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Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Musique De Film Imaginé

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: MUSIQUE DE FILM IMAGINE (2015)

1) Après Le Vin; 2) Philadelphie Story; 3) La Dispute; 4) L'Enfer; 5) Elle S'Echappe; 6) Le Cadeau; 7) Le Sacré Du Printemps; 8) Le Souvenir; 9) Les Trois Cloches; 10) Bonbon; 11) L'Ennui; 12) Bonbon Deux; 13) La Question; 14) Au Sommet.

One thing I have to say about Anton Newcombe: for a guy who largely built his reputation on a series of mind-numbingly repetitive psycho-drones, he sure comes up with the wildest of original ideas every once in a while. Forever and ever, he continues to be inspired with the Sixties — to him, probably representing the peak of the human spirit in the 20th century, or even beyond that (and he's not alone!) — yet he always manages to insert a bit of the 21st century in every tribute to that decade, with a maddening mix of slavish derivativeness and stunning originality.

This record, now, is also all about the Sixties (and a little Fifties), but suddenly he turns his attention away from the Beatles and the Stones and guides it over the English channel, to focus on French filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, for a change: since, apparently, the movies of Godard and Truffaut meant the same to film as the Beatles, Stones, and Velvets meant to music, it was only a matter of time before mad man Newcombe found a way to somehow incorporate that in his creativity. The only thing he forgot to make was a movie — but he did write the sound­track to it, and he claims to have actually seen the movie in his head, although I doubt that he'd ever be willing to commit it to camera, even if Warner Bros. approaches him with a million dollar deal. (And, let's face it, it would most likely be awful anyway).

Technically, much of the soundtrack sounds fairly traditionally for BJM: slow or, at best, mid-tempo instrumental grooves with lots of sustained notes formed into solemn guitar-based or brass-based melodies. However, most of the important tracks, written in minor keys, wrapped in serious echo, and often adorned by half-sung, quarter-spoken, and quarter-whispered vocals, have a much more romantic and doom-laden feel than Newcombe's previous work, bringing to mind both the recent French shoegazing scene (like Alcest) and, for sure, some of the sonic atmosphere of the old French New Wave — not so much Godard, though, whose movies were much too bizarre and turbulent for this, as somebody like Alain Resnais (Last Year At Marienbad could sure profit from some of these sounds) or even, goodness gracious, Claude Lelouche (some of the atmospheres are right up A Man And A Woman's alley).

To assist him in this uneasy, but intriguing task is a small selection of some authentic French and Italian modern talent — Stéphanie Sokolinski, better known as SoKo (since the combination of French and Slavic elements in that name is much too much for the average person to bear), musi­cal performer and actress with pop-Goth overtones, takes the lead vocal on ʽPhiladelphie Storyʼ (yes, that is the messed-up title, even if the original title of Cukor's movie in the French version was Indiscrétions); and Asia Argento, who also stars in movies and sings on LPs, although I am not sure if I have ever heard or seen anything from her (I know she's supposed to be in 1994's La Reine Margot, but that one was so terrible, I couldn't stand more than twenty minutes)... anyway, Asia Argento is featured on ʽLe Sacre Du Printempsʼ, which, as you have probably already gues­sed, has nothing whatsoever to do with Stravinsky. Is Stravinsky ever regarded as a forefather of The French New Wave? Not sure, but it's not really up to me to question Anton Newcombe's erudition — he obviously did some homework on this issue and I did not.

In any case, the important thing is that Musique seems to work even outside of all those con­nections — it is perfectly possible to enjoy it and even to be stimulated by it if you do not know a single thing about old French movies. Most of the grooves make sense. They can be quite mini­malistic, almost ambient (ʽBonbonʼ sounds like a digital projection of a meditative glass harmo­nica solo; ʽL'Ennuiʼ opens and closes with a simple musical box melody, over which a cello, a flute, and a Mellotron play a set of mournful chords), and they can be quite loud and bombastic (ʽL'Enferʼ, presenting a stern, but melancholic rather than terrifying picture of Hell — you know, the kind of Hell where demons keep asking themselves «to be or not to be?» before pouring boiling oil over your head), but they are all united by a sense of being stuck somewhere in limbo, as the old world has already been lost and the new one has not yet been gained — a sense that they do indeed share with some of those old movies.

The two sung tracks are no exception: «SoKo» sings with passion and energy on ʽPhiladelphie Storyʼ, but, true to her artistic persona, it is the passion and energy of a ghoul — "Hallelujah, chantez ma resurrection!" is the epic climax to each verse, upon which you dutifully expect a bite to the neck. And ʽLe Sacré Du Printempsʼ is kind of, like, you know, when they were all gathered to perform The Rite of Spring, but the weather turned out twenty degrees colder than expected, so they just all huddled up in their wintercoats and stayed home instead, staring out the windows and thinking real cold thoughts on the fate of the universe.

So, as you see, for me at least it does work, atmosphere-wise. This is the stiffest, most minimalis­tic and frozen Brian Jonestown Massacre release yet, more like a Dead Can Dance impersonating Brian Jonestown Massacre impersonating Alain Resnais with a little Antonioni DNA thrown in. It's not that good — the market has been flooded with half-ambient, winterish soundscapes like these for years anyway — but it feels solid and intriguing at least as yet another chapter in the odd journey of Anton Newcombe, which, considering his passion for chemical substances and his usual sloth-like approach to music, should have ended or, at least, transformed into a predictable straight line a long time ago. It does not, however, and for that reason alone I am happy to sup­port the record with a thumbs up and say that in a perfect world, it should have sold more copies than Adele's 25; but then again, in a perfect world like that 80% of the people would rather go watch a re-run of Last Year At Marienbad than the latest episode of Star Wars, and when you think about this real hard, the consequences can be rather scary.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Cat Power: The Covers Record

CAT POWER: THE COVERS RECORD (2000)

1) (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction; 2) Kingsport Town; 3) Troubled Waters; 4) Naked If I Want To; 5) Sweedeedee; 6) In This Hole; 7) I Found A Reason; 8) Wild Is The Wind; 9) Red Apples; 10) Paths Of Victory; 11) Salty Dog; 12) Sea Of Love.

You can probably already see from the preceding reviews that I am in no hurry to join the circle of adulators when it comes to Ms. Marshall and her ideas on how to use up her talents. And this is too bad, because when next it comes to The Covers Record, it is pretty damn hard to feel any­thing but hateful numbness unless you already are an adulator. Apparently, the «success» of Moon Pix (a fairly relative one — it's not like it made a Madonna out of her or anything) led her to thinking that now she had to perform one of those classic «artistic suicides», like Dylan's Self Portrait, to take the attention away from her persona and draw it to something else, becoming an interpreter for a while, instead of an artist.

To that end, The Covers Record does indeed consist of 12 covers, ranging from old folk and blues numbers to such Sixties' classics as ʽSatisfactionʼ and obscurities such as Moby Grape's ʽNaked If I Want Toʼ; most of them are transformed beyond recognition and often symbolically castrated by the removal of chorus hooks (which she'd already actually done much earlier, e. g. with Tom Waits' ʽYesterday Is Hereʼ), and to say that the arrangements are sparse would be say­ing nothing — most of the guitar-only and piano-only tunes are reduced to two or three chords, placed on endless repetition. Carrying the Pink Moon analogy over from the previous album, I'd have to say that Pink Moon, in comparison to this, sounds like a Mahler symphony.

Some, indeed, will find this approach as haunting, mysterious, chilly, and grappling as anything Cat Power ever did — and I do agree, in principle, that a reinvention of ʽSatisfactionʼ as an intro­spective, almost dark-folkish ballad with only the verse lyrics preserved sounds cool in theory, and even in practice... for the first thirty seconds or so. But the joke gets predictable and boring very, very quickly. The formula is always precisely the same: take any song (sad, happy, angry, lyrical, whimsical, whatever), deconstruct and strip its melody to the barest of bare essentials (simple enough to play for anybody with a couple weeks worth of musical training), and sing its lyrics in that icy-tender, husky, back-from-the-dead tone that leaves no doubt about it — here's a human being who's been through much more than you (sucker).

Problem is, this does not exactly tie in with the stated goal of the record: instead of humbly diver­ting attention from her own Moon Pix persona, she reinvents these songs so drastically that they no longer retain any of the original spirit and simply become another bunch of Cat Power songs, only this time, very poorly written ones. Apparently, her shows at the time included a projection of Dreyer's Passion Of Joan Of Arc while she was playing and singing the songs — which, if you ask me, comes across as a fairly arrogant gesture, rather than a humble one (a truly humble ges­ture would probably be to simply replace the concert with the film: I, for one, would much more love to see another screening of Passion than sit through Chan plink her way through all twelve of these «covers»).

It is not even the minimalism as such that drives me nuts — it is the idea of using this fatalistic moroseness as the single common denominator to which everything is reduced. When the former­ly pissed off ʽSatisfactionʼ, the formerly triumphant and inspiring ʽPaths Of Victoryʼ, the former­ly dangerous-romantic ʽWild Is The Windʼ, and the formerly facetious ʽSalty Dogʼ all become the same brand of ʽStill I'm Sadʼ, I just fail to see the point. Are we supposed to think that at the bottom of all these tunes there is indeed endless sadness, and that it was not until Chan Marshall opened our eyes to this that it became so evident? Or should we take this as a metaphoric state­ment of the «when you're overwhelmed with one emotion, you tend to view everything in the world through that emotional state» variety? But even if this is so, was this really sufficient to justify using an average of 2-3 notes for each song? And if this symbolizes the extremity of sad­ness, why not just pull a Cage on us and release nothing but silence?

In short, I'm not getting this and certainly not pretending to get this. A curious idea in theory that outlasts its welcome in less than two minutes, and is far more pretentious than it is humble. In the long run, the cover of ʽSatisfactionʼ is good enough to serve as a chuckle generator for unsuspec­ting friends, and the last two tracks are surprisingly listenable (on ʽSalty Dogʼ, she sings to the guitar playing of Matt Sweeney — you can tell, because there are many more than two notes here; and ʽSea Of Loveʼ, which sounds as if she's playing it by plucking open piano strings harp-style, is at least slightly livelier and perkier than the rest), but that's about it, and a thumbs down reac­tion, alas, seems inevitable.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Cheap Trick: At Budokan

CHEAP TRICK: AT BUDOKAN (1979; 1998)

1) Hello There; 2) Come On Come On; 3) ELO Kiddies; 4) Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace; 5) Big Eyes; 6) Lookout; 7) Downed; 8) Can't Hold On; 9) Oh Caroline; 10) Surrender; 11) Auf Wiedersehen; 12) Need Your Love; 13) High Roller; 14) Southern Girls; 15) I Want You To Want Me; 16) California Man; 17) Goodnight; 18) Ain't That A Shame; 19) Clock Strikes Ten.

US audiences really love their pop rock LIVE! and kicking, don't they? Two years after the toils and troubles of KISS were rewarded with their commercial breakthrough as a live band, the same thing happened to Cheap Trick who, ironically, opened for KISS in the early days: what could not have been achieved with the three classic studio albums (although, truth be told, each of those charted higher than its predecessor, so that the groundwork was laid well), was achieved with a live album — which, even more ironically, was never even intended for domestic release in the first place, so that the first US buyers got it as a Japanese import.

Nostalgic reasons aside, At Budokan remains great fun after all these years, but neither in its original form as released in 1979, nor in its expanded form (the complete concert, first released on CD in 1998 and since then having become the default version) does it really «destroy» the studio versions of the songs, as is so often claimed. The thing is, Cheap Trick are most certainly a «pop rock» band in the truest sense of the word, combining catchy pop hooks with dirty rock energy in brotherly proportions, but when it comes to the sacred question of «Beatles or Stones?», there's no getting out of it, and the Trick do love the Beatles more than the Stones — and this sets the predicament: unlike the Stones or the Who, Cheap Trick are studio creators first and live enter­tainers second. And even when they are live entertainers, the emphasis is very much on «entertainment» rather than «live rocking» — Rick Nielsen's baseball caps, checkered jackets, wild faces, and poly-necked guitars matter as much for the Cheap Trick show as does his ability to produce grumpy distorted tones.

This is why I normally prefer to listen to the studio versions of all these songs — yes, even the famous live performance of ʽI Want You To Want Meʼ, with the music hall piano replaced by Nielsen's rock'n'roll guitar, does not make nearly as much sense as the studio version, where the climactic bit of "didn't I, didn't I, didn't I see you crying?" is properly followed by the echo of another "crying", rather than the echoing yell of several thousand Japanese fans. And every time that Nielsen or Zander make a playing or singing mistake — and it does happen occasionally, although, to give them their due, much less frequently than after their fame had finally gone to their heads — it makes me cringe much more than any time the Stones or the Who make mistakes during their shows. The curse of the pop hook, yes indeed, sir.

Nevertheless, all of this criticism should be taken lightly — all I'm saying here is that it might be wise to begin your enjoyment of Cheap Trick with the holy trilogy of 1977-78 before assessing them as a live band, and only then proceeding to see how, at the expense of muddying up their sound and occasionally sacrificing the sharpness and subtleties of the pop hooks, they compen­sate for this with extra wildness. Needless to say, everybody is working their ass off, not the least of all «bookkeeper drummer» Bun E. Carlos, cracking at the snare with an amount of brutality worthy of the (not yet late) John Bonham; even if he cannot get quite the same «depth» of the sound, the power and melodicity of his drumming is enough to make him feel like a perfectly equal member of the band, and, perhaps, more vital to its overall live sound than both the bass of Tom Petersson and Zander's rhythm guitar.

Meanwhile, Nielsen lays on the distortion real thick — not in a nasty metallic way, no, rather in the naughty glammy «gonna raise hell» kind of way. For this release, he does not get any particu­lar spotlight (in the 1970s, at least, he used to have a very lengthy «masturbatory» section as the introduction to ʽBig Eyesʼ, Angus Young-style, but you won't find it here), the closest probably being the extended solo in ʽNeed Your Loveʼ, a preview of the track that would eventually be recorded for Dream Police; however, that solo is clearly experimental rather than self-aggrandi­zing, and the whole thing, with Zander's dreamy falsetto and its odd contrast with the almost «slowed down proto-thrash metal» riffage of the song, is arguably the most complex and psyche­delic performance of the show, a definite highlight largely due to Mr. Nielsen's making his guitar screech, squirm, and grumble in half a dozen different ways.

And then, of course, there's the whole «show» thing which, these days, can be fully enjoyed with pictures (if you do plan on getting Budokan, by all means get the edition that contains the DVD of the concert — it's trimmed, but still worth every minute of it), but is still very well felt even through just the sound. The show begins with ʽHello Thereʼ (of course) and ends with the reprise ("it's the end of the show / now it's time to go"), which naturally brings on to mind the concept of Sgt. Pepper, and even though nobody in the band is wearing uniforms, all of the members repre­sent certain artistic and actor-like stereotypes, with Zander as the prototypical «rock idol», sway­ing the audience with excitement ("I... want... you... to want... ME!"), Petersson as the black-haired evil twin / mirror image of the white-haired Aryan god, Nielsen as the mischievous trickster ("the first thing I did when I got to Japan... WAS BUY A JAPANESE GUITAR!"), and Bun E. Carlos as the «working guy turned rocker» (well, you probably can't really hear that last one, but still, there's something about Bun E.'s drumming that suggests an «office guy gone all eccentric on us» style).

In any case, there is absolutely no denying that not a single «classic rock-style» band around 1979 could seriously compete with these guys in terms of generating arena-rock excitement — not only did they retain and amplify all the power of early glam rock, but they were able to throw in the tongue-in-cheek element, with plenty of humor, which would make At Budokan much better suitable for the modern listener, I think, than, uh, Peter Frampton, for instance. They do all the stuff that cheesy rock entertainers are supposed to do — like, for instance, trading brief solo passages between each other in the coda section of ʽAin't That A Shameʼ — but all the clichés are executed with an ironic angle to them. There's so much humor and irony here, in fact, that it really makes you wonder how on earth they managed to lose it all so quickly in the accursed Eighties — here, at Budokan, it seems as if they simply could do no wrong.

Just for the record, some songs here cannot be found on regular studio LPs: the oh-so-Beatlesque merry pop rocker ʽLookoutʼ was a B-side, and the slow shuffle of ʽCan't Hold Onʼ is a parody on the broken hearted blues genre that does not work too well, I think. ʽNeed Your Loveʼ, as I already said, would soon be recorded in a definitive version for Dream Police, and the encore features a rousing version of Fats Domino's ʽAin't That A Shameʼ that's right up their alley: just as old man Fats never fooled anybody with that whole "my tears fell like rain" stuff, neither do Cheap Trick, concentrating on the humorous side of rock and roll rather than its sentimental over­tones. In fact, there's not a single shred of genuine sentimentality on Budokan, Zander's beautiful blonde hair notwithstanding. And they end the show with a mammoth version of ʽClock Strikes Tenʼ which, for a change, I do prefer to the original studio track — if only because it does not choose to end on the silly kiddie "imagine what we're doing tonight..." repetition, but rather on the manly-rambunctious "gonna get on down, gonna get on down" part.

A major thumbs up, of course, even if I probably wouldn't place this into the Top 10 of my favo­rite live albums (I think that the only «pop» band with a guaranteed spot on that Top 10 could be Fleetwood Mac — and, for all of Nielsen's wonderful qualities, he was never even half the guitarist that Lindsey Buckingham could be). But really, the worst thing that could be said about the record is that it made Cheap Trick into superstars — and, as superstars, they would very quickly begin to transform into an ordinary superstardom machine, behaving in accordance with the laws of the music market. Who knows? Without Budokan, there may have been no The Doc­tor, or no collaborations with Diane Warren, or none of those other unspeakable evils of the Dark Age of the Cheap Trick era. But then again, in the 21st century we're free to ignore the evils and focus on the good stuff, so enjoy this bit of Japanese magic and forgive them their later trans­gressions, or, rather, just forget about them.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Carole King: Thoroughbred

CAROLE KING: THOROUGHBRED (1975)

1) So Many Ways; 2) Daughter Of Light; 3) High Out Of Time; 4) Only Love Is Real; 5) There's A Space Between Us; 6) I'd Like To Know You Better; 7) We All Have To Be Alone; 8) Ambrosia; 9) Still Here Thinking Of You; 10) It's Gonna Work Out Fine.

The end of an era: Carole's last album for Ode Records, last album produced by Lou Adler and the last one to reflect precisely the same old, sunnily conservative production stylistics, associated with Carole's house band (Kortchmar et al.), as well as Crosby & Nash (both of whom appear here as background vocalists), James Taylor (who also appears here as background vocalist), and riding a thoroughbred horse on the beach without a care in the world. Which does not mean that there actually were no cares in the world — husband Charles Larkey, woe and alas, is no longer credited as the resident bass player (replaced by Leland Sklar), because of domestic troubles that were tearing the house apart.

Instead, however, of going the easy way and converting domestic problems into tempestuous art, Carole went the hard way and preferred to make another sunny album — this was, after all, what the people expected of her. And now that she was no longer bound by the catchiness parameter (grown-ups can stand hookless, after all — you can't fool the kids, but you can work your way around the grown-ups), the result, once again, is disappointing. There is virtually nothing about Thoroughbred, bar Carole's usual ability to come across as friendly and likeable, to make it stand out — like Rhymes & Reasons, this is just an okay collection of mediocre ballads and smooth, formulaic pop-rockers.

"So many ways, so many ways to show you love someone" — a promising start, perhaps, but just one question: where are these many ways? The only way I hear is a piano ballad that rides the same chords we have already heard a hundred times, and the worst way possible to present it, when the transition from verse to chorus is marked only by a surge in volume, nothing else. And even worse than that, there are signs of fakery aboard: on the closing number, ʽIt's Gonna Work Out Fineʼ, she sings: "We've been hurting each other through a hard time / And it's a mighty good feeling to know it's gonna work out fine" — the entire song rings as untrue as the combination of these two lines: if you've really been hurting each other, how the heck do you even begin to get the feeling that "it's gonna work out fine" (and it really won't)? She tries hard — yes, she even delays the resolution of the second line, turning it into a climactic outburst, with some heavy artil­lery thrown in in the form of an uplifting brass riff. It does not help: the song is formally positive, but hardly the strong uplifting jolt that is needed to convince the listener.

Of all the songs here, I can vouch safely only for one — ʽAmbrosiaʼ, with lyrics by Dave Palmer, has a certain stately majesty, coupled with melancholy and nostalgia. There's nothing particularly outstanding about its melody, but there's a sort of mix between gospel-soul and country-pop here that tugs at heartstrings which none of the other songs manage to irritate. Repeated listens show that the whole thing is not hopeless (there are at least some attempts to produce memorable pop phrasing on numbers like ʽDaughter Of Lightʼ and ʽWe All Have To Be Aloneʼ), but most likely, by the time you get used to the very subtle nuances that distinguish these tunes from one another, you will already have completely lost interest. Yes, ʽHigh Out Of Timeʼ does sound a lot like Crosby & Nash, not the least because Crosby & Nash sing background vocals, but in basic musi­cal terms this is a non-entity — like a deconstructed ʽLong And Winding Roadʼ, devoid of its genius musical decisions and turned into slow background balladry muzak. And it's even more painful to listen to something like ʽOnly Love Is Realʼ start out with almost the same melody and atmosphere as ʽIt's Too Lateʼ, only to realize a few bars later that it has none of that awesome contrast between the ominous verse and the angry-sad chorus.

In short, while not an embarrassing disaster, Thoroughbred is a serious disappointment after the previous two records: Wrap Around Joy had given us a promising transformation into a jazz-pop hookmeister (even with a few glam elements thrown in for good measure), Really Rosie proved once and for all that «inborn pop instinct» is a reality that requires at least a lobotomy to go away completely, but with this album, she once again tried to put «substance» before «form», and, honestly, Carole King is not the deepest or the most unusual thinking artist in existence, so her falling back on the thrice recycled formula of Tapestry was doomed from the start. The album did chart for a while, but the formula had clearly run out of gas, as, for that matter, did almost the entire sunny Californian style by the end of 1975. And even if the record is still much better than Carole's post-Ode output on the average, I do not see myself revisiting it any time in the future — cut out ʽAmbrosiaʼ, perhaps, and leave the rest of this «thoroughbred»'s carcass to the dogs, with a decisive thumbs down.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Canned Heat: Live At Topanga Corral

CANNED HEAT: LIVE AT TOPANGA CORRAL (1971)

1) Bullfrog Blues; 2) Sweet Sixteen; 3) I'd Rather Be The Devil; 4) Dust My Broom; 5) Wish You Would; 6) When Things Go Wrong.

Another weird discography adventure here. Apparently, Canned Heat still wanted to release a live album that had both Wilson and Vestine on it, and they had the tapes to do it, but there was a catch: after the commercial failure of the previous live album, their label (Liberty Records) had no wish to issue another one, so they took the tapes and claimed that they were from their live shows at Topanga Corral in 1966 and 1967, when they were not yet under contract — when, in fact, the recordings were really made at a 1969 show at the Kaleidoscope in Hollywood. This allowed them to release the album on a different label (Wand Records), at the expense of a little bit of dishonesty, perhaps — but every bit worth the ruse.

The thing is: maybe Harvey Mandel is the better known and the more inventive one of the two guitarists, but Vestine actually belonged in Canned Heat: a straightforward blues guitarist with a rocking heart — with very few special tricks, yet an ability to get to the heart of the matter where Mandel would more often get stuck in a psychedelic haze. You get this exactly one and a half minute into the record, when Vestine takes over from The Bear on ʽBullfrog Bluesʼ and strikes out a solo almost on the same level of fire-and-brimstone as Clapton on the famous Cream ver­sion of ʽCrossroadsʼ — too bad the rhythm section is nowhere near Cream in terms of intensity, because Henry is totally in the zone here: fast, fluent, precise, ecstatic, everything you'd need from a generic, but heartfelt fast-paced blues-rocker. Later on, Wilson comes in with his usual «I'm gonna play some simple, pretty, slow riffs and we'll call that a guitar solo, okay?» approach, and Vestine waits with impatience to break out from under The Owl's lead and kick some more ass, and it's really more fun to observe the contrast between Wilson and Vestine than between Wilson and Mandel.

Unfortunately, the album never quite lives up to that explosive start. The old blues covers are either way too predictable (ʽDust My Broomʼ? Not again!), or way too ambitious — it's one thing when they update really old acoustic classics, but the attempt to outdo B. B. King on ʽSweet Six­teenʼ is certainly misguided: Vestine does a good job, yet he cannot even begin to hope to capture all of King's subtle overtones, and it is hard to think of the track as completely detached from its King association. ʽI Wish You Wouldʼ is rather poorly mixed, with the repetitive riff groove ri­sing way over everything else, so, even if there's some nice harmonica playing and another ex­cellent solo from Henry with a razor-sharp tone, eight minutes of constant "cham-CHOOM-cham, cham-cha-CHOOM-cham" is a bit too much (at least the ʽBoogie Chillenʼ riff is aggressive, whereas this one is just nagging). On the other hand, Elmore James' ʽIt Hurts Me Tooʼ (here renamed ʽWhen Things Go Wrongʼ, but nobody's fooling anybody), suddenly recorded with plenty of echo, unexpectedly becomes a feast of plaintive, lyrical solos that take the song way beyond the scope of the original — I think that Wilson is responsive for the weeping, whereas Vestine delivers the angrier solos, and in between the two (and the odd echo that seems to feed Wilson back all of his complaints in a very psychedelic manner), they generate a great feel.

So, kick-ass start, mind-blowing finish, and some nice, unexceptional blueswailing in between — the record pretty much lets you see everything that made Canned Heat so cool in their heyday, and everything that prevented them from becoming a first-rate act both in the short and the long run; in particular, the work of the rhythm section here is fairly pedestrian, and, with all due re­spect for The Bear, he never ever was that great a singer: he just honestly does his job, but most of the time I just wait for him to move over and let Jimi, uh, I mean, Henry, take over. Still, the highs are high, and the lows are in the middle, so it all works out to a thumbs up in the end.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Cher: Bittersweet White Light

CHER: BITTERSWEET WHITE LIGHT (1973)

1) By Myself; 2) I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good; 3) Am I Blue; 4) How Long Has This Been Going On; 5) The Man I Love; 6) Jolson Medley; 7) More Than You Know; 8) Why Was I Born; 9) The Man That Got Away.

Surprisingly, this isn't that bad. Temporarily (actually, for the last time) under Sonny's productive control again, Cher retains the Vegas angle, but now it is applied to material that is more Vegasy by definition — the Great American Songbook — and the entire record is given over to lushly arranged, sprawling, time-taking covers of the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, and other Tin Pan Alley wonders. Of course, for a formerly «rocking» (to some extent) artist to record an album of golden oldies in the middle of 1973 was bound to be a commercial suicide, and so it was — prompting another rift between Cher and Sonny, and the eventual return into the hands of the more «modern-sensitive» Snuff Garrett. But nowadays, as we don't expect all that much from any Cher album by definition, it somehow manages to stand out as a particularly odd curiosity, for at least a couple of reasons.

One: it is curious to hear Cher's powerhouse approach applied to these songs — usually, you hear them as romantic and sentimental, or as melancholic and introspective if they're done by a Billie Holiday, or, you know, Sinatra-style, or Ella-style, but how about hearing them done in "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in" style? Because most of these Tin Pan Alley creations are really only what the performer makes them — and Cher takes a big whip to all of them and makes them scale epic heights, as if, you know, she was some kind of Juno and the average male protagonist of every song was some kind of Jupiter, and we'd be sitting in the amphitheater and watching them sort it out on Olympus through a looking-glass. (Although that does not prevent her from having her little jokes — it is quite telling that the first song in the ʽAl Jolson Medleyʼ is ʽSonny Boyʼ: "Climb upon my knee, Sonny boy / You are only three, Sonny boy" — I do so hope the dynamic duo made good use of that line on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour).

Two: the arrangements. They are actually above the generic Vegasy level, because Sonny Bono, the great lover of complex, multi-layered sound, drags just about every instrument possible in the studio and produces really thick, lush, polyphonic tracks — listen to ʽWhy Was I Bornʼ, for in­stance, where, in addition to the strings, you have flutes, brass, piano, harps, electric guitar (actu­ally, two electric guitars in a call-and-response session), and once Cher ceases singing, there's also a lengthy semi-psychedelic coda, with each of the instruments forming a gentle swaying wave of its own: honestly, it is hard to imagine the staggering amount of work that must have gone into this arrangement — and for what? Just so that the album could flop, because everybody would predictably concentrate on the a priori foolishness of the idea of Cher singing Tin Pan Alley material?.. Geez, Sonny boy, perhaps you were only three after all.

But on the other hand, it's really not that foolish. The combination of Sonny's production with Cher's Gargantuan vocals results in something that's somewhere half between kitsch and artistic bravery, and besides, you'd need Gargantuan vocals to rise above all the wall-of-sound ruckus created by a dozen or so musicians at once (listen to ʽThe Man I Loveʼ — strings, trumpets, gui­tars, and piano all compete with each other, caught in a wild bet on who of them, precisely, will be able to drown out Cher's voice... they all lose in the end, as she sustains that last note for about 20 seconds, which, come to think of it, comes a good quarter century before A-ha's ʽSummer Moved Onʼ, so, Morten, eat your Harket out!). So, in the end, there's something good about the idea, even if I can't quite put my finger on it. Really, I can't give the album a thumbs up because, honestly, I, too, couldn't care less about Cher doing the G.A.S., but at least they tried a highly unusual angle here, and it's up to anybody to decide if that angle really means something or if it's just a failed attempt at genre appropriation. In any case, worth hearing at least once.