Search This Blog

Monday, February 28, 2011

Barbecue Bob: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 3 (1929-1930)


1) She Moves It Just Right; 2) Tellin' It To You; 3) Yo-Yo Blues No. 2; 4) She Shook Her Gin; 5) We Sure Got Hard Times; 6) Twistin' That Stuff; 7) Monkey And The Baboon; 8) Spider And The Fly; 9) Darktown Gambling Pt. 1; 10) Darktown Gambling Pt. 2; 11) Jambooger Blues; 12) It Just Won't Quit; 13) Atlanta Moan; 14) New Mojo Blues; 15) Doin' The Scraunch; 16) I'm On My Way Down Home; 17) Diddle-Da-Diddle; 18) She Looks So Good; 19) She's Coming Back Some Cold Rainy Day.

Like most country bluesmen with only their guitar to keep them company, at first Barbecue Bob did not suffer from Depression effects nearly as much as the urban blues queens — apparently, his rate of recording just wobbled a bit, rather than crumble. But he certainly was no Hollywood million­naire, either, and his 'We Sure Got Hard Times' is one of those symbolic tunes of the era whose names are so prone to becoming clichéd in our minds without remembering where it all comes from. He must have taken some inspiration from Blind Blake, probably, the first country blues­man not afraid to inject some political bite in his lyrics — "Just before election, you was talking about how you was going to vote / And after election was over, your head's down like a billy­goat" (ironically, he did not live long enough to see FDR in power).

Other than this landmark, Vol. 3 boasts a couple curious novelty tunes ('Monkey And The Ba­boon') and a few darker-than-usual numbers like 'Spider And The Fly', as well as a silly two-part «skit» called 'Darktown Gambling', in which Bob plays and sings a tiny bit and then spends some­thing like five minutes quarrelling with his brother Charley Lincoln over a crap game. (Peri­od historians and etnographers ahoy!). In terms of guitar technique or recording quality, there are no changes whatsoever.

Perhaps the biggest individual attraction of Vol. 3, though, are the last four tracks, credited to «The Georgia Cotton Pickers» — a one-time band assembled from Bob, Curley Weaver on se­cond guitar, and newcomer Buddy Moss on harmonica; Buddy would go on to become one of the most important East Coast bluesmen, but here he is just an aspiring sideman learning his craft from the masters of action — Bob and Curley — quite happy to even be allowed to blow his harp quietly in the background. They do Blind Blake ('Diddle-Da-Diddle', an easily recognizable re­tit­ling of 'Diddie Wah Diddie'), 'Sittin' On Top Of The World' renamed as 'I'm On My Way Down Home', and a couple other generic blues pieces. If I am correct in my reckoning, it is Curley who plays lead, mostly, and does it far more elegantly than Bob ever could — on the other hand, it is Bob who is responsible for all the vocals, and performs with far more expression than Curley could ever muster on his records. Quid pro quo all over the place.

Sadly, these few recordings by the Pickers in December 1930 were the last for Bob. Hard times caught up with him pretty soon: for the following several months, he was out of work, and then, at the peak of unluckiness, got car­ried away with influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis on October 21, 1931. It is highly unlikely that he would have gone on to bigger and better things had he stayed alive, so, from a completist-reviewer's cynical-pragmatic point of view, he did good, but from the humanist point of view — well, the best we can do is go on ensuring that the world remembers his best creations, such as 'Motherless Child' etc., for at least a little while longer.

Check "Barbecue Bob Vol. 3" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Barbecue Bob Vol. 3" (MP3) on Amazon

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Akron/Family: S/T II: The Cosmic Birth And Journey Of Shinju


1) Silly Bears; 2) Island; 3) A AAA O A WAY; 4) So It Goes; 5) Another Sky; 6) Light Emerges; 7) Cast A Net; 8) Tatsuya Neon Purple Walkby; 9) Fuji I; 10) Say What You Want To; 11) Fuji II; 12) Canopy; 13) Creator.

Okay, this is no longer tolerable. According to hearsay, this album, in its entirety, was composed near a live volcano in a cabin on Hokkaido (see front cover). Apparently the next attempt to re­vitalize and revolutionize modern music will consist of composing and arranging an entire album while suspended on a cable from a helicopter circumflying a New Guinean jungle valley. This is the kind of approach that is bound to breed 21st century Mozarts and McCartneys.

Amazing feeling — it is not as if the Akron/Family approach here has changed much, yet I sense more irritation brewed by this record than by all of their previous catalog put together. Doubtless, chronology is part of the reason behind this feel. For a debut album from a freshly strung experi­mental band, S/T II would have been a respectable promenade — show off one's chops, eclecti­city and open-mindedness. For a band that, after groping in the dark for several years, had some­how begun to finally justify its existence, it is a total disaster.

What does it all sound and seem like, this time? Imagine The Animal Collective, only without their unique electronic kaleidoscope and without their — honestly amazing — ability to create otherworldly vocal harmony waves. But with their, often pointless, mix of lazy folk vibes with tribal droning, avantgarde dissonance, and nonsensical lyrics. Now hang on; I am not saying that this is the first time ever that we are getting this stuff from A/F. But even on their least interesting records, they used to at least balance the pointless stuff with pure, unspoiled moments of beauty. I never liked Meek Warrior, but it had 'Gone Beyond' on it, reminding me of the fact that there were real people with actual human hearts out there, and one could, with relative ease, try and es­tablish a wi-fi link to them. S/T II is a closed network in itself.

There is plenty of energy. 'Silly Bears' jump around like crazy to a life-asserting buzz of electro­nic equipment and choral vocals, and 'Another Sky' scatters neo-psychedelic happiness all over the place. But already Seth Olinsky's quiet mumbling into his sweater undermines all the joy, and, what's worse, not a single of these sonic overlays strikes any soul chords — everything is too ste­rile, too stuffy, too over-thought and over-calculated.

And what once used to be prettiness has mutated into by-the-book minimalism with zero impact, e. g. the concluding duo of 'Canopy' and 'Creator', on which introspective acoustic, angelic slide and tender, fragile singing try to combine in heavenly beauty and end up sounding like a lame pa­rody on The Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin, masterminded by a bunch of robots. I don't know — was Ryan Vanderhoof really the heart and soul of this band, confined to making this plastic kind of sound from now on, or is it simply a case of inhaling too much volcanic ash, with subsequent clogging of one's spiritual channels? Regardless of the answer — a vicious thumbs down to the most technically complex and the most excruciatingly boring Akron/Family album as of yet.

Check "S/T II" (CD) on Amazon
Check "S/T II" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Apoptygma Berzerk: Harmonizer


1) More Serotonin... Please; 2) Suffer In Silence; 3) Unicorn (duet version); 4) Until The End Of The World; 5) Rol­lergirl; 6) OK Amp, Let Me Out; 7) Pikachu; 8) Spindizzy; 9) Detroit Tickets; 10) Photoshop Sucks; 11) Something I Should Know; 12) Unicorn (original version); 13) Untitled 5.

There is an odd curve about this record, which starts out as Apop's technopoppiest offering ever, then slowly slowly digs into more experimental territory, with the emphasis shifted from primi­tive synth hooks to industrial-ambient grooves. The first half is, in fact, so simplistic that Groth was accused of «selling out» — a meaningless complaint, because no one really knows what exa­ctly constitutes selling out or selling in to this guy. On the other hand, it is also claimed that the album is loaded with deeply personal songs, concerning his recent divorce and stuff.

Whatever be, I have no idea how to really enjoy songs like 'Suffer In Silence' or 'Until The End Of The World' (the latter, by the way, begins with a wicked synth riff totally swindled off 'Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da', making the song cool for about five seconds). Their lyrics are tragic, but the melo­dies sound almost happy, and the silly techno beat rules over everything, confusing the senses. To be fair, there is an awful lot of sonic stuff going on in 'Suffer' — but who is going to be noticing that? Goth ravers?

Things start improving once the hit single part of the album is over. 'OK Amp, Let Me Out' is a pretty cool title, under which hides a ten-minute near-completely instrumental trance composition, melodically even simpler than the hits, but, unlike the hits, it has some specific appeal, very hard to describe or pinpoint. Maybe it's just the overall «coldness» of the electronic patterns and the doom vibes — Groth's music works best when it's completely robotic, and it fits in well with the idea of an evil spirit oozing out of an amplifier. A grinning prank almost worthy of a Richard D. James treatment, although the latter would probably find much more space for many more gim­micks over these ten minutes (then again, maybe not).

Typical of the frustration that I experience with Apoptygma is the fact that a fun title like 'OK Amp, Let Me Out' would be found right next to a song called 'Pikachu' (!) which — I am not jo­king — is technically a «dark love ballad». Okay, so it's dedicated to his daughter, and it may be really a play on words ("It's 4 A.M., I watch you sleep" — 'Pik-ach-oo', got it?), but references to the silliest excesses of Japanese pop culture in general are not OK when you are aspiring to «art»; trend-sucking, yes, but not OK. The song, too, is nothing to write home about.

By the time the album takes you through a few more odd industrial twists ('Detroit Tickets') and is finally back where we started with the final pop spin of 'Something I Should Know', this frus­trated feeling makes the record anything but a true Harmonizer. The oddities are more like a way of apologizing before the old fans of the band — «look at us, we can still do this weird dark thing that you can ritualistically dance to, but for the most part, we will just do the stupid dance thing 'cause that's what the kids really like». At least Welcome To Earth, from that point of view, was more honest about its nature. Thumbs down.

Check "Harmonizer" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Harmonizer" (MP3) on Amazon

Friday, February 25, 2011

10,000 Maniacs: The Wishing Chair


1) Can't Ignore The Train; 2) Scorpio Rising; 3) Just As The Tide Was A Flowing; 4) Lilydale; 5) Back O' The Moon; 6) Maddox Table; 7*) The Colonial Wing; 8) Grey Victory; 9) Among The Americans; 10) Everyone A Puzzle Lo­ver; 11) Cotton Alley; 12*) Daktari; 13) My Mother The War; 14) Tension Makes A Tangle; 15) Arbor Day.

Recording for Elektra Records now, with Joe Boyd as producer — upon first sight, an excellent choice, considering his immaculate folk-rock pedigree (The Incredible String Band, Fairport Con­vention, Nick Drake, Maria Muldaur, you name it). Real improvements, though? A few. Natalie Merchant is slowly, but steadily learning to sing (as in, «draw out vowels for a short extra length of time, sometimes raising or lowering the pitch»). Keyboard player Dennis Drew is given a little more breathing space, sometimes even a chance to solo (nice organ work on 'Just As The Tide Was A Flowing'). And overall, the sound is, of course, fuller and denser than it used to be.

Elsewhere, the approach remains the same — so much so that the band has even carried over some of its supposedly best tunes from I Ching; 'Grey Victory', 'Daktari', and 'My Mother The War' are sometimes said to have been re-recorded for this album, but they sound completely iden­tical on my copies — the only real re-recording is 'Tension', now called 'Tension Makes A Tangle' and truly sounding much better, due to a much more self-confident (and just plain loud) delivery from Merchant.

The bad news is that they still haven't figured out how to write songs, and yet are already ready to mellow out a bit, loosening the rhythm section and too often misusing the talents of Robert Buck. The latter, now that Joe Boyd himself has recognized him as a folk player, happily hauls out the mandolin, an instrument which is usually great for providing counter-melodies and extra flouri­shes, but is too medievalistic to carry a good hook, if you know what I mean. And there is a man­dolin track here on at least half of the songs, I think, sometimes with accordeon to boot.

Yet we cannot really fault the producer, because he clearly has no intention of spoiling the band's vibe — on the contrary, he just wants to clean it up. In fact, given that the band was signed by an English manager and recorded their major label debut in London with a famous British producer, the idea could have been to establish some sort of cross-Atlantic alternative to R.E.M. — despite the fact that all the band members were American, there is a lot of subtle «Britishness» around The Wi­shing Chair, from Merchant's angry anti-colonial ode ('The Colonial Wing', originally a B-side, now part of the album) to straightahead immersions into Anglo-Saxon folk history ('Just As The Tide...' — a rearrangement of a traditional tune).

The overall sound is still classy and pleasant, and the tempos are still generally upbeat, helping to overcome the lack of instantly captivating melodies. Given time, the loudest of these, e. g. 'Scor­pio Rising', will start penetrating the spirit; as usual, one needs to scrape Merchant's residue off the ears though — her presence may have improved, but it is still blocking the music rather than supporting it; and her lyrics may have become more coherent and «tolerably intellectual», but there is still no serious incentive to start analysing them seriously, no matter how serious are the particular problems she is singing about.

Word of the day is «transitional» — the band makes it into the big leagues, but does not yet pro­perly learn to behave in these leagues. Definitely not a record to be used as one's introduction to the stern joys of 1980's college rock.

Check "The Wishing Chair" (CD) on Amazon

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Alan Stivell: Symphonie Celtique


1) Beaj; 2) Gwerz 1; 3) Loc'h Ar Goulenn; 4) Divodan; 5) Emskiant; 6) Kendaskren; 7) Imram; 8) Dilestran; 9) Ar C'hammou Kentan; 10) Ar Geoded Skedus; 11) Ar Bale; 12) Gouel Hollvedel; 13) An Distro.

It could make sense to say that, perhaps, releasing one's longest, densest, deepest, broadest, most ambitiously conceptual double LP in the year 1979, several hundred days into the heyday of punk, New Wave, and disco, was not the smartest idea to emanate from Stivell's pathologically artistic spirit. But then again maybe it wouldn't, because (a) 1979 was, come to think of it, also the year of The Wall (which was also long, dense, deep, broad, ambitious, conceptual, and still sold like hotcakes — granted, most people bought it for "we don't need no education", while Stivell was way too conservative to seduce people with "Disco Druid"); (b) Stivell's corner of the market was fairly well defined and covered anyway — his audience never depended on trends. So what did he stand to lose? Nothing but an All-Music Guide review, and even that situation is so scandalous that eventually someone is bound to remedy it.

Tír na nÓg is the name of one of the Irish mythical worlds — the «Land of Youth» that few mor­tal men have reached, except for the legendary tribe Tuatha Dé Danann, the legendary hero Oisín, and the Marx Bro­thers right after they dumped Zeppo. I am not sure if the entire album is strong­ly dedicated to exploring this legend; but it is very appropriate, when you are basing a concept album around a mythical world that emanates from a Celtic conscience but also trans­cends it, to make sure that the music, too, transcends Celtic motives. Surely, if the Irish believed in a land of eternal youth located somewhere in the Caribbean, they didn't think all of its people would be playing the Irish harp and the bagpipes all day long?

A mind-boggling seventy guest musicians play on this album, ranging from an entire Berber female vocal group to a whole pack of Indian artists. It is Stivell's equivalent of Lifehouse: some­thing so utterly grandiose in its idealism and spiritualism, the listener is supposed to almost feel the chains of flesh shatter and fall to pieces all around the immortal soul. Except, unlike Life­house, this album did come to pass. So?...

One thing is for certain: Symphonie takes quite a bit of time to start properly working its magic. The entire first LP relies more on drones and ambience than dynamic themes, even if, at times, there seem to be more instruments involved in the procedure than on any of Beethoven's sympho­nies. Still, one has to admit to a certain interest when a composition is an Indian raga, an Irish mood piece, and a modern classical experiment at the exact same time ('Divodan'). Throw in a few electronic background textures, surround it with church organ and mild chamber pieces — quite a heck of a melting pot.

Lazy listeners may, however, safely skip the first six tracks and enjoy a shortened, but more «ac­tive» experience starting with the textbook Celtic rock of 'Imram'. This is where the record pro­perly becomes a «symphony», with all the required formal grandeur and cathartic moments. Amu­singly, the stately rhythmic pieces have an almost Mike Oldfield feel to them: devoid of confusing, unpredictable signature changes, smooth nearly to the point of becoming «commer­cial» (but in the good sense of the word).

And most are fine, but the truly awesome parts are cle­verly hidden from view until the end: first, the complex vocal overdubs on 'Ar Bale' weave out a pattern of absolute happiness and tran­quility, one of the finest «visions-of-angels»-type pieces of music I've ever heard, and then the repetitive, but intelligently expanding melody of 'Gouel Hollvedel', with fifty different variations on its danceable theme in a row, eventually bursts out to become Stivell's own little ode to joy — probably the most overtly celebrative and uplifting piece of music he ever did. The transition, fou­r­ty seconds into part IV, when the strings and pipes take over the theme, is my favourite mo­ment in all of Stivell's catalog — and, as far as my knowledge extends, the perfect moment in the synthesis of Celtic folk values with symphonic ones.

It is hard to tell if the presence of all those seventy musicians was truly justified, but maybe it is not so much their actual playing that matters as, indeed, the presence: now that they are all here, there is no backing out of the grandiosity of it all. And thank God for that — flawed and all, yes, with plenty of parts that are fairly weak on their own, Symphonie Celtique is still a one-of-a-kind record that fully justifies the concatenation in its name; a grand thumbs up.

The sad news is that the effort pretty much drained Stivell: the creative surge that started with Renaissance De La Harpe Celtique and, all through the decade, goaded him into curious expe­riment after curious experiment, ends here — the remainder of his career, although not without its moments, is basically just one lengthy footnote after the final glorious notes of Symphonie have faded away. But what's a poor Breton harpist to do after he has completed his predicament? Go fishing? Poaching boar? Carving menhirs? Every Celtic rocker has as much of a right to jump the shark as anybody else.

Check "Symphonie Celtique" (CD) on Amazon