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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Caravan: The Unauthorized Breakfast Item

CARAVAN: THE UNAUTHORISED BREAKFAST ITEM (2003)

1) Smoking Gun; 2) Revenge; 3) The Unauthorised Breakfast Item; 4) Tell Me Why; 5) It's Getting A Whole Lot Better; 6) Head Above The Clouds; 7) Straight Through The Heart; 8) Wild West Street; 9) Nowhere To Hide; 10) Linders Field.

The Battle Of Hastings, with its subtle, but special atmosphere of cold melancholy and nostalgia, could have been a highly appropriate and intelligent last goodbye for Caravan — one of those nice turns of events when a formerly great and then degenerated band comes together for one last statement; not a huge one, but reflecting a certain degree of wisdom and experience. Too often, however, the temptation to mistake a successful «last goodbye» for a sign of self-permission to go on recording new stuff, so to speak, becomes impossible to overcome. And thus, at the turn of the new millennium, Caravan come together once again — to make a record that, to me at least, sounds completely superfluous.

Again, this lineup only includes Hastings and Coughlan from the original band, although Dave Sinclair was still a member when they went into the studio: he contributes and plays on ʽNowhere To Hideʼ. Reportedly, though, he split with the band again over «creative differences», and all the other tracks feature Jan Schelhaas, the band's old keyboard player from the Blind Dog At St. Dunstan's period. Richardson and Leverton reprise their roles from The Battle Of Hastings, and an extra lead guitarist, Doug Boyle (who'd previously played with Robert Plant's band) is brought over to lend a hand. With the Hastings / Richardson / Schelhaas core, you might faintly expect them to deliver another Blind Dog — unfortunately, instead of this they deliver another Better By Far, albeit with some technical flaws that were typical of the late 1970s corrected and repla­ced with some technical flaws that are typical of the early 2000s.

If you have heard the opening track, ʽSmoking Gunʼ, you have already assessed the overall sound of the record — grimly optimistic pop music created by prog survivors and released in a world where neither distorted guitars nor cosmic-sounding electronic sounds no longer make anybody bat an eye just because they are, you know, distorted and/or cosmic-sounding. It's a nice sound, but it no longer has the added bonus of The Battle's world-weariness, because these guys have survived their mid-life crises and seem fairly happy now to occupy their parliamentary seats in the post-prog world of elder(ly) statesmen — making professional, but pizzazz-free music. The production is marvelous: all the most subtle guitar overtones reveal themselves instantaneously. There is hardly anything substantial behind that production, though. The second track, ʽRevengeʼ, sounds almost exactly like the first one, and that is just the beginning.

Eventually, after about four numbers that are completely interchangeable, they arrive at a point where they remember that they used to be a progressive band with long-winded epics, and begin to pump out 7-8-minute long epics that, unfortunately, fall more into the «adult contemporary» pattern than into the «progressive rock» scheme (amusingly, something very similar had earlier happened to Genesis, with their pseudo-prog monsters like ʽDriving The Last Spikeʼ, etc.). ʽIt's Getting A Whole Lot Betterʼ, for instance, is an unmemorable chunk of smooth blues-jazz with Kenny G-style sax solos; ʽHead Above The Cloudsʼ is at least speedier, but essentially it's the same smooth jazz taken at a faster tempo. One might have hoped that ʽNowhere To Hideʼ, the only track left behind by Dave Sinclair (and sung by Jim Leverton rather than Hastings), would be better — but its first half is exactly the same jazz-pop as everything else, and its second half largely consists of a fusion synth solo from Sinclair that sounds like... well, I have no idea why I should be listening to any of this instead of, say, Al Di Meola. At least Al Di Meola had pyro­tech
nics. Why should you need Al Di Meola-like music without pyrotechnics?

In the end, the only track that has shown a few signs of life to me was the instrumental finale, ʽLinders Fieldʼ, mainly because they hit upon a different kind of sound here — multi-tracked folksy jangle mixed with smooth, ambient-like keyboards. It's a pretty and unassuming coda with a curious (probably unintentional) psychedelic effect on the brain. But having to sit through 50 minutes of professional, clear-sounding, thoroughly monotonous, humorless, and essentially meaningless adult pop to get to it? Honestly, I'd much rather live my life knowing that the door on Caravan was slammed with the last power chord of ʽI Know Why You're Laughingʼ. Recommended only for major Pye fans and hardcore sentimentalists; for everybody else, definitely a thumbs down.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The 5th Dimension: Soul & Inspiration

THE 5TH DIMENSION: SOUL & INSPIRATION (1974)

1) Soul & Inspiration; 2) Harlem; 3) The Best Of My Love; 4) My Song; 5) Hard Core Poetry; 6) No Love In The Room; 7) House For Sale; 8) Somebody Warm Like Me; 9) Salty Tears; 10) I Don't Know How To Look For Love.

This album starts off just fine, with two of the band's finest performances from the meager mid-1970s — a solid, fiery rendition of The Righteous Brothers' ʽSoul & Inspirationʼ, with Billy and Marilyn trading lead vocal duties and bassist Joe Osborn providing the song with a tough, gritty skeleton underneath all the orchestral layers; and immediately afterwards, a cover of Bill Withers' ʽHarlemʼ that smartly capitalizes upon all the funky promise of the original — perhaps the band inevitably loses some of the song's irony and subtlety in the process, but with their harmonies, wild strings and wah-wah guitars all over the place, they make the song kick significantly more ass than it did while chained to Bill's vision.

Alas, that's about it: once the highlights are done with, the usual curse of the 5th Dimension — dependence on mediocre songwriting — kicks in, and the rest of the album consists of largely interchangeable ballads and R&B workouts that waste the vocal talents of the band and the ins­trumental professionalism of the Wrecking Crew behind them. You're covering the Eagles? Fine, but couldn't you at least have picked some of their better songs, like ʽWitchy Womanʼ or some­thing, rather than the generic MOR ballad ʽBest Of My Loveʼ? And of all those other tunes, the only one that still sticks in my head a bit is ʽNo Love In The Roomʼ, a dark dance number with a good vocal build-up, though still very run-of-the-mill in terms of arrangement (ominous strings, proto-disco bass, all the works).

In fact, the record is so heavy on softness and sentimentality that the only proper R&B number here, besides ʽHarlemʼ, is ʽMy Songʼ, a composition by Rich Cason written at the crossroads of Funkadelic/Parliament and Stevie Wonder, but without the mad energy of the former and the melodic genius of the latter. At least they try to get a groove going here, and Billy is sincerely trying to fire it up; on such easy listening numbers as ʽHard Core Poetryʼ (courtesy of the Lambert & Potter songwriting duo), ʽHouse For Saleʼ (courtesy of Larry Brown, a Motown hack),  ʽSomebody Warm Like Meʼ (courtesy of Tony Macaulay who'd given them ʽ(Last Night) I Didn't Get To Sleep At Allʼ in 1972), there's nothing happening at all, although, of course, all of these songs can be used as relaxing background muzak. But even considering how many people in the world treat all music as no more than relaxing background muzak, and how much this record follows the standard soft-pop formula of the mid-1970s, the fact is that Soul & Inspiration tanked just as miserably as its predecessor, missing its huge core audience by a mile. Again, not recommended for anybody except huge fans of Billy's and Marilyn's vocal talents — which, as usual, are formally on open display, but still do not prevent me from an overall thumbs down.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: The Women Blues Of Champion Jack Dupree

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: THE WOMEN BLUES OF CHAMPION JACK DUPREE (1961)

1) Ain't That A Shame; 2) Talk To Me, Baby; 3) Tell Me When; 4) Old Woman Blues; 5) Hard Feelings Blues; 6) Bus Station Blues; 7) Rattlesnake Boogie; 8) Black Wolf Blues; 9) Jail House; 10) Come Back Baby; 11) On My Way To Moe Asch.

Undoubtedly the finest thing about this album is its front sleeve, featuring a stylish retro photo by David Gahr that looks fantastically modern at the same time — I mean, what is it that dame is doing before the mirror unless taking a selfie? Well worth owning for that shot alone, if you ask me; and take no substitutes, hunt for the original LP on Ebay or something, because size definite­ly matters with this one.

Other than that, the details are not exactly clear. This is the only post-war LP recording of the Champ's that actually came out on Folkways Records, for whom he'd previously only recorded an occasional number or two; and this was clearly a single, cohesive, almost conceptual session, as evidenced by the album title and accompanying liner notes (all about them ladies, and how they continue to influence the life of a weathered old bluesman), and even the last track, which conti­nues the Champ's «diary-like» approach to bluesmaking — a special musical post-scriptum to acknowledge the Moses Asch / Folkways connection for this piece. However, the album does not include any information about where, when, and with whom the whole thing was cut, so I have no idea, for instance, if Dupree had to temporarily return to the States to make it, or if he recorded the session in Copenhagen and then sent the tapes overseas, or if (most probable solution) he cut it in the States before moving to Europe, and Folkways simply took some time (a year or two) to put it into proper shape before marketing the results.

He is working with a full band here — there's at least a regular drummer, bassist, and guitarist in the same room with him — but I have no idea who they are. In any case, it's nobody great, or, if it's somebody great, the somebody in question is keeping humble, providing for a fuller sound but never threatening to overshadow Mr. Jack. Not that there's much to overshadow: as usual, the record is very straightforward, consisting of about half a dozen completely interchangeable slow 12-bar blues, and a few faster, but also interchangeable, pieces of boogie (ʽTell Me Whenʼ, ʽBus Station Bluesʼ) with no surprises whatsoever.

Relative (very relative) standouts here include ʽRattlesnake Boogieʼ, a percussion-heavy instru­mental (and you can judge what the percussion sounds like by simply considering the title), and the already mentioned ʽOn The Way To Moe Aschʼ, not because it mentions Moe Asch by name, but because it features a nice bass solo to break up the overall monotonousness of the session. Also, if you are wondering by some chance, ʽAin't That A Shameʼ is not a Fats Domino cover, but just another one of those generic blues pieces. All in all, I don't think Folkways really got the best side of the Champion here — he seems fairly stiff and morose; but then, considering the label's almost religious attitude to American folk and blues traditions, they'd probably want him to be as stiff, morose, and boring as possible, leaving his humorous, vaudevillian side to all those corny, commercial record labels. Still, that photo...

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Kinks: Kinda Kinks

THE KINKS: KINDA KINKS (1965)

1) Look For Me Baby; 2) Got My Feet On The Ground; 3) Nothin' In The World Can Stop Me From Worrying About That Girl; 4) Naggin' Woman; 5) Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight; 6) Tired Of Waiting For You; 7) Dancing In The Street; 8) Don't Ever Change; 9) Come On Now; 10) So Long; 11) You Shouldn't Be Sad; 12) Some­thing Better Beginning; 13*) Everybody's Gonna Be Happy; 14*) Who'll Be The Next In Line; 15*) Set Me Free; 16*) I Need You; 17*) See My Friends; 18*) Never Met A Girl Like You Before; 19*) Wait Till Summer Comes Along; 20*) Such A Shame; 21*) A Well Respected Man; 22*) Don't You Fret; 23*) I Go To Sleep (demo).

For all the greatness that Ray Davies and his brother brought into the world in 1966–1969, it can be very seriously argued that, progress-wise, no other gap between any two of their classic al­bums is covered by such a giant leap forward as the gap between Kinks and Kinda Kinks — no matter how uninventive the actual album titles are. (They loved the letter K so much in those days, it's a wonder they never got officially endorsed by the KKK). Even if there are relatively few timeless classics on this second album, the important thing is that it actually sounds like a classic Kinks album, one where they really come into their own style, totally distinct from everybody else's. Most importantly, ten out of twelve songs here are Ray Davies originals — reflecting the amazingly fast rate with which Ray was beginning to turn into one of Britain's finest songwriters, something that he himself probably could not have predicted even one year earlier.

Perhaps the only atavistic remnant of their derivative fumbles is ʽNaggin' Womanʼ, quite a strange choice for a cover — recorded by little-known vocalist and harmonica player from Mississippi by the name of Jimmy Anderson that even in its original incarnation sounded like an average wannabe-Jimmy-Reed number. Brother Dave sings it in his exaggeratedly nasal voice that reminds even stronger of Jimmy Reed, but honestly, the Kinks could never properly mimick Jimmy Reed's nastiness, so the song sounds trashy, but boring (apart from Dave's minimalistic guitar solo, which is cute, but still incomparable to whatever a Brian Jones would do with this at about the same time). On the other hand, dance-oriented Motown material fares better with them, provided it's been properly Kinkified: Ray sings Martha & The Vandellas' ʽDancing In The Streetʼ with idealistic-romantic aplomb, but it is the raw, swirling, gritty rhythm guitar playing that makes the song — not having either the budget or the experience to emulate the original's glorious brass arrangement, the Kinks put everything they have into the guitar groove, and make it into a kick-ass sample of young British R'n'B.

But that's it for the covers. Excited by the commercial and critical success of their latest singles, Ray is now generating creative ideas by the dozen, the first of which, preceding the album by a couple of months, is ʽTired Of Waiting For Youʼ — a song that, from a certain perspective, could be called the first power ballad ever written, being rhythmically driven by the exact same hard-rocking, distorted sound that the brothers had found earlier for ʽYou Really Got Meʼ and ʽAll Day And All Of The Nightʼ. This time, of course, it overlaps with a soft and jangly lead part, but it is impossible to properly describe how the added boost of the distorted "da-doom, da-doom" riff elevates the song to the status of a classic anthem. You can see how they are still growing: the lyrics of the tune are rather inane (for a guy as gentlemanly and innocent as Ray, the implications of being "tired of waiting for you" seem rather embarrassing), the arrangement desperately begs for extra melodic and harmonic overlays that they do not yet know how to produce — but the introductory eight seconds alone, with the sweet and the grumbly guitar voices weaving together in perfect harmony, are musical genius; and the bridge section of "it's your life... and you can do what you want" is the first of many cases where Ray would be saving his dreamiest and most chivalrous bits for the mid-part, before pulling the listener back out into the real world for the regular verse-chorus stuff.

Next to the innovative breakthrough of ʽTired Of Waitingʼ, the rest of the album may sound a bit lackluster in comparison — and it probably is, considering how Ray used to complain about Shel Talmy forcing the band to record it in two weeks' time. But even if the other tracks do not feel so cathartic, most of them are still exhilarating, joyful, catchy pop-rock with all sorts of subtle twists, particularly the long stretch on Side B beginning with ʽDon't Ever Changeʼ. Of the two true ori­ginal compositions on Kinks, it is the ʽStop Your Sobbingʼ model rather than the ʽYou Really Got Meʼ one that Ray keeps following — not exactly inventing the formula of the «consolation pop song», but personalizing it. It's as if the Kinks, under his direction, were occupying their own little corner of the market, where all the young girls, after having their hearts burned down by the Beatles and their lower organs soaked wet by the Stones, could crawl over to Uncle Ray and weep on his comforting shoulder. All these songs are romantic, but perhaps even less sexual in nature than the Beach Boys — not to mention the near-complete lack of even the faintest traces of misogyny or even slight disrespect towards any representatives of the opposite sex. Yes, instead of telling her that it's all over now, or that she can't do that, or that this may be the last time, or that this happened once before when he came to her door, etc. etc., Mr. Ray is sincerely wishing her "don't you ever change now, always stay the same now", and telling her that she shouldn't be sad, and generally playing the knight in shining armor for all those little cuties who find them­selves used up and abandoned by the likes of John Lennon or Mick Jagger.

Well, there are exceptions, of course: ʽNothing In The World Can Stop Me From Worryin' Bout That Girlʼ does actually tell the story of a nasty two-timer who "just kept on lying". But even so, all this leads to is heartbreak rather than anger — notice that there isn't a single insult in the lyrics, and the song, a minimalistic piece of blues-pop whose acoustic riff strangely predicts the guitar melody of Simon & Garfunkel's ʽMrs. Robinsonʼ three years later, is quiet, sulky, and sad, rather than angry and vindictive. And on ʽSomething Better Beginningʼ, a song written so obviously in the style of the Ronettes that it just screams for a wall-of-sound production which Shel Talmy cannot grant it, Ray is clearly singing about a break-up — but he never ever mentions who was the culprit, and the song on the whole is all about optimism and faith in a new beginning.

The really cool thing about all these tunes, as simplistic as they are on the surface, is that they sound believable — from the very start, Ray was not interested in simply churning out one com­mercial, formulaic pop song after another; instead (much like The Shangri-Las across the ocean), he was interested in thinking up little stories of realistic human relationships, and although at this point he did not always succeed (stuff like ʽWonder Where My Baby Is Tonightʼ is still fairly cartoonish, for example), most of these boy-meets-girl stories are as true to real life as the band's upcoming social miniatures of everyday routine in the UK. Melodically, they are probably weaker than contemporary Beatles stuff, but even at this point, Ray Davies can already be felt as a living, breathing person deserving our empathy, whereas the personal-psychological sides of Lennon and McCartney took a couple years to truly emerge out of all the artistic craft.

That said, the Kinks were still a singles band at this point, and no other reissue in their entire catalog benefits greater from the presence of contemporary singles than Kinda Kinks. The bonus tracks almost double the length of the album, and almost each one is a gem in its own rights. We have ʽEverybody's Gonna Be Happyʼ, easily their most energetic and joyful rave-up with out­standing drum work from Mick Avory. ʽSet Me Freeʼ is, I believe, simply one of the greatest love songs of 1965 — I cannot understand how, by means of a simple two-chord riff and a vocal melody that seems to have been thrown together in a matter of seconds, they have managed to express the feeling of burning undivided love so perfectly, but so they have: the riff gives the impression of a ball and chain at the singer's legs, and Ray's throat pressure during the opening "set me free little girl..." is just one of those innumerable subtle moves of his that work their magic in ways you fail to explicitly notice. (Special mention should also go to the "you can DO it if you try..." falsetto upshot — I have no idea why this moment is so orgasmic, but there must be some awesome biochemistry involved in this transition from tense-and-throaty to falsetto... the idea of being set free and soaring up to high heavens, perhaps?).

Likewise, it would be impossible not to mention ʽSee My Friendsʼ — arguably the first pop song to incorporate Indian motives, although, unfortunately, the Kinks never went as far as to drag a real sitar into the studio (and so happened to cede the honor to the Beatles... again!): but the tune was inspired by the band's stopover in Bombay, and the guitars do play a bit of a raga, so it is an important point in the history of Eastern influences in Western pop music. More importantly, perhaps, it is the first Kinks single to dig into something deeper than boy-girl relationships: alle­gedly inspired by the sudden demise of Ray's elder sister, it is a song about death, obeying the age-old folk tradition of learning to cope with death and recognize its inevitability and transience, and, strangely enough, actually depersonalizing the singer this time: multi-tracked vocals are wedged so deeply in the mix that Ray Davies really does sound somewhat like a choir of fisher­men here, you know? Very atypical of the Kinks, and yet, still pretty Kinksy in terms of recog­nizable harmonies.

And then you can't go wrong with ʽSuch A Shameʼ (the deeply sung "it's a shame, such a shame, such a shame" chorus sounds as natural as shame ever comes), or with ʽA Well Respected Manʼ (the first triumphant appearance of Ray Davies as a social commentator, soon to be eclipsed with melodically superior creations, but already brimming with scorn and sarcasm), or even with the coldly melancholic, nostalgically beautiful piano demo ʽI Go To Sleepʼ that somehow predicts classic Brian Eno — slow it down just a little bit, give it better production values, and it wouldn't be out of place on the dreamy Side B of Before And After Science.

As I look over the 23 tracks on this CD one more time, other than ʽNaggin' Womanʼ, I cannot find a single genuine stinker — some relative lowlights, yes, but even when they are doing wimpy Peter, Paul & Mary-style folk-pop like ʽSo Longʼ, Ray's melodic twists and humble personality still make them winners. We could probably live without ʽI Need Youʼ as the third (and also least energetic) rewrite of ʽYou Really Got Meʼ, and I could certainly live with even fewer Dave Davies lead vocal parts (every time he begins to shout, he still ends up sounding like a very obnoxious teenager), but all of these are minor nitpicks. The truth is that by early 1965, Ray Davies had finally put both feet in the stirrups of his genius steed, and for the next five years, he'd be riding it non-stop, conquering all sorts of new heights. The only reasons that prevent the Kinda Kinks-era LP and single tracks from sounding as fresh and relevant today as the band's later output are purely technical — pop music as such had not yet turned into Art with a capital A, and although the Davies brothers were already lending their older colleagues like the Beatles and the Stones a solid hand in this, it would take a little more time to overcome the last technicalities. Even so, pop music in early '65 rarely got better than this, so a solid thumbs up here.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

10,000 Maniacs: Playing Favorites

10,000 MANIACS: PLAYING FAVORITES (2016)

1) What's The Matter Here?; 2) Like The Weather; 3) Love Among The Ruins; 4) Trouble Me; 5) More Than This; 6) Can't Ignore The Train; 7) Stockton Gala Days; 8) Because The Night; 9) Rainy Day; 10) Candy Everybody Wants; 11) My Sister Rose; 12) Hey Jack Kerouac; 13) These Are Days; 14) My Mother The War.

Apparently, the performance used for this live album was recorded prior to Twice Told Tales (on September 13, 2014, at an arts center in Jamestown), but they held off releasing the recording for almost two years for some reason. This is not the first live album for the band — besides the obvious Unplugged, there is also an obscure 2006 release (only sold on tour) Live Twenty-Five, com­memorating the band's jubilee and featuring short-term lead vocalist Oskar Saville. This one, however, seems to be more widely distributed, and besides, it features no less than four original members of the band — everybody except for Merchant and the deceased Robert Buck is present, making the record almost, you know... legitimate.

The kick is that everything sounds very nice. They run through their own minor hits and classics without any glitches whatsoever — new lead guitarist Jeff Erickson is respectful of Robert Buck's original style, and the extra guest musicians (a brass section, a cellist, and an additional backing singer) flesh out their more musically ambitious songs, like ʽCandy Everybody Wantsʼ, to near-perfection. Of course, considering how thoroughly the tracks have been cleansed of any signs of audience participation (they even choose the fade-in, fade-out principle to present the material, with no in-between-songs banter whatsoever), the problem is that most of the performances just faithfully reproduce studio originals. But then again, considering that most of us probably have serious trouble remembering how any of those 10,000 Maniacs hits used to go, I guess this isn't too much of a crime, considering how technically smooth the performances are.

And then, of course, this is the only live album by the 10,000 Maniacs where you get to hear Natalie Merchant songs performed by Mary Ramsey — well worth hearing at least out of sheer curiosity. (They also do three tunes from Love Among The Ruins, but you can tell that, as much as they love Mary as a bandmate, the band's post-Merchant musical output is not exactly bursting with «favorites»). All her life, Merchant was a crusader, unlike Ramsey, who seems more like the quiet, earthy, folk-loving type; so it is interesting to hear her add a touch of that earthiness to the band's «socially troubled» classics, and I would not hasten to declare her performances less touching or less tense than Merchant's just because her voice is lower or because her phrasing is a tad slower. These are not her songs, but she still does them a special kind of justice.

The only surprise on the record is the final track: not only do they drastically rearrange ʽMy Mother The Warʼ, making it sound much more like modern bombastic indie rock à la Arcade Fire or British Sea Power rather than typical New Wave pop-rock from the early Eighties that it used to be, but they also invite returning founding member John Lombardo to sing on it — probably not a very good decision, because the man cannot sing worth a broken nickel, but a touching gesture all the same. Actually, the entire album is a touching gesture: if you really like the old 10,000 Maniacs classics (enough to keep on relistening to them on a regular basis), I heartily recommend it as a tasteful diversion from the usual routine. If you think they are just all right, though, I doubt that switching from Merchant to Ramsey will work wonders in terms of your love, recognition, and support.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Chairlift: Moth

CHAIRLIFT: MOTH (2016)

1) Look Up; 2) Polymorphing; 3) Romeo; 4) Ch-Ching; 5) Crying In Public; 6) Ottawa To Osaka; 7) Moth To The Flame; 8) Show U Off; 9) Unfinished Business; 10) No Such Thing As Illusion.

Well, at least Chairlift will go down in history as one of the few bands of the 21st century to have significantly evolved with each new album — the evolutionary path from Does You Inspire You to Moth is not exactly staggering, but it is very clearly laid out. In between 2012 and 2016, Pola­chek officially began her solo career (under the new moniker «Ramona Lisa»), and Moth, at least judging by the songwriting credits, is basically just another Polachek solo album, with guest musician Patrick Wimberley providing some assistance; both of them understood this, and went on to announce the final breakup of Chairlift by the end of the year.

Moth is a well-produced, intelligent, reasonably complex and multi-layered synth-pop album; unfortunately, it has very little of the charm and personality that made the first years of Chairlift's existence so endearing. It is not a coincidence that a few years before, Caroline contributed ʽNo Angelʼ for Beyoncé's self-titled album — she has clearly become a fan of modern «intellectua­lized» R&B, mixing its plastic funky grooves with the old spirit of the Eighties and depersonali­zing the songs in the process. Fans of electronic effects, autotuning, etc., will appreciate the various tricks she is playing with her voice on most of the tracks: I will not — not after she'd used it so naturally and so seductively on everything in between the twee-pop of ʽBruisesʼ and the Goth-art-pop of ʽTerritoryʼ.

This is not a legitimate «sellout»: the music is too complex, the lyrics too dense, and the hooks generally too inobtrusive for the common ear. But it is clearly a move towards a more mainstream sound; and while I applaud Polachek for doing it the best way possible — groping for interesting sounds and cool grooves rather than going in the direction of sappy adult contemporary — she is not enough of a genius songwriter to compensate for this loss of identity with unforgettable tunes. The result is a record that sounds like a more mature and educated version of Carly Rae Jepsen: indeed, I can very well picture Carly singing "Hey Romeo, put on your running shoes, I'm ready to go", except I'm not sure she knows who would «Romeo» be in the first place.

At least that chorus is catchy, as is the repetitive refrain to the soft techno number ʽMoth To The Flameʼ. Songs like ʽCh-Chingʼ go the harder way, combining tricky signature and tempo changes with an overall attitude of a sweaty-sexy R&B groove — but it's just not the kind of genre that Polachek can turn into her own, because, after all, she is not Beyoncé and she simply does not have it in her blood. As an artistic statement, it is too cluttered with «body-oriented» elements; as a dance groove, it is too damn artsy. The accompanying video, where she dresses up in Eastern fashion and gives us a martial arts demonstration, does not make things any easier — looks like a fairly pointless bit of «cultural appropriation», much as I hate the silly term.

It does look as if her gaze is turning more and more to the East: ʽOttawa To Osakaʼ is a telling title, in particular, and her use of Eastern melismatic techniques that was already evident on ʽAmanaemonesiaʼ, seems to have increased. Which is not a problem by itself: theoretically, a mix of Eighties' synth-pop, modern R&B, Chinese vocalizing, and whatever else you can throw in seems like a realizable proposal. It simply does not feel to me as if it's really been realized. Every now and then, you encounter openly bad songs — like ʽShow U Offʼ, which simply sounds like any mediocre electropop groove ever produced by a mediocre R&B artist. And the only thing that I cannot get out of my head is that goddamn "I can't help it, I'm a moth to the flame" chorus, but heck, when this band started out, it did not build its reputation upon repetitive techno one-liners.

The last and longest song, ʽNo Such Thing As Illusionʼ, is a particularly irksome patience-tryer: seems like she is trying to be Beyoncé and Björk at the same time here, and ends up being neither. Six and a half minutes of quietly rolling synth loops, odd patches of bass notes borrowed from ancient soft jazz fusion, chaotic vocal overdubs, and an overall feel of somebody trying to pro­duce an epic psychological anthem in the bedroom. Not a very respectable way to go.

I do know better than to give the record a thumbs down: who knows, it might grow on me if I ever soften up on this genre of music in general, and even now I am able to recognize the amount of work and the spirit that went into it. I can even understand it when plastic soul is delivered as plastic soul, with an underlying symbolic or ironic message; but this is plastic soul masquerading as genuine soul from somebody who once used to deliver genuine soul without a hitch, and this is irritating. Another case of the music industry eating up a good artist? It is probably too early to say this a fact, but hey, wouldn't be the first time. That's the price you pay for writing songs for Beyoncé.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Candlemass: Candlemass

CANDLEMASS: CANDLEMASS (2005)

1) Black Dwarf; 2) Seven Silver Keys; 3) Assassin Of The Light; 4) Copernicus; 5) The Man Who Fell From The Sky; 6) Witches; 7) Born In A Tank; 8) Spellbreaker; 9) The Day And The Night; 10) Mars And Volcanos.

Apparently, this album almost did not happen due to old tensions quickly reignited between the original band members as they gathered in the studio; in the end, though, they managed to over­ride them for at least this one LP, before the Messiah re-ascended into the void once again, this time for good. They did make the album self-titled, though, which usually symbolizes a «reboot», in this case, a new Candlemass for a new millennium — a fairly complicated task, considering all the difficulties of getting the Nightfall lineup in the studio and not making another (inferior copy of) Nightfall in the process.

Surprisingly, the result is quite satisfactory. Of course, this is not too different from «classic» Candlemass, but in some ways, I think it actually improves upon it. If you are a purist, deeply in love with this band and treasuring its first years of output as the most inspired and innovative ones (although «innovative» is really a strange word to use in relation to these Sabbath adepts), you will not share this opinion; I, however, think that Candlemass, above and beyond everything else, are professional deliverers of «Sabbath-brand product», and that, as «product», their first albums suffered from too much pomp and too little technical care. By the mid-2000s, after twenty years of soaking and steeping, they seem to have learnt to deal with that problem: Candlemass is their first album that (a) features awesome production standards and (b) avoids sounding too ridiculous or annoying, most of the time.

Taking ʽBlack Dwarfʼ, the album's kick-ass opening song, as a good example, what do we see? The opening riff, decidedly unoriginal as usual, finally sounds thick, deep, crushing, and massive, and is propelled forward by a great drum sound — also thick, bass-heavy, without any electronic echoes or general tinny overlays that so plagued their Eighties albums. The lead guitar part is fluent, melodic, and perfectly audible over everything else (not to mention quite expressive and actually reminiscent of some cataclysmic astral processes). And, finally, Marcolin adds a layer of angry beastliness to his vocals, still relying on his operatic potential but sounding much better in the capacity of a threatening Old Testament prophet of the apocalypse than in his typical Free­shooter / Dr. Faustus image from the classic records. (And by «much better» I mean that I don't have to go "oh no, gimme a break already" every time he hits a high note).

After ʽBlack Dwarfʼ, the record predictably slows down (we know by now that Candlemass can handle fast tempos, but they have no desire to turn into Accept, after all), and the songs become more and more interchangeable. However, the corrected problems remain corrected — the pro­duction never turns to shit, and all the riffs on all the songs retain that «massive» effect, even if there is still hardly a single riff here that I would judge as immediately efficient on the classic Iommi level (more like decent/acceptable on the post-1980 Iommi level). The usual copycat prob­lems persist: the lengthy ʽCopernicusʼ features clear echoes of ʽBlack Sabbathʼ in its slower parts, while ʽBorn In A Tankʼ presents yet another variation on ʽChildren Of The Graveʼ (just how many millions of times has that song been ripped off in the world of heavy metal?). But as long as you are not forced to memorize this stuff note-by-note, I like the overall sound: seems as if Edling's direct emulation of Sabbath on that previous album left some traces behind, and now, by injecting better produced Sabbath overtones into the classic Candlemass formula, he is able to achieve somewhat more credible results.

Special mention must be made of the lyrics, which are slightly less ridiculous than they used to be (this, at least, is an area in which they seem to have made some genuine progress: I actually catch myself pondering over the message of stuff like ʽSeven Silver Keysʼ and ʽAssassin Of The Lightʼ, and even if it is the same old devil-gonna-get-me stuff, it is at least presented in a vaguely veiled manner). On the down side, the song lengths... well, that's what you get for choosing «slow» as your default tempo — something that, given the success of ʽBlack Dwarfʼ as the lead-in track, they could have easily changed, but doom metal is doom metal. Still, a modest thumbs up. If you can only coax yourself into listening to one Candlemass album, you should probably pick up something from the Eighties, but if you want something that is actually listenable (if not neces­sarily enjoyable), this reunion gig is a better choice.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Caravan: All Over You

CARAVAN: ALL OVER YOU (1996)

1) If I Could Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You; 2) Place Of My Own; 3) The Love In Your Eye / To Catch Me A Brother; 4) In The Land Of Grey And Pink; 5) Golf Girl; 6) Disassociation (Nine Feet Underground); 7) Hello Hello; 8) Asforteri 25; 9) For Richard; 10) Memory Lain, Hugh; 11) Headloss.

Re-recordings of your own classics are not just pitiful: as a rule, they brand you very concisely as a «second-rate» artist — I think Page and Plant were the only ones who could properly get away with this shit, because most of the stuff they did was re-inventions rather than re-recordings, but other than that, Caravan here are joining the league of Blue Öyster Cult and The Animals, for no reason whatsoever — of course, it is understandable if you want to nostalgize in the confines of a studio, but what good are the results for even a dedicated fan? This is not a bad album, just utterly pointless. Unless the point is just admitting defeat: «hey guys, none of you bought The Battle Of Hastings when it came out — so I guess you like the old shit more, here's an acoustic version of ʽThe Love In Your Eyeʼ for you, enjoy».

As you can see from the track list, this is a representative retrospective of the classic years of Caravan, covering every album from the self-titled debut and up to Plump In The Night. The sonic structure is a little weird: about two-thirds of the record is almost completely acoustic (ex­cept for a few lead electric parts every now and then), up to the first part of ʽFor Richardʼ — after which the distorted guitars kick in with full force, and the album continues as an electric appearance until the end. The musicianship remains strong through the entire album, and Hastings continues to be in fine voice — and these are all great songs, so, formally, one cannot complain. But I struggle to find any specific points for which these arrangements should be re­commended. If anything, there are some weak points — namely, the production, which sounds strangely cluttered and disorienting: lots of gratuitous percussive overdubs, special effects, echoes, sometimes giving the songs a cavernous feel that they really do not deserve.

Additional odd ideas include, for instance, the overdub of fake stadium audience cheer and applause over the last two tracks — well, sure, those Plump In The Night tracks could be played in an arena setting, but why should we be told that? Is it some sort of poorly hidden envy on Pye's part, that he never got to play in a proper arena? Anyway, those crowd noises splattered all over ʽHeadlossʼ are really very annoying and distracting and, might I say, in poor taste.

Thus, unless you are interested in a couple of nice jazzy acoustic solos here and there (with a Spanish touch on ʽThe Love In Your Eyeʼ), it is probably better to just forget this record ever existed. Apparently, that was not the end of the story: a couple of years later, Hastings and Co. followed it up with All Over You Too, featuring a second batch of re-recordings, this time from 1973 to 1976; and that one, according to rumors, was even more tasteless than the first one, so I have not bothered to search it out. All in all, a very silly decision.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The 5th Dimension: Living Together, Growing Together

THE 5TH DIMENSION: LIVING TOGETHER, GROWING TOGETHER (1973)

1) Open Your Window; 2) Ashes To Ashes; 3) Changed; 4) The Riverwitch; 5) Living Together Growing Together; 6) Day By Day; 7) There's Nothing Like Music; 8) What Do I Need To Be Me; 9) There Never Was A Day; 10) Let Me Be Lonely; 11) Woyaya.

Although the band's commercial luck began to seriously wane with Individually & Collectively, it was not until 1973 that the fifth dimension truly began caving in on them — the LP did not make it into the Top 100, and this time, not even the singles were of much help. The biggest of 'em all was the title track — immediately recognizable as a Burt Bacharach tune since it uses the exact same introduction as ʽClose To Youʼ, and sharing all the usual easy listening attributes of any generic Bacharach tune: sweet, slightly bouncy ear candy with about as much depth to it as the movie it was written for (the allegedly awful reinvention of Lost Horizon as one of those corny 1970s musicals). And even that one only got to No. 32.

By now you know that you can usually predict the average quality of a 5th Dimension album just by looking at the list of songwriters, and this time around, the list is particularly discouraging. Bacharach & David, represented by two songs (the second one is ʽLet Me Be Lonelyʼ, a solo spot for Florence that's nice if you... umm, like sentimental waltzes with lotsa strings and brass), are actually one of the top names on the list — the only other top name is Harry Nilsson, whose ʽOpen Your Windowʼ, deliciously and seductively crooned (cooed?) by Marilyn McCoo, is a nice enough opener, but very short and misleading.

Elsewhere, brace yourselves for the return of Jeff Comanor, with derivatively Sam Cookish gospel numbers like ʽThe Riverwitchʼ (Billy Davis Jr. gives a fairly impressive Cooke / Redding impression, as usual, but the melody has not a single original twist) and equally derivatively Wil­son Pickettish R&B rave-ups like ʽThere's Nothin' Like Musicʼ — well, not too bad, to be honest, but not particularly necessary if you can get the real thing. And then there's lush ballads, ballads, ballads a-plenty, all of them largely interchangeable, even if, technically, McCoo's vocals are unimpeachable as usual. Of course, the «easy listening» genre is not really my cup of tea, and maybe I simply cannot see the little things that make these particular performances stand out against the rest, but as far as I'm concerned, this is all just plastic soul-imbued pop crapola, dili­gently, but indifferently executed by the performers. At least all those Laura Nyro songs offered a good chance to get into some character, but now they've run out of these, too.

Out of good ideas, The 5th Dimension make a nice, but meaningless, gesture of fraternizing with their black brothers across the Atlantic — covering Osibisa's ʽWoyayaʼ from the latter's 1971 album of the same name. As you can guess, it is a loyal, professional, and probably well-meaning cover, but it is hard to expect that the professional, glossy, restrained approach of a bubblegum Californian band can make this mix of pop music and tribal chanting uncover hidden depths that it lacked in the original. Nice try, but next time, try moving to Ghana or something. Definitely a thumbs down — no Jimmy Webb, no Laura Nyro, no dice.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Sings The Blues

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: SINGS THE BLUES (1961)

1) Me And My Mule; 2) The Blues Got Me Rockin'; 3) That's My Pa; 4) Tongue-Tied Blues; 5) Sharp Harp; 6) Blues For Everybody; 7) Camille; 8) Walkin' Upside Your Head; 9) Harelip Blues; 10) Big Leg Emma's; 11) Two Below Zero; 12) Silent Partner; 13) Mail Order Woman; 14) Stumbling Block; 15) Failing Health Blues; 16) She Cooks Me Cabbage.

This one is not from Copenhagen: it is an American compilation that, if I understand correctly, largely consists of singles recorded by the Champion for the King label in the mid-to-late 1950s. All I know about it is the track listing, the date of release, and the gushing, but hardly informative liner notes on the back sleeve, so even though most of these tracks feature Dupree with a small backing band, I have no idea who is playing what and whether you should by all means grab this because of a unique guest appearance by some unique blues hero.

Still, it's worth owning or hearing at least for ʽMe And My Muleʼ, a comic piece of one-sided dialog between Dupree and his trusty pack animal on which the man barely plays his instrument, ceding it all to bass and harmonica — the former mimicking the animal's lazy trudge, the latter imitating its hee-hawing. It is not so much hilarious as it is «authentic», cementing Dupree's status as The Everyman's Bluesman, a teller of routine stories of realistic daily troubles, usually invented on the spot. And it is certainly more impressive than Dupree's Muddy Waters tributes such as ʽMail Order Womanʼ, most of which sound like flimsy shadows of far superior originals.

Minor highlights on this collection would include ʽStumbling Blockʼ, a simplified, «untwisted» variation on ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ with a steady beat and a cool echoey guitar part (Dupree does not play any piano on this one); the instrumental ʽSharp Harpʼ, more of a showcase for George "Harmonica" Smith than for the Champion — if you like Little Walter, George Smith's playing is in quite a similar style; and the mock-your-local-disability-today number ʽHarelip Bluesʼ, with an artificially enhanced speech impediment (apparently, Dupree used to present himself as harelip­ped which he really was not, but it helped attract extra customers; he did come out with some ridiculously bad accents, though). A few other tracks have nice slide guitar parts, for instance, ʽShe Cooks Me Cabbageʼ — there's some Elmore James-level chops there, even though the lead guitarist never gets a chance to solo; that, however, is just about it.

Apparently, there are more complete packages that cover Dupree's mid-to-late Fifties career in the States (prior to Blues In The Gutter), but, naturally, only a diehard blues completist should be seeking them out, and only after having exhausted the hard-to-exhaust pool of Chicago blues recordings from the same period.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Yardbirds: Five Live Yardbirds

THE YARDBIRDS: FIVE LIVE YARDBIRDS (1964)

1) Too Much Monkey Business; 2) Got Love If You Want It; 3) Smokestack Lightning; 4) Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl; 5) Respectable; 6) Five Long Years; 7) Pretty Girl; 8) Louise; 9) I'm A Man; 10) Here 'Tis.

Every time I listen to this record, I am reminded of just how irrepairably skewed our modern per­ception is of all those young R&B bands that sprang up all over Britain in the early Sixties. We hear them somewhat timidly recording short, thin, quiet covers of Chicago blues and Chuck Berry in the studio; see them properly dressed and, most of the time, lip-synching to the same studio recordings on scant TV appearances; read condensed biographic descriptions of their early years that largely focus upon their managers, producers, and girlfriends; and, if we are very lucky, treat ourselves to awful quality bootlegs that are a total chore to enjoy.

The club scene, however, is where it was all really happening — where bands like The Animals and The Rolling Stones felt themselves free from public image shackles and studio restrictions long before the psychedelic revolution. This was where you could really go wild, where you could extend your three-minute singles into lengthy jams or dance grooves; at the expense of clarity and precision of sound, perhaps, but with the added benefit of releasing the BEAST inside you. We know the huge difference between a studio and a live Stones, or Who, or even Led Zep­pelin album from the late Sixties / early Seventies, but, if anything, this difference was even larger in the early Sixties — it's just that we don't get to experience it all that often.

Consequently, manager and producer Giorgio Gomelsky's pioneering decision to make the first album by his latest acquisition, The Yardbirds, a real live one was nothing short of entrepreneu­rial genius — and exceptionally favorable for The Yardbirds themselves, a band that had not yet properly found its studio wings, and had a lot going against it in terms of competition. Its strict separation between rhythm and lead guitar left rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja without any active voice whatsoever. In the rhythm section, bass player Paul Samwell-Smith was, at best, competent, and drummer Jim McCarty, even being somewhat more than just competent, was, after all, just a drummer. The weakest link, however, was their frontman: Keith Relf, next to the wildman image of people like Mick Jagger and Eric Burdon, looked and sounded like a well-behaved, clean-cut college student, probably very nice to know, handsome in an almost teen idol sort of way, but clearly loving his blues and R&B idols much more than he could imitate them.

Their best bit of luck came along in 1963, when their lead guitarist Top Topham had to leave for art school and cede his place to Eric Clapton, of The Roosters' (non-)fame. With the young guitar prodigy at their side, The Yardbirds finally had something that nobody else had in the British R&B scene — a top-notch blues guitarist who could not only cop all the black dudes' licks to perfection, but put his own stamp on those as well. However, as their first album clearly shows, The Yardbirds never had the slightest intention of turning into «The Eric Clapton Revue» (or, for that matter, any guitar player's revue, be it Eric, Jeff, or Jimmy). The man was too shy to sing, too stiff to show off on stage, and he did not even take solo turns on at least half of the numbers that they performed — drastically underused, some might say; admirably humble, others might object. Regardless, Clapton's presence on these tracks is a good, but far from the only, reason why Five Live Yardbirds still deserves your attention more than half a century since its release.

The most important thing about Five Live Yardbirds is that it is the only document of its epoch, at least outside the territory of crappy-sounding boots, that lets you hear what a genuine club-based «rave-up» sounded like at the time. Those of the album's songs (recorded, by the way, at the Marquee Club on March 20, 1964) that go well over three minutes usually turn, sooner or later, into loud, noisy, «primitive» jams, with all the band members kicking the shit out of their instruments — about as far removed from one's idea of an Eric Clapton-led band as possible. And in those blessed moments when the band reaches its energetic peak, any individual shortcomings on the part of the players just melt away, and what remains is an awesome tribal groove, perhaps best felt on dance-oriented R&B numbers such as the Isley Brothers' ʽRespectableʼ or Bo Did­dley's ʽHere 'Tisʼ that closes the show. ʽHere 'Tisʼ, in particular, features a mammoth groove from the rhythm section — for a short while, Jim McCarty ceases to be a suburban British kid and becomes one of those Loa-possessed mythical African savages... yes, clichéd praise, I know, but you really don't get such tribal bombast from anybody else in the Britain of 1964.

Straightahead rock'n'roll and blues numbers are, of course, generally saved by the young Mr. ʽSlowhandʼ Clapton — with ʽToo Much Monkey Businessʼ, if you want great lead vocals, hear The Hollies, if you want young punk flavour, your best bet is The Kinks, but if you want top level lead guitar with the rawest, sharpest, screechiest tone of 1964 and the speediest, most easily fluent picking style of 'em all, you'll have nowhere to turn to but The Yardbirds. The sound quality is hardly ideal, and Eric's soloing on ʽFive Long Yearsʼ is too deeply embedded in the mix (you'd have to wait thirty more years to hear Eric truly let rip on the song), but you can already hear all the principal reasons for the ʽGodʼ tag here. That said, ʽMonkey Businessʼ, ʽFive Long Yearsʼ, and John Lee Hooker's ʽLouiseʼ are pretty much the only songs on which Eric gets a proper solo spot — all the more ridiculous considering how often Keith Relf gets a solo spot with his harmonica, which he really only plays because he's a non-guitar-playing frontman and if you are a frontman without a guitar, you have to play harmonica. Like Mick Jagger, you know? Even on ʽGood Morning Little Schoolgirlʼ — the studio version had Eric playing a solo, but this live version only has Keith. What the hell?.. (Admittedly, he is not a bad harp blower, and the perfor­mance on ʽSmokestack Lightningʼ is suitably evil, but too much of this is perfunctory).

Anyway, all criticism aside, Five Live Yardbirds is more than just a priceless historical docu­ment: it is a special experience that lets you penetrate those «wild and innocent days» like nothing else — before egos and drugs took over and added extra wildness, but took away most of the innocence. Never mind that the band remained unable to carve out an unmistakable identity for themselves: Five Live Yardbirds has no need for an identity, as long as a certain nameless power can clench all five of them in its grip from time to time and make them produce such exciting, truly bacchanalian pandemonium. And on top of that, you get a few of those Clapton solos — as a bonus for getting into all the grooves. Thumbs up.

PS: since the dawning of the CD era, Five Live Yardbirds apparently has been released in a million different repackagings, many of which throw on tons of bonus tracks — such as the band's early studio singles (which shall be tackled in a separate review for For Your Love), or additional live performances from the Crawdaddy Club and other venues: seek out the one that has a rippin' version of Chuck Berry's ʽLet It Rockʼ on it, a really tight performance and another great occasion to hear Eric do Chuck Berry, something you would almost never get a chance to hear again in the post-1964 universe.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Bardo Pond: Under The Pines

BARDO POND: UNDER THE PINES (2017)

1) Crossover; 2) Out Of Reach; 3) My Eyes Out; 4) Moment To Moment; 5) Under The Pines; 6) Effigy.

You don't have to take my word for it, but does it look like these guys are getting... old? Or, at least, kind of mellowing out in their own Bardo Pond kind of way. After all, they are past their 25th year of functioning as a band; if anything, they should be having a mid-life crisis these days, or, at least, doing whatever it is one has to do when one's formula has essentially stayed the same for over twenty-five years and it's time to make yourself vulnerable to critical assaults. The good news is, most of these critics weren't exactly spending their last twenty years relistening to Ama­nita every night; the bad news is, most of them have zero interest picking up an old-fashioned psychedelic album by a band that still pleads allegiance to the Nineties.

My impression is colored by two observations. One, that even on the longest tracks of this overall short album Bardo Pond sound somewhat less dense and even more «shallow» than they used to. Two, that all the tracks except for the last one are completely dominated by Isobel Sollenberger's vocals (and, to a lesser extent, her flute playing) — she very rarely abandons her vocalizing, giving the whole thing a far more peaceful and meditative sheen than usual. Indeed, the very title suggests the idea of meditative relaxation deep in the forest, and somehow, the textures of the album largely agree with that idea. Distortion, feedback, reverb, sludge, heavy tones, multiple overdubs, everything that makes Bardo Pond sound like themselves is still here, but instead of the feeling of a psychedelic storm, this all helps create a feeling of psychedelic calm now. I guess it mostly has to do with their selection of tones now, and with the guitarists' careful avoidance of «sharp» chord changes and chaotic sound peaks.

In fact, if you strip some of these jams down to the bare essentials, what you might get is... a nice little folk-and-country record! There's a thin, but very well noticeable acoustic melody underlying ʽMoment To Momentʼ which is nothing if not straightahead country-pop — along the lines of, say, mid-Seventies Dylan of the Pat Garrett variety, or Willie Nelson, if you like. Do not be fooled by the distorted woman-tone of the guitar, or all the echo layers, or how shamanistic Isobel gets towards the end of the track, it's really just an old country piece here, psychedelized for those who still prefer listening to music under chemical influence. And then the title track actually be­gins with acoustic chords, before moving into the usual territory of cross-locking distorted guitars; and even then, Isobel's voice rises quite distinctly above the din rather than being buried in it — as if they actually wanted you to make out the words, about how she's so happy to be lying down under the pines and other meditative stuff.

The bottomline is that, even though Bardo Pond can live about as much time without sludgy dis­tortion and heavy sustain as the average human can live without oxygen, Under The Pines is still one of their mellowest offerings to date, and I guess it's kinda cool: it properly reflects their real moods and states of mind as they gradually age. They do not want to raise the ruckus and bring down the roof any longer, just to show their tiny handful of fans that they can still kick ass the same way they did it in the mid-Nineties. Instead, they use their old bag of tricks and their accu­mulated experience to create a subtly different atmosphere — and it is pretty much irrelevant how well you, the listener, can relate to that atmosphere, because it is unlikely that they are creating this music for anybody but themselves, really. Personally, I enjoyed the experience, and happily accept the fact that tomor­row I will forget that this record ever existed — but there's nothing whatsoever to blame the band for, as it remains more than adequate to itself.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Chairlift: Something

CHAIRLIFT: SOMETHING (2012)

1) Sidewalk Safari; 2) Wrong Opinion; 3) I Belong In Your Arms; 4) Take It Out On Me; 5) Ghost Tonight; 6) Cool As A Fire; 7) Amanaemonesia; 8) Met Before; 9) Frigid Spring; 10) Turning; 11) Guilty As Charged.

By the time their second album was released, Chairlift had already reduced themselves to a duo: Aaron Pfenning left in 2010, and now Chairlift consists of precisely what you see on the album cover. Upon first impression, you do not get the feel that this affects the overall accomplished feel of the music — Polachek and Wimberly are perfectly capable to lay on all the layers on their own. However, technically that does transform them into a «pure» synth-pop outfit, as the guitars are reduced to a bare minimum and, for the most part, the atmosphere of the songs now depends on how dark Wimberly makes his basslines and how cluttery Polachek makes her keyboards.

The formal changes in musical textures are, however, not the main reason why I think Something is a step down, not up, from the exciting debut of Does You Inspire You. The main reason is that the album seems to lay down severe restrictions on the eclecticism and ambitions with which they'd started out four years earlier — I am not sure whether this means just how crucial the pre­sence of Pfenning was to their collective ego, or if it is just another case of the same unfortunate tendency to self-pigeonhole that plagues so many artists, but the fact is, Something is just a synth-pop record of the «me and you» variety, with all the songs whirling around the issue of finding a perfect relationship and then trying not to ruin it. Sound familiar?..

In other words, forget about the ambitious mix of personal and collective problems tackled in 2008, and get ready for a much more modest mix of dance grooves and ballads that run the oh so wide gamut from "I belong in your arms" to "Oh god, just let my love survive". Despite some glowing reviews that actually acknowledged this self-yoking as progress (like, the more they stay out of complex Marxist and Freudian territory, the better for these silly idealistic kids), I find it disappointing — like I said, Does You Inspire You gave a cool impression of the world being discovered by a bunch of inexperienced, but aspiringly smart kids, whereas Something is just another boring record that tries to find hidden depths at the bottom of a glass of water.

Not that it is devoid of nice musical ideas and hooks: if anything, it is saved by technical accom­plishments rather than mesmerizing personality. ʽSidewalk Safariʼ, opening the album, is pretty limp if you follow the lyrics and try to convince yourself that Caroline Polachek as a hot female stalker is a credible artistic image... but if you just think of it as a synth-poppified adaptation of some romantic European dance pop groove from around 1968, and pay more attention to the stylish overlays of synthesizers and synth-treated guitars, it becomes nice. Likewise, I care not for the verbal message of ʽWrong Opinionʼ, but I kinda like how the electronic «broken glass effect» holds a dialog of its own with the heavy distorted guitar chords — a good musical allegory of personal paranoia wrestling with the Hand of Doom, if you wish.

However, as a singer, Polacheck only impresses me about twice or thrice on this record. ʽGhost Tonightʼ is a really good one, where you can sense faint echoes of the same dismal doomed des­peration that used to power all those Beth Gibbons classics — and it's only with the little things, like the tension and implied tears in the "whoah-oh-oh"s that follow the "Hollow heavy eyes, follow in your light, I'm a ghost tonight" chorus, that the record is able to transcend from catchy pop to the realm of the genuinely soulful. ʽFrigid Springʼ is another one, a moonlight-on-the-lake dream pop tune, all chimes and echoes, and as they get to the chorus, the lady transforms herself into an aethereal will-o'-wisp and just floats across from speaker to speaker — luvverly. On the other hand, sometimes they overdo this: on ʽTurningʼ, there's too much psychedelic vocalizing and not enough singer presence. This is not Enya, after all.

The first single was the tongue-twistedly-titled ʽAmanaemonesiaʼ, and it is far more typical of this record than ʽBruisesʼ was of the debut: a catchy, but not terribly profound synth-pop groove that tries to convey a sense of bewildered infatuation (or something) with its fast tempo, jerkiness, and chaotic sample attack — sort of like a cross between Depeche Mode and Kate Bush, not as dark as the former and not as artsy as the latter (although the accompanying video, most of it spent on featuring Polachek dancing on top of a giant red tongue, is every bit as artsy as any given Kate Bush video — and as far as my own tastes go, Polachek is almost every bit as terrible a dancer as Kate Bush is). And maybe it's an exciting synthesis, but it also traps the record in a nostalgic vibe from which, I believe, Does You Inspire You was largely free: it sounded highly influenced by a lot of people, but also modern and looking forward, whereas Something is more like a tribute to the past, hardly eligible for the status of a «minor modern classic». That said, I do know for a fact that quite a few people have rated it higher than Does You Inspire You — perhaps they are seeing something here that I am not seeing, or, perhaps, they are not seeing something in DYIY that I am seeing.

Naturally, I'd prefer to vote for the second option, but Something is still well deserving of a thumbs up — on the whole, it is a crea­tive, tasteful, genuinely musical piece of work that just barely misses transcending its own genre limitations, and, like almost everything else done in the sphere of art-pop today, cannot help get sucked back into the same old 20th century.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Candlemass: Doomed For Live

CANDLEMASS: DOOMED FOR LIVE (2002)

1) Mirror Mirror; 2) Bewitched; 3) Dark Are The Veils Of Death; 4) Demon's Gate; 5) Under The Oak; 6) At The Gallows End; 7) Samarithan; 8) Dark Reflections; 9) Mourner's Lament; 10) Black Stone Wielder; 11) The Well Of Souls; 12) A Sorcerer's Pledge; 13) Bearer Of Pain; 14) Ancient Dreams; 15) Somewhere In Nowhere; 16) Solitude; 17) Crystal Ball.

Har har har, it's 2002 and the world still has not run out of lame puns for live album titles. More than that, the world still has a place for good old Candlemass — as Edling's interesting, but some­what atypical fiddlings with the name of the band come to a close, the classic Nightfall lineup finally reunites as Messiah Marcolin realizes that no other metal project brings so much fame to his name as Candlemass.

The first result of this reunion is more of symbolic than genuine importance: a live record (and video), to show the world that the old school of 1987 is still around and that it kick any of those metallic youngsters' asses at a moment's notice. But that's about all it does, really. Eleven out of seventeen tracks are the same songs that already were present on the Live album — apparently, the band does not care much about hunting for dark horses, or, perhaps, in this case they thought that it was far more important to whip up the classics, for any potential new fans. Thus, we have all of Epicus Doomicus reproduced here (although ʽBlack Stone Wielderʼ is seriously shortened and serves mostly to illustrate the cheese-opera powers of Marcolin's voice in the acappella ope­ning); predictable selections from the next three albums; and nothing whatsoever from Chapter VI onwards, because... no Messiah.

Scrutinizing the actual performances is a task / delight for radical Candlemass fans only; as far as I'm concerned, the record is completely expendable — the lead vocalist and the instrumentalists remain technically irreproachable, so that it is almost impossible to tell the difference between the versions here and on Live. If you disliked the studio production on Ancient Dreams and Tales Of Creation, you have a chance to hear a couple more of those tunes, like ʽBearer Of Painʼ, with a rawer, heavier guitar tone, and that's that. It might be more fun to catch a glimpse of some of these songs performed live — Marcolin tries to cut a dramatic figure, dressed in a Benedictine monk robe, and the entire performance is sort of structured like a multi-part exorcism ceremony; but even that, I'd say, becomes rather boring after a while. Doomed for, indeed.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Caravan: The Battle Of Hastings

CARAVAN: THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS (1995)

1) It's A Sad, Sad Affair; 2) Somewhere In Your Heart; 3) Cold As Ice; 4) Liar; 5) Don't Want Love; 6) Travelling Ways; 7) This Time; 8) If It Wasn't For Your Ego; 9) It's Not Real; 10) Wendy Wants Another 6" Mole; 11) I Know Why You're Laughing.

The Battle of Hastings, fought on October 14, 1066, is generally considered a key event in the political, social, and cultural history of England, leading to a decisive victory on the part of Nor­man forces led by William the Conqueror and initiating a major period of transformation for the entire English society. Precisely one year later, in 1067, the old cathedral of Canterbury was completely destroyed by fire, and starting in 1070, rebuilt under the supervision of the first Norman archbishop; the new marvels of Norman architecture, along with the subsequent murder of Thomas Becket on the steps of the cathedral, led to a major increase in its popularity and, consequently, the popularity of Canterbury as such, directly reflected in such artistic highs as the works of Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (A Canterbury Tale), and English progressive rock bands such as The Soft Machine, Gong, National Health, and, of course, Caravan. In addition, the Norman conquest led to major changes in the English musical tradition, with new styles of court, sacred, and even folk music complementing and sometimes replacing older Saxon traditions — echoes of which still survived in English popular music in the 20th century, and were merged by progressive and experimental artists with African and American elements to form the basis for progressive rock music, including the Can­terbury school, in the late Sixties and early Seventies. All of these connections are brought back to us with the front cover of the album, a partial reproduction of the monumental Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the key elements of the Ba...

...wait a minute, what? You're telling me it is all just a lame pun on the last name of Pye Hastings, the de-facto leader of Caravan since at least 1973? Oh. Bummer. Could we please get Mr. Hastings on the phone here, to confirm this? What's that? He's got no memory of making this album, so he can neither confirm nor deny? Double bummer.

Admittedly, it is true that The Battle Of Hastings, released 929 years after the epochal event and 13 years after the last attempt at a Caravan reunion, sank to the bottom even quicker than Back To Front, and continues to be largely ignored by prog and pop fans alike: in 1995, it was hard to imagine a style less out of touch with the times than Pye Hastings' brand of «soft prog», and good luck to anybody wishing to find a comprehensive and serious review of the record. And yet, it was a serious record. Most of the songs were indeed composed by Hastings, but the band also included Coughlan on drums, Dave Sinclair on keyboards (he is also credited for at least one song, ʽTravelling Waysʼ), a returning Geoff Richardson on viola and 50,000 other instruments, and even brother and long-time sideman companion Jimmy Hastings on the usual flutes and saxes. The only new member is bassist Jim Leverton, and even that guy is a true veteran (of Noel Red­ding's Fat Mattress, Juicy Lucy, Hemlock, Savoy Brown, and whoever else's fame).

Naturally, the lineup alone does not matter: what matters is whether the songs, the production, and the level of energy/inspiration makes the record any better than the lackluster works by the 1977–1982 versions of the band. According to a few disappointed fans whose opinions may be gathered from various prog review sites, the answer seems to be a firm «no». The Battle Of Has­tings is, indeed, a collection of acoustic-based pop songs, with very little by way of «listening challenges», very low-key in execution, rather monotonous in atmosphere, and sort of embarras­sing when it comes to the occasional quirk such as that ʽWendyʼ song. So it would seem that if you were bored stiff by Better By Far and The Album, the same should be expected of this re­cord. And yet, this is not how it works for me.

Two things in particular make enough of a difference to make me want to embrace and recom­mend the album. The first and lesser one is the production: everything here sounds a ton better than the muffled, hollow production of the 1977–1982 albums. This is obvious from the opening lively acoustic guitar chords and old-fashioned background organ hum on ʽIt's A Sad, Sad, Af­fairʼ — a good sign that even if the songwriting will not be up to par, at least the overall sound will remind you more of classic Caravan than of the late-period plastic Caravan. It is not always like that (occasionally, the ugly synth tones and the silkbox-enclosed guitar echoes will come back to haunt you), but it is the rule rather than the exception.

The major difference, however, is that, apparently, Pye Hastings had grown himself a few de­mons to exorcise in the 13 years that we hadn't heard from him. Most of the songs here do not sound like commercially-oriented sentimental pop songs: this is more of a gloomy, melancholic, nostalgic singer-songwriter record, formally dressed up as a collection of pop tunes. There is in­deed a «battle» fought here, and I do not know how personal it was (information on Pye's per­sonal life is quite scarce to come by), but most songs are about cheating, rejection, bitterness, reproaches — I mean, just look at the titles: ʽIt's A Sad, Sad Affairʼ, ʽCold As Iceʼ (no, not Forei­gner!), ʽLiarʼ (no, not Argent!), ʽIf It Wasn't For Your Egoʼ, etc. It might not necessarily be about one's love life as such — might be a general allegory for the bitterness at feeling forgotten and rejected, which had pretty much been Caravan's ordeal for the past 15 years. Regardless, it feels very sincere when you really get into it, and, oddly enough, I find myself returning to some of these songs far more often than I'd expect myself to, usually in times of trouble.

Describing the individual songs is hard, though, because they are really all unified in terms of style and substance. Some are a little slower, some a little faster, most float by on a double-layer bed of acoustic guitars and keyboards with whatever additional instrumentation Richardson and Jimmy Hastings decide to throw in for fullness' effect (flutes, mandolins, accordions, etc.). Pro­bably worth singling out is that opener, ʽSad, Sad Affairʼ, slightly more upbeat and precisely shaped than the rest (what with Pye playing and singing the exact same catchy folk-pop melody); the sax-embellished waltz of ʽCold As Iceʼ; and the squint-eyed, stop-and-start menace of ʽLiarʼ (which was probably influenced by the old Argent song after all — at least, the stop-and-start trick, followed by the massive eruption of "LIAR!", follows the same formula, and I do not be­lieve this is a coincidence).

The only «objective» standouts, however, are the last two tracks. ʽWendy Wants Another 6" Moleʼ is the specially incubated ugly duckling — a song that sounds more 10cc than Caravan with its vaudeville-pop rhythmics and caricaturesque vocals, not to mention grotesque (though not very funny) lyrics, although even 10cc would probably have never dared to end any of their tracks with a bunch of raspberries (literally!). Apparently, Pye remembered at the last moment that he had neglected to imbue enough of his sick humor into the songs, and synthesized it all within a single short track. It's okay to feel offended, though I'd guess that for some people, it would at least be a nice breakup of the overall monotonousness.

The real kicker, however, is the last song, ʽI Know Why You're Laughingʼ. It begins by skilfully deceiving you into thinking of it as a lazy adult contemporary ballad of a conclusion, then quickly kicks into high gear and becomes the fastest, catchiest, and most grim-faced pop-rocker that Pye had ever written up to that point. I really mean it — the song rocks, and at 3:36 it goes into genu­ine hard rock mode, with a fluent, furious, and perfectly constructed guitar solo that may remind one of Lindsey Buckingham (think ʽGo Your Own Wayʼ and suchlike). It is the kind of song that I would never in a million years expect out of Caravan, and it's been one of my favorites of theirs ever since I heard it — a criminally underrated pop-rock masterpiece that could have gotten its due were it released in 1975 rather than 1995... but it is never too late to make amends.

So, is this really the «comeback» we'd been hoping for? Certainly not for those who expected long-winded progressive structures, and probably not even for those who hoped for the bright, shining fun of Blind Dog. It is a monotonous, morose, autumnal record, good for the mood on one of those days where the rain just won't stop, but it is authentically atmospheric and perhaps even subtly allegorical, so much so that I could easily see it becoming the favorite album of the defeated King Harold Godwinson, had he had the (mis)fortune to survive the battle of Hastings and live into his late 920s. Thumbs up.