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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.