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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Almighty Fire


ARETHA FRANKLIN: ALMIGHTY FIRE (1978)

1) Almighty Fire (Woman Of The Future); 2) Lady, Lady; 3) More Than Just A Joy; 4) Keep On Loving You; 5) I Needed You Baby; 6) Close To You; 7) No Matter Who You Love; 8) This You Can Believe; 9) I'm Your Speed.

For Almighty Fire, Aretha once again turned to Curtis Mayfield for guidance. And once again, things got off to a good start — the title track here is a classic, burning-up funk groove on which Curtis and Aretha succeed in pointing the clavinet, horns, and strings in the rightfully «disturb­ing» direction, and once they do, Ms. Franklin belts the lyrics out as if she were on fire herself: there is some absolutely head-spinning vocalizing here, even if the melody per se leaves some­thing to be desired.

Unfortunately, Mayfield never gave the rest of the songs the same attention, and the next seven songs never ever amount above pleasant background muzak. Danceable and professional as al­ways, they do not offer anything special. Like with Sweet Passion, there have been complaints that the whole thing was too heavily disco-fied, but such opinions are misguided: 'Keep On Lov­ing You' and 'I Needed You Baby' are the only fast dance numbers on the record, and even those two are not straightforward disco in the rhythmic sense. Not that they're special or anything, but at least they kick one inch more ass than everything else.

As if to give final proof that, for the most part, Mayfield's waning talents were all but wasted on the LP, Aretha finishes the dusky proceedings with her own piano solo ballad, 'I'm Your Speed', which feels more heartfelt and meaningful than all of those seven preceding tunes put together. Everything gets its proper taste in context, of course: on a record like Young, Gifted And Black such a song would come across as a cute throwaway or minor highlight to be enjoyed after every­thing else, but in the environment of Almighty Fire listening to it is like witnessing your loved one come back to senses after a period of heavy sedation.

Which is why 'I'm Your Speed', with all its surprising soulfulness, would not do good on a best-of compilation or retrospective, for which, in the proper way, only the title track could be salvage­able. A big thumbs down — mostly to Mayfield, who had all but betrayed the Queen's faith in him, so much so that the two would never work together again.

Monday, August 30, 2010

B. B. King: Guess Who


B. B. KING: GUESS WHO (1972)

1) Summer In The City; 2) Just Can't Please You; 3) Any Other Way; 4) You Don't Know Nothin' About Love; 5) Found What I Need; 6) Neighborhood Affair; 7) It Takes A Young Girl; 8) Better Lovin' Man; 9) Guess Who; 10) Shouldn't Have Left Me; 11) Five Long Years.

Not that dumb a title, considering that the proceedings open with a Lovin' Spoonful cover — then again, B. B. has always been omnivorous, open to bluesy reworkings of everything from Beet­hoven to the Beatles. Overall, though, it is way too easy to guess who, especially since way too many songs on here dishearteningly hearken back to King's overproduced, underperformed balla­d­e­ering style of the early Sixties.

Somehow, upon returning from London, B. B. managed to lose all the great musicians that bac­ked him up on the 1968-1970 albums, and the result is mere languid competence. Dropping the jams, restraining the guitar in favour of ensemble playing dominated by keyboards and horns, se­lecting formulaic material — all of this is a very sharp drop in quality, for no apparent reason other than unlucky circumstances.

The major highlight should have been 'Five Long Years', perfectly tailored to suit B. B.'s blues-de-luxe formula, but it does not work too well, I'm afraid: Lucille has a tough time out there, pin­ned down by all the horns and, for some reason, opting for a smooth, tender tone rather than «bla­zing sharp» which is really what is needed. Even so, it is the most outstanding track on the entire album bar the unexpected, not-unpleasant but not-highly-rewarding surprise of B. B. playing out the gentle melancholy of 'Summer In The City'.

Some people care for the title track — I do not. It's as if King decided to mix in a little bit of that Champs-Elysées style with his blues pattern, and the cheesy sentimentality, swimming in pools of orchestral and keyboard sap, kills off all the healthy antibodies. Thumbs down.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Battles: Mirrored


MIRRORED (2007)

1) Race In; 2) Atlas; 3) Ddiamondd; 4) Tonto; 5) Leyendecker; 6) Rainbow; 7) Bad Trails; 8) Prismism; 9) Snare Hangar; 10) Tij; 11) Race Out.

Every now and then, one of the latest «cool» bands releases an album where it intentionally mixes the cool and the immediate with the artsy and the meandering, and a large chunk of the critics cries out something like «Prog-rock is back, but this is just about the only way we could ever like it!» and then the cool band fades away and the other cool band comes in and does the same thing in a different way and gets the exact same response. Had Jon (or Ian, for that matter) Anderson been born twenty years later and started off in some obscure indie rock band in Sheffield or Okla­homa City, they might have been luckier with their tattered critical legacies.

With Mirrored, Battles have entered trickier territory than their much more minimalistic EPs could ever suggest; the critics paused, wavered, then, for the most part, gave the green light, be­cause, after all, those guys do not take themselves too seriously, and that's exactly what matters. How exactly they do take themselves is another matter. Nobody really knows. But everybody's intrigued. Could this, like, be the future of rock'n'roll... again?

The lead hit single, 'Atlas', is a little bit rock'n'roll, for certain. Its kid-martial rhythm paired with garbled chipmunk vocals is pure novelty, per se, but it is only an integral part of a far more chal­lenging structure, with buildups, fadeouts, external riffs coming in and going away, and a jarring industrial loop to finish things off — definitely more ambitious than just a modern twist on 'The Chipmunk Song'. Besides, it is hardly typical of the entire album: its chipmunkish hook is one of the most obvious, as befits the lead single, but, overall, it is simpler than the rest, and the happi­ness quotient is way too high. Mirrored isn't exactly a depressing or aggressive experience, but neither is it an ode to joy.

A few tracks almost sound like a more collected, rhythmic (and cleaner-recorded) Animal Collec­tive: trippy textures from outer space to blow the minds of inferior life forms, only set to rhythms that the life forms can really dance to (most are tricky in terms of signature, yet manageable ne­vertheless), like 'Ddiamondd', for instance, or the shamanistic vocal part of 'Rainbow'. But since the bulk of the band, after all, consists of real guitarists playing real guitars, we all know these similarities may not last too long. Sooner or later, the band enters real-music-playing mode, and then they become the modern day's Gentle Giant.

What they do not really share is prog-rock's love for dissonance and atonality, nor do they sup­port the ideology of «stop, shift to a different rhythm, melody, and tempo, play for ten seconds, stop, repeat, do while .T.». Entire seven/eight-minute pieces like 'Tonto' can stay glued to the same rhythm throughout, as if they were some inoffensive, unnoticeable chillout offering, but be­hind that rhythm, different melodies actually shift on a continual basis; the peak of this madness arrives near the end of the album with 'Tij', a sweaty, funky composition, like a fast-going King Crimson number from the early Eighties sped up at twice the norm.

In addition to still not caring about «song-ifying» any of their music, Battles may have another Achilles' heel: it is exactly their lighter elements — the chipmunk vocals, the care­free whistling on 'Race In' and suchlike — that may prevent many people from taking them seriously rather than dismissing them as the ten millionth novelty act to come our way, much like John Zorn's Naked City could have a hard time gaining recognition with «true» jazz fans for being influenced by the likes of Napalm Death.

And I, too, do not think that every idea they come up with on Mirrored is perfect, if only because there is so much. Nor do I claim to understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. Nor do I make a solemn promise that I will want to relisten to this at least once a year, nor would I bet ten dollars on the album becoming a timeless classic for the ages. But I do admit that this kind of sound — this kind of idea, to take a bunch of real instruments, make them sound like Electronica, and then streamline the whole thing into the direction of complex artsiness — is a solid, and potentially quite captivating, creative achievement of the human spirit. Will it lead us on to Mars and Jupiter? I am not sure. Probably not. But it does justify the band haughtily assum­ing its given name, and for that particular blistering moment in 2007, that was fairly well enough. Thumbs up — were the brain disallowed to offer that judgement, what other album, strictly brain-wise, would be more deserving of it?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ani DiFranco: Reprieve


ANI DIFRANCO: REPRIEVE (2006)

1) Hypnotized; 2) Subconscious; 3) In The Margins; 4) Nicotine; 5) Decree; 6) 78% H20; 7) Millennium Theater; 8) Half-Assed; 9) Reprieve; 10) A Spade; 11) Unrequited; 12) Shroud; 13) Reprise.

If, for some reason, your subconscious decrees to be hypnotized by Reprieve, a half-assed per­formance of Ani DiFranco's millen­nium theater that is 78% H20 and 22% shroud of nicotine, then it is well in the margins of remaining unrequited. That sentence takes care of all the songs on this album, with the exception of 'A Spade' which is exactly what this album is. A spade.

Since I am no longer capable of taking the lead while talking about Ani albums, let me restrict myself to a few personal, subjective, and — I confess — vindictive comments on this not-so-much informative as panegyric description from the site of Righteous Babe Records (who says Ani and her associates have not stooped to studying the tactics of The Enemy?):

"Every new album from singer/songwriter/guitarist Ani DiFranco gives listeners a reason to get excited about music all over again (well, I certainly AM excited about the number of times one single artist can fuck things up — G. S.), and Reprieve is certainly no exception. Across 12 tracks, DiFranco ignites more of her signature blend of poetry, politics and musicianship. (Yep, she ignites it all right, but how can anything that drenched with repetition, predictability, and lack of invention ever burn? — G. S.).

"Ani and touring bassist Todd Sickafoose (the guy's name is almost begging for some lame pun, but let us refrain from cheapness — G. S.) are the only two players on the new album — some­thing you'd never guess from its rich and detailed sound (almost an understatement in regards to a record on which about half of the songs feature nothing but acoustic guitar and vocals — G. S.). In addition to the usual array of acoustic and electric guitars for which she is justly noted, Ani can be heard on keyboards, drums, and other instruments ('can be heard' is right — you really have to work for it; I did spot some piano keys lightly pressed on a couple introductions, but I'm still looking for those goddamn drums — G. S.), while Todd contributes not only bass but wur­litzer, pump organ, piano and "fakey-bakey" trumpet and strings (Yes, I DID wonder about whose idea it was to embellish the signature acoustic boredom with all sorts of "fakey-bakey" toilet noises. Maybe the puns SHOULD start coming, after all — G. S.).

"The album was tracked in her New Orleans studio in early 2005 during a break in her usually heavy touring schedule. Forced to leave the master recordings behind when she evacuated before Hurricane Katrina, she drove back into the city to retrieve them just three days after the levees broke. (In a self-sacrificial act of political bravery, no doubt. Goddammit, here is ONE good thing that could have come out from Hurricane Katrina and — obviously, the pun mood is upon me — she just blew it — G. S.). From there she headed back to overdub in her hometown of Buf­falo with whatever instruments happened to be on hand. Chief among them a vintage omnichord and a modern "cheesy synthesizer" which entailed "trying to use uncool sounds in cool ways," as she puts it (Come now, Ms. DiFranco, why don't you leave "cheesy synthesizers" and "vintage omnichords" to the likes of Animal Collective. You generally have big trouble using cool sounds in cool ways, as you have showed time and time over again with your jazz career; what makes you think 'uncool' sounds will fare any better? — G. S.).

"Between the forced evacuation and the time off on the road, Ani found herself concentrating on the process of recording to a degree she had never done before, and the resulting album is the clearest demonstration yet of her talents as a producer (Who the heck had the nerve to write this crap? Her "talents as a producer" — are you kidding me? Since when does overdubbing a few electronic farts over an acoustic melody count as "producing"? — G. S.). Unconstrained by the pressures of touring, she was able to take her time with the record, and the end result is an overall sound that is as clear and succinct as her lyrics have always been (I like the "unconstrained" bit — as if somebody were actually constraining the lady into touring. She is her own boss, isn't she? And I seriously doubt that even a vintage fan will clearly perceive Reprieve as 'that particular re­cord that she, like, REALLY took her time with' — G. S.).

"While not intended to be taken as a concept album in any way, the songs on Reprieve do pro­vide a cohesive picture of what’s been on Ani’s mind lately during turbulent times on the per­so­nal, cultural, and global front (With Ani, times are always turbulent, and usually turbulent in the exact same ways; this sentence easily applies to any given album in her career — G. S.). From the opening encounter of “Hypnotized” to the call to action against patriarchy in the spoken-word title track to the conflict between “the house of conformity” and the ability to make art in the final song, “Shroud,” this is classic Ani territory (Indeed, and she sticks to it faithfully. I do realize that the question 'how many more calls to action against patriarchy does one person need from another one?' provokes the obligatory answer 'as many as it takes to finally goad one into action', but surely something is not working too well if so many calls to action have provoked so little response? Maybe it's the wrong playground? Maybe she ought to have a run at the Senate, already? — G. S.). It’s a place where individual songs can’t be easily separated into “personal” and “political” categories, because those concerns inevitably overlap in complex and nuanced ways (Obviously, if you let politics into your personal life, the two will overlap. But it usually makes for rather bad art, not to mention increasing the risk of psychiatric problems — G. S.).

"Ani describes Reprieve as rooted in the Crescent City (This woman really works in strange and mysterious ways. But maybe she meant Crescent City, Illinois? According to the latest census, it has 631 inhabitants, and, since this must be just about the total number of people that would love this album, a connection is possible — G. S.), and it so happens that there’s a single direct re­fe­rence to that town in the album’s centerpiece, “Millennium Theater.” The line “New Orleans bi­des her time” in the middle of this scathing critique of the current Republican regime might sound like a response to Hurricane Katrina, but in fact the song was written well before the disaster that has devastated the city, about a crisis that took no one but the presidential ad­ministration by sur­prise (How fortunate, a cute little coincidence that gives one something to write about when there is nothing to write about. 'The album's centerpiece'? I honestly thought it was one of the blandest throwaways — G. S.). Like just about everything else on Reprieve, “Millennium Theater” finds Ani speaking her mind, singing from her heart, and playing music like her life — like all of our lives — depended on it (Look, I have nothing against Ani speaking her mind, singing from her heart, and playing like her life depended on it, but leave ME out of this, won't you? If my life de­pended on an album like this, I'd have to be committed — G. S.).

Well, at least you, the reader, cannot complain now: you've heard it from both sides. Make your choice now or forever hold your peace. Mine, of course, is a decisive thumbs down. In fact, against my rules, I honestly could not stand more than two listens. Somebody sign this woman to Hollywood Records, please. Make Diane Warren write her songs for her.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Angry Samoans: Return To Samoa


ANGRY SAMOANS: RETURN TO SAMOA (1990)

1) Are You A Square? 2) Permanent Damage; 3) D For The Dead; 4) 1981 (Trip Or Freak); 5) Matchstick Men; 6) Radio Ad; 7) Posh Boy’s Cock; 8) Time To Fuck; 9) Wild Thing; 10) Somebody To Love.

A bunch of outtakes from I'm not exactly sure when; the album itself was sort of semi-official and is likely impossible to find in non-bootlegged form. My own bootlegged copy comes with a healthy addition of more than 15 live tracks played in some lousy NYC joint around 1981, which gives a fairly decent picture of what the band was really all about at its dubious peak. But the al­bum «proper» is just ten tracks that run the typically Samoan length of 20 minutes.

The songs mostly catch the Samoans in a transitional state here, fresh off the humorous/mental hardcore of Back From Samoa and starting to pick up with the retro-garage thing. There is a very, very intentionally lame cover of 'Somebody To Love', exactly the way a retired rock critic and an upcoming PhD in math would be covering it while being drunk or while pretending to be drunk; and a much tighter, but still lame version of 'Wild Thing' with improvised ad-libbed vocals that break all possible taboos in the crudest ways (best moment: an impassioned "put your face in my p...", then, suddenly aware of unwanted and­rogynous connotations, "my p... penis!"). There is even a rendition of Status Quo's 'Matchstick Men' that starts off very faithful to the famous psy­chedelic drone of the original before launching off into hardcore heaven.

'D For The Dead' may be of interest to B-culture addicts, the Samoans' only anthem to zombie flicks; '1981', both with its title and with its melody, is a clear, and not very exciting, evocation of the Stooges' '1969'; and there might be lots of other references that I'm too lazy to write about. The real good news, however, is that in sloppy outtake form, the Samoans may be even better than they are in the final version — because Saunders' and Turner's ideology is faithfully reflec­ted on albums like Back From Samoa in all but one respect: the required spontaneity feels arti­ficial and staged. With the likes of "put your face in my penis", though, it's all too real. Return To Samoa proves, once and for all, that these guys were quite willing to live out their rock'n'roll alter egos at least in the studio, if not always in real life.

On stage, too, if you take into account the live bonus tracks from 1981, where they play most of the stuff from their first two albums and then aimlessly meander and dick around in between the tracks, shooting off their mouths, inserting quotes from 'Matchstick Men' and 'Smoke On The Wa­­ter' and cool-heartedly remarking that "this must be the third amp we've killed tonight" along the way. Piss-poor sound quality and thin applause from a colossal audience of about five or six people complete the perfection of the picture. Thumbs up, of course. What other choice?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Aerosmith: Rockin' The Joint


AEROSMITH: ROCKIN’ THE JOINT (2005)

1) Beyond Beautiful; 2) Same Old Song And Dance; 3) No More No More; 4) Seasons Of Wither; 5) Light Inside; 6) Draw The Line; 7) I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing; 8) Big Ten Inch Record; 9) Rattlesnake Shake; 10) Walk This Way; 11) Train Kept A-Rollin’.

Recorded in 2002 at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, not released until three years later when nobody really cared, featuring a suitably trashy album sleeve and an oddly short setlist, the album was either mildly trashed or ignored by the critics — and has no chance whatsoever to join Live! Bootleg in its semi-legendary status. Too bad, ‘cause it’s a lot of fun.

On the heels of South Of Sanity, you’d think the guys would be happy enough to entertain the Vegas crowds with a generous serving of their glossy hits. They do not; with the exception of two numbers from their latest studio album (well, they were promoting it, after all), and one more that is pretty painful to mention at this time, everything they play goes back to the gold period — in­cluding freshly unearthed rarities such as ‘No More No More’ and ‘Seasons Of Wither’!

Everything changes in an instant. Where the Sanity tracks, with a few exceptions, reflected Aero­smith honestly earning their daily bread, giving fans note-for-note perfect versions of pre-poli­shed plastic rock’n’roll hits, on Rockin’ The Joint they are clearly having fun. Because with the­se old classics, you don’t care for ideal execution; you just care to get your kicks. The way Joe Perry hammers out that riff for ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’ — don’t you want to trade the band’s entire post-1987 career for that experience? The way Tyler screams his head off on the last verse of ‘Draw The Line’, even if a bit of it is off-key, isn’t it more exciting than all of his come-in-at-the-right-moment bansheeisms on Sanity? The way the band jams its toes off during the instrumental sections of ‘Big Ten Inch Record’, don’t it send these Vegas people into a dance frenzy, so much more exciting than the alleged two-step of ‘Rag Doll’?

Look at this. Midway through, the waves of excitement are unexpectedly interrupted as Steven bursts into a perfunctory rendition of ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’, the worst song ever to be associated with the name of Aerosmith — not only is it a power ballad, after all, but it was writ­ten by Diane Warren, a weapon of mass destruction from outer space fifty times as destructive as the asteroid in the bullshit movie Armageddon for which she wrote the song and Aerosmith, look­ing for new, thrilling, and ever more humiliating ways to sell out, recorded it. (How fortunate it is that the studio version is only available as a single, or on compilations that nobody need buy any­way). Anyway, once they’re done with this monstrosity, obviously targeted at the tasteless gamb­ling ladies in the crowd, “So you like the old shit or the new shit?”, asks Tyler — “OLD SHIT!” yells everyone in the audience with the power to yell. Good for Ms. Warren she was not among the audience that evening.

So, overall, this is terrific — a rejuvenation, a return to senses, perhaps only temporary, but who cares: this is Aerosmith playing as if they were in some lousy joint in 1976, and they haven’t lost a thing — Tyler’s singing still perfect, Perry’s playing still gritty as hell. Perhaps the Peter Green blues cover, presaging Honkin’ On Bobo (‘Rattlesnake Shake’) is a bit too slow and drawn out, but they do insert the fast jam from ‘Rats In The Cellar’ in the middle, so I’d rather hear that than another rendition of ‘Falling In Love Is So Hard On The Knees’.

Absolute fuckin’ best rock’n’rollin’ moment: the band totally cuts loose with ‘Big Ten Inch Re­cord’, fluid guitar solos from Whitford and some guest piano player, and then, when everyone is already pretty well on their feet, “JOE PERRYYY!” from Tyler and the guy cuts in like mad, a cross between Chuck Berry and Alvin Lee. Tune in to this and it may yet make your day. With the sordid exception of the Diane Warren thing — even the two numbers from Just Push Play are decent — this is Aerosmith’s best live offering since Bootleg, and one of the best live albums ever from a band of rock veterans each of which is way beyond 50. For the record, the Stones have never played with that kind of quality upon crossing the half-century age range, although they still get by on enthusiasm and great material. Thumbs up.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Al Stewart: Between The Wars


AL STEWART: BETWEEN THE WARS (1995)

1) Night Train To Munich; 2) The Age Of Rhythm; 3) Sampan; 4) Lindy Comes To Town; 5) Three Mules; 6) A League Of Notions; 7) Life Between The Wars; 8) Betty Boop’s Birthday; 9) Marion The Chatelaine; 10) Joe The Georgian; 11) Always The Cause; 12) Laughing Into 1939; 13) The Black Danube.

Another minor gem, alas, too limited in ambition and too humble in execution to become any­thing higher than a cult classic (and, so far, it has not become even that). This time, in collabora­tion with guitarist Laurence Juber, and, apparently, feeling more free than a bird, Al fully gives in to his historical passion — dedicating an entire album to songs dealing with one and one only historical period, arguably his favourite one: remember “...I was born too late to see Josephine Baker dan­cing in a Paris cabaret"? Well, at least he was born not too late to be enthralled by the 1920s and the 1930s, enough to offer such a cute little recreation of those happy/awful times.

The recreation is not actually musical: apart from the first two fast-paced songs, Al does not of­fer a regular «retro» exercise, which might have been judged as too posh and fanciful, and heard as too fake and devoid of credibility (think Christina Aguilera). Most of the songs are written the way he usually writes them — not terribly inventive folk-pop melodies — but the spirit is clearly invigorated by the subject, which he explores from all sides, with humor, tragedy, melancholy, and excitement permeating all the motives.

The track names mostly speak for themselves — unless you come from a long line of village idi­ots, you will be able to understand at least fifty or more percent of Al’s sources from the titles, although there may be one or two you will have trouble with even if you’re a history buff your­self, since Mr. Stewart touches upon political, social, and cultural issues of the two decades, sti­cking references to just about everything that existed back in the day, from Dorothy Parker to Hedy Lamarr to Zinoviev and Kamenev.

To waste space on description of the individual songs would be downplaying the point. All are sparsely produced, completely acoustic with an occasional accordeon, piano, or quiet orchestral arrangement thrown in. Each de­livers a hummable chorus; some, in addition to that, offer the de­light of a flapper’s dance (‘The Age Of Rhythm’, ‘When Lindy Comes To Town’), while others prefer to delve the mines of doom and gloom (‘Laughing Into 1939’). Lyrically, some are hilarious (all the spy references in ‘Night Train To Munich’), some knowledgeably sarcastic (‘League Of Notions’), a few down­right silly (‘Joe The Georgian’, about how Stalin’s victims are impatiently waiting for him to join them in Hell). And some represent implicit edutainment — ‘Betty Boop’s Birthday’ may make one want to check out those old cartoons.

But the point is, of course, to weave a specific projection of the epoch out of these bits and pieces, and, from that point of view, the album is a success. Pedantically minded ones may complain about Stewart’s vision being too shallow and unprofessional, but he is no historian, after all, and Between The Wars is not a PhD thesis, merely a loving tribute from a talented, intelligent aficio­nado. If it does not charm you at least a little, you’re either hopelessly hung up, or a disgruntled victim of Are You Smarter Than A Third Grader. And what better excuse is needed to rewatch that old Carol Reed classic? Thumbs up, of course.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Sweet Passion


ARETHA FRANKLIN: SWEET PASSION (1977)

1) Break It To Me Gently; 2) When I Think About You; 3) What I Did For Love; 4) No One Could Ever Love You More; 5) A Tender Touch; 6) Touch Me Up; 7) Sunshine Will Never Be The Same; 8) Meadows Of Springtime; 9) Mumbles/I've Got The Music In Me; 10) Sweet Passion.

This and the next two albums put Aretha back in a commercial slump, leading to her finally brea­king her ties with Atlantic to seek better fortune with Arista. It is true that, somewhere around the mid-Seventies, Atlantic lost that «golden touch» that used to allow it to be innovative and com­mercially successful at the same time. But, in retrospect, it was not so much the fault of the label's bosses as it was due to the dumbing down of public taste. The label made a relatively late switch to disco, for instance, and when it did, it did not success in realigning its old guard in the new formation. What worked for Chic did not work for Aretha, and vice versa.

Sweet Passion is typical of these struggles — it is forgettable, but hardly awful. Its lone minor hit, 'Break It To Me Gently', launches an elegant attempt to combine orchestrated balladry with grum­pier funk rhythms, but the hybridization may leave you cold because the individual parts are cold themselves, cold and formulaic, as if the idea never got all that far beyond just being laid out on paper, and then executed completely without enthusiasm. The same goes for most other tracks: in­teresting melodic ideas pop out from time to time, but never translate into genius.

Still, three tracks at least are salvageable and well worth getting to know. 'Touch Me Up' is Are­tha's first true venture into disco territory, elaborated by Motown veteran Lamont Dozier, and it is a cheesy, colorful multi-layered romp (not unlike Al Green's similarly tinged 'I Feel Good') who­se fun quotient suffices to overcome any formulaic banalities. But the album's true surprises await at the end. First, 'Mumbles / I've Got The Music In Me' is a retro-jazz number that features the best scat singing in Aretha's entire career (how deeply ironic that such a quirky little gem is to be found at the start of the lady's disco period, rather than well back in time when she used to do whole LPs of mediocre jazz material).

And then there is the anthemic seven-minute title track, completely self-penned and structured as a semi-free-form piece of R'n'B that moves from soft to hard and from tight chorus to loose im­prov without warning. It may not be a great, wond'rous composition, but it is, at the least, an inte­r­­esting attempt at something unconventionally soulful, all the more surprising to turn up on a re­cord whose primary goal is commercial success and whose primary failure is the impossibility to reach commercial success. 'Sweet Passion' never cares about any of these things, becoming, argu­ably, the last track in quite a long while where Aretha is actually trying to say something. This should at least be a good argument for saving it up for all the career retrospectives. The album as a whole cannot help but deserve a thumbs down — but it is not without its merits. And it is downright wrong to claim that Aretha and disco are two incompatible things, either. Too bad she never could bring herself to becoming the lead singer in Chic or something.

Monday, August 23, 2010

B. B. King: L. A. Midnight


B. B. KING: L. A. MIDNIGHT (1972)

1) I Got Some Help I Don't Need; 2) Help The Poor; 3) Can't You Hear Me Talking; 4) Midnight; 5) Sweet Sixteen; 6) I've Been Blue Too Long; 7) Lucille's Granny.

If you happen to be big fans of Jesse Ed Davis and Joe Walsh, this one's for you: for about six­teen minutes, the album is nothing but a big show-off during which the White, Red (Jesse was fully Native American), and Black race compete for supremacy on fully friendly terms. It is fair­ly solid, easy-going, fluid jamming, but depends a lot on what you expect from a jam session — if you have heard plenty of them, this one probably isn't going to blow your mind or change your life. Some critics accused the guitar heroes of too much meandering and not meshing well; they may be right, because each of them plays in a different style, but, uh, what's wrong with that?

Apart from the jams, much of the album is formally expendable. There is a re-recording of 'Sweet Sixteen', for instance, with updated lyrics about Vietnam, but it adds no extra dimensions to the original; a fierce fully instrumental take on 'Help The Poor'; and a couple more mid-tempo blues de luxe numbers that are... okay.

Nevertheless, the fact that the album has not been released on CD is a doggone shame — any mi­ddle-of-the-road recording from King's peak years is still miles ahead of the overproduced crap from his later years that is constantly choking the bargain bins. For blues fans at least, this is a must-have: three blues-rock giants breathing the same studio air, imagine that! Thumbs up, mo­destly and humbly.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Battles: EP C / B EP


BATTLES: EP C / B EP (2006)

1) B + T; 2) UW; 3) HI/LO; 4) IPT-2; 5) TRAS 2; 6) SZ2; 7) TRAS 3; 8) IPT 2; 9) BTTLS; 10) DANCE.

First of all, the track listing you see is incorrect in relation to the album EP C / B EP that Battles released in 2006. That album was indeed a combination of their two earlier EPs, to each of which they, however, appended one new track ('FANTASY' and 'TRAS' respectively). The order was also reversed: on the album EP C / B EP it is B EP that comes first and EP C comes next, which is sort of like the order you'd expect them to follow, but originally, in 2004, it was EP C that was released first and B EP followed it a few months later. For the record, there never was an A EP or EP A, either. Now that everything is as transparent and lucid as the Poincaré conjecture, let us speak freely of these geniuses of math-rock.

Ever since Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew crossed their guitars in the early 1980s, there have been plenty of followers trying to paint comparable musical polygons in the air, but few succeed, since, without an emotional interpretation, a musical polygon is nothing but firm proof of the fact that a bunch of pretentious and stubborn shitheads have indeed wasted a few dozen kilohours of their time learning to play that way (when they could have spent that same time in a far more use­ful manner — say, cleaning up the latest oil spill with a bucket and a shovel).

But these guys, a quasi-supergroup that unites people from math rock band Don Caballero and alt-metal band Helmet with the son of Anthony Braxton, truly have what it takes. The sound­scapes they create are weird, but not pointless, and complex, but not inacessible. Most important­ly, it has all the magic of trance without being trance — too slow, too sparse, too guitar-depen­dent, and way too technical, of course. Yet, once you get in their groove, the hypnosis starts wor­king, and the chakras start opening.

The sound is much more «sci-fi», with a touch of «industrial», than «psychedelic» — which is quite natural if the music completely lacks the element of free improvisation, governed by succes­sive amassment of layers of loops that, however, never mesh in a kaleidoscopic manner, but stric­tly whirl around on their own like a set of cogs. But the more it turns, the more you may get to feel yourself caught up in those cogs and turning along with them, clinging, against your will, to one of the instruments. There is something nasty and humiliating about that approach, perhaps, but we'll just assume it's all in good fun.

Some of the tracks are short one-minute links — raw ideas, perhaps, that never got the luck of being tested further — but the emphasis is on the long, drawn out compositions. 'B + T' and 'HI / LO' are so mesmerizing that it doesn't really matter they have more or less the same tempo and mood; 'TRAS 2' is the album's «fast rocker» that allows you to switch gears while sleepwalking; and I even think that 'BTTLS', the record's most vilified track, does the «imagine yourself trapped in the control room of a futuristic space station, listening to all the panels and engines» far more efficiently than anything on those early Kraftwerk albums. Not that it really needs to break the twelve minute mark, but there is something creepy about those sound effects — you almost keep waiting for something to blow up at any moment. (Alas, it never does, although it does get louder towards the end).

The big secret behind all this is that their loops have actual resonance, and their combinations have even more of it — they're speaking to each other, like the «low voice» of 'HI/LO's synthe­sized bass against the «high voice» of the whining chimes above it. They threaten, complain, or just mindlessly chirp about like a set of electronic birds; «math-rock» this may be, but it is as good as any a justification of the idea that mathematics and soulfulness are not mutually exclu­sive. It is, perhaps, too bad that, unlike King Crimson, Battles do not transform any of those nice sounds into actual songs — they might reach a far bigger audience that way — but, on the other hand, if it works, it works, so let's not even breathe on it. Thumbs up at a crossroads where the interests of the brain and the heart intersect with each other.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ani DiFranco: Knuckle Down


ANI DIFRANCO: KNUCKLE DOWN (2005)

1) Knuckle Down; 2) Studying Stones; 3) Manhole; 4) Sunday Morning; 5) Modulation; 6) Seeing Eye Dog; 7) Lag Time; 8) Parameters; 9) Callous; 10) Paradigm; 11) Minerva; 12) Recoil.

For some reason, Ani has reverted back to writing songs instead of creating them, if you get my meaning. Formally, the only change is that she has amply shared production duties with fellow singer-songwriter Joe Henry, and that a bunch of new hands are guesting on the album, not the least among them violin maestro Andrew Bird in person. Informally, this is simply her best effort since... let's see... gosh, how far do we have to scroll up?... since Up Up Up Up Up, definitely, or even since Dilate, not so definitely.

For one thing, it is hard to remember the last time she recorded something as tender and poignant as 'Studying Stones' — not only are the lyrics, advertising restraint and calm, suggesting that she may be trying to exorcise the deamon of cheap social activism, but she sings it real pretty, and meshes well with Bird's trademark morose violin part. Then, a few steps down the block comes 'Modulation', combining a steady rhythm, a gloomy production, and a catchy vocal melody — and a mention of death to boot. For the record, she almost never mentioned death before — in fact, it is rather hard to imagine a more life-oriented singer-songwriter than DiFranco. Coinciden­tally — or not? — in between Educated Guess and this record, she did suffer the demise of her father, and this may be the explanation between quite a few humane and moving twists that you will encounter on Knuckle Down.

Of course, there is still the obligatory piece of spoken poetry to sit through ('Parameters'), but ev­en that one is possible to forgive, since (a) it is set to a slightly hypnotizing piece of mind-blow­ing ambient sonics, sort of a cross between Brian Eno and Lou Reed, and (b) it is not politically oriented. Also, as usual, this is a long record, and, sooner or later, the expected amorphous acoustic pat­ches of deep-sounding nothing start to accumulate and gnaw on the brain. But every­thing is spread out quite evenly, and it does make sense to sit through the whole thing since the very last track, 'Recoil', is the third best on the album. Slide guitars and violins rule the day, and at the very end, she admits that "I'm just sitting here in this sty, strewn with half written songs, taking one breath at a time — nothing much going on". Ten years at least have we been waiting for this sort of confession; how ironic that she actually pronounces it within one of her few songs that is, by contrast, written to near-perfection.

Some have expressly called Knuckle Down one of her most accessible records, and, no doubt, some of the more fanatical activists would even brand it a folk-pop sellout after the brave soul-baring that were Evolve and Educated Guess. Well, I'll bite: I prefer to have my soul-baring coupled with an interesting riff or chorus, and I'll take the «accessible» DiFranco over the «inac­cessible» DiFranco (or, rather, over the «pathetically boring» DiFranco, since there is really no­thing particularly «inaccessible» about her «inaccessible» records) any time of day.

On a sidenote, I happened to come across an interesting conference talk title the other day. The session was American Studies, the speaker was, of course, a lady (student), and the title was: «Why Do Men Hate Ani DiFranco? The Connection Between Women Rock Musicians and the Image of Feminism». This made me wonder, so I Googled «I hate Ani DiFranco» — and, what do you know, it looks like there is hardly what you could call a correlation between masculine sex and hatred for Ani DiFranco. (Of course, I could also mention that the absolute majority of male posters hate Ani DiFranco because she is boring and obnoxious, not because she has any connec­tion to the image of feminism, but then we all know they're lying, don't we? Men hate Ani Di­Franco because she is a woman. Women hate Ani DiFranco because... uh, because she is bisexual. Or because she got pregnant. Or something like that. Nobody hates anybody because their music is shitty. That'd be so uncool).

Anyway, I do not hate Ani DiFranco, but I do hate the fact that for every good record, she puts out three piles of nasal acoustic wasteland. Knuckle Down is a fairly good one, though. Thumbs up, for a change.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Angry Samoans: STP Not LSD


ANGRY SAMOANS: STP NOT LSD (1988)

1) I Lost (My Mind); 2) Wild Hog Rhyde; 3) Laughing At Me; 4) STP Not LSD; 5) Starring At The Sun; 6) Death Of Beewak; 7) Egyptomania; 8) Attack Of The Mushroom People; 9) Feet On The Ground; 10) Garbage Pit; 11) (I'll Drink To This) Love Song; 12) Lost Highway.

Perhaps Back From Samoa did have a «revolutionary» quality to it. But the Samoan rock critics did not really set out to revolutionize music; their goals were more modest and, at the same time, far more complex — distillation, bottling, and distribution of the quintessential «rock spirit», the Holy Grail of every rock critic. And, much as the punk movement in its original phase claimed the same goals, continuing to move in the «hardcore» direction would, in the end, only displace, if not actually profanate them.

So, instead, the Samoans fell back on their roots — garage proto-punk and irrevent psych-folk of the mid-Sixties. The 1987 EP Yesterday Started Tomorrow introduced the retro styles in ear­nest, culminating in a Jefferson Airplane cover, and by 1988, it was clear that these guys had tota­l­ly switched to recreating (with only minor updates) the visions of The Sonics and The Holy Mo­dal Rounders, with a bit of Velvet Underground for good measure.

Nobody really got it, and very few were happy about it. Who needs the Angry Samoans when they are not all that angry any more? Speed is reduced, cussing is cut down, and what about all these acoustic folk songs making fun of backwoods dwellers? What is this, Greenwich Village? Where is anything even vaguely on the level of 'Right Side Of My Mind'?

But let us take a peep at the bright side. STP Not LSD is anything but non-creative. If you like the classic garage aesthetics, there is every reason to enjoy the Samoans' take on it. If people see a reason for the existing of Brian Setzer and Dave Edmunds, and are willing to argue that these guys are not totally expendable even if you have proper access to all the treasure groves of classic rockabilly, then the same case can be argued for the Samoans.

All I know is that STP Not LSD is fun. The band still holds together tighter than a buttplug, the lyrics, if not as obnoxiously obsessive, are on the same demented level, and even if all the riffs are pilfered from old garage classics (which they may or may not be), they're good riffs, and the sources are not always easily identifiable. Plus, there is diversity a-plenty: for instance, Metal Mike employs just about every single nasty, crunchy guitar tone ever recorded in the Sixties log­book and beyond. (My favourite is the introduction to 'Death Of Beewak' — hello, San Fran­cisco!) Switches to acoustic, too, every now and then.

Certainly no amount of consolation is ever going to turn the record into the kind of trailblazing classic that Back From Samoa will be considered for as long as the trails do not become over­grown; but the subgenre of «hardcore punks doing retro shit» is not tremendously large in itself, which means STP Not LSD might deserve a bit of space in your collection, too. Give it a modest thumbs up, and don't be afraid to play it, say, once a year — it's only twenty-three minutes.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Aerosmith: Honkin' On Bobo


AEROSMITH: HONKIN' ON BOBO (2004)

1) Road Runner; 2) Shame, Shame, Shame; 3) Eyesight To The Blind; 4) Baby, Please Don't Go; 5) Never Loved A Girl; 6) Back Back Train; 7) You Gotta Move; 8) The Grind; 9) I'm Ready; 10) Temperature; 11) Stop Messin' Aro­und; 12) Jesus Is On The Main Line.

Most bands, sooner or later, experience the back-to-roots drive — because, once you've got no­thing left to prove, the only thing left is to realize just how much the grass was greener back in the days when you did have something to prove, and still greener even before those days. With Aerosmith, though, who were never all that attached to their roots in the first place, and whose proverbial sellout made everyone see they weren't even all that attached to the stems, everything was possible — including the preposterous thought of «Hey, maybe these guys have lost them­selves so hopelessly in the world of Top 10 hits, Vegas galas, and safe, sterile sex with MTV teenage whores, they will never release their back-to-roots album?»

But perhaps the disgust that Joe Perry had to live out every night upon the release of Just Push Play, an album not horrible in itself but farther from the spirit of Aerosmith than anything ever associated with the band, had served as a catalyst — and here, three years after Aerosmith tried to become Lenny Kravitz & The Beatles, is Aerosmith trying to become The Chess Blues Singers. Or, rather, Kid Rock & The Chess Blues Singers.

Honkin' On Bobo has been usually billed as their «blues covers» album, but Aerosmith are not, nor have they ever been, a blues band; they probably did just one or two pure blues numbers in their entire career, usually to fill up some empty record space at the last moment (remember 'Ree­fer Head Woman'? No? That's what I thought). But if you speed up and toughen the blues, you get rock'n'roll, and this is what they try to remind us of by covering Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and Mississippi Fred McDowell not the way those guys sang their songs, but the way other guys, less tolerant of the blues' monotonousness and semi-religious infatuation with itself, sang them. Loud, fast (if possible), dirty, sleazy — the way slum kids like it the best.

If this does not work exactly the way it should, this is because it can't. The 'Smiths have been re­moved from this territory way too long to be able to meet anyone along the way who'd tell them how to do it right. Granted, they even went back to their old producer Jack Douglas for an extra pinch of authenticity. For brass, they used the Memphis Horns. On piano, they recruited the le­gendary Chuck Berry accompanist Johnnie Johnson (lucky to catch a bit of the good old spirit in him before he died next year). So many pieces in place, and yet the final product still sounds fair­ly calculated and surviving somewhat on artificial breath.

Perhaps the discrepancy is in that Honkin' On Bobo might have originally been conceived as a semi-improvised, good-time jam-party record, but then Douglas went on to make it sound like an Aerosmith album, with emphasis on the second word. I do not care much for the production; it still bears the patented late-Aerosmith post-1987 gloss, and as loud and roaring as the guitars are, welcoming you to the hard rock of 'Road Runner', they just don't kick ass the way they used to. Still, if it's the best we can get, better 'Road Runner' than 'Eat The Rich', I'd say.

This whole idea of «Let's have fun fun fun, but let's also sell this thing to the kids who want ano­ther Permanent Vacation» sort of ruins the experience. An Aerosmith album for the kids has to have power ballads, right? And there ain't no such thing as a blues power ballad, right? So they take Aretha Franklin's 'I Never Loved A Man', change the title and the lyrics, and make it into the next 'Crazy'. Not good.

Nevertheless, shoot the legs off the context and 'Road Runner', 'Baby Please Don't Go', 'I'm Rea­dy', and 'You Gotta Move' rock out well without any back thought (the latter even mutates into some sort of psychedeliv heavy metal monster midway through; thankfully, Mississippi Fred mi­s­sed hearing it by a good thirty years). Backup vocalist Tracy Bonham (no relation to John) does a good job helping Perry out with the singing on the swampy 'Back Back Train', and the way they all wind it down with an acoustic gospel sing-along ('Jesus Is On The Main Line') is truly heart­warming. Maybe they should have done it all unplugged.

Or maybe not. It's been a long time, after all, since those of us that drew a sharp line between 'Rats In The Cellar' and 'Monkey On My Back' got the occasion to rock'n'roll to a 'Smith tune without a vague fear of breaking some unwritten code of honour. So, even if Joe Perry has not invented any new riffs and Tyler still uses each song as an opportunity to practice his animal scream (what a scream, though, especially for a guy in his fifties), it's all decent shit. Certainly better to go out this-a way. Thumbs up.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Al Stewart: Famous Last Words


AL STEWART: FAMOUS LAST WORDS (1993)

1) Feel Like; 2) Angel Of Mercy; 3) Don't Forget Me; 4) Peter On The White Sea; 5) Genie On A Table Top; 6) Trespasser; 7) Trains; 8) Necromancer; 9) Charlotte Corday; 10) Hipposong; 11) Night Rolls In.

Wonderful return to form. Fueled, perhaps, by all the joy that was synthesized on the acoustic duo tour, Stewart finds the strength to ditch most of the production excesses — and delivers a lively, strong, charismatic record, more consistent than anything he's done in years. Almost everything is strictly acoustic-based, with rhythm sections, electric guitar solos and keyboard backdrops swea­ring complete loyalty to wood, nylon, and human voice. This may add an unwanted whiff of mo­notonousness to the proceedings, but surely monotonousness is at least preferable to the dozen varieties of excremental sonic effects on Last Days.

Although the album is formally dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased keyboardist Peter Wood (Stewart's co-author on 'Year Of The Cat'), it contains two of the most joyous, life-asserting songs Al ever wrote, totally irresistible in their optimistic swirl: 'Feel Like' and 'Genie On A Table Top'. Coming up with hosts of lyrical metaphors to describe his elated spirits — replacing each other in a whirlwind so rapid it is almost impossible to separate the time-tested clichés from brilliant on-the-spot inventions — he infects the backing band with his cheerfulness, and each single musician, from the percussionist to organ and guitar guys taking solo spots, do their best to match him in this celebration of life. After all the chilly, morose panoramas of Last Days, it is the perfect antidote — even though there is no telling as to whatever it really was that made Al feel so wond'rous. The death of Peter Wood?..

These two I-feel-good anthems are the obvious highlights, but Al's sense of melody and taste seems to have picked up on quite a few other occasions as well. 'Angel Of Mercy' is eloquently vicious, staking it all on Al's duet with the ominous violin part (reminiscent somewhat of Dylan's mid-Seventies conversations with Scarlett Rivera's instrument). The inescapable history lesson of 'Charlotte Corday' is a collabora­tion with Tori Amos that most Tori Amos detractors will like — because she is not singing, merely playing piano, and because the lyrics are his rather than hers. The chorus of 'Trespasser' — "you see him in your dreams, but I seem to see him all the time" — is technically unforgettable, although the song may have used a bit less generic Spanish guitar (what can you do, Al loves the stuff).

Even the two-minute kiddie throwaway of 'Hippopotamus Song', which may turn off deadly se­rious listeners whose sense of humor had been gradually wiped off with a series of Rush concerts, is funny fun in its capriciousness; besides, who else but Al Stewart would flaunt the etymologi­cally correct plural form of the word 'hippopotamus' — and then make it rhyme?

Against all this surge of the spirit, the record's few flaws seem even fewer. The gracious, nostal­gic folk-rocker 'Trains' has no real reason to drag on for eight minutes; four would have been quite enough — it is certainly no 'Roads To Moscow'. And a couple of the tracks still carry ves­tiges of crappy Eighties' production — 'Don't Forget Me' still gets pigeonholed as glossy, suffo­cating adult contemporary, and 'Necromancer' abuses echo effects and electronic percussion in order to remind us that true evil does exist. Yet the tone of the album is still set by 'Feel Like', and a small amount of inertia-based blunders cannot misdirect it. Thumbs up for a record that may brighten up many a day if one so desires, or, perhaps, already has.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Sparkle


ARETHA FRANKLIN: SPARKLE (1976)

1) Sparkle; 2) Something He Can Feel; 3) Hooked On Your Love; 4) Look Into Your Heart; 5) I Get High; 6) Jump; 7) Loving You Baby; 8) Rock With Me.

Technically, this is not really the soundtrack to the movie Sparkle, even though all of the songs were indeed performed in the movie. They were, however, performed by different actors rather than Aretha — but as the movie took off among black audiences, and so did the songs that were, after all, mostly penned by Curtis Mayfield himself, it was decided (don't ask me by whom) that a wiser commercial decision would be to let the Queen of Soul sing all the material, instead of all the inferior human material. The original vocals were therefore wiped out, and Aretha's singing pasted on top of the instrumental tracks — the dehumanizing potential of technology at work.

Nevertheless, the move was smart, temporarily restoring Aretha's commercially shattered career and giving her a last bright moment with Atlantic. In reality, the success of Sparkle must have mostly had to do with the success of the movie — frankly speaking, the songs are not that good, and there is no reason for them to be: Mayfield was recording so much at the time that it was only natural for him to keep his best stuff to himself and relegate all the mediocre dregs to outside me­ndicants. The overall sound is generic, but pleasant: dense orchestration, multiple layers of brass, keyboards, guitars, harps, and whatever other instruments were lying around. Yet behind all the layers, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of essence or memorability.

Ms. Franklin does attempt to lay into these songs as if she'd played all the roles in the movie, but it does little good: as gritty as Sparkle the movie was (dealing with the rise and fall of an all-girl band loosely based on the Supremes), most of the grit takes place off stage, and within the sound­track is reflected only in 'I Get High', a dark, chaotic aria on the effects of drug usage, which real­ly reads more like a moody instrumental composition, with someone rashly deciding to slap on a bunch of deranged vocals as a last-minute thought.

The rest is generally just soft-rock, or, rather, soft-R'n'B sentimental fluff, with 'Something He Can Feel' as the biggest hit — deservedly, since the song builds up all the way to the strongest cho­rus on the album, except that it is perhaps more suitable for a tighter, poppier delivery than Aretha's usual and totally unavoidable free-form vocal flow. 'Rock With Me' is also pretty cheer­ful, upbeat, and catchy, and 'Hooked On Your Love' gets quite a few unexpected chord changes in the chorus for a run-of-the-mill ballad.

The bottomline really depends on whether one trusts the sales record. To me, even such a relative commercial failure as You seems livelier, energetic, and less calculated. But there is nothing tre­mendously wrong with Sparkle, either — in fact, it stands up to repeated listening, if only for the high amount of creativity that went into the arrangements. Calculated, yes, but they took the time to work it out, so thumbs up out of basic respect at least.

Monday, August 16, 2010

B. B. King: In London


B. B. KING: IN LONDON (1971)

1) Caldonia; 2) Blue Shadows; 3) Alexis' Boogie; 4) We Can't Agree; 5) Ghetto Woman; 6) Wet Hayshark; 7) Part Time Love; 8) Power Of The Blues; 9) Ain't Nobody Home.

A solid recording betrayed by high expectations. Following the early 1970s trend of teaming up vintage old bluesmen with the new generation of British blues-rockers (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and a few other veterans joined the fray as well), B. B. goes to London, gets chain-linked with pretty much everyone the recording people could catch unawares, and records a friendly jam session that is... merely decent.

It is better for us all not to know, or radically forget who exactly plays what on which track (the credits list no fewer than twenty eight backers for Lucille and her man). Instead, major blues fans may just agree in between themselves that 'Caldonia' rocks pretty well for a mid-size party to be entertained in between all the skinny-dipping; that 'Blue Shadows' and 'Ghetto Woman', with mo­derate success, recreate the smoky gloom of 'Thrill', especially the latter with its inventive strings arrangement; that 'Alexis' Boogie' gives you a rare chance to hear the King churn it out on the acoustic (unless, of course, that is not the King at all, but then why would it be on a King record?); that 'Power Of The Blues' is no 'Blues Power' (hands up for Clapton); and that the organ playing lends a nice extra shade to 'Ain't Nobody Home'.

But if one starts winding up, as in "Peter Green is here and I can't even tell where! Are all these guys just wetting their pants in the presence of the Lord?", etc., then, of course, In London is a mighty failure and all that money it took to transport B. B. across the Atlantic should have rather gone to the poor (not to mention that there are so many people playing on here, everyone's share of royalties could hardly have covered even bathroom expenses).

In any case, with a set-up like this, at worst, you get «mediocre» results; a blues session recorded in 1971 between B. B. and British rock royalty could lack the proper spark of inspiration, but it couldn't be anything less than professional and tasteful — the production- and age-induced rut into which rootsy music would sink by the middle of the decade had not set in yet. So, if not par­ticularly exciting, this is all adequately listenable; thumbs up.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Antony And The Johnsons: The Crying Light


ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS: THE CRYING LIGHT (2009)

1) Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground; 2) Epilepsy Is Dancing; 3) One Dove; 4) Kiss My Name; 5) The Crying Light; 6) Another World; 7) Daylight And The Sun; 8) Aeon; 9) Dust And Water; 10) Everglade.

With the release of The Crying Light, preceded by the EP Another World a year earlier, we fi­nally learn why Antony Hegarty is so sad, and no, it is not because nobody wants to whip him because he is fat and ugly. It is because we have misused our planet and pretty soon we are all going to die — or, at least, mutate into legions of emo-coiffured zombies, lurking by night among the ruins of civilization.

At least, such was the conclusion reached by a number of prominent critics, who, upon listening to 'Another World', have decided that Hegarty went eco-conscious, and since there are few things more politically correct than a queer Greenpeace-friendly multiculturalist (the latter side is em­phasized by the sleeve cover, a photo of famous Japanese butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno — now that you all know what butoh is, this is practically edutainment!), The Crying Light shot all the way up to #1 on the pan-European Billboard.

Nevertheless, it's not that bad. Nobody really forces us to concentrate on the album's essence as a mix of butoh, masochism, and environmentalism, i. e. one more example of an «artist» so despe­rate for acceptance he'll try any combination of the uncombinable as long as each individual ele­ment is currently en vogue. The Crying Light has elements of it all, but they are not crucial. In fact, even the lyrics to 'Another World' need not necessarily be understood straightforwardly, in a «look what they've done to our planet» sense. The guy is simply telling us that he has no more hopes of happiness left for this world. Certainly many of us feel the same way, don't we?

A bigger concern than «trendiness» for me is that this third album, clearer than ever, shows that Antony has hit his threshold and has nowhere else to go. We get the exact same formula: minor chord piano ballads with tristesse-oriented strings and floating vocals. And this time around, there are no guest stars to provide the spice of life: it is Hegarty and his own griefs all the way through. Not that it is, in any way, easy to understand where exactly the man could travel from here — he has polished and fortified his niche to the major envy of all possible competitors, but, having dug so deep in it, there is no more way out.

It is good, then, that at least Hegarty's melodic talents have not abandoned him. About a half of the tunes are pure atmosphere, but when he gives things a little rhythmic punch, hooks start to materialize with ease. 'Kiss My Name' may be a fairly clumsy song title, but since it actually re­fers to the idea of Antony's mother embracing his future tombstone, it makes sense, and the vio­lins that dance up and down around the main rhythm create a beautiful fairy-tale impression, al­leviating the darkness of the lyrics. See, being dead is not all that bad.

'Another World' takes us in the opposite direction — utter minimalism — but makes its point with plenty of stateliness, reminiscent a bit of Brian Eno's faraway successes in the «ambient bal­lad» genre. (On 'Dust And Water', however, I believe Antony is going way too far with the mini­malism — as efficient an instrument as his voice is, he is long past that stage where it merely to­ok him to open his mouth and properly direct the air stream to make his point).

A few other tunes may deserve specific mention, but it will take a really major fan to emphasize their individuality, so let me just state this: no big admirer of Antony's inner world will be disap­pointed by the way he extracts it on the outside over the fourty minutes of Crying Light, yet if you'd rather treat The Johnsons as a moderately delightful, but passable curio born out of the ne­cessities of the early 21st century, you need not go beyond I Am A Bird Now. Thumbs up, out of respect for the intelligent craft of the final product, but in the immediate future, it would perhaps be better for all of us if Mr. Hegarty finally switched to sepia-tinted visual installations.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Ani DiFranco: Educated Guess


ANI DIFRANCO: EDUCATED GUESS (2004)

1) Platforms; 2) Swim; 3) Educated Guess; 4) Origami; 5) Bliss Like This; 6) The True Story Of What Was; 7) Bo­dily; 8) You Each Time; 9) Animal; 10) Grand Canyon; 11) Company; 12) Rain Check; 13) Akimbo; 14) Bubble.

One may easily deduce whether this here reviewer was enthralled or not by Educated Guess, so­cially conscious singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco 3,456th studio album, from the fact that it took him three listens and a couple read-ups on other people's reviews and descriptions to understand that it is, in fact, hugely different from her previous release, Evolve, in that it completely drops her soft-jazz band and, once again, reverts the artist to fully acoustic, fully individual mode.

Honestly, I did not even notice that. And as far as I am concerned, this only means that it makes no goddamn difference any more. Just fifty more minutes of time wasted on melodies, words, and feelings that bring nothing new — or nothing good, for that matter — to the table. In fact, that statement is pretty much definitive: there is not a single track here that could even begin to be de­scribed as a «highlight». «Lowlights», yes, not the least of them her usually flat beatnik rant 'Grand Canyon' where she proclaims that "People, we are standing at ground zero of the feminist revolution... coolest F-word ever deserves a fucking shout! I mean, why can't all decent men and women call themselves feminists, out of respect for those who fought for this?" Gimme a fuckin' break there, lady.

The saddest realization of all is, of course, that by now she has completely resigned to preaching to the choir. Long-term fans cannot go wrong with this or anything else, but how can you expect to make new converts if all you're offering them is a bunch of on-the-spot constructed, sloppy, dissonant chord sequences worthy of just about every guitar player on this planet with two or three years of playing experience? How do you expect intelligent people to follow you if each of your songs places such dreadful importance on the lyrics (more spoken than sung), yet, for all we know, there are only two topics concerned: «Treat me like a human being instead of like a fuck­hole, and then we'll go on talking» and «Fight the machine, fight the machine». Do butterflies and coloured rainbows even exist for this woman? Thumbs down. At this point, the only remedy that can be prescribed for the patient is an album of surf rock covers.