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Thursday, January 18, 2018

King Crimson: In The Wake Of Poseidon

KING CRIMSON: IN THE WAKE OF POSEIDON (1970)

1) Peace – A Beginning; 2) Pictures Of A City; 3) Cadence And Cascade; 4) In The Wake Of Poseidon; 5) Peace – A Theme; 6) Cat Food; 7) The Devil's Triangle; 8) Peace – An End.

General verdict: This one is more of a "Prince Pink" album, if you ask me.

This is a tough album to rate. It is understandable that the state of King Crimson in early 1970 was pretty shaky: with Lake departing to assume his new role in ELP, and McDonald and Giles splitting off to form... McDonald and Giles, Fripp once again found himself on his own: the base lineup for In The Wake Of Poseidon lists only himself and Sinfield as permanent members, while everybody else, old or new, are formally guest stars. On the other hand, it is impossible to surmise that this, and nothing else, is responsible for the fact that essentially, In The Wake Of Poseidon is an inferior carbon copy of its predecessor.

Admittedly, for all his genius and inventiveness, Fripp was never above repeating himself. You will find stylistically, structurally, and atmospherically similar, if not nearly identical, creations all over King Crimson's career — in the 1973-75 period as well as in the «New Wave trilogy» of the early Eighties albums. It was not a crime — he simply liked to milk a new groove to exhaus­tion every time he'd settled on one. But this, I believe, is the only time in King Crimson history where the formula of one album was adhered to in minute detail on the other one, almost as if the creator was working based on a strict «give the people exactly what they want» principle. Even if those people were relatively few in number, and this time around, I am not even sure if Pete Townshend got to hear it. (Robert Christgau did get to hear it, and rated it higher than In The Court Of The Crimson King — not that I'd expected anything else from The Dean of Prog Misjudgement).

Well, to be absolutely fair, only the first side of the album is a structural copy, where ʽPictures Of A Cityʼ is The Heavy Apocalyptic Jazz Rocker (replacing ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ), ʽCadence And Cascadeʼ is The Relief-Oriented Soothing Folk-Prog Ballad (replacing ʽI Talk To The Windʼ), and the title track is The Epic Bombastic Mellotron-Doused Lament (replacing ʽEpitaphʼ). That these songs come in these styles and in this particular sequence cannot be a coin­cidence, and, frankly, this decision looks a little cheap and insulting to Fripp's reputation. If at least each and every one of them actually expanded on that legacy, that would be understandable, but it does not look like that's the idea.

After the slightly deceptive accappella opening of ʽPeace — A Beginningʼ (which, due to its featuring Lake all alone, sounds a lot like many of his solo spots in ELP), ʽPictures Of A Cityʼ goes through exactly the same motions as ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ: gruff, bombastic, distor­ted opening riff, nightmarish apocalyptic lyrics delivered in angry-madman-prophet style, jazzy instrumental mid-section with brass sirens, free-form guitar solos, virtuoso guitar / drum duets, and a chaotic ending. On its own, that riff ain't half bad, but it is impossible for me to experience the song out of context, and in comparison with ʽSchizoid Manʼ, its almost leisurely shuffle makes for a far less terrifying experience. Apart from the sped-up mid-section, this is a song that could be written, say, by Black Sabbath (in fact, the vocal melody even has a few bits in common with ʽElectric Funeralʼ). A good listen, but there's a good reason why it never became a bona fide KC classic like ʽSchizoid Manʼ — too much of a conscious effort to make another one just like the first one, a trick that rarely works for regular pop bands and almost never works for pro­gressive bands. Lyrics are fairly good for Sinfield, though: I like it when he is just piling up scary imagery ("concrete cold face cased in steel...") rather than going all Old Testament on our picky modern asses.

However, if ʽPictures Of A Cityʼ is essentially a decent song and only a minor disappointment in comparison, the other two contributions on the first side are flat-out disasters. ʽCadence And Cascadeʼ, marking the first appearance of soon-to-be lead vocalist Gordon Haskell, never rises above the level of soft slurry murmur: where ʽI Talk To The Windʼ had a subtle dynamic from verse to chorus, and an inherent feel of deep sadness that made it a perfect precursor to the bom­bastic ʽEpitaphʼ, this song is a shapeless mess of milk and kisses with completely nonsensical lyrics and an almost expressionless vocal performance. Another soon-to-be member, Mel Collins, plays a nice flute part here, proving himself to be a worthy successor to McDonald, but this is hardly enough to save the song.

This is nothing, though, compared to the title track, which, in all honesty, should have been branded with the subtitle ʽEpitaph Done Wrongʼ. All the elements are there — slow tempo, moody acoustic guitar, ominous Mellotron pseudo-orchestration, wailing Greg Lake, stately and lengthy fade-out — but it never clinches: the deeply gripping feel of tragic loss and impossibility of redemption produced by ʽEpitaphʼ does not even begin to synthesize. Maybe it is all the fault of the lyrics, now too encumbered and twisted for their own good to allow the lead singer to get a grip on them (I mean, at least you can work your emotions up properly to something like "but I know to­morrow I'll be crying", but can you do the same to "bishop's kings spin judgement's blade, scratch ʽfaithʼ on nameless graves"?). Maybe it is the lack of the soul-pinching electric guitar moan from Fripp, depriving us of the vital icing on the cake. Maybe it is the relative lack of ups and downs along the way (nothing like that magnificent Mellotron crescendo in the middle of ʽEpitaphʼ, the one that breaks like a tsunami wave, disintegrating into a thousand small acoustic guitar ripples). Simply put, this is one King Crimson song that does not have a single reason to exist: ʽEpitaphʼ successfully performs all of its functions and does much more than that.

If some face at least were not saved on the second side of the LP, In The Wake Of Poseidon could have gone down in history as one of the most embarrassing follow-ups to a classic ever recorded by mortal man. The good news is that somehow, as if snapping out of an evil witch spell, Fripp eventually comes to his senses and begins recording something different. First, there is ʽCat Foodʼ, the original band's only stab at a «pop single» that even earned them their only appearance on Top Of The Pops — a hilarious diversion, combining Lake's passionate vocals with an almost ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ-style rapid-fire delivery, Sinfield's clever lyrical stab at consu­merism (most likely inspired by a trip through the local supermarket), and Keith Tippett's won­derful jazz piano playing which at first sounds like it belongs in a completely different song, but eventually begins contributing to the overall feel of confusion and frustration. Perhaps they should have really called this one ʽLost In The Supermarketʼ — now it's too late, what with The Clash holding the right to that particular title.

The big epic on the second side, however, is ʽThe Devil's Triangleʼ, and fortunately for us, it does not encroach on the territory of either ʽMoonchildʼ or ʽCrimson Kingʼ. Instead, it is a multi-part, multi-layered, apocalyptic composition loosely based on Gustav Holst's ʽMarsʼ, an interpretation of which the band regularly played on their 1969 tour and wanted to record for the album as well; no permission was given, so Fripp had to change the basic melody enough to avoid copyright infringement, while still preserving the impending doom thrills of the original. The result, now that I think of it, is a minor classic that is decades ahead of its time — it is precisely the kind of panoramic, atmospheric «post-rock» crescendo arrangement that would be championed thirty years later by the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, albeit on a smaller musical scale (because Canadians have a knack for sticking together, while Brits still prefer to retain their solitary pride). The reason why it loses in efficiency to something like ʽStarlessʼ is that it is all but completely dependent on the Mellotron, and while Fripp does a good, sweaty job dragging down its keys, this is still not his primary specialty. Still, there is plenty of that «black ritual» atmo­sphere floating around, making it the single creepiest studio track they'd laid down up to that point — some progress, at least. (Do not forget to pay attention to more examples of Keith Tippett's firs-rate controlled-chaos piano playing throughout the track, either).

Nevertheless, on the whole Poseidon is a disappointment, and it marked the beginning of a strange period for the band. In a way, you might argue that Fripp pretty much «sat out» the Golden Years of Prog (1970–1972) in mediocrity, not being able to fully compete with the symph-prog and folk-prog monsters such as Yes, ELP, or Jethro Tull, and only hitting his full stride once again after said monsters themselves became bogged down in repetitiveness and complexity for complexity's sake. The reason for this, I believe, is that In The Court Of The Crimson King was still very much a piece of collective art, where Fripp, McDonald, Giles, and even Lake all brought roughly equal parts to the table. Once the duty of delivering this mix of modern avantgarde and medieval romanticism became relegated onto Fripp's shoulders in toto, he simply could not properly handle the second part of it — for all the different things this man can be, his medieval romanticist streak is even thinner than Gordon Haskell's voice on ʽCadence And Cascadeʼ. Still, at this point worse things were yet to come: ʽPictures Of A Cityʼ, ʽCat Foodʼ, and ʽDevil's Triangleʼ all ensure the status of In The Wake Of Poseidon as an obligatory staple in the average KC fan's diet.

King Crimson: In The Court Of The Crimson King

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (1969)

1) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 2) I Talk To The Wind; 3) Epitaph; 4) Moonchild; 5) The Court Of The Crimson King.

General verdict: Progressive rock at its earliest, finest, and trend-settingest.

One of the biggest wonders of 1969, a year fairly ripe with those, was when, almost overnight, the lovably eccentric gentlemanly British trio of Giles, Giles & Fripp mutated into the progressive monster of King Crimson. Granted, given that Robert Fripp had been highly interested in all things «progressive» even prior to forming that particular partnership, The Cheerful Insanity must have seemed to him more like a temporary detour from the chosen path, but since we have very little evidence of Robert's creativity prior to 1968, formally this is exactly what we have — an instantaneous evolution of a comedic, or at least a very «lightweight», act into one of the most seriously minded and visionary bands of its time. Heck, of all time.

Naturally, by 1968, let alone 1969, progressive pop music, avidly integrating the forms, chords, and techniques of classical, jazz, and Eastern music into the framework, was nothing new, and King Crimson had plenty of precursors — the poppier ones (Moody Blues), the bluesier ones (Procol Harum), and even a bit of the «real thing», like The Nice with Keith Emerson. But history tells us that «progressive music» never truly had such a flashy flag-bearer before In The Court Of The Crimson King came out and grabbed everybody's attention — I mean, the album cover alone is revolutionary, and probably explains the band's commercial success better than anything. It is not a matter of any one thing in particular, but rather a matter of how it all came together, and how it all came together so completely out of the blue, to the stupefaction of Pete Townshend and everybody else who praised the record.

With Peter Giles out of the original trio, the first official King Crimson lineup, in addition to Fripp and Michael Giles, now included Ian Macdonald on woodwinds and keyboards, and a new powerhouse singer in Greg Lake; equally important was the official inclusion into the band of Peter Sinfield, who did not play or sing, but provided all the lyrics for the band — stressing the importance of words, which, come to think of it, is a fairly common idea in progressive rock, but one that does not particularly apply to the silent Robert Fripp and his preference for hours and hours of instrumental improvisations. Nevertheless, this first incarnation of King Crimson still had a long way to go to evolve into the more or less «default» state of King Crimson — heck, in 1969-1970 Robert Fripp himself looked like a goddamn hippie.

It is also important to note that the sessions were self-produced — the band's early collaboration with Moody Blues' producer Tony Clarke was unsuccessful, and ultimately Fripp took matters in his own hands, where they would forever remain from then on. And it is all the more important since, I would say, the best albums are those that, after years upon years of listening, are still capable of retaining a mystery angle — and in the case of Court, this mystery angle, to me, is precisely related to production. I lack the skill to put this into the proper technical words, but layman-wise, this record sounds like shit — and it sounds amazing. The mix is clumsy and cluttered; the drums often sound as if made of cardboard; Ian Macdonald's woodwinds are creaky; the Mellotron is overbearing and seems to occupy way too much space for such a, let's admit it, primitive emulation of the sounds of a string orchestra. And yet, somehow, none of that matters — or, perhaps, all of it matters in that it makes the recording all the more unique and awesome. Here is a band working at the top of its technical potential, on a lousy 8-track machine, and creating involving and engaging soundscapes that have never been surpassed since.

In fact, this whole album is like trying to run a modern video game on an antiquated PC, where you have to make all sorts of trade-offs and compromises, but sometimes end up with weirdly wond'rous results. In terms of ambitions, there was nothing like this in 1969: a record about the upcoming end of the world, the tragic fate of self-deluding humanity, and the big final ball presided over by the Crimson King himself — with Peter Sinfield, one of rock music's most pretentious poets, taking care of the lyrics, and Greg Lake, one of rock music's most pompous singers, taking care of their vocalisation. In the wrong hands, this could easily turn into a laughable embarrassment (and, well, according to some listeners, predictably including the illust­rious Robert Christgau, it did). Fortunately, the hands were right.

The record's first, best, and most historically important track actually functions as a prelude to the whole thing if you accept its (intentional or accidental) conceptuality. The big bang with which ʻ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ makes its appearance is arguably the biggest musical bang of 1969: when, after the briefly deceptive «wind intro», the guitars, saxes, and rhythm section crash out of your speakers with no warning, there's a jump effect, a big power-chord blast that blows your mind instantly in a simple, but efficient way next to which even the most aggressive Hendrix intros could look like nuance and subtlety itself. In a way, this is the KISS-est riff in King Crimson history; although Fripp would later be no stranger to the simple, brutal heavy rock riff (ʻLarks' Tongues In Aspic Part IIʼ, ʻRedʼ, ʻTHRAKʼ, etc.), ʻ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ states its point with the broadest of brushstrokes. The little touches are not so much gut-frightening as they are theatrically exciting — the way McDonald's sax gets to sound like an air raid siren, the bizarre «iron man» distortion effect on Lake's vocals, the metallic-militaristic clang of Fripp's guitar — ʻ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ is not ʻGimmie Shelterʼ, its central function is not to spook you, but to electrify you, and the entire ʻMirrorsʼ section, the fastest and most maniacal piece of music in King Crimson's early catalog, electrifies like little else. Even though the drums sound awful. They are great drums, and Michael Giles may be one of the world's most underrated drummers, but they sound almost hilariously thin. There's that bit in the middle where they play several series of notes really fast, all band members in unison, with a series of rapid stops-and-starts — the thinness of the drum sound is particularly noticeable there, but only adds to the overall charm of the passage (which is one of my favorite examples of how technicality and precision need not be the enemy of emotional expression).

After the storm is over, comes the actual body of the album — which, despite the first track and the grizzly album cover, is anything but aggressive or militaristic. ʻ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ is the contextual setting, a picture of a world presided by madness and standing at "paranoia's poison door"; but senses are quickly placated by the introduction of The Romantic Hero, per­formed by Mr. Lake, who spends the rest of the day talking to the wind (but the wind does not hear), crawling a cracked and broken path (but he fears tomorrow he'll be crying), talking to the trees of the cobweb strange (technically, that is not him, but The Moonchild, but if the Romantic Hero can see that, he is just as loony), and waiting outside the pilgrim's door with insufficient schemes (because he can hardly do anything about puppets dancing in the court of the crimson king). If all of this is taken superficially, with 90% attention paid to Peter Sinfield's lyrics, this whole journey will look, at best, like hackneyed romanticism, and at worst, like a set of poorly rigged cliches, and not even Lake's powerful (but rather formulaic) singing can save the day.

But the strength of In The Court is primarily in the music — and, in fact, if you listen to the instrumental mixes of some of these songs on the anniversary reissue, they never lose any of their magic without the vocalist. The two power ballad epics, ʻEpitaphʼ and ʻThe Court Of The Crimson Kingʼ, are masterful testaments to the power of the Mellotron, with complex overdubs creating crescendos and counterpoints that put the Moody Blues to shame, and Macdonald's woodwinds complement them perfectly, while Fripp's mournful minimalistic guitar melody on ʻEpitaphʼ is his earliest, simplest, and most effective attempt at bottling the entire sorrow of humanity in just a few drawn out licks. Against a background like this, Lake's faux-operatic "I fear tomorrow I'll be crying" is almost convincing — almost, I say, because it is not really the type of delivery that should bring tears to your eyes, but it is... impressive. The shorter, slightly more pastoral ballad ʻI Talk To The Windʼ, which goes all the way back to the late days of Giles, Giles & Fripp (an early version is available on The Brondesbury Tapes with Judy Dyble on vocals), also works perfectly fine instrumentally, with soft jazzy guitar and flute solos that convey an atmosphere of lightness and nonchalance — very contrastive with the roar of ʻSchizoid Manʼ.

Then there's ʻMoonchildʼ. Heh. I guess everyone who listens to this album begins by hating ʻMoonchildʼ, or at least about two thirds of it that roll in once the sung part is over. I know I used to — I mean, who needs these seven or eight minutes of little quiet noises, with no melody in sight and the entire band sounding like it is just tuning up or messing around, setting up its instruments in the studio? Fortunately, I'm good now — that entire section is fun, since what it basically does is simulate the hustle-bustle of those night fairies, will-o'-wisps, whatever, described in the first verse. If you say, "ʻMoonchildʼ is good because it is a bold experiment in bringing the values of avantgarde/atonal jazz to a rock-based environment", you fail. But if you say, "ʻMoonchildʼ is cool because it creates a vivid nocturnal picture of little fairies running around their business in the bushes, trees, and the glades", you just might have something there. Then, actually, some of the transformations through which the guitars and the vibraphone are put might begin to make sense.

Most importantly, it all hangs together so well — the maniacal-militaristic setting threatening the peaceful existence of the Hero, the Hero's lonely and self-sufficient existence, the Hero's desperation as he finds himself unable to do anything about the world's troubles, the Hero's eventual descent into a world of dreams, illusions, and yellow jesters, the ultimate triumph of The Crimson King as the world slowly, solemnly, and inescapably marches towards extinction. The songs came from different places, and there was never any intent of making this into a unified conceptual album from the beginning, but you know how it goes: the best conceptual albums are those whose concept only arises postfactum.

To be honest, I am still not quite sure if Greg Lake was really the best candidate to sing all these songs, or if Peter Sinfield was the best candidate to come up with the lyrics. «Pretentiousness» is not an accusation that worries me in any way when the music is emotionally stimulating, and I have never had any real problems with these guys, but I still can't help wondering if the album could be even better than it is if its verbal aspect was less grand-theatrical and more «realistic», or at least if the lyrics were a little bit less classicist and the vocals were a little less wooden (think Peter Hammill, for instance). In other words, I do not feel that the music and the voice/words here are integrated so tightly that the album couldn't stand a little improvement. But, just like silly inescapable plotholes in an otherwise invigorating and addictive videogame, this is hardly an enjoyment-blocking problem. Neither is the creaky production which, as I already said, actually adds to the charm — particularly 40 years later, when the vintage qualities of Crimson King are so refreshing among the oceans of soulless perfection from the latest generations of neo-proggers. Maybe the title track and ʻMoonchildʼ could stand a little trimming, particularly if their magnitude came at the expense of other song ideas... bottomline is, I cannot really think of anything serious to throw at the album, other than, if I'd ever have to perform it in public, I would have to re-write most of the lyrics (I mean, "between the iron gates of fate the seeds of time were sown" — trying to find new word combinations to recreate the frissons of 18th century poetry was one of the worst ideas by the «rock poets» of the prog era).

Somebody — no, don't remember who — once said that each of the tracks on In The Court gave birth to a separate sub-genre of progressive rock, or something to that effect. Naturally, that would be an exaggeration (ʻEpitaphʼ and the title track could not have given birth to two different genres!), but in between the jazz-punkishness of ʻMirrorsʼ, the atonal midnight noodlings of ʻMoonchildʼ, the pastoral flutes of ʻI Talk To The Windʼ, and the Mello-marshes of ʻEpitaphʼ, the pool of ideas is really huge, and, best of all, all of these ideas are realized to the best possible effect. The lack of production gloss works in favor of the album, making it come alive in all its roughness; and even if Sinfield's lyrics are very much of their time, the music itself is timeless — or, at least, «dated» in the best way possible, as in, «written in one of the finest years for pop music ever».

It is useful to note that, although not all of the reception was favorable at the time, this and the immediate follow-up, In The Wake Of Poseidon, still turned out to be the most commercially successful albums by King Crimson ever — both because of the novelty of it all and also because unlike most KC albums, these two actually have a certain «mass appeal». Most importantly, though, without this album there would have been no Yes, no ELP, no Genesis... well, at least probably not the way we know them, since all these guys owe a massive debt to Crimson King. It is all the more ironic that Fripp himself, having started this business, quickly shifted gears, and by 1973, would be veering off in a completely different direction from the regular symph-prog acts — a shift that salvaged King Crimson's reputation at a time when «progressive» was becoming a curse word, and retained them as one of the very few prog bands that could still garner a nice word or two from mainstream rock criticism. Some people could spend their entire career recreating the atmosphere of Crimson King over and over again — for the real Crimson King, this was just a glorious first stop on an unpredictable journey.

Yet it is regrettable that once the original band collapsed, the only song that remained in the KC repertoire was ʻSchizoid Manʼ — understandable, because it was indeed the only one to remain fully compatible with the band's 1973-74 aesthetics (later, it disappeared during the Discipline period, but was occasionally revived in the 1990s when KC got heavier once more), but regrettable all the same, since it created an illusion that Fripp had pretty much disowned the entire «romantic» period of the band. I have no idea — perhaps he does feel a little uneasy about his Lake/Sinfield experience, although, on the other hand, the extreme care that went into the preparation of the multi-CD 40th anniversary edition would speak for the contrary. In any case, how Frippian of him — point the way (or, rather, several ways) to legions of aspiring musicians, then fold his hands behind his back and leisurely take the other path. You do not have to love the Robert, but you gotta admit there ain't another one like him — not after he sold his soul to the Crimson King, who likes putting his mark on victims of cheerful insanity. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Pink Floyd: More

PINK FLOYD: MORE (1969)

1) Cirrus Minor; 2) The Nile Song; 3) Crying Song; 4) Up The Khyber; 5) Green Is The Colour; 6) Cymbaline; 7) Party Sequence; 8) Main Theme; 9) Ibiza Bar; 10) More Blues; 11) Quicksilver; 12) A Spanish Piece; 13) Dramatic Theme.

General verdict: Bad news: Soundtrack. Good news: nice, surprisingly diverse, and even historically important.

I do not honestly remember if Floyd agreed to do the soundtrack to Barbet Schroeder's directorial debut because they were hard up for cash, or for purely artistic reasons (psychedelic rock band soundtracks for arthouse movies about society rejects were all the rage in 1969, and Floyd were among the top contenders). Possibly both, but it really does not matter. What does matter is that you can listen to the More soundtrack and never in your sweet short life guess that it was a movie soundtrack — well, the preponderance of instrumental tracks might be a kind of giveaway, but who knows, perhaps they all had laryngitis during the sessions.

There is one good thing, though, about More being a soundtrack: it saves us listeners from some of the wilder, more experimental, and not tremendously successful aspects of Pink Floyd's creativity at the decade's end. Barbet Schroeder needed actual music for his movie — rock music, folk music, psychedelic music, but not avantgarde experimentations. Consequently, More be­came arguably the most conventional and melodic album of the band's entire existence in be­tween the fall of Syd and their rebirth as Almighty Gods of the Seventies with Meddle and Dark Side Of The Moon. This will not be good news for everybody — some will find the contents of the album too trite and mellow — but it's been good enough for me.

Many of the songs and themes written for the album can only be described as «meditative / con­templative folk» — a genre in which Waters first dipped his foot, I believe, with the B-side ʽJulia Dreamʼ in early 1968, and which he'd later completely subvert to his own artistic, philosophic, and misanthropic purposes. But that would be later, and here, we kick things off with ʽCirrus Minorʼ — chirping birds, lazy strummed guitars, and gentle melancholic vocals that sound a whole lot like Leonard Cohen. It is not exceptional, but it is pretty, and now that I think about it, there were relatively few artists in the UK doing that lazy, meditative, melancholic folk schtick at the time: Donovan was too fruity, Nick Drake too personal and intimate, and Ray Davies never pretended at any sort of cosmic vibes ("on a trip to Cirrus Minor saw a crater in the Sun" is definitely not one of Ray's lines).

Later on, there's more and more of these pretty vignettes — ʽCrying Songʼ is slyly playful (no real crying is implied), ʽGreen Is The Colourʼ almost leads us into chivalry territory ("she lay in the shadow of a wave, hazy were the visions overplayed" — is this Pink Floyd or Barclay James Harvest?), but Roger really hits his stride with ʽCymbalineʼ, a strong, tense ballad with the most attention-grabbing chorus on the album: hearing Gilmour defiantly tear his way through the long verse, culminating with the epic cry of "and it's high time, Cymbaline!" is a seriously moving experience, even if it is still somewhat unclear what exactly does the song have to do with the Shakesperian character (the original title was ʽNightmareʼ, which is more appropriate because this is a song about a nightmare). The atmosphere of the song is still too romantic for it to be counted as «quintessential» Floyd, yet it is arguably the first song in the Floyd catalog that at least tries to create the impression of making a strong, passionate stand on some issue or other, which makes it the honorable ancestor of everything from ʽMoneyʼ to ʽAnother Brick In The Wallʼ, despite its belonging to a completely different genre.

That said, More subtly justifies its name by actually featuring more than Roger Waters' increased interest in melancholic folk patterns. Two of the tracks land squarely in hard rock territory, featuring some of the thickest, most distorted guitar tones in the band's history — and now that I also think of Gilmour's hoarse screaming vocals on ʽThe Nile Songʼ, it almost comes across as an early precursor of doom metal. No wonder it and ʽIbiza Barʼ often find themselves shunned by Floyd fans, not generally used to Gilmour screaming over heavy distorted guitars. Me, I am made a bit sad by the fact that these two are almost the same song (ah, soundtrack disease), but too amused by the idea of David Gilmour, the Stoner Rock King, to regard them as war crimes. Also, based on those lyrics ("I've been standing by the Nile / When I saw the lady smile / I would take her for a while") I've always wanted to ask Roger Waters, the songwriter, what exactly it was that prohibited him from taking the lady permanently. In the absence of a clear answer, I would suggest the main reason being a lack of rhyme, and propose amending the last line to "I would feed her crocodile", because all nice ladies on the Nile have crocodiles anyway.

Further explorations show that a smudgeon of avantgarde experiments did find its way onto the record: ʽUp The Khyberʼ is two minutes of syncopated jazz-rock fury from Mason and Wright (neither good nor bad), and the seven-minute long ʽQuicksilverʼ is a hallucinatory psychedelic / ambient panorama in the style of Tangerine Dream — seven minutes too long, if you ask me. Throw in some blues (ʽMore Bluesʼ), a brief comic Spanish interlude (ʽA Spanish Pieceʼ), and a bit of tribal drumming (ʽParty Sequenceʼ), and you actually have the band stretching out as far as it could see — no doubt, uplifted by the idea that anything goes if you are preparing a soundtrack. Individually, none of it really matters, but collectively, it is a fun package, especially since nothing overstays its welcome (except for ʽQuicksilverʼ).

It is very easy to overlook the very existence of this record — it is a soundtrack, it has no hits or classics, it was never held in high esteem by any critics — but it does plant a few of the seeds that would later grow up into classic Pink Floyd, and at least it generally succeeds at those humble goals that are set before it, unlike some of the failed experiments of later years. In 1969 it was all too easy to dismiss it with a condescending wave of «look how low the mighty Pipers have fallen!», but today, it is far easier to simply regard it as the infancy — or, perhaps, even the pregnancy — stage of Dark Side Of The Moon, a first step on a harsh, exciting journey of con­stant self-improvement that would take 2–3 years to complete.

And for what it's worth, ʽDramatic Themeʼ concludes the album with a fine example of Gilmour's guitar playing — in fact, it is only on More where he really comes into his own element as both a singer and a master of guitar tones and effects, which, come to think of it, should have been my first argument in defense of the album. But see, there's actually so many others! A nice, all-around underrated little record.

Pink Floyd: A Saucerful Of Secrets

PINK FLOYD: A SAUCERFUL OF SECRETS (1968)

1) Let There Be More Light; 2) Remember A Day; 3) Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun; 4) Corporal Clegg; 5) A Saucerful Of Secrets; 6) See-Saw; 7) Jugband Blues.

General verdict: This is your mind off drugs, but still very much on inertia.

Go no further than the distance between Pink Floyd's first and second album to understand the difference between «crazy psychedelia» and «sane psychedelia». By the time serious sessions started for the band's second record, Syd had largely become completely dysfunctional, his place in the band taken over by David Gilmour; Barrett is credited exclusively for the last song on the album (ʽJugband Bluesʼ), plus guitar playing on two more tracks where he largely acted as an incidental sideman. Yet at the same time, somehow, in some way, his spirit still had to dominate the band: Pink Floyd was his project, largely owed him its essence and its image, and the whole business now looked like the desperate flight of an interstellar spaceship whose captain had just accidentally fallen out of the airlock.

Thus begins the «transitional» era in the life of Pink Floyd, an era in which Waters, Wright, and Gilmour had to endure the legacy of Syd Barrett and, for a while, play the role of a collective Syd Barrett without actually having that much in common with the real Syd Barrett. It is not as if Waters, already at this point the most productive songwriter in the band, was disinterested in Syd's subjects — the frightening mysteries of space and the absurdist sides of British rituals — but he could never get into them with the same reckless abandon as his old friend did. From the very beginning, A Saucerful Of Secrets is very much about composition, calculation, and discip­line: a product of artistic reasoning rather than artistic inspiration. Which, in a different setting, would have made it vastly inferior to its predecessor; fortunately, artistic reasoning can be quite a bitch, too, when coming from a bunch of superior reasons.

A superficial comparison between, say, ʽAstronomy Domineʼ and ʽSet The Controls For The Heart Of The Sunʼ (both songs are relatable to space exploration, even if, technically, the latter is, outside of its title, just a bunch of quotations from Chinese poetry), clearly establishes the difference in territory. Waters' early space-rock masterpiece moves slowly, softly, transfixing you with repetitive bass and keyboard lines as the latter gradually become louder and more intense, yet the musical spaceship never for once loses its steady course — guided from beginning to end by a firm, steady hand, not a single accidental collision along the way, as opposed to the bumpy ride (and that's putting it mildly) of ʽAstronomy Domineʼ. The instrumental combination still works wonderfully — close your eyes and you can imagine yourself inside a vast engine room, with Mason's mallets as pistons. But all safeties have been locked, just as they also have been on the lead-in track, ʽLet There Be More Lightʼ (which is more dynamic and epic, but guided just as steadily by that unnerving bass pulse).

Even the album's most experimental and improvisational piece, the multi-part title track (which was actually created at the last moment to fill out empty space), plays out more like an homage to intellectually crafted modern classical music. Its most turbulent part, ʽSyncopated Pandemoniumʼ, superficially resembles Barrett-era improvisations — with Gilmour producing waves of feedback by dragging his guitar across the floor or something, Wright bashing out dissonant chords with his elbow or something, and Mason pounding his kit with the energy of a buffalo stampede. But somehow it is all just too well coordinated, and, most importantly, the sound is curiously static: piano bashes and guitar buzzsaws enter in at appropriate points, do more or less the same schtick, then rinse and repeat, whereas during ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ pretty much anything could happen at any given point. This is neither good nor bad — just different, an altogether separate musical perspective that might appeal far more to those who, for instance, might have found ʽOverdriveʼ too loose and sloppy in comparison.

And, by all means, that last part, ʽCelestial Voicesʼ, dominated by Rick Wright's church organ and Mellotron and collective group harmonies, is as far removed from Barrett-era Floyd as possible — it is, in fact, one of the earliest precursors to the classic Floyd sound, with an aura of ceremonial, religious grandness and sadness, a mini-requiem for all those who have probably just given their lives in the epically calculated thunderstorm. It gives good closure to the whole thing: ʽA Saucerful Of Secretsʼ truly reads like a musical story, recounting some terrible event that happened in the universe, and its consequences — but, again, a story means a plan, and that was never a part of the original band's vision. Suddenly, instead of just cracking open your mind and peeping at what lies within, they are playing Greek tragedy. (Not surprisingly, this piece always looked awesome within the setting of the Pompeiian amphitheater).

Less efficient, I believe, is Waters' attempt at stealing the other side of Syd's personality — the playful British eccentricity, that is — with ʽCorporal Cleggʼ, a song nominally dedicated to the WW2 service of Roger's dad (in those happy innocent pre-Wall days) but essentially following in the footsteps of such character vignettes as ʽArnold Layneʼ and ʽThe Gnomeʼ. It actually sounds like it would rather belong in a Who-style or Small Faces-style sarcastic gallery (The Who Sell Out, etc.) than in with these other space panoramas, and its carnivalesque elements (the irritating circus kazoo merry-go-rounds) are a poor stab at humor from a band whose funniest member had just mutated into a vegetable, and whose other members have always had a collective sense of humor about the size of a pinhead. That said, it isn't really a bad song — multiple sections, catchy chorus, theatrical delivery, clear message — it is simply very much out of place here.

With a respectful nod to Rick Wright's two atmospheric, stately, gentlemanly (but, as usual, too humble to be particularly memorable) contributions (ʽRemember A Dayʼ and ʽSee-Sawʼ), it is always more comfortable to focus attention on the last song on the album — while ʽJugband Bluesʼ was allegedly not written by Syd specially as a parting gift to the band, there is no other way one might interpret the lyrics about how "it's awfully considerate of you to think of me here / and I'm most obliged to you for making it clear that I'm not here". I am pretty sure that many fans at the time, not fully aware of the dire nature of the situation, had to regard the inclusion of the song as one final insult to a terribly mistreated Barrett — when in reality it was more of a last sorrowful farewell. Here, the carnivalesque atmosphere actually works («sad clown» was quite a legitimate part of Barrett's image), and the acoustic conclusion ("and what exactly is a dream? and what exactly is a joke?") still occasionally brings me to tears. There is madness, exuberance, and terrible sorrow in this song — Syd almost literally breaks down over the course of its three minutes, a lost and confused piper at the gates of sunset. For that matter, the song is very typical of the solo stuff on his 1970 albums, so if you somehow happen to consider yourself above this sloppy, broken-down shit, do not even bother with The Madcap Laughs.

Since none of the CD editions of the album so far seem to have included any bonus tracks, it should be quickly noted that Pink Floyd released two more singles that year — both of them com­mercial flops, but both also very nice if you do not judge them by classic Pink Floyd standards: Wright's ʽIt Would Be So Niceʼ is, by all accounts, his personal reply to Brian Wil­son's ʽWouldn't It Be Niceʼ, and does the baroque dream-pop schtick quite convincingly (at least it is not any worse than the usual stuff on Nuggets II), and ʽPoint Me At The Skyʼ, too, sounds like it could occupy a solid place in the pantheon of psychedelic pop one-hit wonders like Dantalian's Chariot or Sagittarius. That last single, however, is probably better known for the first appearance of ʽCareful With That Axe, Eugeneʼ, Floyd's first horror masterpiece that we will talk about in more detail once we get to Ummagumma (because, honestly, the single version sounds like an early rehearsal take next to the expanded version on the album). In any case, all those songs are decent stabs at a style that neither Waters nor Gilmour nor even Wright himself were comfortable with — songs that do not put too much of a Pink Floyd stamp on the psycho-pop standards of the time, but still deserve to be remembered as footnotes.

On the whole, though, I like and endorse this period and this album: I like the idea of Pink Floyd trying to persevere in the ways of Syd Barrett more appealing than the idea of Pink Floyd searching and searching and searching for a different way, which would result in the relative disasters of Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother. Without Syd, they may not have been the most convincing and sincere of space-rockers on the block, but they knew the ropes well enough to produce results that could still be memorable, emotional, and even haunting. I mean, when you are really out in space, you don't want it always to be a bumpy ride, right? Sometimes it pays off to have yourself a calm, steady soundtrack — at least long enough to consume and digest your saucerful of cosmic lunch in relative peace.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

John Lennon: Life With The Lions

JOHN LENNON: LIFE WITH THE LIONS (1969)

1) Cambridge 1969; 2) No Bed For Beatle John; 3) Baby's Heartbeat; 4) Two Minutes Silence; 5) Radio Play; 6*) Song For John; 7*) Mulberry.

General verdict: Curious as an audio document, controversial as a piece of art, useless as a listening experience.

Although this record is subtitled Unfinished Music No. 2, implying a thematic unity with the No. 1 of Two Virgins, the goals of the two are actually quite distinct. Two Virgins was simply a spontaneous gesture of defiance; by the time John and Yoko got ready to produce a second record, they seem to have worked out an explicit purpose — make a series of audio-documents that would trace their life together, a life now ripe with adventure, excitement, sociopolitical activity (as the Stooges put it succinctly about 1969 — "another year for me and you, another year with nothing to do"), and all sorts of stuff that John could have never gotten from his previous wife (Paul McCartney). Consequently, Life With The Lions (apparently a pun on the British sitcom Life With The Lyons, but also a nifty way to self-aggrandize) is... well, not listenable as such, but at least, er, uhm, acquaintable, and is a good travel companion if you want to learn more details about ʽThe Ballad Of John And Yokoʼ, or are busy reading one of Lennon's biographies.

Granted, I have only ever been able once to sit through the entirety of ʽCambridge 1969ʼ, which is essentially Two Virgins taken to the stage — twenty-six minutes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's revenge on decadent Western society, exacted March 2, 1969, before a living and breathing audience that largely consisted of condemned students at the University of Cambridge. Yoko is screaming, John is producing mountains of feedback that would put Lou Reed to shame, and later on, a couple jazz musicians, including the well-known avantgarde saxophonist John Tchicai, join them because apparently they had nothing better to do. The best I can say about this piece is that it is at least better recorded than Two Virgins, and even has faint hints of thematic development... well, at least the screaming gets more intense towards the end. As a document, though, it is important — marking the beginning of John and Yoko as a public live act, and laying the ground for the subsequent creation of the Plastic Ono Band.

The second side of the album brings in diversity. ʽNo Bed For Beatle Johnʼ is even marginally hilarious — featuring John and Yoko chanting press clippings about themselves from their suite in Queen Charlotte's Hospital. ʽBaby's Heartbeatʼ is a recording of the palpitations of Yoko's miscarried child. ʽTwo Minutes Silenceʼ is, understandably, a tribute to Cage. And ʽRadio Playʼ features twelve minutes of toying and tampering with radio knobs, as John makes additional phone calls in the background and life goes on as usual. Now, ain't that some major diversity we got going over here? Theater, nature sounds, musique concrète, industrial?...

Maybe the biggest problem was that, unlike Two Virgins, Life With The Lions no longer had the chance to bring on true shock value. Its sleeve was far more conventional, its (anti-)musical content was no longer surprising, and it did not even begin to match the US sales of its pre­decessor, because, well, the record buyers already knew far more about John and Yoko than they ever wanted to know. The fact that a special sub-label of Apple, Zapple Records, was set up to manufacture and promote albums like those never helped anybody either (in a few months, Allen Klein would come into the business and, as befits a solid businessman, stamp out all that non­sense anyway). But, once again, it is kind of fun to look back at it half a century later, just to remember through how much crazy stuff these guys were ripping at the time. As a work of modern art, Life With The Lions will probably not find a lot of support even among those who pretend to be able to distinguish good modern art from bad modern art. But as a document, it does a nice job of bringing that era, already so distant, back to life for a bit — even if I still prefer to do it through 15-second snippets of each track rather than go for suicidal overkill.

Once again, the CD reissue somewhat naïvely tries to «musicalize» proceedings, by throwing on the very brief ʽSong For Johnʼ (another ʽJuliaʼ-type song — apparently, John was unwilling to lend more than one chord sequence to anything Yoko was trying to co-write at the time) and the 9-minute freakout ʽMulberryʼ, where, instead of feedback, John goes apeshit on acoustic slide, which is at least a more novel approach. However, this time the additions do not even give the impression of a proper coda; they simply add to the overall rag-taggy nature of the entire experience.

John Lennon: Two Virgins

JOHN LENNON: TWO VIRGINS (1968)

1) Two Virgins No. 1; 2) Together; 3) Two Virgins No. 2; 4) Two Virgins No. 3; 5) Two Virgins No. 4; 6) Two Virgins No. 5; 7) Two Virgins No. 6; 8) Hushabye Hushabye; 9) Two Virgins No. 7; 10) Two Virgins No. 8; 11) Two Virgins No. 9; 12) Two Virgins No. 10; 13*) Remember Love.

General verdict: Some records are better admired than heard. And I mean mentally, not visually.

It is actually quite hard to find the proper tone in which to discuss this record. The two most likely candidates are Vicious Sneer (of the «crazyass egomaniac» or «witchy woman» variety), particularly if you play the part of the simple-minded Average Joe or the self-righteous Bullshit Fighter; and Respectful Homage (of the «who gives you the right to decide what is art and what is not?» variety), particularly if you play the part of the Progressively Open-Minded Intellectual. Years ago, I'd probably be happy enough to take the Sneer and use it to nuke the hell out of the Open-Minded Intellectual. But today, I find this all too boring and predictable. It is all too easy to write off Two Virgins — or any other early experimental release on Lennon's part — as stupid crap. On the other hand, trying to go the other way and fit it into some equally stupid conception of Art is no fun, either. Or maybe it is fun, but it's highly pointless fun.

I think it is futile to deny that Two Virgins, as a phenomenon worthy of our attention, only exists within the general framework of the history of The Beatles — but within that framework, it carries quite a bit of importance. If we exclude soundtracks as a special type of affair (leaving out George's Wonderwall Music), Two Virgins were the first proper solo project by any Beatle. The album marked the existence of a special spiritual — and, of course, physical — union between John and Yoko. And the album took John's rebel image up a few notches: the rowdy Beatle was always the most unpredictable of them all, but Two Virgins was his biggest and harshest slap-in-the-face to public taste up to date. Whatever one thinks, even given John's near-Godlike status around the world in 1968, doing something like this was a bold risk, and a six-month delay in release over the protests of the other Beatles, most notably Paul, was understandable.

We all know what this record contains — the results of a spontaneous «experimental» recording session that John and Yoko held on May 19, 1968, at John's house in Surrey (with Cynthia happily out of the way), before allegedly making love for the very first time (the photo, apparent­ly, was taken several months later, by which time they should have grown accustomed to the sight of each other's privates). Describing, decoding, evaluating, or philosophizing over these results is a pointless waste of time: where something like ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ is at least a well thought-out sonic collage that tells a story of sorts, Two Virgins just throws together some tape loops that John had around the house and puts Yoko's talking, singing, screeching, and kitten torturing on top of them. On that night, they simply allowed themselves to behave like curious 12-year olds, suddenly having access to their parents' recording equipment — then, by morning, they hit the age of consent, and signed the death warrant for The Beatles in the process.

Was it egotistic and arrogant to actually have this shit packaged, distributed, and sold to poor unsuspecting customers (apparently, the album managed to sell about 25,000 copies in the US — though it was never certified how many people bought it for the musical content and how many merely wanted to make certain if their dick was bigger than John's)? This is a moral question that does not have a certain answer. In a way, the very idea of an album like this — random, barely listenable noise wrapped in an openly offensive sleeve — is appealing: there is no precedent, not in the Sixties at least, for an artist of such high stature as John Lennon making such a defiant gesture. And, after all, it's not as if he was forcing the record down anybody's throat. There must have been a bit of a mean streak in his intentions — clearly, people were going to buy Two Virgins just because it had John's name attached to it, but perhaps he also regarded this gesture as a nasty medicine against fanboyism, and that attitude, too, is justified in a renegade sort of way.

Having gotten all that out of the system, I must safely state, though, that while over the years I have changed my mind about many things, certain antipathies remain as constant as the speed of light, and one of them is the vocal art of Yoko Ono, allegedly grounded in traditional Japanese practices, but actually having very little in common with those particular traditional Japanese practices with which I have had the honor to become acquainted. I do believe that Yoko is in possession of a very special gift: not everybody has the range of vocal frequencies required to repeatedly drive a listener up the wall. Each time the bleating starts, I find myself ready to under­stand the opinions of those who still believe that the woman was an evil witch who had to brew poor John a really strong pot to put him under her spell. Then again, it must have been precisely in John's character to pick out somebody like Yoko — so completely extraordinary, an almost alien presence on Earth, yet at the same time more agreeable and, as it turned out, more amenable to a reasonable family life than somebody like, say, Anita Pallenberg.

Anyway: the only reason to listen to Two Virgins in its entirety is if you have made a noble vow to hear every fart officially recorded by any of The Beatles. If you have not, a thirty-second sample from YouTube or whatever is fully sufficient to give you a comprehensive understanding of what the record is about. Owning the album, however, is a must for any respectable music lover — at least it makes for a somewhat classier wall decoration than your collection of Cannibal Corpse sleeves, although Hieronymus Bosch would probably have a hard time deciding between the two. Additionally, if full frontal is not for you, you can turn it to the other side and alternate between contemplating the two lovers' somewhat shabby asses and one of the most enigmatic quotations ever credited to Paul McCartney ("When two great Saints meet it is a humbling experience. The long battles to prove he was a Saint" — allegedly, something randomly extracted from a copy of Sunday Express, but who can prove this now?).

Odd enough, the CD reissue of the album (yes, somebody actually remastered this stuff) throws on a bonus track: ʽRemember Loveʼ, Yoko's B-side to ʽGive Peace A Chanceʼ, a half-baked acoustic ballad that has John doing the same picking style he used for ʽDear Prudenceʼ, ʽJuliaʼ, and, later, ʽSun Kingʼ (in fact, the concluding acoustic flourish here is precisely the same as used on ʽSun Kingʼ). The decision to throw on a piece of actual music at the end is a bit jarring, as if the CD buyer was earning a right to a brief bit of redemption after having just endured half an hour of aural boredom / torture. On the other hand, it might just be a subtle hint so that we our­selves would never forget that behind all the screeching, behind all the silly loops and feedback, behind the provocation, there was, you know, love. In that way, ʽRemember Loveʼ would fulfill the same calm-after-the-storm function that ʽGood Nightʼ fulfills for ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ. With the appropriate corrections — ʽTwo Virginsʼ has nothing on ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ, and ʽRemember Loveʼ, with its completely redundant nature, has nothing on ʽGood Nightʼ.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Marvin Gaye: Recorded Live On Stage

MARVIN GAYE: RECORDED LIVE ON STAGE (1963)

1) Stubborn Kind Of Fellow; 2) One Of These Days; 3) Mo Jo Hanna; 4) The Days Of Wine And Roses; 5) Pride And Joy; 6) Hitch Hike; 7) Get My Hands On Some Lovin'; 8) You Are My Sunshine.

General verdict: Solid, but ultimately redundant, party-level entertainment.

I would presume that this record mainly exists because of James Brown's Live At The Apollo, whose success four months prior to the release of Marvin's first live experience must have con­vinced labels that demand for hot 'n' spontaneous live recreations of studio hits was a real thing. (RCA had almost managed to trump them all, recording Sam Cooke at the Harlem Square Club as early as January '63 — but then they were too afraid to release the results, shelving the album for more than two decades). Considering that Marvin suffered from stage fright and was never known as a particularly gifted and inventive stage performer, there is no other explanation than Motown somehow desperately pining for their own answer to the hardest workin' man in show business. After all, James Brown is a dancer first and foremost, and dancing is hardly relevant when we're talking live albums, right?

The good news is that even if Marvin did have stage fright, he never showed it much on that night when he gave the show in question at the Regal Theater in Chicago — comforted, perhaps, by the friendly support of Martha & The Vandellas and the positive response from the audience. The bad news is that his composure and self-confidence were sufficient for successfully recreating the excitement and melodicity of the original hit singles, and little else: the only reason somebody could favor these renditions of ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ, ʽHitch Hikeʼ, and ʽPride And Joyʼ over the originals are the whoops and wows of the enthralled listeners — provided they are not overdubbed (which could also be possible), there is a friendly and cheerful party atmosphere here that could be appropriate for... well, a party, I guess. But I would not go as far as to suggest a deep bonding between Marvin and the audience — certainly not on the shamanistic level of James Brown, as his goading of the charmed teens into action during the final moments of ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ sounds just a wee bit formalistic.

In terms of new material, there has to be at least one throwback to Soulful Moods, in the guise of ʽThe Days Of Wine And Rosesʼ (no better or worse than any of Gaye's other stabs at the G.A.S.); at least one ritualistic bluesy romp, in the guise of ʽMo Jo Hannaʼ, a long and mildly funny, but not very memorable, groove (essentially, I think, a missed chance at really suggestive interplay between the singer and his sexy backups); and at least one tribute to Ray Charles — the show ends with ʽYou Are My Sunshineʼ done Ray-style and The Vandellas impersonating The Raelettes. A decent enough impersonation, but only an impersonation nonetheless.

The record is almost surprisingly short — clocking in at about 26 minutes — but this was probably the average length of a Marvin Gaye performance at the time anyway, what with most shows being multi-artist revues and all; as such, it is nice to have it surviving as an authentic document, but, unfortunately, Brown's and Cooke's performances from the same year still blow it out of the water. Not for a second does Marvin sound truly bad or unconvincing, but the best live albums from the R&B / soul department are ecstatic quasi-religious rituals, and Gaye was always much too restrained to allow himself to head off straight into the stratosphere.

Marvin Gaye: That Stubborn Kinda' Fellow

MARVIN GAYE: THAT STUBBORN KINDA' FELLOW (1962)

1) Stubborn Kind Of Fellow; 2) Pride And Joy; 3) Hitch Hike; 4) Got To Get My Hands On Some Lovin'; 5) Wherever I Lay My Hat; 6) Soldier's Plea; 7) It Hurt Me Too; 8) Taking My Time; 9) Hello There Angel; 10) I'm Yours, You're Mine.

General verdict: Three great singles in a pool of personal charisma, with delicious Vandella coating on top.

Perhaps not so stubborn after all: dismayed by his failure as an attractive modern day interpreter of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, Marvin Gaye had no choice but to give up and start writing and singing «simplistic» love songs for teenage audiences — the right choice, as it turned out. Most of the songs on this LP, coming fresh on the heels of his two big chart successes (title track and ʽHitch Hikeʼ), are co-written by Marvin himself and one or two different Motown professionals (most commonly Mickey Stevenson and/or George Gordy), and although it is impossible to tell who contributes what, I would guess that Marvin is responsible for the «soul» of the songs, whereas the professionals get busy packing them into catchy formats — a damn good balance that, if we are allowed to run a bit ahead, would be somewhat shattered in the future, once Marvin had wrestled complete creative freedom from his superiors.

It is difficult to explain — difficult to understand, even — what exactly makes Gaye's early successes fundamentally, or even superficially, different from the «average goodness» of contem­porary Motown product. Marvin was certainly far from the only great singer on the label (Smokie Robinson? Eddie Holland?), though arguably the most passionately energetic; and catchy or not, the tunes are hardly free from the general shackles of the pop-meets-R&B formula. Yet there is an urban legend about Phil Spector losing control of his car in excitement when he first heard ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ over the radio — and he'd already been quite an established figure in the production business at the time. Perhaps he was just jealous that somebody else had finally managed to satisfy his gold standard for aural excitement. But how?

One major circumstance, if I am getting this right, is that somehow, in those early days at least, Marvin's singing style worked much better as part of a call-and-response session than directly on its own: small wonder that in the upcoming years, he'd be having some of his biggest successes with duet albums (Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and particularly Tammi Terrell). On ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ, he is backed by the earliest and freshest incarnation of Martha & The Vandellas (still known as The Del-Phis) — and «backed» is an understatement, since their participation on the song is every bit as strongly emphasized, even if it is largely restricted to ooh-wows, yeah-yeah-yeahs, and parrot-echoing some of Gaye's lines. Their interaction creates an atmosphere of playful seductiveness — neither a polite, gallant, sentimental romance, nor a showcase of cocky sexual bravado, but rather something in between: the best type of love song for those who wish to avoid excessive sugar-sweetness, yet do not want to limit themselves to pure animal lust, either. From a certain point view, those "say yeah yeah yeah, say yeah yeah yeah"'s do precisely the same thing for the American (or African-American, whatever) pop market as "she loves you yeah yeah yeah" did for the British one — in a slightly less frenzied, more relaxed manner, but still far more vivacious than the honey-mouthed Smokey Robinson's.

It does not hurt, either, that occasionally these songs were equipped with unforgettable musical moves — like that knock-on-the-door rousing pattern that opens and guides ʽHitch Hikeʼ, whose excitement would penetrate all the way to New York's underground five years later (when Lou Reed nabbed it for the purposes of his own sexual provocations with ʽThere She Goes Againʼ). Message-wise, it repeats the intentions of ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ all over again ("I've got to find that girl if I have to hitch hike 'round the world"), but music-wise, it builds up even higher upon that playful vibe, and now The Vandellas are all but teasing the lead singer, always on the horizon but steadily out of immediate reach with their parrot-echoing. (One reason why, in this particular case, The Rolling Stones could not outdo the original: they had to supply the backing vocals themselves, and, well, let's just put it mildly that they weren't... umm, girly enough to nail it. For that matter, Martha and The Vandellas' own version was fatally flawed as well, because... well, goddammit it, it's a 100% heterosexual song anyway).

Completing the holy trinity of «Marvin and The Vandellas» is ʽPride And Joyʼ, an even bigger commercial success on which the lead singer's stubborn hitch-hike is finally rewarded, as symbo­lized by the song's forceful blues-rock stomp (is it a coincidence that pretty much the same stomp would later also be selected by Stevie Ray Vaughan for his own ʽPride And Joyʼ, or is it just something that goes naturally and predictably with feelings of pride and joy?). It's fun, but the stomp itself is not nearly as impressive as the main melodic hook of Marvin's fourth great single, one that, unfortunately, came out a little too late to be included on the album, and somehow fell through the LP cracks in the process — but for every possible reason, ʽCan I Get A Witnessʼ should necessarily be a bonus track on every reasonable edition on this album. Earl Van Dyke's twin-chord-based piano riff is the perfect minimalist setting, and Marvin's obsessed, broken-up, yet interminable rant where it is barely possible to distinguish between verse, bridge, and chorus still remains one of the most brilliantly constructed melodic monologues in the history of R&B. On this song, he is backed by Holland-Dozier-Holland and The Supremes instead of The Vandellas, but here what matters is the rapid-fire monologue delivery, not so much the interplay (which makes perfect sense: this is one rant that should be delivered outside the immediate presence of your partner), and this is also why The Stones had their own field day with the song, whose spirit was perfectly re-conveyed by the young Mick Jagger in his own way.

It should not be surprising that most of the other songs do not rise to the level of the big singles, since, at best, they recycle the style of the singles with weaker hooks (ʽGet My Hands On Some Lovin'ʼ), and at worst, put Marvin into smooth and sentimental Miracles territory, which happens to be more questionable in general and somewhat redundant for us listeners in particular — we already have one Smokey Robinson, why should we need another one on songs like ʽHello There Angelʼ? Occasional experiments like ʽSoldier's Pleaʼ, set to the somber melody of a slow military march, are nice, but you could have such stuff from Elvis without bothering to recapture it from Motown. Yet this is precisely what is to be expected from the era: throughout the Sixties, Marvin Gaye would largely remain a «singles artist» like most of his brothers and sisters in Motown arms, and most of these LPs may only be judged by the quality and quantity of the guiding missiles. Personally, I'd say that three out of ten — considering the fairly pleasant and generally tasteful nature of the remaining filler — is fairly impressive.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: A Sun Came

SUFJAN STEVENS: A SUN CAME (2000)

1) We Are What You Say; 2) A Winner Needs A Wand; 3) Rake; 4) Siamese Twins; 5) Demetrius; 6) Dumb I Sound; 7) Wordsworth's Ridge; 8) Belly Button; 9) Rice Pudding; 10) A Loverless Bed (Without Remission); 11) Godzuki; 12) Super Sexy Woman; 13) The Oracle Said Wander; 14) Happy Birthday; 15) Jason; 16) Kill; 17) Ya Leil; 18) A Sun Came; 19) Satan's Saxophones; 20) Joy! Joy! Joy!; 21) You Are The Rake.

General verdict: Pleasant, inoffensive muzak to get by on. Lazy summer morning for perfect configuration.

First and foremost, let us get this bias out: it is hard for me to tolerate artists who produce frickin' eighty-minute albums on a regular basis. Eighty minutes — this is only ten minutes shorter than the entire White Album, and if you are just one lonesome singer-songwriter and not, say, a multi-headed mastodon like Chicago, you have to be one hell of a musical titan to pull it off successfully. Is Sufjan Stevens that kind of titan, or is it simply that he is really called Sufjan which gives him that kind of confidence?

We will try to answer this question gradually and tolerantly, fully understanding that his first record, A Sun Came, released in 2000 on his own independent label Asthmatic Kitty (already a factor in his favor — how can you have anything against asthmatic kitties?), was exactly that — a first record. However, it was already eighty minutes long, with 18 songs and three brief spoken links on it, and has therefore to be taken seriously, as an ambitious statement from an aspiring young artist. In fact, other than length, it already has many of the elements that would charac­terize Sufjan's «mature» work: eclecticism, prettiness, psychedelia, and the man's usage of his voice as an «undercurrent» rather than an outstanding instrument. Oh, and multi-instrumentalism, of course, as Stevens is credited for playing more than 20 different instruments here, probably breaking any records set by Paul McCartney, Roy Wood, Prince, or any other of those suckers.

On the other hand, at this point there is still relatively little to distinguish the results from the average... well, let's say the average art-pop representative of the flourishing indie community. Some of these songs sound close to Neutral Milk Hotel, some to Wilco, some to Flaming Lips, and others to a hundred different acts by Nineties' heroes. Word of the day is diversity: if there is one underlying theme to the album, it is in its mixture of Western, Eastern, modern, and medieval elements, as Sufjan is bravely attempting to condense space and time to the density of one laser disc. Had the project been truly successful, an eighty-minute running time might have been fully welcome. Unfortunately, since it is a project by Sufjan Stevens, it has a very odd model of success built into it, to put it mildly.

In a way, the very first song on the very first Sufjan Stevens album already hints at everything that is good and bad about the man, despite, naturally, not being typical of his output as a whole. A sympathetic Celtic groove, wound in a thick rope of banjo, acoustic guitar, woodwinds, and God knows what else, it takes you on a soft, careful, elegant, yet not particularly exciting merry-go-round — looped for over five minutes without an explicit reason; the addition of still another layer of instruments halfway through gives the illusion of a monumental crescendo, but essen­tially it's just an extra bunch of stoned fairies wobbling around the sacred stones. The lyrics toy with all sorts of religious imagery without ever getting across any specific points, and they are delivered in Sufjan's nice, windy, butter-melting voice — according, I guess, to his strict principle that a truly spiritual singer should be, um, felt rather than heard. The result, for me, is meandering: this is neither authentic Celtic folk, nor truly interesting Celtic-based art-folk or whatever. Super­ficially, it is pretty, well-arranged, and geared for emotional uplift. On the inside, however, it feels like an empty, derivative, calculated gesture that, at best, proves its author's love with his influences — but not his ability to improve upon them.

Regardless of how many different styles are explored on the rest of the record, their «core» is always the same. Sufjan's music — at this initial point at least — is highly static, with most of the songs establishing a (generally familiar) groove and then riding, riding, riding it for 3–6 minutes as the man adds his softly whispered, barely comprehensible, symbolist-absurdist lyrics on top. The groove may come from alt-folk territory (ʽA Winner Needs A Wandʼ), or from watered-down stoner rock (ʽDemetriusʼ), or from piano balladry (ʽDumb I Soundʼ), or from acidic trip-hop (ʽA Loverless Bedʼ), or even from Islamic territory (ʽYa Leilʼ), but they are all slow, sludgy, quiet (sometimes to the point of lethargy), and fertilized by the Holy Ghost of St. Sufjan as it glides across these grooves, barely getting its ghostly feet wet.

There is exactly one song on the album that breaks away from this formula, and, unsurprisingly, this is also the one song that people tend to dismiss from the start — because ʽSuper Sexy Womanʼ is essentially a musical joke, where Stevens records two vocal tracks, one in his regular voice and another in a hokey falsetto, and, instead of something holy, sings about a lady with "superhuman thighs" and "superpower hips, for super reproduction" who will "shoot a super fart, the deadly silent kind". Shamefully and perversely, this is the only song from this album that managed to register on my radar, and I would not feel embarrassed about memorizing it had everything else been good.... as it is, a situation in which the album's crude joke relief is more memorable than its prime content is a dire situation indeed.

Well, okay, there is also the case of ʽSatan's Saxophonesʼ, two and a half minutes of atonal jazz that not a single human being would have a single decent reason for listening to — this guy ain't Albert Ayler, and even if he were as good as Albert Ayler, there would still be no reason to hear him engage in two and a half pointless minutes of Aylerisms. Unless we are supposed to interpret it as a free-form intro to the album's liveliest track, the dance-pop anthem ʽJoy! Joy! Joy!ʼ which still somehow manages to sound sludgy and lethargic. Perhaps that kaleidoscopic panorama of electronic samples circling around the blandly chanted "I believe in peace, I believe in peace" is supposed to cause some psychedelic epiphany — I just find it completely empty of any emotional content, like most of this album.

That said, if you are a big fan of Stevens and happen to be working your way backwards after having already been indoctrinated with Illinois and / or Carrie & Lowell, by no means stay away: sure, all of this material is melodically less challenging than Illinois and substantially less attrac­tive and accessible than Carrie, but the man's basic sunny viewpoint is already established, and you are guaranteed to find enough vibes here to carry you through. My own organism simply does not operate on this kind of frequencies — the «bland» kind, as far as I'm concerned.