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Friday, August 31, 2012

The B-52's: Good Stuff


THE B-52'S: GOOD STUFF (1992)

1) Tell It Like It T-I-Is; 2) Hot Pants Explosion; 3) Good Stuff; 4) Revolution Earth; 5) Dreamland; 6) Is That You Mo-Dean?; 7) The World's Green Laughter; 8) Vision Of A Kiss; 9) Breezin'; 10) Bad Influence.

You'd think that, perhaps, a band as nerdy-hip as the B-52's would know better than to respect the law of «never change a winning formula». But apparently, the temptation was too heavy: three years after the successful «sellout» of Cosmic Thing, Freddie «Slick» Schneider and his gang are back, still goaded by Nile Rodgers to do more of the same. Cindy Wilson, however, took some time off, and thus avoided directly involving her name in this project — arguably the silliest and slumpiest in the band's entire career.

Essentially, Good Stuff is just a laughably pale copy of its predecessor. The overall sound is just as generic and just as «non-awful», but the «risqué» songs sound more silly and the «serious» songs sound more boring. The three opening numbers have plenty of energy, but much of it goes to waste already on ʽTell It Like It T-I-Isʼ, which holds a flat boogie pattern over five minutes to inform us that the band wants to «tell it like it is» without saying a word about the «it» in ques­tion — faintly funny for about two minutes, then starts getting repetitive and annoying as heck. ʽHot Pants Explosionʼ puts us shin-deep in sexual territory, blankly firing with some of the stupi­dest lines to grace a B-52's record ("If you would be so kind / Put on those red hot pants and take a stroll through my mind" — what?). And the title track is a certified exercise in double entendres — "gonna wallow in your lovin' hollow", yeah right.

But at least, if all these tracks do make it seem like the band has completely forgotten its magic touch where words are concerned, the dance grooves and Kate Pierson's vocal flourishes on all three are still enough to redeem the sinners. Particularly the flourishes — the lady works authen­tic magic with the aiyee-aiyeehs on ʽTell Itʼ, the whoah-whoahs on ʽHot Pantsʼ, and the bom-bom bom-boms on ʽGood Stuffʼ so fervently that I find all three cases irresistible. Schneider has the unfortunate disadvantage of always sporting the same robotic-nerdy personality that does not al­low for a lot of variation (a robot is a robot) — Kate, with her reckless party gal stance, always gets to be more versatile and expressive.

Once the album starts getting bogged down in less gimmicky compositions, however, not even the vocals help much longer. ʽDreamlandʼ sacrifices seven and a half minutes in an attempt to join dance-pop and psychedelia on a groove that never seems to change upon initial installation and, overall, sounds like it needs many more overdubs and attention to detail in order to achieve its goals. ʽThe World's Green Laughterʼ manages to be a quirky, completely instrumental eco-an­them, but it states its point in thirty seconds and then wastes my time for another hundred and fifty. Finally, ʽVision Of A Kissʼ pushes us into completely generic territory — is this song at all worthy of the B-52's signature? Doesn't it belong in the world of Whitney Houston?..

In this pathetic, undeserving «sequel» attempt to cash in on their newly found fortune, the band seems to have finally «jumped the shark» — taken completely out of context, Good Stuff is a semi-decent dance-pop exercise, but as a conclusion to a fifteen-year old career, it is embarras­sing. Even the sci-fi references (ʽIs That You Mo-Dean?ʼ) now sound wedged in between cliché and nostalgia. And if we can tolerate some tastelessness on the part of these guys — they are too smart, after all, to be disgustingly tasteless — tolerating boredom is something we should not be doing in anybody's case, much less a band that used to regularly infuse their grooves with surpri­singly emotional content.

Yes, Good Stuff is about as exciting as you'd expect any album with such a title to be — if you knew your record was going to be a masterpiece, a title like Good Stuff would hardly be on your list of serious candidates. I am not giving it a thumbs down for only one reason: I am totally in awe over how such an obviously, blatantly fail-oriented record still manages to have occasionally catchy hooks and devote enough care to convincing us that all those thirty or so session musicians  credited in the liner notes actually did play on it. In other words, Good Stuff should have been awful stuff — through some miracle of the human brain, it is actually mediocre stuff. But there is still a long distance to be covered from mediocre to good — or, rather, from merely existing as a band to the stage where that existence continues to be justified. In 1992, there seems to have been little justification for the continuing existence of the B-52's.

Check "Good Stuff" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Good Stuff" (MP3) on Amazon

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Badfinger: Straight Up


BADFINGER: STRAIGHT UP (1971)

1) Take It All; 2) Baby Blue; 3) Money; 4) Flying; 5) I'd Die Babe; 6) Name Of The Game; 7) Suitcase; 8) Sweet Tuesday Morning; 9) Day After Day; 10) Sometimes; 11) Perfection; 12) It's Over.

There is clearly a certain distance that separates Straight Up from No Dice, but it is hard to ex­press it in words — with the solid, but not spectacular consistency of Badfinger through those five years during which the band members somehow managed not to hang themselves, it takes a little getting used to their style in order to spot the evolution.

It might have something to do with the experience that the band gained from playing on Harri­son's All Things Must Pass: Straight Up seems to aspire to bigger pop heights, sometimes even to «epic» heights, as if George and Phil Spector somehow showed these kids the light, and the light quickly led them away from the well-focused, but thin sound of No Dice. This is not neces­sarily a good thing.

On one hand, it does result in a more consistent listening experience — not only is there not a single utter embarrassment here, like ʽWatford Johnʼ, there are also fewer straightforward «Beat­lisms», with the band striving further and further towards their own identity. But on the other one — surprisingly, there's always that other one — this does come at the expense of some of the «pure fun» quotient. Here, Badfinger are getting more serious, more philosophical, more pensive and gloomy, and no matter how hard you try to tackle the «power pop» tag on Straight Up, it always seems to come off in a matter of minutes. ʽI Can't Take Itʼ and ʽNo Matter Whatʼ — there's your power-pop: happy crunchy riffs and life-asserting choruses. These songs are more like «epic folk-pop» or something.

The original Straight Up was rejected by Apple, allegedly at the instigation of Harrison himself, and for good reason: the recordings, some of which are now available as bonus tracks on the CD release, sound like demos — with the song structures, lyrics, and melodies fully worked out, but the production and playing leave quite a lot to be desired. Harrison volunteered to produce the new sessions himself, and even ended up playing on a few tracks (he is distinctly credited for a guitar duet with Pete Ham on ʽDay After Dayʼ), but eventually fell out of the project because of the Concert for Bangladesh — where Badfinger actually backed him to return the favor, earning some ambiguous onstage praise from George ("I don't know if they're coming through on the acoustic guitars", quoth George during the band introduction part).

So Todd Rundgren was brought in to complete the sessions, and a fine job he did, with a thick, heavy, and at the same time crisp / sharp production style — re-injecting as much basic pop rock ener­gy as possible into what began life as a somewhat limp folk-pop exercise. Whether this hel­ped the band commercially is hard to guess: both Straight Up and its singles did moderately well on the charts — ʽDay After Dayʼ even broke them into the US Top 5 — but, on the whole, sales and chart positions could hardly be called impressive. There was nothing «titillating» about this kind of music, be it from a T. Rex, Led Zep, or Jethro Tull point of view; and the lack of a gol­den-voiced singer prevented the band from hitting it with the housewives, either. (I do have to say that quite a few of these here songs could have used a different vocal approach — Pete Ham bra­vely, but pointlessly sacrificing his weak throat on ʽTake It Allʼ is hardly the most pleasant expe­rience of my life).

And yet, a careful listen to Straight Up reveals more individual character and maturity than No Dice. The place of ʽNo Matter Whatʼ, with its seriously clichéd lyrics and, what's worse, some­what exaggerated attitudes, is here taken by ʽBaby Blueʼ, an entirely different type of bombastic love anthem — with open slots for some personal insecurity and some credible tenderness, con­densed and then exploded with each chorus release of "my Baby Blue...". And instead of ʽWith­out Youʼ, written according to the strict rules of the sentimental love ballad canon, we now have ʽName Of The Gameʼ — a piano-driven proto-power ballad with philosophical aspirations, clearly inspired by all that extra time shared in George's company; its hooks may not be as well pronounced as on ʽWithout Youʼ, but, on the other hand, there is no danger of ever sniffing a whiff of cheese on this particular occasion.

I am not a huge fan of ʽDay After Dayʼ, if that means somehow singling out this song from the rest of the Badfinger catalog and putting it on some Top 10 pedestal or other. Its main vocal hook seems based on a cheap trick (extra loudness emphasis on the song title in the chorus) and its main instrumental hook seems based on a cheap flourish (don't those piano notes they hit at the end of each chorus sound a bit Carpenter-ish to you?). However, for many people the chief point of attraction here is the Harrison / Ham slide guitar duet (which allegedly took a very long time to work out correctly, and was the chief problem that prevented the band from including the song in their live setlist) — and here I'd have to agree: all the lovers of George's slide style circa 1970-73 will want to include this resplendent example in their collection (and Pete is certainly no slouch, either, when it comes to standing up to the master).

Meanwhile, Joey Molland emerges as the band's only true rocker-in-residence: ʽSometimesʼ and ʽSuitcaseʼ add a necessary pinch of kick-ass excitement (the latter actually rocks harder in its original version, with distorted rhythm guitar ex­changed for a slide guitar and electric piano arrangement under Rundgren's supervision), although the "..tell me why" at the end of the first verse ʽSometimesʼ brings on uncomfortable associations with the Beatles' ʽWhat Goes Onʼ. In ad­dition, Molland and Evans collaborate on ʽFlyingʼ, which also happens to share its title with a Beatles song and its attitude with colorful psychedelia — but actually sounds more like contem­porary solo McCartney than anything circa 1967.

By the time Straight Up finally hit the record shelves, the band was already being ripped off by its managers, but its problems had not yet struck full time; consequently, Straight Up is the last relatively «cloudless» Badfinger record — its «dense», «serious» sound has more to do with a sincere desire to grow up and plant themselves some relevance, rather than with drawing inspira­tion for their art from their personal problems. I am not sure they were quite up to the task, and, faced with an uneasy choice between the «early misguided blunders» of No Dice (ʽWatford Johnʼ) and the occasionally forced, not-too-natural «seriousness» of Straight Up (ʽPerfectionʼ — I have no love for this song at all; it just adds some stuffy bullshit philosophy to an acoustic riff that re-writes ʽNo Matter Whatʼ) — I'd rather choose No Dice, albeit by a very thin margin.

Still, any album with the forceful delicacy of ʽBaby Blueʼ, the slide gorgeousness of ʽDay After Dayʼ, the toe-tapping catchiness of ʽSuitcaseʼ, the sweet bitterness of ʽSweet Tuesday Morningʼ and so on — any such album is a respectable thumbs up by definition; and anyway, Badfinger were not really a band that would dare to, or be capable of significantly overstepping their limits. In fact, probably the only way they could have recorded a bad album would be to live and let live all the way up to the mid-1980s; fortunately for us and unfortunately for them, the silly people at Apple Records took all the necessary precautions so as not to let that happen.

Check "Straight Up" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Straight Up" (MP3) on Amazon

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Arthur Brown: Speak No Tech


ARTHUR BROWN: SPEAK NO TECH (1981)

1) King Of England; 2) Conversations; 3) Strange Romance; 4) Not Fade Away; 5) The Morning Was Cold; 6) Speak No Tech; 7) Names Are Names; 8) Love Lady; 9) Big Guns Don't Lie; 10) Take A Picture; 11*) You Don't Know; 12*) Old Friends My Colleague; 13*) Lost My Soul In London; 14*) Joined Forever; 15*) Mandala; 16*) Desert Floor.

Very little information is available on this and the next album: minimally distributed upon origi­nal release, out of print for years, we are nearing the bottom end of Brown's «scale of recogniza­bility» out here. The original date does seem to be 1981,  and the only other thing I think I know is that the producer was Craig Leon, for whom this must have been quite a curious stop in betwe­en working with the Ramones and Blondie on their self-titled debuts and then working with the likes of Joshua Bell since his late-1990s «conversion» to the world of classical.

And there was quite a lot to produce: Speak No Tech, contrary to its self-ironic title, is com­pletely electronic — and we know that when Arthur Brown goes all the way in any direction, the man may overdo it, but he certainly does not underdo anything. So here, there is a transparent at­tempt to show us all... or, at least, just to check up on the idea that electronic music does rule the day. Not in the Kraftwerk sense («robotic-flavored minimalism for elite audiences»), not in the early period Depeche Mode sense («trivial, but catchy dance music for the masses») — simply as an answer to the question: «What will music sound like once live instruments and analog equip­ment are gone for good?»

Silly-sounding question, for sure, but not that silly when answered by somebody like Arthur Brown — a guy who, no matter how obnoxious or pretentious he might get at times, has always meant business. Speak No Tech is not an example of «electronica» as such; rather, it is an ex­perimental art-rock album made with exclusively electronic means. With dramatically recited theatrical pieces, lyrical ballads, «rockers», and only a few numbers that bear a strong «New Wave» stamp, it manages to be surprisingly diverse and inventive for a record that seems to have been born out of a simple «oh, I got me a brand new Yamaha, I wonder what I can do with it now?» type of idea.

As with all of Brown's albums where «experiment» takes precedence over «artistic expression», Speak No Tech is a little baffling, and is more likely to pique one's curiosity than the soul. The best example is probably Arthur's daring deconstruction of Buddy Holly's ʽNot Fade Awayʼ — what used to be a prime example of Diddley-beat-based dance-pop has been transformed in a sea of electronic waves, lapping against the aural shore with perfect clock regularity. It's quite a puzz­ling piece of work, particularly so if you are familiar with the original — or, at least, the Stones cover. But who knows, maybe that is exactly the way that the little green aliens who made their camp in the back of Ar­thur's mind dance to Buddy Holly in their parallel universe.

Odd enough, some of the numbers are quite catchy: the New Wave synth riff in ʽConversationsʼ, for instance, might owe its existence to a period of heavy listening to Gary Numan, but is quite self-contained nevertheless. The repetitive mantra «speak no tech, speak no tech» in the title track is annoying and hypnotic at the same time; so is the melancholic dirge melody of ʽNames Are Namesʼ and the amusing «romantic techno» of ʽLove Ladyʼ. In fact, most of the songs here have something at least to draw our attention — and the something can well be anything, including, for instance, an artificially prolonged scream at the end of ʽBig Guns Don't Lieʼ.

If only there had been some clearer sense of purpose to the album — its least comfortable aspect is that it seems to be so totally committed to electronics just for commitment's sake. Usually, ele­ctronica artists are «sonic painters», plunging us into sci-fi environments, or «atmospheric pro­phets», using the coldness and detachedness of their instruments to express cool subtle irony on the dehumanization of humanity, or something like that. Speak No Tech, however, is neither complex and multi-layered enough to create such an environment, nor does it present any good reason as to why synthesizers are the only musical means on it. Okay, so if this is the music of to­morrow, then why does the first song divert us with a monolog on the fate of the ʽKing Of Eng­landʼ? What's up with the modernist poetry recital on ʽThe Morning Was Coldʼ? Neither these nor most of the other tracks seem to actively require an electronic coating.

Consequently, Speak No Tech still gets a thumbs up for curiosity's sake — it is certainly a dif­ferent album from most, and a «different» album from Arthur Brown that stands out in his own catalog is different indeed. But do not despair if you are not able to lay your hands on it: it is any­thing but a «lost masterpiece» — an attractive period curio, for sure, but reflecting much too blur­ry a vision to fall in love with it, I'd say.

For the record: the (semi-official?) CD release of the al­bum adds a bunch of bonus tracks that seems to be randomly assembled from various points in Arthur's career — including a very early, hiss-crackle-stuffed white R'n'B number, ʽYou Don't Knowʼ, that he recorded in 1965 with his first band, The Diamonds. Funny coincidence, I guess, but the heavily distorted electric organ that drives the song, from a sheer sonic perspective, fits in brilliantly with the electronics of Speak No Tech — and beats most of it to hell.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Beau Brummels: Bradley's Barn


THE BEAU BRUMMELS: BRADLEY'S BARN (1968)

1) Turn Around; 2) An Added Attraction (Come And See Me); 3) Deep Water; 4) Long Walking Down To Misery; 5) Little Bird; 6) Cherokee Girl; 7) I'm A Sleeper; 8) Loneliest Man In Town; 9) Love Can Fall A Long Way Down; 10) Jessica; 11) Bless You California.

Somewhere out there is a model that convincingly predicts a Beau Brummels album recorded in 1968 would be more effective and natural than a Beau Brummels album recorded in 1967. May­be this idea has biased me from the start, but I do really feel that Bradley's Barn — titled after the Wilson County studio where the remaining Brummels, Valentino and Elliott, teamed up with some Nashville pros — seriously improves on Triangle. It may have nothing on the uniqueness of the sound of ʽMagic Hollowʼ, but it sounds like a record that these guys really had a lot of fun making, putting off most of the pressure of the preceding years.

Obviously, by 1968 the subtle «roots-rock revolution» was in an active phase, and, as The Byrds, The Band, and Bob Dylan were cleansing their organisms from psychedelic «excesses», the Brummels and their original folk-pop vibe suddenly got one more chance. The result is a record that may be even more underrated than Triangle — eleven lovely exercises in country-rock, with Elliott taking care of the music and Valentino of the words (usually): not generic country-rock, mind you (a.k.a. «Singing Cowboy rewrites with hippie lyrics»), but interesting attempts at mer­ging the spirit of country-rock with the band's experience in baroque pop flourishes.

Unfortunately, neither the album itself nor any of the singles released on its basis charted at all. ʽLift Meʼ, an experimental, but catchy patchwork that housed too many different beasts (rock­abilly rhythmics, psychedelic woo-hoos, folk vocal melody, Britpop bridge, etc.), was the first failure that was not even included on the LP (you can find it as a bonus track on today's CD ver­sions). ʽLong Walking Down To Miseryʼ was much more straightforward, with a very strong, if also quite delicate and lyrical, delivery from Valentino, but its hooks (including an oddly fussy set of blues-rock acoustic flourishes during each chorus, disrupting the steady, lazy country flow of the melody) were probably too subtle for anyone to notice at the time.

Finally, there was ʽCherokee Girlʼ — a 3:30 «epic» tale of the troubled allegoric relations betwe­en the «Cherokee Girl» in question and her friend The Coyote (an influence on Joni Mitchell's subsequent ʽCoyoteʼ, perhaps? lyrically, at least, there may be some unpaid debt here), with an intelligent, subtly grand strings arrangement; but, again, probably a bit less focused and more «wimpy» than necessary for significant chart success in 1968.

Neither these nor any of the other songs hit as hard as ʽLaugh, Laughʼ, and in 1968, competition was so tough that you either had to land your hardest punch in one go, or refrain from hitting at all; and the delicate, intelligent charm of Bradley's Barn only emerges with a little bit of time. The biggest surprise is Valentino — at this point, he is a masterful crooner, not busy butchering great songs with crudely experimental vocalizing techniques, as he did on '66, or trying out vari­ous «unusual» styles of singing to match the magic-expecting wishes of the public in 1967, but simply delivering the message with plenty of power, a good sense of pitch, and elegant phrasing and modulation; honestly, Bradley's Barn could simply be one of the best «sung» records of the year. (Especially since the Hollies only released an album of Dylan covers that year — Allan Clarke would usually be Valentino's biggest direct competitor).

But many of these songs are quite interestingly written, in addition. ʽTurn Aroundʼ, for instance, through its «dark folk chords» adds a bit of menace, a faint devilish grin even, perhaps, to what could otherwise be just an inno­cent love story. ʽDeep Waterʼ is a country-rocker that really does rock, despite always staying in acoustic territory. ʽI'm A Sleeperʼ is an incidental response to the Beatles' ʽI'm Only Sleepingʼ as presented from the perspective of a talented hillbilly with a strange pen­chant for cello overdubs. Okay, really, none of these songs are all that great — what really matters is that they all sound nice, easy-going, natural, and with an underlying streak of good humor and irony.

Overall, Bradley's Barn is a very nice artefact for us to dig up after all these years — traditio­nalist as it is, the Brummels were still able to make it ring out with its own voice: rootsy, yes, but keeping its feet just a few inches above the ground, with echoey traces of fantasyland psychedelia still contained in its keyboards and strings arrangements. That the band (duo) finally disintegrated soon after the album flopped on the charts, even worse than Triangle, was probably inevitable, and, anyway, I am not sure that they would have been able to replicate Barn's subtle charms even one more time without going completely limp and lifeless on us. But speculation is one thing, and facts are another: Bradley's Barn is what we have, and it remains a solid «B-level» album from a rare era whose «solid B-level» offerings are well worth seeking out. Thumbs up.

Check "Bradley's Barn" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bo Carter: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 4 (1936-1938)


BO CARTER: COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS, VOL. 4 (1936-1938)

1) It's Too Wet; 2) Dinner Blues; 3) Ain't Nobody Got It; 4) Cigarette Blues; 5) Pussy Cat Blues; 6) The Ins And Outs Of My Girl; 7) All Around Man (part 2); 8) Bo Carter's Advice; 9) Doubled Up In A Knot; 10) Worried G Blues; 11) Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me; 12) Don't Mash My Digger So Deep; 13) Flea On Me; 14) Got To Work Somewhere; 15) Sue Cow; 16) Shake 'Em On Down; 17) A Girl For Every Day Of The Week; 18) Trouble In Blues; 19) World In A Jug; 20) Who's Been Here; 21) Whiskey Blues; 22) Shoo That Chicken.

Vol. 4 is clearly an improvement over Vol. 3 — simple statistics shows that Bo is actively back to the world of innuendos and double entendres: even one lone title like ʽThe Ins And Outs Of My Girlʼ is enough to regain the honors, and that's not even mentioning the actual lyrics ("She got something that I really do love / It ain't in her sto­cking, and you know it's just above").

Musically, the 1936-38 sessions are very sparse: no harmonica or piano accompaniment, and Bo's own guitar skills were not exactly improving (although everything is perfectly listenable as usual). But lyrically, he was on such a roll that it only makes sense to turn this review into a set of mini-quotes. Say, from ʽCigarette Bluesʼ: "Just draw on my cigarette baby / Until you make my good ashes come". Or from ʽYour Biscuits Are Good Enough For Meʼ: "Some men don't care for bis­cuits / They like the doggone fat bun". From ʽAll Around Manʼ: "Now I ain't no milkman / I ain't no milkman's son / I can pull your titties till the milkman comes". Want some more? Well, think of this as the «free tour introduction».

Only a tiny handful of songs veer away from the carnal subject this time — of which only one number, ʽGot To Work Somewhereʼ, deserves special mention: it is Bo's first (I think) and most straightforward number that directly addresses Depression issues, and although he performs it the same «humble» way as he sings and plays everything else, it shouldn't pass by unnoticed: without an occasional excourse into tragedy of this kind, Bo's image of a «sexual clown» could have pas­sed for genuine identity rather than an entertaining act. But this here song gives us a guy in the same tur­moil and distress like everybody else at the time — "beneath this mask I am wearing a frown" indeed.

Of course, one frown is just enough: half a dozen more sides like this and the ef­fect would have been washed out with boredom. So it's a good thing that ʽGot To Workʼ is stuck here somewhere in the middle, and that the collection starts off with ʽIt's Too Wetʼ (what is too wet? Why, Bo's shirt is too wet — what did you think of?..) and ends with the equally playful ʽShoo That Chi­ckenʼ (because he interferes with "my loving at night"). Welcome back to the state of predictable reliability, Mr. Carter. The 1930s wouldn't have been what they were without you.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bright Eyes: Cassadaga


BRIGHT EYES: CASSADAGA (2007)

1) Clairaudients (Kill Or Be Killed); 2) Four Winds; 3) If The Brakeman Turns My Way; 4) Hot Knives; 5) Make A Plan To Love Me; 6) Soul Singer In A Session Band; 7) Classic Cars; 8) Middleman; 9) Cleanse Song; 10) No One Would Riot For Less; 11) Coat Check Dream Song; 12) I Must Belong Somewhere; 13) Lime Tree.

Since I have pretty much exhausted my share of pejoratives to address the work of Conor Oberst, I will try to simply stick to the facts from now on. Cassadaga was released on April 10, 2007, on the Saddle Creek label. It has thirteen tracks, clocking in at slightly over 62 minutes. Mike Mogis produced the sessions, which altogether included over thirty different musicians — an absolute record for Bright Eyes, who would later return to a much smaller scale. The «real» album art was hidden from view, so that you could only see all the hidden messages (including a poorly done machine-version Russian translation of the phrase «draw another bloody bath») with the accom­panying «Spectral Decoder».

Sales were modest; critical acclaim — near universal, with the ar­guable exception of a lukewarm response from Pitchfork. Also, according to Wikipedia, Johnny Depp named Cassadaga one of his favorite things in 2007. Also, in 2007, Johnny Depp starred in Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End. So far, modern science has not conclusively disproven the lack of a logical con­nec­tion be­tween these two events, which, to a tiny degree, somewhat justifies my mentioning them in the same paragraph. And — just in case — be warned.

From top to bottom, Cassadaga consists of more or less traditionally-oriented songs: with the ex­ception of some atmospheric intros and outros that involve electronics, noises, and spoken vocals, most of it can be defined as relatively straightforward country-rock, usually with complex, multi-layered arrangements, with an acoustic guitar part at the core and from two to three to thirty extra musicians on top. This makes Cassadaga into the most accessible (for general audiences) album Oberst had released up to that date (not counting the Christmas record) — without electronics, lengthy solo acoustic confessionals, and with a much more restrained, balanced, some would say «mature» approach to singing, Cassadaga could easily be enjoyed by the grandfather and grand­son alike; a true piece of «family entertainment» if there ever was one — and I do insist that I am still sticking to the facts, for now.

In terms of melodies, we do not usually expect a lot of invention or originality from roots-rock albums that honor the old traditions, and expect them twice less if the creative force behind the roots-rock album is Conor Oberst. I did not get the impression of hearing even one melody that was not already familiar from somewhere, and there are quite straightforward reminiscences every now and then (ʽFour Windsʼ draws upon ʽThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Downʼ, and ʽMiddlemanʼ recogni­zably reinvents ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ, to quote just two examples). As far as arrangements are concerned, they manage to keep some diversity by staying away from the «wall of sound» conception — despite all the layers, each song is usually defined by just one in­strumental type: fiddle on ʽFour Windsʼ, organ and piano on ʽIf The Brakeman Turns My Wayʼ, strings on ʽMake A Plan To Love Meʼ, woodwinds on ʽCleanse Songʼ, etc.

The lyrical journey of Oberst continues unimpeded as his words start making even less literal sense, and his allusions start getting more and more obscure, sometimes to the point where it does not seem like there are any allusions. Conor himself proclaimed that he did not want to include any «political» songs on the record, but not only that, very few of them — if any, in fact — deal with the old subject of «the end of the world through the eyes of a recently dumped loser». In their place, we have a solidified, nearly-finalized prophetic vision, perhaps best summarized in ʽFour Windsʼ: "And it's the sum of man, slouching towards Bethlehem / A heart just can't contain all of that empty space / It breaks, it breaks, it breaks".

It could be argued, in fact, that at this point Oberst's primary source of influence is The Band — and their «intellectualized» brand of roots-rock, pumping new wine into the old winebag. (Which, of course, begs for the question — exactly how many times can you fill an old winebag with new wine before it starts leaking on your boots? — but let's not forget about sticking to the facts). The big difference is that the spirit of The Band was more in line with the old folk idea of humble recognition of and submission to one's fate, whereas Oberst — on record, at least — is still a re­bel, and, of course, nobody in The Band would ever think of «offending» the Bible, and a song title like ʽI Must Belong Somewhereʼ is decidedly not «Bandish».

(For the record, I personally take significant offense not at the line "the Bible is blind, the Torah's deaf, the Qur'an is mute / If you burned them all together you'd be closer to the truth", but rather at the follow-up: "They're poring over Sanskrit under Ivy League moons while shadows lengthen in the sun". Really, Conor — empty ignorant hacks at abstract «bookishness» are so passé. Write me a letter if you are truly interested in how to poke fun at certain genuinely detrimental scientific practices of the day. Even better still, just write something nasty about Lady Gaga instead. Okay, back to the facts, the facts, the facts).

Actually, I have no more facts that would be useful for this here review, so let us just close it with a final flourish of completely subjective opinion, worthless from anybody else's perspective: I met exactly one song on this album that did not sound deadly boring. That was ʽMake A Plan To Love Meʼ, and I ascribe its success almost completely to the exquisitely arranged vocal harmo­nies of Stacy and Sherrie DuPree from the Texan band Eisley. As for everything else — I'd just as soon listen to Garth Brooks. Mush is mush, no matter if it consists of three or thirty-three lay­ers, and Cassadaga is mush supreme — but yes, it probably must take some talent to get thirty professional musicians to play on an album that does not leave even a passing impression. Final judgement? Why don't we all just share my thumbs down and go put on some Animals instead. Heck, I could even go for some Woody Guthrie — even though that guy never got thirty people to play on any of his records.

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Autechre: Amber


AUTECHRE: AMBER (1994)

1) Foil; 2) Montreal; 3) Silverside; 4) Slip; 5) Glitch; 6) Piezo; 7) Nine; 8) Further; 9) Yulquen; 10) Nil; 11) Teartear.

This is Autechre's first «real» album, written and recorded coherently over a period of six months — and there are two ways to think about it. First, if you are obsessed with tracing the artistic evo­lution of Autechre, and with the concept that «no Autechre album sounds like any other Autechre album», you can follow the line of the All-Music Guide review. Essentially, it states that on Am­ber Autechre are beginning to drift away from «IDM» and into the realms of the unknown, un­explored, unpredictable, and, perhaps, even unpalatable — for those who prefer their electronic music to soothe the body rather than the soul.

But if you are not that adamant about finding ten major differences between Incunabula and Am­ber, you might end up not finding even one. From a sheer statistical point of view, the tracks on Amber do seem to rely a little less on loud rhythmic beats than those on Incunabula — once you have bothered with an actual countdown, that is. But in general, the album's «aura» does not seem to have changed at all: the same all-pervading mood of the «ice factory» is still the major at­traction, and, at the same time, there are only about two or three tracks on the entire album that are not «danceable» from a purely technical point of view.

If there is a difference, the way I see it, it is mostly in that the keyboard parts for Amber seem to be generally more «non-descript» than those on Incunabula — reflecting, perhaps, the relative hastiness, with which the album was made, or maybe a conscious desire to move one step closer to pure «ambient». ʽSilversideʼ, with its synth-strings playing out like a soundtrack to a voyage in deep space, is probably the best example; but many other tracks really behave in the same way, except that the soft and static atmospheric waves of the synths clash with hard layers of electronic percussion (ʽFurtherʼ — ten minutes of mild techno beats over a shallow sea of hums, whooshes, and whispers); unfortunately, these waves are simply not evocative enough to stimulate creative writing. It does not help, either, that, much too often, Brown and Booth seem to be stuck in an overtly happy mood: tracks like ʽSlipʼ and ʽNineʼ prompt you to simply jump into a state of trouble-free coma and stay there frozen for all of their duration. It's a funny feeling, but not with­out a side effect of silly boredom.

For me personally, Amber never manages to build up on the strength of the opening number. ʽFoilʼ is all based around one simple trick — the recurrent raising and lowering of the pitch of «tuned percussion» — and it is one of those great effects that really makes you feel inside a giant sci-fi factory, helpless, miserable, and overwhelmed by the industrial might. (Actually, it is the sort of factory where most of the action is hidden from direct view — only the repetitive percus­sive noises make you aware of the billions of operations per second that are going on). Although it is one of the most minimalistic tracks on the album, it is the only one that has an atmosphere of «cold & cruel» grandiosity; everything else is quite playful, even «cute» in comparison.

Instinctively, I feel compelled to label Amber as a quick, not very interesting toss-off, not offer­ing much in terms of either innovation or emotionality that the assembled tracks on Incunabula did not already have. It really comes very close to being «just boring» a lot of times — a problem that weighs much more heavily on electronic music than on «live» music — and, overall, it just seems like a space-filler, in no way predicting the radical twists that Autechre would undertake already on the next record. Maybe not exactly a «sophomore slump», as they say (is that termino­logy even applicable for IDM releases?), but a thumbs down all the same.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

The B-52's: Cosmic Thing


THE B-52'S: COSMIC THING (1989)

1) Cosmic Thing; 2) Dry County; 3) Deadbeat Club; 4) Love Shack; 5) Junebug; 6) Roam; 7) Bushfire; 8) Channel Z; 9) Topaz; 10) Follow Your Bliss.

Three years into Ricky's death, with Keith Strickland switching to guitars and keyboards from drums, the B-52's once again appeared on the scene. Three years can be a long time, though, and this is not quite the same old B-52's we used to know. If there is an objective proof for that, it would be the almost unexpected commercial success — Cosmic Thing went quadruple platinum, spawned a whole bunch of hugely popular singles, and turned the band from semi-underground club favorites into a mainstream attraction. The closest analogy to this whole situation that I can think of is the 1987 «comeback» of Aerosmith.

The good news is that the B-52's did not have to sink to the same bottom of the tastelessness pond that Aerosmith chose to: Cosmic Thing preserves a large chunk of the old spirit, humor, sarcasm, and wittiness. But things have changed. All of the songs here sound extremely polished — calcu­lated, measured, rehearsed, with no space at all left to the delightfully unpredictable «hooliganry» of old. This becomes less surprising when one learns that the album was produced by Nile Rod­gers, the slickness master behind Chic, Bowie's Let's Dance, Madonna's Like A Virgin, and, most notably, Mick Jagger's seminal masterpiece She's The Boss; but that does not make the con­trast between Wilson-era and post-Wilson-era B-52's any less jarring.

Still, it makes little sense to complain. It is clear that after the shock of 1986, the B-52's could no longer be quite the same, and, besides, they were ten years older than when they started — and had every right to polish up their sound, adjusting it to their current age. At least none of these songs sound «unnatural» or, God forbid, «nostalgic». And, furthermore, at the end of the day what really matters is whether these songs have hooks (they have), show intelligence (they do), and manage to cleverly bypass or tone down the sonic clichés of late 1980s pop.

The latter is actually quite important: the music relies on a healthy mix of real drums, guitars, and keyboards (most of them supplied by a host of session musicians; Strickland is the only band member credited with a lot of instrumental work). It is sometimes mildly spoiled with electronic en­hancement, but, on the whole, Cosmic Thing does not come across as something tightly tied to the year of 1989 — most of it could have been recorded, say, in 1981. Only one track, ʽChannel Zʼ, bears the «experimental» trademarks of generic late-Eighties dance-pop, and might therefore polarize audiences; I think it actually works, and the robotic dance-pop arrangement fits in well with the song's thematic message ("I am livin' on Channel Z, getting nothing but static, static in my attic from Channel Z"), but any band that goes all the way from ʽRock Lobsterʼ to ʽChannel Zʼ goes a long way indeed, and once you remember that, it gets a little disturbing.

The big hits — ʽLove Shackʼ, ʽRoamʼ, ʽDeadbeat Clubʼ — are all catchy, pleasant enough pop tunes, and now they mostly work on the contrast between Fred Schneider's eternally nerdy vocals (one thing that hasn't changed a bit since the early days) and Kate and Cindy's now-well-disciplined singing. The reason why they became so popular probably has to do with the «party atmosphere», particularly on ʽLove Shackʼ, which one could almost see coming from the likes of Prince — of course, as usual, the new generation of fans mostly missed the irony. It would be much harder to miss it on ʽDeadbeat Clubʼ, one of the most sentimental tributes to wasting one's life away in the history of pop music, but I suppose that it can be done, too — there are, after all, quite a lot of people who are genuinely happy to belong to the «Deadbeat Club».

Meanwhile, ʽJunebugʼ and ʽBushfireʼ are fast-tempo pop-rockers that mostly get by on the strength of their vocal hooks (wonderful arrangements of the girls' vocals on ʽBushfireʼ, in parti­cular); ʽTopazʼ is a lightly anthemic bit of musical utopia with an atmosphere of disarming inno­cence; and the final instrumental ʽFollow Your Blissʼ is romantic surf-pop with electronic over­tones that certainly makes much more sense than ʽWork That Skirtʼ, for instance.

Essentially, I cannot fault any of these songs — not a single one of them ever drifts towards adult contemporary (an easy temptation) or completely generic dance-pop that places most of its faith in the beat rather than the melody; and I am certainly less troubled about the commercial win of Cosmic Thing than about the insane popularity of late-era Aerosmith, and join the fray with an assured thumbs up. But nobody who wants to understand what the B-52's were «all about» should ever begin with Cosmic Thing, because this here party is set up according to strict rules, whereas classic era B-52's rarely ever gave a damn about rules in the first place.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Badfinger: No Dice


BADFINGER: NO DICE (1970)

1) I Can't Take It; 2) I Don't Mind; 3) Love Me Do; 4) Midnight Caller; 5) No Matter What; 6) Without You; 7) Blod­wyn; 8) Better Days; 9) It Had To Be; 10) Watford John; 11) Believe Me; 12) We're For The Dark; 13*) Get Down; 14*) Friends Are Hard To Find; 15*) Mean Mean Jemima; 16*) Loving You; 17*) I'll Be The One.

It is easy to see why this record is generally seen as Badfinger's «proper» debut. It is their first al­bum with a stable lineup, as Joey Molland replaces Ron Griffiths, with Tom Evans switching to bass duties — and all four members of the band sharing songwriting duties, while no longer ac­cepting donations from outside songwriters (not that they were offered any: by this time, Paul McCartney had his own solo career and could keep all of his non-Beatle-worthy trifles for him­self if he wanted them to appear at all). Furthermore, all the songs were written and recorded wi­thin a limited time period, with the sole purpose of forming a coherent cycle.

And that they do. On No Dice, Badfinger are a perfectly competent, self-assured pop band with one edge very faintly touching the hard-rock scene and the other one reaching out to folk- and country-rock. They are not Beatles clones — even though the album is full to the brim of consci­ous and subconscious Beatles references and quotations, No Dice was made out of love for mu­sic, not just out of the realization that «wouldn't that be cool to be the next Beatles?»

Badfinger did inherit some of the elements of the early Beatles' spirit ­— a propensity to keep it simple (occasionally, simplistic, but we will have to cope with the fact that the songwriting cali­ber of these lads was a little less impressive than that of John/Paul and even George), a predilec­tion for idealistic sentimentality, and a penchant for expressing loneliness in music. But all these things seemed to come quite naturally to the band members — they were lonely, idealistic, unso­phisticated senti­mentalists, born to create lonely, idealistic, unsophisticated melodies.

And therefore, even their «rip-offs» are perfectly forgivable. ʽBelieve Meʼ steals half a hook from Paul's ʽOh Darlingʼ, but steers further proceedings into a soft, ironic, «homely» direction instead of the deep soul tragedy of its main source of inspiration. The chorus of the bonus outtake ʽI'll Be The Oneʼ accidentally (?) coincides with "eight days a week...", but the arrangement of the song is far more «rootsy» than the Beatles usually allowed themselves. And Joey Molland's ʽLove Me Doʼ shamelessly steals its title from one of the Beatles' first songs and almost lifts the basic rhythm from one of their last ones (ʽGet Backʼ), but did the Beatles ever have those crunchy rhythm chords and loud, dynamic, distorted boogie solos on their songs? Not these ones, they didn't, if only because these ones bear the mark of the next musical decade upon them.

The hit single ʽNo Matter Whatʼ is usually singled out as the major highlight of the album, al­though the lead-in number, ʽI Can't Take Itʼ, could be just as representative of Badfinger's brand of power pop — it's just that ʽNo Matter Whatʼ has this instantly captivating monster riff and a strong atmosphere of gallant chivalry about it (speaking in Beatles terms, its chief inspiration would probably be ʽAnytime At Allʼ), whereas ʽI Can't Take Itʼ is a bit more diffuse and does not wear its heart on its sleeve. Over time, though, both songs should be able to take their rightful stand in the "power pop laureates" corner of the museum — ʽI Can't Take Itʼ, in particular, could serve on its own as the blueprint for most of Cheap Trick's career.

At the same time, Badfinger show excellent skill at exploring the depths of the human heart as well. ʽMidnight Callerʼ is a ballad written in strict accordance with the McCartney recipé — sim­ple, but moving piano chords, «humanistic» vocal modulation, and sincere pity for the protago­nist à la ʽFor No Oneʼ. Like McCartney when he's at his worst, though, the song sounds disap­pointingly unfinished — "...she unlocks the door and there's no one there..." is a fairly weak re­solution for the bridge, and, overall, the song seems one or two musical ideas too short, and the exploration of the human heart remains inconclusive.

Whereas ʽWithout Youʼ, a song that I would like to like less than ʽMidnight Callerʼ, preferring lonely melancholy over grand sentimentalism, is certainly one of the most «conclusive» Badfin­ger songs ever, and this version, despite Harry Nilsson's solid job with it several years later, still remains the definitive one for me (granted, there have been many covers since, and the only other one I know of belongs to Mariah Carey — no comments here). One can shed a river of tears to it, or engage in four minutes worth of Bic-flickering, but what I like most about it is: (a) Tom Evans' subtle bass work on the acoustic intro, especially the moment at 0:39 into the song where his syncopated minimalism morphs into full phrasing; (b) the equally minimalistic beauty of the gui­tar solo, again, clearly influenced by Harrison's style but not necessarily following any particular «Harrison-esque» chord layout. These are among the elements that provide ʽWithout Youʼ with integrity and even «grit», saving it from tumbling into a sea of cheap soft-rock mush — a sea that usually eagerly waits for every song whose chorus goes "I can't live, if living is without you". (At the bottom of this sea, you'll find Mariah Carey waiting for you).

If there is anything close to a glaring misstep on the album, it might be ʽWatford Johnʼ — that one time when Badfinger are not trying to be themselves (by «being the next Beatles»), but in­stead try to be... Elvis. (With even a «teddy bear» reference in the lyrics). As long as you keep yourself from realizing that fact, the piece works as a bit of generic boogie, but eventually it just becomes sad, particularly since Badfinger can rock — as long as they do not dress their rock and roll in the clothes of a rockabilly revival. ʽLove Me Doʼ, snappy and modern as it is, works very well; ʽWatford Johnʼ is a near-parodic send-up that doesn't.

But all in all, beginning with the muscular power-pop of ʽI Can't Take Itʼ and ending with the pretty acoustic balladry of Pete Ham's ʽWe're For The Darkʼ (a perennial fan favorite, although I still find the melody somewhat flat), No Dice is the ideal «unpretentious pop album» for 1970 — and marks a brief moment of good time for Badfinger, when the band really had a chance to make it on the strength of their singles; a chance blown away almost entirely due to the incompetence and greed of their management. Not a masterpiece — mainly because the ratio of «cool ideas» per song is too small — but a very solid thumbs up all the same. And the bonus outtakes on the CD edition are well worth taking in as well.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Arthur Brown: Faster Than The Speed Of Light


ARTHUR BROWN: FASTER THAN THE SPEED OF LIGHT (1979)

1) Storm Clouds; 2) Nothing We Can Do; 3) No; 4) Bright Gateway; 5) Timeship; 6) Come And Join The Fun; 7) Storm­wind; 8) Storm; 9) This Is It; 10) Tightrope; 11) Balance; 12) Faster Than The Speed Of Light.

Two years after the paths of Crane and Brown had briefly crossed during the sessions for Chis­holm, the two gentlemen fell into each other's arms again, this time for a fully-fledged collabora­tion — apparently, at the urge of Klaus Schulze, with whom Arthur made some recordings and toured a bit in the late 1970s. For a long time, the resulting album was very hard to find — the pressings were limited, Schulze's German-based label was small, and by the time somebody even star­ted thinking about transferring the results to CD, the mastertapes had been lost. Apparently, the recent re-release managed to locate the original tape, so look for it — I am reviewing a semi- crappy vinyl rip here, and laziness prevents me from locating a better version. That, and the fact that the music just isn't good enough to make me crave for a better version.

Not that it's an undeserving album or anything. The design is as follows: a loosely conceptual al­bum or even a «pseudo-rock opera», centered around one of Brown's favorite topics — surre­a­listic travel, be it in the sci-fi, me­dievalistic fantasy, or psychedelic register — played completely (or almost completely, I'm not altogether sure) without guitar participation, although Crane's numerous keyboards are still aug­mented by a normal rhythm section (no drum machines), brass players, and a small symphonic orchestra. In a way, this is sort of a brave return to the aesthetics of Kingdom Come (after two fairly «normal» albums in a row), but there is also a big difference — other than the lack of guitar, it seems that the «story» elements here were at least as important, if not more important, for Brown, than the accompanying music.

And so, Faster Than The Speed Of Light is sort of a cross between Kingdom Come's fantasy worlds and the «normality» of Brown's 1975-77 period. The brief interludes here function the same way they would function in a Broadway musical, and the actual songs weave together clas­sical influences, shades of R'n'B, and some «operatic pop» for good measure. Since the orches­tration never takes center stage, most of the music is relatively low-key, so prepare yourself for a bit of quiet, inobtrusive, «off-Broadway» music theater. If you prepare yourself well enough, it might even sweep you off your feet and take you along on its journey — although, frankly speak­ing, I would define those chances as close to one in a hundred.

The actual tunes are, indeed, theatrical rather than musical. Actually, when they get closer to «real music», the effect can be repulsive: ʽNothing We Can Doʼ, for instance, fuses its funky key­board riffs with silly-sounding disco choruses, and the point of ʽThis Is Itʼ is to play kiddie mar­ching muzak on trendy synthesizers (all the while pretending to share Arthur Brown's revelatory powers with the listeners — not easy to be convincing when the music itself is in the camp of ʽItsy Bitsy Spiderʼ). But such tracks as ʽTimeshipʼ, announcing the start of the journey, ʽStormʼ, which tries to brew the appropriate atmosphere from a set of jerky keyboard parts and «stormy» strings, and the title track, with its anthemic brass-dominated coda, are at least curious, if not tremendously effective.

Overall, the album just doesn't seem to have enough energy to satisfy the expected requirements. The lack of guitar harms the proceedings: many of these songs are, by nature, fast and dynamic, and Crane, as good as he is at writing memorable keyboard riffs and overlaying all the parts for maximum effect, cannot provide all the tension by himself — especially disappointing in the light of limp, pro-forma orchestration produced by people who probably thought that they were simply paid for a technical job. The «concept» is nothing special for those who are already familiar with Kingdom Come — in fact, most of those who are already familiar with Kingdom Come will pro­bably think of Faster Than The Speed Of Light as a «lite consumption version» of Galactic Zoo Dossier. The writing as such, though, is quite decent: Brown and Crane still remember how to tackle a variety of styles and sometimes shuffle them over the duration of one track.

From an optimistic standpoint, Faster ultimately deserves a thumbs up — it's a serious piece of art that still conveys Brown's usual work aesthetics: do your own thing against all odds, but never make it look like straightforward nostalgia. However, I couldn't honestly recommend it to anybo­dy but the most dedicated fan of Arthur Brown — and by «most dedicated», I mean neither the «heard ʽFireʼ on the radio a month ago and loved it» type nor the «Kingdom Come were the great­est, man, nothing ever comes close» type, both of which are the easiest types of «Arthur Brown fans» imaginable to my imagination. No, you'd really, really have to care a lot about Ar­thur Brown as a spiritually endowed human being to like this.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Beau Brummels: Triangle


THE BEAU BRUMMELS: TRIANGLE (1967)

1) Are You Happy; 2) Only Dreaming Now; 3) The Painter Of Women; 4) The Keeper Of Time; 5) It Won't Get Bet­ter; 6) Nine Pound Hammer; 7) Magic Hollow; 8) And I've Seen Her; 9) Triangle; 10) The Wolf Of Velvet Fortune; 11) Old Kentucky Home.

The title obviously refers to the band's being reduced to a trio — upon the departure of guitarist Don Irving and drummer John Petersen, following the embarrassment of '66. (And if that ain't enough, take an extra look at the album cover). Of course, one could always try to uncover additi­onal meanings — for instance, attempt to define Triangle as a trendy concoction, consisting of one-third American country-/folk-rock, one-third British Kinks-style pop, and one-third world-wide psychedelia. That could probably work.

Anyway, the very fact that, having just recorded the most superfluous album in their history and gone through critical disinterest, fanbase decay, and loss of several members, The Beau Brum­mels found it in them to regroup, start anew, and present themselves as artists with interesting stuff to say in 1967, deserves merit. Triangle did not sell at all well, for understandable reasons: the Brummels were effectively kicked off the train by the end of 1965, and it would have taken a miracle to catch up with it in the whirlwind atmosphere of 1967. Besides, most people preferred their psychedelia with a harder edge at the time, and Triangle is totally music for sissies. How­ever, some reviews were positive, and since then, the record earned itself a stable place on all sorts of «great albums from the past that you have never heard about» lists.

The most notable song is ʽMagic Hollowʼ — the band correctly realized that it was the most ac­complished creation on the album and put it out as a single, unfortunately, forgetting that «most ac­complished creations» do not always qualify for single releases: the sleepy, hypnotic attitude of the song is quite far removed from the dynamic punch that the record buyer usually expects when he puts down the cash for about three minutes worth of A-side music. But the fact that it flopped commercially does not diminish the accomplishment — mainly in terms of arrangement, which weaves a dense and unique sonic web of harpsichords (played by Brian Wilson's SMiLe partner, Van Dyke Parks), guitars, accordeons, chimes, and strings. It is, indeed, one of the finest repre­sentatives of the baroque pop era — and, as far as my own perception can tell, it does paint a musical picture of a «magic hollow» without the aid of any particularly «trippy» effects or studio trickery, other than a bit of toying around with the delay effect on the vocals at the end.

However, the same perception also suggests to me that, in general, Triangle is not much of a «lost masterpiece». Unlike so many true masterpieces of the psychedelic era, its songs do not have a lot of staying power. The band seems hung up in mid-air, somewhere in between their folk roots and «art-rock»... but that is not the real problem — many wonderful things were generated over time in such a hung-up state — the real problem is that the songs, with but a few exceptions, never seem to know how to build up to full stature.

Take something like ʽOnly Dreaming Nowʼ, for instance. There is an attractive cello riff that drives it, but it does not mesh at all well with the accordion melody — the song seems torn between its baroque fundament and some sort of gay Parisian attitude: an unusual marriage, per­haps, but not a particularly meaningful one. Much worse, however, is the fact that its ominous introduction never develops into anything «stronger» — the climax of the song involves nothing other than Valentino rising high to bleat out the chorus. Likewise, ʽThe Painter Of Womenʼ is basically just an acoustic guitar / brass-led mantra; its chorus is a little louder than its verses, but that's about it.

The album's magnum opus is the five-minute long ʽWolf Of Velvet Fortuneʼ, an attempt to write a mystical-magical mini-epic, influenced by mid-Eastern music, Tolkienish fantasy, and just a pinch of acid. Again, the premise is nice enough — the little creepy echoey guitar flourishes, the ominous notes in the singing — but the eventual resolution (the chorus of "Delight! Delight!"...) is not quite enough a pay-off for the monotonousness of the verses. It's a good song, but it never crosses borders — there is a good reason why everybody knows and loves Led Zep's ʽBattle Of Evermoreʼ, but not this Beau Brummels tale of happenings in a parallel world (and I was never even a big fan of ʽBattle Of Evermoreʼ in the first place).

Then there are some things that are just strange. For instance, what was the point of ending the album with a Randy Newman song? Just so as to please the album's producer Lenny Waronker, a good pal of Randy's? ʽOld Kentucky Homeʼ is indeed a hilarious send-up of red­neck attitudes, but it doesn't exactly have a lot to do with psychedelia — and even though it's one of the best tunes on the album (since it belongs to Randy), its positioning right after "delight, delight, the wolf of velvet fortune is upon his merry flight" is befuddling.

So, to be honest, Triangle is a mixed bag, really. The Beau Brummels were a decent folk-rock band, and the only kind of hooks Ron Elliott knew how to manufacture were folk-rock hooks. When pressed with the necessity of living up to the times, they accidentally fell upon a unique kind of sound — that one thing I am quite ready to admit: Triangle sounds lovely and intriguing — but the substance did not have enough time to catch up with the form. So no, I do not think Triangle really could belong in the same category with Pet Sounds, Forever Changes, or even The Left Banke's killer singles.

But on the other hand, it could have been much worse. Most bands of The Beau Brummels' cali­ber were simply blown away for good by the psychedelic revolution, or, at best, tried to squeeze out miserably laughable simulations of «the real stuff». (Bands like The Hollies were actually the opposite of the Brummels — they continued to write better songs, but nothing that they did in 1967 was as individually inventive as ʽMagic Hollowʼ in terms of pure sound). From that point of view, Triangle is an artistic miracle that, regardless of any criticism, absolutely belongs in the collection of every art-pop lover, let alone the abstract «musical annals». You may fall under its spell or resist it if you wish, but there seems to be no reason to disagree with a thumbs up, parti­cularly if all things are taken in the context of the Brummels' own career, rather than in the con­text of 1967 as the year of Sgt. Pepper, Are You Experienced, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, or Days Of Future Passed.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Bo Carter: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 3 (1934-1936)


BO CARTER: COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS, VOL. 3 (1934-1936)

1) Howlin' Tom Cat Blues; 2) Don't Cross Lay Your Daddy; 3) Who Broke The Latch?; 4) Don't Do It No More; 5) Skin Ball Blues; 6) Shoe Blues; 7) Please Warm My Wiener; 8) She's Gonna Crawl Back Home To You; 9) Let Me Roll Your Lemon; 10) Mashing That Thing; 11) Blue Runner Blues; 12) Fifty-Fifty With Me; 13) To Her Burying Ground; 14) When Your Left Eye Go To Jumping; 15) Ride My Mule; 16) T Baby Blues; 17) I Get The Blues; 18) Spotted Sow Blues; 19) Rolling Blues; 20) All Around Man; 21) Fat Mouth Blues; 22) You Better Know Your Business.

"Won't you please warm my wiener, 'cause it really don't feel right cold". This just might be Bo's badassest refrain of all time; in the «gross» department, the tune certainly beats ʽLet Me Roll Your Lemonʼ, recorded around the same time — we all know the endless references to rolling and squeezing lemons from the blues-rock explosion of the 1960s / 1970s, but not even Robert Plant seemed to mention anything about «warming wieners» either during studio hours or over the course of endless live improvisations. But wait, what are we talking about? Surely that was just an innocent tune, penned by Bo for a hot dog stand publicity campaign. Every good wiener needs some advertising, after all.

The bad news — the very bad news — is, however, that in 1935 Bo significantly cut down on sug­gestive in­nuendos and re-oriented his lyrics towards more «family-friendly», traditional blues clichés, even going as far as to re-write some of his softporn classics: thus, ʽPin In Your Cushionʼ becomes ʽI Get The Bluesʼ, and «your cushion is so soft and warm» becomes «your loving is so soft and warm» — now ain't that a shame? Self-censorship in action.

In a flash, this removes the only good reason why anyone should ever give a damn about Bo Car­ter in the first place. Everything else remains — the decent level of playing, the pleasant vocal style — but is hardly enough to perk up any blues connoisseur's specific interest. The overall for­mula varies only once, on ʽTo Her Burying Groundʼ and the next track, where Bo is accompanied, for the first time ever, by a honky tonk piano, trying on the shoes of an urban blues performer à la Leroy Carr. But who really cares?

Okay, so at some point he does ask his baby to ʽride my muleʼ, and there is a ʽSpotted Sow Bluesʼ which is somewhat of a variation on ʽLittle Red Roosterʼ, except it does seem to correctly refer to female rather than male anatomy. But honestly, neither of these seems half as exploratory and inventive as the masterful fleshy allegories produced by the man in his early years. Hence, the 1935-36 period for Bo Carter can be characterized as a «slump». I mean, Frank Zappa, when he was not pouring forth obscenities, could at least shut up 'n' play his guitar. But what's a Bo Car­ter to do if he runs out of dirty jokes? It's amazing that he could actually keep up the same steady flow of recordings.
  

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bright Eyes: Motion Sickness - Live Recordings


BRIGHT EYES: MOTION SICKNESS: LIVE RECORDINGS (2005)

1) At The Bottom Of Everything; 2) We Are Nowhere And It’s Now; 3) Old Soul Song; 4) Make War (short version); 5) Make War (long version); 6) Scale; 7) Landlocked Blues; 8) Method Acting; 9) Train Under Water; 10) When The President Talks To God; 11) Road To Joy; 12) Mushaboom; 13) True Blue; 14) Southern State; 15) The Biggest Lie.

A live album from Conor Oberst should not necessarily be unlistenable. After all, when playing before a real audience, he's got some options — for instance, be picky about his own track selec­tion, be inventive in rearranging formerly dull material, be unpredictable in the selection of co­vers, and, overall, try and be less «stuck up» than he is in the studio. How can one safely tell that he is not going to do and be all that prior to actually listening to the record? Perhaps Conor Oberst on stage is a completely different person. Perhaps he plays thrash metal guitar or something.

Of course, the track listing is a little suspicious. Although he had released two albums early that year, only the critically acclaimed Wide Awake is represented (and how — with six out of ten numbers getting the honors); Digital Ash is completely ignored, either because Conor didn't feel comfortable about translating the tape loops and digital beats into live reproductions, or because Robert Christ­gau, who once lovingly called Oberst «the poster boy of the American Agony Asso­ci­ation», was in the audience. (I'd rather bet on the latter.) Then there's a smaller bunch of songs from the equally acclaimed Lifted, a newly written anti-presidential rant, a cover of Feist, and a cover of Elliott Smith. Everything properly soulful, acoustic, and, for the most part, neo-country­ish without any serious reservations.

Alas, my individual «special» feelings about these tracks are mostly limited to disappointments (and getting «disappointed» in something Bright Eyes-related is a big disappointment indeed). On ʽLandlocked Bluesʼ, there is no Emmylou Harris; prepare to endure a thoroughly solo perfor­mance from the unhappiest man on the planet. The instrumental jam sections on ʽTrain Under Wa­terʼ are reduced to a cacophonous mess, with no traces of the sharp, well-rehearsed guitar so­los of the original. ʽWhen The President Talks To Godʼ is an atrocious bullshit rant that probably earned George W. Bush more supporters than enemies — tuneless, toneless, overwrought, with a mechanical heart on the sleeve pumping gallons of fake blood into the audience. (I used to think that no one could beat Ani DiFranco in the «Worst Anti-Establishment Rant From A Supposedly Intelligent Singer-Songwriter» game, but I'm not so sure any more). And the covers are deadly boring, although this should not discourage anyone from checking out Elliott Smith, Oberst's spi­ritual guru, who must have done many a spin in his grave over the past decade.

On the positive side... there's not much, really. The songs, good or bad, generally stick to the ori­ginal arrangements; there is even solid brass support from Nate Walcott on trumpet, who helps build up the appropriate rucus on ʽRoad To Joyʼ and elsewhere. There's a couple extra numbers that aren't available anywhere else, as far as I'm aware, but they are nothing special (big surprise). Well... maybe the most positive thing about it all is that it could have been even worse. At least there's no ʽWaste Of Paintʼ here, even if there might definitely be a «waste of plastic». Thumbs... nah, what do I really care.