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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Carpenters: Offering

CARPENTERS: OFFERING (1969)

1) Invocation; 2) Your Wonderful Parade; 3) Someday; 4) Get Together; 5) All Of My Life; 6) Turn Away; 7) Ticket To Ride; 8) Don't Be Afraid; 9) What's The Use; 10) All I Can Do; 11) Eve; 12) Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing; 13) Benediction.

The main problem with the Carpenters' generally forgotten debut album is simple, as long as you subscribe to the world view that has been gradually consolidating around the duo's post-mortem reputation — namely, that «Carpenters» (as a concept) were shite, while Karen Carpenter was anything but. Admittedly, it is a flawed and incomplete view, but, unfortunately, I cannot help drifting towards it myself, and nowhere is it more evident than on Offering (what a posh title!), the duo's first big, er, offering to the A&M label. Today, it is better known as Ticket To Ride, after its only minor hit single, but I am keeping the original title for honesty's sake, especially since «honesty» is generally a big concern for bands like these.

Technically, the album was a transitional affair, recorded very soon after the breakup of Richard and Karen's band Spectrum and still containing traces of a «band» rather than «duo» (or, even better, «solo») approach to business. More than half of the songs were actually written by Richard, with lyrics by former bandmate John Bettis — even though Richard never was and never would be a talented songwriter; and about half of the songs are sung by Richard, even though I always end up feeling like a three-year old every time I hear a Richard vocal. The syrupy-upbeat atmo­sphere ends up infecting Karen's performances as well (ʽDon't Be Afraidʼ, etc.), and the result is not so much «soft rock» as it is «Sesame Street rock», a subgenre that the Carpenters would never fully relinquish voluntarily, but Offering is really their only album to have been recorded almost completely in that genre.

There are exceptions, of course — two or three of these, pointing the way to future moments of triumph, and, as anybody can guess, it is first and foremost the songs that put Karen's rich, dark lower range overtones in proper focus, with an aura of near-tragic melancholy that hinted at a very troubled soul (not to mention physiology) even back when Karen Carpenter was, formal­ly, still a lively, fun-loving, drum-toting tomboy. A particular highlight, long forgotten in favor of future hit songs in the same style, is Richard's ʽEveʼ, a lush Euroballad that is, unfortunately, spoiled by too many overdubbed harmonies and strings in the chorus, but sounds near-perfect when it's just Karen and the piano (or, in later verses, a bit of overdubbed harpsichord on top): here, already, she is able to woo the listener with merely the opening "Eve, I can't believe that you would mean what you just said..." — few singers are able to combine special vocal technique with fully believable realism of the delivery, and here we witness the combination of a capable singer, a perfect actor, and a captivating human being.

Compared to ʽEveʼ, the far better known title track is not nearly as impressive. The idea to put the "sad" back into "I think I'm gonna be sad" is brilliant per se — whatever you could say about the original ʽTicket To Rideʼ, you could never truly suspect the song of disseminating an atmosphere of genuine sadness (the irony was, of course, best captured in the Help! movie where it was per­formed to footage of all four Beatles enjoying themselves like ecstatic kids while skiing in the Alps — so who's got a ticket to ride, once again?). Problem is, they lay it on a bit too thick, slowing the song down to an almost ridiculous crawl, and the theatricality here actually over­shadows the realism — much as I'd love imagining the song as a far more hard-hitting retort by somebody like Cynthia Lennon ("the boy that's driving me mad is going away... he's got a ticket to ride, and he don't care" — sound familiar?). Still, the purpose is a noble one, as is their other tasteful choice of a cover: Buffalo Springfield's mournful ʽNowadays Clancy Can't Even Singʼ, another broken down lady tale that they smother in strings and woodwinds, but without sacrifi­cing its tragic-humanistic spirit. Too many Richard vocals, though!

As for the rest... well, stuff like ʽYour Wonderful Paradeʼ is the kind of stuff I would rather be dead than caught listening to by even the closest friends and relatives (fortunately, I always have a «reviewing purpose only» excuse for anything, and you don't!), even if it is a somewhat catchy pop song, with appropriately cartoonish tin soldier drumming from Karen who, at this point, still considered herself strictly a «singing drummer»; but the atmosphere of cutesy-whimsy is unbea­rable — if you're gonna do it, just go all the way and get an ʽAll Together Nowʼ or a ʽYellow Sub­marineʼ out of your system, rather than this middle-of-the-road crap that is too boring as a kiddie tune and too corny as an adult one. The same applies to most of the other songs written by Richard, ʽEveʼ excepted — but when he wants to write a sentimental ballad, he often falls flat, too, as on ʽSomedayʼ, a mushy Broadway tune whose spineless nature cannot even be redeemed by Karen singing it without outside help.

Concerning the overall «coating» of the record, it is clear that it was at least as much influenced by The Beach Boys as it was by show tunes and Bacharach, but the latter influences still prevail, and despite frequent praise for Richard's talents as an arranger, the pretty effects that he got with multiple overdubs of his and Karen's vocals are consistently offset by Mantovani-type strings and the overall silky softness of pretty much every instrument played (yes, even Karen's drums — despite all the quirkiness and even sexiness of her «singing drummer» image, she was no Keith Moon when it came to hitting... uh, caressing that drumkit). Jazz influences are also obvious (the siblings' first work together was actually within a jazz setting), as on the brief jazz-pop experi­ment ʽAll I Can Doʼ, but... well, you know.

In the end, Offering clearly seems to deserve its reputation — a failed first attempt that misuses the duo's talents and is more often boring and/or embarrassing than illuminating; it is much to the siblings' credit that they were able to understand which elements had to be cut down and which ones had to be emphasized in such a record short time. But, like almost any first failure by a future great artist, it does have its flashes of occasional brilliance — and it is at least an intriguing failure, sounding so notably different from whatever would follow. So, one of those cases where a formal thumbs down might still warrant interest for those who find up-and-down curves more fascinating than all-the-way-up-the-hill trajectories.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Cat Stevens: Teaser And The Firecat

CAT STEVENS: TEASER AND THE FIRECAT (1971)

1) The Wind; 2) Rubylove; 3) If I Laugh; 4) Changes IV; 5) How Can I Tell You; 6) Tuesday's Dead; 7) Morning Has Broken; 8) Bitterblue; 9) Moonshadow; 10) Peace Train.

Together with Tillerman, this album generally forms the backbone of the Cat Stevens legend: both were his most commercially successful and critically applauded projects, both yielded many of his best-known songs and both continue to be top-rank recommendations for neophytes. Less heavily publicized is the fact that the two records, actually, are strikingly different in certain ways, and, in my opinion, the differences do not necessarily come out in favor of Teaser; in fact, de­spite its generous brevity, accessibility, and inevitably alluring friendliness, I find it surprisingly hard to warm up to its material on the same heat level with Tillerman.

The whole package was superficially marketed as a «children's album» — starting from the carto­onish album cover and ending with an actual children's book that Cat wrote about the adventures of the album's two characters and published soon after the release of the record. In essential terms this is not really true: although the main lyrical and emotional themes of Teaser are quite easily accessible for kids and adults alike, they are serious and realistic — songs about, well, uhm, peace, love, and understanding, for the lack of a worse cliché. The «kiddie setting» here is more to underline the innocence and idealism of the singer-songwriter than to specifically appeal to a young audience: like most folk-based troubadours of the early Seventies, Stevens quite expressly catered to all ages and all social backgrounds. And yet, in the process, I think he crossed a certain line that usually separates «serious» from «cutesy» — nor does it help that «cutesy» can occasio­nally be irritating when it is too strongly mixed with «preachy».

Musically, the record is markedly more minimalistic than its predecessor: many of the songs feature nothing but one or two acoustic guitars that may or may not receive the gentle, non-intru­sive support of pianos and a rhythm section. It is with this minimalism, one that places nothing between the tender heart of the artist and his enthralled listeners, that Stevens makes his point: melody-wise, as usual, there is very little here that goes beyond the ABCs of folk-based singer-songwriters, although it is still nice to see him cleverly weave together Anglo-Saxon folk music and Latin motives on stuff like ʽRubyloveʼ. But friendly minimalism can sometimes backfire: unless you support it with a touch of McCartney-style musical genius, its insistent «let me be your friend in need!» message may provoke a shoulder-shrugging reaction.

Case in point — the man's biggest hit and the song with which he is most commonly associated by those people who have never even seen Harold And Maude: ʽPeacetrainʼ. It has an interesting melodic trick up its sleeve, with the rising chord progression over the verses giving the illusion of an ever-rising stairwell or, perhaps, of an endless row of people mounting the proverbial train. But it is stylistically cut out as a rousing, gospel-tinged R&B number, and yet it has nothing like the true potential of one. It is Cat's personal ʽImagineʼ, but where the minimalism of ʽImagineʼ felt perfectly natural, it being more of a personal fantasy / prayer than a public sermon (even if the lyrics could technically allow you to construe it as one), ʽPeacetrainʼ desperately needs to be louder and prouder (à la ʽPower To The Peopleʼ rather than ʽImagineʼ, actually) for its potential to be fully realised. It is not at all bad — it just feels demo-ish, if you know what I mean.

As, well, does most of this record. It is just so quiet, so inoffensive, so sentimental, that even songs that could be formally stated to have pop hooks (ʽChanges IVʼ, ʽTuesday's Deadʼ) take a long, long time to win my attention; and yet, it is also not the kind of J. J. Cale-like, arrogantly defying minimalism that tacitly shouts in your face «I'm gonna do the bare minimum and you are fuckin' goin' to like it!», nor is it the grim Taoistic minimalism of a Nick Drake that haunts you with its world-gone-wrong spirit. Nor is it even a grotesque elfish-prince minimalism of a Donovan, whose antics might scare away some people, but eventually win over others with their outstanding goofiness. Instead, it is a warm-evening-on-the-front-porch kind of minimalism, starting with the gently self-probing introduction of ʽThe Windʼ (which does, appropriately, have a reference to the "setting sun") and ending with the (misguidedly) humble admonition of ʽPeace­trainʼ. In between these, the only song that ended up genuinely moving me on a certain level of spiritual depth was ʽIf I Laughʼ — its melody has a subtle twist of George Harrison-like tragism that elevates it to the level of high art. But everything else is just... nice.

Were I John Lennon (heck, I have already made references to two out of four, so why not make it three? now if only «Peace and Love» Ringo happened to make a cover of ʽPeacetrainʼ, we could close the circle and go home), anyway, were I John Lennon, I would not have missed a chance to scoff at the record and dismiss it as, say, «pleasantries for peasantries». What makes it different from so many other «pleasantries» of (technically) the same kind is that it has style, charisma, and heart — no matter how lightweight the songs may sound while they are on or how quickly forgotten they may be when they are gone, it is clear that they are all a part of the man's humble, respectful search for the Big Truth — a search that, if you don't mind me blasphemizing in the face of The Almighty, ultimate­ly ended up somewhat caricaturesquely, but commanded respect and acceptance on the level of Teaser And The Firecat. Nevertheless, despite the catchy cho­ruses of ʽChanges VIʼ and ʽTuesday's Deadʼ and even despite the heart-tugging pang of misery on ʽIf I Laughʼ, I do not foresee myself returning to this album as frequently as I might be revisi­ting Tea For The Tillerman — or, heck, even Matthew & Son, for that matter.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: The Heart Of The Blues Is Sound

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: THE HEART OF THE BLUES IS SOUND (1969)

1) My Baby's Coming Home; 2) You Rascal You; 3) No Tomorrow; 4) The Heart Of The Blues Is Sound; 5) The Japanese Special; 6) Hard Feeling; 7) Blues From 1921; 8) Don't Mistreat Your Woman.

Another alumnus of John Mayall, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, has been recruited by the endlessly charismatic Champion for these sessions, held in London in August 1969. Having actually been fired from the Bluesberakers, Dunbar had only just formed his own band — appropriately called «Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation» — and, apparently, they are all here backing Dupree, except for the first track which, in a rare stint of mind, he prefers to sing a cappella. Notable members of the band include Victor Brox, whom most people probably remember as the metallic-evil voice of Caiaphas in the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar — in fact, he'd already been a pro­fessional blues singer and player by that time, although on this album he sticks to keyboards and harmonica; trombonist Nick Evans, known for a brief stint in Soft Machine; and guitarist John Moorshead, known for very little in particular, yet capable of grinding as mean an axe as any alumnus of the John Mayall school.

As for Dupree himself, he takes a slightly more experimental approach on the record. The tunes are fewer in number and shorter in length, leaving plenty of space for jamming and improvisation (keeping up with the spirit of the times), and there is also a pronounced jazz influence: the only song not credited to Dupree on the album is ʽYou Rascal Youʼ, credited to Louis Armstrong (in reality, it was written by Sam Theard, but Dupree was not much of a sucker for detail), and then there is the oddest thing the man ever took part in so far — ʽThe Japanese Specialʼ, a tribal groove featuring a discordant, almost atonal battle of trombones, saxes, guitars, and organs: sur­prisingly energetic and delightfully chaotic, it could be defined as «Soft Machine meets Jack Dupree» (referring specifically to Nick Evans' participation in it), except that there's really very little Dupree-ish about the track in general. Honestly, I'm not even sure if the Champ plays on it in the first place. But even if he is not, it is pretty cool to encounter four minutes of free jazz on an LP by a pre-war urban blues specialist, is it not?

Elsewhere, it is mostly the same schtick: super-slow 12-bar electric blues (ʽHard Feelingʼ; ʽDon't Mistreat Your Womanʼ), old-fashioned blues balladry (ʽNo Tomorrowʼ; title track), and a cute attempt to do a regular jazz-blues oldie with a piano and a blaring trombone over it (rather bla­tantly called ʽBlues From 1921ʼ). The sound is nice, and altogether it feels as if the band gels together much better than any of Dupree's previous white-boy outfits in London. However, that is because the band is a band, rather than a motley crue of vaguely interested guest stars — and the album might as well have been called «The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation Feat. Champion Jack Dupree», given that his role is consistently diminished throughout the record. He does sound quite charming on that vocal-only number, though.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Pretty Things: Get The Picture?

THE PRETTY THINGS: GET THE PICTURE? (1965)

1) You Don't Believe Me; 2) Buzz The Jerk; 3) Get The Picture?; 4) Can't Stand The Pain; 5) Rainin' In My Heart; 6) We'll Play House; 7) You'll Never Do It Baby; 8) I Had A Dream; 9) I Want Your Love; 10) London Town; 11) Cry To Me; 12) Gonna Find A Substitute; 13*) Get A Buzz; 14*) Sittin' All Alone; 15*) Midnight To Six Man; 16*) Me Needing You; 17*) Come See Me; 18*) L.S.D.

Drummer Viv Prince was kicked out of the band right before the release of their second LP — in fact, relations with him had reached breaking point during the sessions, so that many tracks fea­ture session player (and the band's producer) Bobby Graham instead. Although Viv was not that much involved in the band's songwriting, it may be argued that this first out of many lineup changes was the most significant one — think of The Who firing Keith Moon as an awful ana­logy. Somehow this initiated a shift of image, as The Pretty Things began to drop the «wildness» aspect and turn towards more soulful, psychedelic, and artsy matters: fortunately, not before relea­sing their flawed masterpiece of the «wild thing» period.

Get The Picture? is a massive improvement over the self-titled debut, largely because much of the material is now self-written, with Phil May and Dick Taylor emerging as a competent and convincing songwriting duo — still not on the Jagger/Richards level if you average out the results, but not so much because they did not have an ear for melody as it is due to inferior technical aspects of the performances and recordings. Every time I listen to something like ʽCan't Stand The Painʼ with its decidedly Stonesy atmosphere (in some ways, predicting the slightly cavernous mystical-sexual sound of Aftermath), I can't help but wonder if it could be hailed as a timeless classic of longing-and-yearning with Mick on vocals and Keith on guitar.

And there are aspects where The Pretties would indeed go farther than their chief superior com­petitors. You only have to get past the opening number (ʽYou Don't Believe Meʼ is a mix of over­playe R&B ecstasy with crude Byrdsy jangle guitars) to hit the jackpot: ʽBuzz The Jerkʼ is, I believe, not only the very first pop song to feature the word "jerk" in the title (only two years earlier, the Stones had to guiltily censor the word in their cover of Chuck Berry's ʽCome Onʼ), it is as heavy and as uncompromising as it ever gets (at least, in 1965) in a song seemingly dedi­cated to problematic issues of rough sex. The rhythm section is on an adrenaline kick here: John Stax plays a broken-up bass riff that does things to your girl that even whacky perv Bill Wyman, all gentlemanly on the outside but EVIL on the inside, would never dream of, while Viv (I do hope that's Viv, I don't think Bobby Graham would dare play with that much aggression) goes so heavy on the cymbals and snares that Keith Moon could be his only competition. Throw in a mean fuzzy tone from one of the guitarists, and the entire tune is a two-minute explosion of garage rock wildness that ranks together with the greatest nuggets of the decade. Finally, by get­ting their act together and achieving tight focus, The Pretty Things explode.

The title track, when you take a detached look at the verse, is just one of those simple Britpop tunes, à la Dave Clark Five, that is usually supposed to put you into a jovial mood; but with May's breathy-beastly vocal onslaught and Taylor's crisply roasted guitar, it is only a tad less wild than ʽBuzz The Jerkʼ. "I ain't gonna quit ya / Get the picture?" predates The Troggs in its brief musical summary of the life of the Neanderthal lover. Later on, you are informed that ʽWe'll Play Houseʼ, obviously a nod to Elvis' ʽBaby Let's Play Houseʼ because of the title, but taking the metaphor to a whole new level. But the top prize is ʽYou'll Never Do It Babyʼ, a song originally recorded by the little-known UK act Cops & Robbers in a weak, piano-centered version: it took the Pretties to open up its full potential — the shotgun-style «blast 'em and pick up the pieces» riff and May's bluntly threatening lyrics give the song a bit of murderous feel, as in, she'll never do it, baby, because I've got a knife and I know how to... oh, never mind, just toying around with the dark side for a moment.

Not everything is equally exciting: as long as they keep up and nourish the sinister vibe, the re­sults are cool, but a few of the songs are second-rate R&B grooves (ʽI Want Your Loveʼ) that pale in comparison; besides, on this front they are natural losers in comparison with the Stones, and their version of Solomon Burke's ʽCry To Meʼ is nothing compared to the slower and far more turbulent commotion of guitars and vocals that the Stones had going on Out Of Our Heads. But they are also treading different types of water, such as melancholic folk rock (Tim Hardin's ʽLondon Townʼ) and soulful blues-rock — ʽCan't Stand The Painʼ is a very adventurous type of song, alternating between slow, moody, dreamy folksy passages with groaning, echoey slide guitars and fast, chugging, paranoid verses. I don't think there was anybody else in Britain in 1965 who'd be making that same sort of music: it's like an amalgamation of the soft melancholy of The Searchers with the raw aggressive energy of the Stones.

The expanded CD edition makes things even better: without getting overboard in terms of length (throw in all those bonus singles and you still get only 45 minutes of music), it fattens up the record with such classics as ʽGet A Buzzʼ (this is basically ʽBuzz The Jerk Vol. 2ʼ, although a tad less explosive), ʽMidnight To Six Manʼ (one of the band's catchiest singles ever and one of the greatest affirmations of Night Power), and, oh my God, ʽL.S.D.ʼ — actually, correction: ʽ£SDʼ, so the song formally refers to currency, but they do sing it with an L: "everybody's talking about my LSD... yes I need LSD, yes I need LSD"! Sometimes, you know, it helps being second class: neither the Stones nor the Beatles would probably be allowed to issue anything like that, but since nobody cared that much about The Pretty Things, these guys could get away with everything next to murder. They just wouldn't be paid for it.

Ultimately, Get The Picture? gets my vote for the most «badass-nasty» recording of 1965, which is, of course, absolutely not the same as its «best» recording — in any case, on their second try the band totally got it right, and carved a proper niche for itself that everybody else was either too afraid or too shy to try out. Not even The Who were that nasty: with Townshend's «thinking» approach to songwriting, those guys were far more happy, from the very start, to dress in Union Jacks rather than Neanderthal furs. The problem was that — at the time, at least — it was unclear how they could take this thing further, and so Get The Picture? remains the unsurpassed pin­nacle of The Pretties' nasty phase. Their glory days would be far from over, yet it can also be argued that this was their single most important «individual-identifying» moment, placing them in nobody's category but their own. A glorious thumbs up here — do not waste any time trying to buzz the jerk, now.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Al Kooper: Fillmore East - The Lost Concert Tapes

AL KOOPER & MIKE BLOOMFIELD: FILLMORE EAST - THE LOST CONCERT TAPES (1968; 2003)

1) Introductions; 2) One Way Out; 3) Mike's Introduction Of Johnny Winter; 4) It's My Own Fault; 5) The 59th Street Bridge Song; 6) (Please) Tell Me Partner; 7) That's All Right Mama; 8) Together Till The End Of Time; 9) Don't Throw Your Love On Me Too Strong; 10) Season Of The Witch.

For those who have thoroughly enjoyed the Fillmore West shows of Kooper and Bloomfield, released in 1969, the Legacy label now offers a generous bonus — here are the same dudes playing Fillmore East now, with a good selection of numbers from shows played on December 13–14, 1968, three months after the Fillmore West gigs. Despite not spending a lot of time toge­ther to rehearse new stuff, the young guitar wiz and the idealistic organ pro were still on an adven­turous kick, and there are only four tracks that overlap between the two shows, making The Lost Concert Tapes a solidly new piece of the old puzzle and a must-have for...

...well, actually, let us not get carried away. Most of the people who even heard of the release of this record, let alone bought it or reviewed it, were probably major fans anyway, so the few gene­ric reviews of it that you might be able to read are likely to be ecstatic. I, however, am doing this from more of a completist angle, and it is a rather unfavorable angle to Fillmore East. The album is shorter, lacks the element of surprise, does not quite give the same impression of a sympathetic chaotic mess, and, simply put, is far more boring.

The biggest problem is that out of the album's 60 minutes, almost half are given over to stereo­typical — and deadly slow — 12-bar electric blues. It does not help matters much that the first of these boasts the participation of young Johnny Winter, who had just had his first album released and attracted the attention of Bloomfield: Mike advertises him ecstatically, then recedes into the background for much of the time while Johnny struts his cool Texan blues stuff, sounding more or less like what he always sounds like — a post-Clapton, pre-Stevie Ray type of middleman. I actually find more fire in Bloomfield's response solos, although the best moment of ʽIt's My Own Faultʼ is probably nearer the end where they finally decide to trade some lines between each other. But yeah, good technique and all.

Unfortunately, this is soon followed by ʽPlease Tell Me Partnerʼ, another ten-minute blues that sounds exactly like ʽIt's My Own Faultʼ; and towards the end, we have Albert King's ʽDon't Throw Your Love On Me So Strongʼ because, apparently, there is nothing Fillmore East audien­ces enjoyed better than slow blues-de-luxe played at tortoise speed. Somehow, this abundance of the slow blues template never seemed particularly annoying at the Fillmore West shows, so I am guessing that they may have wanted to vary their setlists for the next set of gigs, but did not have the time to do it properly, and settled upon blues improvisation instead (ʽPlease Tell Me Partnerʼ definitely sounds like a last-minute filler piece, especially considering its inane lyrics).

Other than the blues stuff, three songs here completely overlap with the Live Adventures setlist (including yet another super-slow performance of ʽThe 59th Street Bridge Songʼ), and the only pleasant surprise is a sharp take on ʽSeason Of The Witchʼ at the very end: Bloomfield does not exactly put Steven Stills to shame, but his own proto-punkish guitar language agrees very well with the song's fuzzy ominousness, and watch out for fine session bass player Jerry Jemmott's fretline-exploring bassline, too.

Overall, I am not calling the album any bad names: I just think that the few months separating Al's and Mike's West Coast gigs from their East Coast ones did not result in any new ideas, and that this particular setlist seems somewhat rushed and let's-try-it-out-and-see-what-happens to me; which, granted, is not always a bad approach by definition, but in this particular case, has resulted in a flawed experience. Mike Bloomfield is a magnificent guitarist, but he is really at his best when playing ʽTombstone Bluesʼ-like material: wasting his undeniable talent on one slow 12-bar blues number after another is barely forgivable. Therefore, proceed at your own risk.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Charlatans: Live It Like You Love It

THE CHARLATANS: LIVE IT LIKE YOU LOVE IT (2002)

1) Love Is The Key; 2) Judas; 3) Tellin' Stories; 4) A Man Needs To Be Told; 5) One To Another; 6) The Only One I Know; 7) Impossible; 8) North Country Boy; 9) You're So Pretty, We're So Pretty; 10) Weirdo; 11) How High; 12) Forever; 13) And I Fall; 14) Sproston Green.

One of the last things this world needs is a live album by The Charlatans. Actually, let us cast the net wider: few things in this world make less sense than any live album by any Britpop band — all these guys live for the studio experience, and their concerts are mainly an excuse for the fans to go wild, which is the obvious reason why they very, very rarely come out with official live recordings (even Blur, I think, had to wait until their reunion solidified their legendary status, and even then, made sure that the audio experience would be inseparable from the video image). Why The Charlatans, a band that was rarely perfect in the studio, decided to follow up the Wonder­land tour with a live album, I have no idea.

Quick question: Is this stuff any good? Quick answer: Absolutely not. If you are tepid about The Charlatans, stay away from it — life is too short. If you are rabid about The Charlatans... just go see The Charlatans in concert — life is too short. Here is everything about Live It Like You Love It that you need to know: (1) It is heavily biased towards Wonderland and post-Rob Col­lins material in general, which is understandable, given that it was recorded in Manchester on December 14, 2001, but also means that the album cannot really function as a «greatest hits live» type of package; (2) Most of the songs are played as close to the original version as possible, but the musicians sound sluggish, and the power of the original grooves is seriously reduced, also because (3) the sound quality is mediocre at best, all the guitars reduced to brown mush and the bass melodies barely noticeable. And Tim Burgess is Tim Burgess — just add some bum notes and slurred phrasings that are forgivable during an actual live show, but not really on a live re­cord. And now, think whether you really want to have this.

At one point, they give the fans a pleasant surprise and bring out none other than Johnny Marr himself to play guitar on ʽWeirdoʼ — nice, but since the guitar stays deep in the mix most of the time, you'd probably never notice in the first place, had they not pompously announced Johnny's arrival at the beginning. Another surprise is the last track of the encore, ʽSproston Greenʼ, which is stretched out to almost twice its original length with a huge jam; yet somehow, Tony Rogers just fails, I think, to generate the excitement that Rob Collins managed to produce on the original version. I don't want to say that the band plays all this stuff without any inspiration or deep invol­vement, but it does come across that way. Since I have not heard any examples of their stage performances in the Rob Collins days, there is nothing to compare with, but the conclusion re­mains the same: just stick to the studio records, as there is absolutely no way these guys can make their stuff more exciting, more energetic, more rocking, or at least more different onstage. Totally a thumbs down here, and the title of the album reeks of self-irony — if this is truly how they live it, I'm embarrassed to think of how they really love it.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Celeste: I Suoni In Una Sfera

CELESTE: I SUONI IN UNA SFERA (1974; 1992)

1) Hymn To The Spheres; 2) The Dance Of The Sounds; 3) The Gates To Consciousness; 4) In The Darkside; 5) Last Flight Of The Mind; 6) To Embark On A Love Affair; 7) The Rediscover Of The Traditions; 8) A Vision; 9) The Thought Flies High Again; 10) Eftus; 11) Favole Antiche; 12) Nadissea.

Once the floodgates are open, they usually stay open. Unfortunately for Celeste, it is not like they spent enough time together to be able to rival Zappa. It turns out, however, that they did manage one extra feat during their brief common tenure — namely, record a complete soundtrack for an Italian movie called I Suoni In Una Sfera, allegedly directed by Enry Fiorini (at least, so the Italian Wikipedia tells me). Nobody ever saw the movie, and there are reasons to suppose that it was never finished; the soundtrack, however, is quite physically real, with most of the individual tracks credited to Ciro Perrino, and judging both by the title and by the nature of music, it was intended to convey a cosmic-psychedelic atmosphere.

Which, by the way, it does — so, technically, Celeste are now the proud owners of three different albums in three different genres: pastoral symph-pop, lite jazz-fusion, and psychedelic-ambient. No mean feat for somebody as totally unknown as these guys, right? Except, of course, the music here is, as usual, so smooth and suave that it is unlikely you will ever remember anything other than a general feel of being wrapped in sweetness a-plenty. The record goes very heavy on organ-imitating synthesizers, with already the title track establishing a Cosmic Gospel feel (all that is lacking is a choir of little castrated angels to duplicate the melody); but there is plenty of pastoral flute, romantic piano, gentle folksy acoustic guitars, and echoey smooth-jazz saxes to diversify the mood as well. And in a way, this might just be the single best Celeste album of 'em all be­cause... you guessed it... there are no vocals anywhere in sight. Just the way the doctor ordered before silly ambitious people overrode the prescription.

Actually, sweetness aside, the boys did some serious work here, writing (or ripping off from clas­sical sources) plenty of different themes — including an Albinoni-stylized funeral march (ʽLast Flight Of The Mindʼ), a slightly Morricone-influenced bluesy piece with Jethro Tull-like flute (ʽThe Thought Flies High Againʼ), and a long medieval ballad, heavy on classical guitar but adding flute, synth fanfares, and what-not (ʽFavole Anticheʼ). If only the main themes of all this stuff were a little more memorable... but it would be unreasonable to expect from a movie sound­track that which turned out to be unachievable on a proper studio album. The best I can say is that every single track here sounds tasteful and pleasant — although the production and mixing leave a lot to be desired. (Apparently, moving to Abbey Road Studios was not an option.) Consequently, I give the record a modest thumbs up, and with this, we say a final farewell to Celeste.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

801: Listen Now

801: LISTEN NOW (1978)

1) Listen Now; 2) Flight 19; 3) Island; 4) Law And Order; 5) Rude Awakening; 6) Que?; 7) City Of Light; 8) Initial Speed; 9) Postcard Love; 10) That Falling Feeling; 11*) Blue Grey Uniform; 12*) Remote Control.

Although it is fairly hard to categorize the original 801, it is also quite clear that when the tour was complete and Manzanera took the band name with him, his next step was to use it for some­thing quite stylistically different. Essentially, this one and only studio album by 801 is a collabo­ration between Manzanera and Bill McCormick, with the rest of the original band only making sporadic friendly appearances — along with a host of other notables, such as Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, formerly of 10cc, and Tim Finn and Eddie Rayner of Split Enz. Throw in Mel Collins (King Crimson, etc.) on sax; Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music, etc.) on violin; Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention) on drums, and you get yourself quite a melting pot of music greats. Usually in such cases the final results do not manage to be particularly impressive — too much confusion, not enough unity — and, as a result, I am almost surprised that Listen Now, true to its name, is con­sistently listenable, though hardly more than that.

Unlike 801 Live, whose mix of crazyass Manzanera and Eno albums made it into a first-rate psychedelic experience for 1976, Listen Now is simpler, poppier, and almost jaw-droppingly straightforward for the usually audacious Manzanera. The songs here do reveal a strong influence on the part of 10cc, as well as Steely Dan, Supertramp, and other intelligent art-pop bands of the decade: vocal hooks are just as important as guitar riffs and keyboard passages, although a key element is genre diversity — the album goes from arena-rock to jazz fusion to disco to soft-pop quite effortlessly, even if none of the selections can really aspire to represent the respective top level in any of these genres. Compared to Diamond Head, Listen Now could even be called an unabashedly «commercial» offering — though, like Eno's pop albums, there is never any feeling that the musicians are trying to entice the listener, so the record never sold particularly well.

Surprisingly, the title track is an eight-minute funky groove, verging on disco, but with a gray, heavy, depressing atmosphere, enhanced by grim melancholic vocals, grim melancholic basslines, and angry bluesy solos. This is the most in-yer-face soulful mood that Phil had allowed himself to generate up to that point, and the mournful arrangement works well, although overall it is too smooth to compete with, say, Pink Floyd — more like late period 10cc (without Godley and Creme, so I am tempted to believe that it was really Stewart and Gouldman, infiltrating Manza­nera's studio by pretending to be Godley and Creme). Another very long number is ʽCity Of Lightʼ, a mope-rocker riding all the way on one ominous piano chord and, in a way, atmospheri­cally presaging Peter Gabriel's ʽIntruderʼ, though the vocals are fairly weak.

Although I have not been paying serious attention to the lyrics, the overall mood of the album is lightly pre-apocalyptic — it is as if Manzanera intentionally ditched the decadent sinner-boy glitz of Roxy Music and completely concentrated on exposing this rotten world for what it really is, instead of reveling in its rottenness. Sad vaudeville numbers like ʽLaw And Orderʼ and particu­larly the near-gorgeous final ballad ʽThat Falling Feelingʼ churn out waves of depression; the only means of escape are occasional instrumentals, such as ʽIslandʼ (a romantic interlude with a good touch of Brian Wilson's SMiLE to it) and the jazz fusion exercise ʽInitial Speedʼ that sounds almost exactly like classic Brand X, despite the lack of Phil Collins on the album. (Jud­ging by the paranoidally fussy style, I'd bet it is Simon Phillips behind the kit).

Does it work? Not on a grand scale, but it does. 801 Live played out like a once-in-a-lifetime concert by The Spiders From Mars — Listen Now is far more grounded in the realities of this here planet, and I am pretty sure that many Eno and Manzanera fans must have received it as a major disappointment back at the time, expecting something completely different. I must confess that I expected something completely different, too, and it took a few listens to warm up to the idea that a «straight» Phil Manzanera could still make a solid artistic statement. What clinched it for me was the odd Seventies mix — from 10cc to Brand X to Steely Dan to Eno to Supertramp to... Little Feat? (ʽPostcard Loveʼ has distinct country-rock elements), it's all there, drenched in clouds of gloominess and Phil's trademark guitar style.

At the very least, this is intriguing, so I heartily invite everyone to try out the record without any prior expectations — thumbs up guaranteed. On a final note, the CD edition adds two bonus tracks from the session, one of which, ʽRemote Controlʼ, is a catchy riff-rocker whose riff is amu­­singly melodically similar to ʽEnter Sandmanʼ, though probably not enough for Manzanera to be able to sue his Californian competition.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Cat Stevens: Tea For The Tillerman

CAT STEVENS: TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN (1970)

1) Where Do The Children Play; 2) Hard Headed Woman; 3) Wild World; 4) Sad Lisa; 5) Miles From Nowhere; 6) But I Might Die Tonight; 7) Longer Boats; 8) Into White; 9) On The Road To Find Out; 10) Father And Son; 11) Tea For The Tillerman.

Since Tea For The Tillerman is commonly regarded as the highest peak of Stevens' career, this is as good a place as any to confess that I have a hard time recognizing Cat as one of the «all-time greats». As a composer, he is but barely experimental and adventurous, with most of his melodies on about the same level of compositional originality and complexity as, say, James Taylor or any other soft-rocker of the decade. As a lyricist, he is competent, but not exceptional — most of his texts make very explicit sense and largely manage to avoid the usual clichés, yet remain way below Dylan or Joni Mitchell. And while his charismatic personality is undeniable, at times the sentimentality can be overbearing: being too nice can sometimes ruin the experience.

Nevertheless, there is one art that Cat Stevens had mastered to near-perfection — telling simple stories of human relationships and painting simple portraits of human emotions in simple, but stunningly tasteful ways. Walking a fine path between the challenging intricacies of the afore­mentioned Joni Mitchell and the cringeworthy platitudes of the also aforementioned James Taylor, he writes songs like ʽSad Lisaʼ — simple and direct, but with a small, barely noticeable twist that gives the tune a special angle: for this tune, it is the use of the Leslie cabinet to give his piano a «watery» effect, and its combination with a baroque violin part. It's just a song about a depressed girl and vain attempts to console her, but there is something subtly doom-laden about that piano tone, implying that not only does ʽsad Lisaʼ not stand a single chance of ever finding happiness, but also that ʽsad Lisaʼ probably stands for something bigger than just one weeping lady.

Not that the song itself, or the album in general, falls in the category of «depressing». Stevens is troubled here, but he is also actively searching — most of the songs are energetic call-for-action tunes, and even on ʽSad Lisaʼ he is trying to do something rather than just stand in the corner and watch, although he does admit that chances of success are slim. Obviously, ʽSad Lisaʼ is not his ideal of a ʽHard Headed Womanʼ, a song that slowly, but decisively builds up towards a small explosion of acoustic guitars, strings, and drums that frame the songwriter's pledge to find a "hard-headed woman / One who'll take me for myself" — notice the cool lyrical twist, because before that day, a ʽHard Headed Womanʼ was most commonly associated with the Elvis song of the same title, and there was no talk about "taking me for myself" in that one. In any case, the tune reads very convincingly as a personal diary statement, and this is the point of the album: to serve as the songwriter's personal diary, rather than as a collection of detached pop songs that have no personal relevance for the songwriter.

And thus, we learn that Cat Stevens: (a) is very much worried about the fate of the planet that puts technological progress before the well-being of its individuals (ʽWhere Do The Children Playʼ); (b) has plenty of women problems, as his previous woman is leaving (ʽWild Worldʼ) and his next woman still remains an unreachable ideal (ʽHard Headed Womanʼ); (c) is looking for spiritual enlightenment and will probably stop at nothing to reach it one way (ʽMiles From No­whereʼ) or another (ʽOn The Road To Find Outʼ); (d) has serious Dad issues, but is willing to try and look at the issue from both sides (ʽFather And Sonʼ); (e) is cool with the Taoist knack of locating beauty and transcendence in the simplest things, from barely rice to red-legged chickens (ʽInto Whiteʼ). How many people have told you so many details about themselves in 1970? Not that there's anything particularly brave or scandalous about these disclosures, but the important thing is that Stevens' style makes them all believable. Above all, Tea For The Tillerman flaunts its sincerity and anti-commerciality — despite many of the songs being catchy enough to the point of becoming hits.

Ultimately, only ʽWild Worldʼ became a hit, and, honestly, it is probably the corniest song of the lot — at least, as a single, outside the general context of the album, it can be easily perceived as just another generic breakup ballad, and indeed there is something rather troubadourishly bland about the man's delivery of "now that I've lost everything to you / you say you wanna start some­thing new...", something more suitable for a seductive pop star than a sincere singer-songwriter, which is exactly the reason why the song so quickly caught on. The much more interesting ʽFather And Sonʼ, sung by Cat as a dialog of two voices, failed to chart in comparison — because it has no obvious hooklines to speak of — but it endured, I think, as a far more popular choice for Cat's devoted fans than ʽWild Worldʼ.

I find myself more intrigued by those of the man's songs that are not so easy to decode: ʽLonger Boatsʼ, for instance, which is about his fear of UFOs — something you won't be able to under­stand by simply listening to the repetitive, cheery chorus that makes the whole thing sound like a work song: "Longer boats are coming to win us, coming to win us..." as if this were not only inevitable, but not even very regrettable. It is certainly a more curious endeavour than ʽOn The Road To Find Outʼ, equally cheery but a bit too close in spirit to proverbial gospel.

And still, like I said, there is not a single song here that prompts for the word "great", simply because this is not an album that aspires to any sort of greatness in the first place. It is a humble, friendly, sincere record that has just enough depth to not come across as primitive, yet stops pre­cisely at the point upon which somebody could label it as pretentious. It could benefit from a bit of humor — not Stevens' forte, really — but it does not have any particularly «heavy» moments that would scream and beg for comic relief, either. It has the word Tea in the title and it features the Tillerman tilling tea on the cover — enough of a hint for you that you should probably have yourself a cup of tea while listening, taking a break from routine work and relaxing together with the artist, lightly pondering the fates of mankind, the future of your own spirit, and the grim fate of Sad Lisa. It gets a thumbs up, yet it is not one of the great, turbulent, monumental master­pieces of 1970: it is the album to which you turn for calm and comfort once you've made it through all the turbulence and your nerves are in desperate need of a cooldown. Of course, you could always choose James Taylor instead — but cooling down nerves is one thing, and going down dying from boredom is another.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: ScoobyDoobyDoo

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: SCOOBYDOOBYDOO (1969)

1) I Want To Be A Hippy; 2) Grandma (You're A Bit Too Slow); 3) Puff Puff; 4) Blues Before Sunrise; 5) I'll Try; 6)
Going Back To Louisiana; 7) Ain't That A Shame; 8) Stumbling Block; 9) Old And Grey; 10) Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well; 11) Postman Blues; 12) Lawdy, Lawdy.

This one was recorded in London in early 1969, with a fairly large backing band and one of Dupree's finest temporary acquisitions up to that point — a young and unknown Mick Taylor on guitar, just a few months before joining the Stones. Fortunately for us all, Dupree agrees to give the man plenty of room, making ScoobyDoobyDoo indispensable for Mick fans worldwide; however, at this point Taylor was just a graduate of John Mayall's white bluesman school, and sounds like a slightly less experienced Clapton clone, so do not expect anything outstanding.

As usual, the songs are «self-penned» (you know what that means), with the exception of ʽBlues Before Sunriseʼ that the Champ probably did not want to tamper with out of respect for his dear departed mentor. The first track will have everybody rasing eyebrows — ʽI Want To Be A Hippyʼ is Dupree tipping his hat to the new times, and the most bizarre thing about it is that the song does not even try to be ironic: "Lord, I'd love to be a hippy / But my hair don't grow too long", the man states with, perhaps, a wink of sarcasm; "but I love the way the hippy carries on", he adds, and from then on it becomes a panegyric to the hippie way of life that he, unfortunately, cannot share (although he can at least get dressed as a court jester on the front cover, indicating that if the entire world has agreed to go crazy, then it'd be cowardly for old Jack Dupree not to follow).

Unfortunately, this is his only «sign o' the times» on the album: every other song is lyrically and melodically quite standard. But the backing band is solid, the rhythm section plays with energy, and there are plenty of boogie numbers (ʽWhiskey In The Wellʼ) to break up the monotonous monopoly of slow 12-bar blues. Of special note may be the short instrumental ʽPuf Puffʼ, on which Dupree does nothing but puff (indeed), while Taylor plays a simple, but hypnotic slide guitar melody with elements of Delta blues and country-western. Elsewhere, it is clear that Dupree was still paying close attention to whatever his peers were doing at the time: ʽOld And Greyʼ is pompous soul-blues in the style of B. B. King, while ʽLawdy Lawdyʼ is brass-ornated funk blues that brings to mind Albert King. Of course, Dupree's imitations could never properly pass for the real thing (heck, he does not wear that jester's outfit for nothing), but when taken in the proper context of his overall strange career, they add even more color to that biography.

That said, Mick Taylor, albeit already a much better guitarist than Paul Kossoff, is just as unsuitable for the Champion's lightweight style as was Paul — he, too, tends to take it all way too seriously, which is excusable for an overawed kid who got to play with one of the Delta eldermen, but does not do much to enhance the sheer comic pleasure of it all, like the Dupree / Baker duet did. As a result, this is largely just another historic curio, no more and no less.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Who: My Generation

THE WHO: MY GENERATION (1965)

1) Out In The Street; 2) I Don't Mind; 3) The Good's Gone; 4) La-La-La Lies; 5) Much Too Much; 6) My Generation; 7) The Kids Are Alright; 8) Please, Please, Please; 9) It's Not True; 10) I'm A Man; 11) A Legal Matter; 12) The Ox; 13*) Circles.

When this LP was finally released on the market, The Who were not particularly happy about it, and few of its songs would survive as radio classics or stage favorites. Of course, they were still luckier than The Kinks: almost twenty months of non-stop work separated the congealing of the band's classic line-up from the marketing of their first LP, a period during which Pete Townshend had solidly cut his teeth as a songwriter — you can easily tell that they included those James Brown and Bo Diddley covers on the final version not because they had gaps to fill, but because those had become an essential part of their live act at the time. And yet, Pete was still left behind with the feel of an immature rush job, one that neither managed to properly catch up with all the musical groundbreaking of the epoch nor managed to capture their live ambience.

The second argument is moot, though. In the studio, The Who were perfectionists who could never even begin to set themselves the goal of sounding just as wild and out of control as they did on stage — and this is a good thing, as they are one out of a small handful of «effortlessly two-faced» bands whose studio and live output live two different — connected, but autonomous — lives. But it is also true that both onstage wildness and studio perfectionism are complex arts that require the accumulation of experience, and in 1965, The Who were still learning on both fronts. In retrospect, My Generation is a formative album whose flaws almost outweigh its virtues; the saving grace is that the flaws themselves are downright bizarre from time to time.

No review of My Generation, however, can bypass the point where it all begins — ʽI Can't Ex­plainʼ, one of the greatest songs of 1965 and perhaps of the entire decade. The Who burst through with the same kind of blast as did The Kinks with ʽYou Really Got Meʼ, and indeed Townshend has always acknowledged the huge influence that Ray Davies had on his own songwriting. But The Who did something bigger with that song: where ʽYou Really Got Meʼ amends the rules of pop music with its minimalism and brutality, ʽI Can't Explainʼ downright rewrites them, reversing the roles of the instruments — placing the guitar in the rhythm section and making a lead instru­ment out of the drums. With John's bass staying somewhat low in the mix and Daltrey's vocals still suffering from certain stiffness, ʽI Can't Explainʼ is a Pete / Keith show all the way, and every note, every beat punched out on those instruments feels like a wake-up call to action. The lyrics of the song primarily appeal to young people — it is one of those classic "I'm eighteen, and I don't know what I want" moments — but the musical core of the song is far more mature than your average garage rock nugget from sex-crazed youngsters. And it has one of Keith Moon's greatest drum parts ever: despite the initial feel of crazy chaos, every fill is perfectly calculated and in its rightful place. (And no, this does not apply to every song Keith had ever played on, live or in the studio — he could be extremely messy if he was in a different kind of mood).

As far as I'm concerned, it is a better song than ʽMy Generationʼ itself, if only because ʽMy Gene­rationʼ suffers from being a bit too self-conscious: it spells out openly (and a bit trivially) the same things that other youth anthems were conveying more metaphorically at the time (even ʽSatisfactionʼ was never quite as explicit as ʽMy Generationʼ is with its simplistic philosophy), and its chorus is too simplistic and sloganeering. There are three things that people always re­member about the song — "hope I die before I get old" (a line that got compromised a long, long time ago, what with «The Who» still trudging their sorry asses on stage fifty years after it was written); Roger's bizarre and gratuitous stuttering gimmick; and John's fantastic bass solo — and only the last one of these still gets my head spinning. Yet it was a very important song for The Who and for rock music in general, and without its success, the band's career might have turned out very differently (if only for the fact that they'd only just kicked Roger out of the band when the single began to rocket up the charts, and so they quickly had to bring him back in), and then there's the Live At Leeds version which is an entirely different thing... anyway, who am I kidding? This is friggin' ʽMy Generationʼ, and nothing I say can change that fact.

There is that other fact, though, that Pete Townshend actually wrote some fun songs for the rest of this album, and they sort of got lost in transit when compared to the success of the band's singles. ʽThe Good's Goneʼ — now there's a completely different musical approach to the subject of breaking up, surprisingly deep and mature: not an ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ where the indignant lover is dumping the cheating bitch, but a simple irritated acknowledgement that the feeling is no longer there on both sides, punctuated by Townshend's cold guitar tones and Daltrey's weary and frustrated delivery. (As a psychological portrait, I think the song works better than ʽMy Genera­tionʼ, but don't tell anyone). ʽMuch Too Muchʼ — another really good one: "If it's you I need I've got to pay the levy / Got to pay 'cause your love's too heavy on me". Let alone the fact that nobody probably ever used the word ʽlevyʼ in a pop song, the subject of the protagonist moving away from his object of affection because the affection has become too chain-like is also relative­ly new to the pop sphere — already at this point, Townshend was not interested in writing stereo­typical love ballads, and made sure that the musical atmosphere always correlated with the lyrical message. Perhaps they aren't too great from a straightforward melodic perspective, but they are interesting songs, and Daltrey, even with his still uncertain and underdeveloped voice, understood fairly well how to do them justice.

On Side B, there are a few joke songs, seriously influenced by the Stones (ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ, ʽThe Last Timeʼ), but they rank among the greatest joke songs of the Sixties — ʽIt's Not Trueʼ is an early example of an anti-tabloid rant, and ʽA Legal Matterʼ is the first of many Who songs about running away from their wives or fiancées, although its most distinguishing feature is pro­bably the cute little ringing riff at the beginning (so nice to hear it cropping up in the middle of the song as well). But, of course, the greatest Townshend original here is ʽThe Kids Are Alrightʼ, a song that had probably stunned many with its "I don't mind other guys dancing with my girl" (so whatever happened to the half-chivalrous, half-egotistic ideal of "If somebody wants to take my place / Let's pretend we just can't see his face"?) — and, if you want to entertain darker thoughts, it is not impossible to interpret the whole thing as an invitation to share... oh, never mind. The important thing is that, for all its questionable lyrical content, ʽThe Kids Are Alrightʼ is a magnificent power pop creation, a rip-roaring-ringing anthem that does for The Who pretty much the same that ʽPlease Please Meʼ did for The Beatles. Except The Beatles showed them­selves to be quite egotistic, whereas Daltrey and Townshend are, uhm, happy to share. You know, in a way this record actually makes the Stones' attitude towards women seem downright courte­ous — at least Jagger and Richards despised their imaginary girlfriends for imaginary promiscu­ousness; Townshend puts down his ones just because he is afraid they might be getting a bit too possessive of his personality. But that's the way life works sometimes, too, and even this kind of attitude deserves its musical depiction — and gets it, fair and square.

Against this background, the James Brown covers recorded here sound disappointing: ʽPlease, Please, Pleaseʼ in particular seems almst ridiculous, coming off the heels of ʽThe Kids Are Alrightʼ — "I don't mind other guys dancing with my girl" immediately followed by "Baby please don't go, I love you so?". Is this an apology or something? And Roger Daltrey taking on the challenge of covering James Brown... there's a reason why neither The Beatles nor The Stones dared to cover any of Brown's classics, you know. Most likely, the covers were there simply for instructive purposes: being huge fans of American R&B, Townshend and the boys thought it was their duty to properly introduce British audiences to the Godfather, a figure somewhat underrated in comparison to blues and rockabilly greats — a noble, but obviously obsolete purpose.

But who really cares about the James Brown covers when we got 'The Oxʼ? A sonic marvel that still sounds impressive today, with Keith playing a relatively straightforward, but totally relent­less tom-tom pattern and Pete experimenting with feedback on the wildest of all possible pre-Hendrix levels. (Special mention, by the way, should be made of Nicky Hopkins, who adds his energetic piano rolls not only to this song, but to the majority of the other tracks on the album as well: this was one of his earliest big breaks as a session player, and although for the most part he is content to be staying in the background, his piano parts do a good job of «thickening» the sound — it is not for nothing, after all, that Pete was worried for such a long time about the lack of a keyboard player with The Who onstage). ʽThe Oxʼ sounds absolutely nothing like the majo­rity of blues-rock instrumentals at the time: it is accessible and avantgarde at the same time, a celebration of well-structured noise, inspired by the likes of Link Wray but pushing such influen­ces as far forward as they could go at the time. Play it loud and proud today, and it will proudly compete against any noise rock achievements of the past half century.

With all these wonderful breakthroughs, I really do not care that ʽOut In The Streetsʼ begins with the exact same guitar trills that Townshend also used for the far superior single ʽAnyway, Any­how, Anywhereʼ; or that ʽLa-La-La Liesʼ sounds woefully underproduced, a catchy pop song that deserved Beatles-level production but got Shel Talmy; or that the group's vocal harmonies sound frail and shaky next to their peers; or about those noble James Brown covers. No amount of filler can bury the fact that here, in late 1965, when you could think you'd already heard it all, we have emerging one of the most unique and intelligent voices of the first generation of British beat bands. And they were only beginning to heat up — yet My Generation is still a thumbs up all the way, just like any Keith Moon-era Who record.

Technical note: the US equivalent of the album was retitled The Who Sings My Generation and featured a less interesting cover photo on which The Who were no longer seen scrutinizing you from below (but you had Big Ben there, because how else you'd know that these guys came from across the water?), as well as replaced the band's cover of Bo Diddley's ʽI'm A Manʼ with the proto-psychedelic B-side ʽCirclesʼ, apparently because of strong sexual connotations in the for­mer (ironically, The Yardbirds had their version of the song released fair and square in the States that same year). In 2002, the album (previously unavailable for a long time on CD due to a legal matter, baby) got a deluxe edition with numerous alternate takes that are mostly of historic inte­rest — but at least it is now delivered together with ʽI Can't Explainʼ. On the whole, though, I do not recommend the deluxe edition as strongly as the other reissues of the band's catalog that come together with rare B-sides, EP-only tracks and other autonomous, well-rounded songs that often add a lot to the catalog.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Alt-J: Relaxer

ALT-J: RELAXER (2017)

1) 3WW; 2) In Cold Blood; 3) House Of The Rising Sun; 4) Hit Me Like That Snare; 5) Deadcrush; 6) Adeline; 7) Last Year; 8) Pleader.

Perhaps this is the fate that is predestined for every half-decent band in the next few years: sooner or later, want it or not, there is no escape, everybody will turn into Bon Iver. Because, apparently, the only thing that this world needs is soft, quiet, monotonous muzak to fall asleep to. A solid, emotionally loaded, philosophically challenging sedative. A relaxer! Come to think of it, it is 2017 and we are all so riled up at things and at each other, we just need to relax. Here, have yourself an anti-matter version of ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ and embrace eternity.

Unfortunately, the band did not even go ga-ga, as I had hoped in the previous review; it went into hibernation. The rules of the game were laid from the start, so that expecting to have «energy» from Alt-J is the same as expecting to have love ballads from AC/DC — however, playing like a bunch of disabled paralytics is one (artistic) thing, and playing like a pack of heavily sedated sleepwalkers is another. For some reason, the band has completely dumped its slightly math-rockish schtick, and is now sticking to much more simple and derivative musical structures. About half of the album consists of repetitive minor key folk-pop / adult contemporary broodings, and the other half is a mix of alt-rock and trip-hop that aspires to darkness and disturbance but is way too limp to warrant either.

I have given a respectable five or six listens to the lead-in track ʽ3WWʼ, yet all I can say is this: if you want a truly bleak, truly sharp-cutting, truly resonant musical portrait of «depressed Euro­pean society» (or «English», whatever), put on some Black Box Recorder — the deadly combo of Luke Haines' songwriting talents and Sarah Nixey's deadpan vocalizing worked brilliantly, while this minimalistic mix of acoustic strum, ambient piano lines, crackling fire, and sexy-robot whis­per vocals from guest star Ellie Rowsell goes absolutely nowhere. "I just want to love you in my own language" is, theoretically, a line that could be very well placed in a song, but here it is put on such a ridiculously high pedestal — they have to pause the music in order for the vocalists to deliver it — that the whole thing ends up being a generic «we're so sentimental, we're so honest, we're so INDIE!» statement. You know, the one that usually goes together with a woollen hat and an unkept beard. A log cabin couldn't hurt, either.

I am fairly certain that there will always be people ready to accept the band's cover of — or, rather, the band's «expansion pack» for — ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ as a modern music master­piece. Allegedly, the exchange of the morose, tragic mood of the folksy original, or the angry mood of The Animals' version for a pacified, spiritual interpretation is a brave new development. With the new verses and the new musical atmosphere the song is no longer a lament or a fiery accusation, but rather a placated reminiscence from a dead-and-gone protagonist now lodged in Heaven, re­gularly in­terrupting the verses with a purring "it's a happy, happy, happy fun day". It is a curious idea that could have been realized well; unfortunately, it has been realized as a lethargic New Age-folk roll, and I'd honestly rather listen to Loreena McKennitt — at least she can do the «beauty» angle better on things like these.

But it gets even worse when the boys return to a «rocking» mood: ʽHit Me Like That Snareʼ sounds like a bad outtake from an uninspired Lou Reed record — the lyrics recited rather than sung, nasty distorted guitars creating a mock-rebellious attitude whose irony is disembowelled by its muddiness, sloppiness, and lack of proper aggression, and gratuitous «cool» references to everything from Moon Shaped Pool to Japanese cardinal numbers. I suppose the song is inten­ded to make vicious fun of "dangerous teenagers", which is a perfectly valid option, but there is nothing that sets back an angry social statement as efficiently as a lazy, sloppy, unmemorable melodic backing. And, for what it's worth, five years ago these guys appeared on the scene with the idea that «rocking out» was a completely obsolete custom anyway — so why return to it now in the first place? Just to call out some dangerous teenagers?

The last three songs on the album are all slow, moody, sentimental, and fairly hard to bear. The endless quiet guitars, hushed vocals, echoes, elements of folktronica — these guys were really only interesting as long as your brain was telling you that they strive to do something new and unpredictable, but at this point, they are just turning into generic singer-songwriters, eliciting our compassion with well-established production tricks rather than melodic content or unique styli­zations. In other words, I have no interest in seeing their hearts on their sleeves: I already have such a huge collection of those that you might excuse me if I become somewhat insensitive to the gesture. Even the guest appearance by the neo-folk star Marika Hackman on ʽLast Yearʼ does nothing for me — she might have one of those «angelic vocals» that automatically turn folk rock into spiritual experience, and she might even be nice and likable on her own, but in the overall context of this album, her part near the end of it is a kind of a «seal-the-deal» trick, and the whole song becomes a manipulative tear-jerker, you know, that sort of tune you usually hear in a movie about a kid dying from cancer or homeless Vietnam veterans or whatever.

None of it's tragic or criminal on its own, but as the next page in the evolution of a band that started out with such great promise, it is both tragic and criminal, in a way — for one thing, be­cause it undermines and undersells the potential of the little advanced sub-genre (let's call it «paralytic post-rock») that they might have invented. If it is all destined to devolve to this level, we might all just as well throw in the towel right away. I just hope it's only a matter of not eating your vitamins properly. But whatever the case, the verdict here is a strict thumbs down... and please, no more deconstruction of classics without a doctor's prescription.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Charlatans: Wonderland

THE CHARLATANS: WONDERLAND (2001)

1) You're So Pretty — We're So Pretty; 2) Judas; 3) Love Is The Key; 4) A Man Needs To Be Told; 5) I Just Can't Get Over Losing You; 6) The Bell And The Butterfly; 7) And If I Fall; 8) Wake Up; 9) Is It In You?; 10) Ballad Of The Band; 11) Right On; 12) Love To You.

On this album, the spot-that-reference game takes on a spot-that-reference-for-dummies flavor: "Searching for the very souls who already have been sold / Go on your way accordingly my son / I will privately accept you and together we will fly away..." is such an obvious gift for John Wesley Harding fans that I almost feel corny for having been refused the choice to not privately accept it. Nevertheless, at the very same time The Charlatans also take a very sharp turn away from the musical stylistics of the last two albums, and unless you pay really, really serious atten­tion to the band's lyrics, Wonderland cannot be perceived as a part of some trilogy.

The lead-in track, ʽYou're So Pretty — We're So Prettyʼ, lays the bass on so thick, funky layer after funky layer, that it immediately becomes clear — there have to be some changes made, in­cluding a return to dance-oriented stylistics, what with the last two albums inclining so much in a pure-pop direction. The guitar sound turns to nasty and sleazy, the bass groove goes through near-pornographic girations, and even the lead singer develops a mocking nasal tone, one that is, you know, good for making fun of your ego and inflating it at the same time. As usual, the only thing missing is a sort of magic touch that could really make you shiver as the song's nastiness trickles all over you in ripples and streams. But it is a welcome change of pace and style.

As the songs come and go, you slowly realize that The Charlatans have decided to become an R&B band — a modernized R&B band, but with a heavy touch of classic soul all the same. The rhythmic base of the album is neither straightforward pop-rock nor the old Madchester, but rather the electrofunk of Prince-like performers, sometimes rolled back all the way to old Atlantic and Motown records. In addition, Tim Burgess has taken a liking to singing falsetto — more than half of the songs are either delivered completely in his high range or feature significant chunks deli­vered in a Barry Gibb-inspired manner. Like almost everything that Tim Burgess does, this new vocal style is not bad, but neither is it too stunning.

Strangely, Wonderland has a somewhat more accessible feel to it because, for the first time ever, this transition to a different musical genre has resulted in the band's message feeling simple and straightforward — ʽLove Is The Keyʼ is as direct a title as you could ask for, and no matter how many ad hoc lyrical references to Dylan or anybody else there are in the lyrics, Wonderland is just that: a dance-oriented record about loving, living, and getting it on. This also makes a com­prehensive review of the album particularly challenging — on one hand, it is awful long (the complete edition consists of 15 tracks stretched over more than an hour), on the other hand, most of the songs are thematically similar and do not stretch over any vast expanse of emotional range.

As a duty check, I'll just quickly run over a few relative highlights: ʽI Just Can't Get Over Losing Youʼ — a bit of a bleeding heart touch here, as the singer rushes from moments of breakup panic to visions of lovers' bliss, making it the most emotionally complex number on the album (and quite nice to shake your butt to, as well); ʽAnd If I Fallʼ — the flute adds an irresistibly gentle touch to this little prayer to the power of love; and ʽBallad Of The Bandʼ — the darkest and sleaziest number of 'em all, a hellish picture of hi-style social life that culminates in a musical orgy, replete with wild psychedelic guitar solos and orgasmic vocal overdubs.

Overall, it's a fun listen — the style change works well, and the decision to be more emotionally straightforward and invest more effort into the expression of their feelings works even better. It does not solve the issue of mediocre lead vocals or oh-so-slowly working musical hooks, but it makes the band somewhat more empathetic and endearing; in a way, it is not until Wonderland that The Charlatans truly begin to belie their moniker, so cheers to that and a thumbs up.