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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.