Search This Blog

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Carpenters: Offering


1) Invocation; 2) Your Wonderful Parade; 3) Someday; 4) Get Together; 5) All Of My Life; 6) Turn Away; 7) Ticket To Ride; 8) Don't Be Afraid; 9) What's The Use; 10) All I Can Do; 11) Eve; 12) Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing; 13) Benediction.

The main problem with the Carpenters' generally forgotten debut album is simple, as long as you subscribe to the world view that has been gradually consolidating around the duo's post-mortem reputation — namely, that «Carpenters» (as a concept) were shite, while Karen Carpenter was anything but. Admittedly, it is a flawed and incomplete view, but, unfortunately, I cannot help drifting towards it myself, and nowhere is it more evident than on Offering (what a posh title!), the duo's first big, er, offering to the A&M label. Today, it is better known as Ticket To Ride, after its only minor hit single, but I am keeping the original title for honesty's sake, especially since «honesty» is generally a big concern for bands like these.

Technically, the album was a transitional affair, recorded very soon after the breakup of Richard and Karen's band Spectrum and still containing traces of a «band» rather than «duo» (or, even better, «solo») approach to business. More than half of the songs were actually written by Richard, with lyrics by former bandmate John Bettis — even though Richard never was and never would be a talented songwriter; and about half of the songs are sung by Richard, even though I always end up feeling like a three-year old every time I hear a Richard vocal. The syrupy-upbeat atmo­sphere ends up infecting Karen's performances as well (ʽDon't Be Afraidʼ, etc.), and the result is not so much «soft rock» as it is «Sesame Street rock», a subgenre that the Carpenters would never fully relinquish voluntarily, but Offering is really their only album to have been recorded almost completely in that genre.

There are exceptions, of course — two or three of these, pointing the way to future moments of triumph, and, as anybody can guess, it is first and foremost the songs that put Karen's rich, dark lower range overtones in proper focus, with an aura of near-tragic melancholy that hinted at a very troubled soul (not to mention physiology) even back when Karen Carpenter was, formal­ly, still a lively, fun-loving, drum-toting tomboy. A particular highlight, long forgotten in favor of future hit songs in the same style, is Richard's ʽEveʼ, a lush Euroballad that is, unfortunately, spoiled by too many overdubbed harmonies and strings in the chorus, but sounds near-perfect when it's just Karen and the piano (or, in later verses, a bit of overdubbed harpsichord on top): here, already, she is able to woo the listener with merely the opening "Eve, I can't believe that you would mean what you just said..." — few singers are able to combine special vocal technique with fully believable realism of the delivery, and here we witness the combination of a capable singer, a perfect actor, and a captivating human being.

Compared to ʽEveʼ, the far better known title track is not nearly as impressive. The idea to put the "sad" back into "I think I'm gonna be sad" is brilliant per se — whatever you could say about the original ʽTicket To Rideʼ, you could never truly suspect the song of disseminating an atmosphere of genuine sadness (the irony was, of course, best captured in the Help! movie where it was per­formed to footage of all four Beatles enjoying themselves like ecstatic kids while skiing in the Alps — so who's got a ticket to ride, once again?). Problem is, they lay it on a bit too thick, slowing the song down to an almost ridiculous crawl, and the theatricality here actually over­shadows the realism — much as I'd love imagining the song as a far more hard-hitting retort by somebody like Cynthia Lennon ("the boy that's driving me mad is going away... he's got a ticket to ride, and he don't care" — sound familiar?). Still, the purpose is a noble one, as is their other tasteful choice of a cover: Buffalo Springfield's mournful ʽNowadays Clancy Can't Even Singʼ, another broken down lady tale that they smother in strings and woodwinds, but without sacrifi­cing its tragic-humanistic spirit. Too many Richard vocals, though!

As for the rest... well, stuff like ʽYour Wonderful Paradeʼ is the kind of stuff I would rather be dead than caught listening to by even the closest friends and relatives (fortunately, I always have a «reviewing purpose only» excuse for anything, and you don't!), even if it is a somewhat catchy pop song, with appropriately cartoonish tin soldier drumming from Karen who, at this point, still considered herself strictly a «singing drummer»; but the atmosphere of cutesy-whimsy is unbea­rable — if you're gonna do it, just go all the way and get an ʽAll Together Nowʼ or a ʽYellow Sub­marineʼ out of your system, rather than this middle-of-the-road crap that is too boring as a kiddie tune and too corny as an adult one. The same applies to most of the other songs written by Richard, ʽEveʼ excepted — but when he wants to write a sentimental ballad, he often falls flat, too, as on ʽSomedayʼ, a mushy Broadway tune whose spineless nature cannot even be redeemed by Karen singing it without outside help.

Concerning the overall «coating» of the record, it is clear that it was at least as much influenced by The Beach Boys as it was by show tunes and Bacharach, but the latter influences still prevail, and despite frequent praise for Richard's talents as an arranger, the pretty effects that he got with multiple overdubs of his and Karen's vocals are consistently offset by Mantovani-type strings and the overall silky softness of pretty much every instrument played (yes, even Karen's drums — despite all the quirkiness and even sexiness of her «singing drummer» image, she was no Keith Moon when it came to hitting... uh, caressing that drumkit). Jazz influences are also obvious (the siblings' first work together was actually within a jazz setting), as on the brief jazz-pop experi­ment ʽAll I Can Doʼ, but... well, you know.

In the end, Offering clearly seems to deserve its reputation — a failed first attempt that misuses the duo's talents and is more often boring and/or embarrassing than illuminating; it is much to the siblings' credit that they were able to understand which elements had to be cut down and which ones had to be emphasized in such a record short time. But, like almost any first failure by a future great artist, it does have its flashes of occasional brilliance — and it is at least an intriguing failure, sounding so notably different from whatever would follow. So, one of those cases where a formal thumbs down might still warrant interest for those who find up-and-down curves more fascinating than all-the-way-up-the-hill trajectories.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Cat Stevens: Teaser And The Firecat


1) The Wind; 2) Rubylove; 3) If I Laugh; 4) Changes IV; 5) How Can I Tell You; 6) Tuesday's Dead; 7) Morning Has Broken; 8) Bitterblue; 9) Moonshadow; 10) Peace Train.

Together with Tillerman, this album generally forms the backbone of the Cat Stevens legend: both were his most commercially successful and critically applauded projects, both yielded many of his best-known songs and both continue to be top-rank recommendations for neophytes. Less heavily publicized is the fact that the two records, actually, are strikingly different in certain ways, and, in my opinion, the differences do not necessarily come out in favor of Teaser; in fact, de­spite its generous brevity, accessibility, and inevitably alluring friendliness, I find it surprisingly hard to warm up to its material on the same heat level with Tillerman.

The whole package was superficially marketed as a «children's album» — starting from the carto­onish album cover and ending with an actual children's book that Cat wrote about the adventures of the album's two characters and published soon after the release of the record. In essential terms this is not really true: although the main lyrical and emotional themes of Teaser are quite easily accessible for kids and adults alike, they are serious and realistic — songs about, well, uhm, peace, love, and understanding, for the lack of a worse cliché. The «kiddie setting» here is more to underline the innocence and idealism of the singer-songwriter than to specifically appeal to a young audience: like most folk-based troubadours of the early Seventies, Stevens quite expressly catered to all ages and all social backgrounds. And yet, in the process, I think he crossed a certain line that usually separates «serious» from «cutesy» — nor does it help that «cutesy» can occasio­nally be irritating when it is too strongly mixed with «preachy».

Musically, the record is markedly more minimalistic than its predecessor: many of the songs feature nothing but one or two acoustic guitars that may or may not receive the gentle, non-intru­sive support of pianos and a rhythm section. It is with this minimalism, one that places nothing between the tender heart of the artist and his enthralled listeners, that Stevens makes his point: melody-wise, as usual, there is very little here that goes beyond the ABCs of folk-based singer-songwriters, although it is still nice to see him cleverly weave together Anglo-Saxon folk music and Latin motives on stuff like ʽRubyloveʼ. But friendly minimalism can sometimes backfire: unless you support it with a touch of McCartney-style musical genius, its insistent «let me be your friend in need!» message may provoke a shoulder-shrugging reaction.

Case in point — the man's biggest hit and the song with which he is most commonly associated by those people who have never even seen Harold And Maude: ʽPeacetrainʼ. It has an interesting melodic trick up its sleeve, with the rising chord progression over the verses giving the illusion of an ever-rising stairwell or, perhaps, of an endless row of people mounting the proverbial train. But it is stylistically cut out as a rousing, gospel-tinged R&B number, and yet it has nothing like the true potential of one. It is Cat's personal ʽImagineʼ, but where the minimalism of ʽImagineʼ felt perfectly natural, it being more of a personal fantasy / prayer than a public sermon (even if the lyrics could technically allow you to construe it as one), ʽPeacetrainʼ desperately needs to be louder and prouder (à la ʽPower To The Peopleʼ rather than ʽImagineʼ, actually) for its potential to be fully realised. It is not at all bad — it just feels demo-ish, if you know what I mean.

As, well, does most of this record. It is just so quiet, so inoffensive, so sentimental, that even songs that could be formally stated to have pop hooks (ʽChanges IVʼ, ʽTuesday's Deadʼ) take a long, long time to win my attention; and yet, it is also not the kind of J. J. Cale-like, arrogantly defying minimalism that tacitly shouts in your face «I'm gonna do the bare minimum and you are fuckin' goin' to like it!», nor is it the grim Taoistic minimalism of a Nick Drake that haunts you with its world-gone-wrong spirit. Nor is it even a grotesque elfish-prince minimalism of a Donovan, whose antics might scare away some people, but eventually win over others with their outstanding goofiness. Instead, it is a warm-evening-on-the-front-porch kind of minimalism, starting with the gently self-probing introduction of ʽThe Windʼ (which does, appropriately, have a reference to the "setting sun") and ending with the (misguidedly) humble admonition of ʽPeace­trainʼ. In between these, the only song that ended up genuinely moving me on a certain level of spiritual depth was ʽIf I Laughʼ — its melody has a subtle twist of George Harrison-like tragism that elevates it to the level of high art. But everything else is just... nice.

Were I John Lennon (heck, I have already made references to two out of four, so why not make it three? now if only «Peace and Love» Ringo happened to make a cover of ʽPeacetrainʼ, we could close the circle and go home), anyway, were I John Lennon, I would not have missed a chance to scoff at the record and dismiss it as, say, «pleasantries for peasantries». What makes it different from so many other «pleasantries» of (technically) the same kind is that it has style, charisma, and heart — no matter how lightweight the songs may sound while they are on or how quickly forgotten they may be when they are gone, it is clear that they are all a part of the man's humble, respectful search for the Big Truth — a search that, if you don't mind me blasphemizing in the face of The Almighty, ultimate­ly ended up somewhat caricaturesquely, but commanded respect and acceptance on the level of Teaser And The Firecat. Nevertheless, despite the catchy cho­ruses of ʽChanges VIʼ and ʽTuesday's Deadʼ and even despite the heart-tugging pang of misery on ʽIf I Laughʼ, I do not foresee myself returning to this album as frequently as I might be revisi­ting Tea For The Tillerman — or, heck, even Matthew & Son, for that matter.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: The Heart Of The Blues Is Sound


1) My Baby's Coming Home; 2) You Rascal You; 3) No Tomorrow; 4) The Heart Of The Blues Is Sound; 5) The Japanese Special; 6) Hard Feeling; 7) Blues From 1921; 8) Don't Mistreat Your Woman.

Another alumnus of John Mayall, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, has been recruited by the endlessly charismatic Champion for these sessions, held in London in August 1969. Having actually been fired from the Bluesberakers, Dunbar had only just formed his own band — appropriately called «Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation» — and, apparently, they are all here backing Dupree, except for the first track which, in a rare stint of mind, he prefers to sing a cappella. Notable members of the band include Victor Brox, whom most people probably remember as the metallic-evil voice of Caiaphas in the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar — in fact, he'd already been a pro­fessional blues singer and player by that time, although on this album he sticks to keyboards and harmonica; trombonist Nick Evans, known for a brief stint in Soft Machine; and guitarist John Moorshead, known for very little in particular, yet capable of grinding as mean an axe as any alumnus of the John Mayall school.

As for Dupree himself, he takes a slightly more experimental approach on the record. The tunes are fewer in number and shorter in length, leaving plenty of space for jamming and improvisation (keeping up with the spirit of the times), and there is also a pronounced jazz influence: the only song not credited to Dupree on the album is ʽYou Rascal Youʼ, credited to Louis Armstrong (in reality, it was written by Sam Theard, but Dupree was not much of a sucker for detail), and then there is the oddest thing the man ever took part in so far — ʽThe Japanese Specialʼ, a tribal groove featuring a discordant, almost atonal battle of trombones, saxes, guitars, and organs: sur­prisingly energetic and delightfully chaotic, it could be defined as «Soft Machine meets Jack Dupree» (referring specifically to Nick Evans' participation in it), except that there's really very little Dupree-ish about the track in general. Honestly, I'm not even sure if the Champ plays on it in the first place. But even if he is not, it is pretty cool to encounter four minutes of free jazz on an LP by a pre-war urban blues specialist, is it not?

Elsewhere, it is mostly the same schtick: super-slow 12-bar electric blues (ʽHard Feelingʼ; ʽDon't Mistreat Your Womanʼ), old-fashioned blues balladry (ʽNo Tomorrowʼ; title track), and a cute attempt to do a regular jazz-blues oldie with a piano and a blaring trombone over it (rather bla­tantly called ʽBlues From 1921ʼ). The sound is nice, and altogether it feels as if the band gels together much better than any of Dupree's previous white-boy outfits in London. However, that is because the band is a band, rather than a motley crue of vaguely interested guest stars — and the album might as well have been called «The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation Feat. Champion Jack Dupree», given that his role is consistently diminished throughout the record. He does sound quite charming on that vocal-only number, though.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Pretty Things: Get The Picture?


1) You Don't Believe Me; 2) Buzz The Jerk; 3) Get The Picture?; 4) Can't Stand The Pain; 5) Rainin' In My Heart; 6) We'll Play House; 7) You'll Never Do It Baby; 8) I Had A Dream; 9) I Want Your Love; 10) London Town; 11) Cry To Me; 12) Gonna Find A Substitute; 13*) Get A Buzz; 14*) Sittin' All Alone; 15*) Midnight To Six Man; 16*) Me Needing You; 17*) Come See Me; 18*) L.S.D.

Drummer Viv Prince was kicked out of the band right before the release of their second LP — in fact, relations with him had reached breaking point during the sessions, so that many tracks fea­ture session player (and the band's producer) Bobby Graham instead. Although Viv was not that much involved in the band's songwriting, it may be argued that this first out of many lineup changes was the most significant one — think of The Who firing Keith Moon as an awful ana­logy. Somehow this initiated a shift of image, as The Pretty Things began to drop the «wildness» aspect and turn towards more soulful, psychedelic, and artsy matters: fortunately, not before relea­sing their flawed masterpiece of the «wild thing» period.

Get The Picture? is a massive improvement over the self-titled debut, largely because much of the material is now self-written, with Phil May and Dick Taylor emerging as a competent and convincing songwriting duo — still not on the Jagger/Richards level if you average out the results, but not so much because they did not have an ear for melody as it is due to inferior technical aspects of the performances and recordings. Every time I listen to something like ʽCan't Stand The Painʼ with its decidedly Stonesy atmosphere (in some ways, predicting the slightly cavernous mystical-sexual sound of Aftermath), I can't help but wonder if it could be hailed as a timeless classic of longing-and-yearning with Mick on vocals and Keith on guitar.

And there are aspects where The Pretties would indeed go farther than their chief superior com­petitors. You only have to get past the opening number (ʽYou Don't Believe Meʼ is a mix of over­playe R&B ecstasy with crude Byrdsy jangle guitars) to hit the jackpot: ʽBuzz The Jerkʼ is, I believe, not only the very first pop song to feature the word "jerk" in the title (only two years earlier, the Stones had to guiltily censor the word in their cover of Chuck Berry's ʽCome Onʼ), it is as heavy and as uncompromising as it ever gets (at least, in 1965) in a song seemingly dedi­cated to problematic issues of rough sex. The rhythm section is on an adrenaline kick here: John Stax plays a broken-up bass riff that does things to your girl that even whacky perv Bill Wyman, all gentlemanly on the outside but EVIL on the inside, would never dream of, while Viv (I do hope that's Viv, I don't think Bobby Graham would dare play with that much aggression) goes so heavy on the cymbals and snares that Keith Moon could be his only competition. Throw in a mean fuzzy tone from one of the guitarists, and the entire tune is a two-minute explosion of garage rock wildness that ranks together with the greatest nuggets of the decade. Finally, by get­ting their act together and achieving tight focus, The Pretty Things explode.

The title track, when you take a detached look at the verse, is just one of those simple Britpop tunes, à la Dave Clark Five, that is usually supposed to put you into a jovial mood; but with May's breathy-beastly vocal onslaught and Taylor's crisply roasted guitar, it is only a tad less wild than ʽBuzz The Jerkʼ. "I ain't gonna quit ya / Get the picture?" predates The Troggs in its brief musical summary of the life of the Neanderthal lover. Later on, you are informed that ʽWe'll Play Houseʼ, obviously a nod to Elvis' ʽBaby Let's Play Houseʼ because of the title, but taking the metaphor to a whole new level. But the top prize is ʽYou'll Never Do It Babyʼ, a song originally recorded by the little-known UK act Cops & Robbers in a weak, piano-centered version: it took the Pretties to open up its full potential — the shotgun-style «blast 'em and pick up the pieces» riff and May's bluntly threatening lyrics give the song a bit of murderous feel, as in, she'll never do it, baby, because I've got a knife and I know how to... oh, never mind, just toying around with the dark side for a moment.

Not everything is equally exciting: as long as they keep up and nourish the sinister vibe, the re­sults are cool, but a few of the songs are second-rate R&B grooves (ʽI Want Your Loveʼ) that pale in comparison; besides, on this front they are natural losers in comparison with the Stones, and their version of Solomon Burke's ʽCry To Meʼ is nothing compared to the slower and far more turbulent commotion of guitars and vocals that the Stones had going on Out Of Our Heads. But they are also treading different types of water, such as melancholic folk rock (Tim Hardin's ʽLondon Townʼ) and soulful blues-rock — ʽCan't Stand The Painʼ is a very adventurous type of song, alternating between slow, moody, dreamy folksy passages with groaning, echoey slide guitars and fast, chugging, paranoid verses. I don't think there was anybody else in Britain in 1965 who'd be making that same sort of music: it's like an amalgamation of the soft melancholy of The Searchers with the raw aggressive energy of the Stones.

The expanded CD edition makes things even better: without getting overboard in terms of length (throw in all those bonus singles and you still get only 45 minutes of music), it fattens up the record with such classics as ʽGet A Buzzʼ (this is basically ʽBuzz The Jerk Vol. 2ʼ, although a tad less explosive), ʽMidnight To Six Manʼ (one of the band's catchiest singles ever and one of the greatest affirmations of Night Power), and, oh my God, ʽL.S.D.ʼ — actually, correction: ʽ£SDʼ, so the song formally refers to currency, but they do sing it with an L: "everybody's talking about my LSD... yes I need LSD, yes I need LSD"! Sometimes, you know, it helps being second class: neither the Stones nor the Beatles would probably be allowed to issue anything like that, but since nobody cared that much about The Pretty Things, these guys could get away with everything next to murder. They just wouldn't be paid for it.

Ultimately, Get The Picture? gets my vote for the most «badass-nasty» recording of 1965, which is, of course, absolutely not the same as its «best» recording — in any case, on their second try the band totally got it right, and carved a proper niche for itself that everybody else was either too afraid or too shy to try out. Not even The Who were that nasty: with Townshend's «thinking» approach to songwriting, those guys were far more happy, from the very start, to dress in Union Jacks rather than Neanderthal furs. The problem was that — at the time, at least — it was unclear how they could take this thing further, and so Get The Picture? remains the unsurpassed pin­nacle of The Pretties' nasty phase. Their glory days would be far from over, yet it can also be argued that this was their single most important «individual-identifying» moment, placing them in nobody's category but their own. A glorious thumbs up here — do not waste any time trying to buzz the jerk, now.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Al Kooper: Fillmore East - The Lost Concert Tapes


1) Introductions; 2) One Way Out; 3) Mike's Introduction Of Johnny Winter; 4) It's My Own Fault; 5) The 59th Street Bridge Song; 6) (Please) Tell Me Partner; 7) That's All Right Mama; 8) Together Till The End Of Time; 9) Don't Throw Your Love On Me Too Strong; 10) Season Of The Witch.

For those who have thoroughly enjoyed the Fillmore West shows of Kooper and Bloomfield, released in 1969, the Legacy label now offers a generous bonus — here are the same dudes playing Fillmore East now, with a good selection of numbers from shows played on December 13–14, 1968, three months after the Fillmore West gigs. Despite not spending a lot of time toge­ther to rehearse new stuff, the young guitar wiz and the idealistic organ pro were still on an adven­turous kick, and there are only four tracks that overlap between the two shows, making The Lost Concert Tapes a solidly new piece of the old puzzle and a must-have for...

...well, actually, let us not get carried away. Most of the people who even heard of the release of this record, let alone bought it or reviewed it, were probably major fans anyway, so the few gene­ric reviews of it that you might be able to read are likely to be ecstatic. I, however, am doing this from more of a completist angle, and it is a rather unfavorable angle to Fillmore East. The album is shorter, lacks the element of surprise, does not quite give the same impression of a sympathetic chaotic mess, and, simply put, is far more boring.

The biggest problem is that out of the album's 60 minutes, almost half are given over to stereo­typical — and deadly slow — 12-bar electric blues. It does not help matters much that the first of these boasts the participation of young Johnny Winter, who had just had his first album released and attracted the attention of Bloomfield: Mike advertises him ecstatically, then recedes into the background for much of the time while Johnny struts his cool Texan blues stuff, sounding more or less like what he always sounds like — a post-Clapton, pre-Stevie Ray type of middleman. I actually find more fire in Bloomfield's response solos, although the best moment of ʽIt's My Own Faultʼ is probably nearer the end where they finally decide to trade some lines between each other. But yeah, good technique and all.

Unfortunately, this is soon followed by ʽPlease Tell Me Partnerʼ, another ten-minute blues that sounds exactly like ʽIt's My Own Faultʼ; and towards the end, we have Albert King's ʽDon't Throw Your Love On Me So Strongʼ because, apparently, there is nothing Fillmore East audien­ces enjoyed better than slow blues-de-luxe played at tortoise speed. Somehow, this abundance of the slow blues template never seemed particularly annoying at the Fillmore West shows, so I am guessing that they may have wanted to vary their setlists for the next set of gigs, but did not have the time to do it properly, and settled upon blues improvisation instead (ʽPlease Tell Me Partnerʼ definitely sounds like a last-minute filler piece, especially considering its inane lyrics).

Other than the blues stuff, three songs here completely overlap with the Live Adventures setlist (including yet another super-slow performance of ʽThe 59th Street Bridge Songʼ), and the only pleasant surprise is a sharp take on ʽSeason Of The Witchʼ at the very end: Bloomfield does not exactly put Steven Stills to shame, but his own proto-punkish guitar language agrees very well with the song's fuzzy ominousness, and watch out for fine session bass player Jerry Jemmott's fretline-exploring bassline, too.

Overall, I am not calling the album any bad names: I just think that the few months separating Al's and Mike's West Coast gigs from their East Coast ones did not result in any new ideas, and that this particular setlist seems somewhat rushed and let's-try-it-out-and-see-what-happens to me; which, granted, is not always a bad approach by definition, but in this particular case, has resulted in a flawed experience. Mike Bloomfield is a magnificent guitarist, but he is really at his best when playing ʽTombstone Bluesʼ-like material: wasting his undeniable talent on one slow 12-bar blues number after another is barely forgivable. Therefore, proceed at your own risk.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Charlatans: Live It Like You Love It


1) Love Is The Key; 2) Judas; 3) Tellin' Stories; 4) A Man Needs To Be Told; 5) One To Another; 6) The Only One I Know; 7) Impossible; 8) North Country Boy; 9) You're So Pretty, We're So Pretty; 10) Weirdo; 11) How High; 12) Forever; 13) And I Fall; 14) Sproston Green.

One of the last things this world needs is a live album by The Charlatans. Actually, let us cast the net wider: few things in this world make less sense than any live album by any Britpop band — all these guys live for the studio experience, and their concerts are mainly an excuse for the fans to go wild, which is the obvious reason why they very, very rarely come out with official live recordings (even Blur, I think, had to wait until their reunion solidified their legendary status, and even then, made sure that the audio experience would be inseparable from the video image). Why The Charlatans, a band that was rarely perfect in the studio, decided to follow up the Wonder­land tour with a live album, I have no idea.

Quick question: Is this stuff any good? Quick answer: Absolutely not. If you are tepid about The Charlatans, stay away from it — life is too short. If you are rabid about The Charlatans... just go see The Charlatans in concert — life is too short. Here is everything about Live It Like You Love It that you need to know: (1) It is heavily biased towards Wonderland and post-Rob Col­lins material in general, which is understandable, given that it was recorded in Manchester on December 14, 2001, but also means that the album cannot really function as a «greatest hits live» type of package; (2) Most of the songs are played as close to the original version as possible, but the musicians sound sluggish, and the power of the original grooves is seriously reduced, also because (3) the sound quality is mediocre at best, all the guitars reduced to brown mush and the bass melodies barely noticeable. And Tim Burgess is Tim Burgess — just add some bum notes and slurred phrasings that are forgivable during an actual live show, but not really on a live re­cord. And now, think whether you really want to have this.

At one point, they give the fans a pleasant surprise and bring out none other than Johnny Marr himself to play guitar on ʽWeirdoʼ — nice, but since the guitar stays deep in the mix most of the time, you'd probably never notice in the first place, had they not pompously announced Johnny's arrival at the beginning. Another surprise is the last track of the encore, ʽSproston Greenʼ, which is stretched out to almost twice its original length with a huge jam; yet somehow, Tony Rogers just fails, I think, to generate the excitement that Rob Collins managed to produce on the original version. I don't want to say that the band plays all this stuff without any inspiration or deep invol­vement, but it does come across that way. Since I have not heard any examples of their stage performances in the Rob Collins days, there is nothing to compare with, but the conclusion re­mains the same: just stick to the studio records, as there is absolutely no way these guys can make their stuff more exciting, more energetic, more rocking, or at least more different onstage. Totally a thumbs down here, and the title of the album reeks of self-irony — if this is truly how they live it, I'm embarrassed to think of how they really love it.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Celeste: I Suoni In Una Sfera


1) Hymn To The Spheres; 2) The Dance Of The Sounds; 3) The Gates To Consciousness; 4) In The Darkside; 5) Last Flight Of The Mind; 6) To Embark On A Love Affair; 7) The Rediscover Of The Traditions; 8) A Vision; 9) The Thought Flies High Again; 10) Eftus; 11) Favole Antiche; 12) Nadissea.

Once the floodgates are open, they usually stay open. Unfortunately for Celeste, it is not like they spent enough time together to be able to rival Zappa. It turns out, however, that they did manage one extra feat during their brief common tenure — namely, record a complete soundtrack for an Italian movie called I Suoni In Una Sfera, allegedly directed by Enry Fiorini (at least, so the Italian Wikipedia tells me). Nobody ever saw the movie, and there are reasons to suppose that it was never finished; the soundtrack, however, is quite physically real, with most of the individual tracks credited to Ciro Perrino, and judging both by the title and by the nature of music, it was intended to convey a cosmic-psychedelic atmosphere.

Which, by the way, it does — so, technically, Celeste are now the proud owners of three different albums in three different genres: pastoral symph-pop, lite jazz-fusion, and psychedelic-ambient. No mean feat for somebody as totally unknown as these guys, right? Except, of course, the music here is, as usual, so smooth and suave that it is unlikely you will ever remember anything other than a general feel of being wrapped in sweetness a-plenty. The record goes very heavy on organ-imitating synthesizers, with already the title track establishing a Cosmic Gospel feel (all that is lacking is a choir of little castrated angels to duplicate the melody); but there is plenty of pastoral flute, romantic piano, gentle folksy acoustic guitars, and echoey smooth-jazz saxes to diversify the mood as well. And in a way, this might just be the single best Celeste album of 'em all be­cause... you guessed it... there are no vocals anywhere in sight. Just the way the doctor ordered before silly ambitious people overrode the prescription.

Actually, sweetness aside, the boys did some serious work here, writing (or ripping off from clas­sical sources) plenty of different themes — including an Albinoni-stylized funeral march (ʽLast Flight Of The Mindʼ), a slightly Morricone-influenced bluesy piece with Jethro Tull-like flute (ʽThe Thought Flies High Againʼ), and a long medieval ballad, heavy on classical guitar but adding flute, synth fanfares, and what-not (ʽFavole Anticheʼ). If only the main themes of all this stuff were a little more memorable... but it would be unreasonable to expect from a movie sound­track that which turned out to be unachievable on a proper studio album. The best I can say is that every single track here sounds tasteful and pleasant — although the production and mixing leave a lot to be desired. (Apparently, moving to Abbey Road Studios was not an option.) Consequently, I give the record a modest thumbs up, and with this, we say a final farewell to Celeste.