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Friday, June 30, 2017

The Charlatans: Us And Us Only


1) Forever; 2) Good Witch / Bad Witch 1; 3) Impossible; 4) The Blonde Waltz; 5) A House Is Not A Home; 6) Senses; 7) My Beautiful Friend; 8) I Don't Care Where You Live; 9) The Blind Stagger; 10) Good Witch / Bad Witch 2; 11) Watching You; 12*) Your Precious Love; 13*) Sleepy Little Sunshine Boy; 14*) Good Witch / Bad Witch 3.

Well, not quite us and us only, because by this time it seems as if Tim Burgess simply cannot get a good night's sleep without a little Bob Dylan effigy under his pillow, or without the air lightly perfumed with Beatles, Stones, and even Beach Boys spirits. Honestly, this is getting a bit annoy­ing, because it is one thing to enjoy a quotation from one of your idols from time to time, and quite another one to beat this principle into the ground, as if Bob Dylan were one of those name­less «stock phrase generators» that kept supplying blues songwriters for decades. At least if Bur­gess and Co. were truly great melody writers on their own, this melding could work; the fact of the matter, however, is that many of these songs are fairly mediocre on their own, and the most easily noticeable thing about them is the reference — and this, in turn, makes it look like they are simply plundering their betters to mask their own incompetence, which would be unjust, but hey, never underestimate the effect of first impressions.

At least ʽForeverʼ, the lead-in track and the first single is relatively autonomous (even if I still can't help mentioning that the psychedelic Mellotron part on this thing sounds very close to the arrangement on the Stones' ʽ2000 Light Years From Homeʼ). The «baggiest» song on the record, it relies on a heavy funky bassline and this hazy Mellotron coating to get its acid point across rather than Burgess' convoluted love lyrics and predictably mediocre vocal delivery. The sound is interesting, but the usual problem persists: there's a little too much psychedelia and pretense here for the song to qualify as straightforward pop, yet not nearly enough for it to qualify as an attrac­tive work of art, either. It comes, pretends to make a point, goes, and while the memory of that bassline still lingers on for a bit, that is definitely not a case of «forever».

The second single was ʽMy Beautiful Friendʼ, and since it rhymes with "don't say this is the end", we will have to assume that Jim Morrison just happened to take a short stroll through Burgess' front courtyard, too. The melody sounds like it's been written by some Byrds member circa 1967, though; we also have the same foggy Mellotron, and only the funky drums, as if still controlled against their will by the Madchester vibe, indicate that we are more than twenty years removed from that date. Well, that, and also the lyrics, too ambiguous and post-whatever for their own good. It's a strange vibe, but again, feels more like an admirably lost opportunity than a predic­tably accomplished goal.

It does look like the opposite sex has finally occupied Burgess' mind more densely than ever before, what with the third single, ʽImpossibleʼ, beginning with the lines "Impossible raw women, I know you're all too hard to please" — unless he managed to accidentally confuse them with sashimi, this is a Lennon / Dylan mash-up (with a brief lyrical nod to ʽEvery Hungry Womanʼ as well) with Al Kooper-ish organs and Zimmerman-style harmonica. The words are bad, the vocals are devoid of impression (and it is particularly pathetic when Burgess begins to precisely mimic Bob's or John's intonations), but the song still gets by as a curio. As does ʽThe Blonde Waltzʼ (blonde waltz... get it... blonde!), with its references to "my darling young son"; as does ʽA House Is Not A Homeʼ, which borrows its title from a Love song, but lifts its guitar riff directly from ʽI Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)ʼ — only the first half, though, because, you see, the Charlatans would never pretend they could be more than half as good as Dylan; as does ʽSenses (Angel On My Shoulder)ʼ, borrowing its harmonica parts and its opening line ("you're my sweet black angel") from another Stones song; as does ʽWatching Youʼ, a slow blues-rock vamp that still finds an opportunity to slip in the line "don't cry, put your head on my shoulder"... aw shucks, enough already.

Honestly, I would not need to concentrate on all these references so much if I knew what exactly would make its own sense about these songs. But they just do not seem to make sense on their own: the majority of the instrumental lines sound as if I'd already heard them many times (some­times, as you can see above, you can easily pinpoint the direct source), the vocal deliveries are consistently boring, and while I can understand how it may be possible to build up your own identity by scavenging off fallen heroes, I do not sense much identity here. What The Charlatans are doing is fun, and they might be doing it better than anybody else (provided anybody else was actually doing it at the time), but the entire album, like its predecessors, is ultimately devoid of meaning. The songs do not rock all that hard, the songs do not convey a sharp sense of humor or irony, and, frankly, this schtick of «let's take modern alt-rock and back-cross-breed it with ele­ments from the classic age ripped out of their context» is getting stale.

Maybe this is why my favorite piece on the album is the three-part (two-part, actually; the third part is a reprise of the second, added as a bonus) mini-suite ʽGood Witch / Bad Witchʼ, the only composition here that sounds thoroughly modern — a dark piece of trip-hop that pins an evil bassline (bad witch?) against a pretty chime part (good witch?) and distorts Burgess' vocals into what sounds like a rheumatic rant from the illegitimate son of Tom Waits and the 21st Century Schizoid Man. (Okay, this might actually make the song more intriguing than it is). At least on this track, they never rip off anybody in particular, and succeed in creating a creepy atmosphere where the different elements complement each other (angelically-diabolically) instead of neute­ring each other. Perhaps if there was more stuff like this on the album, it would not give off this uneasy impression of an empty / unfunny exercise in post-modernism.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Celeste: Celeste


1) Principe Di Un Giorno; 2) Favole Antiche; 3) Eftus; 4) Giochi Nella Notte; 5) La Grande Isola; 6) La Danza Del Fato; 7) L'Imbroglio.

This band is so close to totally unknown, it does not even seem to have its own Wikipedia page as of the time of my writing this — despite the fact that the only album they'd officially released while staying alive has now turned into a bit of a cult classic in various prog rock-centered sub-communities. Considering that classic Italian prog, such as Premiata Forneria Marconi or Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso, is usually taken seriously on the international level, it is only fair that this short-lived band with its somewhat idiosyncratic sound get at least a brief mention, too.

According to various sources (that mostly repeat each other anyway), Celeste were born out of the ruins of the locally-legendary Sanremo band Il Sistema, with two of their members — drum­mer Ciro Perrino (who also plays the flute and Mellotron), and keyboard / sax player Leonardo Lagorio — joining up with bass player Giorgio Battaglia and guitarist Mariano Schiavolini and deciding to take progressive rock in a... progressive direction. Well, frankly speaking, there is not much «rock» on here at all: even compared to their abovementioned Italian peers like PFM and Banco (both of whom were already heavily and inevitably influenced by the Italian pop scene), Celeste make sure that their music suits their name: all of this is very soft, relaxed, celestial-beauty-oriented stuff with no space allocated at all for distorted electric guitars.

The band's lack of popularity is technically explainable by the fact that the album was seriously delayed: although recorded in 1974, it did not see release until 1976, by which time the golden age of progressive rock had already expired, and new bands experimenting with the genre could only, at best, hope for a small level of underground appreciation. On the other hand, I will not pretend that Celeste is, by any means, some sort of unique lost Holy Grail of Italian prog, either. It does not have enough internal dynamics for that: a happy, mellow, easy-going listening expe­rience that does not so much suck you in or overwhelm you as it simply gives you a pleasant aural massage. But a very pleasant one, well worth the price of admission.

Celeste's influences are barely ever concealed — a mix of Genesis (who, not coincidentally, were one of the most popular prog bands in Italy), Yes (you will very quickly discern echoes of the theme of ʽAnd You And Iʼ at the beginning of ʽFavole Anticheʼ), early King Crimson, and, naturally, the Italian pop scene; the latter manifests itself most openly in the vocal parts, which, to my ears, seem like the weakest part of the experience and, frankly, I would vastly prefer it if the record were completely instrumental. Fortunately, there is not a lot of singing on the whole (most of the vocals are courtesy of drummer Ciro Perrino, and the best that can be said about them is that he mostly manages to stay on key), and it is perfectly easy to concentrate on the instrumental mix... well, as long as the word «concentrate» is applicable to aural massage.

Because I do not count a whole lot of memorable or emotionally stunning musical themes here, and that is not what matters. What matters is purely the soundscape — a lush meadow of sound created through a very careful mix of acoustic guitars, flutes, saxes, pianos, Mellotrons, and analog synths. You cannot get around a proper review of this album without using the word «pastoral» at least once, and it really only takes getting acquainted with the very first track, ʽPrincipe Di Un Giornoʼ, to get the general gist of these guys — gently submerge you in a soft, smoothly moving atmosphere created by the simultaneous, well-coordinated flow of all the ins­truments involved. At times, an ever so slightly dissonant sax solo, revealing a Coltrane influence or something like that, will cut across the horizon, but without jarring you out of the generally tranquil, meditative state of mind.

Only the first large track on Side 2, ʽGiochi Nella Notteʼ, is slightly rougher than the rest, with at least one section where several discordant overdubbed sax parts crash and bump into each other (ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ influence at work?), but even that goes away fairly quickly, making way for the usual classy-pretty sonic jello. Also, ʽLa Danza Del Fatoʼ opens with a long prelude of sleigh bells and electronic blasts (alien invaders targeting Santa Claus?), but even that bit of weird experimentation cannot last long, and quickly gives away to the same acoustic gui­tars, flutes, and annoying Sanremo vocals.

In other words, the record simply begs for you to shoot it down because of monotonousness, but I just can't do it — there is something about the sound that is (a) individually intriguing and (b) so totally harmless, friendly, and stylish at the same time that I cannot help recommending Celeste for any fans of soft folk-pop with progressive ambitions with a satisfactory thumbs up. Just do not set your expectations unreasonably high, and remember that this is not really a «rock» band in any possible sense of the word, and you'll do fine.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Caravan: The Show Of Our Lives


1) Place Of My Own; 2) Ride; 3) If I Could Do It All Over Again I'd Do It All Over You; 4) Hello Hello; 5) As I Feel I Die; 6) Love To Love You; 7) Love Song Without Flute; 8) In The Land Of Grey And Pink; 9) Nine Feet Underground; 10) Feelin', Reelin', Squealin'; 11) A-Hunting We Shall Go; 12) Waffle (Be Alright / Chance Of A Lifetime); 13) Memory Lain Hugh; 14) Headloss; 15) The Love In Your Eye; 16) Mirror For The Day; 17) Virgin On The Ridiculous; 18) For Richard; 19) The Dabsong Conshirtoe; 20) Stuck In A Hole; 21) The Show Of Our Lives.

It makes perfect sense to round out the Caravan retrospective with this huge 2-CD package that spans their entire «prog years» career. Prior to this, there have been several rather chaotic releases of BBC material recorded by the band at various occasions; the only one I'd previously heard was BBC Radio 1 In Concert, recorded March 21, 1975 at the Paris Theatre, and it has been almost completely integrated here (strangely, though, without a complete overlap — the original release had ʽHoedownʼ, which is not included here, while the new package adds ʽMirror For The Dayʼ and ʽVirgin On The Ridiculousʼ that were omitted from the 1991 album, so go figure).

Anyway, this here is a solid and well-balanced mix of performances from various John Peel and BBC In Concert sessions that, among other things, allows you to get a peek at live interpretations of some of the early material that never survived the transition into the «golden age» — songs from the self-titled debut (including ʽLove Song With Fluteʼ, which is transformed here into ʽLove Song Without Fluteʼ because they could not get brother Jimmy to appear with them, so Dave has to fill his shoes with an organ equivalent of the flute part) and «filler tracks» from the second album, like ʽAs I Feel I Dieʼ. Once we get to the Grey And Pink period, performances start to become more familiar and predictable, but there is still at least one super-curious rarity: ʽFeelin', Reelin', Squealin'ʼ, a 10-minute epic that starts out in inconspicuously default soft-rock mode, but then quickly becomes an improvised psychedelic extravaganza — a free-form freakout that alternately reminds one of The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and The Soft Machine. I would not call it particularly mind-blowing or anything, but it's a bold side of Caravan that had blipped for a few seconds around 1970, then was wiped out completely with the emergence of the Grey And Pink style, and it is interesting to learn that they could occasionally allow themselves to go crazy like this as late as May 1971, by which time ʽGolf Girlʼ had already become their trade­mark song (ironically, there is no ʽGolf Girlʼ on this package).

The second disc, covering 1973-75, is clearly less exciting for those who have already heard all the regular live albums — I mean, there's only so many live versions of ʽThe Love In Your Eyeʼ and ʽFor Richardʼ that I'd care to have in my collection — but it does include a rare occasion of the complete live performance of ʽThe Dabsong Conshirtoeʼ and other songs from Cunning Stunts that might help rekindle your interest in that transitional album. They could have gone further: if you are genuinely curious about continuing this experience, the earlier package Ether Way: BBC Sessions 1975-77, overlapping with this one in regard to the Cunning Stunts tracks, also adds some live renditions of material from Blind Dog At St. Dunstan's (could be entertai­ning) and Better By Far (probably couldn't) — but on the whole, I understand the decision of the compilers to stop at 1975 and have ʽThe Show Of Our Livesʼ round out the album in gloriously anthemic mode.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Cat Stevens: New Masters


1) Kitty; 2) I'm So Sleepy; 3) Northern Wind; 4) The Laughing Apple; 5) Smash Your Heart; 6) Moonstone; 7) The First Cut Is The Deepest; 8) I'm Gonna Be King; 9) Ceylon City; 10) Blackness Of The Night; 11) Come On Baby Shift That Log; 12) I Love Them All; 13*) Image Of Hell; 14*) Lovely City When Do You Laugh; 15*) The View From The Top; 16*) Here Comes My Wife; 17*) It's A Super Dupa Life; 18*) Where Are You; 19*) A Bad Night.

Overall consensus seems to favor the idea that while Matthew & Son might be redeemable as a record, New Masters is not, and I can see where it comes from: the record is simply not as punchy, and tends to drift into boring sentimentalism much more often than its predecessor. Per­haps it was rushed, and Stevens simply did not have enough time to flesh out the songs; perhaps there is too much input from Mike Hurst, who keeps drowning Stevens' personality in brass, wood­winds, strings, and an overall baroque atmosphere every bit as tailor-made as the outfit that the man is wearing on the front cover (but he's still fairly gorgeous, right? I actually favor this freshly shaven Byronesque look more than the bearded straggler of the years to come...). The songs are not hopeless and not devoid of Cat's personality, but they take far more time to assimi­late, and the endless cuddliness is a strong impediment.

That he might have been scraping that barrel is evident, for instance, in the decision to record and release ʽThe First Cut Is The Deepestʼ, a song that he had written as early as 1965, and one that went on to become a major sappy hit for several performers, including P. P. Arnold, Keith Hamp­shire, and Rod Stewart. It is one of those lush ballads that is completely dependent on the specific performance, and Stevens' own performance is mediocre — he is no Brother Gibb, and the com­bination of a pompous, give-it-all-you-got instrumental melody with Stevens' technically weak (as in, not-too-powerful) voice could only work if he'd sought out some unique twist, but he does not: he just sings it because he wrote it. It isn't awful, but it's telling: there's just no reason to hear this kind of material done by its own author.

It did not necessarily have to be that way: ʽKittyʼ, the first number, opens the album in the same playful-ironic mode that made most of Matthew & Son so enjoyable. It is hard to decipher what the song is really about — it all depends on what the line "when my little kitty gets out" really means — but in any case, it is a delightful slice of happy Brit-pop where the little man allows himself some laughs at the expense of those who are "wiping their silver spoons", and the accom­panying tricksterish woodwinds really come in handy. Had all the album been like this, it would be a gas to sit through. But with the second song, ʽI'm So Sleepyʼ, it intrudes upon the turf of elfish minstrels like Donovan, and I am not fully convinced; and with the third song, ʽNorthern Windʼ, it enters the territory of Peter, Paul & Mary, and this is... odd.

Without forcing myself to get too deep in sordid details, I will simply voice the general complaint: all these songs sound way too forcibly «rose-colored», with Stevens trying to create for himself a far more suave and seductive image than he was born for — in fact, a far more suave image than the one on Matthew & Son. His melodic talents and charismatic personality help ensure that he almost never embarrasses himself in a direct manner, but even so, a couple of the songs are still cringeworthy, like the amorous log cabin owner anthem ʽCome On Babyʼ, with arguably the dumbest chorus that Cat ever wrote — "Come on baby shift that log / Come on baby wash that dog" is a fantastic choice of words for what is, essentially, a romantic serenade. And ʽI'm Gonna Be Kingʼ sounds like potential filler ready-made for a Monkees record.

Apparently, the British public shared the same opinion, too, refusing to buy large quantities of New Masters (and even that album cover did not help!), and ultimately leading to the rift be­tween Decca, Hurst, and Stevens. The CD edition is helpful in that it also adds several songs that were released by Cat as singles from 1967 to 1969 — some of which are far better than anything on the album, including the hilarious ʽHere Comes My Wifeʼ (presaging John Entwistle's similar­ly thematicized ʽMy Wifeʼ by a good three years) and the pensive acoustic ballad ʽWhere Are Youʼ that already presages the man's «classic» style (though it is still spoiled by excessive orche­stration). Then, in 1969, the man contracted tuberculosis, spent some time on the threshold be­tween life and death, and lost all contact with his previous life as a result — and I must say that, while I am a little sad about the loss of connection to Matthew & Son, I sure as hell am happy that he never made another set of New Masters.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: And His Blues Band


1) Barrelhouse Woman; 2) Louise; 3) One Dirty Woman; 4) When Things Go Wrong; 5) Cut Down On My Over­heads; 6) Troubles; 7) Tee-Nah-Nah; 8) Caldonia; 9) Under Your Hood; 10) Come Back Baby; 11) Baby Let Me Go With You; 12) Garbage Man; 13) I Feel Like A Millionaire; 14) Right Now; 15) Georgiana; 16) Shake, Baby, Shake.

Hey, finally, after all those years, Champion Jack Dupree has a real blues band! Of his own! And, get that, not just a blues band, but a blues band Featuring Mickey Baker, like it says on the album cover! We're doing this like grown-ups — last year, in London, there was this cool chap John Mayall who did a record called Bluesbreakers Featuring Eric Clapton, and now he has provided me with an opportunity to record in London, on the Decca label, so it's only fitting that there would be somebody «featured» on my album as well... it's a whole new trend!

Seriously, all irony aside, this is the beginning of a whole new life for the Champ: for the first time ever, he is consistently being backed up by a stable, well-amplified, and, most importantly, qualified backing band. Mickey Baker was actually an old pal of the Champ's who'd already played with him in the mid-Fifties; by 1967, however, he'd also migrated to Europe, along the same lines as Dupree, and their reunion on British territory was quite fortuitous. I am not familiar with most of the other players, but the drummer is Ronnie Verrell, one of Britain's finest big band jazz drummers, and his individual style can certainly raise an eyebrow — he specifically caught my ear with some deliciously loud and even «vulgar» (so to speak) fills on ʽBaby Let Me Go With Youʼ (a transparent rewrite of ʽBaby Let Me Take You Homeʼ), where the arrogance of the drums actually overwhelms the fun and tasty parts that Baker plays on guitar.

There is not much to say about the songs on the album — provided you have traced Dupree's career all the way, you have heard most of them before, and provided you know at least a little about music in general, you have heard all the other songs before just as well: for instance, ʽGeorgianaʼ is really ʽGeorgia On My Mindʼ with slightly different lyrics (for some reason — perhaps, out of some strange understanding of honesty — Dupree usually left in «keyword re­ferences» to the original lyrics when covering classics; on the other hand, ʽI Feel Like A Millio­naireʼ, ripping off ʽWhen The Saints Go Marching Inʼ, is an obvious exception), and ʽShake Baby Shakeʼ is ʽWhole Lotta Shakin' Going Onʼ back-crossed with ʽDrinkin' Wine Spoo-Dee-O-Deeʼ. But you also know that this is of no importance.

What is of importance is that the Champ is having fun, and the boys in his band are having fun, too: probably the most fun they all had since... well, ever, because the Champ never had such a tight and well-oiled band beside him. Already on the opening number, ʽBarrelhouse Womanʼ, we have a cool funky brass section, an amusing whistle echoing Dupree's vocal melody in the back­ground — and a subtle atmosphere of camaraderie that more than compensates for leaving his piano skills almost unnoticed. For the most part, his piano parts are clearly heard on the slow blues numbers (ʽLouiseʼ, etc.), but this is nowhere as interesting as the rollickin' jump blues. An insane percussion part and a hilarious bass solo on ʽOne Dirty Womanʼ; a quirky-quacky lead guitar part on ʽCaldoniaʼ; the abovementioned crude drum fills on ʽBaby Let Me Go With Youʼ; the collective choo-choo train effort on ʽShake, Baby, Shakeʼ — there's so much simple, naïve, totally efficient fun on this album, it makes me forget and forgive all the mind-numbing repeti­tiveness and formulaicness of the Champ's underwhelming Copenhagen period.

Even something like ʽTroublesʼ, a laid-back dialog between Dupree and Baker, lazily strumming their guitar and tinkling their piano, as they jokingly discuss each other's problems of the past and of the present, is hilarious — to be honest, I do not understand even half of it, particularly since the Champion is laying his exaggerated «hare-lipped accent» on real thick, but on the whole, the dialog will definitely appeal to any fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, if you know what I mean. Ines­capable filler issues aside, this is a major exercise in self-rejuvenation here, and the first serious argument to prove that the Champion's emigration to the relative safety of the European musical community might not have been such a terrible mistake. Thumbs up.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Kinks: The Kink Kontroversy


1) Milk Cow Blues; 2) Ring The Bells; 3) Gotta Get The First Plane Home; 4) When I See That Girl Of Mine; 5) I Am Free; 6) Till The End Of The Day; 7) The World Keeps Going Round; 8) I'm On An Island; 9) Where Have All The Good Times Gone; 10) It's Too Late; 11) What's In Store For Me; 12) You Can't Win; 13*) Dedicated Follower Of Fashion; 14*) Sittin' On My Sofa; 15*) When I See That Girl Of Mine (demo); 16*) Dedicated Follower Of Fashion (stereo mix).

The base keeps getting solidified, yet by the end of 1965, The Kinks had still not quite entered their golden era. What they did was mature to the point where their next album would be, if not completely free of filler, then at least completely free of embarrassments. For one thing, they have not yet fully abandoned R&B covers — but instead of sounding like a silly Jimmy Reed parody on ʽNaggin' Womanʼ, they sound vicious and nasty on ʽMilk Cow Bluesʼ, a song they probably learned not from Sleepy John Estes, but from Elvis, who had originally turned this slow blues into sinful rockabilly. Now they go one step further, turning the song's mood from playful into threatening, and for all I know, this is the very first time that brother Dave's vocals actually seem impressive: all it took was change his image from «cocky macho» to «vicious thug», and voilà, the Kinks show that they can be as tough as the Stones if they really want to. The whole song is just one relentless bull-charge; no wonder that it became a live favorite for a while, since, after all, Ray's brilliant, but tender hits could hardly charge up a live rock'n'roll audience in quite the same way as Dave's growling "well I've tried everything..." menace and histrionic guitar breaks. A fitting and triumphant end to their career as an R&B cover act.

At the same time, Ray is still largely operating in «2-3 minute love song» mode, and it is beco­ming more and more clear that it is not the perfect mode for him. A song like ʽWhen I See That Girl Of Mineʼ, with its harmonious verse structure and neat vocal tricks (such as extending the word ʽsighʼ to several «sighing» bars), would be hailed as a masterpiece if any twee-pop outfit came out with it today, but by the standards of 1965, with its shallow theme and barebones pro­duction, it could be perceived as dull. ʽRing The Bellsʼ is very pretty folk-pop, but on the level of The Searchers — a sweet serenade, nothing more. And while I like both ʽIt's Too Lateʼ and ʽYou Can't Winʼ and their «reproach-rock» vibe, (a) they are both based on the exact same rhythm chord sequence and (b) neither of them has a great riff as such, making them notably inferior to 1965's true masterpiece of that genre, ʽThe Last Timeʼ.

It is only when they add a special edge to their love song that the results become outstanding: ʽTill The End Of The Dayʼ is so haunting and brilliant because it's got a real minor feel to it, de­spite all the lyrics about feeling good "'cause my life has begun". You look at those lyrics and you think that the song should sound triumphant — yet it sounds absolutely tragic, almost desperately so, culminating in Dave's shrillest guitar break yet and crashing down with "till the end of the day!" sounding like "till the end of the world" and that end is coming right now. Where that song really belongs is in a Bonnie-and-Clyde type musical — or, at least, in a Dickens-based show on the desperate life of England's lower classes, right next to ʽDead End Streetʼ. No simple three-minute love song on the pop market had ever sounded that way before, which explains why it has become a lasting classic where ʽWhen I See That Girl Of Mineʼ has not.

And that attitude actually puts it well in line with that other type of songs that Ray had only begun getting into — the non-aggressively pessimistic / ironic dissections of the hardships of everyday life. Released as an A-side, ʽTill The End Of The Dayʼ has quite an organic bind with its B-side: ʽWhere Have All The Good Times Goneʼ is kinda like that same character, only twenty years later, and now his youthful desperate enthusiasm has turned to bitter cynicism and disillusionment. This is the first — and oh so far from the last — time that Ray decides to up­grade the past instead of the future: "Let it be like yesterday" is hardly the kind of slogan you'd expect to hear from a respectable pop band in 1965, but for the moment, The Kinks were still able to get away with it... first, because it was a B-side, and second, because, with its long-winded verse lines and socially relevant overtones, it sounded a bit like Dylan, and who cares if you're being asked whether you can crawl out your window or where have all the good times gone, if you're being asked in such a delightfully sneering tone? Oh, and besides, who could resist the brilliancy of lines like "Daddy didn't have no toys / Mummy didn't need no boys" — let alone actually identifying with these lines (provided you were a boy)?

Of a slightly less caliber, but almost on the same level of acuteness (and catchiness) are ʽThe World Keeps Going Roundʼ (whose chorus actually creates the illusion of a spinning globe) and ʽI'm On An Islandʼ, Ray's first leave-me-alone, defensive-yet-defenseless anthem to isolationism, which I believe he sings with a slightly pseudo-Caribbean accent (not surprising, considering the man was a fan of Harry Belafonte and occasionally cover ʽDay-Oʼ in concert). Again, the former song tries to prop you up with a little forced optimism, while the latter just tells you to fuck it; so, naturally, the former quickly disappeared off the radar (though it's really good) and the latter stayed on for some time as a live show staple, even though its quiet acoustic shuffling was the farthest thing from common in a rock'n'roll show environment.

So, in the end, it is quite a mixed bag — a «transitional» album, as it is frequently called; but for the first time, a Kinks LP is every bit as good as contemporary singles, not least because it actual­ly incorporates contemporary singles (ʽTill The End Of The Dayʼ), and also because it's got at least a couple major songs that were not singles at all. The expanded CD edition, in contrast with the previous two, has few contemporary goodies to add — the most notable of these being the early 1966 single ʽDedicated Follower Of Fashionʼ, Ray's first sarcastic ode to the unnamed heroes of Swinging London that, melody-wise, is essentially a catchier re-write of ʽA Well Res­pected Manʼ; but, funny enough, where the titular bourgeois hero of ʽWell Respected Manʼ did garner a bit of pitiful empathy from the songwriter, the proto-hipster of ʽDedicated Follower Of Fashionʼ garners absolutely nothing but scorn and derision. That the song went to No. 4 on the UK charts must only mean that the young buyers never got through the irony — or, perhaps, on the contrary, that they were not above an ironic look at themselves.

In any case, The Kink Kontroversy, kwite un-kontroversially, gets its thumbs up. Only a few months prior to its release, The Kinks were banned from live performing in the States — for their alleged «rowdy behavior» on stage (it's a good thing The Who never got to America before 1967), and while this had little bearing on the album, it might be argued that Ray's full-scale «conver­sion» to the early mode of Britpop the next year was influenced by this unjust ostracism. But for now, Kontroversy gives us a landscape that nicely balances between American and British influences and succeeds in beauty just as fine as it does in aggression.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Alt-J: Live At Red Rocks


1) Hunger Of The Pine; 2) Fitzpleasure; 3) Something Good; 4) Left Hand Free; 5) Dissolve Me; 6) Matilda / Inter­lude 2; 7) Bloodflood; 8) Bloodflood Pt. 2; 9) Interlude 1; 10) Tessellate; 11) Every Other Freckle; 12) Taro; 13) Warm Foothills; 14) The Gospel Of John Hurt; 15) Lovely Day; 16) Nara; 17) Leaving Nara; 18) Breezeblocks.

For those who really want to know, this is my opinion of the live incarnation of Alt-J in a nutshell. They make a very professional recreation of their studio sound, and if you happened to dislike the electronic treatment of the drums on the studio records, this problem pretty much goes away on stage. Apart from that, the typical live performance by these guys has nothing to offer in terms of extra energy or extra inventiveness — one more reason why they cannot (for now, at least) qualify as the new Radiohead, considering how the old one would always treat the stage as a setting for exorcism ceremonies.

That said, why a live album in the first place? These guys have only had two studio records out so far; isn't a lavish live offering like this one (CD, DVD, Blu-ray, LPs, 32 page photo book and a frickin' necklace?) a bit premature? It's not as if Alt-J had developed a ferocious live reputation or anything — to me, it seems a bit unpleasant, like a certain «new royalty» gesture, capitalizing on the band's commercial and critical success. It is one of those «hey, Alt-J have just released a grand live album, so they must be really good, right?» kind of gestures that can seem rather off-putting, even if there are no formal grounds for direct accusations.

On the positive side, the sound quality is magnificent, and, admittedly, I can see where at least some songs might be preferable to their studio counterparts — not because they are better played or playfully rearranged, but simply because they are better mixed. For instance, ʽThe Gospel Of John Hurtʼ in its original state had muffled keyboards and limp vocals: here, the chimes, played with metronomic precision, simply leap out of the speakers, and the voices sound more human, perhaps sagging and faltering here and there, but showing a little more personality. The guitar riff of ʽFitzpleasureʼ, all wispy and echoey on the original, is so much louder and firmer here live that you almost might say that the stage is where Alt-J's music really comes alive...

...but no, I will not say that. The only surprise on the album is a cover of Bill Withers' ʽLovely Dayʼ, which used to be a cheerful R&B groove back in 1977 — now everything that remains are the words, and everything else comes from Alt-J's glossy refrigerator. With the slowed down tempo, the chilly keyboards, the droning guitar, and the tranquilized drums, they efficiently put that song to sleep, and I have no idea why they would do that with a lively Bill Withers song from 1977, of all possible choices. In any case, be it Bill Withers, Buck Owens, or G. G. Allin, we may be sure that any cover by any artist in the hands of these guys will always be reduced to the same kind of omni-gel — and, honestly, I'd prefer them to stick to their own compositions rather than decompose and assimilate somebody else's.

Other than that, Live At Red Rocks predictably reproduces the bulk of the material from their two albums in an almost too safely predictable running order — some big hit singles at the start, and the biggest one (ʽBreezeblocksʼ) saved up for the encore. In-between song banter is scarce, but present in order to make a good impression — for all their weirdness, they are all nice boys from well-behaving families, and they have come here to Red Rocks to work collective magic with their fantastic audience. It's all cool. It's just sort of superfluous. Give them ten years and a good chance to go completely ga-ga, and maybe the live Alt-J experience will turn into some crazyass Björkish extravaganza, but for now, they might be just a little too nice for this shit.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Charlatans: Tellin' Stories


1) With No Shoes; 2) North Country Boy; 3) Tellin' Stories; 4) One To Another; 5) You're A Big Girl Now; 6) How Can You Leave Us; 7) Area 51; 8) How High; 9) Only Teethin'; 10) Get On It; 11) Title Fight; 12) Two Of Us; 13) Rob's Theme.

Rob Collins died in the middle of the recording sessions for this album — apparently, while drunk driving without a seatbelt, making him an honorable member of the «27 Club Latecomers» (he was 33, actually) along with Keith Moon and all those other crazy rebels who were given a mercyful deferment by Fate. This may have had something to do with Tellin' Stories going to #1 in the UK, but then the previous album also went to #1 — then again, Rob's wild antics, including involvement in armed robbery etc., may have contributed to that earlier just as well. Because, honestly speaking, the mid-Nineties were too full of excellent music to let somebody as deri­vative and clearly second-rate as The Charlatans rightfully enjoy major fame.

By now, the band has completed the transition to standard Britpop market, although echoes of the «baggy» sound still resonate throughout the record, and the rhythm section seems so addicted to funky swing that playing in 4/4 is to them what playing a right-handed guitar is to a left-handed person. But now they have themselves a new gimmick: they see themselves as some sort of post-modern heirs to classic pop/rock legacy, and the main point of nearly every one of their songs is to insert one or more musical and lyrical references to one or more of their idols. The little nibs that they took on Lennon and Dylan in the previous two records were judged tasty, and Tellin' Stories goes on an open rampage — it is as if the band has really discovered its purpose, and found a surefire way to establish its own «context-based» identity that would at least clearly sepa­rate them from Blur, Oasis, and the rest.

I will not even begin to pretend to having caught all these little bits — it's a great way to viciously and mercilessly kill your time — but there is no way a review of the album cannot center around some of them. Dylan is probably the most frequent reference point, although the references are not too trivial: the song titles ʽNorth Country Boyʼ and ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ are the first ones to spring to attention, but melodically they are not Dylanish, or, at least, not Dylanish in the way you'd expect them to — ʽNorth Country Boyʼ is a loud, guitar-and-organ-blazing pop-rocker, and ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ, though it is acoustic, sounds more like Donovan than Dylan. On the other hand, ʽOne To Anotherʼ, even if its main riff is closer to the Allmans' ʽMidnight Riderʼ than anything Dylan ever wrote, partially borrows the vocal melody and intonations from ʽMaggie's Farmʼ — making no secret of that once Tim gets to the line about "boxing up all our records and a head full of ideas". And ʽGet On Itʼ breaks in like some unknown outtake from Highway 61 Revisited, with the same triple-barrel guitar/organ/harmonica attack and a ʽQueen Janeʼ-like start-up: "When you're low and I'm feeling awry...". But so that you could feel all the depth of the penetration (sorry), the second part of the song breaks away from the first and evolves into a satanic ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ-like jam, replete with the obligatory woo-woos and stuff. Also, "I'm going to let you pass" (ʽHow Highʼ)? Ah cripes...

More Rolling Stones references: "You keep it under your thumb" (sung to the verse melody of ʽLoving Cupʼ) and "I could wait forever, love in vain yeah" on ʽTitle Fightʼ, a song otherwise completely undistinguishable from the average Charlatans funk-pop number. The pairwise question to ʽHow Can You Leave Usʼ is "how can you bleed on us?", sung to the vocal melody of ʽRocks Offʼ. The same song, however, once again returns us to Dylan territory with a line about "catchin' dinosaurs", and "darlin'... promise me you'll be home soon"... aw crap, John Sebastian? And the psychedelic vocal harmonies feeding off each other, that's ʽShe Said She Saidʼ, right? And a song called ʽTwo Of Usʼ... and an instrumental number called ʽArea 51ʼ, that's clearly a reference to ʽHighway 51ʼ... okay, enough already.

From a global and straightforward perspective, this is all nonsense. The Charlatans aren't really making much sense with all this appropriation — most of the lyrics sound as if they just assigned a smart computer algorithm to extract random references and mix them in with some new lines, and the melodic borrowings are grafted onto basic rhythmic structures that have not progressed all that much since 1990. But from another perspective, they are really doing the most honest thing possible: after all, Britpop is such a clearly derivative genre by definition that it makes total sense to acknowledge this unequivocally, and refrain from being too serious about it. That's one thing that totally separates them from the ghosts of the past — while there's a lot of sneering and jeering going on here, you never get that «character assassination» vibe that is predominant on classic Dylan records. It might be due to their unfortunate choice of words, or to the lack of the necessary color in Tim Burgess' voice, or maybe even to that «dance vibe» that most of the songs still have because of the rhythm section's never-ending funkiness, but the reality is such that I cannot perceive Tellin' Stories on its own emotional terms — I'm not even sure there were any of those set out to begin with.

They do care about their fallen comrade, ending the album with some serene nature sounds mor­phing into an acid organ-drenched trip-hop instrumental called ʽRob's Themeʼ; but even that one somehow seems a bit post-modern in nature. And it all makes the band sound dated — twenty years later, listening to a bunch of guys churning out typically mid-Nineties send-ups of heroes from the Sixties makes you feel more like an archivist than a music lover. Although, of course, there's nothing wrong with the noble work of the archivist as such.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Carol Of Harvest: Carol Of Harvest


1) Put On Your Nightcap; 2) You And Me; 3) Somewhere At The End Of Our Rainbow; 4) Treary Eyes; 5) Try A Little Bit; 6*) River; 7*) Sweet Heroin; 8*) Brickstone.

The short-lived band Carol Of Harvest is frequently listed in catalogs under «Krautrock», which is really a complete mockery of the term — unless we really want to apply it to any band born and raised under the skies of Deutschland. Including The Scorpions, Accept, Rammstein, you name it. If, however, we choose to be reasonable and limit the term to a certain harsh style of avantgarde progressive rock with industrial overtones and a certain morose Teutonic attitude, then even under the most broad definition of the term Carol Of Harvest could never be proper Krautrock. Were we to choose just one band to serve as a role model for these guys, it would most likely be Renaissance — melancholic progressive folk with a fairly traditional approach to sonic beauty, including pretty acoustic guitars and lovely female vocals.

The band was largely the brainchild of guitarist and songwriter Axel Schmierer, who is credited for every composition on the album; however, the band's collective sound is just as crucially de­pending on the keyboard tones of cosmic wiz Jürgen Kolb, and, of course, the vocals of Beate Krause — not an exceptional singer, but a very nice one, caught somewhere in the middle be­tween Annie Haslam and Sandy Denny (and, fortunately, singing without much of an accent, be­cause German accents sound sexy on iron-clad femme fatales like Nico, but would be rather ridi­culous on sweet sorrowful ladies in gentle mourning). Although they all came together some­where around Munich, near the birthplace of Amon Düül II, there is really very little on the album that links them to the great Bavarian heroes of prog-rock: instead of blues and jazz, they choose folk as their point of departure, and their message is far less psychedelic and far more, shall we say, serious-tragedy-oriented.

Indeed, the songs written by Schmierer and performed by Krause serve a conceptual purpose, albeit not a highly original one — Carol Of Harvest is a lament for the loss of innocence, a collection of grievous ecological anthems that strike the same artistic blows at technological pro­gress with weeping as Kraftwerk did with irony. The album's subtitle, printed out in large letters and in intentionally not-too-correct English on the back cover, is: «A song of the good green grass, a song no more of the city streets, a song of the soil of the fields», and you have already noticed that the band's name agrees with this. So, the mood of the album is indeed quite akin to that of classic Renaissance, on such records as Ashes Are Burning or Turn Of The Cards, and since by 1978 Renaissance had already begun to evolve in a more overtly pop side, it is nice to see somebody else take their cues from them and give it one more try.

The album's magnum opus is the opening track, the 16-minute long suite ʽPut On Your Nightcapʼ, in which Krause informs us that we are standing "close to the edge", but definitely not in the opti­mistic-idealistic sense of Jon Anderson. Starting out as a dark acoustic ballad with swooshing winds in the background, the song then drifts into the realm of «astral» synth solos and howling guitar workouts, before picking up the pace and guiding us through a climactic finale. It is very easy to spot out all the influences — Renaissance, Sandy Denny, Ash Ra Tempel, Genesis, etc. — but despite the utter lack of originality or even virtuoso musicianship, the song sounds quite convincing to me, as it works on the basic senses in a far more straightforward manner than the majority of neo-prog imitators. Much of this has to do with a specific sense of taste: thus, Kolb's synthesizers are not imitating traditional keyboards, but are really evocating alien sounds (at a couple of points, he lets rip with an almost arcade-like soundtrack of enemy ships attacking the planet), which is a little unexpected on such a supposedly «down-to-earth» record, but somehow makes perfect sense — if, for instance, you think of the synthesizers as symbols of the technolo­gical plague brought upon the planet, and of Schmierer's wailing guitar solos as symbolic of Mother Earth's aching reaction to this horror.

The shorter tracks are almost completely acoustic: ʽYou And Meʼ and ʽTreary Eyesʼ (sic!) are two straightforward laments that could just as well have been played and sung by Joan Baez, and ʽSomewhere At The End Of Our Rainbowʼ starts out in the same manner, before getting augmen­ted by the mighty Mellotron and more tasty guitar bits (this song, in particular, is quite Floydian in its approach to guitar and keyboard tone, clearly influenced by ʽShine On You Crazy Dia­mondʼ above everything else). Meanwhile, ʽTry A Little Bitʼ, whose first few notes will make you think, for about a second and a half, that they have decided to cover ʽStairway To Heavenʼ, goes for a slightly more invocative agenda, moving forward at a faster tempo than everything else and generally expecting us to resort to action rather than just stand moping around as them fields are getting shorn of the good green grass. More of those astral synths mixed in with Haslam-like wordless vocalizing — cool effect.

Naturally, this is not a forgotten masterpiece of prog-folk, as people who like to sound cool as they single-handedly rewrite musical history would have you believe. But neither is it just a gene­ric failure to make something interesting in that genre: behind all the lack of originality lies a good collective Bavarian heart, and there is really not a single band that they directly emulate. For one thing, Renaissance never rocked that hard — their guitar and keyboard players combined the language of classical music, folk, and soft rock, with nothing like the astral keyboard solos of Kolb and the distorted howls of Schmierer's guitar. Floyd, on the other hand, did not have a girl singer, and were never so deeply immersed in the folk tradition. So it's a little bit of this and a large bite of that and a modest chunk of something else, and in the end, it is one of the saddest, yet most accessible records of the year 1978.

The CD reissue of the album throws on three more tracks that were recorded live and actually sound very intriguing, disclosing additional layers of depth that were not at all evident on the album: the short instrumental ʽRiverʼ, riding a mammoth chugging bassline and dominated by Eastern- and avantgarde-influenced organ and synth jamming, sounds far closer to the space-rock jamming of Hawkwind than anything else — and after that, it segues into the brooding, ominous ʽSweet Heroinʼ, which is as close to Goth rock as these guys ever got (and, apart from Krause's vocals, is really reminiscent of Amon Düül II). Unfortunately, the recordings have awful sound quality — most probably taken from audience tapes, since the sound of people chatting over their food or something is often louder than the sound of the music — and it is all over before you can actually get a good understanding of what a typical Carol Of Harvest live show was all about.

Too bad, because the band folded soon after this self-titled debut predictably flopped, and was never heard of again. (I think Beate Krause re-emerges once or twice in the Eighties, singing with some local German jazz combos). With one exception: apparently, in 2009 there was an album called Ty I Ja (ʽYou And Iʼ) released under the name of Carol Of Harvest, with Axel Schmierer as the only original band member, plus a bunch of unknowns, and featuring 15 relatively short songs with Polish titles. Detailed information on this odd surprise is quite hard to find even on the Internet, and I am not in the mood for detective stories here, so let us just leave it at that and remember the true Carol Of Harvest as a brave, short-lived one-album band that deserves its own footnote in prog-rock history; and its own thumbs up, of course.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Caravan: Live At The Fairfield Halls


1) Memory Lain, Hugh / Headloss; 2) Virgin On The Ridiculous; 3) Be Alright / Chance Of A Lifetime; 4) The Love In Your Eye; 5) L'Auberge Du Sanglier / A-Hunting We Shall Go / Pengola; 6) The Dog, The Dog, He's At It Again; 7) For Richard; 8) Hoedown.

Of all the live archival releases by Caravan covering single-date (or double-date) performances, I select only Live At The Fairfield Halls as an example, since it has a certain priority over every­thing else: it was originally released, in a slightly abbreviated version, as The Best Of Caravan Live in 1980, for the European market. The actual show took place on September 1, 1974, in London, appro­ximately one year after the show with the New Symphonia and also introducing new member Mike Wedgwood on bass — just a few weeks before the once-again-revamped band entered the studio to record Cunning Stunts. Consequently, the setlist here is pretty much the same as on the expanded version of Caravan & The New Symphonia: lots of tracks from their most recent offering (Plump In The Night), ʽLove In Your Eyeʼ and ʽFor Richardʼ as stabilized mega-epic-classics, and a few non-studio LP rarities — ʽVirgin On The Ridiculousʼ is done here without orchestral support as it was on the New Symphonia album, and ʽBe Alright / Chance Of A Life­timeʼ is an outtake from the Plump In The Night sessions that did not make it onto the original album (but a studio version of which is now also available on the expanded CD edition).

Since, predictably, there is not a lot of difference between the live performances and the studio originals, that's pretty much all you need to know — well, I might add that the show, also predic­tably, was a good one, and that Richardson's viola parts more than make up for the lack of a com­plete orchestra on ʽVirginʼ. The audience participation bit on ʽHoedownʼ is rather cheesy, but an unavoidable evil, especially for a band as audience-friendly and cheerful as Caravan; luckily, at least the in-between song banter is kept short and to the point. Otherwise, I am not really sure why anybody would want to bother with the record, given the availability of New Symphonia which at least adds a fresh twist to these songs. Perhaps in 1980, with Caravan arguably hitting rock bottom and all, a release like this made sense — just to remind the record-buying public of how great these guys used to be. Today, it is only for dedicated fans who wish to spend some time picking up all the little nuances that separate loyal live reproductions from the originals. Like, for instance, ʽFor Richardʼ is three minutes longer than the studio version here — I am still not sure if this is because they extend some of the jam sessions or because they take it such a leadenly slow tempo at the beginning, but I am too lazy to go check it out.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Cat Stevens: Matthew & Son


1) Matthew & Son; 2) I Love My Dog; 3) Here Comes My Baby; 4) Bring Another Bottle Baby; 5) Portobello Road; 6) I've Found A Love; 7) I See A Road; 8) Baby Get Your Head Screwed On; 9) Granny; 10) When I Speak To The Flowers; 11) The Tramp; 12) Come On And Dance; 13) Hummingbird; 14) Lady; 15*) School Is Out; 16*) I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun.

Ah, to be 18 in the year of 1967. People like to be condescending to Cat Stevens' debut — inclu­ding Cat Stevens himself, who had very quickly turned against the production style imposed upon him by producer Mike Hurst on those early records, and has always dismissed them as too light­weight, immature, and sugary-sweet. But there is a youthful charm here that is not to be found on his classic recordings, and as far as my ears are concerned, the sound of Matthew & Son is «da­ted» in a very positive way — the baroque-pop flourishes and the sunshine orchestration fully agree with the sweetness of Stevens' young voice and his charismatic persona.

It is clear, right from the start, that here is a man strictly following his own path. The influences are obvious — pop-rock of The Beatles, folksy singer-songwriter stuff of Simon & Garfunkel, flowery meditativeness of Donovan, etc. — but the experiences behind the songs are the ex­clu­sive property of Mr. Georgiou, as are the melodic structures (and if Mr. Georgiou is copying somebody else on the melodic structures, he is being way sophisticated on this: thus, he later admitted that ʽI Love My Dogʼ borrows the main melodic theme from Yusef Lateef's ʽThe Plum Blossomʼ, leading one to wonder just how many other relatively little-known jazz records the man may have plundered for inspiration). Even as an 18-year old amateur, he refuses to openly subscribe to any particular school of musical thought — in terms of atmosphere, I would pro­bably place this album closest to contemporary Donovan, yet its lyrical themes very rarely con­centrate on fantasy / psychedelia, having more in common with the «everyday obser­vations of the little man» approach of Ray Davies. Sort of an «Alice In Routineland» thing here.

The little catch about Stevens is that his voice actually sounds timeless rather than young. In a few years, he would develop a bit of a rasp, deepening the effect from his singing; here, his voice is fresh and clean, but it already has a certain sage-like quality to it — largely free from deliberate emotional winding-up and displaying calm and serenity regardless of the circumstances. Happy Cat Stevens, sad Cat Stevens, love-ridden Cat Stevens, angry Cat Stevens all sound very much alike (in this, his closest musical ally may be Al Stewart, who, perhaps not so coincidentally, would also release his debut album the same year and have it arranged very much in the same style; although with Al, the «sage» image works even better because he was far more lyrically sophisticated than Stevens from the very beginning). The good news is that this results not in monotonousness, but in a certain «lesson of serenity» that this guy teaches us from the very start of his career — and that I, personally, would value over a thousand religious sermons. (Warning: this page is going to be highly politically incorrect towards the spiritual path of evolution chosen by Mr. Georgiou, though I will try to always concentrate on the Cat Stevens aspect of his perso­nality, regardless of any extra cultural baggage).

The very first song — the title track — is about the fuss and the madness of ordinary life, see­mingly complaining about the workers at Matthew & Son and how "they've been working all day, all day, all day!", but... complaining? More like curiously contemplating: Stevens sings that line as if in a state of quiet Taoist marvel at the (pointless) achievements of all those poor souls, and the song's arrangement, with the harpsichords and the brass section and all the strings, adds a good dose of nonchalant British good humor as well (for the record, the song features Nicky Hopkins on keyboards and John Paul Jones on bass — the same efficient combo that would later lend a hand to the Stones' ʽShe's A Rainbowʼ, which, not surprisingly, is stylistically similar to this tune). There might be sadness, or even condemnation, somewhere here in between the lines, but this is more like a befuddled alien observer reaction, and therein lies the charm of this record: even as an inexperienced 18-year old, Cat Stevens has already managed to construct himself an artistic personality, hovering over the real world around him with more credibility (and less empty flash) than Ziggy Stardust.

He is not completely out of this world, though: more like a loner who is simply way too awesome for this world. On ʽHere Comes My Babyʼ, a song that ended up taken to the charts by The Tre­meloes rather than himself, he is singing about lost love to one of the most upbeat and cheerful melodies on the album — "never could be mine, no matter how I try" shows that he is sorry about what happened, but he is certainly not going to kill himself over such a bit of bad luck as this. In fact, he loves his dog as much as he loves you — "you may fade, my dog will always come through", he sings on the song that he took to the charts himself, though not very high; still, for such a quiet and unassuming song to hit No. 28 in late 1966 was quite an achievement. He never gets out of character when he is trying to woo a lady, either: ʽBaby Get Your Head Screwed Onʼ, a catchy pop march with the hardest-hitting rhythm track on the album, keeps its cool at all times, with one of the least sexual "baby you'll be out of your mind" refrains you'll ever hear. Apparent­ly, Cat Stevens does not need to resort to Mick Jagger's arsenal when romancing his next partner (although that does not stop him from throwing around a few insinuations).

Unlike contemporary or modern day critics, I think that — particularly given Cat's age and lack of experience — there are no bad songs on the album: each composition shows some originality and inspiration, even if some are more naïve than others (ʽThe Trampʼ is a little misguided, a crude way to raise some pity for its title character because at this point, Stevens cannot properly master the tearful / tear-inducing approach; still a pleasant acoustic ditty, though). Some criticism has been levelled at the album's amateurishly psychedelic elements, but there is no psychedelia as such here — do not be confused by such titles as ʽWhen I Speak To The Flowersʼ, because it is really a dynamic R&B song that is more influenced by Otis Redding than any psychedelia, and the only thing he wants to get from the flowers is an answer on whether he should "just leave you behind", anyway. He is not a flower child — a troubadour, perhaps, as evidenced on the final serenade of the album (ʽLadyʼ, with the most courteous and tender delivery of 'em all), but most of all, just an innocent bystander with his own, ever so slightly detached, take on life.

There really was no other time than 1967 to produce such a record, an age when kids could lay their own claims to wisdom and experience and get away with it in spite of all the arrogance (then again, I'm always ready to defend even such albums as From Genesis To Revelation), so I am definitely insisting for a much more solid thumbs up here than the more typical reaction of «this is cute stuff, but he'd do so much better in the future». You do have to push your inner child but­ton to properly enjoy Matthew & Son, but if you have one, it is easy, and if you don't have one, you're much better off listening to Matthew's Passion anyway (instead of all this pop rubbish).

And, for the record, do not forget that the proper edition of the album is the one that tacks the ʽI'm Gonna Get Me A Gunʼ single at the end as a bonus track — it is one of his catchiest and funniest tracks of the era, and in case you think this might be Ted Nugent territory or something, its kiddie pop melody makes absolutely certain that the singer is talking about a plastic toy at best. It's all pretend and make-believe, see. If Donovan was the Lewis Carroll of pop music, then Cat Stevens may have been its Alan Alexander Milne — for one year, at least.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: From New Orleans To Chicago


1) Third Degree; 2) T.V. Mama; 3) He Knows The Rules; 4) Ain't It A Shame; 5) Ooh La-La; 6) (Going Down To) Big Leg Emma's; 7) Won't Be A Fool No More; 8) Take It Slow And Easy; 9) She's All In My Life; 10) Poor Poor Me; 11) Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer; 12) Down The Valley; 13) Too Early In The Morning; 14) Shim-Sham-Shimmy.

More like From Copenhagen To London, to be sure. Perhaps the Champion felt that, despite the warm reception he'd enjoyed in Denmark, this was not really the location where stuff was happe­ning, and that in terms of surrounding musical environment at least, it was sort of a downgrade after New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. At the very least, you couldn't get first-rate blues players to sit in with you in Copenhagen, that much was for certain (and his imported friends from Switzerland weren't that much better). And so, early 1966 finds Dupree in London, making an album for London Records and backed by John Mayall and Eric Clapton in person — not a bad change from those Swiss and Danish no-names, right?

Well, actually, he is only being backed by this double chunk of Britain's blues royalty on two tracks, astutely chosen to bookmark the record (and, by the way, this is not really «John Mayall's Bluesbreakers» on the sessions, because the other players, such as Malcolm Pool on bass and Keef Hartley on drums, were not part of John's regular band at the time). One of these is Eddie Boyd's ʽThird Degreeʼ, with Mayall blowing on the harp and Eric providing his usual melodic breaks (not quite on the level of his Bluesbreakers record, but it would be surprising if it were the opposite, right?) — ironically, thirty years later Eric would record the same song for his From The Cradle album, where he gave it a far more aggressive treatment. The other piece is the fast boogie ʽShim-Sham-Shimmyʼ, which is fun, because Clapton slips into his «Mr. ʽSlow­handʼ Yardbird» mode, letting rip with a ʽToo Much Monkey Businessʼ-style solo that was already a bit anachronistic for him around 1966, but still came off very naturally.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album is not a serious improvement over the Copenhagen period. Mostly this is just the Champ doing that same old thing, rehashing and reshuffling his stocks (ʽGoing Down To Big Leg Emma'sʼ, for instance, is a slightly less humorous rewrite of ʽMe And My Muleʼ), and his only accompanyist is guitarist Tony McPhee (of The Groundhogs), who is a little more loose and inventive than Chris Lange, but putting him on the same record with Clap­ton is a bit of a disservice. In an attempt to lively up the diversify the proceedings, Dupree engages in some straightforward silliness: ʽOoh La-Laʼ is a nostalgic parody of Creole music, largely sung in «broken French» (which, in Dupree's execution, truly sounds like a French-African «creole», and is fun to hear once, but no more, no more!), and ʽPigfoot And A Bottle Of Beerʼ is a lively polka-blues that has nothing to do with the Bessie Smith classic, but everything to do with impersonating a drunken romp that is, however, not very convincing (when the bass player begins his solo, Dupree ad-libs that "he's gone real crazy, he must have been drinking corn whiskey", but the sober truth is, he hasn't gone that crazy). This is fun, but not overwhelmingly fun — try as I might, I still do not feel that much chemistry between Dupree and any of the other players on the record.

Arguably the one track here worth saving is ʽPoor Poor Meʼ, a slow, echoey blues number with complete focus on the soloist — very explicitly dealing with racism issues ("ain't you glad you're white, and you ain't none of me?", he asks at one point). I have no idea how hard the Champion may have been suffering from that issue in Europe (I'd imagine he probably had a harder time in Chicago, let alone New Orleans), but even if he was not, this kind of experience stays with you for all time, and there is no denying the sincerity in his voice, or even the added touch of serious­ness in his piano playing, when he concludes that "this is a white man's world, I'm only stopping in". That said, it is still hardly a classic of the freedom-lovin' genre, and all in all, while there are a few signs of life revving up on the record, it is hardly a proper rebound from the Denmark slump. To get that rebound, Dupree needed to find himself a band well suited to his talents, and one that would actually care about making it all worth the listener's while — and that would not happen until his next album.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Hollies: Hollies


1) Very Last Day; 2) You Must Believe Me; 3) Put Yourself In My Place; 4) Down The Line; 5) That's My Desire; 6) Too Many People; 7) Lawdy Miss Clawdy; 8) When I Come Home To You; 9) Fortune Teller; 10) So Lonely; 11) I've Been Wrong; 12) Mickey's Monkey; 13*) I'm Alive; 14*) You Know He Did; 15*) Look Through Any Window; 16*) Honey And Wine; 17*) If I Needed Someone; 18*) You In My Arms; 19*) I Can't Get Nowhere With You; 20*) She Gives Me Everything I Want.

As usual, this album was preceded by two major singles for the band. First came ʽI'm Aliveʼ, written by Clint Ballard Jr. and becoming the Hollies' first true anthemic song — the entire verse-to-chorus journey is nothing but one big build-up, as Clarke goes higher and higher and higher: lyrics-wise, this is just another simple confession of the electrifying powers of l-o-v-e, but if you abstract yourself from most of the words and just concentrate on the chorus hook, this becomes one of those key statements of youth empowerment that were all over the place in 1965. How cool must it have been to go around, singing "I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive!" at the top of one's lungs? No wonder it became their first No. 1 in the UK.

Although not as loud and vibrant, ʽLook Through Any Windowʼ, the first of two major contri­butions that Graham Gouldman made for the band, might be an even better song. The 12-string guitar riff reveals a clear influence of The Byrds' folk rock vibe, and the tune overall ranks well up there with the majority of the songs on Rubber Soul (which would not be released until a few months later, by the way) — plus, it is rather unusual in being The Hollies' first non-love song on a 45", giving us instead a rather nonchalant-meditative contemplation of the world outside your window, again, some time before The Beatles would make that genre their own. With an odd three-part melody where it is hard to tell what exactly is the verse and what is the chorus, and an odd mood that fluctuates between giddy admiration and subtle nihilism (you sort of get the feeling that the question "where do they go?" remains unanswered because nobody really has any idea), it is a quirky little gem... about nothing in particular. Come to think of it, it would work really well in tandem with ʽNowhere Manʼ, I think.

It is not surprising that the full-length album that followed on the heels of these beauties would not be up to par — there is not a single tune on it that comes even close to the grandness of ʽI'm Aliveʼ or the melancholy subtlety of ʽWindowʼ (although, of course, the US correlate, re-titled Hear! Here!, did not overlook the chance of including both these songs at the thoughtful expense of rubbish like ʽMickey's Monkeyʼ). Nevertheless, in album terms, Hollies is also a solid step up from the quality of the band's earlier production. Its original compositions are more self-assured, its covers are more varied and cover deeper ground, and I can only count two songs that I never really want to hear again: the abovementioned ʽMickey's Monkeyʼ, a juvenile romp that never was too great even when done by The Miracles, and ʽThat's My Desireʼ, a dusty pre-war standard that might work with Ella Fitzgerald behind the wheel, but Allan Clarke and the boys just sound too corny and out of their element when trying something like that.

On the other hand, they are completely in their element when they take a catchy, but limp acoustic gospel-pop number by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and push it to its apocalyptic limits — ʽVery Last Dayʼ is their first truly stunning album opener to that point. The original had every­thing except for the most important component — FIRE! — and this is exactly what Allan brings to the kitchen when firing off lines like "get ready brothers for that day!" Again, like with ʽI'm Aliveʼ, in the context of the times this rings less like an authentic invocation of Judgement Day and more like The Hollies' own take on the ʽTimes They Are A-Changinʼ vibe — for all their humble aspirations at inoffensive hitmaking, even these guys could not remain uninfected by the common trend of growing themselves a social consciousness. And they even write one of those songs themselves: ʽToo Many Peopleʼ is a dark, minor-key composition whose lyrics deal with the issue of overpopulation (a fairly unusual topic for 1965, might I add; it is also amusing that on the mangled US version, this song ended up being the last one, involuntarily giving the album a fairly grim conclusion).

The band still covers plenty of rock'n'roll and R&B standards, though. The rockers are always saved by Clarke's vocals and little else (ʽLawdy Miss Clawdyʼ; Roy Orbison's ʽDown The Lineʼ, where the best bit is always the frenzied screaming that Allan lets off before the next so-so guitar break), but the R&B numbers are first-rate through their group harmony arrangements, especially The Impressions' ʽYou Must Believe Meʼ. In between these, the ubiquitous «L. Ransford» is able to sneak in a bunch of nice originals, although I would say that where Graham Gouldman was able to predict Rubber Soul, the slowpokish Mr. Ransford is still competing with the melodic quality of Beatles For Sale: ʽPut Yourself In My Placeʼ is probably the best of these (even if its chorus seems underwritten to me — just two lines?), but I am also quite partial to ʽI've Been Wrongʼ... and you can actually tell by how many times Nash appears as the lead vocalist on parts of these songs that he must have been the most active writer on the team already at that time.

The 1965 season still ended on a slightly misguided note for the band, though, as their choice for a follow-up single was George Harrison's ʽIf I Needed Someoneʼ — they recorded it from an early Beatles demo, never knowing if it would be officially released, and ultimately ended up re­leasing it on the same day with Rubber Soul. Needless to say, they could not stand the competi­tion — particularly on the level of musicianship and production, although even vocal-wise, this is not one of their best performances, and it lacks the personal angle that George gave it; to make matters worse, they got entangled in some nasty sparring after Harrison derided their results, which did them no good. This is not to say that The Hollies could never compete with The Beatles in anything: as I stated before, songs like ʽLook Through Any Windowʼ proudly stand competition with just about anything the Fab Four were doing in their young and innocent days. But ʽIf I Needed Someoneʼ, which they merely took up as another exercise in jangly folk-rock, was really quite a personal song for Quiet George, and one of the least Hollie-adaptable numbers on the entire Rubber Soul — heck, they could have themselves a top-notch ʽDrive My Carʼ or ʽI'm Looking Through Youʼ instead.

Nevertheless, on the whole 1965 was an exceptionally good year for The Hollies — three great singles (including ʽYes I Willʼ), some progress in their own songwriting skills, and a mature pop-rock album that showed they could at least evolve, if not completely keep up with contemporary giants. And they hadn't even reached their peak yet: I would say that by the end of 1965, it was by no means a certainty that The Hollies would never become giants in their own rights. In any case, this here marks the beginning of their brief, but bright golden age, so clearly, the album deserves a major thumbs up, especially when framed with its glorious singles.