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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Nile Rodgers: B-Movie Matinee

NILE RODGERS: B-MOVIE MATINEE (1985)

1) Plan-9; 2) State Your Mind; 3) The Face In The Window; 4) Doll Squad; 5) Let's Go Out Tonight; 6) Groove Master; 7) Wavelength; 8) Stay Out Of The Light.

General verdict: Funny electronic grooves, but bring back that guitar, goddammit.

For his second album, Nile chose Alfa Anderson instead of Bernard for his resident «memory of Chic» — bass credits go to Jimmy Bralower, a hot Eighties jack-of-all-trades known not so much for his guitar, bass, and drum playing as he was for his production and electronic programming. As you can understand, there is not much by way of impressive bass playing to be found on the album. Instead, there is a very glossy, synthetic sound, occasionally warmed up by Nile's color­ful licks — but overall, quite robotic; think Duran Duran with a slightly funkier edge.

Nevertheless, Rodgers lost neither his sense of humor nor his knack for delightfully lowbrow entertainment, and even if he is not playing to his usual high standards, he almost makes up for this with the fun quotient. The title of the record is not arbitrary: it is actually a semi-conceptual piece, stuffed with memories of and impressions from various cheesy B-movies, as if telling us not to take the music too seriously, either. Titles like ʽPlan-9ʼ and ʽDoll Squadʼ are self-explana­tory; others take attention to understand, like ʽStay Out Of The Lightʼ, filled with samples from Raiders Of The Lost Ark, even though the main content seems to be unrelated (not that I cared to follow the lyrics too closely, you understand). It all fits in kind of nicely into the general hedo­nism and entertainment spiral of the mid-Eighties, but always in a light, inoffensive, mildly funny way: Nile Rodgers is, after all, a nice and polite fellow whose career still peaked in the suit-wearing age, so he ain't going to pull no Alice Cooper or Mötley Crüe shit on you.

The only track to reach the single charts was ʽLet's Go Out Tonightʼ, which could thematically be the B-side to Madonna's ʽInto The Grooveʼ — a simple, unadorned dance-pop number with one synth bass line, one synth keyboard hook, one vocal earworm, and some Japanese vocal samples that modern audiences will probably love even more. Predictably, my interest only perks here when Nile begins to replay the hook on his guitar, at first strictly limiting himself to repeating a single phrase, then, towards the end, finally getting tired of it and launching into some inspired variations... that is, before they fade him out way too early (people are here to dance, goddammit, not to listen to creative guitar playing). Unfortunately, I wouldn't mind if they let him stretch out somewhere else, but that charmingly optimistic ringing guitar riff is about as much as you are getting from Nile Rodgers, the master of funky melody, on this album. So I do mind.

Still, it would be unfair to bypass the fact that there are some nifty grooves on the record — sometimes with a strong futuristic touch, e. g. ʽGroove Masterʼ (where Nile is going all mecha­nistic-robotic-Kraftwerkish on our asses), or ʽThe Face In The Windowʼ, whose interchange of dark and threatening electronic pulse in the verse with the pure and shiny dance groove in the chorus sounds almost frighteningly modern (all those purveyors of Eighties' nostalgia who some­times think they are expanding on what their forefathers taught them are way too often just repeating the achievements of tracks like this). Nothing really stands out in particular, and then there is always the occasional boring ballad like ʽWavelengthʼ, but on the whole, the grooves show a certain level of complexity and involvement — and when you combine, say, the not-so-trivial interlocking of bass, keyboards, guitar, percussion, and backing vocals on ʽDoll Squadʼ with the inherent light-hearted humor, you get a track that can cozily rally itself under the Prince banner and carried out of the burning house of Eighties' dance-pop as a good example of why it actually mattered as a creative force. To some small degree, at least.

It makes even more sense when you think about the relative artistic disasters Nile was producing for white guys at the time — Jeff Beck's Flash, Mick Jagger's She's The Boss — and just goes to show how important it is not to take yourself too seriously when you are investing in overtly commercial projects. Somehow, of these three projects, B-Movie Matinee is the only one where my own emotional response has been positive rather than negative. Still, it does not change the fact that my overall involvement in any Nile Rodgers project is proportionally dependent on the amount and quality of his guitar playing, and in that respect, B-Movie Matinee disappoints. In contexts like these, having a bigger ego couldn't actually hurt, Mr. Rodgers.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

King Crimson: Beat


KING CRIMSON: BEAT (1982)

1) Neal And Jack And Me; 2) Heartbeat; 3) Sartori In Tangier; 4) Waiting Man; 5) Neurotica; 6) Two Hands; 7) The Howler; 8) Requiem.

General verdict: Not a lot of progress here, but the band manages to stay sufficiently in touch with their own past and the musical future to keep things interesting.

The worst that could be said about the early Eighties lineup of King Crimson is that, unlike any previous lineup of King Crimson, this particular quartet never managed to progress far beyond the formula once it had been established. While both Beat and Three Of A Perfect Pair un­doubtedly have their share of great songwriting moments, most of the time they seem to be taking stately strolls across territory that has already been meticulously staked out and explored. Perhaps such was the price for maintaining, even for a short while, the unity of four immensely talented people, each of whom had his own well-carved stylistic preferences: in such a configuration, disrupt the «disciplined» balance even a little, and everything might fall apart (which it eventually did anyway, but at least the Belew-Levin-Bruford lineup made it without leaving a single genuine artistic dud in their footsteps).

Nowhere is this continuity and stability more evident than in the opening angular guitar lines of ʽNeal And Jack And Meʼ which seem to be picking up from exactly the same spot where ʽDis­ciplineʼ had left us (I had a bootleg CD edition once that packed both albums on the same disc, and I almost failed, upon first listen, to notice that the first LP had ended and the second one had begun). If a better musical equivalent of the «if you like this, you will definitely like this...» tagline exists, I have yet to locate it. But without the element of surprise, it is obvious that Beat could only compensate by being able to further refine and polish and expand all the details pre­viously invented on Discipline — and I am not sure of its ability to do that.

The title of the album was allegedly inspired by Jack Kerouac, or, more accurately, the up­coming 25th anniversary of the publication of On The Road — hence a lot of subtle and unsubtle refe­rences to the Beat movement in the song titles that you can easily look up on Wikipedia if you are not an expert on the movement yourself. However, it would be hard to imagine a Fripp-led band to simply produce a musical tribute to anybody, much less a bunch of beatniks, and so the word here refers to multiple things at once — the musical beat, of course, which these guys were now taking to new heights, and even the ʽHeartbeatʼ, which happened to be the title for the album's only single, one of the poppiest things this lineup ever did, and even accompanied with a musical video to boot (most of which consisted of mugshots of Adrian looking at sexy ladies: believe it or not, even in King Crimson people sometimes continue to have sex drives).

From a certain point of view, this makes Beat a conceptual album, but it is hard to concentrate on the meanings and artistic implications behind the concept when the actual music walks this odd thin line between innovation and stagnation. The only composition on the album that does not have a direct stylistic predecessor on Discipline is the closing number, ʽRequiemʼ — but that is because its direct stylistic predecessors hearken back to an even more distant past: Fripp's and Belew's solos here, largely improvised and set to an old Frippertronics loop, are reminiscent of Robert's improvising style that he had worked out with the 1973-74 lineup, while the rhythm section, instead of finding itself locked into a tight groove as it usually does, seems on the verge of falling apart throughout the track. It is essentially King Crimson's equivalent of the Stooges' chaotic ʽL.A. Bluesʼ from Funhouse, except that this time the chaos is being brewed by seasoned professionals who typically pride themselves on order and discipline. It is perhaps not so sur­prising that it was the argument over this particular track that nearly brought the band to a pre­mature end in mid-1982.

That said, there is almost nothing on Beat whose «second-hand» or even «third-hand» nature would make the composition in question unendurable or unenjoyable. Perhaps the band does occasionally stutter on the poppier elements: ʽTwo Handsʼ is one of their lesser ballads, a mood piece similar in style to ʽMatte Kudasaiʼ, but less precisely shaped up and without any mind-blow­ing tricks such as Belew's heavenly guitar tone (he does play a fairly cool «Morse-code» style guitar solo). But ʽHeartbeatʼ, on the other hand, is an insanely catchy pop classic; it is often written off by fans as a cheesy attempt to infiltrate the commercial market, but whoever really wants to get into this era of King Crimson should always remember that Adrian Belew is one of those rare guys who have equal respect for all things avantgarde and all things pop (just look at his solo career), and be ready to embrace both of these sides on the same album. Besides, in a way ʽHeartbeatʼ is only reintroducing the same intertwining notions of starry-eyed romanticism and melancholic desperation that were a part of King Crimson's art from the very beginning: with a bit of an effort, I could even imagine Greg Lake singing "I remember the feeling of the rhythm we made, the rhythm we made..." with the same visual images in mind that he may have expe­rienced while recording ʽI Talk To The Windʼ, no matter how much musical distance actually lies between these songs. A bit of sorrowful tenderness never hurt a KC record.

Of those tracks that, like, actually mean business, my personal favorite is ʽSartori In Tangierʼ, for two special reasons: (a) Tony's Chapman stick part is fabulous — doom-like bass minimalism at its finest; (b) Belew has some major fun introducing Afro-Arab motives into the Crimson sound and dragging them through his array of filter effects. Both of these things deepen and perpetuate the KC mystery just a teeny bit beyond its usual limits, and I guess we could use more of that, but then I can also understand Fripp's possible reluctance to be pigeonholed into the «world music» trend (but what is a "Sartori", anyway? I realize that it refers to Satori In Paris, but is this just a typo or an intentional contamination with Sartre?). In comparison, odd-rockers such as ʽWaiting Manʼ, ʽNeuroticaʼ, and ʽThe Howlerʼ are more traditional — perhaps a bit more chaotic and a bit more heavy on the whole when compared to Discipline, but nothing we could not have expected from Fripp and his well-worn bag of tricks.

Overall, apart from the «commercial» ʽHeartbeatʼ that would become a regular staple in Adrian's live shows, Beat seems to have become the less remembered part of the early Eighties' trilogy: it has neither the freshness of Discipline nor the concentrated songwriting punch of Three Of A Perfect Pair where, so it seems, the band would lock into a more focused mode of intentionally writing something «for the ages». But the record is still worthy of repeated listens, and with such inclusions as ʽRequiemʼ it actually has a chance of becoming a personal favorite for all those who thought Discipline was too much of a sonic departure from the age of Red — and longed for their old «nightmare fuel» KC to make a glorious comeback. If so, this particular comeback is not particularly glorious, but it does a respectable job of occasionally reintegrating those old red nightmares into the herky-jerky New Wave-like funky sound.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pink Floyd: The Final Cut

PINK FLOYD: THE FINAL CUT (1983)

1) The Post War Dream; 2) Your Possible Pasts; 3) One Of The Few; 4) The Hero's Return; 5) The Gunners Dream; 6) Paranoid Eyes; 7) Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert; 8) The Fletcher Memorial Home; 9) Southampton Dock; 10) The Final Cut; 11) Not Now John; 12) Two Suns In The Sunset.

General verdict: For those who much prefer Pink Floyd as activists to Pink Floyd as musicians — or for those who want to hear more of The Wall, only worse.


And here comes the big split: the album that not only tore apart Pink Floyd itself, but also the fans, some of whom love the record to death and tear into its enemies like Maggie tore into Galtieri — and some of whom simply refuse to recognize this as a Pink Floyd album, good or bad. Indeed, even though both Animals and The Wall were conceptualized by Waters exclusive­ly, they still sound like Floyd albums: cosmic keyboards, blazing guitars, mind-blowing sound effects, tons of different stuff going on — Waters may be the conductor, but the Pink Floyd Symphony Orchestra is no slouch on its own, either. With The Final Cut, this is no longer even «Roger Waters & Pink Floyd»; this is a bona fide Roger Waters solo album, with special guest stars Michael Kamen on keyboards and orchestration, Raphael Ravenscroft on sax, Andy Bown on organ, Ray Cooper on percussion... oh, yes, and also David Gilmour on guitars and Nick Mason on drums, almost forgot to mention.

It is not entirely true that music and politics should not mix; there is no unwritten law like that, and in fact, there is no prohibition against music mixing with anything — as long as the balance between music and non-music is kept in check. Such is not the case with The Final Cut, a very rushed project that Waters hastened to complete in the wake of the Falklands War, while the memory of the conflict was still fresh in everybody's mind. For the first time in Floyd history, lyrics and direct political message took vast precedence over the musical structure of the songs: in fact, Roger cared so little about the tunes that he made use of several outtakes originally written for The Wall and wrote new (or modified old) lyrics for them (instead of the original plan to release them as outtakes under the working title Spare Bricks). As for Gilmour, by all accounts he never thought much of the project from the start, but lacked the energy to battle Roger on this, and essentially took up the position of a grumbly session player.

It is no surprise, then, that usually one's reaction towards The Final Cut very much depends on how much one sympathizes with Roger Waters, his social views, and his ability to express them. The music, predictably, mostly sounds like an inferior, much less catchy and much less energetic sequel to The Wall — very similar sonic textures, very similar use of sound effects, very similar alternations between loud and quiet, and even a very similar lyrical protagonist, except that this time around the hatred and the venom are targeted at the powers-that-be rather than parents, teachers, girlfriends, and showbiz executives. And this, really, is the only thing that can elevate the album above average: is there enough rage, enough passion, enough intelligence to transform the mediocre melodies into something greater?

For starters, this review is not going to be transformed in a discussion of Roger's leftist politics — honestly, I do not care if your name is Roger Waters or Ted Nugent as long as you have that genuine fire burning inside of you and the ability to chuck some of those embers in the final mix. The album's provisional title, Requiem For A Post-War Dream, is clever enough, I guess, and Roger's concerns about all those idealistic plans and purposes for the planet, for which our forefathers died in the war, going to waste in the wake of neoconservatism and nationalism and jingoism once again on the rise are certainly justified (and clearly even more justified in our modern age). That's OK, as far as poetry goes, I am not going to rail against questions like "what happened to the post-war dream?" or utopian visions like ʽThe Gunners Dreamʼ or the recurring presence of the ghost of Hamlet's, uh, I mean, Roger's father.

What I am going to rail against is the idea of one of the greatest, most proverbially perfectionist bands in the world going almost insultingly lazy on our asses — and, after an incredible decade-long run of constant creativity, innovation, and diligent work, suddenly deciding that now is the time to rest on those laurels and recycle old ideas. Be it the quiet organ hum, the low, tense, spiteful vocal whisper, the scratchy-delayed rhythm guitar run, the heavenly frequencies of the synthesizer, the macho arena-rock pump, we have heard it all — and in much better quality — on The Wall; for almost each song on here, you can find its earlier prototype on that album, and I am not even going to name any examples (they have all been named numerous times in profes­sional and amateurish accounts of the album alike). With The Final Cut, the awesome evolution of the Pink Floyd sound, stretching all the way from the early Barrett years to the monumentality of The Wall, comes to a close — not so much because the members of Pink Floyd have lost the capacity for evolving as because they simply lost interest in evolving.

I am not saying that Waters and Gilmour should have obligatorily be inspired by all the New Wave achievements: The Wall pretty much managed to close its eyes on almost everything that was happening around and still become an artistic and commercial success. But The Wall still gave us a band that was constantly looking for new sounds, new textures, new ways to exploit and manipulate your mind. The focus of The Final Cut, in comparison, is to give you a clear, well-defined social viewpoint, resting entirely on old pieces of musical software. This is the big difference between this album and Animals, where the message was less overtly determined by current events and delivered primarily through the music — one can easily disagree with Roger's tripartite dogs-pigs-sheep scheme, but one cannot disagree with the obvious fact that most of that album actually consisted of instrumental tracks. The Final Cut, however, is unimaginable without the vocals — it is essentially political poetry set to Wall-style music.

This is not to say that I actively hate the record while it is on. I like the good old intensity of Roger's voice, that snake-like hiss of his fricatives and the subtle menace in his high vowels that you can never mistake with any other singer's. I like Gilmour's guitar tone on ʽYour Possible Pastsʼ and all those other songs where he contributes solos that are at least not any worse than the ones he concocted on his own solo albums. I like ʽThe Gunners Dreamʼ, whose piano chords and epic vocals make it sound like solo John Lennon (although it may not be a completely healthy sign when a Pink Floyd tune begins to sound like solo John Lennon). I am not even enraged when we get down to ʽNot Now Johnʼ, the song that typically alienates fans because of its arena-rock monster riffs and needless screaming — we are not, after all, supposed to believe that Floyd could ever take the bombastic arena approach of Queen so seriously as to want to imitate it without any signs of irony (of which this song has plenty).

But the end result is still dull. It is as if with The Wall, Roger really succeeded in pulling out all of his worst nightmares and finding the perfect musical ways to convey them to other people; but with The Final Cut, he simply was not able to reach the same psychological depths when shifting focus from deeply personal imprints to the overall situation in the world at large. If The Wall was essentially an album about himself (and he did that part pretty damn good), then The Final Cut is more of an album about his father, and about all those other war veterans («is this what we were saving this world for?»), and, perhaps because Roger Waters is not his own father and not a war veteran, the entire effort comes across as misguided. I know that there are people who were, and continue to be, deeply moved by the message here, but there is a damn good reason why the entire Floyd stretch from Dark Side to The Wall continues to receive universal acclaim, while The Final Cut is kind of stuck in limbo — and that reason, in my opinion, is not even the lack of musical progress as it is this whiff of fakery.

We will even omit the fact that, probably, not all British veterans of WWII were disgusted with the UK's involvement in the Falklands War (I'd be highly surprised if they were). We will simply say that Roger Waters is great when he is playing himself; but when he tries to play somebody else, he comes across as unconvincing — and this does not have anything to do with whether you agree with his points or not (I, for instance, agree with quite a few, though I probably would not take such a definitively one-sided stance, had I been in this man's shoes in 1982 instead of minding my own business and not even giving a damn about Brezhnev's funeral). An alternate option, of course, is to insist that The Wall was childish (puerile? infantile?) and inane while The Final Cut is mature and insightful, and that Roger's fits and pangs of self-pity and self-hatred are so ego-driven and laughable that it is a relief to finally see him turn away from his own problems and look at humanity at large. To this I can only reply that you should always do whatever it is you are good at doing, and that I will take an effective, musically well-engineered bout of self-pity over a derivative, half-assed sermon on the fate of humanity as long as humanity is still alive and kicking.

As far as I'm concerned, The Final Cut is the final cut — the one album that showed the world that Pink Floyd had become a dysfunctional entity, completing the evolution of Roger Waters from a cosmic dreamer and sonic experimentator into a second-rate singer-song­writer, and the evolution of David Gilmour from the revered guru of psycho-blues into a dispassionate sidekick for a second-rate singer-songwriter. Oh Maggie, Maggie, what have you done... to this band? Was it for this that Daddy died?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Paul McCartney: Red Rose Speedway

RED ROSE SPEEDWAY (1973)

1) Big Barn Bed; 2) My Love; 3) Get On The Right Thing; 4) One More Kiss; 5) Little Lamb Dragonfly; 6) Single Pigeon; 7) When The Night; 8) Loup (1st Indian On The Moon); 9) Hold Me Tight / Lazy Dynamite / Hands Of Love / Power Cut; 10*) C Moon; 11*) Hi Hi Hi; 12*) The Mess; 13*) I Lie Around.

General verdict: A cool collection of endearing pop songs whose cumulative effect just happens to be less than the sum of their individual parts, if that makes any sense.


I am not sure what can be said in general about Red Rose Speedway, the first Wings album released with a full band lineup and intended to mark Paul's return to the public sphere as a newly reborn, self-confident bandleader. Probably the only thing on which everybody agrees is that the album cover is godawful — if it was Linda's idea to make Paul look like he's bound, gagged (by the proverbial red rose) and staring at you as if you were Buffalo Bill or something, it ranks second only to Yoko Ono's initiative to betray the size of John Lennon's manhood to all of his past, present, and future female admirers. Throw in the earliest whiff of the silly mullet that Paul sported throughout the Seventies, and we are definitely not off to a good start.

Unlike Ram, this musical asylum for ʽMy Loveʼ has not managed so far to win back all the love it deserved, and I think I can understand why. On Ram, Paul's personal charm was put up front: with relatively sparse arrangements, vocals brought all the way up in the mix, a sense of quirky humor, and plenty of stylistic diversity it was pretty easy to disregard the «slightness» of the songs — they were only slight because the entire album was an exercise in child-like fantasy. With Red Rose Speedway, this was no longer «Paul & Linda McCartney»: Paul clearly had the goal of getting together a real band that would, if not surpass the Beatles, at least win renown as one of the most significant acts for the Seventies. All the way up to 1976, «Wings» were really presented as a partnership, in which McCartney was but one of the elements — a fake, hypocri­tical construction that did not work because it could not work, but one upon which he stubbornly insisted, even if pretty much every year he had to watch it crumble into dust, only to be picked up and reassembled and re-demolished again.

Much of the session time for Red Rose Speedway was spent jamming in the studio — pretty boring and tedious, according to the opinion of Glyn Johns, who was hired to engineer the album but quit midway through (and this guy certainly knew a thing or two about great jamming). In between the jams, Paul still wrote enough songs to fill a double album, but when it came to finalizing the product, he cut out most of the rocking ones and included most of the soft ones — perhaps he, too, realized in the final run that the current lineup of Wings was far from perfect when it came to rock'n'roll crunch. The softness of the record, however, was far from the main problem with it. The main problem was rather perceived as a total lack of purpose. If the first albums at least had this «domestic», «homely» vibe around them, one that you could shoot up or get along with depending on your preferences, Red Rose Speedway makes no cohesive artistic statement whatsoever. It is not particularly homely, not particularly surrealist, not too charmingly nonsensical, certainly not socially or politically relevant; it does not care much for the musical trends of the time, be it prog, glam, or proto-punk. Really, it's just a bunch of songs.

And yet again, as time goes by and we get more and more accustomed to once again perceiving albums as just bunches of songs, and the startling musical innovations of the last century start fusing together in one solid time-independent mass, Paul McCartney regains the winning hand. Take away historical context, stay with the music and music only, and Red Rose Speedway will emerge as just another excellent collection of very nice musical moments. As an LP, it is rather pointless; as an LP from 1973, it puts its creator way behind the lines of the great innovators and visionaries of that year — but there is not a single bad song on the album, albeit some moments may be more irritating than others.

Perhaps the very worst idea that Paul had implemented here was joining the last four songs together — an eleven-minute medley that would be inevitably compared to the conclusion of Abbey Road, and just as inevitably lose. The wonder of the Abbey Road medley was precisely in the fact that the used material consisted of semi-finished snippets, melodically and atmosphe­rically diverse, unpredictable, and occasionally challenging. Taken together, they were not telling any cohesive story or even making literal sense, but somehow still merged into their own uni­verse, where the routine could smoothly lead into the transcendental. None of that mystery or grand scope can be found in the ʽHold Me Tightʼ medley, which is really just four short and simple love songs melded together for no apparent reason other than tell us, "hey look! I'm still the guy who could do this sort of thing in 1969, remember?" Well, yes, except that, of course, back in 1969 you used to do that while still partnered with that other guy, remember?

The sad thing about it is that all four songs, on their own, are quite nice. The ska-ish ʽHold Me Tightʼ (no relation to the ʽHold Me Tightʼ that Paul wrote for With The Beatles — just how many song­writers, I wonder, actually write two different songs with the exact same name?) goes a bit overboard with the number of times that the title is repeated, but the main vocal hook is still immaculately constructed. ʽLazy Dynamiteʼ has a healthy soul vibe to it; ʽHands Of Loveʼ is a charming pop ditty whose soft, but fussy percussive pitter-patter is just irresistible; and ʽPower Cutʼ is actually one of those how-does-he-do-it magic moments where a single "baby I love you so" can gain extra depth just by being defiantly straightforward and simplistic (no, this can't happen to anyone, but at least in 1973 Paul still had a knack for these things).

Perhaps he thought that, since all four songs were so simple and melodically compatible (to the extent that, like on the Abbey Road medley, certain leitmotifs may crop up repeatedly — all the main themes are replayed in the ʽPower Cutʼ outro, for instance), they should go together; and outside of the comparative context, I see no problem with that. But no Beatle fan really lives outside of the context, and so, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it may have been better if he had spread the four jingles throughout the album (which would still allow for thematic repeti­tion). Are they «Beatle-quality» on their own, though? This is hard for me to say, yet not every simple love song that Paul did with the Beatles was perfect, anyway. But if you are a fan of ʽGood Day Sunshineʼ and ʽYour Mother Should Knowʼ, I see no reason to bypass these little offsprings of the light-as-a-feather Paul vibe.

None of these received any radio play, though: instead, the popular fate of Red Rose Speedway was determined by ʽMy Loveʼ, arguably the first Grand McCartney Ballad that tore opinions apart — some viewing it as yet another great achievement in his troubadour canon, others com­plaining that ʽMy Loveʼ had betrayed everything that the Grand McCartney Ballad used to stand for, and was not fit to lick the boots of ʽLet It Beʼ, ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ, and even ʽMaybe I'm Amazedʼ. I suppose that the sentimental string arrangement and the ultra-slow tempo of the song were the main irritants here, but should they have really detracted people from asses­sing its melodic strength? (Even when those people were consistently lambasting Phil Spector for adding his own sentimental strings to ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ, they rarely dared to put down the song itself). As far as I'm concerned, ʽMy Loveʼ is classic McCartney — a dynamic verse-chorus unity that rises, falls, rises again and comes down in loving and lovable peace, with a creative bridge to boot that also doubles as a coda. Throw in the magnificent guitar solo by Henry McCullough, who does his own romantic impression of Paul's vocal melody, and you have the best Burt Bacharach song that Burt Bacharach never wrote. The lyrics suck? My love does what good? Who really cares when he hits those falsetto notes on the final "does it good... too-whoo-whoo-whoo... me"?..

But okay, whatever; if you still think ʽMy Loveʼ is just a generic exercise in MOR balladry, I'd like you to repeat this in the face of ʽLittle Lamb Dragonflyʼ, my all-time favorite song from this album. Someday somebody is going to make a late-night McCartney compilation entitled Ah, Look At All The Lonely People, celebrating the man's several decades of exploring loneliness, compassion, and empathy for the outcasts in music, and when this is finally done, ʽLittle Lamb Dragonflyʼ is going to be one of the highlights, Beatle- or post-Beatle era. The song had many literal interpretations, even including one about an actual lost sheep on Paul's farm, but there is no need to overthink it in order to understand that this one goes out to all the separated people out there — particularly touching, I'd think, if you physically lost a loved one. Consisting of two separate parts (I always think that the real title should have been ʽLittle Lamb / Dragonflyʼ, with the slash somehow lost on the way to print), it starts and ends on an epic note: the guitar-strings duet in the opening, eventually joining forces with Paul's la-la-la vocalize, seems to be setting the stage for a medieval ballad in its first couple of bars, only to begin descending into morose, introspective depths in the next couple — a light, but serious lament for something or somebody that used to be important but is now fading out on the horizon. The slightly faster, livelier ʽDragonflyʼ section has its share of gorgeous chord changes, but the best thing about it is still how, at the end of things, we revisit and fade out our grand lament.

In between the «biggies» are scattered all sorts of goodies, diverse to the point that nobody is probably going to like all of them: even I, the album's biggest fan, will admit that the goofiness of the opening ʽBig Barn Bedʼ, for instance, is nowhere near the level of intensity for ʽMonkberry Moon Delightʼ — this is the second time in a row that Paul is trying to open the album up with a bit of «rowdiness», and this time (unlike ʽMumboʼ), it seems as if he were actually trying to say something, but in the end it still comes out as a counting-out rhyme ("weeping on a willow, sleeping on a pillow, leaping armadillo"), hopelessly stuck in transit on its way to becoming an arena-size pop-rocker: still formally catchy, but not funny enough and not crazy enough. On the other hand, speaking of crazy, I am a big fan of ʽLoup (1st Indian On The Moon)ʼ, which Gavin Edwards at RollingStone has very aptly described as feeling "like a man drowning in an ocean after midnight with only a bassline to save him" — with wolves howling on the shore, I should add, a remark that should bring us closer in contact with both the song's title (ʽLoupʼ) and the actual guitar and vocal howling patterns in the main section. Comparisons have been drawn to Pink Floyd here, which is probably not a coincidence, since Floyd were recording Dark Side Of The Moon pretty much next door to Paul at the time at Abbey Road Studios; of course, for Paul this was just a temporary diversion, but given the brutal strength of that bassline, it still makes me wonder how a real musical collaboration between the two might have turned out.

Other points of interest include the Ram outtake ʽGet On The Right Thingʼ (with a very Ram-like echo on the vocals and a very Ram-like hysterical conclusion); the simple, sweet, sad excourse into country-rock stylistics ʽOne More Kissʼ, whose chorus I will defend to the death (also, watch out for these sliding little lead guitar pings that either McCullough or Laine do at the end of each bar on the chorus right after the instrumental verse — bringing the song up to a whole new level of sadness); and ʽSingle Pigeonʼ — the demo-like little brother of ʽJunkʼ and ʽAnother Dayʼ, another short and brilliant musical observation about being down and out in love. Really, as I said, just about every song here does something; if anything suffers, it is only the cumulative effect, which basically amounts to «well, uncle Paul wrote us some more songs, DUH!».

If you throw in most of everything that did not make the final cut, the situation does not exactly become any better. The rocking material that the band produced was mediocre: ʽHi, Hi, Hiʼ became more famous for being banned because of assumed drug references and the infamous "get ready for my body gun" line than for its musical content, and ʽThe Messʼ, although I suppose somebody like The New York Dolls would have liked it, is an attempt at mimicking the hard rock bands of the day but, in the end, is really just... a mess. The Denny-sung ʽI Lie Aroundʼ is vaude­villian Brit-pop that seems highly influenced by the laid-back Ray Davies style of the time, and so should have benefited highly from a Ray Davies-type vocal rather than Denny's unsubtle croak. And ʽLive And Let Dieʼ, the Bond theme song, although also recorded at the same time, never made it onto the album — but perhaps its grandiose symphonic ambitions would seem too incom­patible with the general feel, were it ever considered for inclusion.

Paul himself seems to have ended up with the same negative associations for the album that Mick Jagger now holds for Between The Buttons: since the albums yielded few hits and were not originally held in high esteem, they should best be forgotten. The only song from here that Paul has ever performed live is ʽMy Loveʼ (because that one was a hit), even if I am one hundred percent sure that most fans would pay twice the regular price to ever see him do ʽLittle Lamb Dragonflyʼ in concert. But on the positive side, Red Rose Speedway did mark his full-fledged return to the recording studio as a newly-self-confident artist: it is the first solo McCartney (or Wings, whatever) album that never sounds underproduced (occasionally overproduced), and if it took him a few more months to find a more stable direction and a more clear niche in the musical world of the Seventies, well, I can understand. In the meantime, I'll just keep on insisting that this is, perhaps, not a very good LP, but a pretty damn good collection of pop songs anyway. They just got clustered together in an inexplicable feat of gravity-related accidents.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Marvin Gaye: What's Going On

WHAT'S GOING ON (1971)

1) What's Going On; 2) What's Happening Brother; 3) Flyin' High; 4) Save The Children; 5) God Is Love; 6) Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology); 7) Right On; 8) Wholy Holy; 9) Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).

General verdict: The "born again" / "coming out" record for Marvin, a triumph of soul over formula, groove over melody, spirit over shape, question over answer.


Of the two superheroes that managed to throw off Motown's shackles of formulaic oppression in the early Seventies and go on to become legends in their own rights — Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder — Stevie was, fairly inarguably, the musical genius. Marvin was never much of a player, had relatively limited interest in composing throughout the 1960s, and put just about everything he had in his singing. If you are looking for rich, innovative, pattern-rupturing melodies that took R&B to unprecedented (and still unsurpassed) heights, Stevie is your man. If you want Marvin to be your man, well... you have to be looking for something different.

This little preamble is necessary in order to understand why I have never been such an ardent fan of What's Going On as is usually prescribed by, uh, the «musical establishment». If you view this record outside of its historical context, and if you stay away from its lyrical content, it just doesn't really look that magnificent. Its sound is very typical of lush 1970s soul — gentle, soft grooves with soothing brass and luxurious strings, not very much unlike something you might encounter on even, say, a Barry White record. (Robert Christgau, in his original review, shot out a particularly vicious putdown of those strings, and, for once, I'd have to admit that he had his mind more or less in the right place). In all honesty, it does not even seem to me as if Marvin put that much thought and care into the preparation of the instrumental basis for this album: the sessions were fairly loose and spontaneous, with a lot of different people coming and going — something that is subtly reflected in the free-flowing atmosphere of the songs, but does not hint at a whole lot of compositional skill.

Then there is that other side of the story — or, rather, there is the story as such, which, in itself, is so awesome that many people probably fall in love with What's Going On before hearing the first note of this album. The story that tells about a spiritual and creative rebirth of a very much broken down man, depressed by his disintegrating family life, by feeling trapped within a suffo­cating and restrictive musical machine, and, on top of that, by having one of his best friends just die a horrible death at an unbelievably young age. How that broken down man, sick and tired of having to perform formulaic and insincere commercial tunes written for him by other people, found a new meaning in life by completely rejecting those conventions and coming up with a conceptual suite that actually addressed some real issues — war, racism, poverty, inequality, pollution, God, Love, you name it — at a time when hit-oriented factories like Motown still looked largely impermeable to such artistic tendencies. How, eventually, especially after that man's own tragic demise a decade later, the suite came to be regarded as one of the highest achievements in the history of popular African-American music, or even popular music as a whole, and has provided inspiration for several generations of musicians and music listeners.

It's a wonderful story, indeed, and one with which even Stevie Wonder would find a hard time to compete — not even Songs In The Key Of Life, his sprawling encyclopaedia of human emo­tions, can boast such an intense spiritual glow. But, like all such stories, it also begs the question: what really matters? The intention or the realisation? The context or the substance? Our biases and expectations, or our pure, unconditioned gut reaction? How are all these things linked? What's really going on, brother?

If you feel like there's a sacred cow slaughter coming up here, don't: What's Going On has enough spirit in it to withstand any criticism of its melodic content. If anything, Berry Gordy must have felt much like I did upon first hearing the title song and telling Marvin it was a bunch of nonsense — not because he was scared of its political content, but because he did not perceive any serious musical value. It was just a groove, really, with James Jamerson's bassline starting and ending its melodic potential, while Marvin's vocalizing never gelled into a proper hook, instead preferring to dissolve into little pools of falsetto scatting. Yet there was something there to cause its immediate popularity: not the message itself, but probably the soft, peaceful, and very intense feel of sincere pain behind the vocals. Far from being the first R&B protest song, ʽWhat's Going Onʼ still hit some nerve that many previous songs did not, and this can only be blamed on the unexplainable magic of the vocalist.

The fact that songs mostly segue into one another without any breaks, and the fact that mid-tempo syncopated R&B grooves are at the core of almost everything here makes most of What's Going On look like one steady flow of a vast musical river — interrupted and realigned only once, with the Latin-bluesy seven-minute chug of ʽRight Onʼ warily throwing in a different style that is just a tad bit more aggressive (accentuated by some very lively jazzy flute parts). Marvin himself sounds like he is being gently carried by the current, laying all his troubles on you like one huge confession — singing, usually, although he also likes to have fun here by experimenting with his vocals, overdubbing several different Marvins across the board, one time even having them parrot the same lyrics off each other, one set sung, one set recited (ʽSave The Childrenʼ). There is no other way in which the record would speak to me: even if it did yield several formally disjointed hit singles, I can only make peace with it if I take it as a single, prolonged musical oratorio, much more of a single-piece than, say, Jethro Tull's Thick As A Brick.

And, of course, it is precisely that move from a gifted hitmaker to the free spirit behind the musical oratorio that matters most here. What's Going On clicks best if you keep remembering that this is a musical awakening — even the lyrics, very naïve and simplistic on the whole, are those of a man-child who finally got around to shaking off the slumber and looking at this strange world we are living in with brand new eyes. The title of the album, after all, is a question, and the entire suite is an endless series of questions (and in art, as we all know, it usually pays off to ask questions rather than give answers): what's going on? what's happening brother? who's willing to try to save a world? where did all the blue skies go? who are they to judge us? It is not really required, after all, that a naïve musical awakening like that should be filled to the brim with intelligent and complex musical innovation. Just keep on rolling, and asking those questions in that sweet, innocent, amicable manner.

The way-too-overtly religious moments on the record (ʽGod Is Loveʼ, ʽWholy Holyʼ) have be­come the most dated — those intervals where Marvin slips from troubled questioning into zealous preaching feel cheap next to the burning issues — but it is a spiritual record made by an R&B performer, and that pretty much guarantees that some prayers are inevitable. They are short and few, though, and it is interesting that Marvin preferred to end the record not with one of them, but with ʽInner City Bluesʼ, easily the most scared-sounding tune on the album, where the vocals are delivered in little punctuated outbursts, fluttering and panicking: the inner child becoming more and more terrified with reality as questions remain unanswered and the blues begins to set in. Not a «depressing» or «apocalyptic» ending per se, but one that is supposed to leave you perturbed and agitated at the long journey's end.

In the end, I have a nagging suspicion that What's Going On remains one of those albums that everyone admires, but probably rarely listens to — a sort of Pet Sounds for the R&B genre, except that Pet Sounds, the coming-of-age masterpiece for Brian Wilson, actually features uniquely innovative musical textures, whereas for Marvin, the coming-of-age thing was played out in an entirely different dimension; and people do listen to Pet Sounds quite a bit for that reason, while What's Going On must find you in a very special state of mind — like, worrying about the world's problems, yet wanting to remain fairly mellow about it. Most importantly, though, you have to be sure that you appreciate What's Going On not because of some cheap politically correct reason (Important Milestone In Black Music History, etc.), but because of the real reason — because behind it there is a deeply hurting soul that finally, after years of re­pression, has earned the right to let some of that hurt out in public. Real soul, real hurt, real music; not particularly adventurous, but real soul and real hurt do not always have to be adventurous.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Chelsea Wolfe: Hiss Spun

CHELSEA WOLFE: HISS SPUN (2017)

1) Spun; 2) 16 Psyche; 3) Vex; 4) Strain; 5) The Culling; 6) Particle Flux; 7) Twin Fawn; 8) Offering; 9) Static Hum; 10) Welt; 11) Two Spirit; 12) Scrape.

General verdict: I'd take Babymetal over Chelseametal any time of day. At least it's a MUCH more fun challenge to come up with an existentialist interpretation of their music than it is for Chelsea's.


I guess it was bound to happen, sooner or later: Hiss Spun marks Chelsea's definitive conversion to heavy metal. It may be just a passing phase, of course, but looking back, it seems that all the roads were slowly leading to this point — and now we see Chelsea fortifying herself in the studio of Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou (who also makes an appearance on one of the tracks) and, in addition to her long-term musical partner Ben Chisholm, enlisting the services of Troy Van Leeuwen (Queens Of The Stone Age) and even inviting Aaron Turner of Isis to add growling vocals on one of the tracks. (It would be far more awesome if Chelsea learned to growl herself, though — the contrast with her siren-like falsetto could be mind-blowing!).

Does this help? Certainly not. Up until this point, it was still possible to sit on the fence about whether Chelsea Wolfe could be taken «seriously»; with this transition, her image is finally set in stone as that of an entertaining vaudeville performer, albeit still less entertaining than all those outlandish doom metal clowns — at this stage, I would much rather sit through, say, an Arch Enemy album (rage! terror! gore! giggles!) than through a set of songs on which an artificially somnambulant singer slowly makes her way across an interminable field of generic sludge metal riffs while trying to make you believe that she is "depleted by love", "ready to fall apart", and that she will "be hunting for you, buried under flowers".

The biggest problem is that this music does not properly work as a «horror show», either. Pure vaudeville has to be flashy, extravagant, buoyant, going all-out there. The guitar riffs of these songs, however, fail at this purpose, and so do the vocals, as Wolfe continues to be locked in her usual mood (Ophelian delirium) throughout the album — a mood that typically aspires to artistic seriousness rather than cheap thrills. And when you have a record that fails to deliver artistic seriousness and involuntarily lands face-first in a dish of cheap thrills instead, well, that is one of the worst things that could happen in art, as I'm sure your mother told you when you first tried to impress her with your poetry when you were eight years old. (That is, if you have / had a really mean, tough bitch of a mother).

I don't even want to write about any of the individual songs this time around. Listening to those endless tales of mental and physical abuse, alienation, rejection, sexual frustration, whatever, I feel like I am expected to want to reach out and give her a hug, but not a single one of these tracks goes deep enough into the soul to make me believe that she actually needs that hug (which I'd like to reserve for the likes of Beth Gibbons, or at least someone like Trish Keenan of Broad­cast — who was somehow much more capable of making you feel other people's pain without explicitly dwelling too much on it). As for the bombastic sludge that surrounds her vocals, well, I'd rather just listen to some proper Queens Of The Stone Age instead — they are not the best band in the world, but at least they are capable of kicking ass without any of that mock-Freudian bullshit. This here is a combination that does not even begin to work. Sorry.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool

RADIOHEAD: A MOON SHAPED POOL (2016)

1) Burn The Witch; 2) Daydreaming; 3) Decks Dark; 4) Desert Island Disk; 5) Full Stop; 6) Glass Eyes; 7) Identikit; 8) The Numbers; 9) Present Tense; 10) Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief; 11) True Love Waits; 12*) Ill Wind; 13*) Spectre.

General verdict: TWell, at least Radiohead with strings is an improvement over Radiohead with pings.


With this odd speeding up of time, I am not even sure that most of us realize just how old Radio­head were in 2016 — but it has actually been twenty-three years since the release of their first album, meaning that if they were The Beatles, Thom Yorke would already have been shot dead by some irate hater of King Of Limbs, and Jonny Greenwood would be producing Press To Play Another P. T. Anderson Soundtrack, with somebody like, say, Ed Sheeran playing guest guitar and co-produ­cing where possible. Fortunately, times have changed, and all these guys know better than to embarrass themselves that badly. However, one thing that has not changed, amazingly, is that much of the musical establishment is still looking up to them to provide direc­tions, set trends, blow minds, and remind us, the hoi polloi, of reasons why music matters. And not in the same way that Rolling Stone looks up to Bruce Springsteen or U2, either: if you are a man of good taste, you are probably supposed to sneer at Bruce and Bono, but Radiohead still remain a fearful icon, largely beyond reproach.

Truth be told, A Moon Shaped Pool was a comeback of sorts, but then again, it probably did not require that much of an effort to rebound from the limp lethargy of King Of Limbs — all that was needed was a conscious snap: «Let's rebound from the limp lethargy of King Of Limbs, OK?» The opening guitar and col legno string rhythms of ʽBurn The Witchʼ are precisely that kind of snap, marking the most exciting start to a Radiohead album since... okay, never mind. The album in general seems like a very deliberate course correction, and in many spots it aligns itself thematically with Kid A and even OK Computer rather than anything they did later — not co­incidentally, with quite a few of the songs going back to very old ideas, chief among them ʽTrue Love Waitsʼ that we have been hearing live almost for decades now (see I Might Be Wrong), but somehow it was not until 2016 that they agreed to have finally found the appropriate studio arrangement for it.

A prominent component of the sound here is the London Contemporary Orchestra, which is no doubt connected to all that extra experience that Greenwood has amassed while working on his soundtracks — a very welcome component, I'd add, because at this point Jonny is able to do much more thrilling things with strings than Thom is with electronics. It is the orchestra that makes ʽBurn The Witchʼ really memorable, and adds depth (and sometimes even hooks) to many other songs; although I still have a lurking suspicion that Nigel Godrich (who may have been distracted by the recent death of his father) had much less of a hand in the orchestration than Jonny did, which is a pity: Nigel's work with strings on Beck's Sea Change had some of the most inspired and magnificent ideas since Paul Buckmaster, and overall, A Moon Shaped Pool loses in comparison. Still, a fresh twist is always welcome.

Then again, ʽBurn The Witchʼ is the best song on the album, and even that one does not cut very deep. The subject matter is Radiohead's favorite topic (society's pressure on the individual, the works), but the entire song is essentially one concentrated pull, a tension-raiser, but not a tension-releaser. The menace and terror are subtly hinted at by the relentless string onslaught and by the ironically tender, sly "we know where you live", but I cannot do anything about it if it all sounds like a prelude to something potentially grander, more massive and terrifying... something that never comes. (Ah, weren't things different in the good old days of ʽParanoid Androidʼ?). The song still gets its due thumbs up for the cool sonic textures, yet it is also pretty emblematic of the entire album: A Moon Shaped Pool almost completely consists of musical foreplay that very rarely, if ever, grows into something more... umm... vital.

For instance, I will be the first to admit that on ʽDaydreamingʼ, they almost succeed in inventing a new type of sound — a sort of multi-layered anti-minimalism, where a solitary, minimalistic, sonically «warmed-up» piano line is attenuated by what sounds like miriads of sparkling, scintil­lating electronic ripples, in an odd way that I cannot directly associate with any of their predeces­sors. The contrasting string wailings at the end and the funny multi-tracking of real and string-imitated snoring are in themselves an exquisite coda to this sonic painting; and I would dare to assert that there is more pure invention going on in this track than on anything they did for King Of Limbs or even In Rainbows. But in terms of deep-reaching emotion, the effect is still tepid and fluffy — probably because that main piano melody... well, it sounds like something that even somebody like Harold Budd could have knocked off in his sleep (although, admittedly, Budd's music usually does sound like it was written while sleepwalking). Thom is just cooing along about dreamers who never learn and white rooms where the sun comes through, and then, of course, there is some symbolic message you are supposed to catch, but forgive me if I am too lazy to draw up the necessary mental links between "we are just happy to serve you" and the entire history of literary, musical, and philosophical thought in the past hundred years. I am just happy enough to realize that the song does not suck — which is still not enough to turn it into a neo-psychedelic masterpiece.

Rinse now, rinse and repeat for just about every other song in this moon-shaped pool. The sound, oh yes, the sound is good — now that they no longer think of themselves as electronic gods, the balance between regular rock instrumentation, electronics, and string arrangements is as perfect as it gets. But the band's ability to raise sonic hell has not returned, and even the most «rocking» songs still sound locked in a test tube — ʽFul Stopʼ is relatively fast and features a loud, suitably grumbly bassline, but its problem is the same as in ʽBurn The Witchʼ: the entire song is one non-stop monotonous ride towards the edge of a cliff, and once you've reached the edge, we fade to black and the credits start rolling in. Gimme some closure, goddammit!

I would be only too happy to see A Moon Shaped Pool start up a process of artistic healing; as far as I'm concerned, from 2001 and all the way up to 2011 Radiohead were sick, and this record is their first in a long, long time that offers glimpses of recovery — should we thank Paul Thomas Anderson for that? — by returning to more lyrical and emotionally accessible territory. However, much of the damage may have been irreparable: Greenwood has forgotten how to rock, Yorke has forgotten how to sing like a human being of flesh and blood, and the band in general has become way too obsessed with having to maintain their towering reputation — a slave to its towering reputation, really. At least we have to thank them for finally working out that arrange­ment for ʽTrue Love Waitsʼ — whose wobbling verse melody, with that wonderful swoon from complaint to consolation, is a nice reminder for us that there used to be a time when Thom Yorke knew how to write heart-wrenching vocal hooks.

If you have the deluxe-whatever edition, you also have a chance to hear ʽSpectreʼ, Radiohead's ill-fated attempt at delivering a Bond theme song — admittedly, asking Radiohead to write a Bond theme song is a bit like asking an ISIS leader to star in a condom commercial, but still, you gotta appreciate the effort. It is in the same style as the album, with ominous strings all over it, but it is much better suited to a world in which James Bond suffers from acute illness anxiety disorder, listens to Messiaen in between kills, and has all his one-liners quoted from Schopen­hauer (like "after your death you will be what you were before your birth!"). Come to think of it, that movie would still be tons more exciting than A Moon Shaped Pool.