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Monday, August 31, 2009

Albert King: I'll Play The Blues For You


ALBERT KING: I'LL PLAY THE BLUES FOR YOU (1972)

1) I'll Play The Blues For You; 2) Little Brother; 3) Breaking Up Somebody's Home; 4) High Cost Of Loving; 5) I'll Be Doggone; 6) Answer To The Laundromat Blues; 7) Don't Burn Down The Bridge; 8) Angel Of Mercy.

A most important change of scenery. This time around, instead of Booker T. & The MG's, Albert teams up with the Bar-Kays for an overall sound that is more funk-flavoured R'n'B than traditional blues, and it works — his old licks, stewed in this new setting, suddenly acquire a new freshness. It turns out that they are fully com­patible with syncopated bass and wah-wah rhythms, and can easily carry on a leng­thy funk jam the same way they'd carried on all the lengthy blues jams.

Obviously, like all the older generation bluesmen who had the luck to become or go on being commercial and critical stars in the 1960s, King was reluctant to see his name drop off the charts or get dirtied with the tag of «irrelevance», so some sort of modernization was in order; and, for­tunately for humanity, this was still early Seventies, when funk was young and fresh and totally progres­sive in essence, and the Bar-Kays could play it as well as anyone. One thing most funk people did not have, though, was a great traditional guitarist to back them up — and this means that there is every reason in the world to listen to I'll Play The Blues For You even after you have heard all the George Clinton and James Brown and Sly Stone classics from this era.

There could only be one way in which the results would have turned out catastrophic: that is, if Albert started reinventing himself as some sort of funk superstar to show off rather than just play and sing. This is more or less how things are on the album's unluckiest track, a syncopated groove reworking of Marvin Gaye's pop standard 'I'll Be Doggone'. Recorded live, it incorporates some fairly forced audience interaction where Albert admits to wanting to play a James Brown before the fans ('can I go to the bridge?' and all that), and this is just not him — he sounds nowhere near as self-assured as when asking his San Francisco albums if they 'can dig it' on the live albums from 1968. Wanting to funk it up is one thing, but playing with James Brown at James' own game is quite another.

However, this is just an exception. Everywhere else King is being quite moderate, wisely leaving the «renovation» to his backing band, himself satisfied with pouring the same old wine into new winebags. The hit title track, a pompous piece of blues-soul in the vein of B. B. King, is deeply emotional; 'Breaking Up Somebody's Home' rocks harder than anything on his last two albums; and 'Don't Burn Down The Bridge' has as much soul-wrenching blues power as it has knee-jerking funk power.

I would not go as far as to call these songs «masterpieces», but if ever there was a reason for Albert King to go on recording new music, this bit of restyling is that reason — in fact, it is hard to think of any other way in which he could have successfully freshened up his approach. In terms of actual influence, I'll Play The Blues For You does not even begin to compare with Born Under A Bad Sign, but in terms of self-contained musical progress, it is King's most clever and inspired album ever since, and it deserves all the thumbs up it can get from both the mind and the heart.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead


AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD: ...AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD (1998)

1) Richter Scale Madness; 2) Novena Without Faith; 3) Fake Fake Eyes; 4) Half Of What; 5) Gargoyle Waiting; 6) Prince With A Thousand Enemies; 7) Ounce Of Prevention; 8) When We Begin To Steal.

I cannot judge this record on its own terms. That would require a deep and long familiarity with the "noise" style in all of its genres — punk, post-punk, industrial, prog metal, thrash, "stoner rock", etc. etc. I do not have that familiarity, nor do I ever intend to gain one because I'm some­what afraid for my ears — they're a nice part of myself, and I'd hate to lose them to the nefarious artefacts of Throbbing Gristle or Minor Threat (and no, I'm well aware they don't have much in common). I'm certainly willing to sacrifice my time and tastes for many things, but bleeding noise isn't one of them; if its purposes do not get to me soon enough, I see no reason for me to start getting through to them.

This is, by and large, also my basic reaction to the debut album of these Austin guys (which is what I am going to call them, instead of referring to the band's full name all of the time or, God help me, the unwieldy abbreviation AYWKUBTTOD; technically, none of the guys are from Aus­­tin, but the band was formed in Austin). It is clear that, already on their self-titled debut, they are trying to step forward and do something individual in the "noise" vein. They don't take too much cues from metal, because they're all lousy instrumentalists (in the sense that any normal metal guy would call them lousy), but they are quite obviously looking up to all the other noisy genres — hardcore punk may very well be in the middle of it, yet the album's goals are far more artsy, even apocalyptic at times. Wait, "at times"? That's not right — it's about the end of the world from the very beginning, as the ground shakes from the wild blasts of 'Richter Scale Madness', to the very end.

The average "song" on here has a blunt mid-tempo, a chainsaw guitar slashing out power chords in one channel, a ringing guitar ringing out the same chords in another channel, a thunderous rhythm section, and, oh yes, a mumbling or screeching guy somewhere in the back yard, hope­lessly lost among all the noise but still trying to sound like he's important. It's not cacophonous: the actual playing is quite melodic and conservative, it's just the way it's all arranged and loaded with feedback that makes the proceedings close to unlistenable. Sometimes they lose the rhythm section, and then it all begins to sound like Neil Young practicing feedback on the soundtrack to Dead Man, but with a far more narrow vision at that.

Sometimes the band starts out quiet enough for the listener to be able to make more sense of what is going on — like on 'Novena Without Faith', the first song on the record to do so and, arguably because of this, the one most frequently quoted by listeners. That never goes on for too long, how­ever: everything quiet on this record merely serves as a prelude to something much louder. Other than that, the songs have no individuality, at least, no individuality that I could establish based on three or four listens: it's all a never-ending glop of musical sludge, although, by all means, produced with care and attention.

So, if you're into musical sludge, "this note's for you", to quote the title of a minor, but still far superior to this, Neil Young album. If you're not, this pro­bably isn't a bad example of the genre to ever forbid yourself the proper acquaintance with. Predictably, all I can offer is a thumbs down, but don't take my word on it — I feel a little like Captain Cook around the Austronesians about it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Aimee Mann: Bachelor No. 2


AIMEE MANN: BACHELOR NO. 2 (2000)

1) How Am I Different; 2) Nothing Is Good Enough; 3) Red Vines; 4) The Fall Of The World's Own Optimist; 5) Satellite; 6) Deathly; 7) Ghost World; 8) Calling It Quits; 9) Driving Sideways; 10) Just Like Anyone; 11) Susan; 12) It Takes All Kinds; 13) You Do.

Subtitled The Last Remains Of The Dodo, whatever that may symbolize apart from showing the lady's knowledge of paleontology and Alice In Wonderland. She may be right, too, though, if by "Dodo" she means "songwriting that incorporates melodicity, intelligence, and self-restraint", because that's what Bachelor No. 2 is all about. It may or may not be her best record, but it's the one I find hardest of all to criticize.

Back on the ground from the God-substituting creationism of Magnolia, Aimee returns to her self-righteous manhating business, but she has obviously "wised up", and it would be stubborn and shallow to insist she's still writing about her breakups (or breakdowns, for that matter). So, yes, it's the easiest interpretation for lines like 'what was started out with such excitement now I'd gladly end with relief', but it's not the only one possible — the lyrics become open for more than one way of interpretation, and I can't recall any laughable moments, either. She may not be stri­ving for the heights of the great poets, but she's at least on the level of an Elvis Costello — not coincidentally, the latter is credited for co-writing 'The Fall Of The World's Own Optimist'.

I'm not sure if it was really necessary to include three songs from the Magnolia soundtrack, but, considering that the fourth one ('Nothing Is Good Enough') is a vocal version of the instrumental tune on the soundtrack, I guess they weren't really written specifically for the film, but were ra­ther just temporarily "donated" from Aimee's main project, so this cannot serve as even a tech­nical criticism. As for the main project, its retail release was significantly delayed because, appa­rently, Aimee's record label did not deem it commercially viable and ordered her to come up with more hit singles (probably something along the lines of 'Baby One More Time', which was riding up the charts at the time?), leading her to buy out the publishing rights and distributing the record through her web site (apparently, she managed to ship 25,000 copies all by herself!). Which is all the more ridiculous particularly since Bachelor No. 2 is one of Aimee's most accessible records — certainly far more so than the bleak follow-up Lost In Space — and that just about any song on it could easily function as a single, being far more memorable and enjoyable than ninety per­cent of today's MTV garbage.

Musically, she continues to tone down the grungy guitar slash of I'm With Stupid and continues in the Magnolia vein — acoustic and piano-driven stuff, backed up with electric sound a-plenty, but also strings, accordeons, brass, and anything that can be shaped into a solid wall of sound whenever she feels like it. The mood is bitter throughout, but not suicidal or anything: she's not doing this for the sinister purposes of Paul Thomas Anderson, but for her own needs, and she may be pissed at the world, but that doesn't prevent her from enjoying being there; the result is a bright, but angry, inquisitive, but self-assured, record that, third or fourth time around, proves definitely that Aimee is no fluke, but rather one of the most treasurable songwriters of our times.

She is also making some of the prettiest use of her voice you'll ever hear — for instance, on the radically brief snippet 'Just Like Anyone'. She doesn't have a particularly strong voice, and her range isn't particularly wide, and she doesn't know much in the way of "vocal gymnastics", but, like a female Paul McCartney, she knows what it takes to get one trapped in the beauty of the human voice. Or maybe, to use a closer comparison, rather like Suzanne Vega, whose musical style she sometimes approaches on the quieter songs here — especially on the track that is, inci­dentally, titled 'Susan' (any relation?..).

It is joyful to realize there are still writers/performers in this world who can dress their anger into complex colorful forms — for all the fury packed in the lyrics of 'Calling It Quits', preaching against the corporate greed of record companies, it has one gloriously uplifting melody, punctua­ted by marching style brass flourishes; and the middle eight section on 'How Am I Different' flows like a luscious honey stream, but the words are, in fact, 'just a question before I pack — when you fuck it up later, do I get my money back?'

It is just as joyful to witness the brilliance of the God-given talent for songwriting so close up front, like on 'Red Vines', a song which could have been utterly generic pap but where, instead, the vocal melodies in both the verses and the chorus take unpredictable, but delightful and com­pletely smooth twists. If the tune is familiar to you, observe this twist on the ascending 'everyone loves you...' after the first two 'regular' lines, or how the 'cigarettes and Red Vines' chorus is not immediately followed by the rhyming 'I'll be on the sidelines', which would be decent for a so-so songwriter, but by the 'contrapunctus' of 'baby you never do know' — and how normal this sounds, original, but normal. It's all relatively simple, but something tells me it should all be your average musicologist's delight.

If, like me, you tend to be frequently annoyed by singer-songwriters — which is only natural, because most of the time most singer-songwriters strive to be annoying — I can only state for myself that Bachelor No. 2 is one of the least annoying annoying singer-songwriter albums I've ever had the pleasure to listen to, and this sentence alone sets it up in a class of its own. And this, in turn, guarantees a rock-hard thumbs up from the brain, whereas the heart, already accustomed to being seduced by Ms. Mann's charms, follows suit.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Accept: Russian Roulette


ACCEPT: RUSSIAN ROULETTE (1986)

1) T.V. War; 2) Monsterman; 3) Russian Roulette; 4) It's Hard To Find A Way; 5) Aiming High; 6) Heaven Is Hell; 7) Another Second To Be; 8) Walking In The Shadow; 9) Man Enough To Cry; 10) Stand Tight.

One picture that can be constructed around the recording of this album is that it is darker and less compromising than Metal Heart, going easier on simple hooks and heavier on grim atmosphere, and that this reflected the creative struggle between grittier front man Dirkschneider and more flexible lead guitarist Wolf Hoffmann, a struggle in which, for this round, Udo had the upper hand but which eventually led to his departure from the band that Hoffmann would be free to lead to complete disaster.

At least this is what you get from reading the yellow press on the Internet; the real picture... well, you know. Russian Roulette is certainly a departure from Metal Heart, but in more ways than one, and both good and bad ways. The good news is that they start varying the approach a bit; that nasty nagging feeling that you're listening to a pre-programmed algorithmic artefact, where all the songs are modeled on the same formula, is gone. There is more diversity to the moods and tempos, and even a return to "epic" form (title track; 'Heaven Is Hell'). The bad news, alas, is that not all of this works, and that the band begins to sound tired and out of steam.

You know they're tired and out of steam when the first song of the album begins in the style and tempo of 'Fast As A Shark' — but forgets to pack an equally convincing and memorable riff, and ends up sounding like respectable, but still generic trash, elevated to this status of "respectable" more through a purely psychological understanding that this is still Hoffmann on the guitar on Udo on vocals, and there's no escape from their onslaught.

You know this even better once you understand that the convincing and memorable riff of the second song ('Monsterman') is actually lifted directly from Judas Priest's 'You Got Another Thing Coming' — intentionally or subconsciously, doesn't matter. And this is also where you could start getting the uneasy feeling that, first time in years, it is the gruff chorus chanting that interacts with Udo's solo wailing which is the major thing to get stuck in your head. 'I am the monsterman!' on 'Monsterman'. 'WAR GAMES! SHANGHAI'D!' on the title track. 'HEAVEN IS THERE WHERE HELL IS — AND HELL IS DOWN ON EARTH!' 'WALKING IN THE SHADOW, WALKING IN THE NIGHT!' All of a sudden, it's not that hard to understand the rest of the band might have developed the suspicion that they could go on getting by without Udo's help.

None of this should be disconcerting per se. 'Heaven Is Hell' is a glorious epic along the lines of 'Balls To The Wall' (but certainly not a rewrite of it, as some detractors have suggested) that de­serves eternal recognition in the metal canon. The sense of doom and gloom on 'Russian Roulette' arguably echoes the sense of doom hanging over the band itself, and is fully realistic, for that mat­­ter. Some of the shorter songs, like 'Aiming High', also reach their mark through the usual combination of grittiness and catchiness.

Yet they also recline back into the cesspool of arena rock — 'It's Hard To Find A Way', 'Man Enough To Cry', and the closing anthem 'Stand Tight' are, by all means, not the kind of songs that this band should be writing. Maybe it's the Hoffmann stamp, maybe not, but these are songs for the likes of Foreigner, not the Udo-led combo that, at their best, either avoided sentimentality or found subtler cloaks for it than power chords and passionate choral vocals. Looking back at the calendar, it's nothing short of amazing that it was 1986 — as far as I'm concerned, one of the worst years in history for popular music — and they still managed to get only two or three of those, but this realization doesn't make them any more listenable on their own.

So the crisis here is obvious, but "crisis" needn't necessarily be a horrendous thing — in times of crisis, you can start wildly fluttering around your cage, trying out every direction, and end up hitting upon a few gaps in the bars (as well as a few particularly rough spots). There is still that element of fascination in Russian Roulette, with its mixture of pompous failures and equally pompous hits, that prevents it from being the kind of blemish on Accept's reputation that their next album would turn out to be. The brain is, therefore, intrigued, and the heart gripped by mixed emotions, and I can't give this either a positive or a negative rating, but I do recommend hearing this at least once, because sometimes "confused" heavy metal albums give more food for both the heart and the brain than perfectly self-assured ones.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

10cc: Look Hear?


10CC: LOOK HEAR? (1980)

1) One Two Five; 2) Welcome To The World; 3) How'm I Ever Gonnna Say Goodbye; 4) Don't Send We Back; 5) I Took You Home; 6) It Doesn't Matter At All; 7) Dressed To Kill; 8) Lovers Anonymous; 9) I Hate To Eat Alone; 10) Strange Lover; 11) L.A. Inflatable.

No thank you. I can still look (especially since the album has two different covers — the UK release had 'ARE YOU NORMAL' written on it in huge letters, and the US release had a picture of a sheep reclining on a Roman-shape bed located on a beach, transatlantically suggesting, per­haps, that the cor­rect answer to the former question is NO), but I'd rather not hear.

The only redeeming quality of Look Hear?, in contrast to the following two albums that lacked even that, is that it's still nicely melodic. Apart from a completely non-descript bad prog rock contribution by two new members ('Welcome To The World'), Gouldman and Stewart can still ensure that the bulk of the record is constituted by chord-based pop melodies that took time to write and incorporate some real feeling as well.

The trouble is, tons of people can write moderately decent pop, but from these guys we have come to expect more than that. We expect some wit, some grit, some laughs, some unpredic­ta­bility — in short, that 10cc feel that everyone brought up on Sheet Music instantly recognizes. Well, Look Hear? is the first 10cc album that sounds nothing like 10cc. It doesn't rock out at all — the closest it comes to rock is on Rick Fenn's 'Don't Send We Back', but even there the sound is seriously watered down. It isn't in the least unpredictable: same reliance on McCartney-style balladeering and reggae influences as on their last record.

But, worst of all, it isn't funny at all. Almost as if Mother Superior had removed the crucial mem­bers' tongue-in-cheek mechanisms for long-term repair, most of the songs take themselves dead serious. The love ballads are lyrically straightforward, the character impersonations almost try to make you care about the impersonations, and 'Don't Send We Back', entrusted completely to the cares of Rick Fenn, is the band's first ever straight social song — not satire, not sarcasm, but an angry comment on the sad fates of illegal immigrants. What the heck??

The best song is Gouldman's 'I Hate To Eat Alone', a pretty and touching ode to loneliness that could have creeped in as a minor highlight on one of the band's better albums — unnoticed and unloved at first, perhaps, but cherished later. (See 'Old Wild Men' on Sheet Music). But the rest of the ballads, such as 'I Took You Home', pompous beyond reason, or 'Lovers Anonymous', go way too heavy on the melodrama and unpleasantly remind me of the worst excesses of Seventies' pop. I've already mentioned how 10cc managed to end up sounding like good Foreigner — on Look Hear?, way too often, they end up sounding like bad Foreigner without the heavy guitars. So much so that it's even a relief to have the album ending on a lightweight, forgettable, but — in the context of it all — heartwarming bit of generic boogie ('L.A. Inflatable').

So this is the real beginning of the end, although the agony would be prolonged further for seve­ral unhappy years. Thumbs down from the brain, who thinks himself so insulted he is seriously considering challenging the G-S duo to a brain duel, and likewise from the heart, which does not accept betrayal of its confidence lightly.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Al Green: Explores Your Mind


AL GREEN: AL GREEN EXPLORES YOUR MIND (1974)

1) Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy); 2) Take Me To The River; 3) God Blessed Our Love; 4) The City; 5) One Night Stand; 6) I'm Hooked On You; 7) Stay With Me Forever; 8) Hangin' On; 9) School Days.

Explores Your Mind? More like Explores Your Body! Keeping up with the times, Al and pro­ducer Willie Mitchell steer the ship in a more shallow direction, ending up with the first Al Green album in a long time that might be more suitable for club audiences than late night make-outs. The tempos are driven up, the strings swoop in precise funky grooves, Al introduces more catchy vocal choruses, and much of this borders on proto-disco.

Is it bad? Who knows? After all, it is quite slippery to try and accuse Al Green of "selling out"; his creed, from the very start to the very end, has always been Spirituality, Sentimentality, and Commerciality (or, if one wants to use a less derogatory term, Accessibility). So, Al Green Explo­res Your Mind may abuse the latter part, but it does so without sacrificing either Spiri­tuali­ty or Sentimentality — and, if anything, he is now even closer to merging the two, e. g. on 'God Blessed Our Love', the slowest and most gospel-oriented song on the album. Nothing can be more exciting than bringing together God and the lady you love, right?

But, of course, it can be relatively unsettling to learn that the big hit, this time around, bears the title of 'Sha-La-La'. It's not the Manfred Mann level of (anti-)intelligence, of course, yet there is decidedly less subtlety to this little album-opening hymn than to 'Call Me' or even 'Let's Get Mar­ried', and you can feel that decidedly less work went into it, as well. So history was right to de­cide that the true song number one on the album is Al's original version of 'Take Me To The Ri­ver', not fully appreciated by either black or white audiences until its popularization by Talking Heads several years later.

With the Heads, it was put by David Byrne through his well-oiled para­noia machine, but also lost the lyrical relevance — David Byrne isn't well-known for being (and could have never even tried on the guise of) a tortured lover, whereas for Al it's the primary occu­pation, and his use of a Christian metaphor — 'take me to the river, wash me down' — to reflect the yearning for getting rid of a love he doesn't feel right about is right on target. Once again, here's this idea of a super­natural fear outbalancing temptation, and it is perhaps no accident that 'God Blessed Our Love' is the very next track: in order to overcome this fear, Al has to make sure that this is not a demonic temptation, but rather a holy feeling validated by his superior. It's only natural, though, that 'Take Me To The River' is the masterpiece, and 'God Blessed Our Love' the trifling footnote.

None of the other songs have an intrigue as deep-cutting as 'Take Me To The River', but both the ballads and the dance grooves are uniformly tasteful, and one has to seriously, seriously com­mend the strings and horns arrangements: for instance, the first fifteen seconds of 'One Night Stand', with the two waves of these sounds meeting each other, are quite a glorious fifteen se­conds, and the clever use of the harp on 'Hangin' On' is a refreshing novelty. So let it be well understood that, even though the emphasis is on Entertainment, this is still first-class Entertain­ment and still one of the best soul/R'n'B albums of the year. And even though it begins with the feather-light 'Sha-La-La', it still ends with the pensive, introspective finale of 'School Days' — Al sweetly and gracefully reminiscing about his early days of romance. Or maybe reminiscing about your early days of romance? After all, it's Al Green Explores Your Mind, not His Mind. But a big thumbs up from the heart regardless of the answer, and a slightly lesser one from the mind, which still cannot completely shake off the not so pleasant feeling of being "explored" with the likes of 'Sha-La-La'.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Joker Is Wild


ALEX HARVEY: THE JOKER IS WILD (1972)

1) The Joker Is Wild; 2) Penicillin Blues; 3) Make Love To You; 4) I'm Just A Man; 5) He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother; 6) Hare Krishna/Willie The Pimp; 7) Flying Saucer's Daughter.

Another failed effort, also relatively hard to locate for a good reason. It is unclear who exactly is backing Alex on the album; accounts are contradictory, but at least one point of view is that all the members of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band were already on board for this session. I find this unlikely to be true, and completely baffling if it is true, because in that case there is no ratio­nal explanation at all to the miraculous transition from the unfunny boredom of The Joker Is Wild into the hilarious hard-rocking dementia of Framed.

Basically, Harvey is dragging on his "humorous" deconstruction schtick, with almost uniformly disastrous results. His take on heavy blues-rock, illustrated by 'Penicillin Blues', is like some ear­ly Led Zeppelin or Jeff Beck exercise in 12-bardom, but without any of the amazing guitar pyro­technics; instead, we just get a bunch of self-consciously "dirty" lyrics that are neither primitive enough to be convincing nor subtle enough to be enjoyable. (Case in point: 'you got such bad blood baby, looks like you need a shot — but I want to have you turn around, 'cause I wanna see everything else that you've got'. What is this, high school?).

It is just as painful to listen to Harvey's interpretations of 'I Just Wanna Make Love To You' (too ugly to be sleazy), 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' (the level of parody is about the same as if you and I got drunk in a downtown bar and started karaokeing), and Zappa's 'Willie The Pimp'; the latter is tied together in a medley with 'Hare Krishna' (!), and neither is funny or fun. Maybe this can be someone else's idea of humour, but I find myself completely unable to even raise a smile — and this is coming from the exact same man who, several months later, went on to make one of the most joyful records of the decade!

About the only thing that vaguely manages to entertain is the closing number, 'Flying Saucer's Daughter', a satire on heavy psychedelia where the music is marginally more complex and hea­vier on the sonic effects, and the lyrics marginally elevate beyond schoolboy pap. Even so, its fire and fury are pitiful next to the fire and fury of 'St. Anthony' (the album closer on Framed), and the tune has very little individual value. So, it goes without saying that this is a thumbs down in all respects — and the overall conclusion is that you just can skip the entire career of Mr. Harvey prior to the Sensational Band altogether. Apparently, though, sometime in mid-'72 the Flying Saucer's Daughter tweaked Mr. Harvey's brain a bit, and he's never been the same afterwards, to the great delight of all of us.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Albert King: The Lost Session


ALBERT KING: THE LOST SESSION (1971; 1986)

1) She Won't Gimme No Lovin'; 2) Cold In Hand; 3) Stop Lying; 4) All The Way Down; 5) Tell Me What True Love Is; 6) Down The Road I Go; 7) Money Lovin' Women; 8) Sun Gone Down (take 1); 9) Brand New Razor; 10) Sun Gone Down (take 2).

When you're climbing up the rugged heights of that awesome garbage heap called popular music, remember this: not everything that is lost obligatorily deserves to be found. In fact, more often than not there is a pretty good reason for The Thing to have gotten lost. Of course, if you're a sci­entist, this golden rule does not apply in the least — but this is why it would be nice if quite a few of these CDs, instead of silly rating stickers, bore something more informative, like, «FOR HIS­TORICAL RESEARCH AND SEXUAL GRATIFICATION PURPOSES ONLY».

The Lost Session is not even well-qualified for the former. It is simply ten chunks of a lengthy jam that Albert took part in at Wolfman Jack Studios in L. A. in August 1971, in collaboration with British blues guru John Mayall. The liner notes, written by Lee Hildebrand in a very clear and intelligent manner, make the best justification possible for this collaboration, explaining that the gentlemen wanted to do something radically different from Albert's usual Stax style, and that they achieved it by fusing together "Delta blues, British blues, and Los Angeles jazz".

This is a great way of putting it, but I, for one, do not so easily understand the charms of a synthe­sis between "Delta blues" and "British blues", given that the latter is essentially a derived function of the former (so there's something vaguely incestuous about that picture). And as for 'Los Ange­les jazz', it is essentially represented by a couple of sax and trumpet solos on a couple of the jams; they do sound different from the instrumental passages on King's regular albums, but they're hardly more eyebrow-raising than, say, AC/DC's one and only use of bagpipes on one and only one of their songs — and you hardly bought the album for that moment.

So, if the very idea of a partnership between a giant of American and a giant of British blues is enough to get you shaking, feel free to get lost in The Session. But if, overwhelmed by the flood of electric blues albums, you feel more like getting your kicks out of the 'real special' ones, I doubt this archive release passes the test. I cannot even name one particular highlight. Musician­ship is fine, sound is clean, but the thumbs are down all the same. Give me the Stax sound over this unexperimental experiment any time of day.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Amy Winehouse: Back To Black


AMY WINEHOUSE: BACK TO BLACK (2007)

1) Rehab; 2) You Know I'm No Good; 3) Me & Mr. Jones; 4) Just Friends; 5) Back To Black; 6) Love Is A Losing Game; 7) Tears Dry On Their Own; 8) Wake Up Alone; 9) Some Unholy War; 10) He Can Only Hold Her; 11) Ad­dicted; 12) Valerie.

Impressive! The overall style hasn't changed (unless you count the visual transformation — by this time, covered with a mix of tattoos and heroin marks and enriched with a hairstyle that would topple the 3rd Marine Division, Amy had begun to look like the Bride of Sauron), but almost all the flaws that made Frank tedious have been remedied. For one thing, the album is much shorter, at the expense of cutting down on the songs' average length — a marvelous decision, if you ask me; this way, they really feel like concise, laconic songs rather than space-taking boring grooves that stretch out like bad toffee just because everyone else is doing this.

For another thing, she is no longer setting herself up as a 21st century reincarnation of Billie Ho­liday (except for, perhaps, the nice trifle of 'Love Is A Losing Game'). This is a strongly jazz and R'n'B influenced pop album that follows no one particular idol and no one particular style. It does not sound self-consciously retro (it acknowledges all its influences, but does not make an effort to sound exactly like any of them), and it does not sound self-consciously modernistic; it's already got the potential to endure because it's so wonderfully timeless.

Also, it may be just a crazy thought, but it seems like she is reducing the flashiness of her voice, as if intentionally driving home the idea that the main selling point of Back To Black should be the songs and not the "Vocal Diva" visiting card. When the song requires her to stretch out, she stretches out, but there is practically no scatting, no wailing in between verses, no trying to reach out for the harder ranges — even though her voice is still not a favourite of mine, she is quite con­sistently listenable throughout.

Finally, no one could any longer accuse Amy of cultivating self-pity. The album rode on the success of the 'Rehab' single, an autobiographical tale of personal problems, but it is quite obvio­usly ironic, and its melody, borrowing some bouncy energy from the classic Motown style, is downright cheerful — lead singles have to be cheerful, after all. Much darker is the title track, but it is also more detached; after all, not all sad songs are supposed to reflect the artist's own perso­nality, and Amy's jazzy imploration — 'you go on back to her, and I'll go back to black' — could be about me and you if we wanted it to be so. Wonderful arrangement, as well, with these trebly guitars and strings and bells and whatever.

Or take 'You Know I'm No Good', a song that's even more radio-friendly than 'Rehab' (if only for having the tightest rhythm section on the album). This, too, may be deeply personal, but she sings it closer in style to the jazz queens of old, never overemoting so that there be space left for the mystery of it — just how close is the relationship between the lyrics and the singer? It's a cold and faraway sound, but also catchy, and when the horns come in to announce the bridge, they catch that mystery virus from the singer and end up sounding just as puzzling. It is quite ever so refreshing to see a "mainstream" tune bring back the old intrigue.

The album is not a hundred percent consistent — I sense a minor drop of quality towards the second half — but there's really nothing bad on it; even the songs that are not memorable still manage to sound nice. The happiness of it all is in realizing that after an album like Frank, most artists would have gone soft and trendy, but this particular artist quite obviously knows what she likes and she's going to do it no matter what — and she's got such a strong personality that she can actually make the majority pander to her will instead of vice versa. And this means that, as long as we have people like Amy — which, given her drug problems, may unfortunately not be too long — there is still a whiff of hope for the mainstream, and a drop of good taste.

So, major thumbs up from the intellectual department and minor same from the heart (major same would never come from the heart because that's not the kind of voice the heart can be truly happy about). Sidenote: Back To Black sometimes comes in a "deluxe" version that adds a se­cond CD worth of demos and covers of Amy's old favs like 'Cupid' and 'To Know Him Is To Love Him'. Only for serious fans, and only on the condition no one of them will be foolish enough to say that 'Amy blows Sam Cooke away' or some other crazy thing like that.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Aimee Mann: Magnolia Soundtrack


AIMEE MANN: MAGNOLIA SOUNDTRACK (1999)

1) One; 2) Momentum; 3) Build That Wall; 4) Deathly; 5) Driving Sideways; 6) You Do; 7) Nothing Is Good Enough; 8) Wise Up; 9) Save Me; 12) Dreams [by Gabrielle]; 13) Magnolia [by Jon Brion].

This is that rare example of a movie soundtrack that stands well on its own terms — a fairly appropriate instance, too, since the battalions of admirers and haters of Magnolia the movie and Magnolia the soundtrack intersect, but do not overlap. I feel very fortunate, therefore, that I can safely state: I admire the movie — one of the bravest and quite hard-hitting in its bravery epic creations of the 1990's — and I think its soundtrack fits its atmosphere perfectly. Not only that, but the movie's wide-reaching goals almost certainly help Aimee overcome her own artistic limi­tations and finally match her exciting, moving music to broader themes than relationships fucked up for no apparent reason other than that relationships have to be fucked up, or else what sort of fucking relationships are they?

Maybe the four-year break in recording helped, too: the eight originals, plus Aimee's cover of Harry Nilsson's 'One', are all stunning — not a single melody fails to stir up feelings (one semi-exception is the instrumental 'Nothing Is Good Enough', which works much better with vocals on Bachelor No. 2 — not that the slow, hypnotic keyboard-and-strings-driven waltz isn't delightful on its own, but she must sing!).

Few things are more tragic to savour in the soul than one's own loneliness, and unless our genes somehow fail to elevate us to the level of Homo sapiens sapiens, we all feel this sometimes. That's what the movie was about; and this is why, not coincidentally, the soundtrack album opens with 'One' — for all I know, One could have been the title of the album. Inability to be under­stood is an integral part of a broken relationship (the other integral part of it is, of course, inabi­lity to cope with the inability of being understood), so it is quite a smooth and unbroken current that carries you from superficial whining about your messed up life into the deep sea of realizing there must be more serious, and more scary, reasons that underlie this mess. So, if Whatever and I'm With Stupid were basically bitter, but still shiny, pop, this soundtrack is gloomy and hopeless from the beginning to the end (even more hopeless than the movie, which still offered some sort of redemption from the nightmare — but that was actually its weakest part).

'One' is a cover that achieves perfection — it is somewhat over-arranged compared to Nilsson's intentionally minimalistic performance, but even its over-arranged details preserve the spirit of the original. 'Wise Up', reflecting a climactic moment in the movie, is one of the bitterest, most heart-breaking songs of the decade, where both the lyrics and the music basically just tell you that the only way out of your misery is to accept it as something natural and inescapable: 'it's not go­ing to stop, it's not going to stop till you wise up... so just give up'. But it isn't presented as an op­timistic conclusion — right on its heels comes 'Save Me', where Aimee implores to 'save me, save me from the ranks of the freaks who suspect they can never love anyone'. Uh?

Musically, the songs here completely drop the grungy wall-of-sound of the last album and are much more accessible to the "general pop audiences", which is perhaps natural since such was the intention of the movie as well, but I do not see that as a problem as long as the melodies are won­derful, and they are. Most are propelled by pianos rather than guitars, but there's still room for the usual highly melodic guitar solo on songs like 'Deathly' and 'Driving Sideways', and 'Momentum' nibbles a bit at free-form jazz before settling into normalness.

The only weakness of the record is that it is, after all, a soundtrack, and so, as a completely unne­cessary bonus, we get two well-known Supertramp tunes, Jon Brion's instrumental 'Magnolia' theme (yawn), and Gabrielle's 'Dreams', a song that plays an important role in the movie but is otherwise a cheap dance-pop throwaway. Also, four out of nine songs were later reused by Aimee on her next solo album, which might make the buyer loath to own both records — but that is rather a weakness of Bachelor No. 2 than its predecessor. The predecessor hits so hard that it would be unimaginable it could fail to make Aimee Mann a household name, and, of course, it did, and quite deservedly so. Thumbs up for one of the most perfect combinations of artistic growth and commercial success in recent — and generally quite pitiful — history.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Accept: Staying A Life


ACCEPT: STAYING A LIFE (1990/1985)

1) Metal Heart; 2) Breaker; 3) Screaming For A Love-Bite; 4) Up To The Limit; 5) Living For Tonite; 6) Princess Of The Dawn; 7) Guitar Solo; 8) Restless And Wild; 9) Son Of A Bitch; 10) London Leatherboys; 11) Love Child; 12) Flash Rockin' Man; 13) Dogs On Leads; 14) Fast As A Shark; 15) Balls To The Wall.

A slightly belated live album, recorded in Japan on the Metal Heart tour — although the belated­ness may have ultimately done the band a favour; since it was released almost at the same time as their wretched Udo-less dwarf of a studio effort, Eat The Heat, the world, and the band itself, were reminded of their former glory and splendor, and possibly contributed towards the success­ful reunion with Udo. (Empty, but realistic, speculation).

Anyway, Accept are one of those bands that have no serious need for a live album: it is hardly within human capacity to make their live show even more "restless and wild" than what they give out in the studio. You cannot play 'Fast As A Shark' faster than a shark, and if one of their songs on Metal Heart flashed the title 'Up To The Limit', you may be sure that so it was, and the limit is the limit. The primary meaning of a hard rock live album is that it cranks up the level of head­banging, usually at the expense of polish and "cleanness" of sound; but what good is a live album if it still sacrifices a bit of polish, but is unable to crank up the headbanging?

Well, except for the bare fact that any Accept recording in Accept's prime is worth listening to as such, Staying A Life has a few major and minor advantages. First, it functions well as a "best of" package — somewhat uncomfortably tilted towards Metal Heart, the weakest of their "immacu­late stretch" of records, but still touching on most of the major highlights of Breaker, Restless And Wild, and Balls To The Wall. Second, it'll be a special delight for Wolf Hoffmann fans, since the guy generally gets more time to stretch out (there is even a special four and a half mi­nute solo which, in a nice nod to the psychedelic tastes of the Sixties, incorporates the theme from 'Hall Of The Mountain King'). Third, 'Princess Of The Dawn' does not get cut off, but is played well to its logical end (some might prefer the odd studio ending, though).

Fourth, it is worth owning this recording if only for the small bit of audience participating at the beginning of 'Fast As A Shark', when Udo leads the crowd in a series of call-and-response vocals. Each "call" is longer and more complex than the previous one, but the Japanese crowd does not yield — doing its best to collectively emulate his war cries. Then he comes up with a particularly impressive ascending line, which no single living human being can emulate. The audience, how­ever, gives it their best, and is almost able to match it. But just as the people — I think — start sighing in relief, believing they were finally able to catch up with Udo at his most complex...

Oh well, looks like this review is getting too long anyway. The album obviously gets a thumbs up, but so would probably just about every Accept show from 1982 to 1986. The recommenda­tion, however, is not to use it as a greatest hits-type shortcut, because that way you will be mis­sing out on 'Burning', 'Starlight', 'Ahead Of The Pack', and lots of other classics. [Note: the album can also be found in a somewhat more rare, 2-CD, edition, which does have 'Burning' — exten­ded beyond need and inferior to the original — as well as a couple other songs.]

Thursday, August 20, 2009

10cc: Bloody Tourists


10CC: BLOODY TOURISTS (1978)

1) Dreadlock Holiday; 2) For You And I; 3) Take These Chains; 4) Shock On The Tube; 5) Last Night; 6) Anony­mous Alcoholic; 7) Reds In My Bed; 8) Lifeline; 9) Tokyo; 10) Old Mister Time; 11) From Rochdale To Ocho Rich­dale; 12) Everything You Wanted To Know; 13*) Nothing Can Move Me.

Somehow, 'Dreadlock Holiday' managed to be a huge hit — maybe because its village-idiot style nod to reggae fell in with the emerging New Wave's preoccupation with Jamaica (after all, if 'Roxanne' could be a hit, why couldn't 'Dreadlock Holiday'?). On the coattails of its success, the entire album managed to sell respectably. In retrospect, however, Bloody Tourists, now quite explicitly, continues 10cc's slide into mediocrity and irrelevance.

I feel obliged to stress that the songwriting is still at a high level, and that there are plenty of de­cent pop hooks, and that, given time enough, the album is a "grower", not a "shrinker". Stewart and Gouldman still continue to do their best trying to come up with interesting subjects and match them with unpredictable music. But they're mildly interesting, and the music is mildly un­predictable: for one thing, they have completely lost the ability to rock out — when the 'hard' section on 'Shock On The Tube' takes over, it turns out to be little more than 'clown-rock', a term that I think well-suitable but almost unexplainable.

For another thing, they start going too heavy on the ballads; in fact, the entire album is divided almost evenly between straight-faced sentimental balladry and the 'weird' numbers — this sort of worked on Original Soundtrack, where 'I'm Not In Love' was a swell tilter that made you lose sleep over thinking just how much they actually meant it, sandwiched in between 'Une Nuit A Paris' and 'Blackmail', but when these things become the rule rather than the exception, and when you take them in perspective — CLICK! — you really understand that this band has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

But I repeat: if you manage to stay away from the perspective, Bloody Tourists, on its own, isn't bad at all — I'd put it on the same shelf with some second-rate solo Paul McCartney album. I do like 'Dreadlock Holiday', with its eerie tale of an unfortunate English guy on an unhappy vacation in Jamaica (apparently inspired by a real incident that happened on a real vacation undertaken by Eric Stewart and Justin Hayward) — one might complain that the band really knows nothing of reggae, but that would be missing the point, because they're not here to play reggae but rather to make fun of the reggae craze; I feel happy about the catchy retro-pop of 'Take These Chains', simple, unpretentious, and fun; I think that 'Anonymous Alcoholic', appropriately starting out as slow barroom rock and then going into a hot funky section, is more of an artistic success than a hoodlum failure; and I even like some of the ballads — why not? They're pretty.

So, as you understand, this is where the brain enters into a serious conflict with the heart. The best advice here, I think, would be — for those who were primarily enthralled with 10cc for their quirkiness and experimentation, to stay away from this album (let alone everything that follows; it would only get worse from here); for those, however, who loved 'Rubber Bullets' and 'I'm Not In Love', but hated 'The Worst Band In The World' and 'Clockwork Creep', Bloody Tourists is recommendable. And since I do not insist that a record has to be both intellectually stimulating and emotionally pleasing to be good, I still give it a thumbs up.

Useless bit of trivia: on this album, 10cc are once more a 'full' band, adding drummer Paul Bur­gess, guitarist Rick Fenn, keyboard player Duncan Mackay, and an extra percussionist (Stuart Tosh). Does it show? Not really. But some people like to know.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Al Green: Livin' For You


AL GREEN: LIVIN' FOR YOU (1973)

1) Livin' For You; 2) Home Again; 3) Free At Last; 4) Let's Get Married; 5) So Good To Be Here; 6) Sweet Sixteen; 7) Un­chained Melody; 8) My God Is Real; 9) Beware.

I cannot think of anything substantial to say about this album. It is another transitional piece, ap­parently, before Green started venturing into more "danceable" territory with his next album, and as such, reflects the usual high standard of Green's records, but with next to no serious surprises and no minor breakthroughs into unexplored territory.

For some reason, the songs here just don't grapple as much as the best songs on his two previous records; maybe he was again temporarily running out of ideas, or maybe his musical partners were too busy trying out the latest in trendy chemicals, or maybe it's just that the recording ses­sions fell on an unlucky day. Case in point: the eight-minute jam of 'Beware' looks like it's there just to occupy all the empty space — with 'Jesus Is Waiting', at least Al had some sort of point to break through, but here he is just coasting; with class, but still coasting.

He also seems to be recycling ideas; for instance, the "rocking" section of 'Home Again' would have been far more effective in surprising the listener, who'd already settled into the soft groove of it, if it hadn't been lifted right off 'All Because'. Minor quibble, to be sure, but enforcing the general unhappy feeling that Livin' For You is, in fact, the first in a long string of albums where the man finally has nothing new left to say and is forced to repeat himself.

The big hit was 'Let's Get Married', and, regardless of what I say, deservedly so: it's first-class Al Green, tenderness and paranoia and tremendous R'n'B drive all in one. And realism, of course — no clichéd lovey-dovey nonsense or dumb sexual bravado for Mr. Green, he always looks like he's torn between the holi­ness of his feelings and the utmost horror of them — exactly because they're so holy, he's so scared of them; true love, after all, is a very, very scary thing, much more so than simple adultery. If 'Love And Happiness' didn't manage to get the message through, then 'Let's Get Married' certainly will; throughout all of it, you can never really guess if the protagonist offers the girl to get married because he happily means it or because he just wants to get over all of this as soon as possible.

However, the only track that truly points to the future is, odd enough, the album's most light­weight number — 'Sweet Sixteen', a straightahead dance number that could have been disco if it had been just a tad faster. It does take some lyrical and musical clues from 'Sweet Little Sixteen', but overall it's an unrecognizable re-working, with near-robotic funky guitars, "geometrically ar­ranged" string embellishments, strict drum patterns, and just tiny touches of looseness here and there to retain the connection to Green's classic style. One might call it a cheapening of the gene­ral approach, but I'd rather save this remark for the next album, where this "innovation" becomes a commodity; within the context of Livin' For You, it's weirdly refreshing.

In the long run, it's still a thumbs up, of course, but I dare say the album will very rarely show up on the Top-3 for any fans of the Reverend, unless it chances to be the first Al Green record ever heard by them. Incidentally, it also happens to feature the cheesiest album cover from that period: Al Green as a cartoonish towering giant! I'd rather see the man in a pimp hat than that.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Alex Harvey: Roman Wall Blues


ALEX HARVEY: ROMAN WALL BLUES (1969)

1) Midnight Moses; 2) Hello L.A., Bye Bye Birmingham; 3) Broken Hearted Fairytale; 4) Donna; 5) Roman Wall Blues; 6) Jumping Jack Flash; 7) Hammer Song; 8) Let My Bluebird Sing; 9) Maxine; 10) Down At Bart's Place; 11) Candy.

After several years of relative inactivity, during which Harvey's main bit of public visibility was working with the original team for Hair, Alex tried to revive his fortunes and assembled a full rock band to produce his first true "formal" album as a solo artist. Considering that these days, you're lucky if you even come upon it in an old pile of recycled vinyl, you can imagine just how successful it was. Thank God for the digital era.

Then again, maybe not. The more I listen to Roman Wall Blues, the better I understand just how much of a difference The Sensational A. H. Band really made. Roman Wall Blues has it all — Harvey's genius-madman image, the post-modernist lyrics, the inventive and deconstructive song­writing, the stylistic diversity — but it doesn't have the one ingredient that really matters: well-played music. Maybe if you make a serious effort and evaluate this on its own, forgetting all about the tremendous musicianship of the aptly titled Sensational Band, it will be easier to warm up to the tunes. But there is really no need to: in the light of Framed and all that followed, Roman Wall Blues is just a prelude, a rehearsal, a weak demo version of the delights to come.

Alex himself must have known that, because he took the trouble of re-recording some of the best songs on this collection — such as the blues-rock rave-up of 'Midnight Moses', or the dark quasi-folk of 'Hammer Song' — with the Sensational Band. This is very laudable, but in the meantime it does not excuse the limp blues-and-brass backing on this record, and I am not even mentioning cases when it ceases to be backing and starts to be fronting — as on the exquisitely boring four-minute jam 'Down At Bart's Place'.

The worst problem, though, is that with poor musical backing, Harvey continues to sound annoy­ing rather than exciting. Depending on your constituency, you can think of his take on 'Jumping Jack Flash', for instance, as a masterful exercise in deconstruction, or as a silly clownish parody whose aims and goals are uncertain and whose effects range from neutral to negative. I prefer 'neutral', but that means the track simply has no reason to exist. They even re-record one song from Hair ('Donna'), but it doesn't go anywhere serious either.

I certainly understand why the record bombed — it's one of those albums you don't really know what to do with. It doesn't rock hard enough, it isn't nearly as funny as it could be, the hooks aren't tremendous, and the mood is neither heartily sincere nor explicitly insincere. It sort of slips through your fingers and through your ears, and few of us like records that slip through, so it's a thumbs down, from both the heart that finds itself offended for not being offered any emotional food and the brain that does not feel intellectually satisfied, either.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Albert King: Lovejoy


ALBERT KING: LOVEJOY (1971)

1) Honky Tonk Women; 2) Bay Area Blues; 3) Corrina, Corrina; 4) She Caught The Katy (And Left Me A Mule To Ride); 5) For The Love Of A Woman; 6) Lovejoy, Ill.; 7) Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven; 8) Going Back To Iuka; 9) Like A Road Leading Home.

Is it interesting to hear Albert King's take on the Rolling Stones? I have my doubts. Earlier, the Rolling Stones took the blues and turned it into sweaty rock'n'roll; now King is taking their sweaty rock'n'roll back from them and turning it back into the blues. His fluid, tasteful solo is definitely superior to Keith Richards' in terms of technical skill, but Keith Richards' solo on 'Honky Tonk Women' is the heart and soul of the Rolling Stones, and Albert King's solo on his cover version is — well, just another Albert King solo.

On the other hand, at least this cover version is curious enough to merit a special review parag­raph: most of the other tunes here are impossible to describe in any terms that are different from the ones used previously. That does not mean that the playing is bad or boring — on the contrary, Lovejoy is simply another excellent King record from his peak years. Rocking and occasionally ironic: 'Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven' is certainly remarkable not for using the exact same melody as 'Have You Ever Loved A Woman', but for following the title up with the sly remark — '...but nobody wants to die'.

The only big surprise comes at the end, with a «neo-gospel» ballad ('Like A Road Leading Home') where Albert tries something that he had never done before — singing and playing with a «tender soul» approach, more common on country-rock records by idealistic young whitebread snappers than on old burnt-out blues guys' contributions. However, atypical as this approach is for Albert, he pulls the deal off splendidly, and non-jaded listeners may even shed a tear or two over his plea of 'turn around, turn around, turn around and I'll be there', or over the closing passionate guitar solo, or even over the female backing vocals.

Other than that, just dig in. There are some cool, light-headed, loose funky jams worth any music lover's time — heck, almost anything with Booker T. & The MGs on it is worth any music lover's time. Thumbs up, although this is becoming a routine thing.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Amy Winehouse: Frank


AMY WINEHOUSE: FRANK (2003)

1) Intro/Stronger Than Me; 2) You Sent Me Flying/Cherry; 3) Know You Now; 4) Fuck Me Pumps; 5) I Heard Love Is Blind; 6) Moody's Mood For Love/Teo Licks; 7) (There Is No) Greater Love; 8) In My Bed; 9) Take The Box; 10) October Song; 11) What Is It About Men; 12) Help Yourself; 13) Amy Amy Amy/Outro.

I do not feel any great inner love for the voice of Amy Winehouse — an absolute prerequisite for being able to consider Amy Winehouse a (the?) Great Artist of Our Times. White people with black voices have always confused me: much too often, you get the impression that admirers rave about their singing simply because they happen to be white people with black voices. What about black people with black voices — what do they get out of it? Just because nature gave Amy Wine­house (or her equally famous, but far less interesting American "diva" counterpart, Ana­stasia) this weird mutated mix of skin color and vocal cords, we're supposed to go crazy?

Obviously, most critics will say that's not it, or not just it, and they will mean it, or they will pretend that they mean it. Of course not! Amy Winehouse doesn't just sing "in blackface". She's mixing old jazz and vaudeville with modern sounds. She writes catchy songs. She's an introspec­tive lyricist. She is, well, an interesting person — just look at her drug and her health and her personal life problems. She's a sensation in so many respects you don't know where to begin.

Maybe so. I think I do hear a new type of sound of Frank. It isn't necessarily a good type of sound, though. It's the sound of a young girl brought up in a jazz musicians' environment, soaking in the traditional jazz culture, and then selling it out to trendy dealers in modern sounds and pro­duction values. You could argue that Winehouse does to Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday much the same things that Vanessa Mae used to do (still does?) to giants of classical music. And there is, of course, no consensus on the validity, morality, or overall value of this approach.

The big difference is, Amy writes her own songs (or, at least, her own lyrics, with lots of help on the music from friends in the trade). Are they good on their own? To my liking, very uneven. Some of the numbers are almost offensively simplistic and catchy on the nursery rhyme level — these are, obviously, the commercial singles, such as 'Fuck Me Pumps', a song that I like to ins­tinctively tap my toes to but which, on the conscious level, only brings up negative thoughts. Mainly because of the lyrics. In the song, she is pouring venom on Paris Hilton-like (or, more precisely, Paris Hilton-wannabe-like) characters — she might as well skip the whole thing and go straight to shooting fish in a barrel. "Character assassination" songs are a tricky genre; just like there's a big difference between knifing someone in a drunken street brawl and an intricate Aga­tha Christie-style murder, so is there an equally big difference between "character assassination" à la Bob Dylan or Lou Reed, on one hand, and bazaar-squandering style lyrics such as featured on 'Pumps'. It doesn't help matters either that today, Amy Winehouse's main "claim to fame" is hardly her songwriting or recording, but rather all the tabloid stories. And besides, frankly spea­king, I do not even know what looks more ridiculous — the combination of "fuck me pumps" and Gucci bags or the combination of Mountain Girl-style hair and The World's Guide To Exotic Art in tattoos.

But enough of that, because 'Fuck Me Pumps' is, after all, just one piece of questionable commer­cial bait. The album compensates for this lapse of taste in many ways, really. 'Stronger Than Me' is enjoyable R'n'B with Amy picking on her lyrical hero for not being stronger than her (now that I can believe); 'You Sent Me Flying' has an excellent combination of minimalistic piano and angelic beauty in the chorus, and also gives us a very rare glimpse of Amy's falsetto, which I believe she should show us more often; 'What Is It About Men', with its lazy mid-tempo, gloomy wah-wahs, and depressive lyrics, refreshens my memories of Portishead; and I am totally deligh­ted by the self-ironic, half-serious, half-joking album closer 'Amy Amy Amy' ('where's my moral parallel?' she asks rhetorically). For every highlight or two, there is a piece of boring jazz muzak filler, but the high points prove that there is much substance, and better substance, beyond the singles and the videos.

Finally, about the sincerity of it all. Apparently one of Amy's major idols is Billie Holiday — someone who's gone through more suffering in her pre-success years than Amy is guaranteed to go through in all her life. It is therefore obvious that, no matter how much the latter is willing to mold her life and art in the image of Billie, it will always be fake to a certain degree. After all, the main trouble of artists that emerge today (Western, at least) is that they're all well-fed, well-dressed, have roofs over their heads, and are fully literate, and have been that way since the day of their birth. That doesn't count as a healthy presupposition to making great art.

So, just as one has to resort to "artificial" working out in order to compensate for the modern sedentary lifestyle, so does today's artist resort to finding out different ways to suffer in order to produce fuel for his/her art. Of course, one shouldn't go too far: for instance, giving away all your property to the poor wouldn't work, because it would take away your resources for marketing your music (and besides, shouldn't you get at least a little something in return for all the suffe­ring?). Therefore, there are but two easy ways to suffer. One is to sculpt yourself a dramatic love history, at a rate of about one breakup per year to keep thoughts fresh and feelings sharp. The other, of course, is to destroy your body through various unhealthy lifestyles. This may seriously endanger the longevity of your career, of course, but what with the medicine of today making such great strides and all, this risk is considerably lower than it used to be.

This should have served as a prelude for writing Amy Winehouse off as a fake like so many others, but now that I have seriously listened to Frank, I don't believe I'm in a position to do that. There really isn't that much suffering on the album, certainly not as much as an appalled Pitch­fork review of this album would have you believe. She is, after all, no Tori Amos. There's plenty of simple, unassuming love songs; there's a ton of extra- rather than introverted material, as if she were speaking to you, the listener, of your problems, rather than her own; and there really is not a single song that would straightforwardly fall under the definition of "self-pitying" — even 'Amy Amy Amy', like I said, is more humorous than depressive.

So there's no point to getting turned off by Frank. It's an interesting record by a young girl who likes jazz and her jazz idols and is happy to try her hand at it without sounding too retro. It's not a masterpiece, and I don't believe it will endure (Back To Black has a better chance), but by my third listen, I managed to pacify my brain about it, and get my heart enlivened by some of it, and if there's anything more to be expected out of it, I don't know what it is and I don't really need to know. As for the thumbs, they prefer to remain in a strictly horizontal position.

P.S. For the record, there are two hidden tracks after 'Outro' (no great shakes, although 'Mr. Magic' is kind of cute), and there is also a "deluxe" edition of the album with a second CD of demos, outtakes, and live versions that is strictly fan-recommended.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Aimee Mann: I'm With Stupid


AIMEE MANN: I'M WITH STUPID (1995)

1) Long Shot; 2) Choice In The Matter; 3) Sugarcoated; 4) You Could Make A Killing; 5) Superball; 6) Amateur; 7) All Over Now; 8) Par For The Course; 9) You're With Stupid Now; 10) That's Just What You Are; 11) Frankenstein; 12) Ray; 13) It's Not Safe.

I think lyrically, this album is a step forward because this time around there are two main lyrical themes rather than one: "I'm So Pissed Off At My Boyfriend Of Long Ago" occasionally alterna­tes with "I'm So Pissed Off At My Record Label Of Not So Long Ago". Not for one second do I believe that these particular subjects worry or should worry you, the reader, so let us treat them the way they should be treated: hollow pretexts to make moody music that has an equal probabi­lity chance of being inspiring or being fucked up. Incidentally, almost every review of this album that I've seen makes a big point of the album's first lyrical line going 'you fucked it up', but it's hard to understand what the fuss is about: this is 1995, not 1965. Maybe it's the sweet little girl aura of Aimee's and the tender tone in which it is being pronounced that befuddles the writers.

Overall, I'm With Stupid is Whatever Vol. 2, but with most of the sissy twelve-string jangle extricated and replaced with grungier guitars and power-enhanced chords — to sound more "mo­dern", I guess. The poor duped Roger McGuinn makes no more guest appearances, and it shows. When this album is at its worst — which, fortunately, is very rare — it's hard to distinguish the proceedings from zillions of results by billions of female artists with broken hearts and broken electric guitars wasting away taxpayers' money. Maybe no one would say that in 1995, but 'fif­teen years after the fair' it shows rather painfully, I'm afraid.

On the other hand, billions of female artists still don't got what Aimee's got, and that's an ability to write a soul-catching melody. After I've distanced myself from the lyrics of 'Sugarcoated' and managed to imagine the song in a more interesting arrangement, I am overwhelmed by its power and melodicity, reminiscent of Lennon's later-years style. 'Ray' is even better, its sweet melancho­lia finding perfect support from the electric piano in the background (yes, despite all the moder­nistic trappings, it is the sharp ringing of that piano that stands out as the most memorable sonic moment on the entire album). 'You're With Stupid Now' is a rare gem of an acoustic ballad here, and also a rare case when you can detach the chorus — 'what you want, you don't know, you're with stupid now, so on with the show' — from its surroundings, provide it with your own meaning, however deep you want to make it, and find it all the more beautiful.

Besides, my quibbles mostly lie with the rhythmic backbones of the songs: lead guitar work on most of them is as powerful as ever, with colorful solos planned and laid out just as expressively as the vocal melodies. (Sometimes they take on a slightly atonal, avantgarde manner, but only when the song might beg for it, as in the intentionally bizarre 'Frankenstein' — a metaphoric tune, of course, but ending in a truly Frankensteinish near-cacophony of street organ music crossed with free jazz at the end). I do not like the opening of 'Superball' at all, but once it unfurls all of its banners, I end caught up in the fun.

Who knows, maybe some day Aimee will want to re-record the album, or at least parts of it, using an approach that panders less to current trends on the market (even if those trends weren't all that bad in 1995). Then again, everything should probably stand as a document of its time; if we can enjoy those early Duran Duran records, there's no reason why simplistic grungy guitars should cause our conscience to lump a gifted songwriter like Mann with all the inferior substitutes. Thumbs up, thumbs up, by all means. The picky brain is always hard to please, but, fortunately, the sappy heart always takes precedence over the sucker.