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Friday, July 31, 2009

Accept: Restless And Wild


ACCEPT: RESTLESS AND WILD (1982)

1) Fast As A Shark; 2) Restless And Wild; 3) Ahead Of The Pack; 4) Shake Your Heads; 5) Neon Nights; 6) Get Ready; 7) Demon's Night; 8) Flash Rockin' Man; 9) Don't Go Stealing My Soul Away; 10) Princess Of The Dawn.

It is funny that even with bands whose records all sound (generally) the same, there is some sort of inner feeling that even so, they aren't just rolling along a smooth highway, but still steadily climbing up the mountain — until they reach the peak, of course, and then there's the inevitable slide down. And all that time, the records STILL sound the same!

There is even some sort of a consensus on this in many cases. With AC/DC, for instance, many, if not most, people think about Back In Black. With Motorhead, almost everyone thinks Ace Of Spades. It's impossible to define why, it's just a question of inner feeling, a very certain inner feeling at that. And with Accept, the certain feeling rests on Restless And Wild.

One thing that has always seduced me in particular about this record is how perfectly they put the two best songs at the start and at the end — and how the wildly different moods of these two songs perfectly suit the start and the end. To begin with, they beat the speed record of 'Breaker' and 'Starlight'; 'Fast As A Shark', true to its title and even more so, is the fastest Accept have ever played, and, in fact, it might be the fastest metal track ever played which manages to be melodic at the same time (I'm sure Slayer can outrun even this, but whether they can retain the precision and fluidity of Accept's guitarists at the same time is an open question). Steven Kaufmann's unbelievable double bass-drumming is another asset, practically redefining the meaning of drums in heavy metal history. And furthermore, it's just good old catchy rock'n'roll, once one has fini­shed admiring it from the technical side.

If 'Fast As A Shark' is the band's ultimate headbanging number, then 'Princess Of The Dawn' closes the album on their best dungeons-and-dragons note. Most metal and "heavy prog" bands have to rely on cheesy synthesizers to build up atmosphere on their fantasy-oriented work, almost immediately cheapening the results (because some people think that once you get that particular tone out of your Casio, you've already set up the atmosphere). On 'Princess', Accept achieve that eerie medieval-mystical effect without hitting one single piano note — just by doubletracking the guitars, attenuating them with an equally ominous bass, and having Udo sing in his world-weary, "old grizzled magician" voice which is his second best after the "straightjacketed maniac" one. The whole song is an amazing kaleidoscope of memorable riffs, enchanting vocal hooks, and melodic solos — all set to an unnerving mid-tempo rhythm that effortlessly transports you through six minutes of medieval mystery until it abruptly cuts off in mid-song, almost like a nod to the Beatles' 'I Want You' (maybe a conscious one, given the brooding atmosphere of both com­positions, although the adjective 'brooding' pretty much drains the resemblances).

In between these two metal masterworks, you get more great Accept songs that are not worth describing in detail. No sissy ballads, no Peter Baltes on lead vocals (finally!), just one great riff tune after another, just like on Back In Black. 'Neon Nights' probably could qualify as a power ballad, but, after the misleading acoustic introduction, it is inaugurated with a second electric intro of such effect-laden heaviness that one could never accuse the boys of selling out with it. Not that with Udo's voice it is even possible for them to sell out, of course.

Predictably, a wild thumbs up emerges from the bottom of the heart, but even the brain, even today, after many, many listens, still remains amazed at the album's ideal consistency. The only puzzling thing is why they decided to title it after the song 'Restless And Wild', when an even truer approach would be to title it after 'Ahead Of The Pack', because that's exactly what they were for that brief moment in 1982: 'Ahead of the pack — never look back!'.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

10cc: In Concert


10CC: IN CONCERT/KING BISCUIT FLOWER HOUR (1975; 1995)

1) Intro; 2) Silly Love; 3) Baron Samedi; 4) Old Wild Men; 5) Sacro-iliac; 6) Somewhere In Hollywood; 7) Donna; 8) Ships Don't Disappear In The Night; 9) The Worst Band In The World; 10) Wall Street Shuffle; 11) Rubber Bullets.

This is the only live album from 10cc recorded in their glory days (might, in fact, be the only live 10cc album as such), and, although it is sort of semi-official (like all the "King Biscuit Flower Hour" releases), it is quite essential for any fan of the band, and even worth checking out if you're just casually interested in these eccentrics.

Given that most of 10cc songs are strictly and straightforwardly studio creations, based on meticulously planned combinations of arrangements, special effects, and tricky melody shifts, one would naturally be curious to learn how they handled all this on stage (a decade earlier, the Beatles basically ran off the stage for much the same reasons). Plus, like with so many art- and prog-rock bands, there was the evident danger of their just being happy to reproduce the original sound on stage as faithfully as possible — a feat in itself — and leaving the fans in the audience well-contented and the live album buyers equally well-disappointed.

In the light of this, it is a relief to learn that on stage, they behaved themselves like a good rock band is supposed to behave. This setlist, although it was recorded on November 11, 1975 (Santa Monica Civic Center), focuses entirely on Sheet Music and, to a lesser extent, 10cc, even though The Original Soundtrack had already been released and was riding up the charts. Not knowing the facts, I'd guess that, perhaps, they might have played some numbers from that album, but that they weren't too keen about recording and broadcasting them, preferring to let all the extra liste­ners in on the simpler, more rocking stuff.

Indeed, it is far more exciting to hear the band jam on the ending to 'Silly Love' or on the middle part of 'Baron Samedi' than attempt to recreate the icy synthesizer patterns to 'I'm Not In Love' or to replicate, bit-by-bit, all the operatic details of 'Une Nuit A Paris'. The best news is that they can jam — not that you'd doubt it, given the pedigree of the players, but it's nice to have documental evidence. Stewart is the main star of the show, playing inventive, aggressive, and diverse solos throughout, but the rhythm section of Gouldman and Godley deserves honorary mention as well.

Some of the songs don't have jam sessions and are, in fact, faithful recreations of the studio wi­zardry, e. g., 'Somewhere In Hollywood'. Some are crowd-pleasers that don't always go off as well as you'd like them to go off ('Donna', in particular, is ruined by some off-key singing and poor harmonizing - apparently, these guys didn't have a natural gift for doo-wop after all). And the eight-minute jam on 'Rubber Bullets' might be pushing things a bit too far. But, twenty per­cent misfires aside, the album is still forty percent enjoyable rock'n'roll and forty percent skilled demonstration of the uniqueness and inventiveness of the band. Therefore, a thumbs up from both the heart and brain departments.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Al Green: Let's Stay Together


LET'S STAY TOGETHER (1972)

1) Let's Stay Together; 2) La-La For You; 3) So You're Leaving; 4) What Is This Feeling; 5) Old Time Lovin'; 6) I've Never Found A Girl; 7) How Can You Mend A Broken Heart; 8) Judy; 9) It Ain't No Fun To Me; 10*) Eli's Game; 11) *Listen.

Early 1972 marks the arrival of the new, freshly-glossed Al Green. After half a decade of kicking around, he finally and ultimately falls into his new groove he'd be exploring for another half a decade, before making the transition into gospel. This is the period that has all the hits. It may or may not be one's favourite period in the man's career, but it's certainly his period, a time when everything came out all right and when no one else could make it came out the same way.

It is hardly a coincidence, either, that Let's Stay Together is Al's first album where the originals outnumber the covers — seven to two. Al didn't have much of a knack for conjuring tight funky grooves out of his own mind, but soft silky ones seemed to come to him naturally. The class of Al's act cannot be really esteemed without realizing that he really wrote songs with melodies, not just riding high on the strength of his newly-found unique voice and his tremendously gifted backing band. These melodies may not come through too quickly, and not all of the songs are of equal quality, but they, and nothing else, are the reason for owning all of these classic Al albums except of just one, for collection's sake.

The biggest hit — in fact, Green's biggest hit so far — was the title track, which is maybe just one tiny step away from a gross cliché of the idea of conjugal happiness, but it's exactly that one tiny step that makes me recommend it for all the happy couples in this world without the slightest bit of embarrassment. Some sappy strings in the background could spoil the picture if they were given free rein, but they never ever threaten to overshadow the song's main attraction: Green's voice, which had by then redefined the meaning of the word "soft" when applied to somebody's vocal cords. It's not just "soft", it's seducing to the breaking point, far beyond the realms of common decen­cy, I'd say. It has to be rated PG-13 at least, and X in extreme cases.

The new approach works so well that the grittier, funkier spirit of Gets Next To You is all but forgotten. Sterner rhythms only kick in on two tracks: the boppy album closer 'It Ain't No Fun To Me' and the paranoid 'So You're Leaving', which comes in two tracks after 'Let's Stay Together' and has the effect of a cold shower after the pleasant happy delicacy of the former: Green gives his best impersonation of a nervous, tired man on the edge of his seat (or sofa), tearing himself apart because he's being abandoned but never really able to decide what to do about it. (The man was always much too gallant to behave in a 'good riddance, bitch' manner).

Everything else is milk and honey, one hundred percent organic and fresh from the local farmer's market. Even the choice of covers is telling: the Bee Gees' recent lush ballad 'How Can You Mend A Broken Heart', one of their sugariest creations, which, in Al's treatment, manages to sound more natural and convincing.

Frankly speaking, there's a bit too much sugar, and the ba­lance would be somewhat corrected on Al's subsequent releases. The transition is too sudden and too total, and a few of the songs look like they're just there to mark this totality rather than to be minor masterpieces per se. But even the lesser songs still warrant further listening, and this means a sincere thumbs up from every piece of the organism, be it emotional or intellectual.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Action: The Ultimate Action


THE ULTIMATE ACTION (1965-1968; 1980)

1) I'll Keep On Holding On; 2) Harlem Shuffle; 3) Never Ever; 4) Twenty Fourth Hour; 5) Since I Lost My Baby; 6) In My Lonely Room; 7) Hey Sha-Lo-Ney; 8) Shadows And Reflections; 9) Something Has Hit Me; 10) The Place; 11) The Cissy; 12) Baby You've Got It; 13) I Love You (Yeah!); 14) Land Of A Thousand Dances.

The Action should probably hold the official title of "Best 60s Band To Never Release An Al­bum". However, an LP-worth of a few great singles and a ton of filler — which is almost certain­ly what an Action album would have looked like, judging by the value of Rolled Gold — can't really measure again such a solid collection of excellent singles as placed on this CD.

The Action were a band doomed for early death, because they couldn't properly establish them­selves as a songwriting act at an age when you either were a songwriter or you went back to your local manufacturing plant. Not that they were awful at songwriting: the few originals contained here, such as the funny kiddie song 'Never Ever' and the cheery singalong 'Twenty Forth Hour', are lovable and fit in well with the rest. But apparently, they just couldn't establish an individual style that they'd be better at than their cover art.

Because one would be hard pressed to find a better British interpreter of the melodic school of American R'n'B than The Action around 1966-67. Maybe the Beatles — and it's hardly a coinci­dence that The Action were signed to work with George Martin, of all people — but by 1966, the Beatles had already distanced themselves from other people's works, and thus missed the chance of applying the technical and musical innovations of the period to the same old rock'n'roll and Motown pop numbers they showed so much respect for from 1963 to 1965.

Not the Action, though. Taking these trusty Motown and Atlantic numbers, they would carefully extract the essence, discard the production excesses, clean up the flaws, rearrange them for strict power-pop, guitar-bass-drums consumption, and make songs that combined the melodicity and soulfulness of the originals with the straightforwardness and determined energy of Britpop. And, in all fairness, they made this material rock out far better than the Beatles.

For some reason, the public didn't appreciate that — maybe because in Britain, Motown was run­ning out of fashion, or else folks just wanted the original thing (can't blame them). The band's highest charting single, a cover of the Marvelettes' 'I'll Keep On Holding On', only reached some­thing like No. 47 on the charts, even though it blows the original away — the guitars never shim­mered that way on Motown records, and the bass was never so determined to have its own way, and the harmonies were never that well produced.

Likewise, they manage to put to shame Martha and the Vandellas ('In My Lonely Room'), Bob & Earl ('The Harlem Shuffle'), and even Chris Kenner (the best cover of 'Land Of 1000 Dances' I've ever heard). Sometimes the gloss that cover artists try to put over the originals squeezes all soul out of them, but believe me, this is not the case with the Action: they understand well just where the hook lies, and give it their all — it's only up to George Martin to brush off all remaining dust. Of course, if they wanted to do James Brown, that'd be a whole different thing, but they never did, because their schtick was melody, not rhythm.

Out of the 14 cuts on this collection, there is not one bad choice (I do think that Carole King's 'Just Once In My Life' is one of her schmaltzier and more overwrought tunes, but when you hear it without strings, it's actually good!). It's pretty predictable from the onset, and contains no great breakthroughs, but it's still a unique type of sound that no one except this band had in 1966 and that no one will almost certainly have ever after. Which is why, mentally and cordially, I have no doubts about keeping my thumbs up for this as long as I live.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Albert King: Wednesday Night In San Francisco


ALBERT KING: WEDNESDAY NIGHT IN SAN FRANCISCO (1968/1990)

1) Watermelon Man; 2) Why You Mean To Me; 3) I Get Evil; 4) Got To Be Some Changes; 5) Personal Manager; 6) Born Under A Bad Sign; 7) Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong.

Twenty years after Live Wire established Albert's reputation as the ultimate live bluesman once and for all, someone had the great idea to go ahead and release a set of additional performances from the same Fillmore dates that produced the original album. For Albert King fans, this is not less than a Godsend. For everyone else, it should be perfectly clear why Live Wire, upon initial release, was not made into a double album: back in 1968, people sort of looked ascance at releasing the same album twice, much less at the same time.

There is nothing new whatsoever — the songs have different titles, but they're still the same two numbers: fast blues and slow blues. Even the improvisational solos are more or less the same, because, obviously, it's hard to expect Albert learning a bunch of new tricks in a matter of 24 hours. And, alas, such classic numbers as 'Born Under A Bad Sign' and 'Personal Manager', freed from the tight guidance of the Memphis Horns, pale in respect to their studio counterparts.

King gets somewhat more prominent backing from James Washington on the organ, but that's about the only difference I feel. Everything else is the same. Rating this thing is useless — either you love Albert and you get it, or you respect and like Albert and you have no need for it what­soever, or you hate Albert and you have one more excuse for accusing the music industry of overproduction.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Alicia Keys: The Diary Of Alicia Keys


THE DIARY OF ALICIA KEYS (2003)

1) Harlem's Nocturne; 2) Karma; 3) Heartburn; 4) If I Was Your Woman / Walk On By; 5) You Don't Know My Name; 6) If I Ain't Got You; 7) Diary; 8) Dragon Days; 9) Wake Up; 10) So Simple; 11) When You Really Love Someone; 12) Feeling U, Feeling Me; 13) Slow Down; 14) Samsonite Man; 15) Nobody Not Really.

I'm getting unusually soft: I kind of like this album. It's certainly longer than a professional execu­tioner's torture rack, and it shares all the flaws of its predecessor, as well as all the flaws of R'n'B and all the flaws that the 21st century took over and carefully nurtured from the 20th one, but it turned out to be likeable anyway. I guess the reason is that in two years, Alicia Keys simply became a better songwriter than Providence should have let her become. Although I admit that reason is completely unexplainable.

Let me just make a brief list of songs that have solid melodic hooks: 'Karma', 'Heartburn', 'If I Ain't Got You', 'Dragon Days', 'Wake Up', 'When You Really Love Someone', 'Samsonite Man' — that's almost half of the album there. Never mind that some of this is self-consciously retro and some self-consciously Whitney Houston; her singing gets me (okay, Whitney's singing also gets me sometimes, but then she didn't sell these zillions of records just for nothing).

The trick is that I had to sit through this more than once. Upon first listen, Diary is even more excruciatingly boring, generic, and "soulless" than A Minor. But then something starts clicking, and from under all the slickness and corporate gloss you start picking out bits and pieces of an aspiring artist who at least understands the basic principles that underly the power of music, even if she is rarely able to properly apply them. That you not only have to have glossy arrangements, that you also got to have hooks; that hooks cannot exist without true emotional force powering them up; and that true emotional force comes not necessarily from living out your songs, but at least from feeling them as meaningful creations. Does she have that understanding? Many will say nay, but I will say yeah.

I really love 'Dragon Days'. As a funky 70-s sendup, it works even better than 'Rock Wit U', ditzy and sexy and catchy, good piano/guitar interplay, good harmonies — if you feel the need to drag this down with some highbrow comment on how this material makes Isaac Hayes turn over in his grave, leave me out of this. I also really love 'Wake Up': it's a strong, well-written, uplifting ballad — if all mainstream balladry were like this, humanity's chances for survival would be a notch higher than they are today.

Overall, it ain't worth taking a lot of time describing the rest, but at least my understanding of why the "standard" critical press took such a liking to Alicia has managed to increase a bit after I'd caught myself unexpectedly enjoying 'Dragon Days'. She's a smartie, both music-wise and image-wise, and she gives out these small bits of "class" that people, who still remember the good old days when artists used to give out large chunks of "class", are hungry to lap up.

But I also understand what might be the single biggest annoying factor in her music: to quote fellow review­ers Wilson & Alroy, her "fatal weakness as a soul singer" is that she has "no vulnerability". Song after song after song, her toughness just starts to get on one's nerves. Femi­nism and the 'strong woman' concept are okay by me, but soul is about feeling pain and letting others in on it, and there's absolutely no pain whatsoever here, anywhere in sight. 'If I Ain't Got You' is tense and almost epic, but that's an irrealistic "if" out there: it's perfectly obvious that she got you, and the tenseness is simply there so you should understand she ain't never gonna let you go, that egotistic bitch. :) And on 'You Don't Even Know My Name', she plays the part of a wait­ress (!) who actually initiates the call to a guy who'd been ogling her in the restaurant — it's all a matter of proper initiative, baby. Of course, maybe she's just perfectly honest about it: maybe she really doesn't feel much pain, and if you can't feel pain, better not simulate feeling it. But then it's also a much nastier accusation to fling at someone — not being able to feel pain makes you much less of a human than not letting others feel your pain in your art, after all.

That was probably a twistier argument than any of the melodies on Diary Of Alicia Keys, but my heart doesn't really care too much for twisty melodies, and those that are there prompt it to give out a cautious thumbs up, while the brain, of course, has permanently shut itself off on the sub­ject of recognizing the artistic genius of Alicia, and I can't blame it for that.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Aaliyah: Aaliyah


AALIYAH: AALIYAH (2001)

1) We Need A Resolution; 2) Loose Rap; 3) Rock The Boat; 4) More Than A Woman; 5) Never No More; 6) I Care 4 U; 7) Extra Smooth; 8) Read Between The Lines; 9) U Got Nerve; 10) I Refuse; 11) It's Whatever; 12) I Can Be; 13) Those Were The Days; 14) What If.

Five years in the waiting and the final result just goes to show that in a genre like R'n'B, waiting isn't gonna do you much good. Maybe One In A Million showed some flashes of a new type of sound, but this third and, alas, last effort doesn't. It doesn't even show a lot of "maturation" — how, in fact, can one ever become more "mature" if all the artistry is placed into other people's hands? She just looks older on the album cover, that's all.

Maybe we needed more Missy Elliott/Timbaland cooperation on the record. It is their stuff, after all, that made One In A Million ultimately stand above competition, and it's no surprise that their only joint product on Aaliyah is easily its best track, and, in fact, easily the best thing Aaliyah was ever given in her life. She must have known that, and her vocal delivery on 'I Care 4 U' lite­rally makes my hair stand on end. It's got a smokey, sultry, dimmed-lights Seventies retro sheen to it, something in the Isaac Hayes ballpark, and although the lyrics, basically just about wanting to comfort someone who's just been dumped by his lover, are trite, the sheer effect of them is anything but. It's the best mainstream R'n'B ballad of the decade I've known so far.

As for the more lightweight material, some of these dance numbers are cute enough to merit a smile, but the groove isn't really all that tight or trance-like to justify the repetitiveness: 'Rock The Boat', after a short while, begins to look like an audio sex manual ('stroke it for me, stroke it for me, change position, change position'), and 'More Than A Woman', after showing initial promise with its odd Eastern rhythm, doesn't show anything else (not to mention that its title inavoidably brings on comparisons with the far superior, although, of course, entirely different, Bee Gees song). The best of these 'bouncy' numbers is arguably 'Extra Smooth', with its weird 'descending' loop that hearkens back to the days of disco and, from there, even music-hall.

I don't really know, though, why one should bother describing these songs. I don't get the feeling they meant a lot to Aaliyah or even those who saddled her with them. It's pretty obvious that she really only felt at home with the ballads: 'I Care 4 U' is the top number, for sure, but 'Never No More' and 'I Refuse', although far less memorable, at least give me a bit of ground to empathize with the singer. Nothing else does: she just doesn't connect. The album closer, 'What If', is a weird mess of electronic bleeps and hard riffs, maybe the "heaviest" number in her catalog, but the vocals could as well have been synthesized. Maybe they were, who knows.

There is a minor critical tendency to describe Aaliyah as a masterpiece, most likely influenced by her tragic death within a few months of its release. But, like I said, I see no progress, in fact, quite the contrary, I again see a talented girl fall under the supervision of hacks who'd most likely just go on sabotaging her career for the next decade. So both the heart and the brain give this a big fat thumbs down rating, not before Superman comes and rescues 'I Care 4 U', though.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Accept: Breaker


ACCEPT: BREAKER (1981)

1) Starlight; 2) Breaker; 3) Run If You Can; 4) Can't Stand The Night; 5) Son Of A Bitch; 6) Burning; 7) Feelings; 8) Midnight Highway; 9) Breaking Up Again; 10) Down And Out.

With Breaker, Accept finally... no, not "find their voice" — they'd already found it two years earlier — but rather manage to convince them­selves that their voice is truly their voice, and nobody else's, and that nobody else's will do. Breaker initiates a string of four or five records whose only flaw is that they all sound like each other, but if you like that sound, and I can't ima­gine anyone who's at least marginally partial to hard rock and heavy metal not liking that sound, you'll have no reason to complain.

Apart from the silly decision to let Peter Baltes sing on one more silly soft ballad ('Breaking Up Again'), there is not another single weak spot on the album. Eight fantastic hard rockers with blazing riffs and catchy choruses, plus one more ballad ('Can't Stand The Night') that is, thank God, saved by the wise, wise, wise choice of letting Udo rather than Baltes carry it through with his grizzled out, world-weary delivery. A metal lover's paradise all the way through.

One thing that's formally new is that they have learned how to play it real fast, but without turning the performance into the worst kind of melody-deprived thrash. 'Starlight' and 'Breaker' exemplify this new skill, with the band gelling perfectly, especially the latter with its double-tracked riffs and perfect drumming from Steven Kaufmann. (It's amazing to think they'd eventually top this combination of speed, precision, and melodicity on their next album!) These two stem from the new school of heavy metal as pioneered by Judas Priest; but the band shows itself equally versatile at the old school as well — 'Burning', recorded in a 'quasi-live' setting, is good old Berry-style rock'n'roll dressed up in modern production and polished with modern guitar tones, yet not for a single second does it actually lose the good old rock'n'roll spirit. 'I say hey rock'n'roller, power in your hands, you and your music made me a rockin' man' may not be the smartest type of lyrics to set to this kind of music, but with this here insane level of headbanging, one has to be stone cold sober in the spirit to stop and pay even the smallest attention to the lyrics!

Finally, it is impossible not to mention the hilarious 'Son Of A Bitch': you haven't lived if you haven't heard Udo Dirkschneider scream 'cocksucking motherfucker' along with a string of other obscenities that the band must have been copying directly from a slang dictionary as they went along. Maybe the original intention was to present this as a terrifying, threatening rocker, but with all of its great riffs and Udo's craziness, it works beautifully even as a ridiculous send-up of every terrifying, threatening rocker ever made.

In the end, even the brain has little choice but to applaud the cleverness of it all, but the main player here is still the heart, which, after having pumped wildly for all of the album's duration (only getting a short break to cool off during Peter Baltes' turn), has no choice but to reward it with the most headbanging thumbs up ever given.


Check "Breaker" (CD) on Amazon

Thursday, July 23, 2009

10cc: The Original Soundtrack


10CC: THE ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK (1975)

1) Une Nuit A Paris; 2) I'm Not In Love; 3) Blackmail; 4) The Second Sitting For The Last Supper; 5) Brand New Day; 6) Flying Junk; 7) Life Is A Minestrone; 8) The Film Of My Love; 9*) Channel Swimmer; 10*) Good News.

If 10cc was the sound of a genius band in its infancy, and Sheet Music — the teenage wild child running round and trying all sorts of nasty tricks on its neighbours, then The Original Sound­track is, by all means, a mature and much more responsible young man looking for a job. (Hint: not everyone will consider this to be a good thing).

Experimentation is still the word of the day, and so is Satire and Sarcasm; but Madness and Whirl­­­wind no longer are. They seem to have gotten tired of genre-hopping, for one thing, and most of the selections here are strictly within "pop rock" territory, or maybe "prog-pop" territory... it's still a huge territory, to be sure, but the most oddball of styles, like the calypso of 'Hotel' or the tribal airs of 'Baron Samedi', do not make any more appearances.

For another thing, the piecemeal melodies are almost gone as well. They have relegated all the jig-saw puzzle constructing to just one track, the opening mini-operetta 'Une Nuit A Paris', about the life and death of a, so to speak, respectable courtesan, but mini-operettas are supposed to be multi-part, and since when do we have a band like 10cc doing what it is supposed to do? The element of surprise is pretty downtrodden here, to say the least.

Or maybe this whole feeling of increased seriousness and solemnity is due to 'I'm Not In Love', the band's first (and biggest) hit to not sound like a parody. The song stupefied listeners with its arrangement — layers upon layers of vocalizing synthesizers and synthesized vocals that created an atmosphere of such heavenly dreaminess as had never been experienced before. Today, much of this is routine matter, and the same tones and tricks have been used over and over again in un­countable "adult contemporary" ballads, so it's almost as hard to realize the groundbreaking po­tential of 'I'm Not In Love' back in 1975 as it is to marvel at the wonders of the first notes played on electric guitar. But that doesn't make the song itself any less inspiring, or its lyrics any less inspired — 'I keep your picture upon the wall/It hides a nasty stain that's lying there' sounds sad upon first listen, hilarious upon the second one, and soon afterwards achieves a perfect synthesis of irony and des­pair so that guess all you like, you won't be able to discover the primary motiva­tion behind the composition.

It's little wonder that after the grand opening of 'Une Nuit A Paris' and the groundbreaking follow-up of 'I'm Not In Love', the rest of the album seems rather hastily slapped on, or, at best, just somewhat out of place. For instance, 'Blackmail', a lively pop-rocker about a hilariously botched attempt at blackmailing a promiscuous girl's husband, would feel more at home on Sheet Music or even 10cc — closing out the first side with this little ditty is a bit anticlimactic. And as for the second side, I can never memorize much of it except for the blistering heavy metal ope­ning of 'The Second Sitting For The Last Supper' (the lyrics, about how we really need a second Last Supper these days, are great, though) and the carnivalesque optimism of 'Life Is A Minestro­ne' (served up with parmesan cheese, no less). It's not bad, just not up to 10cc's better standards.

Therefore, although the brain, as usual, is on highly friendly terms with this band (that is, while it was still a band rather than a duet), it is only reluctantly that the heart issues its thumbs up, which hardly applies to the second half of the record. Still, this is certainly not "the beginning of the end", rather just a momentary loss of focus justified by ambitiousness of the goals.


Check "The Original Soundtrack" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Al Green: Gets Next To You


AL GREEN: GETS NEXT TO YOU (1971)

1) I Can't Get Next To You; 2) Are You Lonely For Me Baby; 3) God is Standing By; 4) Tired Of Being Alone; 5) I'm A Ram; 6) Driving Wheel; 7) Light My Fire; 8) You Say It; 9) Right Now, Right Now; 10) All Because; 11*) Ride, Sally, Ride; 12*) True Love; 13*) I'll Be Standing By.

Third time gets it right. Please own this Green album: there is nothing else like it in his catalog. Al's first really focused, really consistent effort still catches him in his transitional phase, when he hasn't yet decided whether it is more promising to keep on putting out harder, grittier grooves, or to completely reinterpret himself as The Ladies' Man. So he tries some of both, but with a serious bias towards the "grittier" side nevertheless — and if you've ever gotten tired of the exquisite, but tiring soft sound of his post-1971 records, Gets Next To You gives you an Al Green who can do it all: rock along with the best of 'em and croon like even the best ones of them can't.

The only thing he can't do is get next to you, as he shamefully confesses in the title track... but then you look at the album title and you know he's only pretending. Slowing down the original Temptations version, removing the funk and replacing it with a slow, longing, burning R'n'B melody, Al gives the song a whole new life, and the Memphis Horns a terrific playground for practicing their brassy geometry. Instead of playful and aggressive, the song is now dark and disturbing, and while Al's one-man potential is not enough to replace from four to six different individual Temptations, he has the advantage of personalizing the song and building up a persona: the same confused, chaotic, but mild and lovable persona he'd be regularly invocating from now on. Watch out for the two or so bars of grizzly psychedelic-Funkadelic-like guitar in the solo, too.

But 'I Can't Get Next To You' isn't the only half-cool, half-relaxed, sweaty, rhythmic workout on the album. 'I'm A Ram' is like a tightly wound coil of great brass, organ, and guitar riffs, over which Al asserts his superiority to the average Joe; Roosevelt Sykes' (yes!) 'Driving Wheel' is indeed given the musical shape of a rollin' wheel (more great riffage); and on 'You Say It', 'Right Now, Right Now', and 'All Because' they finally figure out how to make Al sound funky without emulating James Brown. It turns out that all you have to do is just... stop emulating James Brown!!! (Even though he still can't help giving out a few grunts and hiccups on 'All Because', but on that particular song they fit the ominous organ chords to a tee).

The album's biggest hit and best-known song was, however, one of the "softies" — 'Tired Of Being Alone'. For a good reason: this is the tune that has for the first time given us the new, silky-smooth Al Green, and the world certainly didn't forget it. But in the general context of the album, there's little that makes this tender little gem more worthy than the poppy, jumpy 'Are You Lone­ly For Me Baby', or the gospel number 'God Is Standing By'.

So we will forget the album's only clumsy misfire — a lumbering reconstruction of 'Light My Fire', in the vein of the failed experiments on Green Is Blues — and join the brain and the heart in a glorious thumbs up tandem. Perhaps this isn't the most sonically perfect album Al ever cut, but it's certainly one of his most consistent, and one that goes down the easiest with me.


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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

13th Floor Elevators: Bull Of The Woods


13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS: BULL OF THE WOODS (1969)

1) Livin' On; 2) Barnyard Blues; 3) Til Then; 4) Never Another; 5) Rose And The Thorn; 6) Down By The River; 7) Scarlet And Gold; 8) Street Song; 9) Dear Dr Doom; 10) With You; 11) May The Circle Remain Unbroken.

With Roky Erickson gone disfunctional and Stacy Sutherland assuming main responsibility for the band's artistic future, what do you think could have happened? It wouldn't take a genius to predict that the music would become more accessible, more "cultured", more melodic (after all, Sutherland's contributions on the previous albums were all that way), but also much less distinc­tive and with much fewer reasons to exist.

All these predictions are fulfilled to a tee: with Bull Of The Woods, the Elevators showed that they no longer had any particularly beautiful place to go, and gracefully ceased to exist as a band soon afterwards, saving the world a ton of precious vinyl (to be spent on Chicago and Foreigner records instead). But also, with Bull Of The Woods they delivered a record that goes down nice on the ears and has its fair share of excellent melodies for those who treasure and stockpile music based on the emotional meaning of its chord sequences rather than its historical importance.

And the best thing of all: NO MORE ELECTRIC JUG!

Highlights that every Sixties fan will like include 'Till Then', another Byrds-like folk-rocker with 'airy' guitars that make 'Eight Miles High' sound more like 'Half A Mile High' (not that 'Eight Miles High' isn't a better song in the long run, but for all their airiness, the Byrds never really sounded that high up in the air); the mystical 'Rose And The Thorn', very much like the Stones circa Their Satanic Majesties' Request; the kiddie Monkees-like 'Dr. Doom' with its tin soldier martial trumpets and wispy vocal harmonies; and the closing gorgeous atonality of 'May The Circle Remain Unbroken', which is more of a mantra than a song but, in that capacity, forms a suitably unusual conclusion to the record. (Twenty-five years later, Neil Young took those guitar cascades, lowered the tone and made the entire soundtrack to Dead Man on that model).

In fact, on second thought, maybe it's not even the relative absence of Roky and his madness that lets down the record, but rather its late-coming in the face of the rapidly changing music scene and values. Bull Of The Woods is like a slightly commercialized and sanitized Easter Every­where, but in 1968-69 there was already no place for another Easter Everywhere: technically, spiritually, and even rationally musical values had already overstepped it. Neither Pink Floyd nor the Byrds nor even the Jefferson Airplane themselves were doing that kind of trippiness any lon­ger. So, as odd as it is to say it, this album, recorded in 1968, was dated stone dead... by one year.

That's what my gruff brain keeps telling me, at any rate, while the heart is grooving to the record's mellow sounds and quietly awarding it a thumbs up. Which, unfortunately, does not commit too many of its melodies to said heart for any respectable amount of time.


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Monday, July 20, 2009

Albert King: Live Wire/Blues Power


ALBERT KING: LIVE WIRE/BLUES POWER (1968)

1) Watermelon Man; 2) Blues Power; 3) Night Stomp; 4) Blues At Sunrise; 5) Please Love Me; 6) Look Out.

"A permanent member of the Fillmore family, a great guitarist — this is Mr. Albert King!" His­tory buffs should pay particular attention to the word 'permanent' on behalf of the announcer: it shows that flower power kids, contrary to rumours, were not bred with the specific purpose of being compatible with trippy jams of the Jefferson Airplane and the like, but, on the contrary, were quite susceptible to all kinds of music, including grandfather-oriented stuff like Albert King, who could be electric for all he liked, but who, after all, just played straightforward old blues.

On the other hand, maybe it is simply all due to King's personal charisma which he lays down on the audience much thicker than the actual licks he plays. If anything, Live Wire gives a great image of him as a showman, never forgetting that interacting with the audience is the most vital part of his show. All through the songs, particularly 'Blues Power', he keeps talking to the people, telling them little bits of stories, asking them questions, getting them on their feet, teasing them with bits of silence followed by musical explosions, and despite the fact that his arsenal of guitar tricks is limited and they start repeating themselves heavily after a while, he makes the audience love this game so much that the applause is just as heavy on the last numbers as on the first ones — even though, to tell the truth, there isn't all that much, musically, to distinguish the last numbers from the first.

It is also obvious just how intent he is on keeping his cool. Big man, big guitar, big sound, standing calm and collected, playing it slow and meticulous, every now and then letting out a lightning bolt of notes, but also every now and then just keeping it down, self-assured and content about just knowing that he can do whatever he wants on that instrument — he just won't, if he doesn't want to. He is no flamboyant eccentric like Jimi Hendrix, way above playing with his teeth; but every once in a while he just lets out this bit of insane laughter — "ha ha!" — translated into layman speak as: «yes brother, pretty simple for me, could be pretty simple for you, too, but no dice, brother, it's me on that stage, and you in that audience». Then he lets rip, and everyone is plugged back in his seat, mouth open, ears ringing.

Of course, «letting rip» is as relative as you would expect. Predictably, while playing live, King goes for lengthier solos, and he is neither as inventive nor as technically efficient as the white Bri­tish guy with the slow hand that spent a lot of time ripping him off. There are two types of solos here: the fast one and the slow one, and that is all you need to know. But it is not the solos themselves that are important: it's the Pre­sence. They should be taken together with the stage patter, with the ha-ha's, with the aahs and oohs, and particularly with the long rant at the start of 'Blues Power': "Everybody understands the blues...". Is that really true? Perhaps the whole essence of the blues is also in the Presence. And, boring or not in purely musical terms, this album con­veys blues Presence better than any other recording from 1968.

Not that the heart has managed to convince the brain of it — the latter is not supposed to rationally understand things like «presence» — but at least it has managed to let the brain stay out of the way for a bit, allowing Live Wire to receive a solid thumbs up for capturing a great showman at the top of his show powers.


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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Alicia Keys: Songs In A Minor


ALICIA KEYS: SONGS IN A MINOR (2001)

1) Piano & I (intro); 2) Girlfriend; 3) How Come You Don't Call Me; 4) Fallin'; 5) Troubles; 6) Rock Wit U; 7) A Woman's Worth; 8) Jane Doe; 9) Goodbye; 10) The Life; 11) Mr. Man (duet with Jimmy Cozier); 12) Never Felt This Way (Interlude); 13) Butterflyz; 14) Why Do I Feel So Sad; 15) Caged Bird (outro); 16) Lovin' U [unlisted track].

Artists who write their own material deserve respect. Before engaging in a predictable trashing of young, aspiring, sexy, thoughtful Alicia Keys' debut album, ask yourself the question: what have you actually written? Have you ever recorded a sixty-minute long album of your own songs, not to mention sung and played piano on it? If no, shut up and listen; if yes, you should probably know how hard it is in the first place.

If you keep repeating this mantra over and over again while listening to Songs In A Minor, chan­ces are you'll approach it with an unbiased mind and spot the few drops of goodness that are contained therein. That Alicia Keys wasn't just a nobody who turned up in a recording studio by chance, to me, is obvious. Even disregarding her delightfully marketable appearance, she, like fellow soulster Mariah Carey, was selling much more than the body (not that there's anything wrong with the body): she can sing, she can play, and she can write songs, and she probably does all three better than your average Joe from the next corner, so why not make a record?

The bad news: "better" does not equal "really well". Armies of MTV divas have this kind of pipe set; her piano playing is efficient but she's not even on an Elton John level and she probably knows it; and writing songs? well, it doesn't take a tremendous lot of talent to write generic R'n'B tunes, especially with a little help from one's friends in the studio. So the only hope here is to get by on a combination of all three, which is truly not something that is frequently encountered in the world of contemporary R'n'B.

Alas, although mainstream critics predictably fell over this combination, and although the very sound of it doesn't drive me bonkers, Songs In A Minor falls victim to the commonest crime in the world: it is very, very boring. Dull, easy grooves; dull, unconvincing hooks (if any); dull, cheap sentiments; dull everything. Maybe this is, in large part, due to the fact that R'n'B in the last decade has been even deader than rock, and that the stinky, stagnating chains of its conventions chew through every ounce of talent. But it is more likely still that Alicia just doesn't have the right quantity of ounces, if you know what I mean.

Two songs that give me pleasure come right after each other in the middle: they are 'Rock Wit U', an excellent tribute to 70s R'n'B right down to all the syncopation tricks and wah-wah guitars (unfortunately, it only makes me yearn for going back to 70s R'n'B instead), and 'A Woman's Worth', where, once you discard the lecturing feminist lyrics, the chorus comes through as dense, tense, and deliciously neurotic (and catchy).

No other songs give me pleasure, with the possible — and frightening! — exception of the elec­tric piano-and-vocal album closer 'Caged Bird', which should scare people away (teenage girls usually sing stuff like that auditioning for American Idol) but, in my case at least, skilfully tugs at some particularly misplaced nerve and makes me emotional. (Please don't tell me that 'she's so rare and beautiful' is in the least autobiographical, please).

The big hit single was 'Fallin'; it didn't register with me at all, but I do remember that the vocals were overdubbed in an interesting way. (Connections with 'It's A Man's Man's Man's World' have been spotted by knowledgeable people as well; not sure it's a good thing). On the "hidden" track 'Lovin' U', she (kinda sorta) tries to be like 60s-era Aretha Franklin, but the only reason you have to listen to her being Aretha Frank­lin is if you think Aretha Franklin is only worth listening to when she's young and available for auto­graphs next door. Me, I have no problem putting on some old album from 1970 instead, because, let's face it, Alicia's decibels just don't register on Aretha's scale.

So turn this over to Mr. Brain, who refuses to recognize "artistic integrity" in all this shenanigan (and actually threatens to sue on account of bad taste and banal "artistic" decisions, like kicking things off with a reference to 'Moonlight Sonata', of all things! where's Beethoven and where's Alicia Keys?), and then to Mr. Heart, who has just recovered from a nice nap in the corner, as both of them give the record a crunchy thumbs down. There might have been some semi-good reason to listen to this in 2001; today, any such reason has to be recovered from deep down the drain.


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Aaliyah: One In A Million


AALIYAH: ONE IN A MILLION (1996)

1) Beats 4 Da Streets (Intro); 2) Hot Like Fire; 3) One In A Million; 4) A Girl Like You; 5) If Your Girl Only Knew; 6) Choosey Lover; 7) Got To Give It Up; 8) 4 Page Letter; 9) Everything's Gonna Be Alright; 10) Giving You More; 11) I Gotcha Back; 12) Never Givin' Up; 13) Heartbroken; 14) Never Comin' Back; 15) Ladies In Da House; 16) The One I Gave My Heart To; 17) Came To Give Love (Outro).

Like so many albums around it, One In A Million suffers from ceedeetis: it pastes its limited amount of attractions over such a vast surface that, by the end of it, I feel a strange sort of satis­faction, as if having just returned from the task of gathering the remains of a shipwreck scattered all over the beaches of a desert island.

But if you do gather the best tracks together and trim them down to, say, half their length (actual­ly, length of the individual songs is not a problem per se; they usually do not seriously run over four minutes, with the exception of 'Choosey Lover', which is really two songs in one), anyway, if you do this, it becomes easier to appreciate One In A Million as a high-class R'n'B album whose creators were sincerely interested in developing a new kind of groove sound rather than merely making an extra pile of bucks on the existing trends.

I say 'creators' because, again, it is unclear just how much Aaliyah herself was involved in all this except for just building up the required feeling. Some of the songs, in fact, are completely domi­nated by Timbaland's production, e. g. 'Hot Like Fire', where he straightjackets Aaliyah into a futuristic-robotic vocal part complementing his tricky choice of synth tones — I'm not complai­ning, because the effect is clever and inspiring, but whether Aaliyah's presence is necessary here, I have no idea about that. Could just as well be Margaret Thatcher.

Likewise, 'If Your Girl Only Knew' is mostly memorable for its hypnotic "post-disco" bassline, lovingly wrapped in a web of funky guitar and even electric organ (!). However, on the softer, balladeering stuff Timbaland does allow to let the girl loose, and if you are fond of her singing style, 'Heartbroken', '4 Page Letter', and the title track can all be lovely; singalong choruses and moderately tasteful arrangements don't hurt, either.

The best news is that there is not a single track on the record that feels really strained or 'image-carving': the forced street vibe of 'Throw Your Hands Up' has been purged completely, and pretty much every single track gives you a sentimental, fragile Aaliyah — very soft, very smooth (she used to be a big Sade fan, and it shows), ultimately, boring, but true to the soul, at least.

The non-Timbaland tracks are generally weaker, because there's no experiment (many of them just sound like standard Whitney Houston fare), but, odd enough, the one song that stands above everything else is a V. H. Herbert production: a terrific cover of Marvin Gaye's 'Got To Give It Up'. When Marvin recorded it in 1979, he sang it in falsetto, for understandable reasons; Aaliyah gives a very faithful rendition, down to the individual intonations of the syllables, but she sings it in her natural voice, and the effect is even more believable and seductive than on the original (one could do without the extraneous rap sections, though). They also slow down the tempo just a bit, and enhance the power of the rhythm section, so it doesn't at all sound like a retro-disco sound, but, on the contrary, looks appropriately modern.

Things don't work so well on the 'Old School/New School' version of the Isleys' 'Choosey Lover', because, frankly speaking, the 'old school' part, graced with hair-metal guitar, sounds very much like mainstream Eighties school (bad, bad, bad!), and the 'new school' part was not produced by Timbaland and is therefore rather generic. The only saving grace of this and every other so-so track on here is the singing. It's hard not to like the singing.

One In A Million has received tremendous critical praise, with people calling it one of the most epoch-defining R'n'B albums of the time and suchlike. I wouldn't know, and I wouldn't care much if it really had the kind of historical influence as is sometimes assigned to it — whether that would be a good thing is debatable. But it deserves to be heard, at least the better half of it, for combining some exciting approaches to the genre with the talents of one of the best singers in the genre, so my heart feels fine about it, surreptitiously giving the record a fast thumbs up while the brain is still collecting itself, trying to come up with some nasty cynical statement. We'll hastily leave it in this state and move on to the next one.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Accept: I'm A Rebel


I'M A REBEL (1980)

1) I'm A Rebel; 2) Save Us; 3) No Time To Lose; 4) Thunder And Lightning; 5) China Lady; 6) I Wanna Be No Hero; 7) The King; 8) Do It.

Udo Dirkschneider doesn't like this album very much, because of "unsuccessful experiments", as he himself said. Well, I can understand, except that it's not so much experimentation as an odd will to conform to standards that mars the record. They set an excellent standard with the title track, a number formerly written by Australian guitarist Alex Young for his brothers in AC/DC (they say AC/DC even recorded it back in the day) — that's why it's got a bit of a drunken party sound to it, which is unusual for Accept who have always sounded stone cold sober, but still, it's an AC/DC-worthy song, and any song like that can be handled well by Accept.

Unfortunately, right after that the album starts shaking. There is only one other number that is truly solid from head to toe: 'China Lady', built upon an unforgettable riff and an equally unfor­gettable banshee wailing part from Udo. A couple more rockers are so-so, and then there's the cringeworthy stuff: power ballads that match simplistic melodies against pathos, the kind of stuff that, at the same time, was eating away the Scorpions' intestines ('No Time To Lose' may be my least favourite Accept song of that entire period), and then we're watching the unwatchable as Accept do disco ('I Wanna Be No Hero'), something that they are so poorly adjusted for they can't even help imitating Kiss (if the 'I can give you nothing but love babe' line does not, for you, im­me­diately bring to mind 'I was born for loving you baby', you must be the unassociative type).

Disco motives even show up in the album's third best song, 'Save Us', which starts out strong and spiteful but then turns to silliness in the middle-eight, including "choral" singing that should be banned from Accept records once and for all; if the only member in your band who can sing well is Udo, what's your problem? Bass guy Peter Baltes knows how to stay on key, for sure, but what's the use of staying on key if you're staying on key on songs like 'No Time To Lose'?

The good news about all this is that 'I'm A Rebel' (the song) did become a hit for the band, and this must have helped them to get by and gather their forces for a full-fledged return to form. But nevertheless, my heart is also a rebel, and it rebels all the way against disco-metal and rotten power balladry, and, ripping the two side-openers off the album, proceeds to reward it with a hearty thumbs down, while the brain is, of course, still sleeping on this one.

PS. As irrelevant as it is to the review, I can't help but publish the idea for the greatest of all non-existent Weird Al Yankovic parodies: the heavy metal anthem 'I'm A Rabbi' ('I'm a rabbi, I'm a rabbi, don't you just know it?'), dangerously bordering on the sacrilegious but all the more fun for all the titillation. Where can I patent this?


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Thursday, July 16, 2009

10cc: Sheet Music


10CC: SHEET MUSIC (1974)

1) Wall Street Shuffle; 2) The Worst Band In The World; 3) Hotel; 4) Old Wild Men; 5) Clockwork Creep; 6) Silly Love; 7) Somewhere In Hollywood; 8) Baron Samedi; 9) The Sacro-Liliac; 10) Oh Effendi; 11) Waterfall.

The jump from 10cc's first album to their second one is, in all fairness, enormous. 10cc was basically a set of weird pop songs. Sheet Music is, on the contrary, a set of pop-tinged weirdnes­ses. Not that it's atonal or anything — it is easily their most melodic album ever, simply because there's an average total of five or six different melodies per song... sometimes per twenty seconds of it, too. "Never A Dull Moment" — what is this title doing on a Rod Stewart record?

I have heard criticism that tended to basically just write off 10cc from this moment as a pack of goofballs. However, if anything, Sheet Music is even more lyrically focused and biting than 10cc. No matter how "goofy" the actual songs might be, most of them carry a message: tearing apart the capitalist world on 'Wall Street Shuffle', acidly self-ironizing on 'The Worst Band In The World', ridiculing lyrical cliches of popular music on 'Silly Love', butt-kicking oil-pumping sheiks on 'Oh Effendi', and even stopping on the way to take the time for a tender lovin' tribute to the silver screen — 'Somewhere In Hollywood' is almost like a more sophisticated response to the Kinks' 'Celluloid Heroes', released two years earlier. All of this makes perfect sense, regardless of the oddness of the form it has been presented in.

Predictably, my own favourites are those where the melodies go on just a little bit longer, or at least have a memorable central theme to them. For instance, the wall-rattling opening riff on 'Wall Street Shuffle' that is even more of a threat to Wall Street than the lyrics themselves ('Bet you'd sell your mother/You can buy another') — this is instantly classic. So is the mock-metallic thump of 'Silly Love' that, of course, dissolves fairly quickly into attractive pop fare ('hey toots, you put the life into living, you brought the sigh out of sight') and ends up formulating the band's main principle: 'take up your own time, make up your own rhyme, don't rely on mine — 'cause it's SILLY!'

These two songs that bookmark Side A are the obvious highlights, but the whole record brims with such boundless, boiling energy that it never lets go even when it doesn't let you memorize it too easily. Only once do they take a short breather, on the Gizmo-dominated soft ballad 'Old Wild Men', but it turns out to be the album's lowlight, because their incessant shuffle of patterns really only works when it's backed up with plenty of adrenaline; otherwise, it's just boring.

Of course, it goes without saying that the amount of genre territory covered is quite spectacular. Completely dropping their penchant for doo-wop, they instead proceed to deconstruct calypso ('Hotel'), Haitian tribal-voodoo stuff ('Baron Samedi'), prog rock ('Somewhere In Hollywood'), folk balladry ('Waterfall') and... uh, what­ever 'Sacro-Liliac' is supposed to deconstruct. And if these songs won't struck you as magnifi­cently planned compositions, most of them are at least guaranteed to give you a good laugh (ex­cept 'Waterfall', which seems to take itself rather seri­ously — but I don't mind, given how pretty the guitar and the singing are).

Not only that, but they really master all these genres: the pompous, ominous introduction to 'Somewhere In Hollywood' could easily fit on any second generation prog band record, and the percussion on 'Baron Samedi' could make you swear Kevin Godley must have spent his child­hood drifting around the Caribbean instead of around the boroughs of Great Manchester. It's only when they start combining the uncombinable — for instance, bringing in a lumbering hard rock middle eight for 'Baron Samedi' — that you feel you're living in a post-authentic world after all.

Needless to say, the brain wins the race here with a solid gold thumbs up, praising the record for its phenomenal inventiveness. But it should be known that, after several listens, the heart is well on the way to catch up with the brain, and if you haven't grooved along to 'Silly Love' at least once in your life, you've all but missed out on the art of intellectual headbanging, and I feel great overwhelming pity for you.


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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Al Green: Green Is Blues


AL GREEN: GREEN IS BLUES (1969)

1) One Woman; 2) Talk To Me; 3) My Girl; 4) The Letter; 5) I Stand Accused; 6) Gotta Find A New World; 7) What Am I Gonna Do With Myself; 8) Tomorrow's Dream; 9) Get Back Baby; 10) Get Back; 11) Summertime; *12) I Want To Hold Your Hand.

The "proper" start of Al's career: a new producer (Willie Mitchell), a new label (Hi Records), a new backing band (the Hi Rhythm Section), and... well, no, on this album the new determination to finally find his own unique style is nowhere yet to be seen. Green Is Blues, for some reason, drops the "Rhythm" stem before the "Blues" one, but one listen is enough to understand that in 1969, Al was still trying to market himself (or, rather, Al's producer was trying to market Al) as a cool swingin' cat, whippin' his audiences into a groove that didn't include smoothness, suaveness, and silkiness into its list of ingredients.

For one thing, Green is still singing with a certain degree of harshness in his voice; the lush velvet of his phonation was still waiting for a chance to unravel. (We only get a very little glimpse here on the rather so-so composition 'What Am I Gonna Do With Myself'). For another, there are very few straightforward ballads on the album — in fact, maybe just the opener, 'One Woman', which cleverly grows from quiet/tender to all-out operatic, and a cover of 'My Girl', and that's that. All of the other songs will at least have you tap your foot — including Green's lone original, 'Get Back Baby', where he tries to ride James Brown's funky train by relying on chicken-scratch guitars and very Brown-like grunting. Unconvincingly.

The entire album smells of foot-in-the-water, as would probably any album that covers both 'Summertime' and 'Get Back', not to mention the already mentioned 'My Girl'. The take on 'Get Back' is at least curious, along the lines of Otis Redding's take on 'A Hard Day's Night' — it's always fun to see the black groove masters adapt the Beatles to their own sense of rhythm and musical vision — but whether we really need one more version of 'Summertime' is certainly up to discussion. Green's vocals are perhaps most impressive on his version of the Box Tops' 'The Letter', since he actually sings all the way through rather than grunt or recite, and essays almost every trick in his vocal repertoire.

A major highlight that few people usually mention is Doc Oliver and Carl Smith's 'Gotta Find A New World' — actually, one of Al's most passionate socially-tinged songs, a little 'Gimme Shel­ter'-ish in mood, with its tense bass line, female backup harmonies and Green driving himself into frenzied desperation. A song almost criminally underarranged, though: with a little more work it could have become a timeless epic rather than just a forgotten track on one of Green's lesser records.

A decent start overall, but for some reason, whenever I call upon my heart and brain for judge­ment, both happen to be out for lunch, no matter what time of day it is. Meaning that the judge­ment has to be suspended, and the music lover should proceed at his own risk. There is a CD edition with lots of bonus tracks, I hear, but the only one on mine is an early single version of 'I Want To Hold Your Hand', which is... well, it's not difficult to imagine what an Al Green version of 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' could sound like.


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