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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Chambers Brothers: A New Time, A New Day

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: A NEW TIME, A NEW DAY (1968)

1) I Can't Turn You Loose; 2) Guess Who; 3) Do Your Thing; 4) Where Have All The Flowers Gone; 5) Love Is All I Have; 6) You Got The Power To Turn Me On; 7) I Wish It Would Rain; 8) Rock Me Mama; 9) No, No, No, Don't Say Goodbye; 10) Satisfy You; 11) A New Time, A New Day.

Honestly, I do not like this at all. A band with a magnificent musical formula can allow itself to milk said formula until the end of time; but if you are merely competent and mildly amusing, the act of stubbornly sticking to your guns ends up becoming irritating. The Chambers Brothers (or, perhaps, Columbia Records as the self-imposed market brain behind The Chambers Brothers) were so happy to finally be noticed through the success of ʽTime Has Come Todayʼ that they wasted little time producing another album that not only sported a very similar title (because, you know, if The Chambers Brothers sing about TIME, that's a frickin' quality mark!), but had the exact same structure — a random mix of blues, R&B, and folk covers and originals, capped off by one lengthy psycho-R&B freakout.

ʽTime Has Come Todayʼ was actually fun — catchy, with a good beat, a freaky guitar solo, and, most importantly, freshness of approach, as you could hear the guys actually having fun in the studio. In contrast, its follow-up, ʽA New Time, A New Dayʼ, is not nearly as memorable, and the freakout section offers not a single new idea: they simply pick a slightly different groove and tempo, then proceed to offer the same mix of psychedelic guitars, keyboards, and vocal whooping. In relation to ʽTime Has Come Todayʼ, it is precisely what, say, ʽBye Bye Johnnyʼ is to ʽJohnny B. Goodeʼ: everybody remembers the original, but who really gives a damn about the sequel? (Other than the Stones occasionally covering it in their 1970s shows, probably because they were too bored playing the first part).

As for the rest, it all gives the impression of having been assembled and recorded in great haste: considering that ʽTime Has Come Todayʼ only began climbing up the American charts in the fall of 1968, while the official date of release for this album is given as October 8, this seems to have been exactly the case. So, for instance, most of the «originals» here are really just semi-impro­vised funky grooves — on ʽDo Your Thingʼ, they go for a modern James Brown vibe, predictably nowhere near as impressive as the real «thing»; ʽNo, No, No, Don't Say Good-Byʼ (sic!) shifts the rhythmics to a slightly more «Latinized» mode, but the only interesting thing about the song is a wildly ecstatic piano part (no idea who is actually behind the keyboards, but he sure cared more about the performance than all the other members of the band put together).

Of the covers, the only element of surprise is encountered on their rather unorthodox arrangement of ʽWhere Have All The Flowers Goneʼ, redone here as a passionate gospel-soul number with very little other than the lyrics to connect it with the original; not sure if I like it, but at least they did try — which is more than I could say about the inferior rendition of Redding's ʽI Can't Turn You Looseʼ, or the boring six-minute long bluesfest of ʽRock Me Mamaʼ. And it was generous of their producer Tim O'Brien to write a slow soul ballad for them (ʽSatisfy Youʼ), but, unfortunate­ly, while the brothers' collective harmonies have always been their strongest side, in terms of solo delivery none of them could ever compete with the tones, timbres, and delicate phrasing of the genre's true masters. In short, whatever future hopes for artistic growth and commercial success they might have raised with ʽTime Has Come Todayʼ, all of this was effectively buried with this mediocre (not too horrendous, but flashbang-obviously mediocre) rushjob — which, in the context of their overall career, only merits a disappointing thumbs down.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Allen Toussaint: Motion

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: MOTION (1978)

1) Night People; 2) Just A Kiss Away; 3) With You In Mind; 4) Lover Of Love; 5) To Be With You; 6) Motion; 7) Viva La Money; 8) Declaration Of Love; 9) Happiness; 10) The Optimism Blues.

If you want a good example of the disastrous direction that mainstream pop music took in the brief interim between 1975 and 1978 — well, no doubt about it, you can find plenty of examples, but somehow the difference between Southern Nights and Motion strikes me as particularly telling. Allen Toussaint has always been a nice man and a very intelligent craftsmanship, but he was never about going against the grain, and even if none of his records were bestsellers, he was still making them for the purposes of entertainment and, well, bringing a ray of simple happiness into the average house of the average American. Yet somehow, in 1975 he was able to do that in a way that did not conflict with artistic expression, inventiveness, and personality. Fast forward a mere three years — right into the middle of the Disco Age — and what we get is an album that, while not proverbially «bad» per se, is probably the most de-personalized record that Toussaint had put out in his entire career.

Granted, its very title does not exactly display a lot of ambition: the idea was clearly to make a record of dance tunes, from fast and raunchy to slow and sensitive, and see if there was any chance for Allen to compete with the disco kings of the era. But it does not take a genius to figure out that the idea was doomed from the start: the only disco music that transcends its formula is music in which you believe, with a religious fervor, and to believe in disco, you have to be young, wild, a bit crazy in the head and willing to throw in that little extra something which will make some people cringe and other people fall in love with you. Meanwhile, the first and last time that we ever saw the humble, friendly, cautious Allen Toussaint let his hair down was in... 1958, right? And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time to place your bets.

The opening number, ʽNight Peopleʼ, probably matches our expectations of «disco Toussaint»: it is not 100% disco, more like light funk-pop, more melodically complex than the average disco number, yet less sweaty and exciting than a disco classic — so stiff, in fact, that it is not even clear if we should perceive the song's lyrics ("night people... hanging out... looking at each other... waiting for something to happen...") as admiring and celebrating nighttime club life or making subtle fun of it. I'd rather have the latter interpretation, because the only thing that can make the song valuable is a splash of puzzled irony — but if there is puzzled irony here, I sure wish he'd make it more noticeable, because you won't really feel it until you sit down with the lyrics and a magnifying glass. As for the music, it does match that "waiting for something to happen" vibe, because nothing much ever happens in the song, that's for sure: just the same soft, repetitive funky groove without any key changes, solos, anything to distinguish its last minute from its first. And, unfortunately, this formula is pretty much put on rinse-and-repeat for the rest of the record.

It gets even worse by the time the third track comes along, initiating a string of generic ballads whose only redeeming factor is Allen's always pleasant singing voice. Further on down the road, it still gets worse when you realize that the title track, ʽMotionʼ, is actually one more of those slow generic ballads — and it goes on for six minutes, twice as long as the average track on here. Throw in such downer titles as ʽLover Of Loveʼ and ʽDeclaration Of Loveʼ, and the picture is more or less complete.

Things may have worked out fine if he threw in some effort to make this a comedy record: there are a few numbers that are more explicitly «funny» than others (ʽLover Of Loveʼ is actually a semi-facetious vaudeville tune, and ʽViva La Moneyʼ continues the eternal subject of "that's what I want" with a Vegas-funky arrangement), and the only track here that I really like is ʽThe Opti­mism Bluesʼ, another music-hall experiment that closes the album on a Randy Newman sort of note. Alas, there was never any intention of this: none of the songs fall under the definition of «pretentious», but few, if any, are written as pure jokes.

In this context, it hardly helps that Bonnie Raitt and Etta James are enlisted as backup vocalists, and it certainly does not help that Toto's drummer Jeff Porcaro is sitting in on percussion, and it almost does not help that notorious session player Larry Carlton is contributing his guitar licks (almost, because there is some exqui­site slide guitar work on ʽTo Be With Youʼ and a few other tracks — all of it nullified because the songs themselves are uninteresting). Ultimately, Motion is just a waste of talent, a certified thumbs down album if there ever was one (not horrendous, just dull), and the best thing that Toussaint could do after it predictably bombed both critically and commercially was to take some time off — in fact, a lot of time off. He didn't have to do it like he did, but he did, and I thank him.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Kinks: Live At Kelvin Hall

THE KINKS: LIVE AT KELVIN HALL (1967)

1) Till The End Of The Day; 2) A Well Respected Man; 3) You're Lookin' Fine; 4) Sunny Afternoon; 5) Dandy; 6) I'm On An Island; 7) Come On Now; 8) You Really Got Me; 9) Milk Cow Blues / Batman Theme / Tired Of Waiting For You.

By the time the Kinks' first live album was released in the UK (early 1968), it was already some­what anachronistic — Something Else, the album that completed the radical reconstruction of their image begun with Face To Face, had already come out, and Ray Davies himself might have already looked upon their earlier shows with mild skepticism. In the US, however, Live At Kelvin Hall was issued as early as August '67— despite the fact that Kelvin Hall is located not in the US at all, but in Glasgow (so the American version was simply called The Live Kinks so as not to confuse people with foreign toponyms), and despite the ultimate irony of the Kinks actually being banned from live performing in the States at the time, due to their conflict with the Musicians' Union. But the American market demanded more product, even if the demand was purely theoretical, since the album did not sell well at all, and how could it, when fans usually buy live albums as memen­tos of successful live shows?

In any case, it is good to have the record as a memento, since it does capture The Kinks at their early peak, and is every bit as important for the history of the Screaming Sixties as Got Live! is for the Stones, or Hollywood Bowl is for The Beatles. But as an entertaining listen, Kelvin Hall is problematic, both for common and specific reasons. The common reason, of course, is the poor quality of the sound — particularly on the first songs, the vocals are barely audible, and then, of course, there is all the screaming... and the weirdest thing about the screaming is that, apparently, much of it was overdubbed in post-production: apparently, somebody thought that it was a good idea to show that the audiences went just as wild for the Kinks as they did for all those other bands! And thus, while half of the world spends time wondering about how to get the screaming audience out of the way on Beatles live albums, some people out there actually take the time to obfuscate the music with additional layers of screaming audience.

Naturally, this is stupid and embarrassing, and quite disastrous in the long run. However, there is also a more specific problem — and that specific problem is that, begging everybody's pardon, The Kinks were never a particularly great live band. Here, they are a good decade away from their bizarre «Silver Age», when Ray suddenly decided to «give the people what they want» and re-cast them in the image of wildly aggressive arena-rockers; but even with a far more restrained and adequate approach, none of these live versions do proper justice to the studio originals or add any interesting touches. The only genuine «rocking soul» in the band was brother Dave, who gets his chance to shine vocally on ʽCome On Nowʼ and instrumentally on ʽYou Really Got Meʼ (the latter chance you don't get to enjoy, though, because the lead guitar mike seems to have given way on the solo part) — and, anyway, brother Dave alone isn't able to do all that much.

The idea of presenting Ray's introspective, chamber-style songs like ʽA Well Respected Manʼ, ʽI'm On An Islandʼ, and particularly ʽSunny Afternoonʼ as loud onstage rock'n'roll numbers just does not work: ʽSunny Afternoonʼ is stripped of much of its studio charm, and although the sound of the audience joining in to sing an entire verse is touching, it is also pointless. All of this stuff could work in an intimate setting, preferably a small club with good acoustics, a laid-back atmosphere, and a small, receptive audience (something that The Kinks would approach only at the very end of their career, with the experience of To The Bone, easily their best live album because of its «natural» beauty). In this setting — and throw in all the silly overdubs — there is nothing but sheer earnestness to redeem these recordings.

The record ends with a long medley that humorously combines ʽMilk Cow Bluesʼ with the back-then ubi­quitous ʽBatman Themeʼ and then, bizarrely, with ʽTired Of Waiting For Youʼ because everybody in 1967 had to make some bizarre decisions. The entire point of the medley seems to be to prove that The Kinks, too, could handle the art of extended live jamming in the age of The Who, Cream, and Hendrix; however, this is not really extended live jamming, and I'd rather they have at least left ʽTired Of Waiting For Youʼ out of it — the rest is okay, though not exactly Who-level when it comes to kicking sand in our face.

In the band's defense, it should be pointed out that very few, if any, rock bands had managed to come out with decent-sounding live albums by 1967 — the age of the Ultimate Live Experience would not properly begin until the next decade. But as much flak as the Stones' Got Live If You Want It usually gets, I would still take it over Live At Kelvin Hall any day: tighter playing, better production, and, most importantly, a frontman who was born for the art of onstage swagger, while Ray Davies, for all of his diverse talents, was definitely born for something else. «Some­thing else», get it?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

British Sea Power: Let The Dancers Inherit The Party

BRITISH SEA PARTY: LET THE DANCERS INHERIT THE PARTY (2017)

1) Intro; 2) Bad Bohemian; 3) International Space Station; 4) What You're Doing; 5) The Voice Of Ivy Lee; 6) Keep On Trying; 7) Electrical Kittens; 8) Saint Jerome; 9) Praise For Whatever; 10) Want To Be Free; 11) Don't Let The Sun Get In The Way; 12) Alone Piano.

Here is a very brief review: This is an album by British Sea Power released in 2017, and it sounds exactly like all the other British Sea Power albums released from 2003 to 2017. If you have already heard one album by British Sea Power, you know what this album sounds like, so there is absolutely no point listening to me explain it all over again. If you have not heard a single album ever released by British Sea Power... well, then I have absolutely no idea why you'd want to hear one now. It's not like, you know, «hey everybody! It's 2017, and the time is finally right for us to enjoy us some British Sea Power!»

Then again, maybe it is, because quite a few reviews have latched onto the album's presumable significance in the age of Brexit — after all, once you have called yourself British Sea Power, you seem to be implicitly responsible for that power, and given the band's penchant for bombastic, ambitious, anthemic music, it could be natural to expect some sort of reply from them; and given their indie origins and all, it could also be natural to hear them voice some righteous concerns about what has happened. Yet on the lyrical front, Let The Dancers is decidedly apolitical: these guys clearly do not want to make enemies with either faction — instead, what they offer is an abstract painting of spiritual torment and reawakening, the same way they have already done it so many times. A smart move, but I'd rather see them get political, if only because a bit of anger would make the songs slightly less monotonous.

With the exception of the 30-second long atmospheric ʽIntroʼ and the closing song, the ten tracks that constitute the bulk of the album are completely interchangeable — just the same old schtick: heavy-brawly drumming, U2-ish guitars, depth-adding atmospheric keyboards, hopelessly roman­tic vocals, and echo-and-reverb-a-plenty to properly get this mastodon off the ground and into space. The difference is mainly in tempo (ʽElectrical Kittensʼ is slower, ʽSaint Jeromeʼ is faster, ʽPraise For Whateverʼ is slower, ʽDon't Let The Sun Get In The Wayʼ is faster... you get the drill), and no matter how different the specific hooks are in term of melody, everything sets precisely the same mood. In the end, each of these songs lives and dies on the strength — or, rather, the hammer-on repetitiveness — of its chorus hook. Otherwise, it's strictly a hive matter.

Probably the one song that gets mentioned most of the time is ʽKeep On Tryingʼ, because of its bizarre invocation of a German discotheque through the shouted chorus of "sechs freunde! sechs freunde!" ("six friends"); also, Wilkinson either cannot or will not properly pronounce the German numeral, ending up with «sex freunde», as if the dancers were inheriting, you know, that kind of party. But it is silly, and since it is the only thing on the album that sounds silly, it comes off as an annoying blunder rather than some Sparks-influenced gesture. These guys aren't Sparks, they never had a proper sense of humor, and it's too late to start now.

The other song that sometimes gets mentioned is ʽBad Bohemianʼ, because it was released as the first single (the sex friends one was, of course, the second), it is the first song on the album, and its invocation — "don't be a bad bohemian" — is repeated so many times and in such a passionate and entreating manner that you are really tempted to begin to think about what the hell it means. I mean, being a bohemian is already bad enough, but being a bad bohemian?.. Well, essentially the song is an inspired rant against the plague of pessimism in modern society ("it's sad now how the glass looks rather empty") — the problem being that it sounds so formulaic and stilted, there is very little credibility I can fish out for these guys. "Don't let us die while we are still alive" is a noble invocation, but there is nothing in the words or the music that would actually lead me to believe that they, British Sea Power, actually believe that their music can be part of an optimistic cure for the world today. I mean, it takes a bit more talent than this, I think, to convince a cancer patient that things are gonna work out fine, you know?

All said, this is no better and no worse than any other BSP album ever released. The formula still holds, and about half of the songs grow fins and hooks upon repeated listens — at the very least, it is all far more listenable than the latest U2 albums, if you're in the mood for some fresh-and-actual bombast. Also, the final track, ʽAlone Pianoʼ, despite its title, features far more than just a piano, but it does drop the heavy rhythm section, mainly gliding by on impressionistic waves of ambient pianos, atonal strings, and psychedelic tape effects — pretty, though rather dragged-out, like every­thing else. In other words, these guys may have cornered themselves, but they are still fighting, far from nearing the end of the road. Then again, nobody fucks around with British sea power, right? At least the fans will be delighted.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Chelsea Wolfe: Apocalypsis

CHELSEA WOLFE: APOKALYPSIS (2011)

1) Primal / Carnal; 2) Mer; 3) Tracks (Tall Bodies); 4) Demons; 5) Movie Screen; 6) The Wasteland; 7) Moses; 8) Friedrichshain; 9) Pale On Pale; 10) To The Forest, Towards The Sea.

This is the record that properly put Chelsea Wolfe on the map — her first well-produced, fully coherent, patently conceptual album, completely unafraid of its own pretentiousness, but, perhaps, somewhat too unaware of its own corniness. I will not argue that any specific year in our lifetime is a better or a worse year to put out an album called Apokalypsis, but I will argue that spelling the name out in Greek alphabet is gimmicky (unless you are actually exploring Greek musical elements, or at least are capable of reading the New Testament in its original form), and do not get me started on that album cover — too much time spent watching The Exorcist?

The music itself also starts and ends with a gimmick: ʽPrimal / Carnalʼ starts the show off with twenty five seconds of thoroughly non-scary hissing, sputtering, and roaring — Chelsea's not-too-subtle way of letting you know that on this record, we will be exploring the darker corners of your violent subconscious and animal instincts — and after we're done, ʽTo The Forest, Towards The Seaʼ wraps things up with three minutes of rather amateurish ghostly ambience, constructed mostly of electronic echoes; at the very end, the protagonist whispers "what's happening to me?" because otherwise, you wouldn't be able to guess that something is happening to her. Oh well, at least the album cover shows no signs of lycanthropy.

In between all this, Chelsea Wolfe positions herself as the Alanis Morissette of Goth-rock (pop, folk, whatever): her melodies are barely enough interesting not to write her off as a total disaster, her originality and individuality are extremely questionable, her balance between commercial appeal and artistic expression is shaky and unsatisfactory, yet there is sufficient evidence on the whole that she is really trying to make her mark, and that she is engaging in this stuff without as much cold-hearted market calculation as, say, the artist exotically known as Lana del Rey. Most of the reviews of the album were predictably crammed to the brim with references to Chelsea's predecessors and influences, from Siouxsie & The Banshees to Portishead to The Knife and even to PJ Harvey, but her saving grace is that there is no single overriding influence here: a direct comparison with any one of these artists would immediately bring on obvious differences. On the other hand, there is no clear indication that Chelsea Wolfe is anything more than a diligent sum­ming up of all these parts, either.

The album fails to move me, which means, from my perspective, that it fails, period: Apokalyp­sis is a dark atmospheric painting whose chief artistic goal is to scare you and perturb you, but the bad news is that Chelsea Wolfe is not scary, she is just a girl who is infatuated with scary things, and is happy enough to present to you the latest results of her Devil's Ball cosplay. As an example, take the album's longest track, ʽPale On Paleʼ. Slow, sludgy, driven by a minimalistic doom bass riff and a predictable organ pattern, it invents nothing that has not already been invented by Black Sabbath or Bardo Pond, features a fairly conventional vocal delivery (any potentially subtle nuances of which are drowned in the cavernous mix), and, at best, works as not-too-irritating somber background muzak. (Unless you know jack shit about the history of «mope rock» and ignorantly start from scratch... oh, sorry, that is supposed to be called «strip yourself of accumu­lated biases and embrace the artistic experience with an open mind»). It does become irritating at the end, though, when she starts screaming. She has pretty strong lungs when it comes to screaming, but the track is just not suspenseful enough to warrant the screaming conclusion. For a much better similar experience, please check out ʽCareful With That Axe, Eugeneʼ — now there's some first-rate shit that never gets old.

Some of the tracks are decidedly more appealing, though. ʽMerʼ has a light-flowing, syncopated, jazzy groove that is reminiscent of classic Morphine, and Chelsea's free-form poetic rant, which nobody is forced to take at face value, hops on those musical waves in a morosely-merry pattern. The new arrangement of ʽMosesʼ is cleaner, heavier, more memorable than the original, although, again, even a band like Black Mountain did that sort of heavy-trotting, doom-facing, me-against-the-brutal-rhythm-section schtick with more cutting edge. The complex arrangement of ʽMovie Screenʼ, with its multiple vocal and instrumental overdubs intertwined with each other like a bunch of will-o-wisps, can get trippy-psychedelic if you put it on replay and turn the headphone volume up to the max (though there is really no reason that you should). Even so, I have to struggle a bit to put all these justifications into words.

In a way, I guess this is precisely how it works in the 2010s — I mean, somebody has to keep that dark-folk vibe alive, right? and I have no problem with Chelsea Wolfe doing it, although, honest­ly, in this situation I'd rather settle for something more straightforwardly campy and deri­vative, like Blood Ceremony. This record just takes itself way too seriously for me to enjoy my popcorn, yet not seriously enough to make me put aside the popcorn and indoctrinate myself to the new epiphany. If anything, I still remain partial to the safekeeping of me eyeballs.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Chameleons: Strip

THE CHAMELEONS: STRIP (2000)

1) Less Than Human; 2) Nathan's Phase; 3) Here Today; 4) Soul In Isolation; 5) Pleasure And Pain; 6) Paradiso; 7) Caution; 8) On The Beach; 9) Road To San Remo; 10) Indian.

And here comes the inevitable reunion. Had it taken place just five or six years later, the Eighties nostalgia would have kicked in with full strength — but as of 2000, the musical world still tended to regard that period with apprehension, and the last thing it needed was an authentic new Chameleons record with authentic Chameleons production. Surprisingly, this seems to have been precisely the Chameleons' way of thinking — because the first thing they did upon reconvening was remake a large chunk of their past glories in such a way that could not possibly remind any­one of that one decade to which these glories had been inextricably bound.

Strip is not completely unplugged: there are a few electric guitar flourishes here and there, not to mention electric bass. However, for the most part, it all consists of acoustic performances of their old songs that sometimes sound like demos, and sometimes sound like something directly in­spired by being jealous of the commercial success of Eric Clapton's acoustic ʽLaylaʼ. ʽLess Than Humanʼ opens the proceedings with an oddly shaped scratchy pattern, as if they'd decided to merge it with ʽVoodoo Child (Slight Return)ʼ, but the main melodic part is all jangly acoustic, the percussion is minimal, and the emphasis is on the voice — which, funny enough, changes here almost as much as the instrumentation. Suddenly gone is the deep, dark, doom-laden tone of Mark Burgess' old voice; in its place is a soft, high-pitched, much more «human» delivery. The man wants to be your friend now, not your worst nightmare. Provided you let him.

There is not a lot I can say about this reinvention, except that it is a reinvention: it is actually very interesting to listen to these tunes in new incarnations. I have already corrected myself that they do not always sound like demos, because there are often multiple overdubs, and significant care has been taken to give the acoustic guitars a full, well-produced sound: the production is not perfect, but not lo-fi either. My biggest fear concerned the two extended monsters from Strange Times — both ʽCautionʼ and ʽSoul In Isolationʼ are here, but both of them sound significantly better than they used to, with some truly lovely interwoven acoustic patterns that make the songs much more memorable than they used to; and somehow Mark's desperate "I'm alive in here!" cuts me to the bone far more effectively.

In the end, I guess it all boils down to how much you are a true child of the Eighties: for me, the dreaded «Eighties sound» was the worst thing about the original records, and Strip is a very happy confirmation that these guys used to write very nice music that had to wait for fifteen years before getting its due. Sure, this is not rock'n'roll here: by going this route, they intentionally deprived themselves of one of their strongest sides. But it should be noted that they also did not select many of their rock'n'rollier songs to cover here — the decision to focus on their slower, more Goth-like material was the correct one, since there is clearly no way that an acoustic rendi­tion could embetter something like ʽUp The Down Escalatorʼ. As it is, Strip finally convinces me that, when they put their mind to it, they could do «slow and moody» stuff as vividly as any of their contemporaries.

The only new material on the album comes at the end: a brief arpeggiated instrumental on a near-classical scale (ʽRoad To San Remoʼ — fortunately, they never really took it) and one new pop rock song (ʽIndianʼ) that features the only heavy percussion track and the only loud electric guitar solo on the entire album, but is otherwise inferior to the old classics, sounding not unlike some long-forgotten outtake from an uninspired Springsteen session. As a taster of better things to come, this was not a good omen; but as merely a symbolic indication of The Chameleons not being quite dead yet, it's perfectly listenable. Regardless of its presence or absence, I give the album a thumbs up: for Chameleons fans, it is an essential addition, and for those who could never break the ice around their classic stuff, it could actually turn out to be a real icebreaker.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Chicago: Chicago II

CHICAGO: CHICAGO II (1970)

1) Movin' In; 2) The Road; 3) Poem For The People; 4) In The Country; 5) Wake Up Sunshine; 6) Make Me Smile; 7) So Much To Say, So Much To Give; 8) Anxiety's Moment; 9) West Virginia Fantasies; 10) Colour My World; 11) To Be Free; 12) Now More Than Ever; 13) Fancy Colours; 14) 25 Or 6 To 4; 15) Prelude; 16) A. M. Mourning; 17) P. M. Mourning; 18) Memories Of Love; 19) It Better End Soon (1st Movement); 20) It Better End Soon (2nd Movement); 21) It Better End Soon (3rd Movement); 22) It Better End Soon (4th Movement); 23) Where Do We Go From Here.

Less than eight months after the completion of their first double LP, Chicago, now having drop­ped the Transit Authority extension, went back into the studio to make a second one — also a double one, and it took them less than a month to complete it... what can you say, though, about the adrenaline-heavy year of 1969? What is actually most stunning about this situation is that Chicago II is a completely different record from its predecessor, in many respects.

For starters, look at the number of tracks: twenty three, as opposed to a mere twelve on Chicago Transit Authority. Never mind that some are counted as individual «movements» of a larger suite — this is genuinely significant, in that the length of CTA was largely achieved by extended improvisational grooving and jamming, with an extra sonic experiment or two like ʽFree Form Guitarʼ thrown in. On the second album, a radical change of direction has occurred: here, Chicago are already moving away from the realm of «possessed improvisation» and leaning towards a far more calculated and composition-based approach. This means, almost necessarily so, that the record is much more poppy — poppy enough, that is, to ensure the presence of many people in this world who refuse to recognize any Chicago album other than CTA as an actual piece of artistic expression. But, in all honesty, Chicago II is an artistically expressive album, and once one manages to adjust oneself to the relative downplaying of Terry Kath's guitar and the near-complete purging of Cream / Hendrix influences from the band's guidebook, the end result emerges as a compositionally and conceptually stronger statement than CTA, even if it is nowhere near the former's level of kick-ass energy.

For starters, together with the follow-up III, this is one of their most naturally band-like albums: of the seven credited members of the band, four emerge here as accomplished songwriters, as Peter Cetera closes the record with his first songwriting credit, and trombonist James Pankow steps into the limelight as more than the provider of the ʽLiberationʼ jam, but even as a contribu­tor to the band's pool of hit singles. Meanwhile, Lamm and Kath are both on a roll, contributing everything from hook-based pop songs to exercises in easy-going classical music (the ʽMemories Of Loveʼ suite, cowritten by Kath with Barbra Streisand's arranger Peter Matz... okay, not the highest possible recommendation, but I guess Leonard Bernstein just wasn't available). And, like it or not, there is no denying that the guys were on a roll — even if you dislike their sunny style in general, almost every composition here has something to trap your attention.

Actually, it's not that sunny: much of Chicago II is quite bittersweet, and its most hard-hitting and gripping song is the single ʽ25 Or 6 To 4ʼ, whose descending melody bears a distinct simi­larity to ʽWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsʼ — even Kath's guitar solo is very notably Clapton­esque, making the song seem like one last relic of their Cream-inspired beginnings. The lyrics, bawled out by Cetera in exaggerated desperation, deal with the rather mundane problem of experiencing a writer's block around midnight, but just as George Harrison could turn the issue of a floor that needs sweeping into a tragedy of cosmic proportions, so does this song open a chan­nel to some much grander dimension — and the brass section is no slouch, either, echoing each of Cetera's lines with a blast of doomy solemnity. This is still Chicago, not the Beatles or Led Zep (the song has also been compared to ʽBabe I'm Gonna Leave Youʼ for a good reason), so do not expect the utmost depths of human emotion; but in any case, this is the real thing, not some limp simulacre from a bunch of untalented fanboys.

Lamm's yearning for social justice also comes out on the four-movement suite ʽIt Better End Soonʼ: the "let's-all-get-together-and-put-an-end-to-evil" lyrical invocations here collect just about every cliché available to the English language in 1969, but the progressive composition itself is fun, riding a soft funky brass groove that is alternately punctuated by guitar and flute solos. In the end, I think that the whole thing is saved by Cetera's bass work: the suite's «bottom» layer is what gives it the proper grim grittiness to be convincing as a pissed-off outburst, rather than Kath's endless ranting invocations (and it does not exactly help that shouting out "it better end soon my friend" near the conclusion to a 60+ minute album might give the listener a some­what wrong idea of the suite's overall purpose).

On the opposite side of things, there's a couple of completely different suites. Pankow steps for­ward with ʽBallet For A Girl In Buchannonʼ, twelve cutesy minutes of jazz-pop that manage to incorporate two of Chicago's best-known songs: ʽMake Me Smileʼ, which runs from a tense, paranoid, ʽTill The End Of The Dayʼ-like verse melody to a rainbow-colored happy-dappy reso­lution in the chorus — and ʽColour My Worldʼ, the first, and far from the worst, in a series of slow sentimental ballads. Somehow it manages to survive, despite being based on a trivial piano chord progression; maybe it is its totally childlike disarming innocence that makes it endearing rather than cringeworthy, although Kath's vocal performance is an acquired taste (his timbre really gets on my nerves every time he tries to sustain a note for more than half a second). How­ever, do not make the mistake of concentrating exclusively on hit single material: the little inter­ludes that Pankow piles up around the big arias can be just as interesting, or even more so, with lots of unpredictable twists and melodic complexity that rivals any of the upcoming symph-prog heroes (like, replace the brass on ʽWest Virginia Fantasiesʼ with a Steve Howe lead guitar part and you get yourself a ready-made movement for any respectable Yes suite).

Next to this, Kath's little exercise in classical music falls short of the mark; yet at the very least the ʽMemories Of Loveʼ suite actually sounds like a suite, not as «incidental music to a film», which is typically the fate of most of pop artists' attempts to dabble in classical themes. The main vocal theme is fairly corny, though; I'd rather prefer the effort remain completely instrumental than hear Kath act out the feelings of a broken-hearted lover on the grave of his loved one (spoiler: a bad case of over-acting). On the other hand, he does contribute two pretty good pop songs for Side A (ʽThe Roadʼ and ʽIn The Countryʼ), and his main transgression on this album is not so much an overdose of sentimentalism as it is the conscious de-emphasis of his guitar talents, something that is not easy to overlook or forgive, because this is still a pop-rock album, and there is only so much distance to rock'n'roll nirvana that you can cover with brass riffs.

In other words, what this album desperately needed to live up to its predecessor was at least two or more three songs of the caliber of ʽ25 Or 6 To 4ʼ. Without them, Chicago II is largely a pleasing and tasteful listen, but completely lacking the intensity and aggressive passion of its pre­decessor. Naturally, aggressive passion should not be a prerequisite for a masterpiece; but without it, the prevailing mood is sunshine, sunshine, and even more sunshine, until your feathers melt and you start drowning in an ocean of cuddliness. I give the record a thumbs up because it is such an intelligently crafted ocean of cuddliness — revealing a ton more musical ideas than their chief competitors in this business at the time (Blood, Sweat & Tears); but if the seeds of future disasters were only barely noticeable on CTA, Chicago II makes these future disasters seem imminently inavoidable — and the question posed in the final track, ʽWhere Do We Go From Here?ʼ, even though its "we" really means "you, the listeners", takes on an almost prophetically ironic character. Nevertheless, no record should be judged by the perilous road that it has set its creators upon: on its own terms, Chicago II is a masterful self-reinvention and a big bubbly bubble of musical creativity that still sounds fresh and challenging even today.