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Friday, December 9, 2016

Anathema: Judgement

ANATHEMA: JUDGEMENT (1999)

1) Deep; 2) Pitiless; 3) Forgotten Hopes; 4) Destiny Is Dead; 5) Make It Right (F.F.S.); 6) One Last Goodbye; 7) Parisienne Moonlight; 8) Judgement; 9) Don't Look Too Far; 10) Emotional Winter; 11) Wings Of God; 12) Anyone, Anywhere; 13) 2000 & Gone; 14) Transacoustic*.

Okay, this one's no fun at all. The band's original bass player and one of its chief songwriters, Duncan Patterson, is out of the band to focus on his personal projects (the latest of which, ironi­cally, takes its name from Patterson's finest moment with Anathema — Alternative 4); and his replacement, Dave Pybus, is just a bass player, albeit a pretty good one, with a flair for Gothic vaudevillian lines (the one that drives the short instrumental ʽDestiny Is Deadʼ almost sounds like a tribute to Alice Cooper's ʽWelcome To My Nightmareʼ). This leaves Danny Cavanagh as prin­cipal songwriter, and he takes the band into even less metallic territory that they covered on Al­ternative 4 — if the latter could still be called «heavy progressive rock» with some metal influen­ces, Judgement is more like «dark Goth-folk» with occasional moments of heaviness.

Unfortunately, in the process most of the sharp edges have been smoothed out, and the theatrical suspense that made Alternative 4, at the very least, curious, has all but disappeared. In its place is a hazy, light, stable atmosphere of soft postmortem depression, largely generated by medievalis­tic folk acoustic guitars, wrapped in thin cloaks of synthesizer textures — and hardly spoiled when­ever they decide to pump in a little adrenaline by turning into a more or less generic alt-rock band and churning out those faceless three-chord distorted riffs, because this is just a temporary trick for them now; all these chuggin'-heavy interludes are only there so that the album wouldn't all blur together in one huge cloud of dark-folk.

There's enough good taste retained for none of this to sound too irritating. Brother Vincent, now singing with clean vocals exclusively, prefers to be quiet and mournful rather than try to scale operatic heights. Synthesizers are used sparingly and almost never overshadow the «natural» flow of acoustic and electric guitars (and even when they do, it is only to offer a memorable musical theme — ʽMake It Rightʼ). The Pink Floyd influence continues to grow (ʽWings Of Godʼ), but is never strong enough to push the brothers off their own path. And yet, not even a single one of the tracks manages to come close to the intensity of ʽFragile Dreamsʼ.

One track that does stand out from the rest is ʽParisienne Moonlightʼ, continuing their tradition of inserting a bit of womanly sorrow and gentleness into their sagas of male grief — here, Danny Cavanagh sings a brief piano-backed duet with Lee Douglas that does have a bit of French flair to it, but mostly, you know, since all of their albums are about the living male grieving about the loss of his female companion, they need to hold at least one seance with the participation of the dearly departed female companion, and Lee Douglas makes a cool ghostly apparition for two minutes, really getting into the act. "You cried with me, you would die for me", she soothingly consoles our hero, but he'd not, really, he'd much rather sing for her until the end of the world.

Maybe the title track, which comes right after, should be considered another standout — it begins like almost everything else, another acoustic dirge, but eventually there's a crescendo of sorts, the song picks up a faster tempo and, two minutes into the song, we get a fast, agitated, rocking part with almost punkish energy. Problem, though: it is a mind-numbingly repetitive part, with the same rhythm pattern flogged on and on and on for more than two minutes. Not even a solo! Not even an unpredictable key change! Just on and on and on — and that, perhaps, is what bugs me the most about this music in general: it is far too unadventurous and far too «ambient-oriented» to involve my attention rather than involuntarily shut it off at about one minute into each and every one of these songs.

In the end, Judgement is what it is: a poor man's Pink Floyd as seen through the eyes of a formal doom metal band, just deprived of (possibly) its most inventive creative member. Totally liste­nable, but the music neither manages to properly daze and confuse me nor shatter my emotions, and I have no choice but to consider it a serious step down after the ear-bitter-candy elements of Alternative 4. But I do admit that, conceptually, it is quite loyally executed and certainly has a lot of appeal for those who take this style really seriously. The very fact that you can record an hour-long album channelling the spirits of all the Gothic pulp novel writers who ever lived and get away with it without too much embarrassment confirms that there just might be something there — it's just not a kind of something that's strong enough to stir anything within me.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Cheap Trick: The Latest

CHEAP TRICK: THE LATEST (2009)

1) Sleep Forever; 2) When The Lights Are Out; 3) Miss Tomorrow; 4) Sick Man Of Europe; 5) These Days; 6) Miracle; 7) Everyday You Make Me Crazy; 8) California Girl; 9) Everybody Knows; 10) Alive; 11) Times Of Our Lives; 12) Closer, The Ballad Of Burt And Linda; 13) Smile.

Hmm, this does not at all sound like Rockford. One point off for the way too careless album title (which became completely false in 2016), but other than that, the record, being just as nostalgic as Rockford, actually sounds lovingly nostalgic — it's not so much about «let us go back to be­ing the circa-1977 Cheap Trick because this is what everybody expects of us» as it is about «let us ignore all trends and fashions and make some music in those styles that inspired and influenced us in the first place, because we don't really owe anything to anybody». With a few exceptions, Rockford was a balls-out rock'n'roll album, disappointing because they did not quite have the energy and inspiration for it. The Latest, also with a few exceptions, is a psychedelic pop album that should have been dedicated to «The Two JLs», John Lennon and Jeff Lynne; and it succeeds where Rockford failed because (a) it does not actually require as much energy as a rock'n'roll album to be convincing, (b) it finds the writers and the players in a more inspired state of mind, and thus, features slightly more creative melodies and arrangements.

There are only two or three Rockford-style fast tempo pop-rockers, which means they have a better chance to stand out among the crowd, and ʽCalifornia Girlʼ does stand out a little — al­though it may simply be due to the title's analogy with ʽCalifornia Manʼ, with which it shares some irony (but not the outstanding hook — this one's more of a generic rockabilly pastiche). But the bulk of the record places its trust in handsome vocal melodies and lush arrangements, some­times bordering on «symph-pop» and often featuring psychedelic overtones, taking you all the way back to the age of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. Sometimes it goes a little too far with the ado­ration — a song like ʽTimes Of Our Livesʼ literally sounds like a variation on several of Pepper's themes, including direct musical quotations from ʽWithin You Without Youʼ, etc. But I'd still rather have their expert take on this idiom than watch them churn out monotonous (non)-riff-rockers for the rest of their lives.

On ʽSick Man Of Europeʼ (a title that goes all the way back to those days when Cheap Trick were not called Cheap Trick yet), they seem to be issuing their own local manifesto — "This ain't the new, it's the old generation / It's all real, not a cheap imitation" — and almost gleefully reveling in their own nostalgic stubbornness; but in all honesty, after two decades of some of the most horrendously embarrassing sucking up to fashions, they have nothing left to do but to look up to the distant past for future inspiration. And God bless them for that, because an anthemic ballad like ʽThese Daysʼ, had it been written around 1990, would have born the Diane Warren seal of approval — here, even though it is still set to a muscular power-chord guitar backing, the rhythm section sounds alive, the lead counterpart is represented by electric jangle rather than corny synths, and the chorus has a wonderful melodic lilt where Zander shows how he can still be mad­deningly passionate without drowning in vocal bombast à la ʽThe Flameʼ.

If, after the speedy onslaught of Rockford material, you find yourself initially bored by the pre­ponderance of loud, slow, dreamy ballads, don't give in — a couple listens into the record was all it took to convince me that they have really nailed this vibe, even if there is so little originality or freshness about it that memories of these songs will not hold for long. But while the material is playing, it sounds awesome — ʽThe Ballad Of Burt And Lindaʼ, for instance, with these ʽRainʼ-style vocals (the Beatles' ʽRainʼ, I mean), really makes you want to close your eyes and gently rock to and fro in sync with the vibe. Just a perfectly balanced sound, guitars, keyboards, strings, vocals, the works.

Let nobody be fooled by the fact they are covering a Slade song here — ʽWhen The Lights Are Outʼ is a power pop classic from 1974, representative of the sunny-side-up facet of Slade rather than their gritty barroom attitudes, and it perfectly fits in with the Beatlesque vibe of the album. And although it is the Lennon part of that vibe that they adore the most, the record still ends with a lovable McCartney-style ballad (ʽSmileʼ); again, they may go a bit too far with these lyrics (come on now guys, you're not that idealistic under your skins to invite us to "take a look around the world, it's a wonder" — leave that to Paul and put some barbs on it, woncha?), but in this case, old age works in their favor, because Zander's sentimentality feels more natural and «excusable» as he grows older, and there's nothing like a bunch of Magical Mystery Tour-like string arrange­ments to make it seem even more authentic, too.

Yes, I do believe that I won't remember much about this record when I wake up next morning, but as long as the dream is not over, let me still fix a thumbs up here, because I really dug the experience: every single song had something to offer by way of pure emotion. Bottomline: when Cheap Trick in 2006 want to sound like Cheap Trick in 1977-78, they fail, but when Cheap Trick in 2009 want to sound like the Beatles in 1966-67, they sort of succeed. So what exactly does this prove?..

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Candi Staton: Stand By Your Man

CANDI STATON: STAND BY YOUR MAN (1971)

1) Stand By Your Man; 2) How Can I Put Out The Flame?; 3) I'm Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin'); 4) Mr. And Mrs. Untrue; 5) Too Hurt To Cry; 6) He Called Me Baby; 7) Sweet Feeling; 8) To Hear You Say You're Mine; 9) What Would Become Of Me; 10) Freedom Is Just Beyond The Door.

You just gotta love the irony in a record that begins with "But if you love him, you'll forgive him... cause after all, he's just a man" — and then, less than half an hour later, still ends in "But oh, I'm leaving you for good, baby, and I'm never comin' back no more". What can be said? Guess that Tammy Wynette recipe just doesn't work that well, after all, with a fiery black lady from the same Deep South. Of course, Candi Staton still had her several seconds of fame with the cover of ʽStand By Your Manʼ and not with ʽFreedom Is Just Beyond The Doorʼ — but that just goes to show what sort of material was still seen as preferable to male record-buying audiences (black and white alike, I'm sure) in 1971, because in retrospect, ʽFreedomʼ is clearly the superior number here, with a stern bass groove and a defiant, in-yer-face vocal delivery that is not afraid to offend and disturb if it sees itself in the right.

On the whole, though, the album is a bit of a step down, and not just because they seem stumped for new material (there's this dirty trick of mixing two previously released songs with ten new ones, in the hope that nobody would notice), but precisely because, with the Wynette cover and a few other songs, the record dips a bit towards the sentimental side, downplaying the raw anger of the vast majority of the material on I'm Just A Prisoner. Most of the new songs are either simple love declarations, or broken-hearted confessions (ʽToo Hurt To Cryʼ, ʽMr. And Mrs. Untrueʼ); ʽFreedomʼ is the only red-hot statement of self-assertion, and it comes in just a little too late to dissipate the odd feeling that, perhaps, Stanton's spirit was broken and subdued to the standards of polite inoffensiveness.

Still, even so, there is no denying that the regular levels of songwriting, musicianship, and vocal aptitude have all been kept up — because of that, there is not one unpleasant second on the album, and even when she is calling upon ladies to "stand by your man, give him two arms to cling to", she manages to come across as totally believable; there's no attempt whatsoever to show irony or ambiguity (although she does amend the line "keep givin' all the love you can" to "he's giving you all the love you can", to make it seem less of a one-sided commitment), and she gets away with it by putting on that old gospel air and pretending that standing by your man is not that spiritually different from standing by your God. The problem is, with an approach like that, there are virtual­ly no standout tracks on the record — just one lazy, lush, longing R&B ballad after another — and, consequently, nothing much to write about, unless you'd want to expand the review to the size of a lengthy treatise on racial and gender issues just because, you know, it so happened that R&B covers of Nashville hits were financially profitable at the time.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Captain Beefheart: Strictly Personal

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: STRICTLY PERSONAL (1968)

1) Ah Feel Like Ahcid; 2) Safe As Milk; 3) Trust Us; 4) Son Of Mirror Man - Mere Man; 5) On Tomorrow; 6) Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones; 7) Gimme Dat Harp Boy; 8) Kandy Korn.

Only The Magic Band's second album, and things are already beginning to fall apart. The original plan was to push forward by entering full-on psycho-jam mode, and record an album titled It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper, but apparently the results were seen as way over the top by even the progressive dudes at Buddah Records, who declined to release them (although they still laid contractual claim to them, and, once Beefheart's reputation was firmly established, eventually released some of the sessions as Mirror Man in 1971). The only person to remain loyally impressed was producer Bob Krasnow, who took this as an excuse to break away from Buddah, found his own label (Blue Thumb) and get Beefheart to re-record a large part of the sessions for the new label.

On the positive side, breaking away from Buddah did permit the brave Captain to retain his artistic integrity and pursue the «never compromise» agenda — but there were negative sides, too. The most frequent complaint about Strictly Personal has an aura of objectivity, considering that it was shared by the artist himself: apparently, Krasnow got too heavily involved in the produc­tion, and «spoiled» the submitted tapes with all sorts of psychedelic effects, including echo, re­verb, phasing, reversing the tapes, etc., so that Beefheart's original vision of the album got cor­rupted and trivialized — like Zappa, Beefheart obviously viewed his art as transcending the hippie conventions of the late Sixties, aiming for a very different kind of weirdness from abusing trendy studio technology. Another problem might be the departure of Ry Cooder, replaced by the somewhat less dazzling Jeff Cotton; however, that lineup change may have been necessary in order to steer the band away from the more conventional blues idiom, to which Cooder strongly subscribed at the time, and into the realms of the avantgarde, so not a problem, really.

Personally, I would suggest that the main issue with Strictly Personal is not the post-production effects: had the material been great from the start, a few stretches of phased tapes wouldn't do all that much harm, and besides, it's not like the entire album is corrupted that way — there's plenty of passages that have a completely live, un-manipulated feel to them. Much worse, I believe, is the situation where Beefheart actually had to return to a project that, in his own view, should have already been completed and done with. The Captain's mind, see, is one of acute restlessness, and the Captain does not much like to polish the unpolishable... which is why the original Mirror Man sessions, even despite the crazy length of those jams, have always sounded more energetic, sharp, and altogether inspired to me.

But in 1968, the public at large was hardly aware of all these happenings in between Beefheart's first and second albums, and we, too, have to remember the correct chronology and take Strictly Personal as a direct sequel to Safe As Milk — whose title track, by the way, ultimately ended up on the second album, in one of those strange, but not unprecedented, historical accidents. Funny enough, the album starts out fairly innocently, as if it were going to be Safe As Milk Vol. 2: dis­carding the frigged-up title ʽAh Feel Like Ahcidʼ, those first three minutes are the same moder­nized Muddy Waters as ʽSure 'Nuff 'N' Yes I Doʼ — choppy syncopated slide guitars, harmonica blasts, and a bluesy guy raving and ranting over the minimalistic arrangement. There is, however, a difference: this time, there's no true sense of structure, as the guitar melody comes in and goes away whenever it pleases the players, and the lyrical flow shows no signs of being arranged into neat verse structures, not to mention the lyrics themselves, which have more in common with beat poetry than with ye olde blueswailing.

The problem is, there's no sign here of the players and the singer actually understanding what it is they are trying to do — okay, so they are obviously deconstructing a blues pattern, but why? It's not nearly as weird as it would need to be to truly shake up one's foundations, nor is it particularly funny or entertaining, and it does not showcase the honed musical talents of The Magic Band, either. Even the Captain sounds like he's groping around, sacrificing his mind to delirium in search of divine inspiration but not properly finding it. This is particularly evident on the inter­minable ʽTrust Usʼ, probably the weakest thing on the album — a series of bluesy/jazzy patterns with psychedelic overtones (this is also one of the most heavily Krasnow-treated tracks) and an overall muddy sound that never really goes anywhere: slow, prodding, low on energy, and hardly standing any competition with the typical psychedelic sounds of 1968's America — such as the Grateful Dead — and the biggest mistake is that it even begins to compete on that turf, because that just ain't Beefheart's turf anyhow.

Another particular lowlight for me is ʽBeatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stonesʼ; the track is already a spi­ritual predecessor to the style of Trout Mask Replica, but, again, suffers from a really sluggish flow, lack of interesting musical lines (there's one regular electric riff and one slide counterpart running through it, and both sound as if they are played by a couple guys whose amphetamines had just worn off), and a really silly vocal hook — the Captain insists on signing off each «verse» with a triumphantly whiney "...strawberry fields forever!" as if this were some sort of meaningful response to the Beatles, which it is not.

When the band sticks closer to its original blues guns, the results are notably better: ʽGimme Dat Harp Boyʼ is a relatively ferocious jam, seemingly growing out of the basic chord sequence for ʽSpoonful Bluesʼ and then taking on a life of its own — but even so, a brief comparison with the as-of-yet-unreleased Mirror Man version makes this one sound as if the entire band were sleep­walking through the process of re-recording. Maybe this is all Krasnow's fault, but surely it was not Krasnow who pretty much deprived the re-recording of a proper «bottom» — the bass on the Mirror Man is ferocious, and here I can't even properly hear it. Same goes for ʽKandy Kornʼ, which is here presented as a barely listenable murky mess.

Overall, unless you are a really big fan, I would strongly suggest ignoring Strictly Personal as a misfire, reflecting some poor production decisions and a lack of proper interest on Van Vliet's own side, and getting Mirror Man Sessions instead — the true «lost link» between Safe As Milk and Trout Mask Replica; in all honesty, Strictly Personal hardly deserves more than the status of a bonus disc, tacked on to some limited-edition special release of Mirror Man as an act of historical mercy. And yes, you guessed it already — thumbs down, because even certified musical madmen are not fully exempt from inducing boredom.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Cher: Not Com.mercial

CHER: NOT COM.MERCIAL (2000)

1) Still; 2) Sisters Of Mercy; 3) Runnin'; 4) Born With The Hunger; 5) (The Fall) Kurt's Blues; 6) With Or Without You; 7) Fit To Fly; 8) Disaster Cake; 9) Our Lady Of San Francisco; 10) Classified 1A.

In a perfect world... well, in a truly perfect world, Cher would have been the US ambassador to Arme­nia. But in a world just several notches below perfection, Believe would have not existed, and Not Com.mercial would be commercial all the way through — if only as a sign of respect for a modestly talented artist to go out there and actually do something. As the story goes, the majority of the songs on this album were written by Cher herself (still with a little help from the corporate people, of course) after she attended a 1994 songwriters' conference (I had no idea they held these, but then again, why not? I bet they hold Mick Jagger impersonator conferences, too!), and the bulk of the album was recorded the same year in France. She then offered the album to Warner Brothers, who turned it down, seeing it as «uncommercial», and had to shelve it for an indefinite period of time. However, once Believe truly hit its stride and brought her all the money she could ever need, she no longer needed Warners' approval — and simply released the album on her own, advertising it through her website.

In a way, this was a smarter decision: Believe, her most successful, yet also most plastic and arti­ficial release in ages, followed by an undeniably personal and «artistic» album that purports to show the world the real Cher, regardless of whether it garners any sales or not — there was no serious promotion whatsoever, not even any singles culled from the sessions, and she never gave any live performances of these songs. Eventually, the album became the same kind of retrospec­tive curiosity as 1980's Black Rose (Cher as a Serious Artist) and has even managed to gain a bit of a cult following; for some old-time fans, it might have even looked like a credible redemption after the intolerable crassness of Believe.

Unfortunately, the only way to make Not Com.mercial look decent is in the overall context of Cher's career curve; on its own, the record is just «listenable stuff» at its best, and «banal medio­crity» at its worst. If Cher really had what it takes to be an intriguing singer-songwriter, we would all be seeing that as early as 1965, and if you need to take lessons in songwriting in order to break out your dormant genius, a priori chances are that the genius will turn out to be a mechanical hack. Melodically, the songs are okay — a mix of generic folk rock and adult contemporary, with a bit of swamp blues thrown in for good measure; not tremendously different, by the way, from the style that would be dominant on It's A Man's World — but there's very little to grab and hold one's attention, unless it happens to be some element that is consciously or subconsciously lifted from some classic, e. g. the moody snowy organ introduction to ʽWith Or Without Youʼ which, naturally, evokes memories of ʽA Whiter Shade Of Paleʼ.

Message-wise, the songs are split between (predictably) stories of complex relationships and (less predictably) «social value» rants that go all the way from corny embarrassments (ʽOur Lady Of San Franciscoʼ, where she complains about a social system that turns people, herself included, away from helping poor old ladies in the streets — oh, my!) to not-half-bad statements on reli­gious hypocrisy (ʽSisters Of Mercyʼ, with a tasteful steel guitar and harp arrangement and a par­ticularly wicked-sounding vocal part that shows she really has a bone to pick with somebody on that issue; not a wise decision to give it the same title as that of a far superior Leonard Cohen song, though). Arguably the weirdest number on the whole record is ʽ(The Fall) Kurt's Bluesʼ: for some reason, Cher decided to write and record a tribute to Cobain, stating that she "understands his pain" and that "we're a heartless, Godless culture / we'd walk nowhere in your shoes". Now just imagine if she'd appeared onstage, all dressed up in the usual chic, at the MTV Awards or some ceremony like that, and delivered this tune instead of ʽBelieveʼ! She even thinks up (or lets her co-writers think up, I dunno) a proverbial killer two-liner for the end: "Our country kills its heroes / We just raise them for the fall". Excuse me for a moment while I break out those hankies, this is just too much for my nervous system to bear.

So, in the end, if you look at this from an optimistic angle, Not Com.mercial is an interesting, image-defying, sincere-sounding record, professionally and rather tastefully recorded by Cher with members of David Letterman's band, and delightfully shattering stereotypes. But if you choose the other angle, then it's a somewhat slick, manipulative, and ultimately bland and gene­ric set of traditionally written roots-pop songs with unwarranted pretense at «depth» and «authen­ticity», sung by a veteran Vegas glitz-star who has been happy enough to corrupt public taste with cheap, brainless entertainment for several decades, and now goes on a rant about the injustices and the imperfections of that same society as if she had never had anything to do with them. So does she ever sit back and wonder, «Why the hell did those critics kick the crap out of my Not Com.mercial album? I know it didn't sell because it was not commercial, but how come it got all those mixed-to-negative reviews?..» And if she ever does, does she have enough intelligence (or bravery) to give herself the right answer?

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Rolling Stones: Got Live If You Want It!

THE ROLLING STONES: GOT LIVE IF YOU WANT IT! (1966)

1) Under My Thumb; 2) Get Off Of My Cloud; 3) Lady Jane; 4) Not Fade Away; 5) I've Been Loving You Too Long; 6) Fortune Teller; 7) The Last Time; 8) 19th Nervous Breakdown; 9) Time Is On My Side; 10) I'm Alright; 11) Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In The Shadow?; 12) (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.

Back when this live album was released, many, including the band members themselves, regar­ded it as a travesty — issued without the band's proper consent, predictably suffering from atro­cious sound quality, not always presenting the Stones in top form, and featuring a decidedly odd setlist in which they somehow managed to insert two tracks that were not played live at all (!), one of them recorded as early as 1963 at that (!!). Even today, were this in Mick's and Keith's power, the two of them would have probably preferred to delete it from the ABKCO catalog al­together. And yet, until ABKCO or somebody else manage to do something better, Got Live If You Want It! remains what it is — a priceless historical document of the authentic Rolling Stones live sound in their «first prime», with a still well-functioning Brian Jones and a self-assured Mick Jagger who'd finally shred the last scales of shyness, and entered «rock star mode», but without getting recklessly drunk on that stardom yet.

Of course, there are countless bootlegs from 1965-66, if you want to thoroughly capitalize on that «authenticity» thing — but that means having to endure an even worse sound, and ever since the record went through the proper remastering process around 2002, it's become fairly listenable. Yes, there is no way to avoid the instruments and vocals being partially swamped by the incessant screaming of British girls (most of the tracks were drawn from a couple shows in Bristol and Newcastle-upon-Tyne in October '66), but the new mix tries its best, so that after a couple of listens you might even begin to clearly discern between Keith's and Brian's guitars; and, further­more, the world needs a Rolling Stones live album drowning in wild screaming, if only to re­member that the Rolling Stones were a product of the Screaming Sixties, rather than of the com­paratively more quiet, more glammy, more decadent stadium-rock era.

In the process of remixing and remastering, I'm pretty sure that the working team introduced some major changes to the album — I faintly remember my old cassette tape version that defi­nitely had a different version of ʽUnder My Thumbʼ, as well as maybe one or two other tracks, and also less stage banter and fewer pauses between tracks. There are also sources that mention post-production studio overdubs, most of them concerning lead and backup vocals by Mick and Keith (curious that, having hated the album, they still went ahead with the doctoring), so some detective work is in order to sort out which parts of the album are truly live and which ones aren't. But since the record was never consi­dered a Holy Grail anyway, the doctoring is not a very important issue. The important point is that even with all the screaming and all the imperfections of stage work circa 1966, the Stones still manage to kick ass — loudness and energy is one thing, but they are also quite tight, and this is where we really have to thank the loyal rhythm section: with Charlie's jackhammer pounding that opens ʽUnder My Thumbʼ, there is no way the song could ever be in danger of falling apart, unless Charlie himself collapsed from exhaustion. (It is no surprise that the slightly earlier epochal documentary on the Stones on tour was titled Charlie Is My Darling).

Even more amazingly, on those songs that actually require him to do so (I'm not talking about ʽGet Off Of My Cloudʼ, evidently), Jagger does indeed sing — an ability that he would complete­ly sacrifice in the early Seventies, briefly reclaim in the Nineties, and then once again reject (quite intentionally, I'm sure, as age forced him to make a choice between singing and strutting) in the 21st century. Even on Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, with the Stones in all their late Sixties' in­strumental glory, Mick's vocals are already, if not an impediment, then at least more of a side ele­ment to the show — but on Got Live, he's always right in the center of things. It may be just a trick of the new mix, of course, and at least some of these lead vocals were later overdubbed in the studio, yet in all cases the results present the whole thing as Mick Jagger's show with a bunch of trusty side­kicks. (And it doesn't sound that much different if you stick to the fully authentic and put your trust in some of the better bootlegs from the era, e. g. the Honolulu show from July 28, 1966, going under the stupidly Beatlesque title of So Much Younger Than Today).

It is, of course, quite beneficial to him that Keith, at this point, still prefers to stick to grim self-discipline on stage, churning out the riffs more or like they are supposed to be churned out without going off on all sorts of tangents — and that Brian Jones was never a great live player in the first place; to make matters worse for him, the setlist largely concentrates on recent, self-penned material where there was relatively little room to show off his bluesy slide guitar playing talents. He does drag out the dulcimer in order to perform ʽLady Janeʼ, but the sound is crude and hoarse compared to the subtle studio arrangement. And he is not much favored by the new mix, either: you really have to strain your ears to catch the melodic guitar part on ʽGet Off Of My Cloudʼ, for instance.

So, essentially, this is the Mick-and-Keith show, with Charlie providing the impenetrable percus­sion wall and Wyman occasionally making himself the twinkling little star with phenomenal bass zoops (ʽI'm Alrightʼ, once again, is his stellar moment — the version here being even more in­tense and desperate than the old live arrangement on Out Of Our Heads). Riff-heavy tunes like ʽUnder My Thumbʼ, ʽThe Last Timeʼ, the classic non-album single ʽ19th Nervous Breakdownʼ, and, of course, ʽSatisfactionʼ rule the day, and they are all played a little faster, a little rougher, a little punkier than in the studio, even though ʽSatisfactionʼ was still a long way away from tur­ning into the «royal» Stones number (I would say it only acquired that status on their first sta­dium tours circa 1981). Kudos to the boys, too, for the wild feedback chaos at the beginning of the newly released single ʽHave You Seen Your Mother, Babyʼ — the new mix reveals the true bestial qualities of that sound, heavier even than The Who in mid-'66, in fact, downright Stooges-like, if only for a few seconds, out of which we then witness the miraculous birth of one of their best pop-rockers of the year.

As for the two «fake» live tracks, if you can forgive their fakeness, they are both enjoyable: the oldie ʽFortune Tellerʼ speeds up, tightens up and nastifies, Stones-wise, Benny Spellman's ori­ginal, and somehow Mick manages to do the impossible on ʽI've Been Loving Youʼ and almost steal it away from Otis Redding, turning in a very personal, painful, vulnerable rendition where his sweaty straining actually helps things — unlike Otis, who might as well have been born sin­ging this stuff, Mick here sounds like he's climbing a stiff height without a safety net, especially when he gets to the "oh, oh"'s, and I always breathe a little sigh of relief once he finally reaches the top safe and sound. That said, of course, neither of the two tracks has any legitimate place on the album — and, at the very least, on the new remaster they could have cut the pretense and just put them on as bonuses without the silly distracting crowd noises (especially for ʽI've Been Lo­ving Youʼ — slapping a wall of human noise on top of that performance is like letting a crowd of reporters into a confession booth). So seek out them bootlegs and rarities compilations.

Anyway, regardless of the band's own feelings, I still give the album a thumbs up — in addition to its historic importance, it's got these little, but important bits of coolness all over it, ranging from the inoffensively silly (such as Jagger scatting on the instrumental section of ʽLady Janeʼ) to the unpredictably curious (why do they have a few bars of ʽSatisfactionʼ as a false opening to ʽThe Last Timeʼ?) to the singularly awesome (the feedback on ʽHave You Seen Your Motherʼ, the stop-and-start coda to ʽSatisfactionʼ, the bomb-diving bass on ʽI'm Alrightʼ). Even if, as some detractors claim, it is the single worst live Stones album (but it isn't, really), it is at least a fairly unique live Stones album — and, at the very very least, it is much more casually enjoyable than Live At The Hollywood Bowl, the Beatles' equivalent from the same era.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Alcest: Kodama

ALCEST: KODAMA (2016)

1) Kodama; 2) Eclosion; 3) Je Suis D'Ailleurs; 4) Untouched; 5) Oiseaux De Proie; 6) Onyx; 7) Notre Sang Et Nos Pensées*.

Kodama means ʽtree-spiritʼ in Japanese, with the concept going back to prehistoric times, but it does not take a Japanologist to understand that Neige learned about it not from reading Japanese folklore, but rather from watching Princess Mononoke, since 99% of people get their 99% of in­formation on traditional Japanese culture from Miyazaki-san. That's OK, though, it's not like Alcest have switched to playing traditional Japanese music or anything — in fact, we could all probably see it coming: sooner or later, any blackgazer is going to have to confess that he was inspired and influenced by Japanese mixes of beauty and horror anyway, because blackgaze is all about mixing beauty with horror, and who does that better than the Japanese — Ivanka Trump?..

Anyway, I was quick enough in my review of Shelter to suggest that Alcest's genuinely black­gazing days are over — here, as if shaking off one type of slumber to immediately jump into another, Neige makes a focused effort to return to his «roots», and make another album straight in the vein of his first two. The downside is that you may have to go back to the first two in order to check if there's any significant differences, and even I am a little lazy to do that. The upside is that a shift of mood/vibe is almost always a good thing anyway for somebody who works in the «static» section of the musical business, and there does seem to be a little extra spark in Kodama that you sometimes observe in those types of comebacks that are not made exclusively for the money. Yet it is all subtle and subjective — and on the rougher side of the equation, what you have here is simply six more (seven more, if you count the extra track on the deluxe edition) cold, dark, snowy, statically beautiful sonic panoramas from the French master of texture.

Once again, as the title track kicks into gear, we find ourselves treading through heavy, but soft and un-treacherous snow, covering a dense (but not too dense) forest of pine trees on a moonlit (but not too moonlit) night — without any idea of why we are here, where are we going, and whe­ther the forest has an end or the journey has a purpose. We do know that the forest is enchan­ted, as the kodamas are sending us haunted signals with their haunted vocals, ringing in unison with the jangly and the distorted guitars, but it's not like they really care about you — you're no­thing but an impartial observer, and even when the distorted guitars take over for a while and start a power chord bombarding, there is still no impression that something is, you know, happening. Maybe just a stronger wind.

There's four additional tracks on here, but the vibe on each and every one of them is exactly the same — occasionally, you get some growling vocals (ʽEclosionʼ), for old times' sake, but they are neither scary nor apocalyptic. (Maybe one of the kodamas just got thirsty.) Only the last track, ʽOnyxʼ, is different, and not necessarily for the better — it's just one long drone, recorded in lo-fi for the sake of amusement and working as a «one last breath» outro that you will probably want to skip even if you happen to be sufficiently enchanted by the rest of them.

Honestly, I am not quite sure what to do here, but in the end, I will probably have to leave it with a modest thumbs up, because (a) I really like the vocal melodic hook on ʽKodamaʼ (closest the album gets to being genuinely haunting), (b) I think that the album shows some progress in the art of working with overdubs (Souvenirs sounds a little crude and un-subtle in comparison), (c) I've always had a soft spot for French impressionist artists influenced by Japanese culture — so, roll over Pissarro, tell Debussy the news, or something to that effect. None of which will probably ward off the inevitable — that in a few months (weeks) Kodama will be robustly wiped out of my me­mory, and then Neige can start it all over again without any serious risk of being accused of self-plagiarism in the future.