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Friday, August 11, 2017

The Charlatans: Who We Touch

THE CHARLATANS: WHO WE TOUCH (2010)

1) Love Is Ending; 2) My Foolish Pride; 3) Your Pure Soul; 4) Smash The System; 5) Intimacy; 6) Sincerity; 7) Trust In Desire; 8) When I Wonder; 9) Oh!; 10) You Can Swim / On The Threshold / Sing The Body Eclectic.

Good question, boys; although it may be worth noting that this record charted much higher than its predecessor, and on the whole, commercial fortunes of The Charlatans in the 2010s have shown a steady increase compared to the fairly unhappy 2000s. One could argue that by 2010, The Charlatans, like most formerly famous Britpop bands that managed to clench their teeth and survive, had simply passed into «semi-legendary» status — that in their native homeland, people simply buy up Charlatans records like they'd buy up Paul McCartney and Rolling Stones records, without even giving them much of a listen. But wouldn't that be too much honor for these guys? Then again, the idea of a good Charlatans single might have gotten heavily ingrained in the sub­conscious of the average 1990s teenager...

...anyway, this is all pointless digression. Who We Touch is a nicely polished record of catchy, polite, not particularly exciting alt-pop tunes. Curiously, they chose Youth (Martin Glover) as their producer this time, so feel free to pick on similarities with The Verve, or Embrace, or what­ever other alt-rock group he produced — the problem is, whatever The Charlatans used to be, they just aren't that any more. Most importantly, Tony Rogers' organ has been pushed so low in the mix that they have lost this last trademark of their original sound. Instead, emphasis is placed on multi-tracked vocals, multi-tracked acoustic and electric guitars, synthesized and (occasionally) non-synthesized strings, in short, anything to get these guys a massive wall of sound that will make them sound loud, proud, and completely anonymous.

The songs are not bad, though; I'd say they are doing something on the level of classic Ash now, and while I'm not a fan of either, this is far from the worst pop-rock produced in that period. It's all about catchy choruses now, and many of them are in good taste — as long as you have the patience to sit through the opener, ʽLove Is Endingʼ, where the chugging alt-rock guitar drone pretty much kills off any attempt to make its chorus into anything special. It is just one of those generic tunes, you know, that justify the entire «guitar rock is on its way out» approach.

But ʽMy Foolish Prideʼ, coming right on its heels, is a big improvement. With pianos and strings taking the place of big bad guitars, it manages to create just the right atmosphere of tenderness and repentance in the chorus. The decision to culminate each chorus with the acappella delivery of the line "make love, not war" is questionable, but since it comes right after the Beatlesque descending line of "sweet emissary tapping at my door", I guess we can forgive it even if we disagree with it. Here, then, is a nice side effect of The Charlatans aging and getting more senti­mental and self-critical — they become capable of occasional moments of touching beauty, even if they do tend to get unnoticed behind the regular veil of mediocrity. (Frankly, there is nothing in this song beyond the chorus that is salvageable).

Whatever happens after these two not-so-far-removed extremes falls somewhere in between, and, frankly, does not deserve lengthy discussions. Personally, I fall asleep now whenever they try to recapture a bit of that old funk vibe (ʽYour Pure Soulʼ), get positively offended when they slap the title ʽSmash The Systemʼ onto a song that has nothing to do with Rage Against The Machine, but come alive again for ʽIntimacyʼ and ʽSincerityʼ: the former is a slightly mystical, somewhat Roxy Music / ABC-inspired decadent power ballad, the latter a fast and tightly focused pop-rocker with retro-futuristic synths and a cool shout-out chorus — a successful completion of the task initiated and provisionally failed with ʽLove Is Endingʼ. As the album nears the end, though, it begins to bog down again, particularly with the interminable ballad ʽOh!ʼ and the droning atmospheric mood piece ʽYou Can Swimʼ (whose entire melodic base is more in line with blowing bubbles at the bottom of the swimming pool rather than actually swimming).

Adding insult to injury, the band ends up proceedings with a hidden track that consists of perfor­mance artist Penny Rimbaud delivering a lengthy lyrical piece to a repetitive, quasi-Gothic musi­cal background. I have nothing against the art of Penny Rimbaud (of which, admittedly, I know quite little, since beat poetry is not really my thing), but I have no idea why he has to be featured on a Charlatans record rather than, say, a Patti Smith one. Isn't it too late for these guys to buy up creed from aging beatniks, anyway? This could never be a good idea, let alone the fact of its total incompatibility with the bulk of this fairly normal pop record. Admittedly, it is a hidden track, so it is legitimate for us to pretend it does not exist.

The good news, therefore, is that The Charlatans have tightened up their craft, and are now pro­ducing a conveyer line of pop songs, some of which might even stick in your head. The bad news is that, well, just about anybody could have done this record, given a skilful producer and a few years of musical expertise behind their backs. The surprising news is how they persist — five LPs over ten years? in the twenty-first century? this kind of tenaciousness is bound to get you somewhere — I mean, look at Brian Jonestown Massacre, for instance, where every once in a while Anton Newcombe comes out with a masterpiece, stuck between several pieces of utter boredom. And so, at the expense of a complete loss of identity, Who We Touch is probably their best offering since Wonderland, though still not worthy of a thumbs up, in my opinion.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Celtic Frost: Morbid Tales

CELTIC FROST: MORBID TALES (1984)

1) Human / Into The Crypts Of Rays; 2) Visions Of Mortality; 3) Dethroned Emperor; 4) Morbid Tales; 5) Procrea­tion (Of The Wicked); 6) Return To The Eve; 7) Danse Macabre; 8) Nocturnal Fear; 9*) Circle Of The Tyrants; 10*) Visual Aggression; 11*) Suicidal Winds.

Celtic Frost used to be Hellhammer, a notoriously extreme metal band from Zürich, of all places: I know of no precedents before them for Swiss metal, and, in fact, I deeply suspect that many people might have confused them with Swedish metal bands in the early years. But then if they were Swedish, they'd have probably called themselves Nordic Frost (sidenote: apparently, there is a band now called Nordic Frost, and they are Swedish, so go figure). As it is, «Celtic» was pro­bably chosen because of Switzerland's Celtic past, and «Frost» because of their proximity to the Alps. Or because «frost» brings on associations with death — purely verbally, considering that the music of Celtic Frost is anything but frosty in nature.

For their first EP, Morbid Tales, the band lineup consisted of Thomas Gabriel Fischer, a.k.a. Tom Warrior, on guitars and vocals, and Martin Stricker, a.k.a. Martin Eric Ain, on bass — these two, with the exception of a short one-time break for Martin, would forever remain the core of the band. The drum work was handled by session musician Stephen Priestley, since by late 1984 the core duo had not yet settled upon a permanent percussionist. The original release was short, con­sisting of only six tracks; two more, including the title track, only appeared later on the expanded US version. Finally, the current CD edition usually throws on three additional bonus tracks, taken from the band's subsequent EP, Emperor's Return, which is a good thing, because that EP is usually rated very highly by the band's fans, yet hardly deserves a review of its own.

Assessing the originality and the impact of Celtic Frost's debut is a little hard these days, now that «black metal» is just a cliché and most of these bands are pathologically indistinguishable one from another. Apparently, though, the band was at the forefront of this subgenre, together with Bathory (who also released their first album in 1984) — the idea being that of combining the insane tempos and complex musicianship of thrash metal with the occultist / apocalyptic spirit of everybody from Black Sabbath to Venom. (Actually, Venom are usually credited with the inven­tion of «black metal» as such — if anything, that was the title of their second album — but they were certainly less extreme in their approach than Celtic Frost). In other words, Celtic Frost are a cross between Slayer and Venom, with a bit of Black Sabbath-y sludginess and a pinch of Mötor­head's blunt jackhammering thrown in for good measure.

That said, to me there are primarily two respectable subgenres of metal — «terrifying metal» and «comedic metal» — and early Celtic Frost are undeniably closer to the second one. One reason behind this are the vocals: Mr. Warrior, perpetuating the black metal stereotype, always sings as if he is either possessed by Satan's proxy, or suffering from a really bad case of constipation — which, come to think of it, may be one and the same from a certain philosophical point of view. (Check out the introduction to ʽDance Macabreʼ, where such a unity of process and purpose actually makes perfect sense). The second reason, of course, are the insane tempos, a problem most common to all forms of thrash or thrash-influenced metal; however, Celtic Frost are more reasonable here than Slayer, understanding the value of slowing down and even that of an occa­sional psychedelic interlude, to act as a bookmark between all the same-sounding gymnastics of heaviness. Still, nothing here is even remotely «morbid» or properly terrifying; in the end, it all depends on just how cartoonishly evil they can make their riffs and atmospheres, in order for us, future listeners, to get our healthy kicks.

And I will be the first to admit that Morbid Tales has its share of solid metal riffs. I do not care that much for stuff like ʽInto The Crypts Of Raysʼ: it owes its whole schtick to Mötorhead without sharing Mötorhead's level of catchiness (as a singer, Lemmy is downright Pavarotti next to Tom Warrior), and simply gallops along without offering anything fresh. Conversely, ʽVisions Of Morta­lityʼ is just too slow, and sounds like a slightly more high-pitched and boring rehash of some of classic Sabbath's ideas. But things begin picking up by the time ʽDethroned Emperorʼ comes along — also owing its existence to ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ, it finally manages to offer us a useful variation on that eternal chugging theme (largely thanks to an awesome snake-like arpeggio flourish in between the main iterations of the riff). And finally, the first truly awe­some song arrives in the guise of ʽProcreation (Of The Wicked)ʼ, where Tom teaches his guitar to alternate between painful howling and fierce growling (I suppose that this is meant to represent the birth pangs of the alleged "wicked", but could be more of that constipation thing — who really cares?).

Too bad that, from there to the end, only three tracks remain, one of which (ʽDance Macabreʼ) is, as I already mentioned, more of an avantgarde noise collage, something like a tentative musical representation of a Bosch painting of hell — and it's pretty cool that way. But, as a bonus, you do get the other tracks from Emperor's Return; recorded approximately one year later, they feature slightly improved production values and at least one solid riff-rocker (ʽSuicidal Windsʼ) that tries to eschew the boredom of generic thrash by slightly slowing down the tempo and trying to intro­duce some moderately discernible chords into the structure...

...ah well, who am I kidding? Most of these songs are ultimately one, and modern young metal audiences will probably not be impressed with it, considering how far beyond it the technical boundaries of speed / thrash / black metal have been pushed since. In reality, the album is more interesting from a purely historical perspective: it made a truly deep impression back in the day, and marked merely the first chapter in the surprisingly versatile, almost chameleonic career of these rugged Swiss warriors. But ʽProcreationʼ is a genuinely cool song, regardless of historic context, and in limited doses, their overall sound might even be more fun than Slayer's — pre­cisely because they are somewhat less technical and somewhat more punkish in their musical retelling of the world's innumerous evils. That said, far be it from me to recommend this stuff to anybody who is not already deeply immersed in the tempting intricacies of heavy metal.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Carpenters: A Song For You

CARPENTERS: A SONG FOR YOU (1972)

1) A Song For You; 2) Top Of The World; 3) Hurting Each Other; 4) It's Going To Take Some Time; 5) Goodbye To Love; 6) Intermission; 7) Bless The Beasts And Children; 8) Flat Baroque; 9) Piano Picker; 10) I Won't Last A Day Without You; 11) Crystal Lullaby; 12) Road Ode; 13) A Song For You (reprise).

My original review of this album was surprisingly cruel — or perhaps I did get mellow as time goes by, after all? Not sure how it happened, but now that I am giving A Song For You another chance, it is not clear even to myself how a Carpenters record without a single Bacharach tune on it, but with at least one Leon Russell and one Carole King original, could get such a low assess­ment. Of course, it is just another Carpenters album, which means there is no escaping mushy fluff at times, but it does host some of the duo's loveliest moments as well; released at the height of the soft-rock era, it is almost inevitably infected by a certain psychological subtlety that was omnipresent in 1970-72, and then, as the formula became a formula, pretty much evaporated from the spirit of long-haired dudes and dudettes with acoustic guitars and pianos.

A whoppin' half of the songs from here were released as singles (most of them high-charting ones), but, funny enough, not the title track — the most serious and solid composition on here, and another great vehicle for Karen to apply her talent. Like ʽSuperstarʼ, the song clearly must have meant much more to its composer and original singer than to Karen Carpenter, but she does a fine job adapting it to a womanly perspective, and she is believable when she sings "I've been so many places in my life and time", even though most of these places were in Connecticut and California. Heck, she even sounds believable when she sings "I've made some bad rhymes", even though she hadn't made any rhymes. The important thing is, she gets this message of repentance and redemption through pure love across in a clean, accessible, and realistic manner, without underdoing it or overdoing it — perfect phrasing all way 'round. The moody sax solo, lacking in Leon's stripped-down piano version, complements her appropriately.

The biggest hit was ʽTop Of The Worldʼ, featuring the duo in their countriest mood yet, with Nashville pro Buddy Emmons on pedal steel and Karen probably sporting her jauntiest cowgirl hat in the studio. The original intention was to use this Richard original as a (filler?) track on the album, but they changed their minds after Lynn Anderson had a hit with the song on the country charts — surprisingly, general pop audiences were only too happy to snap it up with Karen on vocals, perhaps seeing her presence as an excuse to satisfy their internalized country fetish. There is not a lot of space in this happy country romp for Karen's brooding melancholia, but she does at least as good a job with it as Lynn Anderson, sounding slightly more serious and stately in her own way. But on the whole, it is probably good that they did not latch on to this success and make a complete transition to country(-pop): pledging allegiance to cotton fields and rodeos would have ruined the last shreds of their credibility.

Of the other singles, ʽIt's Going To Take Some Timeʼ is nice, but completely unnecessary, since it is all but impossible for Karen to improve on Carole King's personal delivery (cute flute solo, though); the theme song for Stanley Kramer's Bless The Beasts And Children is lush, formless schlock, with the likes of which Karen can do very little; and the cover of Ruby & The Roman­tics' ʽHurting Each Otherʼ is too pompous and overblown to truly make one feel sorry for its protagonists. On the other hand, the obligatory Nichols/Williams contribution ʽI Won't Last A Day Without Youʼ has the catchiest chorus of 'em all; and ʽGoodbye To Loveʼ seems to be one of the finest songs Richard ever wrote — an elegantly flowing proto-ABBA ballad with a couple of brilliant fuzz guitar solos by guest star Tony Peluso; apparently, those solos were the reason that (a) some adult contempo­rary radio stations refused to play the song because of its «hard rock» content, and (b) some critics name it as the first, or at least the prototypical, «power ballad». Both points are fairly ridiculous (no ballad with Karen on vocals can be a true «power» ballad, because her strength is in subtlety, not power), but the solos are truly good, working as faithful outlets for burning emotion that is only subtly hinted at in the vocals.

In addition to the romantic elegance and the slushy schlock, the album features bits of unneces­sary silliness (ʽIntermissionʼ — "we'll be right back after we go to the bathroom"; its chief purpose is not so much to let us know that Carpenters can harmonize like the Beach Boys as it is to let us know that Carpenters, like regular mortals, are endowed with urinary tracts) and goofi­ness (the Richard-dominated interlude ʽFlat Baroque / Piano Pickerʼ, an educated musical joke that probably needs somebody like Saturday Night Live-era Bill Murray to make it work), but they are short, and sometimes they almost seem necessary to cut through some of the schlock. On the whole, though, the tone of A Song For You is set by the spiritually heavy title track — re­prised at the end so the framework could be complete — and despite the goofiness and the happy tunes like ʽTop Of The Worldʼ, most of the time the album wades through sorrow and melancho­lia, culminating with ʽRoad Odeʼ, not the best song here but certainly the most depressed one. Naturally, simply being sad and depressed all or most of the time does not necessarily make for a great album, but this is the best possible state for Karen as a performer, and from that point of view, A Song For You is one of the band's most adequate and well-rounded records, though, clearly, not at all free from poor musical choices and fluffy soapiness. At least ʽA Song For Youʼ, ʽGoodbye To Loveʼ, and maybe even ʽTop Of The Worldʼ, for a happy change, should clearly make it to that top-notch compilation — the rest is up to you.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Cat Stevens: Buddha And The Chocolate Box

CAT STEVENS: BUDDHA AND THE CHOCOLATE BOX (1974)

1) Music; 2) Oh Very Young; 3) Sun/C79; 4) Ghost Town; 5) Jesus; 6) Ready; 7) King Of Trees; 8) A Bad Penny; 9) Home In The Sky.

Almost as if he suddenly woke up and became terrified at what 1973 did to his ego, Stevens hur­riedly backtracks — and ends up with a far more predictable, but just as problematic sequel to Catch Bull At Four. Paul Samwell-Smith is back in the producer's seat, the trusty old band with Alun Davies at the forefront is restored, and Jamaica is abandoned in favor of good old London. We are also back to the custom of weird album titles: this one, apparently, is due to Cat finding himself traveling on an airplane with a statuette of Buddha in one hand and a box of chocolates in the other, and implies being caught in a gap between the spiritual and the material. Although, it might be argued, the real Buddha would just wince back at him and ask, hey Cat, are you sure you can truly tell one from the other?

The main problem is that he got so busy telling one from the other, he hardly even noticed that he'd come out with one of his weakest albums to date. By this time, he'd graduated to Mr. Spiri­tual Incarnate, and where his records from the early 1970s could qualify as bold anti-commercial artistic statements (ironically, they sold pretty well), this record is largely a collection of sermons where the man frankly does not give a damn about anything else — be it catchy pop hooks or challenging chord sequences. He may have gone back to shorter songs, but at least the ʽForeigner Suiteʼ was not so utterly loaded with pretense as these tunes, where he comes forward as some master guru — and, let me add, without truly deserving it. In fact, this is the first record to contain Cat Stevens songs that I openly consider detestable.

Fortunately, that opinion does not concern the album's only single and Cat's last big original hit, before his commercial fortune abandoned him completely: ʽOh Very Youngʼ, sometimes called Stevens' response to ʽAmerican Pieʼ (since it also takes Buddy Holly as its pivot character), is a short and harmless acoustic ballad that implicitly suggests God might be a big fan of ʽWords Of Loveʼ (well, not exactly, but you can read the lyrics that way if you wish to). The preachiness is present here, too, but at least it has a decently written chorus; that said, I can certainly think of some better songs written by James Taylor, and that thought alone makes me shiver.

But almost everything else is simply dreadful: raw, poorly slapped together melodies that Cat tries to fatten up with ecstatic arrangements and vocal deliveries that suggest spiritual enlighten­ment, but ring hollow. ʽMusicʼ is a gospel-rock construct where Stevens tries going black once again, and the results are pitiful when viewed in context. ʽJesusʼ sounds like he's talking to the little kids again, so let us keep this one for the kindergarten hour. (As a sidenote, I will mention that the subject matter of the song — the unity of all religions — is the same as in George Harri­son's ʽLife Itselfʼ; the difference between the two is that Harrison fully redeems himself with the brilliant melodic lines in the opening thirty seconds of the song, a short, but beautiful guitar journey that is fifty times as spiritual as any of the words these guys come up with).

Worst of the lot is ʽKing Of Treesʼ, an eco-anthem that drags on for five minutes without any­thing interesting going on — the only thing that is supposed to attract attention is the tension and worry in the singer's voice as he violently and vehemently protests against cutting down trees, laying down the roads, and, I suppose, also against putting up the cozy Sound Techniques Studios where the album was recorded. Again, it is not the naïve, but admittedly sincere nature-loving lyrics that are embarrassing (although I would say that Joni Mitchell's ʽBig Yellow Taxiʼ at least has more original imagery): it is the fact — okay, the suspicion — that the song was quickly thrown together around the lyrics, not the other way around. And ultimately, all the talents of Joanne, Judy, Sunny, Ruby, Barry, Joy, Brigette, Suzanne, Jacqui, and other family-deprived singers recruited by Cat to give him gospel choir support go to waste.

I will not even try to discuss the rest of the songs. Melody-wise, even after four listens to this short collection of songs I cannot remember any of them. Lyrics-wise, they go from ecological rants to odes of salvation to condemnations of socialites (ʽA Bad Pennyʼ) that do not mean any­thing unless they are being put to good music. Perhaps the only exception is the lightweight ʽGhost Townʼ, a bit of harmonica and slide-driven country-rock used by Cat as an excuse to name some of his deceased favorites, from Chico & Harpo all the way down to Anne Boleyn. But it is clearly a throwaway, although it certainly does not offend me the way ʽKing Of Treesʼ does with its puffed-up seriousness.

Bottomline is: this time around, the man honestly does not even try. He used to fiddle about with odd combinations of folk melodies and Latin rhythms, dabble in medieval balladry, translate his verses into Latin, send cryptic messages that were a chore to decode, but here he just says to hell with it, assembles himself a gospel choir and presumes that as long as he preaches peace, love, and humility, this should be enough for anybody who is ready to follow. Well guess what? In this context, I definitely choose the chocolate box over Buddha. Thumbs down.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Forever And Ever

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: FOREVER AND EVER (1991)

1) They Gave Me Away; 2) Hometown New Orleans; 3) Skit Skat; 4) Poor Boy; 5) Forever And Ever; 6) Yella Pocahontas; 7) Third Degree; 8) Dupree Special; 9) Spoken Introduction; 10) Let's Talk It Over.

Same producer, same musicians, same studio, same artist at more or less the same age — see previous review. This one, on the whole, is slower: the only fast boogie number is ʽSkit Skatʼ, where the Champ indulges a bit in fun, but unimpressive scatting (he ain't no Ella Fitzgerald, after all), plus the wild, tribal, politically incorrect groove of ʽYella Pocahontasʼ, meshing together bits of Bo Diddley with elements of the Creole skit ʽOoh La Laʼ that he'd recorded decades ago. All the other songs are slow blues numbers, the most striking of these probably being a cover of Eddie Boyd's ʽThird Degreeʼ — alas, much as I sympathize, a cover that would be utterly des­troyed in three years by Clapton's version on From The Cradle (I do have to wonder if he'd had a chance to be inspired with this version at all, since many of the licks played here by Kenn Len­ding find faithful, but superior, equivalents in Eric's performance).

At least this time we receive our «marking time» number: ʽHometown New Orleansʼ, predictably set to the melody of ʽSweet Home Chicagoʼ, symbolizes Dupree's triumphant re-entry into his town of origin — one last time before the final kick. I only wish the accompanying musicians would have been more enthusiastic about it, instead of sounding like working for money and little else. Too bad he could not involve Dr. John, at least, since the role of the piano player was already occupied (then again, a duet between the Champ and the Doctor might have broken up the boredom quite efficiently).

Other than that, Lending's guitar skills may be appreciated finer than usually on the long opening number ʽThey Gave Me Awayʼ (really subtle, thin, fragile tone on some of these licks, though still utterly Claptonesque), and Dupree's skills as a piano player are at their best on the aptly titled ʽDupree Specialʼ, where, midway through, he launches into a couple of nimble and fun solos that are more playful than technically perfect, but playfulness is his strong spot, and even if he ain't no Artur Rubinstein at age eighty, hearing him engage in a bit of ivory silliness at a time when most of his contemporaries would be fading away in nursing homes is still heart-warming. And this, I think, is the best possible conclusion for a laconic review like this.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Yardbirds: Roger The Engineer

THE YARDBIRDS: ROGER THE ENGINEER (1966)

1) Lost Woman; 2) Over, Under, Sideways, Down; 3) The Nazz Are Blue; 4) I Can't Make Your Way; 5) Rack My Mind; 6) Farewell; 7) Hot House Of Omagarashid; 8) Jeff's Boogie; 9) He's Always There; 10) Turn Into Earth; 11) What Do You Want; 12) Ever Since The World Began; 13*) Psycho Daisies; 14*) Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.

The first Yardbirds album to be properly conceived and recorded as an album, rather than a bunch of disconnected singles, was supposed to be simply titled Yardbirds — fate, however, has deter­mined that it be forever known as Roger The Engineer, after a short clarifying scribble by Chris Dreja who wanted all the world to know that the grotesque figure on the front sleeve was Roger Cameron, the band's audio engineer. Unfortunately, as tempting as it is to imagine the album as a conceptual rock opera about the adventures of a humble studio technician in the psychedelic age, this is not to be, because The Yardbirds were simply too disjointed and confused to care about any sort of cohesiveness and conceptuality. Instead, Roger The Engineer is a total mess, retro-oriented one minute and sloppily futuristic the next one — a potential disaster turned into a glorious delight because of the presence of at least one musical genius in the group, and also because it was friggin' 1966, when «messy» and «visionary» were just two sides of the same coin.

In a decisive departure from past times, all the material here was written by the band members themselves — which, naturally, ensured that much of it was very derivative in terms of basic melody, since the creative instincts of most of The Yardbirds did not venture too far away from their R&B foundations. However, after two years of distinguished service they were capable of an occasional great riff; of cool ideas on atmospheric overdubs and psychedelic sound effects; and of projecting their eclectic experience onto LP territory, as just about every sub-genre that was explored on their 1965-66 singles is also represented on the album, from bone-crushing hard rock to sinister Gregorian chants to top-of-the-line blueswailing.

The album gets off to a solid, but inauspicious start: ʽLost Womanʼ is merely another in a stable line of their R&B rave-ups, with a noisy, but not too ecstatic crescendo in the middle and a memorable rolling bass line from Samwell-Smith. Possibly not the best way to immediately make an impression on the progress-spoiled audiences of '66 — ʽOver Under Sideways Downʼ would have made a far more efficient opener: the combination of a rousing "hey!" and a snakey Indian-inspired riff from Beck (incidentally, a similar pattern, but played already on a real sitar, can be heard on Harrison's ʽThe Inner Lightʼ two years later) sounds really novel even for The Yardbirds, as does the marriage of a catchy-bouncy pop melody in the verse with the somber Gothicness of the "when will it end?" reprise. Throw in a bunch of lyrics that deal with liberation, hedonism, and retribution, and all of a sudden, the song stands out as a laconic artistic masterpiece from both the formal and the substantial points of view.

This is the frustration and the charm of Roger The Engineer — you never know what's coming next, a predictable reenactment of some long gone glory or a dazzling futuristic twist. Sometimes both of them come within the confines of the same tune: ʽThe Nazz Are Blueʼ begins as the 5,000th rewrite of Elmore James' ʽDust My Broomʼ, but quickly turns into a playground for some provocative guitar experimentation from Beck that remains exciting to this day (ah, that sweet sustained note at 1:24! it is also interesting that Jeff takes a rare lead vocal on the song himself, something that he would very rarely follow up on in the future). Sometimes the odd twist ends up sounding stupid, at least in retrospect: the contorted Oompa-Loompish Africanisms of ʽHot House Of Omagarashidʼ, made to look even sillier by the «bubbly» effect (are we supposed to have visions of five live Yardbirds, all plucked and boiling in a steamy cauldron?), can hardly be saved even by Beck's shrill psychedelic solo.

But then you also have The Yardbirds surprisingly successfully competing with Manfred Mann in the «ironically sunshine pop» category (ʽI Can't Make Your Wayʼ, whose bounciness makes it a prime candidate for Britain's slyest pop sellout to cover); engaging in melancholic piano Brit-pop with a music hall flavor (ʽFarewellʼ); expanding the borders of heavy rock with a simple, proto-metallic descending fuzz bass riff (ʽHe's Always Thereʼ); capitalizing on the success of ʽStill I'm Sadʼ with another moody piece of Gregorian chant (ʽTurn Into Earthʼ); and pretty much inventing classic Black Sabbath with the first part of ʽEver Since The World Beganʼ: "Ever since the world began / Satan's followed every man / Trapping evil if he can / I tell you now his greatest plan" — tell me, with a straight face, that these lyrics have not been written by Geezer Butler and have not been delivered by Ozzy Osbourne. Okay, so they weren't, but that is the entire Sabbath formula, in a nutshell, over one minute, just without the heavy riffs. Come to think of it, even the unexpec­ted transition into a fast rave-up is Sabbath-like to a certain degree, considering how the bad boys of Birmingham liked to introduce boogie bits in their slow metallic drawls.

Keith Relf, predictably, remains the weakest link. Nice guy overall and a competent singer by the book, he remains incapable of injecting the songs with strong emotion or distinct personality, and this is, perhaps, the harshest blow to the potential of Roger The Engineer — it is all but impos­sible to get deeply involved in them, unless they are flat-out instrumentals (ʽJeff's Boogieʼ). But, in all fairness, this whole thing should have really been credited to «The Yardbirds Featuring Jeff Beck», or even «Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds», the same way John Mayall's Bluesbreakers were smart enough to put «With Eric Clapton» on their quintessential record from the same year — and once you have settled into accepting the vocals as largely a side accompaniment for the lead guitar, rather than vice versa, Roger The Engineer will be on the verge of slipping into the masterpiece category. Because, truly and verily, some of the most outstanding pre-Hendrix era guitar work can be found here, be it the spiralling Indian riff of ʽOver Under Sideways Downʼ, or the beastly sustain of ʽThe Nazz Are Blueʼ, or the finger-flashing arpeggios of ʽJeff's Boogieʼ, or the sick acid tone of the six-string on ʽHe's Always Thereʼ — the first, and one of the finest, full-scale demonstrations of the genius of Mr. Beck.

Whether you are buying the CD or downloading a digital copy, make sure that it is (admittedly, a rare) edition that also adds one slightly later single as a couple of bonus tracks — ʽPsycho Daisiesʼ, the B-side, is a Chuck Berry pastiche with angry garage rock guitar splattered all over it, but the real deal is ʽHappenings Ten Years Time Agoʼ, the only A-side of theirs that features dual lead playing from Beck and the freshly joined Page and remains one of the quintessential psyche­delic tracks of 1966 — in fact, the chaotic, earth-rattling solo in the middle is one of the very few instances of a typically Hendrix-like sound prior to Hendrix, although its most memorable ele­ment is probably the fussy descending guitar riff, which, to me, seems borrowed out of the Link Wray or Duane Eddy textbook, but transferred to a whole new level of intensity (those guys would probably just use the «toppling» chords as a gimmick, whereas here they are put at the skeletal center of the song).

Together with ʽShapes Of Thingsʼ, this song was The Yardbirds' best bet at becoming messiahnic prophets for their generation — with epic and ominous declarations like these, even the lack of a great lead singer was not much of a problem — but, alas, this was not to be because, so it seems to me, nobody in The Yardbirds ever had anything resembling a cohesive, transparent «vision» for the band's music. Roger The Engineer is a clear example of that — it's a mish-mash and a hodge-podge, often brilliant despite the intentions of its authors rather than according to them, or so it reads to me. Naturally, a thumbs up rating is self-evident here, but I also understand why the album never managed to become a timeless 1966 classic along the same lines as contem­porary albums by the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, or the Kinks. Fortunately, it has always enjoyed a cult status among connoisseurs, and let us keep it that way.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Anna von Hausswolff: Ceremony

ANNA VON HAUSSWOLFF: CEREMONY (2012)

1) Epitaph Of Theodor; 2) Deathbed; 3) Mountains Crave; 4) Goodbye; 5) Red Sun; 6) Epitaph Of Daniel; 7) No Body; 8) Liturgy Of Light; 9) Harmonica; 10) Ocean; 11) Sova; 12) Funeral For My Future Children; 13) Sun Rise.

Many, if not most, of the reviews of Ceremony use words like «dark», «Gothic», and «ice queen» — which is quite understandable for a record made by a Swedish femme fatale, with song titles such as ʽFuneral For My Future Childrenʼ and a grim, almost hellish photo of one part of a church organ on the front sleeve, the church organ being her primary instrument of choice for most of the songs. Now I do not know if this album is really «great» or just another minor varia­tion on the soul-seeking singer-songwriter saga, but I do know the most interesting thing about it — formally, it deserves all these epithets, and yet, at the same time, it feels totally light, lively, and, in some ways, even cheerfully optimistic to me.

It is no more «dark», in fact, than the average organ fugue or vocal cantata from J. S. Bach: just because the airwaves happen to be choked up by somber overtones from metal pipes, and the lyrics deal with issues of suffering and repentance, this does not imply glorification of the Dark on any rational level. And just because on her second album Anna von Hausswolff has expanded beyond the fiefdom of the personal into the realm of the universal does not imply that she inevitably has to sing and play about the upcoming end of the world. On the contrary, darkness is seen by her as something fairly casual, almost like an acceptable prerequisite of the light — and, as you may notice, for all the morbid imagery in the song titles ("epitaph", "deathbed", "funeral") there are a few important references to "light" and "sunrise" as well.

That this is a musical record first and foremost, and a theatrical one-woman show only in the second place, is immediately made clear by the first two tracks — ʽEpitaph Of Theodorʼ is com­pletely instrumental, and the epic ʽDeathbedʼ is only interrupted by a brief vocal interlude in the middle, so that for the first ten minutes you do not have any singing at all. According to Anna herself, she was more influenced by the drone metal scene (e. g. Earth) than her female peers in the singer-songwriting department, and it shows: ʽEpitaph Of Theodorʼ is slow, draggy, minima­listic, cherishing slowly congealing atmosphere over dynamic musical development — but if you are scared / bored shitless of drone metal for its colorless heavy guitar palette, have no fear: the church organ is a marvelous replacement, and, what's more, somehow she manages to find her own way for tuning and processing it, so the old instrument takes on a new life, reimagining itself as a synthesizer (note: sometimes she actually plays real synthesizers, and it is not always easy to distinguish one from another). Eventually, some guitars drop in, but they are not metal guitars: one of her session musicians plays a mean pedal steel that adds an element of serene, angelic beauty to the stern solemnity of the first part.

I think I like ʽEpitaph Of Danielʼ even better, though — no idea who the Theodor and the Daniel in question are here, but Daniel gets the luckier deal, with an even prettier pedal steel part: the guitarist may be a big fan of David Gilmour or it may just be a coincidence, but he has a true talent of squeezing emotion out of a limited number of notes. And in both cases, the «epitaphs» are done in excellent taste: stern, but light sorrow overridden with musical hints at The Light Eternal. There is probably not much going on here in terms of active musical innovation, but the sonic palette mixed up by Anna and her associates is fresh, and certainly among the most inspiring ones to come from the 2010s.

The obvious downside is that more or less the same palette is used throughout the entire album, and the entire album goes on for about an hour — not too surprising, considering how long some of the themes have to take in order to unwrap their whole potential. But this I can live with. For one thing, there are a few helpful diversions along the way — for instance, ʽNo Bodyʼ is two and a half minutes of sonically impressive experimentation, an industrial/avantgarde track where Anna is busy farting into the leftmost organ pipe and then catching the exhaust on the rightmost one. Or if she is not, at least it's something from that area; amusing rather than properly terrifying, but an intrigue all the same. And ʽHarmonicaʼ, with its handclap and conga rhythms accompanied by dense synth patterns, is an intrusion onto New Age / World Music turf that does not work as well as the organ-based tracks, but is competent and compatible with the rest.

For another thing, she still has a knack for occasional vocal hooks, although now they are less in the shape of catchy choruses and more in the shape of particularly sharp and beautiful phrasing, like on ʽOceanʼ, whose toppling "I take it ba-a-a-a-a-a-ack, my honor..." lines are head-spinning; or the tense, admonishing "it's written all around" resolution of the verses on ʽLithurgy Of Lightʼ; or the whoah-whoah-ing on ʽFuneral For My Future Childrenʼ, an odd hybrid between her church style and country music, with waltz tempos, a small pinch of yodeling, and a pretty happy into­nation as the lady declares her intention to "bury all my children" — actually, the song is not so much about death inevitable as it is about life eternal, hence all the subtle happiness. She's a strange one, but I admire how she manages to get through all this pretense without becoming truly annoying on the ears or offensive to the mind.

And as for the monotonousness, well, she said it herself that the whole album was to be some­what conceptual and «soundtrackish», with a common thread running through all the songs, and she was pretty right about it, too. I am not sure what kind of movie should have hosted this sound­track — something by Terrence Malick, perhaps? probably would be unwatchable — but since the entire thing has a ghostly atmosphere, let's assume that, in the end, it should be a movie about ghosts. Friendly ones, you know, those who come to you in your dreams and teach you that earthly life is only the beginning of true existence. For what it's worth, by the way, Ceremony gives the impression of being a very Christian album without a single explicit shred of Christi­anity — something that always commands my respect. Even better, I simply like it without putting too much thought in it, meaning a thumbs up from all sides of consciousness. And championing a moderately new kind of sound in 2012 ain't no slouch, either.