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Friday, October 20, 2017

Chelsea Wolfe: Mistake In Parting

CHELSEA WOLFE: MISTAKE IN PARTING (2006)

1) Inside A Girl; 2) Nothing, Noone; 3) Sleeping; 4) Mistake In Parting; 5) Your Name; 6) Hallelujah; 7) No Luck; 8) Lay Me Down; 9) Winter; 10) Dreamer.

Ever since achieving dark-stardom, Chelsea Wolfe has been trying to erase the memories of her first album from public conscience — deriding it as a "shitty singer-songwriter breakup album" made by a 21-year old, the sooner forgotten, the better. Then again, you know, Adele made a "shitty singer-songwriter breakup album" and actually called it 21, and God saw that it was good (so good that he made her do a really shitty one four years later, to compensate), so why couldn't Chelsea Wolfe's? Moreover, she does admit that the songs she wrote for the album were quite personal — too personal, in fact, for her own tastes — and this inevitably means that any fan of the lady should lay hands on it sooner or later, if only in order to understand where this particular idol is coming from.

In all honesty, this is not nearly as bad as Chelsea herself makes it out to be — though, probably, I'd be angrier at these songs if I did not hear the artist in person get angry about them. Much of the record is just harmless (and usually boring) acoustic folk, the kind that aspiring young ladies and gentlemen like to film themselves playing in their bedroom and then hanging out on YouTube for their five minutes of glory — «sincerity» probably being the most, if not the only, interesting part about it. From time to time, she goes electric, and then it is like your average alt-rock crunch, though, fortunately, not drowning in Nickelbackish distortion. The lyrics and vocal intonations suggest a heavy Radiohead influence — which, unfortunately, never translates to compositional complexity or catchiness: most of the songs are atmospheric poetic rants that very rarely have any dynamics, usually just going round and round until the tape runs out.

In this context, the somewhat colorless voice hovering above the arrangements is a good thing, because, despite my confessed bias against "singer-songwriter breakup albums", somehow the record still manages not to cross the line from «boring» to «irritating», even when the artist's Big Ego is placed square in the center of everything, as it is on the opening number — ʽInside A Girlʼ, a fairly provocative title in its own right. She just uses a few impressionist keyboard lines and some strings here to tell her own story of seduction and betrayal, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that: everybody has a right to that story if it's the truth, or, hell, even if it's not the truth. I cannot remember anything about that song once it's gone, but while it was playing, it did not make me want to go, «who are you to be manipulating me with your bullshit». It sounded fairly natural — as does everything else here.

The downside is that there is really nothing to write about, as most of the songs are strictly neither good nor bad. The arrangements are okay (she would later complain about the album being over­produced, but I don't really hear it — I mean, pianos? strings? chimes? alt-rock guitars? what exactly is the source of complaints?), the voice is okay, the melodies offer no surprises, the lyrics show that she can come up with a pretty decent analysis of both her own and her ex-boyfriend's problems... end of story. Only one track, ʽWinterʼ, shows brief hints at the future developments of her sound, with a slightly doomier guitar tone than usual and lyrics like "lay in my grave with me my love / we'll die side by side, hand in hand" foreshadowing the morbid veils of her mature career (and no, these lines are not among the album's finest, but if you're young and you have your whole life ahead of you, hell, why not include them anyway?), yet even that is just a solitary foreshadowing. But now at least we know why Chelsea «Joy» Wolfe has such a grim vision of the universe at large: her boyfriend dumped her, and things would never be the same. This is, you know, where Batman begins and stuff.

One technical reason why this record could be wiped from discographies is that it never had a real label, being self-released in CDr format with only a few hundred copies or so. But then, 2006 is not like the underground Eighties: she had herself the luxury of a properly equipped Californian studio, a professional backing band, there's, like, album art and all — and it is very cleanly pro­duced, so that the songs never give the impression of raw demos. And I do not think this record is something that she'd need to be particularly ashamed of: at least this way, her fans have this nice little opportunity to get a quick peek inside her real soul, rather than always have to deal with her «alien» artistic persona. Not that you'd find anything particularly outstanding there, but... well, anyway, I do not want to create the impression that Chelsea Wolfe is a genius, let alone that Mistake In Parting is some sort of underappreciated, heart-wrenching spiritual masterpiece. In fact, it might have been more fun if it turned out to be some campy embarrassment, like the early dance-pop records of Alanis Morissette, or Y Kant Tori Read. As it is, it's largely just a blank.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Chameleons: John Peel Sessions

THE CHAMELEONS: JOHN PEEL SESSIONS (1990)

1) The Fan And The Bellows; 2) Here Today; 3) Looking Inwardly; 4) Things I Wish I'd Said; 5) Don't Fall; 6) Nostalgia; 7) Second Skin; 8) Perfumed Garden; 9) Dust To Dust / Return Of The Rednecks; 10) One Flesh; 11) Intrigue In Tangiers; 12) P. S. Goodbye.

As befits every second-rate band, The Chameleons have a huge number of live albums out, most of them released in semi-official status on various tiny labels, and trying to trace them all down and discuss each one separately would be taking this completism thing way too far. But this reasonably concise and high-quality package from the ubiquitous John Peel is worth mentioning, especially because it came before everything else and could be regarded as a comprehensive summary of the band's legacy — put out at a time when there was no talk of a Chameleons come­back, and the fans could hardly hope for anything better.

In brief, there are two things about this compilation that make it particularly attractive for me. First, the setlist: these tracks are taken from three separate sessions — four songs from 1981, way before they got around to recording their first album; four from 1983, promoting Script Of The Bridge; and four more from 1984, promoting What Does Anything Mean. At this point, the sessions stop, meaning that there is nothing from Strange Times, which is quite a relief. But it also gives you a couple of early songwriting attempts that cannot be found elsewhere (well, they can now, but not back then): ʽThe Fan And The Bellowsʼ, a good punk-pop romp with a healthy dosage of youthful protest energy, before it began mutating into acid depression already on their first LP; and ʽThings I Wish I'd Saidʼ, which sounds, well, like any other fast early Chameleons song, but at least it's better than any slow late Chameleons song.

Second and maybe even more important, the fact that these takes were recorded live for radio broadcast means — yes, you guessed it right: a relative liberation from the confines of glossy Eighties production. The biggest beneficiary of this is drummer John Lever (and his predecessor Brian Schofield, captured on the first four tracks), who is here able to fully and openly participate in the ritual, now that his fills are less robotic and you actually get to feel the effort he puts into every bit of his pummeling. The performances themselves are not at all different from the studio versions, so, for future reference, I'd simply take these versions of ʽHere Todayʼ, ʽDon't Fallʼ, etc., over their regular studio equivalents.

Other than these two points, there is little that could be added to this brief evaluation. Given the spotty record of The Chameleons, it is nice to see a package that managed to concentrate on all their good sides and largely avoid the bad ones — it is nice, in fact, to be able to say anything good about a live album by a band whose live shows were seemingly not all that different from the way they played in the studio.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Carpenters: As Time Goes By

CARPENTERS: AS TIME GOES BY (2001)

1) Without A Song; 2) Superstar / Rainy Days And Mondays; 3) Nowhere Man; 4) I Got Rhythm Medley; 5) Dancing In The Street; 6) Dizzy Fingers; 7) You're Just In Love; 8) Karen / Ella Medley; 9) Close Encounters / Star Wars; 10) Leave Yesterday Behind; 11) Carpenters / Como Medley; 12) California Dreamin'; 13) The Rainbow Con­nection; 14) Hits Medley '76; 15) And When He Smiles.

Still another decade goes by, and just so that the world could be reminded, at the start of a brand new millennium, that Carpenter rule is not quite over yet, Richard is scraping together some more odds and ends from all over the place — going as far back as 1967, with a 17-year old Karen singing on a piano-and-harmonica demo version of ʽNowhere Manʼ and showing how much of a penchant they had for turning Beatlish pop-rock into easy listening material from the very start. Actually, it is one of the more endearing numbers on this collection.

In a way, this is far more listenable than Lovelines in general, because very few of the songs are truly «new»: for the most part, these are alternate takes, demos, and TV show versions of the siblings' big hits, and that is far more enjoyable than listening to subpar material they recorded in the late Seventies. So there are at least three medleys from the Carpenters' TV Special and the Perry Como Christmas Show, and as sickening as the concept of a medley can be, I'd rather listen to a brief snippet of ʽSuperstarʼ trickling into a brief snippet of ʽRainy Days And Mondaysʼ than... then again, the obvious question is what exactly these new versions bring to the table, and the obvious answer is — a desire to go on YouTube and browse for old videos of the Carpenters' TV Special, because the sight of Karen singing these versions is the only reason why anybody should bother with them in the first place.

Anyway, here is a brief rundown of the most curious stuff on this release. First, a few tunes off Music, Music, Music, the duo's 1980 program for ABC TV: there's a Gershwin medley (Karen is not at all bad on ʽI Got Rhythmʼ), a highly impressive, quasi-virtuoso performance of ʽDizzy Fingersʼ by Richard (who actually had great playing technique — but preferred to keep it low-key on studio recordings), and another medley of oldies where Karen alternates with none other than Ella Fitzgerald herself — Ella is already way past her prime, but holds her own ground very well, plus, well, it is Karen who was really dying at the time, not Ella. Second, the old demos — be­sides ʽNowhere Manʼ, there's also ʽCalifornia Dreamin'ʼ, both of them sung with great under­standing (unfortunately, Richard just felt he had to tamper with the old demos and load them with extra string arrangements and whatnot). Third, just a couple of previously unavailable numbers, such as Kermit the Frog's ʽRainbow Connectionʼ — not sure if Karen is much of an improvement over Kermit, but she is at least an improvement on Debbie Harry...

Anyway, despite Richard's useless overdubs, and despite the totally unnecessary inclusion of a ʽClose Encounters / Star Warsʼ medley from their Space Encounters special, this rag-taggy collection remains listenable; however, I do believe that casual listeners have absolutely no use for it, while dedicated fans will probably despise it for all the tampering — indeed, why not re­lease something a more systematic instead, like a proper collection of untampered demos, or at least a proper soundtrack from one or more of the TV shows, preferably in correct chronological order? As it is, the result is simply a mess, and if this happens to be the last archival issue released in Richard's lifetime, it would be fairly ignominious.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Chambers Brothers: Now!

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: NOW! (1966)

1) Introduction To; 2) High Heel Sneakers; 3) Baby Please Don't Go; 4) What'd I Say; 5) Long Tall Sally; 6) Bony Maronie; 7) It's Groovin' Time; 8) You Don't Have To Go; 9) C. C. Rider; 10) So Fine.

All right, this one is eminently skippable. Maybe the decision to stick to live recordings can be qualified as a gesture of toughness and determination, and I have nothing against this in theory, but in practice, this is pretty disappointing. Seemingly recorded at the same venues in Boston and L.A. as last time, Now! would sound as just a bunch of outtakes that did not make it onto the first album — except I think that these are different dates, because the recording quality is much worse: there is an ugly echo marring all the performances, creating the illusion of a deep well, rather than an intimate club, and also completely obscuring any musicianship that may or may not have been concealed behind the singing.

Another problem is the setlist: less diverse and original than last time, it consists mainly of covers of well-known standards, ranging from the early rock'n'roll of ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ and ʽHigh Heel Sneakersʼ to Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles. As much as I respect the vocal prowess of The Cham­bers Brothers, I really do not need another (and poor quality at that) version of ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ in my collection; nor do I need an extended, monotonous, slowed down version of the pop song ʽSo Fineʼ which, for several minutes, they try to transform into an ecstatic soulful groove without much success.

The only «new» tune is ʽIt's Groovin' Timeʼ, which, judging by its title, should be a fast, exciting rave-up, but in reality it is a slow, harmonica-driven piece of Chicago blues, as generic and for­gettable as they come; next to its drabness, the covers of ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ and ʽBony Maronieʼ are true salvation in the flesh... if only I could hear those guitar solos on the latter, though — the guitarist almost seems to intentionally wish to remain unheard.

Technically, you can dance to this, and I can even imagine the album having some use in college parties around that time — especially the ones where nobody needs anything but a good beat, anyway — yet in career terms, especially considering that this is frickin' 1966 we're talking about, with Hendrix on the horizon and shit, they pretty much shot themselves in their brotherly feet. It is highly likely, though, that Vault Records simply released this crap without the artists' explicit permission: I cannot imagine why they'd want to have this out on their own. Regardless, this is as proverbial a thumbs down as they ever come (for some reason, Bruce Eder gave it a positive review in the All-Music Guide — but the man has a passion for praising obscurities just because they are obscure and ever so slightly out-of-field; I also like to engage in musical archaeology from time to time, but have no interest in overstating its delights).

Monday, October 16, 2017

Allen Toussaint: Toussaint

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: TOUSSAINT (1971)

1) From A Whisper To A Scream; 2) Chokin' Kind; 3) Sweet Touch Of Love; 4) What Is Success; 5) Working In A Coalmine; 6) Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky; 7) Either; 8) Louie; 9) Cast Your Fate To The Wind; 10) Number Nine; 11) Pickles.

Throughout the Sixties, Toussaint was too busy writing and producing hit songs for a host of artists to ever focus on a solo career, releasing only a tiny handful of singles under his own name (the most famous of which was probably ʽGet Out Of My Life, Womanʼ in 1968, and even that one was first made into a hit by Lee Dorsey two years before). However, as the Seventies came along and established a pattern of formerly behind-the-scenes songwriters coming out to lay claims to full-fledged artistry (Carole King probably being the most famous examples), Toussaint apparently decided that it wouldn't hurt to try. Backed by his good friend Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, on guitar and organ (all piano duties are understandably handled by Allen himself), as well as a dozen seasoned, but little-known session players (Merry Clayton of ʽGimmie Shelterʼ fame is here on backing vocals, as a matter of fact), Toussaint makes his first big move as a solo artist — and immediately falls flat on his face!

Well, no, not quite. True, the record sold poorly, was barely noted in its own time and even today remains more or less a collector's item, to the extent that even the basic discographic information on it tends to vary from source to source (from what I can reconstruct, the original title was simply Toussaint, the recording sessions took place in 1970, and the LP was released in 1971;  more than a decade later, it was re-released as From A Whisper To A Scream, with one extra track on Side B, and this is the version I have). It is also true that the record is quite low-key, and does not have even a third part of the exuberance and youthful aggression of The Wild Sound: this new sound of Allen's is anything but wild, particularly when you compare it to his funky competitors such as James Brown or Funkadelic; in the dizzy, explosive context of 1971, when «thunder gods» still ruled the world of pop, rock, and R&B, it could hardly be hoped that a lot of people would pay attention to anything this humble.

But apart from these historic considerations, Toussaint is a pretty decent album. Allen's motto for it is established with the last number on Side A — ʽEverything I Do Gonna Be Funkyʼ — yet he establishes it in such a quiet, unpretentious, and calm manner that I am automatically reminded of J. J. Cale: had old J. J. decided that he, too, wanted to be funky from now on, he would probably have recorded something precisely like this. The song is not even properly «funky» by itself, just a regular 4/4 groove with minimal bass, quiet interplay between a distorted rhythm guitar and lead slide licks, and brief, punctuating touches of brass. Absolutely nothing special — but, some­how, still burning with a quiet, steady, and very determined fire that really makes you want to believe the man.

Everything else on the first side is done according to the same approach: quiet, relying on short and sweet melodic guitar phrases — but, unfortunately, also downplaying Toussaint's talents as a piano player; his biggest break comes on Harlan Howard's ʽChokin' Kindʼ, but even there Dr. John quickly overshadows him on the organ. All in all, the songs do not even sound much like the product of a singer-songwriter, because Toussaint's singing voice, while pleasant, friendly, and versatile, is strictly defined as one out of many sonic ingredients: Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields on backing vocals are just as loud as the frontman, and Toussaint never resorts to ad-lib­bing, never jumps out of his seat to attract attention — which is, admittedly, very cool and noble of him, but also depersonalizes him to a large degree. And although his ʽWorking In The Coal­mineʼ is a catchy and poignant song, his version here hardly improves on Lee Dorsey's original, although the arrangement is oddly more carnivalesque, with brass fanfare and slick funky guitar framing Allen's so naturally optimistic and friendly voice that the whole thing becomes ironic: surely Lee Dorsey did not sing about the sufferings of a coalmine worker that cheerfully.

The entire second side of the album is left for instrumental compositions, and this is where we could hope, perhaps, for some let-your-hair-down wildness: but no dice — these funky instru­mentals are quite restrained, too, and focused on band interplay rather than showcasing individual skills, with the lone exception of Vince Guaraldi's ʽCast Your Fate To The Windʼ, where Allen finally takes center stage and lets his piano do most of the talking, with some cool key changes and a beautifully fluent and expressive solo in the middle. Everything else is just groove after groove, tasteful and pleasant, but not much to write about: no flash (except at the end of ʽPicklesʼ, where Toussaint wraps things up with a few Chopin-esque flourishes), just business.

All in all, this is an inauspicious, but respectable start to a true solo career; I would only recom­mend it, though, to those who like their funky grooves very low-key and restrained, speaking through subtlety and ellipse, rather than loud, sweaty, and punchy. Oh, and with a brassy New Orleanian flavor, of course — the kind of atmosphere that teaches you to always look on the bright side of things, no matter how much they suck.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Small Faces: Small Faces

SMALL FACES: SMALL FACES (1967)

1) (Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me; 2) Something I Want To Tell You; 3) Feeling Lonely; 4) Happy Boys Happy; 5) Things Are Going To Get Better; 6) My Way Of Giving; 7) Green Circles; 8) Become Like You; 9) Get Yourself Together; 10) All Our Yesterdays; 11) Talk To You; 12) Show Me The Way; 13) Up The Wooden Hills To Bedford­shire; 14) Eddie's Dreaming.

Those who like their conceptuality mature and their maturity conceptual will always prefer Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, but to me, this is the band's unquestionable masterpiece, their only LP that deserves to be mentioned as a legitimate and fully privileged companion to all the other masterpieces from 1967. Its only flaw may be a certain lack of personality: by this time, Steve Marriott's dominance as a frontman was becoming somewhat resented by the rest of the band, and this is most evident from the fact that Ronnie Lane, a much less powerful, but a subtly charisma­tic, singer, now takes the lead on about half of the tracks — this results in a less distinctive vocal sound, and since the band never had a unique instrumental sound to speak of, Small Faces bears no easily identifiable tags on it. But then again, wasn't Sgt. Pepper, too, a conscious effort to get rid of identifiable tags and dissolve the band members' individual and collective personalities in something bigger than ourselves? The important thing is that Small Faces never sounds like a rip-off of somebody in particular — and, as a matter of fact, this is where the band most definite­ly parts ways with The Who: Small Faces has very little in common with The Who Sell Out.

Despite the American title of this album, there are, in fact, but two small faces. One is that of Steve Marriott, who has pretty much renounced his career as a Muddy Waters-adulating blues­man and is now concentrating on becoming the British equivalent of Otis Redding. The other is that of Ronnie Lane, who has developed a keen interest in those smelly old roots, and is busy incorporating folk, baroque, and music hall elements in the band's music. On the other hand, it might also be argued that the third face, the one gluing the other two together, is Ian McLagan, whose keyboards support both the soul-wailing of Marriott and the folk-burrowing of Lane. Only Kenney Jones, now that the band is no longer interested in cranking up the amps on metallized cover versions of Booker T. & The MG's, remains in the dangerous position of being left without a job, uh, I mean, a face of his own — but at least they left him one instrumental (ʽHappy Boys Happyʼ) where he can still kick some ass.

As tight, rowdy, bawdy R&B'ers, even if this style was already slightly antiquated for the boys, this is where they hit their peak, too: ʽ(Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Meʼ, with its alternation between a despairing Marriott, frantically trying to knock through his loved one's skull, and the hear-hearing  boys, unsuccessfully trying to cheer him up, is instantaneously memorable — and on the second side of the album, the song is echoed by the equally frantic ʽTalk To Youʼ, where each verse-chorus bundle is a tense, sweaty, veins-bulgin' drive to the explosive final statement: "all I want to do is talk to you!", Marriott blurts out before the front door of his girlfriend (who wisely keeps it shut because with a tone like that, you never really know if the loverboy does not clutch a shotgun behind his back). But every now and then, Steve is also capable of quieting down and musing in a more optimistic manner: ʽThings Are Going To Get Betterʼ works as a becalming, self-directed lullaby, gently adorned with McLagan's harpsichord — only towards the end does Steve wind himself up in a bit of a frenzy — and, for what it's worth, since the title begs for such a comparison, this is really a song about things getting better, unlike The Beatles' ʽGet­ting Betterʼ, which is completely in the domain of King Sarcasm in comparison. (I'm not saying that Small Faces have the better song — just a happier one).

But it is the emergence of Ronnie Lane as a competent, competitive, and maybe even visionary songwriter in his own right that really sets the album apart from everything previously done. In stark contrast with the burly Marriott, Ronnie is a sweet, vulnerable soul, and although, as a sin­ger, he is professionally miles below Steve, his voice has a homely-friendly attitude that will immediately appeal to all those introverted people who can be somewhat put off by Marriott's proto-arena-rock swagger (which he would later, predictably, invest into actual arena-rock during his days in Humble Pie).

Already on his first song here, ʽSomething I Want To Tell Youʼ, he presents a courtly alternative to Marriott's angry ranting — they both have trouble with girls, but Ronnie prefers to voice his in a much less egotistic manner. The song reveals a solid Dylan influ­ence — its rhythmics, lyrical moves, and Ian McLagan's «Al Kooper style» organ all bring back to mind the days of Highway 61 Revisited — but Dylan would never end one of his verses with something like "you forget what we've found together, you forget what we've found is love", and even if he did, he would certainly never give the impression of tears in his eyes by the way he'd be singing them. Curiously, that organ part of McLagan's, starting out solemnly and slowly, even­tually picks up steam, going from J. S. Bach mode to Franz Liszt mode, if a classical analogy may be pardoned; Ronnie, however, never lifts his voice into anything even remotely resembling a scream — partly because he is technically unable to, and partly because he'd probably like the music to speak for his feelings, rather than risk making a pompous ass of himself. Repeat with ʽAll Our Yesterdaysʼ, where Dylan is replaced with an old-fashioned vaudeville arrangement, but the vulnerability stays the same, while the sneering, bullying Marriott cannot resist making fun of poor Ronnie by starting the song off with an exaggerated Cockney announcement: "...the darling of Wapping Wharf launderette, Ronald Leafy-a Lane!"

I have not mentioned the word «psychedelic» yet, and for good reason, because Small Faces never got truly hooked on to the psychedelic craze (even less so than The Who, who did record several Pink Floyd-influenced tracks for The Who Sell Out). However, the album would still be nowhere near as impressive had the open-your-mind wave completely bypassed these guys; in actuality, they saddled it in their own impressive manner, somewhat close to The Kinks — by merging elements of «Britishness», particularly the retro ones, with the magic of studio techno­logy. That way, a song like ʽGreen Circlesʼ marries the folk narrative approach ("and with the rain a stranger came...") with psychedelic attitudes, reflected mainly in the complex vocal har­mony patterns, the stereo panning fun, and the mantra gimmick ("green circles, green circles, green circles!..." until said circles really do begin to appear before your eyes) — actually, Syd Barrett and friends did this too (ʽThe Gnomeʼ, etc.), but Small Faces never go properly whacko. ʽUp The Wooden Hills To Bedfordshireʼ, a song written and sung by McLagan, tells you to "leave your body behind you with a different feeling", but somehow Ian's idea of a transcendental, poetic dream is to be slipping away "up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire", an idiomatic British expression with which parents used to shoo their kids away to bed, and which had already been previously immortalized in a Vera Lynn song. So it's another song about Going To Sleep, but with a more pronounced local flavor than, say, ʽI'm Only Sleepingʼ or Bill Wyman's ʽIn Another Landʼ — and also reading more like a dark lullaby than an account of one's personal experience ("when you're slipping into sleep, there's a world you fill find...", with the song's steady beat and McLagan's unfurling organ magically pulling you along some yellow brick road or other). Funny bit of trivia: on the US edition, the ʽto Bedfordshireʼ part was omitted from the song title — possibly by accident, but more likely because the publishers did not want to confuse American audiences with lengthy English toponyms, even though it made the title meaningless.

The idea of sleeping and dreaming is, in general, quite popular with the boys on the album: even the final track, despite its rather lively, even Caribbean-flavored, arrangement is called ʽEddie's Dreamingʼ (who's Eddie?) — implying that (a) life is a carnival and (b) life is only a dream, so nothing makes more sense than combining both in one short package. (In a way, this is what the Stones also did with their ʽOn With The Showʼ conclusion to Satanic Majesties, even if that song did not expressly mention the idea of dreaming — it was more of a common theme that linked together all the songs on the album). Somehow I think that this twist may not have been all that much to Steve's liking; but, as I already said, on this particular occasion his songs seem to mesh fairly well with Ronnie's and Ian's.

The US version of the album, retitled There Are But Four Small Faces, predictably cut out several songs in favor of the band's contemporary singles — ʽItchycoo Parkʼ, ʽHere Come The Niceʼ, and ʽTin Soldierʼ — thus seriously skewing the balance in favor of Marriott and the R&B groove, which, it may have been felt, would be taken more benevolently by American listeners. These songs are all classics, for sure (and one of them even provided the name for one of Britain's earliest progressive rock acts), but all of them follow more or less the same principle — the hook is primarily determined by the loudness level: quiet «preparatory» verses followed by explosive choruses — and, in my opinion, they do not reflect the true progression of the band nearly as well as the song selection and sequencing on the original UK edition of the album. I mean, ʽTin Sol­dierʼ is a kick-ass anthemic song and all that, but its constituents are fairly well understandable; ʽGreen Circlesʼ remains far more strange for my comprehension. Regardless, it is all too natural that my thumbs up would go out to either the UK or the US version in any case: almost every­thing that Small Faces did during this peak year of theirs sounds just as powerful or just as magi­cal today as it did fifty years ago.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Bent Knee: Say So

BENT KNEE: SAY SO (2016)

1) Black Tar Water; 2) Leak Water; 3) Counselor; 4) EVE; 5) Interlude; 6) The Things You Love; 7) Nakami; 8) Commercial; 9) Hands Up; 10) Good Girl.

It is quite surprising to me that I do not love Bent Knee as much as all the aspects of their music are supposing I should. Goddangit, this is provocative, experimental stuff, with a huge diversity of approaches, not afraid of throwing in extra ferocity or a tad more vulnerability; great singer, challenging melodies that do not, however, make any serious transgressions against harmony, intelligent lyrics, no blatantly obvious nods to trendy fashions... but somehow, somewhere, some­thing about it all still isn't right.

For some reason, on their third album, Say So, Courtney Swain and her friends seem even more distant than they used to be. The music, if anything, gets even more complex and unpredictable: what can you say about a band that sounds like King Crimson on one track, sings in Japanese on the next one, and then goes into a Beyoncé-style R&B workout? And yet, behind all the ambition and the superficially unquestionable presence of soul, I sense surprisingly little real feeling — at the very least, I totally fail to connect with any of this stuff emotionally.

My personal hypothesis, which might, perhaps, seem surprising to other listeners, is that at this point, Swain's vocal artistry and the band's music not so much complement each other as clash with each other. The music here is, by and large, experimental: Bent Knee explore rare time signatures, non-standard instrumental combinations, and genre soups that could somehow synthe­size dark folk, ambient, math-rock, and vaudeville all in one. However, in this they do not reach the efficiency level of, say, somebody like the Mothers of Invention, because the music always has to remember that it serves as the backdrop to Swain's performance — there are very few pure instrumental passages here, and Swain has such a strong presence that whenever she sings, it is dang hard to concentrate on the music. And when the music is experimental, how can one «get it» without concentrating?

On the other hand, Swain all by herself is not quite capable of climbing the golden pedestal re­served for outstanding female performers. Why, I do not really understand: she has a great range, she's got some cool word combos at her disposal, and she has plenty of alluring theatrics in her approach. Yet as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder for her to stay put in the shoes of Mad Ophelia without revealing herself as a certified impostor. For me, the album pretty much crashed from the false start of ʽBlack Tar Waterʼ — like ʽWay Too Longʼ, it also opens the re­cord with ecological metaphors, but where ʽWay Too Longʼ worked as an angry rant, ʽBlack Tar Waterʼ gives us broken-hearted numbness as its chief emotion, and this is a much tougher emo­tion to tackle. Anger is something that we all have; true broken-hearted numbness is rare, and even simulating it convincingly is a task that Courtney Swain struggles with. "I made myself strong / By getting my skin numb" she sings... and I don't believe her. Likewise, "I try to speak but I only leak water" on the next track is sung with a certain enigmatic pretense, but the tonality of that statement seems so artificial that I am left utterly cold.

The cumulative result is that Say So is a very busy, fussy, pulsating album, filled to the brim with ideas; but as a challenging musical statement it falls flat, because there's way too much of the «primadonna factor» in it — and as a primadonna album, well, there's too much fuss and pulsa­tion in it. I share Swain's concerns: for the ecology, for the broken-hearted, for the commercia­lism and insanity of 21st century life (ʽCommercialʼ), I even appreciate the irony when the re­cord's most Beyoncé-like song (ʽHands Upʼ) turns out to be a lyrical condemnation of the cheap thrills of technological progress ("we'll be so progressive darling / solar cell on our roof", "texts loop like a mantra through me / buzzing blasts of dopamine"). But it is an intellectual conundrum, this record, not a feast for the senses, and this is not what counts as great music in my own text­book. I even have trouble talking about individual songs — because it is no fun to praise their deep conceptuality or complex structures or layered arrangements unless it all makes emotional sense, and almost none of it does.

But as an example, I will take the album's nine-minute centerpiece, ʽEVEʼ. It starts out on a cool note — fire alarm-like guitars and see-sawing violins — then, as the note quickly gets tedious, at 1:40 into the song the big drums and distorted guitars kick in, but the expected impression of destruction and chaos never materializes. Why? Because the guitars are not loud enough, dammit; because there is no feeling that the musicians are really into this, because these guys have neither the compositional genius of King Crimson nor the animal drive of, say, Nirvana. In addition, they do not like to operate in terms of individualistic guitar riffs, so there is no single «line» anywhere in sight that you could hang on to in order to weather the storm. Midway through, in one of those rare intervals where the primadonna clams up for some time, there is another chaotic section, with guitars and violins frantically accelerating and finally dissolving in a puddle of ambient noise from which the primadonna is reborn again — see, it might even sound intriguing on paper, but I'd rather go back to The Velvet Underground for my chaos...

I will not give the album a thumbs down: Bent Knee is one of the most daring and challenging American rock bands of our time, and Say So shows no signs of resting or slacking in those de­partments. But after the first two records where their ambitions were still kept in reasonable check, I feel like they may have overstepped their limits and boundaries — without adding any­thing fundamentally new to the table, they have become too entangled in their own cobwebs. But then again, maybe it's just me, and I never liked Tales From Topographic Oceans, either; so if you like yourself a good musical challenge, be my guest; just do not feel surprised when nobody ends up remembering a single thing about this record in five years' time.