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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Cat Stevens: New Masters

CAT STEVENS: NEW MASTERS (1967)

1) Kitty; 2) I'm So Sleepy; 3) Northern Wind; 4) The Laughing Apple; 5) Smash Your Heart; 6) Moonstone; 7) The First Cut Is The Deepest; 8) I'm Gonna Be King; 9) Ceylon City; 10) Blackness Of The Night; 11) Come On Baby Shift That Log; 12) I Love Them All; 13*) Image Of Hell; 14*) Lovely City When Do You Laugh; 15*) The View From The Top; 16*) Here Comes My Wife; 17*) It's A Super Dupa Life; 18*) Where Are You; 19*) A Bad Night.

Overall consensus seems to favor the idea that while Matthew & Son might be redeemable as a record, New Masters is not, and I can see where it comes from: the record is simply not as punchy, and tends to drift into boring sentimentalism much more often than its predecessor. Per­haps it was rushed, and Stevens simply did not have enough time to flesh out the songs; perhaps there is too much input from Mike Hurst, who keeps drowning Stevens' personality in brass, wood­winds, strings, and an overall baroque atmosphere every bit as tailor-made as the outfit that the man is wearing on the front cover (but he's still fairly gorgeous, right? I actually favor this freshly shaven Byronesque look more than the bearded straggler of the years to come...). The songs are not hopeless and not devoid of Cat's personality, but they take far more time to assimi­late, and the endless cuddliness is a strong impediment.

That he might have been scraping that barrel is evident, for instance, in the decision to record and release ʽThe First Cut Is The Deepestʼ, a song that he had written as early as 1965, and one that went on to become a major sappy hit for several performers, including P. P. Arnold, Keith Hamp­shire, and Rod Stewart. It is one of those lush ballads that is completely dependent on the specific performance, and Stevens' own performance is mediocre — he is no Brother Gibb, and the com­bination of a pompous, give-it-all-you-got instrumental melody with Stevens' technically weak (as in, not-too-powerful) voice could only work if he'd sought out some unique twist, but he does not: he just sings it because he wrote it. It isn't awful, but it's telling: there's just no reason to hear this kind of material done by its own author.

It did not necessarily have to be that way: ʽKittyʼ, the first number, opens the album in the same playful-ironic mode that made most of Matthew & Son so enjoyable. It is hard to decipher what the song is really about — it all depends on what the line "when my little kitty gets out" really means — but in any case, it is a delightful slice of happy Brit-pop where the little man allows himself some laughs at the expense of those who are "wiping their silver spoons", and the accom­panying tricksterish woodwinds really come in handy. Had all the album been like this, it would be a gas to sit through. But with the second song, ʽI'm So Sleepyʼ, it intrudes upon the turf of elfish minstrels like Donovan, and I am not fully convinced; and with the third song, ʽNorthern Windʼ, it enters the territory of Peter, Paul & Mary, and this is... odd.

Without forcing myself to get too deep in sordid details, I will simply voice the general complaint: all these songs sound way too forcibly «rose-colored», with Stevens trying to create for himself a far more suave and seductive image than he was born for — in fact, a far more suave image than the one on Matthew & Son. His melodic talents and charismatic personality help ensure that he almost never embarrasses himself in a direct manner, but even so, a couple of the songs are still cringeworthy, like the amorous log cabin owner anthem ʽCome On Babyʼ, with arguably the dumbest chorus that Cat ever wrote — "Come on baby shift that log / Come on baby wash that dog" is a fantastic choice of words for what is, essentially, a romantic serenade. And ʽI'm Gonna Be Kingʼ sounds like potential filler ready-made for a Monkees record.

Apparently, the British public shared the same opinion, too, refusing to buy large quantities of New Masters (and even that album cover did not help!), and ultimately leading to the rift be­tween Decca, Hurst, and Stevens. The CD edition is helpful in that it also adds several songs that were released by Cat as singles from 1967 to 1969 — some of which are far better than anything on the album, including the hilarious ʽHere Comes My Wifeʼ (presaging John Entwistle's similar­ly thematicized ʽMy Wifeʼ by a good three years) and the pensive acoustic ballad ʽWhere Are Youʼ that already presages the man's «classic» style (though it is still spoiled by excessive orche­stration). Then, in 1969, the man contracted tuberculosis, spent some time on the threshold be­tween life and death, and lost all contact with his previous life as a result — and I must say that, while I am a little sad about the loss of connection to Matthew & Son, I sure as hell am happy that he never made another set of New Masters.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: And His Blues Band

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: CHAMPION JACK DUPREE AND HIS BLUES BAND (1967)

1) Barrelhouse Woman; 2) Louise; 3) One Dirty Woman; 4) When Things Go Wrong; 5) Cut Down On My Over­heads; 6) Troubles; 7) Tee-Nah-Nah; 8) Caldonia; 9) Under Your Hood; 10) Come Back Baby; 11) Baby Let Me Go With You; 12) Garbage Man; 13) I Feel Like A Millionaire; 14) Right Now; 15) Georgiana; 16) Shake, Baby, Shake.

Hey, finally, after all those years, Champion Jack Dupree has a real blues band! Of his own! And, get that, not just a blues band, but a blues band Featuring Mickey Baker, like it says on the album cover! We're doing this like grown-ups — last year, in London, there was this cool chap John Mayall who did a record called Bluesbreakers Featuring Eric Clapton, and now he has provided me with an opportunity to record in London, on the Decca label, so it's only fitting that there would be somebody «featured» on my album as well... it's a whole new trend!

Seriously, all irony aside, this is the beginning of a whole new life for the Champ: for the first time ever, he is consistently being backed up by a stable, well-amplified, and, most importantly, qualified backing band. Mickey Baker was actually an old pal of the Champ's who'd already played with him in the mid-Fifties; by 1967, however, he'd also migrated to Europe, along the same lines as Dupree, and their reunion on British territory was quite fortuitous. I am not familiar with most of the other players, but the drummer is Ronnie Verrell, one of Britain's finest big band jazz drummers, and his individual style can certainly raise an eyebrow — he specifically caught my ear with some deliciously loud and even «vulgar» (so to speak) fills on ʽBaby Let Me Go With Youʼ (a transparent rewrite of ʽBaby Let Me Take You Homeʼ), where the arrogance of the drums actually overwhelms the fun and tasty parts that Baker plays on guitar.

There is not much to say about the songs on the album — provided you have traced Dupree's career all the way, you have heard most of them before, and provided you know at least a little about music in general, you have heard all the other songs before just as well: for instance, ʽGeorgianaʼ is really ʽGeorgia On My Mindʼ with slightly different lyrics (for some reason — perhaps, out of some strange understanding of honesty — Dupree usually left in «keyword re­ferences» to the original lyrics when covering classics; on the other hand, ʽI Feel Like A Millio­naireʼ, ripping off ʽWhen The Saints Go Marching Inʼ, is an obvious exception), and ʽShake Baby Shakeʼ is ʽWhole Lotta Shakin' Going Onʼ back-crossed with ʽDrinkin' Wine Spoo-Dee-O-Deeʼ. But you also know that this is of no importance.

What is of importance is that the Champ is having fun, and the boys in his band are having fun, too: probably the most fun they all had since... well, ever, because the Champ never had such a tight and well-oiled band beside him. Already on the opening number, ʽBarrelhouse Womanʼ, we have a cool funky brass section, an amusing whistle echoing Dupree's vocal melody in the back­ground — and a subtle atmosphere of camaraderie that more than compensates for leaving his piano skills almost unnoticed. For the most part, his piano parts are clearly heard on the slow blues numbers (ʽLouiseʼ, etc.), but this is nowhere as interesting as the rollickin' jump blues. An insane percussion part and a hilarious bass solo on ʽOne Dirty Womanʼ; a quirky-quacky lead guitar part on ʽCaldoniaʼ; the abovementioned crude drum fills on ʽBaby Let Me Go With Youʼ; the collective choo-choo train effort on ʽShake, Baby, Shakeʼ — there's so much simple, naïve, totally efficient fun on this album, it makes me forget and forgive all the mind-numbing repeti­tiveness and formulaicness of the Champ's underwhelming Copenhagen period.

Even something like ʽTroublesʼ, a laid-back dialog between Dupree and Baker, lazily strumming their guitar and tinkling their piano, as they jokingly discuss each other's problems of the past and of the present, is hilarious — to be honest, I do not understand even half of it, particularly since the Champion is laying his exaggerated «hare-lipped accent» on real thick, but on the whole, the dialog will definitely appeal to any fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, if you know what I mean. Ines­capable filler issues aside, this is a major exercise in self-rejuvenation here, and the first serious argument to prove that the Champion's emigration to the relative safety of the European musical community might not have been such a terrible mistake. Thumbs up.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Kinks: The Kink Kontroversy

THE KINKS: THE KINK KONTROVERSY (1965)

1) Milk Cow Blues; 2) Ring The Bells; 3) Gotta Get The First Plane Home; 4) When I See That Girl Of Mine; 5) I Am Free; 6) Till The End Of The Day; 7) The World Keeps Going Round; 8) I'm On An Island; 9) Where Have All The Good Times Gone; 10) It's Too Late; 11) What's In Store For Me; 12) You Can't Win; 13*) Dedicated Follower Of Fashion; 14*) Sittin' On My Sofa; 15*) When I See That Girl Of Mine (demo); 16*) Dedicated Follower Of Fashion (stereo mix).

The base keeps getting solidified, yet by the end of 1965, The Kinks had still not quite entered their golden era. What they did was mature to the point where their next album would be, if not completely free of filler, then at least completely free of embarrassments. For one thing, they have not yet fully abandoned R&B covers — but instead of sounding like a silly Jimmy Reed parody on ʽNaggin' Womanʼ, they sound vicious and nasty on ʽMilk Cow Bluesʼ, a song they probably learned not from Sleepy John Estes, but from Elvis, who had originally turned this slow blues into sinful rockabilly. Now they go one step further, turning the song's mood from playful into threatening, and for all I know, this is the very first time that brother Dave's vocals actually seem impressive: all it took was change his image from «cocky macho» to «vicious thug», and voilà, the Kinks show that they can be as tough as the Stones if they really want to. The whole song is just one relentless bull-charge; no wonder that it became a live favorite for a while, since, after all, Ray's brilliant, but tender hits could hardly charge up a live rock'n'roll audience in quite the same way as Dave's growling "well I've tried everything..." menace and histrionic guitar breaks. A fitting and triumphant end to their career as an R&B cover act.

At the same time, Ray is still largely operating in «2-3 minute love song» mode, and it is beco­ming more and more clear that it is not the perfect mode for him. A song like ʽWhen I See That Girl Of Mineʼ, with its harmonious verse structure and neat vocal tricks (such as extending the word ʽsighʼ to several «sighing» bars), would be hailed as a masterpiece if any twee-pop outfit came out with it today, but by the standards of 1965, with its shallow theme and barebones pro­duction, it could be perceived as dull. ʽRing The Bellsʼ is very pretty folk-pop, but on the level of The Searchers — a sweet serenade, nothing more. And while I like both ʽIt's Too Lateʼ and ʽYou Can't Winʼ and their «reproach-rock» vibe, (a) they are both based on the exact same rhythm chord sequence and (b) neither of them has a great riff as such, making them notably inferior to 1965's true masterpiece of that genre, ʽThe Last Timeʼ.

It is only when they add a special edge to their love song that the results become outstanding: ʽTill The End Of The Dayʼ is so haunting and brilliant because it's got a real minor feel to it, de­spite all the lyrics about feeling good "'cause my life has begun". You look at those lyrics and you think that the song should sound triumphant — yet it sounds absolutely tragic, almost desperately so, culminating in Dave's shrillest guitar break yet and crashing down with "till the end of the day!" sounding like "till the end of the world" and that end is coming right now. Where that song really belongs is in a Bonnie-and-Clyde type musical — or, at least, in a Dickens-based show on the desperate life of England's lower classes, right next to ʽDead End Streetʼ. No simple three-minute love song on the pop market had ever sounded that way before, which explains why it has become a lasting classic where ʽWhen I See That Girl Of Mineʼ has not.

And that attitude actually puts it well in line with that other type of songs that Ray had only begun getting into — the non-aggressively pessimistic / ironic dissections of the hardships of everyday life. Released as an A-side, ʽTill The End Of The Dayʼ has quite an organic bind with its B-side: ʽWhere Have All The Good Times Goneʼ is kinda like that same character, only twenty years later, and now his youthful desperate enthusiasm has turned to bitter cynicism and disillusionment. This is the first — and oh so far from the last — time that Ray decides to up­grade the past instead of the future: "Let it be like yesterday" is hardly the kind of slogan you'd expect to hear from a respectable pop band in 1965, but for the moment, The Kinks were still able to get away with it... first, because it was a B-side, and second, because, with its long-winded verse lines and socially relevant overtones, it sounded a bit like Dylan, and who cares if you're being asked whether you can crawl out your window or where have all the good times gone, if you're being asked in such a delightfully sneering tone? Oh, and besides, who could resist the brilliancy of lines like "Daddy didn't have no toys / Mummy didn't need no boys" — let alone actually identifying with these lines (provided you were a boy)?

Of a slightly less caliber, but almost on the same level of acuteness (and catchiness) are ʽThe World Keeps Going Roundʼ (whose chorus actually creates the illusion of a spinning globe) and ʽI'm On An Islandʼ, Ray's first leave-me-alone, defensive-yet-defenseless anthem to isolationism, which I believe he sings with a slightly pseudo-Caribbean accent (not surprising, considering the man was a fan of Harry Belafonte and occasionally cover ʽDay-Oʼ in concert). Again, the former song tries to prop you up with a little forced optimism, while the latter just tells you to fuck it; so, naturally, the former quickly disappeared off the radar (though it's really good) and the latter stayed on for some time as a live show staple, even though its quiet acoustic shuffling was the farthest thing from common in a rock'n'roll show environment.

So, in the end, it is quite a mixed bag — a «transitional» album, as it is frequently called; but for the first time, a Kinks LP is every bit as good as contemporary singles, not least because it actual­ly incorporates contemporary singles (ʽTill The End Of The Dayʼ), and also because it's got at least a couple major songs that were not singles at all. The expanded CD edition, in contrast with the previous two, has few contemporary goodies to add — the most notable of these being the early 1966 single ʽDedicated Follower Of Fashionʼ, Ray's first sarcastic ode to the unnamed heroes of Swinging London that, melody-wise, is essentially a catchier re-write of ʽA Well Res­pected Manʼ; but, funny enough, where the titular bourgeois hero of ʽWell Respected Manʼ did garner a bit of pitiful empathy from the songwriter, the proto-hipster of ʽDedicated Follower Of Fashionʼ garners absolutely nothing but scorn and derision. That the song went to No. 4 on the UK charts must only mean that the young buyers never got through the irony — or, perhaps, on the contrary, that they were not above an ironic look at themselves.

In any case, The Kink Kontroversy, kwite un-kontroversially, gets its thumbs up. Only a few months prior to its release, The Kinks were banned from live performing in the States — for their alleged «rowdy behavior» on stage (it's a good thing The Who never got to America before 1967), and while this had little bearing on the album, it might be argued that Ray's full-scale «conver­sion» to the early mode of Britpop the next year was influenced by this unjust ostracism. But for now, Kontroversy gives us a landscape that nicely balances between American and British influences and succeeds in beauty just as fine as it does in aggression.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Alt-J: Live At Red Rocks

ALT-J: LIVE AT RED ROCKS (2016)

1) Hunger Of The Pine; 2) Fitzpleasure; 3) Something Good; 4) Left Hand Free; 5) Dissolve Me; 6) Matilda / Inter­lude 2; 7) Bloodflood; 8) Bloodflood Pt. 2; 9) Interlude 1; 10) Tessellate; 11) Every Other Freckle; 12) Taro; 13) Warm Foothills; 14) The Gospel Of John Hurt; 15) Lovely Day; 16) Nara; 17) Leaving Nara; 18) Breezeblocks.

For those who really want to know, this is my opinion of the live incarnation of Alt-J in a nutshell. They make a very professional recreation of their studio sound, and if you happened to dislike the electronic treatment of the drums on the studio records, this problem pretty much goes away on stage. Apart from that, the typical live performance by these guys has nothing to offer in terms of extra energy or extra inventiveness — one more reason why they cannot (for now, at least) qualify as the new Radiohead, considering how the old one would always treat the stage as a setting for exorcism ceremonies.

That said, why a live album in the first place? These guys have only had two studio records out so far; isn't a lavish live offering like this one (CD, DVD, Blu-ray, LPs, 32 page photo book and a frickin' necklace?) a bit premature? It's not as if Alt-J had developed a ferocious live reputation or anything — to me, it seems a bit unpleasant, like a certain «new royalty» gesture, capitalizing on the band's commercial and critical success. It is one of those «hey, Alt-J have just released a grand live album, so they must be really good, right?» kind of gestures that can seem rather off-putting, even if there are no formal grounds for direct accusations.

On the positive side, the sound quality is magnificent, and, admittedly, I can see where at least some songs might be preferable to their studio counterparts — not because they are better played or playfully rearranged, but simply because they are better mixed. For instance, ʽThe Gospel Of John Hurtʼ in its original state had muffled keyboards and limp vocals: here, the chimes, played with metronomic precision, simply leap out of the speakers, and the voices sound more human, perhaps sagging and faltering here and there, but showing a little more personality. The guitar riff of ʽFitzpleasureʼ, all wispy and echoey on the original, is so much louder and firmer here live that you almost might say that the stage is where Alt-J's music really comes alive...

...but no, I will not say that. The only surprise on the album is a cover of Bill Withers' ʽLovely Dayʼ, which used to be a cheerful R&B groove back in 1977 — now everything that remains are the words, and everything else comes from Alt-J's glossy refrigerator. With the slowed down tempo, the chilly keyboards, the droning guitar, and the tranquilized drums, they efficiently put that song to sleep, and I have no idea why they would do that with a lively Bill Withers song from 1977, of all possible choices. In any case, be it Bill Withers, Buck Owens, or G. G. Allin, we may be sure that any cover by any artist in the hands of these guys will always be reduced to the same kind of omni-gel — and, honestly, I'd prefer them to stick to their own compositions rather than decompose and assimilate somebody else's.

Other than that, Live At Red Rocks predictably reproduces the bulk of the material from their two albums in an almost too safely predictable running order — some big hit singles at the start, and the biggest one (ʽBreezeblocksʼ) saved up for the encore. In-between song banter is scarce, but present in order to make a good impression — for all their weirdness, they are all nice boys from well-behaving families, and they have come here to Red Rocks to work collective magic with their fantastic audience. It's all cool. It's just sort of superfluous. Give them ten years and a good chance to go completely ga-ga, and maybe the live Alt-J experience will turn into some crazyass Björkish extravaganza, but for now, they might be just a little too nice for this shit.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Charlatans: Tellin' Stories

THE CHARLATANS: TELLIN' STORIES (1997)

1) With No Shoes; 2) North Country Boy; 3) Tellin' Stories; 4) One To Another; 5) You're A Big Girl Now; 6) How Can You Leave Us; 7) Area 51; 8) How High; 9) Only Teethin'; 10) Get On It; 11) Title Fight; 12) Two Of Us; 13) Rob's Theme.

Rob Collins died in the middle of the recording sessions for this album — apparently, while drunk driving without a seatbelt, making him an honorable member of the «27 Club Latecomers» (he was 33, actually) along with Keith Moon and all those other crazy rebels who were given a mercyful deferment by Fate. This may have had something to do with Tellin' Stories going to #1 in the UK, but then the previous album also went to #1 — then again, Rob's wild antics, including involvement in armed robbery etc., may have contributed to that earlier just as well. Because, honestly speaking, the mid-Nineties were too full of excellent music to let somebody as deri­vative and clearly second-rate as The Charlatans rightfully enjoy major fame.

By now, the band has completed the transition to standard Britpop market, although echoes of the «baggy» sound still resonate throughout the record, and the rhythm section seems so addicted to funky swing that playing in 4/4 is to them what playing a right-handed guitar is to a left-handed person. But now they have themselves a new gimmick: they see themselves as some sort of post-modern heirs to classic pop/rock legacy, and the main point of nearly every one of their songs is to insert one or more musical and lyrical references to one or more of their idols. The little nibs that they took on Lennon and Dylan in the previous two records were judged tasty, and Tellin' Stories goes on an open rampage — it is as if the band has really discovered its purpose, and found a surefire way to establish its own «context-based» identity that would at least clearly sepa­rate them from Blur, Oasis, and the rest.

I will not even begin to pretend to having caught all these little bits — it's a great way to viciously and mercilessly kill your time — but there is no way a review of the album cannot center around some of them. Dylan is probably the most frequent reference point, although the references are not too trivial: the song titles ʽNorth Country Boyʼ and ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ are the first ones to spring to attention, but melodically they are not Dylanish, or, at least, not Dylanish in the way you'd expect them to — ʽNorth Country Boyʼ is a loud, guitar-and-organ-blazing pop-rocker, and ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ, though it is acoustic, sounds more like Donovan than Dylan. On the other hand, ʽOne To Anotherʼ, even if its main riff is closer to the Allmans' ʽMidnight Riderʼ than anything Dylan ever wrote, partially borrows the vocal melody and intonations from ʽMaggie's Farmʼ — making no secret of that once Tim gets to the line about "boxing up all our records and a head full of ideas". And ʽGet On Itʼ breaks in like some unknown outtake from Highway 61 Revisited, with the same triple-barrel guitar/organ/harmonica attack and a ʽQueen Janeʼ-like start-up: "When you're low and I'm feeling awry...". But so that you could feel all the depth of the penetration (sorry), the second part of the song breaks away from the first and evolves into a satanic ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ-like jam, replete with the obligatory woo-woos and stuff. Also, "I'm going to let you pass" (ʽHow Highʼ)? Ah cripes...

More Rolling Stones references: "You keep it under your thumb" (sung to the verse melody of ʽLoving Cupʼ) and "I could wait forever, love in vain yeah" on ʽTitle Fightʼ, a song otherwise completely undistinguishable from the average Charlatans funk-pop number. The pairwise question to ʽHow Can You Leave Usʼ is "how can you bleed on us?", sung to the vocal melody of ʽRocks Offʼ. The same song, however, once again returns us to Dylan territory with a line about "catchin' dinosaurs", and "darlin'... promise me you'll be home soon"... aw crap, John Sebastian? And the psychedelic vocal harmonies feeding off each other, that's ʽShe Said She Saidʼ, right? And a song called ʽTwo Of Usʼ... and an instrumental number called ʽArea 51ʼ, that's clearly a reference to ʽHighway 51ʼ... okay, enough already.

From a global and straightforward perspective, this is all nonsense. The Charlatans aren't really making much sense with all this appropriation — most of the lyrics sound as if they just assigned a smart computer algorithm to extract random references and mix them in with some new lines, and the melodic borrowings are grafted onto basic rhythmic structures that have not progressed all that much since 1990. But from another perspective, they are really doing the most honest thing possible: after all, Britpop is such a clearly derivative genre by definition that it makes total sense to acknowledge this unequivocally, and refrain from being too serious about it. That's one thing that totally separates them from the ghosts of the past — while there's a lot of sneering and jeering going on here, you never get that «character assassination» vibe that is predominant on classic Dylan records. It might be due to their unfortunate choice of words, or to the lack of the necessary color in Tim Burgess' voice, or maybe even to that «dance vibe» that most of the songs still have because of the rhythm section's never-ending funkiness, but the reality is such that I cannot perceive Tellin' Stories on its own emotional terms — I'm not even sure there were any of those set out to begin with.

They do care about their fallen comrade, ending the album with some serene nature sounds mor­phing into an acid organ-drenched trip-hop instrumental called ʽRob's Themeʼ; but even that one somehow seems a bit post-modern in nature. And it all makes the band sound dated — twenty years later, listening to a bunch of guys churning out typically mid-Nineties send-ups of heroes from the Sixties makes you feel more like an archivist than a music lover. Although, of course, there's nothing wrong with the noble work of the archivist as such.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Carol Of Harvest: Carol Of Harvest

CAROL OF HARVEST: CAROL OF HARVEST (1978)

1) Put On Your Nightcap; 2) You And Me; 3) Somewhere At The End Of Our Rainbow; 4) Treary Eyes; 5) Try A Little Bit; 6*) River; 7*) Sweet Heroin; 8*) Brickstone.

The short-lived band Carol Of Harvest is frequently listed in catalogs under «Krautrock», which is really a complete mockery of the term — unless we really want to apply it to any band born and raised under the skies of Deutschland. Including The Scorpions, Accept, Rammstein, you name it. If, however, we choose to be reasonable and limit the term to a certain harsh style of avantgarde progressive rock with industrial overtones and a certain morose Teutonic attitude, then even under the most broad definition of the term Carol Of Harvest could never be proper Krautrock. Were we to choose just one band to serve as a role model for these guys, it would most likely be Renaissance — melancholic progressive folk with a fairly traditional approach to sonic beauty, including pretty acoustic guitars and lovely female vocals.

The band was largely the brainchild of guitarist and songwriter Axel Schmierer, who is credited for every composition on the album; however, the band's collective sound is just as crucially de­pending on the keyboard tones of cosmic wiz Jürgen Kolb, and, of course, the vocals of Beate Krause — not an exceptional singer, but a very nice one, caught somewhere in the middle be­tween Annie Haslam and Sandy Denny (and, fortunately, singing without much of an accent, be­cause German accents sound sexy on iron-clad femme fatales like Nico, but would be rather ridi­culous on sweet sorrowful ladies in gentle mourning). Although they all came together some­where around Munich, near the birthplace of Amon Düül II, there is really very little on the album that links them to the great Bavarian heroes of prog-rock: instead of blues and jazz, they choose folk as their point of departure, and their message is far less psychedelic and far more, shall we say, serious-tragedy-oriented.

Indeed, the songs written by Schmierer and performed by Krause serve a conceptual purpose, albeit not a highly original one — Carol Of Harvest is a lament for the loss of innocence, a collection of grievous ecological anthems that strike the same artistic blows at technological pro­gress with weeping as Kraftwerk did with irony. The album's subtitle, printed out in large letters and in intentionally not-too-correct English on the back cover, is: «A song of the good green grass, a song no more of the city streets, a song of the soil of the fields», and you have already noticed that the band's name agrees with this. So, the mood of the album is indeed quite akin to that of classic Renaissance, on such records as Ashes Are Burning or Turn Of The Cards, and since by 1978 Renaissance had already begun to evolve in a more overtly pop side, it is nice to see somebody else take their cues from them and give it one more try.

The album's magnum opus is the opening track, the 16-minute long suite ʽPut On Your Nightcapʼ, in which Krause informs us that we are standing "close to the edge", but definitely not in the opti­mistic-idealistic sense of Jon Anderson. Starting out as a dark acoustic ballad with swooshing winds in the background, the song then drifts into the realm of «astral» synth solos and howling guitar workouts, before picking up the pace and guiding us through a climactic finale. It is very easy to spot out all the influences — Renaissance, Sandy Denny, Ash Ra Tempel, Genesis, etc. — but despite the utter lack of originality or even virtuoso musicianship, the song sounds quite convincing to me, as it works on the basic senses in a far more straightforward manner than the majority of neo-prog imitators. Much of this has to do with a specific sense of taste: thus, Kolb's synthesizers are not imitating traditional keyboards, but are really evocating alien sounds (at a couple of points, he lets rip with an almost arcade-like soundtrack of enemy ships attacking the planet), which is a little unexpected on such a supposedly «down-to-earth» record, but somehow makes perfect sense — if, for instance, you think of the synthesizers as symbols of the technolo­gical plague brought upon the planet, and of Schmierer's wailing guitar solos as symbolic of Mother Earth's aching reaction to this horror.

The shorter tracks are almost completely acoustic: ʽYou And Meʼ and ʽTreary Eyesʼ (sic!) are two straightforward laments that could just as well have been played and sung by Joan Baez, and ʽSomewhere At The End Of Our Rainbowʼ starts out in the same manner, before getting augmen­ted by the mighty Mellotron and more tasty guitar bits (this song, in particular, is quite Floydian in its approach to guitar and keyboard tone, clearly influenced by ʽShine On You Crazy Dia­mondʼ above everything else). Meanwhile, ʽTry A Little Bitʼ, whose first few notes will make you think, for about a second and a half, that they have decided to cover ʽStairway To Heavenʼ, goes for a slightly more invocative agenda, moving forward at a faster tempo than everything else and generally expecting us to resort to action rather than just stand moping around as them fields are getting shorn of the good green grass. More of those astral synths mixed in with Haslam-like wordless vocalizing — cool effect.

Naturally, this is not a forgotten masterpiece of prog-folk, as people who like to sound cool as they single-handedly rewrite musical history would have you believe. But neither is it just a gene­ric failure to make something interesting in that genre: behind all the lack of originality lies a good collective Bavarian heart, and there is really not a single band that they directly emulate. For one thing, Renaissance never rocked that hard — their guitar and keyboard players combined the language of classical music, folk, and soft rock, with nothing like the astral keyboard solos of Kolb and the distorted howls of Schmierer's guitar. Floyd, on the other hand, did not have a girl singer, and were never so deeply immersed in the folk tradition. So it's a little bit of this and a large bite of that and a modest chunk of something else, and in the end, it is one of the saddest, yet most accessible records of the year 1978.

The CD reissue of the album throws on three more tracks that were recorded live and actually sound very intriguing, disclosing additional layers of depth that were not at all evident on the album: the short instrumental ʽRiverʼ, riding a mammoth chugging bassline and dominated by Eastern- and avantgarde-influenced organ and synth jamming, sounds far closer to the space-rock jamming of Hawkwind than anything else — and after that, it segues into the brooding, ominous ʽSweet Heroinʼ, which is as close to Goth rock as these guys ever got (and, apart from Krause's vocals, is really reminiscent of Amon Düül II). Unfortunately, the recordings have awful sound quality — most probably taken from audience tapes, since the sound of people chatting over their food or something is often louder than the sound of the music — and it is all over before you can actually get a good understanding of what a typical Carol Of Harvest live show was all about.

Too bad, because the band folded soon after this self-titled debut predictably flopped, and was never heard of again. (I think Beate Krause re-emerges once or twice in the Eighties, singing with some local German jazz combos). With one exception: apparently, in 2009 there was an album called Ty I Ja (ʽYou And Iʼ) released under the name of Carol Of Harvest, with Axel Schmierer as the only original band member, plus a bunch of unknowns, and featuring 15 relatively short songs with Polish titles. Detailed information on this odd surprise is quite hard to find even on the Internet, and I am not in the mood for detective stories here, so let us just leave it at that and remember the true Carol Of Harvest as a brave, short-lived one-album band that deserves its own footnote in prog-rock history; and its own thumbs up, of course.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Caravan: Live At The Fairfield Halls

CARAVAN: LIVE AT THE FAIRFIELD HALLS (1974; 2002)

1) Memory Lain, Hugh / Headloss; 2) Virgin On The Ridiculous; 3) Be Alright / Chance Of A Lifetime; 4) The Love In Your Eye; 5) L'Auberge Du Sanglier / A-Hunting We Shall Go / Pengola; 6) The Dog, The Dog, He's At It Again; 7) For Richard; 8) Hoedown.

Of all the live archival releases by Caravan covering single-date (or double-date) performances, I select only Live At The Fairfield Halls as an example, since it has a certain priority over every­thing else: it was originally released, in a slightly abbreviated version, as The Best Of Caravan Live in 1980, for the European market. The actual show took place on September 1, 1974, in London, appro­ximately one year after the show with the New Symphonia and also introducing new member Mike Wedgwood on bass — just a few weeks before the once-again-revamped band entered the studio to record Cunning Stunts. Consequently, the setlist here is pretty much the same as on the expanded version of Caravan & The New Symphonia: lots of tracks from their most recent offering (Plump In The Night), ʽLove In Your Eyeʼ and ʽFor Richardʼ as stabilized mega-epic-classics, and a few non-studio LP rarities — ʽVirgin On The Ridiculousʼ is done here without orchestral support as it was on the New Symphonia album, and ʽBe Alright / Chance Of A Life­timeʼ is an outtake from the Plump In The Night sessions that did not make it onto the original album (but a studio version of which is now also available on the expanded CD edition).

Since, predictably, there is not a lot of difference between the live performances and the studio originals, that's pretty much all you need to know — well, I might add that the show, also predic­tably, was a good one, and that Richardson's viola parts more than make up for the lack of a com­plete orchestra on ʽVirginʼ. The audience participation bit on ʽHoedownʼ is rather cheesy, but an unavoidable evil, especially for a band as audience-friendly and cheerful as Caravan; luckily, at least the in-between song banter is kept short and to the point. Otherwise, I am not really sure why anybody would want to bother with the record, given the availability of New Symphonia which at least adds a fresh twist to these songs. Perhaps in 1980, with Caravan arguably hitting rock bottom and all, a release like this made sense — just to remind the record-buying public of how great these guys used to be. Today, it is only for dedicated fans who wish to spend some time picking up all the little nuances that separate loyal live reproductions from the originals. Like, for instance, ʽFor Richardʼ is three minutes longer than the studio version here — I am still not sure if this is because they extend some of the jam sessions or because they take it such a leadenly slow tempo at the beginning, but I am too lazy to go check it out.