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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Alan Parsons Project: The Turn Of A Friendly Card


1) May Be A Price To Pay; 2) Games People Play; 3) Time; 4) I Don't Wanna Go Home; 5) The Gold Bug; 6) The Turn Of A Friendly Card (i. Part One; ii. Snake Eyes; iii. The Ace Of Swords; iv. Nothing Left To Lose; v. Part Two).

The pooled brainpower of Parsons and Woolfson is admirable. This follow-up to Eve, skilfully crafted according to their continuously high standards, when dissolved into simple separate com­ponents, is just as «pop» as its predecessor — and yet, through subtle shifts of palette, a more dis­tinct emphasis on conceptuality, and a correctly calculated touch of musical feng shui, it restores the «art-rock» feel of the band's first three albums that some fans had started missing on Eve.

The record is about gambling — look at the song titles. But, of course, it is not literally about gambling: we only take the art of gambling as a metaphorical pretext to reflect on the concepts of chance, luck, risk, etc., and their role in and effect on people's lives. Nothing way too deeply phi­losophical, but, just like with Pink Floyd, it works because the simple, age-old truths of the lyrics are well attenuated by new musical ideas.

«New», however, not in the sense that The Project pay a lot of attention to trends — The Turn sounded quite archaic in 1980 (one reason why it sounds surprisingly modern today). Sometimes the musicians resort to specific «25th frame»-style techniques — look, for instance, how surrepti­tiously 'May Be A Price To Pay' hops into a sort of Saturday Night Fever-ish dance groove for its instrumental break, then snaps back out as if it were only a brief dream; or the small out-of-no­where reggae bit after 'Nothing Left To Lose' — but for the most part, this is the same classically or folk-oriented balladry, and the same funkified pop they'd been doing for ages. None of that New Wave shit for brainwashed kids. Serious adult music for serious adult people.

For me, it works. First, it works as a concept. These guys were born to lament the ills and misfor­tunes of humanity, and the gambling disease, taken both literally and figuratively, is right up their alley (besides, it's also a far safer topic for the critical eye than the «woman disease» of Eve). There may be only two basic moods explored — the ominous/angry/frustrated and the melancho­lic/pitiful/desperate — but, after all, those are the two basic moods of gambling, and they are interspersed well enough so that the record never feels monotonous.

Second, it works as individual songs. The hit 'Games People Play' is, composition-wise, probably one of the most trivial tunes on the album, a simple keyboard pattern expanded into a simplistic dance number whose main source of inspiration almost seems to have been ABBA's 'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!' (classy smooth guitar breaks, though). However, the other hit, 'Time', is one of the best Pink Floyd songs that Pink Floyd never wrote (probably because they already had a 'Time' of their own, har har). There is no presumption of innocence for pretentious artists that name one of their songs 'Time', letting us mortals know that they have a better existentialist grasp on the issue of chronospace than every one of us; and this is exactly why this combination of swe­et McCartney-like vocals, Harrison-like slide, and Parsons-only synth backdrops works so much better than simply «well».

Among those who take great care to separate the «intelligent» bits of The Project from the «sell­out» bits, 'Time' has garnered a fair amount of hatred — for its silly clichéd lyrics (indeed), and its monotonous melody with no sense of development. Not everyone thinks that it was a good choice to let Eric Woolfson, first time ever, step up to the mike, either. I beg to disagree: 'Time' is no more a pop sellout than something like Floyd's 'Us And Them' (whose verse melody it brings up very vividly in my mind), and Woolfson has a sweet, sensitive, charming voice — which he also puts to great use on 'Nothing Left To Lose' — that should have been used much earlier. It may not be more complex in its melody than quite a few Styx or Journey ballads that we are trai­ned to despise, but the important thing is that it assumes far less: nobody is ripping his shirt off and sticking his sweaty, smelly heart right under your nosdrils. So to speak.

The entire second side is one big song... nah, not really. It is four completely distinct songs (one of them in two parts), joined together with brief interludes and, sometimes, instrumental reprisals. But, hey, artistry on the rampage. 'Nothing Left To Lose' is the band's finest exercise in the folk pop genre, a song that would be an unusually high-standard attraction on a Barclay James Harvest album, perhaps, or, come to think of it, on a Baby James Taylor one as well (although, the way I see it, spoiling the spoils with cheesy Bee Geesy backup vocals was not a good thing). 'Snake Eyes', getting us back into angry mode, has the most memorable guitar riff on the album. And the title track has us witness more of Parsons' skill in brass arrangements, as its second part gradually transforms from a medievalistic ballad into an all-out apocalyptic romp (last time they did it so well was four years earlier, on 'Cask Of Amontillado').

The only thing that is somehow devoid of interest are the instrumentals: 'The Gold Bug' is a de­cent sax-dominated «fusion» romp that really just works as an interlude, and 'The Ace Of Swords' is, by all means, just an interlude, fairly well lost in between the big guitar sound of 'Snake Eyes' and the folksy prettiness of 'Nothing Left To Lose'. As with Eve, this is not a good sign: clearly, the band is investing most of its powers into the vocal hooks, neglecting the harmony exploration that used to be such an integral part of their sound. But all you have to do to stop worrying is just accept that, ever since Pyramid, maybe even since I Robot, The Project had been an «adult pop» band — leaving only the more anally-obsessed ones to argue about the exact prog-to-pop ratios of each of their albums. And Turn Of A Friendly Card, with all of its songs ranging from tolerably decent to openly beautiful, is one of the best «adult pop» albums ever recorded. Thumbs up.

Check "The Turn Of A Friendly Card" (CD) on Amazon
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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Al Stewart: Uncorked


1) Last Days Of The Century / Constantinople; 2) Coldest Winter; 3) Warren Harding; 4) News From Spain; 5) Bedsitter Images; 6) Midas Shadow; 7) Running Man; 8) Palace Of Versailles; 9) Auctioning Dave (story); 10) Princess Olivia; 11) Life In Dark Water; 12) Carol; 13) Old Admirals.

Stewart's penchant for guitar-sparring as a major artistic incentive continues with a new twist: at the end of the first decade of the century, after Peter White and Lawrence Juber, his new partner is Dave Nachmanoff, a somewhat obscure, but critically respected folk musician / singer / song­writer with a PhD in philosophy and, most likely, numerous other fine qualities that remain hid­den from the general public.

The newly-formed duo's first joint appearance on record is with Uncorked (another transparent allusion to Al's wine cellars which, judging by all sorts of merry jokes the two engage in on this album, have been strongly tampered with) — an all-acoustic live album that repeats the ex­pe­ri­ence of Rhymes In Rooms, but to even better effect.

First and foremost, because, as fine as Pe­ter White was on guitar, Nachmanoff is an even stronger player. If you are afraid of or usually bored with «unplugged»-type concerts, Uncorked may change your attitude — Dave can shift from lan­guid and subtle to loud and brutal in the wink of an eye, and his technique seems sometimes to be specifically geared towards proving that there really are no things you can do with an electric guitar that cannot be reproduced, or at least ef­ficiently substituted on an acoustic. for instance, as they launch into 'News From Spain', Al re­marks that "Dave has the unenviable task of trying to cover Rick Wakeman's piano solos on the guitar", but actually, Dave rises to the challenge, and even if it is not really possible to completely reinstate the turbulent sea storm atmosphere that Stewart, Wakeman, and others created on the ori­ginal, they still come very, very close — with nothing but one acoustic rhythm guitar and one acoustic lead. And it's not merely «impressive» — it's overwhelming if you play it loud enough.

Second, the set list is anything but trivial; since the album is obviously geared towards a small group of hardcore fans — most of the outside world already has trouble remembering who wrote 'Year Of The Cat', let alone anything else — the track selection firmly excludes all of Al's «big­gies», with the arguable exception of (a much shortened version of) 'Old Admirals', and is almost completely unpredictable; and yet, most of the songs are so pretty that no neophyte, accidentally discovering Stewart through this concert, would ever want to think of the man as a «one-hit won­der» or «singles artist».

Personal favorites include 'Bedsitter Images', bringing us all the way back into 1967, with Nach­manoff perfectly nailing that admirable piano / strings ascending melody; 'Life In Dark Water', stripped down and consequently restored to the status of a melancholic Al Stewart ballad from that of an ice cold Alan Parsons prog-pop epic; the already mentioned 'News From Spain' (Al doing a number from Orange? Unbelievable!); and the happiness of 'Princess Olivia', with its 'Ode To Joy' quote at the beginning unforgotten.

But really, it's all good; even the two songs from Last Days Of The Century, which, come to think of it, really needed this sort of re-recording to redeem them from the production excesses of Al's worst period. And, despite the obligatory humbleness of it all, Uncorked may, all the same, be the most dynamic live album in Al's career, if only because it is so transparently clear that these two guys are simply going for the fun of it, not out of some troublesome «rock star obliga­tion» to the fans and managers, or out of financial reasons. Add to this that the clarity and youth­fulness of Al's voice in 'Bedsitter Images' makes it sound like it could have well been recorded in 1967, and Uncorked completes its transformation from a cute late-period curio from a folk rock veteran into a near-must-have recording not just for grizzled Al Stewart fans, but for everyone who appreciates clever songwriting, pretty singing, and masterful guitar playing as such. Thus — yet another thumbs up for the running man. The only bad news is that there is no accompanying DVD release.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Jump To It


1) Jump To It; 2) Love Me Right; 3) If She Don't Want Your Lovin'; 4) This Is For Real; 5) (It's Just) Your Love; 6) I Wanna Make It Up To You; 7) It's Your Thing; 8) Just My Daydream.

Dragged out of the commercial slump once again — this time, by contemporary hero Luther Van­dross. The late Luther, as we mostly remember him, was the king of the suave, the chic, the po­lish, the gloss, leading his voluntary listeners straight into the spasms of orgasm and his involun­tary ones straight into the spasms of forceful expulsion of the contents of one's stomach through the mouth, to avoid nasty words. Nevertheless, even the most professional and experienced haters of Mr. Vangloss will probably acknowledge that the man was a talented craftsman, a sort of anti-Prince, always playing it cool and safe where Mr. Nelson would take every chance — and getting immaculately good at playing safe.

The idea, I believe, was to bring Aretha fully up-to-date with the modern world — to restore her to the status of Diva, both of dance music and of power balladry, which La Diva actually flunked and Arista's early albums didn't exactly succeed in, either. So, if anything, Jump To It sounds even more Eighties than the two records before it. Sterile and calculated to the very last note, and totally fo­cused on mind-numbing repetition of its hooks: when you have "jump, jump, jump to it!" blasted in your ear four times in a row before any of the instruments start to come in, you know it's gonna make the Top 40 at least.

Trying to come up with theoretical ideas on Jump To It is a bit like coming up with a seductive description on an Ikea piece of furniture. It's smooth, it's functional, it's gonna do its thang for a few years, but it's unlikely to figure in your memories and memoirs. Oh, and it's probably going to have at least one really ugly, really annoying aspect that is going to bug you for all of its pre­sence in your house. On Jump To It, it may be the power ballads, starting with the Archangel™-appro­ved m-m-melisma (also known as the 'wo-wu-wa-we-wi' mode of singing) of 'This Is For Real' and ending with almost seven minutes of 'I Wanna Make It Up To You', Aretha's self-pen­ned apology for all the bad things she gone done to her man over the past two decades — even as it starts to finally fade away, Vandross pushes the volume levels back up to make her apologize one more time; quite embarrassing, really.

The generic dance stuff is more tolerable, but not because of any decent amount of songwriting (there isn't any) and not because of Aretha's enthusiasm in getting in the groove (I do not feel she is at her vocal best here; this whole artificial re-imaging of her image is really stifling). The good news is the slap bass playing from the ultra-talented Marcus Miller, which really gets the fingers moving — even when he is restricted to disco patterns ('Love Me Right'), he can still play around with them, giving his bass more freedom and expressivity than everything else on this album combined, including Franklin's singing. Unfortunately, for some reason, the minimalistic, bass-only karaoke version of Jump To It is still unavailable in stores, so you'll have to do your own digital editing if you want to appreciate the album's artistry without the cheese.

'Jump To It' is the only song from the record that is regularly met on compilations, but a correct compilation that wants to reflect the spirit of Aretha Franklin rather than the peak levels of her revenue should replace it with Smokey Robinson's 'Just My Daydream' — stuck at the very end, it is the perfect retro remedy against the lifeless robo-funk and corporate balladeering of the pre­vious seven numbers, the one number on which we get to hear Aretha's real voice, as the narcosis wears off a little earlier than anticipated. A pleasant piece of filler on any of her classic LPs, a soul-soothing highlight on this one — coming too late and too briefly to save it from the unavoi­dable thumbs down.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

B. B. King: Take It Home


1) Better Not Look Down; 2) Same Old Story (Same Old Song); 3) Happy Birthday Blues; 4) I've Always Been Lo­ne­ly; 5) Second-Hand Woman; 6) Tonight I'm Gonna Make You A Star; 7) The Beginning Of The End; 8) A Story Everybody Knows; 9) Take It Home.

It's not bad, but something did not click this second time around. Simply put, there is a bit too much Crusaders on the album, and not enough King for me. Midnight Believer was a good mix of styles that gave us casual, non-hardcore listeners the best possible formula: B. B.'s blues es­sence interspersed with various catchy distractions. On Take It Home, the distractions have all but dissolved the essence.

King sings passionately enough, but Lucille, once again, finds itself playing second, if not twen­ty second, fiddle to all of the Crusaders' diddle; on most, perhaps all, of these numbers it's as if no­body had the patience to let the old man find a good, meaningful groove for these songs, and just went along with the second take before he even began getting into the spirit. Who cares anyway, if you're gonna mix that guitar below all the saxes and keyboards and gospel backing vocals?

Which is a pity, because the songs, generally credited to Will Jennings and Joe Sam­ple, are de­cent: nothing too original, mostly just slight modifications of old blues rock and R'n'B warhorses, but nevertheless modified and rearranged to the point of justifying that generic late Seventies fun­ky soul sound (and, once again, not a single swig of disco, although 'A Story Everybody Knows', the cheesiest number on the record, comes somewhat close). The title track is a particularly uplif­ting anthem, the kind of totally by-the-numbers, but still sweet and charming, R'n'B number that today's R'n'B artists have completely lost the knack of churning out — and King is able to let his singing go with the flow, but the guitar playing, alas, seriously lags behind.

The only number here that I find deserving of truly classic status is the short, almost inconspicu­ous 'Beginning Of The End', distinguished by its subtle buildup: first verse rhythmless — second with the rhythm section joining in — third with the brass backup really pushing it, all the way to King's ecstatic final. Up to the point, heavy on the good old guitar sound, and admirably modest. Of course, there is something ominous in the fact that the best song on a 1979 B. B. King album bears such a title, but, after all, the end has to begin somewhere. I cannot bring myself to issuing a thumbs down — I honestly enjoyed most of this platter — but it is still disappointing, consider­ing how lucky King turned out to be in the late seventies, evading the disco temptation and stay­ing firmly routed in the «true sound», and how he failed to make good use of that luck.

Check "Take It Home" (CD) on Amazon
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