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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Archers Of Loaf: White Trash Heroes


1) Fashion Bleeds; 2) Dead Red Eyes; 3) I.N.S.; 4) Perfect Time; 5) Slick Tricks And Bright Lights; 6) One Slight Wrong Move; 7) Banging On A Dead Drum; 8) Smokers In Love; 9) After The Last Laugh; 10) White Trash Heroes.

Reportedly, the Archers Of Loaf found themselves artistically blocked after touring in support of Airports, and I easily believe that — I mean, who wouldn't, after having to play songs from the dullest record of one's career over and over again? Eventually, it was decided that, if the band were to go on, it would have to change. The heavy fate of the Artist who did not, from the out­set, list «stability of sound» as one of the major goals in his career: either you change, or you lose the right to that capital A, not to mention an A+ in Robert Christgau’s next blurb.

The exact change from Airports to White Trash Heroes is not easy to describe, though. Every­one acknowledges it, and the band actually lost some of the fan support because of it, but nobody can really summarize it in one or two sentences. It's not as if they brought in a host of guest mu­sicians or a symphonic orchestra, started writing twenty-minute long suites, or covering Frank Sinatra on authentic XVIIth century instruments. Individually, many of the songs are not that dif­ferent from the classic Archers sound. But altogether, White Trash Heroes definitely constitutes one of their finest offerings, and I'd probably rate it second in my personal ranking for today.

What do you do when you understand your own mediocrity as a God-sent troubadour, yet cannot resist the temptation of making, in the simple hope that you’ll maybe get lucky next time? Easy — you turn upon yourself in all your wretched mediocrity, and intensify the only thing you're sure of. (I realize I have by now offended every devoted Archers fan on the planet, but, as a fair­ly mediocre writer myself, I somehow feel a bond between myself and the band, to be honored by admitting it). Who are the «White Trash Heroes»? Take a wild guess.

The seven-minute long title track is structured as a long, repetitive, part-time Bob Dylan, part-time Lou Reed visionary epic, pinned to the simplest of hooks for heavier effect. It drags on slowly and drearily, on the wings of a simple synth line and a sea of anthemic feedback, until the voice finally fades out and all that is left is the murky electric guitar pushing the theme forward for an extra two minutes. It is the most perfect conclusion to the Archers' career that could ever be desired: a song that declares the ugliness of it all through a long series of half-baked, hu­mor­less poetic metaphors, being ugly as hell, but somewhat mesmerizing, in itself.

Even before you get to it, though, you have to endure a sea of industrial bleakness. ʽFashion Bleedsʼ would be just another grungy slab of grunge, if not for the annoying, ear-piercing electro­nic bleep sub-melody that eventually generates itself out of the muck, claiming your attention so that it can tamper with your digestion system. On ʽDead Red Eyesʼ, all singing is done in a whiny, high-pitched manner, reminiscent of Neil Young and his endless complaints about life's miseries. On ʽPerfect Timeʼ, the lead guitar line is set to «dirge mode» almost continuously — now we can finally understand the fans, who were waiting for some punch-the-wall attitude and got some lie-down-and-die attitude instead. ʽOne Slight Wrong Moveʼ justifies the «industrial» tag explicitly: it starts off with factory-style banging and clanging, and culminates in the electronically encoded refrain ("a hundred million could be wrong") that, again, could serve as an irritant in the eyes of all the admirers of Archers as a «live» band, but is actually well in line with the overall moods and temperatures on the record.

In the middle of it all, it is easy to lose trace of ʽSmokers In Loveʼ, a brief instrumental track that should actually be counted among their finest creations — a bit of melodic «art-grunge» which shows excellent teamwork and expression. Your best chance of remembering it is probably thro­ugh the fat distorted opening riff, but the guitar- and even basswork on the main section are noti­ceable as well. By now, the Archers can not only «weave» their trademark double/triple-guitar patterns, they can do this with a stern, robotic air (must have been listening to lots of Krautrock), making the same kind of progress here that one usually sees in the evolution from «punk» to «post-punk». It's not entirely new, but with these guys, it works.

Overall, White Trash Heroes could really signify a transition to something more... purposeful, I guess, than the early Archers albums. It is that close to turning Bachmann into one of those «ge­neration spokesmen» — with all the debt that the title track owes to previous generation spokes­men, it belongs in the 1990s, a decade that did not really have its own Bob Dylan or Neil Young or Lou Reed, except for the original old ones. But maybe it was exactly this «looking back» thing that did not work out, I don't know. In any case, even if White Trash Heroes was an artistic dead end — and the band did not survive it — it still remains a curious and touching artistic dead end to revisit, and the title track is as good a «self-destructive goodbye note» as any. Thumbs up.

Check "White Trash Heroes" (CD) on Amazon

Friday, March 30, 2012

Asia: Omega

ASIA: OMEGA (2010)

1) Finger On The Trigger; 2) Through My Veins; 3) Holy War; 4) Ever Yours; 5) Listen Children; 6) End Of The World; 7) Light The Way; 8) Emily; 9) Still The Same; 10) There Was A Time; 11) I Believe; 12) Don't Wanna Lose You Now.

This would have sure made for a great title to the band's swan-song album (and makes me envisi­on the prospect of a supercool band whose very first album would be titled Alpha, with the sub­sequent catalog running through all the letters of the Greek alphabet — a priceless idea, and here I am giving it away for free). Unfortunately, no sooner had it come out that they disappointed everyone with predictably dull statements — «we thought it was just a nice word to use, it doesn't really mean anything» or something to that effect. What a turn-off.

It's not as if listening to Omega would make me want to scream «just retire already!». It's hardly worse than Phoenix, and in some respects, maybe better. There are no longer any conscious at­tempts to revive any «authentic prog vibe» — an impossible task for a band that never had any to begin with. All of the songs are strictly within the four-to-five minute range, and all are pinned to recurrent pop hooks, with no far-fetched ideas of massive sonic exploration or whatever, although Steve Howe is still given plenty of opportunities to shine, and his presence graces the album even more now that they are no longer willing to remind us «we are the sidekicks of Yes, we are the sidekicks of Yes» every several minutes.

As a result, all of this is mostly decent, well-produced, multi-layered music – never terribly exci­ting, but memorable enough to keep the head occupied and restrained enough to keep the senses un-annoyed. Occasionally, they still tend to let Geoff in the front with the big old «heavenly key­board» sound, with Wetton belting out a standing-on-the-cliff-waving-his-hair-in-the-wind power ballad against it (ʽEver Yoursʼ), but most of these tracks could be played as background music without any major embarrassment.

ʽFinger On The Triggerʼ may not have been the best of all possible openings, though. They intro­duce it with one of those old-school «pop-metal» riffs, as if to convince us that they still have that «kick-ass crunch», but if they didn't really have it then, why would I start believing that they have it now? It's not an awful pop-rocker — the chorus is catchy, and Steve eventually breaks away from the lumbering rhythm-work and into the realm of high-pitched melodic solos. But already the second track, ʽThrough My Veinsʼ, on which they slow down the tempo and turn the mood to «rhythmically meditative», sounds more effective, even if, technically, it is more «boring». May­be it is because, at this point, Wetton's vocals just do not work on rock-out-oriented material: he does fine enough on the «wisened old man» front.

From then on, it's all fairly even – some love ballads, some social statements, some end-of-the-world predictions (even a song called ʽEnd Of The Worldʼ in case you don't feel it), but nothing ever stands out. With tremendous mental effort, I am only able to single out ʽEmilyʼ as a relative high point, exclusively due to Steve's fabulous slide work which raises this mid-tempo piano pop ballad out of adult contemporary mediocrity and adds a slight ʽAnd You And Iʼ-like shade — al­ways welcome. Eventually they wave us goodbye on ʽDon't Wanna Lose You Nowʼ, which wi­sely reproduces the life-is-great optimistic conclusion of Phoenix — a fairly effective conclusion, considering that only a couple of songs before they did little but complain about the various evils and injustices of the world. But never worry — it's all gonna be okay, as long as these guys are to­gether to serve as our guiding lights. A world without Asia is, after all, a much more lonely place than a world without Europe, don't you agree?

(I mean the bands, naturally, not the continents).

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

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Average White Band: Cupid's In Fashion


1) You're My Number One; 2) Easier Said Than Done; 3) You Wanna Belong; 4) Cupid's In Fashion; 5) Theatre Of Excess; 6) I Believe; 7) Is It Love That You're Running From; 8) Reach Out I'll Be There; 9) Isn't It Strange; 10) Love's A Heartache.

I will try to be brief. An album titled Cupid's In Fashion cannot be a great album – period. An album titled Cupid's In Fashion and featuring six white-clad guys on the album cover cannot even be a good album. And an album titled Cupid's In Fashion, featuring six white-clad guys on the album, and coming from a band that went from playing their instruments to manipulating them, is zooming straight ahead into the realm of total darkness.

The only comforting thing I can say about Cupid is that, even in 1982, the band was holding out against going electronic, and, apart from some occasional robotic tampering with the drums, most of the music was still built around funky guitar playing, brass riffs, and gentle keyboard patterns. But this time around, there is not even an ʽInto The Nightʼ in sight — everything is either pedes­trian dance muzak or mushy, instantly forgettable balladry.

ʽReach Out I'll Be Thereʼ is the obvious standout, of course, since great Motown hits of the past have very little competition when they are surrounded by flat hackwork; but, predictably, the band adds nothing to the original, yet detracts quite a lot — and this is probably the first time I really feel the urge to strangle Gorrie for his falsetto.

Other than that, the title track is the only one that even attempts to build up a hookline, but it is a shallow and cold hookline, and marred with awful lyrics to boot. This whole musical schtick was hopelessly dated by 1982 — on-the-edge dance music was evolving in the direction of Contro­versy and Thriller, which these guys were unable to follow, being completely stuck in the reser­ved, «uptight» state of the 1970s. An obvious thumbs down — the only sensible thing they could have done at that time was to break up, and, fortunately, that is exactly what they did, once it be­came clear that Cupid, apparently, was not nearly as much in fashion as advertised. Especially when the Cupid that you are advertising looks suspiciously like a rubber doll.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Starlight Express


1) Overture; 2) Rolling Stock; 3) Call Me Rusty; 4) A Lotta Locomotion; 5) Pumping Iron; 6) Freight; 7) AC/DC; 8) He Whistled At Me; 9) The Race; 10) There's Me; 11) Poppa's Blues; 12) Belle The Sleeping Car; 13) Starlight Ex­press; 14) The Rap; 15) U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D.; 16) Rolling Stock (reprise); 17) CB; 18) Right Place, Right Time; 19) I Am The Starlight; 20) He Whistled At Me (reprise); 21) Race: The Final; 22) No Come Back; 23) One Rock & Roll Too Many; 24) Only He; 25) Only You; 26) Light At The End Of The Tunnel.

I have never read a single book of the Rev W. Awdry's Railway Series, so I do not have the faint­est idea if Rev Ll. Webber's musical interpretation of these oeuvres matches the vision of their li­terary creator. I am pretty sure, though, that the Railway Series did not as thoroughly explore all of the clichés of popular literary genres as Starlight Express does it with popular music — and, therefore, deduce that, for Lloyd Webber, the cutesy stories about anthropomorphic trains were mostly just an excuse to write something lite — for the «young adult» or whatever that species is called — and indulge in a bunch of simplistic pleasures.

Simplistic, but genuinely fun. Like Tell Me On A Sunday, Starlight Express sort of got lost in between the hugeness of Cats and Phantom Of The Opera, but it is exactly because of its rela­tive lack of ambition that I can easily see how the talking trains could be more sympathetic than the talking cats or the talking ghosts. However, there are two things one has to accept before pro­ceeding: (1) the storyline, the train characters, and their life problems sound very silly, so if you cannot stand silly, get outta here; (2) the music is as derivative as it comes — derived from all over the place, but with barely a finger lifted to write a strikingly original melody. (Oh, and the actors are all supposed to be roller-skating throughout the show, but, fortunately, the original cast recording has no whirring on it, so I suppose the singers were skate-free in the studio.)

This strange bout of «laziness» resulted in the album having no big hit single, no ʽMemoryʼ to flood the airwaves, but that is hardly a reason to complain: despite the overwhelming diversity of styles, Starlight Express is sternly coherent, and does not really need a big cathartic statement. It's just one for the kids, really, and it works well from that point of view. The real downside is that, having temporarily re-oriented himself on the pop/rock idiom, Sir Andrew also got entang­l­ed in 1980s production — replete with generic synthesizers, big bashing drums, programmed rhythm tracks, the works. It does not occur on all of the tracks, but about 70% are contaminated, and you have to bear with this, too, or hunt for newer versions of the musical (which I would not recommend: given the fact that Lloyd Webber's sense of taste seems to have been worsening ex­ponentially with each new decade, I can only hope that his heirs will return him the honors that he seems to be unable to bestow upon himself in person).

Anyway, lower your expectations, grab the popcorn, and Starlight Express is really a delight­ful little ride. As I said, the story is nothing to write home about: there is, naturally, a love element, an array of various «train personalities» in a mish-mash technically (but not musically) similar to the character array of Cats, and a shaky subject line concerning a train race, which Andrew re­gards as a good pretext to stuff disco elements into the pot — because, naturally, what other sort of music would better correspond to a train race? (Thrash metal, perhaps, but something tells me Sir Andrew was not a big fan of Show No Mercy at the time... yet).

The songs are harmless fun, though, particularly when they emulate older genres. ʽRolling Stockʼ sounds like bulgy disco-era ELO (à la ʽDon't Let Me Downʼ), with an extra touch of classic glam. ʽA Lotta Locomotionʼ is girl-pop with a Caribbean flavor (and a bit of pre-pubescent Michael Jack­sonism?). ʽPumping Ironʼ is pedestrian, but startlingly arrogant boogie; ʽPoppa's Bluesʼ wise­ly imitates pub-style, drunken blues-rock rather than «reverential» blues-rock; the vaudeville of ʽBelle The Sleeping Carʼ goes down easy due to P. P. Arnold's powerhouse vocal performance (best on the whole album, I'd say); and by the time we get to the closing fast-tempo gospel finale of ʽLight At The End Of The Tunnelʼ, many more of these short genre-honoring nuggets will make their appearance, way too many to waste time on their descriptions.

Every now and then, of course, the composer delves into the «now», usually with abysmal results because such words as «underground» or «non-commercial» are not in Andrew Lloyd Webber's lingo: his idea of keeping up with the times is best exemplified on ʽThe Rapʼ, which is more or less what it says it is and wastes five minutes of my time on having to listen to a bunch of trains arguing between each other in a «rap» fashion. There are also a few numbers like ʽAC/DCʼ that tend to drift way too far into the synth-pop realm, and seeing Lloyd Webber work in a Depeche Mode state of mind is not the happiest of choices. On the other hand, ʽThe Raceʼ, which takes all the individual train themes and sets them to disco beats, is seductively cheesy in much the same way as the disco «experiments» on Saturday Night Fever — there is something deeply embar­rassing about the experience, but it carries about a sense of silly happy giddiness that hooks you in regardless of, or maybe due to the silliness.

Derivative, but at times insanely catchy; silly, but unpretentious; lightweight, but cute; inconsis­tent, but diverse enough to justify the inconsistencies — Starlight Express is Webber-fluff at its absolute best, and all the lovers of solid, patented fluff should join me here in my thumbs up. But if you have kids, just give them the record: do not expose them to the sight of one too many pairs of roller skates at the same time.

Check "Starlight Express" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Starlight Express" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Beatles: A Hard Day's Night


1) A Hard Day's Night; 2) I Should Have Known Better; 3) If I Fell; 4) I'm Happy Just To Dance With You; 5) And I Love Her; 6) Tell Me Why; 7) Can't Buy Me Love; 8) Any Time At All; 9) I'll Cry Instead; 10) Things We Said To­day; 11) When I Get Home; 12) You Can't Do That; 13) I'll Be Back.

Time has solidified the status of A Hard's Day Night as the one «early Beatles» album you have to get if you are only going to get one (although what sort of a silly person would settle for only one early Beatles album?) — if only for the objective reason that this is the only «early Beatles» album that consists entirely of originals; the next one like that would only be Rubber Soul, whe­re the band was already stepping into «maturity».

It is true that, in the UK at least, A Hard Day's Night sort of turned the whole idea of a «sound­track» on its head. In the States, which the Beatles had only just finished conquering in early '64, with the success of ʽI Want To Hold Your Handʼ, it was released as a «proper» soundtrack — seven songs on Side A and a bunch of movie-related instrumental versions of Side B (including, by the way, a very stylish, Duane Eddy-style, reworking of ʽThis Boyʼ as ʽRingo's Themeʼ — the one that is played in the movie as Ringo takes his solitary strolls upon «leaving» the band). But at home, the second side was completely unrelated to the first: six more songs, all of them originals, that had nothing to do with the movie. Yet the album was still, in some way, a «soundtrack», provoking the layman into thinking that, from now on, every recording with the Beatles name on it would be worth buying, even a collection of toothpaste commercials.

As for artistic growth, I would think that the strength of A Hard Day's Night lies in the details. At this point, «experimentation» was not yet an integral part of the Beatles' career: they did try out new ideas and approaches, but nobody seemed obsessed with them. John and Paul were burs­ting with melodies, not «concepts», and the only global thing that A Hard Day's Night proves us is that they do not really need those covers any more.

For one thing, up until now, the Beatles had a hard time coming up with original gritty rockers: other than ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ and, to a lesser extent, ʽShe Loves Youʼ (which was rather just «loud» than truly «rocking»), they preferred to rock out on their cover versions (ʽTwist And Shoutʼ, ʽRoll Over Beethovenʼ, ʽMoneyʼ etc.). Now, with ʽCan't Buy Me Loveʼ they show that they can easily create a fast, kick-ass pop-rocker along with the best of them; and with ʽYou Can't Do Thatʼ, show that they can rock out in a mean, nasty, mid-tempo manner, holding their own on the same field with contemporary R'n'B-ers and blues-rockers (I have always thought that ʽYou Can't Do Thatʼ was John intentionally pulling a Mick).

On the other side of the field, ʽAnd I Love Herʼ establishes Paul as an independent, self-confident sweet balladeer for his generation — placed at approximately the same strategic juncture on the LP as ʽTill There Was Youʼ was on the previous album, and showing that the band no longer requires the services of Meredith Willson to feed its fans with wonderful roses and sweet, frag­rant meadows. Granted, Paul still cannot write a decent lyric to save his life, but does he need to? There is a certain minimalistic charm, this time around, in "I give her all my love / That's all I do / And if you saw my love / You'd love her too" that sits perfectly at home with the equally mini­malistic riff that drives the song. And there is a bit of self-confident tease at the end of the song as that minimalistic riff is «driven home» with four more bars. «Yes, I am so simple and silly, but you will never forget this coda anyway».

That said, at this time John is still the dominant presence in the band. Most songs were still writ­ten collectively, to be sure, yet the «Paul stamp» is strongly felt only on ʽAnd I Love Herʼ, ʽCan't Buy Me Loveʼ, and ʽThings We Said Todayʼ — a «miserable» three out of thirteen! (This might actually explain some of the exquisite fan worship towards the album). And by now, his song­wri­ting had reached that level of perfection from which it would never fall back again (except when he was derailed by avantgarde temptations or politics).

Of course, not all of his songs here are equally de­serving. On Side B, the unfortunate ʽWhen I Get Homeʼ frequently gets the flack for being somewhat cruder and less coherent in its melody than the rest (although the chief culprit is usually the lyrics: word-wise, it is like the little imbecile bro­ther of ʽA Hard Day's Nightʼ, and the line "I'm gonna love you till the cows come home", for some reason, has always irritated me). ʽI'll Cry Insteadʼ suffers notably from the lack of a guitar solo: it is quite a respectable little pseudo-rockabilly number as such, but way too repetitive as a result. Most importantly, they just don't look too good against the background of everything else.

Although John is overrepresented on the album and Paul is underrepresented, now that I think of it, the starkest contrast on the record is between the best songs of each one of them — and that contrast, funny enough, is just the opposite of the public's general opinion on their artistic and personal natures, because it is John who is primarily responsible for the brightest song on the al­bum and Paul who is behind the creation of the darkest one. Coincidence? Or just one of those «stereotypes suck» kind of moments?..

The «brightest» song is, of course, ʽI Should Have Known Betterʼ. It is utterly artificial, and yet it is probably the most successful attempt they ever made at capturing that «first love feeling» mood that made them into such invincible teenage deities. Three ingredients combine to make it a into such a mind-blower: John's massive harmonica runs, overwhelming all the other instruments for miles around; George's minimalistic, but brilliant solo that, once again, makes the right choice in mimicking John's already perfect vocal melody rather than trying futilely to invent something different; and the singing, of course — all the prolonged notes that bookmark the verses from both ends, all the "whoah-whoahs", all the sexy "oh-oh"s and dips into falsetto in the bridge sec­tion, so many individual snares within so short a track. And no croony sentimentality in sight. This is yer Good Youth incarnate; people unable to feel pure joy at the sound of this song are, at best, «stuck-up», and, at worst... oh, never mind.

The «darkest» song is, of course, ʽThings We Said Todayʼ. The lyrics are actually stronger here than on ʽAnd I Love Youʼ, but whether they really fit the doom and gloom of the tune is questio­nable. There is a little bit of irony in the words, but, overall, the theme of separation is much bet­ter indicated by the music: although the tempo is relatively fast and the rhythm is quite toe-tap-provoking, the minor mode of the song provokes an entirely different reaction. And as the whole thing eventually fades away on the same melody that opened it, it becomes the first in a relatively short line of «wholesale tragic» Beatle songs.

Actually, I would say that in general, there is a certain drift in A Hard Day's Night from Side A to Side B: the movie-related songs are, perhaps predictably, lighter, brighter, and fluffier, where­as, as we get to the second side, the mood darkens and solidifies a bit. John allows himself to be a nas­ty jealous guy on ʽYou Can't Do Thatʼ, Paul goes all melancholic on ʽThings You Said Todayʼ, and even the opening drum crack on ʽAnytime At Allʼ would probably seem a bit out of place, had they wanted to put that song in the movie as well. Then it all ends with ʽI'll Be Backʼ, a song that vies with ʽThingsʼ for the title of «saddest» — only barely losing out because the vocals do not quite manage to show that ominous tingle of "you say you will love me...".

It's just these little things, really, that elevate Hard Day's Night above the general «good pop al­bum» status. It may be all about trivial sentiments dressed in simple musical forms, but never in simple musical clichés. The slamming chord that opens the title track; the falsetto peaks on ʽI Should Have Known Betterʼ; the deletion of the verse/chorus opposition on ʽIf I Fellʼ; and so on and on and on, from the «light» of Side A to the relative «dark» of Side B.

There is nothing genu­inely «revolutionary» about Hard Day's Night, because the songwriting and the artistic personae of John and Paul had already become fully formed on With The Beatles. There is simply a sense of some sort of completeness: this is the ultimate «light-pop» experience of its epoch, and an experience that could not even theoretically be reproduced once pop-rock had gotten out of its infancy stage. It is, at the same time, utterly naïve / formulaic and hunting for genius musical decisions. Genius musical decisions would, of course, be quite plentiful in years to come, but the «virginity» would be lost forever. Look at all the «twee-pop» bands of today — many of them are quite fine, but nobody in his right mind strives to close up that hymen, under­standing well enough that it is impossible. Today, naïveness and innocence in attitude is reserved for the likes of Taylor Swift — mainstream puppets that are almost always the laughing stock of «advanced» music listeners. The miracle of Hard Day's Night is in that, even today, «advanced» music listeners may easily listen to it without laughing, and join me in my thumbs up.

P.S. A few words about the movie are probably in order as well. Time has been a little less kind to the movie than the accompanying album, I think. In 1964, it was seen as an even more colossal breakthrough: Richard Lester showed the world that a «pop artist movie» could actually be seen as an individual work of art, not just a dumb vehicle for the current teen idol to show off his cha­risma. That alone was a staggering discovery, rendering insignificant the fact that most of the Beatles could barely act (fortunately, Lester had the good sense not to ask them to act, so most of the time they were just being themselves — good news for John, worse for the rest of them), or that most of the jokes, puns, and gags, now that you look at them with a fresh eye, aren't really all that funny. (One exception is the cut-in scene between George and the advertising executive — some truly wicked dialog out there, as relevant for us today as it was fifty years ago, if not more so). Nevertheless, even if the movie is not as hot on its own as it is sometimes proclaimed to be, it is still one of the most fascinating — and, in a way, «authentic» — documents of its era. For best effect, watch it on a double bill with Viva Las Vegas.

Check "A Hard Day's Night" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, March 26, 2012

Blind Blake: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 3 (1928-1929)


1) Elzadie's Policy Blues; 2) Pay Day Daddy Blues; 3) Walkin' Across The Country; 4) Search Warrant Blues; 5) Ramblin' Mama Blues; 6) New Style Of Loving; 7) Back Door Slam Blues; 8) Notoriety Woman Blues; 9) Cold Hearted Mama Blues; 10) Low Down Loving Gal; 11) Sweet Papa Low Down; 12) Poker Woman Blues; 13) Doing A Stretch; 14) Fightin' The Jug; 15) Hookworm Blues; 16) Slippery Rag; 17) Hastings Street; 18) Diddie Wah Did­die; 19) Too Tight Blues No. 2; 20) Chump Man Blues; 21) Ice Man Blues; 22) Police Dog Blues; 23) I Was Afraid Of That Pt. 2; 24) Georgia Bound; 25) Keep It Home.

Vol. 3 of Blind Blake's starts out rather inauspiciously, with a couple of fairly bland Elzadie Ro­binson urban blues tunes which are then followed with lotsa lotsa slow blues, most of them with hi­deous sound quality that prevents from discerning any tricks and flourishes even if Blake actu­ally had them on these tracks — and I am quite unsure of that. (He gets particularly lazy on tracks like ʽSearch Warrant Bluesʼ, whose recording session must have caught him in an utterly un­in­spired state, or an utterly inebriated one). These six or seven slow blues laments are really only noticeable for the lyrics, which have been occasionally accused of excessive (even for the times) misogyny ("to keep her quiet, I knocked her teeth out her mouth" etc.). But since Blake hardly ever comes across as a pathological character, we should still ascribe these bleak feelings to then-current conventions. Good old happy times, when «bitch-slapping» was the norm and nobody wanted to be left out of the fun.

The real fun — musical fun — starts only on the eleventh number (ʽSweet Papa Low Downʼ), the first feel-good number on the CD, and Blind Blake's fingers only really worked wonders when they were feeling good: here be a nifty little Charleston with some cornet and xylophone accom­paniment, and Blake himself happily mumbling and dee-daa-daaing under his nose as he spins his tricky ragtime chords.

From there, as we move on to 1929 and the last months of nationwide happiness, it is all steadily uphill once again: ʽHookworm Bluesʼ, with a funny guitar/piano soloing duet; ʽSlippery Ragʼ, which is anything but slippery — in fact, it features some of Blake's most complex soloing; and, most importantly, ʽDiddie Wah Diddieʼ, one of his signature tunes (nothing to do with the much later Bo Diddley song of the same name) that introduced the line "I wish somebody could tell me what diddie wah diddie means" into popular culture.

Best of the lot is concealed at the end: ʽGeorgia Boundʼ, also done in a ragtime tuning, recorded with a rare degree of cleanness, sung with an unexpected sweet natural tenderness, and bursting into diverse, but always optimistic solo melodies after each verse. The melody may be well known from a million other performances (it is exactly the same as Robert Johnson's ʽFrom Four Until Lateʼ), but, with Blake at the helm, a good melody will always bear individual traces, re­gardless of how well we know it. If you do not play guitar, these sounds may well taunt you into trying — and if you do, you might as well quit, because you'll never beat this kind of sound, no matter how technically simple it might seem to the modern player. Thumbs up.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Blitzen Trapper: Wild Mountain Nation


1) Devil's A Go-Go; 2) Wild Mountain Nation; 3) Futures & Folly; 4) Miss Spiritual Tramp; 5) Woof & Warp Of The Quiet Giant's Hem; 6) Sci-Fi Kid; 7) Wild Mtn. Jam; 8) Hot Tip / Tough Cub; 9) The Green King Sings; 10) Summer Town; 11) Murder Babe; 12) Country Caravan; 13) Badger's Black Brigade.

Switching from the phantom label of «LidKerCow» to the very much real Sub Pop records, Blitz­en Trapper finally announce their existence to a whole wide world outside Oregon, with their loudest, braggard-est, and best produced record yet. Actually, a correction: they do not so much want to come out into the whole wide world as they want the whole wide world to come to them. "Come out from the world and into my arms / Like wind on the water with me / Come out from the city come out from the town / Build stone by stone a wild mountain home". This is the way the title track greets you, on a shallow warm wave of slide and electric guitars and a swaying an­themic rhythm that goes particularly well with a mug or two.

But Blitzen Trapper are not The Avett Brothers, and their wildland hearts never stay for too long in the wildlands: their real ambition stays the same — to capture all sorts of audiences by means of an intelligent synthesis. This is where the bearded hillbilly is supposed to peacefully coinhabit the same territory with the smug hipster, trading quite a few floating genes in the process. Why they have to do this, other than provide a reason for another rock band's existence, is another question... and it is up to each one of us to decide if we want to enrich our meaning of life by try­ing as hard as we can to find the answer.

At this point, a responsible reviewer would need to write something like «Me, I'm too busy just enjoying all the cool music to give a damn». The problem is — despite all of Earley's unquestio­nable talent, this music is just way too cool to be normally enjoyable. It begs for all sorts of ques­tions, and provokes confusion after confusion. The band's previous albums were, after all, a little less «over the top», but on Wild Mountain Nation they pull so many different rabbits out of the hat that, eventually, the magic show turns into a zoo.

ʽDevil's A-Go-Goʼ kicks off the proceedings with a three-minute multipart suite that includes elements of power pop, tricky Captain Beefheart-influenced avantgarde rhythms, Grateful Dead-style mind-melting psychedelia, and a noisy dissolution into chaos. Out of its ashes rises the title track — mind you, these guys that beg you to come to their wild mountains with them are the same ones that just infested your mind with a ridiculously incoherent concatenation, so I would think twice, personally, before «saddling up to ride». Then, after being lulled into a peaceful easy feeling with the colorful, bouncy folk-pop of ʽFutures & Follyʼ and its McCartney spirit, you are immediately given a gut-kick by the thick Panzer distortion of ʽMiss Spiritual Trampʼ — a hard-rocking sound through which, however, they still seep through occasional slide guitars and har­mo­nicas, just to place the «rootsy-tootsy» seal on everything, for protection.

Actually, it all sounds great. The soft songs lull and pacify, the loud songs invite the air guitar, and the avantgarde / experimental bits and pieces are a fine glue to keep the soft and loud songs together. It all sounds so great that you do not even immediately notice the utter silliness of some­thing like ʽWoof & Warp Of The Quiet Giant's Hemʼ — even if, in reality, it is just a repetitive, off-yer-head carnival stomp where you are supposed to jump around the fire and shout «yeah yeah yeah» to spook off a bloodthirsty demon or something. It simply falls in place as part of that crazy kaleidoscope: a bit of its own craziness rubs off on everything else.

But you know what? I would rather have preferred it all with a different sequencing. For instance, place all the quiet acoustic songs on one side and all the wild romps on the other. Because I feel that the quiet songs are actually the stronger ones, reflecting a juicier, brighter side of Earley's heart than his attempts to make himself feel at home with the loud rock scene. ʽSummer Townʼ, in particular, is a beautiful ballad, all minimalistic acoustic lines, flutes, and soft psychedelic overdubs, one of those tunes where you cannot decide whether it is melancholy or tenderness that rules the scene, and this indecision keeps sucking you in. And my personal fav is ʽCountry Cara­vanʼ, one of those tunes where you know that all that separates this rather ordinary country-pop tune from greatness is the lack of a big fat friendly electric guitar solo, and then it finally comes and you're all like, "I knew it! Didn't I?"...

Yet with all this mixing going on, neither the soft nor the hard songs help out each other. It is one thing to have yourself a White Album, one that can allow itself to disregard sequencing because each number is so strong on its own that it creates a special link to its context in your mind regar­dless of whether that link was originally planned or not. Eric Earley, on the other hand, is no J. P. Len­non-McCartney, and these songs are not highly memorable — they are of the «make you feel so good while they're on» kind rather than the «forever and ever you'll stay in my heart» kind. And Wild Mountain Nation's eclectic mix keeps confusing me. On the good side of things, it means that I will definitely be coming back here, to keep checking on the potential greatness I have missed; but on the bad side of things, the overall reaction is still a large question mark, and I wouldn't want to be coming back without some sort of guarantee that I will not be wasting my time. Anyway, thumbs up for the ongoing mystery of Blitzen Trapper while it is still a mystery.

Check "Wild Mountain Nation" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Wild Mountain Nation" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Archers Of Loaf: All The Nations Airports


1) Strangled By The Stereo Wire; 2) All The Nations Airports; 3) Scenic Pastures; 4) Worst Defense; 5) Attack Of The Killer Bees; 6) Rental Sting; 7) Assassination On X-mas Eve; 8) Chumming The Ocean; 9) Vocal Shrapnel; 10) Bones Of Her Hands; 11) Bumpo; 12) Form And File; 13) Acromegaly; 14) Distance Comes In Droves; 15) Bombs Away.

For their third release, the Archers got picked up by a major label — Elektra — but the fact pro­duced far more fuss in the press than change in the sound. Not that there isn't any change in the sound from Vee Vee to All The Nations Airports. There is. But it has nothing to do with labels. And yes, it is a sucky sort of change.

Essentially, to me this sort of change suggests that Vee Vee, after all, was a fluke. Somehow, on that album, the band managed to align their mutual configuration in the only possible, and very subtle way, that could make them stand out. They probably did not pay too much attention to this lucky turn of events — and, when it was time to reconvene for the third album, fell back on the old configuration of Icky Mettle. Only now they lack even that initial punch of freshness which can sometimes elevate mediocrity to illusionary heights. Results? Boring. Dull as hell.

Instead of good music, Bachmann now concentrates almost exclusively on the lyrics, which get increasingly «serious» and «messagy», without telling us explicitly what it is about them that could make Bachmann an individual presence on the «rock poet» scene. "Rental sting / The cus­tomer is king / Waste your life, waste your life / Little things can cost you everything" — here is a particularly telling example of what it's all about. If it clicks with you on paper, it will click with you on your stereo. If it does not click on paper, I have a hard time imagining how All The Nations Airports could ever occupy a special place in your heart.

That the individual guitar parts are rather dull is no surprise; the surprise is that they seem to have lost the ability to turn their twin guitar interplay into something larger than the sum of its parts. It is most evident on such lumbering instrumental monsters as ʽAttack Of The Killer Beesʼ, which, by all means, should have been titled ʽAttack Of The Killer Slothsʼ instead — one of the guitars does produce a bee-like buzz all the way through (wailing like crazy on one note while your ears are slowly and painfully being electrocuted), but the others are just droning stoner grunge chords over and over again in an «atmospheric» manner that is neither pleasant, nor even novel.

They are still capable of occasionally coming across mildly interesting themes, when they get off their main saddle horse: ʽBumpoʼ is a fun instrumental, built upon a dark psycho-folk theme that is half-Jefferson Airplane, half-James Bond theme (although even ʽBumpoʼ gets less attractive and more generic once the volume levels are pushed up and the minimalistic folk guitar becomes drone-oriented). And there are tiny bits and pieces that suggest ways of greatness — for instance, the way the self-titled track begins, with its siren-like bass notes and pick scraping frenzy, before it embarrassingly turns into just another Bachmann sermon.

But tiny bits are one thing, and preaching, lying at the heart of 75% of the songs on here, is ano­ther. ʽAssassination On X-mas Eveʼ, for instance, simply continues the theme of ʽDeath In The Parkʼ — «bad shit is going on, and nobody genuinely gives a damn». There is no harm in flog­ging that old horse to death, particularly since the horse is immortal, but wouldn't it be nice if the accompanying music were even the least bit memorable? Or, at least, exciting? Come on now, this shit is just excruciatingly dull. I can't even hear that second «feminine» guitar all that well, bring it higher up in the mix or something (not that it looks as if it were doing anything even re­motely approaching the occasional explosiveness on Vee Vee).

As ʽBombs Awayʼ, a minimalistic two-finger piano instrumental, closes the record, I cannot help but wonder how these things happen exactly — what are the factors that determine such jumps in quality between albums that are essentially based on the same styles and values. The number of cups of coffee drunk before the morning sessions? Toothaches? Undetected radioactivity ex­po­sure? Talent drain, where «talent» = an objectively measurable internal fluid? Whatever. Regard­less of the answer, All The Nations Airports is a significant departure from Vee Vee, and, in my head, the vector is strictly downwards, so thumbs down accordingly.

Check "All The Nations Airports" (CD) on Amazon

Friday, March 23, 2012

Asia: Phoenix


1) Never Again; 2) Nothing's Forever; 3) Heroine; 4) Sleeping Giant / No Way Back / Reprise; 5) Alibis; 6) I Will Remember You; 7) Shadow Of A Doubt; 8) Parallel Worlds / Vortex / Déyà; 9) Wish I'd Known All Along; 10) Or­chard Of Mines; 11) Over And Over; 12) An Extraordinary Life.

Uh-oh. Here we go inflating the old balloon again. As you might recall, the one thing that made «late-period-Payne» Asia slightly more palatable than «early-period-Payne» Asia was that the band considerably toned down their ambitions, positioning themselves as relatively «humble» adult contemporary artists rather than the save-the-world type. Now that Payne is out and Howe, Palmer, and Wetton, the authenticated mastodonts of prog, are back in, the new old Asia's first stab at a studio album is re-brimming with ambition.

Yeah, let us face it, «pretentious» is a fairly appropriate word to use in the negative sense when you have to review a record that immediately greets you with such lyrics as "I saw the universe, I held it in my hand / The planets and the stars, merely grains of sand". (This seems to be an Asian translation from Yesian, which makes it more understandable for the people at large, but also more vulnerable to vitriolic critical stabs). The words come riding on the back of a Big Genera­tor-style pop-metal riff, and eventually burst out in an anthemic chorus where we learn that "Ne­ver again will I bear arms against my brother, never again will I dishonour anyone", which Wet­ton sings with such passion, bravour, and authenticity that I am actually inclined to take a cauti­ous look into his criminal record.

Apparently, it was decided that there was no point in making another Asia album if it did not try to take the band to the next level, rather than just being an exercise in nostalgia. As a result, this particular Phoenix seems to have risen out of anabolic ashes: almost everything is loud, big, sprawling, multi-layered, «cosmic», whatever. Unfortunately, everything is still Asia, and that means more often silly-sounding than cathartic. The illusion might be that they have reinvented their sound, and are now trying to conjure the classic «progressive» spirit — in reality, though, they are still spinning rather trivial arena-pop, whose triviality is only barely covered with layers of keyboards and guitars.

One thing to say, though: Steve Howe. Either they begged him, seeing the error of the old ways, or he blackmailed them, having nothing to lose either way, but more than half of the songs fea­ture fabulous guitar playing from Steve, and I don't mean the Big Generator riffs: I mean richly me­lodic, free-flowing, complex solos that the man normally reserved for Yes or his solo projects. It starts already on the second track, the happy-sad anthem ʽNothing's Foreverʼ, but peaks later. The opening to ʽAlibisʼ, for instance, is clearly reminiscent of the heavenly pedal steel playing on ʽAnd You And Iʼ, and the song's coda, where Howe duels with Downes' harpsichord, is far more imaginative and elegant than the vocal part.

The most depth and complexity is attained on the ʽParallel Worldsʼ suite, where the vocal part only functions as a thematic introduction ("There's a vision I see..." and the rest is self-understo­od). The voyage through a ʽVortexʼ and into the psychedelic world of ʽDeyaʼ is excellently struc­tured, going from a dynamic, swirling section that features Palmer's most energetic drumming for the day, into a paradisiac section, first with a bit of cheesy Spanish guitar, but then with an elec­tric solo that, to tell the truth, is mood-wise more Steve Hackett than Steve Howe (replete with prolonged wailing notes so typical of the other Steve), but is nevertheless quite moving.

Besides, Howe is the only one in the band who remembers anything about subtlety. One of my fa­vourite tracks here is ʽOrchard Of Minesʼ (no, no, it is not about Bosnia or Iraq; it is actually a cover of a song originally done by the Globus «ensemble», of Immediate Music), if only for tho­se barely audible high-pitched notes that Steve plays against Wetton howling "to know... to feel... to play me once again" during the song's climax. If you ever happen to listen to that song, don't forget to tune your ears in at around 3:45 into the song for some elite aural delight. (I'm sure there must be other moments like these on here, but I couldn't bring myself to waste time on additional listens: Howe or no Howe, this is still an Asia reunion, and there is only so much time one can allocate oneself on an Asia reunion).

As for the pop stuff, well... it's manageable, not too annoying arena-pop with moments of genuine catchiness. Trivial, but sincere: ʽAn Extraordinary Lifeʼ was apparently written by Wetton after a risky surgery, and reflects all the honest joy that one usually does not feel about life until after ha­ving been exposed to the risk of losing it, so, no matter how banal the sentiment, I cannot bring myself to feel too bad about it. And Wetton's aged voice actually serves him well: even a ro­mantic ballad as straightforward as ʽHeroineʼ is sung normally, without trying to rise to operatic heights (but when will these lyricists ever learn not to use the word "heroine" in a love ballad? Don't they understand that this brings an entirely new light to the line "I hold the razor blade up to my face" that begins the song?).

On the whole, Phoenix is probably as good as Asia could ever get at that point, and almost probably better than everyone believed it could get. The old boys handle their pomp with care, allocate plenty of time to their best musician, and get away with at least one complex prog instru­mental. Of course, trying to convince us that they are continuing the tradition of classic Seventies' progressive rock rather than their own one is useless: to do that, they would have to get rid of Geoff Downes and John Wetton and bring in Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson... could be a great band, come to think of it. But, in any case, Phoenix upholds and strengthens the modest reputa­tion of Asia. Had they simply disbanded around 1985, it would have been an old men reunion. Instead, it is a semi-successful attempt at setting things straight. Thumbs up.

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

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Average White Band: Shine


1) Catch Me (Before I Have To Testify); 2) Help Is On The Way; 3) Watcha Gonna Do For Me; 4) Let's Go Round Again; 5) Into The Night; 6) Our Time Has Come; 7) For You For Love; 8) If Love Only Lasts For One Night; 9) Shine.

Somehow I forgot to mention that the noticeable shift of sound from Warmer Communications to Feel No Fret had much to do with the band's change of label and, more importantly, producer: from Atlantic veteran Arif Mardin they went on to Victor Records and new producing guy David Foster, one of the big heroes of mainstream Eighties pop. It was under his guidance that the Ave­rage White Band began and completed the transformation into the Average White Automaton; which, naturally, does not take the blame off the shoulders of each individual member as well.

Shine is basically Feel No Fret No. 2, but goes even further in the direction of dispensing with the «live» feel and machinizing the sound of the band. They still play their own instruments, even the drums, but all of the grooves have been streamlined, and there is a stiff, robotic feel to all the tracks — exactly the kind of thing Foster was aiming for. Thus, it does not really matter any more if it is the AWB playing this shit, or any other run-of-the-mill dance band with ten years of heavy practice behind its back.

The pretentiously jovial ʽLet's Go Round Againʼ managed to become a minor hit single here; and as far as generic, but expertly produced disco goes, it is neither better nor worse than any other such minor hit single. The chorus is catchy, the rhythm is danceable, the strings and horns well placed, and Hamish even gets to play a melodic solo. But crowd pleasers like that really go for a dime a dozen, and I would rather take ʽHelp Is On The Wayʼ, whose vocal melody is nowhere near as easily memorable, but not as silly, either.

Alas, the only track on here that is vaguely reminiscent of the AWB's former «average greatness» is ʽInto The Nightʼ. It is almost completely instrumental (apart from a few mood-setting vocal lines in the «chorus»), so you do not have to put up with Gorrie's formulaic falsetto. It has a per­fectly well worked out brass groove that takes a brief, but effective musical idea and explores it, unlike the horns on the other tracks, which merely exist to provide an extra sonic layer. It is «fun­ky-pretty» rather than «disco-crappy», and is more influenced by Stevie Wonder than Donna Summer. If anything ever survives from Shine, it's gotta be this one rather than ʽLet's Go Round Againʼ — I'd rather have the mainstream disco epoch be remembered through its clever facets than its populistic anthems.

Still, if you like smooth, perfectly polished, un-annoying disco as background muzak to accom­pany your home chores or morning aerobics, Shine might find some sort of useful application: when played loud enough, it will effectively hinder your sleeping reflexes. This is why the pre­dictable thumbs down reaction arrives hatred-free.

Curious P.S.: It is exceedingly funny how all the reviews of these late-period AWB on Amazon rave about their greatness and consistently come furnished with 5-star ratings. It takes a stupid person like me a few minutes to realize that, in most cases, there are about three to four reviews for each, and that, most probably, they are all written by nostalgic 50-year old geezers whose me­mories of this music are inextricably tied in with memories of their first sexual experience. Tee­nage musical experience can be so detrimental, once you think of it.

Check "Shine" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Cats


1) Overture; 2) Prologue: Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats; 3) The Naming Of Cats; 4) The Invitation To The Jellicle Ball; 5) The Old Gumbie Cat; 6) The Rum Tum Tugger; 7) Grizabella: The Glamour Cat; 8) Bustopher Jones; 9) Mungojerrie And Rumpelteazer; 10) Old Deuteronomy; 11) The Jelllicle Ball; 12) Grizabella; 13) The Moments Of Happiness; 14) Gus: The Theatre Cat; 15) Growltiger's Last Stand; 16) Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat; 17) Ma­ca­vi­ty; 18) Mr. Mistoffelees; 19) Memory; 20) The Journey To The Heaviside Layer; 21) The Ad-Dressing Of Cats.

This review is for the Original London Cast of Cats, which, predictably, is a little less Broad­wayish than the Original Broadway Cast, although the two are only separated by one year, and the difference is not particularly striking. As usual, there are dozens of subsequent versions as well, including a relatively tolerable movie (musically tolerable — the idea of enjoying people jump around in stupid cat make-up has, for some reason, never appealed to me at all), but review­ing all of them would be quite a chore, considering that I have no deep love for the original.

It is a bit ironic, of course, that Sir Andrew would go completely song-and-dance on a piece of work drawn from the art of T. S. Eliot. But then, the original Old Possum's Book Of Practical Cats could hardly be called a «peak of intellectualism» all by itself. And if we take Cats in the on­ly reasonable way it could be taken — as a «show for the entire family, with emphasis on the kids» — then it has to be agreed that Webber did manage to find a perfectly appropriate musical vibe to fit the funny feline adventures as narrated by Old Possum.

Cats are lightweight, kitschy, and occasionally corny; and ʽMemoryʼ has been overplayed to such a terrible death that, like the Beatles' ʽYesterdayʼ, it is one of those songs today that one may find almost im­possible to enjoy on a gut level. Still (okay, here goes), ʽMemoryʼ is a great song, even despite being covered by Barry Manilow and Celine Dion, and there is quite a bit of excellent music to be found on the rest of the album as well.

The big colorful advantage of Old Possum's Book is that it introduces such an enormous variety of characters, exploring all sides of cat psychology; and, respecting that, Webber took the right decision to represent each of these characters with a different musical style — which makes Cats into his most eclectic oeuvre of all time. Let us see. There is some old time flapper jazz (ʽThe Old Gumbie Catʼ); some playful R&B (ʽThe Rum Tum Tuggerʼ); a bit of mock-Wagnerian opera (ʽGri­za­bellaʼ); some folk-pop (ʽBustopher Jonesʼ); nods to «classic» Rogers & Hammerstein and the like (ʽOld Deuteronomyʼ); kiddie sing-alongs from Sesame Street (ʽSkimbleshanksʼ); spy mo­vie muzak (ʽMacavityʼ); big, brawny glam-pop (ʽMr. Mistoffeleesʼ); and even a lengthy multi-part suite (ʽGrowltiger's Last Standʼ) that could, for almost ten minutes, evoke a progressive rock feeling in whoever would be willing to properly assess its complexity.

The bad news is that the atmosphere of it all way too often seems either «cutesy» or downright «silly». The two and a half minute long ʽOvertureʼ, mostly built on pianos and synthesized horns and strings, is inspiring and occasionally even tense, but as the ʽPrologueʼ leads you on into the world of merrily dancing predators singing "jellicle songs for jellicle cats", you might begin to wonder whether you have just been politely asked to surrender a significant part of your brain, and if yes, then what are your actual gains from surrendering it.

Clearly, nobody should be afraid of a little silliness from a grown-up person, but when that silli­ness takes on the form of a major stage musical, that may be a little over the top. Fortunately, as on most of Webber's «original casts», the singers never tend to overdramatize (the only part that I could never really stand was Paul Nicholas as ʽThe Rum Tum Tuggerʼ, but that may be not so much his fault as an inborn element of incoherence between the music and the vocal part).

Unfortunately, the whimsy nature of the show makes it hard to be genuinely moved by its darker or more complex moments: basically, everything connected with the character of Grizabella (who was not a character in Eliot's book, but existed as a sketch, eventually removed by the author due to the «excessive sadness» of her persona), and the choral hymn conclusion of ʽThe Ad-Dressing Of Catsʼ. Along with diversity, they add confusion, and the sequencing requires getting used to. It is hardly a surprise that ʽMemoryʼ, sung by the Grizabella character (Elaine Page in this original version), took on a life of its own — not just because it is the best song on the album (it may or may not be), but also because it feels quite out of tune with it, and works well when disconnected from the amusing cat melange.

But overall, Cats is fun. It should be taken for what it is: a lightweight stage musical to give the people a good time. It is a high-class musical, set, after all, to much higher quality lyrics than Tim Rice could ever provide, and written in a broad, ambitious manner — even if the actual music, once you have eliminated all the endless reprisals and analyzed all the remaining themes and mo­tives, may perhaps be judged as a triumph of form over substance (Webber's «debts» to classical and other composers, e. g. to Puccini for ʽMemoryʼ, are well on record, nor did he ever deny those debts altogether himself). So why should anyone be cringing?

Only for one reason — because Cats completes and stabilizes Webber's transition into the world of second-hand fluff. JCS granted the man immortality, Evita could still be perceived as a seri­ous musical work tackling sharp subjects, and even Tell Me On A Sunday, behind its exaggera­ted simplicity and minimalism, was hiding loads of social bitterness. Cats, on the other hand, at the same time pull out all musical stops and have no «big meaning» whatsoever. They were, and still are, a commercial triumph, but they pretty much crashed Webber's reputation in «serious» circles, or, at least, initiated that crash, completed five years later with Phantom Of The Opera. In a different context, they could be just a light comedic divertissement for the man (as Jeeves was in the mid-1970s): as it happened, he somewhat got stuck in «light» mode for the rest of his life. Thumbs up anyway — but do not even think of coming close to this kind of music if JCS and Evita are your ideal projection of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and you'd like it to stay that way.

Check "Cats" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Beatles: With The Beatles


1) It Won't Be Long; 2) All I've Got To Do; 3) All My Loving; 4) Don't Bother Me; 5) Little Child; 6) Till There Was You; 7) Please Mister Postman; 8) Roll Over Beethoven; 9) Hold Me Tight; 10) You Really Got A Hold On Me; 11) I Wanna Be Your Man; 12) Devil In Her Heart; 13) Not A Second Time; 14) Money (That's What I Want).

By the time With The Beatles came out in late 1963, the Beatles were already superheroes all over Europe, with the «super-» bit neatly provided by the success of ʽShe Loves Youʼ. But at this point, they did not yet need to «prove» anything — what they did was still seen simply as pop music, and there was no conscious, openly perceivable drive on their part to «push boundaries» or whatever. They were simply writing more songs the way they felt these songs, and that is what is so exciting about those early records, one hundred percent pure and free of any intellectual pre­tense: natural innocent genius, not at all burdened with reasoning and calculation. (Well, they we­re happy enough to have George Martin do the calculations for them).

Reviews of the album often (almost always, in fact) start with expressing admiration for the front sleeve. Ooh, black and white. Wow, standing in the shadows. Dark! Disturbing! What a far cry from the silly smiling faces on Please Please Me. Progressive and intelligent. Look at what Ger­ry and the Pacemakers, or Freddie and The Dreamers were putting on their album covers at the time. No comparison whatsoever.

Frankly, I am not all that sure that the album cover (although it does look cool) is really such a tremendous achievement. What is much more interesting is that With The Beatles manages to sound fairly «dark» without any actual help from the blackness of the album sleeve. Well, maybe not «dark» as such, if by «darkness» we mean Jim Morrison or Led Zeppelin. But I have always felt that there was a very significant line separating With The Beatles from Please Please Me, per­haps even one of the most significant lines in Beatle history (and Beatle history knew plenty of lines). It is the line that separates «lightweight» from «heavyweight»; and it is no coincidence that it was only With The Beatles that the first «serious» musical critics started suspecting there might be something of use for them in that air.

One thing that need not confuse us are the lyrics. At this point, neither John nor Paul (nor George, who makes his songwriting debut on here) showed any care for the words; the epitome of «wordy cleverness» to them was finding a line like "it won't be long 'til I belong to you", and the rest ge­nerally just rearranges all the love song clichés extracted from God knows where. (That's what you get for sticking to crude rock'n'roll values and ignoring The Songbook — at least the Tin Pan Alley people knew their English). But I do not think that, before Bob Dylan got the guys interes­ted in the magic powers of language, either John or Paul invested a lot of time and work into the words, or had any high thoughts of those words. Later on, John would make it a personal hobby to look upon the Beatles' legacy with a critical laser-eye, and demolish the stupidity of the lyrics in particular (Paul's, preferably, but his own were not exempt from self-criticism either). But in 1963, none of them were teenagers any more, and they certainly understood how silly it all soun­ded to the average «grown-up» person, and they did not give a damn about it.

And neither should we. The lyrics just followed the conventions of the times, which certainly does not apply to the music. Take ʽIt Won't Be Longʼ, for instance. On the surface, it is just an upbeat tune about... well, find the quote in the previous paragraph. But, for some reason, I have never thought of that song as «happy». The main melody rather shows a clear Shadows influence, and Shadows mostly wrote «shadowy» music — that British variant of surf-rock with a spy mo­vie atmosphere. Now there is no spy movie atmosphere in ʽIt Won't Be Longʼ, but its meat and bones are tough, and its colors disturbingly grayish.

And then there are the vocals. Any other vo­calist would probably sing the lines "Since you left me, I'm so alone, now you're coming, you're coming on home" with all the proper «tenderness» and «sympathy» that they require. Not John, who never in his life stooped to simulating emotions on his songs. But instead of just being all out wooden about it, he sings it, well, probably in the same way he'd be greeting his wife Cynthia after a hard day's night: pretending to care, but in rea­lity not giving much of a damn. As a result, both ʽIt Won't Be Longʼ and the immediate followup, ʽAll I've Got To Doʼ, have a surprisingly emotionally hollow sound — but it still works. (A good way to understand this would be to play ʽAll I've Got To Doʼ back-to-back with one of those Yoko-period Lennon ballads on which he really cared, like ʽJuliaʼ).

So genuine sugary sentimentality is left in the care of Paul, right? Not quite. It certainly rears its head on the record's only «sappy» number, a cover of ʽTill There Was Youʼ from The Music Man, but nowhere else. Even there, the sentimentality is tempered with class: Paul learned the tune from Peggy Lee, who already performed it in a poppier, more rhythmic, slightly Latinized ar­ran­ge­ment when compared to the orchestral sludge of the original — and still the Beatles al­most completely reinvented the music, coming up with a complex melody played on twin nylon-stringed acoustic guitars (and featuring one of George's first brilliant solos).

But a song like ʽAll My Lovingʼ is anything but sentimental; or, rather, sentimentality is merely one of its side effects rather than the main attraction. It started out as a country-western tune, ac­tually (traces of that history can still be found in George's Nashville-style solo), but ended up becoming a fast pop-rocker; and any lesser band would have simply settled for placing the em­pha­sis on the catchy vocal melody, but what really pushes ʽAll My Lovingʼ over the threshold is the rhythm guitar work from John: the rapidly strummed triplets that drive the verses are techni­cally unnecessary, but, being there, they give the illusion that the song is played thrice as fast as it would be otherwise, and shift the focus away from Paul's vocalization, closer to what almost looks like a bit of subconscious paranoia.

Finally, in comes George with his first original offering, and while ʽDon't Bother Meʼ is simply a preliminary stage in his songwriting maturation, it is decidedly dark, not to mention how much the title really reflects George's persona: "please go away, leave me alone, don't bother me", I be­lieve, should have eventually been etched on his tombstone. A big hooray to whoever had the idea to double-track the vocals: the trick magically transformed the stuttering, insecure delivery on ʽChainsʼ and ʽDo You Want To Know A Secretʼ into a thick, threatening rumble-grumble. One step further in that direction — no more teen pussy for George! (Or, rather, he'd have to start borrowing from the special Mick Jagger/Keith Richards brand).

Part of why With The Beatles has this «darker» aura around it lies in it being almost totally do­minated by John, which was not the case on Please Please Me: he is the main composer and/or «spiritual presence» on more than half of the songs, whereas Paul bears primary responsibility for only three of the tracks — and the third one, which I still have not mentioned, is ʽHold Me Tightʼ which I have always perceived as one of his weakest ever tunes, if only because the vocal melo­dy resolution (the "it's you — you, you, you-ooo-ooo" bit) comes across as exceedingly silly.

John, on the other hand, further extends his reputation by throwing in three excellent interpreta­tions of Motown material, turning the Marvelettes' cutesy-flimsy ʽPlease Mister Postmanʼ into a rip-roaring personal tragedy, the Miracles' soulful ʽYou Really Got A Hold On Meʼ into the same tongue-in-cheek, slightly sarcastic stab as ʽIt Won't Be Longʼ, and delivering Barrett Strong's ʽMoneyʼ with enough evil glee to make us all believe that that is what he wants, indeed — not that hard to do once he has already established his lack of a proper tender heart on the previous tracks. Real nasty guy, that Lennon, without any attempts to hide it.

From a sheerly musical point of view, it would take too much time to list all the new tricks that the band introduces here (besides, it has all been written about a million times already), so I will just mention one obvious thing — the complexity and creativity of vocal harmonies on With The Beatles completely dwarfs Please Please Me. That this is going to be a seriously voice-oriented record is obvious from the very start: in the place of the energetic, but not particularly surprising "one two three four" of ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ we have the multi-flanked assault of "it won't be long yeah – YEAH – yeah – YEAH" which, to the best of my knowledge, comes from no­where at all. There is no «beauty» as such in these harmonies that get ever more trickier as the album progresses (no comparison with the Beach Boys, who had a strictly Heaven-oriented ap­proach), but there is a wonderful dynamics, the major goal of which is your undivided attention.

In effect, With The Beatles might be said to introduce the unspoken motto of «leave no spot un­filled». Not only is there supposed to be no filler, the idea is that there should be no «filler within non-filler», that is, the songs are not supposed to have any wasted moments. Gaps between verse lines? Fill them in with counterpoint backing vocals. Instrumental passages? Make them either reproduce the verse melody or construct an economic solo that makes perfect sense and is easily memorable, rather than merely respects the convention that there be an obligatory instrumental passage. And so on.

It does not always work. The curse of pop repetitiveness strikes hard on the overlong chorus to ʽHold Me Tightʼ, and even harder on ʽI Wanna Be Your Manʼ, a song that John and Paul origi­nally wrote for The Rolling Stones, and, honestly, I think they should have left it at that: the Sto­nes arranged and performed it as an eerie sexual menace, with a supertight, take-no-prisoners at­titude, next to which The Beatles' comparatively «relaxed» performance and, especially, Ringo's near-comical vocals (as opposed to Jagger's evil gloating!) lose hands down. (It did give Ringo a more assured and natural live solo spot than ʽBoysʼ, though). Personally, I have never been a big fan of John's ʽLittle Childʼ, either, a somewhat sub-par R&B composition, only lifted out of me­diocrity by an over-pumped tour-de-force on harmonica, which John must have been trying to literally «blow to bits» during the session — even Sonny Boy Williamson II could have appreci­ated that.

But none of this really matters, because the major goal of With The Beatles was to stabilize the band's position as accomplished artists, and that goal is clearly fulfilled. In addition, the record just might feature the best ever balance in Beatle history between covers and originals: the covers, although ranging from Motown to Chuck Berry to musicals, are all strong, inventively rear­ranged, and sit fairly well next to the originals. (On Beatles For Sale, the band would be falling back on covers for lack of free time to come up with more originals rather than out of free will, and that had its negative effect on the final results). Hence, a very special thumbs up here: With The Bea­tles often gets a little bit overlooked next to the «great big breakthrough» of A Hard Day's Night and its all-original cast, but in the story of the Beatles' evolution it may actually have play­ed a much more important role.

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