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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Beau Brummels: Introducing The Beau Brummels


THE BEAU BRUMMELS: INTRODUCING THE BEAU BRUMMELS (1965)

1) Laugh Laugh; 2) Still In Love With You Baby; 3) Just A Little; 4) Just Wait And See; 5) Oh! Lonesome Me; 6) Ain't That Loving You Baby; 7) Stick Like Glue; 8) They'll Make You Cry; 9) That's If You Want Me To; 10) I Want More Loving; 11) I Would Be Happy; 12) Not Too Long Ago; 13*) Good Time Music; 14*) Gentle Wanderin' Ways; 15*) Fine With Me.

It has been said that the Beau Brummels chose their name deliberately — so that their records could be placed right next to the Beatles in record stores. The band members themselves denied it quite vehemently, of course, but then again, who on earth would publicly admit to such trickery? The situation is even less in the band's favor when you realize that nobody in 1965 sounded as close to classic British Merseybeat on the other side of the Atlantic than those five guys from San Francisco. They had their own peculiarities, for sure, but where the Byrds only borrowed super­ficial traits of British Invasion bands, these guys went much further in idolizing their heroes from the overseas. Only The Sir Douglas Quintet could probably compare, and they have always seem­ed more of a novelty act to me.

The Beau Brummels made their first — and, as it turned out, biggest — mark on musical history with ʽLaugh, Laughʼ, a song that was actually one of their less obvious Beatles rip-offs, because none of the Fab Four ever played harmonica in such a mournful way, or sang in such a melancho­lic, plaintive, trembling manner, which would soon become one of the trademarks of the folksy San Franciscan sound. It wasn't aggressive garage rock, and it wasn't mainstream pop, it was a special kind of folk-pop sound where the «folk» and the «pop» elements were mixed in equal proportions. The gentleness and vulnerability of the tune, in fact, suggests that The Searchers were a much bigger influence here than the Beatles.

Like most of the other songs on this record, ʽLaugh, Laughʼ was penned by the band's lead guitar­ist Ron Elliott, and that was yet another defining trait in the Brummels' portrait: they had their own resident songwriter, who could hammer out well-crafted hooks all by himself, and their very first long-playing album only had two covers — an incredible feat for an American band circa early 1965. If there is a problem here, it is rooted in the band's wimpiness: Introducing The Beau Brum­mels does not feature any good old rock'n'roll, which is a bit regrettable for a band wih two elec­tric guitars and a swinging rhythm section.

However, that isn't really the way one should be trying to get into this album. This one is for the sensitive, delicate souls — or at least for the sensitive, delicate corner of one's soul, provided there is one that can be found — souls that do not want to be delved way too deep, but wouldn't mind a bit of emotional complexity dressed up in formal simplicity. Basically, if you really like songs like ʽAsk Me Whyʼ or ʽP.S. I Love Youʼ, but are ashamed to admit it because everything about them is exceedingly childish, from the chord sequences to the arrangements to the lyrics — The Beau Brummels are here to offer you a slightly more advanced version of the sentimental ballad, just as frail and genteel, but with a bigger emphasis on craft and, well, «intelligence».

By «craft» I do not mean technicality, since the band's hold on their instruments was rather limi­ted; but they had a really good knack for getting the most out of these limits — listen to ʽJust A Littleʼ, for instance, and see how well the mix of rhythm guitar, minimalistic acoustic lead fills, and vocal harmonies, create a believable atmosphere of «noble melancholia» with only a few chords and «trivial» overdubs. (The song became their biggest commercial hit, by the way, yet it did not acquire such a monumental status as ʽLaugh, Laughʼ — perhaps because of the lack of harmonica, or because, in retrospect, it looks like a very conscious attempt to capitalize on the success of its predecessor).

Other mini-delicacies in the melancholic vein include ʽThey'll Make You Cryʼ, where the harmo­nica does make a triumphant return, and participates in a pretty-sad duet with a three-note acous­tic guitar solo (to great effect!); the more traditionally arranged ʽI Would Be Happyʼ, sounding like a subconscious tribute to Roy Orbison; and ʽNot Too Long Agoʼ, sounding like a conscious tribute to the Searchers and ʽNeedles And Pinsʼ in particular.

The rest of the album is more upbeat, but, like I said, the upbeat side of the Brummels is less con­vincing than their cry-in-my-pillow side. They do show their country heart fine enough on a re­spectable cover of Don Gibson's ʽOh Lonesome Meʼ which they somehow manage to play even faster than the original, but the other cover (ʽAin't That Loving You Babyʼ) is totally forgettable, and fast-paced originals like ʽJust Wait And Seeʼ, fun as it always is to listen to a fast-paced pop rock song from 1964-65, sort of make them sacrifice their identity — not sure why exactly one should be enjoying this if the Hollies have better vocals, the Animals kick more ass, the Yard­birds have a far more gifted guitar player, and anyway, Carl Perkins did all that earlier. Still, most of this is at least semi-original material, so at least they tried.

Overall, there are occasional signs of a «rush job» on Introducing, as you'd expect from any pop LP (particularly American) of the era, but considering that the Beau Brummels never really vied for a VIP lounge among the rock crowds of the day, in a relative way, this is a tremendously suc­cessful debut. Do not miss the current CD edition, which throws on some nice demos and B-sides, among them a cover of John Sebastian's ʽGood Time Musicʼ (generic R'n'B melody + one of John's patented «love music!» set of lyrics = forgettable, but hilarious) and ʽGentle Wanderin' Waysʼ, which simply happens to be one of the best Beau Brummels songs ever: apparently, the addition of a little menace-laden fuzz guitar can work wonders on an inspired day. Thumbs up for one of the most underrated US records from 1965.

Check "Introducing The Beau Brummels" (CD) on Amazon
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Monday, July 30, 2012

Blind Willie McTell: Last Session


BLIND WILLIE McTELL: LAST SESSION (1956; 1961)

1) Baby, It Must Be Love; 2) The Dying Crapshooter's Blues; 3) Don't Forget It; 4) Kill It Kid; 5) That Will Never Happen No More; 6) Goodbye Blues; 7) Salty Dog; 8) Early Life; 9) Beedle Um Bum; 10) A Married Man's A Fool; 11) A To Z Blues; 12) Wabash Cannonball; 13) Pal Of Mine.

Blind Willie died of a stroke in 1959, after having served a couple years as preacher in one of Atlanta's churches; so we are rather lucky to have this disc, the results of a homebrewn session re­corded in the home of an Atlanta record store manager in 1956. Long out of favor with record studios, Willie seems to have been simply playing on street corners, when he got this last chance to leave another trace of himself for mankind — captured on a simple tape recorder, but in surpri­singly good quality (the store manager must have been a good technician). Even more surprising is that Willie himself was in pretty good quality on that day: there is hardly a moment during these thirty minutes where you'd get the impression of wallowing in unsurmountable misery.

In fact, I'd even go as far as notice that even his voice is in slightly better shape than it is on the 1949 recordings: it reflects the expected age-caused deepening / lowering, but there are no shades of hoarseness whatsoever — and he definitely does not sound like a fifty-eight year old here, bent with age, worries, alcoholism, and public rejection.

This might be the only reason why one would want to take a listen to this Last Session: most of the songs are either re-recordings of earlier stuff, or sound close enough to the early stuff to be in­terpreted as re-recordings. Interestingly, he concentrates here mostly on uptempo dance or «joke» numbers — except for ʽDyin' Crapshooter Bluesʼ, preceded by a long story about how the writing of the song was based on real life events, and the melancholic blues sermon of ʽA Married Man's A Foolʼ, almost everything else is in the jiggly-funny way of things, and that's good — we have concentrated on old bluesmen singing about their troubles way too much to properly notice the other side of the mirror.

So, overall, this album does not make much sense or bring on much enjoyment outside the con­text, but it is an extremely important last chapter in the story of the life of one William Samuel McTier, who did not quite live such a life of bluesy mystery as Bob Dylan would have one be­lieve, but whose real life and achievements, once you contrast them with the life and achieve­ments of his peers, might actually seem all the more intriguing by their relative lack of intrigue. The man led a decent, quiet life with a well-balanced ratio of joy and sadness where joy would always be coming out on top in the end. Hell of a healthy attitude, I'd say.

Check "Last Session" (CD) on Amazon
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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bright Eyes: A Christmas Album


BRIGHT EYES: A CHRISTMAS ALBUM (2002)

1) Away In A Manger; 2) Blue Christmas; 3) Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem; 4) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; 5) The First Noel; 6) Little Drummer Boy; 7) White Christmas; 8) Silent Night; 9) Silver Bells; 10) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; 11) The Night Before Christmas.

My favorite Bright Eyes album ever, bar none. Not that I'd want to ever listen to it again, mind you, but there is one thing you cannot deny — no other Bright Eyes album has such a concentra­ted wallop of brilliant, hook-filled melodies over the course of a measly half-hour. ʽGod Rest Ye Merry Gentlemenʼ? Conor Oberst couldn't even begin to dream of writing such a brilliant tune. ʽWhite Christmasʼ? The entire Bright Eyes catalog is exchangeable for that one, and take half of Oma­ha's musical collectives as a free bonus. ʽThe Night Before Christmasʼ? Now that's what I call poetry, «you take all your smart modern writers», like Ray Davies said...

...okay, that's getting carried a bit too far, I admit. But seriously, as far as Christmas albums go, this one is no worse than most others, and as far as Bright Eyes albums go, I'd really rather have a Christmas album from these people than sixty minutes of their original «tunes». There is one ad­ded bonus: no matter how obnoxious and annoying Conor may seem in person (in «musical» per­son, I mean: in «real» person, I have no idea), he has this odd talent of attracting sympathetic fe­male performers, sometimes endowed with the prettiest of voices and nicest of attitudes. Here, his main partner is Alabama-born Maria Taylor, who plays some of the keyboards, sings about half of the songs (praise God!) and co-arranges most of them.

Production values remain targeted at the indie market — several tunes are defiantly lo-fi, some are defiantly underarranged, and almost everything is made to suffer from a mild form of «un-listen-abili-tosis» one way or another (including sprinklings of electronic noises, echo and other effects cast over traditional instruments, absurdly slowed down tempos, whatever). But that's just to make sure that, God forbid, any of your grandparents should unexpectedly take a liking to the album and start playing it instead of their Sinatra records.

Under that slightly scratchy surface, however, rests a perfectly normal Christmas album with very nice folksy crooning vocals from Taylor (ʽAway In A Mangerʼ, ʽWhite Christmasʼ), attempts on Conor's part to sing in a normal voice — yes, he does have one, and even though it can never be completely free of whiny overtones, they are actually quite in place on ʽBlue Christmasʼ, and even more so on ʽHave Yourself A Merry Little Christmasʼ (after all, you can't expect to ac­tually have someone sing this song to you in a merry mood and get away with it, can you?).

There is even some modestly successful experimentation here, like with ʽLittle Drummer Boyʼ, which they deconstruct by distorting every sound channel, and then punch up with some crunchy martial drumming to match the title; or with ʽSilent Nightʼ, where the vocals quickly disappear, giving way to a slow, supposedly-mesmerizing mix of dreamy country guitars with psychedelic effects. On the other hand, ending the album with a full recital of ʽTwas The Night Before Chris­t­masʼ, blandly performed by some grumbly guy against a minimalistic piano backdrop, is, at best, an anticlimactic idea — provided that one could expect a «climax» from an album like this in the first place, of course.

Clearly, the whole thing was little more than a killing-time project, or, perhaps, just a quick cash-in on Conor's growing popularity — generous cash-in, since the proceeds of the album have been said to go to the «Nebraska AIDS Project» — but I was genuinely surprised at how much of the repulsive side of Bright Eyes was cut off here, while still leaving some of Oberst's typical, and least annoying, trademarks; and I am a bit puzzled at the frequently violent rejection of the record encountered among the fans. Yes, it is a «generic Christmas album», but hey, if you take Oberst as your guru, you have to try and put some sense into it anyway; and if you do not take Oberst as your guru, it's all the more nice to realize he's finally made an album where he isn't trying to teach you something. In the general line of things, it is quickly forgettable; in the overall context of Bright Eyes' history, it works better than I could have imagined.

Check "A Christmas Album" (CD) on Amazon

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Atheist: Elements


ATHEIST: ELEMENTS (1993)

1) Green; 2) Water; 3) Samba Briza; 4) Air; 5) Displacement; 6) Animal; 7) Mineral; 8) Fire; 9) Fractal Point; 10) Earth; 11) See You Again; 12) Elements.

According to some sources, we owe the existence of Elements only to the band's contractual ob­ligations: having disbanded in 1992, Atheist came together one last time (or so it seemed at the moment) only to put this album together so that they could get out of their contract with Metal Blade records without a serious headache. In addition, Kelly Shaefer had developed carpal tunnel syndrome and was unable to play lead guitar, so the band had to recruit a third guitarist, Frank Emmi, to take over fifty percent of lead playing duties. Hence, conditions for creativity flow were definitely less than ideal.

That said, Elements sounds quite far removed from a generic, disinterested contractual obligation. As may be noticed by just glancing at the song titles, it is a concept album — other than songs de­dicated to each element in particular and all of them at once, the band throws the notions of «ani­mal» and «mineral» into the mix, and starts things out with a general eco-anthem (ʽGreenʼ), although, actually, the majority of the songs here have an ecological undercurrent: it would be fairly hard to find someone representing the interests of Greenpeace more accurately than this bunch of death metal warriors. One notch scored for dedication.

Second, of the three «classic era» Atheist albums, Elements represents the biggest departure from the formula — a disappointment for those stark fans who'd want more of the same, but a bit of a relief for the reviewer, who finally has to withdraw the most troublesome criticism: that of all the songs merging together into one big, unsegmentable lump. This problem is now overcome in a simple, but working way: many of the songs are separated by small interludes that show the band branching out in different directions — ʽSamba Brizaʼ features the band's dexterous rhythm sec­ti­on backed by guest pianist David Smadbeck; ʽDisplacementʼ and ʽFractal Pointʼ present a couple of deeply-distorted, but ly­rical slow guitar solos; and ʽSee You Againʼ has some pretty, echo-la­den acoustic picking. Nothing too amazing, but yes, we do need these delimiters.

As for the songs themselves, most of the textbook thrash attitude has by now dissipated complete­ly. Where, in the past, they would alternate jazzy time signatures with breakneck chugga-chugga passages, they now consistently keep the odd signatures throughout the pieces — never a dull moment for the drummer boy. «Catchiness» still hardly appears on the menu, and, for that reason, the new approach is not necessarily better than the old one: the themes are still quite hard to me­morize, and the emotional effect is completely uniform regardless of whether they are singing about water, air, fire, or earth — this is probably the biggest conceptual mistake of this conceptu­al album. Then again, they are not singing of the nice spiritual properties of these elements, but rather of various catastrophes, man-made or natural, associated with them, and catastrophes are al­ways catastrophes, be they floods, quakes, or fires, so that could be one possible cop-out.

We do have more individual markers placed on the songs than we used to. The Latin acoustic part in ʽWaterʼ, for instance, which does not so much replace the metal basis of the song as it flows in and out of it (flows, hear that?). The odd little guitar-led merry-go-round in the bridge section of ʽWindʼ, whirling around the speakers (whirling, mind you). The «siren»-mode guitar playing on ʽFireʼ; the monkey laugh guitar imitation on ʽAnimalʼ — these are all mostly just minor flouri­shes, but they are at least worth a mention. The best guitar leads, by the way, are on ʽMineralʼ, where each solo is introduced by a gorgeously ominous set of trills that I'm only too happy to add to my very small collection of «finger-flashing bits with genuine evocative power». Granted, I am not too sure what it is exactly that they evoke, but does it really matter? That's why we have the word «evocative» in the lexicon in the first place.

It is hardly a big surprise that, overall, Elements tends to be rated poorer than its predecessors, but that is just because it is a little harder to headbang to it — you have to learn quite specific headbanging moves, and it can take a long time. The band members, judging by the live backlog they would perform upon the later reunion, never thought all that much of it, either — perhaps they, too, were sorry about going so far in the «Latin / jazz» direction that the «thrash» sign all but disappeared from the horizon. But on the large scale of things, these arguments seem rather petty — after all, just because the speed rates are slightly lower and the drum parts slightly more syncopated does not mean that Elements does not rock just as hard. I give it the same thumbs up as everything else, and I appreciate the will to change, particularly when it is manifested on an al­bum they did not even intend to make in the first place.

Check "Elements" (CD) on Amazon

Friday, July 27, 2012

The B-52's: Wild Planet


WILD PLANET (1980)

1) Party Out Of Bounds; 2) Dirty Back Road; 3) Runnin' Around; 4) Give Me Back My Man; 5) Private Idaho; 6) Devil In My Car; 7) Quiche Lorraine; 8) Strobe Light; 9) 53 Miles West Of Venus.

This sophomore offspring is by no means a «slump» — it just lacks the novelty and immediacy of its predecessor. The B-52's hit upon a winning formula, and they were not willing to let it go too quickly. Same lineup, same ideology, even the same recording studio (Compass Point at Nas­sau, Bahamas — a perfectly fine place to record wild party albums), even some of the songs were really old standards that they had played live since 1977. And the public had enough time to catch on as well — Wild Planet fared much better on the charts, since the band was by then a well-es­tablished phenomenon.

That said, even if we do know now what exactly to expect from the B-52's, and this friction slows down the excitement force a little bit, the tunes themselves are still consistently strong. Guitar riffs, vocal hooks, energetic tempos are all there, and, most importantly, so is the general «bite» of the band — if anything, they are getting snappier, ridiculing social conventions by the dozen with most people probably not even noticing that they are getting ridiculed.

The punk roots of the band show best of all on ʽPrivate Idahoʼ, which has the sharpest, stingiest «rockabilly-punk» riff of them all (reminiscent of ʽBrand New Cadillacʼ by the Clash) and obscure character assassination lyrics that may just as well be assassinating sociopaths and socialites alike (well, the line "you're living in your own Private Idaho" could easily be taken both ways). The inclusion of the song is a great move — since most of the other tunes are either about partying or about surrealistic kitsch, it sort of sets the band straight for those who would like to dismiss Wild Planet as simply one more bunch of meaningless decadent fluff.

But it's not like that at all, really. The opening single ʽParty Out Of Boundsʼ is not just hilarious — it is also thought-provoking, a wild romp where Schneider and Pierson lambast the party cul­ture to bits (which never prevented the song from becoming a cult party anthem, of course), and the culmination, with the girls chanting "party gone out of bounds, party gone out of bounds" is so symbolic of the B-52's entire existence that Schneider eventually ended up using the song title for his own radio show. ʽStrobe Lightʼ is an irresistibly fast R'n'B dance number, first and fore­most, but also a clear-cut hyperbolic satire on club culture excesses ("wanna make love to you under the strobe light" — yeah, right), featuring the immortal original innuendo "then I'm gonna kiss your... pineapple!" And ʽQuiche Lorraineʼ — now here is an anti-socialite rant if there ever was one, masked in a heart-rending story about the relations between a poodle and her owner.

While there are no melodies on the record that are as instantaneously seductive as the guitar / or­gan interplay of ʽPlanet Claireʼ, every song has at least something going for it in the line of vocal hooks (these usually consist of the girls chanting the song's title or whoo-hoo-hooing), and the keyboards rarely get in the way of pop guitars. That, in fact, is the main problem for the reviewer: the formula is so diligently observed on each of the songs that, mood-wise, there is almost no dif­ference between them, and there is no point in trying to discuss minuscule stuff like the slightly bigger emphasis on paranoia in ʽRunnin' Aroundʼ versus the touch stronger accent on obsessive-compulsive disorder on ʽGive Me Back My Manʼ.

Overall, Wild Planet is a modest success that should be swallowed in one gulp — you could try and take away individualistic highlights (starting with ʽPrivate Idahoʼ), but why? The songs are relatively short, the whole album only runs 35 minutes, and everything is linked together thema­tically as one large, hyperbolic send-up of all the ridiculous things that make people part of the same society. Funny, catchy, kitschy, and smart, there is no way that the album does not deserve an almost equally heartfelt thumbs up as its predecessor.

Check "Wild Planet" (CD) on Amazon
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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bad Company: Stories Told & Untold

BAD COMPANY: STORIES TOLD & UNTOLD (1996)

1) One On One; 2) Oh, Atlanta; 3) You're Never Alone; 4) I Still Believe In You; 5) Ready For Love; 6) Waiting On Love; 7) Can't Get Enough; 8) Is That All There Is To Love; 9) Love So Strong; 10) Silver, Blue & Gold; 11) Down­pour In Cairo; 12) Shooting Star; 13) Simple Man; 14) Weep No More.

There can only be two motives behind the production of this kind of album, and neither of the two is particularly cheerful. One is that you just don't have enough creative energy in you any more to pro­duce an entire LP of new material, and have to resort to re-recording old standards out of plain old desperation. Another one is that, deep down inside, you instinctively feel that your new material is not up to par — mildly speaking — and that it would be a good commercial move to somehow «legitimize» it by mixing it up with classic, sanctified material.

My personal feeling is that Stories Told & Untold must be a combination of the two, because these new songs really, really suck. They do try to continue the «rootsy revival» of Company Of Strangers, but with a deeper nod to adult contemporary this time: except for the opening number, ʽOne On Oneʼ, whose riff sounds gritty enough for about five seconds before you realize it has been shamelessly lifted from the Stones' ʽCan't You Hear Me Knockingʼ, everything else is in the deeply sentimental vein and hopelessly generic. ʽWaiting On Loveʼ and ʽDownpour In Cairoʼ, with slightly more down-to-earth arrangements, are listenable if,perchance, encountered on a modern country rock radio station. Everything else is disgusting plastic soul pathos.

Surely against a background like this the old classics must sound revitalized and refreshing — es­pecially considering that the band was so intensely pushing forward Robert Hart's «new Paul Rod­gers» image. And for the most part, he is doing a fine job on the old tunes: I personally find his tone a little bit more «grayish» than Rodgers', but that's a purely subjective feeling. The real problem, of course, is that the re-recordings slavishly follow the original versions, and when they do not, it actually gets worse — for instance, setting the entire first verse of ʽReady For Loveʼ to a minimalistic «unplugged» setting simply deprives it of one minute of enjoyment (the deeply melancholic rhythmic arrangement of the original was one of its major assets). ʽCan't Get Enoughʼ also gets a laid-back acoustic basis, but it's not as if the entire idea was to make an «un­plugged» version of Bad Company's biggest hits — it just sort of happened that way, with the old bite surreptitiously taken out of the arrangements. And these horn overdubs on ʽWeep No Moreʼ? No, can't say that I'm a fan.

No big surprise that much of the material here was recorded in Nashville and featured cameos from contemporary country-rock stars, since it is contemporary country-rock: professional, clean, formulaic, and deadly dull. It is true that replacing Howe with Hart made Bad Company sound more like Bad Company, but the price was that they sort of became the wax facsimile of what they used to be, and who really needs that? Thumbs down for this whole cheesy business — not even the regular fans were fooled, and Stories Told & Untold became even more of a commer­cial bomb than Company Of Strangers.

Check "Stories Told & Untold" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Arthur Brown: Kingdom Come


ARTHUR BROWN: KINGDOM COME (1972)

1) The Teacher; 2) A Scientific Experiment; 3) The Whirlpool; 4) The Hymn; 5) Water; 6) Love Is (The Spirit That Will Never Die); 7) City Melody; 8) Traffic Light Stop.

Galactic Zoo Dossier might have been a mess, but it had promise. This follow-up is quite dis­ap­pointing, since it sort of fails to deliver on that promise. Shedding some of the theatrical grand­ness of its predecessor, it compensates with extra noises, extra nonsense, and a spoonful of bath­room humor masquerading as Artistic Metaphor. I don't know about Tales From Topographic Oceans, but Kingdom Come could just as easily be dubbed one of the reasons punk had to hap­pen — not because rock music had become too complex and intellectualized, but because it had lost its focus. Even Arthur Brown circa 1968 actually used it to say something. God damn me if I have the least idea of what it is he is trying to say here.

The first nine and a half minutes of the album are given over to a messy prog/R'n'B hybrid suite which delights in changing its melody every next minute, uses the metaphor of The Teacher to emphasize the fact that Arthur is still trying to open our minds... and heavily invests in lyrical re­ferences to the discharging of liquid and semi-liquid substances, including (warning!) an entire section on the adventures of Arthur's sphincter, set to fart noises, so make sure there aren't any minors in your presence when you are playing this, or the next generation will forever remember Arthur as «that guy who farts on his records», even though he only did it once (I hope).

The next to last section of the album, on the other hand, represents some sort of mystical journey through uncharted waters, with Mr. Brown pretending to be the captain and others informing him, over and over again, that he is not. The non-musical parts of it try to be funny and fail, then try to be wise and fail just as well. Basically, there is just too much here: the pot is so thoroughly over­loaded with ingredients that the final result is inedible. ʽCity Melodyʼ, in particular, is a great ex­ample of why «complete musical freedom» should never be praised as the highest of values: three minutes of tight, but not very inspired jamming simply do not form any sensible unity with the other three minutes of sound collages (various city noises). But do listen to this stuff if you have an innate allergy to musique concrète — it might help you gain more love for ʽRevolution #9ʼ, whose apocalyptic streak of sonic terror can be nerve-wrecking, unlike the utterly boring sonic collages of Brown and Co.

Which is all too bad, because all the wordy garbage, failed humor, tired collaging, and excessive overdubbing tends to overshadow the fact that, for this album, the band actually took the time to write a small handful of very good songs. ʽThe Hymnʼ and ʽLove Is (The Spirit)ʼ are the most ra­diant joy-senders to come out of the Brown camp, for instance — in fact, their radiance is very much at odds with the far more somber, negatively charged attitude exhibited by Zoo Dossier. Where ʽSunriseʼ was a Brown aria of anger and despair, framed by accordingly virulent guitar so­los, ʽThe Hymnʼ is a Brown aria of unprecedented optimism, framed by accordingly euphoric guitar passages featuring what might probably count as Andy Dalby's best work ever. And ʽLove Is (The Spirit)ʼ is a fine example of an early proto-power-ballad done right — no power chords or high-pitched operatic pathos.

Best of the lot is saved for the end, though, if you live long enough to get to it: ʽTraffic Light Songʼ is a mean-and-lean funk jam that manages to stay in place for almost all of its three-minute duration, with just a few seconds, perhaps, of being interrupted by an occasional extraneous piano riff or something. It is a «conceptual» tune, too, of course, because the album begins with «the teacher» conducting a «scientific experiment» by «trying to stimulate the brain of this traffic light» (yes, that should give you a pretty decent idea about whatever it is you might be going to subject yourself to). But that's precisely the point: all things «conceptual» about this record have dated so badly that, for all I know, they might already have seem dated back in 1972 (and they probably were: Frank Zappa was doing this sort of chaotic shit with Absolutely Free as early as 1967, and Brown is no match for Frank when it comes to pushing chaotic shit on the listener). Its melodic side, on the other hand, can still be salvaged from the rubble — except that most people probably will not bother, and I cannot blame them. If it takes sitting through the peripeteia of Arthur Brown's sphincter in order to get through to ʽThe Hymnʼ, one might even be excused for stubbornly sticking to Freddie Mercury.

"Let's face it — a sense of humor is a good thing", a reviewer on Amazon said in order to justify the extra silliness of the record. But it depends very much on who we are talking about. Arthur Brown is never truly a «serious» or a «humorous» guy; in all of his avatars, he is primarily «wha­cky», and his «whackiness», almost at every point in his career, interfered with the rest of the message — the only time he truly succeeded in matching it to the rest of the mood and the music was on Crazy World's epochal album. Kingdom Come does have a sense of humor, but crazy guys going funny is not always as humorous as it could seem — genuine humor comes from ra­tional thinking, and there are very few rational things about this record. Still, if your doctor tells you that you are in the process of going ga-ga over the way the real world is treating you, on this record you might just find the perfect soulmate for your condition.


Check "Kingdom Come" (CD) on Amazon
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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Beatles: Anthology 3

THE BEATLES: ANTHOLOGY 3 (1968-1969; 1995)

CD I: 1) A Beginning; 2) Happiness Is A Warm Gun; 3) Helter Skelter; 4) Mean Mr Mustard; 5) Polythene Pam; 6) Glass Onion; 7) Junk; 8) Piggies; 9) Honey Pie; 10) Don't Pass Me By; 11) Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da; 12) Good Night; 13) Cry Baby Cry; 14) Blackbird; 15) Sexy Sadie; 16) While My Guitar Gently Weeps; 17) Hey Jude; 18) Not Guilty; 19) Mother Nature's Son; 20) Glass Onion; 21) Rocky Raccoon; 22) What's The New Mary-Jane; 23) Step Inside Love/Los Paranoias; 24) I'm So Tired; 25) I Will; 26) Why Don't We Do It In The Road; 27) Julia.
CD II: 1) I've Got A Feeling; 2) She Came In Through The Bathroom Window; 3) Dig A Pony; 4) Two Of Us; 5) For You Blue; 6) Teddy Boy; 7) Rip It Up/Shake Rattle And Roll/Blue Suede Shoes; 8) The Long And Winding Road; 9) Oh Darling; 10) All Things Must Pass; 11) Mailman Bring Me No More Blues; 12) Get Back; 13) Old Brown Shoe; 14) Octopus's Garden; 15) Maxwell's Silver Hammer; 16) Something; 17) Come Together; 18) Come And Get It; 19) Ain't She Sweet (Rehearsal); 20) Because; 21) Let It Be; 22) I Me Mine; 23) The End.

The journey ends here, much the same way as it started. No matter if we are dealing with the ten­se, but cooperative sessions for the White Album, or with the angry madhouse at Twickenham in early 1969, or with the final solemn ritual of completing the circle with Abbey Road, what we have here are nearly always bad — relatively bad, of course — work-in-progress versions of what would, in the end, become timeless masterpieces, regardless of the emotional states of their crea­tors at the time. Be it 1963 or 1969, the Beatles always chose the best take for the official record; no exceptions that I could be aware of.

However, one of the major bonuses of Anthology 3 is that it offers much more «new» stuff to the casual listener than the second volume — apparently, the 1968-69 sessions resulted in a larger number of canned outtakes than sessions for the previous years. Quite possibly, this had to do with the band members now working much more on their individual own than before — and con­sequently running far stronger risks of having their contributions vetoed by other members be­cause of not being «Beatlesworthy» enough.

So it is up to us to decide now whether John's ʽWhat's The New Mary Janeʼ, George's ʽNot Guil­tyʼ, or Paul's ʽStep Inside Love / Los Paranoiasʼ were rightly excluded from the official canon or cruelly wronged by being shelved for almost thirty long years. I would say that, all things consi­dered, the wait time should have been shorter, but also that I mostly agree with the vetoes.

ʽNot Guiltyʼ is often highlighted as a first-rate Harrison song that was abandoned much too easily, and should not have waited until 1979, when George finally decided to rework and release it on his eponymous album. But the vocal melody of the song is so seriously underwritten that «first-rate», as far as I can tell, is out of the question — it is hardly a coincidence that, when it came to emptying George's stunning backlog on All Things Must Pass, ʽNot Guiltyʼ was not seen fit for inclusion even without the vetoing block of his former colleagues. It's got a fine riff, some terrific guitar pyrotechnics in the largely instrumental coda, and primetime Harrison lyrics, but it defini­te­ly lacks that certain «something» — be it the transcendence of ʽWhile My Guitarʼ, the catchy humor of ʽPigsʼ, the subtle minimalism of ʽLong Long Longʼ, or even the outright whackiness of ʽSa­voy Truffleʼ. Good song, but if they gave all 5 to me and told me to exclude one, I'd have made the same choice as John and Paul. Did Ringo have a vote at all?..

Another «lost classic» is John's ʽWhat's The New Mary Janeʼ, one of his «nutty» numbers that indulges in the pleasure of going from simple absurdist piano-led music hall ditty (almost like a parody on something Paul could have done) to an alien world of spooky sound collages, like a blueprint for much of Amon Düül II's work on Tanz Der Lemminge three years later (or may­be not, but somehow that association did spring into my mind). When the final version of The Beatles was being assembled, the track was pulled in favor of ʽRevolution #9ʼ — a much longer piece that did not have any musical basis at all. Should ʽMary Janeʼ had taken its place? Years earlier, I would definitely have said yes; now I am not at all sure — no matter how absurdist and silly some of John's stuff might sound, ʽMary Janeʼ lacks «killer guts» where even ʽCry Baby Cryʼ has some. It's more of a musical joke fit for something like the second LP of John's own Sometime In New York City, where he was fooling around with the «Elephant Memory Band». A darn fine musical joke, though, and it's good to know that it has not been lost.

1968 and, most prominently, 1969 introduced plenty of tunes that later surfaced on the Beatles' solo albums — here, in particular, we have an attempt to record ʽTeddy Boyʼ (later included on McCartney) and George's ʽAll Things Must Passʼ (later included on, naturally, All Things Must Pass). The former was and remains kinda fluffy, if cute — and no, that's not «Paul in a nutshell», if you want to know — and the latter's potential remained half-hidden until Phil Spector came and laid a wall of ten million instruments on it. But the 1969 sessions also yielded lots of uninspired waste — there is no better way to understand the futility of the band's attempt at «getting back to its roots» than to listen to their perfunctory run through a medley of old rock'n'roll hits, performed with none of the enthusiasm or motivation that they had in the early Cavern days. And ʽMailman, Bring Me No More Blues?ʼ Really, that could have been done by anyone. The only small piece of true joy on Disc 2 is Paul's original demo of ʽCome And Get Itʼ — a nice song, generously dona­ted to Badfinger... who actually improved on it, since Badfinger were one of the very few bands to carry on the «original spirit» of the Beatles, whatever it was.

Elsewhere, it's the same old story. Vocal harmonies for ʽBecauseʼ without the instrumental track. Nice, but they were fairly well discernible with the instruments already. A raw take on ʽOctopus' Gardenʼ with George still fumbling and fussing around with the guitar solo, quite far from per­fection. ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ with Paul trying out a spoken rather than sung version of the bridge — what is this, Elvis time? An ʽOh! Darlingʼ tried out in an all-out comic mode — here, the bridge is crooned in a hilarious falsetto rather than screamed out at the top of one's lungs. Wind your way back to The White Album and everything stays mostly the same...

...probably with the exception of the original acoustic demo for ʽWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsʼ, which sounds like an entirely different song from what it eventually became — a meditative con­fessional, rather than a grand lament for the fate of mankind. Although its evolution was a bless­ing, it is still very pleasing to have the starting point as well: the major highlight of Anthology 3, with ʽMary Janeʼ, ʽNot Guiltyʼ, and ʽCome And Get Itʼ all coming in for the second spot in a tier that lags significantly behind.

It goes without saying that the historical value of all this stuff, as usual, is priceless. It is useful to know, after all, that the original line in ʽPiggiesʼ went "...clutching forks and knives to cut their pork chops" rather than the final "eat their bacon" — "bacon" fits the verbal flow better than "pork chops", even if it may make less sense (people do tend to eat pork chops rather than bacon for dinner, I guess). Or that the original version of ʽHappiness Is A Warm Gunʼ contained a direct lyri­cal reference to Yoko — who, as it seems, provided some inspiration for the song, a fact all Yoko-haters should keep in mind. Or a million or so similar observations that each of us can make by thoroughly studying these documents. One thing surely cannot be denied — studying the development of Beatles songs can actually be far more enjoyable than enjoying the final takes of  thousands of other bands. Think of the Anthology project from that angle, and it might take its proper respectable place in the band's regular discography some day.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta Twelve String


BLIND WILLIE MCTELL: ATLANTA TWELVE STRING (1949; 1972)

1) Kill It Kid; 2)    The Razor Ball; 3) Little Delia; 4) Broke Down Engine Blues; 5) Dying Crapshooter's Blues; 6) Pinetop's Boogie Woogie; 7) Blues Around Midnight; 8) Last Dime Blues; 9) On The Cooling Board; 10) Motherless Children Have A Hard Time; 11) I Got To Cross The River Jordan; 12) You Got To Die; 13) Ain't It Grand To Live A Christian; 14) Pearly Gates; 15) Soon This Morning.

Willie's post-war recordings, typically for most acoustic blues performers who peaked in the 1930s, were few; only two session periods are generally known, one of which, from 1949, is well represented on this album (as a single LP, it was released already in 1972), all of the songs having been recorded for the newly-formed Atlantic label, but only a couple of them released at the ori­ginal time of recording.

The good news: since the label was Atlantic and the year was 1949, this is the cleanest, sharpest-sounding McTell album of them all. If you cannot stand hiss or crackle, Atlanta Twelve String is your safest bet for assessing McTell's playing style — particularly convenient since he remem­bers to re-record some of his biggest hits (ʽBroke Down Engineʼ, ʽRazor Ballʼ) before heading off into the barroom / gospel blues directions that he already tried to popularize in 1940.

The bad news is that his voice continues to show signs of serious weathering. Still expressive, but seriously lower than it used to be, it no longer has that unique youthfulness of old, yet at the same time is not gruff and rough enough to compete with the Ruffled Old Bluesman image of his peers. As for the playing, it is still precise and technical, but after the rousing opener (ʽKill-It-Kidʼ), he does not do any more ragtime numbers, and some of his tricks are not represented here at all — you will still have to search for the likes of ʽGeorgia Ragʼ to appreciate the man's full potential.

Still, at least one of the tracks here is utterly wonderful — ʽPinetop's Boogie Woodieʼ, a musical / vocal guide to a traditional dance; not because it is particularly complex or emotional, it just got the spirit, sounding like a little time capsule back to the age where you could be taught your dance moves by an old black guy with a guitar. But yeah, that old black guy does do a beautiful sprinkly-chimy guitar move at the end of each round.

There are a couple extra Blind Willie Johnson tributes here (ʽMotherless Childrenʼ), and some stately solemn gospel anthems (ʽPearly Gatesʼ), but they are not as successful. For all the diversi­ty of his interests, McTell was a playful performer, and whenever his performance lacks playful­ness, it inevitably loses out to competition. In a way, he was doomed by his own age — as he got more and more «mature», he was drifting into all these «serious» genres where he did not have as much competence. "She's a real kind mama, lookin' for another man" is, and will always be, as great as Willie McTell ever gets, and these 1949 sessions, unfortunately, have very few such songs. Not that there are any downright bad performances, though — and, like I said, the very fact that this is the only «clean» recording from the man that one is ever going to get automatical­ly makes it eligible for a modest thumbs up.

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bright Eyes: Lifted


BRIGHT EYES: LIFTED OR THE STORY IS IN THE SOIL, KEEP YOUR EAR TO THE GROUND (2002)

1) Big Picture; 2) Method Acting; 3) False Advertising; 4) You Will. You? Will. You? Will; 5) Lover I Don't Have To Love; 6) Bowl Of Oranges; 7) Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come; 8) Nothing Gets Crossed Out; 9) Make War; 10) Waste Of Paint; 11) From A Balance Beam; 12) Laura Laurent; 13) Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved).

«Why is he suffering so much?» my wife asked me during the last minutes of ʽWaste Of Paintʼ, which I, for some mysterious reasons, was listening to without the headphones. «Did his girl­friend die or anything?» That was the moment when I understood that that was it, that the Bright Eyes were finished for me — because this was the first time ever that I was asked that question. Syd Barrett, Neil Young, Robert Smith, Peter Gabriel, and even Badly Drawn Boy — all of them survived in the end, but the fate of Conor Oberst was sealed, once and for all. It sort of snapped me out of that oozy, dreamy state where I was... well, not exactly ready to fall under this guy's charm, but at least sort of accept his whinery as a given fact of life. Like, some people yell and other people whine, and then there should be tolerance and all.

But no, really. On this album, which could have easily been called Lifted, but one-word album titles are for laconic sissies, Conor puts the wheel in reverse and, for the most part, dispenses with the intricate arrangements of Fevers And Mirrors, with just a few notable exceptions that will be noted later. On such minimalistic, but bleeding long acoustic rants as ʽBig Pictureʼ and ʽWaste Of Paintʼ, he seems to be trying to earn his «modern day Dylan» reputation, except that Dylan al­ways took better care of his guitar accompaniment and never ripped as many shirts along the way. At the very least, ʽBig Pictureʼ justifies its title by no longer being exclusively tied to some sort of «woman trouble» — it's a well-made declaration of personal and artistic freedom, but really, Conor, there is no need to impersonate a tortured, mutilated revolutionary being led to the guillo­tine. You're only 22 years old, everything will work out. Maybe you ought to move to North Ko­rea for a couple of years, it'll do you good.

When the «songs» reluctantly agree to be more than just a couple of acoustic chords, they still tend to just roll along doing nothing, like the «grand» ten-minute conclusion of ʽLet's Not Shit Ourselvesʼ. Maybe it is Oberst's ʽDesolation Rowʼ, but even ʽDesolation Rowʼ had a nifty acous­tic riff running through it; here, the «music»'s only purpose is to provide Oberst's grand anti-esta­b­lishment rant with a toe-tapping beat. Sincerity? Who gives a damn about sincerity when noth­ing about your sincerity makes it any more attractive than anyone else's sincerity? Or was there no one else in 2002 brave enough to let The Truth out, other than Conor Oberst? The most annoy­ing thing about these «soulful» deliveries is that they are delivered as if the man was a fuckin' Cassandra — completely alone in a world of deaf and dumb people. (Well, I don't know, maybe in Omaha... but nah, not really).

The only substantial musical idea on the entire album may be found on ʽDon't Know Whenʼ, where most of the verses are sung to a simple folk-dirge melody with a simple, but effective chord progression. In a way, it almost works like a mantra, and if only Oberst did not eventually succumb to the temptation of ripping one more shirt and self-exploding in a fit of drunken ire, it could almost become seductive — but this guy is under a firm conviction that «sincerity» and «perfec­tionism» are mortal enemies, and in their endless struggle he knows only too well whose side he will take.

Of course, there are still quite a few numbers featuring complex arrangements — no surprise here, since a mind-boggling twenty-five musicians altogether were involved in the making of the album, making it a serious contender for «hugest waste of talent ever». Well, not all of these musicians are equally talented, I guess, but on such tracks as ʽLover I Don't Have To Loveʼ or ʽFrom A Ba­lance Beamʼ the keyboards and strings work very well, as before, trying to dress the man's non-descript compositions in shiny technicolor robes. On others, like ʽMake Warʼ, they are going for a «lo-fi country» approach, with slide guitars and harmonicas at the ready. To no avail.

Not that you should take my opinion: Rolling Stone itself rated Lifted as the fourth greatest al­bum of 2002, and even The Dean himself, Mr. Robert "I Dare You To Fill In The Blanks In My Opinions, Punk" Christgau invited us all to "feel or indulge his suffering youth" and be awarded with awe. Maybe for all these guys, the weaving techniques of Mr. Oberst really work. Or maybe they were simply so hungry for «genuine rough-cut emotion» after all those years of post-modern cynicism that even Conor Oberst would do. It might not be a coincidence, really, that the Bright Eyes' ratings seriously plummeted with the emergence of Arcade Fire — as far as I'm concerned, when you got Win Butler, the need to have Conor Oberst dissipates in a flash. Thumbs down, anyway: the few decent arrangements that we have here cannot compensate for at least a half hour's worth of total abomination.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Atheist: Unquestionable Presence


ATHEIST: UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENCE (1991)

1) Mother Man; 2) Unquestionable Presence; 3) Retribution; 4) Enthralled In Essence; 5) An Incarnation's Dream; 6) The Formative Years; 7) Brains; 8) And The Psychic Saw.

This follow-up to Piece Of Time is usually hailed as the «ultimate» Atheist experience, despite (or, perhaps, due to?) being only thirty minutes long, and also despite having been recorded in the wake of the tragic death of the band's bass player Roger Patterson in a touring van accident; those who really care can always check out the demo versions of the songs, which make up for the en­tire second half of the current CD and feature Patterson's playing. His replacement, Tony Choy, is competent enough to handle his lines, although my brief impression is that, as a result, the album is not as heavy on the bass as its predecessor (at the very least, there aren't quite as many bass so­lo passages this time).

The reason why Unquestionable Presence gets all the acclaim is that the band moves even far­ther away from the death metal formula and ever closer to the intricacies of hard bop and free-form jazz. Of course, to fully understand this, you have to replace the metal guitars in your mind with pianos and saxes, and then, perhaps, a distorted vision of Eric Dolphy will fly by in a trans­cendental haze. If the vision remains inconjurable, just think of it as really, really fucked-up death metal. Well — if death itself is a major fuck-up, why shouldn't death metal be one?

Unfortunately, I still have a hard time telling one song from the other. But at least this time aro­und, there are occasional interludes that go somewhat beyond fifteen seconds of atmospheric syn­thesizer fiddling. ʽMother Manʼ, for instance, incorporates a few lyrical bits of bass / melodic gui­tar interplay, sprinkled with chirping birds to remind us of the beauty of nature, so hopelessly spoiled by industrialization, pollution, and detrimental sonic waves generated by death metal gui­tars that dominate the other parts of the song. ʽAn Incarnation's Dreamʼ starts off with a folksy acous­tic passage (this can be seen as a humble tribute to «regular» metal). And most of the other tracks, this way or another, incorporate extra melodic guitar bits, albeit usually short ones, wed­ged somewhere in the thin cracks of the stop-and-start passages; of the fully incorporated solos, the one that begins at around 2:00 on ʽRetributionʼ is of particular note — if only it were attached to a more memorable riff!...

Lyrically, it's the same old shit all over again ("man prepares to meet his destiny", as Ozzy once sang and since then ninety percent of death metal bands have been doing nothing but commenting on the issue), but vocally, it seems like Shaefer has given up on trying to «growl» and comfortab­ly settled in the «snapping» mode, which is good, since it allows us to take stuff more seriously — especially since its combination of breakneck speed with mind-bending chord changes is it­self more in the «post-hardcore» ballpark than in the death metal one. But overall, there is no trying to pretend that any of these songs have different identities: even their structures are generally simi­lar, with a regular alternation of «funky», «signature-mocking», and «speed metal» parts — one could try and build a working model for this shit, if one cared enough.

Hence, another «intellectualized thumbs up» coming on here, but really, writing a useful review for such an album would be a feat of the mind comparable to writing a good review for an Or­nette Coleman record, and I have never read one. Where riffs trigger particular emotions or paint particular impressions, talking about them is easy. Where they just produce a «wow, that's, uh, clever» feeling, you need a good musicologist, and most of them are busy dissecting Glenn Gould rather than Atheist anyway.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

The B-52's: The B-52's


THE B-52'S: THE B-52'S (1979)

1) Planet Claire; 2) 52 Girls; 3) Dance This Mess Around; 4) Rock Lobster; 5) Lava; 6) There's A Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon); 7) Hero Worship; 8) 6060-842; 9) Downtown.

For all of punk and New Wave's pretense to «alleviating» the heavy, stuffy atmosphere in which prog-rock and arena-rock acts had plunged popular music in the first half of the 1970s, most punk and New Wave acts were fairly stuffy themselves. The songs were either too rabid and angry or too intellectualized, the sound was too quirkily non-traditional, the whole «new school» approach required some getting used to (and many never really got used to it anyway). The Ramones could claim a serious teen pop influence, but they were still punks first and foremost. Only Blondie could be seen as a «fluffy» act, perhaps, but one might question whether Blondie had much to do with «New Wave» at all — mainly in appearance, much less in the music itself.

So when the B-52's came along, and they stuck around for two years at least before landing a se­rious recording contract, the niche they decided to occupy was practically empty — even if, of all the available niches, it was one of the most glaring: combine all these quirky New Wave influen­ces with kitsch, bubblegum, pop culture fetishism, and see what happens. The album cover alone, with its flashy colors, oversize wigs, and fashions that seem stuck somewhere in between the 1960s and 1970s, speaks volumes about what this record might turn out to be: lots of vapor-hea­ded fun with a healthy dose of self-irony, annoying «serious» music lovers, but delighting nerdy college students all over the college world.

Or it could be just a dumb, unmemorable, chaotic load of cretinous kitsch. Fortunately, already the opening track, ʽPlanet Claireʼ, confirms the positive impression. Riding on a grim, but seduc­tive surf-rock / James-Bond riff (they eventually had to co-credit the song to Henry Mancini because of its similarity to the Peter Gunn theme) combined with a robotic organ part that the band might have just as well picked up from Kraftwerk, it's a stylish, thrilling, and completely meaningless dance ride. But by combining the word "planet", invoking psychedelic associations, with the French name Claire, invoking Eric Rohmer and stylish European retro-modern à la 1960s, the B-52's create an illusion that the song is about something — maybe about the seduc­tive magic of fads? — and the guitar/organ duet on the tune still remains one of the most memo­rable flashes of the decade's end.

However, the first time that the B-52's had really caught the public eye was with ʽRock Lobsterʼ, a track that has all the same ingredients as ʽPlanet Claireʼ but keeps them going for a longer peri­od of time, and, more importantly, makes better use of all the vocal talent aboard — Fred Schnei­der sings the absurd lyrics about catching rock lobsters in his best stern Krautrock impersonation, while the band's ladies, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, surround him with single and double harmonies, calls-and-responses that tremble, bleat, wheeze, and bounce off each other like a set of pop harmony clichés that, all of a sudden, felt itself bad in the head and had to be straightjacke­ted. Here is the song that killed John Lennon — according to his own words, ʽRock Lobsterʼ was one of the main reasons he returned to an active music career, since it reminded him of what he and Yoko were doing in the early days of Plastic Ono Band. (And, it is true, some of the girls' vocalizing does owe a good deal to Yoko's brand of avantgarde «Nip-pop»).

The formula mostly stays the same throughout the album — sparkling surf-pop or power-pop riffs dressed in New Wave organs, B-movie-influenced lyrics, and inventive vocal arrangements that pin Schneider's overzealous nerdiness against the ladies' «pseudo-bimbo» lines that want to be Yoko Ono one minute and the Shangri-Las the next one. And this is not mentioning that most of the songs are crazily catchy — ʽThere's A Moon In The Skyʼ and ʽ52 Girlsʼ are de­licious swin­ging vignettes; ʽLavaʼ rocks as hard as its relatively wimpy arrangement allows a song whose ly­rics involve lines like "My heart's cracking like a Krakatoa"; ʽ6060-842ʼ is an obvious throwback to young and innocent days when sympathetic, sexy R&B performers could turn phone numbers into hits (ʽBeechwood 4-5789ʼ) — hey, what's a bona fide pop album without a good phone call song?; and the cover of Petula Clark's ʽDowntownʼ dissipates any final doubts about the record's major influences, if you still had any by the time the last track comes along.

In short, thirty years before the Pipettes, there were the B-52's, who showed the world what it really means to preserve the bubblegum legacy without falling into the trap of generic nostalgia — the best way to preserve old stuff is to carefully mix it with the new stuff. And this mix, al­most completely unique for 1979, is really what raises The B-52's status of «dumb catchy pop» to «landmark recording» — and also what makes it so timeless, because it still sounds just as lo­vingly bizarre, and endearing, today as it did back in the age of leisure suits and walrus mous­taches. Thumbs up, of course.

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bad Company: Company Of Strangers


BAD COMPANY: COMPANY OF STRANGERS (1995)

1) Company Of Strangers; 2) Clearwater Highway; 3) Judas My Brother; 4) Little Martha; 5) Gimme Gimme; 6) Where I Belong; 7) Down Down Down; 8) Abandoned And Alone; 9) Down And Dirty; 10) Pretty Woman; 11) You're The Only Reason; 12) Dance With The Devil; 13) Loving You Out Loud.

Believe it or not, but this is a genuine «comeback». A whole decade after they had broken their allegiance to roots-based hard rock, trading in the salt-of-the-earth aura for hair metal posturing and bland pop hooks, Bad Company are on the right trail again! Goodbye, Brian Howe; hello, Ro­bert Hart, a singer who sounds not at all unlike Paul Rodgers, and who, along with his voice, brings pack the old predilection for country-rock, acoustic guitars, barroom boogie, and, well, everything you need to try and wipe out the memory of that awful last decade.

There is but one problem: the songs, with not a single exception, leave a uniform impression of «uh? what was that?». The sound is perfectly decent — not overproduced, stylishly retroish, quite compatible with what they did in the 1970s. But the vocal and instrumental melodies are every bit as good/bad as the hundreds of «authentic country-rock» records with a hard edge thrown on the mar­ket every year. And even worse, there is a clear feeling that the band has consciously set the mode to «nostalgia»: "Let us make a record the way we used to!"

Because, somehow, I cannot get the same kicks out of something like ʽAbandoned And Aloneʼ the same way the kicks were coming from some of the Rodgers-era «despair» songs. They have everything here: a singer ready to rasp his guts out, Mick Ralphs in the mood for shrill blueswai­ling, a classic build-up from tense, moody, quiet verse to screechy chorus — but there is no desire to try and hook your own emotions up to the song, because it still comes out hollow. I don't know why. ʽJudas My Brotherʼ tries to bare the band's soul in an even more obvious manner (the title alone suggests a shirt-ripping tear-jerker), but its power chords are by now tired rehashings, and its painfully stressed chorus is a stale cliché. Maybe in a different age these tunes would have sounded more involving.

But in this age, it's, you know, mostly stuff you expect to encounter in truck commercials. Too safe, too predictable, too bland (even for a Bad Company album). ʽClearwater Highwayʼ has an odd shade of CCR to it — ʽClearwaterʼ in the title may be a conscious hint, but Hart's vocals on the chorus are very much in a Fogerty style, and the whole thing seems influenced by the likes of ʽSweet Hitch-Hikerʼ, which is a bit silly, but at least turns it into a marginal standout. The rest al­ternates between country ballads and barroom rockers without any staying power.

Still, as the last ever Bad Company album consisting entirely of new studio material, Company Of Strangers is a half-decent way of going out — even the title somehow alludes to them co­ming round full circle, and, indeed, all major fans of the «classic» Rodgers era that jumped ship as soon as Howe came aboard should feel free to scrape this one off the walls of used bins with­out feeling the slightest pang of guilt. If there ever was such a thing as «Bad Company magic» (well, at least when the gruff riff of ʽRock Steadyʼ is combined with Rodgers' singing, it does come close), it is probably not rekindlable any more, not even if they bring Boz Burrell back from the dead. But at least it is possible to make another Bad Company record that does not sound as if it came from a bunch of miserable clowns, applying for whatever job there is to earn one last buck. In that respect, it is a comeback — to the state of «satisfactory boredom».

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Arthur Brown: Galactic Zoo Dossier


ARTHUR BROWN: GALACTIC ZOO DOSSIER (1971)

1) Internal Messenger; 2) Space Plucks; 3) Galactic Zoo; 4) Metal Monster; 5) Simple Man; 6) Night Of The Pigs; 7) Sunrise; 8) Trouble; 9) Brains; 10) Medley: Galactic Zoo / Space Plucks / Galactic Zoo; 11) Creep; 12) Creation; 13) Gypsy Escape; 14) No Time.

As Vincent Crane broke up with Brown to pursue his own preferred trail of madness that would lead him to Atomic Rooster, a variety of mental institutions and, finally, an overdose of pain­killers, Arthur was left without an anchor, and, for a while, floated here and there without much success or purpose. The next anchor ultimately arrived in the guise of one Andy Dalby, a wander­ing guitarist with impressive chops and (presumably) some songwriting abilities. In between the two, Brown and Dalby formed Kingdom Come, later to be known as «Arthur Brown's Kingdom Come», to distinguish it from still another Kingdom Come — which is why their records will be covered here in the Arthur Brown section and not under K. In any case, Kingdom Come was even more of a Brown-controlled vision than Crazy World, where artistic duties were distributed more or less equally between Brown and Crane.

By the time the band, consisting of Brown, Dalby, and a «revolving door»-type variety of rhythm sections, keyboardists, and what-not, had taken its first shape, prog and glam were the hottest new thangs around, and Brown was perfectly willing to cash in on the fad, not the least because, after all, he was the godfather of both, to some extent. But where some people went for «prog», con­centrating on the complexity of the music and somewhat downplaying the stage image, and others went for «glam», dazzling audiences with super-eccentric rock theater tricks, Brown decided to go for both at the same time. His would be a «rock theater extraordinaire for the advanced music lover» — something that is already reflected a bit in the first album title of Kingdom Come: Galactic Zoo Dossier is a title way too posh even for Yes or Genesis, and way too tongue-twis­ted even for David Bowie.

Conceptually, there is one big problem with Kingdom Come: for this project, Brown attempted to take himself and his fantasies more seriously than he used to in 1968, when he was just a delici­ous madman in a burning helmet, using fire as a simple allegory for you-know-what. The three albums of Kingdom Come, on the other hand, have been said to constitute a conceptual triptich of sorts, where Brown is supposed to deal with Humanity, Mortality, Animality, Spirituality, Mora­li­ty, and Paranormality. Problem is — when you have a guy who, just three years ago, declared himself to be the god of hellfire, it is highly unlikely that people will want to take any of his sub­sequent messages with the same degree of seriousness as he might claim to have invested in them. Certainly not if he continues to deliver them in the same overwrought, over-the-top, bombastic manner with schizophrenic overtones. In short, there is a good reason why people chose to have Roger Waters and David Gilmour as their mentors, and mostly ignore Arthur Brown.

Galactic Zoo Dossier, therefore, was doomed from the start — «serious» music listeners passed it by due to too much eccentricity and whimsy, while the less patient listeners, naturally, found nothing that could qualify as an instantaneously memorable hit. The one track here that comes pretty close to the demands of 1970's rock radio is ʽSunriseʼ — a slow, stately, epic that democra­tically alternates between Brown's prophetic hair-in-the-wind wailings and a series of melodic guitar solos that eventually shoot up to glam-rock heaven. But even ʽSunriseʼ has little to remem­ber it by other than Brown's singing (which everyone is already familiar with) and Dalby's solo­ing (which is climactic / cathartic / etc., but in a rather textbook-ish blues-rock manner).

Everything else is just weird, sometimes for the sake of weirdness, sometimes for the more noble sake of breaking boundaries, but rarely staying in place long enough to «rock» the senses or «pu­rify» the soul. Riffs, jams, solos are constantly interrupted by insane (or inane) dialogs, screaming, electronic effects, phasing, speeding up, moving from channel to channel, disappearing in one place and reappearing in another — like on a particularly crazy Mothers of Invention record, but with less inherent humor, more forced psychedelia.

Your overall reaction to the album will probably coincide with the reaction to the first track, which encompasses everything about it — good and bad. Starting off with a minute of stoned dialogs about the Lord and immortality, ʽInternal Messengerʼ sets up what looks like a terrific groove — a big lumbering riffwave crashing on a bedrock of tortured, choking organ chords — only to go on and waste it on one of Brown's pompous «sermons», after which the song turns into a relatively wimpy blues-rock jam, heavy on guitars and organ, but never advancing beyond what many, many other people were capable at the time (remember Steamhammer? well, even if you don't, the second half of this song here still sounds like them).

And this problem keeps recurring. Instead of going truly symphonic, like Yes, or radically avant­garde, like King Crimson, these guys play a sort of «ambitiously mad R'n'B» where the themes aren't fleshed out well enough to be emotional stunners and the solos / jams aren't kick-ass or «kick-soul» enough to place the band on the level with first-rate competitors. Case in point: the final «sprawler», ʽGypsy Escapeʼ, a seven-minute musical journey through dirty organ pumping, angry blues-rock licks, signature changes, and mood variation... and what? Nothing. There was no anchor, and the gypsy escapes faster than it takes me to remember him (her?).

The album does leave a bizarre aftertaste. Brown's presence, no matter how obnoxious the man can be at times; the desire to try out almost anything that they can lay their hand on in the studio, nostalgically reminiscent of the atmosphere of the early days of the Jimi Hendrix Experience; and the boundless ambition oozing out of every hole — these things command respect. But when it comes to the «meat» department, it turns out that looney madman Vince Crane was a real «meat­man», whereas seemingly sane guitarist Andy Dalby is, on the contrary, just a butcher. As Brown admits himself, "I've had a little intellectual placement in a very near corner of my mind" (ʽSim­ple Manʼ) — well, Galactic Zoo Dossier is right in the middle of that intellectual placement, but transplanting it into intellectual placements for other people turned out to be downright impos­sible, and I think I know why.

On the other hand, if you don't think too much about it, but try and let yourself get carried away by the moment — who knows, there might be a nice, thick apocalyptic aura just waiting out there to engulf you. Few people made mad progressive albums in the early 1970s. Bizarre, twisted, yes; idealistic, ambitious, yes; mathematically calculated to reflect Apollonian beauty, for sure. Ga­lac­tic Zoo Dossier, on the other hand, could have been made by Syd Barrett, had he not been consumed by substances so soon, and gone on to develop and improve as a musical artist, instead of just retreating into the dementia. So, all things considered, this is still a unique experience in its own way, and I grudgingly advance it a thumbs up while waiting for the exploding helmet to ar­rive in the mail.

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