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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Band: The Band


1) Across The Great Divide; 2) Rag Mama Rag; 3) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; 4) When You Awake; 5) Up On Cripple Creek; 6) Whispering Pines; 7) Jemima Surrender; 8) Rockin' Chair; 9) Look Out Cleveland; 10) Jaw­bone; 11) The Unfaithful Servant; 12) King Harvest (Has Surely Come).

It does make some sense to argue about what's better — Music From Big Pink or The Band — because these two records, in between themselves constituting the backbone of «The Hawks»' le­gacy, are significantly different from each other. At least, different enough to have had Robert Christgau at the time openly admit his dislike for the former and unexpected deep passion for the latter: he went as far as to claim that The Band could actually trump Abbey Road as the best al­bum of 1969. Well, as far as I am concerned, The Dean could go fly a kite with that opinion, but as for the rest of it, his position may be understood.

The Band marks the beginning of Robbie Robertson's steady rule as The Band's creative director and major mastermind — much like Paul McCartney with the Beatles since 1967, he seems to have occupied this position just by being the most focused and «goal-oriented» of 'em all (cau­sing much grief among the «slackers», who would later accuse him of despotism, vanity, greed, and other deadly sins a-plenty; not that there was nothing to it, but, as we all know, one man's industriousness may easily be another man's authoritarianism). Of the twelve songs on their se­cond album, eight are credited to Robbie exclusively and four are allegedly co-written. Further­more, The Band is generally faster, livelier, «rockier», and much more guitar-based than Big Pink — arguably the only song here to carry over the dirge-like, solemn spirit of its predecessor is the ballad ʽWhispering Pinesʼ, not surprisingly, co-credited to Richard Manuel.

And, of course, the main difference is that this time around, the album does not hover in circles around the idea of «Americana» — it simply dives in, head, feet, and tail. You do not even need to go further than the song titles, with all the references to Old Dixie, Cripple Creek, Cleveland, rags, pines, and rocking chairs. Throw in Manuel's and particularly Levon Helm's «authentic» rootsy manner of singing, chord sequences and instrumentation that derive ever more transparent­ly from jugband, bluegrass, dancehall, and vaudeville, and all that remains to seal the deal is the brown color of the album sleeve and the grim, weather-worn, but somewhat satisfied faces of the five band members on the photo. Just got paid for working on the railroad?

I think that I will forever remain convinced that The Band made a wrong turn here — that with Music From Big Pink and its subtle, but perfect synthesis of tradition, innovation, Dylan, and non-Dylan they were onto something fabulously universalist and mind-opening, but that The Band blocked further progress on that path and steered them towards a less risky, humbler, but not quite as universally appealing route (of course, it was more appealing to Christgau, but the guy has always been a notorious isolationist in the first place, so no surprise here). If ever stuck in between ʽCaledonia Missionʼ and ʽUp On Cripple Creekʼ, I will choose the former: the vibe of ʽCripple Creekʼ is much easier to understand, assimilate, and explain away than the whiny mys­tique of ʽMissionʼ. These here songs sort of landlock and pigeonhole themselves, and with them, The Band's en­tire subsequent career.

But as it always happens with talented ensembles establishing a fleshed-out formula, first time is always forgivable, since it is usually the best time; and The Band themselves must have thought of it as a fresh, focused «reboot», or else they wouldn't have called it The Band. There is no de­nying neither the sincerity and dedication of approach, nor the melodicity and catchiness, nor the inventiveness and great care that went into the arrangements. In fact, Side A of the album is pro­bably the most tightly packed Band sequence of radio hits and concert favorites; and Side B is arguably the most promising Band sequence for the time when one finally gets sick of radio hits and concert favorites, and starts yearning for something underrated, forgotten, and secretly fabu­lous. Maybe ʽJemima Surrenderʼ is a bit too lumpy and straightforward in its pub-rock brutality, but at the end of the day, I have no specific concerns to voice about the rest.

The sheer power of these songs is perhaps most evident in the simple fact that I very rarely, if ever, hear any civil rights activists' protests about ʽThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Downʼ. You get lots of flack if you happen to be Margaret Mitchell, D. W. Griffith, or a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd singing ʽSweet Home Alabamaʼ, but somehow the textbook image of Levon Helm drum­ming his heart out to "well he was just eighteen, proud and brave / but a Yankee laid him in his grave" is admired and imitated — even by the likes of Joan Baez, who never minded singing about the life of Virgil Caine... despite the fact that the song does not present convincing evidence that Virgil Caine was not, by all means, an active nigger-hater.

Of course, Robertson is very careful here with the lyrical imagery — carefully sidetracking all the uncomfortable issues — but this is still a tragic song about the downfall of Southern pride, want it or not, and yet its popularity quickly went nationwide; Yankees all over the place were na-na-nah-ing along with the chorus fairly soon, regardless of their convictions. It took all the authenti­city, melodicity, and, actually, humility of the piece (it crawls along at a snail's pace, and even though the chorus is based on group harmonies, its overall volume levels hardly rise over those of the verse), I think, to turn the song into such a universal charmer; but even so, I have never been able to empathize with the title character.

I feel much more at home with ʽUp On Cripple Creekʼ, the other of the two big Helm-sung hits on Side A — sort of an optimistic, earthy, downhome retort to the heavy-handed suffering of ʽThe Weightʼ, with which they roll at more or less the same pace. Of course, it would be nowhere near as memorable if not for Garth Hudson's inventive, wah-wah driven Clavinet part, made to sound like a traditional Jew's harp, especially during the brief triumphant soloing buzz at the end of each verse. It adds the necessary bit of hot spice to what would be an otherwise rather bland blues-rock arrangement. But then there's also the funny repetitiveness of the chorus (the triple hit of "she sends me", "she mends me", and "she defends me" is enough in itself to make the expe­rience unforgettable), and there is something about Helm's singing here that makes the whole song, like, the quintessential embodiment of America's «road spirit», maybe only rivaled in that department by the Allmans' ʽRamblin' Manʼ (although the lyrics of ʽRamblin' Manʼ fall back on clichés of the genre much more frequently).

Maybe, in the end, the real hero of this album is not Robbie, but still Garth Hudson — always on the watchout that the arrangements of the songs elevate them from «genericity». Not only would there be no ʽCripple Creekʼ without the Clavinet, but there would be no ʽAcross The Great Di­videʼ without the slide trombone parts, lending a friendly, supportive, muscular shoulder to Ma­nuel's «wimpy hero» vocal delivery, and there would be no ʽWhen You Awakeʼ without the snowy organ and accordion to reinforce the plaintive singing. Then there's also Rick Danko's folk dance fiddle parts on ʽRag Mama Ragʼ (a song that borrows its title and sort of «suggestive» ly­rics — "shag mama shag, now what's come over you", really? — from old dance blues tunes, but little else), Richard Manuel blowing a mournful, soulful sax on ʽThe Unfaithful Servantʼ... indeed, Robertson might be providing the bodies here, but it mainly falls to the other guys to bring in the clothes, and, in a way, most of them were perfectly entitled to eventually go to war with Robbie over the credits — most of these, in spirit and form, are «Band» numbers.

The one song here that has always looked like a particularly rewarding dark horse is stuck at the very end. Already on ʽJawboneʼ, the band experiments with 6/4 signatures, but the result is a bit clumsy, if not uninteresting. However, it is a completely different story with the contrast between the verse and chorus in ʽKing Harvestʼ — a truly bizarre effect there, what with the verse being pinned to a fairly standard, if a bit funkified, blues-rock pattern, and the chorus verging on «dark folk», delivered in a stern, uncompromising manner; the whole song is like a dialog between the poor, struggling, emotional farmer, voiced by Manuel, and the cold, impassionate forces of nature that count away the seasonal regularities ("scarecrow and a yellow moon... pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town... smell of the leaves from the magnolia trees in the meadow..."). The whole song is like the fighting of a predeterminedly unwinnable battle — with Manuel holding on until he can hold on no longer, and then a piercing, hysterical little solo from Robbie takes over to wail the last wail (and, for that matter, have the last word on the album itself: notable, since there are very few Robertson solos of note on the album altogether).

The whole thing eventually ties into a very coherent panorama. Way too heavily intellectualized, of course, to be «truly authentic» — it would be interesting to know what all those pre-war folk and blues survivors who had the chance to hear it thought of the execution — but that is the very point of it: Robbie and pals are not trying here to put themselves in the shoes of their heroes, they are trying to bridge the gap between these heroes and contemporary art, much like Bob used to do on his earliest albums (or on John Wesley Harding, for that matter). Those who think the whole idea is just a lot of bull will do better to stick with Creedence Clearwater Revival, who did the same thing, but without a single whiff of pretense. But those who think that there is no reason why modernism and traditionalism shouldn't ever try to sleep in the same bed, feel free to join with me in another major thumbs up. (Even though I reiterate that I'd never be willing to raise those thumbs to the level of Abbey Road — a record that appeals to the senses on so many more levels — or even to the level of Music From Big Pink — because the best album by The Band cannot not have any Dylan covers on it — so up yours, Mr. Dean, for being way too clever for poor little me!)

Check "The Band" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Band" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Billy Fury: Classics And Collectibles


CD I: 1) Halfway To Paradise; 2) Cross My Heart; 3) I'd Never Find Another You; 4) A King For Tonight; 5) You're Having The Last Dance With Me; 6) Turn My Back On You; 7) Maybe Tomorrow; 8) Wondrous Place; 9) Like I've Never Been Gone; 10) Baby Come On; 11) Do You Really Love Me Too; 12) I'm Lost Without You; 13) Letter Full Of Tears; 14) Turn Your Lamp Down Low; 15) In Thoughts Of You; 16) What Am I Living For?; 17) Somebody Else's Girl; 18) Jealousy; 19) Push Push; 20) Last Night Was Made For Love; 21) Nothin' Shakin' (But The Leaves On The Trees); 22) A Thousand Stars; 23) It's Only Make Believe; 24) Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I); 25) Once Upon A Dream; 26) This Diamond Ring; 27) I Will; 28) A Million Miles From Nowhere; 29) Run To My Lovin' Arms; 30) You're Swell; 31) Forget Him;
CD II: 1) Break Up; 2) Nothin' Shakin' (But The Leaves On The Trees); 3) The Hippy Hippy Shake; 4) Glad All Over; 5) I Can Feel It; 6) You Got Me Dizzy; 7) Saved; 8) You Better Believe It Baby; 9) She's So Far Out She's In; 10) Straight To Your Arms; 11) Away From You; 12) Am I Blue; 13) That's Enough; 14) Kansas City; 15) From The Bottom Of My Heart; 16) I'll Be So Glad (When Your Heart Is Mine); 17) Lovesick Blues; 18) Keep Away; 19) What Did I Do; 20) Cheat With Love; 21) I Can't Help Loving You; 22) Candy Kisses; 23) I'm Hurting All Over; 24) Nobody's Child; 25) Wedding Bells; 26) Stick Around; 27) Time Has Come; 28) Let's Paint The Town; 29) Begin The Beguine; 30) I'll Never Fall In Love Again; 31) I Will Always Be With You.

Billy's discography after 1963 quickly becomes a poorly-studied mess. He did have at least one movie soundtrack in 1965 (I've Got A Horse, with some new material), but other than that, most, if not all, of his releases for Decca, and then, later, for Parlophone (from 1967 to 1970) were singles — none of them hits, and few of them even gaining the honor of reappearing on later com­pilations. For obvious reasons: with Beatlemania hitting the decks, by the end of 1963 nobo­dy needed Billy Fury, shorn of his «rock'n'roll» reputation, any more, and he just withered away like the «poor man's UK Elvis» he was (and his withering was correspondingly more pitiful — at least Elvis still sold records a-plenty all the way up to 1977).

Anyway, as a brief post-scriptum, here is one of the most readily available comprehensive com­pilations — more than 60 songs in all — that goes way beyond Billy's LP material and includes lots (but far from all) of the single A- and B-sides from 1960 to 1966, that is, his Decca years. In between The Sound Of Fury, which is seriously underrepresented here, and this huge collection, honestly, nobody needs any more of Billy in one's life (well, throw in We Want Billy!, perhaps, just for all the girlie fun). And it is also not very surprising that the Collectibles part, emphasi­zing B-sides and rarities, is generally more enjoyable than the Classics part, mostly dedicated to sentimental and syrupy pop.

«Enjoyable», of course, does not mean «outstanding» or «original» — in fact, the best songs are usually covers of contemporary rock'n'roll and R&B hits, with some surprising choices (LaVern Baker's ʽSavedʼ, for instance, or Hank Williams' ʽLovesick Bluesʼ with some credible yodeling, or ʽYou Got Me Dizzyʼ from the repertoire of Jimmy Reed, the world's greatest toothless home­less bluesman getting the blues-de-luxe treatment with pompous brass and all) and some predictable ones (ʽKansas Cityʼ, ʽNothin' Shakin'ʼ, ʽThe Hippy Hippy Shakeʼ, which every British rock'n'roller knew by heart). Interestingly, Billy almost completely refrained from covering the big pop hits of the British Invasion era, the only exception here re­presented by the Dave Clark 5's ʽGlad All Overʼ — he might have been quite bitter at all those whippersnappers outshining him in droves. But what can you do: with the Beatles and the Stones at the front of the movement, professional singers were pushed back by singer-songwriters, and since Billy no longer writes his own material here, or, when he does, strictly adheres to the reci­pés of corporate crooners, sulking ain't gonna help matters none.

Still, there is no denying that Billy was a fairly decent chameleon. Elvis was his main, but not on­ly role model. He could have his way with smooth vocal jazz (ʽBegin The Beguineʼ), could inject the required subtle slyness into a Jerry Lee Lewis song (ʽBreak Upʼ), could stir up the soul on an R&B classic (ʽWhat Am I Living For?ʼ). He just never really took it to the very top — and this is where he fails, because in the long run, nobody needs one guy scoring a bunch of B's when one can have instead several different guys, each one scoring one A.

Anyway, as long as this whole compilation stretches out, there are no unjustly forgotten classics here, but fans of strong, reliable British vocal cords set to family-entertainment-level arrange­ments will find a lot to heartily nostalgize to. And oh yes, the first disc actually ends with Billy's last recorded track — ʽForget Himʼ, recorded in the early 1980s (yes, synthesizers and elec­tronic drums are included) and released already after his death in January 1983, at the awfully young age of 42. For the record, the song shows that Billy's music remained loyal to cheesy atmosphere until the very end, but also that his vocal power stayed with him for all that time (although the singing does seem a little thinner, probably due to health problems).

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bo Diddley: Bo Diddley & Company


1) (Extra Read All About) Ben; 2) Help Out; 3) Diana; 4) Bo's A Lumber Jack; 5) Lazy Women; 6) Mama Mia; 7) Rock­'n'Roll; 8) Gimme Gimme; 9) Put The Shoes On Willie; 10) Pretty Girl; 11) Same Old Thing; 12) Met You On Saturday; 13) Little Girl; 14) Cookie Headed Diddley.

In the footsteps of Peggy Jones, we welcome Norma-Jean Wofford, a.k.a. «The Duchess», a.k.a. «The Sister», as Bo used to present her on tour, even though she was in reality more like a god­daughter; apparently, Bo taught her his playing style himself when she was still underage. The two cut a fine, dashing pair for the European market — the cover photo alone does the job nicely, and even The Animals were so impressed that they included a Duchess reference in their tribute (ʽThe Story Of Bo Diddleyʼ — they, apparently, did fall for the «sister» story). And yes, indeed, few things on Earth were hotter than watching Norma-Jean swing that axe next to her mentor, in some provocative outfit or other, on a mid-1960s TV show.

In the studio, though, it did not work out that well: The Duchess was about as good as Peggy Jo­nes, offering steady choppy support whenever it seemed appropriate to Bo to go off on a wild tangent, but she never had any ambitions (or, perhaps, any ability) to go beyond whatever she was taught by the main man. Their interplay on such numbers as ʽHelp Outʼ sounds fabulous, but not exactly fresh, and the same goes for the overall judgement on the record.

The only song here that really swung over some of the British fans was ʽPretty Girlʼ, later co­vered by the Yardbirds on Five Live — good choice, one of the fastest and catchiest ditties here, completely guitar-driven, rather than, for instance, ʽLazy Womenʼ, which gives the piano a more prominent function. Bad news is, Bo seems to finally be running out even of variations on the old chord progressions; and his overseas fans were hardly ready to fall under the charm of songs that emphasize the lyrics and the comic vibe over the music.

Modest successes and surprises would include ʽDianaʼ, sort of a wild, over-the-top revival of ʽMonaʼ (actually, more of a vocal / instrumental cross between ʽMonaʼ and ʽBo Diddleyʼ); ʽBo's A Lumber Jackʼ, a swaggery, swampy rap punctuated by atmospheric tricks — evil laughter, per­cussive imitation of falling trees, wild screams of "TIMBER!" and other stuff that was sort of far out for the likes of 1963; and ʽRock'n'Rollʼ, which honors its title by limiting itself to just one line ("I love myself some rock'n'roll") — then, at some point, Bo launches into scat singing and gets himself rudely interrupted ("hey baby, that's not rock'n'roll, that's JAZZ!..") Diddley humor. No, I mean, it was funny back in its day, honest. With some reservations, it's even funny today.

Other than that and minus a couple lowlights (such as the rote balladry of ʽMet You On Satur­dayʼ), this is just another reliable, but less and less memorable Bo Diddley album. Which is a little sad, because if only the man's rambunctious spirit could still be tied to inventive songwriting in 1963, he could easily have become that one particular rocker to survive the transition into the early 1960s — virtually no one in the States rocked as hard at the time (admittedly, that was the reason why he preferred Europe). But somehow, «the originator» must have thought that he had totally paid his dues in «originating» — or, perhaps, that bringing in such a hot figure as The Du­chess could count as «originating» in itself. Well, who knows.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Antony And The Johnsons: Cut The World


1) Cut The World; 2) Future Feminism; 3) Cripple And The Starfish; 4) You Are My Sister; 5) Swanlights; 6) Epi­lepsy Is Dancing; 7) Another World; 8) Kiss My Name; 9) I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy; 10) Rapture; 11) The Crying Light; 12) Twilight.

Poseur or not, Antony Hegarty is enough of a professional singer to merit hearing live; but even then, there must have been some extra measures taken to ensure that a live album from Antony & The Johnsons would make commercial and critical sense. The measure in question was to hook up with The Danish National Chamber Orchestra, and rearrange the setlist with the aid of a whole arsenal of classical tricks — in the grand old tradition of Procol Harum. The addition of an orche­stra would hardly raise the bar on «pretentiousness» (this transcendental quality had already built its nest in Hegarty's mouth quite some time ago), but could allow to explore some additional op­portunities. Besides, Antony and strings had been on friendly terms from the start.

The setlist opens with one new song (title track), a trademark Hegarty lament with relatively few lyrics and lots of swooping orchestral atmospherics; includes ʽI Fell In Love With A Dead Boyʼ from a rare EP (Alice Cooper would have definitely misinterpreted that title); and, for the rest, concentrates mainly on selections from the band's self-titled debut and The Crying LightI Am A Bird Now and Swanlights, for some reason, are underrepresented, although the title track from Swanlights does get a major restructuring — the dark nightmare of the original is replaced by regular pianos and strings, as if acknowledging that the original went way too far in the «cre­epy» department, and that there's always another chance to cut back.

I cannot say that the rearrangements open up a new dimension in the music, or anything equally presumptuous. Like the absolute majority of classical reworkings of pop songs, they have a glos­sy, soundtrackish quality to them, and I believe that, in addition to all the strings, pianos, and wood­winds, they could have definitely used more brass (there is a small trombone blast at the beginning of ʽCripple And The Starfishʼ, and brass plays a big part in the crescendo at the end of ʽTwilightʼ, but otherwise it is mostly flutes and recorders), but, understandably, they did not want to cut down too much on the overall fragility and wimpiness of the proceedings — Antony has so consistently cultivated this image of a living being made entirely of pure glass, that a really strong brass blast could shatter him to pieces right there in the concert hall.

That said, the arrangements do fit the music and the voice — never detracting from the emotio­nality already present in the songs; the best news is basically that I do not mind their presence, and it makes for a good pretext to hear these songs once more, and since these are mostly good songs, then what's the problem? In a way, it is fun to discover that the effect that Antony Hegarty produces on your senses stays exactly the same regardless of whether he is being backed with forty academic musicians or just a lonesome string quartet (or trio, or duo) in the studio. Maybe that is because he is a like a small chamber orchestra in himself.

The very fact that this is a live album, though, is consciously downplayed: audience applause is only included in the mix at the very end of the record, as if the ten songs in question were just separate movements of one single suite (well, in a way you could say they are — in a way, Anto­ny's entire career seems to be), and the only chunk of stage banter is a seven-minute speech that presages the suite and is included as a separate track, called ʽFuture Feminismʼ. Now, in a way, the speech is just a lot of post-New Age mystical bullshit, centered around Hegarty's trans-gender issues and his ideas on the femininity in human nature. But there is something about the way in which he delivers it that commands sympathy — a sort of lightweight, humorous teenage naiveté that makes you forget all the silliness because somehow it all feels normal: just a little fantasizing on issues of nature to help justify your perfectly normal inner queer. Presumably, not all the people with transgender mentality really seem like they feel at home with that mentality. Antony Hegarty, over these seven minutes, gives convincing proof that he does — and, as a bonus, throws in an intel­ligent crack at the Pope, which is not something that everyone in his profession does in an intelligent manner. Good speech.

Overall, this is certainly not an essential purchase, and even the hardcore fans should take note — many will find the orchestration excessive, if not generic or downright cheesy, compared to the sparse, elegiac arrangements on the studio records. But even then, it might be interesting to see how easily and comfortably Antony works in a live setting: his songs are so paranoid and claust­rophobic, after all, that it is almost unimaginable to have him reproduce all that suffering and fear of the world before a big bunch of real people — you'd rather imagine him as this total recluse, recording in a self-made studio in some log cabin somewhere in Tibet. Well now, at least we know that much — that he does venture as far out as Copenhagen, and that he does not have an artist's block when working with a large ensemble of classical musicians. Should we feel dis­ap­poi­ntment over the lack of integrity, or relief over the physical and psychiatric sanity? Make your buying choice, depending on the answer.

Check "Cut The World" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Cut The World" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Autechre: Oversteps


1) r ess; 2) ilanders; 3) known(1); 4) pt2ph8; 5) qplay; 6) see on see; 7) Treale; 8) os veix3; 9) O=0; 10) d-sho qub; 11) st epreo; 12) redfall; 13) krYlon; 14) Yuop.

Finally, a real change of pace — overcoming the «Confield block» once and for all, Autechre release their freshest release in a decade. Some have suggested a return to the icy ambience of Amber, but in reality this is more like a democratic synthesis of Amber and Confield, almost to the point where you'd think they were dubbing a 1994-flavored track over a 2000-flavored one and then smoothing away the rough edges.

Actually, the whole «return to Amber» thing was probably invented by people who never got further than the first track: ʽr essʼ (oh God, those hideous titles...) is, indeed, one of those freezing cold synthesizer whirlwinds the art of which these guys had mastered ages ago. Atmospheric and not overtly exciting, but a surprising start nevertheless — no beats! no microchips! no static! just the good old icy stateliness.

But over the next few tracks, gradually, yet knowingly, they are once again building something new. The beats, the chips, and the static will be making frequent visits, for sure, but the primary emphasis is on synthesizing «old-fashioned» sounds: harpsichord hammers, xylophones, little bells and musical boxes, so that more than half of the compositions weave the pattern of a giant, tremendously complex electronic clock — one that you have accidentally locked yourself within. The music does not so much «resonate» here as it simply «scatters» all around, in one large sea of ringing, springing, tinkling, dazzling, whatever.

The actual selected chords are never happy — as we all know, musical boxes help create cuddly magical worlds for little boys and girls, but these ones, like everything else Autechre does, are just completely emotionally neutral, yet still vibrant and active «signs of life». After all, a musi­cal box, or a giant clock, or a primitive (or not so primitive) life-form is emotionally neutral by defi­nition — you can get totally amazed at the complex internal structure of all these things, but it's not as if they would be infecting you with their own amazement, which they do not have. And so, just sit back and enjoy another... umm, documentary by Booth and Brown, this time one from the life of large mechanical concoctions punching each other and exploding in miriads of ringtones, cadences, and dissonances.

Individual highlights are practically non-existent: the only difference is between the «major chi­mers» (ʽknown(1)ʼ, ʽpt2ph8ʼ, ʽsee on seeʼ, etc.) and the more old-fashioned beats-and-bleeps that could have belonged on Draft 7.30 or any other of all those «Confield clones for dummies» (ʽilandersʼ, ʽqplayʼ, etc.). The album does get nicely bookmarked — with retro-brushed ambience of ʽr essʼ at the beginning, and then the same ambience criss-crossed with the kaleidoscopic chi­mes on the last track ʽYuopʼ. Actually, ʽYuopʼ is a bit different in that all of its «sprinkly» sound seems to be radiating into outer space, resonating at us from far, far away (or maybe it's the other way around — cosmic rays breaking through the atmosphere? whatever), so it's an appropriate­ly «universalist» coda for the whole album.

Altogether, the approach is simple in theory and not too awesome in the sheer number of new ideas involved, but with the gazillions of electronic albums out on the market in 2010, even one new idea, consistently implemented in lots of different ways, is not to be taken too lightly. And I have yet to see an electronic (or a non-electronic, for that matter) album that could serve as a bet­ter textbook on all the tricks and treats of The Big Chime — I'm still picking echoes out of my buzzing ears, a tedious, but not wholly unpleasant procedure. Thumbs up.

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

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bad Religion: Against The Grain


1) Modern Man; 2) Turn On The Light; 3) Get Off; 4) Blenderhead; 5) The Positive Aspect Of Negative Thinking; 6) Anesthesia; 7) Flat Earth Society; 8) Faith Alone; 9) Entropy; 10) Against The Grain; 11) Operation Rescue; 12) God Song; 13) 21st Century (Digital Boy); 14) Misery And Famine; 15) Unacceptable; 16) Quality Or Quantity; 17) Walk Away.

The last album in Bad Religion's classic trilogy — for some fans, the best, and for some the worst of the lot, although, personally, the only big difference that I can see is that the guitar solos are back, in a big, easily noticeable way. More than ever before, the band now sounds like a slightly «cleaner» version of Mötörhead — «cleaner» only because Jay Bentley is just a bass player, with no ambitions of turning his instrument into Hell's own jackhammer like Lemmy does. In all other respects now, this goes beyond a simplistic headbanger's dream and heads for the pleasure centers of the raving fan of the air guitar.

The only other flash of individuality is that this is the album that has ʽ21st Century (Digital Boy)ʼ on it. Slower than the rest, with more overtly melodic vocals and a downright «poppy», sing-along chorus, it stirs some fans the wrong way — especially since it has gone on to become Bad Religion's most famous number, despite not being ideally typical of their sound (sort of like Blon­die with ʽHeart Of Glassʼ, which still makes many people erroneously remember them as a disco band). Still, the riffs are anything but pop, and the chorus is not just simplistically catchy, but rings out loud and proud with Bad Religion's usual spirit.

Besides, goddammit, those catchy lyrics are wond'rously prophetic: "'Cause I'm a 21st century digital boy / I don't know how to live but I got a lot of toys / My daddy's a lazy middle class intel­lectual / My mommy's on valium, so ineffectual" may have already been partially true in 1990, when it was written, but now that the 21st century is finally here, the song is ten times as relevant as it used to be. The epitome of irony is that, during the fade-out, Graffin hums a cross-reference from King Crimson's ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ — "cat's food, iron claw, neuro-surgeons screamed for more, innocents raped with napalm fire" — perhaps hinting at just how silly these visions of World War III, nuclear apocalypses, ultra-fascist dictatures etc. have turned out to be next to the real danger to society, eh?..

Of the other songs, which mostly just soldier on and on in nearly identical uniforms, the title track, with its shrill seven-note riff and easily imprintable sloganeering ("against the grain, that's where I'll stay") is a clear standout, as is ʽModern Manʼ (who happens to be a "pathetic example of earth's organic heritage", and try singing that in two and a half seconds without losing the mes­sage), and ʽThe Positive Aspect Of Negative Thinkingʼ — typing in its title takes almost as much time for the slow-moving typist as it runs (0:57), but it still manages to incorporate a «boogie» and a «grindcore» section and a large political, philosophical, and even linguistic ("syntactic is our elegance"?) manifesto.

The whole package is longer than No Control (seventeen tracks in all), but with all these ecsta­tic, anger-choked guitars, tiny injections of poppiness, and even cleverer slogans than before, may be even easier to tolerate and assimilate for the non-hardcore customer in the hardcore store. Hence, another thumbs up — yes, there would be a moment when Graffin and co. would finally start a downhill slide, but Against The Grain still finds them dashing along a straight line.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Badfinger: Day After Day


1) Sometimes; 2) I Don't Mind; 3) Blind Owl; 4) Give It Up; 5) Constitution; 6) Baby Blue; 7) Name Of The Game; 8) Day After Day; 9) Timeless; 10) I Can't Take It.

Amazingly, Badfinger's bad luck went on to hold the band in a tight grip even long after all the breakups and suicides. By all means, they were quite a decent little band when playing live; their goal was to establish themselves as an authentic «rock» act onstage — developing and practicing a much more rough and aggressive sound than the cuddly power pop of their studio records — and in that, they succeeded. Of course, nobody is going to mention Badfinger while listing the most obvious «gritty rock'n'roll acts» of the early 1970s, but the very fact that they can please a closet headbanger like myself (unlike, say, The Beach Boys, who were never truly able to gene­rate a genuine rocking vibe during their live shows, even though they did try occasionally) has to count for something.

Problem is, the band never got around to releasing a proper live album in their lifetime — and by the time public interest in Badfinger slowly started to grow for nostalgic reasons, most of the ar­chival recordings were either lost, deteriorated, or turned out to be unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons. In 1989, Joey Molland got hold of the tapes recorded at the Agora venue in Cleveland on the band's 1974 American tour and offered them for official release on the Rykodisc label. Clai­ming, however, that the tapes were all but unusable in their original state, he went on to overdub most of his vocals... most of his guitars... some of Pete's guitars... a bit of the bass... and... well, you know. Even today, judging by some of the reviews, people still wreck their brains trying to understand if the whole thing can officially count as a real Badfinger live album, by seeking out old bootlegs  and running comparative tests.

The absolute worst thing, however, and one that really brings Day After Day close to unlistena­ble, is that Joey slapped on a thick electronic echo on all the drumwork. Maybe he wanted to have it out with Mike Gibbins, or perhaps the drum mike was indeed dysfunctional that evening, but, anyway, the result is honestly godawful: first thing you get when ʽSometimesʼ hit the speakers is this moronic BASH-BASH-BASH — and a cognitive dissonance: this is Badfinger, right? how do they get this stereotypically Eighties sound in friggin' 1974?

The effect is hard — nay, almost impossible — to overcome; the ridiculousness of the situation completely bars Day After Day from any sense of respectability. Which is sad, because the band happened to be in fine form that evening. The setlist was rather evenly spread between all the al­bums from No Dice and up to Badfinger, omitted some of the most obvious hits (ʽNo Matter Whatʼ) in favor of a few dark horses (ʽBlind Owlʼ), and the rest of the power-pop numbers were sped up, distorted, and «crunch-formed» for extra rock'n'roll excitement, bridging the gap be­tween formerly cuddly songs like ʽI Can't Take Itʼ and originally hard-rocking material like ʽCon­stitutionʼ. Quite a solid bridge, as a matter of fact.

ʽDay After Dayʼ, deprived of its piano flourishes for technical reasons, and substituting a sincere, but all too fragile and thin slide solo for the classic bit of Ham/Harrison interplay, is the only ma­jor disappointment (apparently, the band itself understood that and refused to play the song live for several years, before finally succumbing to the temptation in 1974). Minor disappointments include the lengthy jams at the end of ʽGive It Upʼ and ʽTimelessʼ: Ham and Molland are good guitarists, capable of emotionally charged lead work in the studio, but their improvisations tend to fall back on perfunctory blues-rock clichés, and there is really no reason why you should listen to a made-on-the-spot long long long solo by Badfinger instead of, say, Jimmy Page or Santana.

Still, in general, these crunchy re-modelings are quite headbang-worthy, and do a good job in de­molishing the myth of Badfinger as the «exemplary innocent wimps» of the power-pop move­ment. And it would have been a nice, recommendable album, if not for the fact that Joey decided to take care of it in 1989. Had he waited for an extra decade or so, with electronic drums finally going out of fashion and sound-cleaning technologies up a notch, Day After Day could have over­turned the bad luck streak. As it is — who knows where those tapes are now, or really just gives a damn about a better remastering job?

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Band: Music From Big Pink


1) Tears Of Rage; 2) To Kingdom Come; 3) In A Station; 4) Caledonia Mission; 5) The Weight; 6) We Can Talk; 7) Long Black Veil; 8) Chest Fever; 9) Lonesome Suzie; 10) This Wheel's On Fire; 11) I Shall Be Released.

As the elder prophets of the whole wide world of «roots rock», it is only fair, I guess, that The Band was, if not born, then at least definitively baptized in The Basement — with Dylan as parent, priest, and godfather all at once. Before 1967, «The Hawks» were basically just a faceless (and, apparently, not very good) rock'n'roll outfit. But much of Bob's spirit rubbed off on them while they served as his backing band in 1966 and especially while recording together in Woodstock a year later, during Bob's recuperation period.

From that point of view, The Band — even their name is really just a truncated version of «Bob Dylan and the Band» — are essentially a «daughter branch» of Mr. Zimmerman's enterprise. Pon­derous lyrics whose «meaning» should be extracted from keywords and intonations rather than wholesale analysis, guruistic attitudes, blues/folk/country chord sequences, hybridization of tra­ditional «Americana» with modernistic approaches — all these things they have in common, even if Robbie Robertson and his pals may not have directly acquired all of them from Bob and Bob only. Still, behind all that they managed to stake a claim all their own already on their first (and, in my humble opinion, their best) album — even despite the fact that it opens with a Dylan cover, and closes with two more Dylan covers.

The obvious factological difference is that The Band is, after all, a band, and places heavy emphasis on musical arrangements and «technicality» — not «virtuosity», which none of its members ever had or ever even strived to achieve, but the utmost care is given to the issues of putting every ins­trument in its rightful place, and getting exactly as much from that instrument as is required for each song. Not to mention that almost every member is an accomplished singer, and, although they were never big on harmonies, the collective range of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Le­von Helm should be angelic balm on the wounds of those who failed the task of stomaching the resonations of their teacher.

But that's just technical, after all. Where The Band really went their own way was heaviness, and if you are dead set against it from the start, do not even think of listening to their records. The Band took themselves and their attitude seriously — very seriously — from the very start, they implicitly claimed to have shouldered The Rock of Ages, and if you deny them that right, chances are that you will never get along. Unlike Dylan, The Band never ever had a true sense of humor, never showed a single glimpse of a tongue-in-cheek attitude. This is a dangerous way of conduc­ting things — it leaves you no space to retreat when pressed against the wall, and total failure is very easy: all it takes is a lack of talent, or just no sense of direction.

The good news is that, as it turned out, The Band had more than enough talent to burn, and the two years spent with Bob made the direction as precise and easy to follow as possible. On their first album, there is no filler — more than that, there are no real highlights and lowlights, no mat­ter how much one could single out ʽThe Weightʼ on the strength of its ubiquitous "take a load off, Fanny" chorus. In fact, today I am more and more inclined to take all the eleven songs on Big Pink as separate movements of a lengthy, coherent, conceptual, single-minded, single-mooded suite — and also one, may I add, that sounds just as fresh and relevant today as it did in 1968. Maybe even more relevant (depending on whether humanity has indeed gotten dumber over the years or if that's just a statistical illusion).

The suite is, of course, heavily dependent on a sort of «Bible Spirit» that these guys nurture, al­though nobody is inviting us to interpret the album as a straightforward celebration of Christian or even Judaistic values (not any more than ʽThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Downʼ a year later would be intended to stimulate us to whip out the Confederation flag). Mostly slow, stately, emo­tional tunes, with Garth Hudson's classically-influenced organ and Richard Manuel's blues-and-jazz-influenced piano dominating over Robbie Robertson's rock'n'rollish guitar licks, with «plea­ding» and «weeping» as the dominant vocal intonations and catharsis as the generally intended effect. And how does it work?

Well, if it does not work over the first thirty seconds — first, with Robertson's «throaty» guitar, run through a «black box» for plaintive effect, and then with Manuel's tragic ring of "we carried you in our arms on Independence Day...", then it just doesn't work, period. But for me, it does. Richard may be overdoing it — he is almost overstepping his regular physical boundaries — but there is no sense of a theatrical or, God forbid, «commercial» exaggeration in his singing. On ʽTears Of Rageʼ and on every other song, The Band are self-appointed prophets fresh from the pages of the Old Testament, a pack of Jeremiahs weeping into their beards over [insert your own favorite of humanity's cardinal sins], and they do mean it and they do believe it, and, in the end, I catch myself believing them, too.

It helps a lot that, at this stage, The Band was still very much a collective force and did not parti­cularly suffer from the domination of one single person — Robbie Robertson does claim credit for the record's biggest hit and three other songs, but he does not sing much, allows others to come up with their own ideas as well, and, in the end, Music From Big Pink is this stately-so­lemn keyboard-fuelled dirge to the goodness of humanity, rather than the jerkier, rockier guitar-centered music that The Band switched on to after Robertson became their unofficial director / dic­tator and chief songwriter. This gives Pink an even more respectable — and, the way I have always felt it, much less forgettable — face than whatever followed.

The three Dylan covers (well, two are actually co-credited to Bob and members of The Band) are the obvious highlights — particularly ʽI Shall Be Releasedʼ, sung by Manuel entirely in a mega-vulnerable, breaking-point falsetto that has managed to take my breath away every time I heard it. It is also extremely well-placed at the very end of the record, a drop of spiritual optimism / rede­m­ption after all the self-tormenting and obscure confessions, and Manuel's interpretation of the lyrics — he delivers them like an opera hero on the brink of expiring from consumption — is one of the best, I think, in Dylan history, right up there with the Byrds' ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ and other cases of people taking the implicit beauty in Bob's work and making it explicit.

But even without Dylan, Big Pink would still be just as big. ʽThe Weightʼ is nonsense when ta­ken literally, but apparently, neither Aretha Franklin nor the rest of the armies of soul performers who took it up were intent on taking it literally — all they heard was a swing between the suf­fering vibe (verse, relayed from one member to the other) and the redemption vibe (chorus, sha­red by all the members), and they took it as authentic, and so should everyone because it is: this is no fake preaching shit à la mode, this is The Band's signature song for spiritual relief, and I do feel that relief when singing along — although mostly, it probably has to do with those lilting, powerful  piano chords that build a little stairway up to each chorus.

But there are plenty of other «elegant prayers» on the record — ʽIn A Stationʼ melancholically slides along, meditating about life, love, and the essential uselessness of both; ʽCaledonia Mis­sionʼ epitomizes the sadness of the universe ("hear me if you're near me, can I just rearrange it?" is one of the most sadly intoned lines I've ever heard in a pop song); ʽLong Black Veilʼ, yanked out of the popular traditional repertoire because its words and mood fit in with the purposes of Big Pink to a tee, is quickly echoed by The Band's own ʽLonesome Suzieʼ. Only ʽChest Feverʼ, with its grinding harshness, stands somewhat apart and does not have a lot of sense — many people must have subconsciously felt that the whole song was like a long outro to Garth Hudson's passionate, Bach-derived solo in the intro, and The Band would later play up to that feeling by allowing Garth to really stretch out on that intro in concert, turning it into a full-fledged instru­mental showcase of baroque solemnity and sternness.

Still, I do not want to concentrate much on individual songs: the more I try to, the tougher Big Pink sticks together as one inseparable entity. A pretentious entity, yes, and maybe even an insult to those who think that traditionally oriented music should not be spoiled with the arsenal of beat poetry (but why not?), or that it should not be «sanctified» and «sacralized» by an overtly intel­lectualized approach (but what's the harm?). Like any influential album, Music From Big Pink is indirectly responsible for much evil in this world, including, among other things, the artistic melt­down of Eric Clapton, but that is also an indication of its greatness — it ought to have taken a really strong record to make a tough guy like Eric start seriously thinking about a change in his musical direction. In a way, Music From Big Pink really was that first record which started to turn «rock» into an institution — it certainly was one of the first rock records that sounded like it was made by old, wisened, experienced people, rather than fresh, hot, sizzling body-and -soul grub for the young ones. And just look at how much facial hair was shared between all the band members, too — most rockers still preferred a clean shave in 1968.

All this might make it kinda hard to get a real hard kick out of Big Pink when you are still mostly driven by instincts, gut reactions, and usually prefer to increase your collection with hardcore and power pop rather than somebody sounding like a mix of Woody Guthrie, Alan Ginsberg, Moses, and Aharon. Once you get older, though, or go through some decelerating experience (losing a leg, for instance, or a loved one), Music From Big Pink — and I guarantee this with a 90% cer­tainty — is one of those relatively few truly beautiful pieces of music that will offer a good dose of spiritual healing. Thumbs up for one of the best albums of 1968.

PS. The CD reissue is essential for all the remastering jobs and informative liner notes, but not necessarily for the bonus tracks — most are just alternate takes with minor variations or versions of songs that should rather be heard on Bob Dylan & The Band's Basement Tapes. Although, of course, a song like ʽKatie's Been Goneʼ completely belongs, in form and spirit, on Big Pink pro­per, no question about it.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Billy Fury: We Want Billy!


1) Sweet Little Sixteen; 2) Baby Come On; 3) That's All Right; 4) Wedding Bells; 5) Sticks And Stones; 6) Unchain My Heart; 7) I'm Moving On; 8) Just Because; 9) Halfway To Paradise; 10) I'd Never Find Another You; 11) Once Upon A Dream; 12) Last Night Was Made For Love; 13) Like I've Never Been Gone; 14) When Will You Say I Love You.

Well, this is a semi-interesting project at least — in that it allows Mr. Fury one last chance to showcase whatever little of the «fury» was still left. It may not sound exactly like a real live al­bum from real early 1960s, but it is, in a way: recorded live at Decca Studio No. 3, in front of a small (but still annoyingly loud) audience — hence, We Want Billy! may be counted as the first live album by a UK pop-rock act of any importance. (As distinguished from «the first important live album by a UK pop-rock act», which may or may not be Five Live Yardbirds a year later — produced in worse quality, but in an actual club environment).

Backed by the semi-professional Tornadoes, whose skills at playing guitar and organ leads seem a little better developed than the skills of the rhythm sections, Billy cuts here through a long chains of rockabilly and R&B standards — then, two-thirds into the album, switches gears and gives us a long medley of his «sweeter» hits. The screaming girls are nowhere near as overwhel­ming as if this were Shea Stadium or Madison Square Garden, but it is not quite clear which si­tuation is better: an evenly spread screaming background of tens of thousands, or singular howls and yelps of dozens that come and go. (The funniest of all is ʽWedding Bellsʼ, where all the ma­jor screaming fits are triggered by the chorus of "wedding bells are ringing in my ears..." — sup­posedly, were polygamy to be allowed, Billy could have walked right out of that studio prouder than a Turkish sultan).

Anyway, the rock'n'roll part is passable and sometimes even a little inventive: for instance, ʽThat's All Right (Mama)ʼ starts out as slow country, spiced up with organ flourishes, then gra­dually accelerates, turning only about halfway into the classic Elvis version: a somewhat banal way for us today, perhaps, to show the roots and sources of the rockabilly craze, but not quite so trivial back in 1963. ʽJust Becauseʼ develops, with a key change, out of a short «clap your hands» R&B baby-jam (curious, but unnecessary — Billy can do a passable Elvis, but he's no single-han­ded match for the Isley Brothers). The two Ray Charles tributes (ʽSticks And Stonesʼ and ʽUn­chain My Heartʼ) are, as usual, emotionally charged and further prove that Mr. Fury was a big fan and promoter of Ray's, but, alas, you'd have to have an ego (and a throat) the size of an Eric Bur­don or a Joe Cocker to do Ray any sort of true justice.

The balladeering part, unfortunately, is quite skippable: the only reason to listen to these songs in the first place is a willingness to take them in as «pop confections» — the strings, the harmonies, the meticulously rehearsed notes and modulations. In this «live» context, though, even a really good song like ʽHalfway To Paradiseʼ becomes limp and unconvincing (and the idea of recreating the five-note string motif with pseudo-martial drumming does not work), not to mention all the lesser ones, whose titles all speak for themselves.

Still, in the overall context of Billy's post-Sound Of Fury career, We Want Billy! is a relatively high point, and it can easily be understood how these tepid (especially to the modern ear), but sin­cerely delivered performances were, indeed, «the next best thing» for UK teenagers who could only dream of meeting their real idols in person. Even regardless of the disappointing ballad med­ley (disappointing for me, of course, not for the orgiastic girls in the audience), the whole impres­sion is that of a modest — okay, condescending — thumbs up. It also helps that the only CD re­lease of the record that I know of pairs it with Billy, which makes for a very seductive contrast.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bo Diddley: Bo Diddley


1) I Can Tell; 2) Mr. Khrushchev; 3) Diddling; 4) Give Me A Break (Man); 5) Who May Your Lover Be; 6) Bo's Bounce; 7) You Can't Judge A Book By The Cover; 8) Babes In The Woods; 9) Sad Sack; 10) Mama Don't Allow No Twistin'; 11) You All Green; 12) Bo's Twist.

In early 1962, Bo Diddley finished up the «roleplaying trilogy» with Bo Diddley Is A Twister, an album that has never been released on CD and which I have not been able to locate — and I assume that there must have been a good reason, because Bo Diddley might certainly be a lover, or even a gunslinger, by nature, but a twister only by temporary trade. (Actually, the few tracks I have heard are anything but generic twist — for Bo to sound like Chubby Checker, he should have had brain surgery).

Anyway, that record is probably best left forgotten, but he did rebound later on in the year, with a second self-titled album that housed his last single of any major importance — Willie Dixon's ʽYou Can't Judge A Book By The Coverʼ, maybe the catchiest song in the entire history of bo­did­dley­ism, hiding a macho substance ("I look like a farmer, but I'm a lover" — agriculturalists all over the world, take arms) behind an innocently happy blues-pop melody. So happy, in fact, that even the Monkees ended up co­vering it — there is a hilarious version on Live 1967 that does a good job of linking their «commercial act» to the «authentic rock'n'roll» legacy.

The other memorable highlight was ʽI Can Tellʼ, just as catchy and surprisingly «moody» for Bo — normally, his slow-moving numbers are dismissable, but the sexy build-up to the chorus bark ("grrr-I know you don't lorrrve me no more!") is so diligently crafted this time that even Muddy could use a hint. Covered that same year in an unnecessarily sped up and vastly inferior version by Johnny Kidd, and God knows who else.

Sandwiched in between the two classics, as usual, is a bunch of total filler mixed with some tasty, if rather under-realized ideas. ʽMr. Khrushchevʼ is at least priceless for substituting the ubiquitous "Hey, Bo Diddley!" with the much fresher — and highly relevant for 1962 — "Hey, Khrush­chev!" (unfortunately, Nikita Sergeyevich's personal reaction to the summons remains strictly hid­den by his biographers). ʽBabes In The Woodsʼ has a stupid title and even sillier backup vo­cals, but the muttering-stuttering gimmick in the chorus still sticks with you, love it or hate it.

Overall, there is lots of purely instrumental stuff on the record, which is good — even if, at this point, new rhythms almost completely cease to appear, each such track is still a good chance to say something individual without resorting to lyrical and vocal silliness. ʽGive Me A Break (Man)ʼ is like a condensed two-minute instrumen­tal variation on ʽYou Can't Judge A Bookʼ — faster, louder, and I bet Jimi himself must have learned a lot from that guitar rumble (his typical arrangement of ʽKilling Floorʼ at least is cer­tainly based on those patterns). The new ʽDiddlingʼ (not the same as on Gunslinger) is surprisingly mean and lean for the usually happy Bo, and ʽSad Sackʼ continues Bo's experiments with different sorts of scraping, scratching, and sliding guitar noi­ses —another small step on the way to turn the guitar into a talking ap­paratus.

Thus, one more modest thumbs up here: two highlights and next to no lowlights is just enough for a Bo Diddley record circa 1962 to be recommendable. (Of course, you can also just get the highlights on compilations, but some of these have the nerve to omit ʽI Can Tellʼ, so be wary).

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Animal Collective: Centipede Hz


1) Moonjock; 2) Today's Supernatural; 3) Rosie Oh; 4) Applesauce; 5) Wide Eyed; 6) Father Time; 7) New Town Burnout; 8) Monkey Riches; 9) Mercury Man; 10) Pulleys; 11) Amanita.

Having so cleverly blown off the top bubbles from our further expectations with the ODDSAC project, The Animal Collective were now free to generate the «proper» follow-up to Merriwea­ther Post Pavillion without necessarily having to «live up» to it, because «living up» would pro­bably have meant stepping up on the seriousness pedal and making even further concessions to the traditional understanding of «gorgeousness» compared to those already made on Pavillion. But, as we all know, this treacherous road can easily transform mysterious sonic deities into or­dinary musical mortals. As it is, The Animal Collective are quite committed to sticking to that «animal» component in their names.

Centipede Hz, marking the return of Deakin from an extended break that excluded him from the fame of Pavillion, is titled like a surrealistic radio station, and, indeed, right from the opening «this is the news...», with its heavy reliance on the use of static, wave functions, and annoying bits of pseudo-announcements and commercials scattered all over the place, the album sounds like a semi-spontaneous extract from such a station. However, that is not all. Building upon the progress of ODDSAC, the Collective now tax the recording tracks to the max — the sound is so much cluttered with layers of overdubs that, most of the time, the immediate impression is that you actually have two or more pieces of music going on at once. Just the kind of thing you'd get from poor reception in a heavy interference zone.

This is a risky approach — in the hands of non-professionals, this could end up as unlistenable, irritating chaos. But ten years into their recording career, the Animal Collective have worked out a great feel for how to do it correctly. Any single moment in these songs, if you just push the play button at a random spot, will sound like stupid noise. But altogether, these moments add up to almost perfect mathematical order, not forgetting build-ups, sustained tensions, climaxes, resolu­tions, and even hooks (for the brave ones — even singalong hooks!). Deconstruct the melodies, strip them of their excesses, and you will have yourself some cuddly, unexceptional folk-pop skeletons — when it comes to putting chords together, the band hasn't exactly progressed all that much from the days of Feels (not that they really should have). But the very point of the whole thing is — how much denseness and heaviness is allowed before it all crashes down?

Basically, as much as they want. On my favorite tracks — such as ʽApplesauceʼ — flying saucers whoosh by, electronic rivers of sampler sound trickle along, drums alternate between syncopated and straight patterns, and I cannot properly tell how many different roads are being taken by dif­ferent instruments, but none of them detract from feeling the little bit of kiddie happiness in the repetitive chorus of "...I'm feeling like a little honey can roll". Nor do they prevent me from fee­ling a little pinch of moodiness during the chorus reproach of "you got to slide it off like mercury, can I play my parts like mercury?" (ʽMercury Manʼ) — no, the lyrics, in the good old AC tradi­tion, steadily continue not to make any sense whatsoever, but that does not matter one bit.

That said, there are almost no individual standouts: every second is so crammed with aural de­lights, and most of the delights in question are so enigmatic when it comes to describing the feelings that they stir up, that I find myself at a total loss trying to single out peculiar moments. Arguably the only «special» track here is at the very end: ʽAmanitaʼ starts out in a very focused, collected manner — rather than scattering themselves all over the place in yet another kaleidosco­pic roll, they open things with a catchy, anthemic synth riff that evokes «progressive» memories. But the sternness of the approach pretty soon falters, shatters, and gives way to the predictable sonic explosions.

Yes, the overloaded nature of all these patterns can get monotonous. I mentioned build-ups and resolutions, but it's not the kind of build-ups and resolutions that go from «quiet» to «loud» — over the course of one song, The Animal Collective will be happy to transport you from one part of their surrealistic jungle to another, even denser one, but getting out of the thicket onto the open plains is simply not an option. If you are psychologically unprepared for fifty minutes of electro­nic loops intertwined by twine champions, or all the synthetically processed double-, triple-, and quad­ruple- tracked vocals, it might be better to take these tracks slowly, one or two at a time.

Of course, listeners who got acquainted with the band primarily through ʽMy Girlsʼ or ʽBluishʼ or any of those other Brian Wilson-influenced little beauties, and expect more of the same, will get a headache — the gritty reality being that, if one assesses the AC as a whole, the world of Centi­pede Hz is closer to the «true» AC than the baroque flourishes of Merriweather. I certainly miss the baroque flourishes, and wouldn't mind them coming back; but I am also quite amazed at how far they have come in making that same philosophy that irritated me so much on their early re­cords work so well on this one. Apparently, age and experience got to count for something even when it comes to deviant avantgarde mindsets. I don't know how well this thing will be holding up ten years from now, but at least thumbs up will always be thumbs up, I suppose.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Autechre: Quaristice


1) Altibzz; 2) The Plc; 3) IO; 4) plyPhon; 5) Perlence; 6) SonDEremawe; 7) Simmm; 8) paralel Suns; 9) Steels; 10) Tankakern; 11) rale; 12) Fol3; 13) fwzE; 14) 90101-5l-l; 15) bnc Castl; 16) Theswere; 17) WNSN; 18) chenc9; 19) Notwo; 20) Outh9X.

Finally, time for some change... cosmetic change, that is. Quaristice is said to have grown out of a lengthy, spontaneous «jam session» by Booth and Brown, over which they managed to over­load their fantasies and create in­numerable sequences of sequences. Consequently the sequences were sequenced into somewhat inconsequential subsequences, so that Quaristice consists of a record-setting twenty tracks, few of them running over four minutes — rather a rude violation of Autech­re's normal work philosophy, I'd say.

Those who are particularly disturbed by this rudeness will probably want to own the limited edi­tion 2-CD version of the album; the second CD consisted of several alternate versions, presented closer to their original incarnations and our usual expectations of Autechre. Basically, you not only get to see the idea as such — you get to see its birth, growth, maturation, gradual and painful realization of its utter meaninglessness / uselessness, and, finally, its slow death from natural causes or a quickly staged suicide.

The main LP generally focuses on the idea itself — one of Autechre's usual grooves, reduced to mini-size. Supposedly, this should give Quaristice a more dynamic aspect: instead of just chillin' out to long patches of ambient waves or sweetly purring microchips, you get to see rapid changes of texture that may or may not form a musical story. Who knows, you might even start making predictions about what's it's gonna be like five minutes from now — a situation formerly unthin­kable with Autechre (because the most likely outcome is — «five minutes from now, it's going to be exactly as it is right now, plus a jackhammer»).

Problem is, apart from shorter track lengths, the only shift is backwards: they are continuing the subtle regression to the «icy» atmosphere of their early albums. Most of the percussion parts are heavier, once again with an industrial flavor, and the accompanying minimalistic keyboard parts speak either of the hand of doom or of the face of eternity. The opening track is so deceptively serene you'd think they were covering a Brian Eno sonic painting — but once ʽThe Plcʼ breaks through with its jiggly beats, paranoid pseudo-record-scratching noises and cold blasts of MIDI winds, it's back to old school again. Very old, as a matter of fact.

On the other hand, I fully admit that «atmospherics» is back here, in a big, big way. The whole thing should be played loud, in headphones, preferably in a dark room, and eventually these so­nic waves will flush you out in outer space, rather than cram you inside your dusty computer proces­sor. But the «individual» tracks, short or long, do not really work as individual tracks — at best, they work as one more soundtrack to the art of running along the streets of an alien world. Each street has a finite length, yet few, if any, have an unforgettable face of their own.

Cutting a long digression in half, Quaristice is a fairly «normal» record compared to everything post- and including Confield, and it will probably stimulate an easier and clearer emotional res­ponse than the pretentious conundrums of its predecessors. There is nothing too radically innova­tive about it, though, and the emotional response itself smells a little moldy, so you will just have to decide for yourselves. Nothing unlistenable here, but still recommended only for absolute be­ginners or total experts.

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