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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Carpenters: Now & Then

CARPENTERS: NOW & THEN (1973)

1) Sing; 2) This Masquerade; 3) Heather; 4) Jambalaya (On The Bayou); 5) I Can't Make Music; 6) Yesterday Once More; 7) Fun, Fun, Fun; 8) The End Of The World; 9) Da Doo Ron Ron; 10) Deadman's Curve; 11) Johnny Angel; 12) The Night Has A Thousand Eyes; 13) One Day Will Come; 14) One Fine Day; 15) Yesterday Once More (re­prise).

Upon first, second, and third sight, no Carpenters record since at least Offering cries out so loud and proud for a definitive thumbs down. From 1970 to 1972, the duo's albums were fluffy, schlocky, and hundred-percent-safe for bourgeois consumption — yet the fluffy packaging could often conceal deep shades of psychologism, suffering, and unfulfilled (unfulfillable?) yearning; in other words, a case could be made for each and every one of those albums that, at some level, it was an artistic statement, and that people were paying money for the real thing, not just a beauti­fully packaged facsimile trinket. With Now & Then, their fifth record, that consistent streak came to an end: for some reason, the Carpenters thought it would be fun to play the retro-game, and delivered a set of carpenterized oldies — pretty much reinventing the Fifties and early Sixties as having taken place in a rose-colored dollhouse.

The title of the album itself is confusing. Apparently, Side B, introduced by the self-written anthemic state­ment ʽYesterday Once Moreʼ and otherwise consisting of a medley of oldies, is the Then side; however, the Now side also contains a cover of Hank Williams' ʽJambalayaʼ that, by all accounts, should be Then. Moreover, the Now selection in general is rather atypical for the duo: there is not a single Richard original, the only song from a familiar songwriter of theirs is Leon Russell's ʽThis Masqueradeʼ, and on top of this confusion rests their cover of the Sesame Street ditty ʽSingʼ. Okay, so everybody knew that Carpenters were a bit Sesame Street-ish from the beginning, but did they really have to rub it in our faces so ferociously?

No, they did not. And in all honesty, there is nothing serious for which I could recommend this album, with the possible exception of ʽThis Masqueradeʼ — with its late night jazz melody and arrangement, it is the weakest of their Leon Russell covers, but at least it is sufficiently dark and brooding to fit the bill (and Karen's lower range). Plus, you can't get any cheesier if you start covering Johnny Pearson instrumentals (ʽHeatherʼ) — might as well just pack it in and get your­self a paid job in the Top Of The Pops orchestra. Clearly, this is just a mighty embarrassment on all possible fronts, but... but...

...the thing is, Karen Carpenter + doo-wop / girl pop oldies = win. She may sound out of her ele­ment when doing contemporary happy material, but things are different when she sets out to cover ʽDa Doo Ron Ronʼ or ʽOne Fine Dayʼ, songs that clearly uplifted and inspired her back in those days and which she really sings with such pure childish joy that it totally transcends the corniness of the entire project. Yes, Richard often comes along and spoils the fun, fun, fun (al­though, admittedly, his singing voice is hardly worse than Mike Love's), but every time we get Karen behind the wheel, things get back to being irresistible. Heck, even that cuddly version of ʽJambalayaʼ — though it probably has poor Hank spinning in his silver coffin — is... ugh... adorable. There, I've said it. All of these are bubblegum reductions, but every once in a while, it becomes hard to resist a really sweet piece of bubblegum.

It is not difficult to resist ʽYesterday Once Moreʼ, the pathetic introduction to the old medley, because overblown nostalgic sentimentality over the once-liberating golden oldies might work well in a written essay, but not in an adult contemporary ballad. But the medley itself, once you have managed to close your ears to the irritating disc jokey interruptions (done by Tony Peluso in a very manneristic and overacted way), has an odd charm of its own — perhaps it is simply the time effect, though: I can imagine how crass this must have sounded for discerning audiences in 1973, but now that the Seventies themselves have long since passed into legend, it is probably an issue for nostalgia for the Seventies nostalgizing for the Sixties, if you get my drift. There is still a certain aura of touching innocence and sincerity about it all, something that is hardly imagi­nable these days from the likes of, say, Christina Aguilera or Miley Cyrus. (Although, admittedly, we have to wait for 30-40 more years to see how their warped portrayals of the good old days will sound to our ears at that time).

In short, it feels as if time might be kind to this — technically throwaway — moment in Carpen­ters' history, just as it seems to be equally kind to their better records. Additionally, Now & Then is better regarded not as a cheap sellout, but rather as a temporary diversion, a harmless attempt to capitalize on a nascent trend that would be abandoned by the time of their next album (although, as the hit cover of ʽPlease Mr. Postmanʼ would go on to show, they would still keep in mind the goldmine potential of the oldies). Now if only they hadn't included that Sesame Street song... because, look, guys: I know it may seem, from the faraway distance of 1973, that the target audiences of Sesame Street (or any of its pre-1969 predecessors) and ʽFun, Fun, Funʼ were all the same age, but there was a dividing line, and that line is called «puberty». Therefore, do make a choice — putting your toddlers and your horny teens in the same basket is most definitely anti-pedagogical. End of story.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cat Stevens: Numbers

CAT STEVENS: NUMBERS (1975)

1) Whistlestar; 2) Novim's Nightmare; 3) Majik Of Majiks; 4) Drywood; 5) Banapple Gas; 6) Land O' Free Love & Goodbye; 7) Jzero; 8) Home; 9) Monad's Anthem.

Around this time, Stevens got particularly fascinated with numerology — just another one of his turns — and decided to try his hand at conceptuality once again, writing a mini-rock opera that would somehow revolve around numbers. The story that he invented was never fully explicated, but partially made it to the album's liner notes and partially to the lyrics. You can read about it in more details in a variety of sources, starting with Wikipedia, but honestly, I wouldn't pay it too much attention, unless you have pledged to accept Cat Stevens as an intellectual beacon rather than a musician. In fact, this was probably how it went in 1975: Numbers was routinely ridiculed as an embarrassingly pretentious conceptual disaster — the critics hated it because it once again made a strange jerk in the direction of prog-rock, and the fans were left befuddled because it offered neither pop hooks nor easily accessible spiritual enlightenment.

Once again, though, I have to play a controversial role here: throwing overboard all the sci-fi fluff about planets populated by Pythagorean concepts, I see a record that returns Cat Stevens to the world of music-making, easily his most focused effort since Tea For The Tillerman, well worth revisiting by those who expected another set of soulful folk ditties, but got something far more experimental instead. True, the jazzy and funky elements that are all over the record remain a bit alien to Stevens' nature, but, as he did on Foreigner, he is capable of enhancing the melodic aspect of groove-based music to compensate for the lack of energy. And he is really all over the place, trying to find a different face for each of the nine tracks — sometimes successfully, some­times controversially, but who cares? After the preachy disaster of Buddha, the man suddenly remembered that he used to be a composer, and that's enough for me.

Now, meet the harbinger of disaster: ʽBanapple Gasʼ, the only single from the album and one of the most commonly hated Stevens songs, according to my observations. Putting it out as a single was probably a mistake — it is intentionally slight, yet fully adequate to its sarcastic purpose, mock­ing the self-delusional state of society with a happy country-meets-Caribbean pop song that would not have sounded out of place on an Osmonds record, or in a soda commercial. In the overall context of the album, it is clearly parodic, though it also fulfills the important function of offering a light breather in between the heavier stuff. Funny, catchy, but obviously fluffy and about as suitable for the role of a lead single as, say, ʽHoney Pieʼ would be for The Beatles. On the other hand, it is one of the few tracks whose lyrics are more or less autonomous and allow it to be sampled outside of the concept, so perhaps that was the driving motivation. Or maybe, in the era of Main Course and KC & The Sunshine Band, Stevens — or his record company — thought it was dance time, even for spiritual singer-songwriters. Who knows?

In a perfect universe, the lead single should have been ʽMajik Of Majiksʼ, one of the man's most complex and interesting musical creations since the ʽForeigner Suiteʼ. The composition effort­lessly flows from slow piano ballad to a proto-disco dance groove, sharp strings and all, and is also embellished by David Sanborn's sax parts (apparently, Stevens did not turn a deaf ear to Bowie's Young Americans, either). Unlike ʽBanapple Gasʼ, this one has no vocal hooks, but it's not as if Stevens had never released a hookless single before — and it does know how to build up and release tension, with lead and background vocals and strings and saxes working as a perfect team. Besides, it can also be viewed outside of context: essentially, the lyrics are talking about a meeting with a supernatural being that leads the singer to an epiphany — hopefully, Cat was really stoned when he wrote that. Not all that convoluted.

Elsewhere, the record fluctuates between soft jazz (the opening instrumental ʽWhistlestarʼ, a very nice theme with real whistling and somewhat soundtrackish, but memorable piano phrases from Jean Roussel, Cat's trusty sidekick); orchestrated medieval dark folk (ʽNovim's Nightmareʼ); and the usual folk-pop formula (ʽHomeʼ). It is not a tremendous amount of variety, but then the album, like all Cat Stevens albums, is also quite short — although still not free of some tedious filler tracks (ʽDrywoodʼ tries too hard and too long to put out a harsh blues-rock vibe, but lacks that special something — like a Sanborn sax solo — to properly ignite); and the pompous choral conclusion, ʽMonad's Anthemʼ, where, I assume, it is explained that all the naughty numbers are really one, lays on the chorus effects too thickly, abusing the talents of the «Magic Children Of Ottawa» (whoever they are) without getting anywhere. At least the Stones knew that a full-scale symphonic choir on one of their songs (ʽYou Can't Always Get What You Wantʼ) could only work as an introduction; Stevens decided that it would make a fine two-minute conclusion to the album, and in the process, turned it into some young adult vaudeville show.

Still, the best thing about Numbers is that the conceptuality of the project, instead of harming the music, seems to have positively influenced it — you can toss the concept for all you want, the best songs on this album work perfectly fine without it, and the worst ones would never have worked with it anyway. I will not go as far in my controversy as to openly recommend it, what with all its flaws and inconsistencies, but it was a major step in the right direction, and who knows? had the public and the critics truly embraced it, maybe today's Yusuf Islam could have ended up being Pythagorid McBoole instead, and spent the rest of his days collaborating with Count Von Count on educational activities for children. Then again, it is unlikely that Stevens' spiritual path could ever depend that much on mass opinion.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: One Last Time

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: ONE LAST TIME (1993)

1) Bad Blood; 2) She's Jail Bait; 3) Somebody Done Changed The Lock On My Door; 4) Give Me Flowers While I'm Livin'; 5) Hey Mary; 6) Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-Oo-Dee; 7) You Can Make It; 8) Big Leg Emma; 9) Early In The Morning; 10) School Days.

Nobody knows for sure when William Thomas Dupree was born, but at least there seems to be a happy consensus on when he passed away: January 21, 1992, in Hanover, Germany — one more European stop in one of the most mobile careers ever known by an African-American artist. He was approximately 82 years old at the time, and if not for a nasty case of cancer, he might have lived well into the 21st century, as unstoppable as ever. But I guess that at some point God must have taken pity on humanity, and, with an impatient yell of "oh no, not another recording of ʽDrinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-Oo-Dee!ʼ", summoned the Champion to his abode, where space and time no longer matter and new versions of ʽDrinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-Oo-Deeʼ may no longer be produced because there is no deviation from the golden Platonic standard.

On Earth, things remain dirty different, though, and thus, even after the Champion's passing, some of his recordings were scheduled for posthumous releases. The album title One Last Time might give the wrong idea, because, accordingly, Dupree never intended this album — or any album — to be his «last» one; the ten tracks here may be read in different ways, but certainly nothing like a musical testament. Instead, this is simply more of the same stuff that we'd already heard on the previous two albums: summarizing completion of a trilogy that is neither any better nor any worse than its predecessors. And yes, by all means, there is another version of ʽDrinkin' Wineʼ here, as well as another one of ʽEarly In The Morningʼ and ʽSomebody Done Changed The Lock On My Doorʼ. And ʽBig Leg Emmaʼ makes one last guest appearance.

That is about as much as needs to be said about the album, so let me just offer a general conclu­sion instead. Essentially, Champion Jack Dupree had said everything he ever had to say even before the war was over: the last fifty years of his life were spent in continuous repetition, slight revision, and occasional lyrical and stylistic updating of the first few years of his recording legacy. But there are lengthy musical careers where you simply keep wishing that the artist finally croak or at least retire — and then there are lengthy musical careers which command a certain degree of respect just because of the artist's sheer stubbornness and tenacity. At a certain point, the whole becomes transcendentally bigger than the parts: bands like AC/DC, for instance, whose career sags in the middle, but then, as they just keep going on, even the weakest of their albums get a second life as weak, but necessary links in an amazingly long and strong chain.

The same is pro­bably applicable to the Champ. Nobody needs to have more than a small com­pilation of his early singles, and perhaps that Mickey Baker album from 1967 for complete comfort — but everybody might get a kick from simply contemplating a career that guided him from the antiquity of acoustic urban blues all the way to the modern blues-rock era, not to men­tion the anabasis from New Orleans to New York to Copenhagen to Switzerland to London to Hamburg and finally back to New Orleans; and not a single time during all that anabasis has the man ever lost his cool, even if he never did all that much to diversify it. From this point of view, he has certainly deserved the «Champion» moniker, far more convincingly than he ever did with his boxing career (where, on the contrary, we do not have readily accessible records of his triumphs — Muhammad Ali he certainly wasn't). So let us simply take the man as he was and pass on the legend — something makes me doubt there will be any more like him in this century of rapidly passing careers.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Eric Clapton: John Mayall's Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton

ERIC CLAPTON: JOHN MAYALL'S BLUESBREAKERS WITH ERIC CLAPTON (1966)

1) All Your Love; 2) Hideaway; 3) Little Girl; 4) Another Man; 5) Double Crossing Time; 6) What'd I Say; 7) Key To Love; 8) Parchman Farm; 9) Have You Heard; 10) Ramblin' On My Mind; 11) Steppin' Out; 12) It Ain't Right.

Formally, this album belongs in John Mayall's discography, not Eric Clapton's. However, with all due respect, it was not because of Mayall that history chose it to count as one of the seminal blues-rock records of the Sixties — and there is not a single reasonable discography or Eric Clapton, pure or annotated, that would omit it or place it in parentheses, either. It is no incident that, out of all (quite numerous) Mayall albums, this is the only one, ever, that would explicitly mention another band member in its title: cynics will say that John understood that such a move would boost sales, while idealists will counteract that John was simply willing to acknowledge the unquestionable superiority of his partner.

Prior to the «Beano» album (informally titled this way because of the comic that Eric is reading on the front sleeve photo, already staging one of his «I'm-not-really-with-these-guys» moods), Mayall only had one record out — the live album John Mayall Plays John Mayall, with Eric's predecessor Roger Dean on guitar (not the Roger Dean of the Yes artwork fame). It was one of Britain's first blues / blues-rock albums, but that's about it: together with Alexis Korner and a few other chaps, Mayall represented the sincere, hard-working, educational side of the British blues movement that, honestly speaking, was of more interest to purists and snobs than people vying for genuine excitement and innovation.

Mayall himself, a solid musician in his own right, would remain that way until the present day; but things briefly took a different, and quite sharp, turn when a young Eric Clapton, having freed himself from any obligations to the «pop-going» Yardbirds, was convinced to join Mayall's Blues­breakers. He actually served two brief stints with the band — in mid-'65 for the first time, and then again in 1966 (in between, he had a weird side project with «The Glands», while his position in the Bluesbreakers was being filled in by Peter Green). The problem with Eric, as is slightly hinted at by his biographies and autobiographies, is that he was regularly caught between fits of modesty/humility and severe egoism — as shy and reclusive by nature as he was also ambitious and determined to have his own way. No band in which he'd ever served before going full-time solo in 1974 could be said to be completely dominated by him, yet none of these bands ever gave him complete satisfaction. But his relations with John Mayall and his gang seem to have been particularly tense — ultimately, it was Beano all the way.

Nevertheless, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton, at least nominally, sounds precisely like the kind of record that would have made Eric totally happy. Unlike in The Yard­birds, he is given almost complete control over the most powerful aspects of most tracks, his only «competing» instrument being Mayall's harmonica, and that's not much of a competition. Unlike  in Cream, the Bluesbreakers play straightforward blues and R&B, without any jazzy edges or psychedelic experiments. Unlike in Blind Faith, the musicians — including the rhythm section of John McVie and Hughie Flint — sound like a tightly focused outfit, rather than a pack of super­heroes that got together by accident. And while the atmosphere in the band is predictably conser­vative and the music is formulaic, there are no bans on approaching the material with a creative, experimental edge that allows Eric to preserve that duality — humble and modest relative to his predecessors, ambitious and narcissistic relative to his peers.

It might not be easy, more than half a century after the fact, to understand the link between this record and the ensuing «Clapton Is God» legend, what with the large army of superb electric guitar players that arose over the next five years and made Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton into just another electric blues record. It becomes easy enough if you line up a whole series of electric guitar records from 1965-66 across both sides of the Atlantic, of course. In the UK, only Jeff Beck, who had, ironically enough, replaced Eric in The Yardbirds, could probably make up for some healthy, juicy competition; certainly Jeff was already taking blues guitar to places where Eric neither could nor would take it, ranging from Indian ragas to European avantgarde. But when it came to «regular» blueswailing, combining soul, technique, and a little help from those over­driven Marshall amps, not even Beck could compete.

The greatness of the album becomes evident in its first three seconds — three seconds. The mag­nificent Otis Rush had penned ʽAll Your Loveʼ back in 1958, a unique example of tango-blues that converted aching yearning into music like few things did that year. But like with so many other things in the Fifties, technology and spiritual restraint did not allow the song to play out to its full potential. Eric's guitar has a thicker, juicier tone, each of the notes feels more «fulfilled», and, unlike Otis, Eric has learned a thing or two about the power of sustain. Where that guitar used to prick and bite, Clapton's guitar groans and moans: as he reaches the first solo, each phrase has a «sinking» effect, creating the atmosphere of a living hell. The sharp, crisp, dry nature of the tone that he gets out is really as good as blues guitar ever gets; in this department, his sound would later be frequently matched, but never surpassed.

Some of Eric's finest soloing is captured on the slow blues tunes here — ʽDouble Crossing Timeʼ on Side A and ʽHave You Heardʼ on Side B in particular, generic blues-de-luxe frameworks populated by new lyrics for songwriting credits and elevated to heavenly status by blues guitar fireworks from Eric's Gibson Les Paul. A lot of these licks, for sure, were copped from Albert King and Freddie King records — but, much as I revere and enjoy those giants, Clapton took the formula to a whole new level here, with richer, thicker, more resonating phrasing, and, most importantly, borrowing some spirit from the garage-rock movement, using mild distortion and wild-high screechy pitch to make the songs burn. (It is safe to say, I think, that while early Clap­ton was unquestionably highly influenced by Freddie King, late Freddie King was likewise back-influenced by early Clapton — compare Freddie's playing in the early Sixties with his barn-stomping live shows in the early Seventies and you'll know what I mean).

Freddie gets directly Claptonized on the cover of his classic instrumental ʽHideawayʼ, which is, again, a vast improvement on the original: Freddie laid down several cool riffs (with a relatively «thin» guitar tone), but did not significantly improvise — the Bluesbreakers version faithfully reproduces all the riffs with a thicker, more aggressive tone, and on top of that, Eric lays down some improvised solos that make this version, too, a quasi-garage classic. More difficult would be the comparison between this version of ʽSteppin' Outʼ and the Memphis Slim original, because they are so stylistically different — the old variant was piano- and sax-driven, with a very interes­ting jazzy acoustic solo from Matt Murphy. The Bluesbreakers (despite preserving the sax part for rhythm) transform the composition into a vehicle for more of Eric's maniacal soloing, and it assumes an anthemic «don't-mess-around-with-me» quality in the process — good enough to have smoothly made it over into Cream's live repertoire a few months later.

So much for Clapton; but what, may you ask, about the record in general — what is it worth as a sample of the general British blues scene at the time? And what about Mr. Mayall? Well, this is where assessments become a bit more ambiguous. Mr. Mayall is primarily a blues singer, whose singing voice is not a personal preference of mine — it is much too high and «whiny» for the general purpose of the blues, where the vocalist is supposed to be a bit tougher — but is at least individualistic and recognizable. He can also blow a mean harmonica, but, alas, not mean enough to blow Little Walter off the map (ʽIt Ain't Rightʼ); and his solo spot on ʽAnother Manʼ (actually a lyrical rewrite of ʽBaby Please Don't Goʼ), where it's just him, his harmonica, and somebody's handclapping, is nothing more than professional. (Compare Cream's ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ and Jack Bruce's escapades on the mouth harp — the quintessential difference between professional homage and crazyass inspiration).

On the other hand, Mayall certainly has to be commended for making an intriguing, diverse set­list. Where lesser pundits would see no problem in populating the record with nothing but similarly arranged 12-bar blues, Mayall cares about attracting a wider and more exploratory audience, as the track listing, in addition to slow 12-bar stuff, features Mose Allison's jazz-blues (ʽParchman Farmʼ), Ray Charles' R&B (ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ — with most of the sex stuff replaced by a drum solo, unfortunately, but also slyly incorporating the riff from the Beatles' ʽDay Tripperʼ), and some blues-rockers in which brass instrumentation plays a prominent role (ʽKey To Loveʼ, credited to Mayall and actually featuring a perfectly constructed brass melody). In the end, it means that, while some of the recordings are in themselves fairly expendable on a global scale, the album never becomes boring. Every time you think they might be running out of ideas, John adds a tiny nudge — like, for instance, urging Eric to sing on ʽRamblin' On My Mindʼ. Admittedly, Eric was a poor singer, suffering from lack of confidence, but his nervousness serves him right on this cute, stripped-down performance, and it is a nice one-time change from the ever-present Mayall as lead vocalist anyway.

So, as a British blues-rock record, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers is a decent stab at the genre, certainly a huge advance over Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and less predictable than, say, the first Fleetwood Mac records with Peter Green. But there is no getting away from the plain truth that it is Clapton's presence only that advances it to the status of a masterpiece — one that still sounds totally fresh today, with some of the best blues tones to ever be captured on record, and, as far as I'm concerned, deserves an unconditional thumbs up outside of any historical con­text, because that lead guitar simply rips through the speakers.

Completists and fans of that Sixties' sound should probably hunt for the deluxe 2-CD edition of the album which, in addition to both mono and stereo editions of the album (personally, I'm a sucker for stereo, since proper separation only lets the lead guitar ring out louder and clearer), collects just about every piece of Clapton's legacy with the Bluesbreakers — most importantly, two non-LP singles (ʽI'm Your Witchdoctorʼ is an absolute classic: dark, tense, voodooistic, and featuring a proto-psychedelic solo that is nothing but sustained woman-tone howling, as far re­moved from stereotypic Clapton as possible), and some live tracks, including those recorded during Jack Bruce's brief stint with the Bluesbreakers. These are, however, mainly interesting for historical reasons, since the sound quality of the recordings from London's Flamingo Club is pretty poor — but still, indispensable for a brief history of musical relations between Bruce and Clapton. All in all, the package radiates an aura of excitement from an era where things that we take for granted nowadays were, like, totally happening — and an era when young Eric Clapton, still working his way up to God status, was not yet afraid of letting a bit of distortion and punkish anger spoil his blues credibility.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Ani DiFranco: Binary

ANI DIFRANCO: BINARY (2017)

1) Binary; 2) Pacifist's Lament; 3) Zizzing; 4) Play God; 5) Alrighty; 6) Telepathic; 7) Even More; 8) Spider; 9) Sasquatch; 10) Terrifying Sight; 11) Deferred Gratification.

Just three more years, and here is Ani DiFranco once again showing us how she has totally not forgotten the art of juggling a moderately pleasant and inventive record with a milk-curdling piece of soft-jazz doodling. Judging by the number of professional and amateur reviews that Binary got upon release, the quantity of people still on the lookout for a brand new Ani DiFranco record has probably decreased to a three-digit number at best, a two-one at the most probable — all the more ironic, considering how the lady has not lost her penchant for progressive preaching one single bit... it is simply not clear who she is preaching to at the moment.

Of the few reviews that did appear, not a single one bothered to say more than one sentence about the musical aspects of the record, and that is no surprise — they are non-descript. Ani plays with a full band throughout, but it does not help much. The musical emphasis is on groove rather than melody: tracks like ʽBinaryʼ, ʽPlay Godʼ, and some others are jazzy and funky, except that there is no true hotness to any of that funkiness. Everything is quiet, smooth, nocturnal, carefully played so as not to upset your neighbors — even the nasty-sounding wah-wah guitars, when pre­sent in the mix, are carefully brought down in the mix so that, God forbid, they overpower Ani's acoustic rhythm and semantically significant vocals.

Result: not a single memorable melody, not a single groove that would truly make you want to move, and a general feeling that every bit of string vibration here is just a coaster for the lyrical content — even if the backing band contains no less than ten different musicians, frequently adding string and bass overdubs. The sense of importance is further heightened by bringing in people such as Gail Ann Dorsey (best known as the bass player for the late David Bowie) and Justin Vernon (best known as The Log Cabin Monster) on backing vocals — each one for only one track, so as not to cheapen their symbolic value. (Something tells me, though, that Bon Iver audiences are not going to flock together in the direction of Ani DiFranco at the moment — they are probably not over their Kanye West phase yet). But this theoretical importance has no bearing on the general mood of the album, which is just dull.

Let us, therefore, just get this out of the system: the music here exists solely as a soft, atmospheric wrapping for the next batch of DiFranco's socially-conscious poetry. Is the poetry any good? Well, some of it is fairly flat: ʽPacifist's Lamentʼ is a bit too straightforward and predictable: "there is nothing harder than to stop in the middle of a battle and say you're sorry" sounds like something that the Dalai Lama must have probably already said at some time. ʽPlay Godʼ is a pro-choice statement that may be as relevant today as ever, but is delivered as a political mani­festo, not as a properly metaphorical work of art. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we get cryptic post-beatnik lyrical flows like ʽSpiderʼ that sound like they belong in some Greenwich Village cafe circa 1960 (I honestly have no idea what this one is about). In other words, not much has changed, as we are still on the same old progressive, feminist, anti-religious crusade: "Next time I watch a man give birth / I'll try to picture the creator as a dude with a beard" (ʽAlrightyʼ) is as deep as this stuff truly gets.

Although the album was released in June 2017, all of the songs were written and recorded prior to the elections of 2016, meaning that DiFranco's crusade takes place irrespective of the technical details of the political configuration — which, I believe, is a good thing. The bad thing is that I fail to see how this «tepid» approach to music-making can help her reach a wider audience than the one that has already been converted for a long time. These days, most likely, if you still listen to Ani DiFranco, you are already a progressively thinking, pro-feminist, pro-choice, anti-chau­vinist, anti-Trump, etc. etc. kind of person; do you really need an extra dose of that to help you get through the day? I certainly do not — so here's another thumbs down.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Charlatans: Who We Touch

THE CHARLATANS: WHO WE TOUCH (2010)

1) Love Is Ending; 2) My Foolish Pride; 3) Your Pure Soul; 4) Smash The System; 5) Intimacy; 6) Sincerity; 7) Trust In Desire; 8) When I Wonder; 9) Oh!; 10) You Can Swim / On The Threshold / Sing The Body Eclectic.

Good question, boys; although it may be worth noting that this record charted much higher than its predecessor, and on the whole, commercial fortunes of The Charlatans in the 2010s have shown a steady increase compared to the fairly unhappy 2000s. One could argue that by 2010, The Charlatans, like most formerly famous Britpop bands that managed to clench their teeth and survive, had simply passed into «semi-legendary» status — that in their native homeland, people simply buy up Charlatans records like they'd buy up Paul McCartney and Rolling Stones records, without even giving them much of a listen. But wouldn't that be too much honor for these guys? Then again, the idea of a good Charlatans single might have gotten heavily ingrained in the sub­conscious of the average 1990s teenager...

...anyway, this is all pointless digression. Who We Touch is a nicely polished record of catchy, polite, not particularly exciting alt-pop tunes. Curiously, they chose Youth (Martin Glover) as their producer this time, so feel free to pick on similarities with The Verve, or Embrace, or what­ever other alt-rock group he produced — the problem is, whatever The Charlatans used to be, they just aren't that any more. Most importantly, Tony Rogers' organ has been pushed so low in the mix that they have lost this last trademark of their original sound. Instead, emphasis is placed on multi-tracked vocals, multi-tracked acoustic and electric guitars, synthesized and (occasionally) non-synthesized strings, in short, anything to get these guys a massive wall of sound that will make them sound loud, proud, and completely anonymous.

The songs are not bad, though; I'd say they are doing something on the level of classic Ash now, and while I'm not a fan of either, this is far from the worst pop-rock produced in that period. It's all about catchy choruses now, and many of them are in good taste — as long as you have the patience to sit through the opener, ʽLove Is Endingʼ, where the chugging alt-rock guitar drone pretty much kills off any attempt to make its chorus into anything special. It is just one of those generic tunes, you know, that justify the entire «guitar rock is on its way out» approach.

But ʽMy Foolish Prideʼ, coming right on its heels, is a big improvement. With pianos and strings taking the place of big bad guitars, it manages to create just the right atmosphere of tenderness and repentance in the chorus. The decision to culminate each chorus with the acappella delivery of the line "make love, not war" is questionable, but since it comes right after the Beatlesque descending line of "sweet emissary tapping at my door", I guess we can forgive it even if we disagree with it. Here, then, is a nice side effect of The Charlatans aging and getting more senti­mental and self-critical — they become capable of occasional moments of touching beauty, even if they do tend to get unnoticed behind the regular veil of mediocrity. (Frankly, there is nothing in this song beyond the chorus that is salvageable).

Whatever happens after these two not-so-far-removed extremes falls somewhere in between, and, frankly, does not deserve lengthy discussions. Personally, I fall asleep now whenever they try to recapture a bit of that old funk vibe (ʽYour Pure Soulʼ), get positively offended when they slap the title ʽSmash The Systemʼ onto a song that has nothing to do with Rage Against The Machine, but come alive again for ʽIntimacyʼ and ʽSincerityʼ: the former is a slightly mystical, somewhat Roxy Music / ABC-inspired decadent power ballad, the latter a fast and tightly focused pop-rocker with retro-futuristic synths and a cool shout-out chorus — a successful completion of the task initiated and provisionally failed with ʽLove Is Endingʼ. As the album nears the end, though, it begins to bog down again, particularly with the interminable ballad ʽOh!ʼ and the droning atmospheric mood piece ʽYou Can Swimʼ (whose entire melodic base is more in line with blowing bubbles at the bottom of the swimming pool rather than actually swimming).

Adding insult to injury, the band ends up proceedings with a hidden track that consists of perfor­mance artist Penny Rimbaud delivering a lengthy lyrical piece to a repetitive, quasi-Gothic musi­cal background. I have nothing against the art of Penny Rimbaud (of which, admittedly, I know quite little, since beat poetry is not really my thing), but I have no idea why he has to be featured on a Charlatans record rather than, say, a Patti Smith one. Isn't it too late for these guys to buy up creed from aging beatniks, anyway? This could never be a good idea, let alone the fact of its total incompatibility with the bulk of this fairly normal pop record. Admittedly, it is a hidden track, so it is legitimate for us to pretend it does not exist.

The good news, therefore, is that The Charlatans have tightened up their craft, and are now pro­ducing a conveyer line of pop songs, some of which might even stick in your head. The bad news is that, well, just about anybody could have done this record, given a skilful producer and a few years of musical expertise behind their backs. The surprising news is how they persist — five LPs over ten years? in the twenty-first century? this kind of tenaciousness is bound to get you somewhere — I mean, look at Brian Jonestown Massacre, for instance, where every once in a while Anton Newcombe comes out with a masterpiece, stuck between several pieces of utter boredom. And so, at the expense of a complete loss of identity, Who We Touch is probably their best offering since Wonderland, though still not worthy of a thumbs up, in my opinion.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Celtic Frost: Morbid Tales

CELTIC FROST: MORBID TALES (1984)

1) Human / Into The Crypts Of Rays; 2) Visions Of Mortality; 3) Dethroned Emperor; 4) Morbid Tales; 5) Procrea­tion (Of The Wicked); 6) Return To The Eve; 7) Danse Macabre; 8) Nocturnal Fear; 9*) Circle Of The Tyrants; 10*) Visual Aggression; 11*) Suicidal Winds.

Celtic Frost used to be Hellhammer, a notoriously extreme metal band from Zürich, of all places: I know of no precedents before them for Swiss metal, and, in fact, I deeply suspect that many people might have confused them with Swedish metal bands in the early years. But then if they were Swedish, they'd have probably called themselves Nordic Frost (sidenote: apparently, there is a band now called Nordic Frost, and they are Swedish, so go figure). As it is, «Celtic» was pro­bably chosen because of Switzerland's Celtic past, and «Frost» because of their proximity to the Alps. Or because «frost» brings on associations with death — purely verbally, considering that the music of Celtic Frost is anything but frosty in nature.

For their first EP, Morbid Tales, the band lineup consisted of Thomas Gabriel Fischer, a.k.a. Tom Warrior, on guitars and vocals, and Martin Stricker, a.k.a. Martin Eric Ain, on bass — these two, with the exception of a short one-time break for Martin, would forever remain the core of the band. The drum work was handled by session musician Stephen Priestley, since by late 1984 the core duo had not yet settled upon a permanent percussionist. The original release was short, con­sisting of only six tracks; two more, including the title track, only appeared later on the expanded US version. Finally, the current CD edition usually throws on three additional bonus tracks, taken from the band's subsequent EP, Emperor's Return, which is a good thing, because that EP is usually rated very highly by the band's fans, yet hardly deserves a review of its own.

Assessing the originality and the impact of Celtic Frost's debut is a little hard these days, now that «black metal» is just a cliché and most of these bands are pathologically indistinguishable one from another. Apparently, though, the band was at the forefront of this subgenre, together with Bathory (who also released their first album in 1984) — the idea being that of combining the insane tempos and complex musicianship of thrash metal with the occultist / apocalyptic spirit of everybody from Black Sabbath to Venom. (Actually, Venom are usually credited with the inven­tion of «black metal» as such — if anything, that was the title of their second album — but they were certainly less extreme in their approach than Celtic Frost). In other words, Celtic Frost are a cross between Slayer and Venom, with a bit of Black Sabbath-y sludginess and a pinch of Mötor­head's blunt jackhammering thrown in for good measure.

That said, to me there are primarily two respectable subgenres of metal — «terrifying metal» and «comedic metal» — and early Celtic Frost are undeniably closer to the second one. One reason behind this are the vocals: Mr. Warrior, perpetuating the black metal stereotype, always sings as if he is either possessed by Satan's proxy, or suffering from a really bad case of constipation — which, come to think of it, may be one and the same from a certain philosophical point of view. (Check out the introduction to ʽDance Macabreʼ, where such a unity of process and purpose actually makes perfect sense). The second reason, of course, are the insane tempos, a problem most common to all forms of thrash or thrash-influenced metal; however, Celtic Frost are more reasonable here than Slayer, understanding the value of slowing down and even that of an occa­sional psychedelic interlude, to act as a bookmark between all the same-sounding gymnastics of heaviness. Still, nothing here is even remotely «morbid» or properly terrifying; in the end, it all depends on just how cartoonishly evil they can make their riffs and atmospheres, in order for us, future listeners, to get our healthy kicks.

And I will be the first to admit that Morbid Tales has its share of solid metal riffs. I do not care that much for stuff like ʽInto The Crypts Of Raysʼ: it owes its whole schtick to Mötorhead without sharing Mötorhead's level of catchiness (as a singer, Lemmy is downright Pavarotti next to Tom Warrior), and simply gallops along without offering anything fresh. Conversely, ʽVisions Of Morta­lityʼ is just too slow, and sounds like a slightly more high-pitched and boring rehash of some of classic Sabbath's ideas. But things begin picking up by the time ʽDethroned Emperorʼ comes along — also owing its existence to ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ, it finally manages to offer us a useful variation on that eternal chugging theme (largely thanks to an awesome snake-like arpeggio flourish in between the main iterations of the riff). And finally, the first truly awe­some song arrives in the guise of ʽProcreation (Of The Wicked)ʼ, where Tom teaches his guitar to alternate between painful howling and fierce growling (I suppose that this is meant to represent the birth pangs of the alleged "wicked", but could be more of that constipation thing — who really cares?).

Too bad that, from there to the end, only three tracks remain, one of which (ʽDance Macabreʼ) is, as I already mentioned, more of an avantgarde noise collage, something like a tentative musical representation of a Bosch painting of hell — and it's pretty cool that way. But, as a bonus, you do get the other tracks from Emperor's Return; recorded approximately one year later, they feature slightly improved production values and at least one solid riff-rocker (ʽSuicidal Windsʼ) that tries to eschew the boredom of generic thrash by slightly slowing down the tempo and trying to intro­duce some moderately discernible chords into the structure...

...ah well, who am I kidding? Most of these songs are ultimately one, and modern young metal audiences will probably not be impressed with it, considering how far beyond it the technical boundaries of speed / thrash / black metal have been pushed since. In reality, the album is more interesting from a purely historical perspective: it made a truly deep impression back in the day, and marked merely the first chapter in the surprisingly versatile, almost chameleonic career of these rugged Swiss warriors. But ʽProcreationʼ is a genuinely cool song, regardless of historic context, and in limited doses, their overall sound might even be more fun than Slayer's — pre­cisely because they are somewhat less technical and somewhat more punkish in their musical retelling of the world's innumerous evils. That said, far be it from me to recommend this stuff to anybody who is not already deeply immersed in the tempting intricacies of heavy metal.