Search This Blog

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Carol Of Harvest: Carol Of Harvest

CAROL OF HARVEST: CAROL OF HARVEST (1978)

1) Put On Your Nightcap; 2) You And Me; 3) Somewhere At The End Of Our Rainbow; 4) Treary Eyes; 5) Try A Little Bit; 6*) River; 7*) Sweet Heroin; 8*) Brickstone.

The short-lived band Carol Of Harvest is frequently listed in catalogs under «Krautrock», which is really a complete mockery of the term — unless we really want to apply it to any band born and raised under the skies of Deutschland. Including The Scorpions, Accept, Rammstein, you name it. If, however, we choose to be reasonable and limit the term to a certain harsh style of avantgarde progressive rock with industrial overtones and a certain morose Teutonic attitude, then even under the most broad definition of the term Carol Of Harvest could never be proper Krautrock. Were we to choose just one band to serve as a role model for these guys, it would most likely be Renaissance — melancholic progressive folk with a fairly traditional approach to sonic beauty, including pretty acoustic guitars and lovely female vocals.

The band was largely the brainchild of guitarist and songwriter Axel Schmierer, who is credited for every composition on the album; however, the band's collective sound is just as crucially de­pending on the keyboard tones of cosmic wiz Jürgen Kolb, and, of course, the vocals of Beate Krause — not an exceptional singer, but a very nice one, caught somewhere in the middle be­tween Annie Haslam and Sandy Denny (and, fortunately, singing without much of an accent, be­cause German accents sound sexy on iron-clad femme fatales like Nico, but would be rather ridi­culous on sweet sorrowful ladies in gentle mourning). Although they all came together some­where around Munich, near the birthplace of Amon Düül II, there is really very little on the album that links them to the great Bavarian heroes of prog-rock: instead of blues and jazz, they choose folk as their point of departure, and their message is far less psychedelic and far more, shall we say, serious-tragedy-oriented.

Indeed, the songs written by Schmierer and performed by Krause serve a conceptual purpose, albeit not a highly original one — Carol Of Harvest is a lament for the loss of innocence, a collection of grievous ecological anthems that strike the same artistic blows at technological pro­gress with weeping as Kraftwerk did with irony. The album's subtitle, printed out in large letters and in intentionally not-too-correct English on the back cover, is: «A song of the good green grass, a song no more of the city streets, a song of the soil of the fields», and you have already noticed that the band's name agrees with this. So, the mood of the album is indeed quite akin to that of classic Renaissance, on such records as Ashes Are Burning or Turn Of The Cards, and since by 1978 Renaissance had already begun to evolve in a more overtly pop side, it is nice to see somebody else take their cues from them and give it one more try.

The album's magnum opus is the opening track, the 16-minute long suite ʽPut On Your Nightcapʼ, in which Krause informs us that we are standing "close to the edge", but definitely not in the opti­mistic-idealistic sense of Jon Anderson. Starting out as a dark acoustic ballad with swooshing winds in the background, the song then drifts into the realm of «astral» synth solos and howling guitar workouts, before picking up the pace and guiding us through a climactic finale. It is very easy to spot out all the influences — Renaissance, Sandy Denny, Ash Ra Tempel, Genesis, etc. — but despite the utter lack of originality or even virtuoso musicianship, the song sounds quite convincing to me, as it works on the basic senses in a far more straightforward manner than the majority of neo-prog imitators. Much of this has to do with a specific sense of taste: thus, Kolb's synthesizers are not imitating traditional keyboards, but are really evocating alien sounds (at a couple of points, he lets rip with an almost arcade-like soundtrack of enemy ships attacking the planet), which is a little unexpected on such a supposedly «down-to-earth» record, but somehow makes perfect sense — if, for instance, you think of the synthesizers as symbols of the technolo­gical plague brought upon the planet, and of Schmierer's wailing guitar solos as symbolic of Mother Earth's aching reaction to this horror.

The shorter tracks are almost completely acoustic: ʽYou And Meʼ and ʽTreary Eyesʼ (sic!) are two straightforward laments that could just as well have been played and sung by Joan Baez, and ʽSomewhere At The End Of Our Rainbowʼ starts out in the same manner, before getting augmen­ted by the mighty Mellotron and more tasty guitar bits (this song, in particular, is quite Floydian in its approach to guitar and keyboard tone, clearly influenced by ʽShine On You Crazy Dia­mondʼ above everything else). Meanwhile, ʽTry A Little Bitʼ, whose first few notes will make you think, for about a second and a half, that they have decided to cover ʽStairway To Heavenʼ, goes for a slightly more invocative agenda, moving forward at a faster tempo than everything else and generally expecting us to resort to action rather than just stand moping around as them fields are getting shorn of the good green grass. More of those astral synths mixed in with Haslam-like wordless vocalizing — cool effect.

Naturally, this is not a forgotten masterpiece of prog-folk, as people who like to sound cool as they single-handedly rewrite musical history would have you believe. But neither is it just a gene­ric failure to make something interesting in that genre: behind all the lack of originality lies a good collective Bavarian heart, and there is really not a single band that they directly emulate. For one thing, Renaissance never rocked that hard — their guitar and keyboard players combined the language of classical music, folk, and soft rock, with nothing like the astral keyboard solos of Kolb and the distorted howls of Schmierer's guitar. Floyd, on the other hand, did not have a girl singer, and were never so deeply immersed in the folk tradition. So it's a little bit of this and a large bite of that and a modest chunk of something else, and in the end, it is one of the saddest, yet most accessible records of the year 1978.

The CD reissue of the album throws on three more tracks that were recorded live and actually sound very intriguing, disclosing additional layers of depth that were not at all evident on the album: the short instrumental ʽRiverʼ, riding a mammoth chugging bassline and dominated by Eastern- and avantgarde-influenced organ and synth jamming, sounds far closer to the space-rock jamming of Hawkwind than anything else — and after that, it segues into the brooding, ominous ʽSweet Heroinʼ, which is as close to Goth rock as these guys ever got (and, apart from Krause's vocals, is really reminiscent of Amon Düül II). Unfortunately, the recordings have awful sound quality — most probably taken from audience tapes, since the sound of people chatting over their food or something is often louder than the sound of the music — and it is all over before you can actually get a good understanding of what a typical Carol Of Harvest live show was all about.

Too bad, because the band folded soon after this self-titled debut predictably flopped, and was never heard of again. (I think Beate Krause re-emerges once or twice in the Eighties, singing with some local German jazz combos). With one exception: apparently, in 2009 there was an album called Ty I Ja (ʽYou And Iʼ) released under the name of Carol Of Harvest, with Axel Schmierer as the only original band member, plus a bunch of unknowns, and featuring 15 relatively short songs with Polish titles. Detailed information on this odd surprise is quite hard to find even on the Internet, and I am not in the mood for detective stories here, so let us just leave it at that and remember the true Carol Of Harvest as a brave, short-lived one-album band that deserves its own footnote in prog-rock history; and its own thumbs up, of course.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Caravan: Live At The Fairfield Halls

CARAVAN: LIVE AT THE FAIRFIELD HALLS (1974; 2002)

1) Memory Lain, Hugh / Headloss; 2) Virgin On The Ridiculous; 3) Be Alright / Chance Of A Lifetime; 4) The Love In Your Eye; 5) L'Auberge Du Sanglier / A-Hunting We Shall Go / Pengola; 6) The Dog, The Dog, He's At It Again; 7) For Richard; 8) Hoedown.

Of all the live archival releases by Caravan covering single-date (or double-date) performances, I select only Live At The Fairfield Halls as an example, since it has a certain priority over every­thing else: it was originally released, in a slightly abbreviated version, as The Best Of Caravan Live in 1980, for the European market. The actual show took place on September 1, 1974, in London, appro­ximately one year after the show with the New Symphonia and also introducing new member Mike Wedgwood on bass — just a few weeks before the once-again-revamped band entered the studio to record Cunning Stunts. Consequently, the setlist here is pretty much the same as on the expanded version of Caravan & The New Symphonia: lots of tracks from their most recent offering (Plump In The Night), ʽLove In Your Eyeʼ and ʽFor Richardʼ as stabilized mega-epic-classics, and a few non-studio LP rarities — ʽVirgin On The Ridiculousʼ is done here without orchestral support as it was on the New Symphonia album, and ʽBe Alright / Chance Of A Life­timeʼ is an outtake from the Plump In The Night sessions that did not make it onto the original album (but a studio version of which is now also available on the expanded CD edition).

Since, predictably, there is not a lot of difference between the live performances and the studio originals, that's pretty much all you need to know — well, I might add that the show, also predic­tably, was a good one, and that Richardson's viola parts more than make up for the lack of a com­plete orchestra on ʽVirginʼ. The audience participation bit on ʽHoedownʼ is rather cheesy, but an unavoidable evil, especially for a band as audience-friendly and cheerful as Caravan; luckily, at least the in-between song banter is kept short and to the point. Otherwise, I am not really sure why anybody would want to bother with the record, given the availability of New Symphonia which at least adds a fresh twist to these songs. Perhaps in 1980, with Caravan arguably hitting rock bottom and all, a release like this made sense — just to remind the record-buying public of how great these guys used to be. Today, it is only for dedicated fans who wish to spend some time picking up all the little nuances that separate loyal live reproductions from the originals. Like, for instance, ʽFor Richardʼ is three minutes longer than the studio version here — I am still not sure if this is because they extend some of the jam sessions or because they take it such a leadenly slow tempo at the beginning, but I am too lazy to go check it out.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Cat Stevens: Matthew & Son

CAT STEVENS: MATTHEW & SON (1967)

1) Matthew & Son; 2) I Love My Dog; 3) Here Comes My Baby; 4) Bring Another Bottle Baby; 5) Portobello Road; 6) I've Found A Love; 7) I See A Road; 8) Baby Get Your Head Screwed On; 9) Granny; 10) When I Speak To The Flowers; 11) The Tramp; 12) Come On And Dance; 13) Hummingbird; 14) Lady; 15*) School Is Out; 16*) I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun.

Ah, to be 18 in the year of 1967. People like to be condescending to Cat Stevens' debut — inclu­ding Cat Stevens himself, who had very quickly turned against the production style imposed upon him by producer Mike Hurst on those early records, and has always dismissed them as too light­weight, immature, and sugary-sweet. But there is a youthful charm here that is not to be found on his classic recordings, and as far as my ears are concerned, the sound of Matthew & Son is «da­ted» in a very positive way — the baroque-pop flourishes and the sunshine orchestration fully agree with the sweetness of Stevens' young voice and his charismatic persona.

It is clear, right from the start, that here is a man strictly following his own path. The influences are obvious — pop-rock of The Beatles, folksy singer-songwriter stuff of Simon & Garfunkel, flowery meditativeness of Donovan, etc. — but the experiences behind the songs are the ex­clu­sive property of Mr. Georgiou, as are the melodic structures (and if Mr. Georgiou is copying somebody else on the melodic structures, he is being way sophisticated on this: thus, he later admitted that ʽI Love My Dogʼ borrows the main melodic theme from Yusef Lateef's ʽThe Plum Blossomʼ, leading one to wonder just how many other relatively little-known jazz records the man may have plundered for inspiration). Even as an 18-year old amateur, he refuses to openly subscribe to any particular school of musical thought — in terms of atmosphere, I would pro­bably place this album closest to contemporary Donovan, yet its lyrical themes very rarely con­centrate on fantasy / psychedelia, having more in common with the «everyday obser­vations of the little man» approach of Ray Davies. Sort of an «Alice In Routineland» thing here.

The little catch about Stevens is that his voice actually sounds timeless rather than young. In a few years, he would develop a bit of a rasp, deepening the effect from his singing; here, his voice is fresh and clean, but it already has a certain sage-like quality to it — largely free from deliberate emotional winding-up and displaying calm and serenity regardless of the circumstances. Happy Cat Stevens, sad Cat Stevens, love-ridden Cat Stevens, angry Cat Stevens all sound very much alike (in this, his closest musical ally may be Al Stewart, who, perhaps not so coincidentally, would also release his debut album the same year and have it arranged very much in the same style; although with Al, the «sage» image works even better because he was far more lyrically sophisticated than Stevens from the very beginning). The good news is that this results not in monotonousness, but in a certain «lesson of serenity» that this guy teaches us from the very start of his career — and that I, personally, would value over a thousand religious sermons. (Warning: this page is going to be highly politically incorrect towards the spiritual path of evolution chosen by Mr. Georgiou, though I will try to always concentrate on the Cat Stevens aspect of his perso­nality, regardless of any extra cultural baggage).

The very first song — the title track — is about the fuss and the madness of ordinary life, see­mingly complaining about the workers at Matthew & Son and how "they've been working all day, all day, all day!", but... complaining? More like curiously contemplating: Stevens sings that line as if in a state of quiet Taoist marvel at the (pointless) achievements of all those poor souls, and the song's arrangement, with the harpsichords and the brass section and all the strings, adds a good dose of nonchalant British good humor as well (for the record, the song features Nicky Hopkins on keyboards and John Paul Jones on bass — the same efficient combo that would later lend a hand to the Stones' ʽShe's A Rainbowʼ, which, not surprisingly, is stylistically similar to this tune). There might be sadness, or even condemnation, somewhere here in between the lines, but this is more like a befuddled alien observer reaction, and therein lies the charm of this record: even as an inexperienced 18-year old, Cat Stevens has already managed to construct himself an artistic personality, hovering over the real world around him with more credibility (and less empty flash) than Ziggy Stardust.

He is not completely out of this world, though: more like a loner who is simply way too awesome for this world. On ʽHere Comes My Babyʼ, a song that ended up taken to the charts by The Tre­meloes rather than himself, he is singing about lost love to one of the most upbeat and cheerful melodies on the album — "never could be mine, no matter how I try" shows that he is sorry about what happened, but he is certainly not going to kill himself over such a bit of bad luck as this. In fact, he loves his dog as much as he loves you — "you may fade, my dog will always come through", he sings on the song that he took to the charts himself, though not very high; still, for such a quiet and unassuming song to hit No. 28 in late 1966 was quite an achievement. He never gets out of character when he is trying to woo a lady, either: ʽBaby Get Your Head Screwed Onʼ, a catchy pop march with the hardest-hitting rhythm track on the album, keeps its cool at all times, with one of the least sexual "baby you'll be out of your mind" refrains you'll ever hear. Apparent­ly, Cat Stevens does not need to resort to Mick Jagger's arsenal when romancing his next partner (although that does not stop him from throwing around a few insinuations).

Unlike contemporary or modern day critics, I think that — particularly given Cat's age and lack of experience — there are no bad songs on the album: each composition shows some originality and inspiration, even if some are more naïve than others (ʽThe Trampʼ is a little misguided, a crude way to raise some pity for its title character because at this point, Stevens cannot properly master the tearful / tear-inducing approach; still a pleasant acoustic ditty, though). Some criticism has been levelled at the album's amateurishly psychedelic elements, but there is no psychedelia as such here — do not be confused by such titles as ʽWhen I Speak To The Flowersʼ, because it is really a dynamic R&B song that is more influenced by Otis Redding than any psychedelia, and the only thing he wants to get from the flowers is an answer on whether he should "just leave you behind", anyway. He is not a flower child — a troubadour, perhaps, as evidenced on the final serenade of the album (ʽLadyʼ, with the most courteous and tender delivery of 'em all), but most of all, just an innocent bystander with his own, ever so slightly detached, take on life.

There really was no other time than 1967 to produce such a record, an age when kids could lay their own claims to wisdom and experience and get away with it in spite of all the arrogance (then again, I'm always ready to defend even such albums as From Genesis To Revelation), so I am definitely insisting for a much more solid thumbs up here than the more typical reaction of «this is cute stuff, but he'd do so much better in the future». You do have to push your inner child but­ton to properly enjoy Matthew & Son, but if you have one, it is easy, and if you don't have one, you're much better off listening to Matthew's Passion anyway (instead of all this pop rubbish).

And, for the record, do not forget that the proper edition of the album is the one that tacks the ʽI'm Gonna Get Me A Gunʼ single at the end as a bonus track — it is one of his catchiest and funniest tracks of the era, and in case you think this might be Ted Nugent territory or something, its kiddie pop melody makes absolutely certain that the singer is talking about a plastic toy at best. It's all pretend and make-believe, see. If Donovan was the Lewis Carroll of pop music, then Cat Stevens may have been its Alan Alexander Milne — for one year, at least.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: From New Orleans To Chicago

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: FROM NEW ORLEANS TO CHICAGO (1966)

1) Third Degree; 2) T.V. Mama; 3) He Knows The Rules; 4) Ain't It A Shame; 5) Ooh La-La; 6) (Going Down To) Big Leg Emma's; 7) Won't Be A Fool No More; 8) Take It Slow And Easy; 9) She's All In My Life; 10) Poor Poor Me; 11) Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer; 12) Down The Valley; 13) Too Early In The Morning; 14) Shim-Sham-Shimmy.

More like From Copenhagen To London, to be sure. Perhaps the Champion felt that, despite the warm reception he'd enjoyed in Denmark, this was not really the location where stuff was happe­ning, and that in terms of surrounding musical environment at least, it was sort of a downgrade after New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. At the very least, you couldn't get first-rate blues players to sit in with you in Copenhagen, that much was for certain (and his imported friends from Switzerland weren't that much better). And so, early 1966 finds Dupree in London, making an album for London Records and backed by John Mayall and Eric Clapton in person — not a bad change from those Swiss and Danish no-names, right?

Well, actually, he is only being backed by this double chunk of Britain's blues royalty on two tracks, astutely chosen to bookmark the record (and, by the way, this is not really «John Mayall's Bluesbreakers» on the sessions, because the other players, such as Malcolm Pool on bass and Keef Hartley on drums, were not part of John's regular band at the time). One of these is Eddie Boyd's ʽThird Degreeʼ, with Mayall blowing on the harp and Eric providing his usual melodic breaks (not quite on the level of his Bluesbreakers record, but it would be surprising if it were the opposite, right?) — ironically, thirty years later Eric would record the same song for his From The Cradle album, where he gave it a far more aggressive treatment. The other piece is the fast boogie ʽShim-Sham-Shimmyʼ, which is fun, because Clapton slips into his «Mr. ʽSlow­handʼ Yardbird» mode, letting rip with a ʽToo Much Monkey Businessʼ-style solo that was already a bit anachronistic for him around 1966, but still came off very naturally.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album is not a serious improvement over the Copenhagen period. Mostly this is just the Champ doing that same old thing, rehashing and reshuffling his stocks (ʽGoing Down To Big Leg Emma'sʼ, for instance, is a slightly less humorous rewrite of ʽMe And My Muleʼ), and his only accompanyist is guitarist Tony McPhee (of The Groundhogs), who is a little more loose and inventive than Chris Lange, but putting him on the same record with Clap­ton is a bit of a disservice. In an attempt to lively up the diversify the proceedings, Dupree engages in some straightforward silliness: ʽOoh La-Laʼ is a nostalgic parody of Creole music, largely sung in «broken French» (which, in Dupree's execution, truly sounds like a French-African «creole», and is fun to hear once, but no more, no more!), and ʽPigfoot And A Bottle Of Beerʼ is a lively polka-blues that has nothing to do with the Bessie Smith classic, but everything to do with impersonating a drunken romp that is, however, not very convincing (when the bass player begins his solo, Dupree ad-libs that "he's gone real crazy, he must have been drinking corn whiskey", but the sober truth is, he hasn't gone that crazy). This is fun, but not overwhelmingly fun — try as I might, I still do not feel that much chemistry between Dupree and any of the other players on the record.

Arguably the one track here worth saving is ʽPoor Poor Meʼ, a slow, echoey blues number with complete focus on the soloist — very explicitly dealing with racism issues ("ain't you glad you're white, and you ain't none of me?", he asks at one point). I have no idea how hard the Champion may have been suffering from that issue in Europe (I'd imagine he probably had a harder time in Chicago, let alone New Orleans), but even if he was not, this kind of experience stays with you for all time, and there is no denying the sincerity in his voice, or even the added touch of serious­ness in his piano playing, when he concludes that "this is a white man's world, I'm only stopping in". That said, it is still hardly a classic of the freedom-lovin' genre, and all in all, while there are a few signs of life revving up on the record, it is hardly a proper rebound from the Denmark slump. To get that rebound, Dupree needed to find himself a band well suited to his talents, and one that would actually care about making it all worth the listener's while — and that would not happen until his next album.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Hollies: Hollies

THE HOLLIES: HOLLIES (1965)

1) Very Last Day; 2) You Must Believe Me; 3) Put Yourself In My Place; 4) Down The Line; 5) That's My Desire; 6) Too Many People; 7) Lawdy Miss Clawdy; 8) When I Come Home To You; 9) Fortune Teller; 10) So Lonely; 11) I've Been Wrong; 12) Mickey's Monkey; 13*) I'm Alive; 14*) You Know He Did; 15*) Look Through Any Window; 16*) Honey And Wine; 17*) If I Needed Someone; 18*) You In My Arms; 19*) I Can't Get Nowhere With You; 20*) She Gives Me Everything I Want.

As usual, this album was preceded by two major singles for the band. First came ʽI'm Aliveʼ, written by Clint Ballard Jr. and becoming the Hollies' first true anthemic song — the entire verse-to-chorus journey is nothing but one big build-up, as Clarke goes higher and higher and higher: lyrics-wise, this is just another simple confession of the electrifying powers of l-o-v-e, but if you abstract yourself from most of the words and just concentrate on the chorus hook, this becomes one of those key statements of youth empowerment that were all over the place in 1965. How cool must it have been to go around, singing "I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive!" at the top of one's lungs? No wonder it became their first No. 1 in the UK.

Although not as loud and vibrant, ʽLook Through Any Windowʼ, the first of two major contri­butions that Graham Gouldman made for the band, might be an even better song. The 12-string guitar riff reveals a clear influence of The Byrds' folk rock vibe, and the tune overall ranks well up there with the majority of the songs on Rubber Soul (which would not be released until a few months later, by the way) — plus, it is rather unusual in being The Hollies' first non-love song on a 45", giving us instead a rather nonchalant-meditative contemplation of the world outside your window, again, some time before The Beatles would make that genre their own. With an odd three-part melody where it is hard to tell what exactly is the verse and what is the chorus, and an odd mood that fluctuates between giddy admiration and subtle nihilism (you sort of get the feeling that the question "where do they go?" remains unanswered because nobody really has any idea), it is a quirky little gem... about nothing in particular. Come to think of it, it would work really well in tandem with ʽNowhere Manʼ, I think.

It is not surprising that the full-length album that followed on the heels of these beauties would not be up to par — there is not a single tune on it that comes even close to the grandness of ʽI'm Aliveʼ or the melancholy subtlety of ʽWindowʼ (although, of course, the US correlate, re-titled Hear! Here!, did not overlook the chance of including both these songs at the thoughtful expense of rubbish like ʽMickey's Monkeyʼ). Nevertheless, in album terms, Hollies is also a solid step up from the quality of the band's earlier production. Its original compositions are more self-assured, its covers are more varied and cover deeper ground, and I can only count two songs that I never really want to hear again: the abovementioned ʽMickey's Monkeyʼ, a juvenile romp that never was too great even when done by The Miracles, and ʽThat's My Desireʼ, a dusty pre-war standard that might work with Ella Fitzgerald behind the wheel, but Allan Clarke and the boys just sound too corny and out of their element when trying something like that.

On the other hand, they are completely in their element when they take a catchy, but limp acoustic gospel-pop number by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and push it to its apocalyptic limits — ʽVery Last Dayʼ is their first truly stunning album opener to that point. The original had every­thing except for the most important component — FIRE! — and this is exactly what Allan brings to the kitchen when firing off lines like "get ready brothers for that day!" Again, like with ʽI'm Aliveʼ, in the context of the times this rings less like an authentic invocation of Judgement Day and more like The Hollies' own take on the ʽTimes They Are A-Changinʼ vibe — for all their humble aspirations at inoffensive hitmaking, even these guys could not remain uninfected by the common trend of growing themselves a social consciousness. And they even write one of those songs themselves: ʽToo Many Peopleʼ is a dark, minor-key composition whose lyrics deal with the issue of overpopulation (a fairly unusual topic for 1965, might I add; it is also amusing that on the mangled US version, this song ended up being the last one, involuntarily giving the album a fairly grim conclusion).

The band still covers plenty of rock'n'roll and R&B standards, though. The rockers are always saved by Clarke's vocals and little else (ʽLawdy Miss Clawdyʼ; Roy Orbison's ʽDown The Lineʼ, where the best bit is always the frenzied screaming that Allan lets off before the next so-so guitar break), but the R&B numbers are first-rate through their group harmony arrangements, especially The Impressions' ʽYou Must Believe Meʼ. In between these, the ubiquitous «L. Ransford» is able to sneak in a bunch of nice originals, although I would say that where Graham Gouldman was able to predict Rubber Soul, the slowpokish Mr. Ransford is still competing with the melodic quality of Beatles For Sale: ʽPut Yourself In My Placeʼ is probably the best of these (even if its chorus seems underwritten to me — just two lines?), but I am also quite partial to ʽI've Been Wrongʼ... and you can actually tell by how many times Nash appears as the lead vocalist on parts of these songs that he must have been the most active writer on the team already at that time.

The 1965 season still ended on a slightly misguided note for the band, though, as their choice for a follow-up single was George Harrison's ʽIf I Needed Someoneʼ — they recorded it from an early Beatles demo, never knowing if it would be officially released, and ultimately ended up re­leasing it on the same day with Rubber Soul. Needless to say, they could not stand the competi­tion — particularly on the level of musicianship and production, although even vocal-wise, this is not one of their best performances, and it lacks the personal angle that George gave it; to make matters worse, they got entangled in some nasty sparring after Harrison derided their results, which did them no good. This is not to say that The Hollies could never compete with The Beatles in anything: as I stated before, songs like ʽLook Through Any Windowʼ proudly stand competition with just about anything the Fab Four were doing in their young and innocent days. But ʽIf I Needed Someoneʼ, which they merely took up as another exercise in jangly folk-rock, was really quite a personal song for Quiet George, and one of the least Hollie-adaptable numbers on the entire Rubber Soul — heck, they could have themselves a top-notch ʽDrive My Carʼ or ʽI'm Looking Through Youʼ instead.

Nevertheless, on the whole 1965 was an exceptionally good year for The Hollies — three great singles (including ʽYes I Willʼ), some progress in their own songwriting skills, and a mature pop-rock album that showed they could at least evolve, if not completely keep up with contemporary giants. And they hadn't even reached their peak yet: I would say that by the end of 1965, it was by no means a certainty that The Hollies would never become giants in their own rights. In any case, this here marks the beginning of their brief, but bright golden age, so clearly, the album deserves a major thumbs up, especially when framed with its glorious singles.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Adrian Belew: Dust

ADRIAN BELEW: DUST (2014)

1) Intro To Something; 2) What Do You Know; 3) Happy Guy; 4) One Time (demo); 5) Hawaiian Cowboys; 6) Big Blue Sun (remix); 7) Pygmies; 8) Neptune Pool; 9) Shoe Salesman; 10) Superboy; 11) Collage For "Girl With Clouds"; 12) Still Life With Dobro (reduction); 13) Neurotica; 14) Duck Funk Symphony; 15) Antarctica; 16) P-Type; 17) Postcard From Holland (demo); 18) Peas.

Since this album was only released on Adrian's home label (you can order it from his own web­site, and the good man only charges you an extra five for an autograph!), and since it consists of nothing but outtakes, demos, and musical jokes from his entire solo career and was never special­ly promoted or advertised in any way, nobody except for the most hardcore followers seems to even have heard about this collection. But it does exist, and apparently, it is just a sampler of various goodies accumulated over the years that the man is gradually making available and, sometimes, heartily discussing and nostalgizing over in his «Elephant Blog».

As we all know, Adrian is a fun guy, and this is a fun collection. As its title suggests, it is rather messy and trashy, and it is almost inevitable that some of the stuff here is really rubbish — for instance, ʽCollage For ʽGirl With Cloudsʼʼ is precisely that, a sonic collage that had been used as the psychedelic background for ʽGirl With Cloudsʼ off The Bears' Rise And Shine album, where it merely constitutes a randomized layer for an upbeat pop song. On its own, it makes no sense whatsoever; worse, it does not even make nonsense. But perhaps you spent twenty-five years of your life wondering what exactly was buried under those guitars and vocals? There, your prayers have been answered.

A few other tracks are demos and raw versions of classic oldies that one might be interested in hearing just once: the piano-and-strings-only version of ʽBig Blue Sunʼ (which does show how much Belew must have been influenced by George Martin's chamber orchestrations), the guitar-and-background-vocals-only version of ʽPostcard From Hollandʼ, the shorter alternate take on King Crimson's ʽOne Timeʼ, etc. But these are not the tracks for which you'd want to own this «dusty» little package, no sir.

The real meat is in the previously unheard compositions — all of which work as a cool testament to the diversity, professionalism, and good humor of the guy. ʽHappy Guyʼ is a wonderful little ska instrumental that reads like a musically sophisticated variation on the theme of ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ. ʽHawaiian Cowboysʼ is an electronic percussion-heavy hula with soft, pacifying gui­tar work nicely contrasting with the frenetic beats (though I did not notice anything particularly cowboyish about it). ʽPygmiesʼ uses deep bass lines and a whole load of atonal brass overdubs and various sound effects to recreate that hot jungle atmosphere. ʽStill Life With Dobroʼ is just Adrian dicking around with said instrument for five minutes, but doing it in a whole variety of styles, from boogie to folk to classical. And the title ʽDuck Funk Symphonyʼ should probably speak for itself: unlike so many avantgarde musicians, Belew likes his titles to correlate to a cer­tain degree with the musical content, so be prepared for (crazy) funky rhythmics and treated guitar tones that do sound very much like ducks. Ducks straight outta hell, that is!

There are some decent vocal numbers here as well, though not many: ʽShoe Salesmanʼ is a cle­ver­ly worded two-minute tragic love song ("My baby's in love with a shoe salesman / No, I don't fit her anymore", har har); ʽSuperboyʼ is a rambunctious power-pop number that would have fit in well on any of Adrian's classic pop albums; and ʽPeasʼ is, apparently, a very early track from the dawn of Adrian's career — a culinary vaudeville spoof with the man professing his love for Pisum sativum ("I love you so much, I could eat you all day") in several different voices. Sounds more like proto-Ween, really, than genuine Adrian Belew, but the man's got many faces, and this is why we love him so much.

Anyway, as far as odds-and-ends collections go, Dust is a keeper and deserves its thumbs up, even if I strongly suspect that it could have been even better — there's enough musical and lyrical ideas here to suggest that Adrian might have enough in his vaults to make for a «great lost... some­thing», if only he hadn't been busy eating peas all day. And while it might not be a perfect compensation for the odd lack of new artistic activity from Belew over most of the 2010s, it is at least satisfactory to know that the man is taking good care of his own legacy.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Charlatans: The Charlatans

THE CHARLATANS: THE CHARLATANS (1995)

1) Nine Acres Court; 2) Feeling Holy; 3) Just Lookin'; 4) Crashin' In; 5) Bullet Comes; 6) Here Comes A Soul Saver; 7) Just When You're Thinkin'; 8) Tell Everyone; 9) Toothache; 10) No Fiction; 11) See It Through; 12) Thank You.

The Internet always disappoints you. Here I was so proud of myself that I'd spotted the amazing fact — on this record, The Charlatans have been influenced not once, but twice by John Lennon, and not just by John Lennon, but specifically by John Lennon's fairly obscure solo song ʽBring On The Lucie (Freda People)ʼ from the Mind Games album: the verse melody was borrowed for ʽJust When You're Thinkin' Things Overʼ (including the very same line from one of the verses), and the bridge melody was borrowed for the bridge of ʽJust Lookin'ʼ. This is downright bizarre, isn't it? And hard to spot unless you're familiar with both The Charlatans and John's solo career... but apparently, I'm not the only one, since numerous mentions of this weird double rip-off can be easily found on the Web. (Not in S. Th. Erlewine's review of the album on The All-Music Guide, though, which reads as if he never once heard the record: "occasionally, the album relies too heavily on trippy dance instrumentals" — not only do the two parts of this sentence contradict each other, but there is only one instrumental on this album, so how can it rely on them too heavily?). Anyway, just goes to show how hard it is to make an original discovery in this modern world of ours. Well, perhaps nobody spotted so far that the line "it's a matter of taste, yeah!" on the very same ʽJust When You're Thinkin' Things Overʼ directly copies one of the lines from the Stones' ʽTorn And Frayedʼ. Let that be my bit of consolation.

You already get the gist of it, I think. On their self-titled fourth album, The Charlatans retread even farther from the contemporary dance scene — now, essentially, they are making traditional pop songs supported by modernized dance beats, not vice-versa. The only thing that survives through all the shifts is their penchant for syncopated funky riffs and rhythms: the absolute majo­rity of the songs here swing and swirl and wobble — no strict 4-4 beats for these guys. This is also the major source of the remaining problems: too many of the songs sound alike. For instance, that very instrumental opening the album, ʽNine Acre Courtʼ, is an enjoyable jam that spends half of the time in a duel between Blunt and Rob Collins and the other half of the time in a spaced-out na-na-na chant over distorted electric guitar (somewhat reminiscent of the style of The Brian Jonestown Massacre) — then, once it's gone, the vocal number ʽFeeling Holyʼ opens up with pretty much the exact same melody, and where precisely is the fun in that?

With ʽJust Lookin'ʼ, the album opens into the dimension of power-pop (and John Lennon rip-offs) which it, thankfully, never completely closes again — the only problem being that there is still too much emphasis on rhythm and not enough on melody: each of these songs will have you toe-tapping in no time, but there are no override-all seductive touches. I like it, really I do, how they combine groovy funky verses with all-out pop choruses — ʽBullet Comesʼ, for instance, sounds like the Stones' ʽHey Negritaʼ in the verse section, and then borrows some piano chords from the McCartney songbook for the chorus, then goes back again into dance mode. However, there is no personality to the instrumental work: even Rob Collins is subdued in the mix, while Mark Collins' guitars are almost buried below the bass level, just rumbling along monotonously instead of pushing forward like a properly aggressive beast. Likewise, ʽJust When You're Thinkin' Things Overʼ seems to do everything right, formally, but cannot compete with the songs it is inspired by, not least because Tim Burgess still cannot get me interested in his voice. Also, no offense, but I think all their lyrics suck: they sound as if they'd be supposed to make a lot of sense, but in all honesty, they do not. "I see you close down the windows / I see you burn down your throne... / You look good when your heart is on fire... / You don't follow the line find the sun" is just not some­thing I'd sing to my partner even if I wanted to befuddle her.

If there is one song here that sticks out a bit more than the rest, it would be ʽToothacheʼ — opening on a drilling guitar riff that agrees very well with the title, it is yet another funky groove, but this time, the boys manage to pack some sneeriness, some acid, and some aggression into the proceedings. Mark Collins always works well with slide guitars; Blunt's acoustic bass line gives the song a dark Morphine-like feel; the lengthy jam section is well dominated by Rob's organ work; and at times, the band descends into Zeppelin-style sonic hell (though in reality, this is more similar to the unjustly forgotten second album by The Stone Roses — the one where they traded in their happiness for bluesy gloom and ended up ridiculed by their own fans).

Still, I am willing to give the record a thumbs up. I come out of it remembering nothing but the bizarre Lennon rip-offs and the gnarly riff of ʽToothacheʼ, but they unquestionably have a classy sound going on here — a bit stiff, perhaps (which is only too typical of any Brit band from the Nineties), but an excellent combination of modern funk rhythms, acoustic and electric guitars, old-fashioned organ, and well-meaning singer guy all the same. They think they know what it means, really they do — they just can't explain.