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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Chambers Brothers: Now!

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: NOW! (1966)

1) Introduction To; 2) High Heel Sneakers; 3) Baby Please Don't Go; 4) What'd I Say; 5) Long Tall Sally; 6) Bony Maronie; 7) It's Groovin' Time; 8) You Don't Have To Go; 9) C. C. Rider; 10) So Fine.

All right, this one is eminently skippable. Maybe the decision to stick to live recordings can be qualified as a gesture of toughness and determination, and I have nothing against this in theory, but in practice, this is pretty disappointing. Seemingly recorded at the same venues in Boston and L.A. as last time, Now! would sound as just a bunch of outtakes that did not make it onto the first album — except I think that these are different dates, because the recording quality is much worse: there is an ugly echo marring all the performances, creating the illusion of a deep well, rather than an intimate club, and also completely obscuring any musicianship that may or may not have been concealed behind the singing.

Another problem is the setlist: less diverse and original than last time, it consists mainly of covers of well-known standards, ranging from the early rock'n'roll of ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ and ʽHigh Heel Sneakersʼ to Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles. As much as I respect the vocal prowess of The Cham­bers Brothers, I really do not need another (and poor quality at that) version of ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ in my collection; nor do I need an extended, monotonous, slowed down version of the pop song ʽSo Fineʼ which, for several minutes, they try to transform into an ecstatic soulful groove without much success.

The only «new» tune is ʽIt's Groovin' Timeʼ, which, judging by its title, should be a fast, exciting rave-up, but in reality it is a slow, harmonica-driven piece of Chicago blues, as generic and for­gettable as they come; next to its drabness, the covers of ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ and ʽBony Maronieʼ are true salvation in the flesh... if only I could hear those guitar solos on the latter, though — the guitarist almost seems to intentionally wish to remain unheard.

Technically, you can dance to this, and I can even imagine the album having some use in college parties around that time — especially the ones where nobody needs anything but a good beat, anyway — yet in career terms, especially considering that this is frickin' 1966 we're talking about, with Hendrix on the horizon and shit, they pretty much shot themselves in their brotherly feet. It is highly likely, though, that Vault Records simply released this crap without the artists' explicit permission: I cannot imagine why they'd want to have this out on their own. Regardless, this is as proverbial a thumbs down as they ever come (for some reason, Bruce Eder gave it a positive review in the All-Music Guide — but the man has a passion for praising obscurities just because they are obscure and ever so slightly out-of-field; I also like to engage in musical archaeology from time to time, but have no interest in overstating its delights).

Monday, October 16, 2017

Allen Toussaint: Toussaint

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: TOUSSAINT (1971)

1) From A Whisper To A Scream; 2) Chokin' Kind; 3) Sweet Touch Of Love; 4) What Is Success; 5) Working In A Coalmine; 6) Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky; 7) Either; 8) Louie; 9) Cast Your Fate To The Wind; 10) Number Nine; 11) Pickles.

Throughout the Sixties, Toussaint was too busy writing and producing hit songs for a host of artists to ever focus on a solo career, releasing only a tiny handful of singles under his own name (the most famous of which was probably ʽGet Out Of My Life, Womanʼ in 1968, and even that one was first made into a hit by Lee Dorsey two years before). However, as the Seventies came along and established a pattern of formerly behind-the-scenes songwriters coming out to lay claims to full-fledged artistry (Carole King probably being the most famous examples), Toussaint apparently decided that it wouldn't hurt to try. Backed by his good friend Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, on guitar and organ (all piano duties are understandably handled by Allen himself), as well as a dozen seasoned, but little-known session players (Merry Clayton of ʽGimmie Shelterʼ fame is here on backing vocals, as a matter of fact), Toussaint makes his first big move as a solo artist — and immediately falls flat on his face!

Well, no, not quite. True, the record sold poorly, was barely noted in its own time and even today remains more or less a collector's item, to the extent that even the basic discographic information on it tends to vary from source to source (from what I can reconstruct, the original title was simply Toussaint, the recording sessions took place in 1970, and the LP was released in 1971;  more than a decade later, it was re-released as From A Whisper To A Scream, with one extra track on Side B, and this is the version I have). It is also true that the record is quite low-key, and does not have even a third part of the exuberance and youthful aggression of The Wild Sound: this new sound of Allen's is anything but wild, particularly when you compare it to his funky competitors such as James Brown or Funkadelic; in the dizzy, explosive context of 1971, when «thunder gods» still ruled the world of pop, rock, and R&B, it could hardly be hoped that a lot of people would pay attention to anything this humble.

But apart from these historic considerations, Toussaint is a pretty decent album. Allen's motto for it is established with the last number on Side A — ʽEverything I Do Gonna Be Funkyʼ — yet he establishes it in such a quiet, unpretentious, and calm manner that I am automatically reminded of J. J. Cale: had old J. J. decided that he, too, wanted to be funky from now on, he would probably have recorded something precisely like this. The song is not even properly «funky» by itself, just a regular 4/4 groove with minimal bass, quiet interplay between a distorted rhythm guitar and lead slide licks, and brief, punctuating touches of brass. Absolutely nothing special — but, some­how, still burning with a quiet, steady, and very determined fire that really makes you want to believe the man.

Everything else on the first side is done according to the same approach: quiet, relying on short and sweet melodic guitar phrases — but, unfortunately, also downplaying Toussaint's talents as a piano player; his biggest break comes on Harlan Howard's ʽChokin' Kindʼ, but even there Dr. John quickly overshadows him on the organ. All in all, the songs do not even sound much like the product of a singer-songwriter, because Toussaint's singing voice, while pleasant, friendly, and versatile, is strictly defined as one out of many sonic ingredients: Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields on backing vocals are just as loud as the frontman, and Toussaint never resorts to ad-lib­bing, never jumps out of his seat to attract attention — which is, admittedly, very cool and noble of him, but also depersonalizes him to a large degree. And although his ʽWorking In The Coal­mineʼ is a catchy and poignant song, his version here hardly improves on Lee Dorsey's original, although the arrangement is oddly more carnivalesque, with brass fanfare and slick funky guitar framing Allen's so naturally optimistic and friendly voice that the whole thing becomes ironic: surely Lee Dorsey did not sing about the sufferings of a coalmine worker that cheerfully.

The entire second side of the album is left for instrumental compositions, and this is where we could hope, perhaps, for some let-your-hair-down wildness: but no dice — these funky instru­mentals are quite restrained, too, and focused on band interplay rather than showcasing individual skills, with the lone exception of Vince Guaraldi's ʽCast Your Fate To The Windʼ, where Allen finally takes center stage and lets his piano do most of the talking, with some cool key changes and a beautifully fluent and expressive solo in the middle. Everything else is just groove after groove, tasteful and pleasant, but not much to write about: no flash (except at the end of ʽPicklesʼ, where Toussaint wraps things up with a few Chopin-esque flourishes), just business.

All in all, this is an inauspicious, but respectable start to a true solo career; I would only recom­mend it, though, to those who like their funky grooves very low-key and restrained, speaking through subtlety and ellipse, rather than loud, sweaty, and punchy. Oh, and with a brassy New Orleanian flavor, of course — the kind of atmosphere that teaches you to always look on the bright side of things, no matter how much they suck.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Small Faces: Small Faces

SMALL FACES: SMALL FACES (1967)

1) (Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me; 2) Something I Want To Tell You; 3) Feeling Lonely; 4) Happy Boys Happy; 5) Things Are Going To Get Better; 6) My Way Of Giving; 7) Green Circles; 8) Become Like You; 9) Get Yourself Together; 10) All Our Yesterdays; 11) Talk To You; 12) Show Me The Way; 13) Up The Wooden Hills To Bedford­shire; 14) Eddie's Dreaming.

Those who like their conceptuality mature and their maturity conceptual will always prefer Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, but to me, this is the band's unquestionable masterpiece, their only LP that deserves to be mentioned as a legitimate and fully privileged companion to all the other masterpieces from 1967. Its only flaw may be a certain lack of personality: by this time, Steve Marriott's dominance as a frontman was becoming somewhat resented by the rest of the band, and this is most evident from the fact that Ronnie Lane, a much less powerful, but a subtly charisma­tic, singer, now takes the lead on about half of the tracks — this results in a less distinctive vocal sound, and since the band never had a unique instrumental sound to speak of, Small Faces bears no easily identifiable tags on it. But then again, wasn't Sgt. Pepper, too, a conscious effort to get rid of identifiable tags and dissolve the band members' individual and collective personalities in something bigger than ourselves? The important thing is that Small Faces never sounds like a rip-off of somebody in particular — and, as a matter of fact, this is where the band most definite­ly parts ways with The Who: Small Faces has very little in common with The Who Sell Out.

Despite the American title of this album, there are, in fact, but two small faces. One is that of Steve Marriott, who has pretty much renounced his career as a Muddy Waters-adulating blues­man and is now concentrating on becoming the British equivalent of Otis Redding. The other is that of Ronnie Lane, who has developed a keen interest in those smelly old roots, and is busy incorporating folk, baroque, and music hall elements in the band's music. On the other hand, it might also be argued that the third face, the one gluing the other two together, is Ian McLagan, whose keyboards support both the soul-wailing of Marriott and the folk-burrowing of Lane. Only Kenney Jones, now that the band is no longer interested in cranking up the amps on metallized cover versions of Booker T. & The MG's, remains in the dangerous position of being left without a job, uh, I mean, a face of his own — but at least they left him one instrumental (ʽHappy Boys Happyʼ) where he can still kick some ass.

As tight, rowdy, bawdy R&B'ers, even if this style was already slightly antiquated for the boys, this is where they hit their peak, too: ʽ(Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Meʼ, with its alternation between a despairing Marriott, frantically trying to knock through his loved one's skull, and the hear-hearing  boys, unsuccessfully trying to cheer him up, is instantaneously memorable — and on the second side of the album, the song is echoed by the equally frantic ʽTalk To Youʼ, where each verse-chorus bundle is a tense, sweaty, veins-bulgin' drive to the explosive final statement: "all I want to do is talk to you!", Marriott blurts out before the front door of his girlfriend (who wisely keeps it shut because with a tone like that, you never really know if the loverboy does not clutch a shotgun behind his back). But every now and then, Steve is also capable of quieting down and musing in a more optimistic manner: ʽThings Are Going To Get Betterʼ works as a becalming, self-directed lullaby, gently adorned with McLagan's harpsichord — only towards the end does Steve wind himself up in a bit of a frenzy — and, for what it's worth, since the title begs for such a comparison, this is really a song about things getting better, unlike The Beatles' ʽGet­ting Betterʼ, which is completely in the domain of King Sarcasm in comparison. (I'm not saying that Small Faces have the better song — just a happier one).

But it is the emergence of Ronnie Lane as a competent, competitive, and maybe even visionary songwriter in his own right that really sets the album apart from everything previously done. In stark contrast with the burly Marriott, Ronnie is a sweet, vulnerable soul, and although, as a sin­ger, he is professionally miles below Steve, his voice has a homely-friendly attitude that will immediately appeal to all those introverted people who can be somewhat put off by Marriott's proto-arena-rock swagger (which he would later, predictably, invest into actual arena-rock during his days in Humble Pie).

Already on his first song here, ʽSomething I Want To Tell Youʼ, he presents a courtly alternative to Marriott's angry ranting — they both have trouble with girls, but Ronnie prefers to voice his in a much less egotistic manner. The song reveals a solid Dylan influ­ence — its rhythmics, lyrical moves, and Ian McLagan's «Al Kooper style» organ all bring back to mind the days of Highway 61 Revisited — but Dylan would never end one of his verses with something like "you forget what we've found together, you forget what we've found is love", and even if he did, he would certainly never give the impression of tears in his eyes by the way he'd be singing them. Curiously, that organ part of McLagan's, starting out solemnly and slowly, even­tually picks up steam, going from J. S. Bach mode to Franz Liszt mode, if a classical analogy may be pardoned; Ronnie, however, never lifts his voice into anything even remotely resembling a scream — partly because he is technically unable to, and partly because he'd probably like the music to speak for his feelings, rather than risk making a pompous ass of himself. Repeat with ʽAll Our Yesterdaysʼ, where Dylan is replaced with an old-fashioned vaudeville arrangement, but the vulnerability stays the same, while the sneering, bullying Marriott cannot resist making fun of poor Ronnie by starting the song off with an exaggerated Cockney announcement: "...the darling of Wapping Wharf launderette, Ronald Leafy-a Lane!"

I have not mentioned the word «psychedelic» yet, and for good reason, because Small Faces never got truly hooked on to the psychedelic craze (even less so than The Who, who did record several Pink Floyd-influenced tracks for The Who Sell Out). However, the album would still be nowhere near as impressive had the open-your-mind wave completely bypassed these guys; in actuality, they saddled it in their own impressive manner, somewhat close to The Kinks — by merging elements of «Britishness», particularly the retro ones, with the magic of studio techno­logy. That way, a song like ʽGreen Circlesʼ marries the folk narrative approach ("and with the rain a stranger came...") with psychedelic attitudes, reflected mainly in the complex vocal har­mony patterns, the stereo panning fun, and the mantra gimmick ("green circles, green circles, green circles!..." until said circles really do begin to appear before your eyes) — actually, Syd Barrett and friends did this too (ʽThe Gnomeʼ, etc.), but Small Faces never go properly whacko. ʽUp The Wooden Hills To Bedfordshireʼ, a song written and sung by McLagan, tells you to "leave your body behind you with a different feeling", but somehow Ian's idea of a transcendental, poetic dream is to be slipping away "up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire", an idiomatic British expression with which parents used to shoo their kids away to bed, and which had already been previously immortalized in a Vera Lynn song. So it's another song about Going To Sleep, but with a more pronounced local flavor than, say, ʽI'm Only Sleepingʼ or Bill Wyman's ʽIn Another Landʼ — and also reading more like a dark lullaby than an account of one's personal experience ("when you're slipping into sleep, there's a world you fill find...", with the song's steady beat and McLagan's unfurling organ magically pulling you along some yellow brick road or other). Funny bit of trivia: on the US edition, the ʽto Bedfordshireʼ part was omitted from the song title — possibly by accident, but more likely because the publishers did not want to confuse American audiences with lengthy English toponyms, even though it made the title meaningless.

The idea of sleeping and dreaming is, in general, quite popular with the boys on the album: even the final track, despite its rather lively, even Caribbean-flavored, arrangement is called ʽEddie's Dreamingʼ (who's Eddie?) — implying that (a) life is a carnival and (b) life is only a dream, so nothing makes more sense than combining both in one short package. (In a way, this is what the Stones also did with their ʽOn With The Showʼ conclusion to Satanic Majesties, even if that song did not expressly mention the idea of dreaming — it was more of a common theme that linked together all the songs on the album). Somehow I think that this twist may not have been all that much to Steve's liking; but, as I already said, on this particular occasion his songs seem to mesh fairly well with Ronnie's and Ian's.

The US version of the album, retitled There Are But Four Small Faces, predictably cut out several songs in favor of the band's contemporary singles — ʽItchycoo Parkʼ, ʽHere Come The Niceʼ, and ʽTin Soldierʼ — thus seriously skewing the balance in favor of Marriott and the R&B groove, which, it may have been felt, would be taken more benevolently by American listeners. These songs are all classics, for sure (and one of them even provided the name for one of Britain's earliest progressive rock acts), but all of them follow more or less the same principle — the hook is primarily determined by the loudness level: quiet «preparatory» verses followed by explosive choruses — and, in my opinion, they do not reflect the true progression of the band nearly as well as the song selection and sequencing on the original UK edition of the album. I mean, ʽTin Sol­dierʼ is a kick-ass anthemic song and all that, but its constituents are fairly well understandable; ʽGreen Circlesʼ remains far more strange for my comprehension. Regardless, it is all too natural that my thumbs up would go out to either the UK or the US version in any case: almost every­thing that Small Faces did during this peak year of theirs sounds just as powerful or just as magi­cal today as it did fifty years ago.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Bent Knee: Say So

BENT KNEE: SAY SO (2016)

1) Black Tar Water; 2) Leak Water; 3) Counselor; 4) EVE; 5) Interlude; 6) The Things You Love; 7) Nakami; 8) Commercial; 9) Hands Up; 10) Good Girl.

It is quite surprising to me that I do not love Bent Knee as much as all the aspects of their music are supposing I should. Goddangit, this is provocative, experimental stuff, with a huge diversity of approaches, not afraid of throwing in extra ferocity or a tad more vulnerability; great singer, challenging melodies that do not, however, make any serious transgressions against harmony, intelligent lyrics, no blatantly obvious nods to trendy fashions... but somehow, somewhere, some­thing about it all still isn't right.

For some reason, on their third album, Say So, Courtney Swain and her friends seem even more distant than they used to be. The music, if anything, gets even more complex and unpredictable: what can you say about a band that sounds like King Crimson on one track, sings in Japanese on the next one, and then goes into a Beyoncé-style R&B workout? And yet, behind all the ambition and the superficially unquestionable presence of soul, I sense surprisingly little real feeling — at the very least, I totally fail to connect with any of this stuff emotionally.

My personal hypothesis, which might, perhaps, seem surprising to other listeners, is that at this point, Swain's vocal artistry and the band's music not so much complement each other as clash with each other. The music here is, by and large, experimental: Bent Knee explore rare time signatures, non-standard instrumental combinations, and genre soups that could somehow synthe­size dark folk, ambient, math-rock, and vaudeville all in one. However, in this they do not reach the efficiency level of, say, somebody like the Mothers of Invention, because the music always has to remember that it serves as the backdrop to Swain's performance — there are very few pure instrumental passages here, and Swain has such a strong presence that whenever she sings, it is dang hard to concentrate on the music. And when the music is experimental, how can one «get it» without concentrating?

On the other hand, Swain all by herself is not quite capable of climbing the golden pedestal re­served for outstanding female performers. Why, I do not really understand: she has a great range, she's got some cool word combos at her disposal, and she has plenty of alluring theatrics in her approach. Yet as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder for her to stay put in the shoes of Mad Ophelia without revealing herself as a certified impostor. For me, the album pretty much crashed from the false start of ʽBlack Tar Waterʼ — like ʽWay Too Longʼ, it also opens the re­cord with ecological metaphors, but where ʽWay Too Longʼ worked as an angry rant, ʽBlack Tar Waterʼ gives us broken-hearted numbness as its chief emotion, and this is a much tougher emo­tion to tackle. Anger is something that we all have; true broken-hearted numbness is rare, and even simulating it convincingly is a task that Courtney Swain struggles with. "I made myself strong / By getting my skin numb" she sings... and I don't believe her. Likewise, "I try to speak but I only leak water" on the next track is sung with a certain enigmatic pretense, but the tonality of that statement seems so artificial that I am left utterly cold.

The cumulative result is that Say So is a very busy, fussy, pulsating album, filled to the brim with ideas; but as a challenging musical statement it falls flat, because there's way too much of the «primadonna factor» in it — and as a primadonna album, well, there's too much fuss and pulsa­tion in it. I share Swain's concerns: for the ecology, for the broken-hearted, for the commercia­lism and insanity of 21st century life (ʽCommercialʼ), I even appreciate the irony when the re­cord's most Beyoncé-like song (ʽHands Upʼ) turns out to be a lyrical condemnation of the cheap thrills of technological progress ("we'll be so progressive darling / solar cell on our roof", "texts loop like a mantra through me / buzzing blasts of dopamine"). But it is an intellectual conundrum, this record, not a feast for the senses, and this is not what counts as great music in my own text­book. I even have trouble talking about individual songs — because it is no fun to praise their deep conceptuality or complex structures or layered arrangements unless it all makes emotional sense, and almost none of it does.

But as an example, I will take the album's nine-minute centerpiece, ʽEVEʼ. It starts out on a cool note — fire alarm-like guitars and see-sawing violins — then, as the note quickly gets tedious, at 1:40 into the song the big drums and distorted guitars kick in, but the expected impression of destruction and chaos never materializes. Why? Because the guitars are not loud enough, dammit; because there is no feeling that the musicians are really into this, because these guys have neither the compositional genius of King Crimson nor the animal drive of, say, Nirvana. In addition, they do not like to operate in terms of individualistic guitar riffs, so there is no single «line» anywhere in sight that you could hang on to in order to weather the storm. Midway through, in one of those rare intervals where the primadonna clams up for some time, there is another chaotic section, with guitars and violins frantically accelerating and finally dissolving in a puddle of ambient noise from which the primadonna is reborn again — see, it might even sound intriguing on paper, but I'd rather go back to The Velvet Underground for my chaos...

I will not give the album a thumbs down: Bent Knee is one of the most daring and challenging American rock bands of our time, and Say So shows no signs of resting or slacking in those de­partments. But after the first two records where their ambitions were still kept in reasonable check, I feel like they may have overstepped their limits and boundaries — without adding any­thing fundamentally new to the table, they have become too entangled in their own cobwebs. But then again, maybe it's just me, and I never liked Tales From Topographic Oceans, either; so if you like yourself a good musical challenge, be my guest; just do not feel surprised when nobody ends up remembering a single thing about this record in five years' time.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Xoa

ANAÏS MITCHELL: XOA (2014)

1) Any Way The Wind Blows; 2) Out Of Pawn; 3) Your Fonder Heart; 4) Why We Build The Wall; 5) Now You Know; 6) If It's True; 7) Namesake; 8) Young Man In America; 9) Two Kids; 10) The Pursewarden Affair; 11) His Kiss, The Riot; 12) Come September; 13) You Are Forgiven; 14) Our Lady Of The Underground; 15) Cosmic American.

This is not much of an album, really: mostly re-recorded versions of songs from all across Mit­chell's back catalog, plus exactly three new tunes, none of them promising any new directions or revelations. Anaïs herself stated that this one was strictly for the fans, and this was confirmed by the limited status of the release — although these days such things get confusing, since in the digital / streaming age the line between «limited» and «full-scale» (or whatever) release is getting increasingly blurred. Good excuse for a husband-beater snapshot, though.

The new songs consist of good poetry and dull melodies: ʽThe Pursewarden Affairʼ must have been written specifically to get potential readers interested in the works of Laurence Durell, but even though I admit to having never read a single line from The Alexandria Quartet (I am not proud of this, but am not exactly losing sleep, either), this does not stop me from tipping my hat to lines like "Percy Pursewarden, open up your door / I haven't come to break your cadence or to mix your metaphor". And ʽAny Way The Wind Blowsʼ makes a nice addition to the list of songs by that name, from Zappa to J. J. Cale, being probably the first one to depict a chaotic-apocalyp­tic vision based on that idiom. However, neither of the two has the kind of impact that Mitchell's best musical stuff does, like ʽYoung Man In Americaʼ, which cuts deep and sharp even in this stripped-down variation.

And speaking of stripped down, I have no idea what exactly these new versions of ʽOut Of Pawnʼ or ʽNamesakeʼ bring to the table, but at least it makes sense that four of these re-recordings come from Hadestown, giving Anaïs a chance to present the songs according to her personal vision rather than in the context of a collectively engineered musical project. Personally, I'm all too happy to hear ʽIf It's Trueʼ without Justin Vernon, and I think that, although the rowdy ʽOur Lady Of The Undergroundʼ was done with more balls by Ani DiFranco (because, from a purely feminist standpoint, Ani DiFranco simply has more balls than Anaïs Mitchell, for better or for worse, you decide), anyway, I am partial to this subtler, more vulnerable version. On the other hand, ʽWhy We Build The Wallʼ, with Greg Brown's «earthwall» voice, certainly worked better on the original version — although I understand the desire to reiterate how much the message of the song actually means to the songwriter in person.

In terms of rarities, there's ʽCome Septemberʼ, a track originally released on the 2008 EP Country, a collaboration between Mitchell and fellow folk-writer Rachel Ries: pleasantly moody and melancholic as usual, but nothing to make me rush out and hunt for that lost EP. And in general, Xoa produces a strange impression: it has all the makings of an «unplugged» album — mostly just Anaïs and her acoustic guitar, playing fresh and depply personal variations — but considering that Anaïs Mitchell has almost always been an «unplugged» artist, it would make more sense if she played them all as polkas, or at least as Nickelback tributes or something. And she is not even all that old now, to get proper justification for looking back over her shoulder on the confessions of her youth and replaying them as per the wisdom accumulated in those grey hairs and facial wrinkles. In other words, you have to really be a fan to thank her for this, instead of harboring the nasty suspicion that, perhaps, she simply stumbled upon writer's block... which, by the way, seems to be ongoing at the time that I am writing this: 2016-2017 saw her get all too busy with the production of Hadestown as an off-Broadway musical, and altogether we have not heard a proper new Anaïs Mitchell album since Young Man In America. Then again, there's so many people in the world who do release new music even though they are suffering from even worse attacks of writer's block that the decision to release a bunch of re-recordings might count as a noble example of artistic honesty these days.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Chameleons: Strange Times

THE CHAMELEONS: STRANGE TIMES (1986)

1) Mad Jack; 2) Caution; 3) Tears; 4) Soul In Isolation; 5) Swamp Thing; 6) Time/The End Of Time; 7) Seriocity; 8) In Answer; 9) Childhood; 10) I'll Remember; 11*) Tears (full arrangement); 12*) Paradiso; 13*) Inside Out; 14*) Ever After; 15*) John, I'm Only Dancing; 16*) Tomorrow Never Knows.

The one and only album that The Chameleons released for Geffen Records would also be their last one for more than a decade: immediately after the death of their manager Tony Fletcher, they disbanded, although I suppose that there must have been something more to that — lack of com­mercial success, for instance, or personal friction between the band members. Could hardly have been personal dissatisfaction with the record, considering that Mark Burgess still regards Strange Times as the group's best album — an opinion with which, unfortunately, I cannot agree.

The record is indeed a fan favorite, but the only thing that I could «objectively» agree upon with the admirers is that this is a stab at Creative Maturity, and if you think that the very act of thrus­ting your lance against the dragon of Creative Maturity automatically calls for a Medal of Art Rock Valor, feel free to call Strange Times a masterpiece — even if, as far as I can see, the brave knights were charred to a crisp by the dragon's mature fire breath. What this means, basi­cally (no pun intended), is that some of the songs are longer; some of the songs are slower; some of the songs are more soulful; and some of the lyrics are more introverted.

But if your long, slow, soulful, introverted songs share all the problems that used to pester the band's short, fast, playful, extraverted songs, is this really a meaningful achievement? Namely, the production values remain absolutely the same — despite, or, more likely, because of the band now working with The Cure's own production David M. Allen: big drums, cavernous guitars, and typically Eighties synthesizers converge on almost every track. The melodic underbelly of each song follows the same principle — complete monotony from start to end, and, unlike The Cure, The Chameleons know very little about creative overdubbing, so there is none of the intricate and intriguing sonic layering which Robert Smith bakes in his cakes and which can often make even the most melodically simple and straightforward Cure song into a sonic masterpiece. And, as before, Mark Burgess only plays one role: an earthier, more realistic, but less emotionally rousing spiritual relative of said Robert Smith.

I will admit that the opening song, ʽMad Jackʼ, is an energetic pop rocker in the best traditions of Script Of The Bridge and remains as the high point of both this album and The Chameleons' original career in general. Except for the awful production (really, this is one song that deserved a proper in-yer-face sound, rather than the usual lost-in-the-forest atmosphere), it's got all the decent ingredients: a rousing and catchy opening riff, interesting lyrics that are open to all sorts of inter­pretations (you could just as easily associate ʽMad Jackʼ with Ronald Reagan as you could with Timothy Leary), a rowdy barroom chorus, and a steady, fast beat to keep it all together. Too bad there is not another song like that on the entire record.

Because once it is over, your hopes come crashing down with ʽCautionʼ, an insufferable, eight-minute-long quasi-Goth monster that thinks it can boil up and keep hot an air of apocalyptic depression just by repeating the same predictable minor key jangle over and over and over. Any musical development in the song? Sure. Midway through, it gradually fades out, and then begins to fade in again, and then there's, like, a crescendo, with, like, John Lever putting in more fills and Burgess actually rising to a whiny scream, and the guitars playing at louder volume, but without ever changing their initial jangly pattern. Unless one is immediately struck by lines like "One by one by one / We disappear / Day after day / Year after year... We have no future / And we have no past / We're just drifting / Ghosts of glass", I cannot see how one could regard this song as anything but a gigantic — or maybe not even so gigantic — failure to get oneself elected into the Mope'n'Roll Hall Of Fame, next to The Doors, Pink Floyd, and The Cure.

Alas, the album never truly recovers from that crash. Subsequent tunes may be shorter (although at least ʽSoul In Isolationʼ still tries to repeat the same feat, with a slightly faster tempo, but equally monotonous results), may be speedier, may suddenly switch from electric post-punk to acoustic post-folk (ʽTearsʼ) — nothing helps. Departure from the simpler, but shapelier pop format of Script has simply not been compensated by any positive factors: now the songs are almost completely hookless, but the arrangements and production values stay at the same old, boring level. With a little effort, I can single out ʽSwamp Thingʼ, which does sound a bit like its title — with a bunch of «twangy», delay-driven chords and ghostly echoes creating a nervous, suspenseful atmosphere for the first couple of minutes, although eventually it still mutates into the same old jingle-jangle. "Now the storm has come / Or is it just another shower?", asks Bur­gess in the chorus; well, as far as my opinion is concerned, the whole record is an unending series of drizzling showers that never gather enough force to convert into a proper storm.

My only guess is that the lyrics, and the utter conviction with which Mark delivers them — the good old Joe Strummer bark when necessary, the Robert Smith wail when not — are that single factor which tips the scales in favor of the record for its fans. When I look at the words for ʽChild­hoodʼ, for instance, they are really good: it is not easy to write a song about preserving the innocence of the child state and not make it sound like a bunch of high school clichés, but "I saw innocent kids turn cruel / In the playground at school" is a good start. If only the «climactic» invocation "just a little more heart now!" could match it sonically, but it just gets lost in the air, like everything else here.

I give the record a thumbs down. I imagine that with better musicians, more creative producers, and, most importantly, at some other time better than 1986, Strange Times might have ended up a moody atmospheric masterpiece, maybe not on the level of, say, Talk Talk, but, heck, who knows, at least on the level of U2. As it is, I can only see it as a disappointing end for the first stage of an initially promising career. Nor does the expanded CD edition make things any better, with its bunch of bonus tracks that culminate in Strange Time-ified covers of Bowie's ʽJohn I'm Only Dancingʼ and the Beatles' ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ (the latter also including a snippet of ʽEverybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkeyʼ, a cool idea in theory but not at all working in practice). Altogether, this makes for about sixty minutes' worth of Dullsville '86, and I'd honestly even take Phil Collins over this.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Carpenters: Lovelines

CARPENTERS: LOVELINES (1989)

1) Lovelines; 2) Where Do I Go From Here; 3) The Uninvited Guest; 4) If We Try; 5) When I Fall In Love; 6) Kiss Me The Way You Did Last Night; 7) Remember When Loving Took All Night; 8) You're The One; 9) Honolulu City Lights; 10) Slow Dance; 11) If I Had You; 12) Little Girl Blue.

Apparently, one still largely untapped source for extra Carpenters material was their TV specials, for which they'd recorded some exclusive tracks in the late Seventies — few of them deemed worthy of inclusion onto any of the regular studio LPs; but since, as of the late Eighties, there seemed to still be some nostalgic demand for more Carpenters, Richard went ahead and released this collection of tunes that he probably knew very well was subpar, but completism probably got the better of him (and this time, it is useless to even begin to accuse him of money-grabbing: the album did not chart at all, and only a complete idiot might have hoped it would). Another source were tracks from a planned, but shelved solo album from Karen, recorded in 1979 but not re­leased in its entirety until 1996; for certain reasons, in 1989 Richard only went as far as to take a few favorite selections.

For the most part, this is all just tepid, utterly generic adult contemporary pap: I am not saying that sentimental balladry from the disco era is worthless by definition, but unless it is on a Bee Gees level, with unbeatable hooks that transcend formulaic limitations, it is worthless, and the professional songwriters employed here seemingly did not have that purpose. Rod Templeton's ʽLovelinesʼ, chosen as the title track, is romantic disco on such a soft level that even Olivia Newton-John can sound like AC/DC in comparison — because this material, in order to trans­cend anything, needs at least a powerhouse vocalist with plenty of visible fire; Karen, with all her fires always burning on a purely internal level, hardly qualifies. Unfortunately, things hardly get any better on the slow ballads (there's even a Barry Manilow hit on here), or on oldies like ʽWhen I Fall In Loveʼ: too much sugar and happiness, too few hooks.

Surprisingly, the last three songs offer a tiny bump up in quality. ʽSlow Danceʼ, written by Philip and Mitchell Margo, is the usual pablum, but at least graced with a single attractive touch — there is something quite distinct about Karen's phrasing on the "it's a slow dance..." introduction to each verse, a strange, barely noticeable, possibly unintentional whiff of what could be either reproach or ecstasy, something that promises an intrigue which, unfortunately, never comes to pass, but at least having this unfulfilled promise is better than having nothing at all. ʽIf I Had Youʼ gives a tiny, tiny bit of that old melancholic spirit — there's an aching swell in the middle of the verse that is probably the only trace of Karen's greatness on the entire album. (The song also has a strange, almost ghostly coda for a slow dance number, with miriads of tiny cloned Karens overdubbed in a hypnotic-hallucinating style). Finally, it was a good idea to end the record with ʽLittle Girl Blueʼ — naturally, Karen is no Nina Simone, but she gets the spirit of the song, and it feels far more alive than everything else on Lovelines put together.

All of this comes too late and is far too insufficient to redeem the record as a whole; once again, it is recommendable only for huge fans of Karen who also have a high tolerance level for glitzy late Seventies pop. For everybody else, this will be a thumbs down, but, given the nature of the album, not a vicious one — had Karen lived, chances are that most of the songs here would never be released in the first place.