Search This Blog

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Pink Floyd: Animals


1) Pigs On The Wing 1; 2) Dogs; 3) Pigs (Three Different Ones); 4) Sheep; 5) Pigs On The Wing 2.

General verdict: An ideal three-part musical crash course in how to hate, despise, and alienate all types of people — should be an obligatory part of your high school curriculum.

Somewhere in between 1975 and 1977, Pink Floyd, formerly a democratic conglomeration of different, but compatible minds, evolved in the direction of a one-man band. In the long run, this would turn out to be the beginning of the end: one-man bands have an unfortunate tendency to either stagnate in the slower-and-slower-flowing channel of the one man's brain (Jethro Tull is the most classic example here), or to heat up and explode if the other members begin resenting their submissiveness — Floyd chose the second route, although, curiously, it took Waters and Gilmour almost a decade to openly declare war on each other.

In the short run, however, no matter how many useless accusations of dictatorial assholishness one might fling at Roger, assuming full control within the band gave him the chance to express himself, for a brief while, with such power and clarity that everything the band released prior to Animals would look like a happy walk in the clouds by comparison. While Gilmour and Wright, both of whom probably had a better ear for melody and a better understanding of sheer sonic beauty than Waters, seemed to languish in relative passiveness, Waters' activity only grew in the Seventies from album to album — a negative-tinged activity, sprouting from his personal, seemingly unfriendly and unstable, character, and seriously fueled by outside circumstances; to the point that, by late 1976, it is safe to state that Roger Waters, the «dinosaur art-rocker» by contemporary standards, was more frustrated, spiteful, vengeful, and misanthropic than the punkiest of all punk bands in existence, and he did not need no chainsaw buzz to make that known to humanity.

Already on Wish You Were Here, we saw the first signs of what would soon become a full-fledged hatred for (nearly) all humanity, albeit still seriously tempered with such «purer» feelings as deep sorrow and sincere empathy for those who are (were) not able to withhold the cruel pressure of this rotten world. But really, Floyd had yet to come out and do it — and it wouldn't be at all possible, had Waters not assumed complete control: Rick Wright, one of the gentlest and mellowest souls on Earth, would only have gotten in the way, and Gilmour, even if the man is perfectly capable of expressing anger and indignation in his work, never had even a dozenth dose of the asphyxiating, kill-on-the-spot bile that Mother Nature had synthesized in Waters' soul; amusingly, the more money they were making on their records, the denser and the bitterer was the poison, with Waters getting madder and madder at both the music business (and business in general) and the band's audiences who, he felt, were either not getting the message at all or would not be changed in any way upon getting the message.

But even if we think of all that accumulated anger as stupid, unhealthy, or hypocritical, one thing is for sure: anger — waves of uncontrollable, barely rational, overwhelming anger — is precisely the one thing that provided the band with a second (third?) breath, and helped them retain their creativity, vitality, and popularity in the New Wave era, when most of their peers either disbanded, or sold out in embarrassing ways, or retreated into niche markets. And so — thank you, Roger Waters, for being such an asshole.

As is usual with Floyd, the songs had a lengthy gestation period (ʻDogsʼ was previously played live for months as ʻYou Gotta Be Crazyʼ, and ʻSheepʼ as ʻRaving And Droolingʼ, widely available then and now on numerous live bootlegs), and the recording process itself took half a year (actually, not atypical for the band's usual level of perfectionism). No additional musicians or technical personnel were involved at all, except for Brian Humphries helping out with the engineering duties (and this gives the album a somewhat claustrophobic feel at times, compared to the more expansive soundscapes of their previous two masterpieces).

The story of the album as such is well-known — how several different ideas eventually coalesced in a loosely Orwellian concept album about three types of animals, and how the album sleeve photo was actually shot with a real floating pig in the air, and how the floating pig flew away and scared off all the cows on a farm in Kent (just another one of Waters' mean practical jokes on the world, oh yes) — but it should also be kept in mind that all these conceptual and packaging elements are quite secondary to the music, which merely takes Animal Farm as a formal framework and uses it for Roger's own purposes (in a way, perhaps, even darker purposes than Orwell's own).

Upon release, the album was not as commercially successful as its predecessors — not so much, it seems, due to essentially being a Waters ego trip (The Wall would be even more of an ego trip, and that did not prevent it from being a smash success), but rather because it was not accompanied by any singles, and the imposing length of the LP tracks made it way too «dinosaurish» for the public, already in the strong grip of the back-to-simplicity movement. Even so, it still rose to No. 2 in the UK and to No. 3 in the US: no mean feat for a record that shows so little love for humanity as a whole or individual humans in their own right.

One interesting consequence of the album's lapsing into a relative gap between such massive hit generators as Dark Side,  Wish You Were Here, and The Wall, though, was its acqusition of a certain cult status — for example, quite a few sophisti-prog fans who usually wrinkle their noses at hearing the sellout name of Pink Floyd are often willing to give Animals an extra chance precisely due to its «anti-commercial» flavor, and I can certainly understand them (at one point in life, it was my personal Floyd album, too, and even though I have also mellowed with age, I certainly do not hold it in any less respect than I did back when I thought it brave and cool to invent various reasons to «despise» Dark Side for its unabashed banality, etc.). Basically, this here is «hipster-targeted Floyd» rather than «mass-targeted Floyd», which does not automatically make one better than the other... it is simply fun to have both side by side.

One thing, and one thing only really matters on Animals: hatred. Yes, there is a very brief acoustic introduction that opens the album on a note of tenderness (in the style of ʻWish You Were Hereʼ), and an equally brief acoustic outro that closes it on the same note. But both of these bits feel like they have been tackled on at the very last moment — intentionally, perhaps, to provide more of a «mock-happy-ending» (and beginning) than any real positive effect, so short and frail they are when compared to the huge bleeding epics in between. For almost forty minutes, Animals breathes nothing but pure hatred, despisal, or contempt for all of its heroes, and since there are so many ways to hate, despise, and hold in contempt, the subject never becomes boring. And, of course, it is not just the lyrics, and not even the way they are delivered (although the vocals, most of them handled by Roger with minor exceptions, are vituperative throughout): most of that green fire is contained in the music, where Gilmour becomes Waters' unwilling accomplice, and only Rick Wright tries to hold his own ground, usually without success (the organ intro for ʻPigsʼ and the electric piano intro for ʻSheepʼ reflect Rick's usual introspective mournfulness, but both very quickly give way to Hell's fury).

The first two epics are those with which most of the listeners can easily find common ground, because, after all, the "dogs" and the "pigs" of this world are relatively scarce compared to its "sheep", and I'd imagine that not a lot of them frequently listen to Pink Floyd anyway. ʻDogsʼ takes a big gamble by occupying most of Side A, but it is also the most complex construction of the three — for some reason, out of all three classes, "dogs" hold Roger's interest for the longest period, as he examines the average dog's motivations, actions, and ultimate fate ("dragged down by the stone") over at least three very different musical sections. The basic task is simple — give a spine-chillin' musical account of the "dog eat dog" ideology — but the way it is accomplished is definitely not, as the song takes plenty of time to build up, evolve from fidgety-nervous folk-prog-rocker in the Canterbury style to a slow bluesy jam and then to an atmospheric, super-slow, keyboard-dominated mid-section, almost pedantically illustrating the actual process of being "dragged down by the stone". Gilmour shines the most on the slow blues jam (he uses more or less the same rhythmic base as in ʻShine On You Crazy Diamondʼ, but this time as a launchpad for vicious and violent, rather than solemn and mournful soloing, culminating in my personal favourite evil cackle bit around 6:20); Wright gets to show his skill on the «drowning» section, arguably their most openly psychedelic bit of music since ʻEchoesʼ; but ultimately, of course, it is all Roger's show, even when Gilmour is singing lead vocals. The "have a good drown / as you go down / all alone, dragged down by the stone" bit gets my personal vote for «most vicious musical bit of the year», just because it sounds so horrendously natural and deep-felt. (Ironic bit of trivia: the proverbial dog, at the end of the song, is described as "who was trained not to spit in the fan", which is precisely what Waters would do at the end of the band's ensuing tour, even if we are talking different sorts of fans here).

ʻPigs (Three Different Ones)ʼ is my personal favorite of the three, even if musically, it is the most simple and straightforward one, never really straining away too much from its funky base. The reason for this, I believe, is that it is on this track that the «hatred» motif reaches its apogee — the syncopated guitar chords slash away far more viciously than the furious, but harmless acoustic strum on ʻDogsʼ, Waters' vocals range from evil-grinning spiteful taunts on the verses to clenched-teeth aggressive insults in the chorus, and then, of course, there's the talkbox... simply put, ʻPigsʼ features the single best use of the talkbox effect in music history, if only because the talkbox naturally sounds like a pig, so what could be a possibly better place for it than on a song directed against all the allegorical pigs of this world? Musically, the single most chilling moment on the album is at 5:10, when, after a cleverly outstretched, carefully built-up suspenseful passage, Dave lets loose with a MONSTROUS talkbox grunt — as if, out of nowhere, a giant, smelly, bloodthirsty, 3000-pound-heavy pig landed right on your head and pummeled you six feet under the ground with all that weight. The overall feel of disgust and ugliness hangs so heavy above the entire track, you almost feel the need to take a shower once it's over. By the way, personally, I am not sure if poor Mary Whitehouse really belonged in the "pigs" category ("house proud town mouse" is a far more apt description), but apparently, Roger had to sweep all the ideological leaders into one foul heap, so a-gruntin' we'll all go. (It also helped immensely forty years later, when the song suddenly got a whole new life from Roger's anti-Trump campaign — and the line "hey you, Whitehouse!" effortlessly acquired a far more relevant meaning).

And then, of course, there is ʻSheepʼ, which should have earned Pink Floyd a death sentence, but apparently half of the fans never understood what it was about in the first place, and the other half thought it was about the first half, so everything turned out all right in the end. Musically, it is somewhat of a predecessor to ʻRun Like Hellʼ — same running tempo, similarly paced bassline, similar echoey fanfare effects on the guitar lines — and, essentially, it is about running like hell, as the poor sheep blindly follow the pigs and end up running away from the dogs, to no avail. The entire track is permeated with paranoia (best illustrated by the bassline) and terror (best illustrated by the way the vocals at the end of each line mutate and crossfade into an electronic banshee wail, only to be abruptly cut off with a thunderblast), but the creepiest and most insulting moment at the same time is the deconstruction of Psalm 23 — one of Waters' smartest anti-religious jabs, by the way: how many of us have ever thought that "The Lord is my shepherd" would quite logically surmise that, soon enough, "with bright knives he releaseth my soul, he converteth me to lamb cutlets"? The track does insinuate that, eventually, the sheep rise up, generate some brain activity, and get rid of their oppressors, but somehow it still seems more like a sarcastic dream than a reality (I mean, who ever saw a sheep "through quiet reflection and great dedication master the art of karate"?), and the triumphant martial guitar riff that fades out at the end of the song never feels anything like a glorious, optimistic conclusion to the whole concept.

And that conclusion? ʻPigs On The Wing 2ʼ, which essentially admits that the only way to get away from the unholy triumvirate of dogs, pigs, and sheep (in which pigs play a particularly disgusting part) is to find yourself an understanding partner and go hide in the woods or something like that. In a way, it is a pretty happy ending, and I will not deny that sometimes I feel exactly the same way...

If I were the Dalai Lama, I would probably reserve a harsh judgement for the album's concept and its unflattering stance on all human castes. Not having the honor, I do reserve the right to share opinions that are close enough to Waters' and, therefore, cannot blame Animals for any conceptual or ideological flaws. I could probably complain about the tracks being somewhat overlong, but instead of that, I would rather take the other way round and complain that there are simply not enough tracks — personally, I'd love to see more perspective on other inhabitants of the Farm as well, including horses, donkeys, cows, chickens, and whoever else was there in the original Orwellian world; more precisely, it just seems that Waters was on such a roll, surely he'd be able to find even more creative ways to ridicule and satirize even more categories of people, and I would love to see Animals, rather than The Wall, develop into the band's spatially grandest opus. Essentially, it is over much too quickly, yet I would not insist on getting ʻDogsʼ cut down to size in order to fit one or two additional pieces.

As for technicalities, I have always thought that, for some reason, the production standards on Animals were slightly below ideal, and that parts of it sound murkier than we'd come to expect. Compared to the crystal clear, heavenly ring of Gilmour's guitar on ʻShine Onʼ, for instance, the lead guitar parts on ʻDogsʼ are spoiled either by unnecessary timbre effects or by poor mixing, and overall, the record sometimes suffers from too much overkill on the effects. Maybe the presence of an Alan Parsons or even a Bob Ezrin could have helped, but, apparently, this was the way they (or at least Roger) wanted it to sound at the time, and perhaps the extra effects, distortion, and general murk were thought to accentuate the overall feel of disgust and contempt. That does not prevent us from applauding all the fantastic production decisions (the talkbox, the crossfades, the doom-laden looping of "stone... stone... stone..."), but I still think that a sharper sound couldn't have hurt in many individual places on the record; of all of the band's classic albums from that decade, I think Animals suffers the most in terms of production.

In conclusion, I would be the first to agree that a view of Animals as a «Roger Waters Vs. Mankind» kind of album would not only be oversimplifying stuff, but also would be portraying Waters, perhaps without proper justification, as a sort of monster. However, (a) I would never rule out such an interpretation, either and (b) it is a fun interpretation — and nobody said it was illegal to hold all mankind in one's contempt, anyway: Timon of Athens got away with this, so why shouldn't Roger Waters? The cool thing about art, anyway, is that we never have to agree with the artist — the only thing that matters is how effectively the artist gets his point across, and Animals passes that test with flying colors, an epic distillation of pure negativity in three parts. Had the record been made by anybody other than Pink Floyd, it would have probably sold less than a hundred copies; Floyd, however, played a cruel joke on their audiences, first transforming millions of people into their own loyal adepts by giving them a brief glimpse at The Meaning Of Life with Dark Side, and then suddenly turning around and delivering this mean blow right under the belt — perhaps the only reason why it did not eliminate their fanbase once and for all was that in early 1977 the average person felt so shitty about everything around him that the vibe seemed perfectly appropriate, even if it meant acknowledging one's own sheepishness. And although it would be hard to call the record particularly innovative or influential, it would be futile to deny that its relevance to this world of ours only continues to grow with each passing decade, because, let's face it, the place is still populated to the brink with Brahmin Pigs, Kshatriya Dogs, and Vaishya Sheep, and how many of us could firmly claim that we do not belong to any of the three categories?..

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Paul McCartney: Ram


1) Too Many People; 2) 3 Legs; 3) Ram On; 4) Dear Boy; 5) Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey; 6) Smile Away; 7) Heart Of The Country; 8) Monkberry Moon Delight; 9) Eat At Home; 10) Long Haired Lady; 11) Ram On; 12) The Back Seat Of My Car.

General verdict: This is your Paul McCartney in Wonderland, provided you're willing to put on the special glasses.

One of the advantages of growing up in the late Soviet Union was that, whenever you could get your hands on an occasional piece of treasure — like Dylan's Self-Portrait or the Stones' Satanic Majesties' Request, taped from some secretively imported vinyl in the possession of an acquain­tance's acquaintance — you got those without all the critical baggage that accompanied them in the West, so that you could listen to the former without knowing that this was allegedly a cruel joke on Bob's fans, and to the latter without knowing that it was a subpar Sgt. Pepper rip-off, as the averaged critical opinion would want to impart to you in the lands of the free. Freedom of the press, you know — what a sad, unimaginative bore.

In the same way, I think I'd spent at least fifteen years of my life blissfully ignorant of the fact that Ram, McCartney's first properly recorded and produced solo album, was supposed to be «monumentally irrelevant» (quoth Bruce Springsteen's future manager) and «a classic form / content mismatch» (quoth The Dean of Deans). Being young and innocent, I dared to believe that if we are allowed to enjoy such Beatles songs as ʽMartha My Dearʼ or ʽYour Mother Should Knowʼ or ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ, we should have no problem with Ram, an album that merely continued and, in certain ways, even further developed that aesthetics — whimsical, perhaps, but very subtly and charmingly so. I loved the album, listened to it a lot, and had not the least care in the world. But as the Iron Curtain disintegrated before my eyes and forced me lose that precious critical virginity, I saw the harsh truth, and the world would never again be the same.

Bravely and stubbornly, though, I persisted in my opinion that Ram was as good (well, okay, almost as good) as any Beatles album if you deleted John and George from them — going as far as to publicly state that opinion on my original review site... and I think that the day when I really burst with pride over my infiltrating and sabotaging abilities was when I received a user comment that went something like «now I, too, can come out of the closet after all these years and publicly confess how much I've always loved the Ram album». That might have, in fact, been the day when I'd first gotten the feeling that writing clumsy, illiterate music reviews in a non-native tongue might actually do a wee bit of public good, rather than simply offer some quick self-gratification. Naturally, I am not even beginning to suggest that that review had something to do with the gradual acceptance of Ram in the public eye — no, that had to do with shifting musical and cultural values, including the spread and critical recognition of twee-pop and other «whim­sical» forms of music — but it did have something to do with gaining a bit of self-confidence and understanding that Relevant Cultural Context can be just as harmful for one's appreciation of art as it can be helpful.

Anyway, Ram. If we accept the official date of the Beatles' break-up as April 1970, then one could make a case for the next year after that — ending in May 1971 — as the happiest year in Beatles' history, one that produced not one, not two, but three fantastic Beatles masterpieces (and one of them a double album at that). Some people, bored and confused, have published their imaginary track lists for the «Beatles album of 1970», collecting their favorite songs from John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band, All Things Must Pass, and Ram — I, personally, happen to insist that there is not a single bad song on any of these albums, and, furthermore, that they all feature gusts of unchained creative energy that could not have been imagined on Let It Be, and were only present in embryonic forms on Abbey Road (a magnificent record in its own right, but very different in sound and mood from all the above-mentioned). But while it is easy to argue that way about John, who was only too happy to exorcise his personal demons, and about George, who was finally free to unleash his Cosmic Sadness upon the world, what is it about Ram that could make it so cosmically special? "My dog he got three legs, but he can't run"?..

If your copy of Ram is digital and has bonus tracks, I highly advise you to program it in such a way that the first track would be ʽAnother Dayʼ — after all, it was not only Paul's first non-LP single that actually preceded the release of Ram by a few months, but it was also the very first track that he recorded during the New York sessions for Ram, so it's fully legit. ʽAnother Dayʼ, whose merits were acknowledged even by John in his generally negative peer review of McCartney's output (titled ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ), was a classic Paul tale of loneliness and sadness, a proud successor to ʽFor No Oneʼ and ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ and one that also showed how he could out-Ray Davies Ray Davies if he really tried — it is a pretty complex, multi-sectional pop song that keeps quietly spinning its everyday drama and drawing you in until the "sometimes she feels so sad" line comes along and plunges you into transcendental despair.

There is nothing on Ram that weaves the same desperate mood, but there is not supposed to be anything — Ram is fantasy escapism at its best. ʽAnother Dayʼ is your boring office existence, your Alice not-yet-in-Wonderland sitting on the river bank and wondering about the possible virtues of dull books without pictures. And then, with that wonderful echo on the acoustic guitar and the weirdly disguised opening "piss off!", we are off through the rabbit-hole — into the crazy world of ʽToo Many Peopleʼ, uncle Alberts, Admiral Halseys, monkberry moon delights, smelly feet, dogs with three legs, eating in bed, and long haired ladies. What Ram has always been to me was a surreal trip, much more fully realized than Magical Mystery Tour — typically, it is said to celebrate the joys of quiet country life, as illustrated by songs like ʽHeart Of The Countryʼ and the McCartney's own secluded existence in their Scottish domain, but there's really very little about cozy, quiet country life on the album. It makes more sense to take that cozy, quiet country life as a starting point — a starting point from where, in the back of your mind, you can go just about anywhere and do just about anything.

It is whimsical, yes. Paul McCartney does not like to make bold political or social statements (and when he does make them, you should usually run for cover), nor is he all that religious, nor is he a fearless explorer of man's darker sides. But all of the songs on Ram are chockful of human emotions, even as they scale such peaks of absurdity as the other Beatles would probably have vetoed in the early days. Take one of my all-time favorites, ʽMonkberry Moon Delightʼ. Its lyrics could give ʽI Am The Walrusʼ a good run for its money — Paul milks the "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" principle with verve, intentionally illustrating the principle that structures are sometimes more important than whatever you populate them with. What matters here is, of course, not the words — those words that must have so infuriated Landau and Christgau — but the hysterical, throat-shredding vocal delivery: Paul impersonates a man (a humanoid?) on the edge, someone on the eternal run from some devilish nightmare that he can never escape. "Catch up, catch up, don't get left behind", Linda and Heather McCartney jeer at him from the shadows, as he finds himself helplessly caught up in a spinning wheel. Honestly, it isn't even a funny song: it's a creepy song, every bit as much so as any contemporary Black Sabbath anthem about Satan waiting round the bend. Except that this particular Satan is smoking monkberry moon delight rather than the good old sweet leaf.

Or take the ʽUncle Albert / Admiral Halseyʼ single. Trying to find its meaning by digging up stuff about Paul's own uncle, or about Admiral William Halsey, is only bound to result in frustration. Like the Abbey Road medley, the two parts of this track cannot exist without each other and work mostly by contrast — the smooth, relaxed serenity of the first part giving way to the vaude­villian agitation of the second one. There are even some melodic similarities between the harmonies in ʽUncle Albertʼ and the ones in ʽYou Never Give Me Your Moneyʼ, all referring to a state of heavenly bliss — in this case, somewhat rudely interrupted by a punchy call-to-arms ("hands across the water, heads across the sky!"). It never makes literal sense, but neither does Alice In Wonderland. It's just that one moment you're lying in the grass, lazily watching them clouds roll over each other (and maybe feeling a little sorry for Uncle Albert), then the next moment you are up on deck, running errands for Admiral Halsey and doing the "live a little be a gypsy, get around" routine. From happy bliss to busy fuss in five minutes.

Even when the songs do make perfect lyrical sense, they are still odd. ʽDear Boyʼ is clearly written about Linda's first husband (not about John, as is sometimes mistakenly assumed, because, I mean, who could Paul McCartney ever call "dear boy" but John?) — it is a sort of ʽYou're Going To Lose That Girlʼ come to real life. But why A minor, the key of ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ and ʽStairway To Heavenʼ? Before I figured out the lyrics, I always perceived it as a tragic song, a lament — is this Paul McCartney taking pity on Melville See Jr.? But then why, after the supposedly uplifting bridge about how "her love came through and brought me 'round, got me up and about" do we have that frantic guitar/piano alarm going off? This is a disturbed and disturbing tune, nowhere near the triumphant sneer of ʽYou're Going To Lose That Girlʼ or whatever other Beatles song celebrated snatching the girl away from her former suitor. It rings with desperation — as if the victor knew he was celebrating some sort of Pyrrhus' victory. If I were in Linda's shoes, I'd definitely get worried over how it all sounded.

And as for the quiet joys of secluded life in the highlands... well, ʽHeart Of The Countryʼ is anything but the perfect song celebrating such joys. Again, it is a very, very strange composition, far weirder in a way than something like ʽMother Nature's Sonʼ. Part of this has to do with how dreadfully high up in the mix is Paul's bass — maybe by accident, but ultimately it colors the entire tune, and gives it a pretty somber feel, especially when contrasted with the all-pervasive falsetto vocals. But there's also the matter of the bridge, where the bass gets even louder and seems to take us out of the «meadow» and push us down some dark path, into the very ʽheart of the country where the holy people growʼ — what ʽholy peopleʼ? And what's up with all the eerie scatting? I do not see this as a song of lush meadows and open spaces — I see it more as a song of dark mystic woods and spooky spirits. It is true that Paul would write more common songs about domestic country bliss later on, but ʽHeart Of The Countryʼ is anything but common: it is, I believe, still infected with that odd, one-of-a-kind Abbey Road magic that I feel very deeply but have a very hard time trying to explain in words.

Not even Ram's staunchest detractors can seriously deny the power of ʽLong Haired Ladyʼ, one of the most melodically complex and haunting love suites in Paul's catalog — and, again, full of that magical atmosphere, sometimes achieved not by melodic moves but by neat production touches. Let Robert Christgau hate the super-glossy, ultra-meticulous approach to sonic craft for all he wants; I only know that in a lesser mortal's hands, that introduction to the "love is long" part that begins at 2:22 into the song would have sounded like a generic country shuffle. In our case, it is a matter of two quietly pinging guitars, an acoustic in one channel and a bottleneck (I think) in the other, with equally quiet, but slowly rising lady-of-the-lake background vocals drifting in the background, perfectly creating the atmosphere of a mysterious apparition. Without making a single nod to medieval balladry, Paul here has created something positively Arthurian in scope — all that remains is for Linda to come out and hand him his Excalibur.

By the time the album ends with ʽBack Seat Of My Carʼ, a song often seen as Paul's tribute to the Beach Boys (more because of sweet falsetto harmonies and references to teenagers making out in the back seat than because of anything else), the magic has been working so effectively for so long that the conclusion acts as a wake-up to reality — you can almost see the camera panning out from the fantasy universe and focusing on the dream lovers in the back seat, the ones who'd been imagining and role-playing this all along. The way the song ends, with its frantic chanting of the "we believe that we can't be wrong!" refrain, you'd almost see it as a sort of excuse for every­thing that just happened — or, rather, a frenzied self-defense. This is Paul believing that he can't be wrong when he prefers making these seemingly silly vignettes over grand cosmic statements, and while theoretically he can be wrong, over these forty minutes he has quite successfully con­vinced me that Ram, when viewed from a certain angle, can be just as important a piece of art as the far more ambitious statements by his former brothers in arms.

On a technical note, I am also grateful to Paul for not having recorded the album completely on his own. For one thing, Denny Seiwell, who would go on to join Wings for a while, may not be the best drummer of all time, but any professional drummer is preferable to Paul if we are talking about a complete album (some of Paul's bashing may be wildly funny, but I think it is clearly heard that he is not a trained rhythm keeper). For another thing, guitarist Hugh McCracken's work on ʽToo Many Peopleʼ is smoldering (some kick-ass blues-rock soloing that Paul would never have been capable of), and he also makes the otherwise generic slow boogie number ʽSmile Awayʼ much more exciting. There is still nothing here like the full-on band sound of Wings that would not properly blossom until Band On The Run, but that is okay — the «mini-band sound» works perfect for this type of musical fantasy: not too densely clustered or overwhelming, but far more wholesome and complete-looking than the raw demo schtick of McCartney.

In the end, my point is that Ram is just very, very special even in the McCartney catalog. In a few months, Paul would form Wings, get more serious — and more sentimental — and start shaking off the invisible shackles that still somehow bound him to late-period Beatles magic. But Ram is still an album soaked to the bones with that kind of magic, far more akin in spirit to The White Album and Abbey Road than to whatever would follow; it is much more than just a «simplistic pop album» from a crafty popmeister, and it makes me happy that I still feel much the same about it as I did as an unsuspecting 12-year old. It's just one of those records that, as Mick Jagger would put it, "comes in colors everywhere" — and if you refuse to succumb to its charms... well, you probably have a very boring sex life, too.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Marvin Gaye (w. Tammi Terrell): You're All I Need

MARVIN GAYE: YOU'RE ALL I NEED (1968) (w. Tammi Terrell)

1) Ain't Nothing But The Real Thing; 2) Keep On Lovin' Me Honey; 3) You're All I Need To Get By; 4) Baby Don't Cha Worry; 5) You Ain't Livin' Till You're Lovin'; 6) Give In, You Just Can't Win; 7) When Love Comes Knocking At My Heart; 8) Come On And See Me; 9) I Can't Help But Love You; 10) That's How It Is (Since You've Been Gone); 11) I'll Never Stop Loving You; 12) Memory Chest.

General verdict: A bit stale around the edges, but Marvin and Tammi together are always enjoyable... simply by way of being together.

Second time around, the formula has been refined and strengthened and perpetuated, which makes for fewer surprises, but the Marvin / Tammi chemistry remains strong, and the fun quo­tient remains consistent. With the success of ʽAin't No Mountain High Enoughʼ, Ashford and Simpson turned into Motown regulars, and this time, they are credited already for a whoppin' four songs out of 12, including all three singles; meanwhile, the production team of Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol contribute most of the rest — with Marvin himself again co-credited for only one song (ʽI Can't Help But Love Youʼ).

The title track was clearly written by the team as a gospel number — with the exception of an occasional darling, all the lyrics are easily re-addressable to the Lord — but, apparently, double-entendre anthems like that were all the rage on the R&B market, turning the song into the duo's second biggest hit. I am not the biggest fan here: ʽAin't No Mountainʼ was far more inventive both lyrically and in terms of tension build-up — ʽYou're All I Need To Get Byʼ feels more ordinary, the kind of a song you might hear on any number of long-forgotten gospel records. But there is no denying the sweeping energy of the duo — that energy, I guess, is all that we need to  get by, and thankfully, it is very evenly spread through the album.

The other big single was ʽAin't Nothing But The Real Thingʼ, which, too, does not strike me nearly as hard as ʽMountainʼ — technically, though, Tammi does a great job singing the verses (the last syllables of the line "I pretend I'm not in reality" always get to me), and at least the song has a more pronounced sad / melancholic edge to it (also, I think I began to appreciate what they are doing with their voices a bit more here after watching the comparatively lifeless Beyoncé duet with Justin Timberlake — what is it with modern divas so pathologically incapable of breathing life into old classics?).

Actually, I think that the non-single material on this LP might even be stronger: the hits try too hard to exploit the «orgasmic» potential of Marvin and Tammi. I like ʽBaby Don't Cha Worryʼ, a sly little pop tune originally built upon the ʽStand By Meʼ / ʽUnder The Boardwalkʼ groove, but then throwing in a completely different, Latin-styled brass riff. I like ʽGive In, You Just Can't Winʼ, a fun little musical soap opera that shows the darker side of those rose-colored pledges of eternal fidelity, with all its stop-and-starts and a pretty twisted bass groove. I am not necessarily thrilled that some of the songs again sound just like The Supremes (ʽYou Ain't Livin' Till You're Lovin'ʼ) and others just like The Four Tops (ʽI'll Never Stop Loving You Babyʼ), but a factory is a factory, and at least the Marvin / Tammi duo always puts their own spin on the feels.

All of the songs here were recorded before Tammi's illness (the LP itself only came out in August 1968, but the sessions date back to 1966–67), and it is useless to speculate whether the duo would continue to evolve as a recurrent partnership had she not succumbed to cancer — all we know is that in that year and a half during which they were musical partners and in perfect health the formula never budged. But altogether, the 24 musical moments captured on those two LPs are a cute little encyclopaedia of boy-girl relationships, presented from both perspectives at once: there's happiness, there's loneliness, there's mutual admiration, there's jealousy, there's spiritual and physical unity, there's an attempt to stand one's own ground... ultimately, it might be more fun to try and find the perfect sequencing for these songs rather than simply enjoy the albums the way they are. The entire experience is definitely bigger than the sum of its parts here.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell


1) Death With Dignity; 2) Should Have Known Better; 3) All Of Me Wants All Of You; 4) Drawn To The Blood; 5) Eugene; 6) Fourth Of July; 7) The Only Thing; 8) Carrie & Lowell; 9) John My Beloved; 10) No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross; 11) Blue Bucket Of Gold.

General verdict: Let me just count this review as a sympathy card, and then forget about the whole thing for good.

«Most emotional album I've ever heard», «simple, straightforward, and haunting», «one of the best representations of sadness and grief I've ever experienced», «listening to this is like having someone slowly plunging you in the heart with a knife», «you ever feel like crying... fuck, just listen to this shit», «blissful open wound, washing over the listener like sunlight cascading over little specks of dust» — all of these quotes just taken from the opening page of the RYM review section for this record, where Carrie & Lowell was voted the second best album of 2015 (after Kendrick Lamar, of course) and, as of now, the fifth best album of the 2010s. Even on a purely commercial scale, it managed to match the success of The Age Of Adz, finally stabilizing Sufjan as a viable market force — and gave him his highest charting positions overseas to date. This is an album that made history and almost came close to turning Sufjan Stevens into a household name, and he didn't even have to legitimately sell out to do this.

Well, in a way he did sell out, I suppose: Carrie & Lowell is his (superficially) simplest, most accessible, and most conceptually comprehensible album to date. The man's mother died in 2012, after a turbulent and complicated life of substance abuse, schizophrenia, and abandoning her own child when he was just a year old — she went down to the river, put the baby in an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime... oops, wrong story. Anyway, what can be more understan­dable and empathetic than such a story? A troubled mother abandons her year-old child, goes on to have the darkest period in her life, gets resuscitated by her new match (Lowell Brams, Sufjan's stepdad), reconnects with her offspring, eventually divorces her new partner again, finally dies of cancer, and is remembered by her son in a touching tale of traumas, losses, gains, more losses, grudges, mercies, and forgivenesses. Many of us have similar stories to tell, but most of us aren't artistic enough to tell them in ways that would stand out — most of us are waiting for artists to tell us these stories so we could match them to our own experiences. Right?

Politely, I will not blame Sufjan Stevens for any conceptual mishandlings. There is nothing inherently shameful, or embarrassing, or commercially calculated, about writing a cycle of songs about somebody who was close to you. There is even nothing inherently wrong about making this album really about Sufjan rather than about Carrie — all the songs are expressly centered on the songwriter's own feelings about how these events shaped and influenced his life and nobody else's, and we learn far more about Sufjan Stevens from the songs than we do about the actual Carrie and Lowell, but then again, it is Sufjan Stevens who is the singer-songwriter, not Carrie or Lowell (Lowell is a musician, but of an entirely different type). There is nothing wrong about choosing a quiet, restrained, largely acoustic framework for this experience — naturally, it fits the intended mood and the stated purpose far better than the style of The Age Of Adz.

The only thing that is wrong with this album, as far as I am concerned, is that it is a Sufjan Stevens album — more precisely, that Sufjan Stevens has not chosen, or has not been able, to cease being Sufjan Stevens while he was writing and recording these songs. «But why should he have chosen to do so?», shall you ask, and I will answer: of course he shouldn't have, certainly not in this particular case, not in his most autobiographical / personal / intimate musical expe­rience to date. Sincerity and honesty, the presence of which on this album would be very impolite to doubt, are its primary selling points, ones that are undeniably responsible for 90% of the exalted responses selectively quoted at the beginning of this review. But the same primary selling points also represent the album's main weaknesses — by being himself and nobody else, Sufjan flashingly exposes everything that so strongly bugs me about him.

As is typical of Sufjan, the album has a nice sound. N-I-C-E, as in «enjoyable, pleasant, pleasu­rable, agreeable, delightful, satisfying, gratifying, acceptable, affable» etc. etc. Pretty, soothing acoustic picking all over the place; soft piano patterns; relaxing synthesizer backdrops; hushed, tender, falsetto-oriented vocals that manage to redirect even the most painful of grudges onto paths of sweet forgiveness and love for your sinner neighbor. Not a single second of the record intentionally or unintentionally goads you into thinking, «gee, what an asshole»; not a single moment comes across as jarringly misplaced. From the viewpoint of ritualistic public culture circa 2015, Carrie & Lowell is as immaculate as they come. Even a few of those strategically placed «shocking» lines ("you checked your texts while I masturbated", etc.) come across as moments of disarming honesty rather than rude slip-ups.

Unfortunately, when I want for a piece of art to strike me hard on an emotional level, I typi­cally make the mistake of looking for something deeper than «nice». Having only recently re-listened to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, for instance, for the purposes of re-reviewing it, I find that the three piano chords of ʽMotherʼ pack more gut punch to them than Carrie & Lowell in its entire entirety. Certainly, these are different personalities — there is little reason to compare the turbulent, unstable, spiritually violent Lennon with the calm, soft, microscopically subtle Fran­ciscan serenity of Sufjan Stevens. But as banal as that might sound to people soaked in modern cultural values — turbulence, unstability, spiritual violence tend to make for better art than calmness, softness, and microscopic subtlety; at least, such is my understanding of art, based not only on my personal experience, but also on the general history of art up to the beginning of the 21st century, when the idea that «tranquility is the new rebellion» and «boredom is the new excitement» began gaining traction faster than the spread of neo-conservatism.

Turning to the actual songs on Carrie & Lowell, I find... nothing to turn to, because even after about a half a dozen listens, spread over a one-and-a-half year period, I cannot remember how even a single one of them goes. The only thing I remember now, twenty minutes after the last echoes of echoes of echoes of ʽBlue Bucket Of Goldʼ have vaporized away, is how nice it was. The acoustic picking, the pretty falsetto singing, the reverent / symbolic / heartfelt lyrics, maybe the way he found to make lines like "we're all gonna die" sound like Christopher Robin's lecture to Winnie-the-Pooh... yes, it was pretty. But did that guy really make me care? For himself? For Carrie? For Lowell? For humanity? For my immortal soul? Not really. In order to make me care, as a musician, he should have bothered writing music that would be more interesting and challenging to listen to than this lukewarm set of folk-based patterns, many of which sound exactly the same — and are undistinguishable from just about any folk-based singer-songwriting album written by a 20-year old after a crash course in Donovan, Nick Drake, and (to pick a more recent influence) Belle & Sebastian.

If you have not heard the album yet, all you really need to do to know if you will love it or not is listen to the first minute of the opening number, ʽDeath With Dignityʼ. It's got all the trademarks: folk acoustic guitar, hushed vocals eventually rising to a falsetto mini-climax, lyrics about trying to deal with loss and prostrating oneself in humility, with a few cleverly employed tropes placed along the way ("spirit of silence", "old mare", etc.). Nice? Nice. Stunning? Way too nice for me to have the potential to be stunning. Now expand this to 43 minutes and 35 seconds, and you are pretty much set up. Yes, sometimes the tempo will slow down, sometimes the guitar will be replaced by piano, sometimes production values will drop to lo-fi, sometimes the vocals will be brought higher in the mix, but this won't change anything on any major level, and it makes any discussion of any following songs completely irrelevant.

One might make the old argument about how it's all in the lyrics, and how a proper feel for Carrie & Lowell is impossible without going into detail about all the complex metaphors made by Steven — after all, many of the songs are verbally written as love songs, bringing up the old ʽJuliaʼ pattern (that song where Lennon was intentionally mixing up his feelings for his deceased mother and Yoko, remember?), and have deeply-going psychological implications that might be quite interesting to elicit and analyze if you got nothing better to do. But here, too, I find myself too far gone — too deeply spoiled by singer-songwriters like Dylan or Leonard Cohen who, at their best, were not above sacrificing the musical aspect of their work for a simple combination of intellectual lyrics and monotonously placating atmosphere. Stevens, on the contrary, with this album prefers to align himself with this new generation of Musical Terrormalism, people like Justin Vernon and Phil Elverum, who are happy enough to paint static sonic pictures of their teared-up or stone-cold faces because, apparently, nobody was bold enough to do that before them, so that alone should make their contribution to world culture count big.

Granted, Carrie & Lowell is at least not a bad album — it is miles more listenable and enjoyable than anything by Bon Iver, or that abysmally overrated Mount Eerie record that people went nuts for in 2017. Sufjan is not a professional whiner or a professional ice queen, and he doth play his instruments, and a few of these songs, now that I force myself to penetrate them real hard, have ideas that may eventually come across as hooks (provisionally, I'd say the chorus of ʽFourth Of Julyʼ might eventually qualify). But as far as I am concerned, it does not really stand out all that much from the typical pool of Sufjan Stevens albums — just because he has chosen a more down-to-earth topic does not automatically jump-kick it onto a different level — and the fact that many people seriously find themselves teary-eyed and spiritually devastated by listening to this pretty musical pastiche is just one more of those strange, strange (or, perhaps, not so strange) things about this decade that I find so hard to justify.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Jonny Greenwood: There Will Be Blood


1) Open Spaces; 2) Future Markets; 3) Prospectors Arrive; 4) Eat Him By His Own Light; 5) Henry Plainview; 6) There Will Be Blood; 7) Oil; 8) Proven Lands; 9) HW / Hope Of New Fields; 10) Stranded The Line; 11) Prospectors Quartet.

General verdict: The notorious 16th century baroque composer Sir Jonathan Greenwood with his latest set of motets... oh, wait a minute.

I am ashamed to admit that There Will Be Blood was the last Paul Thomas Anderson movie that I personally saw, and confused to recognize that this was the first of several soundtracks that Jonny Greenwood provided for Anderson. To be honest, while I enjoyed the movie (because watching Daniel Day-Lewis is always a delight as long as the script is not completely dreadful), I did not remember much about its music when it was over — largely because, unlike Aimee Mann's songs in Magnolia, it was just background film music to me. But the half-hour album that accompanied it, containing all of Greenwood's score but not the Brahms or Arvo Pärt pieces that were also featured in the movie, does not at all sound like «incidental music»: its compositions are lengthy, complex, and wholesome enough to come across as a suite, one that can be enjoyed without even beginning to suspect that there's this unconventionally symbolic movie about a ruthless oil pro­spector that goes along with it.

Neo-classical suite, that is: for the first time here, Greenwood allows himself to fully indulge in his passion for chamber music and write a set of pieces for classical musicians to perform — in formats ranging from string quartets to piano quintets to small symphonic orchestras. The variety of approach allows me to hear echoes of just about everybody who mattered in classical music in the second half of the 20th century, from Shostakovich to Messiaen to Penderecki to Schnittke to... well, it is silly just to keep dropping names all over the place, especially if the name-dropper is quite far from being a connaisseur of classical oeuvres created in the age of modal jazz, rock'n'roll, and Madonna.

I do not want to jump on the oh-so-easily jumpable «Jonny Greenwood is a rock musician with no academic training, therefore he cannot even begin to approach the greatness of Shostakovich and/or Penderecki on their own turf» wagon; but neither can I claim that the classical music he writes is truly worth your time if you are a buff. All I can say, from a thoroughly layman-like perspective, is that modern classical, for me, falls into two categories — music that makes me go to sleep (approximately 85% of what I've heard) and music that makes me sit up and listen because there's, like, some real life in it. From that crude, simple perspective There Will Be Blood dangles somewhere in the middle.

One thing that Jonny clearly did not want to do was to make his music sound sleepy and ambient; practically each of these pieces shows a certain dynamics, rises and falls, invests in heavy cello barrages and sharply lyrical violin solos, all the while staying in surprisingly traditional territory. Dissonance is used sparingly; in fact, I believe that most of the record would be quite palatable even to those whose tastes in classical music stop at the border that separates impressionism from serialism. At the same time, there is clearly a big spiritual influence here from the «apo­calyptic», WWII-inspired trend in modern music — check out, for instance, the alarm siren-like strings on ʽHenry Plainviewʼ, not unlike something you'd hear in Penderecki's Threnody — which fits in with the tone of Anderson's appropriately apocalyptic movie, but most likely, just reflects Jonny's personal interest in making spooky.

Nothing about the soundtrack strikes me as particularly beautiful or fearful, but it is sprinkled with occasionally outstanding moments — the sprinting Wagnerian cellos in ʽFuture Marketsʼ, the ravaging string-based bolts of lightning in the title track, the percussive African treatment of strings in ʽProven Landsʼ among them. At the very least, the soundtrack shows more energy than In Rainbows (ducks a used copy of the There Will Be Blood DVD); as to how well it fits into the modern classical scene, my opinion should not matter — groping blindly in the dark, I'd say that this stuff makes Jonny look no better and no worse than the average moderately talented graduate of the Juilliard composition department, which would either qualify as a compliment or an insult, depending on your general view of the world. I will merely reiterate that the suite works fine on its own, without any obligatory connection to the movie, that I had a bit more fun listening to it than I expected, and that I think Jonny would fare better as a symphonic composer than a string quartet one — but then, I do have a hard time getting into string quartets in general.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Chic: Risqué


1) Good Times; 2) A Warm Summer Night; 3) My Feet Keep Dancing; 4) My Forbidden Lover; 5) Can't Stand To Love You; 6) Will You Cry (When You Hear This Song); 7) What About Me.

General verdict: The recipe is getting a bit too predictable, but the hits are still fun.

That's Risqué, not Risque, continuing the band's infatuation with all things French — though, admittedly, there aren't a whole lot of European references in the songs themselves this time around; largely, it's all in the accoutrements, if you know what I mean. Released eighteen days after the famous Disco Demolition Night, it still came about in time to give Chic their last bout of commercial and critical glory, being admired by general fans and Robert Christgau types alike; and while Christgau's love would still extend to some of their records past the «day disco died» deadline, the average public would never again welcome them with the same passion.

In all honesty, though, when you listen to the Seventies' trilogy of Chic, C'est Chic, and Risqué in politely accurate chronological sequence, you can sense that by 1979, the Chic formula had become... well, a formula. There are still plenty of awesome moments here, along with a few clunkers, but it seems evident that with C'est Chic, Edwards and Rodgers had done everything they could with the pattern, and now it is all about finding new variations on the same old basic grooves. Worse, Risqué cheats its own title because there is hardly anything «risky» or simply unpredictable on the record. I mean, you could, perhaps, cringe at the vaudevillian "yowsah, yowsah, yowsah!", or you could denounce the lengthy guitar showmanship on ʽSavoir Faireʼ as egotistic, but at least these little touches took away the factory-like aura of the endless dance­floor-oriented production. However, by mid-'79, fame, fortune, and coke were probably taking their toll, and it shows very few signs of any musical searching.

If we set all our preconceptions aside and simply embrace disco for what it is supposed to be, not for what it is supposed to transcend, then ʽGood Timesʼ, one of the most heavily sampled songs in the history of pop music, might indeed deserve the title of the quintessential disco tune. There are no taunts here, no ironic twirls or twists, no salaciously sexy challenges — just your bare-bones groove, a textbook case of guitar-bass weave between Nile and Edward, very lightly seasoned with sparse piano and string chords and with largely inobtrusive vocals from the band's depersonalized girl personalities. Catchy chorus, but on the whole, the piano chords and the vocals are a bit too much on the sentimental rather than the sexy side, which is why ʽLe Freakʼ will still remain a much better representative of this genre.

Likewise, restrained sentimentality hurts the overall effect of the second (and much smaller) dance-pop hit of the record, ʽMy Feet Keep Dancingʼ — but in pure melodic terms, it is the supe­rior song, not only because it has Bernard stretching out the most in the mid-section, but also because of some superb orchestral crescendos: concertmaster Gene Orloff and The Chic Strings almost manage to steal the song away from its writers with multi-layered overdubs, creating a near-perfect tribute to the art of dancing in the process.

The third big single was ʽMy Forbidden Loverʼ, a dance ballad that perfectly illustrates my gripes about the formulaic nature of the album — it's got everything that a hit needs to be a hit, but nothing above that requirement. Danceable groove, catchy chorus (catchy mostly because it is repeated a million times), musicianship impressive enough to make it listenable/respectable... and, I guess, musicianship is the only thing here that puts it above anything that could be recorded by Britney Spears or Shakira 20-25 years later.

As for the album-only tracks, there's some embarrassing crap here: ʽA Warm Summer Nightʼ, with its cheesy Latinisms ("papi!", "te quiero!") and interminably recycled slow groove, is an unimaginably lazy and trashy ballad — if this were ʽSavoir Faireʼ, we would at least get a great guitar solo, but here we only have the Chic girls spinning the same single verse-chorus over and over. ʽWill You Cryʼ at least has some proper verses and a more thrilling chorus hook (I like the odd contrast between the first, abruptly chopped "will you cry?" and the second, prolonged, apologetic "will you cry-y-y-y-y?"), but suffers from the same problem — being stuck between the rock of non-fun and the hard place of insufficient-soulfulness. And ʽCan't Stand To Love Youʼ and ʽWhat About Meʼ are fairly standard dance-pop — the former surprisingly slower and funkier (rather than disco-ier) than the rest, but the Rodgers-Edwards team is no Funkadelic, and Nile's guitar is way too clean and quiet to retro-fit them with the classic funk crowd anyway.

So, as you can see, my opinion is more along the lines that Risqué was not so much the artistic peak for Chic as the turning point where they switched from creation to craft — unintentionally, perhaps, since quite a few of those who had decided to choose disco for a living around 1976-77 had run out of fresh juice by 1979 (I know that many people still remain under the spell of the Bee Gees' Spirits Having Flown, for instance, but I continue to insist that most of the stuff there was uninspired, flaccid shit — provided shit can be flaccid — next to Main Course and Satur­day Night Fever). Still, millions of people who bought the record and Robert Christgau who praised the record can't be completely wrong all at the same time, right? It still plays out like charming nostalgic fun, just not as much so as the two albums that preceded it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

King Crimson: USA


1) Walk On... No Pussyfooting; 2) Lark's Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2; 3) Lament; 4) Exiles; 5) Asbury Park; 6) Easy Money; 7) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 8*) Fracture; 9*) Starless.

General verdict: A solid sample of the band's mid-Seventies live power, though fairly obsolete for the true fan.

These days, all (both) live albums that King Crimson released back in the day look pitifully pitiful and obnoxiously obsolete against the huge, painstakingly assembled, comprehensive box­sets such as Starless and The Road To Red — in fact, USA, a record originally assembled from two shows (Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Providence, Rhode Island) played on June 28 and 30, 1974, has by now been completely integrated inside The Road To Red, including the restoration of shortened tracks to their full running length (yes, now you actually get to hear how the improvisation on ʽEasy Moneyʼ got brought to a suitable conclusion, rather than just fade out). However, it is unlikely that I will be listening to those boxsets in their entirety any time soon, much less provide meaningful reviews for them — on the other hand, a short record such as USA is perfect as a representative sampler, and while it certainly does not disclose all the secrets of the Bruford-Wetton-Cross era King Crimson, it does a good job of capturing most of their good moments, coasting on some of the questionable ones, and omitting all of the bad ones. (My own edition — the 30th anniversary one — also adds ʽFractureʼ and ʽStarlessʼ to the original LP: very grateful for the latter, still in doubt about the former).

Since there was no tour for Red, most of the material here is taken from Larks' Tongues In Aspic, plus a live take on ʽLamentʼ and ʽSchizoid Manʼ as the obligatory crowd favorite — the only track from the original line-up to have survived into the math-rock age. For the typical symph-prog band, this would have probably resulted in a mere multiplication of entities; but King Crimson always seemed to grow an extra pair on stage, and with the sound quality finally being up to par (after the shameful Earthbound debacle), USA played its significant part in 1975, as a well-rounded epilogue to classic King Crimson, a band whose self-burial, it could be argued, was highly symbolic of the end of the Golden Age of rock music in general.

You do have to wait quite a bit, though. The first three tracks (not counting the brief atmospheric introduction, «loaned» by Fripp from his joint album with Brian Eno) are good, but not specta­cular — well, ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2ʼ is always spectacular, but I have yet to hear a version that would honestly kick the ass of the snappy studio original (largely because Fripp has never bothered to reproduce the poisonous tones of the guitar riff). Neither ʽLamentʼ nor ʽExilesʼ were fabulous songs to start with, and the live performances do not do much to save them; some­how, I feel that they were included primarily in order to raise the percentage of vocal numbers on the final record (sort of a parting gift to Wetton), although ʽExilesʼ has a stronger, fuller vocal performance from John here and a pretty guiding electric solo from Robert.

Things start really cooking on the second side, though. ʽAsbury Parkʼ is an improvisation, named after the venue where it was played, and now that I am relistening to it, I am pretty damn sure that this is the track that should have replaced ʽProvidenceʼ on Red in order to rid it of the last traces of imperfection. Although the funky groove of the track is far from the most complex pattern ever played by these guys, the groove itself is beastly, and Fripp plays some of his wildest passages here — launching into frenzied fits of shredding one minute, stretching out with psychedelic jazzy noodling the other, while the rhythm section is doing its own thang in proto-metallic mode. Compared to the improvisations on Earthbound, this is a completely different matter — tighter, heavier, nastier, even punkier, if I might borrow the term for a bit. (And I appreciate the truncated version, by the way: the full 12-minute performance has them unnecessarily going into free-form chaotic mode at one point).

Meanwhile, the truncated version of ʽEasy Moneyʼ annihilates the studio version, tightening it up, bringing Wetton's vocals more up front, putting extra fuzz on the bass, and, eventually, turning into a long, slow, meditative jam, with more of those howling guitar tones offset by Cross' Mellotron playing. I am not sure why they edited out the ending (perhaps Fripp felt that the LP side was running out of space already), but in any case, ʽEasy Moneyʼ is one of those vocal numbers that really came to life on stage rather than in the studio.

And, finally, the ʽSchizoid Manʼ thing. Since they did not have a brass section with them, and since David's violin was way too feeble-sounding for such heavy numbers, the burden is entirely on Fripp's shoulders here, and he gives the performance of a lifetime — the solo is positively smouldering, as he launches into head-spinningly speedy runs, turning that guitar into an atomic spinning top at times, before bringing the band to an even more frenetic noisy climax midway through the song. Nothing truly tops the apocalyptic siren calls of the original in terms of sonic depth, but in terms of sheer maniacal energy, this here is one of the best ever versions of this song, even by the generally high standards of the 1973-74 concert performances.

And back in 1975, it probably made sense that King Crimson would say its final goodbye to the world with the same song with which it originally said hello — and bringing it «up to eleven», no less. Overall, there was a sense of disillusionment in the air of 1974-75, a general feeling that the intellectual and spiritual ambitions of rock music might have somewhat overstepped its actual capacity for progressive development; and while bands like Yes, drawing most of their inspiration from idealism, were rather ill equipped to fight that feeling, King Crimson, especially in their post-Sinfield days, were the perfect vehicle to embrace it and let it explode them from within. They entered this life with a big fuck-you to humanity, and then they left it with the exact same fuck-you, only a bigger one. And with a guy as serious and inscrutable as Robert Fripp, nobody at the time could say for sure that this was not really the end of the road for KC.

Technical footnote: with Road To Red now available for Crimheads worldwide, I suppose the only — strange — reason for them to own USA separately is for the violin overdubs that were laid down in the studio by Eddie Jobson, presumably because Cross' parts were poorly captured; it is Eddie's, rather than David's, work that you hear on ʽLarks' Tonguesʼ and ʽSchizoid Manʼ, and I guess it fits in just as well as David's. On the other hand, I do not suppose that USA will ever get deleted out of the catalog, because there is still such a thing as judging a band's live potential by a well-rounded, economical live album, rather than the millstone of their entire touring history placed around your neck and usurping all of your private life.