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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Grow Fins: Trout Mask House Sessions

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: GROW FINS: TROUT MASK HOUSE SESSIONS (1969; 1999)

CD I: 1) Untitled 1; 2) Untitled 2; 3) Hair Pie: Bake 1; 4) Hair Pie: Bake 2; 5) Untitled 5; 6) Hobo Chang Ba; 7) Untitled 7; 8) Hobo Chang Ba (Take 2); 9) Dachau Blues; 10) Old Fart At Play; 11) Untitled 11; 12) Pachuco Cadaver; 13) Sugar 'N' Spikes; 14) Untitled 14; 15) Sweet Sweet Bulbs; 16) Frownland (Take 1); 17) Frownland; 18)
Untitled 18; 19) Ella Guru; 20) Untitled 20; 21) She's Too Much For My Mirror; 22) Untitled 22; 23) Steal Softly Through Snow; 24) Untitled 24; 25) My Human Gets Me Blues; 26) Untitled 26; 27) When Big Joan Sets Up; 28) Untitled 28; 29) Untitled 29; 30) China Pig.
CD II: 1) Blimp; 2) Herb; 3) Septic Tank; 4) Overdub.

I am not that much of a Beefhead to guess correctly whether this second volume of Grow Fins would have pleased the seasoned fan or offended him. Normally, an entire CD of outtakes from the Trout Mask Replica sessions would be considered a godsend — the problem, however, is that this CD offers no truly new material whatsoever. It is quite likely that there was no new mate­rial, since everything that Beefheart wrote for the sessions ended up being on TMR (indeed, I am not sure myself what exactly it would be that could separate a «good» TMR composition from a «bad» TMR composition): you create it, you hum it, you indoctrinate it in the players, you record it, you move on. Even so, a set of alternate takes could be interesting at least for historical purposes, as well as psychological ones: it might always be instructive to understand how weird­ness takes shape under a set of erratically driven chisels.

Problem is, unless you are really really dedicated to sorting out the nuances, the entire CD simply sounds like an instrumental version of TMR. Yes, these are slightly different takes from the ones that ended up on the final album, but I am in no way prepared to discuss the specific ways in which they are different, having a life and all. Ultimately, once you weed out all the "Untitled" tracks (most of which just consist of barely audible conversations, bits of tuning up, random noises and, occasionally, even nature sounds), you are just getting a good glimpse at what TMR would have sounded like if Beefheart had, for some reason, decided that the record would do just as fine without his presence. I do not think that many people will find that glimpse enjoyable, but there may, of course, be some people out there who really love the twisted textures of the Magic Band, yet find the Captain's Howlin' Wolf-meets-Allen Ginsberg persona annoying and hindering proper musical enjoyment, just like some people, for instance, could claim to enjoy the Rolling Stones but hate Mick Jagger's guts. Who knows?

There's also a second CD here which is even worse — a few extra tracks of barely audible banter, including one on which you can hear parts of the telephone conversation in ʽBlimpʼ. As it turns out, the audio tracks on the second disc were a mere pretext to include some video files as well: rather poor quality, though certainly priceless, amateurish footage of some of Beefheart's live shows from 1968 to 1972, and in VCD format at that (ugh).

On the whole, I'd characterize this part of Grow Fins as a tremendous disappointment — as slim as the pickings probably were, they could have certainly done a better job with them, cutting out most of the «noodling» and concentrating on those particular takes that differed the most from the final versions (ʽPachuco Cadaverʼ, for instance, has been noted to have a different bassline here, if it really matters to you). Then again, I guess negative evidence is just as important as positive one in certain situations, and this might be one of them.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Barbara Lewis: Baby I'm Yours

BARBARA LEWIS: BABY I'M YOURS (1965)

1) Baby, I'm Yours; 2) My Heart Went Do Da Dat; 3) Come Home; 4) Think A Little Sugar; 5) If You Love Her; 6) Stop That Girl; 7) Puppy Love; 8) Hello Stranger; 9) Someday We're Gonna Love Again; 10) Snap Your Fingers; 11) How Can I Say Goodbye; 12) Straighten Up Your Heart.

Today, this looks like a textbook rip-off if there ever was one: six new songs, chaotically mixed with six older songs that had already been released both as singles and as part of the Hello Stranger and Snap Your Fingers LPs. But back in 1965, this probably looked like a reasonable marketing solution, well acceptable for both the artist and the customer. As Barbara's career had pretty much stalled by 1963, and then got jump-started again with the smash success of ʽBaby I'm Yoursʼ in early 1965, the managers of Atlantic probably decided to «reboot» her, reasonably thinking that nobody would remember those early songs in the first place, and that most of the people who might want to buy the LP based on the power of the single had never bought the first two LPs — or, if they did, had already forgotten about them.

What's a retro-reviewer got to do, though? There's only six new songs here to take care of, none of them written by the artist herself, and probably only two deserving special attention. The title track is, of course, an Atlantic classic, another lush ballad written by Van McCoy especially for Barbara and distinguishable for its non-standard hook, where the first three lines, smoothly and tenderly spiralling upwards, are then suddenly (but gently) brought down to earth with a deeper "in other words..." counterpoint. Like ʽHello Strangerʼ, it is more of a traditional pop ballad than a real R&B groove, and Barbara is probably sounding even «whiter» here than on ʽHello Stran­gerʼ, but that should not detract from the intrinsic qualities of the song. Unfortunately, none of the other ballads here match that hook — ʽIf You Love Herʼ and ʽHow Can I Say Goodbyeʼ are pleasant Roy Orbison imitations that would need a real Roy Orbison to make them come to life: Barbara's vocal parts are too fragile and quiet to make the transition from soothing background to rousing foreground.

A second, more minor, classic is ʽSomeday We're Gonna Love Againʼ, from the pen of Sharon McMahan — the song was originally released as a B-side on one of Barbara's singles from 1964 and had already been covered by the Searchers as well, but in this case, I'll definitely take Barbara's version over the Searchers: Atlantic rewards her with a tougher, tighter rhythm section, good support from background vocalists and brass players, and the tension is seemingly higher here than on the Searchers' relatively frail version. Basically, with Lewis it's an uplifting anthem (she sings "someday we're gonna love again" like she really means it), with the Searchers it's a bit of an uncertain mush.

That's about it, though: even Jackie DeShannon's ʽStop That Girlʼ sounds like generic movie fodder from circa 1964-65, though by no means unpleasant. Overall, there's just nothing to dis­cuss, as the entire album could be represented in terms of a single single, with ʽBaby I'm Yoursʼ as the A-side and ʽSomeday We're Gonna Love Againʼ as the B-side. But no representative collection of mid-Sixties pop music could do without either.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Black And Blue

THE ROLLING STONES: BLACK AND BLUE (1976)

1) Hot Stuff; 2) Hand Of Fate; 3) Cherry Oh Baby; 4) Memory Motel; 5) Hey Negrita; 6) Melody; 7) Fool To Cry; 8) Crazy Mama.

At least in one respect Mick Taylor's abrupt decision to leave the band turned out to be beneficial: it shook up the Stones, plunging them into a brief moment of panic and chaos — not that panic and chaos were the necessary prerequisites for the production of a masterpiece, but at least they were preferable to the state of decadent stupor in which the band found itself in 1973-74. Not that «ridiculous rock'n'roll excess» vanished overnight with this or anything — on the contrary, their American and European tours of 1975-76, with Ronnie Wood stepping into Taylor's shoes, were as crass and visually ludicrous as ever, and there probably was not a single other period in Mick Jagger's life where he'd look more like a hilarious parody of himself than those particular tours (more on that in the upcoming review of Love You Live). But that was stage life, specially brewn and glossed up for public consumption; when it came to private creativity in the studio, things were significantly different.

The biggest difference was that the Stones went into the studio with nothing to prove — all they wanted to do was find a suitable replacement for Taylor. Unlike Let It Bleed, where Keith was responsible for most of the guitar work, Black And Blue is a patchwork with no less than three different lead guitarists working with the band: Harvey Mandel, Wayne Perkins, and, finally, Ronnie himself (who was not announced as an official member of the band until the recording was largely over). This is primarily because in 1976, Keith was in no state to take creative control over anything, although he could still blunder into the studio and chug out a mean riff every once in a while. However, as you listen to Black And Blue, you slowly realize that nobody at the time had creative control over anything — Mick was in quite a similarly disorganized phase, throwing himself at any genre and any vibe that came his way. The result is a total mess: no organizing goal, no work plan, no carefully pre-written songs, no single prevailing musical style, just a lot of fooling around and total musical spontaneity. And that was precisely what they needed at the time, not to mention the fact that it makes Black And Blue a fairly unique entry in the catalog.

Two of the album's best inclusions, ʽHot Stuffʼ and ʽHey Negritaʼ, aren't really songs at all — they are vamps, funky jams that spend five minutes meandering without a purpose and, in the process, become the perfect equivalents of a drunk, but passionate stalker making his moves to an equal amount of disgust and admiration. Musically, ʽHot Stuffʼ picks up from exactly the same spot where we had just been left with ʽFingerprint Fileʼ — groovy, sweaty funk — but converts the effect from creepy, suspenseful paranoia to saliva-dripping lust. This might seem predictably boring in theory, but in practice, the opening funky riff of the song, with its cool «ring-then-scrape» sonic pattern, is arguably one of the greatest «white funk» riffs ever written, and the interplay between Keith's rhythm work and Harvey Mandel's grumbling electric lead is... I guess toxic is the best word to describe it, considering how both players seem to have selected their most «chemical» guitar tones for the recording, and once Mandel hits the wah-wah pedal on the solos, the overall sound becomes so deliciously juicy and dirty that even Mick's incessant ad-libbing cannot spoil the fun. His babbling messages to "all my friends in London", "all the people in New York City", and "everybody in Jamaica" sound like last-minute additions to make the track more attractive to nightclub dancers all around the world, but really, the song's much too dirty to simply take it as an invitation to strut your stuff (as a single, it didn't chart too highly, and Mick had learned that lesson well when it came to recording ʽMiss Youʼ as that one track that would finally bring nightclub goers to their knees).

ʽHey Negritaʼ never got the same honor, and vanished off the radar very fast after several live performances in 1976, but it is important as the first track that introduced the famous Richards / Wood weaving technique — after several bars of the main riff hammered in our heads, we have Keith and Ronnie shooting bits of rhythm and lead off each other, with Billy Preston playing a third distinctive part on the piano. Nothing much happens during the song, and still, its five minutes pass by very quickly and excitingly, because I find it impossible not to get caught in the syncopated groove when each of Keith's chords sounds like a brutal knife stab and each of Ronnie's notes is like a sharp needle prick in response. (Again, I could do with a little less Jagger presence, particularly since he hasn't got much of anything to say except extol the virtues of the various parts of body of somebody who may or may not be Bianca Jagger — but then I do have to admit that Keith and Ronnie are engaged in wordless singing about the same kind of thing, want it or not, and it all fits together). If anything, ʽHey Negritaʼ is a historical landmark — it shows how the Stones are almost literally capable of simply pulling a groove out of their ass and making it work for us, a trick they'd be repeatedly carrying out well into the 21st century, albeit with widely varying degrees of success.

Of all the directionless vamps on the album, ʽMelodyʼ always gets the worst rap, but I have a soft spot for that one — it is the last time the Stones were crazy enough to go for a jazz-blues New Orleanian vibe, a piece of sleazy barroom entertainment in the style of Allen Toussaint or Dr. John, with Billy Preston playing a major role in establishing the atmosphere, and it's got a certain seductive charm to it without trying too hard to make a point. Stylistically its predecessor was probably ʽShort And Curliesʼ on the previous album, but that one tried too hard — it was a vocal melody-driven song with an obnoxiously obscene hook, whereas ʽMelodyʼ is just a friendly jam that uses the cheating girlfriend motif as a mere pretext for having fun and going crazy. Do we really need that from the Stones, a band that used to write great songs and is now reduced to playing generic jams? Well, let me put it this way: I'd rather listen to a great band playing a gene­ric jam while waiting for inspiration than to a mediocre band failing to ignite my excitement with poor pre-planned songwriting.

Besides, it is not true that Black And Blue consists of nothing but disorganized jams. ʽHand Of Fateʼ and ʽCrazy Mamaʼ, for instance, are two fully realized and convincing hard rock tunes, par­ticularly the former, distinguished by the lyrical lead work of Wayne Perkins — also, in a rela­tively rare case, Jagger sings alongside Keith's riff here rather than across it, but it only helps to bring home the song's message with even more assertion — "the hand of fate is on me now, pick you up and kick you right down!" I wish he didn't resort to so much barking, but then again, if he delivered the lyrics moderately and quietly, the song would have drawn one too many compari­sons to Johnny Cash (it's essentially one of those "I shot a man in Reno" type of songs). ʽCrazy Mamaʼ is less respected by fans, but it is also one of those sleeper tunes that I've always had a strange affection for — slow, anthemic, and punkish, and if you stare at the lyrics long enough, you will see that it is not really about murderous intentions towards a psychotic girlfriend, but rather an allegory for intolerance towards the religious redneck: "your sawn off shotgun, blown out brains", "your old time religion is just a superstition", "your blood and thunder sure can't faze me none", etc. And, for that matter, it has two great riffs going for it — the snakey slide one that explodes in your face nine seconds into the song, and the one in the bridge section that operates based on the repetitive ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ principle, only sounds more cocky and cheerful than the brutal slap-in-the-face of ʽFlashʼ.

Then there are the ballads, too. ʽMemory Motelʼ is an exercise in phantom nostalgia, one more of those «lost-and-unrecoverable innocence days» songs that you may or may not find sincere, but at least I find the idea of Mick and Keith both sitting at pianos and exchanging vocal parts with each other refreshingly surprising — actually, Keith's little "she got a mind of her own and she use it well..." interludes, while not making much of a melodic impact, still bring him closer to the heart of the song and make it somewhat of a «Glimmer Twins program statement» on their early days. There's no repentance or compassion in the song, though — just a sentimental nod to the past that acknowledges its existence without expressing any desire to bring it back — and its being both tender and cruel at the same time certainly speaks in favor of sincerity.

Not so much with ʽFool To Cryʼ, a single-oriented ballad in contemporary soft-rock style whose keyboards, strings, and falsettos were more syrupy than anything the Stones had done to that point. I've always taken the song to be a tongue-in-cheek, ironic number (Mick Jagger "got a woman" who "lives in the poor part of town"? You don't say!), but the ridiculousness of the situation is that by the time the song gets to its coda, Mick and everybody else in the band seem to have forgotten about its corny be­ginnings and are really getting into it. The culprit is probably Nicky Hopkins, whose keyboard work on the song is magnificent, particularly the string-imita­ting synthesizer that he really whips into overdrive on the coda; but he also stimulates Keith into adding some really pleading intonations in his wah-wah lead licks, and even Mick lashes out at himself with such passion ("I'm a fool, I'm a fool, I'm a certified fool!") that it is hard to restrain ourselves from exclaiming, "yeah, right, Mick, so may we hope for a little less eyeliner and a little more actual singing on your next tour now?". Of course, it's really hopeless, but still, it isn't every day that you get to hear a major rock star shouting "I'm a fool" at himself.

As you can see, that's seven songs out of eight about which I have something good to say — the scapegoat being their cover of Eric Donaldson's ʽCherry Oh Babyʼ, notable for being the first true reggae number ever recorded by the Stones, but ultimately a stupid joke in their rendition; as far as I can tell, the band never really took reggae seriously (much like country), even though Keith does like to hang out with cool reggae musicians, and in their hands, the number turns into a stiff piece of comic vaudeville, with a disturbing «blackface» whiff to it. But even that blunder some­how fits in the general plan (or, rather, anti-plan) of the album, as they bumble from one turf to another, trying out this and that; it is enough of a miracle that so many of their rock, blues, ballad, and funk groove endeavors turn out to work, so it's easy to forget them one dumb reggae mistake.

Unlike Some Girls or even Tattoo You, Black And Blue will never get the status of a mid-pe­riod silver-age classic for these guys — precisely because critics and listeners alike will always be held back by its «mushy», formless nature. Indeed, if you eliminate it from the catalog alto­gether, it's not like you will be eliminating some tremendously important stage of the Stones' musi­cal evolu­tion: you can't even successfully describe it as a «transition album» between It's Only Rock'n'Roll and Some Girls, because it's not. Rather, it is their «Nothing In Particular» album, fortunately recorded and released at a time when God's spark was still with the band and heroin could still work in Keith's favor to a certain extent. And I am not always in favor of ran­dom outbursts of spontaneity, particularly when they do not originate from Bob Dylan in the mid-Sixties, but Black And Blue is one hell of a happy, healthy, fun exception — probably just what the doctor ordered after the pompous ass declarations of the previous album; hence, thumbs up, and don't cry too much for Mick Taylor, whose role in the Stones was pretty much complete by 1975, as he got them through the «art rock era» and would have been completely out of place in the upcoming punk / New Wave era anyway.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Brian Eno: Reflection

BRIAN ENO: REFLECTION (2017)

1) Reflection.

It has been a long while since Eno last went totally hardcore on us — or, at the very least, most of his «hardcore ambient» output tended to be written for art installations rather than the regular LP market. Reflection takes no such compromises: released on CD and vinyl from the start, it is in­tended as a purely musical piece, and with its rigid minimalism embodied in a single 54-minute track, the obvious and inevitable comparison is to Thursday Afternoon, and the obvious and inevitable reaction is, «oh no! not again! why????...»

Well, first of all, the older Monseigneur de la Salle gets, the more likely he probably will be to return to his meditative, introspective, reflective side than to try and compete with the acid elec­tronic buzz of today (let alone any accompanying pop inspirations). And with so many of his friends and colleagues dropping dead around him, the more inclined he will be, naturally, to contemplate his own physical mortality / spiritual immortality. Eno himself describes the record as a "psychological space that encourages internal conversation", and he's not bullshitting you with this one — except, I think, that it may have been vice versa: as the title itself suggests, Reflection may have been a reflection of an internal conversation that the artist happened to have with himself during one of the days of the much troubled year of 2016.

And since everything is always understood better in comparison, it is only natural to go back to Thursday Afternoon and trace the differences between the two. The 1986 exercise was, above all, an affair of The Light — the perfect soundtrack of finding yourself slightly under the surface of the water with your eyes wide open and experiencing the rays of sunlight penetrating that surface, here and there, out of a skyline beset with rapidly, but gently moving white clouds. It had this caressing, floating ambience of whiteness and purity to it that could have served to illustrate any miraculous experience, from the resurrection of Jesus to losing your virginity. The textures of Reflection, in comparison, are also gentle and soothing, but deeper and darker, as if an invisible hand has firmly pushed you way down below the surface, and any sources of light that you now have access to have to come from the bottom of the sea — or, perhaps, from the depths of your imagination — rather than from the top.

Here, too, there are two layers to the sound: a basic rhythmic «hum», though less polyphonic in texture than the one on Thursday Afternoon, across which minimalistic bits of keyboard melo­dies vary in pitch and timbre — cold and emotionally detached, though, and you are probably not expected to experience any basic human feelings over them; you are simply expected to revel in the mystery, be it on your own microcosmic level or on the macrocosmic one — you decide if the music of Reflection is more about Outer or Inner Space. I would probably opt for the latter one, because I think Eno is more interested in what goes on within his own head now than whatever it is happening to the universe at large.

Of course, as of 2017, there is nothing particularly innovative about the concept, except for, may­be, the fact that the project comes equipped with its own multimedia application, and apparently, there is a «generative» plugin for this thing that allows the listener to tweak the settings and mo­dify the textures depending on the time of day and other factors — something I do not really have the time to explore, although, perhaps, this is where the real money value of Reflection actually lies. Yet, strange enough, as I briefly rewind my recollections of Brian's various ambient projects, there is nothing there that sounds exactly like Reflection — they are either too dynamic and me­lo­dic (yes, the ʽ1/1ʼ part of Music For Airports is like Beethoven compared to this), or, on the contrary, even more radically minimalistic (like Neroli), or, as I said, create a completely diffe­rent atmosphere (Thursday Afternoon). It's like you always saw this sort of record coming from Eno's meditative mind, yet it still took him almost fifty years to achieve it.

I mean, I can understand him when he seems to speak so proudly of this achievement — I'd never describe it myself as a «culmination» or «catharsis» record, but it seems very much... like him, something like a perfectly faithful sonogram of his internal state of mind, where most of his previous ambient exercises sounded more like musical reimaginations of various things outside of that mind, be it little fishes jumping in the water or the faraway craters of the Moon. And since, after all, Brian Eno is only a man, it may well be so that your internal state of mind is not that far different from his — particularly if you, too, experience these strange periods of «worried tran­quility» where nervousness emanates from complete calm and dissolves back into it. That's kind of what Reflection is for me, and it makes a fine, healthy addition to the man's ambient catalog, even if I am probably never going to listen to it again — not until my dying bed, at least.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Carly Rae Jepsen: Emotion

CARLY RAE JEPSEN: EMOTION (2015)

1) Run Away With Me; 2) Emotion; 3) I Really Like You; 4) Gimmie Love; 5) All That; 6) Boy Problems; 7) Making The Most Of The Night; 8) Your Type; 9) Let's Get Lost; 10) LA Hallucinations; 11) Warm Blood; 12) When I Needed You; 13*) Black Heart; 14*) I Didn't Just Come Here To Dance; 15*) Favourite Colour; 16*) Never Get To Hold You; 17*) Love Again; 18*) I Really Like You (Liam Keegan remix); 19*) Take A Picture.

This album, or, more accurately, the sometimes surprisingly exalted public reaction to this album, was, of course, what got me interested in Carly Rae Jepsen in the first place. Where ʽCall Me Maybeʼ had conquered the world in a blitzkrieg, but rather quickly fell off the radar once the initial orgasmic reaction had subsided, Emotion endured a stranger fate. Commercially, it was far less successful than Kiss — the public did not exactly hold its breath for a follow-up, and even in her native Canada, chart data for the LP and the accompanying singles were far more modest. But the critical response, on the other hand, was far more generous — and the album seems to have had a certain appeal for the indie community as well, which almost ended up welcoming Carly into their midst with open arms and comparisons to all sorts of twee pop idols. So what the hell happened here? An Awakening?..

First, let us see what exactly remained the same. In fact, come to think of it, most things have remained the same, and primarily this concerns the main subjects and moods of the record: Jep­sen is still functioning in precisely the same exhilarated, vapor-headed teen-crush mode as she did before, despite hitting 30 in 2015 (no doubt about it, eternal childhood is a wonderful thing, but I do shudder a little bit trying to imagine CRJ belting out ʽCall Me Maybeʼ thirty years from now on her Farewell Cougar Tour). But that was never a big problem on its own, as long as the songs delivered the feel of a real personality behind them — the problem was the coating, and that prob­lem, unfortunately, remains unresolved: Jepsen's production standards remain generally unaltered, relying on unadventurous electronic rhythms and drum programming.

This time around, however, there is a more distinct nostalgic twist to these arrangements, with most of the melodies influenced even more directly by Eighties synth-pop than the ones on Kiss. At its best, the record hobbles somewhere in between early Depeche Mode and classic ABC, with a decent mix of guitars, keyboards, and synthesized percussion; also, there is more stylistic variety, making it much less of a headache than the relentless jackhammer dance pummeling of Kiss. At the same time, there is visibly more care taken about the vocal melodies — harmonies and hooks run galore, and they all serve the record's chief purpose, which is to show you, the jaded cynical listener, all the innocent beauty and adrenaline-soaked excitement of a modern day Juliet over a modern day Romeo. What, you don't believe in Romeos and Juliets these days? Shame on you! Unlike yourself, Carly Rae Jepsen studies her Shakespeare diligently.

Seriously, I totally concur that Emotion is a huge step forward for Miss Canada, even if that by no means makes it a modern day pop masterpiece. The biggest obstacle is that the lady remains a one-trick pony if there ever was one, as is easily ascertained by the album's only attempt at a slow, sensual love ballad — ʽAll Thatʼ sounds exactly like fifty million hookless, plastic adult con­temporary ballads written in the Eighties and long since relegated to the compost heap. She might have done a little bit of something with that tune, were she Whitney Houston, but she is just a 15-year old insecure girl trapped in the body of a 30-year old woman, and the whole thing is a dis­aster that actually makes me wish she'd never grow up — she has about as much understanding of «slow and soulful» as your average AC/DC vocalist.

Fortunately, the bulk of the album follows the formula of ʽI Really Like Youʼ: upbeat, bouncy, and gambling it all away on vivacious, exhilarated vocal hooks. The song itself clearly aimed at repeating the formula of ʽCall Me Maybeʼ, but the chorus probably failed to appeal to a core audience of 12-year old braindeads — it's as bubblegum as they come, but a little more anthemic and a little less flat-out in-yer-face; also, a bit more grammatical, a tad more sensual, and with a nicer, better defined melodic line in the chorus, considering that the "really really really" bit ma­na­ges not to be so utterly annoying in terms of modulation. If you can forget the thoroughly ludi­crous video with Tom Hanks lip-syncing to Carly's vocal part (nobody needs to see it, but every­body needs to see this insightful Bart Baker parody which logically explains everything that needs to be explained), it's, like, almost a good song!

And yes, there is actually some material here that's even better — provided you can get it out of its context, which, for me, is very painful to do — but ʽRun Away With Meʼ, even despite the awful synth tones, has wonderful harmonies ("run away with me! run away with me!" is deli­vered in an unbeatable excited tone that really touches base with reality); ʽYour Typeʼ has a few delicious ABBA-esque lines ("I'm not the type of girl you call more than a friend", for some rea­son, gets to me and even matches its nervous accompanying synth pulsation); and the best is saved for last — ʽWhen I Needed Youʼ is the most infectious piece on the entire record, due to the clever juxtaposition of falsetto ooh-ooh-ooh's and cheerleaderish hey!'s.

I have no idea, and no desire to find out, who is behind all the vocal creativity on the album (Carly herself or one of the ten billion producers listed in the notes), but I definitely see a time and a context in which these ideas could have been realized in a near-perfect pop record. Unfortu­nately, 2015 and a mainstream marketing strategy are quite far removed from that time and con­text, because outside of the vocal hooks, it's like the only thing they look for in the actual music is «make it loud / make it bubbly / make it danceable» — not really taking home any of those les­sons from either Depeche Mode or ABC that musicianship is not to be neglected. I mean, come on, even if it is synth-pop, what is it about relying exclusively on boring stock phrasing? There's not a single memorable synth riff on the entire album — have these people never listened to, oh, I dunno, ʽMaster And Servantʼ, for instance? Somebody make CRJ listen to ʽMaster And Servantʼ, real quick. If nothing else, she might at least get into BDSM for a change.

All the indie hype over the album may be due to the fact that a combination of twee pop purity, Eighties' synth-pop nostalgia, and a girl-next-door attitude (without any of the Miley / Katy / Taylor glamstravagance) is precisely what the doctor ordered for those 21st century pop lovers who combine refined demands with a subconscious desire for some good old simplicity-stupidity. Well — there you go: Emotion is simple and silly enough without being obnoxiously stupid or suffocatingly cheap (though by my own standards, it is still fairly cheap). I can take it as suffici­ent proof that commercial bubblegum can still be vital and inoffensive in our times, and at least I'll take Emotion over any J-pop or K-pop album any time of day. But if you think I can be char­med by this record into giving it a thumbs up, you got another think coming.

PS. Oh, and don't worry about the deluxe edition — I've listened to these bonus tracks, and they mostly sound like outtakes from The Kiss, very bland and colorless compared to the hooks and harmonies of the main disc. (For that matter, I really hate this practice which is so common now­adays. «Deluxe» treatment should be given to 40th anniversary special editions — let's see if Emotion ever lives up to those regal honors).

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Camper Van Beethoven: New Roman Times

CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: NEW ROMAN TIMES (2004)

1) Prelude; 2) Sons Of The New Golden West; 3) 51-7; 4) White Fluffy Clouds; 5) That Gum You Like Is Back In Style; 6) Might Makes Right; 7) Militia Song; 8) R'n'R Uzbekistan; 9) Sons Of The New Golden West (reprise); 10) New Roman Times; 11) The Poppies Of Balmorhea; 12) The Long Plastic Hallway; 13) I Am Talking To This Flower; 14) Come Out; 15) Los Tigres Traficantes; 16) I Hate This Part Of Texas; 17) Hippy Chix; 18) Civil Disobedience; 19) Discotheque CVB; 20) Hey Brother.

Camper Van Beethoven's «proper» comeback album must have been one of the most interesting albums of 2004 — although, apart from a few politely positive reviews in major outlets, not a lot of people ended up noticing it: the price you pay after spending your most creative and produc­tive decade as an underground semi-joke act and then disappear off the radars and stay off them while the musical world around you dies, resurrects, and forgets that you ever existed in the first place. But for those few true heroes still willing to listen, Lowery and Co. scramble together a project that has got to count as their most serious undertaking ever.

See for yourself: New Roman Times, referring not so much to the serif typeface that I am using to write this review as to the idea that with the election of George W. Bush, humanity may have regressed two thousand years back in its evolution (hey, not my idea — address all your indigna­tion to David Charles Lowery, San Antonio, Texas!), is a concept album... nay, actually, is a full-fledged rock opera that tells you the story of a disintegrated United States of America, in which the protagonist finds himself fluctuating between the gung-ho Republic of Texas and the free-thinking, but predictably decadent and wobbly Republic of California — now serving as a fervent volunteer in the Texas army, now seduced by the easy-livin', drug-heavy lifestyle of the West Coast, and finally going nuts over the whole thing and becoming a religious fundamentalist (the last song is allegedly about his self-indoctrination for suicide bombing). Rich enough for you?

And if the storyline itself does not suffice, then how about the music — eclectically drawing upon all the different strands of CvB's past, from country to ska to punk to pop, and throwing in some additional inspirations as well, such as progressive rock and heavy metal that they had largely shunned before 2004? The album is fairly long, but not at the expense of constantly recycling the same ideas — no two tracks, except for occasional reprises of themes, really sound alike, and most reflect a good deal of thought process and studio work invested in them. Of course, CvB were never a «lazy» band, but everything they did so far since their reunion had a certain throw­away flavor to it; well, no more — you can listen to New Roman Times six or seven times in a row and still have certain things left undiscovered about it.

Diverse, intelligent, unpredictable, humorous, well-produced, so what is there not to like? Well, as far as I am concerned — that seems to be just the problem. Camper Van Beethoven were many things in their lives, but they were never Pink Floyd, and this record is just too Floyd-ian for them, or, if you want a comparison that would be a tiny bit more accurate from a musical point of view as well, too Rush-like. In theory, these songs are well-written and professionally executed, but they aren't fun. It's as if the boys are so deeply driven by the concept that they take things far more seriously than they should, and this reflects badly on the music, because the band members are neither instrumental virtuosos nor melodic geniuses, and the best CvB material had always relied on nonchalance, nihilism, humor, and hooks to get by. New Roman Times, in comparison to that, tends to drag and sag far more often than could be deemed acceptable.

Things go bad already on the first track, ʽSons Of The New Golden Westʼ, which sounds like a cross between Larks/Red-era King Crimson (same tricky time signatures, guitar-violin interplay, general doomy heaviness, etc.) and modern brands of art-metal (especially in terms of guitar solo work). I mean, it's not bad, but... do we really need that? It sounds like a tightly focused, serious­ly disciplined, almost math-rock-compatible piece of work, but focus and discipline at the ex­pense of fun was never an ideological concern for CvB, so why start now? And there's much more of the same ilk, even when the vocals arrive — ʽWhite Fluffy Cloudsʼ, for instance, is a full-fledged prog-metal workout, again, not a bad one, but these guys are too professorial to de­liver a proper ass-kicking attitude.

They can still do some interesting things, even by reviving disco (ʽDiscotheque CVBʼ) and crossing it with drum machines and lyrical lead guitar, but they all sound more interesting on paper than in reality. Meanwhile, their classic ska schtick, as they rewind it on ʽMight Makes Rightʼ and the near-instrumental ʽLos Tigres Traficantesʼ, is reduced to the role of an old friend that still pops in for a drink or two, but has nothing new to tell you anyway.

In the end, the only song that properly «gets» me is the album-closing ʽHey Brotherʼ. Beginning with a "hey..." that you half-expect to be followed by "...Jude", it quickly becomes a moving soul number, only for you to discover, horrifyingly, within half a minute that it is the anthem of a suicidal terrorist — making this the only example I know of a tune where the "soul brotherhood" idea is cruelly turned on its head; but then again, why not? They make a great point here, namely, that deeply felt religious fervor that fuels so many great soul and gospel tunes can just as easily be associated with violence and the destructive side of religion, rather than the peace-and-love aspect. I have no idea if they ever do the song live — it is very inviting to sing along, but you'd be basically singing along to a declaration of faith by a 9/11 plane hijacker. Had something like this been released by a major band, there'd probably be a huge PC scandal all over the world — but I guess there are certain advantages to holding on to your underground status for decades.

That said, the audacity of ʽHey Brotherʼ does not redeem the album as a whole. It is just too heavy, and I don't mean the musical sound — I mean, it sounds as if it all came from the brain of a mathematics / social science professor (I guess Lowery is one, in a sense, given his math cre­den­tials), and everything is too detached and clinical for my tastes. I give it a thumbs up without hesitation — the concept is interesting and somewhat original, and there's so much stuff here that I will probably want to revisit the record again, and, most importantly, this is one of those come­back efforts where the artist is dead set on pushing boundaries rather than settle into a comfor­table rocking chair. But ultimately, it's like an anti-utopian novel set to music where the message and the symbolism are more important than raw feeling — and so, a modern day Quadrophenia this daring rock opera is not. Good smack in the mouth of the American society circa 2004, though, and every bit as relevant in 2017.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Caravan: Caravan

CARAVAN: CARAVAN (1968)

1) Place Of My Own; 2) Ride; 3) Policeman; 4) Love Song With Flute; 5) Cecil Rons; 6) Magic Man; 7) Grandma's Lawn; 9) Where But For Caravan Would I; 10*) Hello Hello.

The earliest history of Caravan is inextricably linked to the earliest history of Soft Machine: both bands were formed out of the ashes of the legendary Canterbury band Wilde Flowers, which made no recordings yet served as a building pad for two of the most famous outfits of the «Can­terbury scene». That said, from the very start Caravan and Soft Machine followed two very dif­ferent paths — apart from the fact that both teams were progressive-minded, Soft Machine quickly adopted modern jazz and avantgarde as their prime sources of inspiration, whereas for Caravan, even in their «wildest» days, jazz was just one of the building blocks, and hardly the principal one. Above everything else, Caravan wanted sorely to be an English band, so that the word "Canterbury" could actually redeem that Chaucer association; and that Englishness already permeates and dominates their self-titled debut so thoroughly that, perhaps, it is no wonder that it did not sell all too well — in the same year when the same fate also befell the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society, for instance.

Then again, maybe it was just because it was not such a great record. Recorded in London and released on Decca in the UK and on Verve in the US, Caravan was a collection of relatively quiet, friendly, introspective progressive pop songs whose closest stylistic predecessors would probably be The Moody Blues and Procol Harum (to a lesser degree, also Traffic) — and it might have been just a wee bit hard to understand what it was that made them special. The primary lead vocalist, Pye Hastings, sounded pretty, but clearly less gorgeous than Justin Hayward, and he wasn't much of a guitar player, either, certainly not when compared to Robin Trower. Richard Sinclair, on bass and occasional vocals, did not exactly lay on a ton of dazzling lines, taking more of a McCartney-style «concealed melodic approach» to the instrument. The most visible musician on the album is Richard's cousin, Dave Sinclair, whose organ is almost always the single loudest instrument of all, but even he ends up sounding like a slightly inferior partner of Rod Argent.

So what is the saving grace, then? Nothing but the simple fact that in between all of them, they form a pleasant mix, and that the lack of flash comes across as a sign of friendly humble­ness. The entire album has a bit of an echoey, cavernous sound to it, further emphasized with the loudness of Sinclair's organ, so that when Pye sings, "I've got this place of my own / Where I can go when I feel I'm coming down", the automatic question in my mind is, "What place? Canterbury Cathed­ral?", and Pye does sound like a preacher on that song, except that the sermon is non-canon ("Why don't you live a bit today? / For tomorrow you may find that you are dead"). A friendly, non-intimidating preacher, though, one that won't piss you off even if you disagree.

Most of the short songs are catchy in their little ways. ʽRideʼ, propelled with a funny little cavalry trot from drummer Richard Coughlan, is a cute folksy ditty, gradually transforming into a vigo­rous drum / organ extravaganza. ʽPolicemanʼ is a wannabe-Traffic art-blues song, with Richard Sinclair throwing in a bit of a political angle, but in such a mildly pleading manner that no true revolutionary would accept this bunch of pussies as his trusted friends. ("Take the time to change our minds / We will pay our parking fines", Sinclair promises like he means it). And ʽGrandma's Lawnʼ, speeding up the tempo and harshening up the organ tone, kind of sounds like early (pre-Gillan) Deep Purple, only without the distorted guitar, mixed with a ʽDead End Streetʼ-like atti­tude of misery ("lost my plec, bloody heck, who's got my plec, break his neck" is a particularly precious line that even Ray Davies wouldn't have come up with at the time).

There are also some psycho experiments that are questionable — ʽMagic Manʼ is a lazy waltz where Pye seems to be trying a little too hard to convince us of the pleasures of a life of floating around in your own pot-enhanced imagination ("Soft Machines, Heart Club Bands and all, are welcome here with me" is a particularly cringeworthy line, too), and ʽCecil Ronsʼ might be their most embarrassing stab at psych-folk ever, since the song never seems to decide if it wants to be intimidating or enchanting, let alone the lyrics that deal with urinating under somebody's tree, if I'm not mistaken. It is well worth a listen just to learn how absurd things can get at times, but don't expect Monty Python quality or anything.

That said, «classic» Caravan is only previewed here by two tracks — ʽLove Song With Fluteʼ, a jazzy ballad with unpredictable time / tempo changes and, indeed, a lengthy flute solo delivered by Pye's brother Jimmy in properly pastoral mode (with more fluency than Ray Thomas, but far less aggression than Ian Anderson); and the lengthy ʽWhere But For Caravan Would Iʼ, book­marked with more folksy preaching from Pye but essentially given over to proggy jamming in non-standard time, Pye holding things together with simple, but powerful guitar riffage and Dave pulling a Rod Argent / Keith Emerson on the organ as long and hard as he can (which isn't really that long, or that hard). Both tracks are passable exercises, but do not really answer the question of whether we need to have yet another young aspiring progressive act to add to the already existing diversity.

Despite that, Caravan still works as an atmospheric, melodic, friendly collection of art-pop songs: for what it lacks here in originality, it makes up in terms of hooks, good taste (other than "so we all go to wee in the garden"), and humility. I mean, with this kind of equipment and these parti­cular musical goals, Caravan's debut could have easily been like Uriah Heep's debut — except that it wasn't, because nobody is trying to compensate for lack of musical virtuosity with annoy­ing bombast and trumped-up epicness. So, even if this is just a brief taste of better things to come, I've always had the same kind of soft spot in my heart for it as for From Genesis To Reve­lation, and here it is reflected in a thumbs up rating.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Grow Fins - Just Got Back From The City/Electricity

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: GROW FINS: JUST GOT BACK FROM THE CITY / ELECTRICITY (1965-1968; 1999)

CD I: 1) Obeah Man (1966 demo); 2) Just Got Back From The City (1966 demo); 3) I'm Glad (1966 demo); 4) Triple Combination (1966 demo); 5) Here I Am I Always Am (early 1966 demo); 6) Here I Am I Always Am (later 1966 demo); 7) Somebody In My Home (1966 live); 8) Tupelo (1966 live); 9) Evil Is Going On (1966 live); 10) Old Folks Boogie (1967 live); 11) Call On Me (1965 demo); 12) Sure Nuff N Yes I Do (1967 demo); 13) Yellow Brick Road (1967 demo); 14) Plastic Factory (1967 demo);
CD II: 1) Electricity (1968 live); 2) Sure Nuff N Yes I Do (1968 live); 3) Rollin' 'N' Tumblin' (1968 live); 4) Electricity (1968 live); 5) Yer Gonna Need Somebody On Yer Bond (1968 live); 6) Kandy Korn (1968 live); 7) Korn Ring Finger (1967 demo).

Since the idea of «self-discipline» was about as alien to the Captain as it was so totally integral for Zappa (may have been the one chief distinction between the two of them after all), his vaults were predictably left in a much less user-friendly state than Zappa's, and the stream of archival releases after his retirement from music has been notably thinner than Frank's, even if, judging by the sheer number of various bootlegs produced over the years, there's a huge amount of goodies there for poor starving fans.

On the official circuit, the single largest dig into the vaults consists of the 5-CD set Grow Fins, lovingly prepared by fans with the assistance of John French (who also wrote a lengthy history of The Magic Band for the liner notes) and released on the Revenant label that normally focuses on retrospectives of various old blues and folk artists — and thus, accepts Beefheart into the same pantheon with Charley Patton, Doc Boggs, and John Fahey; then again, who's to say the Captain was not an American primitivist when it comes to understanding American pritimitivism? He certainly preserves and carries on the spirit of Charley Patton far more loyally than oh so many «polite» blues-rockers who think they cover Charley Patton when in fact they do not.

Anyway, even though, technically, the entire boxset should count as one single album, its 5 CDs logically fall into three (maybe even four) distinct subdivisions, and it would make sense to com­ment on them separately. The first CD, subtitled Just Got Back From The City, covers outtakes, demos, and occasional live performances from the Captain's formative years (1965-66) and all the way to the sessions for Safe As Milk; thematically, it is barely separable from the second CD, subtitled Electricity and containing primarily live performances of Safe As Milk and Magic Man material from 1968, so we will talk of them together, and leave CDs 3-4 (TMR-era outtakes) and CD 5 (a messy mix of later era live performances) for later.

The first disc here is clearly the most surprise-laden and instructive for all those who have not had that much experience with Beefheart in his pre-Safe As Milk days, barring maybe a brief acquai­ntance with ʽDiddy Wah Diddyʼ from the Nuggets boxset. You might have guessed that in those early days he may have started out as a blues singer — but the first ten tracks here actually con­firm that guess with solid musical evidence, such as, for instance, the Captain not just being in­spired by Howlin' Wolf, but actually covering Howlin' Wolf, live from the Avalon Ballroom in 1966, where you could really confuse him with the real Howlin' Wolf for a moment, except that, once you put two and two together, Beefheart's voice is still too high and thin to perfectly match the thickness and depth of the Wolf's delivery. He also does a great John Lee Hooker on ʽTupeloʼ, four minutes of dark, sludgy blueswailing that's probably as good as the best white boy blues effort in America circa 1966 — well, not exactly blowing away the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (Beefheart was never as obsessed with his harmonica-blowing skills as Paul, and none of his early guitarists were Mike Bloomfield), but still doing a good job of conveying the creepy menace of hardcore electric blues.

In fact, the opening number, an unreleased self-penned demo called ʽObeah Manʼ, introduces us to the beginnings of Beefheart as a swaggery blues-rocker just dying to make a flashy introduc­tion — much like Paul Butterfield on ʽBorn In Chicagoʼ, which introduced the world to the But­terfield Blues Band one year before; leave it to the young aspiring Captain, however, to make things a little more complex by introducing us to the Igbo word "obeah" that was probably un­known even to the likes of Muddy Waters. There's also ʽJust Got Back From The Cityʼ, a wan­nabe ʽI Wish You Wouldʼ imitation with lots of squeaky harmonica, and some strange attempts at Stonesy pop-rock songs (ʽHere I Am I Always Amʼ) that at least show you how Beefheart was no sworn enemy of accessible pop stuff, and how, in a way, what he did in the unfortunate year of 1974 could be seen as a sort of «return to childhood». (For some hardcore childhood, you can go all the way back to the 1965 demo ʽCall On Meʼ, a folk-pop ballad that is so sweet, you'd swear it was commissioned from Sonny Bono — unfortunately, the sound quality on that one is about as bad as on your average Charley Patton track from 1929, so you'll have to press your ear real hard to be able to laugh all the way to the bank).

As we advance towards the «official» Beefheart years of 1967-68, things become less interesting: the Safe As Milk demos, besides also being featured in bootleg sound quality, disclose no new secrets, and the live performances from 1968 never reach the intensity of the Mirror Man jam sessions, more like the wobbly muddiness of the re-recordings on Strictly Personal. In particular, there's an 11-minute jam version of ʽRollin' 'N' Tumblin'ʼ which Beefheart uses as an excuse to practice his atonal soprano sax — I don't know, it just does not seem to me a good idea to mix Muddy Waters with Albert Ayler, as brave as it might seem on paper, because if I want psychotic sonic mess, I pick Ayler, and if I want a rollickin' piece of blues, I pick Muddy, and do I want to have both at the same time? Not sure. Much the same happens with ʽYer Gonna Need Somebody On Yer Bondʼ, except there he does the same stuff with harmonica, and it's even messier. Then again, it might just be the sound quality — all these tapes sound flat and bootleggish. So I'd say that the only track on the second disc that should be of considerable interest is the studio demo ʽKorn Ring Fingerʼ from 1967, a psychedelic waltz with nicely seductive slide guitar work, al­though taken at a very slow tempo for the Captain — but at least you get to hear it in superb sound quality, with a clear stereo separation of the instruments.

This is a bit disappointing, because while inferior sound quality is always to be expected of the earliest recordings, you'd think that by 1967, once the Magic Band really went professional, those problems could have been overcome. But then again, I guess nobody ever took any serious care of the tapes anyway — safeguarding Beefheart's dirty underwear was on no record label's top shelf of priorities, so don't expect Beatles Anthology sound level for any of these demos; as for the live performances, I guess people were too terrified to record the Captain much in 1968 — one of the few exceptions being Frank Freeman's Dance Studio in Kidderminster, UK (according to one source, The Magic Band was "pleased the venue did not sell alcohol, as this meant there were no beer bottles that could be thrown at them" — more than that, somebody was kind enough as to bring a tape recorder along). So, basically, you just get what you can get, and ain't no use complaining.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Barbara Lewis: Snap Your Fingers

BARBARA LEWIS: SNAP YOUR FINGERS (1964)

1) Snap Your Fingers; 2) Please, Please, Please; 3) Frisco Blues; 4) I'll Bring It Back Home To You; 5) Just A Matter Of Time; 6) Twist And Shout; 7) I Don't Want To Cry; 8) Turn On Your Love Light; 9) Stand By Me; 10) If You Need Me; 11) What'd I Say; 12) Baby, Workout; 13) Shame, Shame, Shame.

So much for «original songwriting». With a short string of self-penned singles (ʽStraighten Up Your Heartʼ, ʽPuppy Loveʼ) that charted quite modestly, unable to repeat the success of ʽHello Strangerʼ, Atlantic Records probably decided that it was, after all, a mistake to be so permissive towards the lady — and, in stark contrast, made sure that her second LP did not contain even a single original. Instead, they came up with the plain-as-day, dumb-as-death concept of «Barbara Lewis Sings The Great Soul Tunes». This means that Barbara Lewis has to demonstrate to the world that she knows how to put a special twist on James Brown, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Solo­mon Burke, the Isley Brothers, Bobby Bland, and make it all the way to Jimmy Reed.

Needless to say, that is a really tough challenge for a nice, quiet, collected lady like Barbara who would much rather write her tender little ballads and pop ditties. She bravely braces herself for the ungrateful task and does what she can — yet even if the results are perfectly listenable, there is hardly any reason for us to get too excited about these takes on ʽTwist And Shoutʼ and ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ, with their energy level well suited to the ambience of a contemporary teen-oriented TV show, but never reaching the requirements of a truly sweaty, gritty R&B workout. In other words, ʽTwist And Shoutʼ here is far more about twisting than shouting, and the infamous moaning sex bits on ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ would probably satisfy the most conservative parents, so far removed they are from, you know... the real thing.

I have absolutely no idea how Atlantic, a label that was generally known for its good marketing sense, could have thrown away money on such a hopeless project — making the star of ʽHello Strangerʼ cover Jimmy Reed's ʽShame, Shame, Shameʼ was pretty much the equivalent of some genius marketologist telling Simon & Garfunkel, "hey boys, that ʽSound Of Silenceʼ thing was so cool, now how about you covering some of those British Invasion hits for us, like ʽYou Really Got Meʼ and ʽMy Generationʼ?" The only way for Barbara Lewis to succeed was with original material suited to her quietly reserved personality; instead, she is challenged with the impossible task of having to stand up to the belting of James Brown and to the gospel-pop vibes of Sam Cooke. She is a good girl, and she had a good backing band, but this has got to go down in his­tory as one of the most ridiculous gaffes in Atlantic's history in the Sixties. Thumbs down.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Metamorphosis

THE ROLLING STONES: METAMORPHOSIS (1975)

1) Out Of Time; 2) Don't Lie To Me; 3) Some Things Just Stick In Your Head; 4) Each And Every Day Of The Year; 5) Heart Of Stone; 6) I'd Much Rather Be With The Boys; 7) (Walkin' Thru The) Sleepy City; 8) We're Wastin' Time; 9) Try A Little Harder; 10) I Don't Know Why; 11) If You Let Me; 12) Jiving Sister Fanny; 13) Downtown Suzie; 14) Family; 15) Memo From Turner; 16) I'm Going Down.

Although this was technically a compilation rather than a regular album, and although it was, in­deed, quite «out of time» by the standards and fashions of 1975, and although the actual Rolling Stones had very little to do with its release (it was more of an Allen Klein / Andrew Loog Old­ham project), Metamorphosis still deserves more than just a passing mention. To date, it remains the only officially released (though not officially endorsed by Mick and Keith) collection of early Stones outtakes — and even if it was, first and foremost, a money-grabbin' cash-in, its appearance on the market precisely at the time when the Stones had just landed their first serious artistic crisis was quite a miraculous coincidence.

Indeed, even if there is relatively little greatness to be found among this bunch of demos and out­takes (on many of which the Stones do not even play their instruments — there are several demos here that were written by Mick and Keith for other artists and played by session musicians), many of them compare quite favorably to the state of mind the Glimmer Twins were in when they were producing It's Only Rock'n'Roll. There, in 1974, you had your wasted rock stars, defeated and humiliated by their own excesses; and here, in 1975, you get a glimpse at the same artists before they were rock stars — seriously fresh, a little naïve, and still willing to experiment with all sorts of songwriting styles before comfortably settling in the Rock paradigm. So what's better — a new album from seasoned, but wasted pros, or a bunch of questionable-quality outtakes from young aspiring disciples of the craft?..

Actually, I'm not sure, but at least it is definitely more curious to take a look at this «alternate career retrospective» than it is to see how safely predictable the band eventually became. And curious — to review not only the paths that they had reliably trodden, but also those paths that they ultimately rejected. ʽSome Things Just Stick In Your Mindʼ, one of their earliest composi­tions that was recorded during the sessions for the first album, for instance, sounds like a country-western reinvention of ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ — which was enough to peddle it to the American duo Dick And Dee Dee (and later get it covered by Vashti Bunyan), but not enough to dare come out with their own version. ʽEach And Every Day Of The Yearʼ, given to another little-known American artist, Bobby Jameson, is a strange ballad with a distinctly Spanish twang — bolero rhythms, matador horns, ecstatic strings — the likes of which you will never encounter in the Stones' catalog proper. ʽ(Walkin' Thru The) Sleepy Cityʼ, released by the even more obscure British band The Mighty Avengers, is an embryonic example of upbeat Kinksy Brit-pop from a time when the Kinks hadn't even invented Brit-pop yet — and we're still only talking about 1964, mind you, when the Stones themselves were mostly covering Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed.

Now I'm not saying any of these tunes were masterpieces, but one thing they do show is that the pop song explosion of the Stones in 1966 did not happen overnight: apparently, they spent quite a bit of time training and honing their skills. In addition, there are some less surprising cuts from those early years, as they also tried their luck at mind-numbingly repetitive R&B (ʽTry A Little Harderʼ) and romantic country-western (ʽWe're Wastin' Timeʼ); the most predictable of these selections is a nasty-cool cover of Chuck Berry's ʽDon't Lie To Meʼ (probably shelved because the melodically similar ʽRoute '66ʼ turned out to be far superior), and the most historically treasu­rable one is a version of ʽHeart Of Stoneʼ with Jimmy Page on lead guitar (not surprisingly, I far prefer Keith's final solo on the original release — Jimmy was not quite able to latch on to the required vibe here, pulling the song in a different direction).

After a chronological break, the second half of the record is largely given over to outtakes from 1968-69, mostly around the Let It Bleed era — in theory, this could be a blessing, but in practice, they are mostly jamming pieces on which Richards and Taylor were getting used to each other, so stuff like ʽJiving Sister Fannyʼ and ʽI'm Going Downʼ is required listening only for big fans of the Stones sound in general. More interesting is ʽDowntown Suzieʼ, a sloppy piece of acoustic bar­room rock with Ry Cooder on slide guitar — I'm fairly sure some people would have easily wel­comed it in the place of ʽCountry Honkʼ, but with those ridiculously low, Zappa-like "yeah, yeah, yeah"'s and all, it's a bit too novelty-like. (I'm also pretty sure that this tune later got reworked into ʽCasino Boogieʼ on Exile, so they salvaged at least the main bulk of the melody). Even more interesting is a cover of Stevie Wonder's ʽI Don't Know Whyʼ, also recorded during the Let It Bleed sessions but stylistically predating the «lazy sinner gospel» style on Exile — and with a great Mick Taylor slide solo to boot; unfortunately, they aborted the process midway through, so the song cheats on you, repeating its last minute twice.

The most interesting tune on the second part, however, is ʽFamilyʼ, an acoustic outtake from Beggars' Banquet with some melodic and atmospheric similarity to ʽSister Morphineʼ — and a set of lyrics that contains more direct stern social critique than the entirety of the album. I think they pulled the plug on that one because they thought it was too Dylanesque — but on the other hand, that did not prevent them from releasing ʽJig-Saw Puzzleʼ that was even more Dylanesque lyrically, and these here lyrics are damn sharper: "What exactly's gonna happen / When he's finally realized / That he can't play his guitar like E. G. Jim (sic! no idea who they mean — G.S.) / Or write St. Augustine if he tried". Of course, ʽSister Morphineʼ ended up creepier, but this is Mick at his best as a lyricist — and, for my money, the line about the father finding out that "his virgin daughter has bordello dreams" actually goes way beyond "I can see that you're fifteen years old" in terms of dark disturbance.

Throw in an early demo for Mick's solo piece of verbal offense, ʽMemo From Turnerʼ (from Performance, a movie whose relevance largely ended with the cessation of demand for Anita Pallenberg's tits — these days, it looks like a rather clumsy and boringly artificial amplification of Jagger's «Satanic» myth), and the collection takes on a decidedly two-faced look: first, the Rol­ling Stones as innocent providers of pop fodder for pop fodder artists — next, the Rolling Stones as the «Bad Boys Extraordinaire» in the twilight of the Sixties. Which kinda sorta explains the Metamorphosis title, if not the silly sleeve art with its gratuitous Kafka-esque allusions. Regard­less, this is essentially a hackjob, rather than a thoughtfully assembled collection of undeservedly forgotten minor treasures — yet still perfectly listenable, because even at their worst the Stones could still have decent songwriting ideas and/or a juicy rock'n'roll sand; and certainly well worth knowing for both seasoned Stones fans and those who are in need of learning more about the breadth and scope of their artistic reach, so as not to peg them away as the "it's only rock'n'roll, but I like it" kind of band.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Angel Olsen: My Woman

ANGEL OLSEN: MY WOMAN (2016)

1) Intern; 2) Never Be Mine; 3) Shut Up Kiss Me; 4) Give It Up; 5) Not Gonna Kill You; 6) Heart Shaped Face; 7) Sister; 8) Those Were The Days; 9) Woman; 10) Pops.

Third time's the charm, I guess... but then, Olsen did try to pull all the stops in order to attract attention this time around — on My Woman (and no, she's not a lesbian, the title is supposed to read like «the woman in me» or something like that), she dumps the log cabin for an abandoned palace, expan­ding in style, ambition, and production values as if there was a Phil Spector behind her back. Ac­tually, not just Phil Spector: My Woman has a real hodge-podge of influences, ranging from synth-pop to Sixties' girl groups to Stevie Nicks to Neil Young, yet all the songs are still tied together conceptually with Olsen's lyrics and vocal delivery that logically continue and develop what she'd begun on the first two records. Now if only we could find the right words to define and describe what she'd begun on the first two records...

I suppose it's really all about confusion, in the end. Once again, some people will speak about the loneliness and depression of the record, but I do believe it is mostly about finding the real me — the very first song goes "doesn't matter who you are or what you've done / still got to wake up and be someone" — and the stylistic mix agrees with that, as Olsen jumps from one musical paradigm into another as if she were trying out an endless wardrobe, lost in the dazzling array of fashions, sizes, and colors. For her, this is way better (and probably more honest) than assuming one particular image, glossing it up and sticking to it — this is why, even if ʽInternʼ sounds a lot like Lana Del Rey, it is much better than any Lana Del Rey song because it still feels more natu­ral, humble, and earthy than Lana's manipulative-theatrical cheapness.

The specific thematic particularities of these songs — does she get her man? is she losing her man? is she mistreating her man? is she being mistreated by her man? is she in favor or against free love? is she gay? etc. etc. — do not fascinate me any more than did the themes of her Cohen / Mitchell phase; honestly, you do not need Angel Olsen as your spiritual guru through the world of personal relations. I simply prefer to interpret My Woman as a record that poses more ques­tions than it gives answers ("I dare you to understand what makes me a woman", she belts out on the title track, but it is never clear that she herself understands that), a brooding stream of con­sciousness that sometimes clothes itself in pop hooks and sometimes just in sonic atmosphere, but at least does so with a sufficient degree of energy, diversity, and good taste to keep me involved: something that was barely possible on the previous two albums.

According to Olsen herself, the album was structured as a two-part LP: shorter, tighter, hookier pop songs on the first side and longer, looser, more atmospheric rants and broodings on the se­cond one. Most likely, this was a move calculated to attract more listeners (no wonder she did not choose to reverse the order — had ʽSisterʼ and ʽWomanʼ been the first tracks, many would pro­bably not have the stimulus to keep on listening), but since this is a personality-driven record, the difference between the two batches is not really that crucial. For instance, the cool thing about ʽShut Up Kiss Meʼ is not that its melody echoes themes of the Ronettes and the Shirelles — it is that these themes are given a solid reworking, as Olsen forces her love on the other guy rather than pleads for it: the "shut up, kiss me, hold me tight!" hook is delivered in such a nervously sped up manner as could never have been considered proper for any of the classic girl groups. I am still unsure of how sincere this stuff is, or if Angel herself understands properly what it is she is trying to communicate, but it is a brave attempt at taking a good old sound and adapting it for the purposes of the 21st century woman, regardless of whether it succeeds or not.

The best song on the first half, as far as I'm concerned, is ʽNot Gonna Kill Youʼ, which survives as an emotional crescendo — melodically, it seems to borrow inspiration from The Who, with lots of choppy chords and a nearly-mad percussion track, but vocally, it features a gradual trans­formation of the singer into a disembodied ghost: the line "'til I'm nothing else but the feeling" is followed by a realisation of that promise, and it's cool — she soars, she echoes, she howls, she goes from bright to dark, it's a pretty darn awesome performance, even a little scary, although she does try to reassure us that "it's not gonna kill you, it's not gonna break you, it's just gonna shake you", as if coaxing us into taking a roller coaster ride. Does she sound possessed or what? Well, at this level she probably still wouldn't be able to stand up to the levels of Janis or Patti Smith, but she still passes the screamer test with flying colors.

Whether or not you will be ready to accept the longer tracks is another matter. ʽSisterʼ clearly channels the spirit of Tusk-era Stevie Nicks — she even seems to sing with the same nasal rasp that Stevie had at the time, even though, being cocaine-free, Angel probably has more of an actual nose — but her guitar player ain't no Lindsey Buckingham, and the messy guitar jam at the end of the song just adds confusion, rather than emotional uplift. ʽWomanʼ is better, if you get through the first few minutes — eventually, the vocals become anthemic and banshee-like, and the lead guitar begins playing a grim, jagged, psycho-bluesy pattern that's somewhere in between Neil Young and Bardo Pond, though, again, neither reaching the ecstatic heights of the former nor plunging to the grimy, trance-inducing depths of the latter. All in all, I'd say she tries to bite off far more than she can chew on these «epics» — but at least she doesn't exactly fall flat on her face, which is already a big plus.

Towards the end, she returns once more to her beloved minimalism: ʽPopsʼ bobs up and down on two heavily sustained piano chords and seems to tell us that it didn't work out after all — no won­der, because if the real life Angel Olsen is at least half of her lyrical heroine, dating her would probably be a nightmare even for Socrates — but then again, we're never ever even sure of what exactly it was that did not work out. "I'll be the thing that lives in the dream when it's gone", she concludes, which is probably exactly the way I'm going to remember her once this review is over: clearly, there was something here, but it's almost impossible to put your finger on it, or even to tell if you felt sympathetic towards the artist or not.

I feel reasonably secure about giving the record a thumbs up, because here is a serious musical effort from an artist who has mastered the art of making her personality override that of her many influences — something that was still far from clear on the previous two records. Unfortunately, I am still under the impression that this personality is overblown way out of proportion: too many of her ideas on the musical/lyrical disclosure of «Love as Transcendental Power Equally Capable of Creation and Destruction» seem to be realized in a theatrical and exaggerated manner. Or, roughly speaking, if this is art rock, then the compositional and musical side of it leaves a lot to be desired — but if this is pop, it takes itself much too seriously. Still, there's no denying that a bigger and brasher sound, as well as stylistic diversity, helped her make the whole thing far more listenable, and it doesn't hurt, either, that in her role of the Ice Queen she at least treated us to some impressive blizzards here, rather than just sit and sulk motionless on her ice throne. Now, do you think it would be too much to ask her for a creative reinterpretation of the Ramones' ʽI Wanna Be Your Boyfriendʼ for her next project?..

Friday, February 17, 2017

Carly Rae Jepsen: Kiss

CARLY RAE JEPSEN: KISS (2012)

1) Tiny Little Bows; 2) This Kiss; 3) Call Me Maybe; 4) Curiosity; 5) Good Time; 6) More Than A Memory; 7) Turn Me Up; 8) Hurt So Good; 9) Beautiful; 10) Tonight I'm Getting Over You; 11) Guitar String / Wedding Ring; 12) Your Heart Is A Muscle; 13*) Drive; 14*) Wrong Feels So Right; 15*) Sweetie; 16*) I Know You Have A Girl­friend; 17*) Almost Said It; 18*) Melt With You.

Call me arrogant, but I would like to make a bit of a difference in this world by saying that ʽCall Me Maybeʼ flat out sucks. I totally do not buy into the "yes, so it's fluffy, silly, and bubblegummy, but it's so CUTE! so CATCHY! so INNOCENT!" logic that I see espoused by many, many people, some of whom list Claude Debussy, Miles Davis, and Jeff Beck on their list of interests. Yes, sometime around late 2011 / early 2012 this track did take the world by storm, largely due to Justin Bieber promoting it (he totally would, too), and it does stick in your head fairly tightly upon one or two listens — largely because of the sharp production and obstinate repetitiveness of the chorus. Which does not prevent it from being a piece of crap.

I am not going to hold the fact that Carly Rae Jepsen was 26 years old when she wrote the song against her. For sure, Paul McCartney was working on The White Album and Brian Wilson had Pet Sounds and SMiLE behind his back at the age of 26, but there is nothing inherently wrong about people being stuck in a bubbly teenage warp for decades, certainly not in the 21st century, unless they are totally faking it, and it does not look like Carly is faking anything — on the con­trary, she sounds like she is totally reveling in this new, simplistic, primitive electro-pop vibe that seems to be influ­enced by the kawaii attitude of J-pop more than anything else. I mean, some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, and what's wrong with that? I need to know. Cause I just met you. And this is crazy.

I am, however, going to insist that the song is annoying as hell. One thing that could be great about early teen pop from the dawn of the Sixties is that, as innocent and sentimental as it was, it had a certain rebellious streak about it — even something like ʽSurfin'ʼ by the Beach Boys, which might not seem like something far superior melodically to ʽCall Me Maybeʼ, offered a tiny bit of a rock'n'roll challenge and an air of energy and freshness that captivated the young generation and set it apart from their parents. Later on, these same silly teen pop songs became fields for melodic and stylistic experimentation. Still much later on, with the advent of dance-pop and people like Madonna, although the emphasis once again shifted from melody to groove and visual presen­tation, the rebellious fire was rekindled on a new basis. But ʽCall Me Maybeʼ has none of these advantages whatsoever. It sounds silly without being ironic; catchy without being melodic; joy­ful without being motivated. I do not doubt for a second that there is a sound place in the 21st cen­tury for simple, silly pop, but this brand of simple, silly pop — especially presented in such an in-yer-face, obnoxious manner — is maybe just one step away from the likes of Rebecca Black. In fact, why was Rebecca Black so derided and Carly Rae Jepsen so praised? What exactly makes "It's Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday" so inferior to "Here's my number, so call me maybe"? If anything, at least Rebecca Black's lyrics thoroughly trump Carly Rae Jepsen in the grammatical department.

Honestly, I don't think that «normalizing» stuff like this (in the «come on, lighten up, it's just a fun pop song!» manner) is in any way more acceptable than «normalizing» racist talk and waterboar­ding — and I don't think that it is acceptable to see "here's my number, call me maybe" as 2012's answer to 1963's "she loves you yeah yeah yeah", either. Even completely vapor-headed, superficial bubblegum can still have inventive melodic potential or show a sense of humor; ʽCall Me Maybeʼ rides on four pseudo-string notes and takes itself pseudo-seriously, and I can't believe I already spent that much space and time writing about that shitty tune anyway.

The problem is not solved at all by having the other eleven songs scattered around ʽCall Me May­beʼ all sounding like its ideological and musical brethren. The distorted vocal sample of Sam Cooke's ʽTiny Little Bowsʼ that opens the record is, at best, just a superfluous quotation (if your song contains the word "bow", that is hardly a sufficient reason to sample a song that goes "Cu­pid, draw back your bow"), and at worst, a disgrace — I mean, where is Sam Cooke and where is Carly Rae Jepsen? And that production stile... don't even get me started. Yes, I know that mind-numbing techno beats and soulless robotic one-note synth patterns have been «normalized» even by much of the critically-minded population, but... no. Just no.

The second most popular song from the album was ʽGood Timeʼ, a duet with Owl City (and as such, also released on Owl City's Midsummer Station album) which — I do insist — is not one iota better than the Rebecca Black song, with which it even shares the main topic this time (partying partying YEAH!). Everything about it sucks — the lyrics, the vocals, the groove, the relentless pounding of the chorus hook, the fake steroidal optimism, the implied admonition to check your brain in the cloakroom before hitting the dance floor. Okay, so happy party anthems are not exactly my thing in the first place (I was never a big fan of KISS' ʽRock And Roll All Nightʼ, either), but happy party anthems that play it so clean and harmless make me feel trapped in a kindergarten.

Is there anything redeeming about this record (and I haven't even mentioned the inevitably vomit-inducing duet with Justin Bieber on ʽBeautifulʼ)? I honestly don't think so, and I have even been patient enough to sit through all the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition (spoiler: most of them are even more horrible than the regular inclusions). Some critics have raved about Carly's girl-next-door personality, but why should we get excited these days over a girl-next-door image, parti­cularly when the girl in question wishes to know nothing that goes above and beyond the con­cept of «having a good time»? It is true that she has intentionally cultivated an image here that steps away from the glitz and extravagance of her main competition in the bullshit-pop department, but there is nothing of interest whatsoever in that image, and the corny, glossy arrangements of her trivial hooks ruin all the «naturalness» anyway (besides, even visually she still looks like a fa­shion-obsessed doll rather than a plain clothes girl).

And no, I am definitely not pretending to dislike this out of some intellectual snobbery — thirty minutes of this music actually does give me a physical headache and leaves me wide open and vulnerable to in­doctrination by Scientology, the Islamic State, and Ray-Ban sunglasses, so excuse me if I rush this off with a well-timed thumbs down and hurry away to take a good dose of some powerfully intellectual antidote. Like Surfin' Safari by The Beach Boys. Or Boney M's Night­flight To Venus. Heck, even some Phil Collins will do. By the way, if you're making parodies or something, please take some time to craft an X-rated zombie version of "we don't even have to try, it's always a good time" — now that's something I wouldn't mind enjoying.