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Monday, September 25, 2017

The Chantels: There's Our Song Again

THE CHANTELS: THERE'S OUR SONG AGAIN (1961)

1) I Can't Take It; 2) Never Let Go; 3) Believe Me My Angel; 4) C'Est Si Bon; 5) IFIC; 6) My Darling; 7) I'm The Girl; 8) I; 9) My Memories Of You; 10) I'll Walk Alone; 11) I'm Confessin'; 12) Goodbye To Love.

In between The Chantels' first and second album, a lot of things happened to the band: they re­leased a few more, commercially unsuccessful, singles; they lost Arlene Smith, who embarked upon an even more obscure solo career, and carried on as a harmony-singing trio for a short while; and, finally, re-emerged around 1961 with a new lead singer (Annette Smith) and a bit more com­mercial luck, scoring a decent hit with ʽLook In My Eyesʼ. Not all of these changes are reflected on their second LP, which, I assume, they only got awarded from End Records after having al­ready left the label — predictably, it consists of A- and B-sides and leftovers recorded in 1959-1960, both with Arlene still at the top and after she'd already gone, and also including a couple of tracks marking the arrival of Annette in Arlene's place. At least, this is what I can establish from a brief comparison of conflicting sources (I do so believe, for instance, that the current Wikipedia article on The Chantels confuses their second and third LP, and online discographies are an even bigger mess).

Anyway, what cannot be confused is the quality of the material, and if you liked the girls in their solid doo-wop era, you will almost certainly like them in the transitional period as well, since the songs are predictably more diverse. ʽI Can't Take It (There's Our Song Again)ʼ, with a mighty bomb of high-to-low-range desperation from Arlene, starts things off in very traditional doo-wop fashion; but already ʽNever Let Goʼ shows them coming to terms with the twist movement, and that Arlene could easily belt it out at faster tempos without diluting any of the passion. With ʽI'm Confessin'ʼ, on the other hand, they make a retro move, covering an old standard, but upgrading it to modern soul standards; not that it helps a lot or anything.

Group harmony is king on ʽC'Est Si Bonʼ, an almost inescapable (for most pop outfits of the time) attempt to «frenchify» (or, more correctly, gallicize) the sound, because, you know, there's no­thing sexier than hearing a bunch of African-American girls from the Bronx fight their way through a couple of seductively mispronounced French phrases. (Actually, ʽC'Est Ci Bonʼ was even the title of an EP released by End Records in 1958, with the same cover of the girls in Southern Belle outfits that they used for We Are The Chantels — crass!). Much better is ʽIFICʼ, a jolly fast kiddie R&B romp in the style of ʽJim Dandyʼ or, more accurately, Elvis' ʽTeddy Bearʼ (the song title is actually an abbreviation for "terrific", but don't ask me why).

The new singer, Annette Smith, is introduced with the strictly doo-wop single ʽBelieve Me My Angel / Iʼ, both sides written by Barrett and featuring a sharp turn towards smoother-sappier from the original desperate-powerful: however, Annette does have a great voice for smooth-sappy, with a cooing, buttery falsetto that Arlene was incapable of, and she performs some impressive vocal gymnastics on both songs that should have raised some eyebrows back at the time — I have no idea why the single was not a hit. That said, neither the older material nor the new one are strong enough to call this period in the band's life underrated: most of the time, the songwriting is too formulaic and subpar to rank along with the contemporary masterpieces from the forges of Motown or Atlantic Records. Perfectly listenable and interesting in light of the presence of two widely different lead vocal styles, but not much to make it stand out other than just a few more cases of Arlene Smith's mighty voice.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Eric Burdon: Eric Is Here

ERIC BURDON: ERIC IS HERE (1967)

1) In The Night; 2) Mama Told Me Not To Come; 3) I Think It's Gonna Rain Today; 4) On This Side Of Goodbye; 5) That Ain't Where It's At; 6) True Love (Comes Only Once In A Lifetime); 7) Help Me Girl; 8) Wait Till Next Year; 9) Losin' Control; 10) It's Not Easy; 11) The Biggest Bundle Of Them All; 12) It's Been A Long Time Comin'.

This strange and generally forgotten album is not even all that easily allocated within any one particular discography. One one hand, it is credited to «Eric Burdon & The Animals», just like Winds Of Change, Eric's second album from 1967; on the other hand, Winds Of Change, like the three albums that followed it, at least did feature an actual band that Eric decided to call «The Animals» — with Vic Briggs and Danny McCulloch — whereas on Eric Is Here, the only other officially credited «Animal» is drummer Barry Jenkins, retained by Eric from the 1966 lineup. All the other credits go to Benny Golson and Horace Ott — arrangers and conductors, responsible for the orchestral treatments of the songs. (Allegedly, a few other members of the old Animals are said to be featured on some of the tracks, but nobody can properly confirm who or where).

In the end, misleading labels aside, it is perhaps easiest to simply treat this record as the first of Eric Burdon's solo projects — a side mission for the beginning of 1967, something to keep him busy until his next band was properly assembled. In fact, he did begin work on it as a solo album; I think it was largely because of his contractual obligations to MGM Records that he was forced to keep the word «Animals» on the cover somehow, despite the album title very clearly hinting at the solo nature of the project. And a pretty bizarre project at that: Eric would probably be the first to agree that it was the farthest thing from a proper «Animals» record that he could have come up with at the moment.

Although Eric was not a sworn enemy to pop music (wasn't ʽWe Gotta Get Out Of This Placeʼ written by Mann/Weill, after all?), nobody could have guessed that his first move upon getting out of the proper Animals would be to release a pure pop record — an orchestral pop record at that, with nary an electric guitar in sight, although, admittedly, there are rhythm sections, key­boards, and brass-based rather than string-based arrangements as well, so that much of it sounds like Motown rather than Mantovani. Anyway, such a record could be expected of Tom Jones, or Cher, or from Manfred Mann at least, but the sight of wild bluesman Eric Burdon suddenly len­ding his talents to a bunch of would-be show tunes must have been much too much to take for even those music fans who, in early 1967, thought themselves ready for anything.

But leaving preconceptions aside, Eric Is Here is not nearly as bad as it is sometimes depicted; at the very least, it is far more comprehensible and less irritating than Eric's subsequent first attempt at psychoambition with the embarrassingly amateurish Winds Of Change. There are some good songs here, albeit mixed in with bland filler, and Burdon's voice is quite well suited for soul-pop (not that ʽDon't Let Me Be Misunderstoodʼ left much to worry about), especially if the soul-pop in question comes from the hand of Randy Newman, Mann/Weill, or Goffin/King.

The album yielded only one single: ʽHelp Me Girlʼ, written by yet another American songwriting duo, Scott English and Larry Weiss — and it is an attractively depressed anthem, with a creative arrangement of melancholic organs and triumphant brass, never mind the fact that few people could match Eric for the sheer Geordie intensity of his "cause aaaaaaaim going insaaaaaaane!...". It is at least as good as a Kinks love song circa 1965-66, and Eric does it full justice. But he is also good at getting into the spirit of Randy Newman songs, be it the antisocial comedy of ʽMama Told Me Not To Comeʼ or the bitter sarcasm of ʽI Think It's Gonna Rain Todayʼ (whose arran­gement, heavy on brass fanfares typical of optimistic jazz-soul, only further attentuates the irony); aw heck, he is good at getting into everything, provided the material is decent enough.

The material is not always decent enough, though. Some songs are silly optimistic romps (Ritchie Cordell's ʽBiggest Bundle Of Them Allʼ), some are spoiled by unnecessary rosiness (ʽTrue Loveʼ does not require a kid choir chanting the title — what is this, Sesame Street?), and some do not represent the songwriters at their best (Goffin/King's ʽOn This Side Of Goodbyeʼ, first recorded by The Righteous Brothers, sounds like one of Carole's lazier efforts from her usually hook-filled decade). In all honesty, such is probably the fate of every «pure pop» album from those (or any other) times, at least those that paired professional songwriters with professional singers; but given that Burdon was never a professional pop singer, it's very much a matter of roulette about whether he gets it right or not, and he certainly cannot redeem a weak tune just by belting it out as loud as he can. Yet at least he shows signs of good tastes when he gives Randy Newman a clear preference over everybody else (3 out of 12 songs are Randy's) — for the record, I do not know whether Eric Is Here or A Price On His Head, Alan Price's second solo album, came out earlier, but it can hardly be a coincidence that both of the former Animals got so infatuated with Newman at just about the same time.

Still, since we're on it, Price definitely did the pop schtick better than Burdon — after all, he was a keyboard player, well accustomed and attuned to the music hall ideology despite largely having to cover it up in the blues-based Animals; for Eric, this was still a largely alien genre, although you can certainly hear echoes of it all through the «Eric Burdon & The Animals» years and even later. I will not give the record a thumbs up (though I'd be happy to do so for some individual songs, like ʽHelp Me Girlʼ), because it is clearly not a win-win type of experiment; but neither is it a complete failure, and among the long list of bizarre things done by various people in the age of Aquarius, it is worth a listen or two.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Barenaked Ladies: Ladies And Gentlemen

BARENAKED LADIES (AND THE PERSUASIONS): LADIES AND GENTLEMEN (2017)

1) Narrow Streets; 2) Gonna Walk; 3) Don't Shuffle Me Back; 4) The Old Apartment; 5) Keepin' It Real; 6) For You; 7) Some Fantastic; 8) Good Times; 9) Odds Are; 10) Sound Of Your Voice; 11) When I Fall; 12) Maybe Katie; 13) One Week; 14) Four Seconds; 15) I Can Sing.

Yes, well, okay, this is Barenaked Ladies using the pretext of performing with the veteran vocal band The Persuasions to re-record a chunk of their back catalog — or, perhaps, Barenaked Ladies using the pretext of re-recording a chunk of their back catalog to perform with The Persuasions. Hell if I know, hell if anybody knows. Why The Persuasions? Well, apparently a chance meeting with Kevin Hearn led them to appear at a Barenaked Ladies show in 2016, and supposedly there's been chemistry and all that, and now we have a lengthy, triumphant title: Ladies And Gentle­men: Barenaked Ladies And The Persuasions. And we are supposed to give a damn.

To be honest, I never heard The Persuasions before — as a strictly a cappella band, they never had much chart success, despite being put on the map by no less than Frank Zappa himself back in 1968 (come to think of it, maybe that is why they never had much chart success), and, as far as I can tell, their only more or less remembered minor hit was 1972's ʽGood Timesʼ, which happens to be the only Persuasions song covered here, with an entirely new rapped bridge creeping in mid­way through. This is probably not a major omission: the guys predictably generate slick, com­plex, pro­fessional harmonies, devoid of individuality. Why did Hearn and Robertson decide that utilizing these harmonies for Barenaked Ladies songs would make a lot of difference?

Well, it is probably not a matter of whether it is The Persuasions, The Impressions, The Tempta­tions, or The Fornications (spot the odd one out): it is more a matter of the band expressing a de­sire to remake some of its songs in a more consciously retro style. Look at ʽNarrow Streetsʼ, ope­ning the record: on Silverball, it opened in the style of classic New Wave, with a post-punkish guitar riff and a Cars-style organ dominating the sound, whereas here it opens with barbershop quartet vocals, and the entire arrangement consists of minimalistic bass, drums, and piano, with the vocals of the Ladies and the Persuasions bearing the main brunt of the melody, as if this were 1958 all over again or something. This does not mean that the entire album is going to be that way. Later on, we get our acoustic and even our electric guitars, and the style is not retro enough to make them re-write all the melodies in ways that would be appropriate for the Fifties — for instance, the hard-rocking swagger of ʽKeepin' It Realʼ is preserved fair and square — but the general idea is clear: to introduce the old, innocent vibe of the pre-rock era (the «authentic» vibe, that is!) into music that once used to herald the post-rock vibe (not in the Sigur Rós sense of the word «post-rock», but rather in the They Might Be Giants / Ween sense of it, of course).

Does it work? Well, not enough to make me judge that the action was really worth it. For starters, they could have sure picked a better setlist: I appreciate that they did not completely focus on the post-Page era, but on the whole, they picked quite a few boring clunkers — couldn't they have done ʽBrian Wilsonʼ instead of ʽWhen I Fallʼ, for instance? For another thing, too many tracks just do not differ that much from the originals, Persuasions or no Persuasions: much too often, «Ladies and Gentlemen» just sing in unison with each other (ʽOdds Areʼ), rather than thinking of more interesting ways — or even labyrinths — to distribute their collective vocal power. And finally, even when they do get it right (ʽMaybe Katieʼ, etc.), this is not enough to turn the songs into anything radically different. They were light, friendly, romantic, and humorous in the first place; spicing them up with soulful / doo-woppy vocals is, at best, like adding a splash of whipped cream on top of your icecream cone — most of the time you barely notice it is there.

None of this ain't bad, though. Well, a few of the songs are, but, fortunately, they did not take a lot of their dreary adult contemporary ballads (hardly suitable for Persuasions contributions any­way), so the record is largely listenable all the way through. And I guess that these days, Bare­naked Ladies still get more fans than The Persuasions do, so it should be counted as a generous gesture towards a hard-working bunch of vocal veterans who probably deserve better. But clearly this is just a stop-gap release, another harmless, but expendable oddity in the band's catalog that will not be remembered. And I have a deep fear that those few reviews for the album that I have encountered were all positive simply because the critics had already forgotten how those songs sounded or even where they all came from in the first place, and simply had fun listening to them all over again; so here's hoping that Hearn or Robertson do not run into Diana Ross or the re­maining Jack­son brothers any time soon, because there's still plenty of backlog tunes left to re­record for people with long term memory loss.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Hadestown

ANAÏS MITCHELL: HADESTOWN (2010)

1) Wedding Song; 2) Epic (Part 1): 3) Way Down Hadestown; 4) Songbird (intro); 5) Hey, Little Songbird; 6) Gone, I'm Gone; 7) When The Chips Are Down; 8) Wait For Me; 9) Why We Build The Wall; 10) Our Lady Of The Underground; 11) Flowers; 12) Nothing Changes; 13) If It's True; 14) Papers (Hades Finds Out); 15) How Long; 16) Epic (Part 2); 17) Lover's Desire; 18) His Kiss, The Riot; 19) Doubt Comes In; 20) I Raise My Cup To Him.

When the thousands of modern artists are replaced by tens of thousands of the artists of tomorrow, and when cultural memory becomes but a feeble phantom next to digital memory, Hadestown, I hope and believe, will still be the album that Anaïs Mitchell is going to be remembered by. Not because it is necessarily the best thing she did, but simply because this is where she showed the bravery to step out of a certain predictable comfort zone — trying to make an arrogant mark on the world that was all her own.

Hadestown is a «folk opera» that builds upon the premise found in ʽHades & Persephoneʼ, a song from The Brightness where Mitchell came up with an imaginary dialog between the two characters, and sang both of their parts. Apparently, the track was an excerpt from the already existing first draft of the entire cycle, but this now is the final draft, a complete musical version of the Orpheus myth, this time inviting plenty of guest stars to take up all the parts. The musical arrangements would be the most complex in her career so far, yet the music itself would strictly follow «pre-rock» patterns: some folk, some country, some blues, some vaudeville, and almost nothing that could have it labeled as either a «rock opera» or a «musical». I would not dare say that she was the first to come up with such an idea — though nobody else springs to mind at the moment — but what with the chosen theme, and the peculiar guest assembly, and the stylistic diversity, and elements of her own personality, Hadestown is definitely a 2010 record like no other 2010 record, and 2010 has seen plenty of records.

But bad news first: as brilliant as the idea might sound on paper, I would not say that it has been perfectly realized in the studio. The biggest flaw are the guest vocalists, who mostly just suck at their roles. Mitchell herself plays the role of Eurydice, which inevitably means that she does not get to sing a lot (what with being either dead or undead, but wordless most of the time). Else­where, what we get is:

(a) Bon Iver's Justin Vernon as Orpheus — I have no doubt that the guy thought himself capable of getting into such a natural (for him) character, but he has as much personality as a bowl of farina, and if I were Hades and he came knocking at my door, I'd feed him to Cerberus with a relieved sense of 10,000-year satisfaction;

(b) Ani DiFranco as Persephone — look, I respect Ani DiFranco and I understand that, her being the boss of Mitchell's record label and all, Anaïs felt obliged to get her a spot and all, but her raunchy-flapper delivery on ʽOur Lady Of The Undergroundʼ is cringeworthy; and she murders (in the bad sense of the word) the old ʽHades & Persephoneʼ, here retitled ʽHow Longʼ — just put on the original version and compare Mitchell's desperate "how long, how long, how long?" with Ani's muffled and confused verse conclusions. She simply does not fit this concept, period;

(c) Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem as Hermes — his moment of glory is on the opening verse of the rowdy drinking song ʽWay Down Hadestownʼ, but, unfortunately, he only manages to come off as a very second-rate Tom Waits. What, was the budget too low to get the real thing? I'm sure Tom wouldn't particularly object to taking part in this, particularly since this kind of pro­ject is right up Kathleen Brennan's alley;

(d) Greg Brown, an Iowan folkie, as Hades — his croaky bass voice is the only one that I have no problems with, but since the idea here is to complain about all of them, I will play up the racial card and ask the naturally pending question: how come they did not invite some grizzled old black bluesman to sing this part? Okay, so John Lee Hooker was already dead by then, but surely there must have been others available. This part is just screaming from some African-American presence — no offence to Greg, who is actually one of the coolest guys on the invitee list.

All these miscastings are bothersome, yet they do not take away from the sheer delight of the story. Individually, each piece is not exactly a revelation, but as they come together and you begin associating the various musical styles with parts of the Orphean myth, we suddenly have a completely new way of looking at the classical Greek tradition — through the prism of 20th century folk culture (rather than rock culture or avantgarde). Thus, ʽWay Down Hadestownʼ becomes the wobbly path of drunken sailors, with gang choruses, banjos, and accordeons; Hades himself, as pictured in ʽHey, Little Songbirdʼ, is associated with a down-on-his-luck salt-of-the-earth person, stuck in some Louisiana shithole or other; The Fates, played by The Haden Triplets, apparently spin their web from some rundown casino in a shady part of town (ʽWhen The Chips Are Downʼ, spicing things up with its lively Cuban rhythms); ʽWhy We Build The Wallʼ, a song whose relevance has seemingly increased in the Trump era, is a clever attempt at inserting a bit of contemporary political significance — and by now, I suppose, we have all guessed that «Hades­town» and «The Underground» are the United States of America, and Orpheus is a poor Latin immigrant trying to sneak in after his US-born wife... oh, well, that is probably carrying the alle­gory too far. Anyway, the idea of Hades and Cerberus chanting "we build the wall to keep us free" in unison is quite a fresh take on the Greek views on life after death.

The music that accompanies the ideas, as I already said, is not exceptional, but is suitably ambi­tious. Sparse arrangements are rare: more frequently, we have use of strings over acoustic guitars and/or pianos, giving the whole thing a «chamber folk» feel; there are also more experimental bits of music-making, usually in the form of instrumental links (ʽPapersʼ, for instance, is a bass-driven jazzy interlude with dissonant brass and strings and even a brief drum solo; ʽLover's De­sireʼ is one half neo-country and one half French street music), but I suppose that, like most operas, this one, too, is going to be remembered not so much by the stand-alone quality of its instrumental melodies as by how much they reinforce and complete the vocal parts. In this re­spect, the musical score is a total success, and, frankly, none of her previous records suggested that she could pull off something this big.

In all honesty, the work deserves not just a thumbs up, but a far more detailed critical description (which is more than I can say about plenty of other equally pretentious, but not equally self-adequate conceptual pieces); for now, I will simply conclude by saying that, as someone with an old passion for Greek mytho­logy and a big love for creative tinkering with traditional folks of American music, I thoroughly endorse Hadestown — at least as a stimulating symbolist piece, even if nothing here makes me shed bitter tears for the fate of Orpheus. (I mean, getting Justin Vernon, of all people, to make me feel for Orpheus? He's got about as many chances at this as Happy Frog).

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Celtic Frost: Monotheist

CELTIC FROST: MONOTHEIST (2006)

1) Progeny; 2) Ground; 3) A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh; 4) Drown In Ashes; 5) Os Abysmi Vel Daath; 6) Temple Of Depression; 7) Obscured; 8) Domain Of Decay; 9) Ain Alohim; 10) Triptych: Totengott; 11) Triptych: Synagoga Satanae; 12) Triptych: Winter (Requiem, Chapter Three: Finale).

That Celtic Frost, upon dissolving in the early Nineties, would eventually come back again, even if it took them about a decade to do so, is hardly a surprise for the world of well-established musi­cal brands. That their next album would be significantly different from everything they did before was not a surprise, either: self-reinvention was as much a given for Celtic Frost from the start as makeup was for KISS, so it was hardly realistic to expect them to return to the «black thrash» style of Mega Therion or, God have mercy, to the «ugly glam» style of Cold Lake. But it would be disappointing, wouldn't it, for the band to leave us completely without surprises? Celtic Frost live and breathe surprise. And so they went ahead and did it, surprising us by putting out their best album — not as in «best in several years / a decade / since their last good one», but as in «best ever, period». For all the innovation and experimentation they showed in the reputation-establishing Eighties, Monotheist is something completely else.

The reason why I feel this way is simple: to me, Monotheist is the only Celtic Frost album that demands to be taken seriously — on a gut level, that is. All of their previous stuff could be inno­vative, or kick-ass, or fun, or dull, or embarrassing, but (like most of heavy metal, to be sure) it never really went beyond the state of hyperbolized rock theater. This record, though it can also be reasonably characterized as theatrical, is where Tom Warrior seems to have sat down and come up with a plan — this would be music that would genuinely, rather than symbolically, scare the shit out of the listener. No mean feat, considering that genuine fear in rock music is usually sought in regions far subtler than heavy metal (from Pink Floyd to Peter Gabriel), yet abandoning the heavy metal sound is the last thought on Tom's mind here.

The two key components of this «authentically scary» brand of metal that he has decided upon are (a) guitar tone and (b) vocals. Neither of these actually comes out of nowhere: before the Celtic Frost reunion, Tom Warrior spent some time playing and recording with his new band, Apollyon Sun, together with a second guitarist, Erol Uenala, whom he would also recruit into the reunited Celtic Frost; and they played a brutal type of metal that was very heavily influenced by the industrial sound. This is precisely what you get here as well: slow, pounding, monotonous grooves with «industrialized» distortion, arguably the heaviest possible sound of 'em all, and even if it was not invented by Celtic Frost, Tom has figured out how to use it better than most — in the context of simple, repetitive, doom-laden riffs that remind one of the primal purity of Sabbath rather than the confusing complexity of Opeth-like or Tool-like ensembles. It does not take more than the opening twenty seconds of ʽProgenyʼ to understand that there is something going on here that tries to tap inside your darkest fears and complexes.

But maybe even more impressive than the industrialized guitar riffs are the vocals. Although they, too, are sometimes industrialized through production effects that professionally turn human voices into demonic ones (see ʽTotengottʼ, the first part of the ʽTriptychʼ — which is actually delivered by Martin Eric Ain rather than Tom), more often it is simply all about a strategic positioning at the mike, with Tom singing in a gurgly, guttural, but not demo­nically grow­ling voice that, at its roughest and toughest, is honestly more reminiscent of an enraged Adolf Hitler than a cartoonishly constipated Lucifer. This, too, is a direct carryover from the industrial scene (think Ministry at their finest), but it is impressive how he gets these chilling results without having to resort to a lot of post-production sonic makeup — that Tom Warrior can sound brutal and evil when he wants to is no revelation, but that he can do this without sounding like a brutal and evil and thoroughly inebriated stinky hobo certainly is. Even when this style is seemingly wasted on such trite refrains as "oh God, why have you forsaken me?", the wall-rattling power is so strong that he still manages to imbue some new life (or, perhaps, un-life) into these age-old questions. (Let us just hope the Catholic church never turns its vigilant eye in the direction of ʽGroundʼ, because Jesus Christ Superstar this sure ain't: the same guy who addresses this ques­tion to God begins with such cheerful statements as "I am hatred, seeping blood... I am rage becoming flesh...").

As deliciously and creepily brutal as the first few tracks are, enduring a 70-minute long album that consists of nothing but the likes of ʽProgenyʼ and ʽGroundʼ would be a tough affair; so, pretty soon some atmospheric elements begin to creep in — ʽA Dying God...ʼ begins with a quiet Gothic intro, a two-minute cemetery-bound dirge with an ominous soft bass punch to warn you that sooner or later, the ground will open and festering zombies will begin to crawl out (which they do exactly as the song hits the two-minute mark). Then the Gothic atmosphere is spread all over ʽDrown In Ashesʼ, with haunting female backup vocals and psychedelic guitar overdubs in the background — ultimately, this is more Bauhaus than anything heavy metal-related. From then on, depressing romantic atmosphere and crushing industrial metal riffs largely go hand in hand, with only a few songs (ʽDomain Of Decayʼ, ʽAin Alohimʼ) offering no salvation from the demon Panzer onslaught.

The most ambitious affair is saved for last: ʽTriptychʼ is a 23-minute long suite that pulls all the stops — the first part is an ambient-industrial monster in the old spirit of Coil and Current '93, with perhaps not the most original, nut one of the most blood-curdling vocal performances  you are liable to hear from the metal community; the second part is what you get when the slowness and fatality of doom metal are crossed with the evil cackle and hateful aggression of black metal; and once the damage is done, nothing is left but to sadly survey the carnage with the ʽRequiemʼ part, which is not a great neo-classical composition by any means, but does a good job of calming down your nerves after all the earthquakes and artillery barrages. It may be wise, though, to listen to the whole thing on its own, separately from the rest of the album, because after the first 45 minutes of brutality, its impact may be numbed; on its own, it is a perfect synthesis of industrial nightmare, metal warfare, and ambient nerve-care.

With a record like this, it is almost impossible to tell what exactly constitutes high class and what is filler, even if you do feel that 70+ minutes is a bit harsh for the system. But, of course, Mono­theist has to be taken as a single, multi-movement opus, most of which consists of bodies ripped to pieces by heavy metal bombshells and pecked by vultures in the short interims — and such things might take a long time, before the attacking side runs out of ammo. Most importantly, it is vividly efficient in its imagery, and that is all it takes to get a thumbs up; but boy, am I glad they decided not to follow it up with anything else — because (a) it would have been twice as exhaus­ting and (b) they wouldn't be able to top it anyway. The difference between Morbid Tales and Monotheist is that the former mischievous imps have matured into demons of death and destruc­tion, and the most frightening part of death and destruction is when you do not repeat it on an everyday basis, but simply leave the ruins behind as a reminder of what might yet happen again. (For that matter, Tom Warrior's latest extreme metal band, Triptykon, makes music that is some­what similar to Monotheist but sounds far more conventional).

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Carpenters: Made In America

CARPENTERS: MADE IN AMERICA (1981)

1) Those Good Old Dreams; 2) Strength Of A Woman; 3) (Want You) Back In My Life Again; 4) When You've Got What It Takes; 5) Somebody's Been Lyin'; 6) I Believe You; 7) Touch Me When We're Dancing; 8) When It's Gone (It's Just Gone); 9) Beechwood 4-5789; 10) Because We Are In Love.

There is not much that can be said, at least meaningfully, about the last Carpenters album re­leased in Karen's lifetime. Apparently, already after her death Richard went on the Larry King show and declared that this was both his and her favorite record of everything they'd done — a statement that I can only ascribe to a particular sentimental value that he'd placed on it, as well as the recording sessions still being fresh in his memory. Because even if Christmas Portrait could be written off as a one-time special project, Made In America clearly showed that the slightly experimental and unpredictable direction they took on Passage had been abandoned for good, and now, at the start of a new musical decade which they were not to survive, they'd slipped back to the level of Horizon and A Kind Of Hush — something that was even less forgivable for the early Eighties than it was for the mid-Seventies.

All the hallmarks are right here. There is very little original songwriting (only the opening and the closing songs are credited to Richard and Bettis). There's one Roger Nichols cover and one Burt Bacharach cover, and they are both boring. There is one obligatory lively cover of a Motown oldie — this time it is ʽBeachwood 4-5789ʼ from The Marvelettes backlog — and it is as fun and as forgettable as ever. And then there's a lot of help from outside professional songwriters and some covers of recent hits, mainly from the easy listening circuit, with nothing even remotely approaching the «edge» of ʽB'wana She No Homeʼ or ʽCalling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craftʼ. Made in America, for sure, but not necessarily something of which the American nation should be particularly proud.

Surprisingly, I have several times encountered the word «comeback» in conjunction with this re­cord — which, honestly, I can only understand in the most straightforward sense, namely, that this was the first album of «original» material they managed to get out in four years. But as in «artistic comeback»? Hardly. Yes, they managed to score one significant hit with ʽTouch Me When We're Dancingʼ, a cover of an earlier (and lesser) 1979 hit by the short-lived Muscle Shoals session band Bama, but it is just a sappy para-disco ballad, rendered in a style that was never well associable with Karen Carpenter and, for that matter, not improving one bit on the original. And yes, the opening lyrical country-pop flow of ʽThose Good Old Dreamsʼ is seductive enough, but I could not say the same for the closing ʽBecause We Are In Loveʼ, a corny wedding song consisting of nothing but well-harmonized rose petals. Nor, in fact, could I say it about any other song on this album.

Putting it in context — the fairly wretched life of Richard, suffering from his addictions, and Karen, suffering from her anorexia — only makes things worse, because it seems as if they spe­cially designed Made In America so that it could take them as far away from their problems as possible. Basically, this is the happiest-sounding Carpenters album ever (the single exception being Randy Handley's slightly deeper, but not very memorable ballad ʽWhen It's Goneʼ), full of shallow statements of romance and devotion, nothing even remotely reminding you of the psycho­logical depths these guys were once capable of reaching with songs like ʽSuperstarʼ or, heck, even ʽRainy Days And Mondaysʼ. And perhaps it is an understandable gesture, to create a joyful panorama of musical optimism in order to conceal all the pain, but the fact of the matter is, the Carpenters were always better at sadness than they were at happiness; and I would take their grimly stoned facial expressions on Horizon any day over the plastic smiles and happily patriotic expressions of the Made In America painting.

In the end, this is not the kind of thumbs down that could somehow be retracted because the singer died an awful death two years later — the album does everything in its power to assure us that "we've only just begun" once again (ʽBecause We Are In Loveʼ was played at Karen's wed­ding, one that ended in embarrassment and disaster one year later), but does it far less efficiently and believably than, say, John Lennon's Double Fantasy. In mild defense, neither Karen's voice nor Richard's arranging skills have deteriorated one bit, so the record is still recommendable to all those who are always ready to take the duo at face value.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Cat Stevens: Roadsinger

CAT STEVENS (YUSUF ISLAM): ROADSINGER (2009)

1) Welcome Home; 2) Thinking 'Bout You; 3) Everytime I Dream; 4) The Rain; 5) World O' Darkness; 6) Be What You Must; 7) This Glass World; 8) Roadsinger; 9) All Kinds Of Roses; 10) Dream On (Until...); 11) Shamsia.

Perhaps Yusuf thought he'd gone too far in the «flashy» direction with his return to the world of big neon lights; in any case, the follow-up to his comeback is significantly more low-key, retur­ning us to stripped-down times when it used to be just Cat and his acoustic guitar, and everything else was strictly secondary. We still have strings, and rhythm sections, and backing vocals, and even horns on occasion, but they never drown out the basics — and he further accentuates this with the album title and cover, implying that, when all is said and done, Cat-Yusuf is essentially a wise old street busker, and only those few intelligent souls whose instincts are attuned to the words of the wise will bother to stop and listen for a few minutes — for the rest, these sounds will simply blend in with the background noise.

I regret to say that on this occasion, I have not properly managed to ascend to the status of the chosen few. While the material here is definitely comparable with the «average» Cat Stevens balladry of the classic years, nothing has either the immediately captivating nature of ʽMiddayʼ or the curiously experimental nature of ʽThe Belovedʼ or the «odd factor» of ʽDon't Let Me Be Misunderstoodʼ. The nature of most of the songs is still calm and pensive rather than turbulent, which is good, because this serenity and peacefulness seems to come very naturally to the aging Cat-Yusuf these days; but unless you are able to slip into the state of a little kid cuddling up on his grandfather's knee and taking in the words of wisdom, or, perhaps, unless you are a grand­father yourself, it will not be easy to assign the record to any specially marked shelf in your memory closet.

The record is very clearly structured around the lyrics this time — little parables or allegories, occasionally confessions, heavily influenced by Arabic and Persian religious and literary tradi­tions, but, ultimately, with relatively simple morals: the central point of the opening number, ʽWelcome Homeʼ, is that "time rolls on, ain't no good to sit and moan", but musically, well, the song could have been written by anybody — probably was, a couple dozen times already — and so, unless you find consolation in the subtle and exclusive magic of the minimalistic slide guitar overdubs, there is nothing but Cat-Yusuf's intangible charisma to feed your pleasure centers. And it's not as if he's lost any of it (inshaʼallah, his voice is pretty much immune to the ravages of time), but it's not as if all those years of religious devotion made it all that more mesmerizing, either. More calm and peaceful he may be, aye, but the «Majikat» stays the same.

Actually, as fun as it is to drop an occasional chuckle about Yusuf's Islam, the idea of putting together the basics of British medieval folk / piano pop and African-American acoustic blues, then cross them with elements of Arabic music and insert some second-hand Sufi wisdom sounds pretty cool; what surprises me is that Roadsinger has way too much Cat Stevens and way too little Yusuf Islam to make a difference — and what surprises me even more is feeling that this is a flaw of Roadsinger, not a virtue. For instance, ʽWorld O' Darknessʼ, dedicated to the fate of Shamsia Husseini, a girl nearly blinded by Taliban goons for attending school in Kandahar, is technically a dark medieval-stylized ballad (with a fairly bad, Eighties-adult-contemporary key­board solo at the end) — with no Eastern musical elements in sight, sympathetic in tone but simply not too interesting in composition or execution. (For that matter, a return to the same theme in the guise of ʽShamsiaʼ, a brief instrumental to close the album, is more curious — a tiny chamber piece with romantic strings adorning Cat's piano — but also totally a Western thing).

Then again, it's okay. After all these years, we see that Cat Stevens is really the same ʽRoadsin­gerʼ that he used to be — aw hell, maybe his embracing of the Qur'anic way of life was just an excuse to skip the Eighties (I, for one, am very much glad that we never got to have a 1986 Cat Stevens album), and then only those 60s/70s stars who did make their 80s albums had to atone for this by making something better in the 90s. And here we have him now, just making more of those acoustic ditties about being completely lonely (title track), always misunderstood (ʽEverytime I Dreamʼ), and still hopelessly romantic at heart (ʽThinking 'Bout Youʼ). He just seems to accept this peacefully now, rather than complaining about it, implying that religion and old age do not make your problems away — you just learn to live with them. Not an amazingly mind-blowing lesson, but at least it is delivered in a non-obnoxious way.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Chantays: Waiting For The Tide

THE CHANTAYS: WAITING FOR THE TIDE (1997)

1) Killer Dana; 2) Green Room; 3) Smokin' Da Pipe; 4) Bailout At Frog Rock; 5) Dances With Waves; 6) So. Cal. Jungle; 7) House Rock Rapid; 8) Nightstand; 9) Clear The Room; 10) Descanso Daze; 11) Crystal-T; 12) Pipeline (unplugged).

Perhaps somewhat dissatisfied with the quickie-style recording of Next Set, the three remaining Chantays put their shit together one more time and, three years later, came out with another effort: longer, more ambitious, containing more original material and, probably, their last, since nothing else has been seen from them over the next twenty years, and with Brian Carman's passing in 2015, the story of The Chantays is probably over for good now. As it is, Waiting For The Tide — still waiting after all those years, that is! — is a fairly compelling swan song for them.

Recorded in a proper studio over a certain period of time (rather than just «live») and released on the independent Rocktopia label, this album, if anything, shows that The Chantays were at last beginning to slowly catch up with the times. If Next Set still had them firmly grounded in the early Sixties, with only the added benefit of better production, then Waiting For The Tide has them aiming for... the Seventies, I guess, with a muscular update of the surf-rock sound that takes advantage of all sort of cool innovations in tone, volume, and effects that made up the Seventies' glam-rock and hard rock scene. As in, ʽKiller Danaʼ now sounds like a frickin' Wings cover of a Chantays song — which is quite amusing, by the way.

ʽKiller Danaʼ and ʽBailout At Frog Rockʼ are recycled from Next Set, but largely just because they were new compositions that the band wanted to re-record with even better production and a bit more muscle. Everything else seems to be brand new, the only complete throwback to the past being yet another version of ʽPipelineʼ that closes the album — this time, in full-out acoustic mode, a very pretty arrangement that completely preserves the melody and energy of the original and, perhaps, even adds a pinch of soft lyricism (as well as making the Mexican roots of the song far more obvious than they used to be). And, in solid Chantays tradition, most of the album rocks: only ʽNightstandʼ, a slow ballad unnecessarily spoiled by cheesy adult-contemporary synthesizers in the background (a short trip back into the future of the Eighties?), acts as a breather, though, frankly, The Chantays are not that beastly when they speed up to truly require a breather, and their sentimental compositions were never as fun as their surfing anthems.

And these new anthems are fun! Even more heavily influenced by Mexican music than before, but poppy as hell (ʽGreen Roomʼ would be easily embraced by indie-pop acts all over the world, what with its chugging rhythm caught somewhere in between The Jam and Lindsey Buckingham), true to their titles (ʽDances With Wavesʼ, probably a pun on Kevin Costner, has a tricky rhythm that really does feel like a dance with waves), and offering intelligent variations on familiar themes (I think they took the first chords of ʽSo. Cal. Jungleʼ from Fogerty's ʽOld Man Down The Roadʼ, then turned it into something completely different).

The added length (most of the tunes now run over three minutes, and some get close to the 4-minute mark, which, for The Chantays, has the scope of a frickin' prog-rock epic) may be a little treasonous in relation to classic surf ideology, but is usually justified, i.e. this is not just a matter of useless repeats: ʽCrystal-Tʼ, for instance, is four minutes long because they felt it necessary to accommodate two «modernistic» guitar solos (probably by new band member Ricky Lewis?), one in pompous blues-rock mode and another one incorporating a bit of arpeggiated shredding, some­where in between Mark Knopfler and Eddie Van Halen, though, of course, more timid than either. Surprisingly, these passages feel perfectly at home with the main surf riff — either the guy gets his tone just right, or the mix hushes him down to just the right degree.

I believe that I will go all the way with a thumbs up here: clearly, this is not a record that I will ever put on again of my own free will (we all have much better things to do than revisit comeback albums by one-hit surf-rock wonders, right?), but the creativity and energy of these old guys as they continue to spice up their classic formula deserves respect — and the album is totally fun while it's on. It is probably a good idea that, satisfied with their result, they did not embark on any further adventures (like continuing to catch up with trends and introducing elements of synth-pop, grunge, IDM, and hip-hop, tempting fate all the way up to their own Stalingrad); as it is, The Chantays will just live on in our memories, still waiting, waiting, waiting for that tide.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Gene Clark: Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers

GENE CLARK: GENE CLARK WITH THE GOSDIN BROTHERS (1967)

1) Echoes; 2) Think I'm Gonna Feel Better; 3) Tried So Hard; 4) Is Yours Is Mine; 5) Keep On Pushin'; 6) I Found You; 7) So You Say You Lost Your Baby; 8) Elevator Operator; 9) The Same One; 10) Couldn't Believe Her; 11) Needing Someone; 12*) Tried So Hard (alternate version); 13*) Elevator Operator (alternate version); 14*) Only Columbe; 15*) The French Girl; 16*) So You Say You Lost Your Baby (acoustic demo); 17*) Is Yours Is Mine (acoustic demo).

Gene Clark did not really have enough time with The Byrds to establish himself as a significant frontman in the people's eye — too much of it was simply spent standing out there, shaking an unimpressive tambourine and contributing one of several group harmonies; and out of the band's early A-sides, the only Clark-penned song, ʽSet You Free This Timeʼ, scored the lowest on the charts, so, ultimately, only the most astute of the band's fans could have correctly sensed his crucial importance to the band's early period. But he was indeed the first Byrd to be marked with a strong sense of songwriting individuality — preceding David Crosby by at least a couple of years, not to mention a couple extra pounds of intelligence (sorry, Dave!) — and so it was pro­bably inevitable that he would also be the first Byrd to leave the band and start a solo career. (Stage fright and fear of flying are also given as reasons for his quitting, but I guess all of this is really related in the end).

Clark's solo career has always been a hipster's delight: here is a guy who possessed all the know-hows of his original band, yet never achieved (or even strived for) serious commercial success, and cultivated a far more reclusive, solitary image than his bandmates. He did, in fact, spend a large part of 1966 in seclusion, before eventually realising that he had no choice other than to get back into the musical business, and signing up with Columbia for a solo deal — thus becoming one of the first former members of a major rock band to start his own solo career (I think that, technically, only Alan Price of The Animals precedes him in this), and unquestionably the first former member of a major rock band to proudly release his solo debut at the same time (February '67, in this case) as his former band. (A typical opinion is that sales of the record suffered precise­ly because of its simultaneous release with Younger Than Yesterday, but I do not think it could make that much of a difference — after all, if you enter a music store and have to choose between Gene Clark and The Byrds, how is this different from entering the same store on a different day and having to choose between Gene Clark and, say, Jimi Hendrix, or The Beatles?).

Anyway, truth of the matter is that Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers is a very lovely (and tiny — less than half an hour long!) record, but it does not exactly show you a Gene Clark that would be significantly improved over, or even just different from, the Gene Clark of ʽI'll Feel A Whole Lot Betterʼ or of ʽSet You Free This Timeʼ. Aided here by some of his Byrds pals (Chirs Hillman plays bass, and Michael Clarke shares drum duties with session players such as Jim Gordon), a big chunk of the Wrecking Crew, and those Gosdin brothers (a country and gospel singing duo with whom the Byrds had already been friends since the early Sixties), Gene delivers a set of folk-pop and country-pop numbers that, some say, pioneer the country-rock twist of the late Sixties, but, as far as I'm concerned, are really a logical and organic continuation of the schtick that Gene had been doing with the Byrds from the very inception. After all, these diffe­rences are subtle — we all know, for instance, that Sweetheart Of The Rodeo is considered to be almost a «revolutionary» album in the genre, but play it back to back with Mr. Tambourine Man to somebody not well-versed in the differences between country-western and, say, Appala­chian folk, and he will never sense much of a gap here.

The charm of the album, however, lies not in its being revolutionary, and not even in its song­writing: from a melodic standpoint, Gene Clark is not much of a genius, and a lot of these tunes rely on stock phrasing from folk, country, and blues-rock — to the extent that two of the songs (ʽIs Yours Is Mineʼ and ʽElevator Operatorʼ) have the exact same introductions, albeit played in a folksy, jangly manner on the former and in a rock-out manner on the latter. The charm lies in Gene Clark's personal charisma, and his ability to perfectly integrate his handsome and intelligent vocals into equally handsome and intelligent musical arrangements.

Thus, the opening number, ʽEchoesʼ, is not so much of a song as it is a long poem, somewhere midway between Dylan and Van Morrison, set to a baroque-influenced arrangement of wood­winds and strings floating above its folk-rock underbelly. Put out by Columbia as a single, it probably had no hopes due to a concise lack of anything resembling a hook — perhaps they thought the flutes and strings would give it a ʽWalk Away Renéeʼ look, forgetting that the Left Banke actually had a singalong chorus as well — but it did well enough in confirming Gene's reputation as a visionary musical poet, revealing a stream-of-consciousness approach that would have probably been judged as way too extreme for the Byrds (although Crosby was already beginning to follow the same path at the time). For the record, Leon Russell himself is respon­sible for the string arrangements here, and he did a great job ensuring that they sound lush and expansive without being too sappy or corny.

Later on, verses and choruses begin to appear, but compared to Gene's Byrds material, they all seem low-key and suffering from a lack of dynamics — nothing like, for instance, the group harmony punch that cuts across the verse of ʽI'll Feel A Whole Lot Betterʼ and provides a hefty conclusion to the soft sarcasm of the first three lines. Compare this album's ʽThink I'm Gonna Feel Betterʼ, dealing with pretty much the same feeling but having nothing like that punch (it does have a key change from verse to bridge, but it doesn't do the song much good) — a far inferior folk-pop ditty here, though the vocal sentiment is still adorable.

Repeated listens bring out patches of cool musical ideas here and there; for instance, the «wag­ging», spiralling lead guitar lines on ʽIs Yours Is Mineʼ, rolling across the sharp main bluesy riff, surprisingly predict the guitar gymnastics of Television on ʽMarquee Moonʼ (and whoever said Television weren't influenced by classic country-rock?), and the dirge-like procession of ʽThe Same Oneʼ, lulling you with its monotonous jangle, is interrupted now and then by an almost dangerous-sounding downward bass/guitar drift — a bit of proto-Sabbath doom atmosphere making a surprising guest appearance on what began as a meditative mournful performance. But you do have to hunt for them, and unless you are already sold on Gene's voice and style, you will probably not be inclined to delve into such intricacies — especially since for every one non-stan­dard musical move, you will have two or three generic country or blues-rock riffs.

The hardest rocking number is ʽElevator Operatorʼ, whose title currently has the disadvantage of sounding similar to Aerosmith's ʽLove In An Elevatorʼ — but Gene uses his elevator for meta­phors of turbulent relationships rather than sexual fantasies, and lands a tune that is also, elevator-style, caught somewhere between the Beatles' and the Stones' respective floors (the basic melody is close to ʽTaxmanʼ, the harmonies show traces of Beatlesque '65-'66 psychedelia, but the guitar tones and solos are far closer to the Richard/Jones line of work). It is decent enough, but feels a bit lonesome surrounded by all these baroque ballads and fast country-poppers. The theme is pretty much the same, though: stay away from mean bitches. And by «mean bitches», I assume he is really referring — meta-metaphorically — to some of his former bandmates rather than his former (or current) love interests. I mean, "s/he was an elevator operator, s/he had her ups and downs" could just as well refer to Roger McGuinn, no?

In the end, the record is certainly a must for all Byrds / classic country-rock-with-a-slightly-baroque-and/or-psychedelic-twist fans, but I could not define it as some sort of «lost classic»: to do so requires falling in love with Gene Clark, the loner, the visionary, the poet, the troubadour, on the same level that people fall in love with their Nick Drakes or their Syd Barretts, and the man is just a tad too smooth for that. Which certainly does not prevent the album from getting its thumbs up, because how could a young, romantic, solo-going Gene Clark not be altogether love­ly all the way back in 1967? Even if that special something that he took away with him from The Byrds needed The Byrds — and certainly not The Gosdin Brothers, whose contributions to this album, in my opinion, certainly do not deserve any special mention and only reflect a degree of friendliness on Gene's part — to set it truly aflame, it is very comforting to see it still giving off some treasurable warmth for some time afterwards.

On a technical note, the expanded CD reissue of the album, despite bringing its running time up to a respectable 42 minutes, is hardly essential — with a few alternate takes, acoustic demos, and only two really new extra songs (one of them a pretty, piano-based rearrangement of Ian & Syl­via's ʽThe French Girlʼ) that do not provide any special insights. For big fans, however, this will be an extra 15 minutes of pleasant prettiness — and on the acoustic demos, you get to really feel how Clark's vocals merge with the Gosdin Brothers into one (although why should they?).

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Bent Knee: Bent Knee

BENT KNEE: BENT KNEE (2011)

1) Urban Circus; 2) I Don't Love You Anymore; 3) Funeral; 4) I've Been This Way Before; 5) After Years Of Love; 6) Little Specks Of Calcium; 7) Styrofoam Heart; 8) Nave.

So, what sort of music should one expect from a group named «Bent Knee»? My first answer would probably be «jazz fusion», because this is the kind of thoroughly meaningless title that we typically encounter on all-instrumental records by them jazz wankers. However, once you learn that the name is actually an amalgamation of the names of the group's leaders — guitarist Ben Levin and keyboardist/singer Courtney Swain — the answer is probably going to shift to «indie pop», because only (or at least, mostly) indie pop artists engage in that kind of silliness mixed with gratuitous egotism.

Odd enough, while Bent Knee are certainly much closer to indie pop than to jazz fusion, their project is far more ambitious than simply making music according to one or two set formulas. After all, they came together in the Berklee College of Music, which, according to the Wikipedia description, "offers college-level courses in a wide range of contemporary and historic styles, including rock, flamenco, hip hop, reggae, salsa, and bluegrass", and one would be sorely disap­pointed if the alumni of such a wonderful place would waste their tuition fees on anything less than Comprehensive and Total Eclecticism. In other words, Bent Knee make music that is all over the place — so all over the place, in fact, that they will always have a hard time trying to make us understand what exactly is it all about.

In simple terms and in the first place, it is probably all about the vocals of Courtney Swain, which happen to be the first attention-grabbing component of the record. Timbre-wise, she reminds me most of Beth Gibbons, with whom she shares similar levels of intensity and knife-sharpness; on the other hand, she is much more of a «rock» singer than Beth, and often shows a pissed-off, hysterical side that is more reminiscent of that other Courtney... (I do so hope that hard drugs are a no-no at the Berklee College, but Swain looks perfectly healthy to me). It is on the more quiet numbers, such as ʽFuneralʼ, where she tends to fade into the background: her lyrical side is com­petent, but unexceptional, and she is truly at her best when her bandmates start lighting up the little pieces of paper between her toes. They also like to put subtle, Björkish electronic effects on her vocals sometimes, or run them through an echo chamber for an even more epic reaction, which is fine enough if the source vocal is already powerful on its own.

As for the music, Bent Knee is hard to categorize in any other terms than the general designation of «indie rock», whatever that term is supposed to mean in the 2010s. Thus, ʽUrban Circusʼ opens proceedings in near-classic «industrial» mode, with distorted factory-level power blasts against which Swain's desperate voice is battling as against prison bars. It's like the gloom of classic Portishead, enhanced by the cling-clang of classic Nine Inch Nails, though not as deep penetra­ting as either: Bent Knee have the typical «college kid» problem in that, as artists, it is hard for them to go all the way — they are, apparently, a bunch of deeply normal and well-meaning young people, greatly moved and influenced by their moves and influences, but not as deeply disturbed and wasted as any of those influences. Still, the very first track shows that they know how to create a good old ruckus, and how to make the listener pay attention by cleverly using the loud-quiet dynamics, integrating acoustic and electronic elements, and merging together elements of ye olde blues-rock, noise, and avantgarde jazz.

Perhaps their biggest mistake is in trying to make themselves look «darker» than they actually are. Most of the songs have a sweeping tragic feel; most of the lyrics are about relationships gone wrong and the cosmic consequences of that; most of the time Courtney Swain sounds either angry at her man, sad about her man, or crazy because her man drove her to it. It rarely seems sincere, and the overall feel is more theatrical, reaching vaudevillian peaks when they actually go for straightahead vaudeville — once, on the crazy polka number ʽI've Been This Way Beforeʼ — but always feeling like they are just putting on a show for us even on the most «intimate» numbers (the acoustic ballad ʽAfter Years Of Loveʼ, which eventually grows into a lushly psychedelic Floydian meadow of chiming pianos, slide guitars, and distant vocal harmonies). Nevertheless, almost everything they do is interesting at least in some respect: every track shows either musical or, yep, theatrical creativity.

Thus, ʽI Don't Love You Anymoreʼ in its first fifteen seconds combines impressionist piano playing, synth-pop, and «heavy industrial blues-rock» — with the guitarist throwing in a flashy Van Halen-esque guitar solo, and Swain's multi-tracked vocals raising fifty times more hell around her imaginary lover than, say, a Taylor Swift could do with an army of producers behind her back. On ʽLittle Specks Of Calciumʼ, they invent a cozy little twee-pop melody only to de­construct it to total minimalism, and then follow it up with a moody dialog between incompatible lovers ("but you are frozen... cold... frozen... cold..." — "and you are burning me alive! you are burning me alive!") that is a great find by itself (I only wish they could have found a better musi­cal realisation for it, with two counter-motifs, perhaps, rather than this monotonous industrial pump). And on the album's longest track, ʽStyrofoam Heartʼ, they combine everything they got (gorgeous singing, hysterical singing, beautiful harmonies, ominous harmonies, romantic piano rolls, heavy metal, and mourning woo-woo-woos that seem incidentally ripped off from Radio­head's ʽStreet Spiritʼ — which reminds me that I probably did not yet mention Radiohead as a serious influence on these guys, but then, should I really have?..).

The good news, then, is that Bent Knee created their own sound; the bad news is that they have not been able to solve the nagging problem — this sound is all too easily decomposed into con­stituents, each of which on its own is ultimately preferable to the synthesis. Yet even so, the band manages to stand out against its peers by taking things to an overall higher level of intensity than most do. And the fact that they have set themselves such a wide territory to cover with their for­mula also made it worth the while to hold your breath and wait for whatever else they might have in store for us. In the meantime, this self-titled debut certainly deserves its thumbs up.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: The Brightness

ANAÏS MITCHELL: THE BRIGHTNESS (2007)

1) Your Fonder Heart; 2) Of A Friday Night; 3) Namesake; 4) Shenandoah; 5) Changer; 6) Song Of The Magi; 7) Santa Fe Dream; 8) Hobo's Lullaby; 9) Old Fashioned Hat; 10) Hades & Persephone; 11) Out Of Pawn.

Perhaps Hymns For The Exiled did not qualify as a neo-folk masterpiece, but its open outrage at the contemporary state of affairs in the artist's home country did attract the attention of Ani Di­Franco, one of the toughest human right warriors alive in the female domain, and this not only got Mitchell on Ani's Righteous Babe Records, but also helped her get some much-needed promotion: from this point on, critical reviews of her albums gradually become more numerous, and since her kind of art is particularly attractive to critics (unusual voice + intelligent lyrics + acoustic guitars = near-instant win), this means that somewhere in between 2004 and 2007, and particularly with the release of her first album on RBR, Anaïs Mitchell became a local celebrity.

Nevertheless, The Brightness is still a very low-key affair. Acoustic guitar, piano, and some violas and cellos from time to time is all you hear; and furthermore, ironically, The Brightness is much, much less politically charged than its predecessor. Much of it is about Mitchell herself, and some of it is just a series of musical-lyrical vignettes that may be interpreted any way you like. If we are to describe her current sound in «synthetic» terms, it would probably be a combination of Woody Guthrie / early Dylan (in terms of her melodic content; see especially ʽHobo's Lullabyʼ, or that last song which begins with a direct quotation from Bob's ʽSong To Woodyʼ), Leonard Cohen (in terms of her attempting to convey some moral or some mystery by means of some unexpected lyrical parable), and, well, the usual Bush/Amos/Newsom conglomerate — in terms of her being a woman who sings in a strange voice, the «innocent girl soul stuck in an experi­enced woman body».

Not that it hadn't been that way before, but it seems as if The Brightness is her first album on which the style has matured, consolidated, and even fossilized. She is not straining too hard to make a social statement, but neither does she look like a person desperately searching for some­thing. Most of the songs either give advice ("come out, come on, come outside" — the first line of the opening song) or make observations, and a few songs lightly wax nostalgic over the good old days (ʽOf A Friday Nightʼ). There is very little to get irritated about, and even less to get ex­cited about; the question is one of possibly acknowledging and enjoying the record's small and subtle charms, or ignoring and rejecting them altogether.

I will mention a few examples whose subtlety I personally found quite pleasant. ʽOf A Friday Nightʼ (I can very easily picture this one as sung by Joni Mitchell and placed somewhere at the beginning of Blue or her other pre-jazz period records) harbors a cool poetic idea and expresses it with gusto — the climactic end of the song is basically a hopeless plea for the nameless "old poet" to come back so that the protagonist could take on the shapes of all his former objects of description and inspiration ("I'll be a good time gambler, I'll be a restless wife..."); if we take this analysis very very far, we might end up stating that ʽOf A Friday Nightʼ is nothing less than a curtain call on Old World Artistry (but we will not take it that far).

Another definite highlight is ʽHades & Persephoneʼ (apparently, Mitchell thought so herself, or else she wouldn't base her entire next record around it): she uses the Orpheus myth here as a pre­text for having the two protagonists of the song discuss the meaning of life (one of the conclu­sions they reach is that "the earth is a bird on a spit in the sky"; be warned that this is about as deep as Mitchell's philosophy goes, but then, she is really an artist, not a philosopher, so perhaps it'll do), and there is something nasty, urgent, and disturbing in each of her "how long, how long, how long?"'s that Hades and Persephone trade between each other.

Human right activists will gladly welcome ʽSong Of The Magiʼ, which begins innocently enough as a sad folk retelling of the Bethlehem story, but then, as a morose cello joins the acoustic guitar, suddenly makes a transition to the current state of Israel ("a child is born in Bethlehem... born in a cattle pen... born on the killing floor... waiting for the war... your home is a checkpoint now", etc. etc.). The smooth linkage of Christmas joys with Near Eastern agony is an idea that might work well on paper; unfortunately, sound-wise the song is way too toothless to make much of an im­pression, and I wouldn't probably even have mentioned it if I did not look closely at the printed lyrics at one point.

And that is the continuing trouble: most of these songs are still more interesting for their words than for their melodies. From that point of view, the smooth alliance between Mitchell and Ani DiFranco, one of the world's most ardent warriors but also most mediocre songwriters, is troub­ling: something like ʽNamesakeʼ, with its addition of lite jazz brass, sounds almost exactly like Ani's band at one of their less inspired sessions (and most of her band's sessions sound pretty uninspired to me). Also troubling are such discoveries as the main acoustic melody of ʽSanta Fe Dreamʼ, doubled by the vocals, essentially being a slight variation on Pink Floyd's ʽWish You Were Hereʼ — which is probably why the song made me pay attention, yet never really lived up to that opening flourish of "if it should happen...".

I guess, in the end, the main shortcoming of The Brightness, which it admittedly shares with hundreds of other decent-but-mediocre albums, is that it sounds too intellectualized to elicit some sharp emotional response, but not enough intellectualized to reveal any startling surprises or make you reconsider some of life's truths and lies. But if you set your expectations to nil, then The Brightness will just be a cool old statement of happiness and sorrow from the bright young girl next door. Like, at the end she will give her humble regards to post-Katrina New Orleans, which is just... nice. Even if she has to borrow a bit from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan to do it, for no apparent reason. Then again, maybe it is precisely the things that she does for no apparent reason that make this record more tolerable and appreciable than it could be otherwise.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Celtic Frost: Parched With Thirst Am I And Dying

CELTIC FROST: PARCHED WITH THIRST AM I AND DYING (1985-1991; 1992)

1) Idols Of Chagrin; 2) A Descent To Babylon (Babylon Asleep); 3) Return To The Eve; 4) Juices Like Wine; 5) The Inevitable Factor; 6) The Heart Beneath; 7) Cherry Orchards; 8) Tristesses De La Lune; 9) Wings Of Solitude; 10) The Usurper; 11) Journey Into Fear; 12) Downtown Hanoi; 13) Circle Of The Tyrants; 14) In The Chapel In The Moonlight; 15) I Won't Dance (The Elders Orient); 16) The Name Of My Bride; 17) Mexican Radio; 18) Under Apollyon's Sun.

The importance of this compilation, originally released in 1992, has now significantly decreased since many of its tracks were dispersed as bonus additions to remastered CD editions of the band's overall catalog. Even in 1992, however, it was a somewhat strange package, interspersing rarities and oddities with an almost random selection of tracks taken from albums all the way back to Mega Therion (but, strangely, not Morbid Tales). Whether the old fans even back then were happy to receive an additional copy of three numbers from Cold Lake and three more from Vanity/Nemesis is a big question. Whether the presence of four previously unreleased songs was enough of an incentive to make them tolerate these additional copies is an even bigger one.

Anyway, here is a brief rundown on these «lost treasures». ʽIdols Of Chagrinʼ is the reworking of a 1991 demo — a slow Vanity/Nemesis-style power metal riff-rocker, with some chords soun­ding dangerously close to AC/DC's ʽRock'n'Roll Ain't Noise Pollutionʼ and the general atmos­phere reminiscent of both AC/DC and Accept (but with far uglier vocals). ʽThe Inevitable Factorʼ is an outtake from Cold Lake, ironically featuring a more memorable riff than most of the regu­lar songs on there, but again spoiled by silly «dying metal Tristan» vocals. ʽJourney Into Fearʼ is a very old outtake (from 1985), and thus, faster, more aggressive, and more fun than all the later outtakes — but nothing in particular here with which you were not already acquainted on To Mega Therion. Finally, ʽUnder Apollyon's Sunʼ (I think they sort of confused Apollyon, the Greek equi­valent of Abaddon, with the god Apollo here, but perhaps this was intentional) is ano­ther demo from 1991, but this time with a more Sabbath-esque riff, and an almost industrial crunch in the middle — melodically, perhaps, the most ambitious of these tunes.

Other than that, you have a few remixed versions (ʽDowntown Hanoiʼ from Cold Lake, for instance) with cleaner and sharper guitar sound, which probably still does not redeem them as much as we'd want to, and a few scooped-up rare jokes, such as the black metal take on the old popu­lar standard ʽIn The Chapel In The Moonlightʼ (from a 1987 promotional EP). It all works fine as a career retrospective, especially if you rectify the dumb running order of the tracks, but not a single moment here is truly eye-opening in any sense: at no stage in their diverse career, apparently, did Celtic Frost produce something so unusual that they would decide to keep it hidden from us until they ran out of new material. Thus, for completists only.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Carpenters: Christmas Portrait

CARPENTERS: CHRISTMAS PORTRAIT (1978)

1) O Come, O Come Emmanuel!; 2) Overture; 3) Christmas Waltz; 4) Sleigh Ride; 5) It's Christmas Time / Sleep Well, Little Children; 6) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; 7) Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town; 8) Christmas Song; 9) Silent Night; 10) Jingle Bells; 11) First Snowfall / Let It Snow; 12) Carol Of The Bells; 13) Merry Christ­mas, Darling; 14) I'll Be Home For Christmas; 15) Christ Is Born; 16) Winter Wonderland / Silver Bells / White Christmas; 17) Ave Maria.

If you happen to like your Christmas albums and prefer that the artist respect the source material rather than deconstruct it, reinterpret it, enslave it to his twisted will and sinister purposes, then Christmas Portrait, probably not coincidentally released by Richard and Karen Carpenter on the exact same day as AC/DC's If You Want Blood You've Got It, has a good chance of becoming your favorite Christmas album of all time. They could have expanded upon the cautious experi­mentation of Passage — but given its lackluster chart performance, probably decided that this road was not for them, after all, and decided to apply their musical talents elsewhere. Somehow, they remembered, they hadn't done a Christmas album yet; and since a Christmas album for Carpenters seems as natural as a live album for The Who, or an album about death and decay for The Doors, or an album about merry gay sailors for Elton John, they went ahead with the idea. (Particularly since they'd already written one Christmas song, ʽMerry Christmas Darlingʼ, as early as 1970 — it is also included here, but with a new vocal recorded by Karen).

The specific nature of the duo's approach to Christmas is in the sheer grandness of the project. This is the first Carpenters LP to run over 45 minutes, and the first one to start out with a proper overture — five minutes of orchestral snippets for both performed and unperformed songs. Actu­ally, they recorded enough material for a double album, but wisely decided to hold off, because, you know, people also need some time to eat their turkey. (The rest of it was shelved for six years, only appearing after Karen's death). Even so, what with all the introductions, codas, links and transitions, Christmas Portrait feels more like a coherent «folk mass» of sorts than just a dis­jointed series of Christmas carols, a single lengthy ritual performed conquering-style by Good Christmas Fairy Karen and her loyal band of dwarf and elf henchmen, molded into the shape of a sugary-suave symphonic orchestra.

That said, do not hold high hopes: Richard is a professional and inspired arranger, but his inspi­ration in such matters rarely hovers above Disney levels, and every bit of this music, be it purely instrumental (ʽCarol Of The Bellsʼ, etc.) or vocal-based, is designed for nothing more and nothing less than sentimental family entertainment. Unfortunately, Karen is also helpless to add any extra dimensions in this situation: she is serving here as a conductor of the old-fashioned Christmas spirit and is consciously leaving all of her «dark strains» on the shelf (not that she could be blamed for that — it is awesome when performers try to identify the darker sides of Christmas mate­rial, but expecting non-trivial activities like that from Carpenters is like expecting modesty and humility from The Donald). At least her vocal frequencies and intonations help avoid extra sappiness; but I cannot single out even one song that would strike a particularly vulnerable / sen­sitive string in my own soul. It's all just nice, tolerable Christmas fare.

It is good, however, that most of the songs are short or, if long, actually constitute medleys: this creates a fast-rotating kaleidoscope of sub-moods (giggly, joyful, pensive, solemn, whatever) that, if anything, brings the Christmas ritual to life, so that the whole thing does not come across as too rigid or square. Still, it also pretty much kills off any hopes anybody could have about Passage opening some new stage in the duo's history — and with Karen's rapidly deteriorating condition (not to mention Richard's ongoing addiction to Quaaludes), that history, alas, was already coming to an end.