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Monday, February 20, 2017

Barbara Lewis: Snap Your Fingers

BARBARA LEWIS: SNAP YOUR FINGERS (1964)

1) Snap Your Fingers; 2) Please, Please, Please; 3) Frisco Blues; 4) I'll Bring It Back Home To You; 5) Just A Matter Of Time; 6) Twist And Shout; 7) I Don't Want To Cry; 8) Turn On Your Love Light; 9) Stand By Me; 10) If You Need Me; 11) What'd I Say; 12) Baby, Workout; 13) Shame, Shame, Shame.

So much for «original songwriting». With a short string of self-penned singles (ʽStraighten Up Your Heartʼ, ʽPuppy Loveʼ) that charted quite modestly, unable to repeat the success of ʽHello Strangerʼ, Atlantic Records probably decided that it was, after all, a mistake to be so permissive towards the lady — and, in stark contrast, made sure that her second LP did not contain even a single original. Instead, they came up with the plain-as-day, dumb-as-death concept of «Barbara Lewis Sings The Great Soul Tunes». This means that Barbara Lewis has to demonstrate to the world that she knows how to put a special twist on James Brown, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Solo­mon Burke, the Isley Brothers, Bobby Bland, and make it all the way to Jimmy Reed.

Needless to say, that is a really tough challenge for a nice, quiet, collected lady like Barbara who would much rather write her tender little ballads and pop ditties. She bravely braces herself for the ungrateful task and does what she can — yet even if the results are perfectly listenable, there is hardly any reason for us to get too excited about these takes on ʽTwist And Shoutʼ and ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ, with their energy level well suited to the ambience of a contemporary teen-oriented TV show, but never reaching the requirements of a truly sweaty, gritty R&B workout. In other words, ʽTwist And Shoutʼ here is far more about twisting than shouting, and the infamous moaning sex bits on ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ would probably satisfy the most conservative parents, so far removed they are from, you know... the real thing.

I have absolutely no idea how Atlantic, a label that was generally known for its good marketing sense, could have thrown away money on such a hopeless project — making the star of ʽHello Strangerʼ cover Jimmy Reed's ʽShame, Shame, Shameʼ was pretty much the equivalent of some genius marketologist telling Simon & Garfunkel, "hey boys, that ʽSound Of Silenceʼ thing was so cool, now how about you covering some of those British Invasion hits for us, like ʽYou Really Got Meʼ and ʽMy Generationʼ?" The only way for Barbara Lewis to succeed was with original material suited to her quietly reserved personality; instead, she is challenged with the impossible task of having to stand up to the belting of James Brown and to the gospel-pop vibes of Sam Cooke. She is a good girl, and she had a good backing band, but this has got to go down in his­tory as one of the most ridiculous gaffes in Atlantic's history in the Sixties. Thumbs down.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Metamorphosis

THE ROLLING STONES: METAMORPHOSIS (1975)

1) Out Of Time; 2) Don't Lie To Me; 3) Some Things Just Stick In Your Head; 4) Each And Every Day Of The Year; 5) Heart Of Stone; 6) I'd Much Rather Be With The Boys; 7) (Walkin' Thru The) Sleepy City; 8) We're Wastin' Time; 9) Try A Little Harder; 10) I Don't Know Why; 11) If You Let Me; 12) Jiving Sister Fanny; 13) Downtown Suzie; 14) Family; 15) Memo From Turner; 16) I'm Going Down.

Although this was technically a compilation rather than a regular album, and although it was, in­deed, quite «out of time» by the standards and fashions of 1975, and although the actual Rolling Stones had very little to do with its release (it was more of an Allen Klein / Andrew Loog Old­ham project), Metamorphosis still deserves more than just a passing mention. To date, it remains the only officially released (though not officially endorsed by Mick and Keith) collection of early Stones outtakes — and even if it was, first and foremost, a money-grabbin' cash-in, its appearance on the market precisely at the time when the Stones had just landed their first serious artistic crisis was quite a miraculous coincidence.

Indeed, even if there is relatively little greatness to be found among this bunch of demos and out­takes (on many of which the Stones do not even play their instruments — there are several demos here that were written by Mick and Keith for other artists and played by session musicians), many of them compare quite favorably to the state of mind the Glimmer Twins were in when they were producing It's Only Rock'n'Roll. There, in 1974, you had your wasted rock stars, defeated and humiliated by their own excesses; and here, in 1975, you get a glimpse at the same artists before they were rock stars — seriously fresh, a little naïve, and still willing to experiment with all sorts of songwriting styles before comfortably settling in the Rock paradigm. So what's better — a new album from seasoned, but wasted pros, or a bunch of questionable-quality outtakes from young aspiring disciples of the craft?..

Actually, I'm not sure, but at least it is definitely more curious to take a look at this «alternate career retrospective» than it is to see how safely predictable the band eventually became. And curious — to review not only the paths that they had reliably trodden, but also those paths that they ultimately rejected. ʽSome Things Just Stick In Your Mindʼ, one of their earliest composi­tions that was recorded during the sessions for the first album, for instance, sounds like a country-western reinvention of ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ — which was enough to peddle it to the American duo Dick And Dee Dee (and later get it covered by Vashti Bunyan), but not enough to dare come out with their own version. ʽEach And Every Day Of The Yearʼ, given to another little-known American artist, Bobby Jameson, is a strange ballad with a distinctly Spanish twang — bolero rhythms, matador horns, ecstatic strings — the likes of which you will never encounter in the Stones' catalog proper. ʽ(Walkin' Thru The) Sleepy Cityʼ, released by the even more obscure British band The Mighty Avengers, is an embryonic example of upbeat Kinksy Brit-pop from a time when the Kinks hadn't even invented Brit-pop yet — and we're still only talking about 1964, mind you, when the Stones themselves were mostly covering Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed.

Now I'm not saying any of these tunes were masterpieces, but one thing they do show is that the pop song explosion of the Stones in 1966 did not happen overnight: apparently, they spent quite a bit of time training and honing their skills. In addition, there are some less surprising cuts from those early years, as they also tried their luck at mind-numbingly repetitive R&B (ʽTry A Little Harderʼ) and romantic country-western (ʽWe're Wastin' Timeʼ); the most predictable of these selections is a nasty-cool cover of Chuck Berry's ʽDon't Lie To Meʼ (probably shelved because the melodically similar ʽRoute '66ʼ turned out to be far superior), and the most historically treasu­rable one is a version of ʽHeart Of Stoneʼ with Jimmy Page on lead guitar (not surprisingly, I far prefer Keith's final solo on the original release — Jimmy was not quite able to latch on to the required vibe here, pulling the song in a different direction).

After a chronological break, the second half of the record is largely given over to outtakes from 1968-69, mostly around the Let It Bleed era — in theory, this could be a blessing, but in practice, they are mostly jamming pieces on which Richards and Taylor were getting used to each other, so stuff like ʽJiving Sister Fannyʼ and ʽI'm Going Downʼ is required listening only for big fans of the Stones sound in general. More interesting is ʽDowntown Suzieʼ, a sloppy piece of acoustic bar­room rock with Ry Cooder on slide guitar — I'm fairly sure some people would have easily wel­comed it in the place of ʽCountry Honkʼ, but with those ridiculously low, Zappa-like "yeah, yeah, yeah"'s and all, it's a bit too novelty-like. (I'm also pretty sure that this tune later got reworked into ʽCasino Boogieʼ on Exile, so they salvaged at least the main bulk of the melody). Even more interesting is a cover of Stevie Wonder's ʽI Don't Know Whyʼ, also recorded during the Let It Bleed sessions but stylistically predating the «lazy sinner gospel» style on Exile — and with a great Mick Taylor slide solo to boot; unfortunately, they aborted the process midway through, so the song cheats on you, repeating its last minute twice.

The most interesting tune on the second part, however, is ʽFamilyʼ, an acoustic outtake from Beggars' Banquet with some melodic and atmospheric similarity to ʽSister Morphineʼ — and a set of lyrics that contains more direct stern social critique than the entirety of the album. I think they pulled the plug on that one because they thought it was too Dylanesque — but on the other hand, that did not prevent them from releasing ʽJig-Saw Puzzleʼ that was even more Dylanesque lyrically, and these here lyrics are damn sharper: "What exactly's gonna happen / When he's finally realized / That he can't play his guitar like E. G. Jim (sic! no idea who they mean — G.S.) / Or write St. Augustine if he tried". Of course, ʽSister Morphineʼ ended up creepier, but this is Mick at his best as a lyricist — and, for my money, the line about the father finding out that "his virgin daughter has bordello dreams" actually goes way beyond "I can see that you're fifteen years old" in terms of dark disturbance.

Throw in an early demo for Mick's solo piece of verbal offense, ʽMemo From Turnerʼ (from Performance, a movie whose relevance largely ended with the cessation of demand for Anita Pallenberg's tits — these days, it looks like a rather clumsy and boringly artificial amplification of Jagger's «Satanic» myth), and the collection takes on a decidedly two-faced look: first, the Rol­ling Stones as innocent providers of pop fodder for pop fodder artists — next, the Rolling Stones as the «Bad Boys Extraordinaire» in the twilight of the Sixties. Which kinda sorta explains the Metamorphosis title, if not the silly sleeve art with its gratuitous Kafka-esque allusions. Regard­less, this is essentially a hackjob, rather than a thoughtfully assembled collection of undeservedly forgotten minor treasures — yet still perfectly listenable, because even at their worst the Stones could still have decent songwriting ideas and/or a juicy rock'n'roll sand; and certainly well worth knowing for both seasoned Stones fans and those who are in need of learning more about the breadth and scope of their artistic reach, so as not to peg them away as the "it's only rock'n'roll, but I like it" kind of band.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Angel Olsen: My Woman

ANGEL OLSEN: MY WOMAN (2016)

1) Intern; 2) Never Be Mine; 3) Shut Up Kiss Me; 4) Give It Up; 5) Not Gonna Kill You; 6) Heart Shaped Face; 7) Sister; 8) Those Were The Days; 9) Woman; 10) Pops.

Third time's the charm, I guess... but then, Olsen did try to pull all the stops in order to attract attention this time around — on My Woman (and no, she's not a lesbian, the title is supposed to read like «the woman in me» or something like that), she dumps the log cabin for an abandoned palace, expan­ding in style, ambition, and production values as if there was a Phil Spector behind her back. Ac­tually, not just Phil Spector: My Woman has a real hodge-podge of influences, ranging from synth-pop to Sixties' girl groups to Stevie Nicks to Neil Young, yet all the songs are still tied together conceptually with Olsen's lyrics and vocal delivery that logically continue and develop what she'd begun on the first two records. Now if only we could find the right words to define and describe what she'd begun on the first two records...

I suppose it's really all about confusion, in the end. Once again, some people will speak about the loneliness and depression of the record, but I do believe it is mostly about finding the real me — the very first song goes "doesn't matter who you are or what you've done / still got to wake up and be someone" — and the stylistic mix agrees with that, as Olsen jumps from one musical paradigm into another as if she were trying out an endless wardrobe, lost in the dazzling array of fashions, sizes, and colors. For her, this is way better (and probably more honest) than assuming one particular image, glossing it up and sticking to it — this is why, even if ʽInternʼ sounds a lot like Lana Del Rey, it is much better than any Lana Del Rey song because it still feels more natu­ral, humble, and earthy than Lana's manipulative-theatrical cheapness.

The specific thematic particularities of these songs — does she get her man? is she losing her man? is she mistreating her man? is she being mistreated by her man? is she in favor or against free love? is she gay? etc. etc. — do not fascinate me any more than did the themes of her Cohen / Mitchell phase; honestly, you do not need Angel Olsen as your spiritual guru through the world of personal relations. I simply prefer to interpret My Woman as a record that poses more ques­tions than it gives answers ("I dare you to understand what makes me a woman", she belts out on the title track, but it is never clear that she herself understands that), a brooding stream of con­sciousness that sometimes clothes itself in pop hooks and sometimes just in sonic atmosphere, but at least does so with a sufficient degree of energy, diversity, and good taste to keep me involved: something that was barely possible on the previous two albums.

According to Olsen herself, the album was structured as a two-part LP: shorter, tighter, hookier pop songs on the first side and longer, looser, more atmospheric rants and broodings on the se­cond one. Most likely, this was a move calculated to attract more listeners (no wonder she did not choose to reverse the order — had ʽSisterʼ and ʽWomanʼ been the first tracks, many would pro­bably not have the stimulus to keep on listening), but since this is a personality-driven record, the difference between the two batches is not really that crucial. For instance, the cool thing about ʽShut Up Kiss Meʼ is not that its melody echoes themes of the Ronettes and the Shirelles — it is that these themes are given a solid reworking, as Olsen forces her love on the other guy rather than pleads for it: the "shut up, kiss me, hold me tight!" hook is delivered in such a nervously sped up manner as could never have been considered proper for any of the classic girl groups. I am still unsure of how sincere this stuff is, or if Angel herself understands properly what it is she is trying to communicate, but it is a brave attempt at taking a good old sound and adapting it for the purposes of the 21st century woman, regardless of whether it succeeds or not.

The best song on the first half, as far as I'm concerned, is ʽNot Gonna Kill Youʼ, which survives as an emotional crescendo — melodically, it seems to borrow inspiration from The Who, with lots of choppy chords and a nearly-mad percussion track, but vocally, it features a gradual trans­formation of the singer into a disembodied ghost: the line "'til I'm nothing else but the feeling" is followed by a realisation of that promise, and it's cool — she soars, she echoes, she howls, she goes from bright to dark, it's a pretty darn awesome performance, even a little scary, although she does try to reassure us that "it's not gonna kill you, it's not gonna break you, it's just gonna shake you", as if coaxing us into taking a roller coaster ride. Does she sound possessed or what? Well, at this level she probably still wouldn't be able to stand up to the levels of Janis or Patti Smith, but she still passes the screamer test with flying colors.

Whether or not you will be ready to accept the longer tracks is another matter. ʽSisterʼ clearly channels the spirit of Tusk-era Stevie Nicks — she even seems to sing with the same nasal rasp that Stevie had at the time, even though, being cocaine-free, Angel probably has more of an actual nose — but her guitar player ain't no Lindsey Buckingham, and the messy guitar jam at the end of the song just adds confusion, rather than emotional uplift. ʽWomanʼ is better, if you get through the first few minutes — eventually, the vocals become anthemic and banshee-like, and the lead guitar begins playing a grim, jagged, psycho-bluesy pattern that's somewhere in between Neil Young and Bardo Pond, though, again, neither reaching the ecstatic heights of the former nor plunging to the grimy, trance-inducing depths of the latter. All in all, I'd say she tries to bite off far more than she can chew on these «epics» — but at least she doesn't exactly fall flat on her face, which is already a big plus.

Towards the end, she returns once more to her beloved minimalism: ʽPopsʼ bobs up and down on two heavily sustained piano chords and seems to tell us that it didn't work out after all — no won­der, because if the real life Angel Olsen is at least half of her lyrical heroine, dating her would probably be a nightmare even for Socrates — but then again, we're never ever even sure of what exactly it was that did not work out. "I'll be the thing that lives in the dream when it's gone", she concludes, which is probably exactly the way I'm going to remember her once this review is over: clearly, there was something here, but it's almost impossible to put your finger on it, or even to tell if you felt sympathetic towards the artist or not.

I feel reasonably secure about giving the record a thumbs up, because here is a serious musical effort from an artist who has mastered the art of making her personality override that of her many influences — something that was still far from clear on the previous two records. Unfortunately, I am still under the impression that this personality is overblown way out of proportion: too many of her ideas on the musical/lyrical disclosure of «Love as Transcendental Power Equally Capable of Creation and Destruction» seem to be realized in a theatrical and exaggerated manner. Or, roughly speaking, if this is art rock, then the compositional and musical side of it leaves a lot to be desired — but if this is pop, it takes itself much too seriously. Still, there's no denying that a bigger and brasher sound, as well as stylistic diversity, helped her make the whole thing far more listenable, and it doesn't hurt, either, that in her role of the Ice Queen she at least treated us to some impressive blizzards here, rather than just sit and sulk motionless on her ice throne. Now, do you think it would be too much to ask her for a creative reinterpretation of the Ramones' ʽI Wanna Be Your Boyfriendʼ for her next project?..

Friday, February 17, 2017

Carly Rae Jepsen: Kiss

CARLY RAE JEPSEN: KISS (2012)

1) Tiny Little Bows; 2) This Kiss; 3) Call Me Maybe; 4) Curiosity; 5) Good Time; 6) More Than A Memory; 7) Turn Me Up; 8) Hurt So Good; 9) Beautiful; 10) Tonight I'm Getting Over You; 11) Guitar String / Wedding Ring; 12) Your Heart Is A Muscle; 13*) Drive; 14*) Wrong Feels So Right; 15*) Sweetie; 16*) I Know You Have A Girl­friend; 17*) Almost Said It; 18*) Melt With You.

Call me arrogant, but I would like to make a bit of a difference in this world by saying that ʽCall Me Maybeʼ flat out sucks. I totally do not buy into the "yes, so it's fluffy, silly, and bubblegummy, but it's so CUTE! so CATCHY! so INNOCENT!" logic that I see espoused by many, many people, some of whom list Claude Debussy, Miles Davis, and Jeff Beck on their list of interests. Yes, sometime around late 2011 / early 2012 this track did take the world by storm, largely due to Justin Bieber promoting it (he totally would, too), and it does stick in your head fairly tightly upon one or two listens — largely because of the sharp production and obstinate repetitiveness of the chorus. Which does not prevent it from being a piece of crap.

I am not going to hold the fact that Carly Rae Jepsen was 26 years old when she wrote the song against her. For sure, Paul McCartney was working on The White Album and Brian Wilson had Pet Sounds and SMiLE behind his back at the age of 26, but there is nothing inherently wrong about people being stuck in a bubbly teenage warp for decades, certainly not in the 21st century, unless they are totally faking it, and it does not look like Carly is faking anything — on the con­trary, she sounds like she is totally reveling in this new, simplistic, primitive electro-pop vibe that seems to be influ­enced by the kawaii attitude of J-pop more than anything else. I mean, some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, and what's wrong with that? I need to know. Cause I just met you. And this is crazy.

I am, however, going to insist that the song is annoying as hell. One thing that could be great about early teen pop from the dawn of the Sixties is that, as innocent and sentimental as it was, it had a certain rebellious streak about it — even something like ʽSurfin'ʼ by the Beach Boys, which might not seem like something far superior melodically to ʽCall Me Maybeʼ, offered a tiny bit of a rock'n'roll challenge and an air of energy and freshness that captivated the young generation and set it apart from their parents. Later on, these same silly teen pop songs became fields for melodic and stylistic experimentation. Still much later on, with the advent of dance-pop and people like Madonna, although the emphasis once again shifted from melody to groove and visual presen­tation, the rebellious fire was rekindled on a new basis. But ʽCall Me Maybeʼ has none of these advantages whatsoever. It sounds silly without being ironic; catchy without being melodic; joy­ful without being motivated. I do not doubt for a second that there is a sound place in the 21st cen­tury for simple, silly pop, but this brand of simple, silly pop — especially presented in such an in-yer-face, obnoxious manner — is maybe just one step away from the likes of Rebecca Black. In fact, why was Rebecca Black so derided and Carly Rae Jepsen so praised? What exactly makes "It's Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday" so inferior to "Here's my number, so call me maybe"? If anything, at least Rebecca Black's lyrics thoroughly trump Carly Rae Jepsen in the grammatical department.

Honestly, I don't think that «normalizing» stuff like this (in the «come on, lighten up, it's just a fun pop song!» manner) is in any way more acceptable than «normalizing» racist talk and waterboar­ding — and I don't think that it is acceptable to see "here's my number, call me maybe" as 2012's answer to 1963's "she loves you yeah yeah yeah", either. Even completely vapor-headed, superficial bubblegum can still have inventive melodic potential or show a sense of humor; ʽCall Me Maybeʼ rides on four pseudo-string notes and takes itself pseudo-seriously, and I can't believe I already spent that much space and time writing about that shitty tune anyway.

The problem is not solved at all by having the other eleven songs scattered around ʽCall Me May­beʼ all sounding like its ideological and musical brethren. The distorted vocal sample of Sam Cooke's ʽTiny Little Bowsʼ that opens the record is, at best, just a superfluous quotation (if your song contains the word "bow", that is hardly a sufficient reason to sample a song that goes "Cu­pid, draw back your bow"), and at worst, a disgrace — I mean, where is Sam Cooke and where is Carly Rae Jepsen? And that production stile... don't even get me started. Yes, I know that mind-numbing techno beats and soulless robotic one-note synth patterns have been «normalized» even by much of the critically-minded population, but... no. Just no.

The second most popular song from the album was ʽGood Timeʼ, a duet with Owl City (and as such, also released on Owl City's Midsummer Station album) which — I do insist — is not one iota better than the Rebecca Black song, with which it even shares the main topic this time (partying partying YEAH!). Everything about it sucks — the lyrics, the vocals, the groove, the relentless pounding of the chorus hook, the fake steroidal optimism, the implied admonition to check your brain in the cloakroom before hitting the dance floor. Okay, so happy party anthems are not exactly my thing in the first place (I was never a big fan of KISS' ʽRock And Roll All Nightʼ, either), but happy party anthems that play it so clean and harmless make me feel trapped in a kindergarten.

Is there anything redeeming about this record (and I haven't even mentioned the inevitably vomit-inducing duet with Justin Bieber on ʽBeautifulʼ)? I honestly don't think so, and I have even been patient enough to sit through all the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition (spoiler: most of them are even more horrible than the regular inclusions). Some critics have raved about Carly's girl-next-door personality, but why should we get excited these days over a girl-next-door image, parti­cularly when the girl in question wishes to know nothing that goes above and beyond the con­cept of «having a good time»? It is true that she has intentionally cultivated an image here that steps away from the glitz and extravagance of her main competition in the bullshit-pop department, but there is nothing of interest whatsoever in that image, and the corny, glossy arrangements of her trivial hooks ruin all the «naturalness» anyway (besides, even visually she still looks like a fa­shion-obsessed doll rather than a plain clothes girl).

And no, I am definitely not pretending to dislike this out of some intellectual snobbery — thirty minutes of this music actually does give me a physical headache and leaves me wide open and vulnerable to in­doctrination by Scientology, the Islamic State, and Ray-Ban sunglasses, so excuse me if I rush this off with a well-timed thumbs down and hurry away to take a good dose of some powerfully intellectual antidote. Like Surfin' Safari by The Beach Boys. Or Boney M's Night­flight To Venus. Heck, even some Phil Collins will do. By the way, if you're making parodies or something, please take some time to craft an X-rated zombie version of "we don't even have to try, it's always a good time" — now that's something I wouldn't mind enjoying.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Camper Van Beethoven: Tusk

CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: TUSK (2002)

1) Over And Over; 2) The Ledge; 3) Think About Me; 4) Save Me A Place; 5) Sara; 6) What Makes You Think You're The One; 7) Storms; 8) That's All For Everyone; 9) Not That Funny; 10) Sisters Of The Moon; 11) Angel; 12) That's Enough For Me; 13) Brown Eyes; 14) Never Make Me Cry; 15) I Know I'm Not Wrong; 16) Honey Hi; 17) Beautiful Child; 18) Walk A Thin Line; 19) Tusk; 20) Never Forget.

The liner notes to the album will inform you that the idea of covering Fleetwood Mac's Tusk in its entirety goes back to 1987, when the band recorded an original set of demo tapes but then decided to lay off the project. However, since no well-documented evidence exists for the fact, it is commonly assumed by the wise ones that this is just one of the many self-concocted myths around the band — and anyway, who cares? There is no doubt that Camper Van Beethoven, a band that lives in its own time frame, could have done this in 1987, in 1997, in 2017, heck, any place in time (would be a little hard to do it prior to 1979, but with these guys, nothing is ever completely impossible).

Anyway, while this particular move for the reassembled band was naturally unpredictable, it is not as totally «unnatural» as if they'd wanted to, say, come out with a bunch of Aphex Twin covers. Their penchant for surrealistically re-inventing old school material, from Floyd to Zep­pelin, was already well known; and when you think of it, there's quite a bit they have in common with Lindsey Buckingham — the inborn pop instincts, the diverse bag of influences ranging from pop to hard rock to folk / country / bluegrass, and the experimental drive that never allows these influences to drag the music down to the level of bland imitation. Even the choice of Tusk over all the other Fleetwood Mac albums is logical in a way — just as nobody expected an odd, chao­tic, experimental, and ultra-long record from Fleetwood Mac after Rumours, so did nobody expect the new CvB to cover all of it as their first «proper» new album in twelve years.

Of course, a post-modern take on an album that already had its share of post-modern moments in the first place is never going to make the annals in the status of a masterpiece. Understanding and even enjoying this new Tusk is hardly an autonomous task — it is useless to try and listen to it not only if you are unfamiliar with the original Tusk, but even if you are unfamiliar with Camper van Beethoven's classic period albums: it simply does not exist outside of its context. But even in context, it is not easy to understand what it is. It is not a «tribute» — many of the songs have been mutated almost beyond recognition — but neither is it a «parody», because they obviously love the source material, and besides, CvB were never a parody act. Mostly, it is about breaking as many rules as possible, and replacing them with one simple rule: Change The Vibe!

This rule is most evident when it comes to covering songs that were written and performed by Christine McVie (the starry-eyed sentimental ballads) and Stevie Nicks (the Ice Queen quasi-Goth doom-laden epics). With McVie, they go easy on the little moments of deep beauty (such as the desperate "could it really, really be..." melodic plunge on ʽOver And Overʼ), but take her to task hard on everything else — ʽThink About Meʼ is transformed into a pop-punk screamfest, ʽBrown Eyesʼ is made to sound like an industrialized Cabaret Voltaire number, ʽNever Make Me Cryʼ is now a lethargic psycho-folk dirge, ʽHoney Hiʼ is the product of a balalaika busker playing at a busy street intersection, and ʽNever Forgetʼ is turned into a lo-fi outtake from a fictional Neutral Milk Hotel recording session. In other words, we love your songs, Christine, but they could use some transplanting — it's just too boring when all of them are delivered in the same style. Don't you know that punk rockers, industrial grinders, street buskers, and batshit crazy indie kids have sentimental feelings, too?

With Stevie, it actually looks as if they don't like her songs all that much — most of them are as close as the album really comes to parody level. On ʽSaraʼ, they lay on so many sonic overdubs and so much echo on the vocals that it is clear — they are taking every precaution so as not to give the false impression that they are taking any of those lyrics seriously. ʽStormsʼ is dominated by a seriously out-of-tune violin track (we are verbally warned about this in the intro to the song) that makes it hard to focus on any other aspect of the song. The most hilarious surgery is being done on ʽSisters Of The Moonʼ, though, transformed into a synth-pop dirge with «robotic» female vocals delivering the lyrics in a thoroughly perfunctory and impassionate manner — in fact, towards the end of the song the «robot» actually breaks down and begins spouting broken bits from various quotations (ranging from "call me Ishmael" to "this one goes to eleven" to "fuck me harder"), implying that you probably wouldn't feel the difference anyway. I would sure love to learn Stevie's reaction to that one — there was a time when her performance of ʽSistersʼ took on quite a religious aspect on stage, but then, she always did have a sense of humor.

Working their magic over Buckingham's songs is a bit more difficult, considering how distinctly weird many of those were in the first place — and try as they might, they are not going to make songs like ʽThe Ledgeʼ or ʽI Know I'm Not Wrongʼ any weirder. All that's possible is to add a few more extravagant touches here and there — use some bagpipes on ʽI Know I'm Not Wrongʼ, some lazifying vocal distortion and a bit of trombone on ʽSave Me A Placeʼ, or insert a surrep­titious lyrical reference to the B-52's ʽRock Lobsterʼ in ʽNot That Funnyʼ (is this an implication  that the B-52's were «not that funny» or what?). The only spot where they pull all the stops is the title track — here, gloriously extended to a whoppin' ten-minute length and made into something much bigger than the original; in fact, this is probably the only song here that would merit inclu­sion on any representative CvB anthology, as it turns into a bombastic psychedelic jam with a chaotic noise section (at times, calling to mind ʽRevolution #9ʼ rather than any Fleetwood Mac track) and an extended series of drony guitar solos, all tied together with the classic dance-style ʽTuskʼ bass line. If you ever thought that the original ʽTuskʼ fizzled out way too soon (and I know I did), this inter­pretation of it might be right up your alley.

So what would be the final judgement? I think that as an idea, this track-for-track cover of Tusk is a cool one — despite the inevitable flaws in the individual realizations of particular tracks. As a «meta-artistic» gesture rather than an actual platter of emotional entertainment, this is hardly an album that you will want to listen to more than once unless you have "I'm not like everybody else" engraved in chicken shit over your front door, but it is a stimulating gesture all the same, and it is fascinating to observe all the huge effort that went into it — plus, as an obsessive com­pletist, I actually find myself fascinated with the determination to cover every single song on a double album (when they could have easily stuck to just their favourite Buckingham tunes, for instance, not necessarily just from Tusk). So, a thumbs up it is, after all, but now, if you excuse me, I feel a craving for the original coming on, and so should you, probably.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Candi Staton: Life Happens

CANDI STATON: LIFE HAPPENS (2014)

1) I Ain't Easy To Love; 2) Close To You; 3) Commitment; 4) For Eternity; 5) Even The Bad Times Are Good; 6) Beware, She's After Your Man; 7) Treat Me Like A Secret; 8) Where Were You When You Knew; 9) Three Minutes To A Relapse; 10) Never Even Had A Chance; 11) Go Baby Go; 12) My Heart's On Empty; 13) Have You Seen The Children; 14) A Better World Coming.

This is an even more ambitious comeback statement than Who's Hurting Now: with 14 tracks running over an hour, many of them self-penned, and featuring an even tighter and musically sharper band than last time, Life Happens is far more than anybody could expect in 2014 from a former B-grade R&B star that spent three decades in a restricted gospel niche. I have no idea how a «masterpiece» of traditional R&B could sound these days, even in theory, but when you are on nostalgic trips like these, what matters above everything else is devotion — and all these tracks are as fanatically devoted to bringing back the old soul vibe as Candi's albums from those past three decades were fanatically devoted to praising the name of the Lord.

I really don't know much about these musicians (except for Candi's son Marcus, who still helps her out with the drums on about half of the tracks), but they do a damn fine job with the grooves, although in terms of memorability it is the repetitive vocal hooks that will always come first. The best sound is on the tough funky numbers — ʽBewareʼ, ʽMy Heart's On Emptyʼ — but even the slowest ballads that come closest to feeble adult contemporary, like ʽWhere Were Youʼ, are never spoiled by excessive production, with acoustic guitars, electric slide, bass, and organ always taking priority over any synthesizer backup (if it's there at all). And, most importantly, Staton sounds like she really means it — whether it is a nostalgic love song she sings, or an angry social statement she makes, there is no doubt that it all comes straight from the heart this time.

Sure enough, the social statements may seem to be a bit of a joke: Desperate Anthems like ʽHave You Seen The Childrenʼ, lamenting the terrible fate of the younger generation, are lyrically shallow (yes, she does put all the blame on "video games and movies", if you can believe it), and even if the pain, anguish, and fear behind the performance are sincere, it is a little hard to empa­thize unless you happen to be an ex-PMRC member or something. This fear of the modern age even occasionally makes its way into the more personal Man/Woman tunes: on ʽBeware, She's After Your Manʼ, Candi reminds us that "we're living in the digital age" — somehow, that is sup­posed to make your man easily fall for the first camwhore he encounters — but do not judge the lady too harshly: she just has a fairly tight moral code, and if it helps her to make a damn fine record, so be it. Besides, no matter how bad things seem to be in The World According to Candi Staton, there is ʽA Better World Comingʼ anyway: the last track is written in the classic tradition of "everything sucks, but things are going to be better somehow even if there's not a single shred of evidence for this at the moment", even if we all have to die and go to Heaven to witness this (actually, I do believe that is the precise message of the song).

The majority of the songs, however, are about him and her (me and you), reflecting a certain degree of turbulence in the life of the singer — not too surprising, considering that she had just divorced her sixth husband (baseball player Otis Nixon Jr., 19 years her younger, if you want some yellow press details), so songs like ʽCommitmentʼ, a tight, Eighties-style pop-rocker along the lines of ʽEvery Breath You Takeʼ, have a very genuine ring to them — "what I'm searching for is a man who'll stand by me", she sings after six unsuccessful attempts, but the fun thing is, she is clearly not losing hope, though, as she admits herself on the very first track, "I ain't easy to love". Without making any judgements of character whatsoever, I must say that Candi's turbulent love life at least made for an interesting musical reflection — with the exception of some of those thoroughly faceless disco albums, there's a little bit of her personal story in every record she makes, and now that she's way past 70, that story has not ceased to be interesting.

Not to mention that for a 72-year old singer, she sounds awesome: I've always held the opinion that singers with «unexceptional» voices truly reap the benefits as they manage to outlast singers with «exceptional» ones, and this case confirms the rule — these days, having to choose between Candi and Aretha, I'd go for Candi without blinking: where 21st century Aretha sounds like a sorry shadow of her former self, Candi Staton goes on sounding... just like Candi Staton. Of course, that voice did sink about one octave lower, but that just added gravity and maturity, and she never tries to sing outside of her new range (unlike Aretha, who still likes to demonstrate how she can hit these high notes if she reaches up all the way on the very tips of her toes).

I do believe the record deserves a thumbs up, after all. Most likely, if she keeps on going like this, she is bound to lose it sooner or later, but as of 2014, there's taste, style, genuine feeling, power, an occasional catchy chorus — solid counterevidence to the statement that an old man (woman) ain't got nothing in the world these days.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Ice Cream For Crow

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: ICE CREAM FOR CROW (1982)

1) Ice Cream For Crow; 2) The Host The Ghost The Most Holy-O; 3) Semi-Multicoloured Caucasian; 4) Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat; 5) Evening Bell; 6) Cardboard Cutout Sundown; 7) The Past Sure Is Tense; 8) Ink Mathematics; 9) The Witch Doctor Life; 10) '81' Poop Hatch; 11) The Thousandth And Tenth Day Of The Human Totem Pole; 12) Skeleton Makes Good; 13*) Light Reflected Off The Oceans Of The Moon.

The Captain's «swan song» is probably one of the least swan-song-like swan songs in existence: in fact, his decision to retire from his musical career came as abruptly and unpredictably as most of his other decisions — the really amazing thing being that he (unlike so many other phony «quitters» with their «farewell tours») actually delivered upon that pro­mise, and spent the next thirty years of his life at a safe distance from any musical activities, as a painter, poet, and family man. But do not even try to search for any signs of a musical testament or lyrical goodbye on Ice Cream For Crow, a record that stays firmly committed to the artistic values of Doc At The Radar Station and is usually regarded by critics as a fine companion piece to the latter, albeit slightly less energetic and exciting.

It is hard not to share that judgement, and since I was not overwhelmed with Doc, you won't find a whole lot of passion for Crow in this review, either — but some polite admiration is still in order. To accuse the record of a «lack of focus» would be like accusing a rat's tail of a lack of hair, but what makes it harder to sit through is that it also lacks the energy of Doc: with one exception, these songs almost never rock hard — if Doc was Beefheart's warped equivalent of a kick-ass garage rock album, then Ice Cream is more like his equally warped interpretation of an unassu­ming collection of roots-rock tunes. A bit jazzy, a bit folkish, a bit bluesy, and, of course, always on the verge of falling apart.

The exception in question is the title track, probably the most accessible number on the whole record, based on an old idea of a boogie-rocker going all the way back to 1971 (and yes, it would have made a great addition to The Spotlight Kid). Fast paced, with a steady beat, a tightly con­trolled, gritty slide guitar riff, and some nice lead work from another slide guitar in the right channel, it starts things off in a compromising, but cool style, and will leave you forever guessing about the symbolism of giving "ice cream for crow" (Van Vliet said something about the opposi­tion of ʽblackʼ and ʽwhiteʼ, but it all makes no more direct sense than his painting on the front sleeve). The funniest thing is that, according to the liner notes, when released as a single, Gary Lucas tried to market the song for gay clubs on hardcore nights — so now you have a legitimate reason to claim that Beefheart's music is «gay». Then again, it sure ain't straight.

Anyway, I cannot really get too far into the rest of it. I don't mind the usual problem of Beef­heart's melodies refusing to stick around — as long as he is in his TMR mindset, you have to be ready for it — but most of these grooves are too slow, draggy, and, I'd say, almost pensive, as if the band recorded them in a relaxed, meditative state of mind: cue the instrumental ʽSemi-Multi­coloured Caucasianʼ, with one guitar chopping out funky chords in the right speaker and another one swirling Grateful Dead-like ragas in the left one. Sounds maybe cool on paper, but too much abstract sonic geometry for my taste, and with hardly any development, although they do change keys for a couple bridge sections.

And, actually, ʽCaucasianʼ is still a highlight next to stuff like ʽCardboard Cutout Sundownʼ, a piece of broken blues that does nothing but break the blues, and many other tracks that sound like its younger brothers. I do admit with the sometimes expressed point of view that there is an aura of depression to many of the tunes — that the whole album sounds sad and tired next to the some­what more energetic and uplifting sound of Doc — but I probably have to work long and hard to learn to empathize with that kind of sadness, and without any guarantee of success. It feels like there might be something deep, grim, and scary hiding at the bottom of avantgarde de­baucheries like ʽThe Thousandth And Tenth Day Of The Human Totem Poleʼ, but it's hard to scoop out from under all the dissonance and broken rhythmic patterns and, above all, this stuff drags — granted, that might have something to do with all the lineup changes (apparently, new drummer Cliff Martinez and new bass player Richard Snyder complained about not having enough time to gel with the rest of the band), but it also might have something to do with the fact that the process was no longer nearly as fresh or exciting for the Captain as it used to be.

The legend goes that he quit music to capitalize on his painting — wanting to be taken seriously as a visual artist, rather than some spoiled rock star engaging in hobbies — but listening to Ice Cream For Crow and occasionally getting bored with it, rather than befuddled as usual, makes me suspect that he got bored with his own music himself. It is hardly a coincidence that a lot of these tracks represent completed (or semi-completed) ideas that go all the way back to the early Seventies and even the late Sixties (ʽWitch Doctor Lifeʼ was originally conceived in 1968, which is why it also sounds moderately more conventional than almost anything else here) — the Cap­tain wasn't particularly interested in developing new ideas, and if it is true that the only complete­ly new tracks here were ʽCardboard Cutout Sundownʼ and ʽSkeleton Makes Goodʼ, I can get that because I actively dislike both (two sonic messes in the worst traditions of TMR).

Of course, fans of TMR should feel free to disagree with this assessment — but even repeated listens could not swerve me from the impression that Ice Cream For Crow is Don Van Vliet loyally playing the role of Captain Beefheart, giving his small fanbase precisely what they want, but not necessarily giving himself precisely what he wanted at the time. Too much of this just sounds dull and predictable, and certainly no longer as stunning for the poor ear caught unawares as it used to be in 1969. Do not take my word for it (after all, most of the critics usually give the album the same acclaim as they give its two predecessors), but do not ignore the huge differences in style between it and Shiny Beast (a total masterpiece in comparison, as far as I'm concerned), either. Aw heck, perhaps it was an intentional swan song, after all. I mean, who are we to define the concept of a swan song for somebody like Van Vliet? ʽSkeleton Makes Goodʼ is as good a title for a final musical testament from the man as any.