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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Aimee Mann: Mental Illness

AIMEE MANN: MENTAL ILLNESS (2017)

1) Goose Snow Cone; 2) Stuck In The Past; 3) You Never Loved Me; 4) Rollercoasters; 5) Lies Of Summer; 6) Patient Zero; 7) Good For Me; 8) Knock It Off; 9) Philly Sinks; 10) Simple Fix; 11) Poor Judge.

Bad omen #1: Aimee Mann's new album is going to be called Mental Illness. Given that Aimee Mann had pretty much been singing about various kinds of mental illness since at least her first solo album, and maybe even before that, it is not a good sign when, more than twenty years into her solo career on the whole, she puts out a record called Mental Illness. It's like The Rolling Stones putting out an album called We Like To Rock, or KISS putting out an album called Made Up Again, or The Pogues putting out an album called For Those Who Like To Drink. It does not spell tragedy, but it brings on inescapable associations with a lack of ideas.

Bad omen #2: the new album is going to be almost entirely acoustic-based. While in her live performances, Aimee had drifted towards quieter, less and less amplified sounds for the entire past decade, on most of her studio output the sound of the electric guitar, be it played by herself or additional members of the band, was very crucial: she always had a great ear for tone, and always knew how to make that electric guitar pick on, amplify, and send deep into space all that emotional tension that began in her singing. A completely unplugged performance from her can never have that kind of strength — it suggests whining without anger, light depression without a vortex to pull in the listener.

Unfortunately, all these premonitions come true when you actually put on the record and give it a loyal spin — or two spins, or three and four spins; it will not take long, since the eleven songs clock in at under forty minutes. Mental Illness, Aimee's first proper solo album in five years, is a nice-sounding record consisting of earnestly written and carefully performed material, but it never amounts to anything more than a pleasant background listen if you're in the mood for a slice of lazy, intelligent, introspective, unobtrusive melancholy. The songs simply do not stick around this time: while such highlights from Charmer as the title track, ʽSoon Enoughʼ, and ʽLabradorʼ, still keep me going and I find myself returning to them on a very regular basis, here there is never a feeling that you receive some fresh insight — for the most part, everything feels like an inferior retread of past glories.

Now, perhaps, it's just me. If you have never been a major admirer of Aimee and just find her stuff to be modestly pleasant, listenable, routine singer-songwriter product, then Mental Illness is just more of the same old crap, interchangeable with everything else she's done. If, however, you agree with me that she has been one of the most talented, melodic, intelligent, insightful song­writers of the 1990s and the 2000s — probably in the top five or so singer-songwriter spots from that period — then you cannot help holding unreasonably high expectations, and experiencing sharp disappointment when they are not realized. I mean, after all, she is getting on in years, older than the Stones in their Bridges To Babylon phase and McCartney in his Flaming Pie era, so it is unwise and ungenerous to expect her musical genius to keep re-flaring over and over. But then, in order to re-flare, the genius has to receive favorable conditions; and this idea of going all quiet and acoustic is not a favorable condition.

If you have heard the first song and the first single of the album, ʽGoose Snow Coneʼ (the name actually refers to the facial expression of an Instagram cat called Goose — see, she wastes her time on Internet kitties, too!), you know exactly what is in store for you: simple, quiet, tender, melancholic folksy melodies without any melodic adventurousness. The chords all stay close to each other, the vocal modulation is kept to a minimum, and there is basically just one melodic phrase sung throughout the entire song, with minor variations. Tasteful arrangement — acoustic guitar, a bit of chimes, a bit of a chamber effect with added strings, nice harmonic interplay with the backing vocalists — but nothing whatsoever to remind you of the fire that once used to burn bright and angry underneath all the melancholic coating.

It would be too easy, perhaps, to deride an artist for being ʽStuck In The Pastʼ, as she admits on the second track in a mixture of self-aggrandizement and self-derogation ("Guess I'm the last / I live in memory of vapor"), but there is nothing wrong with grass-was-greener nostalgia for old veterans as long as you got that proverbial fire heating it up; this song, however, offers very little except a lulling slow waltz tempo and a few examples of Aimee's aging, but still lovely falsetto on the chorus — even as she keeps falling back on the same old chord changes that she'd already explored many times. Rinse and repeat: this easy-flowing, insufferably-even, pleasantly forget­table current will carry you on for forty minutes before safely and carefully depositing you on some sandy bank without a single bruise or tear in your pants. It is not a matter of being different: on the contrary, it is a matter of not being able to make a proper difference, coming up with a pack of tunes that, atmosphere-wise, sound like raw demo versions for the same old classics.

On the adulatory side of things, she is still going very strong as a lyricist — this is, in fact, her first album where I'd definitely insist that her poetic talents took serious precedence over her musicianship, and even though the major themes of her poetry remain the same, she is capable of finding new ways to express them, ranging from simple clever lines like "falling for you was always falling up" (ʽPoor Judgeʼ) to morose character portraits like ʽPhilly Sinksʼ (if you don't listen carefully, it's about a broken guy, and if you do, it's about a conniving womanizer). And repeated listens slowly, very slowly bring out some subtly nuanced hooks, like on the chorus of the aforementioned ʽPhilly Sinksʼ, or on the accept-your-miserable-fate refrain of ʽLies Of Sum­merʼ — except that, at best, each of these hooks still sounds like a weak shadow of some of her classic hooks, and no matter how I coax myself into it, the magic never comes.

It is still nice, and each new release from Aimee is a bit of a present anyway, but at this point, after the mediocre work with Ted Leo (who, by the way, is still here, contributing background  vocals), it looks like she might never again rebound the way she did with Charmer — granted, it is not impossible that all she needs to do is pick up that electric guitar again, but it really seems as if her spirit might have mellowed up to the point of no return. Which is not a tragedy, because we still have all the old records, but... sad.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Cass McCombs: Mangy Love

CASS McCOMBS: MANGY LOVE (2016)

1) Bum Bum Bum; 2) Rancid Girl; 3) Laughter Is The Best Medicine; 4) Opposite House; 5) Medusa's Outhouse; 6) Low Flyin' Bird; 7) Cry; 8) Run Sister Run; 9) In A Chinese Alley; 10) It; 11) Switch; 12) I'm A Shoe.

Still padded to some extent, but on the whole, Mangy Love is probably the single most coherent and straightforward body of depressed pop songs in McCombs' entire career so far. The most striking thing about it is how evenly balanced it is — not too fast, not too slow, not too hooky, not too hookless, not too ravaging, not too lethargic, not too lyrically obscure, not too verbally simplistic. Under different circumstances, this might have meant a very boring, ordinary, white-noise-like experience. But Cass spent so much time trying to «distinguish» himself with rub-it-in-yer-face minimalistic gimmicks that it all sounds good now. It's like a, «what, you mean there's not a single eight-minute long, two-chord wide, totally lyric-oriented ballad on the album? Oh, bles­sed be the ways of the Lord!»

There's plenty of darkness, for sure, but darkness is hardly a gimmick in an era where more and more people begin to realize that darkness never really went away, it simply camouflaged itself for a while. The first song on Mangy Love is about unstoppable bloodshed; the last song is about getting out of this place and lying low; and in between are ten more odes to depression, repres­sion, oppres­sion, and suppression. (I think that ʽSwitchʼ is the sole attempt to write something a little more cheerful, like an homage to romantic Eighties' pop à la Duran Duran, but in the con­text of the album, even that song feels dark and cold). Since, as usual, the arrangements are quite low-key, and the lyrics require an almost philological degree of analysis to be decrypted, there is no chance whatsoever of mass success, but at least he won't be pissing off people with low atten­tion spans for repetitive simplicity masked as poignant art.

Genre-wise, he still hops from one corner to another. We have some rough, distorted blues-rock (ʽRancid Girlʼ, with a nasty Seventies-style distorted riff and oddly retro-stylized misogynistic lyrics); an attempt to put bossa nova rhythmics at the service of political paranoia and aggravation (ʽRun Sister Runʼ — this one, on the contrary, contains explicit feminist elements, culminating in "be­tween me and my brother stands our sister, don't shoot!"); what sounds like a bona fide tribute to the classic Smiths sound (ʽIn A Chinese Alleyʼ — the only thing missing is Cass adopting the vocal mannerisms of Morrissey); and a lite-jazz / folk-rock hybrid with arguably the loveliest vocal melody on the whole album — ʽLow Flyin' Birdʼ has a gorgeous chorus that has me won­dering, again and again, why McCombs does not resort to that falsetto more often.

In a way, the record feels like a short musical summary of several distinct styles popular in the late Seventies and early Eighties — on one song he sounds like a jaded, sold-out prog-rocker trying to survive in a new world, then on the next one he sounds like a young aspiring musician trying to take an active part in the dance or synth-pop revolution. Actually, the first description probably applies to more songs here than the second one: much of Mangy Love gives me the same intuitive impression as late-period albums from bands like Camel or Caravan, tiptoeing on one foot across the border of miserably empathetic and smoothly boring. The saving grace is that Cass really bothers about his hooks this time: almost every song has something to offer in the area of vocal hooks, even dance-pop numbers such as ʽCryʼ and ʽSwitchʼ.

The main problem, however, never goes away: the album clearly wants to make a big statement, but there seems to be no other way to make it than run it through some complex cloaking mecha­nism that makes protest songs into invisible protest songs and anthems into un-anthems. A song like ʽItʼ, for instance, is slow, ponderous, employs big gospel-like vocal harmonies, and even opens with lines that come dangerously close to clichés (at least, by McCombs' own standards): "It is not wealth / To have more than others / It is not peace / When others are in pain" (DUH). But if it is an anthem, and if it seems to be directed at arousing our emotions and empathies, why the hell is it so lethargic? Why are the main vocals sung as if he were dictating a paper to his secretary? Where are the bombastic guitar breaks? Why does the gospel choir never ever come out of the shadow? It's a good, melodic piece that would not have lost any of its charm if it were a little... you know... amplified. As it is, it is not likely to replace George Harrison's ʽIsn't It A Pityʼ in my «Cry For The World» playlist any time soon.

Nevertheless, it, and the rest of it, is good enough to warrant a thumbs up from me — I'd really go as far as to say that it is his second best album of all time, though still a far cry from the stroke of luck that was A. Apparently, as long as he stays away from the temptation to keep on pulling off a 21st century Dylan, and remains content to pull a 21st century mix of Andy Latimer and Mor­rissey, it'll work.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Candlemass: Dactylis Glomerata

CANDLEMASS: DACTYLIS GLOMERATA (1998)

1) Wiz; 2) I Still See The Black; 3) Dustflow; 4) Cylinder; 5) Karthago; 6) Abstrakt Sun; 7) Apathy; 8) Lidocain God; 9) Molotov.

I have no idea why Edling would want to name an album after cock's-foot grass (last I heard, it did not have any Satanic associations, so maybe he just accidentally mixed it up with Cannabis sativa), but as long as a bit of refreshing change is introduced, he can call it anything he likes. In fact, the record was not even supposed to be issued in the name of Candlemass — the band had been inactive since 1994, leaving Edling busy with his new project, called Abstrakt Algebra and featuring a seriously different metal brand, one that combined doom and thrash influences with elements of heavy prog and even math-rock (before it was called math-rock). They'd already re­corded their second album when, suddenly, Edling decided to fire all of the band members except for the drummer, recruit new ones, call the revamped band Candlemass, and re-record most of the songs. Because commercial thinking and all that.

This all sounds like a recipe for disaster, but, strange enough, it isn't. Most everywhere you go, you will find a sharp decline in interest on the part of the fans, for obvious reasons. There's a new lead singer (Björn Flodkvist), there's a fully paid keyboard player (Carl Westholm), and the guitar work on the album is handled by none other than Michael Amott, of Carcass and Arch Enemy fame — a solid metal warrior in his own rights, but hardly a great match for the classic slow, dreary, stoned-out Candlemass vibe. (Not sure how well Candlemass and Arch Enemy fans see eye-to-eye, but I wouldn't be surprised to find the two groups largely non-intersecting and accu­sing each other of hyper-ridiculous drama and cheesiness). Anyway, for those interested in doub­ling, tripling, and quadrupling their stocks of Epicus Doomicus clones, none of these elements should look inviting, so people are perfectly within their rights to brand Dactylis Glomerata with a decisive «this is not Candlemass! this is sellout crap!» judgement and walk away.

I like quite a bit of it, though. The vibe on the opening track, ʽWizʼ, and many that follow it, is somewhat less Sabbath-ish, leaning more towards sludgy stoner metal (the kind that would enjoy a luxurious revival in the 21st century) and featuring, in my opinion, more memorable riffs on the whole than any of the «classic» Candlemass records. The new lead singer is as far away from the operatic pomp of Marcolin as possible — belonging rather to the grunge / nu-metal school of ragged-raspy warriors of the light; combined with awful music, it only helps to emphasize its awfulness (Nickelback, etc.), but combined with decent riffs, it is preferable to bullshit pathos. And the keyboard player — I was afraid that the album would be swamped in ugly synth tones, but the keyboard work here is actually cool! Instead of synthesizers, Westholm generally uses the organ, well heard in the mix but never drowning out the guitars; and sometimes, as in the quiet interludes on ʽI Still See The Blackʼ, he thinks up little music-box melodies with spooky over­tones, giving the whole thing a sort of Stephen King-like atmosphere. (The brief instrumental ʽCylinderʼ, made to sound as if it were really recorded on a wax cylinder, is an autonomous example of the same approach). And on ʽDustflowʼ, they even bring in an extra keyboardist to contribute a Theremin part for the intro.

All of these changes, in my mind, are very welcome, even if the final results do not sound like classic Candlemass at all. The average tempo of the record is «mid» rather than «slow», and some of the songs are tremendously tempestuous compared to how it used to be — ʽDustflowʼ, for in­stance, culminates in a sea of guitar overdubs, creating an angry psychedelic spectrum that is more Bardo Pond than Candlemass, with Michael Amott showing off his talents in a way that, for some reason, he could never allow himself in Arch Enemy. Another highlight is ʽAbstrakt Sunʼ, fluctuating from guitar-based walls-of-sound with a martial flair to slower, atmospheric passages where Westholm does shift to synthesizer, but uses it in a pensively Gothic manner, generating dark melancholy rather than plastic synth bliss favored by various average power metal teams. And it all ends with ʽMolotovʼ, a short instrumental based on a thunderous ʽFor Whom The Bell Tollsʼ-style riff adorned with minimalistic lead vibrato lightning bolts — brief and efficient.

Naturally, we're not talking about a masterpiece of music making, but we are talking about an album that has more diversity to it than anything previously issued under the name of Candle­mass, and also one as thoroughly purged of straightforward cheese elements as is technically possible on a heavy metal album (which means there's still plenty of cheese, but nothing as directly embarrassing as the mock-Teutonic bombast of ʽWhere The Runes Still Speakʼ). It's too bad this version of the band did not last, what with Amott going back to his duties with Arch Enemy and the fans' irritating, but predictable displeasure with the new twists — I think the new style had some future to it, if only they'd managed to find a proper fanbase in its time. Anyway, I do give the album a thumbs up in retrospect; hope that helps.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Caravan: The Album

CARAVAN: THE ALBUM (1980)

1) Heartbreaker; 2) Corner Of My Eye; 3) Watcha Gonna Tell Me; 4) Piano Player; 5) Make Yourself At Home; 6) Golden Mile; 7) Bright Shiny Day; 8) Clear Blue Sky; 9) Keepin' Up De Fences.

By the early Eighties, Caravan were in a total state of flux: their Arista contract fizzled out, some of the band members quietly quit, and so it was almost by accident that somehow, in 1980, they found themselves in the studio once again — and with Dave Sinclair in person returning for the third time, no less. Now they found themselves signed exclusively to Kingdom Records, the small label of their former manager Terry King (which used to distribute their recordings in Europe), they had three of the original members, and they split the songwriting three ways, with Hastings, Sinclair, and Richardson each taking a near-equal share. Perhaps one could hope for a slight improvement over the mediocrity of Better By Far?

Well, look no further than ʽHeartbreakerʼ, the opening single (no relation to Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones), for the revelation. It opens with a broken-hearted (yeah right) bluesy riff, so muffled, so glossy, so tight-wedged in the hum-hum-humming of the synthesizer wraps, that it is clear from the first fifteen seconds: whatever melodic potential there is here, it is going to be smothered by awful production, and once again what used to be the strong side of Caravan — a sense of sentimental humility — is going to work to their absolute disadvantage. But that is only the beginning of our problems: by the time we get to the chorus, it is clear that Caravan have pretty much mutated into Air Supply, or America, or any of those limp soft-rock outfits who thought that the more shallow they made their tenderness, the more appeal it would find among those people for whom even ʽHere, There And Everywhereʼ was too deep. The hookline of ʽHeart­breakerʼ — "while with you was a heartache, without you is a hell" — is not only barely grammatical and barely pronounceable, but is also unsingable with a straight face.

Still, at least Pye's other two contributions are arguably the highest points of this sorry mess of an album: ʽBright Shiny Dayʼ has him in solid McCartney mode, with a sunshiny chorus that makes good use of his high-pitched modulation and heavier emphasis on catchy guitar licks than on the synthesizers, and ʽKeepin' Up De Fencesʼ — if you can make peace with the idea of disco bass­lines on a Caravan song (and we all knew it was coming, sooner or later... in 1980, though? what a bunch of retards!), it is the only song on this album that genuinely rocks, with a fine flashy guitar solo at the end and true proof that Richard Coughlan can keep a fast, steady, tight beat and ornate it with expressive fills at the same time.

I wish I could be just as empathetic to Richardson; but ʽCorner Of My Eyeʼ is just another one of these taking-itself-too-seriously soft-rock cornballs, not helped much by the surprising transfor­mation into rollickin' pop-rock in the bridge section — and ʽClear Blue Skyʼ is Caravan's first and last foray into the distant world of reggae, a track that they try to make more psychedelic by adding «cloudy» synth swirls all over the place, but Richardson's strained vocals are awful, his scat singing over the syncopated rhythm chords is even worse, and at six and a half minutes, the song tries to present itself as something epic when in reality it seems to simply follow the guide­line of "hey wait, we've never done a reggae song yet? come on now, everybody's done at least one reggae song! this will be fun, like a ʽBob Marley goes to Canterburyʼ kind of thing!"

Which leaves us with the Dave Sinclair songs, and I don't remember much about them after three or four listens, except that they kinda sounded like a mix of Elton John and Billy Joel (heck, one of them is even called ʽPiano Playerʼ, for Chrissake!). ʽMake Yourself At Homeʼ is ʽHonky Catʼ-like funk-pop that could really benefit from a strong singer like Elton, but has absolutely no future with these totally disinterested vocals (is that bass player Dek Messecar singing? he has no personality whatsoever).

I would not say that The Album is a significant drop down from the level of 1977 — the only difference is that here, there is not even a single superficial attempt to retain the «progressive» legacy of classic Caravan, but then, this is not necessarily a bad thing: from a certain point of view, it makes them more honest about what they are trying to do. The problem is that Caravan as a bona fide pop band, with no additional ambition, is a suicidal proposal — they never had the cockiness, the energy, the great guitar tones, the vivaciousness that should go along with a great pop band. They almost succeeded with Blind Dog, though, but then they ran out of inspiration and sheer power altogether, and now all we have is utter blandness. Thumbs down.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The 5th Dimension: Portrait

THE 5TH DIMENSION: PORTRAIT (1970)

1) Puppet Man; 2) One Less Bell To Answer; 3) Feelin' Alright?; 4) This Is Your Life; 5) A Love Like Ours; 6) Save The Country; 7) The Declaration / A Change Is Gonna Come / People Gotta Be Free; 8) Dimension 5ive.

Not a lot of departures here from the formula of Aquarius, but the ones that do get noticed are not particularly auspicious. But first, the good news: ʽPuppet Manʼ is not only the best opening song on a 5th Dimension album, period — it also beats the shit out of both Neil Sedaka's original and Tom Jones' Vegas-ized version. With a sharp-stinging electric guitar lead, the band's usual stunning multi-part harmonies, and particularly the girls' fiery, well-empowered lead vocals, the song definitely rocks here — which is kind of amusing, considering how the lyrics are all about personal submission. (Then again, there's nothing more powerful in the world than voluntary total and absolute submission, I guess — just look at ʽVenus In Fursʼ).

Alas, the song also gives you false hopes — that, perhaps, the rest of the album might, too, con­form to this «electric soul» idiom, not too far removed from classic Funkadelic in terms of juici­ness and intensity. Nope! Released as a single, ʽPuppet Manʼ only made it all the way up to No. 24; and when the band resorted to its usual weapon of choice and followed it up with a typically excellent Laura Nyro cover, ʽSave The Countryʼ, it fared even worse and stalled at No. 27, de­spite all the upbeat gospelishness, all the enticing organ swirls and brass fanfares, all the enthu­siasm poured into the "we could build the dream with love" chorus. Oh, you can never tell with the American public: first they raise you up with ʽWedding Bell Bluesʼ, then they bring you down — harshly — when you give them something equally catchy and tasty.

So what's a poor fifth dimension to do in a situation like this? Fall back on sappy, shapeless sen­timentality and release ʽOne Less Bell To Answerʼ, a slow Bacharach/David tear jerker of the «ultimate housewife» variety — technically, sung to absolute perfection by Marilyn McCoo, but substantially, containing absolutely nothing but atmosphere, an empty vessel for whoever is more or less able to imbue it with dramatic content (of the soap variety, mostly). Naturally, it was that song that had to become the biggest commercial success from the album, and pretty much set the basic development trends for the band in the next few years. (I admit to having never been a big fan of Burt Bacharach — the Johann Strauss Junior of the Great American Songbook, from a certain point of view — but he did write quite a few better songs than this piece of thoroughly unmemorable mush).

In between these commercially low / artistically high and commercially high / artistically low points, Portrait wobbles and vacillates, largely depending on source material. The obligatory Jimmy Webb song this time around is ʽThis Is Your Lifeʼ, unfortunately, also slow, mushy and way too pompous to be taken seriously. The cover of Traffic's ʽFeelin' Alrightʼ is decent, and Billy Davis Jr. gives a good Otis Redding-ish soul take on the original vocal part, but is nowhere near close to the «interestingly personal» Joe Cocker version. Then there's a guy called Bob Alcivar, apparently responsible for the orchestration and also saddling the band with two of his own compositions — the lush pop ballad ʽA Love Like Oursʼ (so-so) and the lite jazz / lite clas­sical mash-up ʽDimension 5iveʼ, somewhat ambitious but still way too corny for my tastes (I guess the idea was to produce something like the band's own take on the Pet Sounds instrumen­tals, but the results are much cuddlier and kiddish).

Worst of the lot, though, and deserving to be registered as a legendary embarrassment in the history of hippie muzak, is the idea to set to music nothing less than The Declaration Of Indepen­dence itself — in a three-part medley with Sam Cooke's ʽA Change Is Gonna Comeʼ and The Young Rascals' ʽPeople Gotta Be Freeʼ. While the Cooke cover, like the Traffic cover, is decent (but adds nothing to the glorious original), the vocal performance of ʽThe Declarationʼ simply has to be heard to be disbelieved: they really do rip through a large part of the Preamble, alternating between male and female leads and trying their best to squeeze the dense prose of the text into soul music phrasing. The most horrible thing about it is that — who knows? — there might well be people out there inspired by this brand of starch-heavy, gluten-rich musical corn. But, I mean, yeah, who else but a band of superficially-minded, commercially-oriented, family-friendly pseudo-hippies to remind society of certain self-evident truths?..

All in all, here be a mixed bag if there ever was one — swinging all the way from the coolness of ʽPuppet Manʼ to the catastrophe of ʽThe Declarationʼ, from the upbeat, catchy inspiration of ʽSave The Countryʼ to the instantly forgettable mush of ʽOne Less Bell To Answerʼ, and so on; a classic case of up and down thumbs outcanceling each other, but this is precisely what compila­tions and self-made playlists are there for these days.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Blues From The Gutter

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: BLUES FROM THE GUTTER (1958)

1) Strollin'; 2) TB Blues; 3) Can't Kick The Habit; 4) Evil Woman; 5) Nasty Boogie; 6) Junker's Blues; 7) Bad Blood; 8) Goin' Down Slow; 9) Frankie And Johnnie; 10) Stack-O-Lee.

Probably the single best known album of the Champion's career — if only for being, well, the first album of the Champion's career: Blues From The Gutter, released at the tail end of the Fifties, opens a long, long, long, and largely ignored string of LPs, and back then it had the benefit of intro­ducing Dupree to a fresh new audience, one that was actually interested in hearing him play, as opposed to all those singles from the 1940s, released in the face of a largely indif­ferent and highly limited New York public. Above all, it was his debut for Atlantic Records, and that in itself was a guarantee that the man would be heard world-wide — in fact, reliable sources state that Blues From The Gutter made a fairly deep impression on none other than Brian Jones himself, even if in the grand scheme of things it was probably not too significant.

Part of that impression was owed not to the Champ himself, but to his backing band, which here included such seasoned session players as Pete Brown on sax and Wendell Marshall (who'd played with Duke Ellington and a boatload of other jazz notables) on double-bass, and particular­ly Ennis Lowery (who later took the name of Larry Dale) on electric guitar. For those used to Dupree's near-solo performances, or his low quality recordings with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the image of the Champion recording with a full-and-willin' blues band under profes­sional modern studio conditions must have been a revelation — in fact, it was probably a revela­tion to Dupree himself, who took the opportunity to re-record a couple of his old classics (ʽTB Bluesʼ, ʽJunker's Bluesʼ — the latter leaving all of its drug-related lyrics completely intact), throw in a few more time-honored standards (ʽFrankie And Johnnyʼ, ʽStack-O-Leeʼ), and introduce a decent level of variety, ranging all the way from slow soulful blues (ʽGoin' Down Slowʼ) to rol­lickin' boogie-woogie (ʽNasty Boogieʼ).

The addition of Lowery is indeed a good touch: the man is a disciple of B. B. King, well versed in the art of sharp, stinging electric blues leads (ʽTB Bluesʼ is a particular highlight), and he adds an element of «Chicago blues danger» to the relaxed, leisurely stroll mode of Dupree, even if the two do not look all that much like a match made in Heaven upon first sight; and he does not get to solo on the album's merriest piece, ʽNasty Boogieʼ, which is instead dominated by the piano / sax duet, and where even the bassist is allowed to take the spotlight for a few bars, but not the lead guitarist — who prefers to stick stubbornly to the slow blues idiom, and for a good reason, I guess: not every great blues player is an equally great boogie player, and vice versa. Then again, it's a sensible distribution of labor: get the sax guy to be your partner on the lighter numbers, and the guitar guy to be your foil on the darker ones.

As for Dupree himself, he is arguably at his best on the opening number, a simple New Orleanian shuffle called ʽStrollin'ʼ and featuring neither guitar nor sax — just the Champ taking his time, improvising a leisurely syncopated jazz rhythm and alternating it with a couple of brief ragtimey solos as he hums out whatever is on his mind. Not exactly the kind of sound you'd expect to come out «from the gutter», but then again, a gentleman like Champion Jack Dupree probably has to keep his cool even in the gutter — considering the dignity and reservation with which he narrates his protagonist's drug problems on ʽJunker's Bluesʼ and ʽCan't Kick The Habitʼ. And, by the way, the title of the album is fully justified if one simply counts the number of songs about drugs, decay, and death — cocaine, tuberculosis, and cold-blooded murder are the norm of day on this album, which certainly was not true about the average Chicago blues album in 1958, where themes of woman-hunting ruled high above everything else. All in all, even if the music as such is hardly exceptional here (just average even by contemporary standards), the very fact of an old pre-war urban blues piano man really making it in the nearly-modern era is quite admirable, con­sidering that Dupree, on the whole, represents a blues-playing tradition that is older than that of  B. B. King or, in a way, even that of Muddy Waters. Definitely a thumbs up, on the grounds of mild enjoyability amplified by strong curiosity.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Hollies: Stay With The Hollies

THE HOLLIES: STAY WITH THE HOLLIES (1964)

1) Talkin' 'Bout You; 2) Mr. Moonlight; 3) You Better Move On; 4) Lucille; 5) Baby Don't Cry; 6) Memphis; 7) Stay; 8) Rockin' Robin; 9) Watcha Gonna Do 'Bout It; 10) Do You Love Me; 11) It's Only Make Believe; 12) What Kind Of Girl Are You; 13) Little Lover; 14) Candy Man; 15*) Ain't That Just Like Me; 16*) Hey What's Wrong With Me; 17*) Searchin'; 18*) Whole World Over; 19*) Now's The Time; 20*) Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah; 21*) I Understand; 22*) Stay; 23*) Poison Ivy.

Most of the early British Invasion acts had a role model or two from across the Atlantic before they'd start to carve out their own identities — it was only a matter of how early that carving-out process would start, especially relative to that defining moment when the band in question would first set foot in a proper recording studio and land its first record contract. From that point of view, The Hollies landed theirs a bit too early in the game (imagine, for a second, The Beatles getting theirs in late 1960 rather than late 1962), and although, in retrospect, this does not sound like that much of a problem, Stay With The Hollies set them off on the wrong foot in the LP business department — an inauspicious move whose consequences, it might be argued, would reverberate through the band's entire career.

The role model in question was, of course, The Everly Brothers — in fact, The Hollies pretty much started out intentionally as the UK's answer to Phil and Don, with Allan Clarke and Gra­ham Nash modeling themselves as a folk-rockish singing duo; and even if the band's debut album does not include any of the Everlys' songs as such, most of its material is delivered very much in the Everlys' style. Sound-wise, The Hollies played a very polite, anger-less, family-friendly ver­sion of rock'n'roll that went light on electric guitars and heavy on two-part vocal harmonies: like Phil and Don, they were not at all averse to taking lessons from Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but they always emphasized the melodic, rather than punkish, sides of these guys, and the Hollies followed suit — their cover of Little Richard's ʽLucilleʼ here is almost 100% identical to the way the Everlys did it, and that's the way it would always be.

That said, even without any original ideas and without any significant attempts to write their own songs, already at that earliest stage The Hollies had a major advantage of their own — a lead singer blessed with a voice every bit as distinctive as that of John Lennon, Mick Jagger, or Eric Burdon. As the record opens with a standard guitar introduction to Chuck Berry's ʽTalkin' 'Bout Youʼ, the very first line, "let me tell you 'bout a girl I know...", even though it is sung in harmony by Allan Clarke and Graham Nash (and maybe Tony Hicks as well?), totally belongs to Allan, as does almost everything else on this album. It is not a deep, rumbling tone of the Eric Burdon variety, or a sharp, guttural, devilish tone of the Mick Jagger one — it is a high, ringing, and ever so slightly raspy tone that suggests inoffensiveness and friendliness, yet ones that go along with punchiness if necessary. It is a tone that stands out loud and proud in a sea of millions, and one that can't help drawing your attention, just because you instinctively feel how extreme it is. And it is pretty damn hard to be extreme in the middle of a soft-melodic vibe, yet somehow Clarke's singing is that one element which makes words like «wimpy» or «sissy» inapplicable to The Hollies, and words like «kick-ass» fairly reasonable.

And there's not much to say other than that, really, about the fourteen songs on this record — but then, nothing else is needed, because The Hollies' taste in covers was good, and with Allan giving it his all, they succeed in producing sharp, deeply enjoyable, and far-from-superfluous versions of many of them. Not many people, for instance, could have competed with the exuberance of The Contours, permeating every second of ʽDo You Love Meʼ — Mike Smith of The Dave Clark 5 sang the song as close to the «black-voiced» original as possible, which was indeed superfluous, but Clarke, adding a funny bit of gurgle to his razor-sharp voice, delivers it exactly as it should be delivered by a sneery, snotty, cocky, yet ultimately good-natured British teenager, coming up with the single best cover of the song until the maniacal cover of The Sonics a year later.

Another highlight is Roy Orbison's ʽCandy Manʼ: this is a particularly happy choice, because Roy wrote a good handful of excellent rock'n'roll songs without, however, being much of a rock'n'roll singer — and this provides Clarke with a great chance to squeeze all of the tune's implied sexua­lity onto the surface. Is «cock pop» even a term? If it is not, it should be invented specifically for this hilarious performance: musically cuddly, no match for even the Beatles, let alone the Stones, but vocally... hoo boy, just lock up your daughters when Allan mouths "let me be... mmm, your own cande-e-e-e... candy ma-a-a-an", even if, to the best of my knowledge, the UK press never saw much of a threat in the Hollies (probably because they never had themselves an Andrew Loog Oldham to market their threat-ability).

Sure, some of these covers work worse than others: just as in the case of the Beatles, for instance, it is hard to understand the love they all had for ʽMr. Moonlightʼ (here spoiled even further by the unlucky choice of Nash as the lead vocalist — doesn't seem to be the right kind of material for him at all), and Bobby Day's novelty-nursery hit ʽRockin' Robinʼ is one of these proto-bubblegum numbers that is very hard to take seriously with its tweedle-dees. The only original composition on the album is ʽLittle Loverʼ, delivered with plenty of fire but songwriting-wise, largely just a minor variation on the Chuck Berry formula (although the resolution of the chorus, with the un­expected twist of "come on and discover... my lo-o-o-o-ve for you!" is quite indicative of future pop songwriting ideas to come). But on the whole, there are very few open embarrassments / misfires compared to the number of good songs done in classy Hollies style.

Admittedly, that style has not yet been fully worked out: somewhat parallel to the earliest recordings by The Beach Boys, it took the band some time to become experts in studio multi-part harmonizing, so most of the entertainment here is simply provided either by Allan solo or by Allan propped up and thickened by the two other singing guys. Likewise, guitarist Tony Hicks is not at the top of his game, either, although his brief, well thought-out leads compete rather well with contemporary George Harrison. Yet even so, the album still sounds remarkably fresh and enjoyable, rather than boring and generic, after all these years — a decent career start, well worth a modest thumbs up, in the face of the typically cool critical reaction.

The expanded CD reissue is essential for completists, throwing on the band's first three singles from 1963, but I am not a major fan of The Hollies covering The Coasters — they did not really have that band's innate sense of humor, so ʽAin't That Just Like Meʼ and ʽSearchin'ʼ come off somewhat stiffer than necessary — so in this particular case, you won't be uncovering any hidden gems, as opposed to subsequent albums where the bonus tracks are essential, since many of them represent the band's finest, single-oriented songwriting efforts.