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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.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Candlemass: Epicus Doomicus Metallicus

CANDLEMASS: EPICUS DOOMICUS METALLICUS (1986)

1) Solitude; 2) Demon's Gate; 3) Crystal Ball; 4) Black Stone Wielder; 5) Under The Oak; 6) A Sorcerer's Pledge.

I confess that I have never read any interviews with Leif Edling or any other members of Candle­mass, let alone any official or unofficial biography of the band — and therefore, I have no idea of how deeply serious they are themselves about their music. But whatever they have to say about it, it would be very hard for me to accept that anybody who names their first album Epicus Doo­micus Metallicus could do it without a tongue-in-cheek attitude. Really, this is within the same sphere as «Biggus Dickus» or something like that. And it makes me happy, too, because a solid healthy tongue-in-cheek attitude is the only thing that can save Candlemass from a massive face­palm, all of their historical importance notwithstanding.

Apparently, the entire genre of «doom metal» owes its formalization to the title of Candlemass' debut — and when it appeared, it did sound significantly different from earlier purveyors of the style, such as Saint Vitus and Pentagram. They were one of the first Scandinavian (in this case, Swedish) bands to open up the floodgates for Valhalla-Ragnarök-inspired heavy music, and, like every pioneering outfit, might sound a little crude, unpolished, and naïve in comparison with their followers — much like Black Sabbath, their chief source of inspiration, might also seem in com­parison with the general heavy metal scene that followed. But they have their advantages, too, a chief one being driven by the excitement that accompanies trying out a new formula.

A formula it is, of course, as bassist Leif Edling (who writes most of the music) and his pals capitalize on but one aspect of Sabbath — the slow, solemn, earth-shattering brutality of impen­ding doom — and expand it to forty-three minutes of dungeon-crawling music for your paganistic pleasure. Since the songs are slow, they are also long (just six tracks in all), and mood-wise, their goal is always exactly the same, making it understandably hard to come up with separate judge­ments for individual tracks. Differences include the presence/absence of acoustic intros and inter­ludes; the presence/absence of slightly sped up parts; increased/understated presence of lead guitar; increased/diminished function of the synthesizer (yes, a few tracks are marred by Queens­rychian keyboards, but, thankfully, not all of them, and I do believe that the credits do not even include a special listing for keyboards).

Typically, the weakest link in Candlemass is the vocalist: in their minds, the style calls for a pompous screamer rather than a vulnerable-street-guy like Ozzy, but they couldn't lay their hands on anybody of at least Ronnie James Dio caliber, either, so they had to settle for a Tony Martin look-alike instead and go along with Johan Längqvist, a large-piped loudmouth who is trying to deliver the apocalyptic / medievalistic lyrics with as much pathos as his pipes allow him, but also happens to be endowed with below-zero charisma and personality. Unfortunately, there's a lot of the lyrics on the album: were they to simply confine him to singing one opening and one closing verse and then devote the rest of the time to instrumental magic-making, things would get more tolerable and interesting — as it is, he happens to be all over the place, and it's bad.

What is good, then? The riffs. Edling's melodic skills are not directly comparable to Iommi in his prime — there is not a single passage here that would come close to the immediate visionary brilliance of an ʽElectric Funeralʼ or an ʽInto The Voidʼ — but he is still close to a perfect adept of the Iommi textbook, and rhythm guitarist Mats Björkman is able to reproduce that metal-melting, Hell-raising tone that, for some reason, had all but vanished off the Earth's surface after Sabbath's peak years. Meanwhile, lead guitarist Klas Bergwall, although kept amazingly quiet most of the time, occasionally erupts with new-generation metal solos that try to combine old school fluency and melodicity with a more technical, post-Van Halen attitude. The result is an interesting update on the Sabbath sound that is nowhere near as memorable as the original, but does not sound like mere slavish imitation, either.

If only one song needed to be singled out of the overall sludgy mass, I'd probably go for ʽUnder The Oakʼ, which is melodically as close to (slow) thrash metal as they ever get here and, because of that, gets an extra aggressive angle — most of these tunes just growl and grumble under your feet, but the opening riff of ʽUnder The Oakʼ actually snaps at your feet. If it weren't for the ne­ces­sity to somehow erase the vocal track from the corresponding channel in your brain ("MY HEART! BLEEDING FOR MY RACE!" — don't worry, they actually mean ʽmankindʼ under ʽraceʼ here, there are no traces of Aryan supremacy or anything like that, but it still sounds very, very ridiculous), this would be close to the perfect Candlemass song... unfortunately, since most of the vocals on Candlemass songs are dorky, there is no such thing as a perfect Candlemass song. As for the Iommi-style riffs, the best ones are probably on ʽSolitudeʼ (which is not a cover of the Sabbath tune, but the fact that they have a song by that name is probably not a coincidence) and ʽDemon's Gateʼ, but really, most of these slow sludgy monsters are interchangeable.

For all its alleged importance, still, Epicus is hardly the best possible Candlemass album. For one thing, even if the formula is established here 100%, it suffers from mediocre production values: the drums sound too tinny, and the guitars sound oddly distant, as if they had microphone prob­lems — worse, in fact, than those fifteen-year old Sabbath albums on which they were modeling themselves. Strangely, it may have something to do with the shittiness of Stockholm's studios at the time: Bathory's debut, recorded two years prior to this, suffered from the same problem. Even­tually, they'd get it straight, but for now, Epicus Domicus is more like Crapicus Sonicus in certain respects. Oh, and I can't really remember a single song, either, but for that one, I was fully prepared. Just as I was for brilliant lines like "The dawn was to come with the sunrise" and "Cursed be the sun / The women will weep for his fun / In the name of his magic so strong". What I was not prepared for was how oddly «homebrewn», in a way, this whole thing sounds: a problem that would not be overcome for quite some time yet. Still, I guess that the combination of an overall cool sound and historical importance should account for a mild thumbs up, despite production issues, lyrics that make Geezer Butler sound like Keats in comparison, and a vocalist whom I would very gladly "let die in solitude" if he'd only let me. Why shouldn't he? Death is his sanctuary, he seeks it with pleasure, his lifeblood is exhausted anyway...