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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Candi Staton: Stand By Your Man

CANDI STATON: STAND BY YOUR MAN (1971)

1) Stand By Your Man; 2) How Can I Put Out The Flame?; 3) I'm Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin'); 4) Mr. And Mrs. Untrue; 5) Too Hurt To Cry; 6) He Called Me Baby; 7) Sweet Feeling; 8) To Hear You Say You're Mine; 9) What Would Become Of Me; 10) Freedom Is Just Beyond The Door.

You just gotta love the irony in a record that begins with "But if you love him, you'll forgive him... cause after all, he's just a man" — and then, less than half an hour later, still ends in "But oh, I'm leaving you for good, baby, and I'm never comin' back no more". What can be said? Guess that Tammy Wynette recipe just doesn't work that well, after all, with a fiery black lady from the same Deep South. Of course, Candi Staton still had her several seconds of fame with the cover of ʽStand By Your Manʼ and not with ʽFreedom Is Just Beyond The Doorʼ — but that just goes to show what sort of material was still seen as preferable to male record-buying audiences (black and white alike, I'm sure) in 1971, because in retrospect, ʽFreedomʼ is clearly the superior number here, with a stern bass groove and a defiant, in-yer-face vocal delivery that is not afraid to offend and disturb if it sees itself in the right.

On the whole, though, the album is a bit of a step down, and not just because they seem stumped for new material (there's this dirty trick of mixing two previously released songs with ten new ones, in the hope that nobody would notice), but precisely because, with the Wynette cover and a few other songs, the record dips a bit towards the sentimental side, downplaying the raw anger of the vast majority of the material on I'm Just A Prisoner. Most of the new songs are either simple love declarations, or broken-hearted confessions (ʽToo Hurt To Cryʼ, ʽMr. And Mrs. Untrueʼ); ʽFreedomʼ is the only red-hot statement of self-assertion, and it comes in just a little too late to dissipate the odd feeling that, perhaps, Stanton's spirit was broken and subdued to the standards of polite inoffensiveness.

Still, even so, there is no denying that the regular levels of songwriting, musicianship, and vocal aptitude have all been kept up — because of that, there is not one unpleasant second on the album, and even when she is calling upon ladies to "stand by your man, give him two arms to cling to", she manages to come across as totally believable; there's no attempt whatsoever to show irony or ambiguity (although she does amend the line "keep givin' all the love you can" to "he's giving you all the love you can", to make it seem less of a one-sided commitment), and she gets away with it by putting on that old gospel air and pretending that standing by your man is not that spiritually different from standing by your God. The problem is, with an approach like that, there are virtual­ly no standout tracks on the record — just one lazy, lush, longing R&B ballad after another — and, consequently, nothing much to write about, unless you'd want to expand the review to the size of a lengthy treatise on racial and gender issues just because, you know, it so happened that R&B covers of Nashville hits were financially profitable at the time.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Captain Beefheart: Strictly Personal

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: STRICTLY PERSONAL (1968)

1) Ah Feel Like Ahcid; 2) Safe As Milk; 3) Trust Us; 4) Son Of Mirror Man - Mere Man; 5) On Tomorrow; 6) Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones; 7) Gimme Dat Harp Boy; 8) Kandy Korn.

Only The Magic Band's second album, and things are already beginning to fall apart. The original plan was to push forward by entering full-on psycho-jam mode, and record an album titled It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper, but apparently the results were seen as way over the top by even the progressive dudes at Buddah Records, who declined to release them (although they still laid contractual claim to them, and, once Beefheart's reputation was firmly established, eventually released some of the sessions as Mirror Man in 1971). The only person to remain loyally impressed was producer Bob Krasnow, who took this as an excuse to break away from Buddah, found his own label (Blue Thumb) and get Beefheart to re-record a large part of the sessions for the new label.

On the positive side, breaking away from Buddah did permit the brave Captain to retain his artistic integrity and pursue the «never compromise» agenda — but there were negative sides, too. The most frequent complaint about Strictly Personal has an aura of objectivity, considering that it was shared by the artist himself: apparently, Krasnow got too heavily involved in the produc­tion, and «spoiled» the submitted tapes with all sorts of psychedelic effects, including echo, re­verb, phasing, reversing the tapes, etc., so that Beefheart's original vision of the album got cor­rupted and trivialized — like Zappa, Beefheart obviously viewed his art as transcending the hippie conventions of the late Sixties, aiming for a very different kind of weirdness from abusing trendy studio technology. Another problem might be the departure of Ry Cooder, replaced by the somewhat less dazzling Jeff Cotton; however, that lineup change may have been necessary in order to steer the band away from the more conventional blues idiom, to which Cooder strongly subscribed at the time, and into the realms of the avantgarde, so not a problem, really.

Personally, I would suggest that the main issue with Strictly Personal is not the post-production effects: had the material been great from the start, a few stretches of phased tapes wouldn't do all that much harm, and besides, it's not like the entire album is corrupted that way — there's plenty of passages that have a completely live, un-manipulated feel to them. Much worse, I believe, is the situation where Beefheart actually had to return to a project that, in his own view, should have already been completed and done with. The Captain's mind, see, is one of acute restlessness, and the Captain does not much like to polish the unpolishable... which is why the original Mirror Man sessions, even despite the crazy length of those jams, have always sounded more energetic, sharp, and altogether inspired to me.

But in 1968, the public at large was hardly aware of all these happenings in between Beefheart's first and second albums, and we, too, have to remember the correct chronology and take Strictly Personal as a direct sequel to Safe As Milk — whose title track, by the way, ultimately ended up on the second album, in one of those strange, but not unprecedented, historical accidents. Funny enough, the album starts out fairly innocently, as if it were going to be Safe As Milk Vol. 2: dis­carding the frigged-up title ʽAh Feel Like Ahcidʼ, those first three minutes are the same moder­nized Muddy Waters as ʽSure 'Nuff 'N' Yes I Doʼ — choppy syncopated slide guitars, harmonica blasts, and a bluesy guy raving and ranting over the minimalistic arrangement. There is, however, a difference: this time, there's no true sense of structure, as the guitar melody comes in and goes away whenever it pleases the players, and the lyrical flow shows no signs of being arranged into neat verse structures, not to mention the lyrics themselves, which have more in common with beat poetry than with ye olde blueswailing.

The problem is, there's no sign here of the players and the singer actually understanding what it is they are trying to do — okay, so they are obviously deconstructing a blues pattern, but why? It's not nearly as weird as it would need to be to truly shake up one's foundations, nor is it particularly funny or entertaining, and it does not showcase the honed musical talents of The Magic Band, either. Even the Captain sounds like he's groping around, sacrificing his mind to delirium in search of divine inspiration but not properly finding it. This is particularly evident on the inter­minable ʽTrust Usʼ, probably the weakest thing on the album — a series of bluesy/jazzy patterns with psychedelic overtones (this is also one of the most heavily Krasnow-treated tracks) and an overall muddy sound that never really goes anywhere: slow, prodding, low on energy, and hardly standing any competition with the typical psychedelic sounds of 1968's America — such as the Grateful Dead — and the biggest mistake is that it even begins to compete on that turf, because that just ain't Beefheart's turf anyhow.

Another particular lowlight for me is ʽBeatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stonesʼ; the track is already a spi­ritual predecessor to the style of Trout Mask Replica, but, again, suffers from a really sluggish flow, lack of interesting musical lines (there's one regular electric riff and one slide counterpart running through it, and both sound as if they are played by a couple guys whose amphetamines had just worn off), and a really silly vocal hook — the Captain insists on signing off each «verse» with a triumphantly whiney "...strawberry fields forever!" as if this were some sort of meaningful response to the Beatles, which it is not.

When the band sticks closer to its original blues guns, the results are notably better: ʽGimme Dat Harp Boyʼ is a relatively ferocious jam, seemingly growing out of the basic chord sequence for ʽSpoonful Bluesʼ and then taking on a life of its own — but even so, a brief comparison with the as-of-yet-unreleased Mirror Man version makes this one sound as if the entire band were sleep­walking through the process of re-recording. Maybe this is all Krasnow's fault, but surely it was not Krasnow who pretty much deprived the re-recording of a proper «bottom» — the bass on the Mirror Man is ferocious, and here I can't even properly hear it. Same goes for ʽKandy Kornʼ, which is here presented as a barely listenable murky mess.

Overall, unless you are a really big fan, I would strongly suggest ignoring Strictly Personal as a misfire, reflecting some poor production decisions and a lack of proper interest on Van Vliet's own side, and getting Mirror Man Sessions instead — the true «lost link» between Safe As Milk and Trout Mask Replica; in all honesty, Strictly Personal hardly deserves more than the status of a bonus disc, tacked on to some limited-edition special release of Mirror Man as an act of historical mercy. And yes, you guessed it already — thumbs down, because even certified musical madmen are not fully exempt from inducing boredom.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Cher: Not Com.mercial

CHER: NOT COM.MERCIAL (2000)

1) Still; 2) Sisters Of Mercy; 3) Runnin'; 4) Born With The Hunger; 5) (The Fall) Kurt's Blues; 6) With Or Without You; 7) Fit To Fly; 8) Disaster Cake; 9) Our Lady Of San Francisco; 10) Classified 1A.

In a perfect world... well, in a truly perfect world, Cher would have been the US ambassador to Arme­nia. But in a world just several notches below perfection, Believe would have not existed, and Not Com.mercial would be commercial all the way through — if only as a sign of respect for a modestly talented artist to go out there and actually do something. As the story goes, the majority of the songs on this album were written by Cher herself (still with a little help from the corporate people, of course) after she attended a 1994 songwriters' conference (I had no idea they held these, but then again, why not? I bet they hold Mick Jagger impersonator conferences, too!), and the bulk of the album was recorded the same year in France. She then offered the album to Warner Brothers, who turned it down, seeing it as «uncommercial», and had to shelve it for an indefinite period of time. However, once Believe truly hit its stride and brought her all the money she could ever need, she no longer needed Warners' approval — and simply released the album on her own, advertising it through her website.

In a way, this was a smarter decision: Believe, her most successful, yet also most plastic and arti­ficial release in ages, followed by an undeniably personal and «artistic» album that purports to show the world the real Cher, regardless of whether it garners any sales or not — there was no serious promotion whatsoever, not even any singles culled from the sessions, and she never gave any live performances of these songs. Eventually, the album became the same kind of retrospec­tive curiosity as 1980's Black Rose (Cher as a Serious Artist) and has even managed to gain a bit of a cult following; for some old-time fans, it might have even looked like a credible redemption after the intolerable crassness of Believe.

Unfortunately, the only way to make Not Com.mercial look decent is in the overall context of Cher's career curve; on its own, the record is just «listenable stuff» at its best, and «banal medio­crity» at its worst. If Cher really had what it takes to be an intriguing singer-songwriter, we would all be seeing that as early as 1965, and if you need to take lessons in songwriting in order to break out your dormant genius, a priori chances are that the genius will turn out to be a mechanical hack. Melodically, the songs are okay — a mix of generic folk rock and adult contemporary, with a bit of swamp blues thrown in for good measure; not tremendously different, by the way, from the style that would be dominant on It's A Man's World — but there's very little to grab and hold one's attention, unless it happens to be some element that is consciously or subconsciously lifted from some classic, e. g. the moody snowy organ introduction to ʽWith Or Without Youʼ which, naturally, evokes memories of ʽA Whiter Shade Of Paleʼ.

Message-wise, the songs are split between (predictably) stories of complex relationships and (less predictably) «social value» rants that go all the way from corny embarrassments (ʽOur Lady Of San Franciscoʼ, where she complains about a social system that turns people, herself included, away from helping poor old ladies in the streets — oh, my!) to not-half-bad statements on reli­gious hypocrisy (ʽSisters Of Mercyʼ, with a tasteful steel guitar and harp arrangement and a par­ticularly wicked-sounding vocal part that shows she really has a bone to pick with somebody on that issue; not a wise decision to give it the same title as that of a far superior Leonard Cohen song, though). Arguably the weirdest number on the whole record is ʽ(The Fall) Kurt's Bluesʼ: for some reason, Cher decided to write and record a tribute to Cobain, stating that she "understands his pain" and that "we're a heartless, Godless culture / we'd walk nowhere in your shoes". Now just imagine if she'd appeared onstage, all dressed up in the usual chic, at the MTV Awards or some ceremony like that, and delivered this tune instead of ʽBelieveʼ! She even thinks up (or lets her co-writers think up, I dunno) a proverbial killer two-liner for the end: "Our country kills its heroes / We just raise them for the fall". Excuse me for a moment while I break out those hankies, this is just too much for my nervous system to bear.

So, in the end, if you look at this from an optimistic angle, Not Com.mercial is an interesting, image-defying, sincere-sounding record, professionally and rather tastefully recorded by Cher with members of David Letterman's band, and delightfully shattering stereotypes. But if you choose the other angle, then it's a somewhat slick, manipulative, and ultimately bland and gene­ric set of traditionally written roots-pop songs with unwarranted pretense at «depth» and «authen­ticity», sung by a veteran Vegas glitz-star who has been happy enough to corrupt public taste with cheap, brainless entertainment for several decades, and now goes on a rant about the injustices and the imperfections of that same society as if she had never had anything to do with them. So does she ever sit back and wonder, «Why the hell did those critics kick the crap out of my Not Com.mercial album? I know it didn't sell because it was not commercial, but how come it got all those mixed-to-negative reviews?..» And if she ever does, does she have enough intelligence (or bravery) to give herself the right answer?

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Rolling Stones: Got Live If You Want It!

THE ROLLING STONES: GOT LIVE IF YOU WANT IT! (1966)

1) Under My Thumb; 2) Get Off Of My Cloud; 3) Lady Jane; 4) Not Fade Away; 5) I've Been Loving You Too Long; 6) Fortune Teller; 7) The Last Time; 8) 19th Nervous Breakdown; 9) Time Is On My Side; 10) I'm Alright; 11) Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In The Shadow?; 12) (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.

Back when this live album was released, many, including the band members themselves, regar­ded it as a travesty — issued without the band's proper consent, predictably suffering from atro­cious sound quality, not always presenting the Stones in top form, and featuring a decidedly odd setlist in which they somehow managed to insert two tracks that were not played live at all (!), one of them recorded as early as 1963 at that (!!). Even today, were this in Mick's and Keith's power, the two of them would have probably preferred to delete it from the ABKCO catalog al­together. And yet, until ABKCO or somebody else manage to do something better, Got Live If You Want It! remains what it is — a priceless historical document of the authentic Rolling Stones live sound in their «first prime», with a still well-functioning Brian Jones and a self-assured Mick Jagger who'd finally shred the last scales of shyness, and entered «rock star mode», but without getting recklessly drunk on that stardom yet.

Of course, there are countless bootlegs from 1965-66, if you want to thoroughly capitalize on that «authenticity» thing — but that means having to endure an even worse sound, and ever since the record went through the proper remastering process around 2002, it's become fairly listenable. Yes, there is no way to avoid the instruments and vocals being partially swamped by the incessant screaming of British girls (most of the tracks were drawn from a couple shows in Bristol and Newcastle-upon-Tyne in October '66), but the new mix tries its best, so that after a couple of listens you might even begin to clearly discern between Keith's and Brian's guitars; and, further­more, the world needs a Rolling Stones live album drowning in wild screaming, if only to re­member that the Rolling Stones were a product of the Screaming Sixties, rather than of the com­paratively more quiet, more glammy, more decadent stadium-rock era.

In the process of remixing and remastering, I'm pretty sure that the working team introduced some major changes to the album — I faintly remember my old cassette tape version that defi­nitely had a different version of ʽUnder My Thumbʼ, as well as maybe one or two other tracks, and also less stage banter and fewer pauses between tracks. There are also sources that mention post-production studio overdubs, most of them concerning lead and backup vocals by Mick and Keith (curious that, having hated the album, they still went ahead with the doctoring), so some detective work is in order to sort out which parts of the album are truly live and which ones aren't. But since the record was never consi­dered a Holy Grail anyway, the doctoring is not a very important issue. The important point is that even with all the screaming and all the imperfections of stage work circa 1966, the Stones still manage to kick ass — loudness and energy is one thing, but they are also quite tight, and this is where we really have to thank the loyal rhythm section: with Charlie's jackhammer pounding that opens ʽUnder My Thumbʼ, there is no way the song could ever be in danger of falling apart, unless Charlie himself collapsed from exhaustion. (It is no surprise that the slightly earlier epochal documentary on the Stones on tour was titled Charlie Is My Darling).

Even more amazingly, on those songs that actually require him to do so (I'm not talking about ʽGet Off Of My Cloudʼ, evidently), Jagger does indeed sing — an ability that he would complete­ly sacrifice in the early Seventies, briefly reclaim in the Nineties, and then once again reject (quite intentionally, I'm sure, as age forced him to make a choice between singing and strutting) in the 21st century. Even on Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, with the Stones in all their late Sixties' in­strumental glory, Mick's vocals are already, if not an impediment, then at least more of a side ele­ment to the show — but on Got Live, he's always right in the center of things. It may be just a trick of the new mix, of course, and at least some of these lead vocals were later overdubbed in the studio, yet in all cases the results present the whole thing as Mick Jagger's show with a bunch of trusty side­kicks. (And it doesn't sound that much different if you stick to the fully authentic and put your trust in some of the better bootlegs from the era, e. g. the Honolulu show from July 28, 1966, going under the stupidly Beatlesque title of So Much Younger Than Today).

It is, of course, quite beneficial to him that Keith, at this point, still prefers to stick to grim self-discipline on stage, churning out the riffs more or like they are supposed to be churned out without going off on all sorts of tangents — and that Brian Jones was never a great live player in the first place; to make matters worse for him, the setlist largely concentrates on recent, self-penned material where there was relatively little room to show off his bluesy slide guitar playing talents. He does drag out the dulcimer in order to perform ʽLady Janeʼ, but the sound is crude and hoarse compared to the subtle studio arrangement. And he is not much favored by the new mix, either: you really have to strain your ears to catch the melodic guitar part on ʽGet Off Of My Cloudʼ, for instance.

So, essentially, this is the Mick-and-Keith show, with Charlie providing the impenetrable percus­sion wall and Wyman occasionally making himself the twinkling little star with phenomenal bass zoops (ʽI'm Alrightʼ, once again, is his stellar moment — the version here being even more in­tense and desperate than the old live arrangement on Out Of Our Heads). Riff-heavy tunes like ʽUnder My Thumbʼ, ʽThe Last Timeʼ, the classic non-album single ʽ19th Nervous Breakdownʼ, and, of course, ʽSatisfactionʼ rule the day, and they are all played a little faster, a little rougher, a little punkier than in the studio, even though ʽSatisfactionʼ was still a long way away from tur­ning into the «royal» Stones number (I would say it only acquired that status on their first sta­dium tours circa 1981). Kudos to the boys, too, for the wild feedback chaos at the beginning of the newly released single ʽHave You Seen Your Mother, Babyʼ — the new mix reveals the true bestial qualities of that sound, heavier even than The Who in mid-'66, in fact, downright Stooges-like, if only for a few seconds, out of which we then witness the miraculous birth of one of their best pop-rockers of the year.

As for the two «fake» live tracks, if you can forgive their fakeness, they are both enjoyable: the oldie ʽFortune Tellerʼ speeds up, tightens up and nastifies, Stones-wise, Benny Spellman's ori­ginal, and somehow Mick manages to do the impossible on ʽI've Been Loving Youʼ and almost steal it away from Otis Redding, turning in a very personal, painful, vulnerable rendition where his sweaty straining actually helps things — unlike Otis, who might as well have been born sin­ging this stuff, Mick here sounds like he's climbing a stiff height without a safety net, especially when he gets to the "oh, oh"'s, and I always breathe a little sigh of relief once he finally reaches the top safe and sound. That said, of course, neither of the two tracks has any legitimate place on the album — and, at the very least, on the new remaster they could have cut the pretense and just put them on as bonuses without the silly distracting crowd noises (especially for ʽI've Been Lo­ving Youʼ — slapping a wall of human noise on top of that performance is like letting a crowd of reporters into a confession booth). So seek out them bootlegs and rarities compilations.

Anyway, regardless of the band's own feelings, I still give the album a thumbs up — in addition to its historic importance, it's got these little, but important bits of coolness all over it, ranging from the inoffensively silly (such as Jagger scatting on the instrumental section of ʽLady Janeʼ) to the unpredictably curious (why do they have a few bars of ʽSatisfactionʼ as a false opening to ʽThe Last Timeʼ?) to the singularly awesome (the feedback on ʽHave You Seen Your Motherʼ, the stop-and-start coda to ʽSatisfactionʼ, the bomb-diving bass on ʽI'm Alrightʼ). Even if, as some detractors claim, it is the single worst live Stones album (but it isn't, really), it is at least a fairly unique live Stones album — and, at the very very least, it is much more casually enjoyable than Live At The Hollywood Bowl, the Beatles' equivalent from the same era.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Alcest: Kodama

ALCEST: KODAMA (2016)

1) Kodama; 2) Eclosion; 3) Je Suis D'Ailleurs; 4) Untouched; 5) Oiseaux De Proie; 6) Onyx; 7) Notre Sang Et Nos Pensées*.

Kodama means ʽtree-spiritʼ in Japanese, with the concept going back to prehistoric times, but it does not take a Japanologist to understand that Neige learned about it not from reading Japanese folklore, but rather from watching Princess Mononoke, since 99% of people get their 99% of in­formation on traditional Japanese culture from Miyazaki-san. That's OK, though, it's not like Alcest have switched to playing traditional Japanese music or anything — in fact, we could all probably see it coming: sooner or later, any blackgazer is going to have to confess that he was inspired and influenced by Japanese mixes of beauty and horror anyway, because blackgaze is all about mixing beauty with horror, and who does that better than the Japanese — Ivanka Trump?..

Anyway, I was quick enough in my review of Shelter to suggest that Alcest's genuinely black­gazing days are over — here, as if shaking off one type of slumber to immediately jump into another, Neige makes a focused effort to return to his «roots», and make another album straight in the vein of his first two. The downside is that you may have to go back to the first two in order to check if there's any significant differences, and even I am a little lazy to do that. The upside is that a shift of mood/vibe is almost always a good thing anyway for somebody who works in the «static» section of the musical business, and there does seem to be a little extra spark in Kodama that you sometimes observe in those types of comebacks that are not made exclusively for the money. Yet it is all subtle and subjective — and on the rougher side of the equation, what you have here is simply six more (seven more, if you count the extra track on the deluxe edition) cold, dark, snowy, statically beautiful sonic panoramas from the French master of texture.

Once again, as the title track kicks into gear, we find ourselves treading through heavy, but soft and un-treacherous snow, covering a dense (but not too dense) forest of pine trees on a moonlit (but not too moonlit) night — without any idea of why we are here, where are we going, and whe­ther the forest has an end or the journey has a purpose. We do know that the forest is enchan­ted, as the kodamas are sending us haunted signals with their haunted vocals, ringing in unison with the jangly and the distorted guitars, but it's not like they really care about you — you're no­thing but an impartial observer, and even when the distorted guitars take over for a while and start a power chord bombarding, there is still no impression that something is, you know, happening. Maybe just a stronger wind.

There's four additional tracks on here, but the vibe on each and every one of them is exactly the same — occasionally, you get some growling vocals (ʽEclosionʼ), for old times' sake, but they are neither scary nor apocalyptic. (Maybe one of the kodamas just got thirsty.) Only the last track, ʽOnyxʼ, is different, and not necessarily for the better — it's just one long drone, recorded in lo-fi for the sake of amusement and working as a «one last breath» outro that you will probably want to skip even if you happen to be sufficiently enchanted by the rest of them.

Honestly, I am not quite sure what to do here, but in the end, I will probably have to leave it with a modest thumbs up, because (a) I really like the vocal melodic hook on ʽKodamaʼ (closest the album gets to being genuinely haunting), (b) I think that the album shows some progress in the art of working with overdubs (Souvenirs sounds a little crude and un-subtle in comparison), (c) I've always had a soft spot for French impressionist artists influenced by Japanese culture — so, roll over Pissarro, tell Debussy the news, or something to that effect. None of which will probably ward off the inevitable — that in a few months (weeks) Kodama will be robustly wiped out of my me­mory, and then Neige can start it all over again without any serious risk of being accused of self-plagiarism in the future.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Anathema: Alternative 4

ANATHEMA: ALTERNATIVE 4 (1998)

1) Shroud Of False; 2) Fragile Dreams; 3) Empty; 4) Lost Control; 5) Re-connect; 6) Inner Silence; 7) Alternative 4; 8) Regret; 9) Feel; 10) Destiny.

ʽShroud Of Falseʼ — a pretty good name not just for the short introduction to Anathema's fourth album, but maybe for the album as a whole, or even for the entire band, for that matter. As deep and solemn as this whole thing pretends to be, it is thoroughly impossible for me to take the record that seriously. That piano intro, for instance. It aspires to a sort of bluesified Chopin, but the way the melody slowly unfolds and gains in blunt power, you'd almost expect Bruce Spring­steen to be joining Roy Bittan any time now and crashing into ʽThunder Roadʼ. Then the vocals come in, and the illusion is gone, but these words? "We are just a moment in time, a blink of an eye, a dream for the blind, visions from a dying brain" — hello, ʽDust In The Windʼ. I can still try and imagine them with the grinning sneer of a Roger Waters, and it'd be okay; but irony, sarcasm, and humor of any sort, even the blackest one, is as strictly prohibited in Anathema records as catching Pokemons is in Russian churches. One laugh and you're fired.

This is why, even if, as far as I'm concerned, Alternative 4 is a pretty good record and probably the best Anathema that can be bought for your money (and if you want Anathema for free, pre­pare to be excommunicated, heh, heh), even so, I can never see myself or those who take their progressive rock seriously to be swamped by it. It is not even that the album remains chock full of «goth» clichés — it is that the band lacks the power to either subvert these clichés or, on the con­trary, drown in them so utterly and devotedly that their mere fanatical devotion would bring on involuntary respect. Their work is clean, elegant, and polite, and that's not the kind of approach that gives the best results when applied to a clichéd formula. To become real classy and comman­ding prog rock artists, they lack qualification; to become masters of the theatrical approach, they lack sincerity — and, to top it all, their melodies remain questionable at best.

Nevertheless, having said all that, I am amazed at how good Alternative 4 still turns out to be. The leap of quality from Eternity is astonishing — in terms of hooks, almost every song has something to offer, so that, if it does not succeed in subduing my soul, it at least baits my curio­sity. The very first song, ʽFragile Dreamsʼ, opening with a gentle guitar strum, is then joined by a slightly gypsy-esque violin line (from guest musician George Rucci), and finally settles on the album's best riff — simple, insistent, nagging, hard to forget, and, coolest of all, actually intro­duced by that violin. The first two minutes of the song, completely instrumental, are the best musical sequence on the record; once the vocals come in, we are in Cure-lite territory once again ("countless times I trusted you, I let you back in..." — don't tell me Robert Smith did not actually write these lyrics for them), but it's okay, it's not too problematic, and eventually the cool riff will be back, leading the song to its over-the-cliff suicide. Yes, they could probably do more with the instrumental part than just playing the riff over and over, but Anathema don't do mad soloing, it's disrespectful towards their target audience (the dead, that is).

ʽEmptyʼ starts out with half-spoken vocals backed with lonely, «black» synthesizer chords — you know it's just a premonition for something louder to come, and when the rhythm section and the main melody kicks in, lo and behold, you have another cool riff, and even the melodramatic singing is easier to stand, as it comes equipped with a very humane-sounding snarl (still no sense of irony, but when he goes "I abhor you, I condemn you...", I have to say, that's dangerously close to sounding like a very realistic curse). Unfortunately, ʽLost Controlʼ then reminds us of how terribly clichéd this band is, after all — somewhere deep inside the song hides itself a real cool groove with a surprisingly funky bassline and some neat acoustic picking, but on the whole it is way too derivative of the spirit of The Wall to ring true. Just one more of those «funeral marches for myself», albeit nicely arranged. The key moment is when the melody dies down to let the singer ask the principal question, "Have I really lost control?" If, at that moment, your heart feels wrought with pity and your eyes swell with tears... welcome to the club where I am not welcome. If not, congratulations for knowing the exquisite difference between Vincent Cavanagh and Peter Hammill. But even I have to admit that there is something to be said about the dynamic shifts on that tune, and that not a lot of goth-themed metal bands would be ready to work on such a fine balance between heavy distorted guitars, pianos, and acoustic guitars.

Actually, at this point Anathema cannot even be defined as a metal band — there's no more «metal» here than there is on a classic Rush album (or, to make a somewhat more accurate ana­logy in terms of cheese-to-substance correlation, Eloy). They're doing stone-faced goth theater, and if this needs a metal riff inserted at some point, so be it; but even on the most doom-laden tracks, such as the title one, the pitches are higher than on your average doom metal composition. It might have helped if there was less emphasis on the vocals altogether: speaking of the title track, the album's one truly cringeworthy moment is when the singer suddenly adopts a Tiny-Tim-meets-Shakesperian-artist intonation to deliver the "I'll dance with the angels to celebrate the Holocaust" verse (ooh, shocking!). On the other hand, no vocals at all would make the album more boring, because the «progressive» melodies lack sufficient complexity, and are more about creating an overall atmosphere than taking the listener through dazzling shifts of time signatures, tonalities, moods, and messages.

All in all, I give the record a thumbs up — not because it supports and consoles me in my hour of desperation, but because I am willing to recognize the creativity and talent, and adjust to the theatrical conventions of the record. I mean, maybe somewhere deep down inside there's a second bottom to it — they did name it after Alternative 3, after all, which was a classic UK conspiracy theory hoax — but even if you stick to this deadly seriousness all the way, Alternative 4 is much more fun than the average doom-and-gloom concoction from gazillions of pretentious mediocri­ties all over the world.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Cheap Trick: Rockford

CHEAP TRICK: ROCKFORD (2006)

1) Welcome To The World; 2) Perfect Stranger; 3) If It Takes A Lifetime; 4) Come On Come On Come On; 5) O Claire; 6) This Time You Got It; 7) Give It Away; 8) One More; 9) Every Night And Every Day; 10) Dream The Night Away; 11) All Those Years; 12) Decaf.

Finally, Cheap Trick score one with critics and veteran fans alike. Returning to their home base to write and produce their next album, they simply decided to cut the crap and give the people what they want — an «authentic», no-frills, classic-style power-pop Cheap Trick album, all balls and energy and catchy anthemic choruses and raw distorted guitars and even an album cover that pictures all four band members just the way they are supposed to be, smartly disguised through a cartoon perspective that successfully hides their age from inquisitive minds.

Everybody fell for this: where critical reception for Special One was lukewarm at best, Rock­ford was hailed as a true return to form — and it does not take long to see why, because upon first listen, it really sounds like the good old Trick has returned, and that long, strange, embarrassing trip they'd been on since 1980 is finally over. The album truly bursts with energy, as most of the songs are taken at moderately fast tempos, and all four band members, despite any potential age issues, sound just as youthful and enthusiastic as if it were 1977 all over again. The production is excellent — just the right balance of sound between guitars and vocals, and Bun E. Carlos' mule-kicking drumming is completely free of any distracting post-production effects (granted, neither did we have any problems with the production on Special One). And, like most veterans, they have that elusive «authenticity bonus» — unlike the youngsters of today, they can allow them­selves the luxury of keeping it simple, idealistic, and Beatle-copping, and feeling all happy and glowing about it rather than embarrassed.

And yet, as much as I actually enjoy listening to these twelve songs (and I do, really), I would have to insist that, in terms of the general curve, Rockford is a serious slide down in substance, if not superficial quality, after the modest comeback of Cheap Trick '97 and even Special One. The reason is simple: neither of those two records felt like a conscious effort to go back to being the Cheap Trick of '77. What they did was try to make things right by returning the music to those styles and values that justify Cheap Trick's existence — but the first one of those also made allowances for the band's age, sounding a bit more mature and introspective than usual, and the second one at least tried to branch out a bit, experimenting with moods and textures on ʽPop Droneʼ, ʽSorry Boyʼ, ʽBest Friendʼ, and yes, even the ʽLow Lifeʼ joke.

More precisely, Rockford suffers from two pervasive (and somewhat connected) problems. First, the music is downright lazy. We may enjoy the kick-ass energy all we want, but is there even a single classy, original guitar riff from Nielsen? 90% of the time he is relying on simplistic guitar patterns, each and every one of which has probably already been used up dozens of times by power-pop and punk-pop bands around the world. I think that the only guitar melody on the entire album that got my ears perked up was the funny funky weave on ʽOne Moreʼ, which reminded me a little bit of the various ways these guys used to fool around in the past (especially on tracks like ʽGonna Raise Hellʼ). Everything else had a cool sound, but lacked memorability.

Second, there's just too much emphasis on the «having a good time» vibe. Classic Cheap Trick could turn into wild (but benevolent) party animals and rock'n'roll shamans at a moment's notice, but they also had that adventurous, cynical, dangerous side to them — the edgy side that pro­duced such classics as ʽBallad Of TV Violenceʼ, ʽHeaven Tonightʼ, ʽYou're All Talkʼ, ʽGonna Raise Hellʼ, etc. The Cheap Trick of Rockford, in comparison, is a big, burly, friendly beast that can smother you in a well-meaning hug, but is incapable of trampling you under its hooves. The above-mentioned ʽOne Moreʼ is the only thing on the album that spices it up with a little aggres­sive negativity, but even that one is disappointing — first it cons you into thinking that Zander is going to throw one of his classic tempers, impersonating a "gonna raise hell" type of a guy, but then it merely turns into a timid variation on the subject of ʽI Can't Get No Satisfactionʼ (subject-wise, not musical). Everything else, song after song after song, is imbued with the optimistic spirit — which would be fine if the songs were at least easily distinguishable from each other in terms of melody, but no. Half of these tunes begin and I'm all like, "Wait, you just sang about that in your previous number, do you think I was dumb enough to not get it the first time?"

It does not help life much that there are numerous intentional self-references here, along with un­intentional rip-offs of their own and others' musical moves. ʽWelcome To The Worldʼ was de­scribed by Nielsen as an update of the message and structure of ʽHello Thereʼ (except that it replaces the funny irony of ʽHello Thereʼ with a much more straightforward and optimistic greeting), but it also cops a part of the ʽDream Policeʼ solo. ʽCome On Come On Come Onʼ clear­ly references ʽCome On Come Onʼ (now you will spend the rest of your life trying not to confuse the two), but its chorus lacks the call-and-response excitement and aching yearning of the classic oldie. ʽO Claireʼ is a Lennon-style ballad with some delicious falsettos in the chorus, and it has nothing to do with the self-mocking ʽOh Claireʼ joke of Heaven Tonight, but, naturally, the title was intended to look as if they'd finally gotten around to turn that one into a real song. (And now they've also loaded you with the responsibility of remembering the difference between ʽOh Claireʼ and ʽO Claireʼ — they could have at least come up with another C-name).

Speaking of titles in general, they are really running out of imagination: anybody who has four songs in a row titled ʽGive It Awayʼ, ʽOne More Dayʼ, ʽEvery Night And Every Dayʼ, ʽDream The Night Awayʼ should probably be forced to memorize Ulysses in its entirety as adequate pu­nishment. And they hunt for Beatles-related inspiration so avidly that eventually they do not even notice themselves that they begin sounding like Jeff Lynne's ELO instead — the "lonely lonely lonely lonely night" bit on ʽAll Those Yearsʼ, for instance. (For that matter, the "it could happen to you, it could happen to you" bit on ʽDecafʼ is exactly the same as it is on Paul McCartney's ʽTo Youʼ from Back To The Egg, but let's chalk this one up to coincidence).

Cutting a long story short, Rockford is superficially enjoyable — you can headbang to it, you can sing along to it, you can even try to forget how derivative and forced it is if you are a big, big fan of the band — and despite all the harsh criticism, I still give it a thumbs up because relative­ly well done nostalgia for a great past is still better than a poorly done, embarrassing attempt at harnessing a progressive future. But this is precisely what it is: an age-defying attempt to bring back a 1977, polished and updated for a 2006. I will never be the biggest fan of that, and would not advise anybody to frantically search for a justification of why Rockford is «simply a little different» from In Color. It is different, and not in a satisfactory manner.