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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Alice Cooper: A Fistful Of Alice


ALICE COOPER: A FISTFUL OF ALICE (1997)

1) School's Out; 2) Under My Wheels; 3) I'm Eighteen; 4) Desperado; 5) Lost In America; 6) Teenage Lament '74; 7) I Never Cry; 8) Poison; 9) No More Mr. Nice Guy; 10) Welcome To My Nightmare; 11) Only Women Bleed; 12) Feed My Frankenstein; 13) Elected; 14) Is Anyone Home?

The idea behind Cooper's second live album was to remedy the flaws of the first one. Since The Alice Cooper Live Show had been released in 1977 without the artist's consent and, according to his opinion, did not offer a proper audio representation of what the show was really about, it was only a matter of time before a real, officially endorsed, live album would see the lights of day — strange that it took a sobered-up, activity-bursting Cooper a whole decade to get around to it, but it is pretty fortunate that it did, because otherwise we would have ended up with a bunch of Kane Roberts machine gun solos on some of Alice's worst songs.

The irony is, of course, that A Fistful Of Alice, fine-sounding as it is, does not capture the «true» Alice Cooper show any more than the 1977 album did. Specially recorded at the Cabo Wabo club in San Lucas, Mexico, and fattened up by guest appearances from Slash, Rob Zombie, and even Sammy Hagar (fortunately, on guitar only!), it reads as a Greatest Hits Live. Only 'Desperado' had not been previously released as a single — and, vice versa, pretty much all of the hit singles Alice ever had in his career are represented, including even a livened up version of 'Teenage La­ment '74' and (only on the expanded Japanese version) 'Clones', songs that were not at all part of the regular show at the time. On the other hand, the album that he was promoting at the time — The Last Temptation — is only represented by 'Lost In America', the «hit song», ripping out any hopes of conceptuality or coherence ('Nothing's Free' and 'Cleansed By Fire' were regular parts of the setlist).

So the purpose of the album is somewhat obscure; loyal fans would likely have preferred a more authentic document, and casual fans, by 1997, would hardly be interested in anything other than regular «greatest hits» packages, not bothering to see them re-recorded in a live setting. Never­theless, on its very own, A Fistful Of Alice is still fun. What is there to dislike about the Coop's hit singles, with the possible exception of 'Poison'? Nothing. The man is in top vocal form, the backing band is in good taste (Fistful marks the first appearance of soon-to-be Alice's regular sidekick Ryan Roxie on guitar), the sound quality is crisp, the volume levels awesome.

Here is just a bunch of off-the-cuff remarks on minor special details that may or may not entice you into hearing this: (a) 'Teenage Lament '74', losing Lisa Minelli, gets a crunchy power-pop coating that almost wipes out its vaudeville spirit; (b) 'Welcome To My Nightmare' has a brief 'Steven' introduction, and keyboard player Paul Taylor manages to simulate the powerful brass section so that the results are almost credible; (c) Rob Zombie's growling on 'Feed My Franken­stein' adds nothing to the song, but Slash definitely spices up the sound on 'Lost In America'; (d) 'Elected' serves as a pretty good Grand Finale to the whole show.

As a tempting bonus, the fans get one new studio track, the acoustic-and-slide-led pop rocker 'Is Anyone Home', similar in tone and message to 'Wind-Up Toy', nowhere near as desperate, but much more instantly likeable in terms of arrangement, because the guitars follow the sonic pat­terns of The Last Temptation rather than Hey Stoopid. Should it be tempting enough to make A Fistful Of Alice into an obligatory part of the fan's collection, or will the album forever remain in the status of an obsolete curio? Depends on how much you are into black leather. But thumbs up regardless of the answer.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Unforgettable


ARETHA FRANKLIN: UNFORGETTABLE: A TRIBUTE TO DINAH WASHINGTON (1964)

1) Unforgettable; 2) Cold, Cold Heart; 3) What A Diff'rence A Day Made; 4) Drinking Again; 5) Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning; 6) Evil Gal Blues; 7) Don't Say You're Sorry Again; 8) This Bitter Earth; 9) If I Should Lose You; 10) Soulville; 11*) Lee Cross.

Dinah Washington is one of those legends that is, in my opinion, much better off as a legend than as an ongoing presence on one's turntable: the Whitney Houston of her generation, classier than Whitney Houston only inasmuch as her entire generation was classier than Whitney Houston's ge­neration. She did occasionally perform fine, diverse material, but, at a time when Ruth Brown and La­Vern Baker were redefining the very idea of what a mainstream-oriented female performer could be up to, mostly got stuck with «torch songs» that come a dime a dozen: trashy, easily re­placeable fluff entertainment, with a talented, charismatic personality wasted on it.

Considering that Columbia was trying to market Aretha as the new queen of fluff entertainment, it is only natural that, upon Dinah's demise from a sleeping pills overdose in 1963, she was offer­ed to record a tribute album. Normally, when the new queen of fluff pays tribute to the old queen of fluff, you would expect to have the fluff squared. Surprisingly, Unforgettable is not as bad as it could be — in fact, it is far more genuinely entertaining than the preceding two albums. Rea­sons are coming up.

First, good song selection. Sentimental ballads are predictable, but only occupy about half of the space; the rest is dedicated to R'n'B and jazz numbers that kicked up a few extra sparks already in Dinah's days — such as her breakthrough single, 'Evil Gal Blues', or her very last record that had some proper swing in it ('Soulville').

Second, to my liking at least, Aretha does most of these songs better justice than Ms. Washington. When a tune demands saccharine and sentimentality ('Unforgettable') as its focal point, there is no big difference — both the original and the copy will seem equally classy to some and equally corny to others. But when it comes to reflecting inner torment ('Drinking Again', 'Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning') or outer frustration ('This Bitter Earth'), Aretha does them Aretha-wise = shouting her head off, and since she always shouts on-key, this gives her the edge over the far more restrained, far calmer delivery of Dinah.

Oh, there is always something to be said for modesty and restraint, of course — but Dinah Wash­ington did not sing these songs calmly because that style suited her own calm personality; she sang them calmly simply because back in those days you did not shout, not even when the mate­rial begged for shouting. Compare the timid original of 'Evil Gal Blues' with Franklin's fiery re­working: this is the way this hot jazz number implores to be done, and, in a way, it is comparable with all the fine work that the early Beatles and Rolling Stones did on those shy R'n'B / rock'n'roll / pop numbers by their predecessors.

Best of the bunch is a track that did not even appear on the original release and, in fact, has no­thing to do with Dinah Washington: 'Lee Cross', a rough, bawdy blues-rocker with shades of gos­pel, one of those songs that must have originally given the people at Atlantic the right idea about how to deliver Aretha's goods to the people in the proper way. This and 'Evil Gal Blues' are the obvious highlights and a must-have for any decent compilation illustrating Franklin's early years. The rest is a matter of taste, but my taste says there is enough power and spice here to guarantee at least a moderate thumbs up.

Monday, March 29, 2010

B. B. King: Singin' The Blues


B. B. KING: SINGIN' THE BLUES (1956)

1) Please Love Me; 2) You Upset Me Baby; 3) Everyday (I Have The Blues); 4) Bad Luck; 5) Three O'Clock Blues; 6) Blind Love; 7) Woke Up This Morning; 8) You Know I Love You; 9) Sweet Little Angel; 10) Ten Long Years; 11) Did You Ever Love A Woman; 12) Crying Won't Help You.

B. B. King's singles on RPM records started flowing as early as 1949, but most of his career was LP-oriented, and so it makes sense to choose, as our point of departure, this 1956 collection that puts together the majority of his best singles from 1951 to 1955 (a more comprehensive overview of the early years can probably be found on some later anthologies, but, as far as I am able to tell, there is no single collection that puts together all of his early material).

Many of these songs were huge hits on the blues and R&B charts — but, for some reason, missed attracting white audiences, far more enthralled with the likes of Muddy Waters and Elmore James at the time. Look up the biographies of blues/R&B-enthralled British Invaders, for instance, and you will rarely see B. B. mentioned as an influence, except, perhaps, by just a few oddjobs like Eric Clapton, and only in retrospect. Reason? Too clean.

Already from the get-go, B. B. positioned himself as the king of «Blues-de-Luxe»: respectable playing for respectable gentlemen. Take a look at the album cover: with his big fat Gibson, pin-striped suit and tie, he looks like the black equi­valent of Bill Haley. The same applies to music: smooth, mid-tempo, backed by professional jazz musicians with big brassy arrangements. And, to make matters worse, the guy puts as much emphasis on his singing as he does on his playing — the most tasteless thing in blues, ever! But then, what do you really want from a guy one of who­se primary idols in life has been Frank Sinatra?

All of this easily explains why B. B. did not become a household name among white audiences until the late Sixties and particularly the early Seventies. It also explains why these early singles are not really the «milestones» they are sometimes pronounced to be. For blues lovers, 'Every Day I Have The Blues' is one of the cornerstones of the genre, but definitely not because of this original version of King's, a whopping 2:49 in length and only featuring a brief, minimalistic solo — he had to popularize it, and a dozen other big hits, in a live context to achieve this result, and he had to wait at least ten more years for it.

Singin' The Blues is no more of a milestone in the evolution of electric blues than contemporary records by the other King (Albert) — or, for that matter, earlier records by T-Bone Walker. Most of the time, B. B. plays relatively standard, predictable licks that do not differ all that much from the regular techniques of the epoch; more importantly, the compact form of the 45"-tailored ditty does not allow him the slightest opportunity to stretch out, improvise, or develop a theme.

If there is one reason to listen to these singles at all, it is the singing. Unquestionably, at this point B. B. King was the most vocally-endowed blues performer in the business (and would remain so until the emergence of a strong competitor in Freddie King), and his manner of phrasing and vo­calizing owes much more to urban semi-crooners like Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson, not to mention white lounge performers (to whom the man must have lent quite a serious ear), than to hoarse growlers from the Delta. This makes it hard to associate his music with the devil, who, as I have heard, is gravely allergic to falsetto, and prefers to make serious deals with the likes of John Lee Hooker. But, when dealing with B. B. King, it is wise to remember that blues had been alter­nately serving as a genre of lounge entertainment since the day it was born, and to try and appro­ach him from the same way one would approach Sinatra or Neil Diamond: prima facie a respec­table entertainer who will try to stir up — gracefully and cautiously to some, blandly and boringly to others — the human parts of your soul, not the animal parts.

In fact, I think I «got» this record — and B. B.'s studio style in general — when I thought of it as sort of a Clyde McPhatter album with the doo-wop harmonies and strings replaced by searing electric guitar. Many people, I think, share this dream with me: to hear Clyde McPhatter with an atmosphere of grit inside of sap. Well, you need not look further than the original versions of 'Three O'Clock Blues' or 'Did You Ever Love A Woman' to get what you want. Thumbs up; this may be «seminal» material indeed — but not for the reasons it is usually proclaimed as such.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Beta Band: Heroes To Zeros


THE BETA BAND: HEROES TO ZEROS (2004)

1) Assessment; 2) Space; 3) Lion Thief; 4) Easy; 5) Wonderful; 6) Troubles; 7) Out-Side; 8) Space Beatle; 9) Rhodo­dendron; 10) Liquid Bird; 11) Simple; 12) Pure For.

Artists are rarely capable of taking off from the exact location of their artistic muse. More often than not, it takes them at least a few years and a few personal crises to get there — not everyone can be Jim Morrison or Angus Young. When The Beta Band released their first set of E.P.s, cri­tics fell over themselves praising their freshness and inspiration, but nobody asked the question: what are these guys, and what do they really care about? Like, it is obvious they are busy piling up these loops and mixing up these styles because they want to push forward musical boundaries, but what will they be when they get bored with pushing forward?

Well, now we know. The evolutionary curve has come to end, and on their last album The Beta Band have given themselves away: all they really wanted all along was to sing tender space-pop songs. The loops, the squeaks, the hip-hop trappings, the genre-hopping, none of that was in their blood — they were simply too smart not to try it out. But, six years into their career, they became tired of being smart. It did not pay off too well, and it prevented them from gladdening the heart. So they recorded Heroes To Zeros to gladden their heart. Then they broke up.

Each following Beta Band album is more accessible than the previous one; consequently, most fans of the band are split into those who rank their albums best-to-worst in ascending chronologi­cal order, and vice versa. I would probably join the ranks of the former, thinking more highly of The Beta Band at their most «gimmicky» (read: «intelligent») than at their most «honest» — if only because Steve Mason is not that great a songwriter to be able to get by on the bare strength of his basic melodic ideas. But this does not mean Heroes To Zeros is a failure — only that it tends to feel a bit bland when you arrive at it from the past.

The age of the free groove is over; these are three-to-four minute songs that sometimes (not too often) mutate into mantras, but more often follow the conventional verse-chorus structures. Out of all the innumerable ingredients of days gone by, the band concentrates on just two: folk-rock melodicity and «astral» arrangements — think some of the early Pink Floyd compositions, but without the depressive aspects. The album opener, 'Assessment', greets you with echoey droning guitars, floating vocals, a steady rhythmic punch and a chaotic coda, firmly anchored to the spirit of Nuggets II, and it does not get tremendously different from there.

With everything being so simple, one can only talk about the ratio of beautiful-to-forgettable on the record, renouncing the effort to find and elaborate some overall grand statement. Well, 'Won­derful' is certainly true to its title: a pompous shimmering anthem to beauty, great magical ringing guitar tone, tender romantic vocal, what's not to like? Terrific percussion arrangement on 'Space', making the 'Start is the end, more or less' part of the song one of the most clinging moments on the album. Masterful paranoid atmosphere on 'Liquid Bird'; jangly Byrds-style guitars comple­mented by Cocteau Twins-style background noises. Etc. etc.

Still, count me dissatisfied. Do we really want Steve Mason to open up his 2001 Space Odyssey-fuelled (I was going to write «Star Trek-fuelled», but we do not want to alienate all the snobby readers, do we?) heart to us? There are moments of beauty and power on this record, but much more often it simply strives for beauty and power, stopping short a few inches away from the ac­ceptable levels. And this is exactly where a little bit of unpredictable genre-hopping could have helped, but, apparently, they are through with genre-hopping. Too bad: looks like the world was through with The Beta Band, in return. Decent album, but my thumbs are stuck in a strictly hori­zontal position about it. This is no longer The Beta Band that we used to know, and it is only fair that this was its last album.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Angra: Holy Land


ANGRA: HOLY LAND (1996)

1) Crossing; 2) Nothing To Say; 3) Silence And Distance; 4) Carolina IV; 5) Holy Land; 6) The Shaman; 7) Make Believe; 8) Z.I.T.O.; 9) Deep Blue; 10) Lullaby For Lucifer.

Angra's masterpiece — the album they are going to be remembered by if they are to be remem­bered at all — Holy Land is a conceptual creation, dedicated to the lives and fates of people in the Holy Land (which, for these Brazilian guys, has nothing to do with the one in the Torah) be­fore the latter became defiled by European invaders; think Neil Young's 'Cortez The Killer' ex­panded to the form of a symphonic metal opera.

Actually, my description is somewhat off, influenced by what is usually written about the album. Upon close inspection, it turns out that the record is not so much about the native people of Ame­rica as it is about the people arriving there — dealing with their own dreams, hopes, impressions and conclusions. This also explains why the Indian folk motives, whose incorporation into the record has been so much lauded by critics, are, in practice, limited to at most a couple songs, most notably the «tribal drumming» of 'Carolina IV': what else should one expect from an album about Europeans? After all, there is a reason why it does not begin with an Indian folk chant, but rather with a rearrangement of one of Palestrina's mass pieces ('Crossing' — quite likely, some­thing that a bunch of conquistadores may have actually been listening to on the eve of their jour­ney). It is not about Indians.

Nor is it about cruel, heartless, racist European guys slaughtering innocent, peaceful Children of Nature. That side of the business is altogether left alone. Instead, we have a dense musical land­scape trying to accompany, if not represent the mixed, bewildered feelings one experiences when clashing with a new, unpredictable, virginal world. This can be done in many different ways, and from an apriori position, I would think that power metal is hardly the best one. When you try to convey a complex, constantly shifting emotional state through speedy distorted guitars and a strong-throated guy per­manently screaming his lungs off, results are almost certainly bound to be catastrophic. Yet Holy Land somehow manages to make it.

On their own, the individual songs are decent; just as before, some of the riffs are memorable, some of the choruses are easy to sing along, and there is plenty of punch as the guitarists and the vocalist compete for your attention. But it is the concept that strings them together and brings a unifying meaning to the thrash patterns and ear-bursting wailing; the pathos and ecstasy are given a good reason, and the medieval and baroque classical influences are no longer there just because someone happened to like baroque music. A mystical journey, but grounded in reality, and justi­fied by well-handled musical planning.

The centerpiece is 'Carolina IV', a ten-minute epic illustrating the ships' majestic sailing through uncharted waters and their eventual arrival (or, perhaps, imaginary arrival; or, perhaps, no arrival, since there are also vague references to shipwreck throughout). In condensed form, it has it all: folk-influenced percussion beats, gorgeous dreamy vocal parts (the "So, won't you come with me my friend?.." bit is, as far as I can tell, the most beautiful moment in the band's entire catalog), the insane speed-metal part with catchy choruses, the keyboard-orchestral interlude, a finger-fla­shing solo that takes the dexterity of Iron Maiden for granted and proceeds to improve upon it, and a long pompous coda. One can hate each, or all, of these moments, but I feel a vision here — a brave, pretentious message from people who truly have something original to say.

In the overall context of the album, even songs that I would otherwise hate — the «power ballads» 'Make Believe' and 'Deep Blue' — play an integral part, and contribute to the overtly tra­gic feeling of it all. Why tragic? Because Matos leaves no space whatsoever for joy. There is fru­stration caused by a beautiful dream gone horrendously wrong ('Nothing To Say'); there is quiet amazement, mixed with fear and uncertainty, at realizing one's own role in changing history ('Ho­ly Land'); there is spiritual confusion brought on by an encounter with pagan religion ('The Sha­man') — but no joy. The closest thing to joy is the speed-rocker 'Z.I.T.O.', because the chorus says "Mother nature brings to me in fantastic purity everything I need... like a teenage discovery what's more delightful than this?", but coming as it does towards the end of the album, and loaded with hard-to-decipher ironic subtexts, it is not enough to shift the mood upwards.

In many ways, Holy Land is still a puzzle, which is terrific since there are few things more bor­ing and less adequate than «easily read» art-metal conceptual albums. It helps to swallow it toge­ther with its concept, but even if we knew nothing about the subject idea behind it, its somber tra­velog style could still come through. A perfectly constructed masterpiece of 1990s metal, and the only Angra album with the capacity of inflaming my usually metalproof heart — thumbs up by any possible account.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A-ha: How Can I Sleep With Your Voice In My Head


A-HA: HOW CAN I SLEEP WITH YOUR VOICE IN MY HEAD (2003)

1) Forever Not Yours; 2) Minor Earth Major Sky; 3) Manhattan Skyline; 4) I've Been Losing You; 5) Crying In The Rain; 6) The Sun Always Shines On TV; 7) Did Anyone Approach You; 8) The Swing Of Things; 9) Lifelines; 10) Stay On These Roads; 11) Hunting High And Low; 12) Take On Me; 13) The Living Daylights; 14) Summer Moved On; 15*) Scoundrel Days; 16*) Oranges On Appletrees; 17*) Cry Wolf; 18*) Dragonfly; 19*) Time And Again; 20*) Sycamore Leaves.

Glossy pop bands do not generally need live albums — it's not like they often feel the need to improvise or pull weird artsy rarities out of their backlog — but this particular proposition from our Norwegian charmers may be worth your attention, anyway. The bad news is that it was recor­ded on the Lifelines tour, and, consequently, feels obliged to include a pinch of dreck from that disaster. The good news is — just about everything else.

Actually, the two important questions here are as follows: (a) will Morten be able to sing all his complex parts live as effectively as he does them in the studio?; (b) will the band's overall sound tend to rock out more — will they, in fact, be able to sound like an actual band? If the answer to even one of these questions were to be «no», the album would have a very good reason not to ex­ist. And with a band as wobbly as A-Ha, you never can predict anything: they are just as capable of ugly blunders as they are of explosions of genius.

Yet it turns out that fortune is on our (and their) side this time. Harket is in great form; not a sin­gle one of these performances has a thing to be ashamed of, and if this is a typical night for A-Ha, he should be welcome to the ranks of the hardest-working live performers in show-biz. Twenty years of performing have not worn him out one bit. I am pretty sure that, today, he curses Waak­taar to high heaven for setting him up with that twenty-second long note on 'Summer Moved On' — but in 2003, at least, he was still able to handle it perfectly (although notice that it does leave him briefly out of breath for the next lines).

As for the overall sound, yes, it is very sensible. Synth pop fans may quibble and complain, but they do some, if not most, of the old numbers with less emphasis on the keyboards and more em­phasis on Paul's guitar riffs, cranking up the volume and churning up a whiff of distortion; check out the difference between the original 'I've Been Losing You', for instance, and this new treat­ment, with the song seriously funkified and enlivened. Even 'Take On Me', while still true to its roots, keeps boiling and boiling and, although the main recognizable synthesizer melody remains intact, Paul eventually takes over and turns it into a power-pop guitar anthem.

Not everyone will be happy about 'The Living Daylights' — a James Bond theme song arranged as the centerpiece of the show, with the audience forced to sing the chorus and a reggae interlude? But I guess a hit is a hit, and this is, after all, A-Ha's most well-known tune (remember that 'Take On Me' is only familiar with the Eighties generation, while 'The Living Daylights' is being regu­la­rly consumed by everyone watching the Bond TV marathons).

If you have the chance, go for the 2-CD edition; the bonus disc offers note-perfect renditions of 'Scoundrel Days' and 'Cry Wolf', a pretty sentimental performance of 'Dragonfly', and Paul taking lead vocals on my personal favourite, 'Sycamore Leaves' — which forms a far more interesting and tasty conclusion to the whole experience than the awesome, but predictable 'Summer Moved On'. (But why have they removed the organ riff? That was the creepiest part!)

How Can I Sleep is not the only live album by A-Ha (the recently released Live At Valhall, from an earlier performance in 2001, is another solid offering), but I do not think there exists a serious reason to own more than one: once you know what their live show looks like, you can sa­fely go back to the studio offerings. Still, if you are still in doubt about the overall validity of this band, I think that it is definitely a shot in the arm to their reputation rather than a kick in the guts. A hearty thumbs up.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

AC/DC: Stiff Upper Lip


AC/DC: STIFF UPPER LIP (2000)

1) Stiff Upper Lip; 2) Meltdown; 3) House Of Jazz; 4) Hold Me Back; 5) Safe In New York City; 6) Can't Stand Still; 7) Can't Stop Rock'n'Roll; 8) Satellite Blues; 9) Damned; 10) Come And Get It; 11) All Screwed Up; 12) Give It Up.

Returning to elder brother George for production — and elder brother George helps them restore the balance by steering them back into the amplified pub rock direction of their earliest releases. If The Razor's Edge was heavy metal with a power-pop edge, and Ballbreaker was heavy metal with a blues-rock edge, then Stiff Upper Lip is no longer heavy metal: it is hard barroom rock, and it works pretty well for the band at this juncture.

Turns out the Youngs' riffpark is still running strong. The title track runs on a sly, relatively com­plex blues riff that seeps inside only slowly, but gradually it becomes a cool, humorous pub rock an­them that is neither too lax nor too overstated. It is also fun to see Angus begin his solo with a series of drunk, disjointed, incoherent licks, only to have a steady, climactic Chuck-o-Berry me­lody emerge from under them a few bars later and smash the listener into the ground. But it is Brian Johnson who takes the cake, starting the song off with some gruff Tom Waits-like blues­roaring, tricking one into believing that, perhaps, the high notes are gone forever? — then, once the main body of the song kicks in, bringing you back those high notes with a freshness that you have not experienced for over a decade. (Apparently, he had some throat surgery in the interim).

What makes the song so likable? Thematically, it is not all that different from 'Hard As A Rock'; but the former was anthemic and sounded like it took itself too seriously, where 'Stiff Upper Lip' just kicks some modest ass and presents a little self-irony: "I keep a stiff upper lip / And I shoot from the hip", Brian sings, and although we all know that he is quite liable to missing if he really shoots from the hip, there is some relaxed fun in his voice, indicating that he might be firmly aware of that, too. 'Stiff Upper Lip' does not try to prove that they are still tough; it just busies itself with giving you a good time.

The same applies to most of this album. The doom-laden feeling of 'The Furor' and 'Burnin' Ali­ve' is nowhere to be seen. The closest this record ever gets to «ominous» is 'Safe In New York City', and even so, mostly because of the tension-mounting arrangement on the opening riff and the late-coming association with 9/11, even though the song itself was released more than half a year before the catastrophe. It is pretty gritty, but certainly not apocalyptic, just tough in a street­wise way, ridiculing the concept of a «safe metropolis» as such.

Much more biting and, in my opinion, a minor overlooked gem, is the slow pounding groove of 'Damned', where the Young brothers take on the issue of straightjacketing society — apparently, the most picking issue they have with The Man, as they condemn it with arguably one of their best sets of lyrics. Johnson catches on to it fairly quickly, and his "I'll be damned if I drink or smoke, damned if I steal your joke, damned if I go for broke, damned if I do, damned if I don't!" is surprisingly relevant and poignant for the modern age.

But most of the other songs are simply about having a good time. They are ready to rock, they can't stand still, it's getting hot, you can't stop rock'n'roll, she start a-rockin', come and get it — all the regular news. No bad songs, no timeless masterpieces. Catchy choruses. Good clean produc­tion with very little metal edge. Johnson totally tolerable throughout. Throw in a couple extra beers and Stiff Upper Lip goes down nice and smooth. If they and I live for another two hundred years, there is no harm in getting a new album like this with every new decade.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Alice Cooper: The Last Temptation


ALICE COOPER: THE LAST TEMPTATION (1994)

1) Sideshow; 2) Nothing's Free; 3) Lost In America; 4) Bad Place Alone; 5) You're My Temptation; 6) Stolen Prayer; 7) Unholy War; 8) Lullaby; 9) It's Me; 10) Cleansed By Fire.

To paraphrase the Kinks, "God save Kurt Cobain and all the different varieties". The Last Temp­tation, completing Alice Cooper's comeback, is not a grunge album — but it is an album saved by grunge, whose triumphant march in the early 1990s prompted Alice to finally drop the hair metal trappings and realize that the hard rockers of the late Sixties/early Seventies did it just ab­out right — so why mess with perfection?

We are given the message almost immediately: as the short, intriguing acoustic introduction fades away, out sweeps a bunch of chords reminiscent of the Who's 'Substitute' — and, for that matter, Alice's own 'No More Mr. Nice Guy' — played on a normal, fat, crunchy electric guitar the way Pete Townshend himself might have played it around 1971. The song then explodes into a gritty power pop number, rousing, inspiring, and with a further touch of brass waiting around the corner to remind us of who wrote 'Under My Wheels'. Yes, here is a sound that Alice hasn't touched for two decades — welcome back.

But, at the same time, be wary. Since Alice has officially given up on sounding cool and commer­cial (the album peaked at #68, more than twenty points below Hey Stoopid), nothing prevents him from finally sounding like an old man; and, in Alice's case, «sounding like an old man» means shifting, or at least extending, his ire from criticizing stupid old people who make the rules to attackig stupid young people who break them. The Last Temptation is a conceptual piece with a transparent Christian message — mess around with your morals and there'll be hell to pay, in this particular case, quite literally so. (Not that I disagree, mind you, and I am no believer).

There is some vague storyline followed here. The protagonist, apparently, is a grown-up Steven from Welcome To My Nightmare, al­though the name is never spoken on the album — we learn this from Neil Gaiman's comic book that accompanies it. The guy is bored with conforming to so­ciety's standards and seeks escape from the antagonist, a traveling showman who is really Satan in disguise, who is really Alice Cooper in disguise (or is that the other way around?). They hit it off for a bit, but then the guy comes to his senses, renounces Evil before it is too late and lives happily ever after selling door-to-door insurance and watching talk shows (or maybe not, but if you have been branded by Satan, you do not really have a lot of choices left).

Were the album recorded by the Rev. Billy Graham, I would probably not have recommended it. But the genius of Alice Cooper is such that he can even make a genre as hollow as Christian rock sound exciting. The Last Temptation's cornerstones are the songs where Satan's presence is at its strongest — two of them, 'Nothing's Free' and 'You're My Temptation', rank up there with the most vivid of Alice's past material, and credit goes not only to Alice himself, but also to the guys who matched his demonic inventions bit-by-bit, particularly guitarist Stef Burns who, on 'Temp­tation', gives the absolutely most exact impression of hellish flames that I have ever had the honor of hearing. Amazing, what a little wah-wah and a little reverb can do to the senses.

The most «messageous» of all the songs on here, however, is 'Nothing's Free' — quite an interes­ting tune to compare with 1987's 'Freedom'. In his hair metal days, the Coop titillated his younger fans by inviting them to "raise your fist and yell"; now he reminds them that, come to think of it, "nothing's free from the rules and laws of morality", and that, if you really want to be free in the absolute sense of the word ("free, free, free, I wanna be free!" go the backing vocals all around the place), the payback is simple: "When the trumpets sound and his light is all around... we'll be going way downtown". But it is not the words that matter; the message is useless without the mu­sic, as the song, a steady mid-tempo hard rocker, slowly accumulates more and more power and, finally, becomes a nightmarish Death Dance with Burns' guitar leading you through the nine cir­cles right into the final pit. A lesson to all the Christian rockers out there: your words don't really mean jack shit — take your cue from Bach, Stevie Wonder and... Alice Cooper!

The Last Temptation has no weak ground; the Coop has covered all exits. Obviously, there should still be space for a lighter, catchier rocker to be promoted as the lead single; thus, we get 'Lost In America', a lyrically hilarious and riffaliciously engaging song loaded with Alice's usual maliciousness: a frustrated teen anthem that viciously ridicules frustrated teens ("I can't go to school 'cause I ain't got a gun, I ain't got a gun 'cause I ain't got a job, I ain't got a job 'cause I can't go to school — so I'm looking for a girl with a gun and a job and a house"... pause... "with cable"). If you think 'Nothing's Free' and 'You're My Temptation' are both a little too carnivalesque, take 'Unholy War', a dark, twisted rocker with no theater involved — just a disturbing tale of one guy's lifelong struggle with his own inner corruption, or the equally nasty 'Bad Place Alone'.

If you think no Alice Cooper album is complete without the obligatory sentimental ballad, there's 'It's Me', hardly one of his best, but recorded with pretty acoustic guitars, mandolins, and no Steve Tyler on backing vocals — which is already a huge improvement on the likes of 'Only My Heart Talking'. And, finally, even the «plot-advancing» songs such as 'Lullaby' and 'Cleansed By Fire' all have plenty of musical thought injected — the latter alone has, like, three or four different vo­cal melodies.

As we can see, it took Alice ten years to overcome his drinking problem, and it took him a further ten years to make all good people remember what was so fascinating about him in the first place. His conversion to Christianity certainly must have come as a shock to many people, but that is exactly the point — Alice is a professional shocker, and shocking his audience with Christian mo­rality is far more effective than shocking them with the same old images of blood and gore. Be­sides, this sudden embracing of Jesus is probably responsible for his abandoning the pursuit of commercial success: ever since Temptation, his records have sold quite poorly, yet each one made far more sense than the empty commercial splash of Trash. Thank the Lord for that — and for this record in particular, which gets an equal thumbs up from the heart (kick-ass!) and the brain (perfect construction, perfect sound quality, perfect sequencing, you name it).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Laughing On The Outside


ARETHA FRANKLIN: LAUGHING ON THE OUTSIDE (1963)

1) Skylark; 2) For All We Know; 3) Make Someone Happy; 4) I Wonder; 5) Solitude; 6) Laughing On The Outside; 7) Say It Isn't So; 8) It Will Have To Do Until The Real Thing Comes Along; 9) If Ever I Would Leave You; 10) Where Are You; 11) Mr. Ugly; 12) I Wanna Be Around.

Actually, this may be the nadir. This time around, there is not even a single lick of fire; each single tune is slow, genteel, and dominated by Mantovani-style strings. Duke Ellington's 'Soli­tude' could have been a minor standout, but its lonely trumpet is unable to beat the corniness that oozes from every pore.

It is even hard to say whether the singer herself cared as much about these songs as she did when she first crossed the threshold of Columbia's studios. She does, indeed, begin with a mini-blast of passion ('Skylark', where she spends the first two minutes winding herself up and then letting it go with a vengeance), but everything that follows is restrained and uninvolving. Oddly, this is the first album to feature an original composition — 'I Wonder (Where Are You Tonight)'; it is, how­ever, completely undistinguishable from the rest.

Albums like these need to be heard today, if only for people to understand that «generic pablum» is not a recent invention of the last twenty years or so, but was fairly persistent throughout the whole history of pop music; still, it is very painful to realize what a great talent was actually be­ing was­ted on that pablum — and at the exact time when pop music was undergoing revolutiona­ry changes. Thumbs down.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Bessie Smith: Complete Recordings Vol. 5


BESSIE SMITH: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS, VOL. 5 (1931-1933)

CD I: 1) Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl; 2) Safety Mama; 3) Do Your Duty; 4) Gimme A Pigfoot; 5) Take Me For A Buggy Ride; 6) I'm Down In The Dumps; 7) The Yellow Dog Blues; 8) Soft Pedal Blues; 9) Nashville Women's Blues; 10) Careless Love Blues; 11) Muddy Water; 12) St. Louis Blue Soundtrack — Band Intro; 13) Crap Game; 14) St. Louis Blues; CD II: Ruby Smith interviews.

Yes, it would have certainly been an unforgivable mistake on the part of Columbia Records not to end this series of excellent quality catalog repackagings with at least one total rip-off. The last installment in the Bessie Smith saga, just as all the previous ones, is a fully priced 2-CD package, out of which the non-historian really needs a grand total of six songs. Of course, it would have been fairly easy to squeeze those six onto the remaining disc space of Vol. 4 — but would that count as the true raffinated sparkle of Columbia's marketing genius?

Let us see what else we have here. First, a bunch of crappy-sounding outtakes from a 1925 ses­sion: five crackling cuts, all of which we have already heard in superior versions on Vol. 2. Just what we need to hear in order to truly comprehend the giant stature of the Empress. Second, three tracks that reproduce, in complete form, the soundtrack to the short film St. Louis Blues, shot in 1929 and featuring Bessie's only preserved live appearance. The footage (which you can, and should, see on Youtube) is obviously priceless, and the semi-live rendition of 'St. Louis Blues' it­self, on which Bessie is backed not by Armstrong, but a huge black choir instead, is nice to have on CD, but the six-minute dialog sequence ('Crap Game') is a complete waste of space unless you want to have a crash course in African American Vernacular as spoken in the 1920s (except the sound quality is so awful you would still need subtitles).

Finally, the entire second disc is only indirectly related to Bessie; it is an interview CD, where Bessie's niece-by-marriage, Ruby Smith, recounts her memories of Bessie in a grueling seventy-minute session. Which is fine and dandy, but you might just as well read a book about Bessie rather than spend all this time trying to sort the wheat from the chaff and separate objective fact from biased personal feeling — never for one moment able to understand why exactly does this need to co-exist in one package with Bessie's actual music.

Unfortunately, what with all the ripping-off, the six real songs that make this «Final Chapter» worth owning are all classics, unexpendable for even the casual Bessie lover. Two date from a lonesome super-short session in 1931, four more from a similarly brief stunt in 1933; this is all that Bessie had the opportunity to produce in her last decade, before a complete goodbye to the recording industry and, eventually, a tragic death in a car accident in 1937.

The songs are pure vaudeville, no blues — urban blues was not something the people took to as lightly in the hungry 1930s as they did in the booming 1920s (it is, after all, one thing to listen about someone being miserable when you yourself are reasonably content, but a whole different story when your own misery is comparable). 'Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl' is arguably the dirtiest song Bessie ever did (she also needs a hot dog between her rolls, and other delights too scandalous to mention), yet somehow she manages to transform this pure anthem of lust into a song of soulful mourning, almost as if all the sugar and hot dog references had some further spiri­tual connotations attached. Accustomed as we are to all the cock rock hits on classic rock radio, it is hardly surprising to see words of love used as a metaphor for sex — but using culinary words as metaphors for sex and meta-metaphors for love, that is something else totally.

The last four songs from 1933 almost play as a mini-musical: Bessie demands of her man that he 'Do Your Duty' (same one as above, apparently), lets it all hang out on 'Gimme A Pigfoot' (and a bottle of beer, even though Prohibition was still in action), after the hangover, gets unusually sen­ti­mental ('Take Me For A Buggy Ride'), and, finally, gets dumped by both the guy and whoever else she could possibly be dumped by ('I'm Down In The Dumps'). Everything Bessie ever had is in these four tunes: arrogance, recklessness, sweetness, misery, determination, humour, sadness, the whole palette. Obviously, she had no idea this was going to be her musical testament, but that's how it turned out, and these four tunes are as perfect a swan song for the lady as Abbey Road would be for the Beatles.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Beta Band: Hot Shots II


THE BETA BAND: HOT SHOTS II (2001)

1) Squares; 2) Al Sharp; 3) Human Being; 4) Gone; 5) Dragon; 6) Broke; 7) Quiet; 8) Alleged; 9) Life; 10) Eclipse.

A strange band indeed: first, they complain that the industry people would not let them turn their unfinished demos into fully shaped songs — then, finally given complete creative freedom, rele­ase a collection of songs that really sound far more like demos than songs. I guess if this reminds you of the typical behaviour of a capricious little kid, that's because The Beta Band have always had this capricious little kid inside them. That's an essential part of their recipe.

Hot Shots II is crazy, spacy, and seriously minimalistic. This time around, there is no getting side-tracked from the main groove, which is very sharply pronounced on each individual track. There is also no more fair use for the term «post-modern» when discussing this music. Regardless of the actual personal beliefs and values of the band's members, the music they create no longer confounds genres and challenges the rules for the sake of the challenge: yes, it is an intentional merger of trip-hop rhythms with old time psychedelia, but it feels like a sincere synthesis, a heart­felt attempt at blowing the minds of the young generation by giving them a familiar setting stuf­fed with acid-fuelled idealism from days long gone by.

The younger generation did not buy into it as energetically as they hoped, but Hot Shots II still climbed reasonably high up the charts, and why shouldn't it have? Most of this stuff is attention-grabbing, and also pretty accessible. Why deny something like 'Squares', when its head-bobbing rhythm, astral guitar hooks, and singalong vocal melody are as commercial as they come? The opening lines — 'I seen the demons, but they didn't make a sound / They tried to reach me, but I lay upon the ground' — show signs of an uncozy disturbance, but rarely over the course of this album does it become uncozy to the point of putting the record in a different rating category.

There are traces of darker darkness, but timid ones, and also beautiful in their timidity — e. g., the gloomy ballad 'Gone', where the «deep»-sounding guitars and sparse minor piano chords define the very idea of light, but pervasive sadness. Check the lyrics and you will find that the protagonist "fell from a spaceship" and "was taken for a little ride" — of course; this whole al­bum was, most likely, created by people who fell from a spaceship and bumped their heads real hard — but, truth is, the song would have just as easily fit onto a Tim Buckley album, to name but one old-timey candidate. Just a good old moody ballad.

Timid, yes, but if there is one particular direction in which the Betas were evolving, it is «doom and gloom». In terms of instrumentation, the entire album is light, but the mood it sets is anything but; on one side, the record is bookmarked with 'Squares' and their "I seen the demons", and on the other side we get pricked equally hard with 'Life': "I went to look for shadows, but the sha­dows they found me... I want to be somebody else, I feel I won't be free — is this me for life?" and they loop the last question to the sound of rough, unpleasant synth grunts, too. 'Dragon' gets us high in the sky, cooking up images of psychedelic revelations ("I never been the type to sing all night but AAAAAAAAAHHHHH!"), but midway through dissolves into a sea of growling keyboard noises accompanied with the telling refrain: "How the West was won is a lie — but it's made to sound like fun...". So when the record finally comes to a close with the bright, innocent, seductively deranged 'Eclipse' ("We all live together on a little round ball, we all sing together when the cuckoo calls"), it is almost like an apology for the pessimistic vibe of the rest — one that smoothes the side effects, but does not wipe them out entirely.

It should, however, be noted that all these things only float out very slowly on repeated listens. With all the minimalism and subdued atmosphere, Hot Shots II defies, denies, and self-parodies its title — this album is as far removed from «hot» as the average portrait of America's First La­dies. To some, it will rather be «tepid» — devoid of aggressive, rousing moments, but not nearly quiet enough to truly count as «ambient»; and «tepid» is clearly a negative assessment. Give it a little time to sink in, though, and you just might get to like these strange furry animals from outer space showing signs of troubled longing for their original homeland. They got the bug, see? Spot the bug, and see why it has forced me to give the album a thumbs up. Unfortunately (or, rather, for­tunately), I don't have the bug myself, so it is only the brain part that reacts positively. But who knows — you may have it, and then Hot Shots II will no longer be just «tepid» to you.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Angra: Angels Cry


ANGRA: ANGELS CRY (1993)

1) Unfinished Allegro; 2) Carry On; 3) Time; 4) Angels Cry; 5) Stand Away; 6) Never Understand; 7) Wuthering Heights; 8) Streets Of Tomorrow; 9) Evil Warning; 10) Lasting Child.

Getting into symphonic metal is comparable to adopting a ferret: there is little doubt that it can be done, but what exactly is to be gained, except for a vague feel of self-importance, and wouldn't you be easier off with a pussycat? Likewise, we are cool when it comes to symphonic music, and we are hot when it comes to metal, but can we be sure that putting them together will not throw the temperature off balance, for good?

Brazilian band Angra were only one out of a thousand groups formed with the purpose of proving the worth of this synthesis — but they succeeded better than most, and came pretty close to ma­king «power metal» sound inspiring instead of ridiculous. At the very least, their debut album, Angels Cry, is a textbook example on how this thing should be done; I cannot imagine a power metal fan not being overwhelmed by its music, and, conversely, if you do not dig it, classically influenced heavy metal music will never be your spoonful of tea.

First, Angra's music is not emotionally heavy; no matter how fast, metallic, and crunchy their gui­tar riffs may seem, these guys are hopeless romantics, and it shows on every track. Their classical cues are taken from Beethoven rather than Bach or Wagner (spot the 9th Symphony echoes at the start of 'Evil Warning') — and what proper metal band would be bizarre enough to cover Kate Bush's 'Wuthering Heights' on its debut album? Add to this the endless catchy power pop melo­dies in the chorus, and «metal» will only remain as the rhythmic guitar/bass backbone to the pro­ceedings. After all, the album's title is Angels Cry, not Demons Howl.

Second, at this stage — first and best in the band's career — the driving force is Andre Coelho Matos, who is responsible for more than half of the songwriting, for the band's keyboard sound, and for the singing. The guy's talents are not to be denied: he is a solid songwriter, an accompli­shed, if not virtuoso, pianist, and a highly competitive screamer with a good range. At the same time, he gets equally professional help from guitarist Raphael Bettencourt, supporting the occasi­onally corny lyrics (well, if you are such a straight-faced romantic, you have no choice but to tolerate that epithet) with complex ass-kicking riffs that dissolve wordy banality whenever the need arises. Finally, Bettencourt, with his classical training (he even has a degree in conducting), is perfectly complemented by the more rock-oriented Kiko Loureiro on second guitar. (Yes, they do know how to play all these things in Brazil.)

In short, all conditions are met for proving the validity of symphonic metal. Technically, the only complaint is that, on quite a few of these tracks, Matos' synthesizers sound somewhat cheap, and the songs could definitely benefit from some real strings rather than tinny imitations — but, I guess, due to budget limitations that was out of the question at the time. Another nagging prob­lem is that the songs tend to blend with each other; but this is really only a problem if you consi­der them from a «pop» perspective — in reality, Angels Cry is structured more like a true sym­phony, consisting of several different, but similar movements, and from that perspective, when 'Wuthering Heights' comes along, it does not so much bring in an element of refreshing diversity as oddly disrupts the general flow of the album. (Not to mention that there will always be some­thing ridiculous about the idea of a guy singing 'Heathcliff, it's me, Kathy!', regardless of how high his pitch manages to be).

And, what is that flow? Essentially, it is fifty-five minutes of energetic prayer to some sort of su­pernatural force (no specific presence of the Christian god, rather a vague shamanistic spiritual vibe instead that would be increased tenfold on the next album). Sometimes it speeds up, with Matos delivering as many baroque flourishes on his keyboards as the guitarists are offering speed metal solos (the album, by the way, is not a finger-flashing solo-fest: such passages are highly re­stricted); sometimes it slows down, with acoustic interludes and power ballad simulations; but it never bogs down in sleepy melancholia. By the time the last song comes along, the listener may be exhausted, not just from the heaviness (which, as I said, is only technical and superficial), but from the never-ending punchiness of it all, as in «don't these guys ever feel the need to relax for a small moment?» They do not — relax and you will lose the link to the Supernatural. Once you have started, you have to go all the way.

Catchy pop choruses grace speedfreak songs such as 'Carry On' and 'Evil Warning', as well as multipart cre­ations such as 'Streets Of Tomorrow' and the title track (which also gives you a little Paganini in the middle). But it is not the kind of choruses that one is likely to hum in the shower; in the general context of the album, they hide behind the puffed-up atmosphere. The atmosphere is worth describing and analyzing; the individual hooks are not.

It is hard for me to imagine people loving Angra's music to the point of tear-shedding; I cannot help but regard sympho­nic metal as a musical curio, entertaining and thought-provoking at best, pompous and moronic at worst. But Angels Cry is certainly one of the staunchest examples of «at best» I have ever wit­nessed from the genre. And if its romantically-spiritual aspect does not «get to» me, its kick-ass aspect most certainly does. Pure mathematical interest in how they go around constructing this vibe + sincere toe-tapping reaction = thumbs up.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A-ha: Analogue


A-HA: ANALOGUE (2005)

1) Celice; 2) Don't Do Me Any Favours; 3) Cosy Prisons; 4) Analogue; 5) Birthright; 6) Holy Ground; 7) Over The Treetops; 8) Halfway Through The Tour; 9) A Fine Blue Line; 10) Keeper Of The Flame; 11) Make It Soon; 12) White Dwarf; 13) The Summers Of Our Youth.

East Of The Sun may have been the ultimate A-Ha experience, but Analogue is simply the best A-Ha album — even though, for the most part, it sounds not one bit like A-Ha. It got some mild critical praise, yielded a couple briefly high-charting singles for the European market, and then got washed away for good, failing to shift the general memory of A-Ha as the «'Take On Me' group with the sexy singer». Why should it?

Well, there are some good reasons. Almost as if Lifelines never happened, the boys make a sharp stylistic turn, completely jettisoning modernistic trappings and making a record that hearkens back — way beyond Eighties synth-pop, aiming straight at the heart of the art-pop movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Of course, they always had that tendency — but this is the first (and last) time they made a record that does not sound ashamed of it, but, on the contrary, proudly throws its retro-ishness in your face.

With too much force, perhaps: I was all but astonished at reading people condemning the beauty of Analogue on various fora, until it dawned on me that most of these people must have grown up listening to 'Take On Me' and 'The Living Daylights', and that this is what they still expect from Harket and Waaktar-Savoy — whereas people who could care less about Norwegian teen idols in the 1980s hardly have a big reason to care more about them today. In other words, the good old tragedy of clumsy niche-jumping.

But am I ever glad they made that jump. It was obvious, almost from the start, that Analogue is a record these guys always had in them, what with all the talent; that it took them twenty years to finally get around to it is nothing compared to the fact that it is finally here. Plus, age has certain­ly wisened them up, opened new horizons, raised new issues, and made them independent enough to produce the record in exactly the right way.

What are the album's influences? Well, I hear a little McCartney, a little Elton John, a little Neil Young, a little Badfinger, a little Moody Blues, and if I listen to it some more, I will most certain­ly double the list. One might say that, behind all these influences, we do not get to hear much A-Ha, but there never was one particular, immutable brand of A-Ha; the main virtue of these guys is that they are musical chameleons, whose only near-constant assets are hooky songwriting and Harket's angel voice. This you certainly get on Analogue, in spades.

Thirteen tracks that range from «nice» to «gorgeous», each song meaningful (even if the meaning never goes too deep) and evocative. We have some synths, but generally the album is dominated by (in descending order) piano, acoustic and electric guitars, the latter with a heavy psychedelic sheen sometimes. For instance, on 'Over The Treetops' Harket gets helped out from Mr. Graham Nash in per­son on backing vocals — and the two end up sounding like... Neil Young (!) on some of his early records, although the song's vibe is more akin to LSD-fuelled artists of the decade.

'Halfway Through The Tour' is another clear highlight — a gloriously anthemic Beatlesque pop-rocker for the first three minutes, a folk-ambient Brian Eno-ish instrumental for the last four; the two parts creak at the seams a little bit, but are equally uplifting. For a band that never did instru­mental compositions before, that four-minute coda is a true marvel of sound. Also, the lyrics, vaguely dealing with the issues on life of the road, do not fit the melody very well (too earthly for its hea­venly aspirations), but no one forces you to take them literally; think of the «tour» as a me­taphor for a journey through parallel realities and it all falls together.

"Give it up for rock'n'roll, give it up for how it made you feel", Harket sings on 'Keeper Of The Flame', and one might think of the song as cheap nostalgia for the good old days — but the em­phasis is not on giving it up for rock'n'roll, the emphasis is on giving it up, period; it is a beautiful ballad of mourning for things that never came to be: "Monumental monuments, sentimental sen­timents, you could have been the keeper of the flame". A strange song, but as gorgeous a piano pop ballad as they ever write them.

None of these were singles, though. The ones that were are a little less obviously retro. 'Celice' is a kick-ass pop-rocker, pushed forward by a simple, persistent, undetachable guitar riff and paying tribute to Cocteau Twins in the background, where Paul concocts a wall-of-sound of guitar trills and spacey effects. The title track is a kick-ass pop-rocker, pushed forward by a simple, persistent, undetachable piano riff and paying tribute to no one in particular in the background, where Paul, nevertheless, still concocts a wall-of-sound of guitar trills and spacey effects. And 'Cosy Prisons' sounds like contemporary Paul McCartney. A bit.

Where the record is not proverbially gorgeous, it is, at the least, engaging by being utterly unpre­dictable. 'Make It Soon', for instance, begins as a bare-bones acoustic ballad, with only the slight­est touch of a hint at its being able to «explode» — and even so, no one can guess that, when it does explode, it does so through a wildly distorted psychedelic guitar solo, before settling back into its dangerously romantic vibe once more.

There is little doubt in my mind that, had this not been an official A-Ha album, but an obscure in­die record by an obscure indie band released on an obscure indie label, the people from Pitchfork and similar places would have been falling all over it, putting it on Top 10 lists and writing about it defining the sound of the new millennium. As it is, no one is supposed to listen to former teen idols in the new millennium, and few will be convinced that this is not merely an intricate reor­ganization of the 'Take On Me' approach. Their loss, brother. Thumbs up from the brain, amazed at how much work went into this thing, and same from the heart that has, by now, learned to look past Morten Harket's bare chest and sleazy haircuts — in fact, to hell with all that image stuff al­toge­ther, let us just enjoy the music while we can.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

AC/DC: Ballbreaker


AC/DC: BALLBREAKER (1995)

1) Hard As A Rock; 2) Cover You In Oil; 3) The Furor; 4) Boogie Man; 5) The Honey Roll; 6) Burnin' Alive; 7) Hail Caesar; 8) Love Bomb; 9) Caught With Your Pants Down; 10) Whiskey On The Rocks; 11) Ballbreaker.

The title is stupid at worst, the songs are mediocre at best, and the balance is off. In between The Razor's Edge and Ballbreaker — an interim that lasted five years, seriously longer than any pre­vious lapse period — AC/DC got old, and this is their panicky way of denying the obvious. The only thing that is truly «hard as a rock» about this record is the Young brothers' fingers that certainly get harder with each passing year — through experience as much as worsening skin con­dition. The sound is unmistakable.

Still, it must be stated clearly that Ballbreaker is decidedly uncommercial: after the occasional power pop melodies, crowd-pleasing singalong choruses, and dazzling gimmicks of The Razor's Edge, the band goes to basics again. Strictly mid-tempo, very much bluesy, sometimes even lazy and relaxed, this is music for the hardcore AC/DC fan, one who cherishes the vibe of these guys far more than the imprintability of their riffs in memory.

Not that there aren't any imprintable riffs. The Youngs stick to two styles — apocalyptic and sexalicious — and when they are in the «look out, danger ahead» mood, one that can be experien­ced equally strong regardless of age, it works: 'The Furor', 'Burnin' Alive', and 'Hail Caesar' are masterful highlights. 'Hail Caesar', in particular, has them seriously playing with fire, culminating in a series of mock-Nazi 'Hail!' exclamations as they warn the unsuspecting beer-guzzling fan against the evils of absolute power; and the riff, totally trivial but utterly evil, shows that they still have it in them to wring total genius from utter simplicity. As for 'Burnin' Alive', its introductory fifty seconds are only second to 'Hell's Bells' in the band's catalog for the status of «Greatest Tension Mounting Moment in AC/DC History» — slowly and patiently, the Youngs' guitars urge their way in, like a couple of vultures circling from afar, finally settling on the carcass to rip it apart to wild carnal cries of chief vulture B. J.

It is with the sexalicious part of the story that the real problems begin. Having concocted a cute pop melody for the album opener and lead single, 'Hard As A Rock', they apparently decided not to bother with the rest at all. Not only do songs like 'Cover You In Oil', 'Love Bomb', and 'The Honey Roll' feature some of the most inane lyrics in the band's pedigree (they base their approach on the innuendo-swarming pre-war blues style, but second-rate imitations of salaciousness cannot usually be described by words other than «laughable» or «idiotic»), the melodies are not at all en­gaging. And how many rewrites! Haven't we already heard 'Cover You In Oil' as 'Meanstreak' (where it was much better)? Didn't 'Boogie Man' used to be 'Night Prowler'? And why do they want to parody their own stop-and-start style of 'Whole Lotta Rosie' on the thoroughly inferior 'Caught With Your Pants Down'?

On the positive side again, five decent songs out of eleven (three ominous numbers plus 'Hard As A Rock' and the title track, which somehow manages to combine the ominous with the sexalicious) is not an altogether invalid proposition. Plus, Johnson seems to have somehow managed to cope with the destruction of his voice — he does not attempt so frequently to scream his head off, settling into a quiet, but shrill whine that alternates with sporadic Tom Waits-ish gruffness (the latter works par­ticularly well on regular blues numbers like 'Boogie Man' — too bad AC/DC are not truly a blues band), and his presence is thus made more bearable (still, never make the mistake of playing this back to back with Back In Black).

So, Ballbreaker is not such an utter waste as it can seem on first listen; a flawed, uncomfortable album whose creators find it hard to deal with the mid-life creativity crisis, but one that might be worth revisiting if you are pursuing the study of the evolution of ballsy hard rock nuances. Judge­ment used to be thumbs down all the way, but these days, I'm not too sure. Surprisingly, I find myself returning to 'Hail Caesar' and 'Burnin' Alive' all the time. They just keep talking to me, the doggone bastards.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Alice Cooper: Hey Stoopid


ALICE COOPER: HEY STOOPID (1991)

1) Hey Stoopid; 2) Love's A Loaded Gun; 3) Snakebite; 4) Burning Our Bed; 5) Dangerous Tonight; 6) Might As Well Be On Mars; 7) Feed My Frankenstein; 8) Hurricane Years; 9) Little By Little; 10) Die For You; 11) Dirty Dreams; 12) Wind-Up Toy.

From a rigidly formalistic point of view, Hey Stoopid is an utterly faithful sequel to Trash: one more batch of big fat glam-metal tunes that sacrifice the Cooperishness of Cooper for the sakes of mo­dern commercial values. From the economic point of view, Hey Stoopid was a financially un­satisfactory venture — not only did it fail to repeat the success of Trash, but it plummeted down so fast that people might have missed its appearance altogether, were it not for the lucky move of featuring one of the songs in Wayne's World. From my personal point of view, Hey Stoopid sim­ply kicks ass in a way that none of the three preceding albums could ever hope to.

Let me put it this way: Trash, for the most part, could have been recorded by any ballsy artist of its era, and nobody would have winked. It was Alice's conscious experiment in getting himself anally penetrated with corporate songwriting, from which he inarguably gained financial and ar­guably — sexual satisfaction. Hey Stoopid, on the other hand, shows the man still embracing the trappings of the genre, but it is an undeniably Alice album, one on which he has finally initiated the process of restoring his artistic integrity. And I do not even mean such superficial messages as the haunting wail of "Steven!.." at the album's end, bringing on a feeling of nostalgia for 1975. I mean that an Alice Cooper album is supposed to sting, and this one stings.

Let us begin with the worst. We still have a share of moronic cock-rockers and pompous power ballads. 'Snakebite' is not a very useful song, not much of an improvement over 'House Of Fire', except a little faster. 'Burning Our Bed' and 'Die For You', following tradition, dress cheap sen­ti­mentality in hymn form and fail, quite miserably so (me never having been a major worshipper of 'Only Women Bleed', I cannot help but wonder just how much «weightier» the average com­mer­cial­ly-oriented pop ballad of the 1970s used to be).

But overall, the standards have improved. For instance, 'Dirty Dreams' could have easily been the equal of 'Snakebite'. Instead, it is given this crunchy, catchy, hilarious riff that is more T. Rex or Cheap Trick than Mötley Crüe, and only the obligatory (but somewhat fun) finger-flashing guitar solo truly gives it away. And 'Might As Well Be On Mars' (which is not really about Mars, but about the inability to get together — apparently, even non-stop fucking eventually has to stop) could have easily been the equal of 'Die For You', but it is given an artsy, «spacy» arrangement that befits the title and a lengthy coda where guitars engage in a fierce battle with strings until both run out of steam and get swallowed up by 'Feed My Frankenstein'. Hardly a timeless classic, because the powerhouse chorus still sucks, but the classy touches certainly justify Dick Wagner's one-time involvement with the creation of this particular tune.

Wagner, however, only guests on one track. The rest are dominated by more trendy guitar heroes — no expense has been spared, as Alice enlists Vinnie Moore, Slash, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, sometimes several of them on the exact same song. (For pointless trivia lovers, Ozzie Osbourne also helps out with backing vocals on the title track, and Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe fame plays bass on 'Feed My Frankenstein'). Of course, this is overkill, and even those who claim to be fans will probably enjoy these guys more on their own records. Still, it is undeni­able that all of them have better technique than Kane Roberts, and more inventiveness than who­ever it was responsible for the guitar work on Trash. And if you are determined to make a glam metal album, why should you want anything less than the best? This is a very demanding genre — nothing but the best really works.

I sincerely believe that three of these songs at least deserve as much recognition as anything Alice ever did, before or after (with the fourth one — the title track, a spitting warning for the fans not to waste themselves away — closing in not too far behind). First, 'Love's A Loaded Gun'. This one should be in everybody's handbook on how to write a non-cringe-inducing power ballad, ex­cept it is not properly a ballad, because it is a threat song, not a love song. Tense, memorable, pa­ranoid, acid sharp in terms of both riffs and solos, it follows the outlines of Trash, but with much more wit and bite, and it has the second most exciting use of the "Pull the trigger!" exclamation in rock history (the first one, of course, is attested for AC/DC). Plus, it gives you something to think about when you consider Alice's ironic tribute to Robert Johnson: where the latter used the image of 'her suitcase in her hand' as a starting point for unraveling his own misery, Alice uses it as the starting point for revenge — no time for sissying around for this guy.

Second — yes, you guessed — 'Feed My Frankenstein'. Vai and Satriani battle it out in the solo section, but that is actually the least interesting section for those who already know a little about either of them. The most interesting thing is how, torn between the necessity of writing about dirty sex and horror shows, Alice manages to come up with a song that deals with both at the same time, using healthy, decent cannibalism as a metaphor for sick, indecent you-know-what, and combining it with great riffs and (finally!) his old sense of humour for good measure. "Feed my Frankenstein, meet my libido!" is certainly silly, but it makes you laugh, and yet, at the same time, this is nowhere near the comfy safety of sex-oriented material on Trash — I can hardly imagine the respectable bourgeois headbanging to "I'm a hungry man but I don't want pizza..."

Third and most important — do not miss on that one! — is 'Wind-Up Toy'. Refreshing! Alice returns here to what he does best: impersonating the mentally deficient. (Leave it to guys with a seriously higher-than-average IQ to be the most efficient spokesmen for the retarded ones). Appa­rently, what we have here is the reappearance of Steven, shut up in an asylum and shut out from the outside world; but to hell with "Steven" — this thing need have no name. One big mistake that people commit with this song is calling it «spooky», or expecting it to be so: the actual music is not one bit spooky, nor is Alice's performance; this is not 'Black Juju', this is a realistic song that tries to pick at the deepest inner feelings of the Down's syndrome guy, and it really does not hit its full stride until the coda, when Alice's piercing wail ('I'm just a wind-up toy, a wind-up, wind-up, wind-up toy!') cuts through the wall of sound. That is the scariest moment — «scariest», not «spookiest» — much more so than the Steven King-ish voiceovers at the end, and it is one of those rare instances where the Coop succeeds in getting across real pain, suffering, and desperati­on rather than their exciting, but cartoonish projections.

All of this translates as «mixed bag, but with a well-discernible positive trend for the whole fac­tory», and, consequently, as a hearty thumbs up — with only three or four songs out of twelve ranking below expectations. To this I should probably add that Hey Stoopid was released just a few months before the grunge ex­plosion, which possibly explains its inability to find the same market as Trash, but something tells me that, had the hair metal rule managed to last for another decade, Cooper's next record in the same genre might have completely overcome the genre's weak­nesses. Fortunately, with the hair metal empire collapsing around him, for his next offering he already didn't have to.