe is anything more than a diligent sum­ming up of all these parts, either.

The album fails to move me, which means, from my perspective, that it fails, period: Apokalyp­sis is a dark atmospheric painting whose chief artistic goal is to scare you and perturb you, but the bad news is that Chelsea Wolfe is not scary, she is just a girl who is infatuated with scary things, and is happy enough to present to you the latest results of her Devil's Ball cosplay. As an example, take the album's longest track, ʽPale On Paleʼ. Slow, sludgy, driven by a minimalistic doom bass riff and a predictable organ pattern, it invents nothing that has not already been invented by Black Sabbath or Bardo Pond, features a fairly conventional vocal delivery (any potentially subtle nuances of which are drowned in the cavernous mix), and, at best, works as not-too-irritating somber background muzak. (Unless you know jack shit about the history of «mope rock» and ignorantly start from scratch... oh, sorry, that is supposed to be called «strip yourself of accumu­lated biases and embrace the artistic experience with an open mind»). It does become irritating at the end, though, when she starts screaming. She has pretty strong lungs when it comes to screaming, but the track is just not suspenseful enough to warrant the screaming conclusion. For a much better similar experience, please check out ʽCareful With That Axe, Eugeneʼ — now there's some first-rate shit that never gets old.

Some of the tracks are decidedly more appealing, though. ʽMerʼ has a light-flowing, syncopated, jazzy groove that is reminiscent of classic Morphine, and Chelsea's free-form poetic rant, which nobody is forced to take at face value, hops on those musical waves in a morosely-merry pattern. The new arrangement of ʽMosesʼ is cleaner, heavier, more memorable than the original, although, again, even a band like Black Mountain did that sort of heavy-trotting, doom-facing, me-against-the-brutal-rhythm-section schtick with more cutting edge. The complex arrangement of ʽMovie Screenʼ, with its multiple vocal and instrumental overdubs intertwined with each other like a bunch of will-o-wisps, can get trippy-psychedelic if you put it on replay and turn the headphone volume up to the max (though there is really no reason that you should). Even so, I have to struggle a bit to put all these justifications into words.

In a way, I guess this is precisely how it works in the 2010s — I mean, somebody has to keep that dark-folk vibe alive, right? and I have no problem with Chelsea Wolfe doing it, although, honest­ly, in this situation I'd rather settle for something more straightforwardly campy and deri­vative, like Blood Ceremony. This record just takes itself way too seriously for me to enjoy my popcorn, yet not seriously enough to make me put aside the popcorn and indoctrinate myself to the new epiphany. If anything, I still remain partial to the safekeeping of me eyeballs.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Chameleons: Strip

THE CHAMELEONS: STRIP (2000)

1) Less Than Human; 2) Nathan's Phase; 3) Here Today; 4) Soul In Isolation; 5) Pleasure And Pain; 6) Paradiso; 7) Caution; 8) On The Beach; 9) Road To San Remo; 10) Indian.

And here comes the inevitable reunion. Had it taken place just five or six years later, the Eighties nostalgia would have kicked in with full strength — but as of 2000, the musical world still tended to regard that period with apprehension, and the last thing it needed was an authentic new Chameleons record with authentic Chameleons production. Surprisingly, this seems to have been precisely the Chameleons' way of thinking — because the first thing they did upon reconvening was remake a large chunk of their past glories in such a way that could not possibly remind any­one of that one decade to which these glories had been inextricably bound.

Strip is not completely unplugged: there are a few electric guitar flourishes here and there, not to mention electric bass. However, for the most part, it all consists of acoustic performances of their old songs that sometimes sound like demos, and sometimes sound like something directly in­spired by being jealous of the commercial success of Eric Clapton's acoustic ʽLaylaʼ. ʽLess Than Humanʼ opens the proceedings with an oddly shaped scratchy pattern, as if they'd decided to merge it with ʽVoodoo Child (Slight Return)ʼ, but the main melodic part is all jangly acoustic, the percussion is minimal, and the emphasis is on the voice — which, funny enough, changes here almost as much as the instrumentation. Suddenly gone is the deep, dark, doom-laden tone of Mark Burgess' old voice; in its place is a soft, high-pitched, much more «human» delivery. The man wants to be your friend now, not your worst nightmare. Provided you let him.

There is not a lot I can say about this reinvention, except that it is a reinvention: it is actually very interesting to listen to these tunes in new incarnations. I have already corrected myself that they do not always sound like demos, because there are often multiple overdubs, and significant care has been taken to give the acoustic guitars a full, well-produced sound: the production is not perfect, but not lo-fi either. My biggest fear concerned the two extended monsters from Strange Times — both ʽCautionʼ and ʽSoul In Isolationʼ are here, but both of them sound significantly better than they used to, with some truly lovely interwoven acoustic patterns that make the songs much more memorable than they used to; and somehow Mark's desperate "I'm alive in here!" cuts me to the bone far more effectively.

In the end, I guess it all boils down to how much you are a true child of the Eighties: for me, the dreaded «Eighties sound» was the worst thing about the original records, and Strip is a very happy confirmation that these guys used to write very nice music that had to wait for fifteen years before getting its due. Sure, this is not rock'n'roll here: by going this route, they intentionally deprived themselves of one of their strongest sides. But it should be noted that they also did not select many of their rock'n'rollier songs to cover here — the decision to focus on their slower, more Goth-like material was the correct one, since there is clearly no way that an acoustic rendi­tion could embetter something like ʽUp The Down Escalatorʼ. As it is, Strip finally convinces me that, when they put their mind to it, they could do «slow and moody» stuff as vividly as any of their contemporaries.

The only new material on the album comes at the end: a brief arpeggiated instrumental on a near-classical scale (ʽRoad To San Remoʼ — fortunately, they never really took it) and one new pop rock song (ʽIndianʼ) that features the only heavy percussion track and the only loud electric guitar solo on the entire album, but is otherwise inferior to the old classics, sounding not unlike some long-forgotten outtake from an uninspired Springsteen session. As a taster of better things to come, this was not a good omen; but as merely a symbolic indication of The Chameleons not being quite dead yet, it's perfectly listenable. Regardless of its presence or absence, I give the album a thumbs up: for Chameleons fans, it is an essential addition, and for those who could never break the ice around their classic stuff, it could actually turn out to be a real icebreaker.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Chicago: Chicago II

CHICAGO: CHICAGO II (1970)

1) Movin' In; 2) The Road; 3) Poem For The People; 4) In The Country; 5) Wake Up Sunshine; 6) Make Me Smile; 7) So Much To Say, So Much To Give; 8) Anxiety's Moment; 9) West Virginia Fantasies; 10) Colour My World; 11) To Be Free; 12) Now More Than Ever; 13) Fancy Colours; 14) 25 Or 6 To 4; 15) Prelude; 16) A. M. Mourning; 17) P. M. Mourning; 18) Memories Of Love; 19) It Better End Soon (1st Movement); 20) It Better End Soon (2nd Movement); 21) It Better End Soon (3rd Movement); 22) It Better End Soon (4th Movement); 23) Where Do We Go From Here.

Less than eight months after the completion of their first double LP, Chicago, now having drop­ped the Transit Authority extension, went back into the studio to make a second one — also a double one, and it took them less than a month to complete it... what can you say, though, about the adrenaline-heavy year of 1969? What is actually most stunning about this situation is that Chicago II is a completely different record from its predecessor, in many respects.

For starters, look at the number of tracks: twenty three, as opposed to a mere twelve on Chicago Transit Authority. Never mind that some are counted as individual «movements» of a larger suite — this is genuinely significant, in that the length of CTA was largely achieved by extended improvisational grooving and jamming, with an extra sonic experiment or two like ʽFree Form Guitarʼ thrown in. On the second album, a radical change of direction has occurred: here, Chicago are already moving away from the realm of «possessed improvisation» and leaning towards a far more calculated and composition-based approach. This means, almost necessarily so, that the record is much more poppy — poppy enough, that is, to ensure the presence of many people in this world who refuse to recognize any Chicago album other than CTA as an actual piece of artistic expression. But, in all honesty, Chicago II is an artistically expressive album, and once one manages to adjust oneself to the relative downplaying of Terry Kath's guitar and the near-complete purging of Cream / Hendrix influences from the band's guidebook, the end result emerges as a compositionally and conceptually stronger statement than CTA, even if it is nowhere near the former's level of kick-ass energy.

For starters, together with the follow-up III, this is one of their most naturally band-like albums: of the seven credited members of the band, four emerge here as accomplished songwriters, as Peter Cetera closes the record with his first songwriting credit, and trombonist James Pankow steps into the limelight as more than the provider of the ʽLiberationʼ jam, but even as a contribu­tor to the band's pool of hit singles. Meanwhile, Lamm and Kath are both on a roll, contributing everything from hook-based pop songs to exercises in easy-going classical music (the ʽMemories Of Loveʼ suite, cowritten by Kath with Barbra Streisand's arranger Peter Matz... okay, not the highest possible recommendation, but I guess Leonard Bernstein just wasn't available). And, like it or not, there is no denying that the guys were on a roll — even if you dislike their sunny style in general, almost every composition here has something to trap your attention.

Actually, it's not that sunny: much of Chicago II is quite bittersweet, and its most hard-hitting and gripping song is the single ʽ25 Or 6 To 4ʼ, whose descending melody bears a distinct simi­larity to ʽWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsʼ — even Kath's guitar solo is very notably Clapton­esque, making the song seem like one last relic of their Cream-inspired beginnings. The lyrics, bawled out by Cetera in exaggerated desperation, deal with the rather mundane problem of experiencing a writer's block around midnight, but just as George Harrison could turn the issue of a floor that needs sweeping into a tragedy of cosmic proportions, so does this song open a chan­nel to some much grander dimension — and the brass section is no slouch, either, echoing each of Cetera's lines with a blast of doomy solemnity. This is still Chicago, not the Beatles or Led Zep (the song has also been compared to ʽBabe I'm Gonna Leave Youʼ for a good reason), so do not expect the utmost depths of human emotion; but in any case, this is the real thing, not some limp simulacre from a bunch of untalented fanboys.

Lamm's yearning for social justice also comes out on the four-movement suite ʽIt Better End Soonʼ: the "let's-all-get-together-and-put-an-end-to-evil" lyrical invocations here collect just about every cliché available to the English language in 1969, but the progressive composition itself is fun, riding a soft funky brass groove that is alternately punctuated by guitar and flute solos. In the end, I think that the whole thing is saved by Cetera's bass work: the suite's «bottom» layer is what gives it the proper grim grittiness to be convincing as a pissed-off outburst, rather than Kath's endless ranting invocations (and it does not exactly help that shouting out "it better end soon my friend" near the conclusion to a 60+ minute album might give the listener a some­what wrong idea of the suite's overall purpose).

On the opposite side of things, there's a couple of completely different suites. Pankow steps for­ward with ʽBallet For A Girl In Buchannonʼ, twelve cutesy minutes of jazz-pop that manage to incorporate two of Chicago's best-known songs: ʽMake Me Smileʼ, which runs from a tense, paranoid, ʽTill The End Of The Dayʼ-like verse melody to a rainbow-colored happy-dappy reso­lution in the chorus — and ʽColour My Worldʼ, the first, and far from the worst, in a series of slow sentimental ballads. Somehow it manages to survive, despite being based on a trivial piano chord progression; maybe it is its totally childlike disarming innocence that makes it endearing rather than cringeworthy, although Kath's vocal performance is an acquired taste (his timbre really gets on my nerves every time he tries to sustain a note for more than half a second). How­ever, do not make the mistake of concentrating exclusively on hit single material: the little inter­ludes that Pankow piles up around the big arias can be just as interesting, or even more so, with lots of unpredictable twists and melodic complexity that rivals any of the upcoming symph-prog heroes (like, replace the brass on ʽWest Virginia Fantasiesʼ with a Steve Howe lead guitar part and you get yourself a ready-made movement for any respectable Yes suite).

Next to this, Kath's little exercise in classical music falls short of the mark; yet at the very least the ʽMemories Of Loveʼ suite actually sounds like a suite, not as «incidental music to a film», which is typically the fate of most of pop artists' attempts to dabble in classical themes. The main vocal theme is fairly corny, though; I'd rather prefer the effort remain completely instrumental than hear Kath act out the feelings of a broken-hearted lover on the grave of his loved one (spoiler: a bad case of over-acting). On the other hand, he does contribute two pretty good pop songs for Side A (ʽThe Roadʼ and ʽIn The Countryʼ), and his main transgression on this album is not so much an overdose of sentimentalism as it is the conscious de-emphasis of his guitar talents, something that is not easy to overlook or forgive, because this is still a pop-rock album, and there is only so much distance to rock'n'roll nirvana that you can cover with brass riffs.

In other words, what this album desperately needed to live up to its predecessor was at least two or more three songs of the caliber of ʽ25 Or 6 To 4ʼ. Without them, Chicago II is largely a pleasing and tasteful listen, but completely lacking the intensity and aggressive passion of its pre­decessor. Naturally, aggressive passion should not be a prerequisite for a masterpiece; but without it, the prevailing mood is sunshine, sunshine, and even more sunshine, until your feathers melt and you start drowning in an ocean of cuddliness. I give the record a thumbs up because it is such an intelligently crafted ocean of cuddliness — revealing a ton more musical ideas than their chief competitors in this business at the time (Blood, Sweat & Tears); but if the seeds of future disasters were only barely noticeable on CTA, Chicago II makes these future disasters seem imminently inavoidable — and the question posed in the final track, ʽWhere Do We Go From Here?ʼ, even though its "we" really means "you, the listeners", takes on an almost prophetically ironic character. Nevertheless, no record should be judged by the perilous road that it has set its creators upon: on its own terms, Chicago II is a masterful self-reinvention and a big bubbly bubble of musical creativity that still sounds fresh and challenging even today.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Chambers Brothers: The Time Has Come

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: THE TIME HAS COME (1967)

1) All Strung Out Over You; 2) People Get Ready; 3) I Can't Stand It; 4) Romeo & Juliet; 5) In The Midnight Hour; 6) So Tired; 7) Uptown; 8) Please Don't Leave Me; 9) What The World Needs Now Is Love; 10) Time Has Come Today; 11*) Dinah; 12*) Falling In Love; 13*) Love Me Like The Rain.

By mid-'67, the brothers' tenaciousness had paid off — they landed a contract with Columbia, who put them under the supervision of young and aspiring producer David Rubinson, not too well known at the time but far more familiar from his subsequent work with Moby Grape, United States Of America, and Herbie Hancock. Essentially this meant that, for the first time in their life, the Chambers Brothers could quit dicking around, lay off the novelty acts and gimmicks, and concentrate on trying to make their own mark on the world of progressive pop music.

This may not be a great album, but this is their first proper album (not counting the Barbara Dane collaboration) that does not sound like a shit, and properly reflects all of their talents — as arran­gers, songwriters, performers, and wannabe cultural heroes. No fewer than half of the tracks are self-penned, and the rest are a respectable mix of groovy R&B, funk, soul, and balladry. Since the brothers seem to insist upon playing all the instruments themselves, the level of tightness, inten­sity, and energy is incomparable with the average quality of contemporary Atlantic records, or of James Brown's or Sly Stone's backing bands; the brothers have to compensate for this less capti­vating sound with diversity and pure entertainment value — thus, Rudy Clarke's ʽAll Strung Out Over Youʼ, a song whose melody would later be appropriated for Sweet's ʽBallroom Blitzʼ (I had to all but crack my head open to realize that), is a tight and speedy pop-rock romp where not a single element is outstanding per se, but the overall combination is a great anti-boredom kick delivered from the very outset. And then there is no better way, from a contrastive perspective, than to follow it with another, cleaner and subtler version of ʽPeople Get Readyʼ than the old live version — even if this one, too, is hardly preferable to the Impressions.

The brothers' originals, too, are getting more ambitious. ʽI Can't Stand Itʼ is a hybrid of R&B groove, blues-rock, and pop hooks (the latter mainly reflected in the falsetto backing vocals), allegedly reflecting the brothers' interest in the British scene, since the bass / drum / guitar inter­play is rather reminiscent of The Who or Small Faces than the American acts by whom the Brits were influenced themselves. ʽSo Tiredʼ generally follows the standard Fifties' progression, but the lush, nearly operatic vocal delivery is more Tom Jones-like. On the other hand, something like ʽPlease Don't Leave Meʼ, a colorless Jimmy Reed rewrite, shows that there is, as of yet, no question about trying to eliminate filler.

But none of this is really why we are here, right? The real reason is, of course, the title track, unquestionably the Chambers Brothers' signature song — though just how much it would be re­membered remains a question, had it only been released in its truncated single release. The main part of the song, after all, is a rather monotonous vamp, not unlike the Stones' ʽGet Out Of My Cloudʼ with less prominent rhythm guitar. The real fun starts when the main melody disappears and is replaced by a psychedelic freakout, with echoey vocals, dark spooky basslines, and fuzzy, Eastern-influenced guitars that were probably the very last thing anybody would expect to hear on a Chambers Brothers record — this is way more like Jefferson Airplane in nature. Later on, the guitar freakout dissipates as well and is replaced by just a general freakout: leave a steady beat and let everybody except the rhythm section go crazy.

I would be lying if I called this a quintessential psychedelic track or anything: next to Hendrix or Pink Floyd, hell, even next to the Stones' much-maligned ʽSing This All Together (See What Happens)ʼ the craziness of ʽTime Has Come Todayʼ is quite restrained, not to mention secondary in origin. But it has plenty of appeal as a symbol of creative liberation: it works much better if you bear in mind that all of this was the creative product of four brothers from rural Mississippi who, in another age, would have probably spent all their lives recycling same old blues formulas. The track really works far better in context — not only the context of The Chambers Brothers' overall career, but in the overall context of African-American popular music; in fact, this track may have been the single biggest creative breakthrough for it all after Hendrix. And you can cer­tainly hear, say, the seeds of Funkadelic planted somewhere in the middle of this crazy romp. For this alone, the album deserves a thumbs up. Whether it actually transcends the basic level of historical importance and moderate enjoyability — that is your choice to make.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Allen Toussaint: Southern Nights

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: SOUTHERN NIGHTS (1975)

1) Last Train; 2) Worldwide; 3) Back In Baby's Arms; 4) Country John; 5) Basic Lady; 6) Southern Nights; 7) You Will Not Lose; 8) What Do You Want The Girl To Do?; 9) When The Party's Over; 10) Cruel Way To Go Down.

Third time's the charm: reading whatever you may find of the brief, scant accounts of Toussaint's Seventies output might give the impression of a fairly even career, but listen to these records just a wee bit closer, and it is difficult not to perceive a little something «extra» on Southern Nights, an album that tries to make a difference where its two predecessors sounded more like technical attempts to accommodate the artist's presence in a musical decade so different from those in which he'd originally emerged and thrived as «Creative Assistant» to everybody.

Well, it's a subtle difference, actually: all Southern Nights does is explore a slightly larger num­ber of musical styles and employ a few extra production techniques — yet, somehow, what emerges in the process is an album that also feels deeper, more serious, even more soulful than it used to be. If anything, Toussaint here seems, if not directly influenced, then at least indirectly inspired by Stevie Wonder and his brilliant successes in transcending the conventional formula of R&B with his technical innovations and individualistic approach; although the music is still largely groove-based, the melodies on the whole are much more elaborate, and everything is marked with special touches — a piano or organ flourish, an odd cross-fade, a weird sound effect, a particularly melancholic brass riff, whatever gets your goat — that suggest treating the album as an actual art piece, rather than just thirty more minutes of modest entertainment.

The record's central piece is, of course, the title track, which most people probably know from Glen Campbell's 1977 hit version — distilled into a rather one-dimensional, near-disco romp that is far more danceable and perhaps even catchier than the original, but completely devoid of the odd magical flavor that Toussaint gets from slapping a few simple effects onto the piano track and, most importantly, his vocals which he runs through a Leslie speaker, so that the question of "have you ever felt a southern night?" sounds sort of vaporized, as if coming from some friendly water demon. Eulogizing the beauties of the South is nothing new per se, but this here is an entirely different approach, putting more emphasis on the dreamy atmosphere than on the more usual «earthiness» and «soulfulness» in doing so — and then, as Toussaint throws the line "wish I could stop the world from fighting" into the mix, it turns out that admiring the attraction of South­ern nights is actually just a pretext for something decidedly bigger.

I cannot say that any of the other tracks go for a similarly ambitious goal, but they all have some­thing to offer. ʽLast Trainʼ is Toussaint's ʽLocomotive Breathʼ — not as tense or apocalyptic, but still comparing the mad life of today's world to a choo choo train, suitably backed by huffing and puffing percussion and steam-blowing backing vocals. ʽBack In Baby's Armsʼ features one of his weightiest arrangements — slow, solemn, with a full gospel choir to stress the importance of said baby's arms — and while the track may have needed a Phil Spector to fully realize its potential, it is still more memorable, or, rather, more noticeable than the ballads on his earlier albums. ʽCountry Johnʼ, while not having the snarly syncopated snazz of a ʽSuperstitionʼ, still has plenty of power to entrance you with its rhythm section, particularly when the brass section and the looped backing vocals start spiralling, dizzy-dizzy, around Toussaint's chorus.

And so it goes all the way to ʽCruel Way To Go Downʼ, which, surprisingly, sounds not unlike one of those semi-depressed Dylan tunes circa Planet Waves — slow, brooding, melancholic roots-rock with a surprising lyrical and vocal twist, as the singer-songwriter whom we'd generally known as a strong, wilful, sarcastic character, suddenly plunges into darkness and vulnerability: "Lost and found in a sea of love and tossed around / Loneliness must be a cruel way to go down". After nine songs in a row that had their share of irony, bitterness, social critique and personal troubles, but still showed a largely optimistic and fun-loving spirit, this last song is a shocker, as Toussaint employs every trick in his book to weave an aura of inescapable grief. Guess those baby's arms ultimately did not help — yet, in any case, this is a final crowning touch that, along with the title track, really gives the record its individuality.

All in all, Southern Nights is clearly Toussaint's peak as a solo artist: the closest he has ever come to becoming an «accomplished» singer-songwriter, with lots of personal, confessional touches that could easily be missed on his other records due to all the extra humility, and that were certainly absent from the catchy, but alienated material that he penned for other people. If you only need one record from the guy, this is clearly the one to get; if you only have time for one song from the guy, ʽSouthern Nightsʼ is the one to cherish. In any case, the final verdict is an irreversible thumbs up; too bad that the times hindered him from capitalizing on its strengths, as the disco age forced its own rules on the man.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Yardbirds: Little Games

THE YARDBIRDS: LITTLE GAMES (1967)

1) Little Games; 2) Smile On Me; 3) White Summer; 4) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor; 5) Glimpses; 6) Drinking Muddy Water; 7) No Excess Baggage; 8) Stealing Stealing; 9) Only The Black Rose; 10) Little Soldier Boy; 11*) Puzzles; 12*) I Remember The Night; 13*) Ha Ha Said The Clown; 14*) Ten Little Indians; 15*) Goodnight Sweet Josephine; 16*) Think About It.

I believe that conventional wisdom puts most of the blame on Mickie Most — like, here is the only Yardbirds album recorded when they had Jimmy Page himself in the band, and instead of sounding like early Led Zeppelin, they end up sounding like a mix of Manfred Mann with Her­man's Hermits, and whose fault is that? Why, the producer's, of course! What on earth was EMI thinking, hiring the Herman's Hermits guy to mold an album by one of Britain's heaviest and most hallucinatory musical outfits?

To some extent, this might be true — but, truth be told, for the most part the band's slide into novelty territory took place on their single releases, which were just as embarrassing for 1967 as the 1965-66 series was groundbreaking and revelatory. One look at the titles is enough: ʽLittle Gamesʼ, ʽHa Ha Said The Clownʼ, ʽTen Little Indiansʼ — not even The Monkees at their, um, dangliest could boast a series of titles like that. And the music is adequate to the titles: ʽLittle Gamesʼ sounds like a fruity throwback to the era of bubblegummy Merseybeat — a triumphant guitar-cello duet belatedly makes its way to the mid-section in order to throw on a bit of that psychedelic flavor... but it really seems more like a last-minute attempt to save some face than a thoughtful addition to the song. Tony Hazzard's ʽHa Ha Said The Clownʼ is a speedy pop romp more fit for Tom Jones than The Yardbirds; and the decision to cover Harry Nilsson is under­standable — Harry was one of the hottest young songwriters of 1967-68 — but Keith Relf and the boys add nothing to his cute joke about the Ten Commandments that he did not say himself on his Pandemonium Shadow Show original.

If all these had been simply the latest batch of, say, Manfred Mann musical bones thrown to loyal fans so that the band could have enough improvisational freedom on its albums, it would have been understandable. But The Yardbirds, up to that time, had been a singles band almost by defi­nition — and in the year of ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ and ʽWaterloo Sunsetʼ, releasing this kind of stuff as their banners was artistic suicide; and, quite plainly, it was evident that such a thing could only happen to a band that was completely deprived of any sense of direction. Which, I suppose, they were, with Beck and Samwell-Smith already out of the band, Page already thin­king about a project of his own, and the other three clearly insufficient to carry on in the same old way (in fact, when you think that Relf's and McCarty's next move would be to found the folk-prog band Renaissance, it becomes fairly clear that they must have been free of the «Yardbirds spirit» for quite some time before).

In light of all this, it is surprising that Little Games, as an album, is quite listenable on the whole. The bulk of the album, unlike the singles, is not pop — psychedelic, folk, and blues influences, most of them inherited from the band's past, are still rampant here, it's just that they are unable to move forward on any of them. Thus, for instance, the «original» ʽSmile On Meʼ is a loud and crunchy blues-rocker with a nicely fried guitar solo from Page — except that the song is essen­tially a re-write of Otis Rush's ʽAll Your Loveʼ, and even the opening of the solo sounds unhap­pily ripped off from Eric Clapton's performance of it on the Bluesbreakers album. Even worse, ʽDrinking Muddy Waterʼ is a somewhat overproduced version of ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ with slightly new lyrics (all of them taken from blues stock phrasing anyway), credited to Dreja / McCarty / Page / Relf even if the reference to the author is semi-insultingly concealed in the song title (yes, I know that "drinking muddy water" is one of the stock phrases, and that Muddy him­self did not really «write» ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ, but still, a travesty is a travesty). But in the end, Page still makes it worth your while with his array of guitar tones and frantic soloing.

The band's penchant for psychedelia and Gregorian chant flashes once more with ʽGlimpsesʼ, the only track here that actually sounds like a leftover from Roger — quasi-sitars, dark monk chorals, gloomy moods, but the whole thing is more of a stoned, absent-minded groove now than a focused raid on a previously unknown dimension. Really, it is all so confusing that it is hardly a coincidence that the album's poppiest original composition, ʽTinker, Tailorʼ, poses the album's most important and pertinent question: "How can I know just what to be? Please stop and give advice to me". It is even less a coincidence that the album's second poppiest original composition, ʽLittle Soldier Boyʼ (in which they dip into the same pool of British cutesiness that produced some of the Kinks' and Small Faces' contemporary successes), ends the record on a self-destruc­tive note: ʽHe gave a last triumphant cry / And fell into the fireʼ.

If there is one non-suicidal triumphant cry on the album, it belongs to Jimmy Page, whose little exercise in gluing together British and Indian folk elements on his solo acoustic spot ʽWhite Summerʼ is the record's most innovative and artistically valid bit, presaging ʽBlack Mountain Sideʼ and the rest of his acoustic work with Led Zeppelin (indeed, ʽWhite Summerʼ itself became a staple of Zeppelin's early shows). Saying that this is definitely not The Yardbirds, but rather Led Zeppelin, is somewhat harsh, since there is no reason why The Yardbirds, a band that was always open to new influences, could not have made this sound a part of their regular baggage; but on Little Games, it definitely sounds out of place — far more intimate and introspective than anything they'd previously done. (There is one more acoustic ballad here, Keith Relf's quiet, slightly Zombie-like serenade ʽOnly The Black Roseʼ, but it is much less impressive musically, with a standard rhythmic pattern that could be produced by anyone).

On the whole, though, it is much more of a wonder that The Yardbirds had managed to last for so long than that they finally failed to crash the 1967 barrier. In a way, their survival (and not just survival, but triumphant artistic success) had been largely due to sheer luck: a rotating series of Britain's finest guitar talents, plus collaboration with all the right people in the songwriting, pro­du­cing, and managing business (up until Mickey Most, that is) — despite the clear lack of some strong «pivot» in the band, a Ray Davies or a Pete Townshend to drag their mission through fire and water and musical revolutions. Sooner or later, though, that luck had to end, and once they found themselves in the hands of a misguided (and misguiding) producer, it all crashed fairly quickly. Perhaps if Page had been as concerned about making his mark on the band as Beck had been before, things would have turned out differently; but clearly he was not, and besides, as a relative newcomer, he couldn't have routed things his way anyway.

Despite all this, I still recommend the record — it has its fair share of entertaining moments, and at least as far as messed-up swan songs go, this one is fairly diverse. Not a single song, ʽWhite Summerʼ excluded, is a masterpiece on its own, but together they form an oddly grotesque puzzle that, perhaps, should still be judged as quite an intriguing curtain call. At the very least, there is still an aura of helpless, but desperate experimentation here, which is sometimes preferable over cold-hearted calculated formula.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Bent Knee: Land Animal

BENT KNEE: LAND ANIMAL (2017)

1) Terror Bird; 2) Hole; 3) Holy Ghost; 4) Insides In; 5) These Hands; 6) Land Animal; 7) Time Deer; 8) Belly Side Up; 9) The Well; 10) Boxes.

It is quite surprising how there is only one year of difference between Bent Knee's third and fourth album. Most contemporary bands like to take their time between records — the more they go on, the longer it usually takes, yet Bent Knee have been visibly accelerating, and at this rate they should be reaching a Frank Zappa style of pumping product by 2018. At the same time, they show no signs of tiredness or wear, and their art remains consistently challenging... or does it?

Truth be told, Land Animal is the first Bent Knee record that has openly bored me. The novelty has worn off by now, the factor of surprise is no longer there, and despite all the predictable complexity, the band has stalled, lapsing into expectable formula. Yes, here we have ten more math-art-rock packages, exploiting the usual tricky time signatures, out-of-the-blue melodic shifts, tempestuous vocal exercises, and loud/quiet alternations. That's all very well: Bent Knee preserve their own style and continue to weave together new sonic patterns. The problem is, this kind of music only truly survives as it evolves, and on Land Animal, they have ceased to evolve. Even on Say So, where stagnation had already set in, they showed occasional signs of making tiny jumps over their heads — be it the sarcastic exuberance of ʽCommercialʼ or the questionable, but bold attempt to merge their art-rock with «commercial» R&B on ʽHands Upʼ.

Here, though, they stick to a set formula so closely that the entire album really feels like one big song. The perfect setting for a Bent Knee rock opera is the Titanic, or at least the Pequod: every­thing that is going on takes place during a huge storm, now lulling, now coming back to full strength — and this is an admirable setting, if only one weren't condemned to some sort of Flying Dutchman eternity on that ship. Land Animal, despite the title, makes me feel precisely the same way: bored with unending crashing waves, darkness, and well-calculated foreboding of the end that never comes. Drown, already! Just frickin' drown, won't you?

As I relisten to the opening verses of the first song, ʽTerror Birdʼ, I have to confess that I now find Courtney Swain's vocal style downright irritating. Sure, it has not changed much since the beginning, but now that the freshness of the approach has worn off, her timbre and phrasing are positively underwhelming for a style of music that suggests some sort of Sybil-like presence. The lyrics suggest something truly evil outside the window: "Terror bird, please eat me out / I want to live with the murder... tiny bodies piling up, blinded by the cries for help..." — but the music and the vocals are so hollow and theatrical that the effect is wasted. I mean, that «big» heavy riff that swallows us during the chorus could just as well be found on an Ayreon record, and here I thought that this band was not about popcorn entertainment.

Perhaps there is a slightly jazzier atmosphere to some of these tracks than before — or, at least, to some of Courtney's vocal parts — but this does not help things much, because combining modern jazz with apocalyptic visions is almost bound to miss the gut level: apocalyptic visions are all too realistic these days, and nothing will beat the relative simplicity of ʽGimme Shelterʼ or even of OK Computer when it comes to making music that fills you up with genuine dread at the thought of what might be lying ahead. Bent Knee, on the other hand, continue to make the mis­take of wanting to appeal to both camps at the same time — the one that expects seriousness out of music, and the one that does not expect anything out of music, other than, perhaps, an opportunity for getting your mind blown one way or another.

But maybe, after all, it is simply the music that sucks. Whenever I succeed in getting my mind off Courtney and concentrating exclusively on the band, I simply do not hear anything particularly interesting going on here. Very simple guitar lines, whose main attraction lies in how frequently one simple part replaces another; melodies that echo Radiohead, King Crimson, or Beyoncé (yes indeed) but could hardly stick in a head already occupied with Radiohead, King Crimson, or Beyoncé. Maybe it's just simple as that: the band has ceased to write good music, to the extent that it has got me thinking now if they ever produced good music in the first place. Well, no, I will definitely cherish the memory of hearing their first album for the first time: unfortunately, Land Animal shows every sign of «landing» their career in a dull bog. I have no problem listening to somebody's vision of the end of the world — as long as the vision is sufficiently picturesque — but, in my opinion, Bent Knee have hit a wall here, though I do fully acknowledge the subjectivity of that opinion, and of the accompanying thumbs down.