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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The 5th Dimension: Portrait

THE 5TH DIMENSION: PORTRAIT (1970)

1) Puppet Man; 2) One Less Bell To Answer; 3) Feelin' Alright?; 4) This Is Your Life; 5) A Love Like Ours; 6) Save The Country; 7) The Declaration / A Change Is Gonna Come / People Gotta Be Free; 8) Dimension 5ive.

Not a lot of departures here from the formula of Aquarius, but the ones that do get noticed are not particularly auspicious. But first, the good news: ʽPuppet Manʼ is not only the best opening song on a 5th Dimension album, period — it also beats the shit out of both Neil Sedaka's original and Tom Jones' Vegas-ized version. With a sharp-stinging electric guitar lead, the band's usual stunning multi-part harmonies, and particularly the girls' fiery, well-empowered lead vocals, the song definitely rocks here — which is kind of amusing, considering how the lyrics are all about personal submission. (Then again, there's nothing more powerful in the world than voluntary total and absolute submission, I guess — just look at ʽVenus In Fursʼ).

Alas, the song also gives you false hopes — that, perhaps, the rest of the album might, too, con­form to this «electric soul» idiom, not too far removed from classic Funkadelic in terms of juici­ness and intensity. Nope! Released as a single, ʽPuppet Manʼ only made it all the way up to No. 24; and when the band resorted to its usual weapon of choice and followed it up with a typically excellent Laura Nyro cover, ʽSave The Countryʼ, it fared even worse and stalled at No. 27, de­spite all the upbeat gospelishness, all the enticing organ swirls and brass fanfares, all the enthu­siasm poured into the "we could build the dream with love" chorus. Oh, you can never tell with the American public: first they raise you up with ʽWedding Bell Bluesʼ, then they bring you down — harshly — when you give them something equally catchy and tasty.

So what's a poor fifth dimension to do in a situation like this? Fall back on sappy, shapeless sen­timentality and release ʽOne Less Bell To Answerʼ, a slow Bacharach/David tear jerker of the «ultimate housewife» variety — technically, sung to absolute perfection by Marilyn McCoo, but substantially, containing absolutely nothing but atmosphere, an empty vessel for whoever is more or less able to imbue it with dramatic content (of the soap variety, mostly). Naturally, it was that song that had to become the biggest commercial success from the album, and pretty much set the basic development trends for the band in the next few years. (I admit to having never been a big fan of Burt Bacharach — the Johann Strauss Junior of the Great American Songbook, from a certain point of view — but he did write quite a few better songs than this piece of thoroughly unmemorable mush).

In between these commercially low / artistically high and commercially high / artistically low points, Portrait wobbles and vacillates, largely depending on source material. The obligatory Jimmy Webb song this time around is ʽThis Is Your Lifeʼ, unfortunately, also slow, mushy and way too pompous to be taken seriously. The cover of Traffic's ʽFeelin' Alrightʼ is decent, and Billy Davis Jr. gives a good Otis Redding-ish soul take on the original vocal part, but is nowhere near close to the «interestingly personal» Joe Cocker version. Then there's a guy called Bob Alcivar, apparently responsible for the orchestration and also saddling the band with two of his own compositions — the lush pop ballad ʽA Love Like Oursʼ (so-so) and the lite jazz / lite clas­sical mash-up ʽDimension 5iveʼ, somewhat ambitious but still way too corny for my tastes (I guess the idea was to produce something like the band's own take on the Pet Sounds instrumen­tals, but the results are much cuddlier and kiddish).

Worst of the lot, though, and deserving to be registered as a legendary embarrassment in the history of hippie muzak, is the idea to set to music nothing less than The Declaration Of Indepen­dence itself — in a three-part medley with Sam Cooke's ʽA Change Is Gonna Comeʼ and The Young Rascals' ʽPeople Gotta Be Freeʼ. While the Cooke cover, like the Traffic cover, is decent (but adds nothing to the glorious original), the vocal performance of ʽThe Declarationʼ simply has to be heard to be disbelieved: they really do rip through a large part of the Preamble, alternating between male and female leads and trying their best to squeeze the dense prose of the text into soul music phrasing. The most horrible thing about it is that — who knows? — there might well be people out there inspired by this brand of starch-heavy, gluten-rich musical corn. But, I mean, yeah, who else but a band of superficially-minded, commercially-oriented, family-friendly pseudo-hippies to remind society of certain self-evident truths?..

All in all, here be a mixed bag if there ever was one — swinging all the way from the coolness of ʽPuppet Manʼ to the catastrophe of ʽThe Declarationʼ, from the upbeat, catchy inspiration of ʽSave The Countryʼ to the instantly forgettable mush of ʽOne Less Bell To Answerʼ, and so on; a classic case of up and down thumbs outcanceling each other, but this is precisely what compila­tions and self-made playlists are there for these days.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Blues From The Gutter

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: BLUES FROM THE GUTTER (1958)

1) Strollin'; 2) TB Blues; 3) Can't Kick The Habit; 4) Evil Woman; 5) Nasty Boogie; 6) Junker's Blues; 7) Bad Blood; 8) Goin' Down Slow; 9) Frankie And Johnnie; 10) Stack-O-Lee.

Probably the single best known album of the Champion's career — if only for being, well, the first album of the Champion's career: Blues From The Gutter, released at the tail end of the Fifties, opens a long, long, long, and largely ignored string of LPs, and back then it had the benefit of intro­ducing Dupree to a fresh new audience, one that was actually interested in hearing him play, as opposed to all those singles from the 1940s, released in the face of a largely indif­ferent and highly limited New York public. Above all, it was his debut for Atlantic Records, and that in itself was a guarantee that the man would be heard world-wide — in fact, reliable sources state that Blues From The Gutter made a fairly deep impression on none other than Brian Jones himself, even if in the grand scheme of things it was probably not too significant.

Part of that impression was owed not to the Champ himself, but to his backing band, which here included such seasoned session players as Pete Brown on sax and Wendell Marshall (who'd played with Duke Ellington and a boatload of other jazz notables) on double-bass, and particular­ly Ennis Lowery (who later took the name of Larry Dale) on electric guitar. For those used to Dupree's near-solo performances, or his low quality recordings with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the image of the Champion recording with a full-and-willin' blues band under profes­sional modern studio conditions must have been a revelation — in fact, it was probably a revela­tion to Dupree himself, who took the opportunity to re-record a couple of his old classics (ʽTB Bluesʼ, ʽJunker's Bluesʼ — the latter leaving all of its drug-related lyrics completely intact), throw in a few more time-honored standards (ʽFrankie And Johnnyʼ, ʽStack-O-Leeʼ), and introduce a decent level of variety, ranging all the way from slow soulful blues (ʽGoin' Down Slowʼ) to rol­lickin' boogie-woogie (ʽNasty Boogieʼ).

The addition of Lowery is indeed a good touch: the man is a disciple of B. B. King, well versed in the art of sharp, stinging electric blues leads (ʽTB Bluesʼ is a particular highlight), and he adds an element of «Chicago blues danger» to the relaxed, leisurely stroll mode of Dupree, even if the two do not look all that much like a match made in Heaven upon first sight; and he does not get to solo on the album's merriest piece, ʽNasty Boogieʼ, which is instead dominated by the piano / sax duet, and where even the bassist is allowed to take the spotlight for a few bars, but not the lead guitarist — who prefers to stick stubbornly to the slow blues idiom, and for a good reason, I guess: not every great blues player is an equally great boogie player, and vice versa. Then again, it's a sensible distribution of labor: get the sax guy to be your partner on the lighter numbers, and the guitar guy to be your foil on the darker ones.

As for Dupree himself, he is arguably at his best on the opening number, a simple New Orleanian shuffle called ʽStrollin'ʼ and featuring neither guitar nor sax — just the Champ taking his time, improvising a leisurely syncopated jazz rhythm and alternating it with a couple of brief ragtimey solos as he hums out whatever is on his mind. Not exactly the kind of sound you'd expect to come out «from the gutter», but then again, a gentleman like Champion Jack Dupree probably has to keep his cool even in the gutter — considering the dignity and reservation with which he narrates his protagonist's drug problems on ʽJunker's Bluesʼ and ʽCan't Kick The Habitʼ. And, by the way, the title of the album is fully justified if one simply counts the number of songs about drugs, decay, and death — cocaine, tuberculosis, and cold-blooded murder are the norm of day on this album, which certainly was not true about the average Chicago blues album in 1958, where themes of woman-hunting ruled high above everything else. All in all, even if the music as such is hardly exceptional here (just average even by contemporary standards), the very fact of an old pre-war urban blues piano man really making it in the nearly-modern era is quite admirable, con­sidering that Dupree, on the whole, represents a blues-playing tradition that is older than that of  B. B. King or, in a way, even that of Muddy Waters. Definitely a thumbs up, on the grounds of mild enjoyability amplified by strong curiosity.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Hollies: Stay With The Hollies

THE HOLLIES: STAY WITH THE HOLLIES (1964)

1) Talkin' 'Bout You; 2) Mr. Moonlight; 3) You Better Move On; 4) Lucille; 5) Baby Don't Cry; 6) Memphis; 7) Stay; 8) Rockin' Robin; 9) Watcha Gonna Do 'Bout It; 10) Do You Love Me; 11) It's Only Make Believe; 12) What Kind Of Girl Are You; 13) Little Lover; 14) Candy Man; 15*) Ain't That Just Like Me; 16*) Hey What's Wrong With Me; 17*) Searchin'; 18*) Whole World Over; 19*) Now's The Time; 20*) Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah; 21*) I Understand; 22*) Stay; 23*) Poison Ivy.

Most of the early British Invasion acts had a role model or two from across the Atlantic before they'd start to carve out their own identities — it was only a matter of how early that carving-out process would start, especially relative to that defining moment when the band in question would first set foot in a proper recording studio and land its first record contract. From that point of view, The Hollies landed theirs a bit too early in the game (imagine, for a second, The Beatles getting theirs in late 1960 rather than late 1962), and although, in retrospect, this does not sound like that much of a problem, Stay With The Hollies set them off on the wrong foot in the LP business department — an inauspicious move whose consequences, it might be argued, would reverberate through the band's entire career.

The role model in question was, of course, The Everly Brothers — in fact, The Hollies pretty much started out intentionally as the UK's answer to Phil and Don, with Allan Clarke and Gra­ham Nash modeling themselves as a folk-rockish singing duo; and even if the band's debut album does not include any of the Everlys' songs as such, most of its material is delivered very much in the Everlys' style. Sound-wise, The Hollies played a very polite, anger-less, family-friendly ver­sion of rock'n'roll that went light on electric guitars and heavy on two-part vocal harmonies: like Phil and Don, they were not at all averse to taking lessons from Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but they always emphasized the melodic, rather than punkish, sides of these guys, and the Hollies followed suit — their cover of Little Richard's ʽLucilleʼ here is almost 100% identical to the way the Everlys did it, and that's the way it would always be.

That said, even without any original ideas and without any significant attempts to write their own songs, already at that earliest stage The Hollies had a major advantage of their own — a lead singer blessed with a voice every bit as distinctive as that of John Lennon, Mick Jagger, or Eric Burdon. As the record opens with a standard guitar introduction to Chuck Berry's ʽTalkin' 'Bout Youʼ, the very first line, "let me tell you 'bout a girl I know...", even though it is sung in harmony by Allan Clarke and Graham Nash (and maybe Tony Hicks as well?), totally belongs to Allan, as does almost everything else on this album. It is not a deep, rumbling tone of the Eric Burdon variety, or a sharp, guttural, devilish tone of the Mick Jagger one — it is a high, ringing, and ever so slightly raspy tone that suggests inoffensiveness and friendliness, yet ones that go along with punchiness if necessary. It is a tone that stands out loud and proud in a sea of millions, and one that can't help drawing your attention, just because you instinctively feel how extreme it is. And it is pretty damn hard to be extreme in the middle of a soft-melodic vibe, yet somehow Clarke's singing is that one element which makes words like «wimpy» or «sissy» inapplicable to The Hollies, and words like «kick-ass» fairly reasonable.

And there's not much to say other than that, really, about the fourteen songs on this record — but then, nothing else is needed, because The Hollies' taste in covers was good, and with Allan giving it his all, they succeed in producing sharp, deeply enjoyable, and far-from-superfluous versions of many of them. Not many people, for instance, could have competed with the exuberance of The Contours, permeating every second of ʽDo You Love Meʼ — Mike Smith of The Dave Clark 5 sang the song as close to the «black-voiced» original as possible, which was indeed superfluous, but Clarke, adding a funny bit of gurgle to his razor-sharp voice, delivers it exactly as it should be delivered by a sneery, snotty, cocky, yet ultimately good-natured British teenager, coming up with the single best cover of the song until the maniacal cover of The Sonics a year later.

Another highlight is Roy Orbison's ʽCandy Manʼ: this is a particularly happy choice, because Roy wrote a good handful of excellent rock'n'roll songs without, however, being much of a rock'n'roll singer — and this provides Clarke with a great chance to squeeze all of the tune's implied sexua­lity onto the surface. Is «cock pop» even a term? If it is not, it should be invented specifically for this hilarious performance: musically cuddly, no match for even the Beatles, let alone the Stones, but vocally... hoo boy, just lock up your daughters when Allan mouths "let me be... mmm, your own cande-e-e-e... candy ma-a-a-an", even if, to the best of my knowledge, the UK press never saw much of a threat in the Hollies (probably because they never had themselves an Andrew Loog Oldham to market their threat-ability).

Sure, some of these covers work worse than others: just as in the case of the Beatles, for instance, it is hard to understand the love they all had for ʽMr. Moonlightʼ (here spoiled even further by the unlucky choice of Nash as the lead vocalist — doesn't seem to be the right kind of material for him at all), and Bobby Day's novelty-nursery hit ʽRockin' Robinʼ is one of these proto-bubblegum numbers that is very hard to take seriously with its tweedle-dees. The only original composition on the album is ʽLittle Loverʼ, delivered with plenty of fire but songwriting-wise, largely just a minor variation on the Chuck Berry formula (although the resolution of the chorus, with the un­expected twist of "come on and discover... my lo-o-o-o-ve for you!" is quite indicative of future pop songwriting ideas to come). But on the whole, there are very few open embarrassments / misfires compared to the number of good songs done in classy Hollies style.

Admittedly, that style has not yet been fully worked out: somewhat parallel to the earliest recordings by The Beach Boys, it took the band some time to become experts in studio multi-part harmonizing, so most of the entertainment here is simply provided either by Allan solo or by Allan propped up and thickened by the two other singing guys. Likewise, guitarist Tony Hicks is not at the top of his game, either, although his brief, well thought-out leads compete rather well with contemporary George Harrison. Yet even so, the album still sounds remarkably fresh and enjoyable, rather than boring and generic, after all these years — a decent career start, well worth a modest thumbs up, in the face of the typically cool critical reaction.

The expanded CD reissue is essential for completists, throwing on the band's first three singles from 1963, but I am not a major fan of The Hollies covering The Coasters — they did not really have that band's innate sense of humor, so ʽAin't That Just Like Meʼ and ʽSearchin'ʼ come off somewhat stiffer than necessary — so in this particular case, you won't be uncovering any hidden gems, as opposed to subsequent albums where the bonus tracks are essential, since many of them represent the band's finest, single-oriented songwriting efforts.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Don't Get Lost

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: DON'T GET LOST (2017)

1) Open Minds Now Close; 2) Melody's Actual Echo Chamber; 3) Resist Much Obey Little; 4) Charmed I'm Sure; 5) Groove Is In The Heart; 6) One Slow Breath; 7) Throbbing Gristle; 8) Fact 67; 9) Dropping Bombs On The Sun; 10) UFO Paycheck; 11) Geldenes Herz Menz; 12) Acid 2 Me Is No Worse Than War; 13) Nothing New To Trash Like You; 14) Ich Bin Klang.

At this point, I am beginning to question myself whether or not this recent explosion of BJM albums might be due to Anton Newcombe misunderstanding the meaning of the classic Latin recommendation of Festina lente. Where most people would understand it sort of figuratively, as a call to focused and efficient action tempered by prudence and accuracy, Newcombe seems to take it more literally — as an appeal to release as many new records in the upcoming years as possible, containing as many slow-moving, hyper-draggy songs as possible.

At least the previous three albums were all short; Don't Get Lost clocks in at approximately 72 minutes — admittedly, not a record length for Newcombe, who used to be famous for slowly and meticulously bleeding out his grooves until the CD begged for mercy; but the last time he did that was in the era of the band's artistic «rebirth» with My Bloody Underground and Who Killed Sgt. Pepper, almost a decade ago. Since then, Newcombe experienced no new rebirths, largely returning to the original style of BJM, occasionally diversified by stylistic references to groove styles past 1967, and Don't Get Lost is no exception to the rule: the fourteen tracks captured here will give you no new insights whatsoever.

And me, too, I find myself at a loss once again. Clearly, the only way this sloth-like guy could churn out such a huge record about four months after his previous one was by quickly working out a few grooves and sticking to them — indeed, the opening track, ʽOpen Minds Now Closeʼ, rides on for eight minutes without a single deviation from its established formula. It's like a metronomic, unnerving groove by Can, but simplified to the core and with absolutely no room left for improvisation: elevator muzak for dark psychedelic types. Naturally, with this approach it is the easiest thing in the world to stretch a potentially 30-minute long record to 70 minutes. But then again, I reserve harsh judgement, because BJM always goes best with mushrooms (this is an objective fact, scientifically verified by the band's leader), and I'm not much of a mushroom man, so I cannot verify if the textures of Newcombe are truly a perfect psychological fit with chemi­cally altered brain activity or not.

In the sphere of ideology, Anton is still pretending that some of his songs should function as manifestos, hence such titles as ʽResist Much Obey Littleʼ (a bit paradoxical, since the steady, cyclical, descending-ascending acoustic rhythm pattern of the song is so mind-numbing that it only makes you want to resist little and obey much, at best) and ʽAcid 2 Me Is No Worse Than Warʼ, one of the album's few excursions into soft techno, drum machines, sampled vocals, and siren-themed synthesizers. ʽDropping Bombs On The Sunʼ is another title that might trigger poli­tical associations, and yet again, the track is a slow, totally stoned groove, ruled by minimalistic brass-imitating tones and lead vocals from Tess Parks, who still retains the status of Anton's muse by managing to sound twice as stoned as he does. («And far sexier», I wanted to add before rea­lizing that having sex with Tess Parks, judging from the perspective of her musical output, would probably only be efficient in an alternate universe where one minute of their time equals one hour of ours. «Slow down, you move too fast» is definitely not about these guys).

In his struggle to retain his cool, Newcombe does things that I hardly understand at all — for instance, calling one of the tracks ʽThrobbing Gristleʼ, even though Throbbing Gristle themselves would probably have regarded the entire brand of BJM production as a cheap profanation of the genuine avantgarde aesthetics (the track itself is just another monotonous psychedelic groove with Parks yawning and groaning all over the place). The next-to-last track, ʽNothing New To Trash Like Youʼ, is surprisingly faster than the rest — pretty much a generic rockabilly number buried under the generic layers of BJM production, and still somehow managing to sound as lethargic as everything else. One other track, ʽGeldenes Herz Menzʼ, sounds like modern lounge jazz put through the same motions — fussy jazzy drumming and tons of soft sax overdubs, hardly a subgenre where the man might make much of an impression.

Overall, just another year, just another album: nothing too bad, nothing too revelatory. And brace yourselves, because the guy is not about to stop — he's gonna crawl on and on and on, because the number of same-sounding draggy grooves with tons of wobbly overdubs that he can theoreti­cally produce is infinity.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Cass McCombs: Big Wheel & Others

CASS McCOMBS: BIG WHEEL & OTHERS (2013)

1) Sean I; 2) Big Wheel; 3) Angel Blood; 4) Morning Star; 5) The Burning Of The Temple, 2012; 6) Brighter!; 7) There Can Be Only One; 8) Name Written In Water; 9) Joe Murder; 10) Everything Has To Be Just-So; 11) It Means A Lot To Know You Care; 12) Dealing; 13) Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love; 14) Satan Is My Toy; 15) Sean II; 16) Home On The Range; 17) Brighter!; 18) Untitled Spain Song; 19) Sean III; 20) Honesty Is No Excuse; 21) Aeon Of Aquarius Blues; 22) Unearthed.

I wonder if I should or should not go the «ambitious is always good» route here? After all, it is not true that this last decade is completely free of grand, larger-than-thou musical gestures: from Arcade Fire and all the way to Kanye West, people are still trying to bite off more than they can chew, even as natural selection causes their jaws to keep shrinking with each new generation. And after a string of serious musical disappointments, could it be the right decision for Cass McCombs to gamble it all on a sprawling, two-disc collection of twenty songs in half a dozen different musical styles, presenting his own, contemporary mega-take on Americana?..

As usual, the absolute majority of other people's positive opinions that I have seen focus almost exclusively on the lyrics. And they are really good lyrics, yes: the man is now capable even of finding a non-clichéd way to deliver a sermon on the age-old problem of peace, love, and mutual understanding (ʽEverything Has To Be Just-Soʼ), let alone continuing to find fresh metaphors to lay on the age-older problem of him-and-her (ʽSooner Cheat Death Than Fool Loveʼ) or, inciden­tally, deliver some of the most viciously offensive anti-religious (anti-clerical, to be accurate) chastushkas to come out of the progressive camp (ʽSatan Is My Toyʼ), though you have to listen really carefully to get it. And you have to listen even more carefully, sometimes, to understand if he is using redneck imagery directly and scornfully, or as a metaphor for something completely different altogether (ʽBig Wheelʼ). Anyway, the guy continues to be a good poet...

...but does he continue to be a good musician? That's a far more difficult question. Despite the sprawling length of this collection, it manages to avoid both the unending lethargy of Wit's End and the simplistic repetitive crudeness of Humor Risk. With a couple tolerable exceptions, the songs do not seriously overstay their welcome, run along at steady, energetic rootsy tempos, and occasionally feature vocal and instrumental pop hooks, so it's not really much of a chore sitting through all of this in one go. And, as somewhat inferior, derivative resuscitations of age-honored musical styles, they work all right. ʽBig Wheelʼ will appeal to anybody who'd like to know how Chuck Berry would sound when played by Fairport Convention (but with musicianship that would probably make Richard Thompson cringe). ʽAngel Bloodʼ and a whole bunch of other country-tinged tracks here will warm the heart of all Gram Parsons fans (on the whole, I'd say that Gram Parsons could all but be proclaimed this record's mascot). ʽJoe Murderʼ is Joy Division bleakness peppered with avantgarde sax blasts à la original King Crimson. ʽDealingʼ and a couple more acoustic ballads recycle the old Donovan / ʽDear Prudenceʼ chord sequences... all in all, these reworked influences are okay, and it is clear that Cass is not interested in pushing any boundaries — he just wants himself some tasteful backdrops for his statements.

Which, much as I am trying to fight this, inevitably brings us back to the lyrics and the whole conceptual shenanigan — especially since the album is introduced (and then twice more inter­rupted) with bits of dialog sampled from the 1969 documentary Sean, a series of dialogs between a filmmaker and a 4-year old kid raised by his hippie parents in Haight-Ashbury (apparently, Cass had been a fan of the documentary for quite a long time, since some of his songs were used for the soundtrack of a follow-up, Following Sean, as early as 2005). Given that the dialog re­veals the little boy to be a grass smoker, a police-hater, and a God denier, you could say that Big Wheel & Others revolves around some sort of anti-establishment frame, but Cass is too smart and too hip to come out with any unambiguous judgements... too smart and hip, really, so much so that, ultimately, the record still suffers from a certain emotional vacuum. Is he angry? Is he sad? Is he from another planet? Is he just telling it like it is? Does he agree with Sean on all the philo­sophical points the boy makes? Does he eat grass, or smoke it? Who knows?

Anyway, I'd be totally wasted if I started waxing philosophical over all these songs, so let's just skip over to the last one — you know, the coda, the finale, the denouement, the unveiling of The Truth, whatever, and hey, it's called ʽUnearthedʼ, so it might really reveal something. What have we got here? Acoustic, slightly lo-fi, slow ballad, "it won't be too long, it won't be too long", so there's some sort of blind prophet apocalypse vibe... "I moved 75 thousand tons of earth with my teeth... I met a toad that belched up a bottle" (this is sung a bit close to the motif of ʽA Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fallʼ), "and in the bottle was a note, a note I knew you wrote... how come you keep your true feelings so well hidden?". Uh... that's it? This is how our long journey ends? This is why I had to sit through nine minutes of ʽEverything Has To Be Just-Soʼ and seven minutes of ʽHome On The Rangeʼ? Boy, what a downer.

The biggest problem with the album is that it is long, it is meandering, it is trying to tell us some­thing important — and it never really seems to understand what it is trying to tell us. It's one of those respectable, but wasted efforts where the smart artist outsmarts himself by focusing too much on his own enigma. On the bright side of things, it is a sort-of-timeless statement that is in no way bound hands-and-feet to the year or decade in which it was released, so who knows? per­haps, in fifty years time or less, critics will dig it out, dust it off, and declare it a major master­piece that was way ahead of its time, a time when reviewers either praised it without understan­ding it (like the Pitchfork people) or simply confessed to not understanding it (like yours truly). But my guess is that even fifty years from now, Big Wheel & Others will, at the very best, be one of those albums that everybody tips a hat to for the effort but nobody really listens to because it all kind of seems more impressive on paper than in the air.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Candlemass: Chapter VI

CANDLEMASS: CHAPTER VI (1992)

1) Dying Illusion; 2) Julie Laughs No More; 3) Where The Runes Still Speak; 4) Ebony Throne; 5) Temple Of The Dead; 6) Aftermath; 7) Black Eyes; 8) End Of Pain.

It seems to me that standard critical reaction to Candlemass albums follows a pretty simple block diagram, consisting of just one question — «Was there any bad shit going on with the band at the time of recording?» — and, depending on yes or no, the album is judged as good or bad. With Chapter VI, there was most definitely some bad shit going on: after some dispute with Marcolin whose details I am not interested in, Messiah left the band (or should the correct phrasing be «ascended away from the band», in this case?) and was replaced by Thomas Vikström, another relative newcomer to the world of metal — who lasted for only this one album. And since this was not perceived as an obvious change for the better, many people bypassed alternate logical choices and declared this as an obvious change for the worst.

As in the case of Ancient Dreams, I desperately fail to see what is so clearly wrong with Chap­ter VI. First, the new vocalist is in no way inferior to Marcolin. Technically, he can hit all the right notes, he can growl and scream, and his overtones fit right in with the band's music. Sub­stantially, it's all just overblown metal theater, and it's not like either of them are expected to genuinely awaken your sleeping emotions and bring out your undercover instincts — but here, too, I will say that at least Vikström has a bit of that snarly rasp in his voice that brings him closer to «metal punk» Dio or Bruce Dickinson territory: at his best, he is less of a pompous operatic screamer than Marco­lin and more of a brutal warrior type, even though you'd probably expect the opposite, given his origins (apparently, he is the son of a real Swedish opera singer).

More importantly, Chapter VI is generally faster than all previous Candlemass albums. There is a bit more thrash and power metal vibe here than usual, which is one reason why it might not appeal to serious doom metal aficionados. ʽDying Illusionʼ, after a brief atmospheric intro, opens with the same flying punch as Sabbath's ʽNeon Knightsʼ (perhaps, given the arrival of a new lead singer, they also felt the need to switch from an Ozzy-like Master Of Reality vibe to a Dio-like Heaven And Hell vibe?), and is a pretty impressive song on the whole, with numerous time and tempo changes, going from speed metal madness to funeral march and back in a surprisingly smooth and credible manner. It definitely does not sound like an Epicus-style track — but so much for the better, I'd say.

Elsewhere, there are quite a few decent riffs as well, such as the ones that open ʽEbony Throneʼ, ʽBlack Eyesʼ, and ʽEnd Of Painʼ — a bit more complex than usual, a bit less crazy about soun­ding like the Hand Of Doom closing in on you, more intent on simply sounding menacing and foreboding in a somewhat more abstract manner. Actually, I would say that it is the most tradi­tional Candlemass-style songs that suck the most on here, a particular nadir being ʽWhere The Runes Still Speakʼ — now that is one truly miserable ode to the magical mysteries of their mythical Teutonic past; nothing but a leaden guitar tone churning out the same repetitive slow chords over and over, and tons and tons of overblown mock-Wagnerian sentimentality. ʽTemple Of The Deadʼ, another lengthy epic, is at least marginally better due to a faster tempo and a more agile and complex riff; however, the overall rule of thumb here is that the shorter the song is, the more chances it has at being successful.

It's not as if I insist that the album deserves a thumbs up, but I think it will appeal to all those who really really really love their metal riffage, and I certainly disagree with all those who accuse Chapter VI of low energy or lack of inspiration (one could certainly accuse Candlemass in toto of a lack of inspiration — or, at least, originality — but not of low energy). Certainly not the worst chapter in their history, even if, at the time, so many people believed this, apparently, that the band had no choice but to break up soon afterwards.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Caravan: Better By Far

CARAVAN: BETTER BY FAR (1977)

1) Feelin' Alright; 2) Behind You; 3) Better By Far; 4) Silver Strings; 5) The Last Unicorn; 6) Give Me More; 7) Man In A Car; 8) Let It Shine; 9) Nightmare.

Okay, so if you want a proverbial example of what a «major drop in quality» truly means, look no further than the alarming gap that divides Blind Dog At St. Dunstan's, an energetic, inspired, and emotional pop album with progressive overtones, from Better By Far, a limp, mechanical, openly boring exercise in radio-friendly MOR music with no overtones whatsoever. It is always a puzzle to me how the exact same band can go from exciting to insipid in the short span separating one record from another, but yes, these things do happen.

First, this record does not rock, not in the slightest. Where Blind Dog gave us some nifty funky grooves, nicely steeped in a sharp, sarcastic attitude, Better By Far is almost completely given over to quiet, inoffensive soft-rock workouts, with completely conventional musical skeletons, generic (and heavily synth-based) musical arrangements, and energy levels that often sound pitiful compared to The Eagles, let alone the new blood of the punk movement of 1977. The opening number, ʽFeelin' Alrightʼ (not a Traffic cover), should be getting me up on my feet, cheering and clapping and welcoming a brand new day — instead, despite all the formal upbeat­ness, it feels drab and colorless, most of the «excitement» provided by Schelhaas' ugly and boring synth tone, and Pye's vocals inexplicably drowning in the sea of lackluster instrumentation instead of soaring on top of them. And that chorus? Other than a slight, predictable, pitch rise on the "feeling alRIGHT" bit, it does not even try too hard to separate itself from the pedestrian march of the verses. Awfully disappointing.

And it never gets better — all of these songs sound as if Pye and the others wrote them in about half an hour. The second song, ʽBehind Youʼ, rests on the same melodic foundations as ʽFeelin' Alrightʼ and tries to produce the exact same mood, except that it also incorporates a funky mid-section, again, dominated by ugly keyboards. The title track leads us into balladeering territory and ends up sounding even more like contemporary Bee Gees than like contemporary Wings, Pye's sweet voice being pretty much the song's only saving grace as it finally manages to elevate itself above the MOR arrangement. But all of that is nothing compared to Richardson's ʽSilver Stringsʼ, which actually seems to intentionally sound like modern Bee Gees — disco basslines, falsetto harmonies, and a silly artistic gimmick where the "let me hear the silver strings" refrain is followed by some lazy mandolin plucking.

Some of the (usually just as bitterly disappointed) reviews of the album single out the last track, ʽNightmareʼ, as the LP's high point — most likely because it is the longest, most complex, and most «progressively oriented» song of the lot (and also features the most enigmatic, introspective, and noticeably troubled lyrics on the album). My impression, however, is that it is just as boring and mushy as everything here — a slow trotter, all atmosphere and very little proper melody, not to mention zero energy: even the violin and guitar solos, though technically melodic, mostly just meander on the spot and never end up going anywhere. I mean, you'd think a song called ʽNight­mareʼ should have something nightmarish about it, right? Well, there's hardly anything more «nightmarish» about it than there is about, say, an Elton John ballad from Blue Moves.

Vainly do I try to find anything here that would even remotely repeat, for instance, the triumph of the chorus of ʽAll The Wayʼ — now there, too, was a slow, sentimental, conventionally written epic ballad, but it did sound epic: it was an anthem, played out with a winning mix of tenderness and determination, gaining more and more strength and spirit as it went by. Strength and spirit are sorely lacking on this sucker, though — and, okay, if you don't have strength and spirit, give us bleakness, weakness, and chaos, show us a shining example of depression, but do not feed us with this gray blandness. Better By Far? «Better by far» than what, I wonder? The title alone is so irritating that I have no choice other than to give the record a thumbs down — the first truly bad record in Caravan history; yes, this is definitely one of those albums that may be counted as «one of the reasons punk had to happen», except the commercial fortunes of Caravan were so low at the time that most punks probably never heard it in the first place.