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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Jonny Greenwood: There Will Be Blood


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 16, 2018

Chic: Risqué


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018

King Crimson: USA


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here


1) Shine On You Crazy Diamond (parts 1-5); 2) Welcome To The Machine; 3) Have A Cigar; 4) Wish You Were Here; 5) Shine On You Crazy Diamond (parts 8-9).

General verdict: The most elaborate and heartfelt funeral for a living friend in rock history.

In almost any account of Pink Floyd history, the genesis of Wish You Were Here is inextricably linked to The Dark Side Of The Moon — usually in the context of a question like «what do you do when you have just released one of the most commercially succesful and critically revered albums of all time?». Somewhat ironically, the original plan could not have been more different from the final results: in 1974, perhaps somewhat confused and dismayed by the enormity of their own success, the band took the decision to go back to their avantgarde-experimental roots and release an album of musique concrète, all of which would be played on various household objects, from wine glasses to hand mixers. Although some of the explored effects made their way onto WYWH in the end, ultimately the idea did not work — and perhaps it could not have worked: after all, once you cross the line that separates esoteric intellectual underground from accessible mass acclaim, going back like nothing happened is not a realistic option. However, the attempt was not totally wasted: it did manage to put them in a special kind of creative-imaginative mood that helped a lot once they started working on the real thing.

Although by 1974-1975 the «progressive» streak in popular music was beginning to wear thin, with critical admiration for bands like Yes and Jethro Tull gradually turning to disappointment, the immense success of Dark Side pretty much guaranteed to make Floyd an exception to the rule — that is, only as long as their epics «made sense», which meant having lyrics that ordinary people could relate to and melodies that would not stray too far away from the basic blues idiom at the heart of the rock culture. So then, what do you do when you have all these invisible constraints imposed on you, including the obligation to prove that your recent masterpiece was not just a happy fluke, but a significant claim for the title of the Best Band of the Decade?

In historical terms, Wish You Were Here and its follow-up, Animals, began at the same time: ʽShine On You Crazy Diamondʼ was premiered live in 1974, along with ʽRaving And Droolingʼ and ʽYou Gotta Be Crazyʼ that would go on to become ʽSheepʼ and ʽDogsʼ in 1977. However, conceptually the three were found not to belong together — the mournful nature of the former did not merge well with the aggressive dynamics of the latter two, and so, over the course of the 1975 sessions, ʽShine Onʼ, written as a tribute to Syd, was incremented by several other new tunes, all of which had to do with either the perils and humiliations of the music business or with nostalgia and sorrow, turning the whole thing into a much tighter conceptual piece than even Dark Side itself. The sessions marked the return of Dick Parry on saxophone, and also featured Roy Harper as guest lead vocalist on ʽHave A Cigarʼ, which somehow neither Waters nor Gilmour decided was suitable for their voices (a strange decision, since there is not a great deal of vocal difference between it and, say, ʽMoneyʼ, but they probably knew better). Alan Parsons was too busy with his new band to engineer the project, but Brian Humphries, his replacement, did a fine enough job. And, of course, one can never write about this album without mentioning the June 5, 1975 visit of the ghost of Syd Barrett into the studio: although they were already finalizing the mix of ʽShine Onʼ at the time, I have no doubt that some of the feelings experienced by everybody on that day must have somehow, in some way rubbed off on at least some parts of the album.

Commercially, the record stood little chance of ever outselling Dark Side Of The Moon — with but five songs on it and a smaller variety of covered topics, its appeal would be less obviously universal. Nevertheless, unlike Dark Side, it actually reached No. 1 both in the UK and in the US, and garnered almost as much praise as its predecessor. Part of this should probably be credited to the mysterious influence of the Hipgnosis album cover, but essentially Wish You Were Here sways us over so much because it is the closest that rock music ever came to producing a meticulously structured and engineered, yet also totally heartfelt requiem mass — and that, I think, is the angle under which one should always judge it.

As in any large, multi-part piece of music, there will be parts that stun you and parts that let you breathe; climactic melodies that hit every nerve and auxiliary melodies that are not so great by themselves, but are content to simply play their bridging roles in the overall story arc. But it really does come across as a single powerful piece — the didactic tale of the rise and fall of a great hero. You can give the great hero a restraining name if you like, such as Syd Barrett, yet I suppose that a huge number of people who cherish and love this album do not even have the faintest idea of who Syd Barrett was (fuck 'em, of course, but ultimately that is irrelevant to our subject matter here). The factual side of the story, like a flashback, is inserted right in the middle of the requiem — ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ, using an industrial factory as an all-too obvious metaphor for the musical business, and ʽHave A Cigarʼ, a sneery-ironic conversation with the Uberboss, take care of that — and the rest takes place in the now, as we pay our last respects to The Piper, whoever he was. A morality play, no less!

None of that would matter per se, of course, if ʽShine On You Crazy Diamondʼ — all the 25 minutes of it, split in two — weren't one of the most quintessential musical pieces of the 20th century.  If I were to compile a personal «Top 10 Most Aching Moments in Pop History» list, that moment in 2:08 where Gilmour's guitar enters stage dramatically to the subdued, respectful tones of the VCS3 and the Hammond organ played in unison would be among the first candidates for inclusion. That first solo, concluding part 1, without a single wasted note, still makes me shiver every time, no matter how much I relisten to it — and it is certainly not just the notes themselves: formally, Gilmour does not seem to be playing anything particularly outside of the standard Claptonesque blues idiom. Rather, it is the fatherly care that goes in each single note — the tone, the duration, the reverb, the relative strength of the pick; this is true mournful bliss that is all built on cliches and overcomes every one of it. The same goes for the famous four-note «Syd theme» that follows. Its timing is perfect — give a little time for the previous solo to soak in and the keyboards to slowly fade out a little, then make a second grand entrance with a laconic musical phrase that sounds like a triumphal fanfare, a warning alarm, and a meditative mantra all at the same time. It is one of those "everybody rise!" moments where a minimal, but genius effort is made to let you know that this is going to be important, as in really important — a tale of something grand and terrifying, even if you are not aware of the factual details.

Some people have complained that the composition is stretched out too much — that the vocals come in much too late, for one thing (a complaint that Gilmour partially recognized by agreeing to delete one of the guitar solos on most of Floyd's post-Waters live shows). Maybe it is, and maybe two similar-sounding guitar solos, interrupted by a keyboard solo, give undue advantage to Gilmour's guitar voice over the rest of the band — but there is not another track in Floyd's entire repertoire that would be comparable in human sentiment and transcendental majesty at the same time (ʽComfortably Numbʼ is, after all, an arena rocker first and foremost, and does not have as much «internalized emotion»). Besides, it's not as if he were noodling all over the place for hours or anything, and both Wright (on keyboards)  and Waters (on vocals) pay their equally comparable share of the tribute, not to mention Parry's sax solo.

The idea to split ʽShine Onʼ in two did not have Gilmour's initial approvement — but in the end, it turned out to be an excellent move, because of the possibility to arrange those following two songs as «flashbacks». ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ, due to the nature of its metaphor, is as close as Floyd ever came to creating an «industrial» piece of music — of course, it uses all of its noisy ideas as a setting for the dark-folksy melody rather than a goal in itself, but isolate the synth loops and all the steamy explosions and you get yourself quite a scary experimental track that could easily hold its ground against any Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle track. ʽHave A Cigarʼ, on its own, is not a great song —  it has a fairly common blues-rock riff, Harper's vocals aren't particularly affected by any kind of emotion, and on the whole, this sort of aggressive-frustrated blues railing would only be perfected by the band for Animals. But it is still decent enough, and it obviously works as part of the story — in fact, I like to picture ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ as a long, creepy, but breathtaking elevator journey to the top of The Factory, with the souls of miriads of unfortunate victims trapped on the countless stories; and then, at the very top of it all, you are greeted by the Uberboss, a somewhat ignorant ("by the way, which one's Pink?"), but totally efficient Lucifer model in its own right. (Maybe they should have brought in Alice Cooper to sing the song instead... or Meatloaf?..)

Ideally, the transition from the «flashbacks» back to ʽShine Onʼ, I think, should be made before ʽWish You Were Hereʼ rather than after it — it is just so natural when The Fallen Hero's journey to the top segues right into the chilly wintery winds of Part 6, and how we have that ominous part, highlighted by the reverberating bass and Gilmour's Evil-Joker-style slide solos and representing the devilish fate that awaits The Hero, finally seguing into the last reprise of the vocal section: "Nobody knows where you are, how near or how far...". In my own (if I may be so bold) ideal vision of the album, the title track is the post-scriptum — something to be quietly hummed to the soft strum of the acoustic after the ceremony has ended and the last of the stunned spectators has left the building. Then comes the moment when, out of nowhere (or, to be more precise, out of the lo-fi crackle of a radio transmitter), you get this last bit of homely, cozy, intimate respect for the departed. I guess there must be a certain logic to the sequencing that we have, but I have a harder time perceiving it; not that it's a big problem or anything.

A final special mention should probably be made for the «effects» — in particular, the use of the glass harp on the opening segments of ʽShine Onʼ, which went all the way back to the failed «Household Objects» project, but fit in so wonderfully here: clearly, the tinkling glass effects are in agreement with the «diamond» thing, adding one more sonic allegory on top of everything else. When you listen to those bits in headphones, as loud as possible, you can actually picture yourself in some sort of majestic funeral chamber, with dazzling-sparkling riches everywhere and the proverbial Napoleon's Tomb in the middle. Also, there is no other Floyd album on which they would put the VCS3 to better use — their electronics now are alternately God-like and Devil-like whenever they choose: more generally God-like on ʽShine Onʼ, totally Devil-like on ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ — remember the creepy whizz at the end of the ascending acoustic guitar solo? You're going up there, floor after floor after floor, and then the industrial wind hits you flat in the face at the top, as you get your general view of the grim robotic panorama. Ultimately, all these gimmicks have their proper purpose, and remain inseparable from the melodic base of the album.

Other than the not-too-satisfactory track listing (like I said, I would prefer to see the acoustic title track as a post-scriptum, even at the expense of a slight violation of the symmetry), the only problem with Wish You Were Here is that it is... well, too short. Where their second concept album about the unfortunate fate of a musical loner would arguably suffer from an overabundance of musical ideas, good and bad, this one finds itself obliged to allocate so much space to the proper unfurling and development of its musical themes that, in the end, these musical themes are reduced to but a small handful; and this is also considering that the theme of ʽHave A Cigarʼ, though similar in purpose, structure, and execution to ʽMoneyʼ, does not have that song's immediacy or originality, and that it is all too easy to even not properly notice the theme of ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ behind all the industrial hustle-bustle.

Conceptually, the record also loses to both Dark Side and Animals in terms of scope: where Dark Side was dealing with nothing less than the meaning of human life in general (yay, pretentious!), and Animals laid out a whole socio-political vision (hardly an original one, but very originally encoded in animalistic and musical metaphors), Wish You Were Here relates to a more narrow, specific situation. But then again, so did Citizen Kane, which never prevented it from becoming a masterpiece not only for conceptual reasons — and besides, who'd really want to put down a musical record merely because it is less conceptually ambitious than any of the surrounding pieces?.. Not really. Much more problematic is the fact that the vocals throughout aren't all that good, be it Roy Harper or Roger Waters, yet even that can sometimes turn to the band's advantage (for instance, Waters' somewhat annoying wailing on ʽMachineʼ is perfectly suitable if you imagine that it is being collectively delivered by all the miserable souls trapped in The Factory, communicating with our hero telepathically as he rides up in that goddamn elevator: warning given, but not heeded). 

In the end, there is a very special place for Wish You Were Here in that near-perfect streak of «intelligent art-rock with mass appeal» records that Floyd delivered throughout the 1970s. Dark Side Of The Moon had its share of tragic notes, but it was not a tragic album as a whole; Wish You Were Here marked the band's transition into the bleakest, most cynical period of their creativity. Stunned horror, cruel cynical irony, and deep, incurable sorrow are the record's chief, if not only emotions — the last verse of ʽShine Onʼ, with its "pile on many more layers and I'll be joining you there" bit shows that bliss and rest exist only beyond this world, never within it. At the same time, though, it is relatively free of anger as a basic emotion: many people tend to turn away from Animals and The Wall simply because they find it hard to stand Waters' never-ending streams of bile and poisoned spit (and let us not even begin talking about his post-Floyd career). Sorrow is the base word here, not anger; and the music uses stateliness and solemnity to convey that sorrow, with such finesse and delicacy that I really cannot think of anything comparable. (Much later on, in The Division Bell, Gilmour and Wright tried to recapture some of that magic — but it was already too intentional, too manipulative, too nostalgic, too predictable to work with the same efficiency). Overall, I would say, this is an album that every one of us wishes (or should wish) he/she could have it played in its entirety at our funeral ceremony — but then most of us probably have to deserve that right, and if the necessary pre-requisite is getting a welcome from The Machine and a cigar from Roy Harper, then maybe we'd rather not.

Technical post-scriptum: predictably, the album has been re-released in various anniversary editions, and in 2011, like Dark Side, it also received the expanded treatment with a 2-CD «Experience» package and a huge «Immersion» box set. Compared to Dark Side, however, these packages offer comparatively less material — if you are a potential buyer, I would probably advise hunting for the Experience set, which adds an enjoyable and historically significant live sub-set from the 1974 Wembley concert (with the three abovementioned early tracks performed in a row); an excerpt from the Household Objects project, which will help you see how the wine glass experiment was eventually woven into the textures of ʽShine Onʼ; a Waters/Gilmour sung version of ʽHave A Cigarʼ; and a ʽWish You Were Hereʼ with none other than Stephane Grappelli himself guest-playing a violin part that they later erased because it did not fit in with the overall mood of the song. (Amusingly, Grappelli was recording with Yehudi Menuhin in an adjacent studio on that day, but when challenged to improvise, Yehudi declined — classical players are such party poopers next to jazzmen, right?).

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

John Lennon: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band


1) Mother; 2) Hold On; 3) I Found Out; 4) Working Class Hero; 5) Isolation; 6) Remem­ber; 7) Love; 8) Well Well Well; 9) Look At Me; 10) God; 11) My Mummy's Dead.

General verdict: Yep, still kicking major three-chord ass after all these years in all of its beautiful naked brutality.

The legend of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, once hailed as the one post-Beatle album to put to shame all other post-Beatle albums, has become slightly dimmed in recent decades, largely due to a re-balancing of values. Back in the early Seventies, John was critically acclaimed as the Rough, Rugged, Sincere Heart of the Beatles, praised for the brave, gritty, and oh-so-substantial minimalism of his singer-songwriting spree — while Paul McCartney, at the same time, was getting critical flak for being too wussy, too fussy, too focused on petty bourgeois values, cheap sentimentality, and absurd absurdity. (On George, critical opinion was divided, some praising him for spiritual depth and others condemning him for too much preachiness).

These days (and by «these days» I'm actually saying «for about twenty or so years now»), with Ram being viewed as the grandfather of indie pop and traditional rock critic values à la Christ­gau or in the vein of Rolling Stone becoming way too stale, one-sided, and granddaddish, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band seems to have, if not exactly lost part of it appeal, then at least slight­ly receded into the background as just another good album from a solo Beatle. It still remains a milestone in the history of confessional, autobiographical songwriting, and is probably just as big an influence on every unhappy indie kid as Ram is on every happy indie kid. But John's brand of primal musical psychotherapy is now looked upon as naïve and dated, if not downright ridiculous, and his sincerity is just as often perceived as narcissistic, egotistic, and undeservingly offensive... at least, more often than it used to be.

And I believe this because even in my own case, the record no longer thrills me nearly as much as it did, say, twenty years ago — at the very least, its cracks and shortcomings are more obvious, and the occasional bouts of self-righteousness on the part of its author are more irritating. There is no subtlety here whatsoever: this is John Lennon, the atomic bomb, blasting away everyone and everything that stands in his way, not caring all that much if he blasts away you, the innocent listener, along with everything else — then again, you might not be that innocent, either, because chances are, there is something in this world that you have done, you fuckin' peasant, for which Mr. Lennon hates you together with all your fellow countrymen. The only thing in this world that Mr. Lennon does not hate is Yoko Ono, who systematically crops up on one song after another and acts as his guiding angel through a life of misery, frustration, and disillusionment.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band has no double bottom, no mystery to unravel — chances are that if you have heard it once, subsequent listens are not going to improve your reaction. The songs themselves certainly did not appear out of the blue: elements of this «primal» approach were sprinkled all over John's Beatles catalog, from ʽHelp!ʼ to ʽYer Bluesʼ, but in those past days the feelings were usually masked behind partially irrelevant or formulaic lyrics, and it was never clear just how much of himself John actually put into the songs (later on, he dropped plenty of clues himself — basically, whether or not he put himself into his songs determined which Beatle songs he'd call shitty and which ones he'd call passable). Now that he was no longer a Beatle, the album was all about John — John's parents, John's memories, John's loneliness, John's passions, John's life philosophy, John's adversaries, John's fears and hopes.

As I try to recycle the brief, but turbulent rock history pre-1970, I struggle to remember anything that would even remotely come close to the same level of «confessionalism» as captured here. People certainly wrote (usually masked) autobiographical songs, but the late Sixties' singer-song­writer was more of a Leonard Cohen or a Nick Drake — the wise, sophisticated romantic who was either too shy to bare it all, or thought this too cheap to merit his attention. John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band is, therefore, arguably the first album in rock history that sounds based on an auto-interviewing session: for all we know, John could listen to an hour-long interview with him­self on all things mundane and supernatural, and then go on to write a bunch of songs, each circling around a phrase or two taken from such an interview. "God is a concept by which we measure our pain", "a working class hero is something to be", "there ain't no Guru who can see through your eyes", "don't feel sorry the way it's gone", "when you're by yourself, you just have yourself and you tell yourself just to hold on" — doesn't that sound like a bunch of citations from some bed-in session, or a TV chat with Dick Cavett?

Whether these and other aphorisms are cleverly worded, original, intelligent, etc., is a matter of subjective opinion and lengthy discussion — there is little doubt as to their sincerity, but every­thing else is debatable. However, this is John Lennon we are talking about, the man whose way with words (which he tended to forget anyway) always took second place next to the music; what matters is not exactly what he says, but whether he chooses the right notes to go along with it. And here, too, the record delivers. Most of the melodies, in stark contrast to George Martin's Beatles, are bare-boned — usually featuring Ringo on drums, Klaus Voormann on bass, and John himself on either guitar or piano, almost never on both (except for ʽLoveʼ). The minimalism is symbolic: there should be nothing whatsoever to draw your attention away from the pain (or the love, or whatever). But it works — when you have a truly great melody going on in your mind, you might just strip it down to the root notes, and it will still work.

Something like ʽMotherʼ, I think, probably shouldn't even be catchy — its verses mostly do not rhyme, its last line is nearly out of sync with the rest, and the pauses between verse lines are so long, your mind might not keep the beginning by the time you get to the end. But catchy it is, and its catchiness comes through in the little things — like, for instance, the two completely different "goodbyes" that end each verse: the first one, with the strong accent on "BYE", is determined and categorical, the second, with more force on the falsettified "GOOD", is soft and sentimental: love and hate, hate and love, all in one. And maybe it is not even the simple C-G-C chord pattern on that piano that matters, but the sheer physical force with which John bangs out that melody: each chord falls down like a heavy hammer, to bring the message home. (An earlier version, played on acoustic guitar and released on the Anthology boxset, fails to produce the required shattering effect). With a song like that, do you really want to get into the details of how much John's character was really shaped by the traumatic experience of his youth, and how much he is merely self-pitying himself because Arthur Janov taught him to? All that matters is how convincing the performance itself happens to be — and it probably wouldn't be until The Wall and its own ʽMotherʼ that we'd get a comparably powerhouse delivery on the parental issue.

The minimalism works just as well on the more rocking material: ʽI Found Outʼ, the most vicious song on the album, charges forward like a mad bull, thanks to the kick-ass rhythm section — Ringo and Klaus really get into the spirit of things, playing a clenched-teeth dark boogie that fits in with John's pissed-off grumble and quietly dry, snappy, fuzzy electric guitar croaking. (I some­times wonder if Ringo found it comfortable for himself to play on an album like that — but then again, while we have this image of him as an eternally sunny, peace-and-love guy, the man had a pretty mean streak in him, too, especially around the Beatle breakup time, and I am pretty sure, considering how viciously he sometimes bashes his kit around here, that he took that chance to exorcise some of his own demons, too). The stakes are raised even higher on ʽWell Well Wellʼ, perhaps the most violent song ever recorded about doing nothing — there's few things more meaningless in this world than "well well well oh well", and few things more meaningful than turning that chorus into the single most intense session of throat-shredding in the history of rock music (not even Iggy Pop has anything on that — every time I hear the song, I feel like I have to go rinse my own vocal cords afterwards).

But rockers are still relatively few on the album, whose main focus is on quietly understated piano, acoustic and clean electric guitar hooks. We have our self-comforting, colorful electric guitar swirl on ʽHold Onʼ (and I swear that I still jump up occasionally when that COOKIE! thing jumps out of nowhere in the middle of the soft solo break); our dustbowl acoustic folkie thing on the eternally relevant rage-against-the-machine-ish ʽWorking Class Heroʼ; our steady rising-and-falling piano riff on ʽLoveʼ (something that would very soon also reappear in a slightly more complicated form as ʽImagineʼ); our Donovan-style ʽDear Prudenceʼ-like picking on ʽLook At Meʼ; and, perhaps most stunning of all, our rise-and-rise-and-rise-till-you-break-and-scatter-all-over-the-place piano melody of ʽIsolationʼ, one of the most terrifying songs from that era about loneliness — along with Harry Nilsson's ʽOneʼ, which surpasses ʽIsolationʼ in terms of pure drama, but not in terms of its claustrophobic aura.

That said, all these songs form part of a greater whole. By the time we reach ʽGodʼ, the singer-songwriter has crossed all sorts of territories and passed through all sorts of stages, and ʽGodʼ decidedly feels grander and more purposeful as a stately conclusion to the record than it would ever feel on its own — after all, it isn't so much a song as it is a psychological culmination. The melody here is crystal-clear R&B, or maybe even close to gospel, with Billy Preston expressly brought in to get more «feels» on the piano, but the message is pure solipsism, and it totally agrees with the rest of the album: "I just believe in me, Yoko and me" is really the overall theme here — according to John Lennon circa 1970, it makes no sense to sing about anything other than yourself because you really don't know anything except yourself. It is also a statement of rebirth, and while we have every right to chuckle to ourselves, it does sound like a statement of rebirth — and, for that matter, the entire start-from-scrap arrangement and production of the album sounds like a statement of rebirth, with John deconstructing all of his musical legacy and starting anew. It might not have worked out smoothly in the future, but it was a damn good start.

So has time really diminished the significance of the record? With the explosion of bare-bones singer-songwriting that followed in its wake, it is probably quite hard for us these days to under­stand just how goddamn different it must have sounded back in 1970 — right down to the brashly lo-fi coda of ʽMy Mummy's Deadʼ, which pretty much invented indie lo-fi back then but today might seem rather ordinary. Even so, play it back to back with just about any modern «complai­ning» indie songwriter and you will see that the chief difference is in the power aspect: aside from the minimalistic brilliance of the melodies, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is one hell of an ass-kicker, even in some of its tenderest moments ("loooooook at meeeeee!.... [bitch]"). The sheer strength, conviction, brute force, whatever, of these songs is what makes them come alive with so few expended efforts — here is a man who is not afraid of mincing his words or taking full responsibility for his actions, no matter how questionable. In the end, it is not John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band that became less attractive as time went by — it is merely that the other albums, by Paul and George, inspired enough confidence to climb out from under its shadow, and that, too, was a very good thing. This one, as far as this reviewer is concerned, remains every bit as monumental as it used to be — and a never-ending source of inspiration, though, seemingly, not for the majority of today's singer-songwriters.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Marvin Gaye (w. Tammi Terrell): United

MARVIN GAYE: UNITED (1967) (w. Tammi Terrell)

1) Ain't No Mountain High Enough; 2) You Got What It Takes; 3) If I Could Build My Whole World Around You; 4) Somethin' Stupid; 5) Your Precious Love; 6) Hold Me Oh My Darling; 7) Two Can Have A Party; 8) Little Boy, Little Ole Girl; 9) If This World Were Mine; 10) Sad Wedding; 11) Give A Little Love; 12) Oh How I'd Miss You.

General verdict: Some of the liveliest duet singing in Motown history captured here.

Thomasina Winifred Montgomery, better known as Tammi Terrell (because alliterations are good for you, as per Berry Gordy), had two things going for / against her: she was gorgeous, and she died at the age of 24 from a brain tumor. For, because this is why she is still being remembered; against, because, well, first of all, dying at the age of 24 from a brain tumor really sucks, and second, because this kind of posthumous fame naturally makes one question whether there is anything else to her, you know? (The same kind of question that would, three decades later, be asked about Aaliyah).

Of course, it is often hard to tell with classic Motown performers: there were so many of them, and so many of them completely depended on their songwriters, musicians, arrangers, and pro­ducers, that assessing the degree of «raw talent» in each one of them is a very difficult and highly subjective matter — in a way, you could argue that it wasn't until the next decade that everything properly fell into place, and by the time that decade started, Tammi was already dead anyway. But one thing is for certain: United is the first really, really good album of duets between Marvin and another lady singer — and, although it shows great promise, it would not be topped ever again, sadly, for reasons beyond anybody's control. After the somewhat lukewarm chemistry with Mary Wells, and after the promise with Kim Weston that was sadly undermined by the subpar quality of the material, third time is the charm: with Tammi at his side, and with a few song­writing remedies applied, Marvin finally hits gold, or at least silver.

Like its predecessors, United is unabashed sentimental teen-pop, but, like the best of sentimental teen-pop (think Supremes or Shangri-La's), it finally manages to bottle some of the spirit of the times — upbeat, optimistic, playful, innocent, harmless, and generally clad in solid hooks, this time mostly courtesy of the songwriting team of Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol (who also co-produced the record). I suppose that Kim Weston could have handled the partner role in such a venture, too, but now that Tammi is here, she proves to be quite a versatile and worthy compa­nion: she can belt it out when the song requires for a belt-out, she can coo and croon, and she can build up a perfectly credible musical relationship with Marvin (in real life, it never came to that, since Marvin preferred to structure their friendship along the «caring elder brother / sympathetic younger sister» line — probably just as well, since both of Tammi's previous relationships, with James Brown and David Ruffin respectively, used to end up in beatings).

ʽAin't No Mountain High Enoughʼ, announcing the arrival of the Ashford & Simpson songwriting team to Motown, was the first single from the album, and I believe that the original version is still more frequently played on the radio than the puffed-up, gospelized, monumentalized Diana Ross version from 1970 — which does have its place in the universe as well, but there is really no beating the steady, danceable build-up of the first take. Its placement here as the first track is almost symbolic, too: the song is a grandiose, chivalrous pledge, and while ʽIt Takes Twoʼ was a breathtaking, fun, sexy romp between two singers, here you get the subconscious feeling that something far more special is taking place. And it would have been simple to just record the song as a slow, sappy romantic serenade — instead, there is a wild beat, and the vocal lines come on like gradually surging waves, building up to the chorus release: quite spectacular.

Motown was so swayed by the success of the single that they followed it up with another Ashford & Simpson composition, ʽYour Precious Loveʼ — which charted even higher, despite being much less explosive; more of a traditional slow doo-wop number, it has a fairly standard, though enjoyable, descending guitar melody and an equally standard, though enjoyable, descending vocal hook ("heaven... must have sent you... from abo-o-ove..."). There is a spark to it, though, just as there is one in the third single, ʽIf I Could Build My Whole World Around Youʼ, whose «hook» is actually limited to some doo-doo-doo's in the chorus. Simply put, there is a lot of life in Tammi's vocals — the sort of life that even inspires surrounding musicians to play with more verve, and inspires Marvin to sing with even more verve and openness than usual. (It is said that Tammi, with her love of public performance, actually pushed Marvin to overcome his stage fright, which would later return in full force once she passed away).

In compositional terms, these songs are nothing special, but when you cannot invent an original genre, it always makes sense to be influenced by the best possible ones — thus, ʽYou Got What It Takesʼ emulates the Ike & Tina Turner approach, and although Tammi could never hope to have Tina's swagger, the two produce quite a respectable approximation. ʽTwo Can Have A Partyʼ is infectiously fun Sam-Cooke-meets-Supremes stuff; and ʽSomethin' Stupidʼ is faster, bouncier, cheerier, and groovier than the Sinatras' version. As for Marvin himself, he only contributes one song, ʽIf This World Were Mineʼ, and while it is not one of his best compositions on the whole, the only thing that really matters is the call-and-response "if this world were mine..." hook between Marvin and Tammi — in fact, I'd have no problem with it if the entire song just featured them bouncing that line back and forth between each other.

All in all, it's all fairly slight and giggly, but it is very difficult not to smile when listening to this album — and you certainly do not need to be aware of its contrast with the tragic future of both members of this duet in order to smile; but the very contrast between how much pulsating life this record contains and how much death would follow in its wake certainly adds an extra dimension to the experience. Highly recommended.