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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Small Faces: Small Faces


1) (Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me; 2) Something I Want To Tell You; 3) Feeling Lonely; 4) Happy Boys Happy; 5) Things Are Going To Get Better; 6) My Way Of Giving; 7) Green Circles; 8) Become Like You; 9) Get Yourself Together; 10) All Our Yesterdays; 11) Talk To You; 12) Show Me The Way; 13) Up The Wooden Hills To Bedford­shire; 14) Eddie's Dreaming.

Those who like their conceptuality mature and their maturity conceptual will always prefer Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, but to me, this is the band's unquestionable masterpiece, their only LP that deserves to be mentioned as a legitimate and fully privileged companion to all the other masterpieces from 1967. Its only flaw may be a certain lack of personality: by this time, Steve Marriott's dominance as a frontman was becoming somewhat resented by the rest of the band, and this is most evident from the fact that Ronnie Lane, a much less powerful, but a subtly charisma­tic, singer, now takes the lead on about half of the tracks — this results in a less distinctive vocal sound, and since the band never had a unique instrumental sound to speak of, Small Faces bears no easily identifiable tags on it. But then again, wasn't Sgt. Pepper, too, a conscious effort to get rid of identifiable tags and dissolve the band members' individual and collective personalities in something bigger than ourselves? The important thing is that Small Faces never sounds like a rip-off of somebody in particular — and, as a matter of fact, this is where the band most definite­ly parts ways with The Who: Small Faces has very little in common with The Who Sell Out.

Despite the American title of this album, there are, in fact, but two small faces. One is that of Steve Marriott, who has pretty much renounced his career as a Muddy Waters-adulating blues­man and is now concentrating on becoming the British equivalent of Otis Redding. The other is that of Ronnie Lane, who has developed a keen interest in those smelly old roots, and is busy incorporating folk, baroque, and music hall elements in the band's music. On the other hand, it might also be argued that the third face, the one gluing the other two together, is Ian McLagan, whose keyboards support both the soul-wailing of Marriott and the folk-burrowing of Lane. Only Kenney Jones, now that the band is no longer interested in cranking up the amps on metallized cover versions of Booker T. & The MG's, remains in the dangerous position of being left without a job, uh, I mean, a face of his own — but at least they left him one instrumental (ʽHappy Boys Happyʼ) where he can still kick some ass.

As tight, rowdy, bawdy R&B'ers, even if this style was already slightly antiquated for the boys, this is where they hit their peak, too: ʽ(Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Meʼ, with its alternation between a despairing Marriott, frantically trying to knock through his loved one's skull, and the hear-hearing  boys, unsuccessfully trying to cheer him up, is instantaneously memorable — and on the second side of the album, the song is echoed by the equally frantic ʽTalk To Youʼ, where each verse-chorus bundle is a tense, sweaty, veins-bulgin' drive to the explosive final statement: "all I want to do is talk to you!", Marriott blurts out before the front door of his girlfriend (who wisely keeps it shut because with a tone like that, you never really know if the loverboy does not clutch a shotgun behind his back). But every now and then, Steve is also capable of quieting down and musing in a more optimistic manner: ʽThings Are Going To Get Betterʼ works as a becalming, self-directed lullaby, gently adorned with McLagan's harpsichord — only towards the end does Steve wind himself up in a bit of a frenzy — and, for what it's worth, since the title begs for such a comparison, this is really a song about things getting better, unlike The Beatles' ʽGet­ting Betterʼ, which is completely in the domain of King Sarcasm in comparison. (I'm not saying that Small Faces have the better song — just a happier one).

But it is the emergence of Ronnie Lane as a competent, competitive, and maybe even visionary songwriter in his own right that really sets the album apart from everything previously done. In stark contrast with the burly Marriott, Ronnie is a sweet, vulnerable soul, and although, as a sin­ger, he is professionally miles below Steve, his voice has a homely-friendly attitude that will immediately appeal to all those introverted people who can be somewhat put off by Marriott's proto-arena-rock swagger (which he would later, predictably, invest into actual arena-rock during his days in Humble Pie).

Already on his first song here, ʽSomething I Want To Tell Youʼ, he presents a courtly alternative to Marriott's angry ranting — they both have trouble with girls, but Ronnie prefers to voice his in a much less egotistic manner. The song reveals a solid Dylan influ­ence — its rhythmics, lyrical moves, and Ian McLagan's «Al Kooper style» organ all bring back to mind the days of Highway 61 Revisited — but Dylan would never end one of his verses with something like "you forget what we've found together, you forget what we've found is love", and even if he did, he would certainly never give the impression of tears in his eyes by the way he'd be singing them. Curiously, that organ part of McLagan's, starting out solemnly and slowly, even­tually picks up steam, going from J. S. Bach mode to Franz Liszt mode, if a classical analogy may be pardoned; Ronnie, however, never lifts his voice into anything even remotely resembling a scream — partly because he is technically unable to, and partly because he'd probably like the music to speak for his feelings, rather than risk making a pompous ass of himself. Repeat with ʽAll Our Yesterdaysʼ, where Dylan is replaced with an old-fashioned vaudeville arrangement, but the vulnerability stays the same, while the sneering, bullying Marriott cannot resist making fun of poor Ronnie by starting the song off with an exaggerated Cockney announcement: "...the darling of Wapping Wharf launderette, Ronald Leafy-a Lane!"

I have not mentioned the word «psychedelic» yet, and for good reason, because Small Faces never got truly hooked on to the psychedelic craze (even less so than The Who, who did record several Pink Floyd-influenced tracks for The Who Sell Out). However, the album would still be nowhere near as impressive had the open-your-mind wave completely bypassed these guys; in actuality, they saddled it in their own impressive manner, somewhat close to The Kinks — by merging elements of «Britishness», particularly the retro ones, with the magic of studio techno­logy. That way, a song like ʽGreen Circlesʼ marries the folk narrative approach ("and with the rain a stranger came...") with psychedelic attitudes, reflected mainly in the complex vocal har­mony patterns, the stereo panning fun, and the mantra gimmick ("green circles, green circles, green circles!..." until said circles really do begin to appear before your eyes) — actually, Syd Barrett and friends did this too (ʽThe Gnomeʼ, etc.), but Small Faces never go properly whacko. ʽUp The Wooden Hills To Bedfordshireʼ, a song written and sung by McLagan, tells you to "leave your body behind you with a different feeling", but somehow Ian's idea of a transcendental, poetic dream is to be slipping away "up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire", an idiomatic British expression with which parents used to shoo their kids away to bed, and which had already been previously immortalized in a Vera Lynn song. So it's another song about Going To Sleep, but with a more pronounced local flavor than, say, ʽI'm Only Sleepingʼ or Bill Wyman's ʽIn Another Landʼ — and also reading more like a dark lullaby than an account of one's personal experience ("when you're slipping into sleep, there's a world you fill find...", with the song's steady beat and McLagan's unfurling organ magically pulling you along some yellow brick road or other). Funny bit of trivia: on the US edition, the ʽto Bedfordshireʼ part was omitted from the song title — possibly by accident, but more likely because the publishers did not want to confuse American audiences with lengthy English toponyms, even though it made the title meaningless.

The idea of sleeping and dreaming is, in general, quite popular with the boys on the album: even the final track, despite its rather lively, even Caribbean-flavored, arrangement is called ʽEddie's Dreamingʼ (who's Eddie?) — implying that (a) life is a carnival and (b) life is only a dream, so nothing makes more sense than combining both in one short package. (In a way, this is what the Stones also did with their ʽOn With The Showʼ conclusion to Satanic Majesties, even if that song did not expressly mention the idea of dreaming — it was more of a common theme that linked together all the songs on the album). Somehow I think that this twist may not have been all that much to Steve's liking; but, as I already said, on this particular occasion his songs seem to mesh fairly well with Ronnie's and Ian's.

The US version of the album, retitled There Are But Four Small Faces, predictably cut out several songs in favor of the band's contemporary singles — ʽItchycoo Parkʼ, ʽHere Come The Niceʼ, and ʽTin Soldierʼ — thus seriously skewing the balance in favor of Marriott and the R&B groove, which, it may have been felt, would be taken more benevolently by American listeners. These songs are all classics, for sure (and one of them even provided the name for one of Britain's earliest progressive rock acts), but all of them follow more or less the same principle — the hook is primarily determined by the loudness level: quiet «preparatory» verses followed by explosive choruses — and, in my opinion, they do not reflect the true progression of the band nearly as well as the song selection and sequencing on the original UK edition of the album. I mean, ʽTin Sol­dierʼ is a kick-ass anthemic song and all that, but its constituents are fairly well understandable; ʽGreen Circlesʼ remains far more strange for my comprehension. Regardless, it is all too natural that my thumbs up would go out to either the UK or the US version in any case: almost every­thing that Small Faces did during this peak year of theirs sounds just as powerful or just as magi­cal today as it did fifty years ago.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Bent Knee: Say So


1) Black Tar Water; 2) Leak Water; 3) Counselor; 4) EVE; 5) Interlude; 6) The Things You Love; 7) Nakami; 8) Commercial; 9) Hands Up; 10) Good Girl.

It is quite surprising to me that I do not love Bent Knee as much as all the aspects of their music are supposing I should. Goddangit, this is provocative, experimental stuff, with a huge diversity of approaches, not afraid of throwing in extra ferocity or a tad more vulnerability; great singer, challenging melodies that do not, however, make any serious transgressions against harmony, intelligent lyrics, no blatantly obvious nods to trendy fashions... but somehow, somewhere, some­thing about it all still isn't right.

For some reason, on their third album, Say So, Courtney Swain and her friends seem even more distant than they used to be. The music, if anything, gets even more complex and unpredictable: what can you say about a band that sounds like King Crimson on one track, sings in Japanese on the next one, and then goes into a Beyoncé-style R&B workout? And yet, behind all the ambition and the superficially unquestionable presence of soul, I sense surprisingly little real feeling — at the very least, I totally fail to connect with any of this stuff emotionally.

My personal hypothesis, which might, perhaps, seem surprising to other listeners, is that at this point, Swain's vocal artistry and the band's music not so much complement each other as clash with each other. The music here is, by and large, experimental: Bent Knee explore rare time signatures, non-standard instrumental combinations, and genre soups that could somehow synthe­size dark folk, ambient, math-rock, and vaudeville all in one. However, in this they do not reach the efficiency level of, say, somebody like the Mothers of Invention, because the music always has to remember that it serves as the backdrop to Swain's performance — there are very few pure instrumental passages here, and Swain has such a strong presence that whenever she sings, it is dang hard to concentrate on the music. And when the music is experimental, how can one «get it» without concentrating?

On the other hand, Swain all by herself is not quite capable of climbing the golden pedestal re­served for outstanding female performers. Why, I do not really understand: she has a great range, she's got some cool word combos at her disposal, and she has plenty of alluring theatrics in her approach. Yet as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder for her to stay put in the shoes of Mad Ophelia without revealing herself as a certified impostor. For me, the album pretty much crashed from the false start of ʽBlack Tar Waterʼ — like ʽWay Too Longʼ, it also opens the re­cord with ecological metaphors, but where ʽWay Too Longʼ worked as an angry rant, ʽBlack Tar Waterʼ gives us broken-hearted numbness as its chief emotion, and this is a much tougher emo­tion to tackle. Anger is something that we all have; true broken-hearted numbness is rare, and even simulating it convincingly is a task that Courtney Swain struggles with. "I made myself strong / By getting my skin numb" she sings... and I don't believe her. Likewise, "I try to speak but I only leak water" on the next track is sung with a certain enigmatic pretense, but the tonality of that statement seems so artificial that I am left utterly cold.

The cumulative result is that Say So is a very busy, fussy, pulsating album, filled to the brim with ideas; but as a challenging musical statement it falls flat, because there's way too much of the «primadonna factor» in it — and as a primadonna album, well, there's too much fuss and pulsa­tion in it. I share Swain's concerns: for the ecology, for the broken-hearted, for the commercia­lism and insanity of 21st century life (ʽCommercialʼ), I even appreciate the irony when the re­cord's most Beyoncé-like song (ʽHands Upʼ) turns out to be a lyrical condemnation of the cheap thrills of technological progress ("we'll be so progressive darling / solar cell on our roof", "texts loop like a mantra through me / buzzing blasts of dopamine"). But it is an intellectual conundrum, this record, not a feast for the senses, and this is not what counts as great music in my own text­book. I even have trouble talking about individual songs — because it is no fun to praise their deep conceptuality or complex structures or layered arrangements unless it all makes emotional sense, and almost none of it does.

But as an example, I will take the album's nine-minute centerpiece, ʽEVEʼ. It starts out on a cool note — fire alarm-like guitars and see-sawing violins — then, as the note quickly gets tedious, at 1:40 into the song the big drums and distorted guitars kick in, but the expected impression of destruction and chaos never materializes. Why? Because the guitars are not loud enough, dammit; because there is no feeling that the musicians are really into this, because these guys have neither the compositional genius of King Crimson nor the animal drive of, say, Nirvana. In addition, they do not like to operate in terms of individualistic guitar riffs, so there is no single «line» anywhere in sight that you could hang on to in order to weather the storm. Midway through, in one of those rare intervals where the primadonna clams up for some time, there is another chaotic section, with guitars and violins frantically accelerating and finally dissolving in a puddle of ambient noise from which the primadonna is reborn again — see, it might even sound intriguing on paper, but I'd rather go back to The Velvet Underground for my chaos...

I will not give the album a thumbs down: Bent Knee is one of the most daring and challenging American rock bands of our time, and Say So shows no signs of resting or slacking in those de­partments. But after the first two records where their ambitions were still kept in reasonable check, I feel like they may have overstepped their limits and boundaries — without adding any­thing fundamentally new to the table, they have become too entangled in their own cobwebs. But then again, maybe it's just me, and I never liked Tales From Topographic Oceans, either; so if you like yourself a good musical challenge, be my guest; just do not feel surprised when nobody ends up remembering a single thing about this record in five years' time.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Xoa


1) Any Way The Wind Blows; 2) Out Of Pawn; 3) Your Fonder Heart; 4) Why We Build The Wall; 5) Now You Know; 6) If It's True; 7) Namesake; 8) Young Man In America; 9) Two Kids; 10) The Pursewarden Affair; 11) His Kiss, The Riot; 12) Come September; 13) You Are Forgiven; 14) Our Lady Of The Underground; 15) Cosmic American.

This is not much of an album, really: mostly re-recorded versions of songs from all across Mit­chell's back catalog, plus exactly three new tunes, none of them promising any new directions or revelations. Anaïs herself stated that this one was strictly for the fans, and this was confirmed by the limited status of the release — although these days such things get confusing, since in the digital / streaming age the line between «limited» and «full-scale» (or whatever) release is getting increasingly blurred. Good excuse for a husband-beater snapshot, though.

The new songs consist of good poetry and dull melodies: ʽThe Pursewarden Affairʼ must have been written specifically to get potential readers interested in the works of Laurence Durell, but even though I admit to having never read a single line from The Alexandria Quartet (I am not proud of this, but am not exactly losing sleep, either), this does not stop me from tipping my hat to lines like "Percy Pursewarden, open up your door / I haven't come to break your cadence or to mix your metaphor". And ʽAny Way The Wind Blowsʼ makes a nice addition to the list of songs by that name, from Zappa to J. J. Cale, being probably the first one to depict a chaotic-apocalyp­tic vision based on that idiom. However, neither of the two has the kind of impact that Mitchell's best musical stuff does, like ʽYoung Man In Americaʼ, which cuts deep and sharp even in this stripped-down variation.

And speaking of stripped down, I have no idea what exactly these new versions of ʽOut Of Pawnʼ or ʽNamesakeʼ bring to the table, but at least it makes sense that four of these re-recordings come from Hadestown, giving Anaïs a chance to present the songs according to her personal vision rather than in the context of a collectively engineered musical project. Personally, I'm all too happy to hear ʽIf It's Trueʼ without Justin Vernon, and I think that, although the rowdy ʽOur Lady Of The Undergroundʼ was done with more balls by Ani DiFranco (because, from a purely feminist standpoint, Ani DiFranco simply has more balls than Anaïs Mitchell, for better or for worse, you decide), anyway, I am partial to this subtler, more vulnerable version. On the other hand, ʽWhy We Build The Wallʼ, with Greg Brown's «earthwall» voice, certainly worked better on the original version — although I understand the desire to reiterate how much the message of the song actually means to the songwriter in person.

In terms of rarities, there's ʽCome Septemberʼ, a track originally released on the 2008 EP Country, a collaboration between Mitchell and fellow folk-writer Rachel Ries: pleasantly moody and melancholic as usual, but nothing to make me rush out and hunt for that lost EP. And in general, Xoa produces a strange impression: it has all the makings of an «unplugged» album — mostly just Anaïs and her acoustic guitar, playing fresh and depply personal variations — but considering that Anaïs Mitchell has almost always been an «unplugged» artist, it would make more sense if she played them all as polkas, or at least as Nickelback tributes or something. And she is not even all that old now, to get proper justification for looking back over her shoulder on the confessions of her youth and replaying them as per the wisdom accumulated in those grey hairs and facial wrinkles. In other words, you have to really be a fan to thank her for this, instead of harboring the nasty suspicion that, perhaps, she simply stumbled upon writer's block... which, by the way, seems to be ongoing at the time that I am writing this: 2016-2017 saw her get all too busy with the production of Hadestown as an off-Broadway musical, and altogether we have not heard a proper new Anaïs Mitchell album since Young Man In America. Then again, there's so many people in the world who do release new music even though they are suffering from even worse attacks of writer's block that the decision to release a bunch of re-recordings might count as a noble example of artistic honesty these days.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Chameleons: Strange Times


1) Mad Jack; 2) Caution; 3) Tears; 4) Soul In Isolation; 5) Swamp Thing; 6) Time/The End Of Time; 7) Seriocity; 8) In Answer; 9) Childhood; 10) I'll Remember; 11*) Tears (full arrangement); 12*) Paradiso; 13*) Inside Out; 14*) Ever After; 15*) John, I'm Only Dancing; 16*) Tomorrow Never Knows.

The one and only album that The Chameleons released for Geffen Records would also be their last one for more than a decade: immediately after the death of their manager Tony Fletcher, they disbanded, although I suppose that there must have been something more to that — lack of com­mercial success, for instance, or personal friction between the band members. Could hardly have been personal dissatisfaction with the record, considering that Mark Burgess still regards Strange Times as the group's best album — an opinion with which, unfortunately, I cannot agree.

The record is indeed a fan favorite, but the only thing that I could «objectively» agree upon with the admirers is that this is a stab at Creative Maturity, and if you think that the very act of thrus­ting your lance against the dragon of Creative Maturity automatically calls for a Medal of Art Rock Valor, feel free to call Strange Times a masterpiece — even if, as far as I can see, the brave knights were charred to a crisp by the dragon's mature fire breath. What this means, basi­cally (no pun intended), is that some of the songs are longer; some of the songs are slower; some of the songs are more soulful; and some of the lyrics are more introverted.

But if your long, slow, soulful, introverted songs share all the problems that used to pester the band's short, fast, playful, extraverted songs, is this really a meaningful achievement? Namely, the production values remain absolutely the same — despite, or, more likely, because of the band now working with The Cure's own production David M. Allen: big drums, cavernous guitars, and typically Eighties synthesizers converge on almost every track. The melodic underbelly of each song follows the same principle — complete monotony from start to end, and, unlike The Cure, The Chameleons know very little about creative overdubbing, so there is none of the intricate and intriguing sonic layering which Robert Smith bakes in his cakes and which can often make even the most melodically simple and straightforward Cure song into a sonic masterpiece. And, as before, Mark Burgess only plays one role: an earthier, more realistic, but less emotionally rousing spiritual relative of said Robert Smith.

I will admit that the opening song, ʽMad Jackʼ, is an energetic pop rocker in the best traditions of Script Of The Bridge and remains as the high point of both this album and The Chameleons' original career in general. Except for the awful production (really, this is one song that deserved a proper in-yer-face sound, rather than the usual lost-in-the-forest atmosphere), it's got all the decent ingredients: a rousing and catchy opening riff, interesting lyrics that are open to all sorts of inter­pretations (you could just as easily associate ʽMad Jackʼ with Ronald Reagan as you could with Timothy Leary), a rowdy barroom chorus, and a steady, fast beat to keep it all together. Too bad there is not another song like that on the entire record.

Because once it is over, your hopes come crashing down with ʽCautionʼ, an insufferable, eight-minute-long quasi-Goth monster that thinks it can boil up and keep hot an air of apocalyptic depression just by repeating the same predictable minor key jangle over and over and over. Any musical development in the song? Sure. Midway through, it gradually fades out, and then begins to fade in again, and then there's, like, a crescendo, with, like, John Lever putting in more fills and Burgess actually rising to a whiny scream, and the guitars playing at louder volume, but without ever changing their initial jangly pattern. Unless one is immediately struck by lines like "One by one by one / We disappear / Day after day / Year after year... We have no future / And we have no past / We're just drifting / Ghosts of glass", I cannot see how one could regard this song as anything but a gigantic — or maybe not even so gigantic — failure to get oneself elected into the Mope'n'Roll Hall Of Fame, next to The Doors, Pink Floyd, and The Cure.

Alas, the album never truly recovers from that crash. Subsequent tunes may be shorter (although at least ʽSoul In Isolationʼ still tries to repeat the same feat, with a slightly faster tempo, but equally monotonous results), may be speedier, may suddenly switch from electric post-punk to acoustic post-folk (ʽTearsʼ) — nothing helps. Departure from the simpler, but shapelier pop format of Script has simply not been compensated by any positive factors: now the songs are almost completely hookless, but the arrangements and production values stay at the same old, boring level. With a little effort, I can single out ʽSwamp Thingʼ, which does sound a bit like its title — with a bunch of «twangy», delay-driven chords and ghostly echoes creating a nervous, suspenseful atmosphere for the first couple of minutes, although eventually it still mutates into the same old jingle-jangle. "Now the storm has come / Or is it just another shower?", asks Bur­gess in the chorus; well, as far as my opinion is concerned, the whole record is an unending series of drizzling showers that never gather enough force to convert into a proper storm.

My only guess is that the lyrics, and the utter conviction with which Mark delivers them — the good old Joe Strummer bark when necessary, the Robert Smith wail when not — are that single factor which tips the scales in favor of the record for its fans. When I look at the words for ʽChild­hoodʼ, for instance, they are really good: it is not easy to write a song about preserving the innocence of the child state and not make it sound like a bunch of high school clichés, but "I saw innocent kids turn cruel / In the playground at school" is a good start. If only the «climactic» invocation "just a little more heart now!" could match it sonically, but it just gets lost in the air, like everything else here.

I give the record a thumbs down. I imagine that with better musicians, more creative producers, and, most importantly, at some other time better than 1986, Strange Times might have ended up a moody atmospheric masterpiece, maybe not on the level of, say, Talk Talk, but, heck, who knows, at least on the level of U2. As it is, I can only see it as a disappointing end for the first stage of an initially promising career. Nor does the expanded CD edition make things any better, with its bunch of bonus tracks that culminate in Strange Time-ified covers of Bowie's ʽJohn I'm Only Dancingʼ and the Beatles' ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ (the latter also including a snippet of ʽEverybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkeyʼ, a cool idea in theory but not at all working in practice). Altogether, this makes for about sixty minutes' worth of Dullsville '86, and I'd honestly even take Phil Collins over this.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Carpenters: Lovelines


1) Lovelines; 2) Where Do I Go From Here; 3) The Uninvited Guest; 4) If We Try; 5) When I Fall In Love; 6) Kiss Me The Way You Did Last Night; 7) Remember When Loving Took All Night; 8) You're The One; 9) Honolulu City Lights; 10) Slow Dance; 11) If I Had You; 12) Little Girl Blue.

Apparently, one still largely untapped source for extra Carpenters material was their TV specials, for which they'd recorded some exclusive tracks in the late Seventies — few of them deemed worthy of inclusion onto any of the regular studio LPs; but since, as of the late Eighties, there seemed to still be some nostalgic demand for more Carpenters, Richard went ahead and released this collection of tunes that he probably knew very well was subpar, but completism probably got the better of him (and this time, it is useless to even begin to accuse him of money-grabbing: the album did not chart at all, and only a complete idiot might have hoped it would). Another source were tracks from a planned, but shelved solo album from Karen, recorded in 1979 but not re­leased in its entirety until 1996; for certain reasons, in 1989 Richard only went as far as to take a few favorite selections.

For the most part, this is all just tepid, utterly generic adult contemporary pap: I am not saying that sentimental balladry from the disco era is worthless by definition, but unless it is on a Bee Gees level, with unbeatable hooks that transcend formulaic limitations, it is worthless, and the professional songwriters employed here seemingly did not have that purpose. Rod Templeton's ʽLovelinesʼ, chosen as the title track, is romantic disco on such a soft level that even Olivia Newton-John can sound like AC/DC in comparison — because this material, in order to trans­cend anything, needs at least a powerhouse vocalist with plenty of visible fire; Karen, with all her fires always burning on a purely internal level, hardly qualifies. Unfortunately, things hardly get any better on the slow ballads (there's even a Barry Manilow hit on here), or on oldies like ʽWhen I Fall In Loveʼ: too much sugar and happiness, too few hooks.

Surprisingly, the last three songs offer a tiny bump up in quality. ʽSlow Danceʼ, written by Philip and Mitchell Margo, is the usual pablum, but at least graced with a single attractive touch — there is something quite distinct about Karen's phrasing on the "it's a slow dance..." introduction to each verse, a strange, barely noticeable, possibly unintentional whiff of what could be either reproach or ecstasy, something that promises an intrigue which, unfortunately, never comes to pass, but at least having this unfulfilled promise is better than having nothing at all. ʽIf I Had Youʼ gives a tiny, tiny bit of that old melancholic spirit — there's an aching swell in the middle of the verse that is probably the only trace of Karen's greatness on the entire album. (The song also has a strange, almost ghostly coda for a slow dance number, with miriads of tiny cloned Karens overdubbed in a hypnotic-hallucinating style). Finally, it was a good idea to end the record with ʽLittle Girl Blueʼ — naturally, Karen is no Nina Simone, but she gets the spirit of the song, and it feels far more alive than everything else on Lovelines put together.

All of this comes too late and is far too insufficient to redeem the record as a whole; once again, it is recommendable only for huge fans of Karen who also have a high tolerance level for glitzy late Seventies pop. For everybody else, this will be a thumbs down, but, given the nature of the album, not a vicious one — had Karen lived, chances are that most of the songs here would never be released in the first place.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Chambers Brothers: People Get Ready


1) Yes, Yes, Yes; 2) Tore Up; 3) Reconsider Baby; 4) You've Got Me Running; 5) The Family Story; 6) People Get Ready; 7) Money (That's What I Want); 8) You Can Run (But You Can't Hide); 9) Hooka Tooka; 10) Call Me; 11) Summertime; 12) Your Old Lady; 13) It's All Over Now.

The Chambers Brothers were probably more interesting as a cultural phenomenon than a creative musical outfit: a bunch of hard-working folks from Mississippi that, instead of choosing a predic­table career as a vocal band, specializing in gospel and spirituals, decided to become... well, not exactly a «rock'n'roll band» as such, but a fairly eclectic ensemble, choosing their own material, playing their own instruments, and breaking as many stereotypes of «Southern African-American boys» as could be found to break.

Even this debut album of theirs, though hardly spectacular on its own, is an unusual artefact. Having relocated from Mississippi to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, the four Chambers brothers did not actively seek to record as long as they were still performing acoustic versions of tradi­tional folk and gospel tunes — but everything changed once they witnessed Bob Dylan going electric. That same year, they signed up with the small surf-rock (!) label Vault, and put out an LP of recordings culled from two live shows — one in their now-native L.A., and one in Boston, as they now actively sought to expand their presence to the East Coast as well. Thus, People Get Ready is a fully live, electric, eclectic album of cover tunes by four African-American guys from Carthage, Mississippi, who had only recently exchanged their washtubs for Danelectros, and were also supplemented by white guy Brian Keenan on drums. Interesting, right?

The eclecticism does not run too deep, actually: most of the numbers represent various forms of R&B, from the minimalist blues-rock of Jimmy Reed to the soulful rave-ups of the Isley Brothers and the gospel-influenced compositions of Curtis Mayfield. But with Motown (ʽMoneyʼ), pure blues (ʽReconsider Babyʼ), hully gully (ʽHooka Tookaʼ), and the inescapable omnipresent ʽSum­mertimeʼ, it is quite clear that these guys are not going to box themselves into any one single corner; nor do they shun provocatively jarring moments of unpredictability — for instance, I would say that it actually takes guts to launch from ʽPeople Get Readyʼ straight into ʽMoney (That's What I Want)ʼ: not that ʽMoneyʼ was ever a non-ironic song, of course, but still there is something potentially unsettling about singing "don't need no baggage, all you need is faith" one moment and then "just give me money, that's all I want!" the very next one.

As for the actual musical merits, well, these are all competent, but unexceptional renditions. As instrumentalists, the brothers show no special gifts and only very basic training — the only musi­cian worth paying attention to is brother Lester on harmonica, which probably makes sense, since this is the only instrument here that one of the brothers had played for more than a decade prior to these concerts; however, he does not get the spotlight to himself very often (the slow blues ʽRe­consider Babyʼ being the only exception). As vocalists, they have a rough, gutsy collective sound going on, with none of the suaveness typically associated with doo-wop or Motown acts, but they never really work themselves up to an ecstatic state; individually, they can trade baritone and tenor passages effectively (ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ), but not awesomely. Yet somehow, through their clever alternating of different sub-genres, an overall above-average level of energy, and a certain «protest charm» stemming from the very ruggedness of the performances, they may be able to keep your attention up throughout the whole show.

Midway through, in order to endear themselves to you even more, they give a brief rundown of their life story ("people sometimes ask if we're really brothers...") which, although I usually do not approve of extended banter passages on live albums, totally belongs here: the whole idea of The Chambers Brothers is to show how a deep country family, without losing its roots, can adapt to living and creating in the big city, adapting to modern times, and their brief summary of what it used to be back then and what it is now is perfectly suitable as an extended intro to the odd pairing of ʽPeople Get Readyʼ with ʽMoney (That's What I Want)ʼ. Perhaps it is still not enough to earn the album a thumbs up rating, but, after all, this was only a rough beginning for the boys, and the truly important thing here is that there is sufficient intrigue concealed in this LP in order to warrant further exploration of their discography.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Allen Toussaint: The Wild Sound Of New Orleans


1) Whirlaway; 2) Up The Creek; 3) Tim Tam; 4) Me And You; 5) Bono; 6) Java; 7) Happy Times; 8) Wham Tousan; 9) Nowhere To Go; 10) Nashua; 11) Po Boy Walk; 12) Pelican Parade; 13*) Chico; 14*) Sweetie Pie (Twenty Years Later); 15*) Back Home Again In Indiana; 16*) Naomi.

Most people only come across the name «Allen Toussaint» in parentheses — credited for such well-known hits as ʽFortune Tellerʼ and ʽI Like It Like Thatʼ (and even then, it is not always obvious, since some of them were officially credited to «Naomi Neville», so that the royalties could generously go to the man's parents). Those who are somewhat more interested in the cultu­ral life of New Orleans after the rock revolution know his solo LPs, a small, but steady stream of which only began to emerge in the early 1970s. But I'm pretty sure that very few have ever heard the one and only solo record that he cut in 1958 — young, beardless, suit-and-tied, and still going by the moniker of «Al Tousan».

Which is, frankly, a shame, because believe you me, this is one of those cases where the lauda­tory title does not lie — The Wild Sound Of New Orleans, in this instance, does indeed trans­late to «that particular type of sound from New Orleans that can be really wild», rather than «this is the way they all sound in New Orleans, and we're calling it ʽwildʼ because it's, like, wild, man! Wild — good word, that! Could be ʽgroovyʼ, but we didn't have space for two more letters on that sleeve». Although the entire album consists of nothing but instrumentals, and even though most of those instrumentals begin to sound pretty samey after a while, this is far closer in spirit to truly rebellious rock'n'roll than any of its spiritual predecessors, from Amos Milburn all the way up to even Fats Domino.

Some part of it belongs to Toussaint's backing band, including Domino's baritone sax player Alvin "Red" Tyler, and bombastic drummer Charles "Hungry" Williams, both of whom raise so much hell on the faster numbers here that it is a wonder how the flimsy walls of New Orleanian studios never fell apart during any of them. It almost feels as if they were so completely happy to get this chance to emerge from the shadow of Fats Domino as a frontman and develop their own grooves instead of having to humbly support the pop melodies of Domino / Bartholomew, that they really went wild all the way: just throw on the opening ʽWhirlawayʼ and be ready to ack­nowledge that few compositions from the early rock era can match this in energy, tightness, and pure, dizzy, giddy fun.

The main culprit, however, is Toussaint himself, who, at 20 years old, was already a fine rival to Fats — actually, his chief inspiration was not so much the straightforwardly boogie-oriented Domino as the somewhat more sophisticated Professor Longhair, from whom he'd learnt some of the quirky New Orleanian flourishes; but Professor Longhair, as befits a Professor, was far more restrained and never let his hair down as much as Toussaint lets down his (figuratively speaking, that is: they didn't call him Longhair for nothing, while Toussaint's growth never went beyond the usual curly style). Anyway, Toussaint is unquestionably the primary hero of ʽWhirlawayʼ — he knows that the perfect way to handle a boogie is not to let the listener hang loose for even one second, and he has a speedy, breathless way of keeping it up that probably does not resonate with the punkish fever of a Jerry Lee Lewis, but he also spends far less time banging his thumbs against the same two keys than Jerry does — a trick that might quickly get irritating if you did this twelve times in a row on an instrumental album. He does have his trademark tricks that crop up repeatedly, but that is more so that you recognize the sound than because he is running out of ideas. And when he does begin to run out of ideas, he knows exactly where to cede the spotlight to the sax player for a few bars.

Not all of the album consists of fast boogie numbers: some are relaxedly mid-tempo, including what is arguably the best-known composition here — ʽJavaʼ (the spirit of which would later be brilliantly conveyed by the Muppet Show sketch); others can even be slow, like the blues shuffle ʽPo' Boy Walkʼ, with an odd «buzzing» electric guitar lead part for a change, or the country waltz ʽUp The Creekʼ. In fact, despite the similarity of arrangements creating the illusion of mono­tonousness, Toussaint runs through a pretty impressive set of styles: rock'n'roll, blues, country, gospel-soul (ʽHappy Timesʼ), top-hat vaudeville (ʽMe And Youʼ), and flat-out Mardi Gras an­thems (ʽBonoʼ; ʽNashuaʼ, semi-quoting ʽWhen The Saints Go Marching Inʼ). And my personal favorite was not even on the original album in the first place: the bonus track ʽChicoʼ, although it spends much of its time on mariachi sax solos, has an awesome piano lick («ringing doorbell») that I do not think I have even heard before on any other song.

Bottomline is: The Wild Sound Of New Orleans is a wonderful record that, sadly, could pro­bably not avoid falling through the cracks — as a «pop» album, it could never be popular due to the lack of vocals, and as a «serious» album, it was way too much oriented at the pure entertain­ment sector. But surely this type of music has to have its own niche, too, so let this thumbs up rating be a small contribution to the Allen Toussaint Preservation Society.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Small Faces: From The Beginning


1) Runaway; 2) My Mind's Eye; 3) Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow; 4) That Man; 5) My Way Of Giving; 6) Hey Girl; 7) (Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me; 8) Take This Hurt Off Me; 9) All Or Nothing; 10) Baby Don't You Do It; 11) Plum Nellie; 12) Sha-La-La-La-Lee; 13) You've Really Got A Hold On Me; 14) What'cha Gonna Do About It.

A whole two albums were released by Small Faces in June 1967 — except that the first of these had never been properly authorized by the band. After they'd split from Decca and Don Arden, signing a new contract with Immediate Records, the former, in typical old-sinner fashion, put together a bunch of A-sides from 1966; mixed them with some studio leftovers that the band forgot to take with them; and, just so they could entice the average buyer at the expense of the seasoned fan, threw in a couple of older hits that had already been released on the self-titled Small Faces (a crass commercial move that was certainly not motivated by lack of material: for instance, none of the B-sides to their 1966 singles are included here).

Add to this that two more of these songs were relatively new creations in which the band had put a lot of trust, so they re-recorded them with only cosmetic differences for their Immediate debut — and add to this that the Immediate debut was also called Small Faces, like the Decca debut — and you got yourself a real messy mess, far more confusing than the usual UK / US discrepancies between Beatles and Stones catalogs. Nevertheless, From The Beginning became a permanent fixture in the band's discography, since much of what it has to give is unavailable anywhere else, and since Small Faces were on a giddy roll at the time, improving themselves with phenomenal speed and rapidly emerging as gifted songwriters, in addition to being powerful interpreters as demonstrated on the Decca debut.

Indeed, there are some terrific covers on the album. ʽYou've Really Got A Hold On Meʼ is brave­ly carried out by Marriott in an «African-American» vocal style as he ecstatically winds himself up and throws in a series of free-form ad libs, something completely different from the far more disciplined and calculated version of The Beatles, but his insane vocal powers still suffice to sub­due the song and make Motown proud. Don Covay's ʽTake This Hurt Off Meʼ (which was itself largely a rewrite of his own ʽMercy Mercyʼ), on the other hand, is expressly rockified, with a raw, thick, dirty guitar tone that lends it a certain barroom quality, also going along nicely with Steve's hystrionic singing. The atmosphere is even thicker and heavier on the band's treatment of Booker T. & The MG's ʽPlum Nellieʼ, another attempt to outdo the noisy barrages of The Who that does not succeed only because Ronnie Lane is not John Entwistle, and Kenny Jones is not Keith Moon, but this is as close as actual flesh-and-blood humans come to emulating real gods.

Perhaps the single finest moment about these covers comes in the middle of ʽRunawayʼ, when, after having just completed a slower, heavier, grittier verse-chorus than Del Shannon, Marriott lets out a defiant battlecry of "alright!" and, dueting with McLagan, plays a simple, but emo­tionally tense and even aggressive solo. The band's covers tended to lean towards R&B, but the choice of ʽRunawayʼ shows that they were not averse to softer pop material, either — except that the softer pop material had to be converted to gritty R&B before the recording started; and while I will certainly not say that their cover trumps the original (which was, after all, one of the most perfect nuggets of early Sixties pop music), it is an excellent example of, well, let's say, the trans­formative powers that these guys had at their command.

That said, half of these tunes (almost all of them clustered on Side A) are originals, not covers, and they represent the first of several impressive bunches of pop nuggets that the band delivered for the UK storehouse over three years. Three hit singles show a very natural and laudable pro­gression. First, ʽHey Girlʼ continues the «blatantly commercial» line of ʽSha-La-La-La-Leeʼ, with a very teenage-oriented singalong verse and chorus melody (you can just see those lines of TV girls in short skirts doing their embarrassing aerobic dances to this sound, can't you?) — except that its intro melody is pretty much the same as The Who's ʽMy Generationʼ, which should be somewhat telling. Next, ʽAll Or Nothingʼ, their first and last No. 1 in the UK, takes us in a more soul-pop direction, providing the kids with a perfect anthem of self-righteousness: even if this is thematically a breakup song, shaking your fists and singing along to "all or nothing, all or no­thing!" could be just as exciting as stuttering along to "talkin' 'bout my generation...".

And finally, as we get to the end of 1966, ʽMy Mind's Eyeʼ gives listeners a first taste of psychedelia, both by way of lyrics ("things are clearer than before") and vocal harmonies. Perhaps the guitars and vocal moves are a tad too Beatlesque, but that is hardly a crime for a November 1966 single. Actually, two more outtakes, ʽYesterday Today And Tomorrowʼ and ʽThat Manʼ, are even more psychedelic, with droning melodies, one-note organ solos, falsetto lead vocals, and heavy echo reverberations, but these sound more like quickie throwaways, probably inspired by one too many visits to the UFO Club or something. The best thing about all of these drug-influenced tunes is that not for a moment did the band lose its original heaviness: the rhythm section still keeps hammering on as if everything was still targeted on headbanging parts of the audience.

Predictably, the end result is a mess — an album that includes both ʽSha-La-La-La-Leeʼ and ʽThat Manʼ seems almost unintentionally postmodern for mid-'67 (though it would probably be just all right for 2017). But if you put the tracks in chronological order, it is also a mini-capsule of a speedy, healthy, exciting evolutionary process, the likes of which, I am afraid to say, could probably only happen in that magical-musical time of the mid-Sixties, where a band could go to sleep with one artistic ideology and wake up with a completely different one. So, even if in cer­tain terms From The Beginning is a «non-album», it still gets a thumbs up just for the sake of not letting some of these songwriting gems slip through our fingers.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Bettie Serveert: Damaged Good


1) B-Cuz; 2) Brickwall; 3) Brother (In Loins); 4) Damaged Good; 5) Whatever Happens; 6) Unsane; 7) Digital Sin (Nr 7); 8) Mouth Of Age; 9) Love Sick; 10) Mrs. K; 11) Never Be Over.

The somewhat tepid reception of Oh, Mayhem! by those few reviewers and fans that still stuck around rooting for Carol van Dijk and Peter Visser, coupled with a three-year break in recording, finally did the trick: Damaged Good, the band's 10th studio LP, was noticed by almost literally nobody when it came out, and it seems that Bettie Serveert themselves expected this lack of recep­tion, because some of the record's bitter gloom (starting from its self-ironic title) clearly has to do with the near-total obscurity in which they have resided for most of the 21st century.

Undeservedly so, because Damaged Good is another fine offering: not as diverse or flashy as Oh, Mayhem!, and somewhat underwhelming at first, but still, most of the songs are solidly in the catchy-'n'-creative pop-rock tradition. And once again, Peter Visser is as much of a hero here, if not more so, than Carol van Dijk, managing to regularly come up with powerful and memorable pop-rock riffs: ʽB-Cuzʼ, ʽBrother (In Loins)ʼ, the title track, ʽLove Sickʼ, ʽMrs. Kʼ — no fewer than six short, tight numbers that could all have reused stock phrasing and concentrated exclusi­vely on the vocals, but all of them begin by establishing themselves as individual guitar pieces. Mostly in minor keys, combining power, anger, and sadness, any of these could have passed for a potential hit single by some power-pop or post-punk band in the late Seventies; it is not their fault, after all, that they only came up with these tunes after fashion had turned its tables on them, and that, in all likelihood, they will have to wait until Heaven's gates for their proper rewards for refusing to pledge allegiance to the Luciferian likes of Max Martin.

Actually, Bettie Serveert's allegiances are made transparently clear with the first song: not many modern listeners will probably notice that "sometimes it feels like I'm out of my mind" is a direct lyrical and musical quote from The Who's ʽThe Kids Are Alrightʼ, but it definitely is, while the follow-up, "nothing is real and nothing rhymes", may or may not be an allusion to ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ, but in any case, it still harks back to the good old days when musically expres­sing the frustration of youth was a relatively fresh and exciting challenge. In 2016, it is nowhere near «fresh», but somehow Bettie Serveert still manage to make it somewhat exciting; at least, exciting enough for me to forget that Carol van Dijk is well over 50 by now, because she still burns and rages with the fury of a... well, of a 30-year old Debbie Harry, despite some of her vocal overtones inevitably peeling off and dragging her closer to the 70-year old Debbie Harry.

As usual, most of the songs are on a personal rather than anthemic level: Bettie Serveert are more interested in psychological portraits and personal relationships than social problems or politics, and this consistency is only broken once, on the album's longest and most questionable track, ʽDigital Sinʼ. It is the only one that reminds of the band's original slow-and-dirty style of Palo­mino, with draggy tempos, plenty of noise (including a feedback-drenched meltdown in the middle from which the song has to drag itself out by van Dijk's vocal cords), and an opti-pessi­mistic message of "we're broken inside, but we want to believe". Whether it is still about personal problems, hyperbolically aggrandized to macrocosmic levels, or indeed about the original sin and our vain attempts to escape it, is unclear; it is not even clear to me if it is a good song, but I do appreciate the timing — a lengthy, bombastic, ultra-serious noisy post-avantgarde track in the middle of a standard pop-rock album is jarringly appropriate.

On the whole, there are very few slip-ups: Carol overreaches her vocal range on the album's most openly romantic number, ʽWhatever Happensʼ (the "you and I have never met before" conclu­sion to each chorus probably requires some falsetto, but what we get is an out-of-tone screechy rasp that kills off the song's effect), and then the band sounds a little too similar to The Cure on ʽUn­saneʼ (too close to ʽLovesongʼ for comfort) for me to appreciate the melodrama — but even with these flaws, both songs remain worthy of your time. And the best songs are short, simple, and basically flawless: the title track and ʽLove Sickʼ, in particular, are maddeningly catchy, and loaded with that sweet bitter «the real thing» energy that magically transforms generic pop candy into concentrated outbursts of spirituality.

Okay, before I get too corny, let me just conclude that ʽNever Be Overʼ, the orchestrated ballad with which the band concludes the album, is probably the best «soft» song they did so far in their career — granted, its base melody has been recycled from some old folk or soul patterns (I think I hear shades of ʽI Would Rather Go Blindʼ in some of the chords), but the orchestral patterns are new, and somehow the combination of strings, acoustic guitar, and Carol's voice results in some­thing fresh and deeply moving, yet trimmed of any excessive sentimentality.

And let me tell you that it is not just a superficial thing, but at this point Bettie Serveert do sound a lot like Blondie — or, rather, like the equivalent of Blondie, had Blondie decided to age grace­fully and not focus on «staying cool and hip» with the new generation. This here is unpretentious, bare-bones, but creative and intelligent pop-rock with heart, soul, catchy riffs, and an occasional stern ballad, from a band that is keen on getting smarter and ever more adequate as time goes by. Oh, Mayhem! was a good sign, and Damaged Good keeps up the same level of consistency — and, most importantly, shows that the old pop-rock format still holds up when one really puts oneself to it. So, definitely another thumbs up.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Child Ballads


1) Willie Of Winsbury; 2) Willie's Lady; 3) Sir Patrick Spens; 4) Riddles Wisely Expounded; 5) Clyde Waters; 6) Geordie; 7) Tam Lin.

If you have read enough — any, in fact — of my writing, you probably know that I'm all for let's-go-living-in-the-past; and while folklore is never my primary specialty, the preservation and re-transmission of it throughout the centuries is a noble and necessary affair, as needs to be repeated from time to time despite the glaring banality of the statement. From this point of view, the col­laboration between Mitchell and fellow folk musician Jefferson Hamer, resulting in their own arrangements of seven traditional ballads from Francis James Child's collection, is based on good intentions and should earn them some accolades.

However, I am just as keen on the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" principle, and hold a deep respect for Occam's razor. As we now live in the digital era, where sounds recorded in the past can be preserved, copied, and re-transmitted without loss of quality for a literally indefinite period of time, the question arises — how many different recordings of the same material, or even of the same type of material, do we really need to preserve? My understanding is that the time for «aca­demic» coverage of folk standards has long passed — from the early days of Alan Lomax to the heyday of Greenwich Village to the folk-rock and «folk-prog» adventures of the 1970s, all of this Anglo-Saxon stuff has been done to death, and the only reason for doing it again (unless you are doing this live, in front of a spontaneity-fed audience) is if you are capable of putting your own twist on it, preferably such a twist as would make specific sense for the here and now.

And this, unfortunately, is precisely what this collaboration lacks. Mitchell and Hamer form a nice duet, playing well-paired acoustic guitars and singing in pleasant male-female harmony. But there is nothing exceptional about that acoustic playing (a few complex flourishes aside, this is all pretty much straightforward and by-the-book); nothing exceptional about Hamer's blue-eyed gentle vocal delivery; and now that we have grown used to Mitchell's «raspy child» vocal style, nothing too exceptional about her own singing as well. They do a good job, for sure — the atmos­phere is consistently tasteful and pleasant, both musicians clearly like the material and try to make it soulful — but the sad truth is, hundreds of people did it before them, and I cannot for the life of me figure out which particular freshness these guys bring to the table, or what could make these versions of the ballads preferable to, say, Joan Baez or Sandy Denny. (Naturally, neither Joan nor Sanny may have covered precisely these particular ballads — but they certainly covered plenty of those that had the same melodies).

Of course, I might just be voicing unreasonable dissent here. "They (the ballads) have seldom sounded as fresh as this", argues Nick Coleman of The Indepen­dent in his four-sentence «review» of the album, adding that "the playing is exquisite, the singing vibrant, the arrangements like jewellery". But on what celebrated folk album has the playing not been described as «exquisite» and the singing as «vibrant»? I am not looking for «vibrancy», I am looking for an individual artistic touch, and I am not finding it here. As long as Anaïs is writing her own songs, she is at least trying to reinvent folk music for the 21st century; as a supplier of covers, she shows not a shred of ability to adapt them to a new musical age. It may not be her fault, since there are few signs that we are living in a new musical age anyway; but she could have at least adapted them to her own personality, and records like this are dangerous, because they are close to showing that, who knows, perhaps she does not have any personality? No, that would be too harsh; but she clearly has no business messing around with such ancient material. Throw in the excessive length and (sometimes) excruciating slowness of the deliveries, and there you go — a thumbs down in the works.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Chameleons: What Does Anything Mean? Basically


1) Silence, Sea And Sky; 2) Perfume Garden; 3) Intrigue In Tangiers; 4) Return Of The Roughnecks; 5) Singing Rule Britannia (While The Walls Close In); 6) On The Beach; 7) Looking Inwardly; 8) One Flesh; 9) Home Is Where The Heart Is; 10) P.S. Good­bye; 11*) In Shreds; 12*) Nostalgia.

Some critics ardently defend this record, insisting that its similarity to Script Of The Bridge is superficial, and that in reality it manages to surpass its predecessor in scope, depth, taste, and any other qualities that separate Art from Arse. Perhaps they are really thorough and accurate people, capable of seeing something that I fail to see even after three or four listens; honestly, though, while I do perceive slightly cleaner production and a bigger role allocated to synthesizers (as seen already on the brief lead-in instrumental, ʽSilence, Sea And Skyʼ, so ethereal that I keep waiting for it to break into the Twin Peaks theme at any moment), I am not sure that these changes neces­sarily improve on the impact of Script, nor do I succeed in observing any other visible improve­ments in melody, arrangement, lyrics, or vocal deliveries.

Overall, things stay the same: what we have here is nine more examples of «average» song­writing where intelligence and restraint are greatly valued over raw emotional expression, thus damaging both the band's commercial potential and, I am afraid, the artistic as well: too much Apollo, not enough Dionysus. The band's intentions remain admirable: few people in the music business circa 1985 were able to spell out everything that was wrong with life in the UK (and, by extrapolation, in the whole wide world) this articulately — ʽReturn Of The Roughnecksʼ and ʽSinging Rule Britanniaʼ, sitting back-to-back in the middle of the album, are, in theory, fabulous anthems of impending doom on both the personal ("I'm a working class zero / Chained to the tree of life") and the social ("Vices embraced in times of crisis") levels. But something about these songs still makes them stop just short of brilliance, and I cannot easily decode what it is.

Perhaps it is the production, after all — a special style of Eighties production that reduces all melodic ideas, no matter how excellent, to the same common denominator: with big drums and delayed guitars dominant on each and every song, two or three numbers into the album I am already showing signs of being worn down. This is precisely where the situation might be saved with a super-class singer like Bono or Morrissey or a super-class guitar player like The Edge or Johnny Marr, people that are able to transcend the limits of generic, monotonous production; Mark Burgess and his guitarists cannot transcend it, not even with briefly attention-attracting gimmicks such as quoting ʽShe Said She Saidʼ at the end of ʽSinging Rule Britanniaʼ (so that, once again, instead of feeling the music, you begin sending signals to the logical part of your brain, trying to understand what these two songs might have in common).

On a positive note, even in purely musical terms, these are good songs. Even if they still tend to rely upon fast-tempo chug-chug-chugging riffs much too often, they are still more complex than the average chainsaw buzz rhythm track, and sometimes include mood-shifting key changes that can take the song in a completely different direction — note, for instance, how the angry, fuzzy verse riff of ʽSinging Rule Britanniaʼ is replaced by a cleaner, more «heavenly» (or psychedelic) riff of the bridge section. The eight-bar riff of ʽLooking Inwardlyʼ is one of the simplest and catchiest musical phrases they ever came up with, and I cannot help wondering how it would have sounded in Paul McCartney's hands — then the song unpredictably slows down for the second half, and becomes a soft dirge, punctuated by melancholic single-note lead guitar howls (yes, looking inward can be quite painful for the looker, we know that). Even their synth-centered songs are creative: ʽHome Is Where The Heart Isʼ progresses in mid-tempo «waves» of synthesized sounds washing each other off the table, instead of merely provi­ding a monotonous adult contemporary background.

Nevertheless, you know something's not right when you literally have to screw your ears into the sound in order to appreciate the band's songwriting and musicianship: unless this Eighties sound is like mother's milk to your organism, now that the surprise of discovery is no longer there and things become rather safely predictable, Mark Burgess' depress-poetry is not enough to overcome the basic effect of boredom. And, perhaps even more importantly, by 1985 they were outdone on all fronts by The Smiths — who had better musicianship, better production values, a far more gripping frontman, and totally comparable poetic skills, while at the same time aiming for simi­lar emotional impressions. Of course, The Smiths had bigger egos, too; but hey, rock'n'roll has always been your basic playground for big egos from the days of Little Richard, so I am not going to automatically prefer The Chameleons just because Mark Burgess is tactful enough not to shove his broken heart right in your face.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Carpenters: An Old-Fashioned Christmas


1) It Came Upon A Midnight Clear; 2) Overture / Happy Holiday; 3) An Old-Fashioned Christmas; 4) O Holy Night; 5) Home For The Holidays; 6) Here Comes Santa Claus; 7) Little Altar Boy; 8) Do You Hear What I Hear; 9) My Favorite Things; 10) He Came Here For Me; 11) Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town; 12) What Are You Doing New Years'; 13) Selections From The Nutcracker; 14) I Heard The Bells On Christmas.

There is not much to be said about this project, except that, as a project, it kind of sucks: taking several leftover tracks from their 1978 Christmas sessions, Richard surrounded them with new material — largely instrumental reworkings and potpourris of even more Christmas standards — and made the fans a somewhat limp companion to Christmas Portrait. (Actually, I am not sure exactly which tracks are completely new and which ones came from the old stock: Peter Knight is credited for most of the orchestral arrangements, and while he did work with the siblings in 1977-78, I have no idea whether Richard recalled him specially for this project).

In any case, the orchestrated instrumentals are predictably posh, corny, and Disneyfied, a parti­cularly low point being a medley from the various sections of The Nutcracker — somebody tell Tchaikov­sky the news — where it is not even clear how this could claim to be creative. As for Karen's numbers, the only one that might make you sit up is a cover of Vic Dana's 1961 hit ʽLittle Altar Boyʼ: suddenly breaking up the sappy joyfulness of the proceedings, it injects a strain of dark broodiness and torment, which, as we all know, is always perfectly adapted to Karen's style. There is even a bit of a shivery feel as she ends each verse on a doom-struck low note: "lift up your voice and help a sinner be strong" feels acutely personal.

Other than that, my only opinion is that this is one of the most expendable items in the Carpen­ters' catalog — now that it exists, it cannot be wiped out all that easily, but the best solution would be simply to cleanse both records, purging them from the corny instrumentals, and put together all (or most) of Karen's numbers. However, you will have to do that by yourself: the 1996 twin CD edition, Christmas Collection, diligently combines both albums in their entirety, preserving the option of the listener experiencing hallucinogenic visions of Karen Carpenter as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Richard as The Mouse King. Thumbs down.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Cat Stevens (Yusuf): The Laughing Apple


1) Blackness Of The Night; 2) See What Love Did To Me; 3) The Laughing Apple; 4) Olive Hill; 5) Grandsons; 6) Mighty Peace; 7) Mary And The Little Lamb; 8) You Can Do (Whatever)!; 9) Northern Wind (Death Of Billy The Kid); 10) Don't Blame Them; 11) I'm So Sleepy.

At this rate, I guess, if Cat-Yusuf lives to be a hundred, his last albums will consist exclusively of re-recordings of his old catalog. The Laughing Apple not only takes its title from one of the songs on New Masters, but it actually presents no less than four songs off that record in new arrangements. We do remember that Cat never really appreciated Mike Hurst's production of his first two albums, and took the first chance he could to get himself rid of the 1967 baroque posh­ness of the arrangements; so this move may at once represent an understandable pull of nostalgia for one's youth and a desire to set things right, if at all possible.

The problem is, New Masters was not a great album by itself, and the arrangements were not that bad — listening to the new versions back-to-back with the old ones mainly just reminds me of how much Cat-Yusuf's voice has aged after all, although, to be fair, on ʽNorthern Windʼ he goes down and deep quite intentionally, so that the song's atmosphere could be changed from youthful romanticism to experienced wisdom. In another case — that of the title track — he replaces the old Morricone-style orches­tral arrangement with a long-awaited mid-Eastern arrangement, and now the old parable may be taken for a piece of Sufi wisdom. But ʽBlackness Of The Nightʼ is basically just the old song without strings, so if the idea of a small chunk of New Masters Naked actively appeals to you... well, here you go.

I regard it as more of a symbolic gesture — the old man coming full circle and offering an elderly take on the sentiments of his youth — and, naturally, am more interested in whether he still has anything new left to say. Well... not really. In a way, this is a retread from the darkness and tension of Tell 'Em I'm Gone, back to the placated comfort zone of Roadsinger: the first origi­nal song, ʽSee What Love Did To Meʼ, is a soft country-rocker where we learn that the protago­nist used to be "a blindfolded bumblebee", and "now I see what God did for me / He made me see life flowery", from which we can conclude that the protagonist is still a bumblebee, but no longer blindfolded and capable of clearly seeing everything he might be sucking on... oh, hang on, we got sort of sidetracked here, wrong direction.

Back on target: almost everything else is a bunch of pleasant folk and country ballads, very nice in terms of texture and atmosphere, but gliding past you on wings of butter and cream, so softly and smoothly that there is barely anything specific to catch your attention. At this point, the lyrics are consistently more interesting than the music: ʽGrandsonsʼ, for instance, states that "I've got a thing about seeing my grandson grow old", with a strange and hardly predictable desire to stay on and witness the wonders of technological progress ("I just can't wait to see that city on the moon", actually a fairly reasonable sentiment for 1967 but hardly for 2017), while its acoustic melody does not come across as memorable. ʽMary And The Little Lambʼ is musically just that, but lyrically, Yusuf adds an extra twist to the story to tighten the bonds between Mary and the lamb even tighter — too tight, one might say if one took the words "they'll be loving a long long time from now" too literally, but... hang on, wrong direction again.

Anyway, I think it is best to just take The Laughing Apple as a children's album — you know, like one of those that he'd done for the kids in order to educate them about the ways of the Pro­phet, but more musical and without any specific religious indoctrination this time. I can easily imagine a toddler cuddling up to its soft, simple charms, and eventually drifting to sleep as the record appropriately concludes with a re-recording of ʽI'm So Sleepyʼ. Perhaps that was precisely the goal — to make a simple, unassuming, childish album; peaceful, loving, and cozy. Sometimes such records might feature great songwriting, too, but Cat-Yusuf is no longer interested in great songwriting, because striving for greatness would prevent him from carrying out his debt of humi­lity. Unfortunately, this means that The Laughing Apple cannot get any active endorsement from me; but as a mild spiritual sedative, it just might work.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Chantels: The Chantels On Tour


1) Look In My Eyes; 2) Summertime; 3) Glad To Be Back; 4) Still; 5) I Lost My Baby; 6) My Chick Is Fine; 7) Well I Told You; 8) You'll Never Know; 9) Here It Comes Again; 10) Vut Vut; 11) They Say; 12) You Can't Go It Alone.

Please remember that any time you see an early Sixties record titled «The So-And-Sos On Tour», it means that (a) with 99.99% probability, the so-and-sos are not on tour, and (b) with about 80% probability, you are dealing with a rip-off (I exclude The Animals On Tour from this category, because that album still had plenty of great tracks — but, of course, all of them were recorded in the studio). For The Chantels, both of these principles work like crazy, because not only is this album a mish-mash of studio recordings from various sessions, but it is not even completely a Chantels record: squint your eyes long enough and you will see the fine print stating "and other selections starring Chris Montez, The Imperials, Gus Backus" — meaning that Carlton Records, to which The Chantels had been signed in 1961, couldn't even scrape together enough tracks for a short 12-song LP, and had to support them with a five-song «sampler» of their other artists. In­cluding, sure enough, a very very young and still totally obscure Chris Montez (before he had his big breakthrough hit, ʽLet's Danceʼ), and a couple generic tunes from Del-Vikings member Gus Backus (one rockabilly and one doo-wop number).

That said, the remaining seven Chantels songs are not uninteresting. This is where you will find their last big hit, ʽLook In My Eyesʼ; but they also do a solid rendition of ʽSummertimeʼ (unfor­tunately, spoiled by excessive strings that overshadow both the lead vocals and the harmonies), a funny sequel to ʽHit The Road Jackʼ (ʽWell I Told Youʼ) where the girls take the liberty of taking it all back ("Well I told you to hit the road, Jack, I'm sorry now, won't you come on back?"), and then there's a couple of tracks with genuinely soaring harmonies (ʽHere It Comes Againʼ), a little roughly produced, perhaps, but showing that they were still willing to perfect their craft even when nobody was buying the records any more. And Annette Smith's high register is so consis­tently powerful that she is on the verge of inventing a new vocal style, «kick-ass sweetness» (ʽGlad To Be Backʼ) — typically, most of the singing girls back then either had it rough and tough or tender and fragile, which makes her somewhat special among the crowd.

Apparently, this was not quite the end of The Chantels: in some form or other, they persisted all through the 1960s, with their last official single released on RCA as late as 1970 (an upbeat mix of R&B and sunshine pop, called ʽLove Makes All The Difference In The Worldʼ and featuring a newly returned Arlene Smith); however, this was accompanied by constant line-up changes, and they never really got a properly solid recording contract. Which is too bad, because both Arlene and Annette had potential, and it would be possible to envisage a situation where a girl group, fronted by both of them at the same time (a pretty nice contrast), could survive and prosper, given the right publicity and the right material. These girls, alas, met with no such luck, but, heck, at least they got their three minutes of fame and a chance to be remembered by small communities of doo-wop and early Sixties' fans — how many from that epoch were even less lucky?