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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Caravan: Caravan & The New Symphonia

CARAVAN: CARAVAN & THE NEW SYMPHONIA (1974)

1) Introduction; 2) Mirror For The Day; 3) The Love In Your Eye; 4) Virgin On The Ridiculous; 5) For Richard.

«Do it with an orchestra» was quite a heavy trend back in the days when symphonic rock was king, although, when you really think about it, not that many heavyweights actually went for this: Deep Purple in 1969, Procol Harum in 1972, and... well, ELP and Renaissance joined in some­what later, I guess. Essentially, though, this Caravan album repeats the formula of Procol Harum's Live With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: use the symphonic potential of the orchestra to enhance the effect of originally non-orchestrated material, rather than blend it with the rock group format in some particularly innovative, genre-fusing way (like Deep Purple did, albeit with questionable results). Not that this is a bad idea: Caravan's highly melodic and already classically influenced melodies seem like a natural fit with symphonic orchestration, and, in fact, the whole idea seemingly came out not out of the desire to jump on the Procol Harum bandwagon, but out of the experience of working with a full orchestra on the Plump In The Night sessions.

I have not been able to uncover any additional activities of this «New Symphonia» orchestra, but I do know that it was essentially the creation of conductor Martyn Ford, who had already specia­lized in working with contemporary non-classical musicians, and that the orchestral ʽIntroduc­tionʼ here was credited to Simon Jeffes, founder and leader of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra — meaning that, unlike Procol Harum, who could actually afford an authentic classical orchestra to work with them, Caravan went along with relative neophytes and barrier-breakers. Nevertheless, an orchestra is an orchestra, and you won't be hearing any classical musicians trying out rock riffs during this concert.

The recently released expanded edition of the album shows that the actual performance consisted of a short first set, during which the band played highlights from the Plump In The Night album on its own; a larger second set with the orchestra, all of which was released on the original LP; and an encore of ʽA Hunting We Shall Goʼ, for which the orchestra stayed on to reproduce the original arrangement (although, as the liner notes state with a whiff of reproach, not before a little blackmail-and-bluff took place backstage, since the musicians wanted their pay enlarged for the encore, and only went ahead after Pye threatened they'd do it without them anyway). The main set, apart from the already mentioned ʽIntroductionʼ, included two new compositions written specially for the concert, and two old multi-part epics, perfectly suitable for orchestration — not a lot, really, but I guess that budget concerns played a large part in this, too.

So, how well does Caravan work with an orchestra? I'd say that this is a good match on the whole, especially as far as the bombastic instrumental passages on the epic numbers are concerned, such as the martial brass fanfares in ʽThe Love In Your Eyeʼ and the last, hard-rocking, movement of the ʽFor Richardʼ suite, where the orchestra replaces Sinclair's distorted organ riffs. The new arrangements are not necessarily better, but the orchestra does lend extra romanticist power to the material without dumbing it down; in a way, one might even argue that The New Symphonia is really that one last crucial ingredient they'd always needed to evolve into a massively powerful music-making machine — the catch is, it's far from certain that they ever needed to evolve into a massively powerful machine, but if you thought they did, here is where they do, or at least come fairly close to doing. Pye's thin, frail, slightly effeminate voice almost feels a bit pitiful against this massive background, though — perhaps they should have hired Ian Gillan for this night... then again, perhaps not. At least his mike stayed in good shape.

Of the two new compositions I have to say that ʽMirror For The Dayʼ is a lush sentimental pop ballad in Pye's already fully-crystallized style (presaging more and more of this material on the band's next records), made somewhat more distinct by using a background vocalist choir with gospel overtones; and ʽVirgin On The Ridiculousʼ is mostly memorable for its self-explanatory title — otherwise, it is an even slower, longer, and more pompous ballad without any particularly notable musical ideas. However, in both cases the synergy between the band and the orchestra is well-balanced, and on ʽVirginʼ at least, much of the main melody is provided by strings in the first place (except for the instrumental bridge, dominated by the organ), so we can all just take this as rehearsal materials for Pye Hastings' Canterbury Oratorio.

Naturally, this is not an essential release to have in your collection, and naturally, it is atypical of the usual Caravan live sound — with which you can easily acquaint yourself on ten thousand archival releases from the BBC and various venues — but on the whole, it's an intelligent and resonant fusion, in which the power and the subtlety of the orchestra are anything but wasted. And I even like the ʽIntroductionʼ, especially the clever way in which the orchestra first intro­duces itself with an impressionist piece, then passes the baton over to the band for some blues-rock jamming, then smartly fills in the gaps around the band to become one with them: that Simon Jeffes is one darn fine fella when it comes to synthesizing rock with classical. So, overall, this is a very easy thumbs up for me, and a moderately tasteful success for Caravan in the year when clouds began seriously darkening around the pillars of the symph-rock movement.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The 5th Dimension: Up, Up And Away

THE 5TH DIMENSION: UP, UP AND AWAY (1967)

1) Up, Up And Away; 2) Another Day, Another Heartache; 3) Which Way To Nowhere; 4) California My Way; 5) Misty Roses; 6) Go Where You Wanna Go; 7) Never Gonna Be The Same; 8) Pattern People; 9) Rosecrans Blvd.; 10) Learn How To Fly; 11) Poor Side Of Town.

Although The 5th Dimension never had a proper artistic agenda of their own, they weren't exactly an «artificially marketed» group like The Monkees, either: the five members found each other in the early Sixties and had been operating as a Motown-style vocal group some time before they were spotted by Motown man Marc Gordon and self-made man Johnny Rivers. They were not songwriters, and they were not musicians — just three guys and two girls who found it inspira­tional to pool their vocals together in the old barbershop tradition, but also perfectly ready to adapt to modern times and fashions.

Having secured a managerial contract with Gordon and a recording contract with Rivers' small-scale Soul City label, the group's true stroke of luck was getting a very young and still largely unknown — ʽMacArthur Parkʼ was more than a year away — Jimmy Webb to oversee the recor­ding sessions for their first album, including complete control of the arrangements and about half of the songs written by himself. The result, though ridiculed by many in the past and still ignored by many in the present, was unique: a psychedelic sunshine pop album from a group deeply rooted in soul, gospel, and R&B — basically, Afro-American music strained through a Mamas & Papas filter and re-converted back to Afro-American music.

In 1967, people with good taste scoffed at this stuff, and for a good reason: this «psychedelia-lite», totally timid and inoffensive and acceptable for parents and grandparents and housewives and hillbillies all over the country (they quickly became one of Ed Sullivan's famous bands, which is way more than you could say about the Stones or the Doors), sounded complacent, conformist, and corny even compared to the Mamas & Papas, let alone all the «sharper» outfits out there, from Hendrix to the Jefferson Airplane — nor did The 5th Dimension offer the loud and rowdy punch of genuine Motown. In fact, you could have hardly committed a worse crime in 1967 than borrow the superficial trademarks of newly emerging music and water them down to the level of «respectable family entertainment». Nevertheless, once again, time heals all wounds, and now that the revolutionary scent of the late Sixties has passed into the domain of ancient history, we can give the band a fair assessment based on certain, let's say, more «permanent» values of music-making.

As a matter of fact, Up, Up And Away, the band's debut, is a pretty good record. With a well-polished and perfectly coordinated bunch of male and female singers; a professional and tasteful backing of studio musicians, including many members of The Wrecking Crew such as Hal Blaine and Larry Knechtel; a talented young songwriter providing the bulk of the material; and a decent choice in covers for the rest of the record — really, the only thing that one could accuse The 5th Dimension of is an overdose of happiness and an aversion to risk-taking, and wouldn't these accusations sound sort of silly in the 21st century? Oh, and a few of these songs suck, too, but only a few of them — and it's not as if «filler-proof» were a defining feature of all the genuinely psychedelic masterpieces of the epoch, either (mumble mumble mumble Grateful Dead mumble mumble mumble...).

The band's first choice of a single wasn't particularly auspicious: a note-for-note perfect cover of the Mamas & Papas' ʽGo Where You Wanna Goʼ — a great song for sure, and one perfectly adapted for the purposes of The 5th Dimension, but somehow, the combined vocal powers of Florence LaRue and Marilyn McCoo were not enough to beat the combination of Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass for sheer power, and the only good that came out of this is that they actually did make a hit record out of the song, even as it attached the stigma of «Afro-American clones of the Mamas & Papas» to the band (not entirely unjustified). However, the second single corrected this obvious wrong, featuring an original P. F. Sloan composition, ʽAnother Day, Another Heartacheʼ — an equally perfect sunshine pop anthem with a cool male/female break­down of the vocals and a wonderfully polyphonic coda ride (Al Casey's sitar-ish «eastern sounds» are quite gratuituously placed, though).

Finally, Jimmy Webb himself steps in with the title track, providing The 5th Dimension with their first and one of their best known programmatic anthems. Reducing the escapist and psyche­delic ideals of the day to the so-innocent-I-could-just-puke allegory of riding "up, up and away in my beautiful balloon", it creates an atmosphere of almost Sesame Street-like cuddliness with all its strings, flutes, trumpets, and falsettos (heck, it was so cuddly that Bing Crosby himself would agree to cover it on his 1968 Thoroughly Modern album)... but whenever you're in the mood for some lukewarm cuddliness with a steady beat, few songs really beat this one for efficiency; I only wish fewer commercials would use it for their crass purposes, though I do admit it does sound like a ready-made commercial jingle from the start. Like that ʽI'd Like To Teach The World To Singʼ thing for Coca-Cola, you know.

Of the other four Webb songs here, ʽPattern Peopleʼ is a nice mash-up between a folk-rocker (verses) and doo-wop (chorus) with another complex, multi-layered vocal harmony arrangement that rivals The Mamas & Papas as well as The Beach Boys; ʽRosecrans Blvd.ʼ is basically a prequel to ʽMcArthur Parkʼ, with a similar multi-part structure and a similar sentimental message based on a toponym — only three times as short and not nearly as pompous; and ʽWhich Way To Nowhereʼ and ʽNever Gonna Be The Sameʼ are somewhat mediocre ballads, respectively male-led and fe­male-led, that are mainly recommendable for the excellent musicianship, but aren't particularly memorable otherwise. On the other hand, they also cover two songs by the somewhat underrated Willie Hutch — ʽCalifornia My Wayʼ is clearly inspired and influenced by ʽCalifornia Dreamingʼ (the line "California here I come" even has the exact same modulation on "California" as it has in the M&P song), but is really an autonomous composition in its own right, combining melancholia and sunshine where the M&P song was all about melancholia; and ʽLearn How To Flyʼ (more songs about flying! more songs about flying!) is simply infectious, catchy, fast-paced pop that is quite impossible to condemn.

As they end the album with a respectful nod to the man who gave them their contract, Johnny Rivers — this time, they go smart and release a near-accappella version of ʽPoor Side Of Townʼ that allows them to show their strongest side without sounding like superfluous clones of the artists they are covering — I have to admit that, as lollypop-ish and bubblegum-ish all these songs sound to a pair of ears weaned on so much stronger stuff, almost all of these songs have a lot to offer: great singing, strong musicianship, catchy hooks, and, yes, a jet of corny happiness that is perfectly acceptable if it goes along with all of these things. So what if they got themselves named after a Byrds album without any solid proof that they were capable of going beyond the second dimension, let alone the fifth one? As long as we do not make the mistake of ranking them as equals with the major psychedelic artists of the time (just as we probably wouldn't want to equate The Monkees with The Beatles, unless only as a defiant hooligan act in the face of the critical establishment), Up, Up And Away deserves its thumbs up as securely as any well-meaning, well-written, well-produced cash-in on current musical trends that compensates for lack of originality or individual artistic message with honest skill and craft. Oh, there was plenty of such imitative acts in 1967 that genuinely sucked — but The 5th Dimension sure weren't one of them, not by a long shot.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Vol. 1 - 1940-1941

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: VOL. 1: 1940-1941 (2009)

1) Gamblin' Man Blues; 2) Warehouse Man Blues; 3) Chain Gang Blues; 4) New Low Down Dog; 5) Black Woman Swing; 6) Cabbage Greens No. 1; 7) Cabbage Greens No. 2; 8) Angola Blues; 9) My Cabin Inn; 10) Bad Health Blues; 11) That's All Right; 12) Gibing Blues; 13) Dupree Shake Dance; 14) My Baby's Gone; 15) Weed Head Woman; 16) Junker Blues; 17) Oh, Red; 18) All Alone Blues; 19) Big Time Mama; 20) Shady Lane; 21) Hurry Down Sunshine; 22) Jackie P Blues; 23) Heavy Heart Blues; 24) Morning Tea; 25) Black Cow Blues.

William Thomas Dupree was quite an interesting character back in his days — for one thing, it's not that often that a musician temporarily abandons his career to become a boxer, which he did in the late 1920s and from which he gained his "Champion Jack" nickname. Eventually, he got beat up, and since that happened at about the same time that he crossed paths with fellow blues pianist Leroy Carr, he seemingly decided that punching them keys was, after all, a safer job than pun­ching faces — nevertheless, he was smart enough to keep the "Champion" moniker for PR rea­sons, even if there was hardly anything champion-like about his playing the blues.

Well, one thing that does look champion-like is the sheer quantity of recordings that the man had done: spanning the pre-war era of shellac 78"s and onwards all the way until his death in 1992, he kept pumping out product at a breathless pace, despite never having shown any compositional genius or truly outstanding musicianship. Hunting down all of his mammoth discography is a nearly hopeless and, most importantly, thoroughly ungrateful task. That said, there is nothing particularly unpleasant about his style either: in small doses, Champion Jack Dupree is always palatable, and his historical importance cannot be denied.

Most of the man's pre-LP-era output is now conveniently available in the form of a 4-volume CD package, released in 2009 on the JSP label and annotated by blues expert Neil Slaven; since these 4 volumes cover more than a decade of music-making, I will comment on each separately, even if you can probably guess that the Champion's style did not evolve too seriously over those years. That style is simple — blues and boogie piano playing, with minimal accompaniment: on the first 17 tracks here, the only additional player is bassist Wilson Swain, with guitarist Jesse Ellery joining the duo for the last eight. Dupree is a fun player, a decent entertainer, but with fairly simple technique (well, I guess you can't easily combine piano practice with a boxing career) and a nice, but unexceptional, singing voice, so there's not much difference between all these tracks, except for the base patterns — here he plays slow 12-bar, there he plays fast barrelhouse boogie, and here he... oh no, not another slow 12-bar?...

Anyway, there are a few tracks here that still deserve special mention. ʽCabbage Greensʼ, recor­ded here in two slightly different versions, is a variation on the old ʽCow Cow Bluesʼ boogie that most people probably know as Ray Charles' ʽMess Aroundʼ — and this gives us a good pretext to compare Dupree's playing with Ray himself, not to mention its more than obvious influence on a certain white guy named Jerry Lee Lewis: make the necessary chronological adjustments and you will see that this is as wild as it gets for 1940, just as Jerry Lee was as wild as it could get for 1956. In terms of fun and recklessness, he clearly beats Leroy Carr (who wasn't much about rompin' and stompin') and is closer in style to Pete Johnson, the notorious sidekick of Big Joe Turner, although I'd say that Dupree's playing is rowdier and more «populist», whatever that could mean under the circumstances.

More importantly, there's ʽJunker Bluesʼ here, written by Dupree's piano mentor Willie Hall (better known under the professional moniker of Drive 'Em Down) and, as far as I understand, originally recorded by Dupree himself. This one is particularly important for launching the career of Fats Domino nine years later — when he borrowed the melody wholesale and changed the controversial lyrics from "They call me, they call me the junker / Cause I'm loaded all the time" to the far safer "They call me, they call me the fat man / Cause I weigh two hundred pounds". If you had any doubts, the song goes on to be loaded with references to reefer, cocaine, needles, and feeling high, so god bless good old OKeh records for having the guts to release it in 1940, when, apparently, middle-class white audiences were not the target audience for this kind of stuff.

For that matter, the very titles of the songs alone show that Champion Jack was not the kind of guy to shy away from socially relevant topics and spend all his time on woman issues: there's ʽChain Gang Bluesʼ, there's ʽAngola Bluesʼ (referring to Louisiana State Penitentiary, not the African country), and there's ʽWeed Head Womanʼ (hmm, is this one more of a woman issue or a weed issue?). As time goes by (and the Champ's slowly rising popularity makes him more of a household name), these rough subjects do get more and more eclipsed by standard, polite-mouthed blues thematics, though, and ʽJunker Bluesʼ becomes ʽHeavy Heart Bluesʼ, with a slight accompanying drop in tempo and energy. Still, on the other hand, he gives Leroy Carr's ʽHurry Down Sunshineʼ a faster and rockier spin (as well as a completely different set of lyrics), meaning that, even if he was willing to tone down the scathingness of the words, the same did not apply to the boogie power of the music.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You

THE ROLLING STONES: TATTOO YOU (1981)

1) Start Me Up; 2) Hang Fire; 3) Slave; 4) Little T&A; 5) Black Limousine; 6) Neighbours; 7) Worried About You; 8) Tops; 9) Heaven; 10) No Use In Crying; 11) Waiting On A Friend.

But see, this is why you can never properly give up on the Stones. In 1976, they seemed gross, antiquated, and ridiculous — and they could still groove better than most of their competition. In 1978, they proved capable of riding the new trends under a bittersweet sarcastic sauce — and thus re-ensured their survivability. In 1980, they recorded a lazy album of renovated outtakes — and fell flat on their faces. What would be the next logical move? Why, naturally: record yet another album of even more deeply rooted outtakes — and end up with an absolute winner. Whoever thought that ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ was a sign of a formerly great band in its final death throes, was in for a pleasant surprise.

Not that Tattoo You could ever hope to recapture the attitudes and atmospheres of the band's golden age — even if it tried, it couldn't, and, wisely, it does not even try. In fact, Tattoo You does not try much of anything: it is oddly de-personalized, and, apart from the opening track, does not focus too significantly either on Mick's swagger or on Keith's riffage. The entire album, as it happens, was quickly cobbled together from various leftovers (mostly selected by associate producer Chris Kimsey) as an excuse to go on tour — there was no time to rethink the image, to put together a statement, to suck in any of the latest trends; the only «conceptual» element of Tattoo You, other than Mick's and Keith's Polynesian mugs on the sleeve, is the separation of the material into a «rockier» Side A and a «balladeering» Side B (which, surprisingly, turns out to be quite a good sequencing idea in this case).

And this, apparently, is precisely what they needed at the time. Already with Black & Blue, it was quite obvious that «overthinking» their records was generally a bad idea for the Stones, since it usually led them to a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude, and, consequently, to songs that sounded more like silly impersonations of others than proper Stones material. These songs, how­ever, were unearthed by Kimsey's well-discerning eye, glossed up a bit to match current produc­tion standards, and released before Jagger had a proper chance to rethink them as mock-synth-pop, pseudo-hardcore punk, or suave disco. They're just... songs.

The «rocking» side, first and foremost, is striking in terms of diversity — even on Some Girls, you had songs like ʽLiesʼ and ʽRespectableʼ that were genristic clones of each other, whereas here, all six have their own identities. ʽStart Me Upʼ, the record's best known and most radio-friendly classic, is unimpeachable as perhaps rock'n'roll's finest aerobic number — it's almost impossible to resist its stop-and-start structure, although as far as classic Stones rockers go, this one is one of their most toothless ever: it's not so much about sex per se as it is about using sex as an allegory for push-ups and sit-ups (I think even the accompanying video sort of reflected that). ʽHang Fireʼ is punk-pop like all those failed attempts on Emotional Rescue, but here it is made good by a tight, catchy structure, infectious falsetto harmonies, and a welcome return to social provocation ("In the sweet old country / Where I come from / Nobody ever works / Nothing ever gets done" — hey, that doesn't quite sound like The Clash, now does it?). And while many people seem to cringe at ʽNeighboursʼ, one of only two songs that was largely written during the sessions rather than before them, I don't get it — not only is it an extremely catchy pop rocker with great sax solos from Sonny Rollins, but it is also a hilarious look at the problem of living like a rock star in the middle of everyday people. It's tight, it's danceable, and its sneer and bark is smarter and funnier than, say, ʽSummer Romanceʼ.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's ʽSlaveʼ, a riff-based blues-rock jam dating back to the Black & Blue sessions and also featuring Sonny Rollins on the sax. Keith's riff here is probably one of the best things about the entire album: slow, gruff, loose, and mean, perhaps the slowest and gruffest since the days of ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ, and the band jams around it like crazy. Trivia bits such as Pete Townshend providing backing vocals for the sessions aren't nearly as important here as the realisation of how tough and cool the Stones could sound even on complete autopilot in the heroin-soaked mid-Seventies — and the inclusion of this track adds a nice, chilly feel of that old sexual menace, already practically non-existent on Some Girls and turned into toilet humor on Emotional Rescue. Next to this, even Side A's weakest track, the Keith Richards solo spot ʽLittle T&Aʼ, sounds more respectable than it would have on Emotional Rescue, for which it was originally recorded — texturally quite close to ʽShe's So Coldʼ, but even less poli­tically correct in terms of lyrics (even Keith Richards in 1981 can hardly be excused for referring to a lady as "my tits and ass with soul"); still, I'd rather have a dirty, but tight rocker from Keith than a shapeless sentimental ballad like ʽAll About Youʼ.

The truly neglected gem on the first side is ʽBlack Limousineʼ, a song that few people pay atten­tion to just because it is a generic 12-bar blues (16-bar blues, actually) — in reality, it is way above generic: a tight, concentrated blast of spite and loathing... self-loathing, one could even say, if you allow yourself to not interpret the song in the key of ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ (Mick taunting a former flame for wasting away her life), but as one that refers to the Glimmer Twins them­selves: "look at you and look at me!" is basically Mick addressing Keith, which is only natural, conside­ring that if you looked at Keith's face in 1981 and compared it to Mick's, you'd clearly see who of the two got more beat up by Mother Nature for a life of sin. What's even better, the whole playing team gets behind Mick — Ronnie gets a flurry, scorching solo, Ian Stewart's piano lines never sounded better, and then Mick himself blows some of the most shrill harmonica blasts since those early days. Arguably their best pure blues number here since 1972's ʽStop Breaking Downʼ, and perhaps the last great pure blues number they ever did.

The second side, meanwhile, incidentally turns out to feature a weird spiral — with three num­bers in a row that go from strange to stranger to strangest ever, far from your average platter of Rod Stewart ballads. ʽWorried About Youʼ, also dating back to the Black & Blue sessions (in fact, they'd already played it live at El Mocambo in 1977), features Mick in full-fledged falsetto mode (more accurately, slowly winding his way from falsetto to growling, handling this quite masterfully), not to mention a great solo from Wayne Perkins (the same guy who also played lead guitar on ʽHand Of Fateʼ). Then there's ʽTopsʼ, an outtake from Goats Head Soup — for some unexplainable reason, this great song was left off in favor of rubbish like ʽHide Your Loveʼ, but now it gives you a chance to hear some more lead guitar from Mick Taylor, as well as an odd mix of recited ad-libbing and sung verses; they tried to make a Spinners-style soul number out of it, but with Mick's barking and Taylor's bluesy symphonies, it becomes significantly more dark and dangerous, a ballad straight out of hell, if I might say so.

And then there's ʽHeavenʼ, which is, hands down, the weirdest piece of music from the Stones camp since... well, probably since 1967 or so. I have no idea where it came from, and even less of an idea where it is going. I know they also began recording it during the sessions for Emotional Rescue, and I'm almost glad they never put it on that album — sitting in between ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ and ʽSend It To Meʼ and all that crap. It has no Keith on it (it's mostly a Jagger / Wyman collaboration, with Bill on synth and guitars, and should have been credited as such instead of the usual Jagger / Richards credit), it almost has no discernible vocals, it's all drenched in special effects, it's totally unrecognizable as a Stones song, and it totally rules. Take the lyrics literally (once you locate the sheet, that is), and it's a love ballad: "smell of you baby, my senses be praised...". Take them figuratively, and it's a religious anthem: "nothing will harm you, no­thing will stand in your way". Disregard them completely, and the song is a bona fide psychedelic experience — is this the Rolling Stones or the Cocteau Twins? With those guitar tones, those phased vocals, the soft kaleidoscopic electronic tinkling in the background, it creates an atmos­phere of «mortally dangerous celestial beauty» that is as art-rockish as they come, and up to this day remains one of the most bizarre and overlooked sonic gems in the band's catalog.

Next to this psychedelic oddity, ʽNo Use In Cryingʼ is a return to more traditional R&B balladee­ring (and also bears an uncanny resemblance to ʽHeart Of Stoneʼ in its basic chord sequence), but the perfect final touch is ʽWaiting On A Friendʼ, a song that, for the first time since ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, ends a Stones album on a deeply positive note — though not necessarily on a deep note, considering how ʽMoonlight Mileʼ gave you the atmosphere of final blissful relaxation after a torturous journey; ʽWaiting On A Friendʼ just gives you an atmosphere of relaxation as such, and not particularly blissful — still, it might be one of those perfect, straightforward buddy anthems that get you with their simplicity and open-hearted nature (in the accompanying video, we saw this personalized in the form of Mick actually waiting for Keith down at St. Mark's Place, and it just isn't possible that anybody who saw this video at the time could have previewed the deep rift between the two that had already begun to spread open).

And really, that's what Tattoo You is all about. It's a simple, fun-lovin' record, tempered with a bit of intelligence and spiced with a couple weird surprises. There's no agenda to it, no special conceptuality, no intuitive understanding and artistic expression of their «band on the run» status as there was on Exile, and no conscious selection of songs according to the principle of «let's include this because it makes us sound like 15-year olds peeping in the girls' bathroom». There's just 45 minutes of non-stop good music, for the last time ever in Stones history. Thumbs up.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Bats: The Deep Set

THE BATS: THE DEEP SET (2017)

1) Rooftops; 2) Looking For Sunshine; 3) Rock And Pillars; 4) Walking Man; 5) No Trace; 6) Diamonds; 7) Antlers; 8) Busy; 9) Steeley Gaze; 10) Durkestan; 11) Shut Your Eyes; 12) Not So Good.

Just another six years, just another Bats album. Yes, these guys are tenacious — they really are bent on earning their «AC/DC of jangle-pop» status. Same stable lineup, same pleasant sound, and... you know, as I am listening to these songs more than three years after I'd written my last Bats review, I realize that I remember very well what the overall Bats sound used to be, but I do not remember how even a single one of those Bats songs went. Not one. Not even the very best ones that I praised in those reviews.

So I am going to make this very short — yes, I listened to The Deep Set thrice, and I liked it, and I can guarantee any Bats fan that if he/she is buying this record, he/she is buying an authentic Bats record and not a polka or a death metal or a modern classical version of The Bats. Conse­quently, you will get yourself some steady mid-tempo jangle-pop (ʽRooftopsʼ), some slow stut­tery jangle-pop (ʽLooking For Sunshineʼ), some bouncy Merseybeat jangle-pop (ʽRock And Pil­larsʼ), some heavily overdubbed mid-tempo jangle-pop (ʽWalking Manʼ), some fuzzy, sharp-edged jangle-pop (ʽNo Traceʼ), some slow jangle-pop with elements of electronica (ʽDiamondsʼ), some jangle-pop mixed with power chords and shit (ʽAntlersʼ), some jangle-pop with a busier lead guitar part than usual (ʽBusyʼ), some jangle-pop with dreamy overtones (ʽSteeley Gazeʼ), some politically-oriented jangle-pop (ʽDurkestanʼ), some adult-contemporary jangle-pop (ʽShut Your Eyesʼ), and some totally non-descript jangle-pop for the last number, because God forbid you take this record off with memories of an outstanding finale (ʽNot So Goodʼ).

Needless to say, all of this should be taken as a hearty recommendation for those Bats fans who feel themselves strong and able and are in no danger of having their stomachs pumped from an overdose of jangle-pop. Everybody else please remember that The Bats in 2017 sound exactly like The Bats in 1987, and that this is the only significant point that this record makes.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Cass McCombs: Dropping The Writ

CASS McCOMBS: DROPPING THE WRIT (2007)

1) Lionkiller; 2) Pregnant Pause; 3) That's That; 4) Petrified Forest; 5) Morning Shadows; 6) Deseret; 7) Crick In My Neck; 8) Full Moon Or Infinity; 9) Windfall; 10) Wheel Of Fortune.

I do not think this was the right way to go. I loved A — it was essentially an album of mantras, and it hypnotized me to a point, depending on how well the singer was able to fine-tune his voice to find that one perfect pitch for the mantra in question. Now, by the time he gets around to his third album, Cass McCombs presents us with his first indisputable collection of pop hooks, and, unfortunately, that just does not work too well.

ʽLionkillerʼ opens the album with a couple of seconds reprising the annoying car siren at the end of ʽAll Your Dreamsʼ — implying, allegedly, that Dropping The Writ has to be taken as a direct sequel to PREfection, but this is not really the case. ʽLionkillerʼ itself is a three-chord grunge-folk rocker, with an endlessly spinning wash cycle that seems to promise some thunderous reso­lution, but never really does — and, what is even worse, McCombs himself is reduced to the role of a boring murmurer, spinning some figuratively autobiographical jumpin'-jack-flash-in-reverse-like tale about his safe middle class upbringing, but without even once making full use of his beautiful voice. Essentially, the song's ominous atmosphere is wasted.

As we proceed further, it becomes obvious that the age of mantras has passed, and that we have entered the age of art-pop instead. That would be okay if we had outstanding musicianship, ori­ginal and memorable melodic lines, or gorgeous vocal hooks — instead, we have tasteful musi­cianship, traditional melodic lines, and such timidly understated vocal hooks that it's almost like having no vocal hooks whatsoever. First time I sat through the record, I believe the melodies just managed to slip through my perception centers altogether; second time, I had my mind nets all polished and ready, but still ended up with slim pickings. I mean, something like ʽMorning Shadowsʼ is really nothing but dream-pop atmosphere: falsetto sweetness, soft guitar jangle, brushed percussion, light summer breeze that fades away as quickly as it comes. Pleasant, but definitely not the reason I'd endorsed Cass McCombs in his original artistic campaign.

Honestly, I do not think this album can seriously catch anybody's eye until the seventh song: ʽCrick In My Neckʼ is the first one to have a silly, but fun chorus, focusing on the protagonist's «body problems» preventing him from floating away in his imaginary psychedelic world. At the very least, this tune actually conforms to what we expect of a pop song — all the previous ones, while also pretending to be pop songs, do not. It helps that the song is propelled by a strong beat and plenty of Townshend-esque power chords, but it is the "brother, could you wait a sec? crick in my neck, crick in my neck!" climactic bit that makes all the difference.

From there on, the songwriting seems to take a turn for the better — ʽFull Moon Or Infinityʼ has an exciting contrast between low-key verses, falsetto choruses, and folksy acoustic picking with a troubled message; ʽWindfallʼ is a welcome return to ultra-slow waltzing tempos where Cass' vocal powers are finally laid out for all to see; and ʽWheel Of Fortuneʼ at least has sonic depth, with several layers of instrumental and vocal overdubs, to provide a good finale. I could not describe any of these songs as «outstanding» on any level, but at least they sound like composi­tions that care about surprising the listener, which is far more than I could say about the first half of the album, with all those telling titles like ʽPetrified Forestʼ (yes, much of that stuff really does sound petrified).

On the whole, Dropping The Writ is an even bigger disappointment than PREfection. Part of the blame, I guess, lies on the strange decision to de-individualize the vocals — there's so much echo, reverb, and other effects placed on them throughout the record, often quite gratuitously, that you almost get the impression of an artist intentionally sabotaging his greatest asset (like Eric Clapton renouncing the status of a guitar god or something like that). Obligatory kudos for trying to branch out, of course, but branching out at the expense of losing something precious without gaining anything is hardly a smart move.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Candlemass: Nightfall

CANDLEMASS: NIGHTFALL (1987)

1) Gothic Stone; 2) The Well Of Souls; 3) Codex Gigas; 4) At The Gallows End; 5) Samarithan; 6) March Funebre; 7) Dark Are The Veils Of Death; 8) Mourner's Lament; 9) Bewitched; 10) Black Candles.

Only their second album, and already they have a new record label (Axis Records), a new drum­mer (Jan Lindh), a new lead guitarist (Lars Johansson), and a new vocalist (Messiah Marcolin; and no, "Messiah" is not his real name, just a sacrilegious substitute for the much more difficult to pronounce Bror Jan Alfredo). And has this changed anything? Heck no! This is still Leif Ed­ling's band, and its primary purpose is still to craft an atmosphere of theatrical doom, because there's no better way to distract yourself from the mundane apocalypse of your own universe than to immerse yourself in a magical mystery apocalypse of a universe where old men in crypts of despair form circles of magic and prayers, where your life will be put to the test as you drink the chalice of divine ambrosia, where the Devil's fingers dance upon the strings like fire, where only the vultures will come to see you hang... well, you get the picture.

As far as the technical and personnel changes are concerned, I would not define these as drastic. The new vocalist is rather a change for the worse — Marcolin is a higher-pitched quasi-operatic screamer without the tiniest speck of grit to his voice; Längqvist was cheesy enough, but at least the man could shoot out a good growl or bark, whereas Marcolin seems dedicated to the idea that Candlemass are producing a doom metal version of Tristan, and that his task is to get into charac­ter. On the other hand, the new lead guitarist is a good acquisition: they are still quite parsimo­nious with their solos, but Johansson, coming from the Van Halen school of thought, has a good way of combining first-rate technique with melodicity, and on those rare occasions when he is given full rein, I like what he is doing (for instance, the solo on ʽDark Are The Veils Of Deathʼ). However, the production still largely sucks: the new drummer gets the same tinny tone as the old one, and the guitars still have a «lo-fi» feel to them that does not allow to fully appreciate the good old Crunch worked out by Björkman.

The riffs, as usual, alternate between leaden-slow doom and thunderous mid-tempo doom, of which I far prefer the latter (ʽDark Are The Veils Of Deathʼ, which sometimes develops into chuggin' thrash) and am somewhat indifferent towards the former (ʽWell Of Soulsʼ, ʽMourner's Lamentʼ, whatever). The overall number of tracks here is higher due to the presence of short instrumental interludes, sometimes decent (ʽCodex Gigasʼ, where they seem to try to recreate the atmosphere of a Gregorian chant with heavy metal guitars) and sometimes not (ʽMarch Funebreʼ: whoever said it was a good idea to make a doom metal arrangement of Chopin?), but the overall makeup of a Candlemass song remains the same — five to seven minutes of a leaden riff, a tale of medieval woe, a couple of short solos, and maybe a nice key change or two in the middle. And again, Eidling and Björkman demonstrate that they are no Tony Iommi when it comes to crafting a nicely thunderous doom metal riff — they have the tone right, they have learned their Devil's interval, but it does not work nearly as well. I believe one reason for this might be that they are too influenced by classical music: some of these melodies, if you mentally transpose them to orchestration, almost seem like Wagnerian leitmotifs, and it never does anybody any good to play Wagnerian leitmotifs with heavy metal guitars.

Still, once they get in a bit of speed and energy, the results are decent — ʽDark Are The Veils Of Deathʼ, for instance, is a really cool song as long as the wounded Tristan keeps his mouth shut (and he does not do it for too long), with a howling doom riff sliding into a funkier one and then into a chuggin' third (gotta love the mood shifts). And on the whole, I do appreciate the musician­ship — I just find it hard to get excited about it even on a cheap fantasy level. (Also, the lyrics are atrocious, but that kind of goes without saying; once again, I miss the deep poetic level of Geezer Butler).

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Caravan: For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night

CARAVAN: FOR GIRLS WHO GROW PLUMP IN THE NIGHT (1973)

1) Memory Lain, Hugh / Headloss; 2) Hoedown; 3) Surprise, Surprise; 4) C'Thlu Thlu; 5) The Dog, The Dog, He's At It Again; 6) Be All Right / Chance Of A Lifetime; 7) L'Auberge Du Sanglier / A Hunting We Shall Go / Pengola / Backwards / A Hunting We Shall Go (reprise).

Good or bad, the Waterloo Lily formula just did not stick, and the new configuration fell apart pretty quickly — with new member Steve Miller leaving for good and taking veteran member Richard Sinclair with him (or, actually, vice versa), forming Hatfield & The North, a band with its own distinct agenda, very different from the Caravan sound. This essentially left Hastings in full control over the remains of the band; however, the rule «no Caravan without a Sinclair pre­sent» still managed to work, since Dave Sinclair rejoined the group in the wake of Richard's de­parture, bringing a much-welcome return back to the organ sound instead of Steve Miller's elec­tric piano. Richard, in the meantime, was replaced by formerly unknown John G. Perry, and in order to expand and thicken the sound, Geoff Richardson was added on electric viola: an auxi­liary musician at first, he then went on to become one of the most permanent fixtures of the Caravan sound for the next four decades.

Simple logical calculations should lead us to expect that the results would suck: without Richard's songwriting and musicianship and with Pye's well-known penchant for a softer, poppier sound, Caravan could have been immediately reduced to sappy-sounding generic mush. Well, that sort of did happen later, but in 1973, Caravan hit back with a vengeance — releasing what was probably their second greatest album, and on certain auspicious days, I'd even say that Girls is more fun and consistent than In The Land Of Grey And Pink, although the latter will, of course, forever remain their most... shall we say, «programmatic» artistic statement.

With all power concentrated in his hands, Pye goes here for a little bit of everything. From basic rock'n'roll (ʽMemory Lain, Hughʼ opens the record with a looped riff groove sounding not unlike the beginning of CCR's ʽRamble Tambleʼ) to elements of Traffic-style roots-rock to bits of spooky hard rock to sentimental pop to multi-part progressive suites, For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night is truly a wonderful gift to all them girls who grow plump in the night (and take good care of the future eclectic musical tastes of their offspring while still in the womb), no matter how many crude sexual jokes Mr. Hastings might want to introduce in the lyrical content of his creations (if you ever wondered what the title ʽThe Dog, The Dog, He's At It Againʼ might be referring to, head straight for the worst possible hypothesis and you'll be hitting it). The re­formed lineup sounds rested, refreshed, and energetic; the songs combine hooks and atmospherics in that classic British manner; and there are neither any signs of the band «selling out» to the commercial pop machine, nor any signs of their ambitions overclouding their capacities — the curse of being «too progressive for their own good», already applicable in 1973 to such bands as Jethro Tull or Yes, does not apply to this record at all.

The very first track, a merger of two heavily rhythmic, uplifting pop-prog compositions, seems to represent the wish for a new beginning — "I just want the chance to try and find me", Pye sings on the ʽMemory Lainʼ part, and although I have no idea whether he did it on this track or not, the devotion sounds sincere and powerful enough. Richardson's viola on the instrumental parts fits right in with Sinclair's returning organ and brother Jimmy's flute soloing, and on the faster ʽHeadlossʼ groove, is a good fit for Pye's own wah-wah soloing. There's no boundary breaking here, just a few good-natured vocal hooks and life-asserting, inspired jamming in between, seemingly shooing away the odd darkness of Waterloo Lily and ushering in a new wave of sunshine without too much sappiness.

The friendly atmosphere carries over to ʽHoedownʼ, a song clearly inspired by country-western stylistics (especially in terms of Richardson's fiddle-like viola solo) but essentially pop-rockish when it comes to the vocal melody; ʽSurprise, Surpriseʼ, one of Pye's best exercises in pure sen­timental pop-rock; and, of course, the already mentioned ʽThe Dog, The Dogʼ, probably the single most controversial example in history when an essentially salacious matter would be pre­sented as a sunny-sweet pop singalong, steadily moving to a vocal harmony-filled crescendo climax in ʽHey Judeʼ mode. The song clearly invites the listener to join in the angelic choir of "oh, medicine gone, it's coming on strong", experiencing a state of loving bliss over lyrics that might make even Howlin' Wolf reconsider, had he ever been offered a line like "legs and thighs, hellos and goodbyes it's all there". It's like Pye Hastings took a good look at Mick Jagger singing stuff like ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ and said, "oh, great goals, crude methods, we'll try it subtler". Of course, this didn't exactly help him gain a lot of teenage girl fans, but in the ideally comprehensive encyclopaedia of «sexuality in music», with tracks like these, Caravan have certainly deserved their own and nobody else's chapter.

In the middle of all the sunshine comes an unexpected blast of creepiness — ʽC'Thlu Thluʼ, clearly a jumbled homage to H. P. Lovecraft, is a horror-themed track, driven by a deep bass riff that sounds like Sabbath-lite and panicky lyrics that would be quite appropriate for Ozzy. Not that Caravan could really be capable of a genuine «the-Devil-is-after-me» atmosphere: the song's chorus, with a funky change of key and an excited rather than scared vocal performance, subverts the whole thing and makes it deeply ironic. But that does not mean that the track does not rule anyway — with its abundance of cool heavy riffs, Sinclair's medievalistic organ playing, and a crashing coda, this is as close to «metallic» as these guys ever got, and in the context of the re­cord, it works great in between all the sunshine-oriented songs.

The «old school Caravan» is probably best represented on the final multi-part suite. With sub­titles like ʽA Hunting We Shall Goʼ you'd probably expect to find some influences from ye olde British folk or at least court music from the Tudorian era, and, indeed, the suite begins with a medieva­listic acoustic melody, but then quickly jumps into paranoid jazz-rock mode and finally settles on a slow tempo, grand orchestration (for which purpose they spared no expense and hired master orchestrator Paul Buckmaster), Wagnerian brass, and psychedelic swirling Davolisint hums. With a reprise of the jazzy ʽHuntingʼ section at the end, the suite, for once, sounds like a thematically oriented, smoothly flowing musical journey, sensibly organized from beginning to end rather than just being mindlessly pasted from several available bits and pieces. In fact, in a certain way the entire album could be taken for such a journey — beginning on a fairly light note, then picking up elements of deeper seriousness as it goes along, and finally culminating in the grand finale.

With Caravan's ongoing low-key profile and lack of stage flashiness, there was hardly any hope for the record to become more noticed than its predecessors — but in retrospect, it stands out humble-and-proud as one of the best progressive-themed albums of 1973. If we stick to chrono­logically based comparisons, I'd go as far as to call it the «high comedy» counterpart to the «high tragedy» of Selling England By The Pound: tackling some of the same matters (including the sexual obsessions of both frontmen), but substituting Peter Gabriel's melancholy and bitterness for Pye Hastings' warm irony and optimism. And if we don't stick to chronologically based com­parisons, it is just a charming piece of British progressive rock, and Caravan's last great hurrah in an epoch that was already rapidly moving to a close. So, a big thumbs up before it's too late!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Bat Chain Puller

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: BAT CHAIN PULLER (1976; 2012)

1) Bat Chain Puller; 2) Seam Crooked Sam; 3) Harry Irene; 4) 81 Poop Hatch; 5) Flavor Bud Living; 6) Brick Bats; 7) Floppy Boot Stomp; 8) Ah Carrot Is As Close As Ah Rabbit Gets To Ah Diamond; 9) Owed T'Alex; 10) Odd Jobs; 11) Human Totem Pole; 12) Apes-Ma; 13) Bat Chain Puller (alternate mix); 14) Candle Mambo; 15) Hobo-ism.

The latest and, probably, the most arduously expected archival release from the Captain is this: the original Bat Chain Puller, recorded in 1976 but shelved due to personal and technical prob­lems before being reborn in an entirely new coating three years later. In 2012, it finally got an official stamp of release on Gail Zappa's Vaulternative label, set up to handle Frank's archives — and, as it turned out, a little bit of Don Van Vliet's as well. Of course, veteran fans had already known all of this for a long time from their bootleg copies, but now, here's the Captain sending you one more gift from the grave without having you break the law or anything.

As you already know, most of the songs from Bat Chain Puller eventually became Shiny Beast, but a couple short instrumentals (ʽCarrotʼ and ʽFlavor Bud Livingʼ) and one vocal number (ʽBrick Batsʼ) had to wait until Doc At The Radar Station, and two more (ʽ81 Poop Hatchʼ and ʽHuman Totem Poleʼ) had to wait all the way until Ice Cream For Crow. Considering that ʽOdd Jobsʼ was already available on Grow Fins (albeit in demo form and very poor sound quality), the only song I do not recognize at all is ʽSeam Crooked Samʼ, another of Beefheart's beatnik recitations set to a background of gently noodling avant-jazz guitars. Additionally, the album is expanded with a few bonuses, such as an alternate mix of the title track and a lengthy improvised piece, ʽHobo-ismʼ — eight minutes of acoustic blues guitar, harmonica, and the Captain in Son House / John Lee Hooker mode, mumbling, growling, and howling out strings of neo-blues lyrics to an «authentic» dark country blues backing. Admittedly, it's fun for a couple minutes, but gets tedious very quickly if you're not too deeply into that kind of thing.

So what's the deal, anyway? Does this old recording still deserve its own place under the sun, or has it been rendered completely superfluous by Shiny Beast? From one point of view — given that the Captain was always very specific about preserving the compositional structure and arrangement details of his songs, and never really favored improvised variations on any of his songs once they were finished — it is superfluous: although the new recordings, considering both the complexity of the songs and the fact that everything had to be redone from scratch under new studio conditions, could not help but sound somewhat different, they are still exceptionally close, enough to make the comparison more interesting for the Beefheart historian than the average fan. On the other hand, the two albums were recorded by significantly different lineups of The Magic Band — for instance, Bat Chain Puller did not have Bruce Fowler on trombone, whereas Shiny Beast did not feature John French — and this makes the original version sound a bit more raw and less cluttered with extra instrumentation than Shiny Beast. So it's not like you aren't really offered a choice: some people did complain about a slight overproduction problem on Shiny Beast, and this gives them a chance to rejoice and pick a new intimate favorite.

I do have at least this to say: although I am still largely indifferent to ʽHuman Totem Poleʼ, this version of it here sounds far more tight and energetic than the one on Ice Cream For Crow, largely because John French is a better drummer (or, at least, a better Beefheart-style drummer) than Cliff R. Martinez, and is able to lock himself in a better coordinated groove with the two surrounding guitar players. Also, the track works better without the Captain's ugly sax blowing all over it (sorry, all you best friends of the Beefheart-'n'-saxophone alliance). The rest, well — I frankly don't care all that much, but since I like Shiny Beast, it's nice to be able to hear a few highlights in slightly edgier, though not necessarily better, versions. Anyway, no enlightening revelations here, but a pleasant souvenir for the fans and a useful piece of the Beefheart puzzle to put together with the rest.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Barbara Lewis: The Many Grooves Of Barbara Lewis

BARBARA LEWIS: THE MANY GROOVES OF BARBARA LEWIS (1970)

1) Baby, That's A No-No; 2) Windmills Of Your Mind; 3) Slip Away; 4) How Can I Tell; 5) Break Away; 6) Oh, Be My Love; 7) Just The Way You Are Today; 8) Anyway; 9) But You Know I Love You; 10) You Made Me A Woman; 11) The Stars; 12) Do I Deserve It Baby.

Before fading out completely, Barbara Lewis got one last chance at parading her muse with this record, released on the Enterprise label — a subsidiary of Stax, founded largely to accommodate the early production of Isaac Hayes, even though Barbara was never much of a Hayes protege (at least, I am not aware of any of his songs that she'd covered). Once again, for some reason, the emphasis is on the «groove» side of Lewis, an artist whose smooth balladry had always been as far removed from «grooving» as possible — but if you understand «groovy» in the sense of "life, I love you, all is groovy", then you just might have something there.

The record continues well in the vein of its predecessor: pure ballads aside, there's quite a few rhythmic tracks with some energy and «bottom» to them, enough to compete at least formally with classic Motown material, if never in terms of catchiness or originality — not surprisingly, since, once again, most of the writers here are professional pop (and sometimes blues) experts, in touch with formulas but largely out of touch with the spirit. Once again, despite the label change, Lewis gets no chance at advancing her own songwriting techniques — and, who knows, perhaps she simply did not care by this time.

A few of the songs seem to want to feature a refreshed, revitalized Barbara Lewis singing in a deeper, more powerful voice — ʽBaby, That's A No-Noʼ opens the album on precisely this note, and Morris Dollison's ʽBreak Awayʼ (alas, nothing to do with the classic Beach Boys song of the same name) is a relative highlight in the same vein, although the former song has Barbara stan­ding her ground against The Guy, while ʽBreak Awayʼ has her standing her ground against her­self, because she can't break away from The Guy. Funky, soulful, lightly tragic, well framed by ghostly backing vocals, this is, I guess, every bit as good as any contemporary Diana Ross song, but there's a problem — Barbara Lewis as a strong-tempered character just does not come across as perfectly convincing; you can still tell that suave, sentimental numbers like ʽOh Be My Loveʼ and ʽAnywayʼ represent her natural turf. Therefore, on one hand, it is a relief to see a record that has more funky guitar, well-syncopated bass, and toe-tappy rhythms than all of Barbara's pre­vious career put together — on the other hand, it is sad to see how unfit she is, in general, for feeling at home with this music.

It works fairly well as a finale to a mediocre, but inoffensive and mildly charming career: after this record, nothing whatsoever would be heard from Barbara in the music world, apart from an occasional nostalgic emergence (as of the 2010s, she can still be seen performing). Nevertheless, despite the mediocrity, there is still a certain small market for albums like these — clean, taste­ful, thoroughly derivative, but full of tiny individual nuances that will not go unnoticed by serious fans of «soft R'n'B» — and while most of the world will probably only remember Barbara Lewis for ʽHello Strangerʼ and ʽBaby I'm Yoursʼ, a tiny smidgen of the world still might want to remem­ber her for her many grooves, and there'd be nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Emotional Rescue

THE ROLLING STONES: EMOTIONAL RESCUE (1980)

1) Dance (Pt. 1); 2) Summer Romance; 3) Send It To Me; 4) Let Me Go; 5) Indian Girl; 6) Where The Boys Go; 7) Down In The Hole; 8) Emotional Rescue; 9) She's So Cold; 10) All About You.

I must confess: I have absolutely no idea how an album like Emotional Rescue could have been put together in the Stones' camp right on the heels of an album like Some Girls. For all their fluctuations, the Rolling Stones rarely leave me baffled and bewildered, but even after all these years, forcing myself to relisten to this total pile of crap (at least, by the average Stones' standard of the time) is as uncomfortable as looking at Mick Jagger with a full-grown beard, no matter how well he tries to hide it on the thermographic picture on the front cover. Goats Head Soup may have been a disappointment, and It's Only Rock'n'Roll may have been an unpleasant exer­cise in debauchery, and even Some Girls was more comical than rebel-rousing, but Emotional Rescue is the first — and, in fact, the only one of just two — Rolling Stones albums that flat-out sucks. Essentially, it sounds like a parody on the Rolling Stones, written and recorded by a bunch of guys who have no idea how to make a proper parody on the Rolling Stones.

What's really puzzling about this is that the record began life as an attempt to repeat the winning formula of Some Girls. Like its predecessor, it flirts with disco (twice now, first on ʽDanceʼ and then on the title track), country (ʽIndian Girlʼ), slow blues (ʽDown In The Holeʼ), New Wave-influenced pop-rock (ʽShe's So Coldʼ), and punk rock (ʽSummer Romanceʼ, ʽLet Me Goʼ); in fact, much of its material comes from songs that were first tried during the Some Girls sessions and then rejected in favor of better material. That, in itself, is a warning sign — for some reason, the Stones did not bother to prepare a fresh batch of compositions before going to Nassau and then back to Paris to start work on the new album. But it is not the main problem, either.

The main problem is that Emotional Rescue just sounds... dorky. It is one of the few Stones albums where I honestly wish to strangle Mick on every second song — and where, which may be even worse, I barely recognize Keith on every second song. If you listen to early versions of such rockers as ʽSummer Romanceʼ and ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ from the 1978 sessions, they're still mediocre songs, rightfully rejected in favor of much stronger tunes like ʽLiesʼ and ʽRespec­tableʼ, but at least they clearly sound like classic Stones. The sound on Emotional Rescue, mean­while, is blatantly wimpy, with Keith in particular — for no reason at all! — taking a liking to the kind of contemporary rhythm guitar playing typical of, say, Ric Ocasek: a thin, nerdy, «clucking» sound that was perfect for The Cars, but is simply ridiculous in the case of the Stones. It's the tone you hear at the beginning of ʽLet Me Goʼ or ʽShe's So Coldʼ, as well — see, it's good for ʽMy Best Friend's Girlʼ, but not the creator of ʽCan't You Hear Me Knockingʼ. In the end, this sound does not even let them preserve the biting sarcastic qualities of the rock'n'roll of Some Girls. It just makes them sound like jokers.

But the situation is exacerbated with the «shit-artistic» inclinations of Mick, who must have written and recorded all his parts in some odd drunken haze, because with his lyrics and vocal deliveries over Keith's skeletal riffs, most of this record is the pop-rock equivalent of taking your pants down in the ladies' bathroom and posting the results on Youtube. No previous Stones record had ever contained that much toilet humor and flat sexual braggadoccio reflecting the mental level of a 14-year old hick. In the place of a rough, offensive, politically incorrect, but smart and meanly aggressive ʽWhen The Whip Comes Downʼ, we now have ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ, offi­cially one of the top three or four worst Stones song ever, a limp variation on ʽLiesʼ whose only goal is to wind itself up to the triumphant barroom sloganeering at the end — "where the boys go, for a little piece of ass! where the boys go, for a little piece of cunt!". («Hey, Mick, guess what? We're now allowed to say ʽcuntʼ on record! Goodbye for good, 1964!» «No kidding? Go for it, quick, before they change their mind or something!»).

ʽSummer Romanceʼ, well fit for a soundtrack to one of those dumb teen sex comedies of the Eighties that only worked as an excuse to see some boobs, is hardly any better — no decent riff, a weak drive, and a laughable imitation of uncontrollable adolescent lust by somebody who used to be a subtle and devious Casanova, but has now willingly reduced himself to the image of a drunk flasher, scaring little girls with his bad breath rather than his midnight rambling. The sex drive extends to other genres as well — ʽSend It To Meʼ, the band's first original experiment with reggae, is an anthem to mail-order brides who could be Rumanian, could be «Bubarian» (? does he mean Bulgarian?), could be The Alien, and, in any case, seem to represent a socially relevant, artistically important topic to cover for the 1980 incarnation of the Rolling Stones. At least if they gave it to somebody like Randy Newman, he could probably find the right tone for this tune: Jagger almost makes it sound like he's serious, and in the process, ruins a bad joke by making it even worse. The only consolation here is that the band members probably understand very well how inescapably idiotic all these tunes are — when was the last time you ever saw them doing any of this stuff in concert?

The disco bits are equally disappointing. With ʽMiss Youʼ, you actually had to remind yourself that you were listening to a disco tune — so peripheral was its bassline to its general atmosphere of longing and yearning. Here, we get ʽDanceʼ, which is not even a song: it is just a dance groove, peppered with boring Jagger ad-libs. At some point, it turns out to be a less memorable variation on the funky ʽTrampled Underfootʼ rhythm, but at no point ever does it turn out to have a riff as memorable as, say, the one on ʽHot Stuffʼ, and at no point does it ever sound like something that could not have been churned out by half a million funk/R&B outfits, black or white, around the globe. Meanwhile, the title track is truly an attempt at crafting a totally superficial, suave, sexy disco-pop song, with Mick embracing Bee Gees-ish falsetto and ad-libbing stuff about being your knight in shining armor on an Arab charger. Clearly, it's all tongue-in-cheek, but it's only clear if you place it in the overall context of the Stones — on its own, it is just a bad disco song, trying to woo you over with yet another falsetto vocalise; but where the "whoo-ooh-OOH-ooh ooh-ooh-ooh" of ʽMiss Youʼ combined sexiness with a pinch of pain and yearning, the "uh-UH uh-uh uh uh-uh-UH" of ʽEmotional Rescueʼ is merely the projection of the rhythm of the lead vocalist's throbbing dick, trying to break free from the knight's shining armor, which is not that easy to do while you're being borne full speed by an Arab charger. Stupid!

In the middle of all this puerile bacchanalia, unexpectedly come two decent songs that sound so totally out of place here, it's like some other band replaced them for a brief while (or, more accu­rately, it might be the band briefly coming out of paralysis to shoo away their evil grinning twins, usurping the studio). ʽIndian Girlʼ, while still probably at the bottom list of their escapades into country, is a sweet-and-sad rumination on Latin American politics, largely restricted to just one repetitive melody line, but still poignant; and ʽDown In The Holeʼ is a slow, dark, harmonica-driven, socially-critical blues with Mick in surprisingly fine and fiery form — making it almost impossible to believe that this is the very man who has just spent twenty minutes entertaining you with toilet humor of the lowest variety. He still overbarks it, but I'd rather take this overbarking, thank you very much, in the context of a bitterly wailing harp and Ronnie's and Keith's equally bitter, soulful interplay, than in the context of a never-going-anywhere ʽSummer Romanceʼ.

On a sidenote, I admit being somewhat partial to ʽShe's So Coldʼ. Although the song dutifully fits the dumb sexist pattern of the rest of the album (this time, we find Mick complaining about the frigidity of his partner — what's next in line, ʽShe's So Not Into Analʼ?), it features a lighter, poppier tone than ʽSummer Romanceʼ or ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ, and with a slightly slower tempo, lengthier instrumental passages, and a generally more quiet Mick, gives Keith and Ronnie a good chance to practice their weaving technique — I might like it even more if it were completely in­strumental, but even as it stands, there's a bit of charm and genuine humor about it that I find completely lacking in the other raunchy songs on the album.

On a mixed note, though, the album closer ʽAll About Youʼ, handed over to Keith, returns us to the world of mushy Keith ballads that was born with ʽComing Down Againʼ seven years before and is usually appreciated by those fans to whom the very idea of «soulful Keith», singing com­pletely out of tune but completely with his heart on his sleeve, is enough to forgive everything else. Personally, I think Keith's ballads work fine when they are fully shaped and hookful, like ʽSlipping Awayʼ, but ʽAll About Youʼ is basically just a groove and a long, long string of tune­lessly delivered lyrics that may or may not be about his breakup with Anita Pallenberg (or, if you think deeper, may or may not be about his impending breakup with Mick Jagger). Nice, but Keith could probably cut a dozen pieces like that in a single session.

Bottomline is: I have managed to find plenty of redeeming factors for post-'72 Stones albums over the years, going from one-time total rejection to provisional or even unconditional endorse­ments of much of the stuff that I once thought of as «below the belt territory». It is, after all, hypocritical to confess to liking AC/DC and at the same time condemning ʽIt's Only Rock'n'Rollʼ or ʽCrazy Mamaʼ for not being «deep enough» or something. However, even now it remains very hard to find anything redeeming about Emotional Rescue — a total misstep that could, perhaps, only have originated in the turbulent, value-redefining atmosphere of transition from the 1970s to the 1980s (and it is no coincidence that 1980, after a brief period of convalescence, also brought a veritable turn for the worse in Jagger's scenic image, but you will have to wait for my review of Still Life to hear more on that). Again, it is hardly surprising that, with the exception of ʽShe's So Coldʼ, perhaps, not a single song from this record so far has managed to earn itself even a tem­porary spot in the band's post-1982 live repertoire (barring a few occasional performances of ʽDanceʼ and the title track, mostly out of boredom) — kudos to Mick and Keith for implicitly recognizing, on their own, how stupid and wasted most of this stuff has sounded from the begin­ning. Alas, a major thumbs down here, folks.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Austra: Future Politics

AUSTRA: FUTURE POLITICS (2017)

1) We Were Alive; 2) Future Politics; 3) Utopia; 4) I'm A Monster; 5) I Love You More Than You Love Yourself; 6) Angel In Your Eye; 7) Freepower; 8) Gaia; 9) Beyond A Mortal; 10) Deep Thought; 11) 43.

First time I put this on, it absolutely sucked, the verdict being simple: it took Stilmanis but two records to become so full of herself that on the third one, she simply pushes forward her socio­political agenda (which is not too different from your basic leftist values, just stated in her own way) without caring too much about how good the music is. Sound familiar? Yes, many people took that same road before, so why shouldn't she, as a responsible Canadian citizen?

Fortunately, this did not turn me off to the point of not allowing for further listens — and even­tually, it became possible to warm up to Future Politics. See, it's still quite a decent pop album, with plenty of vocal hooks and a nice shot of personality. It seems self-evident to me that at this point, the lady is much less interested in the intricacies of musical textures than she is in stating her beliefs, issues, and manifestos through the musical medium — but the one thing that conti­nues to separate her from much of the competition is that she still has her own style, and that style is... well, suitable enough for the expression of beliefs, issues, and manifestos without causing an irrepressible urge to use a waterhose on the expressor (expressionist?).

The opening track, ʽWe Were Aliveʼ, is proof enough of that. The entire synth palette here is restricted to about two chords, plus a trip-hoppy percussion track that almost seems out of place (Katie herself said she was inspired by Massive Attack, but if you smoothen out the percussion and replace her vocals with something less shrill, you will rather get Enya) — the emphasis is placed squarely on the chorus hook, where, in the most plaintive tone imaginable, she asks you "what if we were alive?", transparently suggesting that we are not, because "I believed in nothing before". This immediately sets up a somewhat more realistic tone for the rest of the album, even more realistic than on Olympia, and opens up a more human dimension to her voice and general aura — not exactly a «compensation» as such for the lack of musical depth, but at least some­thing to keep you respectfully distracted from the drop in pure musicality.

On the other end of the atmospheric pole, the title track is a techno-stylized dance number with predictably, perhaps even generically bubbling synth loops, but a catchy chorus ("I'm never coming back here, there's only one way — future politics!" she chirps with the accent placed on the last syllable of "politics" and the mood of a little girl, innocently hopping from tussock to tussock), reflecting pretty utopian beliefs in a kind world ruled by socialist technology. Again, this is melodically simple, but it states its point in a non-obnoxious way, which, paradoxically, might make you want to take it seriously — efficient, not stupid, simplicity.

The rest of the album veers and wobbles between these «balladeering» and «rocking» extremes: I do not see even a single song here that would approach the unusual sonic overlays and interesting classically-influenced chords of Feel It Break, but even without that, most of the tracks have some emotional tug. ʽUtopiaʼ is a broken-hearted-falsetto-laden obituary to the «old Toronto» disappearing under the alleged onslaught of mindless urbanization; ʽI'm A Monsterʼ has the line "I don't feel nothing, anymore" delivered in a creepily believable manner; and ʽI Love You More Than You Love Yourselfʼ is an excellent ballad whose troubled and caring verse melodies make a cool contrast with the strangely grandiose delivery of the chorus hook — reminds me of all that arch-deeply-felt Sinead O'Connor dark romanticism, except this is better.

Without spending too much on this, let me just summarize the main points. These songs are not at all musically challenging or original. Most of them are also intentionally non-enigmatic, with lyrics that could easily be decoded even by those who shun, detest, and close their minds to any sort of symbolism. The system of beliefs and values behind the music is quite standard: socialism, environmentalism, compassion, and a bit of New Age to tone down the anger. But Stilmanis is a natural talent, if not exactly genius, and when she asks me, "do you acknowledge what I'm saying?" on the last track, I'm tempted to reply in the positive. I still like the atmosphere, I admit she still uses her voice as a cool and experimental musical instrument, and, aw shucks, I just think there's plenty of catchiness in these choruses to merit a thumbs up. At the same time, I'm also pretty sure that if she does not recapture proper composer's inspiration in the near future, any subsequent albums are bound to get much worse — there's only so long you can sustain public interest in a rigid formula if you just keep simplifying it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Cass McCombs: Prefection

CASS McCOMBS: PREFECTION (2005)

1) Equinox; 2) Subtraction; 3) Multiple Suns; 4) Tourist Woman; 5) Sacred Heart; 6) She's Still Suffering; 7) Cuckoo; 8) Bury Mary; 9) City Of Brotherly Love; 10) All Your Dreams May Come True.

Already he is moving away from the formula established on A — only a few songs here, such as ʽCuckooʼ and the closing ʽAll Your Dreams Come Trueʼ, give us the same dreamy tempos and repetitive verses... and I sort of miss it. The general idea here is that if you speed up the tempos, pump out a bit more energy, throw in even more instruments (often bringing the atmosphere to Phil Spector kind of standards), and make your vocal melodies more similar to Roy Orbison pop than to Leonard Cohen balladeering, this gives you an entire new face. And it does, but somehow it does not feel as uniquely enchanting as it did on the first record. Maybe because deep-booming dream-pop with lush overtones is something that is constantly on the market, be it courtesy of British Sea Power or Sufjan Stevens, while something as ridiculously simple and entrancing as "I heard my Master, spoke with your Master..." is not. Or maybe some people are born for captiva­ting simplicity and some people are born for challenging complexity. I have no idea.

Anyway, that is not to say that Prefection, or, rather, PREfection, as they prefer to stylize it, is bad or boring. In fact, Cass is good at carefully preserving his essence while pouring it into a new bottle — one offered to him by the 4AD label, to which he was now signed, and given 4AD's emphasis on all things dreamy, from Cocteau Twins to Dead Can Dance, the shift in style may have come automatically and subconsciously. ʽEquinoxʼ greets us with big bashing drums, deep echoes, a subliminal synth river tone that runs through it, and vocals that are just as beautiful as they used to be, but are now so echoey and delicate that sometimes you almost feel them rather than hear them. Meanwhile, the lyrics become even more cabbalistic than they used to be ("deep in the heart of Fontainebleau / the marriage of a whore and a Jew"? which hidden episode in French history have I missed?), and I prefer to distance myself from them altogether and simply enjoy the sentimental mysticism of it all. If there's black magic involved, I don't want to know, but the melody certainly suggests nothing of the kind.

On ʽSubtractionʼ, he takes the base rhythm of ʽYou Can't Hurry Loveʼ and, again, adapts it for his own purposes, as he does with a lots of things subsequently — except that ʽSubtractionʼ has no catchy chorus; instead, just as the prolonged synth tone colored ʽEquinoxʼ, so is ʽSubtractionʼ colored by equally long-winded organ notes, giving the song a religious rather than amorous aura and culminating in a howl of "please leave me alone!" that subtly suggests, like ʽA Comedianʼ on the previous record, that the artist does have painful concerns of his own, and is not always re­signed to the role of outside observer.

The musical experiments, rooted in accumulated experience, continue with ʽMultiple Sunsʼ, spun around a martial bassline and prog-rockish synthesizers in the background; ʽTourist Womanʼ, the man's first attempt at a really fast song, with hideously distorted guitars, a frantic rhythm track shamelessly appropriated from The Jam's ʽPrivate Hellʼ; ʽSacred Heartʼ, all jangly-like and soulful and sounding like The Smiths with extra Mellotron; and ʽShe's Still Sufferingʼ, with the biggest wall-of-sound on the album, largely due to the overpowering drums and the keyboards and vocal harmonies now completely taking over the guitars — with wave-like / veil-like psyche­delic textures that sound like My Bloody Valentine with keyboards.

Sorry, that might just be one too many references out there, but this is also what constitutes the record's problem — it brings on too many outside associations instead of focusing squarely on Mr. McCombs and his own distillation of reality. Where A had the balance just right, on PREfection he sometimes ends up lost in his own songs, trying, perhaps, too hard to gain respect as a musi­cian at the expense of standing his own ground as an artist. Oh, and one obvious influence I still have to mention (sorry) is Wilco — that mix of surrealist electronics with a country-pop sensi­bility that was so lauded in the case of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is evidently inspiring the introduc­tions to ʽSacred Heartʼ and ʽAll Your Dreams May Come Trueʼ, the latter of which melodically sounds inspired by ʽThings We Said Todayʼ. Okay, I'll shut up now.

I like each of these songs — am not enthralled by any of them, but they're tasteful, original, and deep enough to earn an unquestionable thumbs up. But I guess they also illustrate how doggone hard it is for an obviously talented artist to make a mind-blowing record in the 21st century, and, perhaps, explain why for so many talented artists of the 21st century their first album turns out to be their best — it is the one album that comes to them totally naturally; as they begin to force themselves to come up with something that expands on the beginnings, though, they immediately fall upon well-trodden paths and become less «themselves» and more of a pale mix of themselves with somebody else. Still, let us not allow too much theorizing to distract us from the simple melancholic beauty of ʽCuckooʼ or the grandiose scope of ʽCity Of Brotherly Loveʼ (a song where I do not understand even a single line, except for "yes I've read my Plato, too", which, however, does not make life for you any better even if you've also read your Plato).

On a final note, be sure to turn your player off right at the end of the musical part of ʽAll Your Dreamsʼ, because, as a bonus, you get six minutes of street noises dominated by a car siren that will not go off. Apparently, six minutes of a car siren making hell in the middle of a busy street is supposed to symbolize something, and you are welcome to spend the rest of your life decoding that symbolism, or debating the issue of whether you are more partial to dumb artists or intelli­gent artists... and thinking about the thin line that separates ones from others.