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Monday, May 29, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: The Best Of The Blues

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: THE BEST OF THE BLUES (1963)

1) Cabbage Greens No. 3; 2) Sporting Life Blues; 3) Mean Mistreater; 4) In The Dark; 5) You've Been Drunk; 6) Careless Love; 7) Tomorrow Night; 8) Fisherman's Blues; 9) Bring Me Flowers While I'm Living; 10) Everything I Do Is Wrong; 11) See See Rider; 12) Diggin' My Potatoes; 13*) Please Send Me Someone To Love; 14*) In The Evening; 15*) Rock Me Mama; 16*) I'll Bet My Money; 17*) Going To Copenhagen.

These Storyville titles for the Champion's albums gotta rank as some of the least inspired in music history, but The Best Of The Blues trumps them all — not only is this not a compilation, but it is not even, you know, the best of the blues. It is just a collection of tracks recorded by Dupree during two sessions in Copenhagen (October 3-4, 1961 and June 14-15, 1962), backed by Danish bass player Mogens Seidelin and Swiss acoustic / electric guitar player Stuff (Chris) Lange. In the CD era, it was expanded with several bonus tracks and released as Blues Masters Vol. 6, which is the edition I have.

In this installation, we see the Champion trying to expand his repertoire just a little bit, through the addition of a few classic «commercial» blues ballads, most notably ʽCareless Loveʼ and Lonnie Johnson's crossover hit ʽTomorrow Nightʼ. This may have had something to do with the growing popularity of blues-de-luxe crooners like B. B. King, but might just as well be a mere coincidence; after all, even such a rigorous self-repeater as Dupree would need a refreshing touch every once in a while, and it gives him a pretext to try out some new piano flourishes. Totally inessential, but nice, and delivered without any superfluous sentimentality.

At the same time, conversely, he also digs deep into his past, resurrecting ʽCabbage Greensʼ (and remembering correctly that he'd already recorded two of those in 1940, so this is ʽNo. 3ʼ) which may now, for the first time, be experienced in pristine sound quality; and ʽYou've Been Drunkʼ and ʽFisherman's Bluesʼ from 1945, both of which get themselves a whole stereo channel of (boring) electric guitar, yet somehow end up sounding slower, limper, and less decisive than their older counterparts. In the end, the whole thing is probably only worth it for the final bonus track ʽGoing To Copenhagenʼ, which continues the Champion's «musical diary», somewhat randomly alternating between the man's narration of his journey to Copenhagen and comments on how his baby cooks him turnips and calls them mustard greens, and seems to simply represent three minutes of total improvisation, with Dupree fumbling to find the right chords (and the right words) for the bass player's slightly jazzified rhythm pattern. It's a bit of fun, but nothing essential, just like this entire record.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Pretty Things: The Pretty Things

THE PRETTY THINGS: THE PRETTY THINGS (1965)

1) Road Runner; 2) Judgement Day; 3) 13 Chester Street; 4) Big City; 5) Unknown Blues; 6) Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut; 7) Honey, I Need; 8) Oh Baby Doll; 9) She's Fine She's Mine; 10) Don't Lie To Me; 11) Moon Is Rising; 12) Pretty Thing; 13*) Rosalyn; 14*) Big Boss Man; 15*) Don't Bring Me Down; 16*) We'll Be Together; 17*) I Can Never Say; 18*) Get Yourself Home.

It is pretty damn hard to discuss the early phase of The Pretty Things' career outside of the con­text of The Rolling Stones — and not just for formal reasons, such as Dick Taylor, the Stones' former lead guitar and then bass player, becoming one of the founding fathers of the Pretties. If there was an explicit ideology to this band from the start, it consisted of one driving purpose: to one-up the Stones and wrestle the title of Britain's wildest band from that snotty, too overtly com­mercialized Andrew Loog Oldham clique.

Even the cover art here is reminiscent of the early Stones cover: a bunch of long-haired, grim-looking, fuck-off-will-ya thugs staring you down or downright ignoring you out of the darkness, but their hair is really longer than that of the Stones (and Dick Taylor actually has a beard! like a grown-up!), and their facial expressions are way more Neanderthal, particularly that of drummer Viv Prince, the immediate spiritual and aesthetic predecessor of Keith Moon in his love to raise hell and make noise. «Pretty things» indeed — like the Stones, they took their name from the song of a Chess artist, but they chose Bo Diddley rather than Muddy to be their mascot, for all the wild African paganism reflected in the former's rave-ups. Let the Stones simply ooze aggressive sexu­ality: the Pretty Things were ready to embark on a highway to hell, right away.

Unfortunately, they miscalculated just a bit. Of the three most important elements in a pop music album — musicianship, songwriting, and attitude — the band had most heavily invested in the third one, somewhat downplaying the other two: none of the players here seem to be outstanding musicians by the standards of early 1965, and original songwriting is practically non-existent. The emphasis is strictly on loudness and wildness, reflected, above all, in the ferocious predator vocals of Phil May, who is, at this point, probably the single most interesting link in the chain: barking and roaring rather than singing, he shows certain rabid undertones to his voice that you would not be able to get even by the likes of Eric Burdon. There had already been wild screamers on the garage rock scene by that time — remember Gerry Roslie of the Sonics, for instance — but most of them still sounded more like rowdy pub goers than minions of Satan, and Phil has that leery, sarcastic whiff added to the bark-and-roar that really provides him with a certain demonic effect, like an early spiritual precursor to Iggy Pop.

Wild vocal practices alone are not gonna get you through the day, though: the entire band needs to get wild, and that is precisely what you get on their first single, ʽRosalynʼ (conveniently appen­ded as a bonus track to the CD edition). «Written» by their co-manager Jimmy Duncan, it is an amalgamation of the Bo Diddley beat, the Chuck Berry rap, and Animals-style dark harmonies, where the overall level of energy and nastiness matters far more than melodic ideas or playing techniques. Released in May 1964, it may have been Britain's wildest single for about three months, before getting undercut by ʽYou Really Got Meʼ — largely because of the insane proto-Keith Moon drum work and Phil's insane screaming, although Brian Pendleton's bashing the shit out of his rhythm guitar and Taylor's minimalistic waves of lead slide guitar certainly add to the atmosphere. The uncomfortable part is that outside of the context of May 1964, the song might seem a bit boring — in terms of sheer wildness, this sound would soon be overtaken by even more caveman-like styles of various garage bands (not to mention The Who), and in other terms, once the groove has been established in the first ten seconds, they stay with it forever, not taking it anywhere special. (Not that you could really frame this as an accusation, because it would apply just as adequately to Bo Diddley himself as it does to them; but hey, at least Bo was the author of this style).

This is pretty much how it goes with the entire album: coming in a bit too late on the heels of their first two singles, it may have already been a tad anachronistic for early 1965. Not in terms of the overall sound: the cover of ʽRoad Runnerʼ that opens the album is as noisy and reckless as it gets in those months, messy drumming and guitar feedback and caveman vocals and all. But in terms of creativity, the Pretty Things had little to offer — following the standard practice that an «original» song could simply consist of a stolen melody with a few changes to earlier lyrics; hence, ʽ13 Chester Streetʼ = ʽGot Love If You Want Itʼ; ʽUnknown Bluesʼ = just about any 12-bar blues (e.g. Robert Johnson's ʽKindhearted Woman Bluesʼ); and only their third single, ʽHoney I Needʼ, does not seem to be immediately ripped off, but it also kinda sucks.

And even though they had a good collective sound going for them, there was not a single truly impressive and / or unique player in the band — Taylor and Pendleton may have favored a rougher, dirtier guitar sound than Keith Richards and Brian Jones, but they lacked their sharpness, precision, and stylistic variety. A good starting point for comparison would be ʽThe Moon Is Risingʼ, a Jimmy Reed cover that (no surprise here) sounds almost identical to his own ʽHonest I Doʼ, covered on the Stones' debut album — the Stones' song has far more clarity, and their guitar and harmonica parts just slice through the speakers, making much better use of the scale than the Pretties; though the Pretties do sound wilder, dirtier, and sloppier.

All in all, this album has not aged all that well, though it remains an important historical link in the line of rock music evolution in those crazy days. But I still cannot resist giving it an honorary thumbs up, because it was driven by good purposes, backed by adequate talent, and, while we're at it, there is not a single ballad anywhere in sight — it's like the frickin' equivalent of AC/DC for early 1965! Indeed, the boys stay very true here to their wild, relentless nature, and this uncom­promising stance has to have some recognition. (I mean, they may have sucked much fun out of ʽDon't Lie To Meʼ by slowing it down and playing it closer to the Tampa Red original than the rock'n'roll version of Chuck Berry, but there's something to be said about authenticity, right?). It is, however, one of those albums where the whole is unquestionably more impressive than the sum of its parts — as I glance back at the track names, I do not think I recognize even a single embarrassment, yet I cannot for the life of me think of one or two particular highlights, either. It's just one of those group gang things.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Alt-J: An Awesome Wave

ALT-J: AN AWESOME WAVE (2012)

1) Intro; 2) (The Ripe & Ruin); 3) Tessellate; 4) Breezeblocks; 5) (Guitar); 6) Something Good; 7) Dissolve Me; 8) Matilda; 9) Ms; 10) Fitzpleasure; 11) (Piano); 12) Bloodflood; 13) Taro.

Let us begin with this: the front sleeve of the album features a radar image of the Ganges delta. Delta, see? That is the actual name of this band — the Δ symbol, indicating mathematical diffe­rence. Difference, see? This is because this band wants to make a difference. So why are they regularly called alt-J, then? Because apparently this is how you type out the delta on a Mac key­board. They use Macs, see? Or, rather, their immediate target group is Mac users. Because they want to make a difference. They all went to Leeds University, where they started up this band around 2009, and, allegedly, developed their unusual sound because the use of bass guitars and drums was prohibited in student halls. Ironic, isn't it — what with the name of «Leeds» being most closely associated for millions of people with Live At Leeds, one of the most deafeningly loud concert albums ever... but that's sort of beyond the point, since the Who are just about the least probable choice to be associated with Δ.

If I am going to make a point here, it has to be made rudely: I can find no better description for the overall sound of alt-J as a sound produced by a bunch of cerebral palsy survivors. (Not 100% removed from the truth, considering that at least the band's drummer, Thom Green, is reportedly 80 percent deaf because of a case of Alport syndrome). Their harmonies, their propensity for minor tonalities, the complexity of the material all push towards categorizing them as «rock» rather than «pop» — but it is a sort of decalcified rock, or, perhaps, a sort of «breezeblock rock», to borrow the name of the album's most successful single. The rhythm section of the band does keep very quiet most of the time, with the drummer sounding as if he were confined to a tiny junior set (sometimes I get the impression of a drum machine, when in reality it is Green tick-tocking on his quasi-cardboard percussion devices). The guitar is mostly playing standard folk or blues patterns, with an occasional surf-rock or post-punk chord thrown in. The keyboard player, Gus Unger-Hamilton, is arguably the most musically inventive member of the band, but even he ends up sounding like he's renting an apartment in a dollhouse most of the time.

And then there are the vocals, most of them courtesy of Joe Newman, who is also the main guitarist and (allegedly) the principal songwriter in the band. These belong to the «take it or break it» category: Alt-J fans naturally love his style, whereas for most other people they may be the single most repulsive element here — easily understandable, because in normal life you'd only hear this kind of tone from somebody with a chronic and incurable disease. Unnaturally high-pitched, shaky, wobbly, quiet, and making a point to apply as little pressure on the articulatory organs as possible — it's as if this guy was saving his voice for after marriage or something. Yet it is hard to deny that this vocal style is, on the whole, very well suited to the overall style of the music: Newman is simply doing with his voice the exact same things that all the other band mem­bers are doing with their instruments. This isn't even «effeminate rock», a term rendered near-useless in the era of Katy Perry empowerment — more like «anti-rock», if we normally associate rock music with power, energy, aggression, burning flames etc. It's the evil twin of Angus Young staring at him from the other side of the mirror; the miscarried bastard son of Thom Yorke's Radiohead propping his crutches against his father's fallen tombstone.

Before I get carried too far away with this metaphors, though, I must say that I am absolutely not sure that An Awesome Wave is really all that awesome. Released in 2012, it was sure different (though maybe not at all unexpected), and we are all quite hungry for difference (for Δ, that is!) in the 2010s, so it is easy to understand all the critical praise. Raised in the think-different envi­ronment of an elite art school, these guys seem very much driven by a strong desire to innovate, and from a purely formal viewpoint, they do a really good job with it. Although the overall sound of the album is atmospherically monotonous, it is, by nature, quite eclectic: you will hear echoes of everything from Eighties' synth-pop to Seventies' prog-rock (some of their most complex vocal parts make me think of Gentle Giant) to Nineties' R&B to 21st century hip-hop and various styles of electronic music. Basic structures and arrangements are anything but predictable: any song may shift its signature and tempo at any given minute, or be interrupted by a cute accappella section, or have Unger-Hamilton switch from synthesizer to vibraphone and back, blurring the lines between acoustic and electronic just as Newman sometimes blurs the lines between rapping and singing, because true art has nothing to do with lines, you know.

Whether it all works, though, is another matter. Obviously, for those with whom this sound clicks, Alt-J will be a solid pretender for the best band of the 2010s — not only do they innovate like crazy, but they are truly awesome! Those with whom it does not click, though, will find them­selves asking — so what exactly is the point? This music is not all that emotionally resonant, which is actually a good point, I think: one of the seductive sides of Alt-J, to me, is that they are not here for my tears, like certain bearded guys in log cabins. This is odd music, for sure, but I would not call it tragic or even melancholic: tired, perhaps, and meditative, but not trying to wrench out spasms of pity and empathy or emotionally manipulate you in any other way. But if it ain't about power, and if it ain't about pity, then... what is it about? Is it just about making a dif­ference without dropping us even a single hint?

The lyrics do not offer much help — even provided you can make out whatever Newman is mumbling (I cannot, but they have all the words conveniently printed out), the only easily under­standable idea is that most of the songs are love songs, hidden under a ton of symbolist metapho­rical makeup. At their densest, they go something like: "In your snatch Fitzpleasure, broom-shaped pleasure, deep greedy and googling every corner... steepled fingers, ring leaders, queue jumpers, rock fist paper scissors, lingered fluffers, they choir ʽin your hoof lies the heartlandʼ"... well, you get the drift. Again, I am not angered at this: the lyrics fit into the puzzle exactly the same way as everything else. This might be a good opportunity to name another possible influence on these guys — Captain Beefheart, of course — but perhaps this would be too much of an honor, because it is unlikely that the sound of Alt-J will have as much of a revolutionary im­pact on the future of pop music as the Captain did in his own time.

Discussing the songs on an individual level is a fruitless endeavor. Some are a little louder or a little faster; a few feature slightly more distinct hooks (the sharp "la la la la" counterpoints on ʽBreezeblocksʼ, for instance, or the stop-and-start structure of ʽFitzpleasureʼ whose distorted elec­tronic bassline actually adds a sense of alien menace); a few are distinctly more soulful, like ʽBloodfloodʼ with its pretty harmonies, gentle surf guitars and Newman's friendly suggestion to "breathe in, exhale" that might appeal to certain broken-hearted categories of people. But no matter how many times I listen to the whole thing, in the end it stays with me in that precise man­ner — as a single, holistic experience; an intriguing, complex, but possibly quite meaningless statement. That said, it's also not that weird: it never challenges the good old concept of harmony, the guitars and keyboards sound nice, and most of the weirdness really comes from their mash-up approach to pop music's legacy and the above-mentioned «lack of calcium» in the playing. It will definitely go down in history as an album that tried to say something new in the musically stale climate of 2012; whether that new saying was really worth anything, though, is a matter that still remains to be cleared up. Pending that, I give it an honest thumbs up for the effort.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Charlatans: Some Friendly

THE CHARLATANS: SOME FRIENDLY (1990)

1) You're Not Very Well; 2) White Shirt; 3) The Only One I Know; 4) Opportunity; 5) Then; 6) 109 Pt. 2; 7) Polar Bear; 8) Believe You Me; 9) Flower; 10) Sonic; 11) Sproston Green.

Although The Charlatans came together in the West Midlands and made their first recordings in between Birmingham and Wales, their first album is as stereotypically «Madchester» as it gets, so much so that occasionally it becomes hard to keep track of where one baggy piece ends and another one begins. It is, in fact, very easy to dismiss the entire album as «Stone Roses lite» and just move on, because at first it does seem that all they are doing is a less layered, less deep, more dance-oriented version of the Stone Roses — just like any other freshly formed band in late Eighties / early Nineties United Kingdom (think early Blur, etc.). Give it a few more spins, though... and yes, they are definitely doing a less layered, less deep, more dance-oriented version of the Stone Roses, no doubt about it whatsoever! But they are talented lads, and there are a few subtle, but important nuances that put some flesh on their shadows.

Although all five Charlatans are credited for songwriting, it is clear that one and only one domi­nates the sound or, at least, makes it a special kind of sound — keyboard player Rob Collins. This may not be heard so well on the opening number ʽYou're Not Very Wellʼ, where his organ forms a democratic triumvirate with John Baker's funky guitars and Martin Blunt's powerful bass; but already the second song, a more traditional power-pop number called ʽWhite Shirtʼ, is fully dependent on Collins' organ lead-riffs, whereas Baker is largely restricted to monotonous rhyth­mic jangling, and lead vocalist Tim Burgess delivers all the lyrics in largely the same, slightly whispery-ethereal tone (think Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, but without all the psyche­delic mixing). Collins is the real star on most of the tracks — if he is not playing optimistic pop melodies in mid-Sixties style, he is throwing out choppy, angry rhythm chords that add an aggres­sive angle to this otherwise inoffensive dance-pop; and in addition to the Hammond organ (already a somewhat obsolete instrument by 1990, one might say), he even drags out the Mello­tron from time to time, as an intentional antidote to the «futurism» of the baggy rhythmics.

The biggest hit from the album was ʽThe Only One I Knowʼ, and it is fairly typical of the band's overall sound at this point. You get to know everything there is to know by approximately 0:30 into the song, but it is no big deal because what there really is to know is that they got a groovy thing going, with Blunt's bass and Collins' slash-and-burn organ technique perfectly underpinning each other, while Baker is hanging somewhere out there in the shadows with his subtly mixed guitar parts. The vocalist is something you can take or leave: I feel no impulse to go and check out the lyrics, because what matters is the ghostly effect of Burgess' voice rather than the actual words (and the words?.. "well, it's a love thing", as Mike Love would say). But the groove is nice, and while being totally modern for the standards of 1990, it also reflects a strong influence of their Sixties' idols like the Spencer Davis Group (ʽI'm A Manʼ, etc.), so here is something that can satisfy both the conservative and the futurist.

The group fares worse when they try to introduce a more psychedelic flavor — one of the results is (missed) ʽOpportunityʼ, a seven-minute long atmospheric bore whose main point is in how dark guitar clouds gradually drape over the serene organ clouds: not without inspiration, but ultimately Baker is not even close to the wizardry of My Bloody Valentine, not to mention pro­fessional shoegazers of the Slowdive etc. variety, and with Collins taking a back seat to the guita­rist, the track does a better job of laying open the artistic limitations of the band than showing off their value. That is not to say that Baker adds nothing to the sound: it is his colorful pop riffs, produced in a San Francisco acid rock style, that breathe life into ʽFlowerʼ, another song whose groove power is relaxed so that the band can concentrate more on the melodic aspect. Elsewhere, you can sometimes fall upon Martin Blunt as the center of attention — his oh-so simple, but per­vasively nagging and paranoid bassline on ʽThenʼ, the album's second single, is probably the single most important thing responsible for its commercial success. But even that song would have not been nearly as haunting without Collins' organ in the background.

So does the record have some sort of conceptually overwhelming message / meaning? If it does, it is probably the same as with The Stone Roses — an exuberant celebration of life's bright and dark moments, a new strain of youthful futuristic idealism draped in slightly psychedelic colors. The album's finale, a track dedicated to a long-gone love affair and lovingly entitled ʽSproston Greenʼ (allegedly the place where it hap­pened), emphasizes this feeling with one of the album's most upbeat tempos, some of its most exuberant vocal harmonies, and a frantic coda with several overdubbed organ parts and Collins going completely out of his head — a psycho thunderstorm that, however, carries no threat whatsoever; on the contrary, it is a thunderstorm in which many of us would love to get caught. No, this is not a masterpiece of an album: too derivative, too repetitive, too unambitious to ever pretend to A-level status — but it's an album that can make you feel warm all over, and that's enough to warrant a solid thumbs up.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Candlemass: King Of The Grey Islands

CANDLEMASS: KING OF THE GREY ISLANDS (2007)

1) Prologue; 2) Emperor Of The Void; 3) Devil Seed; 4) Of Stars And Smoke; 5) Demonia 6; 6) Destroyer; 7) Man Of Shadows; 8) Clearsight; 9) The Opal City; 10) Embracing The Styx.

Arguably, this album introduces the best thing that has happened to Candlemass since they learned to produce their albums outside of the figurative toilet — lead vocalist Robert Lowe, the former frontman of Solitude Aeturnus, an epic doom metal band from the heart of American Texas (yes, apparently such a thing as Texan doom metal does exist, although it's probably heavily influenced by ZZ Top, I'd imagine). This guy has got all the power of Marcolin without his operatic wailing: style-wise, he is more reminiscent of Dio, balancing the pomp and pretense with an angry snarl that brings the performance closer to earth and agrees far better with the aggressive kick of the music. In fact, sacrilegious as it seems, I actually enjoy the re-recorded versions of ʽSolitudeʼ and ʽAt The Gallows Endʼ, appended as bonus tracks to the digipak edition of the album, far more than the originals!

Add to this that Edling continues to be relatively inspired, with the songwriting level not drop­ping down from the standard of Candlemass even one bit, and you get an album that is just as enjoyable as its predecessor — more so, in fact, if you agree with me on the vocalist (but I think that even big fans of Marcolin grudgingly had to acknowledge Lowe's worthiness; not that Edling ever made any truly big mistakes hiring lead vocalists for the band). Production standards have stabilized, and there are even a few tracks that feature awesome riffs — the best of these probably being in ʽClearsightʼ, which mixes the chugging gallop style with Iommi-like «deep-heavy» bending, creating the impression of a speedy Satanic roller coaster; but stuff like ʽEmperor Of The Voidʼ, with its double-tracked metal / wah-wah guitars spiralling around at frisky tempos, or ʽMan Of Shadowsʼ, does not lag too far behind.

Non-metalheads should not get any false illusions: King Of The Grey Islands is still as stereo­typically formulaic as they come, with each song following more or less the same formula. If your attention span is strong enough to follow the nuances, somewhere in the middle of these songs you might fall upon elements of diversity — for instance, the odd acoustic interlude in the middle of ʽMan Of Shadowsʼ that comes in for only a few seconds to introduce a brief moment of tender sentimentality before the flames of Hell re-ignite once again; or the echoey, near-industrial bass solo in the middle of ʽEmbracing The Styxʼ (a title I keep hearing as "embracing the stiff", which would probably make the song acceptable for Cannibal Corpse's repertoire).

Every now and then, the record creeps up a little too close for comfort to the standards of grunge-metal and nu-metal — and Lowe's delivery may have something to do with this, since, after all, he doth come from the home country of Korn and Limp Bizkit rather than the homeland of the Vikings. But I try to brush those associations away and just keep myself convinced that this is every bit as good as Candlemass, only a little bit better because the vocalist is trying to position himself in the middle of a spooky B-movie rather than that of a Shakesperian tragedy, raising the adequacy level to acceptable heights. This is a healthy, crunchy popcorn formula that they have settled upon here, even if I would personally prefer more numbers like the infectious ʽClearsightʼ and fewer like the draggy ʽOf Stars And Smokeʼ. But they are still formally a «doom» band, aren't they? Thumbs up for making me forget about that for a moment.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Caravan: The Unauthorized Breakfast Item

CARAVAN: THE UNAUTHORISED BREAKFAST ITEM (2003)

1) Smoking Gun; 2) Revenge; 3) The Unauthorised Breakfast Item; 4) Tell Me Why; 5) It's Getting A Whole Lot Better; 6) Head Above The Clouds; 7) Straight Through The Heart; 8) Wild West Street; 9) Nowhere To Hide; 10) Linders Field.

The Battle Of Hastings, with its subtle, but special atmosphere of cold melancholy and nostalgia, could have been a highly appropriate and intelligent last goodbye for Caravan — one of those nice turns of events when a formerly great and then degenerated band comes together for one last statement; not a huge one, but reflecting a certain degree of wisdom and experience. Too often, however, the temptation to mistake a successful «last goodbye» for a sign of self-permission to go on recording new stuff, so to speak, becomes impossible to overcome. And thus, at the turn of the new millennium, Caravan come together once again — to make a record that, to me at least, sounds completely superfluous.

Again, this lineup only includes Hastings and Coughlan from the original band, although Dave Sinclair was still a member when they went into the studio: he contributes and plays on ʽNowhere To Hideʼ. Reportedly, though, he split with the band again over «creative differences», and all the other tracks feature Jan Schelhaas, the band's old keyboard player from the Blind Dog At St. Dunstan's period. Richardson and Leverton reprise their roles from The Battle Of Hastings, and an extra lead guitarist, Doug Boyle (who'd previously played with Robert Plant's band) is brought over to lend a hand. With the Hastings / Richardson / Schelhaas core, you might faintly expect them to deliver another Blind Dog — unfortunately, instead of this they deliver another Better By Far, albeit with some technical flaws that were typical of the late 1970s corrected and repla­ced with some technical flaws that are typical of the early 2000s.

If you have heard the opening track, ʽSmoking Gunʼ, you have already assessed the overall sound of the record — grimly optimistic pop music created by prog survivors and released in a world where neither distorted guitars nor cosmic-sounding electronic sounds no longer make anybody bat an eye just because they are, you know, distorted and/or cosmic-sounding. It's a nice sound, but it no longer has the added bonus of The Battle's world-weariness, because these guys have survived their mid-life crises and seem fairly happy now to occupy their parliamentary seats in the post-prog world of elder(ly) statesmen — making professional, but pizzazz-free music. The production is marvelous: all the most subtle guitar overtones reveal themselves instantaneously. There is hardly anything substantial behind that production, though. The second track, ʽRevengeʼ, sounds almost exactly like the first one, and that is just the beginning.

Eventually, after about four numbers that are completely interchangeable, they arrive at a point where they remember that they used to be a progressive band with long-winded epics, and begin to pump out 7-8-minute long epics that, unfortunately, fall more into the «adult contemporary» pattern than into the «progressive rock» scheme (amusingly, something very similar had earlier happened to Genesis, with their pseudo-prog monsters like ʽDriving The Last Spikeʼ, etc.). ʽIt's Getting A Whole Lot Betterʼ, for instance, is an unmemorable chunk of smooth blues-jazz with Kenny G-style sax solos; ʽHead Above The Cloudsʼ is at least speedier, but essentially it's the same smooth jazz taken at a faster tempo. One might have hoped that ʽNowhere To Hideʼ, the only track left behind by Dave Sinclair (and sung by Jim Leverton rather than Hastings), would be better — but its first half is exactly the same jazz-pop as everything else, and its second half largely consists of a fusion synth solo from Sinclair that sounds like... well, I have no idea why I should be listening to any of this instead of, say, Al Di Meola. At least Al Di Meola had pyro­tech
nics. Why should you need Al Di Meola-like music without pyrotechnics?

In the end, the only track that has shown a few signs of life to me was the instrumental finale, ʽLinders Fieldʼ, mainly because they hit upon a different kind of sound here — multi-tracked folksy jangle mixed with smooth, ambient-like keyboards. It's a pretty and unassuming coda with a curious (probably unintentional) psychedelic effect on the brain. But having to sit through 50 minutes of professional, clear-sounding, thoroughly monotonous, humorless, and essentially meaningless adult pop to get to it? Honestly, I'd much rather live my life knowing that the door on Caravan was slammed with the last power chord of ʽI Know Why You're Laughingʼ. Recommended only for major Pye fans and hardcore sentimentalists; for everybody else, definitely a thumbs down.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The 5th Dimension: Soul & Inspiration

THE 5TH DIMENSION: SOUL & INSPIRATION (1974)

1) Soul & Inspiration; 2) Harlem; 3) The Best Of My Love; 4) My Song; 5) Hard Core Poetry; 6) No Love In The Room; 7) House For Sale; 8) Somebody Warm Like Me; 9) Salty Tears; 10) I Don't Know How To Look For Love.

This album starts off just fine, with two of the band's finest performances from the meager mid-1970s — a solid, fiery rendition of The Righteous Brothers' ʽSoul & Inspirationʼ, with Billy and Marilyn trading lead vocal duties and bassist Joe Osborn providing the song with a tough, gritty skeleton underneath all the orchestral layers; and immediately afterwards, a cover of Bill Withers' ʽHarlemʼ that smartly capitalizes upon all the funky promise of the original — perhaps the band inevitably loses some of the song's irony and subtlety in the process, but with their harmonies, wild strings and wah-wah guitars all over the place, they make the song kick significantly more ass than it did while chained to Bill's vision.

Alas, that's about it: once the highlights are done with, the usual curse of the 5th Dimension — dependence on mediocre songwriting — kicks in, and the rest of the album consists of largely interchangeable ballads and R&B workouts that waste the vocal talents of the band and the ins­trumental professionalism of the Wrecking Crew behind them. You're covering the Eagles? Fine, but couldn't you at least have picked some of their better songs, like ʽWitchy Womanʼ or some­thing, rather than the generic MOR ballad ʽBest Of My Loveʼ? And of all those other tunes, the only one that still sticks in my head a bit is ʽNo Love In The Roomʼ, a dark dance number with a good vocal build-up, though still very run-of-the-mill in terms of arrangement (ominous strings, proto-disco bass, all the works).

In fact, the record is so heavy on softness and sentimentality that the only proper R&B number here, besides ʽHarlemʼ, is ʽMy Songʼ, a composition by Rich Cason written at the crossroads of Funkadelic/Parliament and Stevie Wonder, but without the mad energy of the former and the melodic genius of the latter. At least they try to get a groove going here, and Billy is sincerely trying to fire it up; on such easy listening numbers as ʽHard Core Poetryʼ (courtesy of the Lambert & Potter songwriting duo), ʽHouse For Saleʼ (courtesy of Larry Brown, a Motown hack),  ʽSomebody Warm Like Meʼ (courtesy of Tony Macaulay who'd given them ʽ(Last Night) I Didn't Get To Sleep At Allʼ in 1972), there's nothing happening at all, although, of course, all of these songs can be used as relaxing background muzak. But even considering how many people in the world treat all music as no more than relaxing background muzak, and how much this record follows the standard soft-pop formula of the mid-1970s, the fact is that Soul & Inspiration tanked just as miserably as its predecessor, missing its huge core audience by a mile. Again, not recommended for anybody except huge fans of Billy's and Marilyn's vocal talents — which, as usual, are formally on open display, but still do not prevent me from an overall thumbs down.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: The Women Blues Of Champion Jack Dupree

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: THE WOMEN BLUES OF CHAMPION JACK DUPREE (1961)

1) Ain't That A Shame; 2) Talk To Me, Baby; 3) Tell Me When; 4) Old Woman Blues; 5) Hard Feelings Blues; 6) Bus Station Blues; 7) Rattlesnake Boogie; 8) Black Wolf Blues; 9) Jail House; 10) Come Back Baby; 11) On My Way To Moe Asch.

Undoubtedly the finest thing about this album is its front sleeve, featuring a stylish retro photo by David Gahr that looks fantastically modern at the same time — I mean, what is it that dame is doing before the mirror unless taking a selfie? Well worth owning for that shot alone, if you ask me; and take no substitutes, hunt for the original LP on Ebay or something, because size definite­ly matters with this one.

Other than that, the details are not exactly clear. This is the only post-war LP recording of the Champ's that actually came out on Folkways Records, for whom he'd previously only recorded an occasional number or two; and this was clearly a single, cohesive, almost conceptual session, as evidenced by the album title and accompanying liner notes (all about them ladies, and how they continue to influence the life of a weathered old bluesman), and even the last track, which conti­nues the Champ's «diary-like» approach to bluesmaking — a special musical post-scriptum to acknowledge the Moses Asch / Folkways connection for this piece. However, the album does not include any information about where, when, and with whom the whole thing was cut, so I have no idea, for instance, if Dupree had to temporarily return to the States to make it, or if he recorded the session in Copenhagen and then sent the tapes overseas, or if (most probable solution) he cut it in the States before moving to Europe, and Folkways simply took some time (a year or two) to put it into proper shape before marketing the results.

He is working with a full band here — there's at least a regular drummer, bassist, and guitarist in the same room with him — but I have no idea who they are. In any case, it's nobody great, or, if it's somebody great, the somebody in question is keeping humble, providing for a fuller sound but never threatening to overshadow Mr. Jack. Not that there's much to overshadow: as usual, the record is very straightforward, consisting of about half a dozen completely interchangeable slow 12-bar blues, and a few faster, but also interchangeable, pieces of boogie (ʽTell Me Whenʼ, ʽBus Station Bluesʼ) with no surprises whatsoever.

Relative (very relative) standouts here include ʽRattlesnake Boogieʼ, a percussion-heavy instru­mental (and you can judge what the percussion sounds like by simply considering the title), and the already mentioned ʽOn The Way To Moe Aschʼ, not because it mentions Moe Asch by name, but because it features a nice bass solo to break up the overall monotonousness of the session. Also, if you are wondering by some chance, ʽAin't That A Shameʼ is not a Fats Domino cover, but just another one of those generic blues pieces. All in all, I don't think Folkways really got the best side of the Champion here — he seems fairly stiff and morose; but then, considering the label's almost religious attitude to American folk and blues traditions, they'd probably want him to be as stiff, morose, and boring as possible, leaving his humorous, vaudevillian side to all those corny, commercial record labels. Still, that photo...

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Kinks: Kinda Kinks

THE KINKS: KINDA KINKS (1965)

1) Look For Me Baby; 2) Got My Feet On The Ground; 3) Nothin' In The World Can Stop Me From Worrying About That Girl; 4) Naggin' Woman; 5) Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight; 6) Tired Of Waiting For You; 7) Dancing In The Street; 8) Don't Ever Change; 9) Come On Now; 10) So Long; 11) You Shouldn't Be Sad; 12) Some­thing Better Beginning; 13*) Everybody's Gonna Be Happy; 14*) Who'll Be The Next In Line; 15*) Set Me Free; 16*) I Need You; 17*) See My Friends; 18*) Never Met A Girl Like You Before; 19*) Wait Till Summer Comes Along; 20*) Such A Shame; 21*) A Well Respected Man; 22*) Don't You Fret; 23*) I Go To Sleep (demo).

For all the greatness that Ray Davies and his brother brought into the world in 1966–1969, it can be very seriously argued that, progress-wise, no other gap between any two of their classic al­bums is covered by such a giant leap forward as the gap between Kinks and Kinda Kinks — no matter how uninventive the actual album titles are. (They loved the letter K so much in those days, it's a wonder they never got officially endorsed by the KKK). Even if there are relatively few timeless classics on this second album, the important thing is that it actually sounds like a classic Kinks album, one where they really come into their own style, totally distinct from everybody else's. Most importantly, ten out of twelve songs here are Ray Davies originals — reflecting the amazingly fast rate with which Ray was beginning to turn into one of Britain's finest songwriters, something that he himself probably could not have predicted even one year earlier.

Perhaps the only atavistic remnant of their derivative fumbles is ʽNaggin' Womanʼ, quite a strange choice for a cover — recorded by little-known vocalist and harmonica player from Mississippi by the name of Jimmy Anderson that even in its original incarnation sounded like an average wannabe-Jimmy-Reed number. Brother Dave sings it in his exaggeratedly nasal voice that reminds even stronger of Jimmy Reed, but honestly, the Kinks could never properly mimick Jimmy Reed's nastiness, so the song sounds trashy, but boring (apart from Dave's minimalistic guitar solo, which is cute, but still incomparable to whatever a Brian Jones would do with this at about the same time). On the other hand, dance-oriented Motown material fares better with them, provided it's been properly Kinkified: Ray sings Martha & The Vandellas' ʽDancing In The Streetʼ with idealistic-romantic aplomb, but it is the raw, swirling, gritty rhythm guitar playing that makes the song — not having either the budget or the experience to emulate the original's glorious brass arrangement, the Kinks put everything they have into the guitar groove, and make it into a kick-ass sample of young British R'n'B.

But that's it for the covers. Excited by the commercial and critical success of their latest singles, Ray is now generating creative ideas by the dozen, the first of which, preceding the album by a couple of months, is ʽTired Of Waiting For Youʼ — a song that, from a certain perspective, could be called the first power ballad ever written, being rhythmically driven by the exact same hard-rocking, distorted sound that the brothers had found earlier for ʽYou Really Got Meʼ and ʽAll Day And All Of The Nightʼ. This time, of course, it overlaps with a soft and jangly lead part, but it is impossible to properly describe how the added boost of the distorted "da-doom, da-doom" riff elevates the song to the status of a classic anthem. You can see how they are still growing: the lyrics of the tune are rather inane (for a guy as gentlemanly and innocent as Ray, the implications of being "tired of waiting for you" seem rather embarrassing), the arrangement desperately begs for extra melodic and harmonic overlays that they do not yet know how to produce — but the introductory eight seconds alone, with the sweet and the grumbly guitar voices weaving together in perfect harmony, are musical genius; and the bridge section of "it's your life... and you can do what you want" is the first of many cases where Ray would be saving his dreamiest and most chivalrous bits for the mid-part, before pulling the listener back out into the real world for the regular verse-chorus stuff.

Next to the innovative breakthrough of ʽTired Of Waitingʼ, the rest of the album may sound a bit lackluster in comparison — and it probably is, considering how Ray used to complain about Shel Talmy forcing the band to record it in two weeks' time. But even if the other tracks do not feel so cathartic, most of them are still exhilarating, joyful, catchy pop-rock with all sorts of subtle twists, particularly the long stretch on Side B beginning with ʽDon't Ever Changeʼ. Of the two true ori­ginal compositions on Kinks, it is the ʽStop Your Sobbingʼ model rather than the ʽYou Really Got Meʼ one that Ray keeps following — not exactly inventing the formula of the «consolation pop song», but personalizing it. It's as if the Kinks, under his direction, were occupying their own little corner of the market, where all the young girls, after having their hearts burned down by the Beatles and their lower organs soaked wet by the Stones, could crawl over to Uncle Ray and weep on his comforting shoulder. All these songs are romantic, but perhaps even less sexual in nature than the Beach Boys — not to mention the near-complete lack of even the faintest traces of misogyny or even slight disrespect towards any representatives of the opposite sex. Yes, instead of telling her that it's all over now, or that she can't do that, or that this may be the last time, or that this happened once before when he came to her door, etc. etc., Mr. Ray is sincerely wishing her "don't you ever change now, always stay the same now", and telling her that she shouldn't be sad, and generally playing the knight in shining armor for all those little cuties who find them­selves used up and abandoned by the likes of John Lennon or Mick Jagger.

Well, there are exceptions, of course: ʽNothing In The World Can Stop Me From Worryin' Bout That Girlʼ does actually tell the story of a nasty two-timer who "just kept on lying". But even so, all this leads to is heartbreak rather than anger — notice that there isn't a single insult in the lyrics, and the song, a minimalistic piece of blues-pop whose acoustic riff strangely predicts the guitar melody of Simon & Garfunkel's ʽMrs. Robinsonʼ three years later, is quiet, sulky, and sad, rather than angry and vindictive. And on ʽSomething Better Beginningʼ, a song written so obviously in the style of the Ronettes that it just screams for a wall-of-sound production which Shel Talmy cannot grant it, Ray is clearly singing about a break-up — but he never ever mentions who was the culprit, and the song on the whole is all about optimism and faith in a new beginning.

The really cool thing about all these tunes, as simplistic as they are on the surface, is that they sound believable — from the very start, Ray was not interested in simply churning out one com­mercial, formulaic pop song after another; instead (much like The Shangri-Las across the ocean), he was interested in thinking up little stories of realistic human relationships, and although at this point he did not always succeed (stuff like ʽWonder Where My Baby Is Tonightʼ is still fairly cartoonish, for example), most of these boy-meets-girl stories are as true to real life as the band's upcoming social miniatures of everyday routine in the UK. Melodically, they are probably weaker than contemporary Beatles stuff, but even at this point, Ray Davies can already be felt as a living, breathing person deserving our empathy, whereas the personal-psychological sides of Lennon and McCartney took a couple years to truly emerge out of all the artistic craft.

That said, the Kinks were still a singles band at this point, and no other reissue in their entire catalog benefits greater from the presence of contemporary singles than Kinda Kinks. The bonus tracks almost double the length of the album, and almost each one is a gem in its own rights. We have ʽEverybody's Gonna Be Happyʼ, easily their most energetic and joyful rave-up with out­standing drum work from Mick Avory. ʽSet Me Freeʼ is, I believe, simply one of the greatest love songs of 1965 — I cannot understand how, by means of a simple two-chord riff and a vocal melody that seems to have been thrown together in a matter of seconds, they have managed to express the feeling of burning undivided love so perfectly, but so they have: the riff gives the impression of a ball and chain at the singer's legs, and Ray's throat pressure during the opening "set me free little girl..." is just one of those innumerable subtle moves of his that work their magic in ways you fail to explicitly notice. (Special mention should also go to the "you can DO it if you try..." falsetto upshot — I have no idea why this moment is so orgasmic, but there must be some awesome biochemistry involved in this transition from tense-and-throaty to falsetto... the idea of being set free and soaring up to high heavens, perhaps?).

Likewise, it would be impossible not to mention ʽSee My Friendsʼ — arguably the first pop song to incorporate Indian motives, although, unfortunately, the Kinks never went as far as to drag a real sitar into the studio (and so happened to cede the honor to the Beatles... again!): but the tune was inspired by the band's stopover in Bombay, and the guitars do play a bit of a raga, so it is an important point in the history of Eastern influences in Western pop music. More importantly, perhaps, it is the first Kinks single to dig into something deeper than boy-girl relationships: alle­gedly inspired by the sudden demise of Ray's elder sister, it is a song about death, obeying the age-old folk tradition of learning to cope with death and recognize its inevitability and transience, and, strangely enough, actually depersonalizing the singer this time: multi-tracked vocals are wedged so deeply in the mix that Ray Davies really does sound somewhat like a choir of fisher­men here, you know? Very atypical of the Kinks, and yet, still pretty Kinksy in terms of recog­nizable harmonies.

And then you can't go wrong with ʽSuch A Shameʼ (the deeply sung "it's a shame, such a shame, such a shame" chorus sounds as natural as shame ever comes), or with ʽA Well Respected Manʼ (the first triumphant appearance of Ray Davies as a social commentator, soon to be eclipsed with melodically superior creations, but already brimming with scorn and sarcasm), or even with the coldly melancholic, nostalgically beautiful piano demo ʽI Go To Sleepʼ that somehow predicts classic Brian Eno — slow it down just a little bit, give it better production values, and it wouldn't be out of place on the dreamy Side B of Before And After Science.

As I look over the 23 tracks on this CD one more time, other than ʽNaggin' Womanʼ, I cannot find a single genuine stinker — some relative lowlights, yes, but even when they are doing wimpy Peter, Paul & Mary-style folk-pop like ʽSo Longʼ, Ray's melodic twists and humble personality still make them winners. We could probably live without ʽI Need Youʼ as the third (and also least energetic) rewrite of ʽYou Really Got Meʼ, and I could certainly live with even fewer Dave Davies lead vocal parts (every time he begins to shout, he still ends up sounding like a very obnoxious teenager), but all of these are minor nitpicks. The truth is that by early 1965, Ray Davies had finally put both feet in the stirrups of his genius steed, and for the next five years, he'd be riding it non-stop, conquering all sorts of new heights. The only reasons that prevent the Kinda Kinks-era LP and single tracks from sounding as fresh and relevant today as the band's later output are purely technical — pop music as such had not yet turned into Art with a capital A, and although the Davies brothers were already lending their older colleagues like the Beatles and the Stones a solid hand in this, it would take a little more time to overcome the last technicalities. Even so, pop music in early '65 rarely got better than this, so a solid thumbs up here.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

10,000 Maniacs: Playing Favorites

10,000 MANIACS: PLAYING FAVORITES (2016)

1) What's The Matter Here?; 2) Like The Weather; 3) Love Among The Ruins; 4) Trouble Me; 5) More Than This; 6) Can't Ignore The Train; 7) Stockton Gala Days; 8) Because The Night; 9) Rainy Day; 10) Candy Everybody Wants; 11) My Sister Rose; 12) Hey Jack Kerouac; 13) These Are Days; 14) My Mother The War.

Apparently, the performance used for this live album was recorded prior to Twice Told Tales (on September 13, 2014, at an arts center in Jamestown), but they held off releasing the recording for almost two years for some reason. This is not the first live album for the band — besides the obvious Unplugged, there is also an obscure 2006 release (only sold on tour) Live Twenty-Five, com­memorating the band's jubilee and featuring short-term lead vocalist Oskar Saville. This one, however, seems to be more widely distributed, and besides, it features no less than four original members of the band — everybody except for Merchant and the deceased Robert Buck is present, making the record almost, you know... legitimate.

The kick is that everything sounds very nice. They run through their own minor hits and classics without any glitches whatsoever — new lead guitarist Jeff Erickson is respectful of Robert Buck's original style, and the extra guest musicians (a brass section, a cellist, and an additional backing singer) flesh out their more musically ambitious songs, like ʽCandy Everybody Wantsʼ, to near-perfection. Of course, considering how thoroughly the tracks have been cleansed of any signs of audience participation (they even choose the fade-in, fade-out principle to present the material, with no in-between-songs banter whatsoever), the problem is that most of the performances just faithfully reproduce studio originals. But then again, considering that most of us probably have serious trouble remembering how any of those 10,000 Maniacs hits used to go, I guess this isn't too much of a crime, considering how technically smooth the performances are.

And then, of course, this is the only live album by the 10,000 Maniacs where you get to hear Natalie Merchant songs performed by Mary Ramsey — well worth hearing at least out of sheer curiosity. (They also do three tunes from Love Among The Ruins, but you can tell that, as much as they love Mary as a bandmate, the band's post-Merchant musical output is not exactly bursting with «favorites»). All her life, Merchant was a crusader, unlike Ramsey, who seems more like the quiet, earthy, folk-loving type; so it is interesting to hear her add a touch of that earthiness to the band's «socially troubled» classics, and I would not hasten to declare her performances less touching or less tense than Merchant's just because her voice is lower or because her phrasing is a tad slower. These are not her songs, but she still does them a special kind of justice.

The only surprise on the record is the final track: not only do they drastically rearrange ʽMy Mother The Warʼ, making it sound much more like modern bombastic indie rock à la Arcade Fire or British Sea Power rather than typical New Wave pop-rock from the early Eighties that it used to be, but they also invite returning founding member John Lombardo to sing on it — probably not a very good decision, because the man cannot sing worth a broken nickel, but a touching gesture all the same. Actually, the entire album is a touching gesture: if you really like the old 10,000 Maniacs classics (enough to keep on relistening to them on a regular basis), I heartily recommend it as a tasteful diversion from the usual routine. If you think they are just all right, though, I doubt that switching from Merchant to Ramsey will work wonders in terms of your love, recognition, and support.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Chairlift: Moth

CHAIRLIFT: MOTH (2016)

1) Look Up; 2) Polymorphing; 3) Romeo; 4) Ch-Ching; 5) Crying In Public; 6) Ottawa To Osaka; 7) Moth To The Flame; 8) Show U Off; 9) Unfinished Business; 10) No Such Thing As Illusion.

Well, at least Chairlift will go down in history as one of the few bands of the 21st century to have significantly evolved with each new album — the evolutionary path from Does You Inspire You to Moth is not exactly staggering, but it is very clearly laid out. In between 2012 and 2016, Pola­chek officially began her solo career (under the new moniker «Ramona Lisa»), and Moth, at least judging by the songwriting credits, is basically just another Polachek solo album, with guest musician Patrick Wimberley providing some assistance; both of them understood this, and went on to announce the final breakup of Chairlift by the end of the year.

Moth is a well-produced, intelligent, reasonably complex and multi-layered synth-pop album; unfortunately, it has very little of the charm and personality that made the first years of Chairlift's existence so endearing. It is not a coincidence that a few years before, Caroline contributed ʽNo Angelʼ for Beyoncé's self-titled album — she has clearly become a fan of modern «intellectua­lized» R&B, mixing its plastic funky grooves with the old spirit of the Eighties and depersonali­zing the songs in the process. Fans of electronic effects, autotuning, etc., will appreciate the various tricks she is playing with her voice on most of the tracks: I will not — not after she'd used it so naturally and so seductively on everything in between the twee-pop of ʽBruisesʼ and the Goth-art-pop of ʽTerritoryʼ.

This is not a legitimate «sellout»: the music is too complex, the lyrics too dense, and the hooks generally too inobtrusive for the common ear. But it is clearly a move towards a more mainstream sound; and while I applaud Polachek for doing it the best way possible — groping for interesting sounds and cool grooves rather than going in the direction of sappy adult contemporary — she is not enough of a genius songwriter to compensate for this loss of identity with unforgettable tunes. The result is a record that sounds like a more mature and educated version of Carly Rae Jepsen: indeed, I can very well picture Carly singing "Hey Romeo, put on your running shoes, I'm ready to go", except I'm not sure she knows who would «Romeo» be in the first place.

At least that chorus is catchy, as is the repetitive refrain to the soft techno number ʽMoth To The Flameʼ. Songs like ʽCh-Chingʼ go the harder way, combining tricky signature and tempo changes with an overall attitude of a sweaty-sexy R&B groove — but it's just not the kind of genre that Polachek can turn into her own, because, after all, she is not Beyoncé and she simply does not have it in her blood. As an artistic statement, it is too cluttered with «body-oriented» elements; as a dance groove, it is too damn artsy. The accompanying video, where she dresses up in Eastern fashion and gives us a martial arts demonstration, does not make things any easier — looks like a fairly pointless bit of «cultural appropriation», much as I hate the silly term.

It does look as if her gaze is turning more and more to the East: ʽOttawa To Osakaʼ is a telling title, in particular, and her use of Eastern melismatic techniques that was already evident on ʽAmanaemonesiaʼ, seems to have increased. Which is not a problem by itself: theoretically, a mix of Eighties' synth-pop, modern R&B, Chinese vocalizing, and whatever else you can throw in seems like a realizable proposal. It simply does not feel to me as if it's really been realized. Every now and then, you encounter openly bad songs — like ʽShow U Offʼ, which simply sounds like any mediocre electropop groove ever produced by a mediocre R&B artist. And the only thing that I cannot get out of my head is that goddamn "I can't help it, I'm a moth to the flame" chorus, but heck, when this band started out, it did not build its reputation upon repetitive techno one-liners.

The last and longest song, ʽNo Such Thing As Illusionʼ, is a particularly irksome patience-tryer: seems like she is trying to be Beyoncé and Björk at the same time here, and ends up being neither. Six and a half minutes of quietly rolling synth loops, odd patches of bass notes borrowed from ancient soft jazz fusion, chaotic vocal overdubs, and an overall feel of somebody trying to pro­duce an epic psychological anthem in the bedroom. Not a very respectable way to go.

I do know better than to give the record a thumbs down: who knows, it might grow on me if I ever soften up on this genre of music in general, and even now I am able to recognize the amount of work and the spirit that went into it. I can even understand it when plastic soul is delivered as plastic soul, with an underlying symbolic or ironic message; but this is plastic soul masquerading as genuine soul from somebody who once used to deliver genuine soul without a hitch, and this is irritating. Another case of the music industry eating up a good artist? It is probably too early to say this a fact, but hey, wouldn't be the first time. That's the price you pay for writing songs for Beyoncé.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Candlemass: Candlemass

CANDLEMASS: CANDLEMASS (2005)

1) Black Dwarf; 2) Seven Silver Keys; 3) Assassin Of The Light; 4) Copernicus; 5) The Man Who Fell From The Sky; 6) Witches; 7) Born In A Tank; 8) Spellbreaker; 9) The Day And The Night; 10) Mars And Volcanos.

Apparently, this album almost did not happen due to old tensions quickly reignited between the original band members as they gathered in the studio; in the end, though, they managed to over­ride them for at least this one LP, before the Messiah re-ascended into the void once again, this time for good. They did make the album self-titled, though, which usually symbolizes a «reboot», in this case, a new Candlemass for a new millennium — a fairly complicated task, considering all the difficulties of getting the Nightfall lineup in the studio and not making another (inferior copy of) Nightfall in the process.

Surprisingly, the result is quite satisfactory. Of course, this is not too different from «classic» Candlemass, but in some ways, I think it actually improves upon it. If you are a purist, deeply in love with this band and treasuring its first years of output as the most inspired and innovative ones (although «innovative» is really a strange word to use in relation to these Sabbath adepts), you will not share this opinion; I, however, think that Candlemass, above and beyond everything else, are professional deliverers of «Sabbath-brand product», and that, as «product», their first albums suffered from too much pomp and too little technical care. By the mid-2000s, after twenty years of soaking and steeping, they seem to have learnt to deal with that problem: Candlemass is their first album that (a) features awesome production standards and (b) avoids sounding too ridiculous or annoying, most of the time.

Taking ʽBlack Dwarfʼ, the album's kick-ass opening song, as a good example, what do we see? The opening riff, decidedly unoriginal as usual, finally sounds thick, deep, crushing, and massive, and is propelled forward by a great drum sound — also thick, bass-heavy, without any electronic echoes or general tinny overlays that so plagued their Eighties albums. The lead guitar part is fluent, melodic, and perfectly audible over everything else (not to mention quite expressive and actually reminiscent of some cataclysmic astral processes). And, finally, Marcolin adds a layer of angry beastliness to his vocals, still relying on his operatic potential but sounding much better in the capacity of a threatening Old Testament prophet of the apocalypse than in his typical Free­shooter / Dr. Faustus image from the classic records. (And by «much better» I mean that I don't have to go "oh no, gimme a break already" every time he hits a high note).

After ʽBlack Dwarfʼ, the record predictably slows down (we know by now that Candlemass can handle fast tempos, but they have no desire to turn into Accept, after all), and the songs become more and more interchangeable. However, the corrected problems remain corrected — the pro­duction never turns to shit, and all the riffs on all the songs retain that «massive» effect, even if there is still hardly a single riff here that I would judge as immediately efficient on the classic Iommi level (more like decent/acceptable on the post-1980 Iommi level). The usual copycat prob­lems persist: the lengthy ʽCopernicusʼ features clear echoes of ʽBlack Sabbathʼ in its slower parts, while ʽBorn In A Tankʼ presents yet another variation on ʽChildren Of The Graveʼ (just how many millions of times has that song been ripped off in the world of heavy metal?). But as long as you are not forced to memorize this stuff note-by-note, I like the overall sound: seems as if Edling's direct emulation of Sabbath on that previous album left some traces behind, and now, by injecting better produced Sabbath overtones into the classic Candlemass formula, he is able to achieve somewhat more credible results.

Special mention must be made of the lyrics, which are slightly less ridiculous than they used to be (this, at least, is an area in which they seem to have made some genuine progress: I actually catch myself pondering over the message of stuff like ʽSeven Silver Keysʼ and ʽAssassin Of The Lightʼ, and even if it is the same old devil-gonna-get-me stuff, it is at least presented in a vaguely veiled manner). On the down side, the song lengths... well, that's what you get for choosing «slow» as your default tempo — something that, given the success of ʽBlack Dwarfʼ as the lead-in track, they could have easily changed, but doom metal is doom metal. Still, a modest thumbs up. If you can only coax yourself into listening to one Candlemass album, you should probably pick up something from the Eighties, but if you want something that is actually listenable (if not neces­sarily enjoyable), this reunion gig is a better choice.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Caravan: All Over You

CARAVAN: ALL OVER YOU (1996)

1) If I Could Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You; 2) Place Of My Own; 3) The Love In Your Eye / To Catch Me A Brother; 4) In The Land Of Grey And Pink; 5) Golf Girl; 6) Disassociation (Nine Feet Underground); 7) Hello Hello; 8) Asforteri 25; 9) For Richard; 10) Memory Lain, Hugh; 11) Headloss.

Re-recordings of your own classics are not just pitiful: as a rule, they brand you very concisely as a «second-rate» artist — I think Page and Plant were the only ones who could properly get away with this shit, because most of the stuff they did was re-inventions rather than re-recordings, but other than that, Caravan here are joining the league of Blue Öyster Cult and The Animals, for no reason whatsoever — of course, it is understandable if you want to nostalgize in the confines of a studio, but what good are the results for even a dedicated fan? This is not a bad album, just utterly pointless. Unless the point is just admitting defeat: «hey guys, none of you bought The Battle Of Hastings when it came out — so I guess you like the old shit more, here's an acoustic version of ʽThe Love In Your Eyeʼ for you, enjoy».

As you can see from the track list, this is a representative retrospective of the classic years of Caravan, covering every album from the self-titled debut and up to Plump In The Night. The sonic structure is a little weird: about two-thirds of the record is almost completely acoustic (ex­cept for a few lead electric parts every now and then), up to the first part of ʽFor Richardʼ — after which the distorted guitars kick in with full force, and the album continues as an electric appearance until the end. The musicianship remains strong through the entire album, and Hastings continues to be in fine voice — and these are all great songs, so, formally, one cannot complain. But I struggle to find any specific points for which these arrangements should be re­commended. If anything, there are some weak points — namely, the production, which sounds strangely cluttered and disorienting: lots of gratuitous percussive overdubs, special effects, echoes, sometimes giving the songs a cavernous feel that they really do not deserve.

Additional odd ideas include, for instance, the overdub of fake stadium audience cheer and applause over the last two tracks — well, sure, those Plump In The Night tracks could be played in an arena setting, but why should we be told that? Is it some sort of poorly hidden envy on Pye's part, that he never got to play in a proper arena? Anyway, those crowd noises splattered all over ʽHeadlossʼ are really very annoying and distracting and, might I say, in poor taste.

Thus, unless you are interested in a couple of nice jazzy acoustic solos here and there (with a Spanish touch on ʽThe Love In Your Eyeʼ), it is probably better to just forget this record ever existed. Apparently, that was not the end of the story: a couple of years later, Hastings and Co. followed it up with All Over You Too, featuring a second batch of re-recordings, this time from 1973 to 1976; and that one, according to rumors, was even more tasteless than the first one, so I have not bothered to search it out. All in all, a very silly decision.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The 5th Dimension: Living Together, Growing Together

THE 5TH DIMENSION: LIVING TOGETHER, GROWING TOGETHER (1973)

1) Open Your Window; 2) Ashes To Ashes; 3) Changed; 4) The Riverwitch; 5) Living Together Growing Together; 6) Day By Day; 7) There's Nothing Like Music; 8) What Do I Need To Be Me; 9) There Never Was A Day; 10) Let Me Be Lonely; 11) Woyaya.

Although the band's commercial luck began to seriously wane with Individually & Collectively, it was not until 1973 that the fifth dimension truly began caving in on them — the LP did not make it into the Top 100, and this time, not even the singles were of much help. The biggest of 'em all was the title track — immediately recognizable as a Burt Bacharach tune since it uses the exact same introduction as ʽClose To Youʼ, and sharing all the usual easy listening attributes of any generic Bacharach tune: sweet, slightly bouncy ear candy with about as much depth to it as the movie it was written for (the allegedly awful reinvention of Lost Horizon as one of those corny 1970s musicals). And even that one only got to No. 32.

By now you know that you can usually predict the average quality of a 5th Dimension album just by looking at the list of songwriters, and this time around, the list is particularly discouraging. Bacharach & David, represented by two songs (the second one is ʽLet Me Be Lonelyʼ, a solo spot for Florence that's nice if you... umm, like sentimental waltzes with lotsa strings and brass), are actually one of the top names on the list — the only other top name is Harry Nilsson, whose ʽOpen Your Windowʼ, deliciously and seductively crooned (cooed?) by Marilyn McCoo, is a nice enough opener, but very short and misleading.

Elsewhere, brace yourselves for the return of Jeff Comanor, with derivatively Sam Cookish gospel numbers like ʽThe Riverwitchʼ (Billy Davis Jr. gives a fairly impressive Cooke / Redding impression, as usual, but the melody has not a single original twist) and equally derivatively Wil­son Pickettish R&B rave-ups like ʽThere's Nothin' Like Musicʼ — well, not too bad, to be honest, but not particularly necessary if you can get the real thing. And then there's lush ballads, ballads, ballads a-plenty, all of them largely interchangeable, even if, technically, McCoo's vocals are unimpeachable as usual. Of course, the «easy listening» genre is not really my cup of tea, and maybe I simply cannot see the little things that make these particular performances stand out against the rest, but as far as I'm concerned, this is all just plastic soul-imbued pop crapola, dili­gently, but indifferently executed by the performers. At least all those Laura Nyro songs offered a good chance to get into some character, but now they've run out of these, too.

Out of good ideas, The 5th Dimension make a nice, but meaningless, gesture of fraternizing with their black brothers across the Atlantic — covering Osibisa's ʽWoyayaʼ from the latter's 1971 album of the same name. As you can guess, it is a loyal, professional, and probably well-meaning cover, but it is hard to expect that the professional, glossy, restrained approach of a bubblegum Californian band can make this mix of pop music and tribal chanting uncover hidden depths that it lacked in the original. Nice try, but next time, try moving to Ghana or something. Definitely a thumbs down — no Jimmy Webb, no Laura Nyro, no dice.