Another old favorite. Here's one for all the dogs, pigs, and sheep of this world:
Pink Floyd: Animals
Sunday, July 31, 2016
Saturday, July 30, 2016
THE BLUES MAGOOS: PSYCHEDELIC RESURRECTION (2014)
1) Psychedelic Resurrection; 2) There's A Chance We Can Make It; 3) We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet; 4) D'Stinko Me Tummy's On The Blinko; 5) There She Goes; 6) I'm Still Playing; 7) Pipe Dream; 8) Gotta Get Away; 9) I Just Got Off From Work; 10) Rush Hour; 11) Psyche-Delight; 12) Tobacco Road.
Apparently, history has judged that The Blues Magoos were a force to be reckoned with back in the old days — otherwise, even the band members themselves probably wouldn't come up with the idea of a reunion. But reunite they did, if only on a partial basis, with Ralph Scala, Peppy Castro, and drummer Geoff Daking formerly justifying the resurrection of the band's name, and two new members (Mike Ciliberto on guitar and Peter Stuart Kohman on bass) completing the picture as the band began a regular touring program... and in 2014, actually emerged with a new album, most arrogantly called Psychedelic Resurrection — because, as everybody (at least in the Bronx area) knows, real psychedelia died in 1968 with the passing of the original Blues Magoos, and could only be resurrected if the original Blues Magoos got together.
And you know what? They might be right about that — well, hyperboles aside, and also keeping in mind that the band was never really that big a symbol for psychedelia in the first place, Psychedelic Resurrection is surprisingly effective. Yes, it is true that 7 out of 12 songs are re-recordings of their classic hits and personal favorites — but, first of all, we would have already forgotten how most of them sounded like anyway, and, second, they are so cleverly interspersed with the new compositions that the record never for once gives the impression of a pitiful collection of remakes. Somehow, despite occasional embarrassing moments, Psychedelic Resurrection turns out to be one of those very, very rare cases when the word «resurrection» is actually justified.
I am not sure how they managed to do it, but this new material is real fun — apart from having very little to do with psychedelia, it's a solid collection of pop-rock songs with true hooks and plenty of kickass energy. You can certainly detect some age-related wear and tear, most notably on Scala's vocals (that sound almost pitiably feeble and whiny on the new recording of ʽWe Ain't Got Nothin' Yetʼ), but the new (and probably much younger) guitarist compensates for that by playing with verve and inspiration, all the while adhering to the sonic stylistics of the Blues Magoos' original era rather than «modern» guitar playing... well, maybe not in the opening bars of the title track, though, where he sets off a bunch of fireworks that would feel more suitable on a Van Halen album.
But do not worry, that's just a bit of initial excess, quickly forgiven by the overall weirdness of the track — technically, it is supposed to be an arena-rock anthem celebrating the band's comeback, yet the slow pace, the doom-laden keyboards, and the strangely soulful, almost mournful vocals give the impression of a pack of zombies rising from the grave, so, on one hand, it's cool to hear them intone "we're back again... like an old friend!", but on the other hand, there's that strange green tinge on the faces and the definite smell of freshly overturned earth that puts the "join us now!.." admonition in a somewhat different light. I wonder if that was intentional, or if it just came out that way? In either case, it adds a drop of much-needed genuine weirdness to the whole thing, immediately elevating it over the expected status of a «just another boring comeback» record.
The rest of the new material is equally striking in its diversity. There's ʽD'Stinko Me Tummy's On The Blinkoʼ, a verse-bridge-chorus anthem to various types of indigestion (hardly a very psychedelic subject, although, admittedly, you never really know when problems with your food tract may lead to potentially psychedelic reactions) — lyrically crude, but the chorus has an almost vile degree of catchiness. ʽI'm Still Playingʼ borrows a big chunk of the riff to ʽAll Day And All Of The Nightʼ, but spices it up with fine lead guitar overdubs and a nice ecstatic build-up to the chorus (again, on the subject of the band's tenacity). ʽI Just Got Off From Workʼ is a perfectly unpretentious chunk of power-pop that never strays off too far away from expressing delight at what its title is all about. And ʽPsyche-Delightʼ, despite a whiff of corniness, is cast as one of those «proto-disco» numbers (like ʽFunʼ from Sly & The Family Stone's Life album), combining even more reminiscences about the good old Sixties with a hard rock tone from the mid-Seventies and a bit of discoish hedonism from about the same time — I don't know if I'm committing a crime against good taste by recommending it, but apart from the rather ugly vocals on the bridge section, it's gut-level fun, if not necessarily a «psyche-delight» as they advertise it.
As for the old stuff, particularly the extended workouts like ʽTobacco Roadʼ and ʽRush Hourʼ that were very much dependent on garage-psychedelic jamming, all I can say is — these boys still got it. They do it a little differently and without a fresh feel of amazement at the new possibilities, but the rocking bits, particularly on ʽTobacco Roadʼ, still rock harder than most of the new rock bands do — perhaps because they feel so unburdened with decades of intellectual pressure on the unfortunate rocker. In other words, there's lots of brawn here, and only a tiny modicum of brain, and that happens to be admirable. I mean, come to think of it, how many of your favourite artists would be brave enough to release a song about the simple pains of indigestion as late as 2014 — and considering, too, that indigestion as a problem has never really gone away in all that time? The overall slogan of the album is neatly summarized in the pseudo-reprise of the title track at the end of ʽRush Hourʼ: "Psychedelic resurrection / Gives me such a big erection". Really, this album is not about much more than that, and besides, if psychedelic resurrection can still give Ralph Scala a big erection in 2014 (he must be around 70, no?), there's just nothing to do except give the record an admiring thumbs up. If only every «Veterans' Ball» were like this, we might want to change that slogan to «don't trust anybody under 30», eventually.
Friday, July 29, 2016
CAT POWER: DEAR SIR (1995)
1) 3 Times; 2) Rockets; 3) Itchyhead; 4) Yesterday Is Here; 5) The Sleepwalker; 6) Mr. Gallo; 7) No Matter; 8) Great Expectations; 9) Headlights.
"If you want money in your pocket, top hat on your head, hot meal on your table, and a blanket on your bed — come to New York City..." The cover of Tom Waits' ʽYesterday Is Hereʼ was certainly not included by Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, on her debut record by accident — that was precisely the kind of advice she took, moving out of the stifling confines of Atlanta, Georgia, and relocating to New York where her muse would be nurtured under more suitable conditions. Sonic Youth took note of her there, and their drummer, Steve Shelley, eventually got her to sign for the indie label Runt Records, and found her some recording space in a basement on Mott Street — the classic indie setup.
She did sound a lot like a one-woman Sonic Youth in those early days, to be sure. Most of the material recorded for those sessions (divided between 1995's «tentative» release Dear Sir and the much longer 1996's Myra Lee, which she would consider her proper debut) shares certain definitive features with the band — namely, free-form poetic self-expression riding on a bedrock of dark, grim electric guitar lines inherited from the Velvet Underground, but completely stripped of any resemblance to «pop» textures. On the other hand, words and vocal attitude matter even more for Marshall than for Sonic Youth — here, she clearly and boldly presents herself as a poet first and a musician second, so think Patti Smith, too. Patti Smith backed by Sonic Youth — there, that's a pretty good analogy.
In other words, if you're looking for an interesting melody to take home in a doggy bag, or for a vocal hook that might stick to your brain like a burr to a dog's ass, this record would be about as useful for this purpose as The Natural Sounds Of Wilderness, Vol. 5: Pig Frogs. The only way to enjoy and worship this is a pledge of allegiance to CAT POWER as the new spiritual current that will efficiently spring clean your chakras. Chan Marshall sings like a possessed woman (I get the impression of somebody sitting in a completely immobile position and staring without blinking at the same spot on the wall all the time while the recording is on); writes lyrics that confirm her status as the second coming of Mad Ophelia; and uses those guitars only as black atmospheric accompaniment for the words and nothing else (in which she is aided by second guitarist Tim Foljahn, who adds slightly cleaner and higher lead lines to her gruff rhythm work).
Not surprisingly, Dear Sir is one of those albums where it is hard to imagine any kind of middle ground — you either fall under its spell and give it an A+ or you don't, and give it a Z-. To avoid extreme lines of thinking, I will take the cowardly way out and say that it is, after all, only a first attempt from a beginning songwriter (although she was already 23 years old when it was released, and had already been playing, singing, and writing for a good five years or so, first in Atlanta and then in NYC). This makes it easier to forgive the sometimes annoyingly cryptic or pretentious nature of her poetry, although it does not make the «tunes» more enjoyable — the biggest problem is that, unlike Patti Smith, Chan rarely goes for any brutal, hit-'em-with-all-you-got frontal assaults on the listener. Most of the lyrics are either mumbled or strung out in shrill, whiny overtones; and even when she is deliberately being punkish and going all Bikini Kill-ish on our asses (ʽItchyheadʼ), well, the effort is respectable, but the effect is underwhelming — lo-fi production being one reason for this, of course, but also I don't truly feel as if the singer herself is really sure of what it is she is trying to communicate. I can understand she had a pretty tough Georgian childhood, and that her attitude towards the world is anything but friendly ("If I got myself a gun / Then I could shoot down everyone / Maybe I've just invented some religion", she sings four years prior to the Columbine massacre), but it is never made quite clear what really is the problem, or the supposed remedy.
Anyway, bottomline is: these days, Cat Power is largely respected for her musical achievements, but the musical achievements of Dear Sir are practically non-existent — above all, this is a set of atmospheric soundscapes where a seemingly not very unhappy and not very frustrated artist is trying to evocate feelings of extreme unhappiness and frustration. Curious, but I'd still take Patti Smith's Horses over this any time. Or maybe I just don't get serious American street poetry of the past quarter century, period.
Thursday, July 28, 2016
THE CARS: MOVE LIKE THIS (2011)
1) Blue Tip; 2) Too Late; 3) Keep On Knocking; 4) Soon; 5) Sad Song; 6) Free; 7) Drag On Forever; 8) Take Another Look; 9) It's Only; 10) Hits Me.
In the 1990s, Ocasek stated in interviews that The Cars would never ever run again, but, of course, that was just an artistic lie: all it took was the death of Ben Orr from cancer in 2000, and then a ridiculous experiment with Hawkes and Easton forming «The New Cars» (with no less than Todd Rundgren as a participating member!) for touring purposes, to get Ric to realize that (a) you only live once, (b) no matter what he does, he is still going to be remembered as the frontman for The Cars rather than a solo artist. Consequently, it is not amazing that The Cars eventually reunited; it is amazing that they had to wait more than twenty years to reunite. On the other hand, one should never underestimate the «been so long...» factor — with the band having passed into legend so long ago, the appearance of Move Like This, for many fans and critics alike, was akin to the second coming of Christ (or should we say, of Chrysler? no, not really funny).
While some reunion albums actually try to give you the impression that the artist is moving along with the times, Move Like This is not dicking around one iota — it is a straightforward attempt to recapture the vibe of The Cars, although, frankly speaking, the final result sounds more like Shake It Up, at least if you compare the respective roles of the guitar and the synth. Technically, it all works: Hawkes, Easton, and Ocasek still remember to choose the correct instrumental tones and pick the proper pop notes, while Jacknife Lee, an Irish musician who used to dabble in both punk rock and electronica, and is also substituting here for the deceased Orr on bass, assists the band in producing the album as if it were a time capsule. No wonder hardcore fans and critics were delighted — on the surface, it all sounds like a classic Cars album.
Beyond the surface, though, it's a little underwhelming: essentially, the record feels strangely purposeless. The opening single, ʽBlue Tipʼ, combines rough guitar riffage with technobleeps just like ʽGood Times Rollʼ, but the emotional atmosphere is different — instead of the old «confused-lamenting» vibe, we get something more accusatory and angry (apparently, the song has a social message — "you believe in anything, they tell you how to think" etc.), but the message is not supported by the relatively weak pop hooks. There's nothing particularly wrong about the technobleeps, and I suppose that the fanfare-like riff of the chorus is kinda catchy, but the song on the whole is neither mindless fun nor an angry diatribe — something that's nice to listen to once or twice and then forget forever.
Unfortunately, the same feel applies to all the other nine tracks. It's The Cars-lite, pleasant and pointless; quite monotonous (I think about half of the songs share precisely the same mid-tempo beat) and without even a single stand-out number. Ah, if at least one of the album's two or three ballads had the magic of a ʽDriveʼ — but instead we get stuff like ʽTake Another Lookʼ, whose chorus is entirely predictable, no better or worse than any adult contemporary ballad ever written. And the uptempo stuff is just six or seven ways for Ocasek to tell us that he still can't get no satisfaction, but now he just resorts to minor variations on the same groove to get his point across, and this quickly becomes tedious.
Consequently, I can hardly stand it when people write mildly positive reviews of the album, saying «well, at least it's better than Door To Door, that's for sure». It is not frickin' better than Door To Door, because I'd at least take ʽFine Lineʼ and ʽGo Awayʼ over every single track on Move Like This — back then, The Cars were a struggling band caught in a web of internal contradictions, but the music still reflected living, vibrant feelings. Move Like This, in comparison, gives the impression of an impeccably dressed corpse, with everything intact and polished except for, you know, soul. And it would be an insult to The Cars to insist that they had never been much more than a plastic, glossy, superficially catchy pop band. Personally, I'd rather prefer to insult this one album than their entire career — by giving it a thumbs down and stating that this stillborn reunion should never have happened. (And, just for the record, not all reunions by legendary New Wave heroes were stillborn — Blondie's No Exit, for instance, sounds a dozen times more alive in comparison).
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
CAROLE KING: RHYMES & REASONS (1972)
1) Come Down Easy; 2) My My She Cries; 3) Peace In The Valley; 4) Feeling Sad Tonight; 5) The First Day In August; 6) Bitter With The Sweet; 7) Goodbye Don't Mean I'm Gone; 8) Stand Behind Me; 9) Gotta Get Through Another Day; 10) I Think I Can Hear You; 11) Ferguson Road; 12) Been To Canaan.
Whirling Dervish Robert Christgau summarized this album thusly: "The melodies retain their overall charm, but because the lyrics continue their retreat, the hooks, such as they are, never jolt the expectations", and gave it a pitiful C rating. Of course, this judgement was made several years before I was born and has to be respected at least out of general respect for antiquity, but I could never bring myself to believe that Carole King got more boring just because she replaced Gerry Goffin as her chief lyricist with Toni Stern, and, ultimately, with herself. There simply has to be some other reason, considering that we are, after all, dealing first and foremost with one of the most beloved composers, not lyric writers, in pop music.
It is most certainly true that lyrics like "It's a gray gloomy day / A strange and moody blues day / Gotta get through another day" are a little embarrassing even for a non-professional in the verbal department (and maybe just one notch higher than "It's Friday, Friday / Gotta get down on Friday / Everybody's looking forward to the weekend"). But the worst thing about ʽGotta Get Throughʼ are not the words, but the incomprehensibly bland and lazy melodic flow — its monotonously thumping piano chords never gel into a memorable hook, and its vocal melody never rises above a tepid, unenthusiastic self-admonition: remember the sheer energy and determination of ʽBeautifulʼ, a song that could really give somebody a great kick-start for the day, and compare it with this mushy piece — pleasant enough, but hardly rising above the average level of a typical theme for some third-rate talk show or soap opera.
Horrendously, every single song on Rhymes & Reasons is like that. The only difference is that a few of the tunes are slightly more upbeat and give some work to the rhythm section (besides ʽGotta Get Throughʼ, there's also ʽBitter With The Sweetʼ, which is at least great to hear because of some more of that first-class funky work from the wonderful, totally underrated Charles Larkey), but most are slow, sentimental ballads, and the rot that began to surreptitiously creep in at the time of the still good Music, has now settled in decisively. Everything is pleasant and «tasteful»; nothing is memorable or outstanding. Above everything else, the energy level may be described by a near-flat line for all of the album's 35 minutes — not a single peak, outburst, climax etc. anywhere in sight. It's almost as if she took the refrain of the first song ("so come down easy, let it come down slow") for granted, and the entire album does nothing but come down slow and easy. All the arrangements are the same (piano, acoustic guitars etc.); instrumental passages are nearly non-existant, replaced by streams of boring lyrical images that contain their share of rhymes, but I couldn't say the same about reasons.
I mean, you definitely have a problem when you have a song called ʽFeeling Sad Tonightʼ, yet there is nothing whatsoever in the song's mood to suggest a feeling of sadness — then, of course, you realize that the words really go "feeling sad tonight, but everything's alright", and that is precisely what's happening, because everything's definitely alright, and there's no reason to get emotionally riled over anything. Essentially, this set of songs is just completely devoid of inspiration: on ʽStand Behind Meʼ, she asks us, somewhat en passant, "Should I create today / Or let it be?" Guess what the answer should be. In this context, the last song, ʽBeen To Canaanʼ, allegedly expressing deep longing to revisit a long-lost earthly paradise, could be metaphorically construed as the author's implicit lament at this uncomfortable sterility — "though I'm content with myself, sometimes I long to be somewhere else... I won't rest until I go back again". She even released that song as a single, but it is just as sterile melodically as everything else, and I'm pretty sure people were just buying it out of politeness — yes, dear Carole, please go back again!
In short, as curious as it is, here we do have ourselves a situation when an artist, in less than two years' time, goes from producing the perfect model of a singer-songwriter pop album to producing the most generic and yawn-inducing model of a singer-songwriter pop album ever. And it has nothing to do with the lyrics — it is the music that is a real letdown, a slipshod application of the formula that captures the artist in a mellow, self-content, emotionally stable mode and is essentially the musical equivalent of some pretty landscape painting in the local three-star hotel. Curiously, it still managed to sell real well in the US, but trans-Atlantically, sales totally plummeted and marked the complete end of Carole King as a (still relevant) international artist — because, it may be presumed, this kind of music (muzak?) could only interest the local market, and even then, only for a short while longer. Thumbs down, by all means; I don't think even a single song from this lot should be making it over to anybody's best-of collection.
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
CANNED HEAT: HALLELUJAH (1969)
1) Same All Over; 2) Change My Ways; 3) Canned Heat; 4) Sic 'Em Pigs; 5) I'm Her Man; 6) Time Was; 7) Do Not Enter; 8) Big Fat; 9) Huautla; 10) Get Off My Back; 11) Down In The Gutter, But Free.
Not necessarily what we're looking for. The last studio album by the original classic Canned Heat, released just prior to Henry Vestine leaving the band and being replaced by Harvey Mandel, suddenly sees them stepping away from the world of lengthy improvised boogie sagas and again restricting themselves to relatively short, concise, and surprisingly mild blues-rock numbers. For whatever reason, not only are there no more 20-minute tributes to John Lee Hooker (in fact, there ain't even a single track here reprising the bass line of ʽBoogie Chillen!ʼ), but there are no more attempts at crazyass experimentation like ʽParthenogenesisʼ, either. Perhaps they thought they were really no good at such experimentation, or perhaps they viewed it as a phase that naturally came and went for good, but the fact remains that Hallelujah is straightahead blues-rock, a bit heavier and wilder than their disappointing self-titled debut, but, in my personal opinion, a serious letdown after the relative wildness of the previous two records.
Nor does it have even one short song with magical qualities, be it the bubbling menace of ʽOn The Road Againʼ or the pastoral bliss of ʽGoing Up The Countryʼ. «Blind Owl» Wilson, in particular, is a big disappointment: all four of his pseudo-originals are merely passable this time, no matter how nice or weird his childlike falsetto still sounds. ʽChange My Waysʼ is just a fast-paced 12-bar blues with no haunting sonic combinations (there's an interesting echoey flute solo in the middle, but it's so short you barely notice it anyway); the country blues ʽTime Wasʼ tries to use a solo bass break gimmick between verses to give you the impression that it is at least slightly above generic level, but the best thing about the song is still a bit of fiery soloing from Vestine; and ʽGet Off My Backʼ is a decent back-and-forth alternation of simple boogie with psychoblues soloing in the vein of Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, but, again, nothing to speak of in terms of songwriting. It's almost as if the guy hit total writer's block; pretty sad considering how little time he had left on this planet.
Fortunately, the band still has a few funny gimmicks in store to keep the listener's interest at some level. ʽSic 'Em Pigsʼ, for instance, is a hilarious reinvention of Bukka White's ʽSic 'Em Dogsʼ in the form of probably the most vicious (downright mean, in fact) anti-cop musical statement of the year — culminating in a mock-advertisement voiceover ("if you're big, strong, and stupid, we want you... remedial courses are available for the culturally deprived") that might have earned them some broken ribs, were police officers a little better informed of the very existence of this band. Elsewhere, they finally get to the stage of covering the Tommy Johnson tune that gave the band its name (ʽCanned Heatʼ), even though the ancient original, all crackles and pops included, would still be preferable to this decent, but rather lazy-sounding electric revival. Bob Hite's ʽI'm Her Manʼ has what might be Wilson's finest, wildest, tightest harmonica solo in the opening and closing bars (everything else about the song is completely forgettable, though). And on the last number, another super-slow blues-de-luxe called ʽDown In The Gutter, But Freeʼ, they conduct an «experiment in freedom» by switching around and getting Vestine to play the bass (not a very generous decision) and Taylor to play the lead guitar (surprisingly Vestine-like!).
So it's not a total waste — in fact, as long as you are able to just lay back and enjoy some unpretentious blues-rock, it's hardly a waste at all — but for an album released in 1969, and following up on a clear artistic progression over three LPs in a row, Hallelujah is clearly a disappointment on both counts. It did not hurt the band's reputation: they were still invited to Woodstock, where they got to play ʽGoing Up The Countryʼ and strut their stuff and all, but it did make clear that, unless some things were to drastically change, the name Canned Heat would pretty soon be wiped off the roster to make way for artists more daring and less formulaic. Well, actually, some things did change pretty soon, and quite drastically, too... but not necessarily in a way that could be beneficial to the band's fame, fortune, and even physical health. To put it mildly.
Monday, July 25, 2016
CHER: BACKSTAGE (1968)
1) Go Now; 2) Carnival (Manhã De Carnaval); 3) It All Adds Up Now; 4) Reason To Believe; 5) Masters Of War; 6) Do You Believe In Magic; 7) I Wasn't Ready; 8) A House Is Not A Home; 9) Take Me For A Little While; 10) The Impossible Dream (The Quest); 11) The Click Song; 12) Song Called Children.
Whatever hope may have been gained with the relative success of With Love was just as easily scattered away with Backstage, the inevitable next dip in quality in this endless win-some-lose-some game. Honestly, it is not easy to understand what they were thinking: this album, in sharp contrast to the previous one, has no original material whatsoever, not a single new Sonny Bono composition, and its choice of covers generally ranges from the tacky to the ridiculous.
Admittedly, the opening cover of ʽGo Nowʼ (probable reasoning behind the inclusion: «The Moody Blues are no longer doing this, so let's grab it before somebody else does!») is surprisingly fine, with an almost dazzlingly complex arrangement of lead organ, brass, and strings, and with Cher herself rising to the challenge — apparently, her natural timbre is just perfect for all these "whoah-oh-oh-oh" bits, and besides, she usually sounds more convincing when telling somebody to go rather than stay, so it's okay. It's a powerhouse of a song that is well suited to her personality, even if it was a little strange to try and rekindle the old flame whose overall relevance had ended with the passing of the original Moody Blues.
But what follows next is misfire after misfire. The theme from Black Orpheus, neither properly Latin in nature nor passionate in execution. Tim Hardin's beautiful ʽReason To Believeʼ, performed by a well-meaning string quintet but sung without an ounce of real interest. Dylan's ʽMasters Of Warʼ, oddly reinvented as a sitar drone — I think Cher tried to think of herself as Joan Baez when doing it, but she still has a hard time mustering the tense hatred necessary to make this song work on the alleged gut level. The Lovin' Spoonful's ʽDo You Believe In Magic?ʼ, slowed and softened up — I'd never think that this song, one of the catchiest tunes of its epoch, could ever be murdered by anything short of being reinvented as a combo of generic synth-pop and hair metal, but apparently, all it takes is turning all the instrumental and vocal hooks into sonic mush, and that is precisely what is being done here.
Worst of all, if you really needed a perfect signal here of the «Not To Be Taken Seriously!» variety, she gives it in the form of a cover of Miriam Makeba's ʽThe Click Songʼ — why? The lady does her best to learn the few necessary lines phonetically, but, of course, she is unable to pronounce even a single click, and the whole thing is 1968's musical equivalent of amusing people by putting on blackface (in the same year, that is). The most amazing thing is that they actually put it out as the first single from the album — probably the single not just most tasteless, but also the most commercially suicidal decision in Cher's career up to that point. Of course, the single did not even begin to chart, and I would not be surprised to learn that it may have made a laughing stock out of the artist at that moment (this was, after all, before "Cher" and "Las Vegas kitsch" became near-perfect synonyms).
Overall, the only recommendable tracks remain the opener and the closer: Bob West's ʽSong Called Childrenʼ is another excellent example of baroque instrumentation — a small chamber ensemble combining neo-romanticism with neo-classicism and providing a great background against which Cher's melodramatic delivery, mechanical as it is, acquires a certain epic quality. (Unfortunately, not having heard the original, I cannot say just how original this particular musical arrangement is, but in any case, it has a breath of its own, regardless of whoever is singing on top of it — a saving grace for all these early Cher albums in general: some of the arrangements by the Wrecking Crew and other musicians stand the test of time much better than the singer's cool-calm-collected anti-emotionality).
In a way, Backstage closes the door on the first period of Cher's solo career — jamming a few toes in the progress. As long as Sonny could still write inventive baroque-pop ballads for her, the results could be at least mildly touching; once things were out of his hands, no amount of 18th century strings could save us from the schmaltz. Things were bound to reach nadir sooner or later, and there is nothing that could save Backstage from an embarrassed thumbs down, yet its critical and commercial success did some good at least inasmuch as they gave the lady a pretext to cast off some of her musical past, and open up the next, and arguably the most interesting and redeeming chapter of that strange career.
Sunday, July 24, 2016
Saturday, July 23, 2016
BLOOD CEREMONY: LORD OF MISRULE (2016)
1) The Devil's Widow; 2) Loreley; 3) The Rogue's Lot; 4) Lord Of Misrule; 5) Half Moon Street; 6) The Weird Of Finistere; 7) Flower Phantoms; 8) Old Fires; 9) Things Present, Things Past.
Ah, how delightful unabashed copycatting can be. Say what you will, but when the first track on your new album opens with a suspenseful guitar riff taken almost note-for-note from Pink Floyd's ʽLucifer Samʼ (because Lucifer!!), and then, eight (or nine) bars into the song, changes into a Black Sabbath-style rocker with Iommi-tone, on top of which the frontlady piles up a Jethro Tull-style lead flute melody with Anderson-fuss, it's hard to get rid of an ironic chuckle: «Man, these guys just might be the most original artists of 2016 — they're, like, the only ones to completely and absolutely waive the right to any originality! Slavish imitation rules the day!»
Add to this the fact that, as of now, Blood Ceremony have already been going on for ten years: that's right, time goes pretty fast now, right? Four albums in ten years, all of which essentially sound the same and that «same» is 100% derivative of a bunch of heavy rock / prog rock artists who now probably come to relax and revisit their youth at Blood Ceremony concerts. (At least Anderson and Iommi, I believe, should get a lifelong supply of free tickets to BC shows). I think their rhythm section has changed again for this album (too lazy to check out properly), but the main people stay the same (Alia on keyboards, flutes, and apprentice-demonic vocals; Sean on Iommi-guitar, although, unlike Iommi, he never downtunes it properly enough), and overall, the band just wants to tell you that dark magic is a full-time occupation, with its own routine, schedules, and stability rates. It doesn't pay too much, but hey, it's a job like any other.
And it would still be fun, if only, after the first few tracks, one didn't get the feeling that they are treating it like routine. Again, everything follows the same formula — heavy guitar riffage, derivative of Sabbath and their ilk, but never as memorable; witchy woman vocals from Alia, strong and spiteful, but never truly scary or disturbing; and flute or keyboard solos that always sound tasteful, but never too different from each other. Sometimes the music veers far into the field of Celtic balladry (ʽHalf Moon Streetʼ begins like a metallized version of Fairport Convention's ʽMatty Grovesʼ; ʽThe Weird Of Finistereʼ is a slow, mournful waltz with, for once, a more pastoral sound to the flute), and ʽFlower Phantomsʼ is an unexpectedly short and upbeat psychedelic-melancholic pop song in the vein of British nugget-bands circa 1968-1969, but even these exceptions have the same arrangement style and the same overall mood.
Generally, I still think that the heaviest rocking songs here have 90% of the fun — the already mentioned ʽDevil's Widowʼ, with its tribute to ʽLucifer Samʼ, takes the cake (fast tempo rules, and there's something delightfully corny in the way Alia screams "THE DEVIL'S WIDOW! THE DEVIL'S WIDOW!", as if she just saw her walking down the street or something), but the slow, ponderous ʽRogue's Lotʼ, where the lady gets to ask us the question "how do the living raise the dead?" in such a sinister tone you'd think she was going to demonstrate it here and now, is also cool (at least, until it picks up speed and becomes a more forgettable piece of Crowley boogie); and I am also partial to the «dance-metal» pattern of ʽOld Firesʼ and its overdubbed guitars with «woman tones» melodically duelling in the instrumental section. The title track (referring to the legendary title of the presider over the medieval Feast Of Fools) is probably supposed to be the album's centerpiece, what with its epic, power chord-based opening and all, but does not really come across as a standout — however, it does have a well-thought out main riff as well.
All said, Lord Of Misrule does find me a little tired of giving out thumbs up as if, you know, it were automatically guaranteed that Blood Ceremony's schtick, as long as it is properly executed, is always a good thing to have in unlimited quantities. Namely, Lord Of Misrule has fewer moments of true excitement than The Eldritch Dark — actually, come to think of it, none at all in comparison — and if it takes them three years to come up with a weaker application of the same formula, why should I be recommending this? If you're new to the witchy world of Alia O'Brien, check out their early stuff; if you already know what they are all about, your time and spiritual energy should probably rather be spent on something else — unless, of course, you need fresh music like this to create the proper vibe for casting incantations over your personal stock of mandrake roots, toadstool powders, and black cat bones.
Friday, July 22, 2016
CARIBOU: OUR LOVE (2014)
1) Can't Do Without You; 2) Silver; 3) All I Ever Need; 4) Our Love; 5) Dive; 6) Second Chance; 7) Julia Brightly; 8) Mars; 9) Back Home; 10) Your Love Will Set You Free.
Please to witness yet another strong proof of how much the reviewer is falling out with the times (again!) — apparently, Our Love got the strongest, most raving reviews of Snaith's entire career, and even made it all the way to No. 46 on the Billboard charts, yet I can barely bring myself to sit through half of it (and several relistens have only made the torture worse), so here's a very brief verdict and hopefully I'll never have to do this again.
In a nutshell: where Swim could at least still be called a psychedelic dance album, Our Love is just a dance album, period. It's probably far from the worst IDM album ever released, but it is precisely that — an IDM album. And I am no enemy of IDM when we're talking classic Aphex Twin or other people who have the proper guts to export our conscience into outer space or to orchestrate a robotic apocalypse, but Snaith, with his «sunshine attitude» that was so à propos when dabbling in abstract electronic jazz on his first records, or when going retro-Sixties on Andorra, is just boring as hell when he goes for straight house music.
Of course, he still mixes it up, and there is, for instance, a strong streak of R&B running through the album. ʽCan't Do Without Youʼ, opening the album, samples a bit of Marvin Gaye, combining the sample with Dan's own falsetto, but I've always thought that the primary power of R&B is always locked in live grooves and spontaneously generated power, whereas here we are locked within a robotic, sterile arrangement, and the complex overdubs of several waves of synth noise do nothing to save the situation. If this is an ode to happiness, there is nothing to confirm this except for Dan's looped sample — and even though there is quite a lot happening, as on every Caribou track (read here for an almost over-detailed deconstruction), the track leaves me completely uninvolved on an emotional level, which is a catastrophe.
Everything that follows is essentially more of the same mood: soft dance grooves with complex, but bland and generally predictable series of overdubs. ʽSecond Chanceʼ, with Jessy Lanza on vocals, melodically sounds like some lost Aaliyah outtake with a minimalistic synth trot providing the bulk of the instrumentation — very, very boring. The title track is simply horrible, almost completely undistinguishable from generic club muzak, and I don't care how many extra textures he throws in — the combination of that bass pulse with the man's falsetto aah-aahs shoots the lights out from both, and the results just sound stupid.
And I could go on, but I won't: let's just say that I fail to get the point of this kind of music — it's no less danceable, of course, than any other piece of music with a steady beat, but its artistic content is completely compromised by the «applied» nature, and I would go as far as to say that its relation to genuinely gripping electronic dance music is about the same as Chubby Checker's relation to Chuck Berry; keeping in mind, of course, that there are plenty of people who'd actually prefer Chubby to Chuck, and, by analogy, there might be people around who will like Our Love more than Selected Ambient Works. In my personal paradigm, though, this counts as a generic sellout from yet another guy who decided that sounding «trendy» and «modern» should do more for his carma than investing his talent into creating true beauty. (Let alone the fact that I am not exactly sure in what way these beats, loops, and overdubs are «modern» for 2014, when all this and more has already been done in electronica many times over). A near-disgusted thumbs down. Bring back those Zombies rip-offs once more, comrade! Viva la Revolución!
Thursday, July 21, 2016
THE CARS: DOOR TO DOOR (1987)
1) Leave Or Stay; 2) You Are The Girl; 3) Double Trouble; 4) Fine Line; 5) Everything You Say; 6) Ta Ta Wayo Wayo; 7) Strap Me In; 8) Coming Up You; 9) Wound Up On You; 10) Go Away; 11) Door To Door.
Conventional wisdom says that Heartbeat City, with its mega-popular singles and ground-breaking videos, was a very good record — then the same conventional wisdom goes on to say that Door To Door, released after yet another break for solo projects, was a tremendous drop down in quality, and the record is consistently rated as the band's worst ever. So poorly produced, so uninspired, so boring, that the only way they could excuse themselves was by breaking up, which they did. One and a half stars, tops.
For some reason, I have never felt this opposition. To me, this is basically Heartbeat City Vol. 2, perhaps a wee bit heavier on (bad) guitars, but also a tad darker and more mysterious — on my own, I would never have guessed that I was supposed to love the former and hate the latter. It even has about the same ration of songs I really have a feeling for and songs I couldn't care less about never hearing again; my only explanation is that the overall «style» of Heartbeat City, which felt fresh and exciting in 1984, had become so clichéd and stale by 1987 that the same songs that used to be adored were now abhorred. But as time becomes compressed and we now look back at both records from a faraway point, I suppose it's high time the oddly polarized reactions began to be corrected.
I mean, ʽYou Are The Girlʼ is essentially a follow-up to ʽYou Might Thinkʼ, maybe a bit more sentimental, but essentally the same type of simple upbeat catchy pop song that does not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but is worth a chuckle or two while it's on. Granted, the second single, ʽStrap Me Inʼ, may be one of the worst things they ever did (three power chords is not the reason why they brought back more guitars, right?), but the third one, ʽComing Up Youʼ, is a soft synth pop tune for kids that has plenty of inventive «symphonic-electronic» overdubs to suggest they actually still cared at the moment, so?..
Anyway, the two songs I really like have nothing to do with the singles. ʽFine Lineʼ is a moody follow-up to ʽDriveʼ, this time with a smoky, melancholic atmosphere created by solemn sustained organ notes, and even moodier overdubs by Hawkes and Easton — this time there's no optimism, as in ʽDriveʼ, and although the lyrics are enigmatic, the feeling is one of acknowledging the inevitability of alienation ("there's a fine line between us, all the way"), and it's working. The second favorite is ʽGo Awayʼ, another Orr-sung number that's actually closer to ʽDriveʼ in spirit, but now it's fast and energetic, and the escapist chorus, highlighted by a bitter-tender jangling guitar line, really stands out as an emotional outbreak. Both songs are dark in essence — uneasy broodings by people who feel trapped in a rut and do not have a good idea of how to break the circle, but are able to at least encode that desperation in melody.
Perhaps it was, after all, the element of thick distorted «quasi-punk» guitar that pissed off critics and fans alike: the title track begins with such an insanely fast drum beat that if it weren't the last track on the album, fans might have suspected their favorite band to have gone hardcore on their asses. But it's only there on three tracks — title song, ʽStrap Me Inʼ, and ʽDouble Troubleʼ, the last of which is actually moderately catchy, so not that much of a problem. There's also one of the earliest songs they wrote, ʽTa Ta Wayo Wayoʼ, another fast and merry pop-rocker that they rehearsed in the studio and eventually loved so much they decided to finally cut it — silly decision, perhaps, yet there's nothing that should make us think of, say, ʽWhy Can't I Have Youʼ as a masterpiece and this song as a comparative throwaway.
In short, Door To Door isn't half as bad as they tell you: chances are that if you honestly like Heartbeat City, you'll find plenty of things to like on this belated follow-up as well. It's a different matter entirely that The Cars, as a band, found themselves ultimately dissatisfied with each other and chose to break up — not at the end of their rope (Ocasek went on to have quite a successful career), but rather just because they felt like it: "we left on a good note, a high note", says Ocasek, and while the note could certainly have been higher, there was plenty of room in musical Hell well below Heartbeat City (becoming a collective Bryan Adams, for instance!), and they never went there, and that's okay by me.
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
CAROLE KING: MUSIC (1971)
1) Brother, Brother; 2) It's Going To Take Some Time; 3) Sweet Seasons; 4) Some Kind Of Wonderful; 5) Surely; 6) Carry Your Load; 7) Music; 8) Song Of Long Ago; 9) Brighter; 10) Growing Away From Me; 11) Too Much Rain; 12) Back To California.
The major problem with Music, as it is, in fact, with most of Carole's subsequent output, is that it is simply much too mellow. Tapestry struck a perfect balance between softness and toughness: ʽI Feel The Earth Moveʼ actually rocked, ʽBeautifulʼ was a real power anthem, ʽWhere You Leadʼ had uplifting energy, and ʽSmackwater Jackʼ was a ridiculously fun stomper of a throwaway, cleverly sandwiched in between the ballads. Conversely, with Music Carole upsets the balance: as good as any individual song here is (and most are really good), the album overdoses on tender sweetness, and even though, by inertia, it also rose to No. 1 in the charts, sales would be nowhere near as strong as Tapestry's — and today, the record, along with the entirety of Carole's ensuing career, is comfortably forgotten.
Which is unjust, because if taken in small doses, Music gives you exactly the same Carole King: a talented composer, an honest and emotional singer, and an adorable human being. At this point, she is pretty much running out of oldies to cover («re-cover»?): the only such oldie here is the old Drifters' hit ʽSome Kind Of Wonderfulʼ, predictably re-introverted from the Drifters' luxuriously extravert performance, but not necessarily a highlight on this album — in fact, two minutes into the song it becomes a lazy, pleasant lullaby, putting you to sleep with its tasteful, but generic singer-songwriterish arrangement (two criss-crossed acoustic guitars, piano, silky bass, congas, pretty girl backing vocals, the works).
She is still capable of upbeat pop — ʽSweet Seasonsʼ, smartly enough released as a single, is the bounciest and catchiest tune of the lot here, and it should be able to put a smile on your face as easily as anything on Tapestry; the falsetto twirl on the "...like a sailboat a-sailin' on the sea" is marvelously head-spinning, and the entire band seems energized (listen to Charles Larkey really «sailing» on his bass during the fade-out). ʽBrighterʼ seems a little cornier, and its happy beat is like a preview of the nonchalant disco attitude of the mid-Seventies, but that does not take away the catchiness of the chorus or the delight at more of Larkey's impressive bass zoops. And I wonder if the lady herself realized, consciously or unconsciously, that her ʽBack To Californiaʼ was stylistically and musically ripping off the Beatles' ʽGet Backʼ — right down to the message, as now, instead of "Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona, for some California grass", we have "take me to the West Coast, daddy, and let me be where I belong"? The tempo, the beat, the banging piano chords, the electric piano solo... coincidence? Can't be. But cool tune anyway.
The majority of Music is, however, quite mellow... well, actually, even the upbeat songs are mellow, because she simply refuses this time around to let anger, nervous tension, or depression into the picture: sadness, yes, but always colored with optimism. The most unusual song is ʽBrother, Brotherʼ, which seems to have been written under the influence of, and maybe even as an indirect response to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On — a piece of slightly funky soul with a message of feeling one with the (presumably Afro-American) underdog: for some reason, though, it does not work too well, perhaps because she is trying too hard to write and sing in somebody else's style rather than her own — but surely we can appreciate the gesture. There's also the title track, a waltzy continuation of the soft jazz jamming she'd already explored on ʽRaspberry Jamʼ, but again a little more mellow and a little too relying on a rather boring sax solo this time.
As for the ballads, they suffer from sharing precisely the same type of arrangement over and over again (acoustic guitars, piano, bass, congas or soft percussion), even if choruses for ʽGrowing Away From Meʼ and ʽCarry Your Loadʼ are as catchy as anything she'd ever done. The big misfire, however, is ʽSurelyʼ, a slow, ponderous, meandering soul jam that seems to take ʽNatural Womanʼ as its starting point, but fails to provide a proper build-up or climax; Aretha, perhaps, could make the song come alive with a big booming delivery, but Carole's vocal powers are not enough to compensate for the lack of interesting melody.
Still, the record gets a thumbs up anyway, because all the main ingredients of King's magic are here — she has forgotten a few of them, but at least the arrangements never take away from her disarming humanity, and I can even stand the James Taylor duet on ʽSong Of Long Agoʼ (although only barely so). If you are an admirer of the balladeering side of the lady, do not pass this by: Music has plenty of soul-baring introspection that cannot be spoiled by generic soft-rock arrangements. But do not, indeed, expect another installment of Tapestry.
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
CANNED HEAT: LIVING THE BLUES (1968)
1) Pony Blues; 2) My Mistake; 3) Sandy's Blues; 4) Going Up The Country; 5) Walking By Myself; 6) Boogie Music; 7) One Kind Favor; 8) Parthenogenesis; 9) Refried Boogie.
Everybody knows ʽGoing Up The Countryʼ, right? Everybody who is somebody saw the Woodstock movie, and it's up there — the studio, rather than the live, version, the perfect soundtrack to the sights of Children of Nature gathering for their peaceful-harmless rituals in the back of the woods to the peaceful-harmless sweet sweet sound of Jim Horn's flute (yes, that is the famous Jim Horn himself — unfortunately, nobody in Canned Heat itself could actually play the flute; there's a couple videos where they're lip-synching and The Bear is imitating actual flute-playing, but he can't even hold the instrument properly). Be sure to check out Henry Thomas' original version, called ʽBulldoze Bluesʼ and recorded way back in 1928 with a wonderful quills solo of his own, but the Canned Heat version does have the added benefit of the band's tight rhythm section, and then there's Alan Wilson with his childlike voice that is such a perfect match for the flute, all of this is like Paradise Found in the flesh.
Other than that, though, there are no major stunners on the first side of this album — just more of the band's generally enjoyable, occasionally boring, occasionally ass-kicking blues rock. Best of the lot is probably ʽBoogie Musicʼ, credited to a mysterious «L. T. Tatman III» (probably a local fantasy born out of one too many Budweisers) and featuring the always-welcome Dr. John on piano — it's a rich, fat, groovy piece of funky New Orleanian R&B with great brass / guitar interplay and an inobtrusive lecture on the essence of boogie in the coda. Other than that, Charlie Patton's ʽPony Bluesʼ is unrecognizable, but features some really whiny lead guitar licks from Vestine; and ʽSandy's Bluesʼ is a seven minute long super-slow blues-de-luxe, a genre that any band that does not have B. B. King in it should probably avoid.
But anyway, Living The Blues in general is not about the short songs — it is the band's most experimental album, with most of Side B given over to the ʽParthenogenesisʼ (ʽBirth Of The Maidenʼ) suite. Here we have psychedelic posturing (Alan Wilson's fuzzy Jew's harp solo in the intro), harmonica-driven boogie, honky tonk piano boogie, drum solo, feedback-drenched noise rock, swampy harmonica mixed with Indian raga, and a fiery blues-rock jam — all rolled in one. Honestly, none of it makes sense, and if you want to look for any thematic connections between all these pieces, be my guest. Yet somehow, the suite manages to be fun: no particular part sticks around for too long, and the guys are clearly enjoying all this absurdity. If anything, it's just a harmless celebration of the many different kinds of music that folks produce around the world, and I like this freedom of imagination and appreciate that the track still has plenty of entertainment value. It's not really trying to make some major philosophical point, despite the Greek title; it might even be a parody of suites trying to make a major philosophical point. In any case, it's quite a fun listen, despite the 20-minute running time.
What makes things more complicated is that it ain't over yet: here comes a whole second LP, and it only has one track, split in half — ʽRefried Boogieʼ, whose title indicates it is an «update» of ʽFried Hockey Boogieʼ from the previous album, is a 40-minute long jam, and this time, it actually is a real live jam, based on the exact same ʽBoogie Childrenʼ line as always, and with even more of those bass, guitar, and drum solos. As much as I like the band's jam power, I am not sure why they do not want us to believe that they already were at their best with ʽFried Hockey Boogieʼ, and insist on extending it to more than twice its original length for our pleasure. On a good day, I really do not mind, because a good take on John Lee Hooker can really work wonders and induce trances, and the boys were on fire all right; but on a bad day, I'd at least need a version of this that cuts out Larry Taylor's and Adolfo de la Parra's solos. That said, I do believe it is a record of sorts — I don't think anybody in 1968 (at least, outside of jazz) put out 40-minute long live tracks, so if they just wanted their bit of Guinness, I can understand that.
In any case, tedious or not, ʽRefried Boogieʼ does not stop the record from getting a deserved thumbs up. Everything that is here is at least not bad, and no record with ʽGoing Up The Countryʼ on it can be slandered — on the whole, Canned Heat were clearly peaking here, and if anything, the album gets by on raw enthusiasm and the fun quotient alone. They weren't talented songwriters, but they were happy to be involved in The Thing while it was Happening, and that happiness kind of trickles over from the speakers while the music is playing. So join in all the fun, and don't forget to boogie!
Monday, July 18, 2016
CHER: WITH LOVE, CHER (1967)
1) You Better Sit Down Kids; 2) But I Can't Love You More; 3) Hey Joe; 4) Mama (When My Dollies Have Children); 5) Behind The Door; 6) Sing For Your Supper; 7) Look At Me; 8) There But For Fortune; 9) I Will Wait For You; 10) The Times They Are A-Changin'.
I think this must have been the time when Sonny and Cher began dressing in ridiculous furs to boost their hip credibility, but also releasing anti-drug statements to bring it back down. Anyway, With Love, Cher is an important landmark — not only is its first side arguably the finest Cher side released up to that date, but it's almost as if Sonny finally found a style for her. With the exception of ʽHey Joeʼ (which is ridiculous, but isn't that bad, by the way — decent combo of bluesy lead guitar with orchestration), the first four songs, three of them written by Sonny and one by master songwriter Graham Goldman, are interesting cases of not-too-banal art-pop, with sentimental stories told in the form of mini-suites, with actual musical development, unpredictable mood shifts and... well, intelligence.
The Goldman song, ʽBehind The Doorʼ, is the most ambitious of these, and they dared release it as the first single, though it did not chart — too weird for Cher, people must have thought: a slow, melancholic, draggy lament, with mandolins a-plenty and the lead singer, apparently, wailing about all the evil things that go on behind locked doors, culminating in lines like "the people are awaiting... and still they go on mating!" Then, suddenly, it breaks into a quasi-Morriconesque Western theme for a dramatic moment, before reverting back to the original formula. If we did not know it was Cher, who really does not discriminate all that well between any kinds of material she is offered, we'd call the tune «emotionally resonant», but as it is, we'd rather exercise caution and just call it «weird», which is, after all, precisely what you'd expect from a soon-to-be 10cc member.
Sonny's songs are certainly less weird, but they're still good. The dramatic waltz ʽMama (When My Dollies Have Babies)ʼ is another of his attempts at monumentally pompous «Euro-art songs», but the multi-layered orchestral arrangements are nothing to laugh at, and even if one thinks that the song contains little of Cher's own soul, it is hard not to feel at least a bit of Sonny's, not to mention some pretty serious composing work. ʽBut I Can't Love You Moreʼ, for all of its Vegasy nature, is still catchy, and the brass / string / guitar arrangement is nothing less than excellent. The song that actually charted was the lightest of them all, ʽYou Better Sit Down Kidsʼ, and once you get used to the odd perspective of Cher singing this breakup tune from the father's point of view (then again, Wikipedia doesn't exactly have a «Cher as a gay icon» page for nothing), it's another cool tune, a bit of «progressive music-hall» with an odd funky-folksy mid-section. No, it hardly conveys all the pains and traumas of divorce, but it's a curious musical experiment.
Bad things wake up and go bump in the night on Side B, by which time Goldman is no longer there, Sonny is getting tired, and Cher resorts to covering ʽSing For Your Supperʼ (nice try, but with Mama Cass in town, this is like John Lennon trying to battle Muhammad Ali), The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (no, no, please no!), Phil Ochs (Freedom Fighter Cher on the horizon), and ʽThe Times They Are A-Changin'ʼ, even though the times have already changed, and there was hardly any need to keep rubbing that in our noses. All of this stuff is completely expendable and forgettable, and basically reduces the value of the album to that of a small EP. Still, a breakthrough is a breakthrough, and the record does establish a certain «Cher formula» that would last well into the early 1970s, and arguably represents the only things of some artistic worth that she (with a lot of help from her husband) brought into this world, so thumbs up.
Sunday, July 17, 2016
Saturday, July 16, 2016
BLOC PARTY: HYMNS (2016)
1) The Love Within; 2) Only He Can Heal Me; 3) So Real; 4) The Good News; 5) Fortress; 6) Different Drugs; 7) Into The Earth; 8) My True Name; 9) Virtue; 10) Exes; 11) Living Lux; 12*) Eden; 13*) New Blood; 14*) Paraiso; 15*) Evening Song.
That's right, kids — Hymns. Please to remember Bloc Party, once an indie rock band with a Liverpudlian Igboid frontman venting out all the frustration that a progressive-thinking modern day British youngster with African roots could accumulate. To be honest, ten years on few people probably remember the original impact of Silent Alarm, but you just might remember at least the fact that its power was very much dependent upon a fabulous young drummer called Matt Tong. Well, this is a new Bloc Party, kids: Matt Tong is no longer in the band, and neither is bass player Gordon Moakes, and that's all right because Bloc Party are no longer a rock band — they sing hymns now. It's all about the soul now, brother. ʽOnly He Can Heal Meʼ, see? With ʽThe Love Withinʼ. ʽThe Good Newsʼ is ʽSo Realʼ, you're just one step away from learning ʽMy True Nameʼ and spending the rest of your life on ʽDifferent Drugsʼ. Instead of multiplying ʽExesʼ, you will learn to live on the ʽFortressʼ of ʽVirtueʼ, and when you finally go ʽInto The Earthʼ, this will be but a mere technical formality to accede to ʽLiving Luxʼ.
Incidentally, Kele Okereke "has denied the new material is explicitly religious" (The Guardian) — that's like saying that ʽMy Sweet Lordʼ was actually a song about a chocolate Sauron. True, not all the songs on the album are about religion: some are about fucking, but they, too, are hymns from a certain point of view. In any case, there's nothing wrong, per se, about a musician suddenly taking a strong spiritual turn — after all, Kele has been in the music business for ten years now and he is certainly entitled to a bit of ambition, and at least one long-distance call to the Transcendental Plains. The problem is, Bloc Party have never been that great a band when it comes to pure music, and ever since Intimacy showed us how really bad they can get when they mellow out (and Four showed us that not all was lost as long as they returned to a rock paradigm), the general ability of Kele Okereke to stun us with the highly charged emotional vibration of his suffering heart has been under heavy suspicion.
I have to admit that he really tries, and that Lissack has also joined this game of searching for advanced spiritual enlightenment — by experimenting with his guitar and making it sound like a synthesizer (he claims that he did not play any actual synths on the record, but that's sort of a moot point, since new band member Justin Harris, besides bass, is also credited for synths anyway). It is a novel approach, for instance, when your opening hymn begins with the request "Lord, give me grace and dancing feet", and the Lord proceeds to do just that as the song becomes a straightforward dance-pop number (once it has evolved through the "ugly synth loop that sounds like a stalling spaceship" phase of the first couple of minutes). I'm sure this is probably far from the first time that the Lord has been praised in techno terms (I just googled "techno gospel" and I already wish I didn't), but it might be the first time that a former rock band switched to techno gospel, so throw on an extra point for Brave New World Exploration.
As the music goes on, it becomes clear pretty soon that this is still a «pop» band (at least Kele still thinks largely in terms of verses and choruses), but that they have no more intentions of rocking out — and if the musical evidence is not enough to convince you, then further on down the line the man makes it verbally clear as well: "Rock and roll has got so old / Just give me neo-soul" (ʽInto The Earthʼ). This is not «neo-soul» in the sense of D'Angelo, though — the band does not enlist any jazzy brass sections, does not show signs of hip-hop merger, and there are only a few tracks that employ a (not too prominent) gospel choir. «Soul» as in «self-consciously soulful vocalization», yes, but one that is surrounded by music that is equally influenced by Talk Talk, Radiohead, Al Green, and Donna Summer. Admirably experimental, yes, but not too memorable and, worst of all, not too breathtaking.
Yes, Kele somehow emerges endowed with an almost beautiful singing voice, but in his search for originality he seems to overstep the line. It begins with the lyrics — trying to update erotic lyricism in ʽFortressʼ, he ends up with lines like "And I'm a fool for the sight / Of all the gold between your thighs", or "Reach down and feel how strong / My love grows just for you". If he were a swaggy hip hopper, that would at least be adequate — but ʽFortressʼ is a soft-textured ballad with lilting falsetto vocals, an ode of tenderness, and even romantic pornography deserves less cheesy verbalization than this. And this inadequacy pervades the album from start to finish: every single song just takes itself way too goddamn seriously without providing enough musical justification for it.
It's hard to explain why Hymns does not work as a whole, because almost any individual song here, if listened to long enough, might click on some level (the singing is decent, the arrangements are creative, some of the choruses begin to stick etc.; and I have come to almost love the only song on the album that actually rocks — ʽThe Good Newsʼ, with a fairly gritty-swampy steel guitar pattern in the chorus and a certain sense of irony in the title). It is precisely because the album tries to bite off more than it can chew that it fails — there may be enough faith and sincere feeling in the heart of Kele Okereke, but there's just not enough raw (or cooked) talent here to produce a record that would be the modern day equivalent of All Things Must Pass, What's Going On, Spirit Of Eden, and OK Computer all at the same time. ʽOnly He Can Heal Meʼ wants to be the most sincere song about God's love ever written, ʽMy True Nameʼ needs to be the most passionate song about devotion to a loved one ever serenaded, ʽVirtueʼ strives to be the sharpest self-flagellating confession ever put to music — well, maybe not, but all these songs are not so much pop tracks or musical experiments as they are declarations of Spirituality, and in these matters, you can have no objectivity, you can only have faith, and I have no incentive to place my faith in Kele Okereke as the one true God (or at least, one true Prophet) of 2016.
That said, I will not denigrate the album, either: I hated it upon the first listens, but it does have its moments, and despite some lyrical crimes against good taste, eventually you might come to appreciate Kele's and Lissack's hunt for Truth. At the very least, Okereke is not an exaggeratedly hateful whiner, and his vibe is a decent balance between depression and optimism. If this is a failure, it's at least an interesting one, rather than just a stupid embarrassment.
Friday, July 15, 2016
CARIBOU: SWIM (2010)
1) Odessa; 2) Sun; 3) Kaili; 4) Found Out; 5) Bowls; 6) Leave House; 7) Hannibal; 8) Lalibela; 9) Jamelia.
Bad move, brother. Somebody must have heard Andorra and said, «Hey Dan, I like what you're doing and all, but this is frickin' granddad-pop here, surely you're not willing to forget that the world has moved on a bit in the last fifty years? And didn't you used to be like an electronica guy and stuff like that? What's up with this quasi-Zombies shit?» And for all we know, the «somebody» in question could have been Dan himself.
Anyway, the fact is that Swim sounds nothing like Andorra, but neither does it return properly to the stylistics of Snaith's Manitoba period, when he was wondering what would avantgarde jazz sound like if you programmed it into computers. Instead, Swim straightforwardly plunges into dance-pop territory — almost everything here is in the soft house / techno ballpark, even though some non-electronic instrumentation is retained (electric guitars, harps, bells, whatever) and the vocals reflect Dan's usual psycho-folk sweetness instead of being suitably robotized for the electronic palette. In other words, this is truly the sound of somebody who suddenly awoke to the fact of «slipping into the past» and is now desperately scrambling back to catch up with the present.
And I feel really torn about this. On one hand, Swim is not entirely «anti-Caribou»: all the tracks reflect a very high level of craft — they build up, they look for unusual instrumental combinations, they really want to synthesize classic elements of art-rock and psychedelia with modern electronic rhythms and produce a sort of «art-dance-pop», think a Pet Shop Boys collaboration with Rod Argent. But on the other hand, all of this is done at the expense of the heart-gripping hooks of Andorra — it's a record I could learn to live and respect, but I could never ever have any «intimate» relationship with it, if you do know what I mean.
I will not go any further than the first (and, apparently, one of the most revered by the album's fans) track here, which is called ʽOdessaʼ for some reason, even though it brings on no associations whatsoever with either the Black Sea or the Bee Gees. It's funky, ruled by over by a thick burping bassline and further populated with ghostly high-pitched wails, bell sets, and a vocal part that tries to evoke feelings of sadness and compassion for the female protagonist — "she's tired of cryin' and sick of his lies". It's a technically impressive piece of work, and it could work, but... somehow, I don't believe that it does. It's not «creepy» — the entire atmosphere is too bouncy, light, inoffensive for that. It's not «melancholic» — melancholic moods aren't usually associated with funky dance rhythms. It's not «tender» — the synth wails and the bells and the deep bass prevent you from mellowing out properly. So what is it? I'm not sure. At least Andorra exuded a definite aura of kindness and warmth, but here this aura seems to have been corrupted and dissipated, as if he wanted to make a track that sounded warm-friendly-optimistic and dark-hostile-pessimistic at the same time, but in the end the two sides simply outcancel each other.
Unfortunately, it just does not get better: all I experience while the record is on is a sense of confusion and disorientation. Some tracks lend themselves easier to interpretation — ʽSunʼ, for instance, where the vocals are limited to a single endlessly swirling sample of "sun, sun, sun...", is like an electronic prayer to the light, accompanied with a dance ritual routine; even so, I feel routinely bored with its electronic psychedelia which, despite all the painstaking overdubs, does not sound like anything I have not already heard a hundred times before done better by «legitimate» techno artists. Other tracks seem to operate on the one-idea principle: ʽLeave Houseʼ, for instance — take this single flute phrase and loop it to infinity, then throw on whatever comes into your head at the moment. Very modern, very spontaneous, very tiring.
On a particularly good day, I could just express my usual respect to the level of craft and leave it at that; but I do tend to work in context, and it really pisses me off how, upon having released a near-perfect synthesis of modern sensitivity and ancient influences of Andorra, the guy just had to go ahead and spoil it all to hell. Feel free to disagree in this case (I can actually try to understand people who get their full set of kicks from this kind of music), but as of now, this is such a disappointing downer that thumbs down seem like the only possible option.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
THE CARS: HEARTBEAT CITY (1984)
1) Hello Again; 2) Looking For Love; 3) Magic; 4) Drive; 5) Stranger Eyes; 6) You Might Think; 7) It's Not The Night; 8) Why Can't I Have You; 9) I Refuse; 10) Heartbeat City.
I must say, it still feels good to be so completely free of Eighties nostalgia that it is possible to openly state — Heartbeat City sucks from start to finish, despite being such an immaculately crafted product. I can enjoy some of the individual songs, and I can sometimes find things of deeper value behind the superficial pop gloss, but on a general, simplified scale Heartbeat City is a musical disaster. All of the Cars' records have «dated» to a certain extent, but none of them more so than this collection of bright, shiny mid-Eighties pop nuggets, fashioned so exclusively for the sake of commercial success and nothing else.
The band took a lengthy break after Shake It Up, during which Ocasek and Hawkes released their first solo albums and also had themselves plenty of free time to take a good look at the world's trending directions. Two trends that seemed obvious were: (a) «guitar bands are on their way out» with synth-pop and digital technology on the rise; (b) MTV power. Consequently, once they finally got together for the next effort in mid-1983, enlisting Robert "Mutt" Lange to produce the album (you can't go wrong with a producer who was able to cover even AC/DC and Def Leppard in gold!) and relocating to London for the sessions (European flavor!), the two most important things were — get rid of most of the guitars in favor of synthesizers and electronic drums; and produce as many videos as possible, most of which, it has to be admitted, were far more innovative and fun than the songs they were supposed to accompany.
Oh sure, Heartbeat City has plenty of hooks — cold, mechanical, robotic ones; not cold enough to be Kraftwerk-icy and haunting, though, but simply cold enough to feel as plastic and lifeless as the opening ghostly vocals that greet you with their "hello... hello again". The entire track is a mix of several different, but equally simplistic synth parts (the main eight-note synth riff sounds like two robots vomiting in sync), toughened up with power metal guitar chords in the chorus, and no amount of tragedy in Ocasek's voice can salvage the garbage melody (which is garbage not because it is synth-pop, but because it is bad synth-pop: where Depeche Mode could tune their electronics to convey sadness, disillusionment, or even horror, ʽHello Againʼ and its ilk just sound like repetitive beeps and bleeps).
Uptempo pop songs like ʽLooking For Loveʼ and ʽYou Might Thinkʼ simply sound awful, and I would never accept arguments like «well, The Cars sounded like everybody sounded back in 1978, and now they just sound like everybody sounded in 1984 — what's the big deal?», because not everybody sounded like this in 1984, but only everybody obsessed with capitalizing on the latest trends, and the latest trends were «more synthesizers, less intelligence»: ʽYou Might Thinkʼ rides almost entirely on one five-note keyboard sequence (once you've heard the first two seconds of the song, believe me, you've heard pretty much everything), and relates to ʽGood Times Rollʼ in about the same way in which a Britney Spears «pop» song would relate to a Beatles one. Why the heck did it chart? Simple — because of the video, which was one of the first videos to use computer graphics, and combined computer effects with sleaziness to perfection. And don't even get me started on ʽMagicʼ, with its three-chord power riff and arena-rock chorus that sounds like very bad Boston. Was it really that hard to invest just a little more time and energy in such a thing as composing?
Ultimately, I count two out of ten songs that still have a magic touch to them after all these years. I should be hating ʽDriveʼ as a synth-heavy adult contemporary ballad, deeply derivative from 10cc's ʽI'm Not In Loveʼ; truth is, I have always been enchanted by Orr's vocal part — and the synth textures and ethereal overdubbed harmonies agree with it very well. Unlike most of everything else here, this track actually has soul, and plenty of psychologism: somehow, it just captures that «late night depression» vibe to perfection, and if you're ever in need of a little seance of self-pity, locked all alone in your room and stuff, ʽDriveʼ should be among the first tracks on that mixtape. Alas, Orr never replicates that success — already on his second ballad, ʽWhy Can't I Have Youʼ, he sounds plastic, manneristic, and theatrical in comparison.
The only other track that redeems the record is ʽHeartbeat Cityʼ itself (a.k.a. ʽJackiʼ on the original US edition of the album). Uptempo and electronic like everything else, it is actually a deeply melancholic ballad that takes the «fun side» of the album and turns it on its head — the lyrics are somewhat enigmatic (nobody really knows who Jacki actually is, and why is it that everything depends on her presence or absence), but the feeling is quite unambiguous: one of being trapped, without hope of escape or change, in «Heartbeat City». You can just think of it as a song of lost love, or, like I like to do, you can expand it to include a bit of that old Roxy Music-influenced melancholic decadence — looking for true feeling and passion in a hedonistic-materialistic world ("there's a place for everyone under Heartbeat City's golden sun", etc.). In any case, this is the only track on the entire record where the looped synth pattern actually conveys emotion and perfectly agrees with Ocasek's sorrowful vocal part.
It would be useless to give the album a thumbs down — it has pretty much passed on to legend, and it will take yet another wave of general disgust (this time, retrospective, which is much harder) for generic Eighties production and commercialism to give it a proper spanking, which a single negative rating could hardly hope to trigger. More importantly, I find it hard to condemn an album which still contains occasional flashes of inspiration and even genius: ʽDriveʼ and ʽHeartbeat Cityʼ are unimpeachable, and show that The Cars certainly did not «run out of talent» by 1983 — they just let themselves be sidetracked with the temptation of getting back on that elusive cutting edge. But «great album»? Come on now, it's a frickin' sellout — look the word up in encyclopaedias, and eventually you'll find a certain Peter Phillips art piece illustrating it.