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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ani DiFranco: So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter


CD I: 1) Swan Dive; 2) Letter To A John / Tambouritza Lingua; 3) Grey; 4) Cradle And All; 5) Whatall Is Nice; 6) What How When Where; 7) To The Teeth; 8) Revelling; 9) Napoleon; 10) Shrug; 11) Welcome To; CD II: 1) Comes A Time; 2) Ain't That The Way; 3) Dilate; 4) Gratitude; 5) 32 Flavors; 6) Loom / Pulse; 7) Not A Pretty Girl; 8) Self Evident; 9) Reckoning; 10) My IQ; 11) Jukebox; 12) You Had Time; 13) Rock Paper Scissors.

To summarize the lacklustre fizzle-out of the second stage of Ani's career, up comes a fittingly lacklustre live album whose main purpose is to show that the lady has learned to be just as obno­xious and boring onstage as she is in the studio — even if she herself has always said that she felt far more comfortable playing live than recording.

"I don't know why the fuck I play acoustic guitar, I hate that acoustic guitar sound", she greets us on the very first track, producing a louder-than-necessary first chord. A funny, innocent joke, but gruesomely symbolic: many people, no doubt, will want to ask the same question upon compa­ring the bland minimalist acoustic blabber of her XXIst century sound with the awesome style that she used to have years ago and that is still, in bits and pieces, evident on Living In Clip. The setlist for this particular show conveniently drops everything prior to 1994 (with the lonesome ex­ception of 'Gratitude' from Not So Soft, only proving the rule), and focuses intently upon her last three albums, with the top share of the cake going to Reckoning / Revelling.

Ani's little jazz-funk band does a faithful job of keeping up, and they may even be enjoying the proceedings, but it is hard to guess, because the emphasis is on staying fairly close to the quiet, restrained arrangements on the originals, with next to no jamming or improvisation pieces at all. Actually, it doesn't look like she is in great need of the band at all. Most of the songs from the la­test album, for instance, come from the Revelling part, i. e. introspective underwritten acoustic ballads that find little use for the talents of Ravi Best, trumpet, Shane Endsley, trumpet, Todd Horton, trumpet, Daren Hahn, drums, Jason Mercer, bass, Hans Teuber, clarinet, Julie Wolf, keyboards, vocals. (Ani's interaction with Julie is supposed to form some integral artistic part in the structuring of the second CD, subtitled Girls' Singing Night, but the whole thing never really goys far beyond a little dueting, a trifle backing vocals, and some mildly humorous banter).

To put it bluntly, the good tunes have nothing more to say than they did in the confines of the stu­dio, and sometimes less ('Napoleon' and 'What How When Where', in particular, suffer greatly from the lack of studio gimmickry that used to make one pay any attention to them in the first place). Then there are the bad tunes, of which there are many; I find the setlist quite depressing, to be honest — and previewing some numbers off the upcoming Evolve is hardly a profitable bu­siness, either, given the ever-continuing nosedive on that album as well.

But none of this sucks as much as the decision to dedicate a large chunk of the record to nausea­ting political propaganda. It is not enough that she recreates the seven-and-a-half minute torture of 'To The Teeth' in its entirety; one of the new numbers ('Self Evident') is a nine-minute rant on the evils of American politics, spewed off in a quasi-improvised (actually, quite carefully rehear­sed, I think) manner to a boring lounge jazz background.

Let us get this straight: I am aware, and everyone should be, that the lady's schtick is to combine music with social work, and that, if, like Alice Cooper, you believe music and politics should ne­ver mingle, you should stay away from artists like Ani altogether. I do not share that belief; I have no problem with John Lennon singing 'Power To The People' or with people like John Fo­gerty or Robert Smith or Neil Young writing anti-Bush diatribes and setting them to music. After all, music is feelings, and, if you make good music, why should you be confining your feelings to girls, cars, and transcendental meditation instead of expressing your position on relevant issues?

But it is a different thing altogether if you sacrifice music in favor of political propaganda. If the lady believes her true mission is to go out there on stage and enflame people's hearts against the NRA and George W. Bush and the whored-out media etc. etc., that's fine; declare this a political rally and leave your guitar at home. 'Self Evident' is not even poetry — it starts out innocently enough ("Us people are just poems, we are 90% metaphor..."), but pretty soon derails into a series of platitudes with the legions of supporters howling in unison in all the appropriate stops. I will ad­mit, though, that some of the lines, e. g. "Take away our playstations and we are a third world nation", are brilliant. That is the most I can admit.

In toto, re: the album title, there is, indeed, plenty of shouting — on behalf of all the hardcore De­mocrats in the audience that merely dropped in to check if the sun were still shining, or whether DiFranco was still going strong against the NRA, which is approximately the same thing — and there is plenty of laughter, too, mostly on behalf of Ani herself, who is occasionally trying to de­flate the ser­mon aspect of it all by giggling like the quintessential schoolgirl (I find the contrast cringeworthy, but that's just me). What is seriously lacking in between all the shouting and all the laughter is any sort of viable reason why the heck this woman is still being defined as a «singer, guitarist, and songwriter», when she is doing her best to effectively sabotage all three of these aspects. Thumbs down, egads. At this stage, apparently even Robert Christgau gave up on her (formerly a major fan, he hasn't written one single review of any of her albums since 2002).

Friday, July 30, 2010

Anthrax: Alive 2


1) Among The Living; 2) Caught In A Mosh; 3) A.I.R.; 4) Antisocial; 5) Lone Justice; 6) Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.); 7) Deathrider; 8) Medusa; 9) In My World; 10) Indians; 11) Time; 12) Be All, End All; 13) I Am The Law.

Here is touchable proof that Anthrax did give a flying fuck about school. Nobody saw this reu­ni­on coming, yet it still came out of nowhere: the original lineup, with both Belladonna and Dan Spitz reembracing with Scott Ian for a full-scale concert tour. And John Bush? Quietly given the sack as if he were nothing but a sack himself.

The resulting album and DVD is, in all honesty, Alive 3, if we count The Island Years — and we should — but it ties in perfectly with forgetting all about the John Bush era. Apparently, it was all right for Bush to sing old Belladonna material, but there was no way Belladonna would be singing «new school» stuff. No 'Room For One More' for this guy: the setlist freezes strictly at 1990. They still sing the pre-Belladonna material ('Deathrider'), though.

The performance is rock solid, to be sure: Belladonna's voice got a little bit deeper with age, but essentially unspoilt through the rock'n'roll lifestyle, and, in comparison to The Island Years, the band generally spends less time dicking around and is more concerned about getting the sound right ('Caught In A Mosh', in comparison with the old version, is pulled off brilliantly). Stage ban­ter is reduced to an absolute minimum, although audience participation in the singing of 'An­tisocial', 'Indians', and other tracks is still a must.

As for the setlist, on the tour they would frequently perform Among The Living in its entirety (this is reflected in the accompanying DVD), with Spreading The Disease taking honourable se­cond place; anyway, no complaints can be voiced, and purists may rejoice in seeing that 'Bring The Noise' has been omitted from the CD tracklist, so that everything is pure, stark, blistering thrash from top to bottom.

Anthrax's career after the reunion has been somewhat of a crude mess, though. The Belladonna reunion was short-lived, and produced no new studio material. Then it was followed by two years with Dan Nelson as the band's new vocalist — no new studio material, again, even though the band did hold studio sessions, laying the basis for a new record. Then they fired Nelson and, for another year, reunited with John Bush — no new studio material. Then they fired John Bush aga­in and reaccepted Belladonna (!!) — so far, no new studio material. All that is left for us to do is restock our popcorn and wait for the next episode. When is the reunion with Neil Turbin?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Aerosmith: Nine Lives


1) Nine Lives; 2) Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees); 3) Hole In My Soul; 4) Taste Of India; 5) Full Circle; 6) Something's Gotta Give; 7) Ain't That A Bitch; 8) The Farm; 9) Crash; 10) Kiss Your Past Good-Bye; 11) Pink; 12) Falling Off; 13) Attitude Adjustment; 14) Fallen Angels.

No less than eight outside songwriters this time, ranging from real old friends like Richard Supa (who'd already worked with the band on 'Chip Away The Stone' in the late 1970s) to trusty work­horses like Desmond Child to completely unbelievable surprises like Glen Ballard (of Alanis Morissette fame!). The biggest disappointment is actually Mark Hudson, the man who singlehan­dedly reinvented and rejuvenated Ringo Starr's lackluster solo career — but not before saddling Aerosmith with the triteness of 'Livin' On The Edge' and the ridiculousness of 'The Farm' (at least he also takes responsibility for the second best song on the album, 'Crash').

On the other hand, having to feed so many mouths must have gotten the band's minds off the idea to expand their role as godfathers of / spokesmen for «MTV Rock». Nine Lives does not have as many imperatives in its song titles, as many Alicia Silverstone videos, and as many obnoxious, hypocrite lyrical banalities as Get A Grip. These are its good sides. The bad side is that there is no sense of purpose to the record. The band's old-school rocking instincts, its natural propensity for pathetic power ballads, and the mainstream pop pull of the outside songwriters all seem to mingle in one sticky, viscous, ponderous lump where it is no longer possible to distinguish «bal­lad» from «boogie», «teen pop» from «hard rock», and «sincere» from «forced». Upon first listen, it is bizarre; subsequently, it is just boring.

The record starts out with a promise. 'Nine Lives', as an appetizer, is their ballsiest track to open the proceedings since at least 'Let The Music Do The Talking'. That gruff opening chord, the little feedback bit, the funny «Steve Tyler outscreeching the local feline competition» bit, the lyrics that fall back on the exquisite innuendo principle instead of yer basic foul-mouthing, the drive, the guitar tones... old Aerosmith back? Not quite. It may take a couple listens to understand that the balls are, unfortunately, quite low on life-giving content. For one thing, there is no distinctive riff; just a fast tempo against which Bradford and Perry play a bunch of basic blues-rock and po­wer chords. For another, the chorus ("Nine lives, feelin' lucky...") is pure MTV pop again. Perfect for a headbanging session? No doubt. Timeless classic? No way.

And then the record, head forward, dives into that strange, strange muck. 'Falling In Love Is Hard On The Knees' — what the hell is it? Should it rock? Should it bring tears to your eyes? Should it get you to dance at the local night club? All of these, some of these? Is it even a good song? It's about as catchy as the average Lenny Kravitz song, and just about as nutritious. What the heck are 'Hole In My Soul', 'Ain't That A Bitch', 'Kiss Your Past Good-Bye' (in the latter's case, dock a point for Tyler explicitly uncovering the pun in one of the choruses) — fist-punchers or tear-jer­kers? With Get A Grip, you knew the three ballads and could easily program them out if they annoyed you more than the rockers; with Nine Lives, it is not so easy, because all dividing lines have been blurred. If the melodies were great, this might even have been an asset. As they are, it is a troublesome bother.

I must confess, though, that 'Ain't That A Bitch' is a fine performance; the melody is generic po­wer-balladry, but the mix of slide guitars, strings, blues-rock solos, and Tyler's crescendo from «lazy» to «schizophrenic» is a vast improvement on the technique of, say, 'Crazy'; one may not go wild about the pomposity, but the song aspires to more than straightforward dumb teen bait, and it is hard not to at least tip your hat to the amount of work that went into it. The same applies to quite a few other tracks as well; some fans may complain about overproduction, but, if you ask me, overproduction is fine as long as it gives you something to concentrate on rather than the limp songwriting levels.

True «dumb teen bait» does not really start until 'Pink', which was, of course, the biggest single, the most famous video, and the Grammy-winning song off the album. With a title like that and lyrics like "pink on the lips of your lover, 'cause pink is the love you discover", it is not difficult to understand the primary target audience of the song, arranged as loud, but toothless pop without any Aerosmith trademarks whatsoever (shame on you, Joe Perry). But let us cut them some slack: when you are a fifty-year old rock star, you have to be extra meticulous about finding new ways to attract freshly pubescent girls, or you risk getting stuck with an old, ugly wife forever.

Little bits of experimentation on the album mostly fall flat, or land like heavy boulders on your toes. 'A Taste Of India' has Glen Ballard, who'd already once saddled Alanis Morissette with Eas­tern influences, for better or for worse, lending the same overtones to Aerosmith, except that, as one could guess, for Tyler «a taste of India» does not surmise a trip to the Taj Mahal, but rather something a bit more flesh-related. The effect is dirty cheap. 'The Farm' begins and ends with sni­ppets of The Wizard Of Oz, again suggesting unhealthy sexual fantasies about getting it on with the Tin Man and Scarecrow at the same time (the lyrics make no sense, but "somebody get me to the farm" somewhat echoes 'Last Child', yet, again, with more emphasis on the "I ain't no Peter Pan" part, if you think like I think what they think).

Overall, Nine Lives is a cooling-off record; it is much less teen-geared than Get A Grip, and thus, comes off as nowhere near as insulting for Aerosmith's adult audience. But it also contains fewer guilty pleasures, and it's dreadfully long, too; when half of your album consists of overproduced mid-tempo rock-ballads, you do not really need to extend it over an hour. So take your pick: the disgusting titillation of Get A Grip or the more restrained, but boring pop strains of Nine Lives.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Al Stewart: Russians & Americans


1) Lori, Don't Go Right Now; 2) Rumours Of War; 3) The Gypsy & The Rose; 4) Accident On 3rd Street; 5) Strange Girl; 6) Russians & Americans; 7) Cafe Society; 8) One, Two, Three; 9) The Candidate.

Like all singer-songwriters with a modicum of intelligence to their overall style, Stewart could hardly hope to steer his moderate commercial success straight into the Eighties. With Year Of The Cat and Time Passages, he'd found a way to clothe his music in the trappings of «prog-lite» for the masses; but now that times had changed once again, and unless you went straight pop, you had no more chance of making it. Maybe old friend Parsons, who was still going strong commer­cially, could have lent a hand, but fate did not let it happen.

As it is, Russians & Americans fell through the cracks. In retrospect, I find it unjust; there are some good songs here, and, frankly speaking, the taste lapses in production are not at all hor­ren­dous compared to the next record. Expectedly, the album is heavy on generic Eighties keyboard sound — a cheap-sounding synth riff greets you from the very first second — but only 'Rumours Of War' is completely synth-based, with acoustic guitar melodies still forming the backbone of most of the songs. And, in stark contrast to 24 Carrots, where at least half of the album gave the impression of having been written and recorded to prove Al's being hip with the times, Russians & Americans gives us only one such example — the skewed Cars-style New Wave pop-rocker 'Strange Girl', which could have become a minor radio hit were it ever released as a single. For some reason, it never was, even though its only understandable pragmatic use would have been the jukebox: dumb, but catchy — the best type of bait for Eighties' teenagers.

Only one other song intentionally tries to recapture the essence of the Stewart/Parsons collabora­tive years: 'Cafe Society', all baroque piano flourishes and wild guitar solos and even wilder sax blowing from Phil Kenzie. Among fans, it produced the opposite effect: where the sax solo on 'Year Of The Cat' has always been counted as the song's major asset, Kenzie's screeching, stark raving mad blowing into the instrument on this track never pleased anyone. Well... it's different. I like the song; it is the album's gloomiest, most desperate, and most lyrically obscure, and the sax solos might be grating to everyone expecting another smoothly flowing piece from Kenzie, but it suits the overall mood of the song perfectly.

The title of the album may scare some people into thinking it is, overall, a concept piece on the Cold War, but in reality only the title track, a somewhat naïve plea to the opposite sides to sort out their difficulties, has something to say on the subject; even 'Rumours Of War' should be taken figuratively rather than literally (the song is about relationships rather than hydrogen bombs). If there is a concept, it is the overall darkness of the record — everything is extremely bitter, sour, minor, and morose. Not a surprise for the likes of Al, of course, but he may have overdid his usu­al grim schtick on here, another reason for fans to scorn it.

In essence, though, it has much more in common with the man's good old folk-rock style than 24 Carrots. 'Lori Don't Go Right Now' and 'The Gypsy & The Rose' are pretty, modestly memo­rable, upbeat compositions. The title of 'Accident On 3rd Street' recalls Springsteen, but the song is really closer to all those dozens of forgettable, but harmless and quite listenable rambling Dy­lan «sociologues» from the mid-Seventies and onwards (besides, how can one resist being slyly baited with lines like "He reminded me of one of those Vikings with the long-handled swords / The kind of guy even Joan Baez would not feel non-violent towards"?).

If the album is approached without pre­judice, it has a good chance of taking its humble place next to Orange and Zero She Flies and all those other Stewart albums that just have him quietly do­ing his thing, without too much overproduction and too many grand ideas that sometimes hit the mark and sometimes miss it. Therefore, thumbs up.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Let Me In Your Life


1) Let Me In Your Life; 2) Every Natural Thing; 3) Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing; 4) I'm In Love; 5) Until You Come Back To Me; 6) The Masquerade Is Over; 7) With Pen In Hand; 8) Oh Baby; 9) Eight Days On The Road; 10) If You Don't Think; 11) A Song For You.

A flat-out bore. So the experimental approach of the last record did not really pay off with the audiences. Big deal — you'd think she could simply go back to the unassuming, but fiery R'n'B of the Young, Gifted & Black caliber. Why, then, do we get this inane collection of generic Seven­ties sappy-pappy instead? Where is the music?

As the grooving bassline, the chuckling organ, and the chicken-scratchy guitars introduce the title track, one is immediately misled into the impression that this is going to be another high-spirited romp. Then, one minute into the song, all of it is gone, replaced by a soft, sleepy beat, equally soporific strings, and wedding march brass puffing — and from then on, the song never really awakens back to life, despite switching from bridge to verse melody several times.

The only other songs that rock out a wee bit are Eddie Hinton's 'Every Natural Thing' and Jerry Ragovoy's 'Eight Days On The Road' — neither one an enticing pot of honey by Aretha's usual standards, but, verily and truly, the only songs on here that save me from feeling comatose. Just about everything else is good for you only if you are a really big fan of the American Soft Ballad, 1970s style, where clichéd atmosphere always prevails over melody-writing and the Diva aspect always dominates over real emotional content.

Not that there aren't any — previously — good songs on the album; but material as diverse as 'Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing' (formerly a big, deserving hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell) and 'I'm In Love' (formerly a big, deserving hit for Wilson Pickett) is run through the same grinder, chopped up and mixed with the same pompous strings and wobbly keyboards, and there is nothing unpredictable about Aretha's interpretation, either. And on the other side of the business, the big hit, a cover of Stevie Wonder's then-unreleased 'Until You Come Back To Me', is a sweet, catchy little pop number, but not really suitable for Aretha's general style, plus, it's sort of shallow — Stevie wrote it in 1967, for Christ's sake, while still in his early and fully conven­tional years; for the Queen of Soul to make a big hit out of it as late as 1974 would be akin to the Beatles going out with a bang in 1969 by putting out 'Besame Mucho' as their last single.

Aretha's own compositions have dwindled back to two, and they are written in the exact same vein as everything else on here, i. e. completely forgettable. And then, for the final number, we get a cover of Leon Russell's 'A Song For You', which, by that point, everyone, from the Carpen­ters to Cher, had already covered. It is almost like a symbolic sign of submission, surpassed only by the cheap-glam look of the sleeve photo, fit, perhaps, for a Donna Summer album, but quite degrading for the likes of the Queen. The album might have — very temporarily — put Aretha back on the charts, and reinstated Atlantic's faith in her, but this is truly the turning point, beyond which the «Franklin phenomenon» finally mutates into the «Franklin legacy». Thumbs down.

B. B. King: Completely Well


1) So Excited; 2) No Good; 3) You're Losin' Me; 4) What Happened; 5) Confessin' The Blues; 6) Key To My King­dom; 7) Crying Won't Help You; 8) You're Mean; 9) The Thrill Is Gone.

Produced by Bill Szymczyk (who is usually known as the guiding hand behind The James Gang and, more notably, the Eagles, but is a good guy all the same, neh), just like its predecessor and essentially more of the same — same band, same swagger, same style, same acute desire to modernize and assimilate that new funky sound the kids dig so much.

The big hit, however, had nothing to do with the new funky sound; it was 'The Thrill Is Gone', a song that more or less set the template for how to merge 12-bar blues with «adult contemporary». Not that the term itself existed in 1969, but you know what I mean: without this song, there'd be no Gary Moore, and both Eric Clapton's and Stevie Ray Vaughan's careers would miss at least one of their facets. Not the best one, of course, but I am merely trying to point out how influential the song turned out to be — no judgement passed.

The judgement on the song itself would, of course, be unequivocally positive. No matter how ma­ny recordings B. B. had cut in the past, he'd never really tried out the «dark soul» approach along the lines of, say, Ray Charles' 'Unchain My Heart'. In fact, the whole thing sort of evaded the at­tention of prime time blues players, with maybe one or two notable exceptions like those pionee­ring mid-Fifties singles from Otis Rush. 'Thrill Is Gone' glaringly exploits that gap, and gives us, first time ever — at least, in the eyes of this particular white-man reviewer — a B. B. King that rises high above the idea of «entertainment».

People frequently talk about Szymczyk's strings arrangement as almost the cornerstone of the en­tire composition, even though the strings were an afterthought, a late addition after the number had already been cut and everyone understood this was something different. Minimalistic, but ex­pressive guitar, singing on the verge of tears (for once, without a trace of showman-like manner­isms), and deeply reaching, deadly serious bass lines and electric piano flourishes — solid busi­ness for sure. If you want, you may even search for still deeper interpretations: for instance, the louder, the more frantically B. B. is yelling that "I'm free now baby, I'm free from your spell", the clearer you understand that he is anything but free, and that the song, in his interpretation, is, above all else, about self-deception, and that the gloomy arrangement is supposed to underscore how tragically chained the protagonist is to his destiny...

...but enough of this. It's a swell performance that made B. B. King the big hero of white audien­ces looking for deep emotions from black men, and all the better. The rest of the album, mind you, is fairly different; so much so that one could even think of 'Thrill' as a special last minute add-on to ring the soul bells for the likes of Eric Clapton. There are the usual rip-roaring blues-rock bra­vados, of which the opening number 'So Excited' is particularly notable, highlighted — no, not by the usual wailing monologs from Lucille, but rather from Hugh McCracken's gruff, rhythmic wah­­-wah solo, with a combination of tone and melody quite unheard of in 1969, similar to Jimi's workout on 'Voodoo Chile', but more humble and somewhat more «swampy» in attitude, how­ever you decide to interpret that epithet.

Other notable tracks include a very upbeat, very determined frontal assault on 'Confessin' The Blues'; a cool funky collective workout on 'You're Losin' Me'; and a sprawling sixteen-minute jam ('Crying Won't Help You/You're Mean') for which one just got to have patience — the true fire does not ignite until B. B. and McCracken start trading licks between each other, pretty soon erupting into a red-hot guitar battle with sparks flying off everywhere. (They sort of run it in the ground, eventually — "whach'all trying to do, kill me?" B. B. complains in the last seconds, jo­kingly, of course, because he knows real well, himself, that this killer band is only there to bring out the best in himself).

Thus, as much as the whole experience is overshadowed by the grand — and fully deserved — success of 'Thrill', Completely Well is a perfectly apt title for the album, and should probably be among everybody's first B. B. King purchases: late Sixties blues-rock at its finest. Thumbs up.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind


1) Graze; 2) What Would I Want? Sky; 3) Bleed; 4) On A Highway; 5) I Think I Can.

While not the first Animal Collective EP to contain original material, Fall Be Kind was the first one to cross over the 25-minute mark and cautiously approach LP length level, meaning that it probably merits a few words of its own.

Strictly formally, this is not much of an «advance» on their previous record. Now that they'd fi­nally found the perfect middle ground between psychedelia, hooliganry, and pop, they are stick­ing to it, and my best guess is they will probably keep sticking to it, provided they do not want to regress back to «cult phenomenon» status. But this time around it truly looks as if they are running quite high on confidence, too — there is a certain «now we do know what we are doing» whiff round all this.

'Graze' opens the proceedings with such an intense celestial sound that it comes across as some sort of Heavenly Overture, and the whole twenty-eight minute experience can be conveniently assigned to the genre of «Electronic Oratorio» (as opposed to «Electronic Symphony» of the previous outing — with the emphasis on religious connotations, of course). "Let me begin", the vocals come in, "feels good 'cause it's early, ease open my eyes and let light in". Who wrote these lyrics — Jon Anderson? In­deed, there are quite a few lyrical and musical parallels with the classic, idealistic prog-rock style that can be suggested. Condense Tales From Topographic Oceans into one half-hour, cut out most of the soloing wankery, replace most instruments with electronic gadgets, add a small chunk of Beach Boys harmonies, a little tinge of the Frisco spirit (one of the songs actually samples the Grateful Dead), and there you are.

Besides, we now know exactly what these guys want — just refer to the title of track No. 2. We probably knew it at least as far back as Sung Tongs, but it is possible that they did not know it back then. The EP is an intentional statement of purpose: what used to be groping around in the dark, testing the aural effects of each of the miriad of new sonic waves they were able to synthe­size, has finally paid off, and now they are pushing forward this new brand of musical religion. Celestial sound tones, trance-inducing rhythms, ever more complicated choir overdubs to give you a definite feeling of floating in the stratosphere with them angels swooping up and down and left and right all around you, and lyrics that make about as much sense as they used to but are gi­ven a more and more «sanctified» coating.

This brings us back to the old question of whether these guys have, or if they did not have, whe­ther they have managed to finally find, «soul» — or, to put it differently, are they still putting us on with this grand, but meaningless, spectacle or have the sounds that they are putting out ended up converting them, too? If someone like myself is still unable to fall under their spell — fully able to appreciate the complexity and excitement of what they are doing, but unable to experience anything even remotely close to a cathartic emotion — does that mean they are still doing some­thing wrong, or is it just me? Or could it be that the pointless hooliganry of their early period has shut off my receptacles, so that even if they become the Bach Collective in a few years, the whole thing will still ring somewhat hollow and artificial?

Not clear. Whatever be, it is certain that Fall Be Kind is one of their most accessible creations, and that if its loops, rings, bells, chorals, and words do not exercise their magic on you, it is no use even trying to bother working your way back through the catalog. Thumbs up out of sheer amazement at how firmly they have established their own Church of Heaven, but I do not think I am quite ready to subscribe as of yet.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Ani DiFranco: Reckoning/Revelling


CD I: 1) Ain't That The Way; 2) O.K.; 3) Garden Of Simple; 4) Tamburitza Lingua; 5) Marrow; 6) Heartbreak Even; 7) Harvest; 8) Kazoointoit; 9) Whatall Is Nice; 10) What How When Where; 11) Fierce Flawless; 12) Rock Paper Scissors; 13) Beautiful Night; CD II: 1) Your Next Bold Move; 2) This Box Contains; 3) Reckoning; 4) So What; 5) Prison Prism; 6) Imagine That; 7) Flood Waters; 8) Grey; 9) Subdivision; 10) Old Old Song; 11) Sick Of Me; 12) Don't Nobody Know; 13) School Night; 14) That Was My Love; 15) Revelling; 16) In Here.

No one understood why Ani forgot to release a new studio album in 2000. An intentional refusal to join the happy crowds of artists cashing in on the «turn-of-the-millennium» chance? Or just one of nature's unpredictable errors? Fortunately, already the next year gave a clear answer: she was simply hoarding up material for a double release. Revelling/Reckoning is one hundred and twenty minutes of prime time Ani DiFranco, give or take a few.

The two parts are neatly divided into the Revelling and Reckoning parts (although, for some rea­son, both title tracks are asymmetrically placed in the second half). We'll get to the Revelling part a little later; afore everything, it needs to be said that your love and admiration for DiFranco will be put to the sorest, grizzliest test ever with Reckoning — one hour of arch-lazy, rambling, un­memorable acoustic tunes that aren't even so much tunes as raw mood pieces, envelopping end­less streams of the lady's poetry.

It is time to confess here that I am not much of a poetry fan, with my own admiration strictly re­served to a handful of well-known greats; but I do concede that sometimes clever poetry, set to rudimentary muzak, can strike a deep chord — e. g., Leonard Cohen. Yet even Cohen allowed himself to stoop to the level of us mortals by molding his poetry in a pop music format, which ne­ver ever hurt it, but, instead, made it more poignant. And, occasionally, so did DiFranco. But not here. Play 'Both Hands' next to any of these musical embryos — embryos? nay, blastulae rather — and if this is «maturation» or «artistic progression», I renounce «art» forever.

"How sick of me must you be by now?" asks she the provocative question midway through the acoustic bog. Of course, it's a personal, one-to-one song about relationships rather than a taunt to potential or disenchanted fans, but we are all in this game, and, personally, Reckoning makes me pretty sick. «You have to be in the proper mood for it», the fans say in their reviews, but I cannot envision a mood in which I'd ever want to put on this record instead of Ani's magnificent — in comparison — debut album, let alone miriads of more passionate, more cleverly designed, more musical acoustic experiences from singer-songwriters all over the globe. Balderdash.

The first half of the album is, however, a different story. It is much more fleshed out, less mini­malistic, and continues more in the vein of unpretentious folk-jazz-fusion of Little Plastic Castle than the formulaic «liberal gung-ho» trash of To The Teeth. There is even a mildly funny musi­cal joke number ('What How When Where'), whose funny looping of every monosyllabic ques­tion word found in the English language may make you smile and whose friendly acoustic / brass interplay will reassure you that she still knows how to write real songs, even though the liberal arts devil is permanently swaying her off the right track.

Upbeat constructions like 'Ain't That The Way', 'O.K.', and 'Fierce Flawless' are nothing to write home about, but nice and listenable; mood pieces like 'Tamburitza Lingua' are much better deve­loped than any of the mood pieces on Reckoning (as simple as its acoustic melody is, it's a fri­ckin' melody, well assisted by creepy sci-fi whoooosh! blasts in the background); and only a few of the numbers match the yawn power of Reckoning ('Marrow', 'Garden Of Simple'). In short, Revelling gives the impression of a real, if somewhat stagnated, album, while Reckoning gives the impression of an afterthought... «oh, wait a minute guys, I still got those two poetry-filled notebooks, if I don't do something with them right now, the world's spiritual heritage may not be deemed complete by the next generation... how much studio time have we got left, anyway?»

Plus, I intentionally refuse to comment on any of the lyrics on here — if only for the reason that, for every subject and statement, you can already find an earlier one that is at least equally well, if not better, expressed. Political and social statements; psychological one-sided conversations with boyfriends and girlfriends; random life observations converted into cosmic metaphors, you know the drift. At this point, I am no longer able to take all that verbosity seriously.

To sum up, if Little Plastic Castle showed some musical promise, what with all the cautious jazz-funk experimentation and stuff, Revelling, at best, runs on inertia, and, at worst, drives into a wall; whereas Reckoning is easily the least rewarding DiFranco listening experience up to this point — at least To The Teeth has its pragmatic use at propaganda rallies. Overall, a predictable thumbs down, although 'What How When Where' is one of her funnest creations. (And if you are an admirer, determined to scorn me for choosing this lengthy album's one joke tune as the best song on it, hey, that's hardly my fault. Blame the author, I say).

Friday, July 23, 2010

Anthrax: Music Of Mass Destruction


1) What Doesn't Die; 2) Got The Time; 3) Caught In A Mosh; 4) Safe Home; 5) Room For One More; 6) Antisocial; 7) Nobody Knows Anything; 8) Fueled; 9) Inside Out; 10) Refuse To Be Denied; 11) I Am The Law; 12) Only.

Pretty damn good live album (packaged as one-half CD, one-half DVD; my review only applies to the CD portion), provided you approve of John Bush's frontman image; the live banter is actu­ally quite consistent with his studio spirit — «tough guy with a slightly bigger brain than that of most tough guys». His dedication to patching up the band's uneven history is clearly seen in the intro to 'Antisocial': "How many old schoolers are there in the audience? How many new schoo­lers are out there? How many people don't give a flying fuck about school?" — this should be ta­ken as a veiled excuse for singing old Belladonna classics, I guess, but it is pretty smart put all the same. Why should we, indeed, give a flying fuck about school?

Besides, he does sing the old classics fairly well; what the guy lacks in swaggering charisma, he easily compensates with sincere workmanhood and stamina. Under his lead, 'Caught In A Mosh', for instance, becomes tighter and more grueling than we heard it on The Island Years — no lon­ger does the chorus fall to pieces. And with all the extra iron in his voice, 'I Am The Law' acqui­res an extra amount of seriousness that makes the «old school» more in line with the «new scho­ol», whether one likes it or not.

The setlist is consistently great — with the exception of, at most, a couple duds from the slipaway period of Stomp and Volume 8, they concentrate on all the right material, including ripping ren­ditions of 'Room For One More' and 'Only' from Bush's best record; and 'Safe Home' is one num­ber to actively benefit from audience participation (it is an anthem, after all), yet the crowd roar is not loud enough to overbear the perfect reproduction of the flaming guitar solo.

It is ironic, of course, that the album, summarizing Bush's decade-long presence in the band, would turn out to be his last — even as Music Of Mass Destruction seems to prove that Anthrax have found a perfect compromise between their early classic humorous image and the later trans­formation into a deadly serious grunge-o-metal monster, pretty soon it became clear that no one was really happy about that compromise. Still, the album shows that the decade was not a comp­lete waste at all, and I suppose metal history will be sort of lonelier, decide we to erase the Bush years out of our collective memory. Thumbs up.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Aerosmith: Get A Grip


1) Intro; 2) Eat The Rich; 3) Get A Grip; 4) Fever; 5) Livin' On The Edge; 6) Flesh; 7) Walk On Down; 8) Shut Up And Dance; 9) Cryin'; 10) Gotta Love It; 11) Crazy; 12) Line Up; 13) Amazing; 14) Boogie Man.

If you do not own this album, go out and buy it, now. Listen to it in your best ceremonial robe, your mind intent on prayer. Then take it out and solemnly burn it in your back yard, if you have one, or in the nearest forest, if you live near one, or, if that fails, just grind it to little pieces and flush it. Repeat said procedure each Sunday, and, provided you keep it up for at least ten years, you will undoubtedly find grace in the eyes of the Lord as well as earn gratitude undying in the eyes of your descendants the way they are pictured in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

"There's something wrong with the world today, I don't know what it is", they sing in 'Livin' On The Edge'. But it is not hard to guess, really, because Get A Grip takes its time to embody pretty much everything that is wrong with the world today. It is difficult even to decide where to start. How about this: the song before that features lyrics that go "Fever gives you lust with an appetite, it hits you like the fangs from a rattlesnake bite", and the song immediately after that states that "When the night comes, everybody gotta have FLESH — the only thing that's worth the sweat". Er, I'm pretty sure few of us would abstain from having a little FLESH every now and then, but if it is really "the only thing that's worth the sweat", there must surely be something wrong with the world today, and I do know what it is.

As the «St. George» of grunge bands started hacking away at the «dragon» of hair metal, one would think that Aerosmith, of all people, might finally get their heads straight — after all, with their natural predisposition towards hardest-rock-riffage and punkish attitude, they could have fol­lowed other heroes of the past like Alice Cooper in rejecting the Bon Jovi aesthetics and re-set­ting a fine example for the kids. Instead, they hardened their hearts and came out as defenders of that aesthetics against the grunge wave. The risk paid off. Get A Grip sold almost as many co­pies as Nevermind, became the band's best-selling album ever, and solidified the basis for «MTV Rock» for years to come, plunging the brains of millions of teenagers worldwide into a hedonistic coma whose end, even today, is nowhere in sight.

Get A Grip is a thoroughly evil album — easily in my Top 10 Most Evil Albums Ever Recorded — and, although I am well aware that this is just a convenient symbol, the symbolism is just too overbearing so as not to merit a little verbal pathos. One of the most ironic aspects of its evil is that it's catchy: with the corporate songwriting machine continuing its run, most of the songs con­tain hooks that are exceedingly hard to get out of your head. But what are these hooks? Mostly the same trashy pop choruses, tolerable, perhaps, if steeped in moderation, irritating if molded as pseudo-rebellious anthems.

Embarrassment jumps sky high already with the first track. Musically, 'Eat The Rich' is a poor man's 'Walk This Way' (it even starts out with a brief quote from the song), whose main vocal melody (verse) also has the nerve to rip off Zappa's 'Trouble Every Day' (a transparently obvious observation which, for some reason, I have never met stated elsewhere). Lyrically, it is exactly what its title suggests: a primitive diatribe against rich people. Uh... excuse me, Mr. Tyler, may I take a peep at your latest tax declaration form? Oh, that's right: you only go heavy on "rich folks who get rude", and you "believe in rags to riches", so you're only rambling against those who have not earned their right to yacht clubs and poodles and pills. Oh, excuse me, and here I was thinking that, perhaps, you were sort of poking fun at your own attire the way it looks on you in the opening bits of the 'Love In An Elevator' video. How silly of me. And when you tell me that "you gotta live large, gotta let it rip" in the very next song, you obviously do not mean that "you gotta live large" may surmise poodles and yacht clubs. You probably mean it just surmises having FLESH — the only thing that's worth a sweat. My, my.

Get A Grip is, indeed, a philosophical album; almost every song has its moral. We get instruc­tions every step of the way. How about this: 'Talk is cheap, shut up and dance / Don't get deep, shut up and dance'. If so, what is so surprising about the fact that 'there's something wrong with the world today'? And yet, there is consistency. 'If you can judge a wise man by the color of his skin, then mister you're a better man than I', Tyler adds, periphrasing the Yardbirds — that's about as deep as his understanding of the world's problems can really reach. Yes, sir, your whole life path is set out here before you. You gotta eat the rich, gotta get a grip, gotta shut up and dance, gotta love it, gotta line up, and, of course, you gotta have flesh — the only... oh, excuse me. The whole album is a veritable Bible of MTV faith.

And I have not even yet mentioned its Psalms — three power ballads that are all clumped toge­ther, with very small breaks, on the second half of the album. All were hit singles, and all intro­duced us to the High Priestess Alicia Silverstone, MTV's house-rebel Barbie doll of the mid-Ni­neties whose chief acting talent consisted of knowing how to give the finger with a dismissive glare on the face. If rumours about introducing navel piercing into mainstream culture with the video for 'Crying' are true, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised — the ludicrous idea of mass-marketed self-muti­lation as the expression of «one's true self» or «rebellious attitude» ties in one hundred percent with the overall shit-aesthetics of Get A Grip. (Or was it, instead, the cow udder piercing on the album sleeve? which raises the question of the analogy between Alicia Silver­stone and a domesticated quadruped, and, mind you, it is not me who is responsible).

Of course, it does not help mat­ters much that 'Crying' and 'Crazy' are more or less the same song (the only big difference is that the first one has brass where the second one has harmonica... oh, wait, the first one has harmonica, too, never mind...), and that both satisfy the stereotype of the big bad hairy power ballad to a tee.

Words cannot express the way I hate this album, even as I can't help but bop along to the funky instrumental break in the title track, sounding like the accompaniment to some particularly cheesy Nintendo karate simulator. Against the background of this wave after wave of cultural pollution, only Joe Perry's 'Walk On Down' sounds like a vague, vague reminder of this band's fabulous past, and only makes the pill more bitter in the process. It's one thing to have your intelligence insulted by some good-for-nothing twenty-year old sucker raised on Grease and Van Halen, and another thing to realize that the dragon — nay, the Antichrist — of MTV culture has bought off one of the world's formerly greatest rock'n'roll bands to serve as its chief weapon of mass destruction. For what it's worth, Darth Vader has nothing on Steve Tyler. Thumbs? Can't even see where they went. Too dark, too deep.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Al Stewart: Live - Indian Summer


1) Here In Angola; 2) Indian Summer; 3) Pandora; 4) Delia's Gone; 5) Princess Olivia; 6) Running Man; 7) Time Passages; 8) Merlin's Time; 9) If It Doesn't Come Naturally, Leave It; 10) Roads To Moscow; 11) Nostradamus/World Goes To Riyadh; 12) Soho (Needless To Say); 13) On The Border; 14) Valentina Way; 15) Clarence Frogman Henry; 16) Year Of The Cat.

The record is structured the same way as Genesis' Three Sides Live, raising the hens-and-eggs issue of whether there were too few new studio tracks, calling for live filler material, or whether it was the shows that were too short, calling out for some studio padding. Regardless, it all works fine. Consummate professionalism.

Al's live show, at this point, tended to faithfully concentrate on songs that his MOR-raised audi­ence knew and loved: reaching moderately into the days gone by, but firmly stopping at the bor­der of Past, Present & Future, beyond which there be dragons of his disavowed childhood ex­perience. With the exception of a new tune, wittily poking fun at the newly-increased prestige of the Arab countries ('World Goes To Riyadh'; no idea how it got stuck together in a medley with 'Nostradamus', though), and a brief spoken anecdote about an ill-fated meeting of the double of Clarence "Frogman" Henry with the double of Audrey Hepburn (sic!), the songs are performed as faithfully as possible. If it weren't for the addition of female background vocals on 'Time Passa­ges' (hardly an exciting touch), I could have easily mistaken this for the studio original with over­dubbed applause; and much the same goes for every other number.

Ergo, it is nice to know all of these tricky Alan Parsons arrangements can be reproduced on stage, and to ascertain that Stewart's fine, bright voice steadily holds up all the right notes upon first take, and to hear the receptive audience taking in and applauding all the history-as-art lecturing of 'Roads To Moscow', but other than that, the live show primarily functions as a best-of package. Which is not a bad deal, actually, given that you also get five new studio tracks that, as far as I'm concerned, beat the crap (or, more politely, the carotene) out of 24 Carrots.

The big difference is that most of them are unexpectedly light and happy, purging out the murky melancholia of the previous albums; normally, there is nothing wrong with murky melancholia, of course, but the more we got of it, the more it got the Parsons treatment, with all of the feelings simulated with minor chords played on routine synths, and there was no way to lift this de­pre­s­sing smog of generic arran­gements except by making the music a little happier.

'Here In Angola' is one of the most upbeat songs in the man's repertoire (and the only song in exi­stence to rhyme 'Angola' with not just 'Cola', but also 'Francis Ford Coppola') — simpler than a prokaryote, but also much catchier (ever tried to catch a prokaryote?), and, as the lyrics would suggest, perhaps taking a jab at Dylan and his «born again» debacle? 'Indian Summer' and 'Delia's Gone' are also simple, but poignant, tales that are melancholic, but not murky — and 'Delia's Gone' tries to go for a little Jethro Tullian style, with a flash of Celtic influence bursting through the soft-rock arrangement, later propped up with a flute melody saying hello to Ian. 'Princess Oli­via' adds non-irritating cuteness to simplicity; although I have no idea who 'Olivia' is (his wife? daughter? a historical character? no one in particular?), there's another fun rhyme in there ("I love Princess Olivia/Can't speak, I slip into trivia") and even the silly synthesizer reproduction of 'Ode to Joy' at the beginning cannot spoil the positive impression. The only weak point is 'Pandora', which does bring over some of the shades of gray from 24 Carrots, reminding us that the man is still firmly in the clutches of corporate production values. But it's not a bad song, either.

If you need any additional reasons to own this album, get it just for the front cover photo — the wide lapels on the suit are corny, but it's the last chance one has to spot a young-looking, long-haired Al Stewart, still looking like Eric Idle's concealed twin and loving it. One reason we old fogeys and retro-fans might dislike the Eighties is, perhaps, purely age-related, as they stole the facial freshness of most, if not all, our idols. Then again, it has been all but scientifically proven that just one listen to a mid-Eighties Phil Collins record takes away six months of life; how many months, then, must producing such a record take away? Thumbs up, before it's not too late.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Hey Now Hey


1) Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky); 2) Somewhere; 3) So Swell When You're Well; 4) Angel; 5) Sister From Texas; 6) Mister Spain; 7) That's The Way I Feel About Cha; 8) Moody's Mood; 9) Just Right Tonight; 10*) Master Of Eyes.

This record initiated Aretha's critical and commercial decline — but for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps inspired by recent examples of artistic liberation such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Franklin dared to put forward a record that took more chances than usual, aspiring to some­thing larger than just another hit package — and was duly castigated. Duly, in the sense that she could never hope to ascend the heights of Stevie's musical genius (she is, after all, primarily a singer and interpreter), nor did she choose the infallible path of putting forward such a Mother of all Socially Conscious Albums as was Gaye's What's Going On (whose purely musical aspects, in my opinion, frankly, leave much to be desired in the wake of its reputation).

Instead, Hey Now Hey, co-produced by Aretha herself with the already legendary Quincy Jones, simply opts for a more experimental, more serious approach. The album is quite intentionally non-hit-oriented; the closest thing to a potential hit is Carolyn Franklin's pleasant, conservative ballad 'Angel', and, true enough, as a single it sold better than the LP itself. But the rest of it has Aretha doing all sorts of unpredictable things — like engaging in multi-part suites with alterna­ting soft and hard bits (title track); singing consoling odes to miserable junkies ('Mr. Spain'); put­ting on Ella Fitzgerald's shoes as a scat singer ('Moody's Mood'); and simply writing — a lot: more than half of the songs here are either credited to Aretha all by herself or co-written with Quincy. Quite a precedent, neh?

As I said, the gamble did not pay off; critics were mostly underwhelmed, and fans bewildered. But I dare say Hey Now Hey belongs to those not-of-their-time stacks of albums that simply wait to be rediscovered, taking as much time as they need to; in the future, it may yet be seen as a ma­jor highlight for the lady. Perversely, it is exactly the two most frequently lauded tracks that, I think, are the album's corniest: 'Angel' shows that Carolyn Franklin was much better at writing pop songs than ballads, and should have been better left to Roberta Flack; and the lush orchestra­ted cover of 'Some­where' cannot hope to beat the original (and Bernstein or no Bernstein, the ori­ginal is still little more than a sappy Broadway number).

The rest mostly rules, though. The title song throws you off the track in a great way, wobbling between the Friscoish psychedelic bridges and the Funkadelic-style verses; if Aretha truly wrote this, it is the most complex and rewarding thing she ever did. 'Sister From Texas' is oddly dark and mysterious, and, for my money, spreads God's message more effectively than all of Amazing Grace put together. 'Mister Spain', on the outside, employs much the same arrangement techni­ques as 'Angel', but touches upon rougher and darker subjects and is completely devoid of whiffs of cheese so prominent on 'Angel'. 'So Swell When You're Well' pulsates with fun, in the good old steady blues-rock way, and so does 'Moody's Mood', in the jazz way.

Some of the tracks are overlong, and there is little feel of consistency; if anything, it reeks of a job well conceived, but sort of executed mid-way through, which may explain the critical resista­nce: intellectuals like their concept albums smoothly oiled and well polished. Clearly, the lady was trying to bite off a bit more than could be chewed; clearly, with more than a decade of show-biz behind her back and six years of superstardom assured with a winning formula, it would be hopeless to try and, all of a sudden, apply for the position of «The Brains of Black Music». But anything of the sort is still miles better than simply giving in to mainstream trends of the time and eroding your reputation with the general flow...

...which, unfortunately, is exactly what happened; perhaps, had the album been even a little more successful and critical reply more positive, the rest of Franklin's career in the Seventies (at least in the Seventies; no hope for the Eighties, ever) would not have dragged so miserably. Thumbs up, then, for a flawed, but extremely interesting and, in parts, highly inspiring record that is so ab­so­lutely unique in her catalog.

Monday, July 19, 2010

B. B. King: Live & Well

B. B. KING: LIVE & WELL (1969)

1) Don't Answer The Door; 2) Just A Little Love; 3) My Mood; 4) Sweet Little Angel; 5) Please Accept My Love; 6) I Want You So Bad; 7) Friends; 8) Get Off My Back Woman; 9) Let's Get Down To Business; 10) Why I Sing The Blues.

The title is a bit misleading in the logical department. Only the first half of it is Live — recorded at the Village Gate in NYC — which would presume that only the second half of it is Well; but, in fact, this is a damn fine record all the way through, with B. B.'s studio output finally catching up with the rawness and intensity of his live playing.

Although the playing, singing, and recording quality here are solid throughout, two particular tracks stand out, and, hardly by coincidence, they also bookmark the beginning and the end. As «the king» is announced on stage, he launches into 'Don't Answer The Door' with a lengthy, stun­ning solo, making great use of volume levels, stops-and-starts, and even prolonged vibratos that is, arguably, his first seriously «experimental» bit of playing captured on record. As good as the rest of the show may be, somehow it never lives up to King pulling all the stops on those first few bars — but then, perhaps, just a little is enough.

On the studio half, the respective opus magnum is, of course, the eight-minute sprawl of 'Why I Sing The Blues', King's first — I think — major social statement, on which he is not so much speaking for himself as basically answering, in poetic form, the question that we most often see answered in sociological form: yep, you guessed it, he is singing the blues because that is simply the most natu­ral thing to sing for the likes of his people. The simplicity of the idea, however, be­comes grandeur as B. B. comes up with a suitable arrangement (deep, rumbly, gotta love that monster distorted bass line that the band probably copped from Sly & The Family Stone) and lets it roll for as long as him and «Lucille» can take it.

One more argument, by the way, why longer B. B. King is better B. B. King: most of the other tunes are too short in their genericity to make any sort of lasting impression, but the ones that roll over five minutes are endowed with serious staying power. This rule of thumb does not apply too well to 'Friends', I admit, but that is because 'Friends' is merely an instrumental blues jam with B. B. trading licks with his jazzy counterpart Hugh McCracken, while both are accompanied in the background by Al Kooper's piano playing. Somehow, though, McCracken and Kooper come out wasted on the record — perhaps a little intimidated by the bulk of The King hanging over them to show their best chops? Still a nice document of three greats having it out in public.

As a tiny bonus, some of the jokes on the live part are not bad — e. g., B. B.'s merry "we got a brand new tune for you here tonight, it's so new the band don't know it, you don't know it — and I don't know it... but we're gonna try". Humour — where would true blues be without a sense of one? Thumbs up.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Andrew Bird: Noble Beast


1) Oh No; 2) Masterswarm; 3) Fitz & Dizzyspells; 4) Effigy; 5) Tenuousness; 6) Nomenclature; 7) Ouo; 8) Not A Robot, But A Ghost; 9) Unfolding Fans; 10) Anonanimal; 11) Natural Disaster; 12) The Privateers; 13) Souverian; 14) On Ho!

Scary — but the well seems to be running dry. From the beginning, Bird has chosen the hono­rable, but risky path of trying to say something new with each album: staying true to his own un­flinching personality, yes, but still travelling the long exciting road from «neo-swing» to neo-wha­tever, adding influence upon influence and new trick upon new trick. With Armchair Apo­crypha, he'd molded his sound closer to indie-rock aesthetics, ensuring himself a steady com­mercial base among those who like their pop as pop, not as atonal brain-teasers, but still won't come within a mile's radius of MTV presence. It worked. What next?

Noble Beast is the first Andrew Bird album where I am exceedingly hard pressed to find even a remote trace of progress. (Apart from a couple lame moves, like the electronica elements and te­chno beats on 'Not A Robot' which do not agree with his style at all, I'm afraid). It's just another chunk of guitar-and-violin-driven pop, tied to another chunk of enigmatic, occasionally nerdy ly­rics (he even makes a reference to «proto-Sanskrit Minoans» at one point, which may delight the initiated, but should probably turn off history and linguistics buffs who actually know the meaning of these words). It's all pleasant, and a few of the songs are emotionally wondralicious — but totally surpri­sing in its total lack of surprises.

But if, for one moment, we admit that our expectations are skewed — that, perhaps, Andrew has simply found the kind of sound that gives him complete sexual self-satisfaction — then what re­mains is simply to listen to the album over and over again until it clicks like the rest. Then, even­tually, 'Oh No' wins over as one of his delightfullest, most aethereal odes to spiritual liberation (provided this is how we have to interpret the lament about "calcium mines deep in our chest"), with one of his friendliest whistling patterns to boot. 'Fitz & Dizzyspells' is uplifting power pop that ranks up there with 'Heretics' (and also continues to display what I perceive as his serious in­terest in the Arcade Fire anthem style). And the start of 'The Privateers' is his most polished alloy of medie­val balladry and post-modern sheen to date, upon which it builds up layer after layer of grandiosity and then finally explodes in a bunch of electronic noise shambles.

For those who like their Andrew all sky-like and pastoral, 'Souverian' will do the job nicely. No one knows who 'Souverian' is; Bird himself was caught mentioning something about this being a French word, but, unless he happened to fall upon a mistyped variant of souverain, or decided by himself that the word would look nicer if disguised as an Armenian family name, he probably did not know what he was talking about (no big surprise here). Regardless, it forms a nice near homo­phone with 'so very young', and that's all it took to build up a genteel, manneristic mini-suite that does a great job extracting you from the world of Miley Cyrus for about seven minutes.

But keep in mind that if, like me, you get acquainted with Bird in chronological order, you'd bet­ter be prepared for a tinge of boredom and tiredness. His obvious professionalism and mannered intelligence prevent, and, I think, will always prevent him from releasing a non-respectable re­cord, yet there is only so much hyper-intellectual parallel-universe-building that one's mind will accept from the mind of another. And for Bird, it looks like his particular parallel universe has reached the end of its carefully planned construction — now all that remains is to understand how to spend the rest of the allocated budget. Repave the roads, perhaps?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ani DiFranco: To The Teeth


1) To The Teeth; 2) Soft Shoulder; 3) Wish I May; 4) Freakshow; 5) Going Once; 6) Hello Birmingham; 7) Back Back Back; 8) Swing; 9) Carry You Around; 10) Cloud Blood; 11) The Arrivals Gate; 12) Providence; 13) I Know This Bar.

God, this is horrible. One certainly does not expect an intelligent folk-rock masterpiece from an album that is the artist's second-within-the-year to overflow the sixty-minute mark (actually, this one runs over seventy), but a few decent numbers here and there from someone of DiFranco's ca­liber could still be welcome.

Instead, To The Teeth gives us seventy minutes of plodding, insanely boring, unimaginably un­derwritten mid-tempo rhythms that sound like they were conceived in a disfocused, debilitated cannabis haze. I would venture a guess that no one but the deepest, dangerous, society-threa­tening fanatic, whose wildest dre­am is to open a tattoo parlor next to Ani DiFranco's place of residence, could willingly listen to this more than one time.

For one thing, not a single of these songs should be legally allowed to run more than three minu­tes, yet many of them cross the six or seven minute mark as if each aspired to be a frickin' 'Deso­lation Row' or something. In a few cases, this could be understood if she were intent on driving her little backing jazz-funk band into jam mode; but whoever these guys are and whatever their talents may be, they are strictly prohibited from displaying band. It could also be pardoned had she remembered how to play those cool choppy rhythms like she used to when she had no band at all; but there is not a single song all across these seventy minutes on which the guitar playing would rise above rudimentary (at least, by her own standards).

Then there are the politics. She returns to the battleground fully armed — «to the teeth», indeed — and, from the first minutes, engages in a ghost battle with shadows of MTV, NBC, CBS, NRA and tells us to «open fire on each weapon manufacturer while he's giving head to some republi­can senator». Apparently, the song — and, most likely, the entire album as such — was inspired by the Columbine massacre, but righteous anger is no excuse for writing lame lyrics, setting them to non-existent melodies and letting the blood drip for eight awful minutes. Further down the line, Woody Guthrie and Martin Luther King have guest appearances as well; Angela Davis might have been on the list of invitations, too, but the catch is, she's not dead yet.

Then there are the awful embarrassments. 'Freakshow' sounds one, nay, two hundred percent like an Alanis Morissette outtake from the Little Pill era; Ani goes as far as to modulate her singing according to the Morisette pattern — what the hell? The main reason we may be interested in her in the first place is that she presents an embraceable alternative to Alanis, and now this? Then there is 'Swing', on which she acknowledges her respect for hip-hop culture by sharing the spot­light with Corey Parker, improvising a little rap about her. The effect will probably seem pitiful even to supporters of the culture, let alone the doomed bigots who prefer real music.

Then there is the overall rating. Need I even spell it out? Even Robert Christgau hated the record, and no other prominent critic raved more about DiFranco than the enigmatic old goat.