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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Celtic Frost: Cold Lake


1) Human II (intro); 2) Seduce Me Tonight; 3) Petty Obsession; 4) (Once) They Were Eagles; 5) Cherry Orchards; 6) Juices Like Wine; 7) Little Velvet; 8) Blood On Kisses; 9) Downtown Hanoi; 10) Dance Sleazy; 11) Roses Without Thorns; 12*) Tease Me; 13*) Mexican Radio (live).

Speak o' the devil: soon after the release of Into The Pandemonium, Celtic Frost properly descended into pandemonium, quarreling between themselves and with their record label. By 1988, the band had effectively disintegrated, yet real warriors never die, so Tom ended up getting back his old drummer Stephen Priestly, recruiting a new bass player (Curt Victor Bryant) and an extra guitar player (Oliver Amberg), and leading the revamped Celtic Frost in yet another direction — with thoroughly disastrous results.

Disastrous, but intriguing, that is. Skim existing reviews for Cold Lake superficially and you will get the impression that in 1988, Celtic Frost turned into a glam metal band à la Mötley Crüe or Poison. In fact, if you check any of their videos from that period (e.g. for ʽCherry Orchardsʼ), or a bit of live tour footage, that impression is easily confirmed — with lionine hair, makeup, garish garb, cocky choreography, and smoke-a-rama-a-plenty, as long as you turn off the sound, they are pretty much indistinguishable from the average glam metal outfit. Once you turn it on, though, you are met with a weird, ugly, and quite idiosyncratic hybrid.

Glam metal, as we all know, was very much of a commercial venture — essentially, those were simple pop songs played with heavy metal guitars. On Cold Lake, Tom Warrior and his new bandmates (which are now also responsible for contributing much of the songwriting) certainly do not go pop: most of the riffs cannot be qualified as hum-along earworms, and most of the gang choruses consist of one-liners belted out by Tom ad nauseam. To this must be added the bizarre effect of the vocals — while they have lost much of their black-metallic devilish venom, they can never truly qualify as actual «singing. Put it this way: on Morbid Tales, Tom Warrior sounded like Satan with serious bowel issues, but on Cold Lake, he sounds more like a hobo — with even more serious bowel issues. Unless the entire world were suffering from constipation and wishing to empathize with the artist, there's totally no way this album could be a resounding commercial success, ever; and there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that Tom was perfectly aware of that when preparing the tracks for public release.

So what the hell is this, then? After the brief industrial-hip-hop-metal intro of ʽHuman IIʼ (already schizophrenic, eh?), the first proper song is called ʽSeduce Me Tonightʼ, a suitable title for a power ballad — except that the song is not a ballad at all, but more like a Judas Priest-influenced rocker with big Eighties drums and those «hardcore» vocals that would have probably sent Rob Halford flying for cover. Oh, and when it comes to the instrumental break, Oliver Amberg delivers a Rambo-style shredding solo that comes out of nowhere, disappears into no­thing, and is only nominally connected to the rest of the song. Meanwhile, the chorus, largely consisting of the song title repeated over and over, sounds as if delivered by some stone cold drunk biker to an inflatable doll, because no respectable hooker would approach his piss-stained leather pants within a hundred feet.

And now, rinse and repeat ten times, because this is the only formula for this album. Yes, each and every one of the next tracks is comprised of precisely the same ingredients. Sometimes a bit slower, sometimes a tad faster, they are all built on similar (and usually unmemorable) riffage, gang choruses, and sloppy shredding solos (sometimes devolving into series of obnoxious cherry bombs). Considering the relative stylistic diversity of Pandemonium, such slavish adherence to such a bizarre holding pattern is difficult to understand — but then again, the world of heavy metal was a fairly confused world in the late Eighties, and if this was Tom's idea of what a con­temporary experimental approach to heavy music should sound like, I guess it made more sense for 1988 than for any other year in the business.

We do not have to like it or appreciate it or even respect it, but for the sake of honesty, we should not be lumping a unique failed experiment like Cold Lake together with the pop metal cash-cows of the era. The synthesis of NWoBHM riffage, glam attitudes, and black metal ugliness was doomed from the start because it made no sense and satisfied nobody; yet nobody could deny that Celtic Frost were continuing their search for innovation, and that their servile adoption of a new rigid formula for the entire record meant that they desperately wanted it to work. Plus, Tom has to be commended for acknowledging his own mistakes — after the album flopped, he has publicly disowned it and admitted that it should have never seen the light of day (although he puts part of the blame on producer Tony Platt, but it was not Tony Platt who wrote those riffs and sang those vocals). Respecting that opinion, and getting fairly little enjoyment from the album myself, I concur in a thumbs down rating here; but in a way, it only boosts the reputation of Celtic Frost that their worst album ever also happens to be one of the most artistically baffling albums made by a heavy metal band in what might have been the defining decade for most of the subgenres of heavy metal.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Carpenters: A Kind Of Hush


1) There's A Kind Of Hush; 2) You; 3) Sandy; 4) Goofus; 5) Can't Smile Without You; 6) I Need To Be In Love; 7) One More Time; 8) Boat To Sail; 9) I Have You; 10) Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.

I really pity poor ex-Domino Jim Gordon who was forced to enlist as session drummer for this album (as well as Horizon) — if you ask me, this is a pretty good explanation of why he went nuts and murdered his mother seven years later. Because A Kind Of Slush is just the kind of archetypal «kill-'em-with-kindness» rose-colored Carpenters album that condemns the duo be­yond all hope of redemption. Not in the very, very slightest does the record ever approach «edgy»; not in the very, very slightest does it touch upon any psychological hotspots. And this time around, there isn't even a single Motown or surf-pop classic to earn the record a few consolatory points in the cutesy-adorable department.

Sure, there's the title track, resurrected from a forgotten sunshine pop single by Herman's Hermits back in 1967, but even if it sounded somewhat anthemic and in (relative) touch with the Flower Power movement at the time, in 1976 it sounded merely like another Sesame Street episode, and Karen's diligent, but not-too-involved delivery of the vocal leaves her no space for flexible modu­lation — any professional lady singer could have done an equally good perfunctory job on it. I actually prefer their take on ʽGoofusʼ, an old pre-war composition briefly popularized by Phil Harris in 1950: with an arrangement slightly reminiscent of Elton John's ʽHonky Catʼ (perhaps not a coincidence, as both songs share similar subjects of country boys moving to the big city), it has fun interplay between honky-tonk piano and sax, and lets Karen put in a slightly humorous performance (as to myself, I always prefer hearing a sincere bit of laughter from her than seeing an obli­gatory forced smile).

Yet even though neither of the two songs is a true classic, I'd rather hear them both on endless repeat than enduring the interminable bland balladeering that constitutes the rest of the album. The biggest hit was ʽI Need To Be In Loveʼ, a song specially written by John Bettis (lyrically) for Karen and allegedly one of her favorites; but again, it sounds like ABBA-lite, a musically trite composition that cannot even properly separate its chorus from its verse, and even if the lyrics genuinely reflect Karen's emotional state at the time ("I know I need to be in love, I know I've wasted too much time"), and even if she tries to deliver them as sincerely and expressively as pos­sible, the song's complete melodic predictability and lack of dynamics render the effort nearly worthless. And that, my friends, is arguably the best of the ballads on here.

Most of the others are like Randy Edelman's ʽYouʼ — slow lush meadows of strings, woodwinds, and angelic backing harmonies (with, perhaps, an occasional guitar solo that does not even begin to try and stand out), rose-colored puffs of fake happiness, indistinguishable from one another and not even trying to adapt to the melancholic overtones of Karen's voice. One after another they drift off into space without leaving a trace, so much so that even ʽGoofusʼ, against their back­ground, produces an effect comparable to that of ʽPlease Please Meʼ in the era of safe, toothless teen pop; although nothing is going to make me positively rate the upbeat conclusion of Neil Sedaka's ʽBreaking Up Is Hard To Doʼ, a song far cornier than ʽThere's A Kind Of Hushʼ and made even worse by the duo's tepid treatment.

According to Richard himself, A Kind Of Hush turned out to be a subpar album because he happened to be addicted to sleeping pills at the time — which probably asks for a bad pun invol­ving the title of the record; ironically, he has named ʽGoofusʼ, the liveliest song on the album, as a particularly harsh disaster, while at the same time calling ʽSandyʼ "a lilting original that is per­fect for Karen's voice". For my money, ʽGoofusʼ is far more «lilting» (though certainly less ori­ginal) than ʽSandyʼ, just another quiet, light jazz-pop ballad about nothing in particular that is perfect for nobody's voice, much as Karen was struggling to make a good job with it — and with everything else on this snoozefest of an album. Guess even inoffensive romantic soft-rockers have to stay away from sleeping pills, though. Definitely a thumbs down — this is clearly the absolute nadir for Carpenters in the 1970s, as they would fortunately get somewhat more adven­turous again on their next album.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Cat Stevens: Back To Earth


1) Just Another Night; 2) Daytime; 3) Bad Brakes; 4) Randy; 5) The Artist; 6) Last Love Song; 7) Nascimento; 8) Father; 9) New York Times; 10) Never.

On July 4, 1978, precisely at the moment that this humble (and thoroughly Godless) reviewer was turning two, Steven Georgiou officially changed his name to Cat St... that is, I mean, Yusuf Islam — because Yusuf happened to be his favorite Quranic character (I presume that young Steven had never read the Book of Genesis), and Islam happened to be his favorite religion, way more cool than Numerology even. After his newly discovered brothers in the faith convinced him that the career of a pop musician was spiritually incompatible with Allah, he took the decision to quit, but not before releasing one final album, because he still owed one to A&M records, and Allah is pretty strict and straightforward on the issue of paying debts, even ones owed in pop music cur­rency. Hence Back To Earth, a somewhat oddly titled, but perfectly valid record that puts a full stop to Stevens' musical career in the 20th century.

Given the circumstances, it would be unreasonable to expect a masterpiece, yet the album does not exactly sound like a throwaway, either. There is still some mild experimentation, a couple of instrumentals that exploit some new ideas, and, most importantly, there is no explicit feeling that the artist no longer gives a damn about whatever it is he is doing, which is curious considering that the album is totally not pro-Islamic: the closest thing to a religious anthem here is ʽFatherʼ, and even that one seems to be alternately addressed to God and to his real father, who ended up dying on the exact same day that the album was released. As it is, the album is neither too happy nor too sad, and if you were simply to judge by the quality and atmosphere of the songs alone, you'd probably never guess about the revolutionary changes that took place in Stevens' religious, moral, and everyday life in 1978.

On a relative scale, I would place the album below most of the classics, but, like, Izitso, above the meanderings of his 1972-1975 period. The country-tinged opener, ʽJust Another Nightʼ, is graced with a simple, but warmly touching piano riff and a classy, though unfortunately subdued, steel guitar part from Brian Cole; its lyrical theme, a thinly veiled letter of recognition and con­tempt to Mrs. Music Industry, is hardly new, but it is nice to observe how neither the words nor the intonations, let alone the gentle melody, harbor any demonstrative hatred. ʽLast Love Songʼ, according to Stevens himself, dealt with the critical backlash against his conversion — with another love metaphor, but a less interesting piano melody that is more suitable for a power ballad than a humble confession; nevertheless, the woodwind-imitating synth solo is a curious find, and the song never really crosses into power ballad territory from the threshold.

For the singles, Stevens chose the most hard-rocking track on the album (ʽBad Brakesʼ — more like Bad Company, to be honest, than Cat Stevens!) and a sentimental ballad, ʽRandyʼ, that sounds like a Phil Collins / Bernie Taupin collaboration and was probably released to confuse the audience: a gay love anthem from somebody who had just embraced one of the strictest anti-gay religions in the world? There'd be much more to discuss if the song were good, but, unfortunately, it isn't: too many sappy strings and a lazy coda that regurgitates clichéd ballad chord sequences. Once again, while the album as a whole still holds up as an artistic statement, the singles seem to be relatively shallow and boring creations, given an «objectively» commercial coating so that the label could get off Stevens' back.

At the same time, a track like ʽDaytimeʼ, with its careful mix of electric and acoustic pianos, acoustic guitars, and saxes, despite formally lacking the "Randy, oh my Randy" type of hook, produces a much better atmospheric impression; and ʽFatherʼ is acutely funky, with attractively grim interplay between bass and electric guitar that conveys a better sense of tension than just about anything Cat had done in the previous several years. Of the instrumentals, ʽThe Artistʼ is just a pretty way to spend two minutes in an elevator, but ʽNascimentoʼ, a collaboration with the horn section of Tower Of Power, is another experiment in jazz-rock, although this time with a strong disco flavor — the tune would probably never work on its own, and it is certainly nowhere near as futuristic as ʽWas Dog A Doughnut?ʼ, but it is still exciting, in a way, to hear the man engage in this strange passion at a time when body-oriented dance music should have officially been the smallest possible of all his concerns.

For the last paragraph of his musical testament, Stevens chose an ambiguous strategy again, writing another mixed-feeling letter to the world he was leaving behind: ʽNeverʼ may not be one of his best songs (not least because it lifts a key chord sequence from George Harrison's ʽBeware Of Darknessʼ to serve as the song's main melodic hook), but it is a suitably clever testament that still leaves him a way out ("I know there'll be another time... there's going to be another story") even as the door is closing shut. At least the man said his goodbyes in a quiet, humble, and polite manner, instead of giving us some overblown anthem or a goodbye-cruel-world style bitter curse. Then again, what else could you really expect?

Critical reaction to Back On Earth was predictably poor, because pop music industry usually does not take lightly to its idols choosing a religious path (and usually for good reason, might I add sacrilegiously); however, if the songs are to be judged on their own merit, without the accom­panying knowledge, I do not see what it is that would make this a particularly worse record than just about anything post-Tillerman — other than, perhaps, the subpar singles, but it's not like this was completely unprecedented for Cat, either. It is no Abbey Road, for sure: Stevens never went out on a limb to produce a sweeping musical testament for the ages, but then, he'd always been humble by nature, and his conversion should only have multiplied that humility. Yet when you put it under a microscope, it is very clearly a career-closing statement, and thus, an indispensable listen for all those interested in the spiritual and musical evolution of Britain's deepest soft-rocker... or was that Britain's softest deep-rocker? Whatever. After 1978 it all became irrelevant anyway — goodbye, Cat Stevens, hello, Yusuf Islam and his 50,000 edutainment records for little Muslim children.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Chantays: Two Sides Of The Chantays


1) Move It; 2) Maybe Baby; 3) It Never Works Out For Me; 4) Love Can Be Cruel; 5) I'll Be Back Someday; 6) Only If You Care; 7) Three Coins In The Fountain; 8) Beyond; 9) Greenz; 10) Space Probe; 11) Continental Missile; 12) Retaliation.

The second and last record that The Chantays made before splitting up and vanishing from the active scene until their reunion in the Nineties is at least a sincere attempt to advance beyond the level of ʽPipelineʼ. The title is actually a meaningful pun: while Side B of the album consists entirely of surf-rock (and similar) instrumentals, Side A is given over to vocal pop songs, trying to establish the band as a legit pop act that can not only play dance-oriented surf tunes but also sing love songs — and not just sing, but also compose: after a style-setting cover of Buddy Holly's ʽMaybe Babyʼ, everything that follows is self-written.

Unfortunately, as pop composers and singers, The Chantays never managed to be anything more than merely competent. They can sing, and they can harmonize, and they can even compose — I do not recognize these songs as directly ripped off from somebody in particular, and ʽLove Can Be Cruelʼ just needs a slightly more haunting arrangement and a bit more personality about its multi-tracked vocals to count as a 1964 classic. But this is precisely where the rub lies: The Chan­tays take the folk-pop of The Searchers and play it without managing to sound properly broken-hearted. In ʽOnly If You Careʼ, when they sing "I want some mighty fine loving from you", you simply do not get the impression that such is indeed the case, which is a pity because I kinda like how they weave in the ʽLouie Louieʼ riff in this dark love ballad.

The second side is more traditional and, consequently, much better — particularly ʽThree Coins In The Fountainʼ, with its sound of coins dropping in the fountain actually providing part of the rhythm (not that Roger Waters ever got his cash register idea from here, but it's always hip to find indirect predecessors), and a proto-psychedelic echo-laden keyboard part providing the romantic melodic part. On ʽGreenzʼ (a veiled reference to ʽGreen Onionsʼ?), The Chantays expand into R&B territory, with impressive energy from the rhythm section and some weird guitar figures; on ʽSpace Probeʼ, they try to go for a suitably «astral» sound, laying on the echo and some primitive electronic sound effects; on ʽContinental Missileʼ, Rob Marshall bangs the shit out of his electric piano to a fast and furious rhythm track, though I would not precisely describe this as the typical sound of a continental missile; and on ʽRetaliationʼ (what's up with all the war imagery? just how obsessed with the Cold War could those kids be?), they play with distortion, power chords, feed­back, and frantic tom-tom drumming in a manner that presages the classic Who sound of 1965, even if they only make one tiny step in the direction where The Who would make a giant leap.

Still, neither continuing to experiment with various genres nor splitting their personality in two distinct halves helped The Chantays get along — even though The Ventures were keeping the art of the short pop instrumental commercially viable, The Chantays lacked their instrumental prowess, and their cautious experimental moves stunned no one. It took me at least three listens, in fact, to begin to discern how much thinking, if not exactly inspiration, was invested in the preparation of this album — what with its total lack of flashiness and the boys' rather sparkless vocals. But it is quite a curious artifact from 1964, well worth exploring and, in my opinion, de­serving of a modest thumbs up just for the sheer number of various ideas that turned it into quite an eccentric and eclectic little record, one that was probably doomed to fail, but these days, could easily be reevaluated to help somewhat restore the jaded reputation of surf-rock.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Who: A Quick One


1) Run Run Run; 2) Boris The Spider; 3) I Need You; 4) Whiskey Man; 5) Heatwave; 6) Cobwebs And Strange; 7) Don't Look Away; 8) See My Way; 9) So Sad About Us; 10) A Quick One, While He's Away; 11*) Batman; 12*) Bucket T; 13*) Barbara Ann; 14*) Disguises; 15*) Doctor, Doctor; 16*) I've Been Away; 17*) In The City; 18*) Happy Jack (acoustic version); 19*) Man With Money; 20*) My Generation / Land Of Hope And Glory.

The Who's second attempt at staking a solid claim on the LP market ended up even less convin­cing than the first. While they did secure some personal and (questionably) financial freedom by cutting ties with Shel Talmy and negotiating a new contract with the aid of the Kit Lambert / Chris Stamp managing team, this happened under an extremely bizarre condition — namely, that each member of the band should contribute to the songwriting on an equal level. Apparently, Lambert thought of this as a financially beneficial strategy, and it may have put a bit of good money in the individual pockets of the four band members at the time; but in the long run, it only made sure that A Quick One would remain of The Who's most inconsistent (and, in spots, even em­barrassing) albums, at least in the Keith Moon era.

Do not get me wrong: it is still a fine LP, and the goofiness of the concept adds a certain naïve charm to the experience as a whole, one that you will never find on later, Townshend-dominated packages. And the approach did result in at least one excellent consequence — it stimulated John Entwistle into beginning to write songs and establishing a unique style that would later be ex­plored in depth both on The Who's and his own solo records. On the other hand, forcing Daltrey and Moon to write songs was the clear equivalent of making a legless person climb a pine tree: while listening to ʽI Need Youʼ and ʽSee My Wayʼ, I do not so much hear actual music as feel the sharp nervous pain experienced by both when trying to put this stuff together. And, even worse, the process seems to rub off on Townshend, since he was definitely not contributing his best efforts to the LP, either, mostly saving them up for several great singles.

On the whole, the album ended up surprisingly lighter and poppier in tone than My Generation. Throughout, there is not a single «monster noise» track like ʽThe Oxʼ, or even a properly noisy coda or mid-section — Pete still uses plenty of power chords, fuzz, and feedback, but only as extra melodic elements rather than chaos generators. There is, in fact, only one properly aggres­sive and abrasive song — the album opener ʽRun Run Runʼ, whose somber stomp is slightly re­miniscent of ʽMy Generationʼ, but whose message is more akin to The Beatles' ʽRun For Your Lifeʼ, albeit wrapped in slightly more intricate wording ("your horseshoe's rusty and your mirror's cracked / you walk under ladders, then you walk right back" is Lennon's syntax crossed with Dylan's lexicon). As a sidenote, the song has nothing to do with The Velvet Underground's ʽRun Run Runʼ, but both tunes do share the grim one-string vamp structure that, perhaps, simply brings on inevitable associations with run-run-running. And it is fun, but it ain't ʽMy Generationʼ.

Pete is being even more lightweight on ʽDon't Look Awayʼ, a rare excourse into folk-rock, if not country-rock, for him (another subconscious nod to Rubber Soul, perhaps?) — a catchy, but fairly throwaway tune on the whole; and ʽSo Sad About Usʼ, the album's only acknowledged Townshend semi-classic, seems to be a little too worshipful of The Kinks (in their pre-Face To Face songwriting stage) — to be honest, I have never been much of a fan of this tune, just be­cause it feels strained and suppressed to the kind of simplistic pop formula that Townshend had already outgrown at this point. (Odd enough, this is a rare case where I prefer the cover versions: both The Jam and The Breeders did slightly sped-up, tightened-up covers on which they sound more dedicated to the material than Pete and Roger seem to be on the original). Plus, the bridge section of the song really sucks — seems like they threw together the key change and the clumsy lyrical skeleton in about thirty seconds, and the line "you can't switch off my loving like you can't switch off the sun" is mega-corny for Pete even in 1966. It is allegedly Paul Weller's favorite Who song, though, so what do I know? So bad about us!

In any case, in the Great Inter-Who Songwriting Competition of 1966, Pete Townshend is only awarded second place after the silent John "Ox" Entwistle. Introduction of dark humor and creepy absurdity into pop music had only just begun, and luckily, John was just the kind of guy to whom the perspective of writing a simple (or even a complex) love song did not really appeal as much as the perspective of writing one song about a spooky spider and another one about delirium tremens. His spiritual predecessors in this whacky business include Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Bobby ʽBorisʼ Pickett, but John's big advantage was being a professional and innovative bass player, which sort of made him the obvious choice for the band's mascot-of-macabre — plus, he had a poker face attitude, and nothing could be more helpful when singing about ʽBoris The Spiderʼ. Of course, ʽBorisʼ is essentially a spooky kid song, but that does not prevent it from being innovative in the bass department — John's rumbling, sinister descending riff is another small step in rock's evolution toward heavy metal. In addition, ʽBorisʼ gives us Entwistle's full range, from the falsetto of "creepy crawly, creepy crawly" to the pharyngeal depths of "Boris the spider, Boris the spider!", so throw in a bit of amazing showmanship as well.

Next to the ubiquitous ʽBorisʼ, which went on to become a stage favorite (hundreds of imaginary spiders named Boris were fictitiously hunted, maimed, and trampled on stage over the years), ʽWhisky Manʼ remained practically forgotten, because it is a comparatively quiet little pop song, yet it also has its share of fun and sorrow, and, most importantly, introduces the French horn as a secondary favorite instrument for Entwistle — he may have never learned to play it in as virtuoso a manner as he played the bass, but he had a knack, from the very start, to extract impressive melodic content from it. You can already hear faint echoes of Tommy's overture in his slightly «Eastern raga-meets-Siegfried»-style horn lines, which end up to be one of the artsiest flourishes on the entire album. As to the lyrical content of the song, I would not take it too seriously: in 1966, the band's problems with alcohol were not that great yet, so ʽWhisky Manʼ is more of a darkly humorous tidbit in good old British style than a truly autobiographical representation. It would go on to become autobiographical for at least two members of the band, though.

Next to the somewhat slacking Pete and the unexpectedly enthusiastic and original John, the less said about the con­tributions of Moon and Daltrey, the better. At least Roger had the good sense to restrict himself to one composition: ʽSee My Wayʼ is a very poor attempt to write something in the semi-meditative style of The Beatles circa 1965-66, and would end up being one of only two songs he'd ever written for The Who completely on his own. Moon's ʽI Need Youʼ is even worse, although that one is at least curious for its novel character — Keith actually trying his hand at a sentimental love song? during a short break in between stuffing cherry bombs in toilets, no doubt. He must be complimented on diligently trying to go for a verse, bridge, and chorus structure with a powerful build-up, but ultimately the powerful build-up remains squarely dependent on his drumming force rather than the song's melody. Much more Keith-like is ʽCobwebs And Strangeʼ, a drunken-elephant circus romp that is best taken with the accompanying video (fortunately pre­served in its entirety in The Kids Are Alright) — an accurate enough illustration of Keith's friend­ly destructive force, but little else.

So far, we have seen some boring and some fairly successful entertainment value in A Quick One (including, among other things, a mighty fine cover of Martha & The Vandellas' ʽHeat­waveʼ, with surprisingly effective and tuneful falsetto harmonies that totally rival the original), but not a lot of substance. That substance might theoretically be expected from seeing a nine-minute track round out the second side of the album — but while ʽA Quick One While He's Awayʼ may have been a musically and lyrically groundbreaking composition for 1966, time has not been very kind to it: its multi-section structure became routine in the wake of the art-/prog-rock explosion, and its storyline — the silly tale of a housewife seducted by an «engine driver» — may have been somewhat titillating in the still somewhat innocent 1966, but today the story is not even very funny, just a bit of bad, clumsy comedy.

That said, from the purely musical side ʽA Quick Oneʼ is a daring and entertaining creation, although, like so many other Who songs, it truly came to life on stage — arguably the finest version I have heard to this day is their performance in The Rolling Stones Rock'n'Roll Circus, where the overall environment was perfect for a bit of dazzling vaudeville, and The Who turned up the amps, tightened up the riffs, and gave the show of a lifetime (better, I think, than on the Live At Leeds version, where the song was played more like an obligatory prelude to Tommy and was ever so slightly sloppier). Still, even on the studio version the creativity is admirable: all the different sections are played in different styles, from pure pop to a bit of ska to a bit of Roy Rogers-style country-western (the "soon be home" section) to the grand finale where, unable to hire themselves a chamber orchestra for better effect, they ended up singing "cello cello cello" instead, and whose "you are forgiven" section is like Beethoven for pop toddlers.

Not that Who fans expected anything like that at the time, I think — and it is not so much the issue of a multi-part nine-minute suite as is the ostentatiously pop nature of the album. In fact, 1966 marked an important stylistic split in The Who's creativity: with My Generation, they tried to bridge their studio activities with their live shows, but starting with A Quick One, The Who live and The Who in the studio would essentially be two different bands for the rest of their lives, and especially for most of the Sixties (it was not until Who's Next that the bridge was brought back, and even then only tentatively). And A Quick One was almost shamelessly poppy; but this actually reflected Townshend's changing attitudes toward pop art, in whose lightness, humor, and relative freedom-from-conventions he saw — at least, pretended to see — something approaching true progress at the time. This conception would not reach its peak until late 1967, though; in 1966, The Who still seemed too dazed and confused about their transformation from Shel Talmy pet dogs into posh artsy trendsetters under Kit Lambert's creative directorship.

Modern CD editions of the album come with a slew of bonus tracks, yet end up omitting the classic string of 1966 singles that pretty much obliterated anything on the album — ʽHappy Jackʼ (there is an alternate acoustic take here, though), ʽSubstituteʼ, and ʽI'm A Boyʼ still have to be purchased separately on hit compilations, such as the classic Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy, or later best-of packages. I do not think that it is a sound decision, but at least the bonus section does a good job of collecting various B-sides and other rarities that should never ever be forgotten (this is the goddamn Who in their liveliest years we're talking about — every sound bite is priceless). In this particular case, what we have is arguably the single best version of the ʽBatmanʼ theme found on record (the theme is all about its thunderous bass line, and who'd handle thunderous bass lines better than The Ox?); a couple of hilarious covers from the early Sixties (ʽBucket Tʼ, with another endearing passage on that French horn; ʽBarbara Annʼ, a particular favorite of Keith Moon's that The Who perform with less pure vocal harmonies than The Beach Boys, but far more kick-ass energy); and at least one perennial classic — Entwistle's ʽDoctor Doctorʼ, which I honest­ly think is his single most underrated song in the entire catalog. It's got all the pizzazz of ʽRun Run Runʼ (fast tempo, chugging bassline, nasty feedback pops from Pete's guitar) plus some of the most hilarious lyrics you ever get to hear in 1966, yet just as relevant for some people (I'm sure we have all met characters like that in our life) these days.

Even the bonus tracks, though, are almost universally jocular and sarcastic: the stuttering semi-psychedelic B-side ʽDisguisesʼ is just about the only exception, and it seems to be trying a little too hard to emulate the slow, lazy, hazy style of Beatles songs like ʽRainʼ (at this point Pete would probably start throwing rocks at me, since he'd spent a large part of 1966 trying to explain to fans and journalists that The Beatles really weren't where it was at). But they are all fun, catchy songs, proving that the pop idiom was not at all out of reach of The Who — in particular, their attempts at adapting the style of The Beach Boys (ʽIn The Cityʼ) were moderately successful, and with three capable and one tone-deaf (Keith) singers in the band, they achieved impressive suc­cess in the art of multi-part vocal harmonies, far more than could generally be expected of a band that seemed to place loudness, noise, and reckless experimentation before everything else at the start of their career.

So what would be the final verdict? From a purely «objective» stance, A Quick One should be considered a failure — too much pop, too many strange contributions from invalid songwriters, and a nine-minute mini-rock opera that turned out to be just a dress rehearsal for much more ambitious and profound things to come. I do not think that many will disagree with the obvious: in the big creative album race of 1966, The Who lost to the other biggies (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Beach Boys, Dylan, etc.) fair and square. Yet the band's talents, multiplied by the overall magic of the year 1966, still ensure that A Quick One is a fun listen — the most lightweight The Who ever got, but for some people, this might actually be preferable to the «heavyweight» Who of Tommy and particularly the post-1970 period. Subtract one or two really weak songs, throw in the hilarious bunch of bonus tracks (even a bizarre take on ʽMy Generationʼ that segues into a quaky-wobbly ʽLand Of Hope And Gloryʼ), and you are set for a fun roller coaster ride populated with spiders named Boris, engine drivers named Ivor, whiskey men, cobwebs, and strange. No matter how serious life is, there should always be a moment left for a quick one, and the album is such an important link in The Who's evolution anyway that thumbs up are still guaranteed.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

At The Drive-In: Inter Alia


1) No Wolf Like The Present; 2) Continuum; 3) Tilting At The Uninvendor; 4) Governed By Contagions; 5) Pen­dulum In A Peasant Dress; 6) Incurably Innocent; 7) Call Broken Arrow; 8) Holtzclaw; 9) Torrentially Cutshaw; 10) Ghost-Tape No. 9; 11) Hostage Stamps.

Never say never all over again: fifteen years of various musical projects later, Cedric Bixler-Zavala has suddenly decided that he wouldn't mind screaming his head off with At The Drive-In once again (to be more accurate, this is already the second reunion — the first one occurred in 2011-2012, but did not result in any new recording activity). With the rest of the band seemingly happy to oblige — the entire Relationship Of Command lineup minus guitarist Jim Ward, who played with them a little bit, but was then quickly replaced by Keeley Davis — the good old friends finally focused on going into the studio and knocking off another set of songs. to prove that true Texan post-hardcore still has that Texan spirit.

Unfortunately, the resulting album sounds less than Relationship Of Command, with its occa­sional quirks and self-conscious break-ups of the formula, and far more like Acrobatic Tene­ment, the record that set the formula in place. Despite the frantic energy level and the tight, pro­fessional sound (and, might I add, clearly improved production values, as the band is aided here by famed producer and mixer Rich Costey, formerly a big friend of The Mars Volta), despite all that, it is hard for me to interpet Inter Alia as anything more than a fun exercise in nostalgia. The band members did have fun recording it, if the interviews are to be believed, but if there ever was even the slightest intention to prove that the world still needs At The Drive-In, it could only be taken seriously under the condition of throwing away all the original records. (For instance, because they have a shittier sound — which, too, is a legitimate argument in some way).

Of the eleven songs populating the record, ten sound completely alike. Not in terms of melody, of course, as the twin guitar strands of Rodríguez and Davis are too complex to sound exactly the same on even two of the tracks — but in terms of tones, timbres, volumes, and attitudes. Ten post-punk rockers with two maniacal guitars, overdriven percussion, and a lead screamer spurting out incomprehensible pseudo-symbolic gibberish... sound familiar? This is what they started out like in 1996, this is what they still sound like now. And what's the use of trying to talk about individual songs when each of them fights to achieve the exact same purpose?

Of course, one might say that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that 2017, with all of its political tenseness and chaos and unpredictability, is a great year for a new At The Drive-In album; all it really needs to be is loud, aggressive, and desperate, and these guys are well known for their ability to combine aggression and desperation in one explosive package. You could even argue that ʽNo Wolf Like The Presentʼ is an anti-Trump song, run through several layers of Cedric's verbal cyphers, or that the line "church ain't over 'til they put the snakes back in the bag" (ʽHoltzclawʼ) is a heavily veiled attack on organized religion, or that all them young kids of today still trying to make energetic guitar rock need to be shown a lesson from the seasoned pros — who can still rock far harder in their forties than today's youngsters in their twenties.

But while I couldn't agree with the old statement of «guitar rock bands are on their way out» even for 2017, three listens to Inter Alia were almost enough to convince me that there might be some truth to that. This does not sound like inspired music — this sounds like a mathematically calcu­la­ted piece of product, delivered with enough professionalism and good will, but, ultimately, with the sole purpose of proving to themselves that they still have «it». When each new song begins precisely like the one before it; when each new song rings with so much hysterical desperation that its market shares crash in embarrassment; when the interlocking riffs show more complexity, but less emotional variation than the music on any given AC/DC record — well, you just know you won't be able to take the record too seriously. And yet they want you to take it seriously, or else Cedric would not be screaming "I'LL DROP A DIME ON YOU FIRST!" with all the inten­sity of a veteran gang member, or "PRAY THAT YOU NEVER FIND A PLACE TO BURY YOU!" with all the passion of a... uh, psychopathic romantic lover? Whatever.

Precisely one song stands out from the pack, but it comes so late in the game that not all listeners might live through it: ʽGhost-Tape No. 9ʼ alters the formula by slowing down, letting the bass carry the main bulk of the melody while the guitars exchange fiery siren calls in the background, and having Cedric sing in his tragic-romantic style instead of covering the microphones with spit, foam, and bits of broken teeth — in other words, doing one of those things that used to make Relation­ship Of Command be more distinguishable than any of its younger brethren. And, inscrutable as the lyrics are, we can hold on to bits like "they trained you, wire framed you / stood you upright in position to administer the want" and interpret the dark, hellish tune as a lament for the souls corrupted and demolished by The System, or The Great Satan, or Darth Vader, or gene­tically engineered pink elephants... whatever, it might just work.

But the song's very presence and serious difference from the rest is precisely what baffles me even more — if they were capable of exploring different moods and patterns, what was the point of offering us just one small teaser, and then going on in this hardcore mood? See, they no longer have youth, freshness, and originality on their side: I am not the world's biggest fan of Acrobatic Tenement, but it did offer a new perspective back in 1996, even if it was a barely comprehen­sible and (in my opinion) pretty dull perspective. Why this whole shenanigan needs to be revived in 2017 is anybody's guess. One review (in Consequence Of Sound) made the point that Relation­ship Of Command once saved rock music from its tight spot in the early 2000s (a fairly contro­versial, but at least sensible point) — and that, who knows, perhaps an album like Inter Alia could save it from its current tight spot? Thank goodness, at least they themselves answered the question in the negative, because the time has passed, and you cannot perform the same miracle twice with exactly the same means. Bottomline: for all those who adore the typical At The Drive-In formula of «two interlocked guitars, cabbalistic lyrics, and a mad screamer», Inter Alia will be a great addition to their esoteric home collection. For all those who (sometimes) tolerate this style rather than adore it, my thumbs down rating will be far more reasonable.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Charlatans: Different Days


1) Hey Sunrise; 2) Solutions; 3) Different Days; 4) Future Tense; 5) Plastic Machinery; 6) The Forgotten One; 7) Not Forgotten; 8) There Will Be Chances; 9) Over Again; 10) The Same House; 11) Let's Go Together; 12) The Setting Sun; 13) Spinning Out.

In this chapter of their life story, The Charlatans go on to discover the meaning of life. Well, maybe not quite, but they sure sound like they had some serious revelations about the place they occupy in this universe of ours, and they want to share this experience with us. On their previous couple of albums, they had exchanged the liveliness and friendly aggression of their youth for somber soberness; with Different Days, they take another step forward and re-introduce them­selves as That One So Much Older And Wiser Band, one that might be willing to share a life philosophy with their listeners, inviting them to slow down, sit down, cool down, and perhaps even bow down to the words and the sounds of the wise.

Sure enough, there's no harm in hearing a band with an almost 30-year long career (has it really been that long now?) give a couple of life lessons, even if this surmises a partial transformation into Pink Floyd, a band that has, up to now, never been among The Charlatans' primary influen­ces. But given everything that we know about The Charlatans, chances of their producing some sort of masterpiece, «finding themselves» after all those years of (way too frequently fruitless) searching, are slim — and already the first couple of tracks are quite telling. As their main sonic base, they have chosen a slow, trip-hoppy rhythmic pattern, largely dependent on keyboards and acoustic guitars; at the same time, Tim Burgess is now singing in a weary, colorless, «serious» manner that completely neutralizes his vocals (I think that most of the time they are also multi-tracked and/or compressed, to the effect of losing even the few tiny droplets of personality that they ever possessed).

The results are predictably dull. ʽHey Sunriseʼ begins like a song that is supposed to go some­where: with its fussy, repetitive acoustic rhythm track and half-whispered vocals, you keep waiting for some development, preferably a build-up to a mighty chorus or something, yet you get nothing — apparently, that quiet chug and lulling whisper are considered to be the main attrac­tion of the song, and the only development is a bedrock of cheap synths, gradually revealed over four minutes. Considering that the band often likes to place its best material at the beginning of the album, ʽHey Sunriseʼ is a fairly gloomy indication of what's to come.

For extra seriousness' sake, the songs are joined to each other via occasional sound links — deep-sounding poetic lines about the past, the present, and the future, or, in one case, a female Japanese voiceover because, you know, where would we be without female Japanese voiceovers in 2017? Frankly, I have no interest in checking out who is participating in these sound links and why, because the songs that they link together consistently suck. Track after track, it's the same gray atmosphere of trip-hop rhythms, acoustic guitars, boring keyboards and depersonalized vocals, and the best I can say is that some of the songs, like the title track, have catchy choruses. But what good are catchy choruses if the band that plays them sounds like a bunch of robots?

I almost get to like ʽNot Forgottenʼ, because it has a tiny trace of the self-righteous anger that, in the past, used to drag The Charlatans out of the ditch when everything else failed. But even that one, once it gets to the chorus, is not able to get past one angry line and a bunch of supportive woo-woos — it's like they want to get angry, but are completely stuck in MOR limbo. In despe­ration, they end up falling back on pop clichés of the 1980s — ʽThe Same Houseʼ, with its cloying synthesizer loops and android chorus mantras ("we can live in the same house, we can all wear matching shoes!") sounds like a generic happy-ironic pop hit from one of those mid-1980s bands whose names I can never remember, but since it has neither the freshness nor the humor of any of those hits (things that could artistically save at least some of them), I can only qualify it as a nostalgic embarrassment.

Bottomline: if these guys have any intention to be really taken seriously, they have to start popping some serious youth pills, or at least get their Prozac prescriptions in order, because grim, gray, moody, melancholic Charlatans pass way below the radar, much lower than bright, lively, sarcastic, funky Charlatans. Note that I have not even begun talking about the lyrics — because, honestly, when the music is so dull, there is not the least incentive to care about the words, no matter which ʽsolutionsʼ they are advertising for, or whether ʽthere will be chancesʼ of their admonitions and revelations making solid sense. Thumbs down again.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Celtic Frost: Into The Pandemonium


1) Mexican Radio; 2) Mesmerized; 3) Inner Sanctum; 4) Tristesses De La Lune; 5) Babylon Fell; 6) Caress Into Oblivion; 7) One In Their Pride; 8) I Won't Dance; 9) Sorrows Of The Moon; 10) Rex Irae (Requiem); 11) Oriental Masquerade; 12) One In Their Pride (Re-entry mix).

It is on this album that Celtic Frost offer us the first reason why we should actually allocate a special cell block in our memory for their music, rather than just lump them in together with the myriad of black metal bands that preceded or followed them. I cannot even vouch for certain that Into The Pandemonium is a good album — but I can vouch for certain that it is a fairly bizarre album for a black metal band, or, in fact, for any metal band. On most of these songs, Tom Warrior and his pals take risks — sometimes rational ones, sometimes completely baffling — so that the word «pandemonium» should not be taken as a direct reference to Milton's Hell, but rather as a metaphorical reference to the chaos and unpredictability of the musical choices that the band has made on this record.

I mean, it might make some occultist sense that for the first song, Tom chose to cover a band called Wall Of Voodoo — but the song itself is ʽMexican Radioʼ, a late New Wave hit from 1983 that celebrated pirate radio stations rather than rivers of blood and the Four Horsemen. The cover is done in classic style, with deep-fried black metal guitars, thrashing drums, and barely discer­nible demonic vocals, yet the lyrics are left intact, so at best we might suggest that here before us is evidence of Satan possessing a wicked sense of humor. Or, perhaps, a veiled hint at pirate radio stations as products of Satan's interference into human affairs? My guess is that they just threw a dart at a list of pop hits pinned to the wall, and proved to their loyal followers that any music may be reinvented as black metal — actually, this is a fairly early implementation of the trick, fairly pervasive today if judging from the number of Britney Spears metal covers on YouTube.

The second surprise arrives with ʽMesmerizedʼ, an epic composition that slightly slows down the tempo and puts more emphasis on the melodic aspects of the deep-fried guitar than on the thrashy rhythm — but, most importantly, introduces a different vocal style, with Tom's «constipated demon» growl swapped for a «dying Tristan» tone, one that has more in common with the incu­rable world weariness of Robert Smith than anything properly metallic in origin. This singing style, further supported by the backing Valkyrie vocals of Claudia-Maria Mokri and also reappea­ring on several other songs, will hardly make anybody think of Tom Warrior as an evocative soulful vocalist, but it is a refreshing diversion from the constant growling, even if it is certainly not enough to make me take this music more seriously than before.

After the more traditional black metal rocker ʽInner Sanctumʼ (whose slowed down mid-section probably contains the most Sabbath-like and memorable riff on the entire album), we get our third surprise — ʽTristesses De La Luneʼ, an orchestral song, conducted by Lothar Krist and sung in French by guest vocalist Manü Moan (from the Swiss Dark Gothic band The Vyllies). The composition, nearly completely dependent on paranoid violin trills, actually sounds highly interesting — although so utterly unpredictable that it was only used on the extended CD, rather than basic LP, edition of the album. Both the CD and the LP got its English equivalent, though: as ʽSorrows Of The Moonʼ, it reverts to its black metal roots, sung by Tom in his ʽMesmerizedʼ vocal, and is honestly far less attractive, because the violin arrangement is much more compli­cated and dynamic than the simple metal riffs that dominate the «common» version.

Surprise #4: ʽOne In Their Prideʼ, continuing the tradition of Celtic Frost's dark psychedelic in­strumentals, but this time with heavy electronic percussion, sampled orchestral passages, and sound effects that have more in common with Art Of Noise than with visions of Bosch's Hell. (There is yet another mix on the CD edition, twice as long, even more electronic and danceable). Is it a good piece of music? Well... Art Of Noise certainly made these things more fun. But again, what really matters here is the baffling factor than sheer quality. On an Art Of Noise record, ʽOne In Their Prideʼ would count as passable filler. On a Celtic Frost record, ʽOne In Their Prideʼ raises questions — for instance, about possible thematic and artistic links between black metal and futuristic/experimental electro-pop.

Surprise #5: although ʽI Won't Danceʼ shares the usual set of keywords with Celtic Frost's earlier black metal anthems ("martyr's scream", "turn to dust", "wicked world", "ring of death", etc.), it actually represents a big leap forward into the realm of barely decodable, wickedly fragmented symbolism, and its chorus, with Tom taking the lead and another female backing vocalist provi­ding a multi-tracked response, has an oddly pop ring to it: "GUY: I won't dance! — GAL: I won't dance within despair!" Again, a fairly weird approach to genre-melding; whether it has any meaning at all is left to each individual listener to decide.

Finally, the album's magnum opus is ʽRex Iraeʼ, an early example of symph-metal, with strings, horns, operatic female vocals, Tom's dying-Tristan tone, and several different sections that range from more generic thrash to slow epic power metal. Once more, I am not exactly a fan, but the more I think of how so many other metal bands would have approached this — probably laying on thick levels of ugly synthesizers — the more this particular sonic approach appeals to me. The grossly overdone vocals are probably the only part that still prevents me from taking this whole thing seriously: a purely instrumental mix of distorted guitars, strings, and horns (perhaps with some wordless Valkyrie vocals in the background, at most) might be preferable. But then again, it might not be worth the struggle to even begin to take «progressive black metal» seriously, so thank you, Mr. Warrior, for ultimately keeping things on the comic book level.

The final judgement? Unquestionably a thumbs up. It is one of those records to which the criterion of «liking / not liking» is barely applicable — it is more of an instructive example of how, having locked oneself up in the strict confines of a formula, it is possible to implode the formula from within without sacrificing your base values, yet still managing to think out of the box, no matter if that thinking gets you nowhere in particular. Of course, it might also get you caught with your pants down in certain circumstances (as Celtic Frost's subsequent career would actually show), but nothing about Into The Pandemonium is truly embarrassing or laughable, provided you are one of those to whom the entire world of heavy metal (or «extreme» heavy metal, at least) is laughable by definition. And, just to make sure: large parts of the record do actually rock — quite mercilessly. If you got the impression that this is all about dying vocals and electronic beats and symphonic arrangements, just start with ʽInner Sanctumʼ and ʽBabylon Fellʼ before proceeding to the truly weird parts.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Carpenters: Horizon


1) Aurora; 2) Only Yesterday; 3) Desperado; 4) Please Mr. Postman; 5) I Can Dream, Can't It?; 6) Solitaire; 7) Happy; 8) (I'm Caught Between) Goodbye And I Love You; 9) Love Me For What I Am; 10) Eventide.

The decline of the duo's commercial fortune starts here, even though Horizon was still able to yield two huge singles. The biggest one apparently continued the vibe of Now & Then: another lightweight cover of an oldie that, it could be thought, would never again be revived after The Marvelettes and The Beatles had done everything possible with it — still, Karen did the impossible and seduced America, along with the entire English-speaking world, into accepting ʽPlease Mr. Postmanʼ in Sesame Street-style, with a fluffy-feathery arrangement and a vocal part so light, you'd swear she was impersonating a 12-year old. Not that I'm complaining: she seduces me all right, and if you have no strong prejudices about «white» versions of «black» songs (with emphasis on de-sexualization etc., though I wouldn't necessarily call Karen's interpretations of black R&B «de-sexualized»), it will be hard to deny that the whole thing is cutesy and adorable without being too heavily dollified. The sax and guitar solos rule, too.

The lesser hit single was a bit more heavy and serious: a Carpenter/Bettis original, ʽOnly Yes­terdayʼ is a soulful love ballad of the «everything will be all right now that you're here» variety. But unlike many, if not most, of the earlier big hits, ʽOnly Yesterdayʼ has no subtle depth what­soever — its message does not go beyond "baby, baby, feels like maybe", and while the chorus is catchy, it is not original enough to compensate for a certain flatness in Karen's voice, as if she tried, but failed, to find a proper key to it and ended up just delivering the lyrics the best way her voice would allow it. ABBA could do this; Karen functions much better when she does not have to dilute her melancholic mood with fake happiness. And if she does, better do it Sesame Street-style all the way — at least it's more fun that way.

The main problem with Horizon is that most of it sounds like ʽOnly Yesterdayʼ, only worse. The idea of covering the old popular song ʽI Can Dream, Can't I?ʼ (they may have gotten it from Cass Elliot) was rotten from the start, because old midnight jazz standards are among the easiest things to turn into cornball if the singer does not give them a specific angle, and for all her wonderful qualities, Karen is hardly a major competitor for the jazz greats. Then there's the cover of ʽDes­peradoʼ, which is probably better than Linda Ronstadt's — Karen is really working hard here to make you sit up and take those lyrics seriously — but not necessarily better than the original; in any case, your acceptance of this will significantly depend on your general attitude towards The Eagles, and in any case, the Leon Russell covers were better.

The rest is mostly original stuff, and most of the second side of the LP where it is concentrated is a stiff bore. As keeper of the Only Solitaire blog, I'm probably supposed to be partial to any song with ʽSolitaireʼ in the title, but this here ʽSolitaireʼ is slow and dreary — again, I think ABBA could have done a better job with it, perhaps speeding the ballad up a little and giving it a few more distinctive piano riffs, but Richard's arrangement is the epitome of the «nothing happening» approach. With ʽLove Me For What I Amʼ, they apparently try to repeat the successful formula of ʽGoodbye To Loveʼ (because of another climactic distorted and phased solo from Tony Peluso), but the result hardly has even half the energy of its predecessor, and even the solo is super-short. And no semi-respectable Carpenters album should have a song called ʽHappyʼ — because, let's face it, the Carpenters vibe only works when they are not.

Summing up — one cutesy-adorable cover, a couple of passable originals, a couple more unne­cessary covers, and a puddle of filler; no sense of progress whatsoever and plenty of times when the project's chief asset is misused. Even on that album photo, Karen looks like she's not really there, you know? There was simply no great incentive here for the public to renew their love for the siblings, and there is no incentive for me not to give the album a thumbs down. Already in 1975, it must have been clear that the Carpenters were past their peak — and soon they would have to adapt their old-fashioned sound to the rapidly changing musical values, something for which they were far less than ready. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Cat Stevens: Izitso


1) (Remember The Days Of The) Old Schoolyard; 2) Life; 3) Killin' Time; 4) Kypros; 5) Bonfire; 6) (I Never Wanted) To Be A Star; 7) Crazy; 8) Sweet Jamaica; 9) Was Dog A Doughnut?; 10) Child For A Day.

After Numbers had failed to chart (apparently, the magic of numerology cannot influence the number of sold copies), A&M Records allegedly freaked out and demanded that their resident hit writer produce something commercially viable. By early 1977, Cat seems to have already em­barked on the path that would soon bring him to Allah, but there was as of yet no thought of abandoning the music business — so he not only complied to the label's demands, but also put some thought and effort in the creation of the record, balancing his truth-seeking singer-songwri­ter persona with an almost surprisingly prescient quest for musical innovation.

Recorded with a small army of session musicians, Izitso goes heavier on synthesizers than ever before, but not because of their trendiness — Stevens tries to peek into the future here, and he might even be significantly influenced by some of the decade's pioneers of the electronic sound. Two of the tracks are completely instrumental and completely different from each other: ʽKyprosʼ is like a Greek folk song redone with drum machines and electronics (in a most attractive way, since Cat uses a whole array of devices and timbres to imitate pianos, strings, and woodwinds), whereas ʽWas Dog A Doughnut?ʼ is an interesting early example of an electropop number: funky, jerky, robotic — you could probably break-dance to this tune and never know it was Cat Stevens in the first place. Some people were totally not prepared to hear this kind of material from Cat, and even today still accuse him of messing around with stuff he does not truly understand, but I think he does the robotic vibe fairly well — though, admittedly, I have a hard time picturing him b-boying to this soundtrack. Hello Cat Stevens, IDM pioneer!

The majority of this record is still about the soul, though, not the body. The long-awaited hit single, ʽThe Old Schoolyardʼ, was also dominated by synthesizers, but its main theme, delivered by Cat in a duet with Elkie Brooks, is nostalgic: I think he was going for a sort of ʽDon't Go Breaking My Heartʼ success story here, but with the song's stuttering rhythms, lack of an imme­diately memorable chorus, and somewhat fussy production, it could never hope for the same acclaim and it did not get one, only charting at #33, a slight improvement over ʽBanapple Gasʼ but nowhere near the level of his major past successes. The second single, ʽSweet Jamaicaʼ, did not chart at all — with its overwhelming string arrangements, it seemed poised at the soft-dance-pop market that certainly needed no Cat Stevens to liven it up in 1977. Frankly speaking, it is a pretty bad song, and the fact that all of its lyrics are on the level of "You're my world as far as I'm concerned", it can be easily deduced that this was an intentional throwaway, offered by Stevens to the label as a false appeasement while he was busy working on something more interesting. (Even ʽWas Dog A Doughnut?ʼ, when released as a single, ended up charting higher).

What was probably not intended as a throwaway is the album's second worst song, ʽ(I Never Wanted) To Be A Starʼ, whose title is self-explanatory and whose lyrics are filled with self-quo­tations and acute disdain for "parties avec les bourgeois", at a fairly flat level of imagery and wordplay, not supported by a well-fleshed out melody, either. You'd think that a man as wise as Mr. Georgiou could have calmed down on this issue, particularly at a time when his religious quest was nearing its final moment of triumph, but perhaps he had a bad lunch with an A&M representative or something, so now you have to sit through this three-minute rant as the man explains that "I only wanted to run my own race / So I could win a small place in your heart". At least we can assume he's not lying about it — but the song is still quite poor.

In case you suspect an anti-Stevens bias here, let me quickly turn the conversation towards a song that is not at all poor: ʽChild For A Dayʼ is probably his finest conclusion for a song cycle since at least ʽPeace Trainʼ. It is a fairly formulaic country-soul number, but it just has everything going for it: good lyrics, good combination of piano and organ, clever build-up towards the chorus, supportive backing vocals, restrained, but powerful guitar solo, pretty mix of soft wah-wah and slide guitars for the coda. And it also offers a healthy conservative contrast with the wild futurism of ʽWas Dog A Doughnut?ʼ — so that the album only seems to get stronger and stronger as it approaches the grand finale.

The rest of the songs I am not too certain about (still trying to understand, for instance, if the unusually heavy funk of ʽKillin' Timeʼ is a cool or an awful idea), but even with what there is, Izitso deserves a thumbs up — its experimental bits are more self-assured and make more sense than the ones on Numbers, and its soulful bits, with the exception of ʽTo Be A Starʼ, are once again set to creative musical ideas. Most importantly, you can see how he is willing to modernize his soft-rock sound, but only under the condition of staying in complete control. He did employ a hip young producer, David Kershenbaum, to help him with all the funky bits and the synthesizers, but other than ʽDoughnutʼ, not a single track here could be suspected of being an authentic and full-fledged Kershenbaum creation — and I have no qualms about ʽDoughnutʼ.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Chantays: Pipeline


1) Pipeline; 2) The Lonesome Road; 3) Tragic Wind; 4) Runaway; 5) Blunderbus; 6) Banzai; 7) Sleep Walk; 8) Night Theme; 9) Wayward Nite; 10) El Conquistador; 11) Riders In The Sky; 12) Last Night.

Few, if any, surf rock instrumentals have managed to achieve life everlasting, but as good as ʽMiserlouʼ and ʽWipe Outʼ might sound, ʽPipelineʼ probably has the best chance to outlive them all. While the typical surf instrumental was supposed to be loud, cheerful, and optimistic, a musi­cal celebration of sun, waves, youth, and happiness, The Chantays went for a slightly more... introspective approach. The loudest instrument here is the rhythm guitar, spilling out dark bass notes in unison with the bass proper — a precursor to the heavy metal paradigm, you might say — whereas the lead part is quietly and inobtrusively wobbling in the background, along with an almost lulling electric piano (quite a novelty for the typical surf band). All over the song's measly two minutes, you get not so much a sense of cheerful exuberance as a feel of «dangerous beauty», inviting you to sit back and carefully take in the sounds rather than straightforwardly dive into them with complete recklessness.

It may be funny, indeed, but the song that most closely resembles ʽPipelineʼ in spirit, the way it feels to me, is no less than The Doors' own ʽRiders On The Stormʼ — and I would not be in the least surprised were I to ever learn that the sound of ʽPipelineʼ somehow influenced, perhaps even subconsciously, Ray Manzarek's and others' vision for ʽRidersʼ. The steady bass rhythm, the sound effects, the quiet electric guitar, and, most importantly, the huge role that the soothingly ominous electric piano plays for both songs, all of this counts. (Not coincidentally, another song on the Pipeline album is called ʽRiders In The Skyʼ, although this was a tune covered by just about anybody in the early Sixties, from Dick Dale to The Ramrods etc.). It is not even very clear why the tune became such a big hit, what with its mood so pensive and worried and with the skies so visibly cloudy instead of filled with sunlight — but perhaps it was the very novelty of the approach that made people pay surplus attention to the vibe.

Unfortunately, The Chantays never properly managed to capitalize upon the success of the song, missing a good chance to become the chief competitors for The Ventures. Not for sheer lack of talent or professionalism, though, as is well evidenced on their first LP — predictably titled Pipeline after the big hit, it features eleven more instrumentals, many of them written by the band members themselves (most importantly, Brian Carman and Bob Spickard on guitars) and all of them sounding quite nice, with quirky use of reverb on rhythm guitar and fairly maniacal drum­ming from Bob Welch on most of the numbers. The only problem is that they never manage to outshine ʽPipelineʼ — when they are trying to play something like it, they end up with pale sha­dows, and when they are trying to move away from it, they lose direction.

The record is well worth a visit, though, because there's enough diversity and quirkiness here to provide for proper entertainment. ʽThe Lonesome Roadʼ, for instance, joins its minimalistic melancholic riff with the main melody of ʽMoney (That's What I Want)ʼ, played on electric piano, before piano player Rob Marshall tires of it midway through and switches to a more cheerful rockabilly solo — after which the theme of ʽMoneyʼ never properly resurfaces again. ʽTragic Windʼ does a bit of Beethoven plundering, and we're not even in the disco era yet. ʽBlunderbusʼ is prime rockabilly with Bob Welch at his filling best, and ʽEl Conquistadorʼ dutifully pays its Latin dues, because how could a good Californian instrumental band live and not be influenced by the Mexican scene? And while the slow sentimental shuffles (ʽSleep Walkʼ, ʽNight Themeʼ) are not at all different from the typical slow teen dance numbers of the era, the lead guitar on the former and the piano on the latter are quite pretty.

Of course, if not for the title track, none of this would be sufficient motivation to give the album a thumbs up. But in a way, having these quirky semi-original compositions fill up the rest of the space was a better deal for them than to rely on covers of well-known hits (their version of ʽRun­awayʼ is absolutely nothing special) — so there's nothing wrong in going for the entire album if you ever get a chance (it did have a CD release, and is obviously not difficult to find these days as a digital download).

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Kinks: Face To Face


1) Party Line; 2) Rosie Won't You Please Come Home; 3) Dandy; 4) Too Much On My Mind; 5) Session Man; 6) Rainy Day In June; 7) A House In The Country; 8) Holiday In Waikiki; 9) Most Exclusive Residence For Sale; 10) Fancy; 11) Little Miss Queen Of Darkness; 12) You're Lookin' Fine; 13) Sunny Afternoon; 14) I'll Remember; 15*) I'm Not Like Everybody Else; 16*) Dead End Street; 17*) Big Black Smoke; 18*) Mr. Pleasant; 19*) This Is Where I Belong; 20*) Mr. Reporter; 21*) Little Women.

In 1966, Paul McCartney wrote two of the greatest ever songs about loneliness and alienation — ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ and ʽFor No Oneʼ. Both were subtle psychological masterpieces of humanistic art, opening up some awesome depths in pop music and breaking hearts all over the world. There was one catch about these sorrowful beauties, though: they were decidedly third-person, with Paul McCartney playing God's angel sending his empathy and forgiveness out to all the lonely people out there, as represented by the select cases of Eleanor Rigby and the nameless woman in ʽFor No Oneʼ. There wasn't too much of Paul himself in these songs, nor could there probably be; in fact, he was conducting himself quite honestly by playing astute and sympathetic observer rather than the principal bearer of the grief.

This is where Ray Davies had his day. Unlike the generally nonchalant McCartney, unlike the angry Lennon, unlike the philosophical Townshend, unlike the rebellious Jagger and Richards, Ray Davies was a genuinely shy, lonely, neurotic, melancholic type — actually, like way more of us than we'd probably like to admit. There was something about him that even when he sang "never met a girl like you before, girls like you are very hard to find", you'd get the feeling that he really, really, really meant it, because it must be pretty dang difficult for a guy like Ray Davies to meet a girl who would empathize not only with his gapped teeth, but also with his lonesome and deeply disturbed spirit.

But it wasn't until ʽSunny Afternoonʼ, I think, that we got the chance to see that spirit up close, with no conventional lyrical or musical veils to conceal anything. This, too, is a song about loneliness, but not the kind of loneliness that falls on you through some terrible chain of God-inflicted events where you can do nothing about it — rather, the kind of loneliness that falls upon us as we plunge into disillusionment, world-weariness, and dysfunctionality because, you know, we've just had it; something that, I'd venture to say, occasionally pursues every decent human with a half-working brain, and makes it possible for just about everybody to take the message of ʽSunny Afternoonʼ deeply personally. The strolling tempo of the song, suggesting a lazy strum of your instrument as you swing in your hammock or sit on the porch; the descending chords — all the way down, down, down, down, to the depths of personal despair, then back up only to go down, down, down again; and most importantly, those vocals. This is where Ray really arrives as one of the greatest singers of his generation. Sometimes he raises it to the heights of a soft, silky falsetto, similar to McCartney's silky tone on ʽHere, There And Everywhereʼ — only that one was a tender confession of orgasmic love for a girl, whereas here it is a tender confession of or­gasmic love for one's misery and apathy. Sometimes he sharpens it up, but with an odd, semi-drunk intonation ("save me, save me, save me from this squeeze..."), as if to let himself be aware of the imminent futility of such a request. Sometimes he shows a sense of sly humor, what with the little tone jumps on "and I love TO live SO pleaSAntly" — a tiny whiff of vaudeville clow­ning here, perfectly suitable for the song's message. This may be music hall in form, but it is confessional singer-songwriting in essence — the likes of which pop music had never seen prior to that song. Come to think of it, it might not have seen the likes of this ever since, too; at least, not this kind of perfect mix between pop form and personal-philosophical substance.

As odd as it may sound, I do not think that ʽSunny Afternoonʼ feels perfectly at home on Face To Face, the album recorded in the wake of its chart success. It is significantly better than any of the other songs on the album (and that does not imply that I am putting those songs down), simply because most of those other songs, like ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ and ʽFor No Oneʼ, are of an observa­tional nature — one by one, we see a number of brilliantly painted musical portraits, but only ʽSunny Afternoonʼ and, perhaps, the far inferior ballad ʽToo Much On My Mindʼ qualify as proper self-portraits (because the «fallen aristocrat» image of ʽAfternoonʼ is, of course, purely metaphorical). Perhaps, in a way, it is a matter of sequencing: if there was a place for ʽSunny Afternoonʼ on the album at all, it should rather have been at the very end, instead of the stylisti­cally and lyrically obsolete ʽI'll Rememberʼ (an okay pop song that they'd recorded way back in 1965 and, for some reason, decided to stick on the album so as not to let a good thing go to waste, thus almost ruining the conceptuality of the whole thing).

Nevertheless, this by no means disqualifies Face To Face as the beginning of the «Golden Age» for The Kinks, as one of the very first conceptual albums (the songs were to be linked together with special effects, but, unfortunately, the plan fell through for technical reasons), and as the very first proper Britpop album, one might say — provided we define Britpop as «pop rock that is influenced by traditional British pop and tells stories about British people» or something like that. Prior to Face To Face, audiences only got that stuff in small doses — from the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks themselves; with Face To Face, pop music finally got its equivalent of a Charles Dickens novel or a Thomas Gainsborough portrait gallery.

The most telling sign of the album's conceptuality is that the songs, much like the future pieces of the Abbey Road medley, do not work as good on their own as they do when they all hang to­gether. Face To Face is a series of character-describing vignettes, few of which make their way onto best-of compilations, but the collective effect of 'em all is stunning. You get to meet the local Don Juan, chasing after tail at a frantically strummed acoustic rate (ʽDandyʼ); the unfortu­nately overlooked and underpaid underdog of the musical world (ʽSession Manʼ, with quintes­sential session man Nicky Hopkins on harpsichord); the disgusting aristocratic brat with his symbolic property (ʽHouse In The Countryʼ, one of the few cases of seemingly direct influence on Ray's songwriting by the Rolling Stones — you can clearly hear echoes of ʽ19th Nervous Breakdownʼ here); the befuddled holiday goer who probably has trouble telling Hawai'i from the Azure Coast (ʽHoliday In Waikikiʼ, melodically owing quite a bit to Chuck Berry's ʽYou Never Can Tellʼ, but with a smug slide guitar riff thrown in for good measure); the bankrupt loser who probably has it even worse than the protagonist of ʽSunny Afternoonʼ, but, according to Ray, does not deserve our empathy (ʽMost Exclusive Residence For Saleʼ); the broken-hearted socialite, doomed to be forever dancing to acoustic vaudeville melodies (ʽLittle Miss Queen Of Darknessʼ). Frankly speaking, each of these tunes individually is not all that original or mind-blowing from a melodic point of view — Ray was still saving up his best ideas for singles; but together, they form an intriguing gallery, a snapshot of the various sides of English society with cool musical metaphors for each of the personalities.

I would argue that ʽRosie Won't You Please Come Homeʼ is the only one of these portraits that aspires to individual greatness — hardly surprising, since it is also the most personal of them all, explicitly referring to the Australian emigration of Ray and Dave's sister. For this tune, Ray saved up some particularly strange ideas, such as pinning the weepy lines of the chorus to a creepy, dark melody: "Oh my Rosie, how I miss you, you are all the world to me" may sound like a weepy complaint, but the accompanying bassline is a grim threat; perhaps Ray himself did not mean it to be like that, yet there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that each chorus introduces a note of disturbing aggression. Another psychological trick!

One other track that does not quite fit in and works well on its own is ʽRainy Day In Juneʼ, an early — and rare — attempt at apocalyptic writing on Ray's part. The track could very well have been the result of some special LSD trip, except Ray allegedly did not take any drugs at the time, so it is really more of an effort to write something suitably «epic», in a lyrical style that does not come easy to Ray ("a misty shadow spread its wings / and covered all the ground" — sounds a bit like proto-Uriah Heep, doesn't it?), but with a moody, almost haunting musical arrangement all the same. "The rain" becomes symbolic of the end of the world here, while the repetitive, mono­tonous chorus ("everybody felt the rain...") gives the illusion of a zombified row of people, slowly moving out to meet their final fate. It is no ʽGimme Shelterʼ, for sure, and even with the thunder and lightning effects, it is nowhere near as terrifying as ʽBlack Sabbathʼ, but who the heck else wrote about the end of the world in 1966? And who the heck would have had the idea to stick a song like that right in the middle of a series of Britpoppy vignettes? To continue the analogy, it is like going through a long gallery of Gainsborough portraits and suddenly falling upon a Last Judgement by Hieronimus Bosch. Just because, you know, all these people died and went to Hell anyway, so be sure to keep this in mind.

As I said, Face To Face is not perfect. If it were up to me to change history, I would probably exclude ʽI'll Rememberʼ (not because it's bad, but because it sticks out in an incoherent way) and maybe one other track (ʽYou're Lookin' Fineʼ, with brother Dave on vocals, is totally memorable because its riff would later be nicked and slightly reworked by Lennon into ʽHey Bulldogʼ — but the womanizing pop-rocker again sort of violates the conceptuality) and replace them with such epochal singles as ʽMr. Pleasantʼ and ʽDead End Streetʼ. Today, they are conveniently tacked on as bonus tracks, but goddammit, both of them belong right square in the center of the album itself: the former with its mix of sarcasm and pity at the film-noirish fate of its socially lifted protago­nist, the latter with what might be the most desperate working-class plea of the Sixties, enough to have The Clash lift its melody fifteen years later for ʽLondon Callingʼ. Both songs also represent brave and highly successful steps forward in terms of composition and arrangement for Ray — the use of the mournful trombone alone is worth a fortune, and the chord changes on ʽMr. Pleasantʼ, to me, produce an almost Mozartian effect: simple, logical, and covering the full emotional spec­trum from lightly cruel sneer (" is Mrs. Pleasant?") to heartfelt pity ("...and it's not so pleasant after all..."). This is as good as Sixties pop ever gets, period.

Actually, most of the bonus tracks this time around are stellar. There is no getting away from the genius of ʽI'm Not Like Everybody Elseʼ, a song originally written for The Animals but ultimate­ly handed over to brother Dave — not in the vein of Face To Face at all due to its pronounced garage-rock sound, but a sure classic of the «get-the-fuck-out-of-my-way» subgenre of the mid-Sixties. ʽBig Black Smokeʼ pales melodically in the face of ʽMr. Pleasantʼ, with which it shares some musical elements, but it is still another strong indictment of corrupt city life, with the big vocal hook of the chorus delivered in a suitably ominous way — hardly a tune to which the swinging youth of London would want to latch on, though, because it is one thing when your pop idol lambasts The Establishment in the guise of ʽMr. Pleasantʼ, but quite another one when he turns his sarcastic glare at the fates of young folks "sick and tired of country life". And while it may be understandable why ʽMr. Reporterʼ was not released at the time — way too long and too monotonous to work as a single — its Joker-ish guitar / brass riff, condemned with the longest diatribe these guys ever wrote against the popular press, is still highly memorable.

Anyway, in this age of ours when track sequencing becomes a deeply personal matter, I'm sure all of us could play the fascinating game of finding the perfect setlist and running order for an ideal Face To Face — and even a non-ideal Face To Face, as it slowly sinks in one's conscience, should be still considered among the top five albums of 1966 (along with Revolver, Aftermath, Blonde On Blonde, and Pet Sounds, in whatever order you prefer to arrange them). It does mark a decisive transformation in The Kinks' history, representing Ray Davies' solemn refusal to look directly in the eyes of The Universal in order to find his artistic inspiration — instead, preferring to find access to The Universal through the eyes, minds, and souls of the everyday people whom he regularly passes on the street. It was an approach that would ultimately ruin The Kinks' career in the short run and quash their hopes (if there ever were any hopes, that is) at gaining the same household name level as their top competitors. But it was also an honest and a bizarrely rebel­lious approach that would turn out to serve them very well in the long run; and something tells me that a few centuries (decades? years?) from now, when the last survivors of the nuclear apocalypse are shivering in their bunkers and caves, their very last Ipod charges will rather be spent on the humble humanism of Face To Face — and the several albums following it, all the way down to the end of the band's Golden Age around 1971 — than on the grand psychedelic / idealistic vision of Revolver or Pet Sounds. For now, though, as we still find ourselves relatively safe from total extinction, just another major thumbs up.