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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Unconditionally Guaranteed

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: UNCONDITIONALLY GUARANTEED (1974)

1) Upon The My-O-My; 2) Sugar Bowl; 3) New Electric Ride; 4) Magic Be; 5) Happy Love Song; 6) Full Moon Hot Sun; 7) I Got Love On My Mind; 8) This Is The Day; 9) Lazy Music; 10) Peaches.

1974 was unquestionably the strangest year in the history of Captain Beefheart — the year in which he came out with a pair of albums that turned out to be his most «normal» recordings ever, and that, in itself, makes this the most bizarre and unpredictable turn of events for the man. Other artists could be expected to go «commercial», perhaps, and genuinely sacrifice the search for new sounds and experiences to boring, but financially rewarding, conventionalism: Don Van Vliet, however, seemed like one of the few select artists for whom «going commercial» was as easy to do as it would be for a fish to walk on land. Not because he was so vehemently and ideologically against it, but because he'd spent so many years not speaking that language at all.

His failure in 1974 was not in «selling out», but rather in the fact that he had no idea whatsoever how to sell out. Apparently, the slightly more accessible grooves of The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot failed to increase public interest in his music: if the former did very briefly put him on the charts, the latter only brought back the plunge, and something more drastic had to be resorted to if the poverty-eliminating strategy remained in place. And so, with a hint of self-irony on the album sleeve where the Captain is holding some crumpled dollar bills with a semi-stupefied look of total incredulity, Unconditionally Guaranteed arrives as a fully normal record of contemporary pop-rock, blues-rock, and roots-rock songs — genre-wise, probably standing closer to mid-Seventies «pub-rock» than anything else.

The results are nowhere near as bad as they are usually advertised: had this album been recorded by anybody but Captain Beefheart, the typical reaction would probably vary from mild pleasure to absent-minded indifference, rather than disgust and horror. The worst thing, however, is that even if this somehow happens to be the first Captain Beefheart album in your life, it will still not take long to understand that something is very wrong — that this is either a mediocre commercial artist feigning artistic madness, or (as was actually the case) that this is a formerly mad artist trying, but not knowing how to sound «normal». Where his previous two records observed the balance between craziness and conservatism quite loyally, here the craziness is largely restricted to some of the lyrics (occasionally) and some of the vocals (many of which suffer from what seems like a bad case of laryngitis, though perhaps it was merely an effect of suffering from supreme depression at the idea of what he was doing). And that's a piss-poor balance — if you ask me, the only choice to make this record good would be to go all the way, and take proper care of all the arrangements, inflections, and modulations.

At least it begins nice enough: ʽUpon The My-O-Myʼ is a mean-'n'-lean funky workout in the tradition of ʽBooglarize You Babyʼ and ʽLow Yo-Yo Stuffʼ, though with less interesting and complex guitar work — but a nice flute and sax interlude from guest musician Del Simmons to compensate. The self-addressed question, "now tell me, good Captain, how does it feel / To be driven away from your own steering wheel?" sort of gives you a first hint at whatever is coming up, but the groove as such still has plenty of snap, and Beefheart's vocal performance is probably his best on the record. Skip ahead, though, and the next track is ʽSugar Bowlʼ, a pedestrian country rocker with exactly one musical phrase to make sense of — and not even a phrase that was invented by Beefheart or any of his musicians. But if that song is simply «nothing special», then ʽNew Electric Rideʼ is a monotonous, repetitive groove whose lyrics suggest an air of joyful exuberance — "here we go again, baby, on the New Electric Ride... I could barely hold my pride..." pride in what? the fact that it is possible to sing in some sort of a dying croak and still manage to stay on key? The problem is that the music, the lyrics, and the vocals on this song just do not belong together — you might as well invite Pavarotti to sing on a Clash track, or, more to the point, Stephen Hawking to sing ʽHey Judeʼ, or maybe forget it, because the former would at least be novel, and the latter disturbing. ʽNew Electric Rideʼ is just pathetic.

With song titles like ʽHappy Love Songʼ and ʽI Got Love On My Mindʼ, it is as if the befuddled Captain were hopelessly lost somewhere in between the art of parody and the desire to generate a bunch of genuine generic love ballads — the results being equally unpalatable to his old fans and to the general public. Weirdest of all, he is not totally incapable of creating a good love ballad: ʽThis Is The Dayʼ, on which he sings with an unusually clean and convincing voice, and graced with a very pretty lead guitar melody, is a really good track whose lyrics do not try to make use of commercial clichés, and ʽMagic Beʼ almost comes close, although his voice is still too shaky on that one to normalize it completely (and, like I said, only total and utter normalization would allow these songs to have a proper emotional effect). But for every track like that, there's one or two silly «happy-exuberant» numbers like ʽFull Moon Hot Sunʼ that simply feel sick.

I do not deny the catchiness of the melodies, but it would be shameful to call Unconditionally Guaranteed a good album just because the Captain took care to insert some earworms — which were never his preferred specialty in the first place. The closing ʽPeachesʼ, a musical variation on Wilbert Harrison's ʽLet's Stick Togetherʼ, is kind of a guilty pleasure to me, but it would still work better with a different vocal performance. Otherwise, the best I can do is not condemn the record: it is essentially listenable, and there is something deeply intriguing in its artistic failure that still makes it an unexpendable part of Beefheart's total legacy, much as the Captain himself would want all of us to forget it.

It is said that upon hearing the final results, the Magic Band was so shocked of its own wrong­doing that it simply stood up and left the good Captain — and that the good Captain subsequently disowned the record himself and, once his contract with the Mercury label ran out, urged every­body who bought it to return it for a proper refund. Even so, there is no getting away from the fact that Don Van Vliet wrote these songs, and the Magic Band recorded them (and later on, the Captain even took a few of the better ones on the road), and it wasn't merely to placate the record industry bosses. There is also no getting away from the fact that this record is not boring — if you want boring American music from 1974, try Kansas or, I dunno, Carly Simon. It is an artistic disaster, but when the artist is of Don Van Vliet's caliber, disaster has its own special fascination that can even be more memorable than success.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Carla Thomas: The Queen Alone

CARLA THOMAS: THE QUEEN ALONE (1967)

1) Any Day Now; 2) Stop Thief; 3) I Take It To My Baby; 4) I Want To Be Your Baby; 5) Something Good (Is Going To Happen To You); 6) When Tomorrow Comes; 7) I'll Always Have Faith In You; 8) All I See Is You; 9) Unchanging Love; 10) Give Me Enough (To Keep Me Going); 11) Lie To Keep Me From Crying.

The meaning of the title is that Otis Redding and Carla had only just recently completed a duets album called King & Queen, where Carla's role was somewhat more supportive, so it was only fair to give her an autonomous chance — while making the «queen» moniker stick, particularly since Aretha was only on the verge of her national breakthrough, and the proverbial crown was pretty much up for grabs, whoever claimed it first.

As usual, nothing particularly outstanding is going on, but the record is a bit more consistent and fun than Carla, the real good news being that the Porter/Hayes duo are now contributing a good half of the songs instead of just two, as it used to be. Unsurprisingly, this half is the best half of all, with playful grooves, hooky choruses, and plenty of charming entertainment value, most of it due to the composers rather than the players and the singers. ʽStop Thiefʼ ("give me back my heart") features smart usage of the cleptomaniac metaphor; ʽI Take It To My Babyʼ uses an oddly nagging cowbell to bring the message home; ʽSomething Goodʼ recycles the lead-vs.-backing vocals trick previously used on ʽB-A-B-Yʼ to raise the seductiveness of the tune above average level; ʽWhen Tomorrow Comesʼ rides a slightly modified version of the ʽMy Girlʼ bass riff that gives this love ballad a funky edge; and only the straightforward waltz ʽUnchanging Loveʼ looks like it took about two minutes to piece together, though Carla still gives it her best.

The non-Porter/Hayes songs tend to drift into schmaltz, sometimes of a pretty variety (ʽGive Me Enoughʼ, with gorgeous falsetto harmonies), sometimes of a boring one (ʽAll I See Is Youʼ). In­terestingly, neither of these tunes, nor the even schmaltzier ʽAny Day Nowʼ, a strings-heavy Bacharach cover, were chosen as the singles — the first single was ʽSomething Goodʼ, clearly attesting to the fact that Atlantic/Stax were trying to repeat the success of ʽB-A-B-Yʼ; unfortu­nately, the success proved to be unrepeatable, with R&B audiences growing less and less interes­ted in such «bubblegummy» stuff.

The album was, nevertheless, fortunate enough to be oficially remastered and released in an ex­panded CD package on its 40th jubilee, with five bonus tracks that seem to have been outtakes (I do not see them listed as contemporary singles or anything), including a minor pop gem called ʽMe And My Clockʼ and more of the same ordinary, but listenable R&B grooves. All in all, very disappointing for a true «queen-level» album (the real queen was just minutes away from show­ing the true meaning of R&B royalty), but a solid treat for any solid fan of conventional mid-Sixties R&B.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!

THE ROLLING STONES: GET YER YA-YA'S OUT! (1970)

1) Jumpin' Jack Flash; 2) Carol; 3) Stray Cat Blues; 4) Love In Vain; 5) Midnight Rambler; 6) Sympathy For The Devil; 7) Live With Me; 8) Little Queenie; 9) Honky Tonk Women; 10) Street Fighting Man.

The Rolling Stones' second live album is not simply their best live album ever — much like its only serious competition from the same year, the Who's Live At Leeds, it is a unique sonic and, dare I say it, spiritual experience that either defines «Rolling-Stonism» or transcends it, depen­ding on your default feelings for this confusing term. As far as live performances go in general, the Stones have had their ups and downs, depending on a mix of factors such as drugs, musical fads, and age, yet on the whole, one way or another, a Stones show has always been a terrific experience, especially if you were there in person. However, there was a brief period — a very brief period, largely limited to the Stones' American tour of 1969 — when a Stones show was something bigger, deeper, and perhaps even scarier than just a Stones show.

Two documents capture this brief glimpse best, and can hardly be discussed separately from each other: Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, the live album culled from the band's performances at Madison Square Garden on November 27-28, and Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers' documentary of the North American tour in general, culminating with footage from the Altamont disaster and the ensuing reactions. Gimme Shelter is the more complete of the two, of course — Ya-Ya's only offers you the first chapter of the story, whereas Gimme Shelter focuses just as heavily on the inevitable denouement. The reason why Gimme Shelter remains such a fascinating experience after all these years, proudly retaining its status of one of the best musical documentaries ever made, is because it was brilliantly molded by its creators in the shape of a Faustian story — here is this supremely powerful, transcendent, God-like musical force that holds an entire young nation in its magical grip... and here comes the payoff, when the Devil, to whom they have alle­gedly sold their souls, finally arrives to collect. Of course, it is all largely a matter of clever editing — from Jagger's opening triumphant "Welcome to the breakfast show!" to the final ex­pression on his face as he gets up and walks away, stunned, from watching the murder footage — but no artistic hyperbole could have such a psychologically devastating effect if it hadn't been at least partially rooted in some deep truth.

There is actually a very deep, though not immediately obvious, rift between the Stones' functio­ning as a live touring band at the end of 1969 and everything they did later — starting off with the infamous touring debaucheries of 1971-72 and beyond. Already in 1972, as can be easily seen in the Ladies And Gentlemen movie, or heard on the classic Brussels Affair release from the next year, the Stones' live show was precisely that — a live show. The glam era had settled in, and the emphasis was placed on extravagance, «going crazy», glitzy costumes, running around, simula­ting totally drunk behavior, and doing much of this at the expense of musicality (although as long as anchorman Mick Taylor was still in the band and Keith was still too constrained by drug intake to do as much jumping and flailing around as he'd begin doing post-clean-up, the musical side still remained impressive). Yet, in a certain way, that, too, could look like a subconscious result of Altamont: one might go as far as to say that Jagger's firm switching to the "It's only rock'n'roll, but I like it" mentality was caused by a deep wish to prevent any further Altamonts. After 1970, The Rolling Stones went on stage to give you a good time. That was all. Could they be blamed for that after what happened on December 6, 1969?

But these here tracks — they were recorded one week earlier than December 6, and at that time The Rolling Stones were a different band. They had only just overcome a huge crisis, and come out completely on top — having established the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership as the No. 1 partnership in the world (now that the Lennon/McCartney one was over), having acquired a fresh new second guitarist whose well-honed blues-rock chops gave them added confidence in an era of rock guitar gods, and, most importantly, having understood that the world as everybody knew it was really changing, and that they, the brand-new reformed, arrogant, talented, self-confident Rolling Stones, could be spearheading that change the way they liked it.

This is, in fact, the first thing I hear in Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! — the gleeful pride, the self-con­fidence, the ecstatic feel of a freshly trained magician who realizes that the whole world now lies at his feet. And to do that, they did not even have to begin the album with a set of overdubbed introductions from their road manager, Sam Cutler, announcing "the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world, The Rolling Stones!", a somewhat self-obvious fact at the time — the opening chords to ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ would have sufficed alone.

Amusingly, some people have complained over the years about the slowness of the performances as a detrimental factor in their enjoyment of the record — comparing it unfavorably with bootlegs and semi-bootlegs from the subsequent Taylor-era tours of 1971-73, where the average tempo of the songs would be sped up and they would allegedly acquire more «kick-ass power». I have always found this argument to be completely laughable, because it is precisely the slowness, the willingness to take the extra time to unfurl the demonic potential of this material, the chance to properly savor every distorted lick from Keith's guitar and every grinning snarl from Mick's mouth, that gives Ya-Ya's its unique power. It is, of course, very important that all the classics played there were still so fresh at the time — when you have five thousand performances of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ and ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ behind the belt, it must be damn hard to find yet another chunk of your soul that you could invest in the five thousand and first one — but it is not even the freshness, per se, that matters so much, as an instinctively felt belief that what they did actually mattered, that these performances could double as entertainment and a certain wake-up call-to-action addressed to the audience at the same time. The Stones were not alone in this, of course: The Who, Hendrix, The Doors, and a host of lesser performers all shared the same drive, but The Stones had a certain advantage over all of them.

Two players were absolutely essential for «the breakfast show» — Mick and Keith. These days, whenever you watch a 1969 clip on YouTube, the average comment usually goes «thank God for Mick Taylor», but, at the risk of causing the ire of all the guitar god aficionados out there, I would say the greatest thing that Taylor brought to the band was a sharpening of the senses and instincts of Keith, who'd felt himself threatened — there was no way he could easily pick up on all the subtleties and complexities of Mick Taylor's fretwork, so, unless he wanted to become reduced to a mere helping hand on the stage, he had to somewhat compensate for this in other ways; and the sound that he came up with, based on open tunings, distorted tones, and a serious modernisation of Chuck Berry's signature licks, became the epitome of classic hard rock, combi­ning the atmosphere of The Barroom, The Battlefield, and The Seventh Circle of Hell. "Watch it!" goes Mick at the opening notes of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ, and regardless of what he really meant, I've always interpreted it as "Stand back! One step closer to those amps and you go down in flames, mortal!" And the speed — yes, they play it significantly slower than they would do in 1972, but that is just so that you can taste the complete, unabridged power of each single chord in Keith's riff. The mid-section and the outro, too, consist of little other than Keith driving home, one after another, bar after bar of the same repetitive bridge riff (if Taylor is playing lead over it, it is intentionally left inaudible by the engineer), but it has all the brutality of a Tony Iommi, ex­tended with an extra feel of recklessness and rustic hooliganry.

It is for this exact reason that they slow down two Chuck Berry covers — again, both in the past and in the future they would play Chuck as fast as Chuck would play himself, but on this occa­sion, ʽCarolʼ and ʽLittle Queenieʼ are placed in «draggy» mode, for two reasons only: (a) so that Keith can flash his new-found jagged, angular, dirty-offensive post-Berry sound in your face — each of his lead guitar responses to each of Mick's lines on the verses is a priceless slice of nasty arrogance; (b) so that Mick can flash his drawn out, insulting, insinuating, swaggery tone in your face — give him one more year and his on-stage singing would largely shift to faux-drunk barking and brawling, but here he is still capable of gleefully extending and swirling his creaky vowels ("it's not too far back on the highway, not so long a ri-i-i-i-i-de..."). Next to this sound, both of Chuck's originals fall on the innocence level of Chubby Checker: where, in the past, "go, go, go, little queenie!" could really sound like it actually had something to do with a girl dancing, here the implied activity is clearly a much less sublimated one than a rock'n'roll dance. And it sure has everything to do with the fact of Mick changing the infamous ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ line from "I can see that you're 15 years old" to "I can see that you're 13 years old", too.

While I am certainly not implying that the songs here are all superior to their studio versions (like all great studio/live bands at the time, the Stones knew very well how to bring out some aspects of their tunes in the studio and others on stage), they are all clearly far more ferocious than the studio equivalents. Cue ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ, which inevitably loses its subtle, suspenseful, quiet-creepy nocturnal atmosphere, but gets an entirely new and equally exciting coat of tough, gritty, sinister rumble, with a lower, growlier, thicker tone from Keith and a sharp blues-rock lead reply from Taylor — additionally, it also becomes a highlight in illustrating the band's newly found jam power, with Keith and Charlie hacking it out with machine-like precision on the long race after the first two verses; and the "well, did you hear about the Boston... WHAM!" mid-section, so quiet and understated on the studio version, is here turned into a macabre, bloody execution, as Jagger (probably) whips the stage with his long red scarf. Again, by the way, they take the song at a slower tempo than they would on the ensuing tours — a tempo that is perfectly suited to bringing out its chilling potential, instead of just making it look like yet another basic rock'n'roll number, for some reason, extended way out of proportion.

In a context like this, even a supposedly innocent tune of barroom happiness like their latest single, ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ — which, in its original studio recording, with the cowbell and the brass backing and the somewhat subdued guitar tones, did really sound like a bunch of drunken sailors having harmless sailor fun in the local tavern — acquires an unusually sinister sheen: here, Keith's opening riff plainly states, "don't fuck with me, or I swear to God I'll kill ya", and Mick's sexual boasting, with each syllable perfectly enunciated from the back of his throat, gets all Me­phistophelian, as if, you know, he were pledging to have sex with each member of the audience right then and there, male, female, or otherwise, because he's got enough of that demon seed to satisfy everybody. Ask Keith's guitar for confirmation of said fact.

But just so as not to go completely overboard and make it seem like darkness, sexuality, and hidden menace are all that matters, there are also some performances that invest very heavily in sheer musicality — one of these, paradoxically as it sounds, being ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ, here reinterpreted as more of a funk than a samba number and, consequently, featuring some of Charlie's funkiest drumming ever (he does a very steady and convincing, if not particularly in­ventive job), and a Richards/Taylor sparring lead guitar duel that has long since passed into legend, with people debating even today over which of the two solos is superior — Keith's or Mick's. At least this is unquestionably Keith's finest lead break on the stage, ever: instead of the broken, «sputtering», high-pitched banshee shrieks on the studio version, here he delivers a more tightly integrated melodic passage that follows an impeccable, mistake-free musical logic, goes through a couple of ecstatic climaxes, and finally goes down in a perfect resolving flourish, like an immaculately rehearsed public speech, oriented at maximum effect. Taylor then picks it up from the exact same notes, demonstrates his technical superiority, and makes the song climax a few more times before it ends — but for Taylor this is more or less a routine job, whereas Keith would never ever deliver another solo like that, period. (By the way, it is very easy to think of Keith as a horrible lead guitar player based on the past thirty years or so — you should always go back to 1969 to remember that there was a time when the man could churn out fluent, coherent lead melodies with almost the same ease with which he churned out those riffs).

Taylor's properly stellar moment arrives with ʽLove In Vainʼ, where the slow blues nature of the song gives him his real chance to shine — again, what they have here is neither better nor worse than the studio recording, with its mix of psychedelic slide licks and archaic mandolin trills, but simply different, focusing on Taylor's gift to convert 12-bar blues into uplifting lyricism (unsur­prisingly, perhaps, ʽLove In Vainʼ is the only song from Ya-Ya's that would sound every bit as good on the subsequent Taylor tours, mostly because Mick was the only member of the band to have not undergone any serious stylistic changes post-1970).

And so we arrive at the most interesting, and disturbing, question of all: so was it really this music, with all of its demonic power, that was responsible for the Altamont debacle? The easiest answer is to simply brush it off — after all, Altamont trouble started out even before the Rolling Stones arrived at the concert, not to mention that answering «yes» without any scientific proof would only play into the hands of idiots blaming rock music for the end of the world. But behind that easiness, there still lurks some un-easiness as well — and at the very least, I can vouch for myself, namely, that I have always felt some sort of presence behind the music on Ya-Ya's. Of course, I am not talking about anything supernatural (though it would be fun, wouldn't it?): I am saying that the element of provocation, as delivered over the course of a Rolling Stones show in November 1969, even if it may superficially look weaker than their completely over-the-top behavior of the following decade, is actually much stronger in terms of sheer sonic substance. (And visual, too: just compare this shamanistic clip of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ from Gimme Shelter with this speedier, rowdier, bawdier version from Ladies And Gentlemen two years later and then tell me which one's got more mesmerizing power).

No, it is not really about provoking you into sleeping with 13-year olds, shoving knives right down somebody's throat, fighting in the streets, or even (horrors!) beginning to take tea at three — but it is about provoking you to «think dan­gerous», whatever that might mean for anybody in particular. For some girls (and boys), it might mean wanting to have sex with Mick Jagger; for some, it might mean wanting to go out there and fight the system; for some, it might mean wanting to pull a knife or a gun — you never really know. Whatever be the case, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! is a far more disturbing record than all those comparatively mild albums by Prince, AC/DC, and Twisted Sister that would fuel the ridiculous discussion over ratings and parental control in the Eighties — precisely because it transcends the vaudeville limits of «shock rock» and taps into certain Freudian zones where people should not always be admitted without a legal guardian of sorts. I do know that for me, this is the perfect record to play when I get the serious urge to kill somebody — there's nothing as spiritually refreshing and morally relieving as a good old murder in open-G tuning, you know. A juicy, dirty, bloody thumbs up for an experience that could never again be properly replicated — although, after Altamont, I couldn't really blame the Stones for switching the genre tag from «dark ritual» to «glitzy vaudeville».

PS. Technical detail: if you are seriously interested in the deluxe CD reissue of the album, it is not worthy of much attention unless you are a fanatical completist. All you get is an extra set of five live songs from the same shows (including acoustic performances of ʽProdigal Sonʼ and ʽYou Gotta Moveʼ) that, with the exception of a completely re-tuned ʽSatisfactionʼ, do not have the intensity of the originally released material; and mini-sets from the Stones' supporting acts — B. B. King and Ike and Tina Turner — that should probably be enjoyed within the context of those artists' own careers (though, I must say, Tina's quasi-pornographic performance of ʽI've Been Loving You Too Longʼ as captured in Gimme Shelter totally fits in with the atmosphere). Perhaps with time, we might be lucky enough to get cleaned-up and remastered versions of addi­tional performances from the same tour, but there's no telling how long we have to wait for that.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Bon Jovi: This House Is Not For Sale

BON JOVI: THIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE (2016)

1) This House Is Not For Sale; 2) Living With The Ghost; 3) Knockout; 4) Labor Of Love; 5) Born Again Tomorrow; 6) Roller Coaster; 7) New Year's Day; 8) The Devil's In The Temple; 9) Scars On This Guitar; 10) God Bless This Mess; 11) Reunion; 12) Come On Up To Our House; 13*) Real Love; 14*) All Hail The King; 15*) We Don't Run; 16*) I Will Drive You Home; 17*) Goodnight New York; 18*) Touch Of Grey.

And by "this house", I am assuming, they mean "our safe New Jersey home", because on this first proper post-Sambora album, Bon Jovi move closer to Bruce Springsteen than they ever did before — and considering how Bruce Springsteen, on his past few albums, also moved somewhat uncomfortably close to Bon Jovi, I would not be surprised to eventually hear a joint statement from the two, especially in this upcoming Trumpian universe of ours. The problem is, there is exactly one area in which Jon Bon Jovi's skills might sometimes stand up to the Boss's - the concoction of anthemic, powerful, memorable vocal hooks. Everything else, be it lyrical sophistication, or the ability to sound like a man possessed and infect the listener with a quasi-religious drive, or the massive, multi-layered, super-tight sound of the E Street Band, remains an unattainable standard of quality. So who is it that you would allow yourself to be enlightened by: a former hair metal icon who used to have the looks or a street poet who used to have a bandana? Tough choice for 2016.

Nevertheless, This House Is Not For Sale is Bon Jovi's best album since at least Crush. It's not a good record at all — there is nothing particularly fresh or unusually appealing about it — but it is smart enough to concentrate on the band's strongest aspect, the one I already mentioned. For the most part avoiding over-sentimentalized power ballads and rootsy country-rock excursions, and also, perhaps, striving to show that Bon Jovi's music was not all about Richie Sambora (who has not returned, and now Phil X is taking over his place on a permanent basis), Jon and the re­maining company write a set of tight, catchy, and, dare I say it, occasionally inspired pop-rock songs: traditional, musically conservative, and with an attempt at introspection rather than arena-rock swagger. Could be awful, but it's... tolerable. At the very least, in terms of class they are now fully comparable with contemporary U2 (not that big of a compliment, because it says more about U2's decline than Bon Jovi's ascent — still, ever imagine me putting Slippery When Wet and The Joshua Tree on the same shelf? By the way, speaking of U2, one of the songs here is called ʽNew Year's Dayʼ, and no, it is not a cover, but it does look like a tribute because the guitar parts are quite... edgy, if you know what I mean).

Most of the songs have a philosophical slant... most? Heck, all of them: even ʽLabor Of Loveʼ, the record's only patented love song, puts a poor-boy-Wagnerian slant on boy-girl relations — although leave it to Jon Bon Jovi to dig his own grave with awful lines like "if I need some sugar, I'll get it from your lips" (is it really such a long way to the local store, or does his partner suffer from sugar cravings?) and vocal modulation that places too much emphasis on his high register, by now creaky, croaky, and irritating. Apart from that song, though, it's all about coming to terms with whatever there is to come to terms with: modern times, politics, disillusionment, personal mistakes, or changing hairstyles.

The sound... well, if you happened to hear the title track, you've heard it all. The big rhythm guitar crunch is back, as is the thunderous «split-that-log-in-one-blow» drum sound of Tico Torres. New lead guitarist mostly plays short, reserved, traditional solos, possibly not wishing to compete with the departed Sambora, so the point is that you should headbang to these songs (drummer boy helps you out with this) and sing along. Like: "I'm coming ho-o-o-ome! Coming ho-o-o-o-ome!" Because you want to come home. Or: "I ain't living with the ghost! No future living in the past!" Because you... uh... don't want to come home. Or: "Here comes the knockout! My time is right now! I'm throwing down!" Because whether you want to come home or not, you gotta fight for the right to come home. Or not to come home. Or: "God bless this mess, this mess is mine!" Because your home actually looks like shit, but it's your shit, and if you can't be proud of your shit, then who can?

I don't think it would make sense to discuss any of these songs seriously: the more I do, the more cringeworthy it all becomes, so, fair moment, linger awhile and don't let me give this record a thumbs down when I actually had some fun listening to it. In fact, I will say something cringe­worthy myself: as Bon Jovi inevitably mutate into the category of «elder statesmen», Jon's output begins to show some deeply human qualities that transcend the simplicity, cheesiness, and con­servatism of the band's musical values. This here is a survivor's record, and behind the shallow catchiness, there's a glimpse of determination and power that I cannot help admiring, if only a little. I have no reason to doubt the man's sincerity, and sometimes even a simple cliché may not be so boring if it is delivered with full force. So when the man finishes the record with a formally bland gospel waltz (ʽCome On Up To Our Houseʼ — again, nothing in common with the Tom Waits song of nearly-the-same-name), I cannot not acknowledge the real emotion behind it; I do not know if "all are welcome at our table" indeed, but it does not bother me — let alone the fact that I'd never volunteer to sit at Bon Jovi's table in the first place, the real issue is why he is singing that? I'm pretty sure the man is on a good will spree this time, and that the whole record is a noble try to offer some musical consolation in a very shaky, uncertain, insecure period of our being (yes, even if the album was released several days before the presidential elections).

Anyway, if, to you, the pop and the power aspects of Bon Jovi had ever had some significance, do not be afraid to pick this one up (you can even go for the deluxe edition, which adds six extra songs, all in the same style). But if you've never cared about the band even one bit, and would rather accept ghost writing for Ann Coulter than having to hear ʽLiving On A Prayerʼ just one more time, then this house is very much for sale: there is absolutely no sense in getting it unless you are somewhat familiar with the band's history and are able to evaluate it in context.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Anathema: Falling Deeper

ANATHEMA: FALLING DEEPER (2011)

1) Crestfallen; 2) Sleep In Sanity; 3) Kingdom; 4) They Die; 5) Everwake; 6) J'Ai Fait Une Promesse; 7) Alone; 8) We The Gods; 9) Sunset Of Age.

Another attempt at re-writing their legacy (as if somebody really cared), this relatively short album finally finds Anathema doing exactly the kind of thing they should have done much earlier: going all the way back to their beginnings as a doom metal band and reinventing those old black tunes in the vein of their new neo-symph-prog image. And although Steven Wilson is no longer with them to lend a helping hand directly, they retain the affiliation with the Kscope label; also, their new engineer is Andrea Wright, who'd had a long history of work with everybody from Black Sabbath to Marillion to Clinic to Coldplay, and could certainly get the job done well on an album that places its entire trust in atmosphere.

To complete the picture, the band secures the services of veteran progger Dave Stewart, formerly of Egg, Hatfield & The North, National Health, and Bruford fame — the man used to play key­boards for some of the most twisted and adventurous prog bands in the Golden Age, but the 21st century largely sees him as a strings arranger for various neo-prog outfits, including, of course, Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson, from whom he was «passed down» to Anathema. Actually, he'd already worked for them on We're Here, but on that album, the strings were nowhere near as prominent as they are on these remakes — you might as well credit the record to «Anathema Feat. Dave Stewart», or you might even reverse that order.

The result... well, the result could have been great if the songs we are talking about were great songs in the first place, but they weren't, so it couldn't. Atmospheric background remains atmos­pheric background, no matter whether you are constructing it with heavy metal guitars or pianos and strings, and I cannot say that, having been transferred to a new medium, they managed to uncover previously concealed plains of spirituality or valleys of bliss. (For the record, only a few of the tunes come from LPs like Serenades or The Silent Enigma; most are taken over from even more obscure early EPs that I have not talked about or even heard, so it is perfectly possible that some of the songs began life as embarrassing trash heaps, before they were all recast in this single mold. I doubt it, though).

It's not as if these are lazy recreations or anything: no, the songs are completely reworked, and the new arrangements are often more complex and sprawling than they used to be — ʽJ'Ai Fait Une Promesseʼ, for instance, which used to be a brief non-metal acoustic interlude, is stripped of its original vocal (by one of the band's lady friends called Ruth) and recast as a pseudo-baroque chamber orchestra performance; and ʽAloneʼ from The Silent Enigma gains at least a couple extra levels of sonic depth, even if you only consider the resplendent, deeply resonant production on the acoustic guitar sound alone — not to mention all the rich overlays. Next to these recrea­tions, the originals sound like pale sketches, and then, on top of the cake, you get the heavenly vocals of Anneke van Giersbergen (fresh out of The Gathering and ready to grace some former fellow competitors with her cordial presence) on two of the tracks.

This should all be very rich and rewarding, yet, as it happens with Anathema so much more often than I'd like to, it still ends up plain and «pretty» from a textbookish point of view, enough to make for some tasteful background muzak, but never memorable in the least, since everything flows so smoothly. The only track where I am ready to accept that they did a stellar job is the album closer, ʽSunset Of Ageʼ, extracted from its original metal sheen and recast as a slightly Eastern-influenced mix of turbulent strings and wildly unleashed colorful electric guitars: the coda is a supercool bit of sturm-und-drang that will at least perform the good deed of kicking you awake from the slumber in which you have most likely been finding yourself for the previous half hour. Nothing else even begins to approach this performance's intensity.

One curious feeling I have noticed is that the songs have largely been remade in keeping with the band's new-found spirit of calm, sad optimism — even tracks like ʽCrestfallenʼ, beginning with telling lyrics such as "I cry a tear of hope but it is lost in helplessness, the darkness eats away at the very embers of my blah blah blah", use tonalities and timbres that suggest a streak of light ahead, and the formerly growling vocals have been replaced by high-pitched «whisper vocals» (reminiscent of recent post-blackgaze artists like Alcest) that clearly suggest a change of scenery: used to be Mordor, now it's more like Lothlorien. Problem is, your everyday routine in Lothlorien is hardly more of an adventure than said routine in Mordor — you just do your whining and com­plaining in a more gallant manner, but who ever said that a melancholic elf is more of a show-maker by definition than a pissed-off goblin? In a contest of mediocre songwriting, I'd probably find myself pining for the goblin anyway.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Camper Van Beethoven: Camper Van Beethoven

CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN (1986)

1) Good Guys & Bad Guys; 2) Joe Stalin's Cadillac; 3) Five Sticks; 4) Lulu Land; 5) Une Fois; 6) We Saw Jerry's Daughter; 7) Surprise Truck; 8) Stairway To Heavan (Sic); 9) The History Of Utah; 10) Still Wishing To Course; 11) We Love You; 12) Hoe Yourself Down; 13) Peace & Love; 14) Folly; 15) Interstellar Overdrive; 16) Shut Us Down.

On their third album, Camper Van Beethoven continue to «normalize» their sound, in this parti­cular case, «normalization» being the equivalent of showing how much they love rock music from the late Sixties and early Seventies (and hey, who doesn't? Oh, okay, today some people don't, but what else could those intelligent college-rock kids from the Eighties choose as the main source of inspiration? Barry White?). More often than not, the inspiration is indirect: for instance, they take Led Zep-based song titles (ʽFive Sticksʼ, ʽStairway To Heavanʼ) and use them for psy­chedelic freakouts — the former is ʽThe Ambiguity Songʼ backwards, the latter is ʽChairman Maoʼ backwards (and somehow not completely losing its original charm in the process). Or, for instance, they express their reverence for the Grateful Dead by poking gentle fun at Deadheads (ʽWe Saw Jerry's Daughterʼ, which, incidentally, is also one of the album's fastest and catchiest pop numbers — although it doesn't sound much like a Grateful Dead song at all).

But just so you know that you can never properly predict the Campers' next move, they go out on a limb and introduce a faithful, as-note-for-note-as-possible rendition of Pink Floyd's ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ — somewhat stripped down compared to the original, but still with tremendous atten­tion to detail. Needless to say, a cover like that really only works in the context of the album: it adds nothing to the classic ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ experience, but it matters all the world to us that it is done here by the same guys who, in their regular hours, produce sarcastic deconstruc­tions of all the musical genres in the world.

There is also more emphasis on the lyrical message and the surrealist stories behind the music, fortunately, not at the expense of musical ideas. ʽGood Guys & Bad Guysʼ and ʽJoe Stalin's Cadillacʼ start things off with some political flavor — the former addresses the Russian issue from the point of view of an easy-going redneck (or college dropout, whatever) lazily basking in the sun, and the latter somehow jabs and stabs at all the dictatorial powers in the world, though I am still not exactly sure how; I guess that "Well my cadillac is Johnson's cadillac, is Stalin's cadillac, is Somoza's cadillac..." implies that dictators only become dictators because we allow them to, but then again, maybe it does not imply anything at all, and the whole thing is just an excuse for some reckless boogie fun. (And again, there's a completely ad hoc Led Zeppelin refe­rence at the end of the song — purely by association, led on by the word "bridge" in the line "gonna drive my cadillac off a bridge". What do you think when you hear the word "bridge"? You must not be a true Led Zep fan if you think something different).

On a slighter note, ʽThe History Of Utahʼ tackles you-know-what, presenting a very alternative history of the estab­lishment of the Church of Latter-day Saints to the sound of a droning psycho-boogie with a pen­chant for abrupt tempo changes; and ʽWe Love Youʼ is a variation on ʽThe Devil Went Down To Georgiaʼ, with a notable change in the theme (the Devil becomes a member of the band rather than taking the souls of its members). Still, both songs do reflect certain prob­lems that the band members seem to have with religious practices — and their irreverence ex­tends even to the very psychedelia that seems to fuel this record (ʽLulu Landʼ, a parody on the mind-opening, transcendental nature of flower power era psychedelic anthems).

On the whole, though, as fun as the record is on a first-come, first-serve basis, the remaining impression is, well, not quite as impressive as before. Too many of the songs just sound like jokes, made tastier through the factor of unpredictability — but jokes all the same. As far as actual songs are concerned, ʽGood Guys & Bad Guysʼ is arguably the only number here that qualifies: everything else is either a parody, or a brief freakout, or a passable, but straightforward genre experiment (ʽHoe Yourself Downʼ sure sounds good, but its meaning here is only gained in the context of other songs — normally, if you want this type of fast country dance by itself, you go to Nashville, don't you?), or, well, ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ. Still a thumbs up, of course, but I find myself pining for all those ska instrumentals.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Candi Staton: House Of Love

CANDI STATON: HOUSE OF LOVE (1978)

1) Victim; 2) Honest I Do Love You; 3) Yesterday Evening; 4) I Wonder Will I Ever Get Over It; 5) I'm Gonna Make You Love Me; 6) So Blue; 7) Take My Hand, Precious Lord.

We know very well that not all disco albums suck as a matter of principle — but, strange enough, every now and then one is liable to come across a disco album that is perfectly ordinary and con­ventional, just a collection of very straightforward disco grooves without any experimentation or ultra-hot passion to singe your whiskers, yet somehow it feels surprisingly right: enjoyable, honest, devoid of special irritants. Candi Staton's second disco album, inauspiciously titled House Of Love and featuring the performer in her sexiest posturing ever on the front cover (still looks a bit like your mother, though), is a major improvement on her first one, even if the man behind it, Dave Crawford, retains full control over production and songwriting.

The highlight is ʽVictimʼ, an unexpectedly serious eight-minute disco rant where Candi com­plains how "I became a victim of the very song I sing", and then goes on to namedrop ʽYoung Hearts Run Freeʼ — formally, the song is about not following her own advice on the issue of commitment, but it can, of course, also be figuratively interpreted as a complaint about getting pegged as a one-hit wonder. Musically, the accompanying groove is smooth, polite, based around a fun, non-canonical disco bass riff played by Scott Edwards, and some playful and tasteful key­board and brass overdubs (keyboards in question including vibraphone and clavinet, rather than generic synthesizers), with a lengthy instrumental interlude that is every bit as engaging as the vocal sections — basically, the kind of material that fully justifies the art of the extended disco groove: «intelligent dance music» way before the term was hijacked for something completely and utterly different.

The rest of the tracks are neither quite as catchy nor as inventive in terms of arrangements, but I'd still have almost any of them over your average Olivia Newton-John of the same time. ʽHonest I Do Love Youʼ has a catchy and captivating vocal hook (even if it may get repeated way beyond any rational measure), accentuated by sharp slide guitar licks and even something that sounds like a... sitar? Whatever; plucked strings give the tune a bit of a psychedelic sheen, as opposed to the more conventional bowed strings. ʽI Wonder Will I Ever Get Over Itʼ is a pretty rhythmic ballad; ʽSo Blueʼ skips disco overtones in favor of a more traditional doo-wop approach, but still with plenty of tension; and only the old classic ʽI'm Gonna Make You Love Meʼ, on which Candi actually duets with Crawford, functions here like generic corny disco — let alone the embarrassing moment where Candi has to sing "every minute every hour, I'm gonna SHOWER!", and it takes at least a second or so for the listener to understand that this is not the end of the line (the correct lyric is "I'm gonna shower... you with love and affection!"). (She does look like that front cover photo was taken in the shower, though, so there might as well be something to it).

As a final surprise gesture, the last song is neither disco nor doo-wop, but a traditional gospel number: just Crawford at the piano, and Candi behind him, belting out ʽTake My Hand, Precious Lordʼ like she'd just gotten a huge kick out of Aretha's Amazing Grace, or, better still, a pack of old Mahalia Jackson records. She's not exceptional, but she's real good; allegedly, she just did that bit of gospel as a vocal warm-up, but Crawford decided the results were too good to miss, and thus, perhaps, inadvertently set her up on the road that would eventually lead her to a full-time career in gospel several years later.

The real good news here is that Candi seems to have found a way to «restore» a bit of her perso­nality, and reintroduce some serious soul into the material — without making any particularly wrong moves, such as oversexing it, pulling a Donna Summer when such a thing would quite obviously lead to fake posturing and embarrassment. She succeeds in being herself here, firmly planted on top of all the disco bells and whistles, and the bells and whistles ring and whistle their reverent praise of the artist, rather than overshadow her with shallow entertainment. A very decent effort on the whole, well deserving of a thumbs up; too bad that in the commercial sphere, if it was disco and it wasn't about sex or at least about not needing any education, it had few chances of selling. (ʽVictimʼ did get pretty high on the R&B charts, but that was it).