Only Solitaire: G. Starostin's Record Reviews, Reloaded

 

C

 

Intro Notes

 

            Beyond this page the reader will find a bunch of superficial reviews of pop music re­cords, spanning the chronological distance of about a century's worth of recording and of the tastes and judgements of one individual. If there is a primary purpose to all this writing, it can be des­cribed as inescapable egotistic self-assertion over one's record collection, something that each and every individual with a record collection, a computer, and an ability to string together a few coherent lines of text is entitled to as long as «freedom of speech» has any meaning.

 

            Each review tends to consist of a small bundle of facts about the recording (for larger bun­dles of facts, please refer to specialized literature on the artist), a self-honest attempt to describe the music in accessible and meaningful terms, and a few subjective, but systematic, opi­nions on the overall value of the record. No «ratings» are given — rating the value of any re­cord on a numeric scale is fun, but not necessarily harmless fun — except for an overall «thumbs up» or «thumbs down» decision, triggered by considerations of direct, irrational likeability (the «heart» reaction) or by more rational ideas of «artistic importance», «relevance», and «innovation» (the «brain» reaction). A record may be liked, but not respected, or vice versa. However, it does not necessarily need to be both liked and respected to get the thumbs in an upward position.

 

            Reviews are separated in seven chronological categories — artists of the pre-Beatles era covering everything (mostly blues, R&B, and rockabilly) from the 1920s, then six more sections covering relatively distinct chronological periods. Within these, artists are slowly reviewed in al­phabetic order. At the current rate, I may never get beyond the letter C, but I do not really care. This is not science, and getting anywhere is not the main purpose.

 

            Potential readers are encouraged to browse through these texts, and, perhaps, even to fol­low certain recommendations (if they have not yet heard the record in question), provided they have at least a few points of intersection with the opinions offered below. If, on the other hand, it turns out that we come from different planets, there is no reason whatsoever for you, dear reader, to waste your time on what you will unquestionably label as «drivel». There may be other, better reviews waiting for you out there, or, perhaps, you would like to follow your own uninfluenced destiny in this mat­ter. By all means, then, I welcome you to do just that.

 

            Contra my past experience with the HTML version of Only Solitaire, I do not add any more reader comments to my reviews. However, I welcome additional or dissenting opinions on the forum, and I promise to correct any factual, grammatical, or stylistical mistakes and/or typos that you spot (fairly easy to do when it is all in a single file).

 

            Last note: for fun and additional entertainment value, some of the songs in the track list preceding the review are hyperlinked to Youtube videos — but only in cases where there really is an accompanying video clip or live performance that I think is worth one's love (or hate), not when it's just an audio track over a bunch of boring photos. Enjoy — or don't enjoy.


The «Two Cents» Page.

For those who have no need of lengthy reviews, here's just one or two quick thoughts and summaries on all the artists I have covered. Do not forget, though, that even Britney Spears cannot be fully described in two sentences, so these should by no means be taken for final and definitive judgements. Build or burn at your own risk.

 

Note: ☺ Smileys indicate artists well worth getting acquainted with; ○ blank circles are for okay ones who may have reasons to own fan bases but do not rise beyond "decent"; ☻ anti-smileys are just what they are — artists who are only here because of public notoriety and (perhaps) limited historical significance, but they can also be great fodder to make fun of. I'm sure they don't mind — they're supposed to be cool, understanding people in any case.

 

1920-1960

 

Carl Perkins: The man behind ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ and ʽHoney Don'tʼ needs little introduc­tion... or does he? Although he is always listed in every list of great early rockers, he'd also al­ways kept a low profile, and his lack of «flash» has always made him lurk somewhere in the background, way behind the huge shoulders of Elvis. But this also makes him a personal favorite for those music lovers who despise «flash», and prefer quiet, subtle charisma instead. Anyway, no collection is complete without a set of great Carl Perkins guitar licks — the man was perhaps the perfect epitome of «rock'n'roll as country-western's naughty kid» — and there might even be a reason to look into Carl's career beyond the obligatory mid-1950s hits: yes, it's been spotty, but not without its hidden charms, such as, e. g., On Top from 1969, where he actually tried to mo­dernize his style with surprisingly fun results.

 

Charley Patton: A figure of almost as legendary status as Robert Johnson, but a little less familiar to the general public because, unlike Johnson, Patton has not been nearly as influential on the American and British electric blues and blues-rock scene — at least, not as immediately influential, what with his more archaic and «wild» style of Delta blues guitar playing, and his deep growling vocals being harder to authentically imitate and all. Additionally, most of his recordings suffer from really terrible sound quality. But don't let that stop you from listening: few pre-war artists have the kind of power to really transport you into the depths of the Delta that Patton has. There's just something about that voice... anyway, before I slip into any politically incorrect clichés, just remember that nobody's blues collection is ever complete without the com­plete (quite minuscule, actually, compared to gazillions of identical recordings by much lesser artists from the same period) output of Charley Patton on the shelf.

 

1960-1965

 

Carla Thomas: Jury still out.

 

Cher: The consummate «give-the-people-what-they-want» entertainer, Cher has always been quite a colorful and intriguing personage even outside of the «Sonny and Cher» combo, from the moment she first established her femme-fatale solo presence in 1965 and all the way into the 21st century, where she remains as a gay rights icon, an obligatory ingredient of the «cockroaches and...» folklore, and a loyal supplier of whatever form of crappy mass-marketed pop music is the most en vogue at the present moment. The thing that really makes it fun to explore her career, though, are her serious artistic inclinations that flash through the veil of pop glitz every once in a while — no matter how corny her public image may look at any given time, she is neither dumb nor untalented, and her legacy contains enough material to fill at least a solid 2-CD compilation that would proudly hold its own next to the best mainstream pop songwriters of the Sixties, Se­venties and... well, not the Eighties, but you get my drift. Unfortunately, it was always more im­portant for Cher to be a «celebrity» and a «fashion icon» first, and a serious artist second — so that whenever the second entered into conflict with the first, she knew which aspect to sacrifice without a moment's hesitation. This is why her career is such an odd see-saw of commercial and critical flops and successes — and the relation between her hit records and artistic peaks is far from straightforward. Ever since her re-emergence in the Eighties as the big-haired fishnet queen of generic glam-pop and her conversion to equally generic techno-pop in the Nineties, embarrass­ments have ousted out successes at a ratio of 99:1, but it didn't always used to be like that, and the most disrespectful thing one can do to Cher is forever remember her for ʽBelieveʼ and ʽIf I Could Hold Back Timeʼ. Possible starting point: 3614 Jackson Highway (1969) is often singled out as a particularly decent record, with a strong rocking / funky sound to it, so this is probably the one that a beginner should first go for in order to form a positive impression; proceed from there with caution in both sides of the chronostream, bracing yourself for widely varying proportions of wheat and chaff.

 

1965-1970

 

Cactus: This band, formed out of the ashes of Vanilla Fudge and masterminded by the titanic rhythm section of Tim Bogart and Carmine Appice, is pretty much the spiritual predecessor of KISS — except that in their utmost reverence for the second S («stupid») they were known to slightly neglect the first S («simple»), and their brand of sludgy, cumbersome heavy rock can very easily get boring, which, in turn, leads to all their stupidity becoming irritating rather than a guilty pleasure. With no decent songwriting, no serious clues about how to overcome the limita­tions of 12-bar blues genericity, and a lead vocalist forever locked in the solitary state of «drunk and bawling», most of their studio records consist of one or two fun tracks (usually when they introduce speed into the formula) and heaps of forgettable throwaways. They were quite a kick-ass live band, though, adding lots of extra cheap thrills and musical kerosene when facing a de­manding audience. Possible starting point: Fully Unleashed: The Live Gigs (2004) is seriously the only Cactus album worth hearing or owning — it has all their best songs on it, performed with extra energy, and if pure, undiluted brawn is what you're after, then their only competitor from the early Seventies is Slade.

 

Cake, The: A short lived girl group from the Summer of Love era, they only lasted for a couple of years that took them all the way from New York to California, but left behind a rather curious legacy — a mix of Motown, Atlantic, psychedelic, and baroque pop elements that ranged from generically obsolete (for 1967) to bizarrely innovative and, occasionally, quite emotionally haunting. With more-than-decent production values, excellent singing voices, and serious song­writing talent (most of their best material was self-penned rather than covered), there is absolutely no telling where this could have ended, had they stuck together — unfortunately, lack of promo­tion and image problems (it is unlikely that they were superficially perceived as anything other than a curious relic from an already bygone era) crashed the band almost as soon as it took off. Possible starting point: A Slice Of Cake (1968), their second album, fully concentrates on ori­ginal songwriting and is therefore preferable to the self-titled debut. However, that hardly matters, since both are short enough to fit on one CD, and this is exactly how you are most expected to encounter them (a 2007 compilation under the title of More Of Cake Please).

 

Can: Along with Kraftwerk, Can are probably the most recognizable name on the «Krautrock» scene of the 1970s — and, unlike Kraftwerk, Can may actually be qualified as «rock» without reservations. Both bands started out as alumni of the experimental music scene (Stockhausen, etc.), but where Kraftwerk expanded from this into the music of the future (electronica), Can preferred to merge avantgardism with more «earthly» directions — blues-rock, R&B, and funk, making themselves more easily accessible for fans of guitar-based psychedelic jamming. Few bands in the 1970s could excel in groove-based (rather than free-form) jamming better than Can, but the best thing about the band is that it practiced the «quality check» principle — spontaneity and flight of imagination was valued above everything else, but only the truly inspired bits made it onto the mastertapes, with Holger Czukay splitting and splicing the material in post-production with the utmost craftsmanship. The band's unique approach to «carefully ordered improvisation» and, of course, their unmatched technical skills (all four core members were killer musicians) made them into true giants of the underground music scene — too far out there to achieve big commercial success even at the height of the popularity of progressive rock in the early 1970s, but an undying legend all the same, whose influence is pretty much unmeasurable and whose critical reputation only continues to grow decades after the end. Possible starting point: If you are afraid of too much sonic pressure at once, Soundtracks (1970) is the perfect introduction to the classic Can sound — you get to know both of their early vocalists with each one's individual style of crazy, and you get short catchy «odd-pop» songs and lengthy mind-blowing jams organically integrated with each other. But if you are not afraid of anything, stick to the general critical recom­mendation of Tago Mago (1971), which is like this band's equivalent of the Missa Solem­nis — a multi-part ritual for communication with... the other side.

 

Canned Heat: Self-proclaimed «kings of the boogie», these guys symbolized three things in the late Sixties: (a) the cosmic triumph of John Lee Hooker-type music, when gritty one-chord blues vamps are enhanced with rock'n'roll headbanging; (b) the absoluteness of the ideals of brotherly/motherly peace, love, and understanding; (c) the easiness of slipping from pot to hard drugs, which eventually caused the death of several of the band's key members. With some real talent to burn and a couple of really enjoyable albums behind their belt, they, however, were unable to overcome their B-level status, and after the death of their one most talented member, Alan Wilson, in 1970, began a long and painful process of degeneration, only to re-emerge twenty years later as a get-their-shit-together, competent, but still not very bright retro-blues-rock outfit that simply refuses to go away, no matter what they're offered. Watch Woodstock — their filmed appearance there captures just about everything there is about this band, all three aspects (well, the hard drug thing is only hinted at, but you can sort of see it coming), and if it intrigues you, proceed from there. Possible starting point: Boogie With Canned Heat (1968) probably captures them at their absolute best; the rest of the catalog should rather be compressed into a representative compilation.

 

Captain Beefheart: Jury still out.

 

1970-1976

 

Camel: Maybe the quintessential «second generation progressive rock» band in all of Britain, Camel pretty much epitomized the genre's evolution around 1973-76: intelligent, inobtrusive, relatively unpretentious, rather quiet and reserved music, equally steeped in blues, folk, and jazz (but not a lot of true symphonic influence). Andy Latimer, the band's heart and soul (although in those early years, keyboardist Pete Bardens played almost as big a role), is a cool blues guitarist with some real juicy tones at his disposal (somewhat derivative of David Gilmour, but much more than just a copycat) and songwriting talent to burn; most of it, unfortunately, had been burnt in less than a decade (1973-1981), after which the band was largely reduced to Latimer solo and turned into a tasteful, but boring New-Age-adult-contemporary-synth-prog. (The last two albums were a pretty decent comeback, though). Anyway, Camel are perfect when you're in that quiet brooding mood — solitary late evenings with the rest of the world completely shut out is a perfect setting for Latimer and company to transport you to an ideal fantasy world of noble loners, un­fortunate idealists and that one perfect romance that never comes to be. Possible starting point: The Snow Goose (1975) is typically considered the band's early, completely instrumental, con­ceptual masterpiece, but I've always been slightly more partial to Nude (1981).

 

Candi Staton: Jury still out.

 

Captain Beyond: A «quasi-super-group», formed in the early 1970s by outcasts from and remnants of various B-level psychedelic conglomerations from the end of the previous decade (Mark I Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, Johnny Winter's original band, etc.), these guys did not last very long, but still managed to secure themselves a few square inches of burial ground in the pantheon. Theirs was a pretty decent merger of contemporary heavy rock with contemporary progressive influences, all the while retaining the old idealistic hippie spirit, and everything about it was decent — modestly strong songwriting, good musicianship, and a lead singer (Rod Evans) who could sound passionate and serious without succumbing to the inflated pomp that often goes hand in hand with such seriousness. Unfortunately, they arrived on the scene a little too late to capture a special niche for themselves, and their noble, but suicidal refusal to go in the direction of commercial pop pretty much sealed their fate in a few years. Possible starting point: Captain Beyond (1972) is the obvious place to go first — the second album would not rock so hard, and the third «reunion» album from 1977 suffers from the replacement of Evans by a much more pompously awful singer, although it still has a few nice moments.

 

Carole King: You shouldn't even begin to try searching for unexpected psychological depths in Carole King's output — she has always been America's #1 "Keep It Simple, Sentimental" female songwriter, and unpretentiously proud of it. Carole's main asset, apart from, of course, the undeniable melodic gift, is her disarming charisma — few performers succeed in creating such a warm, soothing, trustworthy, believable atmosphere just by cozying down at the piano and singing simple words that do not even pretend to ascend the lower rungs of «rock poetry». Unfor­tunately, this asset, while extremely helpful at the start of her solo career, eventually turned into a seemingly self-sufficient quality, as King's gift for inventive and catchy melodicity waned over the years and her soft-rock arrangements steadily declined into generic pablum; eventually, she just morphed into that «nice lady around the corner» whose happy smile and conventional life advice every day you treat with the same attention as a piece of furniture. But if you want the ultimate in happy smiles and life advices, nothing still beats those few years in the early 1970s when her pop instincts were still intact, and fertilized the soft-rock singer-songwriting agenda like nothing else could — James Taylor may have been a good friend and all, but he was all in black and white next to Carole's rainbow of colors. Possible starting point: Needless to insist that one should start anywhere else other than the classic Tapestry (1971), but there are some fairly strong records on both chronological sides of it. The important thing is to stop after 1982, since all Carole King albums after that suffer from horrible arrangements and production, and the songwriting is grandmotherly mediocre at best.

 

1976-1989

 

Cabaret Voltaire: Led by grim Sheffield kids Stephan Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk, these guys began as radical avantgarde experimentators, busily constructing one corner of the industrial scene next to Throbbing Gristle; then, placing themselves somewhere at the meeting point be­tween «radical avantgarde» and «intelligent mainstream», they unleashed a never-ending series of albums that wove industrial, electronic, and minimalist threads into rhythmic patterns, so that young people all over the planet could happily dance their way to the end of the world. The music sometimes compromised with pop values, but never embraced them properly, the same way that dozens of other New Wave-era groups could stake their claim to fame and fortune — on the other hand, the «danceability» of the music could also alienate «serious» crowds, so the Cabaret Vol­taire fanbase was always limited. Over two decades of work, they gradually made the transition from a more guitar-based, dreary, cavernous sound to fully electronic textures in the realms of house and techno music, sometimes sounding one step ahead of their competition and sometimes one step behind, but almost never embarrassing themselves (except for some missteps in the late Eighties when the music became «too happy» for its own good). Nevertheless, this is definitely one band I'd rather prefer to quietly «respect» than actively «enjoy». Possible starting point: This one is a real stumper — they have so many albums out of the same comparable quality. The first of those that made more than just an average impression on me was 2x45 (1982), so this is the one I'd probably go along with, but it's so much a matter of taste (if not random luck) that... well, pretty much anything up to Micro-Phonies (1984) represents the «classic» period, and pretty much any of their 1990s albums is in the IDM camp, if you really need guidelines.

 

Camper Van Beethoven: Jury still out.

 

Carcass: The Foul Four of Liverpool, these guys took extreme metal to new heights when, inspired by the success of Napalm Death, they invented a new variety of grindcore — the morgue variety, painting verbal and visual portraits of utter grossness to go along with the brutal mini­malistic riffage, insane tempos, laconic running length, and growling vocals. Although many others followed in their footsteps, trying with verve to upstage their progenitors (and at the same time cloning them so much that many of them even began with the same letter, like Cadaver or Cannibal Corpse), Carcass still managed to remain ahead of the pack — largely because they would significantly shift their image from album to album, until, by the mid-Nineties, they'd almost come close to turning into a «classic rock» band, at which point they thought it wise to stop and just disbanded, leaving behind a relatively small legacy that is worth exploring from top to bottom, unless you happen to be pathologically afraid of words like putrefaction and utero­gestation. Possible starting point: This depends on how well you are pre-adapted to this kind of music — Heartwork (1993) is more sparing in terms of melodicity, and does not revolve entirely around cadaverous matters, but for the strong-hearted, the band's debut Reek Of Putrefaction (1988) should be the obvious point of entry, since they would never be more extreme than on this arch-dirty collection of 22 brief bursts of insane macabre energy.

 

Cars, The: Probably the best example of the missing link between «classic» and «modern» pop/rock, at their best these Bostonian guys were more than just a talented pop band with a knack for vocal and instrumental hooks — there's an air of melancholy and world-weariness that permeates most of their career and makes even the most upbeat of their songs soak in a happy/sad, psychological­ly non-trivial atmosphere. If anything, their main problem was that the first album came out too perfect to allow them to continue a steady journey upwards: pretty much their entire agenda was uncovered in about thirty minutes, and no matter how hard they tried (either by dar­kening the atmosphere on Panorama, or going synth-pop almost all the way on Heartbeat City), they never really evolved beyond the respectably tasteful, but small niche that they carved out for themselves from the very beginning. Possible starting point: The Cars (1978) unarguably re­mains their highest point — it's like a greatest hits package all by itself —the rest of the band's catalog deserves further study depending on how much you like the first album.

 

Cheap Trick: Jury still out.

 

1989-1998

 

Cardiacs: One of the craziest, if not the craziest band to appear on British soil in the 1980s — and that is not necessarily a compliment. Specially to describe Tim Smith's music, the critical establishment had to come up with the term «pronk» — «progressive punk» — and the same establishment used to actively put it down for committing atrocious sacrileges against the classic sacred values of punk. In reality, Cardiacs were «mashers»: they would take just about anything urbanistic (pop, blues rock, punk, ska, symphonic rock, etc.), chop it up, mix the ingredients in the most unusual combinations and release the results as convoluted artistic statements that seem like perfect illustrations for the statement «art is what you make of it». In their defense, they truly sound like nobody else (particularly in the Eighties), and the sheer complexity and unpredicta­bility of Smith's approach to the pop music formula can sometimes baffle the mind more than it may be baffled by the likes of Zappa or Beefheart. But personally, I find it very difficult to «men­tally visualize» 9 out of 10 of their ideas, or to make them come alive with meaning — admire and respect the form, yes, but failing to perceive (not to mention describe) the substance behind their tonal labyrinths. That said, I would agree that no Big Picture is complete without hearing and trying to digest at least one Cardiacs album; and they do get far more belated recognition these days than they did in their prime, so it's not just some obscure act from out of nowhere that you'd be producing to boost your indie credo. Possible starting point: A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window (1988) arguably has the deepest and catchiest songs of their career (as well as the closest they ever came to a bona fide commercial pop hit), but on the whole, the band had remained highly consistent over two decades, and aside from the earliest cassette tape-only recordings that suffer from hideous sound quality (but still contain some of their best written material), it really makes no difference where to start. Actually, an even better choice might be Cardiacs Live (1988) from that same year — somehow, all those crazy songs end up sounding much better with doubled energy onstage, not to mention that it also works as a «best-of» package.

 

Cardigans: This Swedish band seems to be pursued by the post-ABBA curse: people are too wary around their brand of soft pop, centered around two male songwriters and (in this case) one female singer, even if the melodic skills of The Cardigans are quite favorably comparable not only to the ABBA songwriters, but to any non-Swedish pop band of the 1990s. With their early records, they pretty much invented a special subgenre, a sweet mix of lounge jazz and folk-pop, seasoned with intelligent and slightly surrealistic melancholia of Nina Persson's vocal delivery — and then they ended up doing Black Sabbath covers in that style! If that alone does not stimulate your curiosity, then how about there being three distinct stages to the Cardigans — the sweet early one (probably the best), the «commercial» dance-oriented middle one, and the «mature», more conventional-adult-pop-tinged one that still has its benefits? At the very least, in retrospect they honestly deserve to be better known and remembered than, say, Oasis. Possible starting point: Emmerdale (1994), their debut, already exposes all of their best sides — raise up some love for this one before moving on to the rest of the catalog.

 

Cat Power: This Georgian renegade with a flair for the mystical and the melancholic has plenty of admirers among the indie crowds, but I am not really one of them: for Chan Marshall, atmosphere always takes precedence over innovative or unusual melodies, and that atmosphere is almost always the same, suggesting some superhuman spiritual experience that most of us mere mortals will always be too coarse and shallow to understand. When she is in the mood, she can be a very talented songwriter and arranger, but that happens far too rarely for my taste; and her favorite hobby, that of taking other people's songs and turning them into completely interchan­geable Cat Power broodings that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the original, while enter­taining at first, pretty soon gets stale and even irritating. That said, as far as modernistic singer-songwriter patterns are concerned, she is certainly far from the worst out there, and at least she does vary her musical styles — from grunge to folk to country to electronica, she's done it all, refusing to be pigeonholed with any other pigeon than the Cat Power breed. Possible starting point: You Are Free (2003) is probably the one record where she experiments the most with melody, and, overall, the most accessible introduction to her world, although critics tend to prefer Moon Pix (1998).

 

Catherine Wheel: One of the innumerable bands to become popular in the wake of the grunge, alt-rock, and post-My Bloody Valentine explosion, these British fellows (with Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson's cousin Rob at the wheel) began as a pretty respectable provider of psychedelic guitar fireworks and mopey romanticism, molding their shoegaze techniques into something a little more reminiscent of traditional pop structures, but still loyally placing otherworldly texture above pop hooks. Unfortunately, Rob Dickinson rather quickly fell in love with himself as a post-Freudian interpreter of the human spirit, and this led to a steady decrease of interesting elements in the band's music and a steady increase in its ego, until everybody just got bored with them and they did not survive the transition from the Nineties into the Noughties. Possible starting point: Ferment (1992) may not be their catchiest set of tunes, but still probably remains their most musically inspired, so this is one more case where you're probably better off starting at the very beginning and stopping as soon as you feel like it.

 

1998-2016

 

Camera Obscura: In limited dosage, this band (actually, more of a vehicle for the talents and personal charm of bandleader Tracyanne Campbell) is a kicker — delightful twee-pop and cham­ber-pop that comes across as a lighter, whiffier, a little less morose (though still pretty icy) ver­sion of Belle & Sebastian (no big surprise, since Camera Obscura also come from Glasgow and owe much of their popularity to Stuart Murdoch taking them under their wing). There is one problem, though: neither Tracyanne nor anyone else in the band have a good understanding of what it is that separates a «nice moody tune» from an «unforgettable classic». When they acci­dentally stumble upon a great hook (ʽLloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbrokenʼ or ʽFrench Navyʼ are prime examples), for that one brief moment they become the greatest pop band of the 21st century. Then it's back to pleasant boredom for the rest of the album. Life can be so unjust, but then, maybe God just didn't have it in his masterplan to let Glasgow take over the world in the 21st century. They're not ready. Yet. Possible starting point: No idea. This is one band that really doesn't need the LP as their medium of choice. Just find those songs I mentioned and start from there (although, most likely, you won't find any better ones anyway).

 

Carbon Based Lifeforms: A couple of Swedes (Johannes Hedberg and Daniel Segerstad)  who specialize in, arguably, a kind of electronic music that would be most pleasing to the ears of «old school» fans who'd rather have Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Vangelis, and Eno over more modern reinventions of the electronic paradigm. Described by the somewhat vague and misleading term «psy-bient», their music does indeed heavily lean into the direction of ambient soundscapes, but it is typically more complex and sonically deep than most ambient, and it can stimulate rather than relax the imagination as well. As well befits their name, the duo constantly strives for realism, pain­ting musical equivalents of the living universe rather than completely imaginary worlds or geo­metric abstractions, and although they do not always succeed (and some­times give in to more conventional ways of music-making, as when they add superflous dance­able grooves to their compositions), on the whole they produce the impression of one of the more pensive and serious electronic acts of the 21st century. Possible starting point: They hit their stride with Hydroponic Garden (2003) and have not really produced a bad record ever since, although the more recent ones are kind of running out of fresh ideas.

 

Caribou: A pseudonym for Canadian maverick Dan Snaith (who used to go by the name of Manitoba first, before another Manitoba — lead singer of The Dictators — threatened him with a silly lawsuit). The guy is really talented, with his music largely being a mix of electronica, jazz-pop, and sunny psychedelia; on his best albums, he does a great job combining the spirit of idealistic Sixties' art-pop à la Brian Wilson and Rod Argent with modern digital technologies, although the vibe can sometimes get a tad monotonous — typically of most modern artists, he is more interested in zooming in on one particular area and micro-managing it to exhaustion. That said, when he does try to branch out, the results may be underwhelming: after an initial «jazzy» period and what may have been his «golden years» of merging electronica with art-pop, recently he has gone too far in the direction of generic IDM, losing much of the original appeal in the process. Still, he's definitely not a phony or anything, and it's pretty safe to try him out regardless of whether you're hunting for Sixties nostalgia or live entirely in the 21st century. Possible starting point: Andorra (2007) is my obvious favorite, but it is also the most retro-oriented of his albums, with acoustic instrumentation taking precedence over the electronics and vocal melodies taken almost directly from the Love / Zombies / Beach Boys textbook, so if you want something a little more futuristic, The Milk Of Human Kindness (2005) might be a better place to start.

 

 


Part 1. Before The Rock'n'Roll Band Era (1920-1960)

 

CARL PERKINS


DANCE ALBUM OF CARL PERKINS (1958)

 

1) Blue Suede Shoes; 2) Movie Magg; 3) Sure To Fall; 4) Gone, Gone, Gone; 5) Honey Don't; 6) Only You; 7) Ten­nessee; 8) Right String, Wrong Yo-Yo; 9) Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby; 10) Matchbox; 11) Your True Love; 12) Boppin' The Blues; 13*) All Mama's Children.

 

Carl Perkins' only «original» LP from his four-year tenure with Sun Records, like most LPs from that period, is really just a chaotic compilation of A-side, B-side, and outtake material. But even in this form, or, actually, because of this form, it still counts as one of the most impressive and fun-filled LPs from the rockabilly era. Influential, too — which other single LP from the era could boast a whole three songs to be officially covered by the Beatles?

 

The important thing about Carl Perkins is that, of all the notorious rockabilly people of the era, he was the one to most tightly preserve the «simple country boy» essence in his music. Bill Haley probably came close, but Haley didn't have much of an individual personality, and his backing band, The Comets, was at least as important as its frontman, blending a touch of country-western with a Louis Jordan-esque big-band jump-blues entertainment approach. Perkins, on the other hand, wrote his own songs (or radically reinvented traditional ones), sang his own melodies, played his own lead guitar, and, overall, made it so that we rarely ever remember anything about his sidemen during the recording sessions. Quick, name the bass player and the drummer on ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ without googling! Yeah, right. Not even Google can help that easily.

 

Thus, Carl is essentially a «loner», and in that status, gets the right to his own influences and no other's — and chief among those influences is The Grand Ole Opry, with Bill Monroe, Gene Autry, and Hank Williams as his major idols. The good news for those who, like me, feel a bit iffy when it comes to «pure» country music, is that Carl obviously preferred his country with a sharper edge, and if anything, his rockabilly style is a direct continuation of Hank's faster-paced, boogie-based material like ʽMove It On Overʼ. Although Carl's own spirit was never as tempes­tuous or torturous as Hank's (not a single Perkins song shows any signs of acute bitterness), he always had a thing for raw excitement, energy, speed, humor, good-natured irony — anything that would put a smile on your face and an itch in your feet.

 

Most importantly, Carl's «lonerism» is responsible for making ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ into one of the coolest songs of its era — and the lyrics had a lot to do with it: "Don't you step on MY blue suede shoes...", sung in a friendly enough tone but with a very clear hint of a threat. This is really where all the Gene Vincents of this world come from: the «rebels» were inspired by the individualistic cockiness of a plain, harmless, friendly «country bumpkin» who inadvertently tapped right into the spinal cord of his era. ʽRock Around The Clockʼ was a good enough count-off for the rock revolution, but it was a general fun party song. ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ takes us into one particular corner of that party, where one particularly self-consciously hip guy is busy protecting his own particular interests against the whole world, and backing them with sharp bluesy lead guitar licks that sound like a bunch of slaps in the face of whoever has been unlucky enough to step on the protagonist's lucky footwear.

 

There is a myth going around that Elvis «stole» the song from Carl while the latter was recupera­ting in the hospital after a car accident, and that this effectively put an end to Carl's career as a pop star. In reality, Carl never had the makings of a star, and the image of a «teen idol» would have probably never sat too well with him in the first place — he was, first and foremost, a song­writer and a guitar player — none of which, however, prevented ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ from going all the way to the top of the charts, while Presley's version (a classic in its own right, no doubt about that) stuck at No. 20 (admittedly, RCA people agreed to hold back the release until Carl's version lost its original freshness — see, there was a time when record industry people could occasionally show signs of gentlemanly conduct).

 

Already ʽBoppin' The Bluesʼ, the folow-up to ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ, did not chart as high (No. 7 was its peak) — and it wasn't Elvis that had anything to do with it, but rather the fact that the song was comparatively toothless in comparison, a fairly formulaic rockabilly creation describing the simple joys of rock'n'roll dancing with little challenge or defiance. In the hot, tense competi­tive air of early 1956, Carl soon lost the lead, and although the next three years would see him reeling between inspiration and repetition, the record-buying public pretty much wrote him off as a one-hit wonder and focused on Elvis instead. In addition, Carl loyally stuck with Sun Records through those years, meaning that he couldn't even begin to hope for the kind of promotion that Elvis got (on the positive side, Carl never got to have his own Colonel Parker).

 

It is a doggone shame, though, that such fate also prevented a great tune like ʽMatchboxʼ from charting — without the Beatles' support, it might have altogether sunk into oblivion, but really, few pop songs sounded as harshly serious and deep-reaching in 1957 as that particular reincarna­tion of an old, old, old blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson. When those echoing, distant-thun­der-like boogie chords start rattling around the room, it's as if you were being prepared for some important social statement, and, in a way, you are, since Carl preserves many of the original ly­rics, infusing the song with a blues-based sense of outcast loneliness instead of the usual get-up-and-dance stuff. In a way, «socially conscious rock'n'roll music» starts somewhere around this bend, even if Carl himself probably never intended it to be this way.

 

On a personal note, I must say that ʽHoney Don'tʼ feels to me as one of the very few rock and pop songs by other artists that the Beatles did not manage to improve upon — and not because Ringo is a worse singer than Carl (he actually did a fine job to preserve the tune's humor), but because George Harrison never really got around to learning all the tricks in Carl's playing bag: as rough as the production is on the original, Perkins compensates for it with a series of improvised «muffled» licks that George did not even try to copy, playing in a «cleaner» style that left less room for rock'n'roll excitement. (On the other hand, George did get the upper hand on ʽEvery­body's Trying To Be My Babyʼ by managing to raise the tension on the lengthy second instru­mental break, whereas in Carl's version it pretty much stays the same throughout).

 

Of the twelve songs assembled here, only a couple are relative clunkers; ʽTennesseeʼ, in particu­lar, sounds as silly as it is sincere, a heartfelt tribute to Carl's native state with a hillbillyish cho­rus and somewhat uncomfortable lyrics that, among other things, urge us to give credit to the fact that "they made the first atomic tomb in Tennessee" (a somewhat inaccurate reference to Oak Ridge, but even if it were accurate, I'm not sure I would want to boast about it even at the height of the Cold War). Pompous, vocally demanding ballads are also not one of Carl's fortes (ʽOnly Youʼ), but he can come up with a highly catchy homely, simple country ballad when he puts his heart into it — ʽSure To Fallʼ, with its melody almost completely based on serenading trills, is quite a beautiful little piece.

 

One of the most interesting things about comparing old rockabilly records from the mid-to-late 1950s is the relative proportion of their ingredients. Some veer closer to R&B, some to electric blues, some to «whitebread» pop, some are jazzier, some vaudevillian. From that point of view, Dance Album Of Carl Perkins is a curious mix of something very highly conservative with an explosive energy that is nevertheless kept under strict control, like a fire burning steady and brightly, but only within a rigidly set limit. Had all rock'n'roll looked like Carl Perkins in the 1950s, it would probably have taken us a much, much longer way to get where we are right now — but, on the other hand, maybe we wouldn't already be wondering where exactly is it possible to go from here. Ah well, enough speculation; here is the expectable thumbs up, and we will be moving on.

 

THE ESSENTIAL SUN COLLECTION (1999; 1955-1958)

 

CD I: 1) Movie Magg; 2) Turn Around; 3) Let The Jukebox Keep On Playing; 4) Gone, Gone, Gone; 5) Blue Suede Shoes; 6) Honey Don't; 7) Sure To Fall; 8) Tennessee; 9) Boppin' The Blues; 10) All Mama's Children; 11) Dixie Fried; 12) I'm Sorry I'm Not Sorry; 13) Your True Love; 14) Matchbox; 15) That's Right; 16) Forever Yours; 17) Glad All Over; 18) Lend Me Your Comb.

CD II: 1) Honky Tonk Gal; 2) Perkins Wiggle; 3) You Can't Make Love To Somebody; 4) That Don't Move Me; 5) Lonely Street; 6) Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby; 7) Somebody Tell Me; 8) Sweethearts Or Strangers; 9) Kee­per Of The Key; 10) Be Honest With Me; 11) Caldonia; 12) Her Love Rubbed Off; 13) You Can Do No Wrong; 14) Put Your Cat Clothes On; 15) Roll Over Beethoven; 16) Only You; 17) Pink Pedal Pushers; 18) Right String Baby, Wrong Yo-Yo.

 

Sun Records' limited capacities were only enough to allow one LP record for Carl, right at the end of his tenure — everything else that he did for the label only came out as singles. Fortunate­ly, the CD era has allowed for some convenient packaging: the double-disc Essential Sun Collec­tion puts together approximately 90% of the officially released stuff (and, for that matter, works much better than the deceptively titled single-disc Complete Sun Singles, which actually omits at least three or four essential A-sides). All of Dance Album is here, along with most of the A-sides, B-sides, and some obscurities that never made it onto that LP — essential indeed, and more or less all the Carl Perkins that a regular rockabilly admirer would need to have.

 

In fact, maybe even a little more than necessary. With just a few exceptions, all of the songs here are fun, but if you rearrange them in approximate chronological order, there is very little develop­ment going on once the man hits his peak — never managing to go beyond the golden summit of the ʽBlue Suede Shoes / Honey Don'tʼ single from early 1956. Sam Phillips was a good guy, but once his protegés reached relative perfection with a certain formula, he showed little interest in pushing them to new heights, and thus, there is hardly any wonder in the fact that Carl's records sold less and less after the initial ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ boom.

 

At some point, Carl even got stuck with a «songs about clothes» formula: ʽPut Your Cat Clothes Onʼ and ʽPink Pedal Pushersʼ are both thematically related to ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ (the former even namedrops the shoes in question), but neither manages to hit as hard. ʽPut Your Cat Clothes Onʼ, with an unmistakable Jerry Lee Lewis sitting at the piano, is the fastest Carl ever played, but as fun as the song is, it is just fun — lacking the parent-scary swagger and defiance of ʽShoesʼ. ʽPink Pedal Pushersʼ goes in a completely different direction, trying to be sexy and even a little salacious, but the truth is, Carl Perkins has too much of that «innocent country boy» spirit within him to sound fully believable when singing mid-tempo rockabilly about a girl who "comes strut­ting down the street in her sophisticated style" and going "ooh woppa doo-dah" as if he himself were one of the cats who "started gazing and called her out". Again — fun stuff, but hardly a genuine knockover of the kind that Elvis or Jerry Lee could do in their sleep.

 

But do not get me wrong: I am only trying to put the tip of the finger on some of the reasons why Carl's luck ran out so quickly, even way before the first wave of rock'n'roll started getting thin around 1959-60. Other than that, his Sun records are quite consistent, although I am not a big fan of the country ballads like ʽForever Yoursʼ: they are done in Carl's usual «rough» style, with shoddy Sun-style production, but do not have the oddly minimalistic «from-the-bottom-of-a-well» feel of the same type of songs on Elvis' early singles.

 

Some of the lesser known oddities include ʽHer Love Rubbed Offʼ, an interesting, even some­what innovative attempt at crossing rockabilly with a mambo beat and seeing what happens (the seams show, but the song still cooks up a voodooistic aura that is quite unusual for our country boy); ʽThat's Rightʼ, co-written with Johnny Cash around a nagging little riff whose repetitive ring works on the brain with an almost drone-style effect; and ʽSomebody Tell Meʼ, a previously unreleased outtake (I think) whose very length is staggering — 4:22! (other than that, it is a con­servative piece of blues boogie).

 

Of course, each and every one of these songs features one or more guitar solos from the man, and they are almost always the main point of attraction: instead of fluent, uninterrupted lines, Perkins likes playing these ragged, broken-up series of licks that sound like flurry dialogs or trialogs, never repeating each other — no wonder he became one of Harrison's favorite players, even if George's playing style eventually drifted far away from this approach (not on the early Beatles records, though, where George's «Perkins licks» are easily recognizable even on quite a few non-Perkins covers — something like ʽCan't Buy Me Loveʼ, for instance). To the modern listener's ear, like most guitar solos from the classic rockabilly era, they could sound clumsy and feeble, but they do have that unbeatable advantage of an almost child-like, giddy exploration of the capaci­ties of the instrument — which makes the whole experience far more precious than listening to many a modern player who has already had those capacities presented to him on a platter.

 

Overall, this is just another hour and a half of Sun Records greatness, with Sam Phillips' echoey, downhome, «lo-fi» production as an added bonus — in a sense, everything sounds like crap, but it's healthy, fresh, nutritious crap straight from the oven, a much better proposition than the glossy, synthetic, orchestrated pop crap of the big studios. And it was, after all, the only environment in which Carl Perkins actually found himself thriving, even if his records did not sell, so thumbs up all the way.

 

WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN' (1958)

 

1) Whole Lotta Shakin'; 2) Tutti Frutti; 3) Shake, Rattle & Roll; 4) Sittin' On Top Of The World; 5) Ready Teddy; 6) Long Tall Sally; 7) That's All Right; 8) Where The Rio De Rosa Flows; 9) Good Rockin' Tonight; 10) I Got A Wo­man; 11) Hey, Good Lookin'; 12) Jenny Jenny.

 

Every Sun artist had to leave Sun Records sooner or later, just because that is the way of the world and all, but few Sun artists, upon leaving their alma mater, suffered as ignobly as Carl did. Although they still let him put out original compositions as singles, the one and only LP he cut in the 1950s for Columbia was this openly dreadful collection of covers — take one look at the tracklist and you will see that it consists of almost nothing but big, well-worn-out (already by 1958) rock'n'roll hits for Little Richard, Bill Haley, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The last thing the world needed in late 1958 was yet another take on the classics from somebody whose chief asset was songwriting, not impersonating.

 

I wouldn't dare to say that it all sounds totally forced, and that Carl wasn't having himself a ball with at least some of this stuff — he may not have written these songs, but he obviously had to love them, since they are so right up his alley of interests. The problem is that he does not seem at all to be in real charge of the sessions. Although Columbia's production values are slightly (but only slightly) higher than those of Sun, the actual recordings are not at all beneficial for Carl. The sound is almost completely dominated by session players — a piano guy (Marvin Hughes) and a sax guy (Andrew Goodrich) — who are not bad, per se, but hardly outstanding, and end up drowning out Carl's vocals and guitar to the point that you are no longer exactly sure of who the hell is Carl Perkins and why we should bother with his brand of rockabilly in the first place.

 

The only curious, and somewhat successful, idea on the entire album was to turn ʽSittin' On Top Of The Worldʼ, formerly played as a slow country-blues piece by everybody from The Missis­sippi Sheiks to Howlin' Wolf, into a lightning-speed rock'n'roll number — giving it the same treatment that Carl gave to Blind Lemon Jefferson's ʽMatchbox Bluesʼ during his tenure at Sun. Except that ʽMatchboxʼ sounded «gritty», whereas this rendition is just a fun, forgettable frolick with nary a guitar solo in sight — just the sax. If they could get King Curtis at least...

 

Vocal-wise, Carl is in good form, but he never gives other people's songs the same kind of sly, sexy reading he gives his own — every now and then, he tends to overscream (sometimes getting out of tune in the process), and, worst of all, as long as you remember Little Richard, Elvis, and even Jerry Lee doing the same songs, Carl's relative lack of power and singing technique remains a constant problem. On the cover of Hank Williams' ʽHey, Good Lookin'ʼ, he doesn't even try — the original was all about drawing out those opening notes ("h-e-e-ey, good lookin', wha-a-a-t you got cookin'..."), whereas Carl just swallows them completely; strange, because it didn't used to be that bad, at least on songs like ʽSure To Fallʼ he could show some decent range.

 

At the end of the day, it does begin to feel suspiciously like a hackjob; I know the details not, but either Carl was pissed off at his new label for demanding that he cover other people's hits, or, if not, then something simply did not work out. Maybe he was uncomfortable with the new session band, or the new recording studio, or something like that, but one thing's for certain: Whole Lot­ta Shakin' is quite far from being the best possible introduction to the guy and explanation of his genius. In fact, it is one of those albums that sort of explains the beginning of the temporary de­cline of rock'n'roll in the late 1950s — with lackluster sessions like these coming from estab­lished icons, you'd want to think, sure enough, that rock'n'roll had passed his prime, and that it was high time to try out something truly new, like Chubby Checker, or Bobby Darin. Thumbs down; no need to hunt this down, unless you're on an epic quest to collect every single version of ʽReady Teddyʼ and ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ ever recorded.

 

RESTLESS: THE COLUMBIA RECORDINGS (1958-1969; 1992)

 

1) Pink Pedal Pushers; 2) Rockin' Record Hop; 3) Jive After Five; 4) Just Thought I'd Call; 5) Where The Rio De Rosa Flows; 6) Because You're Mine; 7) That's All Right Mama; 8) Pop, Let Me Have The Car; 9) Levi Jacket (And A Long Tail Shirt); 10) Honey 'Cause I Love You; 11) Pointed Toe Shoes; 12) L-O-V-E-V-I-L-L-E; 13) Sister Twister; 14) Hambone; 15) All Mama's Children; 16) Just Coastin'; 17) Restless.

 

For more than a decade, Columbia's degree of interest in Carl was such that they did not let him record even one proper LP (dismayed as they were, perhaps, with the failure of Whole Lotta Sha­kin', as completely predictable as it was). He did manage to keep on putting out singles, on a rather steady basis in the late 1950s, then dwindling down to a tiny streak in the 1960s, alterna­ting between rockabilly and country, but hardly showing any big interest in all the new exciting developments in music — as this sampler, released in 1992 and containing a highly diagnostic, if far from complete, selection of those singles, amply shows.

 

The selection in question is at least a huge improvement on the disaster of Whole Lotta Shakin', and is far more recommendable for those who like Carl in particular and early rock'n'roll in gene­ral. Many of the songs are self-written, most of them are not as heavily obstructed by misguided production, and Carl's singing and guitar playing are generally in focus. Starting out with a new, «rockier» version of ʽPink Pedal Pushersʼ, and ending with the title track, released in 1969 and sounding every bit as if it could have been released in 1959 (with the possible exception of the backup singers and their slightly more modern touch of gospel-soul) — Restless rolls along at a restless pace indeed, and will be good clean fun for all those who just want to have fun.

 

Still, it seems perfectly clear to me why these singles, nice as they are, could never hold a candle to the Sun-era classics. All of them got Carl Perkins sort of «institutionalized» — the songs are not trying to delve into the subconscious, but are consciously written and recorded according to the set-in-stone rockabilly formula. Something like ʽRockin' Record Hopʼ, even if it tries to com­bine a rollicking Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano melody with a poppy, almost surf-like guitar solo to see what happens, still remains slightly «experimental» only in form rather than in the spirit — and most of the other songs do not have even that. The titles of the songs speak for themselves (ʽJive After Fiveʼ, ʽPointed Toe Shoesʼ, ʽLevi Jacketʼ etc.) — betraying them as doomed attempts to cash in on a formula that was quickly becoming outdated; and the lyrics, moods, and melodies have little chance of delivering the same amount of excitement as ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ or ʽHoney Don'tʼ. In other words, do not expect to find anything here except for creative stagnation. This is «technically solid», «responsible» work, and I cannot rule out that Carl himself may have been proud of some of it, but it did not woo the public back then, and there is hardly any hope that these singles will be regarded as «forgotten gems» any time soon.

 

By the early 1960s, Carl could be occasionally budged to expand his horizons — Otis Black­well's ʽSister Twisterʼ deals (somewhat ironically) with you-know-what, and ʽHamboneʼ is a satirical dialog on the perils of stardom, recorded in the style of Bo Diddley — but much of his stuff also sounds as if he was secretly envying his more successful Sun-era pals like Elvis and Johnny Cash. Unfortunately, he did not have the creative genius and «social foresight» of Cash, and certainly nothing even close to the Great Promotional Machine that was programmed for the eternal rule of The King — trying to compete with either of these two, instead of focusing on his own thing, was like trying to corner a tank with a wooden spear. No doubt, a sympathetic wooden spear, worthy of a small, respectable thumbs up, but even the most diehard Carl Perkins fan, I think, would have to eventually admit that all the promotion in the world could not have helped this kind of material conquer it all over again.

 

ON TOP (1969)

 

1) Superfool; 2) I'm Gonna Set My Foot Down; 3) A Lion In The Jungle; 4) Baby, What You Want Me To Do; 5) Soul Beat; 6) Riverboat Annie; 7) Champaign, Illinois; 8) Power Of My Soul; 9) Brown Eyed Handsome Man; 10) C. C. Rider.

 

This is fun! In the wake of Elvis' «comeback» triumph in the late 1960s, record companies sud­denly decided that there may be some sort of market for the formerly out-of-fashion rockabilly veterans, after all, and few living rockabilly veterans were more out of fashion than Carl Perkins, so Carl Perkins was among the first ones to be given a chance to re-prove himself with a brand new LP. Titling it On Top was, perhaps, a bit of a stretch, but who knows? It might have helped it sell a few dozen more copies. Some people, as they walk into record stores, do feel themselves instinctively attracted to whatever seems to be «On Top», even if it really doesn't.

 

Top or bottom, though, the album is quite surprisingly good — and quite unpredictable, if you judge Carl's chances by the uneven and stylistically obsolete material he had been putting out for Columbia throughout the 1960s. The sound has been upgraded to match the times: you have elec­tric organs, fuzz effects, even wah-wah pedals, and, of course, the entire arsenal of late Sixties musical production to help Carl get along. But, much more importantly, On Top introduces sty­listic diversity and various modest elements of experimentation. In fact, apart from Carl's singing and some of his trademark guitar licks, the album is almost unrecognizable as coming from a «Perkins line of production» — and not at all in a bad way!

 

Original compositions here are few and far in between, but it does not matter: the idea here is not to prove that Carl Perkins can still dazzle the world with his songwriting, it is to prove that he can survive in the world of 1969, entertaining people by combining the usual fun Carl Perkins spirit with new forms of music-making. So he covers something like Chuck Berry's ʽBrown Eyed Handsome Manʼ, backed by a moody electric organ and playing a bunch of wah-wah solos, and it comes out all right — giving the song a gruffer, grumblier aura than the oh-so-happy original, but then, when you think of it, the lyrics of the song have always allowed for an «uncomfortable» interpretation of the message.

 

The true highlights of the album, however, are of a more recent origin. There is ʽChampaign, Il­linoisʼ, another wah-wah-driven blues-rocker, co-written by Carl with Bob Dylan during the lat­ter's Nashville phase; the hookline ("I certainly do enjoy / Champaign, Illinois") walks the line between silly, threatening, and phonetically irresistable, and may easily linger on in your head for weeks. There is Ronnie Self's obscure swamp-rocker ʽLion In The Jungleʼ, here adorned with an extra piano riff borrowed directly from the Beatles' ʽHey Bulldogʼ for extra «ferociousness», and sung by Carl in a delightfully insinuating tone. And then there is what could only be construed as Carl's own answer to Creedence's ʽProud Maryʼ — ʽRiverboat Annieʼ, which even uses some of the same chords, and packs every bit as much fun as the Fogerty song, though not as much of its stateliness and anthemic nature. ʽSuperfoolʼ, written by a friend of Carl's, is also a great rocker, once you get past its first-few-bars gimmick of incorporating the ʽEntry Of The Gladiatorsʼ theme into the organ accompaniment. And ʽPower Of My Soulʼ, an exercise in «minimalistic Memphis soul», as we might call it, is quite a touching number — much better, I'd say, than most of Carl's formulaic attempts at country balladeering throughout the decade.

 

All in all, these sharply restricted 25 minutes (and the people at Columbia are being generous!) are well worth your attention if you are at all interested in learning how all them 1950s rockers used to fare in the «past their prime» years, and why is it that we almost never know anything about those periods. Much of it has to do with non-musical reasons, such as lack of proper pro­motion and predictable prejudice — in all honesty, On Top, while nowhere near «cutting edge» for 1969, is still every bit as good as a whole swarm of second- and third-rate records by rock artists put out that year that we still remember. I mean, just off the top of my head, I'd take On Top any day over something like Steppenwolf's At Your Birthday Party or Mott The Hoople's self-titled debut. But who'd give it to me without my having to dig it out? Nobody. Which is why this particular thumbs up does really matter. Now you go and dig it out.

 

MY KIND OF COUNTRY (1974)

 

1) Help Me Dream; 2) You Tore My Heaven To Hell; 3) One More Loser Going Home; 4) Goin' To Memphis; 5) Lord I Sinned Again Last Night; 6) Just As Long; 7) (Let's Get) Dixiefried; 8) Honky Tonk Song; 9) Love Sweet Love; 10) Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town; 11) Never Look Back.

 

I am not too sure precisely what this title is supposed to mean. If this is really his kind of country, then what exactly would be not his kind of country? A proper logical reading would suggest that, by 1974, the genre of country was dishonored and spoiled beyond recognition, and that Carl's honorable mission, undertaken against all odds, was to restore it to the glory that it used to be. Another, equally justified, logical reading would be that it really was Carl's and nobody else's kind of country — that he himself was reinventing the genre, like Hank Williams or, say, Willie Nelson, and promoting this reinvention in a not-so-humble manner.

 

Unfortunately, one single listen to this rather uninspiring set of songs is quite enough to let you know that neither of these readings applies, the title simply being a hollow PR gesture, probably imposed on Carl by the label (he was briefly hooked up with Mercury at the time) rather than his own invention. Yes, this is country music, played and arranged rather typically for the early 1970s. Yes, there is not a lot of fiddle or banjo here; slide guitars, keyboards, and subtle orches­tration take their place, meaning that the sound leans more towards the roots-/folk-rock fashion of the epoch than «classic» «old style» country. But that does not make the songs more interesting.

 

The only thing that redeems the record is that several decades of performance have shaped Carl into a highly expressive, «mature» singer. His voice has deepened a little, gained more thickness and power, so that he fares much better now with sustaining notes and modulating the pitch in mid-air — singing these generic country tunes expertly, with feeling, and, most importantly, in a completely natural manner (no exaggerated Southern drawl or manneristic yodelling). In other words, the songs are generic country, but without any «arch-generic» country trademarks — perhaps from that point of view, after all, this is his kind of country.

 

Not all of this is sentimental mid-tempo / slow-tempo balladry, either. There is a fairly gritty rendition of ʽGoin' To Memphisʼ by Johnny Cash (arranged as if it were an R'n'B standard by the likes of Jimmy Reed), a rollicking, if rather superfluous, re-recording of Carl's own ʽDixie Friedʼ, and a fun resurrection of the old ʽHonky Tonk Songʼ. The covers do not add a lot to the originals, but it definitely makes more sense to hear these songs sung by Carl than, say, ʽWhole Lotta Sha­kin' Goin' Onʼ, since they do not require letting your hair down and Carl has always had that problem about letting his hair down (not having that much of it to begin with).

 

Still, compared to the genuinely promising self-reinvention of On Top, My Kind Of Country is a relative disaster — showing that the man was neither able nor willing to capitalize on that new sound, and preferred to retreat back to the tried and true. Lack of ambition is nothing to sneer at, of course, but art without ambition is usually boring (unless one is able to turn «lack of ambition» itself into the biggest ambition the world has ever seen, like J. J. Cale), and My Kind Of Coun­try is a textbook example of that kind of boredom.

 

OL' BLUE SUEDE'S BACK (1978)

 

1) Rock Around The Clock; 2) That's All Right Mama; 3) Kaw Liga; 4) Tutti Frutti; 5) I'm In Love Again; 6) Blue Suede Shoes; 7) Be Bop A Lula; 8) Maybellene; 9) Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On; 10) Hang Up My Rock'n'Roll Shoes; 11) Shake, Rattle And Roll; 12) Rock On Around The World.

 

Right, like anybody really needed «Ol' Blue Suede» back in 1978 — at the height of the disco / punk / New Wave explosion — and with a bunch of well-worn rockabilly standards at that. At least he could have tried to give us another On Top, but for some reason, United Artists wouldn't have it, and we ended up with something stupidly labeled «Carl Perkins' Tribute To Rock'n'Roll» — stupid, because how can somebody who actually invented rock'n'roll (or at least, a significant part of it) pay tribute to rock'n'roll? Imagine «Bob Dylan Covering The Wallflowers: A Tribute To My Son Jakob Dylan», or something like that.

 

Adding injury to insult, Carl's backing band for the album is stiff and uninspiring; his guitar sound is a little weird, too, much of it sifted through a special «chorus effects» box that was probably intended to «modernize» the songs for a somewhat more techno-savvy audience of 1978 (Kraft­werk fans and all that jazz), but it does not look like Perkins himself was totally at home with it, or, at least, it is not altogether evident that this particular effect, responsible for a «glassy» tinge to the sound, is exactly what he's been waiting for all these years in order to prove that he can still cut it in an impressive manner.

 

There is exactly one new song, placed in the anthemic final spot: ʽRock On Around The Worldʼ (what else could we be expected to do?), a well-meaning, but quickly forgettable piece of echoey twist with the old gimmick of introducing the instruments one-by-one, as if to demonstrate the proper way a rock'n'rolling atmosphere should be cooked up. Speaking of demonstration, the ori­ginal record, as well as some of its reissues, came packed together with bits of narration — Carl introducing each song with a brief story or moral, as one of several «rock'n'roll lessons», and, in fact, Ol' Blue Suede's Back does perhaps work better as a textbook, written by the old master for the youngsters, than a musical album as such. Except that even from that angle, it may have worked in 1978, being fresh and all, but who'd need a 1978 textbook on the music of 1956 in 2014? That's downright esoteric.

 

Luckily, in 2003 Sanctuary Records decided to re-release this long forgotten clunker as part of a 2-CD package (Jet Propelled) that also includes some fun live tracks recorded for the BBC as well as, most importantly, 13 additional songs from a follow-up album to Ol' Blue Suede that never materialized — even though, song by song, it is much more interesting than the «rock'n'roll tribute»: an actual new album with some country and folk oldies interspersed with some originals in an almost intriguing way. It even includes a corny, but totally heartfelt tribute to the freshly departed you-know-who — ʽThe Whole World Misses Youʼ is probably a bit too overtly senti­mental and textbookishly-gallant to make you shed an honest tear for The King, but Carl was a simple contry boy at heart, and besides, he did probably want to record a tribute for Elvis that would sound like an overblown Elvis ballad itself. However, it is really all those newer country-rock tunes, adapted by Carl to his own stylistics, like Steve Earle's ʽMustang Wineʼ, that provide the bulk of the fun — and although the backing band remains stiff, it still sounds like he's actually interested in doing these songs, rather than having one more go at ʽTutti Fruttiʼ. In short, it is to­tally unclear why and unjust that Ol' Blue Suede's Back was officially released, while this un­titled follow-up remained on the shelf — even if, judging from a charts-only point of view, they probably had more or less equal chance to cause a ripple among record buyers (none).

 

Consequently, if you see Jet Propelled, have a go at it — but don't bother with these rockabilly re-recordings; like 99% of «greatest hits» re-recorded by artists twenty to fifty years on, their only point of attraction was to prove to contemporaries that the artist was still alive and cookin'. Since Carl has not been alive and cookin' for quite some time now, Ol' Blue Suede's Back is no more than a historical curio.

 

BORN TO ROCK (1989)

 

1) Born To Rock; 2) Charlene; 3) The Rain Might Wash Your Love Away; 4) Hambone; 5) A Lifetime Last Night; 6) Cotton Top; 7) Baby, Please Answer Your Phone; 8) Till I Couldn't Stand No More; 9) Don't Let Go; 10) Love Makes Dreams Come True.

 

As the Eighties rolled about and rock music started to develop a historiographic tradition for the young 'uns, Carl Perkins was dutily enshrined, wrapped in plastic, and revered for his 1950s backlog, while at the same time politely prevented from putting out new material, lest the legend be soiled and tarnished by subpar additions. Admittedly, the man himself had little interest in catching up with the rest of the world, not to mention having to battle with personal problems, such as alcoholism, so it's not as if he had all that much to offer. In fact, most of his public pre­sence at the time was linked to his far more famous disciples — he worked on a Tug Of War song with Paul McCartney (ʽGet Itʼ was quite a fun little number), and then took part in a 1985 rock show with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Dave Edmunds (A Rockabilly Session, now available on DVD and quite a fun little concert).

 

Whatever albums he did release, though, were few and far in between; never charted; quickly went out of print; and more than often never went back in print again. Apparently, after the rather ridiculous 1978 «comeback» album he no longer stooped to recording collections of «golden oldies», aside from such oddities as 1996's Go Cat Go, which was really more of an all-star tri­bute to Carl than a proper Carl record; but it is not easy to ascertain what exactly he did record, given that most of his discographies are fairly messy, and some even contradictory.

 

Out of this mess, as one last cohesive nugget, I will fish out Born To Rock, a 1989 album that Universal Records actually released on CD, so you can find a digital equivalent somewhere out there if you put in a little effort. At that time, in the late Eighties, Carl did a little collaboration with The Judds (Naomi and Wynona, that weird country duo of mother and daughter where you couldn't really tell who was the mother and who the daughter), so, in retaliation for his services, he got their producer and bandleader to produce a new record all for himself. If you know what The Judds sound like — and you'd better not — you'll probably smell disaster in the air, but, for­tunately, Carl never let those other guys get the best of him, and thus, Born To Rock sounds no­thing like a typical Eighties' album.

 

If it doesn't quite sound like a typical Carl Perkins album, either, it is mainly because Carl does not play a lot of guitar on it, or, at least, a lot of lead guitar. I am not sure if this is due to health problems that he was going through at the time, or if it was a conscious decision on his part, but take heed, my friend: Born To Rock is a Carl Perkins album with very little Carl Perkins lead guitar on it (most of it found on the title track). He sings, he covers, he composes (a bit), but the days of jubilant six-string noises are mostly over.

 

But nevertheless, Born To Rock is a fun ride if you can get it. Carl Perkins can be boring when he simply re-records his old hits, or when he limits himself to generic country, yet whenever he puts his mind to the task of coming up with something a tad less predictable, his charm, humor, and subtlety always make it work. And work it does, particularly on the new songs co-written by Carl with his sons, Stan and Greg Perkins. The title track is in the man's classic rockabilly style, with anthemic, humorously self-aggrandizing lyrics to boot; ʽCharleneʼ is a re-write of some Chuck Berry number, accommodated to Carl's needs and riding on a simple, but effective pattern from piano player Bobby Ogden; and the two country ballads, although hampered somewhat by unnecessary backing vocals, still sound unusually heartfelt and «humanly» tender — perhaps be­cause they were freshly written by the Perkins family rather than borrowed from the usual Nash­ville conveyer belt. ʽLove Makes Dreams Come Trueʼ, in particular, is the kind of song that I usually cannot stand because of all the corn syrup, but Carl's vocal delivery indicates that he real­ly cared — it's one of those rare occasions on which he could rival Johnny Cash in terms of emo­tionality and direct human appeal, so to speak.

 

There are a few re-recordings of Carl's older obscurities as well (ʽHamboneʼ, ʽCotton Topʼ), and a couple new songs from outside songwriters that are relatively easy to forget, but on the whole, not a single tune here is unlistenable — if anything, the importance of Born To Rock is in show­ing that, until the very end, Perkins preserved a decent sense of taste, and, unlike many others, never allowed himself to be dragged into suspicious avenues. Synthesizers, drum machines, questionable technologies, pop-metal guitars, adult contemporary — forget about that. Cleaner production, sharper mixing, occasional straying away from the stereotypical rockabilly formula, that is allowed, but the man simply would not allow anybody to try and turn him into something he was not, and in the end, it paid off handsomely. Had he «sold out», he would probably not have actually sold many more records, but soiled his reputation. As it is, I am happy to say that I still have to hear a «bad» Carl Perkins album. Boring, yes, as the man pretty much let go of his songwriting skills past 1960 — but «bad», as in «embarrassingly» or «ridiculously» bad, never (well, Ol' Blue Suede Shoes comes close, perhaps, but still, even those re-recordings were «un­necessary» rather than «awful»). So take this last thumbs up as referring not just to Born To Rock as an album, but to Carl's mes­sy, obscure, and sometimes quite gratifying post-1960 career in general. Sometimes charisma and integrity may actually mean more than songwriting skills and dazzling musicianship — I'd say Carl is a prime example to illustrate that statement.


CHARLEY PATTON


COMPLETE RECORDINGS: VOL. 1 (1929/2002)

 

1) Pony Blues; 2) A Spoonful Blues; 3) Down The Dirt Road Blues; 4) Prayer Of Death, Pt. 1; 5) Prayer Of Death, Pt. 2; 6) Screamin' And Hollerin' The Blues; 7) Banty Rooster Blues; 8) Tom Rushen Blues; 9) It Won't Be Long; 10) Shake It And Break It; 11) Pea Vine Blues; 12) Mississippi Boweavil Blues; 13) Lord I'm Discouraged; 14) I'm Goin' Home; 15) Snatch It And Grab It; 16) A Rag Blues; 17) How Come Mama Blues; 18) Voice Throwin' Blues.

 

The easiest way to get one's Charley Patton homework done is to pick up some nifty 1-CD com­pilation with around 20-25 tracks on it — the man only recorded for about a five-year period, and not each of his songs was stunningly original, to put it mildly (not at all atypical of pre-war bluesmen — or any bluesmen, for that matter). However, since we here at Only Solitaire despise easy ways, the alternate comprehensive road means getting your hands on this 5-CD boxset of Charley Patton's Complete Recordings that covers every single released A- and B-side of his, a few surviving alternate takes, and plenty of additional stuff by other artists where Patton is sitting in on the sessions as a guest vocalist or a guest guitar player — or even is simply thought to be sitting in, with musicologists around the world wrecking their brains over a definitive proof of the man's presence or absence on said tracks.

 

Indeed, the man is just as much of a mystery to this world as his slightly later, and far more «flashily» mythologized colleague Robert Johnson. Just as with Johnson, there's only one sur­viving photo of Patton; just as Johnson, there are but a handful of legitimate recording sessions that survive; just as Johnson, the man had a unique musical presence that resonates particularly well with the singer-songwriting crowd — an «authenticity» and «honesty» without an ounce of smooth gloss that was typical of «urban blues» performers. Plus, Patton's recording years (1929-1934) pretty much correlate with the darkest Depression years, so he's even more of an epitome of the black man's (or, in fact, any man's) struggle and strife with the world than Johnson, who always comes off as a more introspective, self-immersed fellow.

 

The first disc of the boxset (we will take them one by one, as if they were five different records) is arguably the best one, covering a lengthy record session that, apparently, all took place on one day (June 14, 1929), with most of the tracks subsequently released on Paramount singles. Only the last four tracks are not really Patton, but a little-known bluesman called Walter "Buddy Boy" Hawkins, who was decent enough but whose main talent, supposedly, was in adding a bit of corny ventriloquism to the sessions (ʻVoice Throwin' Bluesʼ); Patton is thought to be providing second vocals on ʻSnatch It And Grab Itʼ, but that's about it — the other tracks just provide some extra context for the day.

 

Anyway, what truly interests us are the 14 tracks that Patton cut himself, and their coolness still shines through despite the crappy sound quality (very typical of all Paramount recordings at the time — the Depression hadn't even started yet, and they were already using subpar material for most of their pressings). For some reason, musicians and critics alike tend to single out ʻPony Bluesʼ — one of Charley's best covered songs and the one to have made it onto the National Recording Preservation Board — and this is why it holds an honorable first place on the disc; but honestly, I am not quite sure what makes it so much greater than any of the other songs, other than being a little slower and more somber than the rest. Maybe it is a bit more straightforwardly «bluesy» — much of the stuff played by Charley veered towards folk- or country-dance, or to­wards traditional gospel — but that does not necessarily make it more haunting and spirited than the superficially «lighter» material.

 

In any case, thing number one that strikes you about Patton is the voice — the «gravelley» one, a direct predecessor to Howlin' Wolf (who actually interacted with Patton in his younger days and was much influenced by him), though not quite as hellishly sharp-cutting: Patton's strength lies rather in his versatility, as he was capable of excellent modulation, going from high-pitched, near-falsetto stabs to the proverbial gravelley roar and back at will. After a few listens, you will never want to confuse Charley with anybody else — most of his colleagues had softer, smoother, silkier vocal tones, and when people in 1929 heard the guy sing "saddle up my black ma-a-a-a-are" with that low, scrapy, creaky voice of his, quite a few of them, I'm sure, could feel the Devil's breath on their necks (so you gotta love the Library of Congress' penchant for retro-Satanism). It's made even more amusing if you put the voice together with the photograph, which pictures such a hand­some, clean-polished young man in a bowtie (with a rather sullen expression on his face, though — but black artists, unless it was a vaudeville thing, rarely smiled on photos those days in general, even when being relatively well paid).

 

Compared to That Voice, the man's guitar-playing style is somewhat underrated: like all famous pre-war Delta bluesmen, he has a free-flowing, inventive manner of handling the 12-bar blues structure, far less predictable than the strictly locked style of Chicago and post-Chicago electric bluesmen, but he never goes for «flashiness» like Blind Blake or Blind Lemon Jefferson: in fact, he never even takes a proper solo. He is, however, a master of quirky guitar licks — check out, for instance, the little high-pitched «smirk» that sums up each line of ʻMississippi Boweavil Bluesʼ, or the perfect synchronization of the up-down, up-down guitar and vocals on ʻA Spoon­ful Bluesʼ, or the percussive-tapping style on ʻDown The Dirt Road Bluesʼ. His bag of tricks is not limitless, and pretty soon they start repeating themselves, but Patton clearly paid attention to putting his personal musical stamp on those tunes, instead of simply using the guitar for basic accompaniment like so many B-level players of the era.

 

And he was quite versatile, too: there is no single overriding theme or mood that would unite these 14 tunes, all of them recorded on the same day. There's your basic ramblin'-man blues (ʻPony Bluesʼ, ʻDown The Dirt Road Bluesʼ), there's sex-crazed blues (ʻA Spoonful Bluesʼ, melo­dically quite far removed from the Willie Dixon version, but lyrically far more straight­forward; ʻBanty Rooster Bluesʼ, a distant predecessor to ʻLittle Red Roosterʼ), there's gospel spirituals (ʻPrayer Of Deathʼ, ʻI'm Goin' Homeʼ), comical dance numbers (ʻShake It And Break Itʼ), and folk chants with a social underpinning (ʻMississippi Boweavil Bluesʼ). That Voice is the one thing that ties it all together, reigning over all the themes and moods like some bulky, brawny Earth Elemental, potentially dangerous but also capable of being your friend if you make all the right moves. Like giving the record a well-deserved thumbs up, for instance, regardless of the generally awful sound quality (which is reflected most badly on the guitar sound, but no crackles or pops can do away with The Voice).

 

COMPLETE RECORDINGS: VOL. 2 (1929/2002)

 

1) Hammer Blues (take 1); 2) I Shall Not Be Moved; 3) High Water Everywhere, Pt. 1; 4) High Water Everywhere, Pt. 2; 5) I Shall Not Be Moved; 6) Rattle Snake Blues; 7) Going To Move To Alabama; 8) Hammer Blues (take 2); 9) Joe Kirby; 10) Frankie And Albert; 11) Magnolia Blues; 12) Devil Sent The Rain Blues; 13) Runnin' Wild Blues; 14) Some Happy Day; 15) Some Happy Day; 16) Mean Black Moan; 17) Green River Blues; 18) That's My Man; 19) Honey Dripper Blues No. 2; 20) Eight Hour Woman; 21) Nickel's Worth Of Liver Blues No. 2.

 

Patton's second recording session dates back to October 1929 and was so huge that it had to be spread over two CDs — granted, unlike the June session, this one is not officially tied to particu­lar dates and could have been stretched over several days of recording. It was also recorded in a different place — Grafton, Wisconsin, which might explain the notoriously evil difference in sound quality: most of the tracks are so choked with crackle and hiss that it is downright impos­sible to listen to them for anything other than pure curiosity.

 

Still, this is where you will find one of the man's most classic numbers, the two-part ʻHigh Water Everywhereʼ, commemorating the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, but also, in some mystical way, sounding like a grim harbinger of the troubles to come (as the first wave of the Depression would hit the country at the very end of the same month in which the sessions were held). The two parts are just a technicality that allows the 6-minute epic to be spread across two sides, and much of that 6-minute period is spent beating the crap out of the man's guitar (literally), as Mr. Patton gives us his most primal-tribal sound and atittude so far — the percussive aspect is not about dancing, it is all about communication with the spirits, in the general direction of whom the man is registering his formal complaint. I wouldn't call this sort of thing haunting or mesmerizing for the modern listener's ear, of course, but it does not take much of an effort to try and carry yourself back to the time when it was — just play the whole thing back to back with some Bing Crosby from the same year, and it'll be all right.

 

On six of these tracks, Patton is accompanied by Henry Sims on fiddle, predictably lending the sessions a bit of a country air — particularly effective on ʻGoing To Move To Alabamaʼ, a swag­gery country-dance tune that would be perfect for Jimmy Rogers or even Hank Williams, except here it's being sung by Mr. Black Devil In The Flesh himself. Actually, listening to this track and then listening to some of the bluesier tunes by Mr. Rogers from the same years makes it glaringly obvious how flimsy and arbitrary the borders between «blues» and «country» were at the time, and how ridiculously more pronounced they would become over time. It's a doggone shame that most of the tracks are in such awful quality — Sims plays some fairly sensitive and technically tricky passages on ʻMean Black Moanʼ, but you will have to get yourself a couple of dog ears to truly appreciate them.

 

A special highlight is Charley's rendition of the gospel hymn ʻI Shall Not Be Movedʼ, available here in two different takes, only the second of which is properly listenable  — what's fun about it, though, is that the first take is consistently slow and stately, whereas the second one starts exactly the same way and then, one minute into the song, suddenly speeds up almost to the same merry tempo with which it would later be performed by Johnny Cash. Both approaches, the more intro­spective and prayer-like slow one and the more energetic and passionate fast one, have their merits, but it is the «experimental» transition that is the main point of interest.

 

Just as it was on the first disc, the last several tracks have little, if anything, to do with Patton: four piano-led urban blues tunes with a lady called Edith North Johnson on vocals. She's okay, but she ain't no Bessie Smith or Alberta Hunter (in fact, it seems that she really gained access to the studio only through her marriage to the St. Louis record producer Jesse Johnson), and the only reason for the inclusion of these tracks is an almost-disproved rumor that Patton may have played guitar on the first of these, and to be perfectly honest, I don't even hear any guitar on it. Maybe he was just strumming something outside the studio while the recording was on... anyway, no harm in choosing this manner of preservation of a per­fectly harmless batch of generic second-rate urban blues tunes riding the coattails of a major legend, right? That's one generous way of helping the name of Edith North Johnson, at least for a brief while and for a small audience, to escape the clutches of total oblivion. Besides, something like ʻNickel's Worth Of Liver Bluesʼ is well worth salvaging for the awesome title alone.

 

COMPLETE RECORDINGS: VOL. 3 (1929/2002)

 

1) Some Of These Days I'll Be Gone; 2) Elder Green Blues; 3) Jim Lee, Pt. 1; 4) Jim Lee, Pt. 2; 5) Mean Black Cat Blues; 6) Jesus Is A-Dying (Bed Maker); 7) Elder Green Blues (take 2); 8) When Your Way Gets Dark; 9) Some Of These Days I'll Be Gone (take 2); 10) Heart Like Railwood Steel; 11) Circle Round The Moon; 12) You're Gonna Need Somebody When You Die; 13) Be True, Be True Blues; 14) Farrell Blues; 15) Tell Me Man Blues; 16) Come Back Corrina.

 

The third disc of the set essentially covers the second half of the extensive October 1929 sessions, but does not contain as many highlights. Patton's tracks here are the same volatile mix of blues, pop, gospel, folk, and country — pure blues forming a minority, in fact, as the disc opens with a lively and sentimental pop tune (ʻSome Of These Days I'll Be Goneʼ), the kind that always sounds more authentic and heart-tugging when sung in Patton's grizzly tone than in crooner mode (by the way, how often do people acknowledge Patton's influence on Tom Waits? it must have been a more direct one than simply Patton influencing Howlin' Wolf and Wolf influencing Waits). The two takes captured here are practically identical (except that the officially released second one is in better sonic shape), but the second one is just a tad faster and more danceable, so I sup­pose the good people at Paramount were really craving for some «commercialism» here.

 

Of the more curious tracks, the cover of ʻJesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bedʼ is worth noting, with Patton playing slide and wailing in the same style as Blind Willie Johnson, although, gran­ted, neither his slide playing skills nor even his earthy voice is a proper match for Blind Willie's gifts when they are fully activated (actually, he sounds a little too rushed and uninvolved singing this stuff — almost as if it did not agree too well with him, yet for some reason he found himself obli­gated to record Blind Willie's material. Maybe Paramount wanted to use him as their chief com­petitive asset against Columbia; I really have no idea). There's also ʻYou're Gonna Need Some­body When You Dieʼ, which he recorded before Blind Willie cut it as ʻYou're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bondʼ a year later — of course, all these tunes and words were pretty much dangling in the air at the time, belonging to nobody in particular, but it is still interesting, when possible, to go back and trace their relative trajectories.

 

The last four songs on the disc are not credited to Patton at all, but he is probably playing guitar to the fiddle of Henry Sims, who also sings lead vocals (and, vice versa, Sims is contributing his own fiddle parts to several of Patton's songs). They're nothing special, but there's... uh... one of the earliest version of ʻCorrine, Corrinaʼ here, though you might miss it if you have not paid attention to the printed titles because Henry has a nasty habit of mooing his words instead of sin­ging them. Anyway, don't shoot the fiddle player and it's always pleasant to have a bit of histo­rical context — this "Charlie Patton and Friends" thing should not bother you in the least.

 

COMPLETE RECORDINGS: VOL. 4 (1930/2002)

 

1) Some Summer Day; 2) Bird Nest Bound; 3) Future Blues; 4) M&O Blues; 5) Walkin' Blues; 6) My Black Mama, Pt. 1; 7) My Black Mama, Pt. 2; 8) Preachin' The Blues, Pt. 1; 9) Preachin' The Blues, Pt. 2; 10) Dry Spell Blues, Pt. 1; 11) Dry Spell Blues, Pt. 2; 12) All Night Long Blues (take 1); 13) On The Wall; 14) All Night Long Blues (take 2); 15) By The Moon And Stars; 16) Long Ways From Home.

 

This fourth disc takes the idea of «completeness» to a whole new level — only the first two out of sixteen (!) tracks here are actually by Patton, the rest of them divided between blues guitarist Willie Brown; the legendary Son House; and a gifted, but completely unknown singer and pianist by the name of Louise Johnson. Allegedly, Patton may be sitting in on second guitar on a couple of the Son House tunes, and apparently, he also contributes some «response vocals» on several of Johnson's tracks, but mostly his presence on all this stuff is in spirit — he just happened to be sharing the recording studio with all these guys on one or more sunny (or not so sunny) days in June 1930, in the same old studio in Grafton, Wisconsin. (For the record, many of these tracks — but not including Patton's — were previously released on an obscure LP called Legendary Sessions Delta Style: The Famous 1930 Paramount Recordings In Chronological Order, at least one European pressing of which is said to date back to 1973.)

 

Which means that there is not that much to review here: Son House is awesome, but he should be talked about on his own page in his own time — although we might use this as a pretext to men­tion that, despite all the obvious similarities, Son House's playing and singing style, being the direct predecessor to and major influence on Muddy Waters, is much closer to the familiar Chicago patterns than Patton's playing or singing, and gives the impression of being more con­cerned about «tightness» and «showmanship» at the same time. Louise Johnson is a rare example of a lady singing and «tinkling the ivories» all at once, and she is fairly powerful at the piano, and it is fun to discover ʻOn The Wallʼ, a newly lyricized version of Charles Davenport's ʻCow Cow Bluesʼ, one of the earliest examples of New Orleanian blues boogie that would later go on to become Ahmet Ertegün's and Ray Charles' ʻMess Aroundʼ. But there's just not enough material by her, really, to get to know her real proper. And Willie Brown? He's just another attempt at a Blind Willie Johnson clone (vocal-wise, at least) that probably went for a dime a dozen back in 1929-30 — sorry, Willie.

 

Which leaves us with the two Patton songs, one of which (ʻSome Summer Dayʼ) is just a cover of ʻSittin' On Top Of The Worldʼ, following on the heels of the success of the Mississipi Sheiks' original version; and the second one, ʻBird Nest Boundʼ, with Brown on guitar, is just a run-of-the-mill example of the man's singing, with nothing particularly exciting about it.

 

Curious, too, because the backstory goes that Paramount were actually after Patton in 1930, and that he'd arrived in Grafton from Lula, Mississippi, with Brown, Louise Johnson, and Son House in tow — he'd just befriended House at the time and put him under his patronage, as the latter was an unknown nobody at the time; yet somehow, in the end, Paramount ended up recording his retinue instead of the Big Man himself. (Furthermore, none of the commercially released Son House records managed to sell well at the time, and the man did not record commercially again for several decades after that!). One can only guess why Charley was not in the mood to cut a significant number of sides that summer. Regardless, taken together, the whole thing is still a classy many-faced document of the times — and, besides, sometimes the «tell me who's your friend» principle goes a long way towards a better understanding of the artist himself.

 

 

COMPLETE RECORDINGS: VOL. 5 (1930-1934/2002)

 

1) Dry Well Blues; 2) Moon Going Down; 3) We All Gonna Face The Rising Sun; 4) Moaner, Let's Go Down In The Valley; 5) Jesus Got His Arms Around Me; 6) God Won't Forsake His Own; 7) I'll Be Here; 8) Where Was Eve Sleeping; 9) I Know My Time Ain't Long; 10) Watch And Pray; 11) High Sheriff Blues; 12) Stone Pony Blues; 13) Jersey Bull Blues; 14) Hang It On The Wall; 15) 34 Blues; 16) Love My Stuff; 17) Poor Me; 18) Revenue Man Blues; 19) Troubled 'Bout My Mother; 20) Oh Death; 21) Yellow Bee; 22) Mind Reader Blues.

 

Fortunately, the final volume of the boxset once again manages to focus on Patton himself rather than friends — although not before making us sit through eight tracks by the Delta Big Four, a vocal quartet that just so happened to get captured in the tin can sometime in May 1930 in the same Grafton, Wisconsin studio; and no, Patton is not playing with them and he certainly is not contributing guitar. If you are a fan of pre-war barbershop quartet music, these recordings are of mildly passable quality, and the four guys harmonize fairly nicely, but personally, I'd rather sit through eight different takes of ʻStone Pony Bluesʼ instead.

 

Almost everything else is Patton: two more tracks from the June 1930 Grafton sessions (ʻDry Well Bluesʼ and ʻMoon Going Downʼ), and a batch of his final recordings in New York City, produced during a three-day session (January 30-31 and February 1, 1934); Patton died three months later, on April 28, in Indianola, allegedly from heart problems; it is probably a coinci­dence that one of the last songs he'd recorded was a duet with Bertha Lee on a spirited version of ʻOh Deathʼ, since he was probably used to performing these spirituals on a regular basis, but still a little eerie. (There are also two solo tracks by Bertha Lee appended at the bottom).

 

There's nothing particularly revealing about that last session, and, in fact, quite a few of the tracks are just rehashes of older recordings (ʻStone Pony Bluesʼ is, obviously, a new take on ʻPony Bluesʼ; ʻHang It On The Wallʼ is ʻShake It And Break Itʼ, etc.), but there's one piece of good news: the quality of the recordings is tremendously superior to the 1929-30 recordings, with very little hiss and crackle to obscure the singing and playing — and given that Patton remained in top performing form until the very end, this probably transforms the 1934 batch into the finest intro­duction to the man's talents. ʻ'34 Bluesʼ, with its wonderful superimposition of rhythmic strum and melodic lead lines, perfectly illustrates his mastery of the six-string; and ʻPoor Meʼ may be his best (or, at least, best appreciated) vocal performance, with heart-tugging overtones of sadness and melancholy emanating from the ragged-rough crust of his croaky vocals (and once again reminding the modern listener of how much Tom Waits owes to these pre-war moans).

 

So, is it really a historical accident, caused by the timing of the re-issues, that Robert Johnson had gone on to become a household name, and Patton has to limp in his shadow? At least with this 1934 session in your hands, it is hard to make an argument based on sound quality — these tracks sound as discernible as anything Johnson would go on to record several years later. A more likely theory is that Johnson sounded far more «modern» in the 1960s, when he was «rediscovered» by British and American bluesmen, than Patton — with his cleaner vocals and a sharper, more understan­dable guitar style that was also easier to relate to Chicago electric blues than Patton's original wild Delta style, where chord strumming, crude bass «pings», whiny high-pitched leads and percussive stomps could replace each other so unpredictably. And that voice, too — of all pre-war blues players, there probably isn't one other (with the possible exception of Blind Willie Johnson) capable of giving you the illusion of taking you back even further, at least into the dark depths of 19th century slavery, if not into the even darker depths of ancient tribal Africa.

 

So, you could imitate Robert Johnson to a certain degree, but as for Patton, he could only remain a source of admiration and reverence, rather than an active influence. Even Howlin' Wolf, who clearly was influenced by his one-time senior partner, does it a different way — his vocal style was all about, um, carnality, whereas Patton's style could hardly be described as «sexy»: more like something with a direct connection to Mother Earth herself. There may have been others like Charley, walking American highways in the pre-war years; but there hasn't really been another one like him ever since, and there certainly never will be. Which, allegedly, makes this 5-CD set a must-have in your collection, even if it means throwing out extra money for all of Charley's colorful retinue of fiddle players, lady pianists, and barbershop quartets.


Part 2. The Early Rock'n'Roll Bands Era (1960-1965)

 

CARLA THOMAS


GEE WHIZ (1961)

 

1) Gee Whiz; 2) Dance With Me; 3) A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening; 4) Your Love Indeed; 5) Fools Fall In Love; 6) To The Aisle; 7) The Masquerade Is Over; 8) A Love Of My Own; 9) Promises; 10) It Ain't Me; 11) For You; 12) The Love We Shared.

 

On one hand, this was straightforward nepotism in action: the main reason why we got to hear Carla Thomas' voice is that father Rufus wielded enough influence to promote her as a serious act, first as part of an attractive father/daughter duet, then as a solo performer in her own right. On the other hand, who cares as long as there actually was something serious to promote? Carla had the looks, the voice, the charisma, and even a certain amount of composing talent — at the very least, the song that made her a star was always credited to Carla herself and nobody else.

 

Not that ʽGee Whizʼ is some sort of outstanding masterpiece, but it helps to contrast it with the other ʽGee Whizʼ, a soft teen-pop number done by The Innocents that very same year — just to remember how passionately wild this Carla Thomas vocal would have sounded back then on the radio, next to the precious china of the vocal harmonies by a bunch of sweet, cuddly white boys. The right word would probably be juicy — she's got that slightly raspy, deep, thick coating on her vocal cords, neither like the blues mamas of the day nor like the jazz crooners, but much more in line with sweet-hot teenage romance, like a blueprint for the soon-to-be typical female voice of Motown or Phil Spector's girl groups (Ronnie Spector is probably the closest one in timbre). Back in 1961, she was probably a unique presence on the Atlantic label — their other performers were either too soft (Barbara Lewis) or too hard (Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker), so there was nobody like Carla to get that teenage blood boiled to the proper temperature.

 

Throw in some teenage slang (the title of the song), some passionate orchestration for the song's waltzy tempo, and an intentionally seductive tone in every detail, and there's little wonder why ʽGee Whizʼ became such a success. The problem, as always, was with following it up: Carla was immediately set up for a full LP of material that she simply did not have — and so the majority of the tunes here are covers, most of which just sound like ʽGee Whizʼ, but are less interesting, e.g. ʽYour Love Indeedʼ by father Rufus, a very similar waltz but without any prominent lyrical/vocal hooks. She performs everything with honor — the fast-paced cover of The Drifters' ʽFools Fall In Loveʼ is every bit as fun as the original — but the arrangements are generic and monotonous, and even Carla's vocals eventually become a bit grating.

 

Her own songwriting is further represented on the second side of the album, where it turns out that the girl is actually far more somber than ʽGee Whizʼ would suggest: ʽA Love Of My Ownʼ has her complaining about being unable to score, ʽIt Ain't Meʼ lets us know that even when she does score, she still ends up cheated, and only ʽFor Youʼ reinstates some hope that everything might eventually end up fine (but might also not). None of these songs stray too far away from the Fifties Progression or other clichés of the era, though, so Carla's vocal timbre is pretty much the only reason why they might still be worth a listen. And, as I said, the orchestrated arrange­ments are all typical of the era — the first side ends with an orchestral florish concluding ʽTo The Aisleʼ, and then the second side opens with precisely the same florish for ʽThe Masquerade Is Overʼ, which sounds fairly comical in the digital age when you no longer have the benefit of a slight table-turning pause.

 

Ultimately, this is skippable — and you can always have ʽGee Whizʼ by itself on the unexpen­dable Atlantic Rhythm'n'Blues compilation — but it does signal the arrival of a substantial talent, and it would be fairly easy for a fool to fall in love with the sound of that lovely voice even if it were made to sing twelve variations on the theme of ʽThe Itsy Bitsy Spiderʼ. Not that the record executives were too happy about nurturing and promoting that talent at first — she did not get her second chance at an LP until four years later, and in the meantime, was occupied by such odd cash-ins as 1963's ʽGee Whiz, It's Christmasʼ (which has nothing whatsoever to do with the original ʽGee Whizʼ, but merely reflects the record industry's treatment of record buyers as trai­nable Pavlov dogs).

 

COMFORT ME (1965)

 

1) Comfort Me; 2) No Time To Lose; 3) Yes, I'm Ready; 4) A Lover's Concerto; 5) I'm For You; 6) What The World Needs Now; 7) Let It Be Me; 8) A Woman's Love; 9) Will You Love Me Tomorrow; 10) Forever; 11) Move On Drifter; 12) Another Night Without My Man.

 

Ah, the good old cover art of understatement. Is it at all possible to resist upon seeing such a beautiful lady in such a suggestive pose, with the words COMFORT ME looming large against her well-coiffed hairdo? That finger alone would be worth at least ten bucks in 1965, and then, as an added bonus, you get twelve pieces of music that you can take or leave — most importantly, you'll always have Paris, er, I mean, that album sleeve. Just hang it on the wall, and...

 

...okay, okay, so we are here to talk strictly about the music, but truth is, I am not sure what to say. A lot of things happened in between 1961 and 1965, but you really wouldn't know if you had to judge by a comparison of Carla Thomas' first and second LP: these here are twelve more cases of tender balladry and soft R'n'B grooving, all of it pretty (because of Carla) and solid (because of the Stax backing team), but none of it particularly memorable. Interestingly enough, a lot of the songs feature Steve Cropper of Booker T. & The MG's as chief or co-writer, but it's not as if the man is really working his head off to provide Carla with genius hits: stuff like ʽA Woman's Loveʼ is based around the same old chord progressions, and on the whole, I think, Cropper got engaged in this simply to make a little bit of money in case the record sold well.

 

Problem is, it did not, and neither did any of the singles — they all stalled somewhere around No. 70 to No. 90 on the Billboard charts, not even remotely close to the impact of ʽGee Whizʼ, and it is easy to see why. As an energetic, groove-centered performer, Carla Thomas does not qualify: the «hottest» it gets is on songs like ʽNo Time To Loseʼ, which is basically just a pleading soul num­ber with a bit of vocal aggression mixed in — nice, but tepid and third-rate. As a balladeer, she had teenage appeal with ʽGee Whizʼ, but it is not easy for her to make a fully credible tran­sition into the mature adult stage: she does not have the proper vocal strength to turn ʽComfort Meʼ into anything more than pleasant background muzak.

 

The record also suffers from too little sonic diversity: when songs as substantially distant as ʽLet It Be Meʼ and ʽWill You Love Me Tomorrowʼ get pretty much the same jumpy, brass-heavy ar­rangements, you begin to seriously wonder if the arrangers and producers actually gave a damn about what they were doing, or, perhaps, they'd already settled upon the album cover and thought that it absolutely did not matter what they put under it. The cover of ʽWill You Love Me Tomor­rowʼ is particularly disappointing, but then, to be honest, nobody really did it full justice until Carole King took the lead vocal herself.

 

That said, the album is still fully recommendable to all fans of the Stax sound — just do not expect it to rage and rave, everything here is in the soft variety. Soft electric guitars, caressing brass riffs, soft gospel backing vocals, soft raspy-silky lead singer, the works. No highlights.

 

CARLA (1966)

 

1) B-A-B-Y; 2) Red Rooster; 3) Let Me Be Good To You; 4) I Got You, Boy; 5) Baby What You Want Me To Do / For Your Love; 6) What Have You Got To Offer Me; 7) I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry; 8) I Fall To Pieces; 9) You Don't Have To Say You Love Me; 10) Fate; 11) Looking Back.

 

I do not know exactly at what point the moniker «Queen of Soul» was invented for Carla — I would guess around the time when she began singing duets with Otis Redding, so that he could be King, and she could be his Queen, and they could be Heroes just for one day, or, more preci­sely, for the period of time directly preceding December 10, 1967, because with the King gone, who'd really have any solid interest in the Queen?

 

But the good news is that at last, with new, louder and harder brands of R&B, soul, and funk be­ginning to take shape in the post-British Invasion period, even a Carla Thomas LP, on the whole, becomes more exciting. This one was based around two hit singles: ʽLet Me Be Good To Youʼ, a bouncy soul-pop number whose leapfrog bass line was every bit as important as its lead vocal, and ʽB-A-B-Yʼ, an even more bouncy soul-pop number whose backing vocals were every bit as important as its lead vocal (Carla /moaning and groaning/: "baaaybeee..." — Auxiliary Female Robots Built For Pleasure /faking amazement and excitement/: "BABY?"). Both hits were co-written by David Porter and Isaac Hayes, meaning that Carla was indeed transferred to Atlantic's top list of priorities, and both indicated that they wanted her to move on to a more rhythmic, sexy, seductive, bubbly-pop direction — something for which she was certainly vocally endowed, but probably not born specifically.

 

She does signal a readiness to expand in other directions as well — the blues, for instance, step­ping forward with a cover of ʽLittle Red Roosterʼ that she probably inherited from Sam Cooke, and a cover of Jimmy Reed's ʽBaby What You Want Me To Doʼ that is, for some reason, integ­rated with a slow sentimental waltz tune (ʽFor Your Loveʼ) in a somewhat questionable artistic decision (not sure Jimmy would have approved). Or country: ʽI'm So Lonesome I Could Cryʼ is seriously softened up compared to Hank Williams, but does retain a bit of lonesomeness. And she still continues to write a few of her own songs — ʽI Got You Boyʼ is probably the best of these, but Isaac Hayes still wrote catchier ones for her, so why bother?

 

On the whole, though, the album still offers no evidence whatsoever that Carla Thomas could be a serious proposition in LP terms — ʽB-A-B-Yʼ is a perfectly endearing bubblegum-soul single for 1966, and the rest of the album is more listenable than the previous two because of the ele­ment of diversity and (occasionally) added R&B groove power, but for bubblegum-soul, your best bet would still be on The Supremes, and for R&B groove power... well, considering that Aretha had not properly arrived yet, maybe Martha & The Vandellas on the female side? Come to think of it, Atlantic sure suffered a lot from male chauvinism compared to Motown at the time. Not that it makes any difference — Carla Thomas is simply not a very viable proposition when it comes to power aspects; ʽGee Whizʼ and ʽB-A-B-Yʼ are far more to her liking.

 

THE QUEEN ALONE (1967)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MEMPHIS QUEEN (1969)

 

1) I Like What You're Doing (To Me); 2) I Play For Keeps; 3) Don't Say No More; 4) More Man Than I Ever Had; 5) I've Fallen In Love With You; 6) He's Beating Your Time; 7) Unyielding; 8) Strung Out; 9) How Can You Throw My Love Away; 10) Guide Me Well; 11) Precious Memories; 12) Where Do I Go.

 

The difference between Queen Alone and Memphis Queen, other than the switch from «alone» (as in «I don't need Otis Redding by my side to prove that royal status... or do I?») to «Memphis» (as in «assertion of Southern identity couldn't hurt those sales... or could it?»), is that this 1969 record is a little less poppy and generally goes for denser and harsher arrangements, funkier grooves, and, overall, more of that swampy soulful black magic. Loud brass, thick syncopated bass, gospel backing vocals, the works. Classy Stax sound and all — problem is, by 1969 we were already living in the world of Aretha Franklin, and in this world, the need for Carla Thomas is almost non-existent.

 

Unless she or her collaborators could contribute some top-level songwriting, that is; but in this respect, Memphis Queen is no better or worse than a thousand other deep (or not so deep) soul records released the same year. Carla herself writes only two songs, the Motown-ish pop-rocker ʽDon't Say No Moreʼ and the lush ballad ʽI've Fallen In Love With Youʼ, and both are perfectly stereotypical. Even worse, the Hayes/Porter well of goodies has clearly run dry as well — with Hayes now busy full time with his own solo career, the only contribution is ʽGuide Me Wellʼ, a slow waltz whose first half is merely recited rather than sung by the lady, and everything about which, including the arrangement, could have been created in a matter of five minutes by any seasoned professional.

 

Arguably the finest court songwriter of the bunch here is Bettye Crutcher, who contributes ʽI Like What You're Doing (To Me)ʼ, the poppiest and catchiest song of the whole bunch (sounds not unlike early Christine McVie before she learned to properly sharpen those hooks), and the funk-pop anthem ʽMore Man Than I've Ever Hadʼ, where the gentle and romantic Carla Thomas is beginning to learn the basics of lusty, carnal music — still not quite up to the standards of Bessie Smith, but she does make the transition to a deeper, rougher range in order to explain how her man keeps her satisfied. It's fun, but, unfortunately, not very believable from a performer whose brightest moment still remains ʽGee Whizʼ, a starry-eyed and purely innocent account of teenage love — the teenager may have grown up, but not into a sex-crazed lady who'd be ready to eat you alive at a moment's notice. Nice try, though.

 

The record remains a good example of classic 1969-era Stax: everybody is tight, brass and string parts gel perfectly, and there is even some fine wah-wah funk playing on a few of the numbers (ʽUnyieldingʼ), so there are no special reasons to put it down. But it did not succeed in making Carla Thomas more relevant and star-powered in the new era of black music, and the idea of putting out the slow, barely noticeable ʽGuide Me Wellʼ as the lead single only meant that no­body really gave a damn any more.

 

LOVE MEANS... (1971)

 

1) Didn't We; 2) Are You Sure; 3) What Is Love; 4) Daughter, You're Still Your Daddy's Child; 5) Love Means You Never Have To Say You're Sorry; 6) You've Got A Cushion To Fall On; 7) Il Est Plus Doux Que; 8) Cherish; 9) I Wake Up Wanting You.

 

Well, it's nice to know that Carla Thomas was a major fan of Love Story, though in the grand scheme of things it is probably not a very significant detail. It is less nice to know that her first and only album in the Seventies pretty much gave up on harsh funky grooves altogether, as she decided to comfortably settle in the green fields of lush, orchestrated, sentimental pop music — not too surprising, though, considering she'd started out in that vein anyway, and always felt more comfortable with sweet lyrical tenderness than with the get-up-and-fight vibe. The problem is, she was still on Stax, and it is a bit strange to see the muscular talents of the MG's and other Stax session musicians go to waste on this kind of material.

 

Surprisingly, the title track, despite its title, is exactly the one song on here that still gets by on groove power — nothing particularly unusual about the groove, a simple blues bassline, but it sets a gritty tone for all the subsequent brass and orchestral interludes and adds a nice touch of ambiguity to the message. Apparently, something about love and its nature was bugging Carla at the time — this is one of only two songs that she herself (co-)wrote for the album, the other one being ʽWhat Is Love?ʼ, a much less interesting pop tune, but with a decent vocal build-up to the chorus at least. However, she does get solid songwriting help from her brother Marvell, who also contributes the album's lengthiest, quasi-epic number — the conventionally heartbreaking family relation tale ʽDaughter, You're Still Your Daddy's Childʼ, culminating in a two-minute ecstatic coda where Carla is trying to steer the entire band into ripping it up; unfortunately, this is also precise­ly where you remember that Carla Thomas is no Aretha Franklin, and I find it hard to get caught up in the excitement for that reason.

 

This is all sweet and at least tolerable, but the album also offers some inexcusable crassness: Tony Hester's ʽIl Est Plus Doux Queʼ, with quasi-French sentimentality and poorly pronounced French phrasing sprinkled all over the tune, is unbearable, and so is the awful B-side ʽYou've Got A Cushion To Fall Onʼ (you thought ʽStand By Your Manʼ was, um, questionable? Here's a sample of the lyrics to this one: "Good evening, dear, do you feel okay? / How are things on the job today? / Sit right down and kick off your shoes / Supper will be ready in a minute or two / I can tell your promotion didn't go through / And I can see it got you feeling sad and blue... / ...you've got a cushion to fall on / you've got me, I'm in your corner". From the We Three song­writing team, welcome to the progressive Seventies). In an era when Afro-American music, male and female, generally strove to expand, break out, and assert its individuality, this kind of style was clearly regressive, if not straightahead reactionary.

 

In any case, be it the lack of chart success or a personal feeling of «not belonging» to this new age of music-making, Love Means... turned out to be the last full-fledged musical effort from «The Queen of Soul»: by 1972, Carla had pretty much retired from music (although she conti­nued to give occasional performances and even mini-tours well into the 2000s). As such, it re­mains the last testament to a pleasant, but mediocre talent that was, unfortunately, never provided with the proper conditions to mature into anything above mediocre. Essentially, I would conclude that the Carla / Stax match was a mismatch from the very beginning — she might have thrived as a pop star, perhaps even an art-pop one if things had gone right, but trying to place her some place in between lush pop star and fiery R&B diva just made her fall through the cracks alto­gether.

 

 


CHER


ALL I REALLY WANT TO DO (1965)

 

1) All I Really Want To Do; 2) I Go To Sleep; 3) Needles And Pins; 4) Don't Think Twice; 5) She Thinks I Still Care; 6) Dream Baby; 7) The Bells Of Rhymney; 8) Girl Don't Come; 9) See See Rider; 10) Come And Stay With Me; 11) Cry Myself To Sleep; 12) Blowin' In The Wind.

 

It's too bad, I think, that the debut album of Cher as a solo artist does not include ʽRingo, I Love Youʼ — her first single, issued in 1964 under the rather hideous name of Bonnie Jo Mason and allegedly co-written by Phil Spector in person. It is such a silly Beatlesque pastiche (one out of hundreds, of course) that the only point of interest there are Cher's vocals, so unusually low for the time that, rumor has it, some radio stations refused to play it because they thought they were being duped. And although she probably had no say whatsoever in these early decisions at the time, the song still set a career pattern that would be rigorously adhered to for the next fifty years: if it ain't trendy, the dark-haired lady can't be bothered.

 

Fast forward a bit to October 1965, by which time the dark-haired lady had teamed up with Sonny Bono and became an international celebrity by means of ʽI Got You Babeʼ. No sooner had the duo released their first LP that Sonny put forward the idea of crafting a parallel solo career for the wife — a golden throne for her and a grave for himself, as it would later turn out, but seeing as how he, at the moment, was the only one of the two with songwriting talent, the poor guy obviously could not see it coming. And thus, with the release of ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ as a single and the same-titled LP quickly following it up, the green light was given to one of the most, umm, let's say «predatory» careers in show-business, ever. A career as historically instructive as it is almost delightfully tasteless, and one well worth studying in detail, if only because it pretty much reflects the entire history of pop/rock music in its crooked mirror.

 

Anyway, it's October 1965, and the Byrds are one of the hottest things on that side of the Ame­rican market that tries to be friendly to «mainstream» and «alternative» audiences at the same time, so, naturally, at this time Cher is a folk-rocker, singing pretty arrangements of Dylan (three songs), Pete Seeger and The Byrds themselves (ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ), Jackie DeShannon, and a bit of British Invasion to round out the picture (a cover of The Kinks' ʽI Go To Sleepʼ which they never released officially at the time anyway). No expense was spared during the recordings, as a large part of The Wrecking Crew was recruited for the sessions, and Sonny's production, though not as masterful as Phil Spector's, still managed to come close to capturing the wall-of-sound effect — actually, considering that most folk-rock at the time was produced by young bands without much experience or simply with no desire to go beyond minimalistic arrangements, Sonny had the advantage of merging the «innocence» of the folk sound with Spectorian bombast, and at least in purely technical terms, he did it well.

 

Of course, Cher's voice at this time is both an asset and a problem. Asset, because if you care for low-timbred female vocals at all, there's just no way that at least some Cher songs could not ap­peal to you — when she's really on, she's a powerhouse, and as calculated as the whole thing (and the whole Cher career) is, I struggle to think of a 1965 album by a female artist (white, at least) that would better convey the idea of «woman empowerment». Problem, because one thing Cher has never had is subtlety — she rips through all this material, diverse as it is, as if she had boxer gloves on throughout the sessions, and while this is perfectly all right for some songs, it is defi­nitely not all right (and, in fact, embarrassing) for others.

 

First, the highlights, though. ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ, set to the predictable, but tasteful jangle guitar and chime keyboard, is a stunner — definitely a song more suitable for Cher than even The Byrds, taking Bob's tongue-in-cheek joking chauvinist jab at over-intellectualized females and turning it inside out in favor of the other sex. It is actually the only song on the album where the lady sounds like she's having fun — playing around with her limited range and sometimes arching out that "all I really wanna doooooo..." as if teasingly mocking the song's addressee — and it's kind of a pity that the other two Dylan covers here are ʽDon't Think Twiceʼ (a tune that is not intended to be screamed out, whatever the cost!) and ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ, done in a manner as grand as any national anthem and just about equally stultifying. Of course, it would have been too much to expect her to go ahead with ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ (although she'd probably do a great job with it), and there'd be gender problems with ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ, but... uh... ʽMaggie's Farmʼ, perhaps?

 

Other tunes where she is vocally spot on include ʽShe Thinks I Still Careʼ, a bitter-mocking rendition of Dickey Lee's ʽHe Thinks I Still Careʼ; and a rousing ʽSee See Riderʼ which manages to pack just enough brawn and arrogance to stand up to all the sprawling competition. Some others are just bizarre — for instance, a reading of Jackie DeShannon's ʽCome And Stay With Meʼ that should have honestly been retitled ʽCome And Stay With Me, Bitchʼ: where Marianne Faithful, who originally performed the song, sings the lines "I'll send away all my false pride and I'll forsake all of my life" as if she really means it, tender and on the verge of breaking, Cher's natural, never-shifting timbre makes it sound as if she's totally mocking the guy — probably giving him the finger behind the back, too. I do not doubt that the irony was unintended, and that, like so many other titles here, it was simply a matter of poor song choice, but the effect is still hilarious all the same, especially considering that this is one of her best-sung tunes here.

 

Specific downers, on the other hand, would include ʽNeedles And Pinsʼ — Sonny wrote it, yes, but not for her, and she just ploughs through the subtle hills and valleys of that song with a vocal bulldozer — and ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ, where she seems to just lack the technique and even ends up singing awfully off-key in spots. And although the dreamy baroque arrangement of ʽI Go To Sleepʼ is a very nice alternative to the minimalistic piano demo accompaniment of Ray Davies, one thing Ms. Cherilyn Sarkisian will always have a very hard time to simulate is that feeling of late night loneliness without a loved one. (Oh, I mean, it might just be a matter of her voice, it's not as if I'm implying she never ever felt lonely without a loved one herself.)

 

Overall, this is just like it will always be from now on — there's material that lends itself to the Cher treatment, and then we're in for a hell of a treat, and then there's material that fights back, and then we're either in for a hilarious oddity, or, more often, for a corny embarrassment. But this is precisely what makes the exploration of her backlog such a fun thing — you find yourself in the position of an involved historiographer, describing the never-ending shift of balance between treats, oddities, and embarrassments, and isn't that what life's all about in the end?

 

THE SONNY SIDE OF CHER (1966)

 

1) Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down); 2) A Young Girl (Une Enfante); 3) Where Do You Go; 4) Our Day Will Come; 5) Elusive Butterfly; 6) Like A Rolling Stone; 7) Old Man River; 8) Come To Your Window; 9) The Girl From Ipanema; 10) It's Not Unusual; 11) Time; 12) Milord.

 

You'd think that with a title like this, all the songs on this album should have been written by Sonny, but just like on their duet records, he only contributes a few — in this case, ʽWhere Do You Goʼ, a slow folk waltz oriented at the «frustrated teen market» ("where do you go when you're too young?", asks the 20-year old Armenian diva who seems to have already figured that out for herself), and ʽBang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)ʼ, a slow Latin groove oriented at Nancy Sinatra, who later recorded her own version that was later made famous by Kill Bill, from which we draw the obvious conclusion that back in early 1966, Sonny Bono was the happy owner of a time machine (maybe that's why he decided to go into politics as well).

 

Anyway, both of these songs aren't too bad, and ʽBang Bangʼ is, in fact, melodically and lyrically quite awesome — the problem with both being the singer, who is simply incapable of delicately handling this sort of material. In fact, out of 12 songs on here, there's only one that fully appeals to her immanent vocal style: the English-language cover of Edith Piaf's ʽMilordʼ, where her deep, dark, sneering voice creates the perfect cynical atmosphere. This is where you realize that if the woman was born with the idea to sing anything at all, then the anything in question would just have to be the nonchalant-hedonistic cabaret style — French, German, English, whatever, as long as she's portraying the strong-hip-cynical female with, perhaps, a slight overdose of mas­culine hormones. You'd think she might extend that credibility to Dylan's ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ (after all, has there ever been a song more cynical than that one?), but unfortunately, it does not seem like she's properly understanding what the song is about, so no.

 

Everything else is a disaster — tender French, British, and American pop standards of the time, all of them given the same type of baroque-folk arrangement and all of them sung in exactly the same style. ʽThe Girl From Ipanemaʼ, supposed to be one of the lightest, springliest pop tunes in existence, an emblem of the happy flight attitude of the early Sixties, simply sinks under the weight of her voice — more like "the girl from Ipanema goes stomping", if you ask me. Good songs like ʽOl' Man Riverʼ and Bob Lind's ʽElusive Butterflyʼ get a Vegasy treatment in terms of vocals, and then there's fairly hokey songs like Michael Merchant's ʽTimeʼ (at least, it sounds hokey: I've never heard the original, if there ever was one).

 

Overall, there are two problems which you simply cannot work around: (a) weak source material, drifting way too far into the corny direction of mainstream pop rather than guitar-based pop-rock or folk-rock; and (b) inappropriate source material for Cher's one-trick voice, where attempts at diversity actually fail — be it Dylan, Tom Jones, Charles Aznavour, or Antonio Carlos Jobim, they all end up Cher-ified. The good news is — if she can only sing in one style, this means it's her natural style and she's being sincere about it. The bad news is, why do we even have to endure this in the first place? Bang bang, my baby gave thumbs down.

 

CHER (1966)

 

1) Sunny; 2) The Twelfth Of Never; 3) You Don't Have To Say You Love Me; 4) I Feel Something In The Air; 5) Will You Love Me Tomorrow; 6) Until It's Time For You To Go; 7) The Cruel War; 8) Catch The Wind; 9) Pied Piper; 10) Homeward Bound; 11) I Want You; 12) Alfie.

 

Same mistake again: Cher seems just about as interested in delivering most of this material as her passionate, emotion-torn, devastating facial expression on the front cover might suggest (I decode it if not as a "who am I?" sort of expression, then at least as a "what am I doing here?" variety). Instead of making her cover ʽSatisfactionʼ or ʽPositively 4th Streetʼ or at least the Stones' ʽStupid Girlʼ re-written as ʽStupid Boyʼ — songs that would have put her deep, aggressive vocals at an advantage — Sonny keeps saddling her with sentimental ballads that were never that good in the first place (although I must say that ʽYou Don't Have To Say You Love Meʼ makes me fondly re-appreciate the Dusty Springfield version), or with cleverly written, subtle folk-rock tunes whose magic is turned to mindless brawn (ʽHomeward Boundʼ).

 

I can only hope that the cover of ʽSunnyʼ here was not meant to read ʽSonnyʼ — considering the circumstances under which Bobby Hebb wrote the song, and its general atmosphere, you'd think it mighty strange for Cher to sing of Sonny Bono as a dead man 32 years before she put him on a radio-controlled pair of skis and drove him into a tree to mercifully spare him the agony of enduring the success of ʽBe­lieveʼ for the rest of his life. Actually, she gives a fairly convincing reading — ʽSunnyʼ works well as a strong statement of faith and power, rather than lyrical senti­mentality, and that's one thing that Cher can give; in this particular case, I'd certainly rather have her cover the song than Paul Simon, Donovan, or Dylan. (Not that anyone could ever beat the Boney M version, but oh well. Disco days weren't quite there yet back in 1966).

 

Weird choice of the day: ʽI Want Youʼ as the Dylan choice, with Cher forgetting the lyrics ("I wait for them to read your looks, while drinking from my broken cup" — geez, lady, that doesn't even rhyme!) and nobody giving a damn about it. Sonny reference of the day: "The cruel war is raging / Sonny has to fight" instead of "Johnny has to fight" in Peter, Paul & Mary's ʽCruel Warʼ. As far as I know, Sonny was never drafted, so we should be taking this as a metaphor, but I'm pretty sure quite a few of Sonny's friends must have given him some anxious calls about the mat­ter. The "Much Ado About Nothing" reference of the day: ʽAlfieʼ, the title track to the famous movie that made a star out of Michael Caine and whose hit status was disputed between Cilla Black, Cher, and Dionne Warwick — as far as I'm concerned, it's just another saccharine pill from Burt Bacharach, and the song sucks in any version.

 

The most «interesting» song of the lot is arguably ʽI Feel Something In The Airʼ, Sonny's only original composition here that is more intriguing because of its lyrics that deal with accidental pregnancy than the actual music (although it does feature a bold triple change of time signature, briefly becoming a waltz and a Motown girl group tune in the bridge section). Unfortunately, the tune did not manage to properly conquer the American charts — not because of the lyrics, but be­cause of the lack of an instantly gripping hook — and the album in general became a commercial disappointment, heralding the establishment of The Great Cher Sinusoid, wobbling between success and failure with almost befuddling regularity. Well, actually, the regularity becomes less befuddling when you realize it simply took time for her to catch up, and in late '66, she had problems with that. I mean, even Donovan was already way beyond pallid Dylan imitations like ʽCatch The Windʼ in late 1966, so come on already. Thumbs down.

 

WITH LOVE, CHER (1967)

 

1) You Better Sit Down Kids; 2) But I Can't Love You More; 3) Hey Joe; 4) Mama (When My Dollies Have Child­ren); 5) Behind The Door; 6) Sing For Your Supper; 7) Look At Me; 8) There But For Fortune; 9) I Will Wait For You; 10) The Times They Are A-Changin'.

 

I think this must have been the time when Sonny and Cher began dressing in ridiculous furs to boost their hip credibility, but also releasing anti-drug statements to bring it back down. Anyway, With Love, Cher is an important landmark — not only is its first side arguably the finest Cher side released up to that date, but it's almost as if Sonny finally found a style for her. With the ex­ception of ʽHey Joeʼ (which is ridiculous, but isn't that bad, by the way — decent combo of bluesy lead guitar with orchestration), the first four songs, three of them written by Sonny and one by master songwriter Graham Gouldman, are interesting cases of not-too-banal art-pop, with sentimental stories told in the form of mini-suites, with actual musical development, unpredic­table mood shifts and... well, intelligence.

 

The Gouldman song, ʽBehind The Doorʼ, is the most ambitious of these, and they dared release it as the first single, though it did not chart — too weird for Cher, people must have thought: a slow, melancholic, draggy lament, with mandolins a-plenty and the lead singer, apparently, wailing about all the evil things that go on behind locked doors, culminating in lines like "the people are awaiting... and still they go on mating!" Then, suddenly, it breaks into a quasi-Morriconesque Western theme for a dramatic moment, before reverting back to the original formula. If we did not know it was Cher, who really does not discriminate all that well between any kinds of mate­rial she is offered, we'd call the tune «emotionally resonant», but as it is, we'd rather exercise caution and just call it «weird», which is, after all, precisely what you'd expect from a soon-to-be 10cc member.

 

Sonny's songs are certainly less weird, but they're still good. The dramatic waltz ʽMama (When My Dollies Have Babies)ʼ is another of his attempts at monumentally pompous «Euro-art songs», but the multi-layered orchestral arrangements are nothing to laugh at, and even if one thinks that the song contains little of Cher's own soul, it is hard not to feel at least a bit of Sonny's, not to mention some pretty serious composing work. ʽBut I Can't Love You Moreʼ, for all of its Vegasy nature, is still catchy, and the brass / string / guitar arrangement is nothing less than excellent. The song that actually charted was the lightest of them all, ʽYou Better Sit Down Kidsʼ, and once you get used to the odd perspective of Cher singing this breakup tune from the father's point of view (then again, Wikipedia doesn't exactly have a «Cher as a gay icon» page for nothing), it's another cool tune, a bit of «progressive music-hall» with an odd funky-folksy mid-section. No, it hardly conveys all the pains and traumas of divorce, but it's a curious musical experiment.

 

Bad things wake up and go bump in the night on Side B, by which time Gouldman is no longer there, Sonny is getting tired, and Cher resorts to covering ʽSing For Your Supperʼ (nice try, but with Mama Cass in town, this is like John Lennon trying to battle Muhammad Ali), The Umbrel­las Of Cherbourg (no, no, please no!), Phil Ochs (Freedom Fighter Cher on the horizon), and ʽThe Times They Are A-Changin'ʼ, even though the times have already changed, and there was hardly any need to keep rubbing that in our noses. All of this stuff is completely expendable and forgettable, and basically reduces the value of the album to that of a small EP. Still, a break­through is a breakthrough, and the record does establish a certain «Cher formula» that would last well into the early 1970s, and arguably represents the only things of some artistic worth that she (with a lot of help from her husband) brought into this world, so thumbs up.

 

BACKSTAGE (1968)

 

1) Go Now; 2) Carnival (Manhã De Carnaval); 3) It All Adds Up Now; 4) Reason To Believe; 5) Masters Of War; 6) Do You Believe In Magic; 7) I Wasn't Ready; 8) A House Is Not A Home; 9) Take Me For A Little While; 10) The Impossible Dream (The Quest); 11) The Click Song; 12) Song Called Children.

 

Whatever hope may have been gained with the relative success of With Love was just as easily scattered away with Backstage, the inevitable next dip in quality in this endless win-some-lose-some game. Honestly, it is not easy to understand what they were thinking: this album, in sharp contrast to the previous one, has no original material whatsoever, not a single new Sonny Bono composition, and its choice of covers generally ranges from the tacky to the ridiculous.

 

Admittedly, the opening cover of ʽGo Nowʼ (probable reasoning behind the inclusion: «The Moody Blues are no longer doing this, so let's grab it before somebody else does!») is surprising­ly fine, with an almost dazzlingly complex arrangement of lead organ, brass, and strings, and with Cher herself rising to the challenge — apparently, her natural timbre is just perfect for all these "whoah-oh-oh-oh" bits, and besides, she usually sounds more convincing when telling some­body to go rather than stay, so it's okay. It's a powerhouse of a song that is well suited to her persona­lity, even if it was a little strange to try and rekindle the old flame whose overall relevance had ended with the passing of the original Moody Blues.

 

But what follows next is misfire after misfire. The theme from Black Orpheus, neither properly Latin in nature nor passionate in execution. Tim Hardin's beautiful ʽReason To Believeʼ, perfor­med by a well-meaning string quintet but sung without an ounce of real interest. Dylan's ʽMasters Of Warʼ, oddly reinvented as a sitar drone — I think Cher tried to think of herself as Joan Baez when doing it, but she still has a hard time mustering the tense hatred necessary to make this song work on the alleged gut level. The Lovin' Spoonful's ʽDo You Believe In Magic?ʼ, slowed and softened up — I'd never think that this song, one of the catchiest tunes of its epoch, could ever be murdered by anything short of being reinvented as a combo of generic synth-pop and hair metal, but apparently, all it takes is turning all the instrumental and vocal hooks into sonic mush, and that is precisely what is being done here.

 

Worst of all, if you really needed a perfect signal here of the «Not To Be Taken Seriously!» vari­ety, she gives it in the form of a cover of Miriam Makeba's ʽThe Click Songʼ — why? The lady does her best to learn the few necessary lines phonetically, but, of course, she is unable to pro­nounce even a single click, and the whole thing is 1968's musical equivalent of amusing people by putting on blackface (in the same year, that is). The most amazing thing is that they actually put it out as the first single from the album — probably the single not just most tasteless, but also the most commercially suicidal decision in Cher's career up to that point. Of course, the single did not even begin to chart, and I would not be surprised to learn that it may have made a laughing stock out of the artist at that moment (this was, after all, before "Cher" and "Las Vegas kitsch" became near-perfect synonyms).

 

Overall, the only recommendable tracks remain the opener and the closer: Bob West's ʽSong Called Childrenʼ is another excellent example of baroque instrumentation — a small chamber ensemble combining neo-romanticism with neo-classicism and providing a great background against which Cher's melodramatic delivery, mechanical as it is, acquires a certain epic quality. (Unfortunately, not having heard the original, I cannot say just how original this particular musi­cal arrangement is, but in any case, it has a breath of its own, regardless of whoever is singing on top of it — a saving grace for all these early Cher albums in general: some of the arrangements by the Wrecking Crew and other musicians stand the test of time much better than the singer's cool-calm-collected anti-emotionality).

 

In a way, Backstage closes the door on the first period of Cher's solo career — jamming a few toes in the progress. As long as Sonny could still write inventive baroque-pop ballads for her, the results could be at least mildly touching; once things were out of his hands, no amount of 18th century strings could save us from the schmaltz. Things were bound to reach nadir sooner or later, and there is nothing that could save Backstage from an embarrassed thumbs down, yet its criti­cal and commercial success did some good at least inasmuch as they gave the lady a pretext to cast off some of her musical past, and open up the next, and arguably the most interesting and redeeming chapter of that strange career.

 

3614 JACKSON HIGHWAY (1969)

 

1) For What It's Worth; 2) (Just Enough To Keep Me) Hangin' On; 3) (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay; 4) Tonight I'll Be Staying With You; 5) I Threw It All Away; 6) I Walk On Guilded Splinters; 7) Lay Baby Lay; 8) Please Don't Tell Me; 9) Cry Like A Baby; 10) Do Right Woman, Do Right Man; 11) Save The Children.

 

Common wisdom often rates this as the finest record in Cher's career, and that might not be far from the truth. According to Cher herself, she did not have any objections to hardening up her sound at the time — Sonny did, though, and as long as he at least compensated for that by writing good songs for her to sing, it was okay; but when he did not, the results were embarrassing, as on Backstage. So sometime in 1969, as their contracts expired, Cher finally took a break from Sonny's gui­dance, got herself a solo contract with Atlantic, and went to the Muscle Shoals Studio to make a brand new record with a brand new sound.

 

The result — a combination of the Muscle Shoals session band, easily the hottest R&B combo in 1969, and of Cher's iron-lady voice — may not be particularly stellar, but it did somehow bring out the best in Cher, as her singing suddenly becomes more self-confident, full of purpose, versa­tile, and, most importantly, well attuned to the music. As I already said several times, she is never at her best when playing vulnerable or sentimental, but she can really hit it off with aggression and power, and that definitely combines better with funky riffage and cocky brass blasts than gallant baroque-pop arrangements. So, even if it may be a rather banal choice to cover ʽFor What It's Worthʼ, right from the opening bars of syncopated acoustic guitar you get the feeling that "there's something happening here"; and when she sings "there's a man with a gun over there, telling me I've got to beware...", it's like "...telling ME I've got to beware? Does he have any idea who he's messing with in the first place?", and that's when you get The Click and the rest of the album rolls on smoothly.

 

Of course, not everything is perfect, and there'll always be some sentimental balladry to spoil the day, but the album will be remembered not for the sentimental balladry, but for really tough stuff like the cover of Dr. John's ʽI Walk On Guilded Splintersʼ, where the combination of the threate­ning hard rock riff with Cher's tough-guy delivery is honestly ravaging — I mean, she has abso­lutely zero of that voodoo angle of Dr. John's, and it's impossible to take her "Je suis le grand zombie!" literally, but as a general allegory of her toughness, well... "I wanna see my enemies on the end of my rope" hardly sounds like an empty threat. Too bad they did not include more tracks like this — it's totally the kind of swaggery stuff that the woman was born for, and one song she could really steal away from the originator.

 

Still, there's plenty of ballsy stuff on the rest of the record, and, amazingly, some of the best numbers are three Dylan covers, all of them from the recently released Nashville Skyline: solid rhythm section, tasty slide guitar licks, pompous brass fanfare, and powerhouse vocals transform ʽTonight I'll Be Staying Here With Youʼ, ʽI Threw It All Awayʼ, and ʽLay Lady Layʼ (the latter appropriately — semantically, if not phonetically — converted to ʽLay Baby Layʼ) into brazen anthems instead of quiet country ditties that they used to be, and they're all excellent, as Cher gets into all three tracks with verve, not to mention aggressive femininity. Even more curiously, she gets in credible renditions of Otis Redding (ʽDock Of The Bayʼ) and Aretha (ʽDo Right Womanʼ) that you'd probably never think her capable of in the early days — although one must always re­member to give proper credit to the musicians, providing the ideal bedrock for her to rise to the challenge and pump out some extra voltage on those vocals.

 

I am almost embarrassed to admit that the last and most explicitly soulful track, Eddie Hinton's ʽSave The Childrenʼ, generates a genuine emotional response despite an aura of soapiness around it (no, it's not about Ethiopia, it's about putting off a divorce so as not to leave the kids without a daddy), even though Cher can still sound a bit wooden in places, and "pleading Cher" is nowhere near as convincing by definition as "threatening Cher". Still, they help her out with a turbulent string arrangement and the closest thing they can find to a grand finale on the whole, and besides, considering how much Sonny was (reportedly) cheating on his wife at the time (while she was pregnant with Chaz — oh look, we're going all tabloid here), you can understand how she might have easily identified with the song's sentiment.

 

Overall, it does not really matter how much control she had during the recording of 3614 Jackson Highway — even if Jerry Wexler had all of it, that would only be for the better, since the man found her the right band and the right songs to cover. Reportedly, Sonny, despite standing there together with everybody and grinning at us on the front cover, felt himself shut out and never liked the record all that much, but hey, serves you right, man — (a) don't cheat on your wife and (b) don't make her cover Miriam Makeba and Black Orpheus. Isn't this what "a little respect when you come home" was all about in the first place? Thumbs up.

 

GYPSYS, TRAMPS & THIEVES (1971)

 

1) The Way Of Love; 2) Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves; 3) He'll Never Know; 4) Fire & Rain; 5) When You Find Out Where You're Goin' Let Me Know; 6) He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother; 7) I Hate To Sleep Alone; 8) I'm In The Middle; 9) Touch And Go; 10) One Honest Man.

 

The Seventies started on a high note for Cher, what with the popularity of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour — and, most importantly, with the release of Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves, an album very different from the rockier sounds of 3614 Jackson Highway, but, surprisingly, of as high quality as a Vegasy album of show tunes and ballads could possibly get. And it is not a mat­ter of musicianship (fairly ordinary for its times), nor of particularly great songwriting (Sonny's songs are not featured on the original album at all, except for two bonus tracks on the UK re­lease); mostly, it is a matter of getting Cher in good form, so that she can deliver some of these tunes as if her very life depended on it.

 

I mean the title track first and foremost, of course — written by Bob Stone and originally titled ʽGypsys, Tramps And White Trashʼ before the producer demanded something a little less offen­sive for the title. It's a nice pop song by itself, but something clicked, and Cher sounds even more powerful and angry here than she did on ʽI Walk On Guilded Splintersʼ: perhaps digging into her real (and quite troubled) childhood for inspiration, she is totally convincing when singing "I was born in the wagon of a traveling show" — then again, the song's chorus ("they'd call us gypsys, tramps and thieves / but every night all the men would come around / and lay their money down") could be said to allegorically describe Sonny & Cher's career up to that point, in a way, so it's not that surprising to witness her getting into the performance with such verve.

 

The same arrangement style («lush» production, steeped in acoustic guitars, strings, and wood­winds) is employed for almost all the tracks, but emphasis is never taken away from Cher's vocals, which are, as if by magic, liberated — for instance, she transforms James Taylor's quiet (and, honestly, quite plain and boring) ʽFire And Rainʼ into a powerstorm, with an awesome use of overtones that make that voice sound bass-deep and sky-high at the same time. ʽHe Ain't Heavy, He's My Brotherʼ does not work nearly as well as the Hollies' version (possibly because it's really more of a «male song», and Cher makes the mistake of singing it in her lowest register in order to sound more «male», which is a bit embarrassing), but she more than makes up for it with the up­beat-catchy cover of Peggy Clinger's ʽI Hate To Sleep Aloneʼ, and particularly with Ginger Greco's ʽOne Honest Manʼ — that one's almost as much of a keeper as the title track: "But I can't find one honest man / Why can't I find one honest man?" is a killer chorus, no doubt, once again inspired by real life events (curious that Sonny never raised a fuss about the song being on the record — then again, he wasn't that much in control by that point).

 

The only song that I actively dislike on the album is its second single — ʽThe Way Of Loveʼ, adapted from a 1960 French original (ʽJ'Ai Le Mal De Toiʼ), another one of those puffed-up French torch ballads that you either have a craving for or tend to dismiss because of their corni­ness. Personally, even despite the powerful singing, I'd throw it in the wastebasket along with all of her previous French material, and concentrate on the other nine songs, all of which are less pompous and do not come across as cheap tear-jerkers. In any case, they're generally faster, tougher, poppier, and snappier than standard Vegas schlock, so even if the arrangements on the album never go beyond orchestrated soft-rock, the album as a whole does not give the impression of being ready made for one of those glitzy Cher galas where she'd be dressed up like an Amazo­nian princess in heat.

 

UK listeners actually got an even better deal out of it: the US release was drastically short (just five short songs on each side), but the UK version had a Sonny song appended on each side — ʽClassified 1Aʼ, with a completely different, piano-based arrangement, was a ballad sung from the perspective of a soldier wounded in the Vietnam war (not one of Cher's best vocals, though: too operatic and leaden), and ʽDon't Put It On Meʼ was a percus­sion-heavy folk-pop song with curious key and time signature changes all over the place — melodically, one of the most expe­rimental numbers ever written by Sonny. On the other hand, though, both of those tunes are totally incompatible with the overall style of Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves — it is clearly seen that they come from a different place and with a different attitude. In any case, either edition gets a very strong thumbs up. If you're up for a bit of soft rock with a hard-sung edge, give this one a try: it does not have the rocking power of its predecessor, but still manages to hit hard in quite a few spots — possibly the most «human» album of Cher's entire career.

 

FOXY LADY (1972)

 

1) Living In A House Divided; 2) It Might As Well Stay Monday; 3) Song For You; 4) Down, Down, Down; 5) Don't Try To Close A Rose; 6) The First Time; 7) Let Me Down Easy; 8) If I Knew Then; 9) Don't Hide Your Love; 10) Never Been To Spain.

 

With a title like that, you might be expecting a bunch of tight, hot, sweaty Hendrix covers, but no dice. Once again, the album was produced by Snuff Garrett, with only marginal involvement from Sonny, yet the results were much less satisfactory than on the previous record. Two reasons come to mind immediately. First, the arrangements have become much more schmaltzy, with excessive use of Vegasy orchestration overshadowing the basic melodies — and second, Cher herself has become much more schmaltzy. The entire record, for crying out loud, sounds like one big rehearsal for an upcoming Vegas gig.

 

The best song of the lot is probably the first one, ʽLiving In A House Dividedʼ; although written by corporate songwriter Tom Bahler, it was a totally appropriate choice for Cher to sing, consi­dering her strained relationship with Sonny at the time. However, the arrangement is dreadfully generic, and the vocal performance is completely unconvincing — again, Cher finds it hard to express broken-hearted suffering, trying to compensate for this with a powerhouse screamfest, but ultimately she just ends up stuck somewhere between pain and anger, and the emotional potential of the tune ends up wasted. (Compare ʽGypsys, Tramps & Thievesʼ, where the anger mode worked to near-perfection).

 

And yet, the tune is still better than almost anything on this collection of mostly boring, hyper-orchestrated musical slush where everything goes wrong — mediocre songs, by-the-book arran­gements, uninvolved singing. Leon Russell's ʽA Song For Youʼ is another possible exception, but the song has been covered by just about everybody on Earth, so why would you want to add a Cher ver­sion? At least somebody like Karen Carpenter could capture all of its nuances and make it sound like a dialog between her two inner selves — Cher knows nothing about nuances, and be­sides it's almost impossible to picture her being "alone now and singing this song for you", con­sidering how natural it is for her to "act out my life on stages with 10,000 people watching".

 

There is no need whatsoever to comment on all the other schlock here; the main problem is not the songs, the main problem is the performer — she cannot even show a decent sense of humor on Hoyt Axton's ʽNever Been To Spainʼ, a cool demonstration of friendly ignorance and endea­ring nonchalance on which she ends up badly overacting and ruining the joke. (Granted, it's not as bad as the far more popular Three Dog Night cover, but only because Cher as a concept by which we measure our pain is vastly preferable to Three Dog Night in the same function in general). The only thing left to do, really, is just wonder at how they could miss the point so badly second time around — but then, the Sixties already showed us that the Cher story would always be a ran­dom lottery of many losses and few wins, and Foxy Lady, alas, initiates yet another losing streak, not to mention firmly cementing the dame's Seventies' image as that of a glam Vegas queen. Which worked all right for her at the time, to be sure, but now it's thumbs down all the way.

 

BITTERSWEET WHITE LIGHT (1973)

 

1) By Myself; 2) I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good; 3) Am I Blue; 4) How Long Has This Been Going On; 5) The Man I Love; 6) Jolson Medley; 7) More Than You Know; 8) Why Was I Born; 9) The Man That Got Away.

 

Surprisingly, this isn't that bad. Temporarily (actually, for the last time) under Sonny's productive control again, Cher retains the Vegas angle, but now it is applied to material that is more Vegasy by definition — the Great American Songbook — and the entire record is given over to lushly arranged, sprawling, time-taking covers of the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, and other Tin Pan Alley wonders. Of course, for a formerly «rocking» (to some extent) artist to record an album of golden oldies in the middle of 1973 was bound to be a commercial suicide, and so it was — prompting another rift between Cher and Sonny, and the eventual return into the hands of the more «modern-sensitive» Snuff Garrett. But nowadays, as we don't expect all that much from any Cher album by definition, it somehow manages to stand out as a particularly odd curiosity, for at least a couple of reasons.

 

One: it is curious to hear Cher's powerhouse approach applied to these songs — usually, you hear them as romantic and sentimental, or as melancholic and introspective if they're done by a Billie Holiday, or, you know, Sinatra-style, or Ella-style, but how about hearing them done in "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in" style? Because most of these Tin Pan Alley creations are really only what the performer makes them — and Cher takes a big whip to all of them and makes them scale epic heights, as if, you know, she was some kind of Juno and the average male protagonist of every song was some kind of Jupiter, and we'd be sitting in the amphitheater and watching them sort it out on Olympus through a looking-glass. (Although that does not prevent her from having her little jokes — it is quite telling that the first song in the ʽAl Jolson Medleyʼ is ʽSonny Boyʼ: "Climb upon my knee, Sonny boy / You are only three, Sonny boy" — I do so hope the dynamic duo made good use of that line on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour).

 

Two: the arrangements. They are actually above the generic Vegasy level, because Sonny Bono, the great lover of complex, multi-layered sound, drags just about every instrument possible in the studio and produces really thick, lush, polyphonic tracks — listen to ʽWhy Was I Bornʼ, for in­stance, where, in addition to the strings, you have flutes, brass, piano, harps, electric guitar (actu­ally, two electric guitars in a call-and-response session), and once Cher ceases singing, there's also a lengthy semi-psychedelic coda, with each of the instruments forming a gentle swaying wave of its own: honestly, it is hard to imagine the staggering amount of work that must have gone into this arrangement — and for what? Just so that the album could flop, because everybody would predictably concentrate on the a priori foolishness of the idea of Cher singing Tin Pan Alley material?.. Geez, Sonny boy, perhaps you were only three after all.

 

But on the other hand, it's really not that foolish. The combination of Sonny's production with Cher's Gargantuan vocals results in something that's somewhere half between kitsch and artistic bravery, and besides, you'd need Gargantuan vocals to rise above all the wall-of-sound ruckus created by a dozen or so musicians at once (listen to ʽThe Man I Loveʼ — strings, trumpets, gui­tars, and piano all compete with each other, caught in a wild bet on who of them, precisely, will be able to drown out Cher's voice... they all lose in the end, as she sustains that last note for about 20 seconds, which, come to think of it, comes a good quarter century before A-ha's ʽSummer Moved Onʼ, so, Morten, eat your Harket out!). So, in the end, there's something good about the idea, even if I can't quite put my finger on it. Really, I can't give the album a thumbs up because, honestly, I, too, couldn't care less about Cher doing the G.A.S., but at least they tried a highly unusual angle here, and it's up to anybody to decide if that angle really means something or if it's just a failed attempt at genre appropriation. In any case, worth hearing at least once.

 

HALF-BREED (1973)

 

1) My Love; 2) Two People Clinging To A Thread; 3) Half Breed; 4) The Greatest Song I Ever Heard; 5) How Can You Mend A Broken Heart; 6) Carousel Man; 7) David's Song; 8) Melody (Little Bossa Nova); 9) The Long And Winding Road; 10) This God Forsaken Day; 11) Chastity Sun.

 

Back into the arms of Snuff Garrett — once the idea of «The Great American Songbook As Re­imagined By The Sonny Bono Orchestra And Re-Testosteroned By Cher» turned out to be com­mercially defunct, Cher decisively ditched Sonny as producer (and, less than a year later, would ditch him as husband) and returned to Mr. Garrett for yet another record of pure Vegasy schlock. On the whole, this one is a tiny bit better than Foxy Lady, yet still nowhere near a return to the moderately high quality of Gypsys.

 

You can probably sense the difference if you compare the title tracks — both pictured Cher as the abused protagonist in outcast fantasy scenarios, but where ʽGypsies, Tramps & Thievesʼ had a ringing note of truth to it, ʽHalf-Breedʼ is almost purely theatrical, relying more on its pop catchi­ness than on a nuanced vocal performance. Ironically, of the two, it is ʽHalf Breedʼ that should have struck closer to home — Cher does have some Cherokee ancestry on her mother's side, al­though I highly doubt it that "the other children always laughed at me / Give her a feather, she's a Cherokee" comes even remotely close to being autobiographical. Nevertheless, the proto-disco strings, the overall arrangement that gives the impression of a poor soundtrack to some blacks­ploitation movie, and the lack of a particularly striking vocal move prevents the song from being taken too seriously, and puts it too close to the territory of simple vaudeville entertainment.

 

Not that there's anything wrong with simple vaudeville entertainment, and I do like the song, written for Cher by master entertainer Al Capps — the real problem is that there's not enough of pure, healthily cheesy vaudeville entertainment on the record. Instead, the tracks that draw most of the attention are covers of hit ballads — two McCartney tunes, done decently but unspecta­cularly (ʽMy Loveʼ is sung well, but that pitiful guitar solo in the middle is a pathetic joke compared to the elegant solo by Henry McCullough on the original release; and ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ shouldn't be touched by Cher, who can't do «pleading» to save her life), and one Bee Gees tune, done unconvincingly (again, to do ʽHow Can You Mend A Broken Heartʼ, you have to at least create the illusion that you actually, like, have a broken heart — Cher's heart, meanwhile, always gives the impression of being encrusted with steel plate armor, and its 80-year guarantee  has not expired yet).

 

Of the tracks that draw less attention, only one other is also a piece of bouncy, light-hearted cheese, but this time it pretty much stinks — Johnny Durrill's ʽCarousel Manʼ, another silly tale of outcast life in the Wild West, with not a shred of conviction; and the rest is still more balladry, this time obscure, but probably for a reason. Dick Holler, Jack Segal, pre-Toto David Paich... steady, reliable, sparkless composers as interpreted by a steady, reliable, sparkless singer. The only time she does sparkle is at the very end, when she takes a recent Seals & Crofts song and re-writes it as ʽChastity Sunʼ, dedicating it to her daughter (not particularly relevant now that the daughter is no longer a daughter, but it's fun how, what with Chaz Bono's sex change adventure and all, the words "When I look at you / In your eyes I see / The world that God meant to be" now take on a starkly progressive meaning) — anyway, that song is probably the only one on the whole album where Cher stops being Cher for a moment and becomes a genuinely loving mother, even finding it in herself to introduce a little falsetto during the tenderest moments.

 

Still, one sweet moment, scattered bits of cheesy entertainment, and a few (botched) megahits with originally great melodies do not earn Half-Breed a lot of respectability — on the whole, it's just one more generic early Seventies' LP, aimed at the target audience of the largely unfunny Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, and even the fact that it temporarily put Cher back on the charts again (album sales were much higher than for Bittersweet White Light, and ʽHalf-Breedʼ was a number one for her) does not mean much in the grand scheme of thumbs down.

 

DARK LADY (1974)

 

1) Train Of Thought; 2) I Saw A Man And He Danced With His Wife; 3) Make The Man Love Me; 4) Just What I've Been Lookin' For; 5) Dark Lady; 6) Miss Subway Of 1952; 7) Dixie Girl; 8) Rescue Me; 9) What'll I Do; 10) Apples Don't Fall Far From The Tree.

 

Cher's last album with Snuff Garrett is even campier than Half-Breed, but at this point in her life, the idea of Cher doing ridiculous camp looked more promising than the idea of her doing roman­tic ballads — if you're gonna go Vegas, at least do it burlesque style, rather than sink in boring sentimentalism (ʽI Saw A Man And He Danced With His Wifeʼ). The hit single, this time around, did not even pretend to seriousness: where ʽGypsys, Tramps & Thievesʼ and ʽHalf-Breedʼ gave thin hints at «autobiographic» potential (or at least could metaphorically relate to the singer's personal history in some way), ʽDark Ladyʼ is simply a tongue-in-cheek mock-murder ballad with corny gypsy overtones and a super-catchy chorus — total kitsch, exploiting every lyrical and musical cliché in the book, impossible to take seriously ("the fortune queen of New Orleans was brushing her cat in her black limousine" — the first two lines pretty much say it all), but with a strangely lively pulse through it all: enough to drive the single all the way to No. 1, giving the lady her second mega-success in a row after ʽHalf-Breedʼ... and then it would be her last No. 1 until ʽBelieveʼ opened a whole new wide world for her and Autotune.

 

There are a few tunes here that are honestly better than ʽDark Ladyʼ: ʽTrain Of Thoughtʼ, writ­ten by Alan O'Day, is a fine, fast-tempo R&B number, late Elvis style, with cool orchestral swoops and a genuine powerhouse vocal (while the story of betrayal on ʽDark Ladyʼ is just too crude to be believable, it's always great to hear Cher bawling at her adulterous man on general principles, and ʽTrain Of Thoughtʼ gives her a great opportunity to set her entire army on poor Sonny). ʽMiss Subway Of 1952ʼ is not half-bad if you like good old fashioned music hall (think Ray Davies and ʽShe's Bought A Hat Like Princess Marinaʼ), and the cover of Fontella Bass' ʽRescue Meʼ... well, the best thing about it is that it taught me about the original, which is better (although it is almost the same song as Otis Redding's ʽI Can't Turn You Looseʼ), but Cher's version here benefits from a well-expanded brass section that would probably have been impossible in 1965, so... OK.

 

Nothing else stands out, honestly: a bunch of plastic ballads from all ages (including Irving Berlin's ʽWhat'll I Doʼ, because it had just been used in The Great Gatsby, so why pass up on a good opportunity?) and some lackluster pop with titles like ʽApples Don't Fall Far From The Treeʼ that are the most memorable thing about the song. Altogether, in terms of consistency Dark Lady is perhaps a bit of an improve­ment on Half-Breed (one really good song, one decent cover, two guilty campy pleasures), but who really cares? Both of these records are decent restaurant level entertainment, nothing else. You know what is the most important credit on the entire album? «Dress: Calvin Klein». I don't even have any idea about who plays what, but they're totally right, it's all about the dress.

STARS (1975)

 

1) Love Enough; 2) Bell Bottom Blues; 3) These Days; 4) Mr. Soul; 5) Just This One Time; 6) Geronimo's Cadillac; 7) The Bigger They Come The Harder They Go; 8) Love Hurts; 9) Rock And Roll Doctor; 10) Stars.

 

This is a curious one. With Cher's divorce finalized at last, she became involved with David Geffen, who got her out of her old MCA contract and procured a new one for her — with Warner Bros., sort of implying that the woman should now be able to shake off her vaudevillian image and get serious. And for a while, she did: getting away not just from Sonny, but from Snuff Garrett as well, she teamed up with Jimmy Webb (a far more serious producer, not to mention songwriter) and, in the place of fluffy oldies and corporate corn, independently selected a bunch of serious material to cover. Just look at that track listing — Derek & The Dominos, Buffalo Springfield, Janis Ian, Little Feat, Jackson Browne (actually, ʽThese Daysʼ is even more associa­ted with Nico, who recorded it first), Jimmy Cliff? That's some goddamn taste out there, even if the album sleeve still leaves a lot to be desired.

 

More importantly, there are some nifty touches that actually make some of these covers interes­ting — I do not know for how many of them Cher might be directly responsible, but this is of little significance, as long as she has a wise guiding hand behind her. ʽBell Bottom Bluesʼ, in particular, might be the best ever cover of this song — not only because the lead singer finds herself capable of genuine emotion (she shakes, quivers, screams, in short, does everything in her power to sound more like a real human being than a Dark Plastic Queen), but also because of the backing vocals singing "I don't want to fade away..." in a much more inventive and gripping manner than on the original — the second repeat, with a falsetto rise to imitate the "fade away" aspect, is just gorgeous. Throw in some classy lead guitar work, first time in ages (probably courtesy of Jesse Ed Davis, who is credited for lead guitar on the album in general), and there you go — something that the artist can actually be proud of; never in a million years would I have suggested on my own that she'd get away with this kind of soulfulness.

 

Next to this obvious highlight, the other choices are not as immediately striking, but in most cases, she gets the vibe right. ʽThese Daysʼ is, of course, more tender and less claustrophobic than the Nico version, what with all the strings and dawn-announcing horns and elegant, minimalistic steel guitar solos, but then, the song is about convalescing after an emotional breakdown, after all, and from that point of view, Cher might be truer to the original message of the song than Nico was (because for Nico, the process of «emotional convalescing» usually implies moving from a rougher to a slightly more comfortable coffin). ʽMr. Soulʼ, with its bitter, sarcastic tone, is just the kind of rocker almost custom-made for Cher to cover, and she gives a cool-as-heck performance (although, yes, we'd all probably love more feedback on the guitar riff). Even Little Feat's ʽRock And Roll Doctorʼ is a hoot, and you actually get to hear Cher in «barking» mode, probably feeling more alive during the recording that she had in years.

 

As for lush, bombastic orchestrated ballads, Webb's own ʽJust This One Timeʼ should probably be mentioned, not because it is a great song in itself, but because it features Cher in «diva mode», suddenly discovering a whole new octave to her voice and stunning us all with some proto-Mariah Carey falsettos (which, in 1975, were still nowhere near the same level of cliché that they became twenty – thirty years later). Not so clear about the title track, which, besides its author Janis Ian, is also typically associated with Nina Simone, and both of them did stripped-down (acoustic guitar and piano respectively) versions of it, whereas Cher, of course, gives it the full treatment, guitar and piano, and rhythm section, and lush strings — the thing is, this is one of those songs that is completely dependent on atmosphere and interpretation, and in Cher's version, I do not see any specific elements of interpretation that would rise above the average «lush-strings-and-deep-voice» type of seduction. But at least it doesn't suck or anything.

 

In any case, there's enough progress and depth on Stars to qualify it as a bona fide thumbs up type of album. Of course, it still flopped: fans of Comedy Hour were most likely disappointed not to find another ʽHalf-Breedʼ or ʽDark Ladyʼ on here, whereas people looking for serious art had given up on Cher a long time ago, and could not be coaxed into giving her one more chance just because, all of a sudden, she started selecting serious authors for her cover material — besides, 1975 may have been just a little too late to try and establish herself as an old-fashioned interpre­ter of singer-songwriter stuff, considering that «strong solo female artists for the demanding taste» were already beginning to look like Patti Smith rather than Janis Ian. Unfortunately, once again, just like the failure of Jackson Highway in 1969 had derailed her from the right path, so did the failure of Stars once again put her on the fluffy vaudeville track, and again it would now take another half a decade for another botched attempt at seriousness...

 

I'D RATHER BELIEVE IN YOU (1976)

 

1) Long Distance Love Affair; 2) I'd Rather Believe In You; 3) I Know (You Don't Love Me No More); 4) Silver Wings And Golden Rings; 5) Flashback; 6) It's A Cryin' Shame; 7) Early Morning Strangers; 8) Knock On Wood; 9) Spring; 10) Borrowed Time.

 

So, with the commercial failure of Stars, Cher was once again put in the hands of calculating craftsmen rather than people with a nobler understanding of music — for her second Warner Bros. album, the producers were Steve Barri (who'd previously worked with various bubblegum acts, mostly) and Michael Omartian (a session keyboardist and Christian disco-rock artist with album titles like Adam Again!); their main joint claim to fame up to that date was collaboration within the band Rhythm Heritage, remembered mostly for the ʽTheme From S.W.A.T.ʼ (of course, «remembered» is probably a rather strong word here).

 

The logical expectation here would be an all-out disco album, but apparently the time was not quite ripe yet — this was, after all, still a pre-Saturday Night Fever kind of world, and so there is really only one song that borders on disco, without yet embracing all of its stereotypes: ʽLong Distance Love Affairʼ, a surprisingly catchy and turbulent pop-rocker that aspires to conveying some genuine emotional turbulence — with a grappling instrumental string break and a pretty damn good performance from Cher himself: songs about adultery, even long-distance one, have always seemed right up her alley anyway. (Basically, she always sounds more convincing when she sings about cheating rather than when she sings about being cheated, even if in real life it was usually the other way around).

 

Most of the other dance-pop numbers on the record, curiously enough, are oldies: decent, but unspectacular covers of ʽI Know (You Don't Love Me No More)ʼ and ʽKnock On Woodʼ, as well as a take on the poorly remembered Gayle McCormick hit ʽIt's A Cryin' Shameʼ. She gives all of these a pleasant, listenable Cher coating, and the arrangements, replete with funky guitars, loud brass, and agile rhythm sections, all reflect good mid-Seventies craft. But the only other song that manages to stand out a little is ʽFlashbackʼ, a new composition by Artie Wayne that combines elements of pop balladry and funk with creative arranging touches (harpsichords? ghostly elec­tric guitar sighs in the background? bring 'em on!) and a great chorus hook — Cher's "...and I flashback!.." with a meaningful pause after the two big beats is arguably the most attention-draw­ing moment of the album, and, on the whole, ʽFlashbackʼ is closer to «art-pop» than anything else on here, a classy song that could have gone down in history as a major highlight of the 1970s had it been done by any other artist.

 

Everything else, including the title track, is in the balladry camp, and not very interesting: ten years later, this stuff would have been presented in the shape of pop-metallic power ballads and sound disgusting — here, it just sounds okay, with strings, pianos, horns, and gospel background vocals creating a decent generic ambience. ʽBorrowed Timeʼ, concluding the album, seems cat­chier to me than the rest, but that's not saying much. They do not irritate, and that's the best I can say about all of them. Overall, I am surprised at how okayish the record is as a whole, and ʽLong Distance Love Affairʼ with ʽFlashbackʼ probably belong on any reasonable Cher anthology, even though, frankly speaking, they don't have that much to do with Cher as an artist... but then again, what does? Other than that, I'd rather believe in somebody else.

 

CHERISHED (1977)

 

1) Pirate; 2) He Was Beautiful; 3) War Paint And Soft Feathers; 4) Love The Devil Out Of Ya; 5) She Loves To Hear The Music; 6) L. A. Plane; 7) Again; 8) Dixie; 9) Send The Man Over; 10) Thunderstorm.

 

Much to Cher's honor, this seems to have been the only album of hers released so far to have a pun in the title, as endless as the possibilities are (off the top of my head: 10 Golden Cher-ries, Mon Cher Ami, Go Cher-ry Coupe Now, Cher-ade, and, of course, the queen of 'em all, Ochi Cher-nyje! Hmm, come to think of it, she wasn't saddled with all these songs of Cher-okee origins for nothing, either). But the title is not the only hint at desperation that seems to have gripped the Cher camp as two of her albums in a row flopped so badly — Snuff Garrett is back, obviously in a last-minute attempt to put her back on the track with another hit single of the ʽHalf-Breedʼ or ʽDark Ladyʼ caliber.

 

Unfortunately, it did not help this time. All faith was put in ʽPirateʼ, another soapy tale relying on romantic clichés from the pre-industrial past (and yes, the song even opens with the sound of seagulls — how fortunate for them that they did not have this idea three years back, or else we'd probably have ʽHalf-Breedʼ opening with an Indian war cry), and it is a dutifully catchy proto-power ballad with a nice singalong chorus (and a really silly accordeon part to boot — I'm not sure if Captain Flint or Henry Morgan were such big fans of the accordeon...), but, alas, it has neither the personal angle of ʽGypsiesʼ and ʽHalf-Breedʼ nor the fun aspect of ʽDark Ladyʼ; and although I'm fairly sure that there were much, much cheesier tunes to have charted in 1979, it is probably no accident that ʽPirateʼ ultimately did not make it, barely scratching the Top 100.

 

The second single was even less lucky: ʽWar Paint And Soft Feathersʼ is a shameless attempt to cash in on the fond memory for ʽHalf-Breedʼ by rewarding us with a literal pulpy Romeo-and-Juliet story in two Indian tribes. With awful lyrics and a cheap vaudeville flair, this must have been Cher's worst single release in a long, long time, and even Snuff Garrett should have been ashamed of that one, not to mention all the honest people in Indian reservations throughout the US, who should have probably barred Cher from their casinos for life.

 

Honestly, I don't even have any ideas about who most of those songwriters are — Steve Dorff? Gloria Sklerov? Gary Harju? Whatever. Warner Bros. may have had their reasons for being angry about Cher's albums flopping one after another, but they share the blame themselves: couldn't they find somebody at least marginally more talented to provide the lady with new material? The only songwriter here who looks like he's at least trying is Johnny Durrill, the author of ʽDark Ladyʼ: he is responsible for what is probably the best tune — the fluffy, but funny ʽLove The Devil Out Of Yaʼ, beginning like a slow boring ballad but then picking up speed and leading to a danceable, cuddly chorus with some endearing vocal moves (the accappella falsetto rainbow of "shine above ya this angel...", interrupting the discoish flow, is really endearing). And as much as I hate to admit that a Cher song called ʽDixieʼ and beginning with the line "Wish I was in the land of cotton..." could be any good, it is — the string arrangement in the chorus is quite unusual, with a tinge of psychedelia, and the build-up and resolution are quite... um... emotional?

 

The most «interesting» tune is probably ʽSend The Man Overʼ, co-written by Garrett himself: its tale of a struggling actress, stuck between stardom and whoredom, clearly sounds related (only tangentially, of course, but still...) to Cher's current predicament, and with each chorus conclu­ding with a rather desperate appeal to "send the man over, I guess, with a script... and the cash!", you could almost find yourself empathizing for the poor thing. (Not that she was particularly striving for cash at the time — on the contrary, her glamorous extravagance was legendary — but hey, it does hurt when your albums do not sell, even if you're already loaded. A matter of hurt pride at least. We're all human, even if Cher may ultimately constitute a separate subspecies).

 

On the whole, despite the shortness of the LP and a few decent tunes, Cherished is definitely a thumbs down kind of record — the old Snuff Garrett albums could be redeemed by their kitsch, but this is like an unfunny parody on kitsch, and too much of the material just sounds like weak, half-assed imitations of contemporary sounds from ABBA or Olivia Newton-John (regardless of our critical opinion on these artists, they at least always sounded like they knew exactly what they were doing and where they were going, whereas Cher here just seems lost most of the time). Had she been more in control of her personal life in 1977, this may have been less of a disaster, but the times were confusing, and what can you expect from a glamorous vaudeville star marrying a technically incompatible Southern rock icon anyway?

 

TAKE ME HOME (1979)

 

1) Take Me Home; 2) Wasn't It Good; 3) Say The Word; 4) Happy Was The Day We Met; 5) Git Down (Guitar Groupie); 6) Love And Pain; 7) Let This Be A Lesson To You; 8) It's Too Late To Love Me Now; 9) My Song (Too Far Gone).

 

This was a significant commercial rebound for Cher, and I think I know why — if you were a hot-blooded young male back in 1979 and you went in a record shop and you saw that album cover and it said TAKE ME HOME on it, well, not doing so would be like disobeying a direct order from your superior. And you could actually get away with it because it wasn't porn, it was art, even though you'd probably still have to look away and whistle a merry tune while the clerk was checking it out for you at the counter.

 

An inferior hypothesis says that the album (and especially the title track as its lead single) sold well because it had Cher finally going disco, and yes, ʽTake Me Homeʼ (the song) is like the distant ancestor of ʽBelieveʼ, Cher's fully fledged introduction to the world of hot-sweaty dance-pop; but then, almost everybody was going disco in 1979, and not everybody was able to make it up the charts, so I still hold my ground that it was the Golden Butterfly outfit paired with the lady's usual ice-cold look that did most of the job. Never was so much flesh bared before, and even though in terms of raciness she'd outdo herself on the next album, there's something unique about this combination of Conan the Barbarian paraphernalia and the deadpan stare that must have fascinated pop culture addicts back in the day.

 

Oh, and once you're done, there's some music, too. Everything is contributed by contemporary outside songwriters; the first side of the album is completely given over to disco workouts, but the second side is more diverse, leaning heavier on older styles of funk and R&B and weaving in some balladry for a change. Amazingly, it's not as bad as one might think — if we judge disco by its basic fun quotient (and that's probably the only way to judge disco), the songs on the first side really try to entertain. ʽTake Me Homeʼ, agreeing with the trend, is stretched out to almost seven minutes, and the instrumental section in the middle shows some impressive musicianship — a steady, gritty rhythm track with formulaic, but captivating string swoops and flows. And although Cher's vocals seem to aim for a sentimental effect, this does not hurt the overall light fun atmos­phere of the song. The same goes for everything else — decent rhythms, catchy choruses, and unpretentious carelessness is the word of the day: generic, but professional and almost never irri­tating (I think that the electronically treated «meet-your-subconscious» background vocals on ʽWasn't It Goodʼ are the only element here that transcends the permissible level of corniness, but we can all just pretend that we haven't heard them in the first place).

 

The second side, however, even goes as far as to feature a couple of really good songs: ʽGit Down (Guitar Groupie)ʼ trades in sentimentalism for a harsher, rockier sound, and Cher really gets into the atmosphere with her impersonation of a "lady from the valley / Coming out to check a band". It's a little sexy, a little sarcastic, a little silly, and everybody lets his / her hair down for a while, with frenetic (but not yet hair-metal-level) guitar soloing, wild piano banging, and a big step away from the over-glossed, no-risk-taking sound of Side A. And then there's Tom Snow's ʽLet This Be A Lesson To Youʼ, a funky, New Orleanian pop-rocker with a simple, but irresis­tible singalong chorus — not to mention that, as usual, Cher is always at her best when she is the dominatrix, not the love slave.

 

As for the ballads, we could all be very happy without ʽLove And Painʼ which goes as far as to rip off a whole complete line from Badfinger's ʽWithout Youʼ ("well I guess that's just the way my story goes" — well I guess we could call it an intertextual quotation, but the entire song feels like an inferior rip-off in the end), but at the end there's a little bit of enjoyable acoustic sweetness: ʽMy Song (Too Far Gone)ʼ is a completely autobiographical song about the end of her ill-fated alliance with Gregg Allman, with lyrics penned by Cher herself and melodic assistance offered by Mark and Brett Hudson of the Hudson Brothers (Mark Hudson would later go on to have a devil affair with Aerosmith, contributing to their artistic demise, and an angel affair with Ringo Starr, contributing to his artistic revival — go figure). It's touching because, technically, it's just another ballad in her usual story-telling vein, but this time you know it's all for real, and it almost re­deems for how the album started out on such a completely artificial note.

 

Bottomline, never mind the album sleeve (or, rather, never mind it in terms of musical relevance; it must have had a special meaning for the ʽPictures Of Lilyʼ fanclub): the album itself is no­where near as bad as it could have been, and, overall, it is definitely more fun than Cherished: Cher's personality does get dissipated behind the disco gloss, but, first of all, I've heard much worse disco gloss, and second, she never had that much personality in the first place to hold a mourning service or anything. And at least I'd be happy to have ʽGit Downʼ, ʽLet This Be A Lesson To Youʼ, and ʽMy Songʼ on any reasonable career overview.

 

PS. For a special review of the infamous «Allman And Woman» project, Two The Hard Way, you'll have to wait until I get around to Gregg Allman's solo career, since it's more of a Gregg project than a Cher one.

 

PRISONER (1979)

 

1) Prisoner; 2) Holdin' Out For Love; 3) Shoppin'; 4) Boys And Girls; 5) Mirror Image; 6) Hell On Wheels; 7) Holy Smoke; 8) Outrageous.

 

As ridiculous as it may sound, this album is actually fun, in its own sick demented way. The album sleeve takes us even further than Take Me Home — every time Cher makes yet another speech at some feminist rally these days, please don't forget to bring her an old copy of the record for an autograph — and so does the music, which is still essentially disco, but is now thoroughly mixed with elements of hard rock and bubbly-synthy New Wave. Some critics used this mixture as food for jabbing, accusing the lady of artistic confusion, and while they may have been for­mally right, I think that the main point of Prisoner is not to find a new musical direction, but to state, as brashly as possible, that «I'm crazy as heck and I want everyone to know it!».

 

Just look at this — there's not a single ballad on the album, not anywhere in sight. There are songs about ʽShoppin'ʼ (something that she really likes to do, and she's being brutally honest about it), about being ʽOutrageousʼ ("I'm gonna wear what I will and spend some" — you bet she is, even if what she wills consists of nothing but a set of chains and Lady Godiva hair), about representing ʽHell On Wheelsʼ ("Try me on for size at the roll-a-rama!" — yeesh...), and even when she gets around to a bit of tormented introspection, it is still set to a fast tempo and a punchy beat (ʽMirror Imageʼ). It's all about a flurry of rhythms, tempos, loud grooves, screechy solos, and non-stop energy — and, unlike the disco songs on the first side of Take Me Home, these tunes do not sound as if they were made exclusively for the sake of serving as dancefloor fodder. Even if most of them were written by the same songwriting team that served on Take Me Home (Bob Esty and Michele Aller).

 

ʽHell On Wheelsʼ, released as the first single and glorifying the lady's love for roller-skating (not biking!), is an honestly fun rock-disco hybrid, with several key changes, Van Halen-lite soloing (I think that Toto's Steve Lukather may be responsible for these parts, but not entirely sure), and a fabulous "LOOK OUT!" echoeing across the room as trendy synth explosions imitate the rocket-like propulsion of... well, it's all about life in the fast lane, and Cher does her best to deliver. She still did not manage to propel the song any higher than No. 59 on the charts, but at least it would be higher than anything else from her in the next eight years. And this kind of effort definitely suited her personality better than the second single, ʽHoldin' Out For Loveʼ, co-written by Tom Snow and Cynthia Weil — a somewhat softer, keyboard-based, discoified R&B tune with ugly synth tones for the main riff and an overall tepid delivery.

 

I mean, it's hilarious all the way, but about half of this record is directly autobiographical and very convincing. ʽShoppin'ʼ might be the best anthem to shoppin' ever recorded — at least, one of the most honest ones ("ooh, they're having a sale — my God, I love sales!"), a clever disco-era update of the decadent-sarcastic cabaret vibe; ʽBoys And Girlsʼ rolls on at an almost insane tempo, way too fast for disco, an exuberant party-pop-rock number with Cher spinning tales of wild, reckless living faster than you could process them; and even when she seems to be making some ecologically conscious statement on ʽHoly Smokeʼ, it is still not entirely clear if she is more concerned about mounting pollution or about mounting gas prices (I would think that in 1979, the latter was of far more concern to the lady than the former).

 

So, basically, you have to look past the first two tracks (ʽHoldin' Out For Loveʼ and the title track, a rather unremarkable and stereotypical dance number) so as to find a somewhat amusingly under­rated and overlooked, superficially personal little record that was probably much more true to the inner state of mind and the casual lifestyle of late 1970s Cher than, say, something like Spirits Having Flown was to late 1970s Bee Gees. To recognize this fact, I give the album a thumbs up where most other reviewers tend to give it one star out of five — even if you are by nature prejudiced against «white disco», Prisoner is not really a proverbial disco album; it's a whacked-out stylistic hybrid that paints a curious, but wholly believable picture of a befuddled socialite on her own highway to hell. It is obviously cheesy to the extreme, but it is far more vibrant, alive, and amusing than most of the lady's best-selling, but lifeless creations that restored her to commercial favor in the late Eighties. Kind of like the equivalent of silly, but fun late 1970s Aerosmith versus... well, you know.

 

BLACK ROSE (1980)

 

1) Never Should've Started; 2) Julie; 3) Take It From The Boys; 3) We All Fly Home; 4) 88 Degrees; 5) You Know It; 6) Young And Pretty; 7) Fast Company.

 

Cher as an «anonymous» member of a fresh young rock band? Come on, you're not fooling anyone — in fact, in 1991, when the album was finally prepared for CD release, the Spec­trum label recklessly slapped Cher's face and name on the front cover. But in 1980, somebody some­where thought that it might be a good idea to re-model Cher after Blondie — a naughty girl fronting a band of dashing, hot-blooded young men: they provide the innovative modern music and she provides the... umm... atmosphere, or something like that.

 

The basic partnership was between Cher and Les Dudek, an aspiring guitarist who'd already had several unsuccessful solo albums to his name and had played with Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller, among others — meaning that, even though he was eight years younger than Cher herself, there was really no talk of any truly «modernistic» New Wave approach here. The rest of the «Black Rose» band were not that different, either — mostly some unknown session players, occasionally aided by the same players from Toto that had already contributed to previous Cher albums. Who knows, maybe if she'd bothered to find herself a less bland team, the project might have been more successful, or, at the very least, Black Rose might have become one of those «cult» records that certain types of people are fond of rediscovering and reevaluating.

 

As it is, it's not too bad, but heck, if you're risking your neck on a project like this, you really shouldn't be calling the first track on your first album ʽNever Should've Startedʼ, right? Most of the songs sound like relatively safe, family-friendly late 1970s pop-rock, far heavier on the key­boards than necessary and neither too heavy on the hooks (bad news for lovers of pop) nor on the anger / kick-ass aspect (not surprising, since Cher was never that much of a certified rocker). But on the positive side, there are hooks, and everything is surprisingly listenable, not to mention that it's kinda fun to see Cher loosen up: on ʽNever Should've Startedʼ, she goes from a perturbed falsetto in the quiet first section to a Debbie Harry-like wild cat as the song picks up steam, and that's probably more of a transformation within one song than on any other tune from any pre­vious stage of her career. If only the guitar work were up to that level, and the synthesizers were not so obnoxious, this could have started something.

 

Arguably the main highlight is ʽJulieʼ, notoriously written by major glam-rock songwriter Mike Chapman with lyrics provided by Bernie Taupin himself (that is where you end when you tem­porarily suspend your relationship with Elton) — you can sort of tell this ain't no ordinary enter­prise with lines like "Well now I know / Julie you're the shape of sin / But I can strut like Bowie / When the line dance begins", not to mention Cher openly calling the protagonist a "lying bitch" (yes, we all know how strongly Bernie feels about women). Throw in the most modern-sounding arrangement on the whole album, with big electronic drums, weirdly warbled guitars, and a subtle robotic effect on Cher's vocals — and you just might have something there. Why wasn't this track released as a single? If you're gonna go odd on your audience, you might as well go all the way.

 

The other songs all trot along nicely, but there isn't much I could say about them. Cher barks and snaps as best as she can to imitate a tough rock'n'roll girl (especially on ʽTake It From The Boysʼ), but this is never outbalanced with any sense of humor or irony; and when the best riff on the album (ʽFast Companyʼ), upon being turned over to your core memory department, turns out to be a minor variation on Mick Ronson's riff on Bowie's ʽHang On To Yourselfʼ, you know they just aren't doing a very good job nohow. The Dudek dude takes lead vocals on one song (ʽYou Knowʼ), dueting with Cher, but he's one of those deadpan-sincere-sounding romantic guys with a decent set of pipes that all seem like inferior clones of Lou Gramm, so no.

 

Not that, had they kept it up, this could not have turned into something more impressive... then again, they'd probably have to replace most of the players and start bringing in more daring and competent songwriters, and that would end up an impossibility anyway. Still, whatever be, kudos to Cher anyway for taking the wise decision to break out of the disco trap (an easy decision, con­sidering the overall backlash of 1980) and to not go all electro-pop or «modern R&B» on our asses (a much harder decision, considering that would have probably been the most natural choice for her at the moment, following in the footsteps of many other «divas»). At the very least, this is kind of like a white stone instead of a black one in her career, even if it still does not deserve a proper thumbs up. But look up ʽJulieʼ if you have three and a half minutes of free time.

 

I PARALYZE (1982)

 

1) Rudy; 2) Games; 3) I Paralyze; 4) When The Love Is Gone; 5) Say What's On Your Mind; 6) Back On The Street Again; 7) Walk With Me; 8) The Book Of Love; 9) Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.

 

The only musical change that goes hand in hand with Cher dropping the «I'm just a singer in a rock'n'roll band» slogan is that there is a slight shift of melodic content from guitar to keyboards, but other than that, I Paralyze is pretty much a natural sequel to Black Rose — the lady is trying to adapt to new musical realities without selling out completely to the dance-pop scene. Once again, she has a new record label (Columbia) and a new producer — John Farrar, known for his work with Olivia Newton-John; and, maybe even more importantly, a recognizable songwriter partner amidst a sea of the usual unknown faces — Desmond Child, already established as a re­spectable money-maker due to ʽI Was Made For Lovin' Youʼ, but still way ahead of his glory years as a systematic cash generator for Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, and Alice Cooper (not to mention Cher herself, whom he would only take to financial heaven in her glam-rock phase).

 

This album was overlooked upon release and continues to be largely overlooked now, but in all honesty, it is a lot of fun, and it improves upon the formula of Black Rose by not trying so despe­rately to «rock out» in an environment crawling with members of Toto — and it goes without saying that it is much, much better than anything released by the woman in her big hair glam rock glory days to come. Short, tightly performed, relatively tastefully produced, it follows the ideo­logy of a balanced mix between modernity and retro-ism, and most of the songs are surprisingly catchy, even if they never truly showcase Cher as an artistic individuality (but what does?).

 

Thus, ʽRudyʼ opens with a pompous piano riff that is highly reminiscent of ABBA and «Euro­pop» in general — not surprising, since it is actually a cover (with a very inane new set of Eng­lish lyrics) of Dalida's ʽQuand Je N'Aime Plus, Je M'En Vaisʼ from the previous year, but done in a rockier fashion, with a larger guitar presence and with Cher putting a little less gloss on her vocal performance than the French pop star. In contrast, ʽSay What's On Your Mindʼ sounds like an updated take on the classic Motown sound, with one of those upbeat, rhythmic, but tender choruses that used to build up positive vibes in a matter of seconds. And still in contrast, the title track, coming from Farrar's team, is thoroughly New Wave in mood, with cold synthesizers and electronically treated vocals a-plenty, but then it also throws everything else in the mix — soul­ful vocal harmonies, R&B-ish brass backing, jangly guitars, sound panning, whatever. Clearly the most experimental track here, it failed as a single, probably because the public did not expect this kind of sound from a woman who, only three years ago, was largely busy catching the public eye wearing nothing but gold bikinis or steel chains.

 

Child's contributions are also surprisingly decent: ʽThe Book Of Loveʼ is a funny attempt to make a New Wave rocker out of a traditional folk ballad melody (Cher even gets to retain a "hey-ho" in the lyrics), and ʽWalk With Meʼ, like ʽRudyʼ, is a good case of a «mammoth pop» arrangement in the Phil Spector tradition, but putting the main piano riff well above everything else in the mix so you don't get to miss the main hook. ʽWhen The Love Is Goneʼ, however, is the first taste of sad things to come — a prototypical slow power ballad with more emphasis on power than melody, though, fortunately, still relatively unspoiled by the worst excesses of Eighties' production. On the other hand, I actually prefer this cover of The Babys' ʽBack On My Feet Againʼ (here retitled as ʽBack On The Street Againʼ) to the original — she sings it with more verve and recklessness than The Babys (who were little more than a Journey clone anyway), and the synth player at least tries to use his instrument creatively, weaving a complex pseudo-baroque-like pattern throughout the song and strengthening its melodic base.

 

On the whole, this just looks like a fairly solid B-level New Wave pop album to me, not too risky and not too embarassing — a fairly good direction to follow for a few years, but it also seems that this sound as such was quickly moving out of style in 1982, with mainstream values turning to more and more synthesizers and more and more boom-'n'-echo on the production, and this, per­haps, would also go some way in explaining why the record flopped so badly; in retrospect, I do give it a firm thumbs up as Cher's finest offering of the decade. Not that it had much competi­tion — Black Rose was the only thing that preceded it, and following the album's flop, Cher took a five-year break from her musical career, concentrating on acting, only to reemerge five years later as... well, you know, as the Cher that is remembered and treasured / abhorred by the MTV gene­ration these days.

 

CHER (1987)

 

1) I Found Someone; 2) We All Sleep Alone; 3) Bang-Bang; 4) Main Man; 5) Give Our Love A Fightin' Chance; 6) Perfection; 7) Dangerous Times; 8) Skin Deep; 9) Working Girl; 10) Hard Enough Getting Over You.

 

I always thought The Witches Of Eastwick was a fun movie (thanks largely to Nicholson, of course, but the ladies were okay too), and even though I do not remember much about Moon­struck, I don't remember being particularly put off by that one, either. Both of them came out in 1987, and both plainly suggested that Cher could have a bigger future in Hollywood than in her sunken musical career: for five years straight, she had not bothered making a new record, and we could almost be so happy as to hope that she would sit out the rest of pop music's corniest decade just as well. Alas, this was not meant to be: 1987 had to be the year of Cher's final triumph as actor and musical performer, and we had to sit back and accept it.

 

As is often the case, a new self-titled album signifies a creative rebirth, and in this case, Cher is rebooted as a leather-clad, big-haired, power-puffed arena icon, stuck in between synth-pop and glam metal — whatever it takes for people to buy the record. Her corporate allies, in addition to Desmond Child (now solidified in his realm by having recently scored with Bon Jovi), now in­clude Diane Warren (who else!), Michael Bolton (the long-haired Zeus of Eighties glam-rock to Diane's Hera), and a bunch of lesser figures who spend most of their time sucking up to the big ones. Her musician supporters include a list of approximately 100 different names — amazing, considering how almost every song here feels like it consists of about four different synthesizer notes and a robot drummer. And her attitude here can be described as "I don't really care how good it is, as long as it can kick ass across a football field".

 

I don't think it makes sense to even begin discussing any of these songs — everything here just sounds like completely generic radio fodder from the era (which it was): minimalistic, but annoy­ingly loud synth patterns, big drums, hystrionic guitar solos, and mildly catchy choruses that sometimes stick in your mind because of how many times they are repeated. The «hits» (ʽI Found Someoneʼ and ʽWe All Sleep Aloneʼ) sound no better or worse than the non-hits; also, ironically, even though it was ʽWe All Sleep Aloneʼ that was co-written by Child with Jon Bon Jovi, the one song that sounds the most like Bon Jovi is ʽGive Our Love A Fightin' Chanceʼ, co-written by Child with Diane Warren. But why should we care?

 

The worst offender is probably a re-recording of ʽBang Bangʼ, done pop-metal style, just because it is such a transparent statement of "that was way back then, and this is how it's going to be done now", because times change blah blah blah. Poor Sonny must have had a fit when he heard this; those of us who weren't tremendous fans of the early version in the first place have it better, but still, it is fairly hard to tolerate this mess of metallic basslines and piled-up synth overdubs. At least the original was a sentimental cornball with a sense of dark humor; the new version is a plastic, lifeless melodrama going straight to the garbage bin.

 

The only «stand out» on the record is ʽSkin Deepʼ, just because it ditches the arena-rock clichés for a second... only to engage just as heavily in dance-pop clichés à la Debbie Gibson or Tiffany or any of those other post-Madonna icons of the era. It's... danceable. Good enough for an aero­bics stint, but it didn't even chart all that high upon release. For that matter, even ʽI Found Some­one (To Write My Crappy Songs For Me)ʼ and ʽWe All Sleep Alone (No Matter What You Think About Me Having A Threesome With Michael Bolton And Desmond Child)ʼ never hit the top of the charts — although they did rise high enough, largely because of the captivating effect that the names of Bolton and Bon Jovi had on the public at the time, and made it perfectly legit to speak of Cher's musical «comeback» after almost a decade of floundering. But all this album really does is integrate the lady in the already established musical fashion of the late Eighties — and now, in the 2010s, it is high time we put the ugly baby back to sleep with a thunderous thumbs down, while at the same time, perhaps, resuscitating some interest in the early 1980s «flops» like Black Rose and I Paralyze that actually had at least a few sparks of genuine creativity.

 

HEART OF STONE (1989)

 

1) If I Could Turn Back Time; 2) Just Like Jesse James; 3) You Wouldn't Know Love; 4) Heart Of Stone; 5) Still In Love With You; 6) Love On A Rooftop; 7) Emotional Fire; 8) All Because Of You; 9) Does Anybody Really Fall In Love Anymore; 10) Starting Over; 11) Kiss To Kiss; 12) After All.

 

This is the one that made her big again — as in really really big, the size of the USS Missouri where they filmed the video for ʽIf I Could Turn Back Timeʼ (remember the fishnet stockings, the slavering sailors, the BIG BIG GUNS? — now those were the days, when REAL people ruled the world and made America great... oh, never mind). But even in terms of calculated marketing, there's hardly any real progress here, just some extra polish on the formula. Desmond Child, Diane Warren, Michael Bolton, and Bon Jovi continue to rule the day, and loyally deliver the canned goods for the average pop taste of 1989: glammy synth-rockers and overblown power ballads alternate with each other at regular intervals, smoothly sliding off the corporate conveyer belt and polluting both radio waves and Cher's reputation in years to come.

 

Ironically, the two big singles are not that bad. Despite being written by Diane Warren (who allegedly had to — literally! — claw into Cher's leg to get her to accept the song), ʽIf I Could Turn Back Timeʼ at least has a fun pop bounce to it: that chorus is seductively catchy in the good sense of the word, and if only the song could earn a traditional power pop arrangement (jangly guitars and all), I'm sure it could have had more staying power. Another thing is that it's not really a Cher-style song (she rarely does the pleading thing successfully), but then, its atmosphere is not really sad — it's like a confession dressed as a party anthem, and the melodic development is well suited to Cher's powerhouse build-ups.

 

ʽJust Like Jesse Jamesʼ is a neo-country ballad — with a power engine, too, but pretty much the only song here based on an acoustic arrangement and sharing something in common with Cher's early Seventies' past; in fact, some of the vocal lines closely resemble ʽGypsys, Tramps And Thievesʼ, and I'm pretty sure that Child and Warren did write it specifically as a retro number (amusingly, Cher herself stated later that she disliked the song because there was too much country and way too many words in it). But there's a good whiff of the strong, self-assured, sarcastic, empowered woman in it, and that's precisely the kind of stuff that has always been Cher's forte, so even if the final hook is still dumb (I mean, if her arrogant lover is Jesse James, is it really all that flattering to compare yourself to Robert Ford?), the gradual ascension / self-win­ding all the way up to it is handled perfectly. The only thing you have to do is get your mind off the boring arrangement, completely, and concentrate on the vocals.

 

Had the remainder of the record been like these first two songs, it would probably rank among the more tolerable relics of the Eighties' glam rock era. However, that's about it: everything that follows is pompous, hystrionic, monotonous muzak, choked with synthesizers and unimaginative pop metal solos, to the point where technical «ballads» (ʽLove On A Rooftopʼ, etc.) and technical «rockers» (ʽEmotional Fireʼ, etc.) only differ in speed and basic vocal intonation. Most of these songs could have been played by anybody, sung by anybody, and it does not even matter whether they were written by Jon Lind, Jon Bon Jovi, or any other Jon in existence since the Old Testa­ment. The only visible standout is the final song, ʽAfter Allʼ (a.k.a. "Love Theme From Chances Are") , and it's only visible because, as a sentimental power duet with Peter Cetera, it is especially vomit-inducing — one of those generic pieces of crap romance that continued making our life unhappier throughout the Nineties, polluting bad and good movies alike and even video games (remember ʽGirl In The Towerʼ from King's Quest VI? GOD!).

 

In the long run, even these two opening songs shouldn't be worthy enough for your «Guilty Pleasures of the Eighties» collection if you limit it to the first Top 100, so the best I can say about the record is that it is at least not as overtly disgusting in spirit as, say, a contemporary Aerosmith sellout like Pump; but even a disgusting contemporary Aerosmith sellout like Pump at least sounds much less boring and monotonous than Heart Of Stone. Thus, inevitably, a thumbs down, and considering how people like to define this record as the best of her «Eighties / early Nineties comeback» era, it seems like there's even more trouble coming up ahead.

 

LOVE HURTS (1991)

 

1) Save Up All Your Tears; 2) Love Hurts; 3) Love And Understanding; 4) Fires Of Eden; 5) I'll Never Stop Loving You; 6) Could've Been You; 7) One Small Step; 8) A World Without Heroes; 9) When Love Calls Your Name; 10) When Lovers Become Strangers; 11) Who You Gonna Believe; 12) The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss)*.

 

Third time's the charm? Not a general rule. The Eighties are formally over, but we are still living in the pre-Nevermind era, and so Love Hurts faithfully follows the formula that brought Cher back to commercial success — and why, pray tell, should anybody expect otherwise? Here we have eleven more anthemic glam rockers and power ballads, contributed by old friends and new­comers; no more Bon Jovi or Michael Bolton, but a whole three songs from Diane Warren this time, of which ʽLove And Understandingʼ, strongly echoing Olivia Newton-John's ʽMagicʼ in rhythm and melody, but updated for the modern dance-pop era, charted the highest — still no­where near as high as the singles from Heart Of Stone, though. People were getting tired.

 

Strangely, the first song from the album, ʽSave Up All Your Tearsʼ, did not chart that high, even if it essentially repeats the formula of ʽIf I Could Turn Back Timeʼ — danceable, powerful, chorus-wise catchy, not particularly irritating, in short, probably the best song on the entire re­cord (that's not saying much, though). Perhaps it was because people were already familiar with the original (and somewhat inferior in terms of singing, though equally generic in terms of musical arrangement) version by Bonnie Tyler, or perhaps it did reflect the trend of people getting tired of stereotypical glam-pop; whatever the case, it's a bit of a fun opener.

 

After that, though, it's just one bore after another. It does not help that Cher occasionally turns to classics (the title track is one of those old torch ballads that heavy rock artists take a liking to for some strange reason — I cringed when Nazareth were doing it, so why should I be enjoying a Cher version? this is not the kind of material she'd do convincingly even with a soft rock arran­gement...), or hits upon a very strange idea, such as covering ʽA World Without Heroesʼ from KISS' Music From "The Elder" (I first thought this was due to Cher dating Gene Simmons, but apparently that was over by 1980, so the idea hardly counts as a loving memento) — and turning it into a crazy mess of synthesizer fanfares and booming drums, over which she looms large with her most tragic intonations, as if this really meant something.

 

But nothing really means anything on this album, except for the single permeating thought — keep on being relevant! be on (M)TV! get a hit! stay afloat! I am not saying that there are no decent melodic ideas anywhere in sight — it is simply not very interesting to hunt for these ideas when the album as a whole sounds so sterile, formulaic, calculated, and monotonous. When you get to the bonus track, a modernized version of ʽThe Shoop Shoop Songʼ, it's almost like a last merciful breath of fresh air in comparison — a much-needed reminder that simple pop music had not always been like this, and that, while it may not have been much smarter in the past, it used to at least sound more innocent, charming, and just plain fun. Now, instead, it's like you are required to take this synth-pop shit seriously — so please excuse me if I decide to "save up all my tears" and give the record another predictable thumbs down.

 

IT'S A MAN'S WORLD (1995)

 

1) Walking In Memphis; 2) Not Enough Love In The World; 3) One By One; 4) I Wouldn't Treat A Dog (The Way You Treated Me); 5) Angels Running; 6) Paradise Is Here; 7) I'm Blowin' Away; 8) Don't Come Around Tonite; 9) What About The Moonlight; 10) The Same Mistake; 11) The Gunman; 12) The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore; 13) Shape Of Things To Come; 14) It's A Man's Man's Man's World.

 

Stuck in between Cher's two triumphant eras (the ʽIf I Could Turn Back Time /And Bring The Fishnet Look Into The Sixties/ʼ one and the ʽI Believe /In Plastic Surgery/ʼ one), It's A Man's World is kind of an odd record, largely overlooked and forgotten, but not without its own special twist. By the mid-Nineties, glam-pop was dead and gone, so trying to release a follow-up to Love Hurts would have made no sense; however, latching on to some new fashionable direction did not seem to be an easy task, and was made even harder by a personal crisis she was going through at the time (diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, among other things). Going the alt-rock route would not be natural, yet neither would be turning into Celine Dion (what with Cher still sticking to a few crumbs of «rock authenticity» that she had always had in her).

 

In the end, signing up with Warner Bros. for this record, she went for a «soulful» approach: It's A Man's World kind of walks the line between neo-soul, neo-country, modern R&B and adult con­temporary. I know, I know — sounds awful, right? Well, this is definitely no masterpiece: for starters, most of the songs are slow, lazy on the hooks, conventional in terms of arrangement, and there's fourteen of them, meaning that the record drags on for over an hour, when the typical length for a Cher record used to be 35-40 minutes. Add to this the usual reliance on corporate songwriters (though, fortunately, her love affair with Diane Warren, Desmond Child, Michael Bolton, and Bon Jovi has come to an end) and the unusually somber / introspective mood on many of the tracks (not the best emotional setting for Cher), and it is easy to see why the album was both a commercial and critical letdown at the time.

 

On the other hand, revisiting it in retrospect shows quite definitively that it is at least an attempt to make something serious — not merely a conveyer-produced glossy pattern like «The Trilogy», but a collection of songs somehow reflecting Cher's own state of mind at the time. Even the title, as well as the decision to cover the respective James Brown chestnut, reflects that, as she said something about the wish to sing a bunch of «men's songs» from a woman's standpoint. Granted, portraying herself as Eve on the front sleeve, snake-clad and ready to tempt her man with the big red one, is not necessarily as «self-empowering» an image as one might think, but then again, you never can tell with feminist / anti-feminist standpoints (was Eve the first «self-asserting woman» or the first «dumb bitch» in existence? Or both?...). Anyway, on the whole It's A Man's World is not an emphatic feminist statement — just a collection of pensive, occasionally intriguing, but usually rather languid and dull songs about... uh... relationships.

 

The first song already illustrates all that is good and bad about the record — Cher's take on Marc Cohn's ʽWalking In Memphisʼ stays fairly close to the original, retaining its Roy Bittan-ish key­board melody and glossy production, and although the intention is good (a sincere tribute to the «Memphis feel» is always welcome), the realisation hardly ever makes it come across as some­thing special. The line about "he said, ʽTell me, are you a Christian?ʼ, and I said, ʽMan, I am tonight!ʼ" certainly does not have that special appeal for Cher that it has for the Jewish heritage of Marc Cohn, but she delivers it with all the strength she can gather, and the desire to churn up a rootsy-spiritual aura is clearly felt — too bad that she and her backing band did nothing to actual­ly make the music ring out with at least a bit of that good old Memphis vibe.

 

The second single from the album, and the only one that charted, was ʽOne By Oneʼ — not sur­prisingly, since it is one of the few songs here that would have fit in with the upbeat glam formula of the previous three records. Originally written by Antony Griffiths of The Real People and recorded by Eurovision hero Johnny Logan... okay, it's not really a musical horror: it's actually fun when it gets to the chorus, and it's also fun to see Cher aim for these falsetto notes in the verse while at the same time going for her bottom range on the chorus. She also does okay turning blues-rock into dance-pop (ʽI Wouldn't Treat A Dogʼ), and even some of the slower ballads have special touches of moodiness (ʽThe Gunmanʼ, with a mildly threatening funky guitar line), but in the end, there is only one song here that I would be taking home with me — ʽShape Of Things To Comeʼ, nothing to do with the old Mann/Weil classic, but rather an entirely new composition by none other than the Buggles' Trevor Horn and 10cc's Lol Creme.

 

That number is actually a mini-masterpiece of moodiness — fast, tense, paranoid, literate, and ambiguous (you can't even lay a definitive claim to the song being all about man-woman rela­tionships — after all, no song whose hookline is based on the phrase "shape of things to come" can be centered exclusively around personal stuff). There was nothing like this on any part of The Glam Trilogy, and there would never be again — in musical and atmospheric terms, it is arguably the best thing to come out of the Cher camp in the past thirty years. And then she follows it up with a really good reading of the James Brown track — this time, adding in some extra layers of tragedy, with a rip-roaring guitar break and a hushed, husky coda that turns the tables radically against the song's protagonist: "He's lost in the wilderness... he's lost in the bitterness".

 

Ultimately, my rating shifted from a thumbs down to neutral as I was writing this review. Trim some obvious filler, replace some of the drum machines with normal drumming, get her a good guitar player, speed up one or two tempos, and it might be real close to a thumbs up — and, as it usually happens with Cher, this is precisely the album that nobody rushed out to buy, because no­body wants a Cher that's getting too serious for her britches: everybody just wants the glitzy pop diva of ʽTake Me Homeʼ and ʽIf I Could Turn Back Timeʼ. Three years later, she'd give them what they wanted, but this one, it seems, was made more for herself, and, fortunately, it still shows after all these years.

 

BELIEVE (1998)

 

1) Believe; 2) The Power; 3) Runaway; 4) All Or Nothing; 5) Strong Enough; 6) Dov'e L'Amore; 7) Takin' Back My Heart; 8) Taxi Taxi; 9) Love Is The Groove; 10) We All Sleep Alone.

 

Undoubtedly, the main question of 1998 was not "how do we stop the Congo War?" or "do we impeach President Clinton or not?" — the main question of 1998, which each of us who was old enough to have ears must have heard a million times, was: "Do you believe in life after love?". I'm pretty sure that more people on this planet of ours have pondered over this question than there are people for whom the name "Cher" means anything — I do believe myself that I lived through at least three solemn promises to find and strangle the singer before even learning who that was (I knew about the existence of Cher, of course, but it never occurred to me to equate this Vegas relic with the autotuned monstrosity that Genghis-Khanned its way all over the radiowaves).

 

Since the record-buying public would not want to pay serious attention to the slowly unfolding and ultimately not very rewarding soulful intricacies of It's A Man's World, it seemed inevitable that we'd soon begin the next loop — after a commercially failing «artistic» album, the world should brace itself for an artistically failing «commercial» album, what with retirement not being an option in an age where the triumphant march of female empowerment can always be bolstered with a little plastic sur­gery. And it's no big secret that the direction in which she went with Be­lieve had everything to do with the success of Madonna's Ray Of Light — the advent of electro­nic techno-pop suddenly gave «Divas» all over the world a new style where they could succeed without breaking too much sweat and stay unquestionably modern and trendy. Of course, she'd never really worked in the electronic field before, but it's not about electronica, really: it's about a dance-pop groove, and how could somebody with ʽTake Me Homeʼ behind her belt fail at that, if she really put her mind to it?

 

Well, technically speaking, she does not fail. The record, masterminded by British producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling (whose clientele before and after has also included Enrique Iglesias, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, and One Direction, if you really want to know more) and with significant songwriting input from Paul Barry (also a wholesale supplier for Enrique Igle­sias), became her largest success ever, and ʽBelieveʼ became her signature song — probably the only such case in pop history, when it took the artist more than thirty years in the business to produce a signature song (and I'm fairly sure that youngsters all over the world went into a state of shock upon discovering that the very same person who really didn't think we were strong enough now in 1998 had said that all she really wanted to do was to be friends with us back in 1965 — I mean, at least the ones who could actually be prompted to discover anything).

 

Grinding my teeth and cursing God's name, I have to admit that ʽBelieveʼ does display genius craftmanship — nothing else could explain its mystical hold over the world. Its main hookline is one of those anthemic-rhetoric questions that can hook up to your brain like a well-polished political slogan, and when combined with the techno beat, it probably does constitute the ultimate in clublife experience (not that I'd know much of that). Then, of course, there's the vocoding bit: as everybody knows, this is the first well-popularized use of autotuning on the vocals, and as heavily as the practice became abused immediately after that, this particular first time actually works — the vocal effect was not there because Cher needed autotuning (her vocal powers are still fairly intact at this point), but because the producers thought it would be fun to have her sing like a robot for a bit (alternately, it may have been hard for her to hit that little melismatic bit on "so sa-a-ad that you're leaving", except we never ever get evidence for that because there does not seem to be even one version of the song in existence, studio or live, without the effect). Just a little creative fun, and look at all the damage it did to the music industry.

 

The problem is, of course, that it will take at least ten thousand years for the song to return to a reasonable reputational level — the one of a fluffy fun dance-pop throwaway, rather than a «pop epic» of catastrophic proportions — and that the process of leveling has not even begun yet, as I still get shudders and shivers every time I hear the damn thing. And then there's another problem: most of the rest of the album, though consistently delivered in the same vein, is just crap. Techno crap, disco crap, adult contemporary crap — song after song of tasteless, meaningless, corporate-formulaic drivel that makes even the late-Eighties «glam trilogy» seem like a strong musical offering in comparison. Oh, it's catchy all right — the choruses are repetitive enough, so if you hold out for two or three listens, musical viruses such as "baby, it's all or nothing!...", "now I'm strong enough to live without you!", "love is the groove in which we move", and even the accur­sed "taxi, taxi, give me a ride" will infiltrate your DNA and begin a corrosive process of mutation that can only be stopped with a good cleansing (I recommend Metal Machine Music, if you're man enough to take some rough treatment). But taken as a whole, the album is perfect proof that you don't really need Autotune in order to sound like a crudely assembled robot.

 

The few non-techno songs on the album are even worse than the techno ones: ʽDov'E L'Amoreʼ, for instance, is the most clichéd take on the "Latin love song" that could be thought of, with restaurant-level flamenco guitar and horrid Italian-English lyrical hybridizations ("dov'e l'amore, dov'e l'amore, I cannot tell you of my love, here is my story" — bathroom, please), and ʽTakin' Back My Heartʼ almost mockingly starts out with a guitar lick copped from ʽStayin' Aliveʼ, as they try a generic old disco revival for a change, only to actually make us feel nostalgic for the real thing, when disco music could actually be creative and even feature excellent musicianship. Some are hideous hybrids — ʽTaxi Taxiʼ tries fusing an old disco bass line with a modern techno beat, but since the main melody consists of something like one synth note, the «experiment» goes very wrong from the beginning. And then there's the idea of fighting fire with fire — take an old glam-pop turd (ʽWe All Sleep Aloneʼ) and reinvent it as a new techno-pop turd, just, you know, to prove that the old flame can still burn bright in a new vessel. Which doth remind me of a great answer found on the Web to the important question "How well does poop burn?" — "If you find some month old elephant dung, it can be a great firestarter since they exclusively eat plant matter. However, if your dog's asshole is leaking diarrhea from that left over taco bell you gave him, it will most likely not ignite." Kind of reminds me of the current situation.

 

Again, it is, of course, all a matter of (good vs. bad) taste, and since the choruses are catchy and all, brings us back to the eternal question of whether there is such a thing as a «bad hook», or if a hook is a hook, and if you can get hooked up, that's a good thing in itself... but instead of having this discussion, let's all just be good boys and girls, agree that Believe is a thumbs down turd that has no place in the musical garden of Eden, and move on to a safe and happy future in which there is no life after love, and Cher is remembered more for Gypsys, Tramps And Thieves and even I Paralyze than for the amazing feat of trivializing the already not-too-complex musical values of Madonna.

 

NOT COM.MERCIAL (2000)

 

1) Still; 2) Sisters Of Mercy; 3) Runnin'; 4) Born With The Hunger; 5) (The Fall) Kurt's Blues; 6) With Or Without You; 7) Fit To Fly; 8) Disaster Cake; 9) Our Lady Of San Francisco; 10) Classified 1A.

 

In a perfect world... well, in a truly perfect world, Cher would have been the US ambassador to Arme­nia. But in a world just several notches below perfection, Believe would have not existed, and Not Com.mercial would be commercial all the way through — if only as a sign of respect for a modestly talented artist to go out there and actually do something. As the story goes, the majority of the songs on this album were written by Cher herself (still with a little help from the corporate people, of course) after she attended a 1994 songwriters' conference (I had no idea they held these, but then again, why not? I bet they hold Mick Jagger impersonator conferences, too!), and the bulk of the album was recorded the same year in France. She then offered the album to Warner Brothers, who turned it down, seeing it as «uncommercial», and had to shelve it for an indefinite period of time. However, once Believe truly hit its stride and brought her all the money she could ever need, she no longer needed Warners' approval — and simply released the album on her own, advertising it through her website.

 

In a way, this was a smarter decision: Believe, her most successful, yet also most plastic and arti­ficial release in ages, followed by an undeniably personal and «artistic» album that purports to show the world the real Cher, regardless of whether it garners any sales or not — there was no serious promotion whatsoever, not even any singles culled from the sessions, and she never gave any live performances of these songs. Eventually, the album became the same kind of retrospec­tive curiosity as 1980's Black Rose (Cher as a Serious Artist) and has even managed to gain a bit of a cult following; for some old-time fans, it might have even looked like a credible redemption after the intolerable crassness of Believe.

 

Unfortunately, the only way to make Not Com.mercial look decent is in the overall context of Cher's career curve; on its own, the record is just «listenable stuff» at its best, and «banal medio­crity» at its worst. If Cher really had what it takes to be an intriguing singer-songwriter, we would all be seeing that as early as 1965, and if you need to take lessons in songwriting in order to break out your dormant genius, a priori chances are that the genius will turn out to be a mechanical hack. Melodically, the songs are okay — a mix of generic folk rock and adult contemporary, with a bit of swamp blues thrown in for good measure; not tremendously different, by the way, from the style that would be dominant on It's A Man's World — but there's very little to grab and hold one's attention, unless it happens to be some element that is consciously or subconsciously lifted from some classic, e. g. the moody snowy organ introduction to ʽWith Or Without Youʼ which, naturally, evokes memories of ʽA Whiter Shade Of Paleʼ.

 

Message-wise, the songs are split between (predictably) stories of complex relationships and (less predictably) «social value» rants that go all the way from corny embarrassments (ʽOur Lady Of San Franciscoʼ, where she complains about a social system that turns people, herself included, away from helping poor old ladies in the streets — oh, my!) to not-half-bad statements on reli­gious hypocrisy (ʽSisters Of Mercyʼ, with a tasteful steel guitar and harp arrangement and a par­ticularly wicked-sounding vocal part that shows she really has a bone to pick with somebody on that issue; not a wise decision to give it the same title as that of a far superior Leonard Cohen song, though). Arguably the weirdest number on the whole record is ʽ(The Fall) Kurt's Bluesʼ: for some reason, Cher decided to write and record a tribute to Cobain, stating that she "understands his pain" and that "we're a heartless, Godless culture / we'd walk nowhere in your shoes". Now just imagine if she'd appeared onstage, all dressed up in the usual chic, at the MTV Awards or some ceremony like that, and delivered this tune instead of ʽBelieveʼ! She even thinks up (or lets her co-writers think up, I dunno) a proverbial killer two-liner for the end: "Our country kills its heroes / We just raise them for the fall". Excuse me for a moment while I break out those hankies, this is just too much for my nervous system to bear.

 

So, in the end, if you look at this from an optimistic angle, Not Com.mercial is an interesting, image-defying, sincere-sounding record, professionally and rather tastefully recorded by Cher with members of David Letterman's band, and delightfully shattering stereotypes. But if you choose the other angle, then it's a somewhat slick, manipulative, and ultimately bland and gene­ric set of traditionally written roots-pop songs with unwarranted pretense at «depth» and «authen­ticity», sung by a veteran Vegas glitz-star who has been happy enough to corrupt public taste with cheap, brainless entertainment for several decades, and now goes on a rant about the injustices and the imperfections of that same society as if she had never had anything to do with them. So does she ever sit back and wonder, «Why the hell did those critics kick the crap out of my Not Com.mercial album? I know it didn't sell because it was not commercial, but how come it got all those mixed-to-negative reviews?..» And if she ever does, does she have enough intelligence (or bravery) to give herself the right answer?

 

LIVING PROOF (2002)

 

1) The Music's No Good Without You; 2) Alive Again; 3) (This Is) A Song For The Lonely; 4) A Different Kind Of Love Song; 5) Rain, Rain; 6) Love So High; 7) Body To Body, Heart To Heart; 8) Love Is A Lonely Place Without You; 9) Real Love; 10) Love One Another; 11) You Take It All; 12) When The Money's Gone.

 

I shall hitherto abstain from resorting to crudely offensive jokes based on unscientific correlation of the title of this album with the photograph of the artist on the front cover. We take civility very seriously here at Only Solitaire — it is impolite and tasteless to produce jokes on subjects that have already served as the basis for entire joke pools and countless running gags — and prefer to treat the issues of Cher discontinuing a certified existence as a real human being and of Cher's music discontinuing the right to be called «music» as two completely separate issues, unrelated until proven so by a joint commission of expert plastic surgeons, fashion designers, musicologists, sound engineers, and cocktail waitresses.

 

In the meantime, we are going to keep this brief and state that since Living Proof, a bona fide follow-up to Believe, is everything that Believe wanted to be and less, the only people who would be interested in this second libation to the Great Goddess of Techno-Pop are those who actually dug the hypnotic grooves and mesmerizing textures of the lady's 1998 spiritual masterpiece. For the rest of us, the inclusion of ʽSong For The Lonelyʼ, the agonizing terror song of 2002 that may have cost more people their psychic sanity than 9/11 cost people their lives, will be sufficient reason to stay away from this abomination. Of all the songs written and recorded in memory of the tragic event, ʽSong For The Lonelyʼ, with its awful lyrics and generic techno beat, may indeed have been the most gruesome. The only way "I'll be by your side" is through radio overkill, and, indeed, the song was all over the place in 2002, almost like ʽBelieveʼ before it, and boy, have I ever suffered in public places (yes, even in Mother Russia) — you had to run for shelter from its shrillness, loudness, and total cheapness.

 

Unfortunately, the rest of the album is hardly better. There's nothing here, really, but a steadily calculated attempt at repeating the success of Believe — one flat, forgettable, trivial techno-pop piece of garbage after another. The European hit ʽThe Music's No Good Without Youʼ, with its light acid overtones and computerized chorus (which sounds as if they were teaching a robot some pickup lines), is, at the very best, just danceable (like everything else on here), but has less emotion than a Pepsi jingle. The near-obligatory Diane Warren contribution is the faux-Spanish «flamenco ballad» ʽBody To Body, Heart To Heartʼ that continues the «Latin exploitation» theme begun by ʽDove L'Amoreʼ and does it in an equally embarrassing manner. And if you try to dig a little deeper, in faint hopes of discovering some minor accidental nugget, beware — it is far more probable to hit a hot stream of shit under heavy pressure, such as ʽLove One Anotherʼ, a techno anthem taken from Dutch singer Amber whose chief achievement is setting the mantra "love one another, sisters and brothers" to a techno beat.

 

Ugh, no. It was pretty hard for me to imagine a sequel to Believe that would be even worse, but yes, this here is a sequel to Believe that is much, much worse — and did I even mention the Autotune abuse that is now all over the place? No? Go ahead, listen to ʽReal Loveʼ: it's like she's making fun of Stephen Hawking or something. Thumbs down does not even begin to describe the true reaction to the album — «six feet under» would be much closer to the truth.

 

CLOSER TO THE TRUTH (2013)

 

1) Woman's World; 2) Take It Like A Man; 3) My Love; 4) Dressed To Kill; 5) Red; 6) Lovers Forever; 7) I Walk Alone; 8) Sirens; 9) Favorite Scars; 10) I Hope You Find It; 11) Lie To Me.

 

In 2002-2003, Cher conducted the highly successful Living Proof: The Farewell Tour, setting a record for the highest-grossing concert tour by a female performer ever — and even capped off with a live album, recorded in Las Vegas (where else?), but even in the face of the many embar­rassing and dishonorable things that Only Solitaire Reviews have stooped to over the past few years, setting up a special review for a live album by Cher would be too much (I might as well be reviewing a Crazy Frog live album, I guess).

 

Upon concluding the tour, Cher did indeed retire from live performance and making new studio records — and since, as we all know too well, pop stars never ever lie and treasure their artistic integrity far more than they value their personal fortunes, the fact that somebody went ahead and assumed the identity of «Cher» in 2013 with a brand new CD release should be regarded as an act of musical fraud and identity theft. Indeed, whoever it was — and with Autotune masking half of the vocals, who can really tell these days? — left us some hints: Closer To The Truth implies a lack of truth, and the album cover features a blonde-haired Cher look-alike with so much symbo­lical white around her that you'd think she's really died and gone to Heaven... hey, wait a minute. Is the real Cher really dead? Have the cockroaches had the upper hand? Is this Christina Aguilera masking as Cher (we know she can do a mean Cher impression)?..

 

Thank God, though, Only Solitaire is all about the music rather than the people behind it, and so we can legitimately separate the good old conspiracy theories from the plain fact of how crappy the music is, no matter who in particular is standing behind it. Actually, if you really love formu­laic techno-pop, it might not sound all that crappy — whether there is an actual human being called Cherilyn Sar­kisian here or not, the «Cher business machine» is still churning like crazy, and the numerous corporate writers and producers ensure a certain standard. The vocal hooks are there alright — just a few listens, and without a proper antidote you'll be jerking spasmodically and singing "This is a woman's world!" and "You gotta take it like a man!" and "Baby I am dres­sed to kill!" and "For now I've gotta walk alone!" like there was no tomorrow. And we gotta give this «past-farewell Cher» what's due — even without the special production effects, she can still belt these hooks out like she means it, in tune and with sufficient power.

 

Unfortunately, the «business machine» is not designed for any sorts of creativity, though: other than the vocal hooks, everything else is reduced to the most pedestrian types of techno beats and acid-drenched synth patterns. Well, almost everything: every once in a while, they pull some ridi­culous retro-trick, like countrifying ʽI Walk Aloneʼ with a banjo rhythm pattern — it is very quickly drowned out by the beats and electronics, but still battles on bravely until the end of the song, because this is, like, the only thread that still ties this innovative artist to her roots in the old folk tradition. She came from California with a banjo on her knee, after all.

 

Towards the middle of the album, the endless stream of techno dance numbers begins to alternate with slower balladry, even including one or two tracks with potential (I think that with a better arrangement, ʽSirensʼ could turn out to be a really pretty and uplifting statement — and there's actually a first-rate shoegaze-style guitar solo in the middle, too!), but never really detracting from the «core value» of the record, which is to send you mindlessly spinning through the cram­med confines of the local nightclub while at the same time empowering you (if you're a woman) or disempowering you (if you're somebody else).

 

Naturally, I give the album a thumbs down, although, strange enough, I feel no specific «hatred» for it or anything. Maybe there's some subconscious feel of respect, after all, lurking somewhere very, very deep — after all, it's not every day that you come face to face with a 67-year old reigning queen of mainstream techno, as ridiculous as that might look in theory, and witness her singing like a fresh 30-year old (yes, I understand that the mind-blowing prolonged notes of "surren­der to me now" on ʽLovers Foreverʼ are most likely artificially extended, but they still had to have their roots in a natural strong voice). Essentially, at this point, it no longer matters what she is singing — it is only a matter of setting a personal record. Will she still be able to do it when she is 70? 80? 90? Will the business machine still hold? You probably won't live to witness it yourself, but maybe your grandchildren will — on the other hand, what with all the recent successes in tissue regeneration and genetic engineering, you never can tell...

  


Part 3. The Pop Art Era (1965-1970)

 

CACTUS


CACTUS (1970)

 

1) Parchman Farm; 2) My Lady From South Of Detroit; 3) Bro. Bill; 4) You Can't Judge A Book By The Cover; 5) Let Me Swim; 6) No Need To Worry; 7) Oleo; 8) Feel So Good.

 

If you have no idea why this band named itself Cactus despite none of the members being from Arizona State, take one look at the album cover and you will see why (and if you need an extra hint, you must be a sexless saint from Heaven itself). Musically more relevant, though, is the fact that Cactus were formed out of the ashes of Vanilla Fudge (if fudge can even be reduced to ashes in the first place), when that band's rhythm section, Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice, recruited guitarist Jim McCarty and vocalist Rusty Day and began realizing their evil plan to become the American Led Zeppelin. Originally, they wanted to have Jeff Beck, but that did not work because Beck had a car accident — besides, he wasn't exactly American, so the experiment wouldn't be pure enough. (To be fair, a few years on they did get to play together for a while, but it still did not work out: Beck never could stand longtime partners).

 

Anyway, if you are not all that much into second-rate or third-rate hard rock bands, there is little reason for you to bother checking out this one. However, as far as ballsy-bluesy heavy rock with no experimental vibe whatsoever is concerned, Cactus is a good bet. Musically, it is not even Vanilla Fudge so much whose tradition they are inheriting here, but Blue Cheer — same brand of loud, arrogant, alcohol-fueled rock, although in between all four of them, there is definitely a higher level of skill involved. Songwriting here is just about level zero, but these guys can play, for sure: in fact, the Bogert/Appice rhythm section may be just one notch below the Jones/Bon­ham section, and only because Appice is somewhat overdoing it (he wants to out-Bonham Bon­ham so much that he nearly blows his drum set to bits even on the ultra-slow blues numbers like ʽNo Need To Worryʼ, which is really confusing).

 

Appropriately, Jim McCarty is a very good guitar player as far as not-particularly-inventive gui­tar players go: he has no mastery of, or no interest in various tones, effects, and gimmicks, so he is neither Beck nor Page in that respect — but his phrasing is clever, his fluency is admirable, and he can do it in a variety of styles, from basic boogie to blueswailing to garage hooliganry without sounding too boring in any of these. The vocalist, though, is just a well-spirited (with a passion for the spirits, that is) gentleman with good barroom standing: no more, no less.

 

The «highlight» of the album is their cover of Mose Allison's ʽParchman Farmʼ; the idea is to take Blue Cheer's reinvention of the track as a heavy rocker and pump it up even further, speeding up the tempo to insanity and going all-out crazy. The effect is rather facetious — this is one kind of thing for which the real Led Zep would never fall, no matter how much they liked covering old bits of rock'n'roll in their live sets — but as a bang-your-head-against-the-wall mu­sical joke, it works, and in fact, provides the finest three minutes of excitement on the entire al­bum. I mean, say what you will about lack of taste and stupidity, but good old speed counts, especially when it's pumped by professionals.

 

The problem is that next to the flamboyant opener, everything else sounds like one major dis­ap­pointment after another. The anti-climactic follower is ʽMy Lady From South Of Detroitʼ, a very generic country waltz that's neither too sentimental nor too humorous; and the follow-up to that is Leiber & Stoller's ʽBrother Billʼ, done in a fun, but way too slow manner (for a twice-as-fun ver­sion, check out Eric Burdon's passionate reading on the 1977 Animals reunion album); and the follow-up to that is Bo Diddley's ʽYou Can't Judge A Book By The Coverʼ, where, actually, the point is that they do it slow, slow, slow, expanding it to six and a half minutes of your time, much of which is wasted on predictable repetition. The other point is that sometimes they also show you how they respect contrast — launching into brief fiery sections of distortion madness, only to slow down to an acoustic bluesy crawl 15 seconds later. Aaargh.

 

On the second side, there is one more ultra-slow blues (ʽNo Need To Worryʼ, which is like their answer to ʽI Can't Quit You Babyʼ, but they don't know how to make this thing interesting) and an additional bunch of semi-originals that are either semi-stolen (ʽFeel So Goodʼ lifts its verse melody from Steve Winwood's ʽI'm A Manʼ) or would be semi-stolen (I think Lynyrd Skynyrd's ʽI Ain't The Oneʼ may have at least been influenced by ʽLet Me Swimʼ — although probably they should just both be traced to a third party. Damn those three-for-a-penny chord progressions). They are at their best when they just lay down all pretense and boogie — ʽOleoʼ, with a nice barroom chug and a good bass solo from Bogert, is probably the best track on the second side. Oh, did I mention yet that ʽFeel So Goodʼ has a lengthy drum solo? Not that you wouldn't guess if I didn't. An album like this can't do without a drum solo.

 

One thing I will say for these guys — when they are at their best (which is not too frequent), they do lay down a thick, brawny, scruffy, rambunctious sound that is not very easy to come by (al­though they did have plenty of competition from Slade on the other side of the Atlantic). You'd have it either too «artsy» and experimental, like with Led Zep or even Deep Purple; or you'd have it much too serious, like Grand Funk Railroad. These guys are just perfect for a small evening adventure with a six-pack.

 

ONE WAY... OR ANOTHER (1971)

 

1) Long Tall Sally; 2) Rockout, Whatever You Feel Like; 3) Rock'n'Roll Children; 4) Big Mama Boogie, Pts. 1 & 2; 5) Feel So Bad; 6) Song For Aries; 7) Hometown Bust; 8) One Way... Or Another.

 

If the band's first album at least had its share of dumb fun, then the second one is not even fun any more. Stiff, lumpy, humorless, and hookless, these guys make me feel that I have really underappreciated KISS for all these years. It is not a crime to set your artistic ambitions real low and just make a danceable rock'n'roll album for the sakes of partying all night long; however, it takes some true «anti-talent» to make a rock'n'roll album that would not only be completely dis­pensable the morning after the party, but would also cost you at least half of your party guests.

 

Because, honestly, no respectable party goer would ever agree to accept the fact that ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ is now to be played about three times as slow as the original — trying to retain the enthu­siasm and hysteria of Little Richard, but slowing down to a veritable crawl. It's as if some nasty schoolmaster snuck into the party at the last minute and told them to go slow, under threat of ex­pulsion — forgetting all about the other parameters because they were more difficult to formulate. It's innovative, for sure... and utterly ridiculous. As is the equally slow and stiff ʽFeel So Badʼ, which was far sexier when a post-army Elvis did it in the early Sixties.

 

It is not altogether clear to me who'd fall for this stuff in 1971: the best heavy metal bands were busy trying to peer into the future, whereas Cactus here clearly remain chained to the standards of 1969. The only detours from the formula are on ʽBig Mama Boogieʼ, which does try to boogie, John Lee Hooker-style (but on an acoustic guitar!) for about four minutes, without too much con­fidence, and then makes the plunge into true kick-ass electric boogie for about one more minute, by which time, however, we are probably way too bored to pay any attention; and then there's the never-ending ʽHometown Bustʼ, a long, dreary, overdone complaint about the ongoing drug busts (as if this could help where even Steppenwolf could do nothing). Oh, and a three-minute pastoral instrumental (ʽSong For Ariesʼ) where the guitarist experiments with echoes, Leslie cabinets, and overdubs, balancing somewhere on the edge of prettiness but never quite getting there.

 

Ultimately, this just sounds like a very, very, very boring record to me. If it were at least «comi­cally bad», as in the case of KISS, if they went nuts and posed as Gods of Thunder or as Lord Protectors of Cock-and-Balls Music, you could be in it for the cheap thrills. But listening to ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ being played that way is like... well, like having to attend a ninety-minute lecture that could be summed up in thirty seconds. Maybe they're taking their cues from Led Zep­pelin alright, but Led Zeppelin were never Led Bathyscaphe — they did know how to soar and zap through the atmosphere despite all the heaviness. These guys just lumber on. No fun what­soever. A totally depressed thumbs down — and I like simple, stupid rock'n'roll music when I can get it. But this just ain't it.

 

RESTRICTIONS (1971)

 

1) Restrictions; 2) Token Chokin'; 3) Guiltless Glider; 4) Evil; 5) Alaska; 6) Sweet Sixteen; 7) Bag Drag; 8) Mean Night In Cleveland.

 

If the idea of the album title is that Cactus really knows no restrictions, I am sorry to say that they do, and that they are the exact same restrictions that made their first two albums look idiotic even in their most listenable moments. There are no attempts to change the formula here: we are pre­sented with a third platter of stiff, lumpy, leaden hard rock where thickness of guitar tone, fero­ciousness of percussion attacks, and loudness of lead vocalist matter much more than memorable melodies or, God help us, spiritual depth.

 

When the experience is over, you will probably want to ask yourself two questions: "Whatever made them rearrange Howlin' Wolf's ʽEvilʼ as a Led Zeppelin II-style rocker with a time signa­ture that makes a confused mess out of the vocals?", and "Is the idea of setting the lyrics of ʽSweet Little Sixteenʼ to the melody of ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ supposed to mean something, or were they just randomly pulling out song titles out of a hat for a fortuitous mash-up?" Not that it's important to know the answers, of course: ever since the days of Vanilla Fudge, Bogert and Appice were the indisputable champions of the «50,000 Ways To Ruin A Good Song» game, so why should Restrictions be an exception?

 

As for the original songs, there is not a single one here that would be too memorable. The title track and the never-ending ʽGuiltless Gliderʼ, taking up most of Side A, are the obvious candi­dates for top pick, but ʽRestrictionsʼ refuses to come up with a decent riff, and ʽGliderʼ is just too busy riding one rhythm chord for most of its duration (interrupted by a drum solo, which is hardly a consolation). ʽAlaskaʼ quiets down a bit for a jazzier take on the blues, some harmonica solos, and lyrics like "I hear six months a year you get night time all day / I had to practice my harp to keep the polar bears away", and it still sounds silly rather than funny; and the final two minutes, called ʽMean Night In Clevelandʼ, are just slow, simple acoustic blues.

 

The only thing that could redeem the whole experience is the overall sound: the Bogert/Appice rhythm section is impeccable, so much so that I would probably enjoy this record much more if all the guitars and especially the vocals were deleted. Truly, this is one of those moments when you start lamenting over the absence of corporate songwriting — where the hell was Desmond Child when these guys needed him so much? He probably could have helped them out even while still in high school. Thumbs down.

 

OT 'N' SWEATY (1972)

 

1) Swim; 2) Bad Mother Boogie; 3) Our Lil Rock'n'Roll Thing; 4) Bad Stuff; 5) Bringing Me Down; 6) Bedroom Mazurka; 7) Telling You; 8) Underneath The Arches.

 

If you thought this could not get any worse, you were wrong. By 1972, all that remained of the former spiny glory of Cactus was the Bogert-Appice rhythm section, yet somehow this did not deflate their ambitions — and the «band» plowed on, recruiting new guitarist Werner Fritz­schings (I'm sure everybody must have called him Wiener Schnitzel out of desperation, but who'd ever acknowledge that?), an extra keyboardist (Duane Hitchings) and a new vocalist called Peter French, who'd apparently done a short stint in Atomic Rooster before that, but was largely hired because it's kinda hard to distinguish his bawl from Rusty Day's bawl.

 

The new lineup persisted well into 1972, eventually releasing this album, a total mess whose only appeal is in how many things go wrong at once (sometimes intentionally). The first side was taken from a live show in Puerto Rico, either because the band did not have enough new studio material or, more probably, because it was high time to demonstrate the Live Power of the Migh­ty Cactus — which, next to a Live At Leeds or a Made In Japan, honestly gives the impression of a deeply drunk Little John with a quarterstaff against a pack of knights in full armor. Not that you wouldn't shed a tear at the fate of the kind fellow with his good motives and all, but a no-win situation is a no-win situation, especially considering that Cactus do not try to do anything except demonstrate sheer brutal boogie power. They cover ʻLet Me Swimʼ from their first record, and then they do two half-improvisatory pieces of boogie, and it hardly matters where they stop and where they start; all that matters is the lumpy dinosaurish swagger, for 17 minutes.

 

On the second side, they get off to a decent start with ʻBad Stuffʼ, a riff-based blues-rocker with a bit of real bite provided by the scrunchy guitar/bass tones — and if Skynyrd's ʻI Ain't The Oneʼ was not influenced by ʻLet Me Swimʼ after all, then it couldn't have been not influenced by this one at least — the verse melodies are practically identical. But even if we agree that ʻBad Stuffʼ is a bit of a good influence, then ʻBringing Me Downʼ is this band's totally non-sequitur take on rootsy soulfulness, with sentimental keyboards, gospel harmonies, and ecstatic lead vocals, as if the ghost of Leon Russell suddenly visited them in their sleep, or maybe they were inspired by one of Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen shows or something. I cannot even honestly state that this is a bad song — it is simply hard to take seriously, sitting there all alone among their drunken antics. The next two songs safely bring us back to more familiar, less shocking, but quickly forgettable territory, although at least ʻBedroom Mazurkaʼ is kind of a special song title (no musical references to Chopin, though — imagine that).

 

The best thing I can say about the album, and the band in particular, is that the All-Music Guide describes the style of the record as «rambunctious», «rowdy», «celebratory», «boisterous», «freewheeling», «brash», «rousing», «aggressive», «rollicking», «confident», «raucous», and «energetic», and every word of it is absolutely true, so if these are your core values in listening to music, 'Ot 'N' Sweaty should be a pre-defined masterpiece. Maybe with just an extra pinch of melodic invention, subtlety, or individuality, it could even have been a half-decent record. As it is, I think I'll just stick to my Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out — the Stones may not have been so loud and «boisterous» on stage as these guys, but they went out there to play actual songs, rather than simply demonstrate how good they were at generating «rambunctiousness». Thumbs down.

 

CACTUS V (2006)

 

1) Doin' Time; 2) Muscle & Soul; 3) Cactus Music; 4) The Groover; 5) High In The City; 6) Day For Night; 7) Living For Today; 8) Shine; 9) Electric Blue; 10) Your Brother's Keeper; 11) Blues For Mr. Day; 12) Part Of The Game; 13) Gone Train Gone; 14) Jazzed.

 

Look who's back. Seeing as how the 2000s are so totally open to everything, and how there were plenty of youngster bands around playing heavy Seventies-style music, Bogert, Appice, and Jim McCarty came back together — not just for some nostalgic touring, but to record new music as well, with the same old swagger as if the thirty years in between never happened. Of course, the original vocalist was murdered in the interim (Rusty Day was shot to death in 1982 by some drug dealers), but they hire a new one, Jimmy Hunes, who sounds almost exactly like Rusty — and the band plays on precisely the same way that it used to.

 

Of course, it also sucks precisely the same way that it used to: the fourteen songs recorded here all share the same classic aesthetics — loud, bulgy, brawny, perfect for a dinner party that also involves some mudwrestling and some TV-tossing. The old boys in the rhythm section have not lost a bit of that old power, the guitarist tosses out the same old derivative leaden blues-rock riffs and screechy blueswailin' solos, and the vocalist... well, I do believe he got the contract only under the condition that he'd exclusively do the things that Rusty used to do. Oh, and they also have an additional member on harmonica — Randy Pratt, usually playing with the New-York based Lizards, another one of «those» bands that I mentioned in the last paragraph.

 

Amusingly, I do not feel nearly as bored by this record as I was by all the other Cactus records (except maybe for the first one). There's a humorous side to some of the tunes, including a rather tongue-in-cheek fast boogie anthem to themselves (ʻCactus Musicʼ); a couple of the songs, like ʻYour Brother's Keeperʼ, are pleasantly funky, mildly reminiscent of classic Aerosmith  (who themselves owed a certain debt to Cactus originally); the last track almost borders on artistic-ex­perimental (the instrumental ʻJazzedʼ, which does not have much to do with jazz, but is an inven­tive synthesis of metal and funk, with a whole bunch of riffs from both genres spliced together, sometimes to cool effect); and a few of the vocal melodies are even catchy in a way — ʻMuscle And Soulʼ makes me want to sing along, as does ʻDoin' Timeʼ.

 

The biggest flaw of the record is its length — sure it's been a long time, but no time is long enough to make anybody want to sit through a whole sixty minutes of «Cactus music», especially when it includes one too many superslow blues tunes (ʻDay For Nightʼ — why don't you leave this kind of stuff to Buddy Guy?) or power-chord based anthemic screechers (ʻShineʼ). The tiny acoustic tribute to the late Rusty Day is a nice gesture, but unless you are well acquainted with the situation, it's just an extra minute and a half of generic blues plucking. And did they really have to bring back the ʻHow Many More Yearsʼ groove for yet another faceless try (ʻThe Groo­verʼ)? All these numbers are completely expendable.

 

Okay, so the entire album is expendable, but at least if you really loved the old Cactus, there is no reason for you to stay away from the new (old) Cactus — in terms of consistency and stubborn­ness, the record gets an A++, easy. I do thank them, however, for staying away from the studio ever since, even if as a touring outfit they seemed to be active at least as late as 2012.

 

BLACK DAWN (2016)

 

1) Black Dawn; 2) Mama Bring It Home; 3) Dynamite; 4) Juggernaut; 5) Headed For A Fall; 6) You Need Love; 7) The Last Goodbye; 8) Walk A Mile; 9) Another Way Or Another; 10) C-70 Blues.

 

SET FIRE TO THE NIGHT! BRING ON THE BLACK DAWN! SET FIRE TO THE NIGHT! BRING ON THE BLACK DAWN! Hmm, not a bad message for the last day of 2016. The song's lyrical message mostly has to do with ecology, but it does not take a great leap of imagination to give it an overall apocalyptic interpretation — ecology, economy, politics, whatever — and with that opening near-thrash metal riff, this is one heck of an apocalyptic tune, far heavier than any­thing on Cactus V or, for that matter, pretty much anything this band ever put out in its prime. Simple, brutal, tense, melodic, and catchy, it's, like, the perfect song to summarize 2016, and the only question is: how come it had to take a band like Cactus, of all people, to bring it out?

 

Particularly since I was hasty enough to thank this new line-up for staying away from the studio — which they did for ten years, but the temptation to say something new must have been too hard, and here they are again, with the notable exclusion of Tim Bogert, still present on two of the tracks but essentially replaced by new bass player Pete Bremy, who currently performs the honors for both the resuscitated Cactus and Vanilla Fudge. In situations like these, you can never really guess the odds, but there is always a higher-than-zero chance that the musical revenant will hit upon something vital, and Black Dawn at least makes sure to correct certain mistakes that were committed with their previous comeback effort. Namely, it is shorter, which always helps with one-trick ponies like Cactus; it is heavier, which always helps with brawny bastards like Cactus; and it is more riff-centered, which always helps with anybody in the hard rock business.

 

That still does not make it any sort of masterpiece, but throw in some fast tempos (the band really sounds on a high energy kick here) to complete the picture and somehow, defying all expecta­tions, this 21st century Cactus ends up with their best studio album ever — in forty-six years, that is. No other track has the same level of intensity as ʽBlack Dawnʼ, probably the first and last Cactus song that I might actually be tempted to take seriously, but ʽHeaded For A Fallʼ is a fast-going, fun-loving romp, sewing on a poppier chorus to a riff that feels like a variation on AC/DC's ʽWhole Lotta Rosieʼ; ʽYou Need Loveʼ honors the legacy of Rod Stewart's ʽYou're My Girlʼ, with similar stuttering exciting interplay between the guitars and the drums; and ʽMama Bring It On Homeʼ is an exercise in copping the precision and tightness of the New Wave of Heavy Metal-era bands like Judas Priest, though McCarty still cannot resist the temptation of drowning everything in excessive thick distortion.

 

The slower, bluesier tracks are predictably less impressive, although ʽC-70 Bluesʼ is probably as close as they come to recapturing the absurdly feedback-choked sonic textures of their early slow blues — completely impossible to distinguish, in fact, from the way they used to play in 1970, right down to the most minute details of the drum patterns. The acoustic guitars are brought out only once (ʽAnother Way Or Anotherʼ) as an element of contrast to the aggressive wah-wah guitar; and the album's other instrumental piece, ʽThe Last Goodbyeʼ, is a life-threatening blues jam that takes the Beatles' ʽI Want Youʼ as a reference model, with similar doom-laden descen­ding chord sequences and hell-borne hystrionic solos on top — slow, but still fun.

 

All in all, Black Dawn seems to succeed where its predecessor failed; and it does so, first and foremost, because Cactus have no high standards to match — where something like Black Sab­bath's 13 sounds like such a tremendous disappointment because it aims at bringing back the magic of 1970 and fails, Cactus had no «magic» to begin with, and it is far easier for them not only to bring back the atmosphwere of their 1970, but even to top it, provided they show some discipline and capitalize on their strongest points. And they do. And, as the title track shows, they clearly have a bone to pick with society today, and it helps, too: at least in the studio, they never really used to sound as pissed off as they do on some of the tracks here. Not that this signals a rebirth for classic hard rock or anything (I've long given up believing in «rebirths» anyway), but it is a good hard rock record, the likes of which in 2016 you can only encounter among living fossils like these. Thumbs up.

 

ADDENDA

 

FULLY UNLEASHED: THE LIVE GIGS (2004)

 

CD I: 1) Intro/Long Tall Sally; 2) Bag Drag; 3) Evil; 4) Parchman Farm; 5) Alaska; 6) Oleo; 7) No Need To Worry; 8) Let Me Swim.

CD II: 1) Big Mama Boogie; 2) Heeby Jeebies/Money/Hound Dog/What'd I Say; 3) No Need To Worry; 4) Parch­man Farm; 5) One Way... Or Another; 6) Bro. Bill; 7) Swim; 8) Bad Mother Boogie; 9) Our Lil' Rock'n'Roll Thing; 10) Bedroom Mazurka.

 

Okay, as absurd as it may sound, this almost comes close to a great album. See, even though by and large Cactus totally sucked as a studio band with an obligation to come up with original songs and shit, live they could, indeed, get «fully unleashed». The live side of 'Ot 'n' Sweaty never did proper justice to their capacities — not only because it already lacked the original gui­tarist, but also because there were physical limits on the length of the tracks that downplayed their jamming skills. However, with this sprawling 2-CD mammoth, presenting an entire 2-hour long show (the original lineup's last gig at Memphis, Tennessee, on December 19, 1971) plus an assorted selec­tion of other live tracks (including, for some reason, the entire live half of 'Ot 'n' Sweaty as well!), Rhino Records have made the nearly impossible — made me re-appreciate the band's talent and re-assess their status.

 

Formally, the classic Cactus line-up on stage did not do much of anything that they did not do on the studio records, except stretching out the songs (sometimes to really absurd, Zep-worthy lengths: ʻNo Need To Worryʼ goes on for 20 minutes, all solos included). But either they really went out on a limb that night, trying to make their last show as memorable as possible, or, if that was their usual style, then it must be assumed that (not unlike quite a few other hard rock bands) they held back in the studio, whereas on stage all four players, all the time, tried to be louder, wilder, more frantic and hysterical than anybody else. It does not get much better than on the opening ʻLong Tall Sallyʼ — in the studio, slowing down the Little Richard original never made sense, but here you won't even have to remember that this is a Little Richard original. It's not at all important what this is in the first place! That is, as long as the guitarist guts his guitar like a screeching pig, the bassist lays it on so thick you'd think he had steel cables for strings, the drum­mer pounds like Bonham's younger brother, and the vocalist knows no other mode than ripping his voice to shreds (and he still has something left by the end of the 2-hour show).

 

Essentially, this is pre-Spinal Tap-era, «everything up to eleven»-style stuff, but this is precisely how they manage to add excitement to their generally clumsy-lumbering manner of playing. In the studio, their Godzilla just wandered around, mindlessly bumping into corners, but here, it actually breathes fire and demolishes skyscrapers, sometimes at a frantic pace (despite the pre­sence of some super-slow blues, the overall pace of the show is much quicker than the average pace of any of their studio records). Check out the final wild romp of ʻBig Mama Boogieʼ, or ʻParchman Farmʼ, or McCarty's feedback stunts at the end of ʻLet Me Swimʼ — crude, tasteless, brainlessly violent, and perversely awesome.

 

Of course, nearly three hours of material is overkill, but the re-release of the Puerto Rican mate­rial from 1972 really does not count, and an extra live ʻParchman Farmʼ is quite welcome. And I suppose that Cactus cannot be appreciated any other way than in «total sprawl» mode: anything less than completely-over-the-top and killer boredom sets in. But frankly, I am really surprised at how much I enjoyed most of these 15-to-20-minute live tracks — even the medley of rock'n'roll oldies, although it is performed in the silly-lumpy-glammy way that most people were doing them in the early Seventies (think Uriah Heep or Queen), is appealing in their unsophisticated, unpretentiously rustic mode of performance. Even that ultra-slow ʻNo Need To Worryʼ: the guitar solo that McCarty plays at the beginning is so utterly ridiculous, it must have served as a basic inspiration for all introductory solos by Angus Young.

 

In brief, if you do want to hear Cactus, this is the album to hear, and the most ridiculous thing is that we all had to wait more than thirty years to hear it. Not that it could have withstood compe­tition with Live At Leeds or Made In Japan, had it been released in 1972 as a triple live LP, but I'm fairly sure it could have endured at least as a cult classic. Anyway, even if the music is dumb, I still love me an album that pulls all the stops, and on December 19, 1971, these guys were on some rich barbecue fire, so a thumbs up, by all means. As far as I know, there's also a sequel out there (Live Gigs Vol. 2), but since the material predictably overlaps, Vol. 1 is everything a sane music listener really needs from these guys.


THE CAKE


THE CAKE (1967)

 

1) Baby That's Me; 2) World Of Dreams; 3) You Can Have Him; 4) Medieval Love; 5) Fire Fly; 6) Rainbow Wood; 7) I Know; 8) Mockingbird; 9) Ooh Poo Pah Doo; 10) Stand By Me; 11) What'd I Say.

 

Could there possibly be such a thing as «nostalgia for 1964» in 1967? Even if there could not, it is hard to believe these days that The Cake, an all-girl group established in New York around 1966, was not intentionally going against the current trends and sticking to the old ways of The Ronettes and other Spector-related bands, at a time when white ladies were beginning to opt for various kinds of change (the Mamas & Papas model, the Grace Slick model, the Janis model, the Joni Mitchell model — quite a bit of choice out there).

 

Anyway, it is hard to tell to which extent Jeanette Jacobs, Barbara Morillo, and Eleanor Baroo­shian were their own creations and to which extent they were molded and marketed by their managers, Charles Greene and Brian Stone (same ones who originally took care of Sonny & Cher) — but one thing is clear: this album sets out to prove that it is perfectly possible to provide Spec­torian music without Spector himself being involved, and comes fairly close to proving it. The girls' vocals, once they all come together, are astoundingly similar to The Ronettes, and the ar­rangements, recorded at the same Gold Star Studios where Spector did most of his work and handled by a large chunk of the Wrecking Crew, reproduce the wall-of-sound to perfection.

 

The first side of the album is, in fact, as close to girl-group-pop perfection as could theoretically be. The first two songs were written specially for the band — ʽBaby That's Meʼ by Jack Nitzsche and Jackie DeShannon, and ʽWorld Of Dreamsʼ by Dr. John: big, pompous, sunny, friendly anthems that should be part of any Sixties' lovers' collection, period (even if ʽBaby That's Meʼ shamelessly steals vocal moves from ʽDon't Worry Babyʼ, and ʽWorld Of Dreamsʼ does not progress anywhere past the first verse). By the time of the third track, they are beginning to get more than just good — more creative, with a slowed-down, psychedelicized version of the old country-rocker ʽYou Can Have Herʼ (amended to ʽHimʼ, of course), building tension as each new verse gradually climbs up the scale, and the strings add further grandiosity.

 

The biggest surprise comes with the next three songs — all of a sudden, the girls are not merely performers and interpreters, but songwriters, and the songs they write are in a completely dif­ferent mold: a three-part suite, presented as a «pseudo-live» chamber orchestra performance (with some crowd noises and tuning up sounds preceding the actual songs) and written strictly in the baroque-pop genre, with strings, woodwinds, and multi-part harmonies. Perhaps a song title like ʽMedieval Loveʼ is a little too telling, but the harmony and string arrangements on all three tracks are surprisingly complex, and the melancholic mood is infectious. This may be about as «authen­tic» as, say, any similar genre exercises by The Monkees in their psychedelic period, but if you do not set your expectations on a ʽFor No Oneʼ / ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ level, these are quite pleasant and tasteful genre exercises — considering that Morillo and Jacobs, credited as authors, pretty much came out of nowhere, a very impressive start.

 

Unfortunately, no surprise like this can be sustained for too long, and the album's second side is a big letdown — as if they suddenly discovered they were out of material, and hastened to stuff it with adequately recorded, but generally useless covers of such standards as ʽStand By Meʼ and ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ. Jessie Hill's ʽOhh Poo Pah Dooʼ is also slowed down, but the new groove adds little of interest to the old one — and, overall, where the first side, with its wall of sound tech­niques and loud strings, had an interesting mix of Motown, baroque, and psychedelic elements, the second is more traditional, brass-based R&B that hardly stands competition with Atlantic, despite everybody's best intentions.

 

Still a thumbs up — it may be clear from the start that the group did not have much of a future in 1967, but after a while, some dead ends end up sounding much more alive than others, and The Cake, or at least its first side, will be a cool discovery for all those who want to make their knowledge of the greatest era in pop music as comprehensive as possible. Besides, now that you know about this album's existence, you can always cut your opponent down to size with a «Cherilyn Sarkisian? Bah! Who needs that? Eleanor Barooshian — now you're talking!»

 

A SLICE OF CAKE (1968)

 

1) Have You Heard The News 'Bout Miss Molly; 2) P. T. 280; 3) Sadie; 4) Tides Of Love; 5) Walkin' The Dog / Something's Got A Hold On Me / Big Boy Pete; 6) Extroverted Introvert; 7) Under The Tree Of Love And Laughter; 8) Annabelle Clarke; 9) Who Will Wear The Crown; 10) Island Of Plenty.

 

Cake's second and last album was even shorter than the first — just ten tracks, clocking in at around 26 minutes — but it also was a big step forward for the group, and certainly makes you wonder what the future could have in store for them if the record had at least a little bit of com­mercial success. Here, the seeds that were sown with the three-song «medieval suite» of The Cake optimistically spring up with a whole series of such compositions, as the ladies write more than half of the songs on their own and significantly cut down on the Phil Spector / Motown as­pects of the debut — and the results are almost surprisingly astonishing. (I write almost, because in this age we seem to be finally accustomed to the idea that women even in the Sixties could be accomplished songwriters; the element of surprise rather concerns Decca executives, all of them probably male, who allowed Jacobs, Morillo, and Barooshian to record and release their own stuff. Now that's thinking progressively!).

 

Baroque, psychedelic, and even Kinks-style Brit-pop influences are all over this platter, as the girls weave a fully credible, if not tremendously original, musical tapestry of isolation, melan­cholia, and claustrophobic amorousness. Like many other artists at the time, they often prefer the detached role of a Greek chorus onlooker — even the song titles, preferring to refer to ʽMiss Mollyʼ and ʽAnnabelle Clarkeʼ rather than ʽIʼ, indicate that, and it gives the songs an aura of extra depth and wisdom; more importantly, they are simply fine songs. ʽMiss Mollyʼ, woven out of acoustic guitars, harpsichords, clarinets, chamber strings, and intricate relations between lead and backing vocals, goes through several tempo shifts and several personal stories — all it lacks is a particularly heart-tugging hook, but even in the absence of that the whole thing just oozes class and distinction on a general level. ʽAnnabelle Clarkeʼ, on the other hand, is a little less interesting in terms of atmosphere, but goes for that hook with gusto — "Annabelle Clarke has learned to live life better" cuts across almost as sharp as "what a drag it is getting old" or "he's a dedicated follower of fashion".

 

Probably the most unusual tune of them all is ʽExtroverted Introvertʼ, preserving the group har­mony principle but also multiplying it with a wild samba beat, baroque string flourishes, and a poppy vocal melody at the same time — a crazyass combination that somehow works, creating an atmosphere of amicable madness and, for that matter, fully corresponding with its musical weird­ness to the paradox expressed in the title. But that is not to undermine the coolness of the nearly accappella ʽUnder The Tree Of Love And Laughterʼ, a tune that sounds far more grim and de­pressing than the title suggests; or the psychedelic swoop of ʽP. T. 280ʼ, switching between tight rhythmic pop and atmospheric folk sections and throwing every instrument they could lay their hand on in the studio into the mix; or ʽIsland Of Plentyʼ, ending the record on a touchingly opti­mistic note that can probably be traced all the way back to oldies like ʽBig Rock Candy Moun­tainʼ, only here its burly country roots are all overgrown with psycho-baroque weeds.

 

Even the few R&B leftovers are fun — the big medley in the middle is, for some reason, intro­duced with a few out-of-tune bars of ʽThe Wedding Marchʼ, and then they tie three different tunes to the same rhythmic pattern, as if subtly mocking the genre that got them started; and Dr. John's ʽWho Will Wear The Crownʼ is a good energy ball to explode in the middle of all that baroque mopeyness, just as it begins getting a bit too mopey-ish. This is precisely the kind of pro­portion that was needed on the first album — except it was reversed there, downplaying the girls' strengths in favor of their ordinariness. A Slice Of Cake, on the other hand, does it precisely right, and ends up as a charming way to spend 26 minutes of your Sixties-lovin' time, and a good reason for an enthusiastic thumbs up. Sure, it wasn't that big a crime to have it overlooked in mid-1968, when masterpieces sprung out of nowhere on an almost daily basis — but in our modern era of «anything goes», it certainly makes more sense to dig it out, dust it off, and give it a fair reappraisal rather than go on a hunt for those present day artists who try to make it sound like 1968 all over again without having a clue of what it was actually like in 1968.

 

Alas, once the record was done, the girls pretty immediately vanished into total obscurity — for a little while more, their heads still occasionally bobbed above the water, either backing up Dr. John on his tours or even working, of all people, with Ginger Baker's Air Force (hey, I told you they were special, didn't I?), but, unfortunately, the lack of recognition just ended up killing off any songwriting ambitions that Jacobs, Morello, and Barooshian may have had. Too bad — with a little more perseverance and a little luck, they could have had quite a progressive future waiting for them, but I guess you can't have your Cake and eat it too. (Sorry, couldn't resist).

 


CAN


MONSTER MOVIE (1969)

 

1) Father Cannot Yell; 2) Mary, Mary So Contrary; 3) Outside My Door; 4) Yoo Doo Right.

 

Technically, the first album recorded by Can was called Prepared To Meet Thy Pnoom, and was supposed to be released in 1968, but no label would accept it at the time, and ultimately, it was only issued in 1981 under the appropriate title of Delay 1968. Ironically, it was far more acces­sible than their next album, for which they did manage to find a label one year later — apparently, the degree of record label boldness rocketed sky high after the release of stuff like Trout Mask Replica, so that for a while some people could adopt an anything-goes mentality.

 

Yet despite all the weirdness, I do have to say that of all the bizarre Krautrock ensembles that Germany gave us Can have always been the most conservatively and traditionally oriented. Be­hind all their experimentation and craziness and psychedelia really rests a competent blues-rock band whose major passion was simply to jam, jam, jam all day and all of the night. The four-man war machine of Michael Karoli on guitar, Holger Czukay on bass, Irmin Schmidt on keyboards, and Jaki «Human Metronome» Liebezeit on drums must and will appeal not only to (and maybe even not as much to) those who look to Krautrockers for blowing our minds and expanding our horizons, but simply to those who respect and enjoy strong, sharp, cohesive playing — the same audiences who are willing to sit through lengthy sonic journeys by Cream or the Dead.

 

Case in point: ʻYou Doo Rightʼ, stretched over the entire second side of the album, is really but a 20-minute excerpt out of a jam that is said to have gone on for about six hours, and resulted in men outlasting machines as the band had to cut it short because the amps started to smoke. And the way it is handled here, I'm pretty sure they were only getting warmed up by the end of the sixth hour: Can's fanatical devotion to their craft meant that, when they were on, time ceased to exist. And this is why good Can jams (and most of their jams were good) are so easy to tolerate. It is easy to get bored by a lengthy piece of jamming when you sense that the players are simply going on because they're following a trend (such as «your song does not matter at all if it is any­thing shorter than 20 minutes»). Can, however, were not following trends: upon locking themsel­ves into the groove, they simply lived that groove.

 

I mean, listen to Jaki Liebezeit pounding out those complex polyrhythms on ʻYou Doo Rightʼ without ever faltering — you'd think drumming, to him, was like air: stop drumming, and you stop breathing. Twenty minutes into the track, the entire band is going every bit as strong as they were at the beginning... and, as it turns out, these twenty minutes by themselves were only the beginning. The jam's somewhat lazy pacing and the diminished role of both guitar and keyboards might turn people off, but it is all about the rhythm section: it is the African drums and the droning bass that make it into what it is — a tribal ritual that needs to go on at 100% efficiency all the time, lest contact is lost with the respective deities. I actually think the jam does not hit its peak until somewhere around the 12th minute, when Jaki and Holger settle upon a mutual lock that seems inescapable, so they have no choice but to go on forever and let those amps take all the punishment they can stand.

 

That said, if your organism is too weak to take in even 20 minutes of that jam (and I can get that: mine was fairly weak, too, when I first submitted myself to the experience), the shorter tracks on the first side might be a better initial proposition. ʻFather Cannot Yellʼ is faster, has a far more prominent guitar and keyboard part, and occasionally threatens to burn up the entire world with those feedback blasts from all the melodic instruments. ʻMary, Mary So Contraryʼ is built upon a dirge-like drone where Schmidt's and Karoli's shrill, high-pitched, wobbly tones knock your brains out as efficiently as any imaginable chemical substance, and at no expense to physiological health. And the shortest track, ʻOutside My Doorʼ, is a four-minute garage-blues-rock romp that would not have been out of place on Nuggets — short, adolescent-style aggressive, rhythmically simplistic and full of kick-ass guitar solos that go for devastating emotional brutality right away, without taking much time to build up.

 

You might notice that so far, I have not said one word about the fifth member of the band: the African-American vocalist Malcolm Mooney — first of the two «accidental» vocalists that the Germans would recruit during their glory years. Although he did have some experience, singing in a vocal band while in high school, at the time he befriended Can he made a living as a sculptor in New York, so basically he was the first one to prove Can's strange point that «anybody can be a singer in a band like ours». Neither what he sings nor whether he can sing at all makes much difference — Can do not really need singers, they just use them up as sonic material to make the tunes a little more accessible and a little more crazy at the same time. Most of the time, Mooney screams his way through the music, or, as it is in the case of ʻYoo Doo Rightʼ, scrapes his way through it, making himself sound like a homeless person on the brink of insanity. The creepy thing is that working in the band actually drove him to insanity; soon after the release of Monster Movie, he took his doctor's advice and fled to America to avoid going completely crazy — and you would, too, if you had to provide improvisational vocals for six-hour long jam sessions.

 

That said, in the context of Can songs being «tribal rituals», Mooney's vocalizations, as would Suzuki's a year later, make perfect sense — this is a «speaking-in-tongues» component, stretches of shamanistic delirium that show us how effectively the man is possessed. If anything, his vocals on ʻYoo Doo Rightʼ are too normal for the band — much of the time, you can actually make out what he is singing (which is not right at all), and some of the singing even follows a clear melodic pattern, which is even less right, implying rationality and a search for structural elegance. So you might say that Mooney was an essentially normal character whose work in Can drove him to madness, whereas Suzuki would be an essentially mad character whose work in Can drove him to become a Jehovah's Witness — and so the stakes go up.

 

Clearly, Monster Movie is not the best Can album. At this stage, they are still putting their shit together, and the band's love for jam magic is not yet tempered with the ability to add vision, scope, and massive tape splicing to the proceedings. But on the other hand, this here is as «raw» as it gets, and the band's four-piece gears are in complete working order. They have not yet been graced with the presence of a perfect vocalist, and the grooves are more enjoyable than memo­rable, but one thing's for certain: no other band in 1969 sounded that tight over the course of an interminable live improvisation — something to remember for all those critics who like to point out the (hard-to-deny) influence of the Velvet Underground, but forget that the adorable Moe Tucker would stand no chance in a drum battle versus Herr Liebezeit, and more or less the same goes for all the other instrumentalists. Of course, this does not make them a better band (and we will not get into any apples vs. oranges types of discussion here), but it does make them one of the greatest, if not the greatest band at the time who could combine experimental/psychedelic inclinations with phenomenal instrumental technique, all the while resting comfortly in an easy-to-understand zone of the blues idiom. Thumbs up for sure.

 

SOUNDTRACKS (1970)

 

1) Deadlock; 2) Tango Whiskyman; 3) Deadlock (version 2); 4) Don't Turn The Light On, Leave Me Alone; 5) Soul Desert; 6) Mother Sky; 7) She Brings The Rain.

 

Next to Tago Mago, this album always gets a relatively bad rap as a «transitional» effort, and, well, objectively it is «transitional» — not only is this a fairly non-conceptual mix of various pieces of music that Can composed for contemporary movie soundtracks to make a living, but it also features both their old vocalist and the new one, Damo Suzuki, literally recruited from the street in Munich where Czukay and Liebezeit found him busking outside a cafe. Clearly, it is hard to approach this stuff from a completely unbiased perspective.

 

And yet, somehow I'd say that Soundtracks has the unexpected benefit of encapsulating, in but 35 minutes, just about everything that Can were capable of. By being pulled together from a vari­ety of different sources, it is more diverse than any other record of theirs. It does not let you get sick of either Mooney or Suzuki, whose incessant mumblings may fairly quickly lose their arti­stic power and become an irritant (I am definitely not sure that his presence all over Tago Mago is always beneficial). It shows the band as masters of the trance-inducing jam and the occasional unusual pop hook. And the only thing on which it goes easy is their experimentation with arhyth­mic noise... which is actually fine by me, because to me, Can is all about rhythm; whenever the rhythm section takes a break, they lose God status immediately.

 

Anyway, bias and prejudice notwithstanding, nobody in his right mind ever says a word against ʻMother Skyʼ, a track with which the Can truly arrives — and blows away all jamming compe­tition, with 14 minutes of the most badass sound in the history of jam music, ever. No buildup, no «search for the right groove»: out of nowhere, they immediately jump into the right groove (of course, the track may have been cut out of a much larger session), with two minutes of a shrill, sharp, unrelenting assault on the senses — Liebezeit kicking like an overpaid slave driver, Czukay playing little enticing melodic phrases on top of his own aggressive pounding, and Karoli soloing like a demon, keeping the guitar at high-pitched ecstatic heights without a single break between notes. All of which serves as an introduction to the many subsequent sections, focusing on Suzuki's vocals, guitar solos that alternate between Eastern drone and blues-rock, and just one brief «soft» interlude where bongos replace standard percussion, to let you catch your breath.

 

The main attraction of ʻMother Skyʼ is that it is actually quite simple — it's not as if Karoli were playing some chords or scales that had not been previously thought of, and the beat is standard, even minimalistic 4/4 (reflecting the so-called Motorik aesthetics). What puts it over the edge is the sheer force and intent invested in the effort — it's as if the musicians believe that the fate of the world is resting on their shoulders, that the universe remains stable only for as long as they carry on their task with complete and utter commitment. On the other side of the English Channel, only Hawkwind were committing themselves with comparable dedication to the same kind of ritualistic primitivism — but Hawkwind came with an atmosphere of corniness and could be laughed off (shouldn't, but could be), whereas Can come with something stranger and spookier.

 

That strangeness and spookiness manifests itself in quite a few other bits on the album, of course, starting from the very first seconds — the distorted guitar intro to ʻDeadlockʼ, sirening across the living room, swirling around and finally crashing down into the mumbling desperation of Su­zuki's probably-epic vocals. ʻDeadlockʼ was the theme to a spaghetti-western movie of the same name, so they were most likely going for a Morricone-like effect, and there's plenty of echo, desperate shrillness, and dangerous tones all right, but the song is based primarily on drone, so it's like crossing Morricone with The Velvet Underground — to awesome results.

 

Then there's ʻDon't Turn The Right On, Reave Me Aloneʼ (reflecting Suzuki's predictable struggle with pronun­ciation, though he does make an effort to master the liquidity), which somehow succeeds in con­veying his characteristic «madness» without having to resort to wild screaming or gibberish; and do not forget the creepy acoustic licks, the deceivingly becalmed flute bits, and the unnerving funky beat. ʻTango Whiskymanʼ is probably the weakest of the Su­zuki tracks, because its «tango» rhythmics, in the context of everything else here, sounds some­what parodic; however, hearing Suzuki try to sing a melodic pop melody, come to think of it, may be the weirdest experience of 'em all.

 

Of the two Mooney tracks, ʻSoul Desertʼ would have fit in very well on Monster Movie, being the same kind of funky repetitive groove with heavy emphasis on over-excited blabber — like a soul man gone crazy (which was more or less the case); but ʻShe Brings The Rainʼ, which they used to close the album after the thunderstorm of ʻMother Skyʼ, is a completely normal-sounding lounge jazz number, with a completely normal (perhaps even too normal) vocal delivery; it only begins to go slightly psychedelic towards the end, when the song's jazz rhythm chords are com­plemented with a quiet, but persistent acid guitar solo (something that all vocal jazz records could benefit from quite heavily, methinks!). On its own, perhaps, ʻShe Brings The Rainʼ would never be a Can classic, but its positioning next to ʻMother Skyʼ is a classic move, and somehow it feels like precisely the right missing piece to complete the puzzle and turn the whole record into a small, elegant, 100%-efficient kaleidoscope of sound.

 

Anyway, best or not best, Soundtracks is totally essential Can, as well as a merciful introduction for those who like to test their waters before wading in chest-deep: once you get used to ʻMother Skyʼ, you're pretty much ready for most of Tago Mago (which has its fair share of great grooves, but, in my opinion, still has nothing on the sheer all-out ferocity of ʻMother Skyʼ). The «sound­track curse» may have unjustly condemned the album to forever hanging in the shadow of its successors, or in the shadow of all those other innumerable rock classics from 1970, but as long as we still have time to savor all the classics, be sure to keep this one firmly on the list, and here's some major thumbs up from me as an incentive.

 

TAGO MAGO (1971)

 

1) Paperhouse; 2) Mushroom; 3) Oh Yeah; 4) Halleluwah; 5) Aumgn; 6) Peking O; 7) Bring Me Coffee Or Tea.

 

Acknowledged almost everywhere as the ultimate Can masterpiece, Tago Mago is indeed the most uncompromising, relentless, brutal exhibition of the Can aesthetics that money can buy, which should also register a warning for the not-so-extreme-minded: four LP sides with but seven tracks worth of material, and two of them with very little rhythm support to speak of, can be quite a heavy burden on the unitiated, who should rather start out with Soundtracks.

 

As far as kick-ass statements go, I'm pretty sure Can never made a stronger one. Tago Mago is a dark-'n'-brooding piece, exploring the world of insanity and brutality that is so wonderfully en­cap­sulated in the sleeve photo: see how it seems to picture an infra-red portrait of an individual spitting out pieces of his own brain, but that same portrait also has the shape of a nuclear mush­room cloud? Well, you could dream of something like that just listening to some of this music, without taking a single look at the cover.

 

Technically, Tago Mago completes the transformation of Can from a jam-based outfit into a «jam-splice-based» unit: most of the songs here have improvisational studio jams as their founda­tion, but all of them are then taken by Czukay and «treated» with additional overdubs, shortened and spliced with artistic purposes, as if Holger knew very well which moments of the sessions «meant» something, which ones had to be embellished to mean something, and which ones were senseless and had to be cut. You could, perhaps, call that a waste of time if most of the material did not indeed sound so awesome — a great lesson for so many psychedelic bands who thought that the very fact of a group of free people freely experimenting in the studio should necessarily result in great art. Amazingly, despite all the doctoring, all the tracks still preserve a certain raw, visceral quality to them, which we should ascribe to Czukay's absolute professionalism.

 

When I'm talking about raw/visceral, I, of course, mean primarily the rhythm section. If ʻMother Skyʼ used a simplistic 4/4 beat and could still put you in a trance any second, then Tago Mago shows how they can do the same thing with slightly trickier means. In particular, ʻHalleluhwahʼ, stretched over the entire second side of the LP, rides on an absolute monster of a groove, captured so brilliantly you can almost feel Liebezeit's entire drumkit rattling and wobbling on its platform, while the bass is pumping up a feeling of inescapable doom. Honestly, the rest does not even matter all that much — there are some fine, diverse guitar solos in all sorts of styles and tonalities, there's Suzuki spewing crazy desperation ("searching for my brother, yes I am!") all over the place, but my attention (and spirit) just remain chained to that groove all the way through (there's a very short bit early on in the song where the groove disappears for a moody piano interlude, and it almost makes me sad — fortunately, it's just a thirty second splice). How the heck is it even humanly possible to play that sort of stuff so unfalteringly for such a long time? Must be far more difficult to get yourself that disciplined than going all-out crazy a la Keith Moon.

 

The shorter tracks on the first side are not quite that powerful, but they also form the emotional center of the album — the slow, trudging ʻPaperhouseʼ is like the soundtrack to a funeral cere­mony in a madhouse; ʻMushroomʼ, naturally referring to a nuclear strike, is particularly poignant given its vocalization by a Japanese singer ("when I saw mushroom head, I was born and I was dead"); and ʻOh Yeahʼ, into which ʻMushroomʼ transitions after an actual nuclear blast, is the album's fastest bit of music, but also one of the most psychedelic, with backward vocals and synth notes that morph into gushing wind as they fade away. This is not «just jamming» — this is every bit the equivalent of the Stooges' Fun House, only substituting a more complex and dis­ciplined approach in the place of Iggy and Co.'s untamed infernal energy. The message is the same, though — music can symbolize and convey the collective madness of humanity better than any other medium.

 

You have to keep that message very firmly in mind when listening to the second LP, because I vividly remember myself hating ʻAumgnʼ and ʻPeking Oʼ — why on earth, thought I, when we have here easily the best rhythm section of 1971 bar none, do we have to waste so much time on two astral freakouts that feature no rhythm section whatsoever? But even the cavernous echoes and keyboard escapades of ʻAumgnʼ are quite a step up from anything in the same style done by, say, the Grateful Dead — just because there's a fascinating tension to every single bit of the track, and because you can visualize it as a dangerous journey through the corridors, winding paths, and precipices located inside somebody's brain; if the first LP was completely «external», now the sensations are being «internalized», and where you first had access to the outward manifestations of insanity, now you are being put inside, where it sure ain't pretty but sure is suspenseful. ʻPe­king Oʼ is not quite as impressive, largely because there's too much emphasis on outdated elec­tronics (the drum machine stuff is particularly flimsy) and because Suzuki's speaking-in-tongues on that particular track veers into the comical; but it is also shorter, and it does actually succeed in bringing the rhythm section back towards the end, so it's not a big problem.

 

Like Soundtracks, Tago Mago also ends with something relatively close to a «normal» moody tune, the drone-based ʻBring Me Coffee Or Teaʼ, where things sort of calm down after the storm, but clearly indicating that this is just a pause, as the madness dies down because the madman has temporarily run out of energy and is now quietly rocking back and forth in a dazed, depressed, zombie-like state, his mind quietly preparing for psychotic phase two. ʻShe Brings The Rainʼ was not exactly a happy song, but it reflected a certain mode of inner peace and quiet; ʻBring Me Coffee Or Teaʼ ends Can's alleged masterpiece with a musical cliffhanger, or, at least, a clear indica­tion that this disturbed state of mind is here to stay for a long, long time.

 

Paradoxically, perhaps, Tago Mago is far from the most «typical» Can album. The band's flirt with musical insanity would go on for a brief while, but overall, future releases would become more and more disciplined, more concentrated on the groove than the atmosphere; and if the atmosphere were still present, it would rather be an otherworldly atmosphere than this horrid feeling of being trapped inside a madman's mind. Since rock music and rock criticism has this long history of flirting with darkness and insanity, it is not surprising that Tago Mago has be­come, for so many people, the Can album par excellence; yet in reality, it represents but one par­ticular stage of evolution for the band, although for Damo Suzuki, it was certainly his shining hour of glory (his vocal presence on the following two albums being far less important). That said, on the «Great Mad Albums» shelf that was so densely populated in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Tago Mago has itself quite a place of honor — thumbs up, totally.

 

EGE BAMYASI (1972)

 

1) Pinch; 2) Sing Swan Song; 3) One More Night; 4) Vitamin C; 5) Soup; 6) I'm So Green; 7) Spoon.

 

This follow-up to Tago Mago is frequently hailed as a shorter, less ambitious and more acces­sible masterpiece — yet while it is indeed listenable and impressive, it has always seemed to me as a bit of a letdown, a «lite» version of its monstruous predecessor. Aesthetically, the focus re­mains fixed on the same elements — jam power, tape splice, rhythm section tricks, Suzuki madness — but the tracks get shorter and occasionally even poppier, and the atmospheres, ex­cept for a brief bit in the middle of ʻSoupʼ, rarely go to the extremes of Tago Mago.

 

Curiously, the album may have beeneven more influential on successive generations of musicians than Tago Mago — with Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Portishead all going on record with their ex­pression of specific admiration, and the band Spoon even adopting its name from the album's first single. And if you go earlier, it is hardly a coincidence that the main groove of Talking Heads' ʻOnce In A Lifetimeʼ is essentially the same as in ʻPinchʼ, the lead-off track from the album. My guess is that this adoration has something to do with Can trying to «can» their wild sound in these easier-to-assimilate musical forms, with extra hooks and all. Another reason may be purely technical: ʻSpoonʼ was the first Can song made available to a mass audience, being released as a single on the United Artists label, and its three minutes are a pretty captivating synthesis of pop catchiness and spooky weirdness, often provided by the same means. It was also one of the first uses of the drum machine on a commercial single, sounding fairly unusual for 1972 (as difficult as it is to transport yourself back in time for that parameter).

 

Still, the record does work fairly well as a lighter, humbler, and a bit more humorous companion to its big brother — with an oddly symbolic fixation on the greens, beginning with the album title (the Turkish equivalent for Aegean Okra) and cover and ending with song names like ʻVitamin Cʼ, ʻSoupʼ, and ʻI'm So Greenʼ, as if the band somehow intended to make a conceptual record about the pleasures of vegetarianism, but then forgot to reflect this in the music (in some twisted way, Damo's desperate "hey you, you're losing your vitamin C!" may be interpreted as a bit of advertisement, but only according to the rules and laws of the madhouse). Accepting this status as a fact makes it easier to come to terms with the observation that they are re-using quite a few of last year's ideas — for instance, ʻVitamin Cʼ is actually a poppy variation on the groove of ʻHal­leluhwahʼ, and the ten minutes of ʻSoupʼ do not add any new insights into jamming magic when compared to Tago Mago's ecstatic rituals.

 

The «harnessing» of the unrestrained power does result in some unique pop weirdness, of course. ʻSing Swan Songʼ and ʻOne More Nightʼ are like a pair of perverse-erotic siblings — the first one is a psychedelic elegy that could be directed at some Lady of the Lake or other, beginning with the sounds of rippling water and then using Holger's bass as a steady rudder as the boat smoothly glides across the sonic surface, and Karoli's guitar imitates the sound of bagpipes; and ʻOne More Nightʼ busily hustles about, methodically weaving a spider's web around your object of desire, as Suzuki grins and cackles, Dr. Evil-style, in anticipation of something juicy. On the other hand, ʻI'm So Greenʼ sounds so not unlike some Brit-pop creation from the late Sixties (think Small Faces, perhaps?) that I actually find it hard to understand what exactly makes it a «Can» song, other than Czukay's overpowered bass. It's nice, but not necessarily something I'm looking to in a Krautrock tune, you know.

 

On the whole, it's still very much a thumbs up, and I can easily see how it could be used as a concise manual for all aspiring «avant-pop» songwriters, but I seriously miss the sharpness, shrillness, and pull-all-the-stops attitude of the previous two records; and I do not think that the serious change in direction that would occur with Future Days was coincidental — I'm pretty sure they must have been worried themselves about getting caught in a rut, as impressive and idiosyncratic (but not inimitable) that rut might have seemed to be.

 

FUTURE DAYS (1973)

 

1) Future Days; 2) Spray; 3) Moonshake; 4) Bel Air.

 

There is a very important, but subtle dividing line between Ege Bamyasi and Future Days, the band's last album with Suzuki and, frankly speaking, also the band's first album where the very pre­sence of Suzuki feels a little... out of place. Prior to 1973, there were lots of things you could call Can albums — psychedelic, mind-blowing, spooky, disturbing, nightmarish, psychopathic — but «beauty» and «atmosphere» would hardly be at the top of the list, unless you have your value system all mixed-up and highly individualistic. Now, for the first time, Can set themselves the challenge of creating a sonic world that seduces with its prettiness, not with its ability to align itself with the darkest strains of your soul. A record that is, in a way, a very direct predecessor of (and almost unquestionably an influence on) Brian Eno's Another Green World — without clearly being a successor of anything, because very few, if any, albums up to that time were made with the overall purpose of creating an ambience. Even in the progressive genre, most albums had a «plot» of sorts; Future Days is purely impressionistic, from top to bottom.

 

Although the tracks are still long, with ʻBel Airʼ occupying a whole side's worth of vinyl, it is pretty hard to call them «jams» now — there is very little sense of improvisation, and the empha­sis is on droning group interplay rather than solos of any kind. The stripped-down musical struc­tures of the tunes have lots of fairly common elements — for instance, the title track is pinned to a fairly generic Latin groove; at the beginning of ʻSprayʼ you can notice a surprisingly retro boogie bass line; and the album's only short piece, ʻMoonshakeʼ, structurally seems like a cross between ʻOye Como Vaʼ and ʻShakin' All Overʼ. However, the rhythm section of Czukay and Liebezeit still manages to remain one of the most inventive combos on Earth, and any «generic» elements here only exist in unpredictable combinations.

 

Most importantly, it makes no sense to discuss any single instrument outside of the overall con­text — it is only when the rhythm section is properly integrated with the guitars and keyboards that the record begins to make any sense at all. ʻFuture Daysʼ (the song) is made to sound like a wobbly journey on a magical carpet, its hems flapping around you as synthesized clouds chuck electric guitar raindrops on your head. With ʻSprayʼ, you find yourself on the ground, somewhat frantically running through an unfamiliar landscape as guitars and keyboards alike transform themselves into alien mosquitoes, carnivorous frogs, and other ghastly creatures. And ʻBel Airʼ's distorted guitar sound is clearly volcanic, so apparently by that time you find yourself out of the swamps and jungles, but gradually descending into the vortex of hellfire (despite the track's de­ceptively quiet and calm beginnings).

 

Describing these musical paintings in detail is rather futile, since not a lot of different things actually happen — while this is not really «ambient» music, due to its lack of minimalism and highly dynamic rhythm section, it is, now that I think of it, about as «post-rock» as they come, largely achieving the goals of bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor decades before they'd even formed (and, might I add, without raising suspicions that this music is being made as com­pensation for the fact that the people involved do not really know how to play their instruments: even at their most «static», each of Liebezeit's drum patterns or Czukay's bass lines here is pre­cious). However, each of the band's members is equally important for the overall effect, with the already mentioned possible exception of Damo — his vocal parts are even more quiet than they were, and although he sings at least one very pretty melody (the "spinning down alone..." bit on ʻBel Airʼ), and generally shows himself capable of subtlety and even a sort of crooning, his pre­sence is never integral to these songs. No wonder he left in between Future Days and Babaluma: his mission was almost officially ended.

 

I would not call Future Days as glaringly great as the 1970-71 recordings, though. There are quite a few stretches here that can easily try your patience, and on the whole, I would think that a bit of diversity wouldn't hurt: even if somebody argues that a tight, gritty three-minute funk-pop tune like ʻMoonshakeʼ disrupts the album's harmonic flow and feels out of place, it at least helps you put the disjointed pieces of your brain back together before the big one comes. The sound­scapes are impressive and mildly evocative, but way too kaleidoscopic to stick in memory — where a master manipulator like Eno would always have a bunch of creepy riffs or emotional keyboard phrases to pick your attention, Future Days places too much trust in the whole and too little in the individual parts. In the end, its historical importance probably matters more than its pure enjoyability; but this is not to say that it is not enjoyable, or that repeated listens do not bring out, clearer and clearer, all sorts of tasty nuances in Karoli's guitar playing or Schmidt's ambient keyboards. It is, and they do; it is simply that «Can genius» is a bit more directly associated with the likes of ʻHalleluhwahʼ than ʻBel Airʼ.

 

On the other hand, Ege Bamyasi had already shown that if the band were to go on making Tago Mago-lite clones for the rest of its life, they would very quickly become a parody of themselves; and if they do not deserve our admiration for such a radical change of direction while still near the top of their game, what do they deserve? Well, at least a pretty strong thumbs up, for one thing.

 

SOON OVER BABALUMA (1974)

 

1) Dizzy Dizzy; 2) Come Sta La Luna; 3) Splash; 4) Chain Reaction; 5) Quantum Physics.

 

I think that I might actually prefer Can's first post-Suzuki album to Future Days, even if this means going against the average consensus. Essentially, they are continuing to develop in the same direction, once again abandoning pure jam power in favor of otherworldly ambience with occasional touches of beauty — but, while the sound of this album is a little more conventional, perhaps, it is also sharper, and there's just basically more going on than there used to be.

 

The album title is a spooneristic distortion of Moon Over Alabama, but, for some reason, to me it always suggested an association not so much with Kurt Weill's ʻAlabama Songʼ, but with ʻStars Fell On Alabamaʼ — there's a distinct shadow of midnight jazz lying over much of the record, and it does have a nightly, ghostly, slightly mystical aura to it, especially the first half which could be thought about as the logical nighttime state of the same world that we'd explored on Future Days during the daytime. ʻDizzy Dizzyʼ, the first song in the band's catalog to be domi­nated by Michael Karoli's violin rather than guitar (which he plays Stephane Grappelli-style), is particularly impressive in that respect — it's all about ghostly apparitions, as personified by the wobbly, echoey, ephemeral character of all the instruments: drums, bass, violin, keyboards, vocals, they all sound like they're there and they're not there.

 

ʻCome Sta La Lunaʼ and ʻSplashʼ complete the first side of the album with perky Latin rhythms, the former one more of a cha-cha-cha and the latter more of a samba, but aside from the rhythm tracks, nothing about the tunes is specifically Latin American — ʻLunaʼ is distinguished by oddly processed vocals (note: many of the technical effects on vocals are probably best explained as the result of Karoli's and Schmidt's shyness, as they had to manage without a separate vocalist), dis­sonant violin runs and avantgarde piano rolls that all converge in a ball of weirdness, like a naked midnight dance on the beach supposed to help the dancers find their inner self. On ʻSplashʼ, the tempo is accelerated, the violin and guitar solos become crazier (including violin tones so distor­ted that I almost mistook them for saxes), and the moonlight madness becomes more pronounced: the only thing that's lacking is a bombastic climax, instead of which we get a rather unsatisfactory fadeout just as things are beginning to really heat up.

 

The second side of the record takes us in a different direction — with titles like ʻChain Reactionʼ and ʻQuantum Physicsʼ, you know you're moving away from psychedelic nocturnal scenery and into the realm of the micro-cosmic. ʻChain Reactionʼ itself is probably the closest they came to recapturing the nightmarish atmospheres of Tago Mago, with acid guitar solos, chicken-scratch funk guitar borrowed to symbolize the unstoppable onslaught of particle movement — and, most curiously, the track's several crescendos always inevitably descend into sections that I'd call «ʻDead Man's Tangoʼ Variations», such morbidity and coldness emanating from those passages. As for ʻQuantum Physicsʼ, the lengthy and nearly rhythmless piece of keyboard ambience, it sounds almost frustratingly modern — draggy, minimalistic, bleary-eyed, pretty much the blue­print for the vast majority of Boards of Canada albums.

 

As you can see, the album is somewhat journey-like — with a more «naturalistic» first side like a three-movement suite on exciting, but dangerous nighttime life in an alternate universe, and the second side a two-movement exploration of the «dynamic» and «static» states of the little bits and pieces that form the alternate universe in question. In other words, I find it even easier to concep­tualize than Future Days, and I certainly find it more evocative: darker, creepier, more prone to transporting my mind to distant places than its predecessor. (For some reason, many people tend to really put down ʻChain Reactionʼ, but I think the abrupt signature changes alone justify its presence, and the only real complaint I have about the aggressive jam parts is that the soloing instruments are kept way too low in the mix).

 

In any case, it is important to clear away the perpetrated misconception that «this is the beginning of the end for Can» which is still being retranslated all over the place. It is, at the very least, a worthier spiritual companion to Future Days than Ege Bamyasi was to Tago Mago, capitalizing on its ambient/impressionist achievements rather than sounding like a pale copy of them. Yes, it may be argued that 1973 was the last year for Can to introduce «revolutionary» ideas in the world of music, but even revolutionary ideas may be improved upon with non-revolutionary nuances, and for a few additional years, the band still wrote and released worthy music that was in no way boring, let alone «commercially oriented». Thus, thumbs up all the way.

 

LANDED (1975)

 

1) Full Moon On The Highway; 2) Half Past One; 3) Hunters And Collectors; 4) Vernal Equinox; 5) Red Hot Indians; 6) Unfinished.

 

As public enthusiasm slowly dissipates over Can's gradual slipping into «accessible» patterns, my hope that eventually these mid-Seventies' albums will get their due only increases. Nowhere near as groundbreaking as Tago Mago or Future Days, sure; but in some special way, Landed still gives you a unique sound — Can crossing their experience, inborn talent, and experimentation with more conventional rock and funk rhythms of the day. Don't let brief lazy descriptions like «Landed marks the band's turn towards glam rock and early disco» form an incorrect impression before you even hear the album — if all glam rock and disco sounded like ʻFull Moon On The Highwayʼ and ʻHunters And Collectorsʼ, we could just as well eliminate any formal difference between nightclubs and highbrow art colleges.

 

Actually, Can were part of the common progressive trend that few people back then managed to (or even tried to) avoid — they just happened to be less lucky than, say, Kraftwerk, who'd also went from frenetic avantgarde experimentation to «catchy pop» in a matter of several years, but somehow managed not only to preserve, but even to enhance their critical reputation in the pro­cess. It was easier for Ralf and Florian, though, because with records like Autobahn and Man Machine they were creating a completely new sub-genre of pop music, whereas Can found them­selves in a more difficult position: any sacrifice of their «excesses» (track length, tape splicing, crazy vocalizing, complex time signatures, etc.) would inevitably bring them back to their well-tattered roots — good old blues-rock. Would there be any fun in that?

 

Well, I'd say that Landed is still a lot of fun. ʻFull Moon On The Highwayʼ makes this album the first one in Can's catalog to be introduced with a «potentially commercial» three-minute pop-rock song, but it is still unmistakeably Can — largely due to scorching acid fire guitar solos from Karoli, because the rhythm section of Liebezeit and Czukay prefers to exercise restraint (although I still like whatever Holger is doing with that bass, especially in the coda where he seems to be turning that «disco» pattern inside out). The vocals, handled by Czukay on this track, are louder and more self-assured than anything sung on Babaluma, and the sped-up chorus vocals sound less like the proverbial chipmunks than like a pack of merry sprites levitating over the proverbial highway. If you ever wanted to put together a rock opera on highway travel, make sure to put this one right after Deep Purple's ʻHighway Starʼ — there's no cooler transition from bright daytime, with the protagonist exuding self-confidence and arrogance, to creepy nighttime, when spirits take flight and driving becomes a test for the spirit.

 

The other tracks also have that night-time sheen to them, much of this having to do with the band's final mastering of state-of-the-art recording technologies (for the first time, they had access to 16-track recording!), so that some of the action is taking place «in the background» and some «in the foreground», creating cool sonic dimensions — not to mention that ʻHunters And Collectorsʼ "all come out at night", and ʻVernal Equinoxʼ has the root nox in the title. ʻVernal Equinoxʼ, in particular, is a highlight, the album's busiest instrumental with lots of wailing plea­sure from Karoli's guitar (no less than three different tones, too) and occasional ultra-speedy bursts from the rhythm section (although the electronic drums are probably programmed, but Czukay's bass zoops are most certainly not).

 

On the whole, even if the individual songs aren't nearly as catchy as they should be, I love the atmosphere — Landed sounds like one big supernatural dance party around some sort of elemen­tal bonfire, and as much as it borrows from contemporary R&B, it ends up converting everything into ritualistic wildness, largely due to clever mixing techniques. This makes the transition into the final track, honestly titled ʻUnfinishedʼ, all the more natural — this is where rhythm dies out, but ritualistic wildness remains, as the track begins similarly to one of the spooky freakouts on Tago Mago and eventually, after a long and dangerous journey through sonic tornadoes, earth­quakes, and beastie-infested underground caverns, ends up somewhere in the otherworldly domain of Future Days, populated with Yellow Submarine characters. Okay, so maybe this de­scription makes the composition more interesting than it actually is, but as far as Can noisefests go, this one is pretty inspired — and has a gorgeous little impressionist coda that old man De­bussy would probably have thumbed up for me.

 

In the meantime, I'm going to have to do on my own and issue this an autonomous thumbs up all by myself. Actually, maybe the best thing about these mid-period Can albums is that they are rarely boring — you'd think that the band should have gotten less superficially exciting and stuck in its own juice as it went on, but they never forget about the fun quotient, unlike some of their stuffier Krautrock contemporaries like Faust, for example. And when fun and experiment go hand in hand, it's the best kind of fun and the best kind of experiment that may be had.

 

FLOW MOTION (1976)

 

1) I Want More; 2) Cascade Waltz; 3) Laugh Till You Cry, Live Till You Die; 4) ...And More; 5) Babylonian Pearl; 6) Smoke (Ethnological Forgery Series No. 59); 7) Flow Motion.

 

This is where the fans really went nuts — Can scoring a commercial dance hit on the UK charts? Perfidy! But in fact, Flow Motion is quite a chivalrous and tasteful continuation of the band's search for a compromise between musical experimentation and public acceptance. Had most of these tracks appeared on a David Bowie record, they would probably be encountered with praise by the critical community, since Bowie was a «pop» artist by definition, and his embracing of «progressive» values within a pop context was always welcome; on the other hand, Can, who with these albums were sort of meeting «pop standards» halfway, were scolded not because of the actual quality of the music, but because of their trajectory, which is frankly unfair.

 

The trick is that Can are not simply playing funk, reggae, and pop on Flow Motion: they are playing Can-style funk, reggae, and pop, which means that they will do everything possible to populate these conventional musical structures with odd sounds and strange atmospheres. Take the hit itself, ʻI Want Moreʼ — it's odd from the very start, with the first rhythm guitar part soun­ding like an old Bo Diddley part from ʻMonaʼ, and the second, joining in ten seconds later, soun­ding like a contemporary Talking Heads funky groove. It's a simple combination, but somehow from the very first start it adds a bit of a psychedelic dimension to the track, where your mind gets trapped between the two interlocking rhythms and tossed to and fro like a basketball. And that's just the beginning, because then you get a New Wavish synth hook, ghostly echoey vocals, additional layers of distorted guitars and keyboard loops — again, if your average dance track were produced with that much care and creativity... well, it wouldn't be too good, because most people would be too entranced to actually do much dancing.

 

Or ʻCascade Waltzʼ — it actually is a waltz, playing in diligent 3/4 time, but the rhythm guitar is chopping out... reggae chords, making this arguably the first instance of an actual reggae waltz on record. With the cascades in question probably symbolized by the slide guitars, which give the whole thing a bit of a Hawaiian feeling, I am not even sure any more what it is I am listening to: a bizarre stylistic combo with an atmosphere of lazy, dreamy, colorful relaxation. For ʻLaugh Till You Cryʼ, Karoli picks up a Turkish baǧlama, but the band carries on with a Caribbean stylistics, playing an equally relaxed slow ska pattern that agrees very well with the song's slogan — "laugh till you cry, live till you die", and when people tell you that, if you call yourself Can, then you're supposed to keep on producing tracks that turn your subconscious outside out and expose to the world its darkest, smelliest corners, just let them know how much you care by writing more songs like ʻBabylonian Pearlʼ (which sounds like the band's tribute to Roxy Music).

 

All right, if you do want some darkness, there's always the title track, which seems to also have begun life as variations on a ska/reggae groove, but is more in line with Can's traditional ways of jamming. Largely instrumental, it builds upon the interlocking patterns of Schmidt's keyboards, faintly resonating from some faraway corridors or deep waterholes, and Karoli's heavily pro­cessed guitars, for some of which he uses the wah-wah and the phasing effect at the same time, producing some fairly devilish sounds. There's a Hendrix vibe here, too, and a Funkadelic one, perhaps, but all in a nice shroud of Teutonic darkness; and whoever would want to ask questions like "what are these Germans doing covering black people's music?", well, just remember that the band's first vocalist was actually black, and that the band's actual musical roots had always been in the blues rather than in Bavarian folk songs or The Ring.

 

If there's one single complaint I'd have to voice, it's that for the first time, I do not notice the rhythm section all that much. It's there, for sure, and doing a good job, but I do not feel a great deal of involvement on the part of Czukay, and there's not a single jaw-dropping rhythm pattern from Liebezeit, either (perhaps he was just getting the hang of that whole reggae thing, and re­mained content to be relegated to quasi-apprentice status for the time being). That is not good, be­cause ultimately Can is first and foremost about the rhythm, and only later about everything else; and it is hardly a coincidence that Czukay's duties would only diminish from then on, until his complete resignation from active player status in 1978. But whatever might have been the reason for this change, Flow Motion has plenty of cool things going on to compensate, and remains in­dispensable listening, I'm sure, for everyone who does not spend half of one's lifetime standing round the corner and waiting for a nice occasion to shout SELLOUT! as if it really mattered. Most definitely a thumbs up.

 

SAW DELIGHT (1977)

 

1) Don't Say No; 2) Sunshine Day And Night; 3) Call Me; 4) Animal Waves; 5) Fly By Night.

 

At this point, Can got caught in Traffic, and they sure saw so much delight in this that Holger Czukay was relegated to handling the «wave receiver» and «special sounds», whereas Rosko Gee, a Jamaican bassist who'd played with Traffic on their last album, replaced Holger on his native instrument — and at the same time, Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah, from the same Traffic lineup, complemented Liebezeit as the band's second (and some disappointed fans might even say first) drummer. No wonder, then, that Saw Delight is sometimes presented as Can's first serious exploration of «world music», even though the band was really mixing all sorts of musi­cal traditions as early as the late Sixties, and had a Japanese vocalist with strong ties to his native culture for about four years.

 

In reality, Saw Delight is a very natural and logical continuation of the overall evolution of Can's sound — the difference from Flow Motion is that they are now living in the New Wave era, and so much of the record is influenced by contemporary rhythms, inherited from the funk tradition but tightened up and brought up to the required standards of nervousness and paranoia. Rebop's percussion does add some «tribal / primal» flavor, for sure, making the first several tracks here into a direct spiritual predecessor of Talking Heads' Remain In Light (but without the same level of catchiness in its grooves, which meant that Remain In Light could bear hit singles and Saw Delight couldn't, and wasn't even supposed to), but even with all those samba beats it is merely another step along the path that began with Future Days («otherworldly ambience» → «other­worldly rhythmic ambience» → «funky atmospheric nighttime journey» → «funky reggae voo­doo shit» → WORLD MUSIC!).

 

And despite the fact that in 1977, Can weren't exactly on the cutting edge, or at least weren't sup­posed to remain on the same cutting edge with so many new creative artists breathing down the necks of «progressive dinosaurs», Saw Delight is yet another excellent release from the band. They are still capable of holding down a simple, mesmerizing groove (ʽDon't Say Noʼ, with Karoli throwing out not one, but two new guitar tones, soloing with the same grim determination with which the groove is being propelled); finding a «cute» instrumental hook to which they could pin six minutes of studio jamming (ʽSunshine Day And Nightʼ is dependent upon a small acoustic phrase that wouldn't be out of place on a bluegrass album, giving the whole piece a decidedly sunshiny look); playing around with disco basslines so that they are only slightly chan­ged to give the whole tune a scary, apocalyptic sheen (ʽCall Meʼ, with some particularly crazy guitar workouts from Karoli that presage Adrian Belew's work with King Crimson by almost half a decade). And, last but not least, they can still take a pop formula and adapt it to their own pur­poses — ʽFly By Nightʼ, with a little bit of imagination, could be an Olivia Newton-John number from Xanadu, with a «soaring» hook produced by guitars and synthesized strings that offers you magical salvation. But not even Jeff Lynne could procure such strange guitar tones, or agree to have all the attention drawn to the music rather than the vocals — Karoli's singing on the track is barely audible, and is really only there to give you a few hints as to what sort of visualization they'd like you to accompany this with ("fly with me through space and time till we reach for­ever" — sure thing, it's one hell of a smooth, silky flight).

 

The mammoth centerpiece of the album is ʽAnimal Wavesʼ, a 15-minute long jam that sounds like Santana, Tangerine Dream, and a Sufi musician from Morocco having a good time together (ex-Traffic members provide the Santana part, Schmidt is invoking Tangerine Dream, and Ka­roli's electric violin sounds very «muezzinish» — not nearly as muezzinish as the wordless vocals in the middle of the track, which is the only passage on the album that makes me actively want to strangle something). I have to admit that I find it overlong — there's just not enough happening to keep up my interest for 15 minutes, and although Karoli's solos still rule (and due to all the Near Eastern overtones, are also significantly different from everything he'd played earlier), he takes too much time to let rip. But length issues aside, it is a very moody instrumental — don't forget to bring it along for your next scheduled ride on a magic carpet, although it probably works better in tempestuous weather rather than in times of smooth sailing. (For this, please choose ʽFly By Nightʼ, which by itself makes a great atmospheric counterpoint to ʽAnimal Wavesʼ).

 

As you can tell, this is yet another thumbs up for yet another unjustly overlooked record; I am seriously hoping that, with time, they will come to be regarded with as much respect as contem­porary Kraftwerk material, even if their charm (and innovation) are subtler and take more time to note and appreciate than something like The Man Machine.

 

OUT OF REACH (1978)

 

1) Serpentine; 2) Pauper's Daughter And I; 3) November; 4) Seven Days Awake; 5) Give Me No Roses; 6) Like Inobe God; 7) One More Day.

 

Well, so much for any further extensions of good will. The problem here is not even the total absence of Czukay — that is more of a consequence than a cause. The problem is that Can simply lost the magic, now confined to but a few thin strands among a sea of unfocused, pointless con­fusion. As late as Flow Motion and Saw Delight, Can were still Can, and their grooves pulsated with that classic Can mystique, sounding like sincerely performed religious rituals for communi­cation with the spirits. At first, the addition of Rosko Gee and Rebop did not hurt this mystique too much — on the contrary, they «Africanized» the music to just the right degree. But as their role in their band expanded, and Holger's decreased, out came the inevitable: Can began a quick drift towards becoming just a normal jam band.

 

Out Of Reach has about as much excitement to it as a generic second-rate fusion album, even if it is not fusion (most of the tunes are funk- and disco-based). The players get into position and begin jamming, without bothering to come up with an emotionally resonant theme. The result is ʽSerpentineʼ, probably the most disappointing album opener on a Can record ever — other than the tightness (but not ferocious tightness) of the rhythm section, there is nothing here to be re­commended. The instrumental mix is messy, with no instrument ever taking the risk of stepping into the limelight and all keyboard and guitar solos playing at low volume, muffled and timid, so that the track never achieves any transcendental heights. Stuff like ʽNovemberʼ and ʽSeven Days Awakeʼ is only marginally better, with shriller, more harshly distorted Karoli solos that still do not rise to the ecstasy of days gone by, and essentially sound like Can on autopilot — let alone the fact that Rosko is constantly trying to sneak a disco bassline in ʽNovemberʼ for no apparent reason other than, well, playing what everybody else was playing at the time.

 

In addition to that, Rosko also steps forward as a songwriter, contributing two vocal numbers: ʽPauper's Daughter And Iʼ is a dull disco number, only slightly elevated by Karoli's psychedelic guitar solo, and ʽGive Me No Rosesʼ is a surprisingly straightforward pop song with echoes of ska — if you think it combines well with Can's acid guitar overdubs, feel free to take it, but the way I see it, Rosko and Karoli are going against each other's grain here, and the result is an in­coherent mess where a potentially fun pop song is messed up with a rambling arrangement, and a potentially cool psycho jam is dissipated within an imperfect pop song.

 

That said, both of these tunes are God-given masterpieces compared to ʽLike Inobe Godʼ, which is probably the worst thing ever committed to tape under the Can moniker. The backing track sounds like a theme for a low-budget blacksploitation movie, a fluffy soft-funk jam that goes nowhere in particular and does nothing interesting (and totally wastes Schmidt's talents on the piano) — and in the foreground, Rosko and Rebop add chaotic scatting vocals that, according to one review of the album, sound like «two rastas in the loo», a description with which I could not agree more. If you thought Mooney was too looney, and Suzuki was too spooky, then upon hearing ʽLike Inobe Godʼ, you will want to rush back to both as if they were Moses and Aaron in the flesh, because this is just... ridiculous. The track has as much to do with Can as a Mick Jagger/Lenny Kravitz collaboration has to do with The Rolling Stones.

 

If not for this disaster (and it goes on for six minutes! six minutes of your time not simply wasted, but raped and humiliated!), I might have refrained from a thumbs down — I mean, «boring» is not quite the same as «offensive», and even the boring stuff still has those Karoli guitar solos. But the thing is, this record really has no reason to exist. They are not even settling into some kind of predictable-acceptable formula — they are trying to modify the formula in such a way that it loses all possible effectiveness. Even Saw Delight, when you play it back to back with Tago Mago, has its own special charm; Out Of Reach just sounds like a band that, once upon a time, knew it all, but ended up forgetting everything. And don't blame this on Rosko and Rebop: those guys were just doing their Caribbean thing. It's the band's original creative management that is ultimately responsible for this travesty.

 

CAN (1979)

 

1) All Gates Open; 2) Safe; 3) Sunday Jam; 4) Sodom; 5) A Spectacle; 6) Ping-Pong; 7) Ethnological Forgery Series No. 99 ("Can-Can"); 8) Can Be.

 

This is unquestionably a step up from Out Of Reach, but much too late anyway. Actually, it is not that much of a step up — all it does is correct that album's most blatant mistakes, such as letting Rebop and Rosko write their own songs and sing them, or dabbling too much in African and Caribbean musical textures with which the (still) predominantly German team cannot really do a lot of exciting things. Instead, they prefer to expand on the legacy of tracks like ʽNovemberʼ and ʽSeven Days Awakeʼ — moody instrumental jams with tightly controlled grim attitudes in­stead of shrill, passionate build-ups.

 

Already on the first track, ʽAll Gates Openʼ, Karoli returns as the band's primary vocalist, decla­ring rather than singing the sparse lyrics in a semi-robotic voice, trying to feed the aura of mystery wih it — and almost succeeding, considering that the aura is also helped out with bits of swampy-bluesy harmonica (is this the first and only appearance of a noticeable harmonica part on a Can album, or what?) and strange swings between ominous bluesy «verses» and psycho-pop guitar flourishes on the «chorus» (or maybe «bridge», I can never make head or tails out of these convoluted structures of theirs). Rosko and Rebop are downgraded here to providing a basic funky setup, and that's the one thing they do real well, so on the whole, the track is a success, even if it is still way too quiet and humble to make much of a lasting impression.

 

The problem persists through most of the record — all of these jams sound good while they're on, but never leave any strong aftertaste. ʽSafeʼ, for all of its eight minutes, is dominated by the oscil­lating electronic groove in the background that resembles the orbital circulation of some noisy alien device — it's impressive, but it pretty much neutralizes the effect of whatever it is they're playing or chanting in the foreground. ʽSunday Jamʼ is a tight quasi-disco groove with juicy rhythm and lead guitar tones, but no memorable riffs or exciting solos. ʽSodomʼ slows down the tempo for a sterner, more threatening groove, but still does not come close to justifying the title: as a reflection of the activities of Sodom's inhabitants, the atmosphere is too lazy, and as a ref­lection of their (upcoming) punishment, it doesn't have enough bombastic echo or other special effects to make it worthy of the Old Testament. And ʽA Spectacleʼ, once again, sounds like a preview of the Afro-European grooves of Remain In Light, but the rhythm section and the funky guitars never seem to settle upon a specific perfect note pattern, and the results are messy.

 

The final two tracks are a big surprise, of course — it's almost as if the band members listened to everything they just recorded, and had the same reaction as myself: "Hey, we sound pretty good, but there's really no kick to all of this!" So they went ahead and, feeling unable to come up with something real hooky on their own, decided to make the weirdest thing possible — generate a Can-ified version of Offenbach's Galop Infernal from Orphée aux Enfers, better known to all of us laymen, of course, as the «Can-Can Song» — get it? Can-Can? Well, it was only a matter of time before Can would have to capitalize on the pun, as inavoidable, I guess, as the Rolling Stones eventually having to do ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ. Shamefully, I admit that the result is sort of hilarious, and that Karoli in particular does a tremendous job finding just the right guitar tones for all of the tune's separate melodies (although I think he should have gone all the way and used the «agonizing pig» talkbox effect on the main galloping part). It's even better when they then offer their own variation, in the form of ʽCan Beʼ where Karoli just goes off his rocker and begins Chuckberrying all over the place. But yes, of course both parts are just a desperate musical joke, no matter how professionally and humorously it is carried out.

 

That the band just faded away, without any official announcements of splitting, after the self-titled album (later also appearing under the title Inner Space) failed to impress anybody, is hard­ly surprising. The worst thing about Can is not even a lack of progress as a whole — more like a lack of conviction and passion: this is the sound of a band that is no longer genuinely interested in this thing they're doing together, no longer trying to get the best out of themselves. Oddly enough, no matter how much Can helped usher in the New Wave era, they themselves felt at odds with that era — their strongest and most genuine connection was really with older styles of playing, such as blues rock and funk, and unlike, say, King Crimson, they did not express a strong desire to fit in with the new crowds. (I mean, if they did have any such desire, why the heck did they want to team up with two old geezers from Traffic when they could have easily picked some of the talented youngsters? Even Fripp had to have Adrian Belew to make him feel young again).

 

So all we have to console ourselves is the knowledge that at least they left behind a decent enough swansong (I am leaving the reunion record out of this, for the moment) and, keeping in touch with their regular sense of humor, checked out with an elaborate musical joke. Which is a fairly tasteful way to end a career, but hardly makes for a rewarding listening experience — no subtle epiphanies here, trust me.

 

RITE TIME (1989)

 

1) On The Beautiful Side Of A Romance; 2) The Withoutlaw Man; 3) Below This Level (Patient's Song); 4) Movin' Right Along; 5) Like A New Child; 6) Hoolah Hoolah; 7) Give The Drummer Some; 8) In The Distance Lies The Future.

 

Maybe the best thing about this record is its title — while we could certainly question the idea of 1989 really being the right time for a reunion of the original Mooney-era Can, there is no ques­tion whatsoever that most of Can's music always represented a musical rite, and unless you take it as such, you probably lack the full potential of getting into the groove. The good news, then, is that this reunion, which really took place in 1986 somewhere in the southern side of France (where, as ʽHoolah Hoolahʼ tells us, they don't wear pants), fully complies with the «rite» thing and largely consists of danceable grooves presided over by a mad shaman (Mooney) who is, at least formalistically, still capable of sounding in deep communication with the spirits.

 

Nevertheless, the record was largely either ignored or reviled upon release, and critical opinion has not warmed up to it in recent decades — maybe because nobody really bothered: «reunion» albums are typically looked upon with suspicion, and, unlike «forgotten masterpieces» from a band's long-gone golden age, once condemned to oblivion, they can never be redeemed. The thing is, Rite Time is thoroughly retro-oriented: most of it sounds like the idea was really to make Monster Movie Vol. 2, and the very approach, for a band known for its relentless explo­ration of pathways into the future, must have seemed like heresy. When people heard it, and it sounded like Monster Movie without being as good as Monster Movie, well... people had plenty of far more relevant stuff to listen to in 1989.

 

Listening to Rite Time in retrospect, though, with the fields of time now compressed and flat­tened so that the chronological gaps of the 20th century are no longer as huge as they once seemed — the album is mighty pleasant. It does sound like classic Can a lot: same wild and complex work from the rhythm section, same bizarre mix of electronic and acoustic keyboards from Schmidt, same array of psychedelic guitar tones from Karoli, and not a single teeny-tiny indication that this was recorded in a completely new decade: apparently, the guys never placed much trust in either the digital synthesizer epidemics or the pop-metal guitar tone (for which, now that we look back at it, they really should be commended). Nor are there any signs of continuing passion for their late Seventies' excesses: Rosko and Rebop were not invited (well, Rebop could not even if they wanted to, having been dead since 1983), and neither disco grooves nor Carib­bean dance rhythms are any longer part of the masterplan.

 

The actual grooves range from decent to occasionally excellent: ʽOn The Beautiful Side Of A Romanceʼ, for instance, is built upon a convincingly grim interaction between Czukay's «earth­quake» bass rumbles and Karoli's responses, with further keyboard and guitar overdubs like sets of dark clouds gliding across the sky, periodically ruptured by bass thunderbolts. ʽLike A New Childʼ uses the guitar only sparsely, for thin supportive lead lines and occasional gentle pings, as life largely takes place at the intersection of the steady rollin' bass and (this time the white rather than dark) clouds of Schmidt's keyboards; the result is almost an ambient soundscape that kind of gives an idea of what Future Days may have sounded like had they thought of doing something like that in 1969. And while I cannot say that the title of ʽGive The Drummer Someʼ is complete­ly justified (Liebezeit is really no more active there than everywhere else on the album), the groove, completely devoid of any memorable theme as such, still creates magical tension — Czukay's overdubs of isolated guitar lines and keyboard bits, where anything might jump out at you at any given moment of time, show the old master's hand as efficiently as anything.

 

Mooney's contributions remain the most questionable elements — I do not mind the aging or weakening of his voice, since he almost never used it for conventional «singing» in the first place, but it does occasionally come across as grating, particularly on ʽRomanceʼ, where the stereo­typically «Jamaican» lamentation bits do not mesh well with the music. Something like ʽThe Withoutlaw Manʼ will produce different impressions depending on how much you are ready to not take this deconstructed tale of a well-known gun seriously — Mooney sounds more like a babbling village idiot on that one than a diplomated shaman, but ignore him or come to terms with him, and behind that there's still a cool groove and a great «twirling» guitar line from Karoli that's got some of that «bluesy slyness» to it, for no particular reason but still feeling good.

 

Perhaps the critics were mostly appalled at the idea of such an obvious musical joke as ʽHoolah Hoolahʼ, whose music and lyrics really fit in better with the likes of Weird Al than one of the world's most revolutionary musical bands. But even as a musical joke, it still got a hell of a poi­sonous guitar tone and a hilariously «Near Eastern» dance melody executed on Schmidt's organ, and besides, musical jokes had been in Can's repertoire for quite some time now; did ʽCan-Canʼ fail to already prepare you for this? Plus... it's catchy. Sort of.

 

Anyway, by the time we get to the somewhat ambiguous conclusion of ʽIn The Distance Lies The Futureʼ (a musically and vocally confused track that pretty much indicates nobody has any real clue as to what that future might be, and I concur), I feel convinced that there was a point behind the reunion. I'm not sure what that point was, exactly (other than the obvious «we still Can»), but the album never feels like a bunch of washed-up has-beens desperately trying to rekindle the old unrekindlable magic. It never feels like a totally self-assured and contemporarily relevant bold musical statement, either, but it... well, in the overall context it also gives this feeling of well-roundedness, where the band has come full circle, and its long, strange trip eventually brings them back on the same platform from where they skyrocketed twenty years back. Now they can really pack it up and go home with one last reassuring thumbs up — and, indeed, there's never been any attempt at another reunion ever since (not that it would have been even technically possible since Karoli's demise in 2001, but that's actually a different matter).

 

ADDENDA

 

UNLIMITED EDITION (1968-1973; 1976)

 

1) Gomorrha; 2) Doko E; 3) LH 702 (Nairobi/München); 4) I'm Too Leise; 5) Musette; 6) Blue Bag (Inside Paper); 7) E.F.S. No. 27; 8) TV Spot; 9) E.F.S. No. 7; 10) The Empress And The Ukraine King; 11) E.F.S. No. 10; 12) Mother Upduff; 13) E.F.S. No. 36; 14) Cutaway; 15) Connection; 16) Fall Of Another Year; 17) E.F.S. No. 8; 18) Transcen­dental Express; 19) Ibis.

 

Can had originally opened their vaults as early as 1974 — with an LP called Limited Edition that was, appropriately, limited to a few thousand copies and targeted at the hardcore fanbase they had developed. Two years later, the collection was expanded to the size of a double album and re-released as Unlimited Edition, even though the fanbase did not exactly double in size over the 1975-76 period. However, in May 1976 Can were no longer on the cutting edge of experimental pop music, and were probably thinking in earnest about the systematic preservation and protec­tion of their rich legacy... and so, here you go.

 

Frankly speaking, much of this record is crap. But what can you expect of chaotic odds and ends, salvaged from years of hunting after inspiration in the confines of a recording studios? Some days there's plenty of game (and it usually ends up on your regular albums), and some days it's just a bunch of meaningless, emotionally uninterpretable sound collections (and that's what usually stays in the vaults). And even if something there does make sense, it is still going to sound infe­rior compared to all the stuff that you trusted far enough to polish for official release.

 

Many of these snippets come branded as parts of «Ethnological Forgery Series», whose ironic title suggests that these are parodies / avantgardist imitations / deconstructions of various genres of world music — thus, ʽNo. 27ʼ, with Suzuki on vocals, is built around quasi-deep-folk-Japanese singing; ʽNo. 7ʼ and ʽNo. 11ʼ are quasi-Near Eastern pastiches; ʽNo. 36ʼ is a take on New Orlea­nian jazz; and ʽNo. 8ʼ is a percussion-only bit of pseudo-Caribbean fun. These are all short, fun, usually pointless, and always harmless — but I couldn't say the same about the 17-minute long ʽCutawayʼ, where similar and other snippets have been sewn together into one large and totally incoherent sheet of short grooves, mood pieces, and studio hooliganry. Without any central unifying theme, mood, or purpose, the very title ʽCutawayʼ certainly surmises ʽThrowawayʼ, which should have been its real title, even though I'm sure there must be people out there who'd swear by this as the ultimate Can experience. (I'd take the amateurish, but sincere experimenta­tion of the studio half of Ummagumma over it, though, any day).

 

So is there anything here of real worth? Actually, yes: several tracks represent more or less com­plete experiences, and could make respectable companions to regular albums from the respective era. Namely, from the Monster Movie period we have ʽThe Empress And The Ukraine Kingʼ, an absurdist funky rave with Mooney at his fussiest and some kick-ass guitar overdubs from Karoli; ʽMother Upduffʼ, a bizarre spoken tale of one family's unforgettable European adventures that sounds like a cross between similar tales by the Velvet Underground and The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles & Fripp; and two perfectly reasonable pop songs (ʽConnectionʼ, with a Stonesy vibe, and ʽFall Of Another Yearʼ, with some truly autumnal-mood interplay between Holger's bass and Karoli's acoustic guitar).

 

The Suzuki era is represented less adequately; from the peak years, only ʽTV Spotʼ, with its re­lentless paranoid groove and one of Suzuki's most comprehensible vocal performances, stands out, but I don't really see any place for it on Tago Mago. However, ʽGomorrhaʼ from 1973 would definitely have fit on Future Days, and I am actually sorry not to see it there — with those sad, distant, ghostly slide guitar wails and echoey crescendos it is as otherworldly evocative as the best stuff on that album, and might indeed be the best composition here (which is probably why it serves as the album opener — to lure you into a sea of ultimately broken promises). Finally, the album ends with two later tracks that are at least intriguing: ʽTranscendental Expressʼ, completely dominated by a lead banjo part, sounds like psychedelic deconstructed country-western, and the lengthy ʽIbisʼ from 1975 shares the creepy nighttime mystique of the best tracks on Landed, even if it's a bit of an overkill at its nine minutes.

 

The best spots for these individual tracks, though, would have been bonus slots on the respective albums — taken together, they do remind us of the vast scope of this band's interests and of its refusal to be strictly tied to any conventions, but they do not exactly kick the ground from under your feet; and as for all the short snippets in between, it is not clear to me if they add to the awe­inspiring brilliance of the Can kaleidoscope or simply act as irresponsible nuisances, preventing you from dedicating your complete attention to the good stuff. In any case, I suppose that this is pretty much what anybody would expect from an album of Can outtakes — diversity, unpredic­tability, and a total and utter lottery when it comes to spiritual impact.

 

DELAY 1968 (1968; 1981)

 

1) Butterfly; 2) Pnoom; 3) Nineteen Century Man; 4) Thief; 5) Man Named Joe; 6) Uphill; 7) Little Star Of Beth­lehem.

 

It would have been more fun if they'd dared to release this under its original title — Prepared To Meet Thy Pnoom, but I guess they thought it might be bad luck to put it out under the same name under which it was originally rejected by every label they tried to peddle it to back in 1968. Curious, really: just two more years and they got no less than United Artists to distribute Mon­ster Movie, a record that was no more accessible (and in terms of track length, even more ex­treme) than Delay 1968. By all means, though, this here is an essential album that honestly de­serves to be proudly placed at the beginning of Can's official discography — a complete experi­ence in its own rights, with a fully-formed sound by a band that already knows very well what it is doing and a frontman who never really knew what he was doing at any place or time.

 

The skeletal structure of these early tracks is not that much different from Monster Movie: for the most part, they are blues-rock and funky jams with plenty of droning, but not a huge lot of psychedelic effects or guitar tones — together with Mooney's rants and raves, this makes the whole thing very similar to what Captain Beefheart was doing at the time with the Mirror Man sessions across the Atlantic. There is, however, already an atmosphere of grim determination, a ferocity, passion, and precision to the playing that suggest meticulously orchestrated ritualistic frenzy rather than Beefheart's diligently rehearsed insanity.

 

The very first track, ʽButterflyʼ, is, in fact, more strung up and tense than anything on Monster Movie — an eight-minute jam on one chord that can nevertheless take your breath away as it ploughs on and on and on, while keyboards, lead guitars, and occasionally pirouetting bass lines slowly build up tension; all over this a clearly exalted Mooney, half-madman, half-little kid, vocally follows the proverbial "dying butterfly" who nevertheless "begins to fly" because what's a good Can track without a little koan to help pass the time? In any case, that good old Can magic is already here, right from the very start, even if technically, the individual members had not yet fully hit their respective strides.

 

They did have a knack for finding great grooves, though: I don't think there's really a single dud among these tracks. ʽNineteen Century Manʼ (sic!) is a nice early showcase for Karoli as a funk player, taking a good lesson from James Brown, but also effortlessly sliding from funk into a flurry of blues-rock slide guitar soloing. ʽMan Named Joeʼ is a fast-moving R&B groove that shows how much of an influence the African-American scene exercised over them at the time, and ʽUphillʼ already presages the likes of ʽMother Skyʼ, moving at a fast tempo and featuring the most sonically insane bits of soloing on the record.

 

The real two highlights, besides ʽButterflyʼ, though, are ʽThiefʼ, a bitter-melancholic elegy that brings some sentimentality and vulnerability to the sessions — so much of them, in fact, that even Thom Yorke would later go on to cover the track, although I think that he must have been more impressed by Mooney here, singing "oh Lord please won't you tell me why must I be the thief?.." in the most miserable (yet totally non-whiney) voice that a human being might be capable of. If you want to laugh Mooney off as a silly annoying lunatic, just listen to ʽThiefʼ and get ready to drown in the man's misery — I honestly want to give him a hug each time I hear that "far too late, far too late, far too late..." (and it's kind of amazing that as of 2016, the man is still alive, but I guess that the switch back to painting and sculpting eventually helped a lot).

 

Then there's ʽLittle Star Of Bethlehemʼ, which has little to do with Nativity, but a lot to do with the absurdist story of Froggie and Toadie... actually, it begins like an absurdist story, but then turns into vocal improvisation because, apparently, Mooney just didn't have enough original lyrics to last him through the entire jam. Where ʽButterflyʼ is aggressively in­tense and ʽThiefʼ wallows in misery, ʽLittle Starʼ is more like an ironic mockery of the blues jam paradigm, with Karoli engaging in small-scale guitar pyrotechnics (switching between jagged, broken-up Neil Young-like rhythm playing and psychedelic howling) and Mooney checking how many different variations on the same "verse" he can produce without completely repeating himself. There's something so delightfully silly, and yet at the same time disturbing about this experience that I'm kind of sad they decided to fade it out after seven minutes — I could have stood at least twice as much, because this thing deserves real EPIC treatment, like a ʽSister Rayʼ or something.

 

In the end, the whole thing is quite short, but holds together well, and when it was finally released from the vaults (two years after the complete demise of Can), it must have indeed played the part of the Great Lost Can Album for true believers, as well as somewhat reinforced Malcolm's role in the band's history — not to suggest that its release had anything to do with the somewhat later reunion attempt, but he did tend to get lost against the titanic reputation of the Suzuki-era albums, which is somewhat unjust. Like Suzuki, he largely played his own game and wrestled with his personal demons in the studio rather than paid much attention to the actual music, but that was the whole point of «vocal Can» — we play our stuff, you vocalize your stuff, we put 'em together and say that's how it was always meant to be. Thumbs up.

RADIO WAVES (1971-1973; 1997)

 

1) Up The Bakerloo; 2) Paperhouse; 3) Entropy; 4) Little Star; 5) Turtles Have Short Legs; 6) Shikaku Maru Ten.

 

As with many similar jam bands whose moments of stupendous inspiration could come at any time and who always liked to keep them tapes running just in case, Can's dust-covered vaults used to be (and still are, I suppose) pretty huge, and before the Internet era at least it used to be pretty hard distinguishing officially sanctioned releases from bootlegs. Radio Waves, it turns out, is ultimately a bootleg, its closest official analogy being 1995's Peel Sessions, also covering the band's live-in-the-studio output from their peak years. However, since I am not even going to try and accurately cover every release that covers their radio sessions, these Radio Waves, released in 1997 on the German boot label "Sonic", will have to do as an example.

 

The package, as befits a proper boot, is a glorious mess: three tracks that actually represent live recordings made for radio broadcast, one track that seems to be nothing but a sped up version of ʽLittle Star Of Bethlehemʼ from Delay 1968, and two short studio tracks that were the A-side of ʽHalleluwahʼ and the B-side of ʽSpoonʼ, respectively, back in 1971. The two tracks in question can also be found on various compilations, but since they're included here, let us just briefly mention that ʽTurtles Have Short Legsʼ is a humorous combination of honky tonk piano, folk singing with a Japanese accent, and a mock-singalong chorus in the form of a variation on ʽWe Can Work It Outʼ; and ʽShikaku Maru Tenʼ is a soft groove that might well have been inspired by ʽThe Girl From Ipanemaʼ — although Damo Suzuki's impersonation of Astrud Gilberto has certain cultural and individual limits, as you might imagine. Anyway, both tracks are nice remi­niscences of how Can essentially mocked the idea of «commercial single»: most likely, they only thought of these things as throwaways, but they made them so bizarre anyway that they get by on the strength of all those dadaistic vibes.

 

Still, these are just brief appendices to the main attractions of the album, and chief among them is the very grossly titled ʽUp The Bakerlooʼ (damn the Internet, because now I know what it really means and I wish I could un-know it) — a monstrous 35-minute jam recorded during the Ege Bamyasi era and featuring the band in top form, even if the piece suffers from lack of editing and can hardly hold you in its grip for the entire 35 minutes. The groove is not very tight, there is no specific main theme, Suzuki frequently gets annoying, but everything is forgiven whenever Karoli picks up the guitar and begins switching between blues, funk, and psychedelic noise. The track actually fades out after 35 minutes — I have no idea how long they carried on afterwards, but the fascinating thing is that they keep it intense all the way through: in fact, some of Karoli's craziest soloing, accompanied with a rise in intensity on the part of both the bass and the key­board player, takes place during the last couple of minutes.

 

Next to ʽBakerlooʼ, the album's second live jam, called ʽEntropyʼ and recorded sometime in 1970, suffers from worse sound quality, but allocates more space for Schmidt, whose piano playing pretty much dominates the entire track — minimalistic avantgardist lines, mostly, but very ener­getic, alarmist-paranoid style. Again, though, the basic rhythm groove suffers from being under­developed: Liebezeit's drumming is a little insecure and undetermined, which would make both of these jams unfit for inclusion on Tago Mago. Finally, the live performance of ʽPaperhouseʼ, although also poorly recorded, is even more frenetic than the studio counterpart — once the fast section kicks in, they never go back and just boogie the entire way through to the end.

 

On the whole, despite the mixed-bag approach, this is actually a fun, diversified sample of Can's powers in their peak years — with the exception of the obvious mistake of ʽLittle Starʼ (surely they could have picked up a better Mooney sample if they really wanted to?), we have the serious side of Can fully exposed in the first three tracks and their humorous, lightweight side perfectly portrayed in the last two. Being a bootleg and all, not to mention being rendered somewhat ob­solete by later and more accurate handling of the vaults, culminating in Lost Tapes, neither Radio Waves nor The Peel Sessions can any longer be considered essential stuff, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for these rough shards, carried over from a more chaotic era.

 

LIVE MUSIC 1971-1977 (1999)

 

1) Jynx; 2) Dizzy Dizzy; 3) Vernal Equinox; 4) Fizz; 5) Yoo Doo Right; 6) Cascade Waltz; 7) Colchester Finale; 8) Kata Kong; 9) Spoon.

 

This one is somewhat more official. This double CD compilation first came out as an integral part of the Can boxset in 1999, but later on became generously available as a separate archival album in its own rights — although, clearly, it should be not be a part of any collection that does not already include all of the band's principal studio recordings.

 

As usual, the track listing is a bit of an (intentional) mess. Even though the title says 1971 (pro­bably to lure in ardent fans of Tago Mago), the earliest recordings here are from 1972, and the entire first disc is assembled from performances in the UK and Germany in 1975 and 1977; addi­tionally, the quality of the sound varies significantly from track to track, predictably worsening for the early dates and improving for the latter ones (an aggravating matter for Suzuki fans, but then Suzuki always sounds like crap even on the studio recordings — seems like he regarded singing directly into the mike as a way-too-binding procedure).

 

Still, the almost 40-minute long ʽColchester Finaleʼ, a lengthy improvisation that was, indeed, recorded at Colchester (University of Essex), is well worth any serious fan's money. Non-serious fans will not find any major surprises, and some might even complain about a lack of focus as reflected in the often chaotic rather than metronomic drumming on Jaki's part, but my only com­plaint is the acoustics at the University of Essex, which prevents me from savoring all the tasty nuances of the band's guitar and bass players. The band is totally in Tago Mago mode here, not quite as ferocious as on ʽUp The Bakerlooʼ, but, fortunately, the last third of the performance is nothing other than ʽHalleluhwahʼ, on which Liebezeit really comes to life and the band culmi­nates in a noisy, explosive climax that sounds as if it might have been fatal for some of their equipment (though probably not — Who-style destruction was not one of their trademarks).

 

On the other hand, the entire ʽColchester Finaleʼ has nothing but its impressive length factor on the 14-minute version ʽSpoonʼ from Cologne, with much better sound quality and a throbbing intensity that just goes on and on — they almost literally play it according it to the «stop when you drop» principle. The original pseudo-pop three-minute single is taken here as merely a pre­text, or, rather, it is the single version that should be now regarded as a «taster» of the real ritual to come, because no self-respecting supernatural spirit is going to reply to a meager three-minute summon — but the ruckus they raise with these 14 minutes, on the other hand, suffices to make everybody who matters crawl out of their graves.

 

The real good news is that the 1975 performances, despite the lack of Suzuki and the general feel of the band having already outlived its «peak period», are every bit as musically strong: the non-album improv ʽJynxʼ, the extended version of ʽVernal Equinoxʼ from Landed, and the unexpec­ted return of the old Malcolm Mooney warhorse ʽYoo Doo Rightʼ, but with next to no vocals this time, all qualify as powerful voodooistic rituals in their own right. ʽJynxʼ is the more avantgarde of the three, with heavy emphasis on percussion and psychedelic / industrial sound effects, but it still has enough funky bottom to it to be considered a proper musical groove, and Karoli's blues / funk / classically-influenced soloing on ʽYou Doo Rightʼ is just wonderful to observe — an effort­less flight of the imagination that shifts direction every 15 seconds or so.

 

Only the two tracks from 1977, with Rosko Gee on bass, predictably pale next to everything else, but they are (a) short, (b) well-recorded, and (c) still moody enough to act as breathers between all the hard, hot stuff. Besides, ʽCascade Waltzʼ is actually from Flow Motion, and ʽFizzʼ is dark and spooky enough to fit on Saw Delight, so it's not as if they didn't fit in here somehow. It might have made more sense to correct the track listing and shift them towards the end, but I guess the idea was to save the best for last — so that, once you begin to think you can't have any more, ʽSpoonʼ would come up and bury you six feet under.

 

Anyway, I am honestly not sure about just how many live albums like these the band could shake out of its vaults — considering the sheer amount of hours they spent playing with the recording equipment on — but I do suppose that these tracks were not selected randomly, and that they truly represent the band at its live best (questionable and vague as that notion is when so much of your music is improvised), so there's hardly an option here not to give it a major thumbs up. But do remember that, for the most part, this is Can at their most extreme: a 40-minute long jam from these guys is not the same thing as a 40-minute long prog-rock epic à la Thick As A Brick, and unless you are a strong believer in the healing powers of long, repetitive, hypnotic jamming with no post-production treatment, you'd better go back to the «doctored» studio tracks, where mo­mentary inspiration was always tempered with symbolic reasoning, and a pair of scissors.

 

THE LOST TAPES (1968-1977; 2012)

 

CD I: 1) Millionenspiel; 2) Waiting For The Streetcar; 3) Evening All Day; 4) Deadly Doris; 5) Graublau; 6) When Darkness Comes; 7) Blind Mirror Surf; 8) Oscura Primavera; 9) Bubble Rap.

CD II: 1) Your Friendly Neighbourhood Whore; 2) True Story; 3) The Agreement; 4) Midnight Sky; 5) Desert; 6) Spoon (live); 7) Dead Pigeon Suite; 8) Abra Cada Braxas; 9) A Swan Is Born; 10) The Loop.

CD III: 1) Godzilla Fragment; 2) On The Way To Mother Sky; 3) Midnight Men; 4) Networks Of Foam; 5) Messers, Scissors, Fork And Light; 6) Barnacles; 7) E.F.S. 108; 8) Private Nocturnal; 9) Alice; 10) Mushroom (live); 11) One More Saturday Night (live).

 

A whole can of Can here — actually, three cans of Can, which is way more than can be canned in one can-sitting session. Apparently, these tapes were not so much Lost (because nobody ever really missed them) as they were Found, covered with dust somewhere in the depths of studio cabinets, after the original Can studio was sold and dismantled in the early 2010s. Thirty years ago, nobody would probably have bothered, but these days it's a bit different, and besides, it's not like Irmin Schmidt probably had a lot on his hands, either, so he set out to clean them up, digi­tally remaster the best of the 30-hour-plus recordings, and ultimately came up with about 3 CDs worth of material largely from the «prime» years of the band: actually, the earliest track here dates from 1968 and the latest one from 1977, but the main bulk comes from 1969-72, and in any case, the whole thing is just one big Eldorado for the loyal fan. (I assume that, since the tapes were «lost», they weren't even bootlegged, but I am not too sure).

 

Reviewing the whole thing is quite a challenge, though: on one hand, there's so much, yet on the other hand, nothing here reveals anything particularly new about Can. As it always happens with their archival releases, chronological sequencing is considered to be an insult and the different tracks are spliced together in a seemingly random fashion — not to my liking, because the best thing about such retrospective collections is usually the «historical curve», yet here we travel back and forth in time as if the driver were under some serious intoxication. Since I have no knowledge of Schmidt and Co.'s masterplan for this sequencing and wouldn't agree with it even if I did anyway, here's a few random notes on various tracks grouped together by chronology.

 

(A) 1968-1969, the Mooney years. This has the single worst track of 'em all — ʽBlind Mirror Surfʼ, a proto-early-Kraftwerk sonic experiment with electronic tones, feedback, and atonality that my ears cannot stomach: if you ever thought the second half of Tago Mago could sound ugly, wait until you hear this mess (honestly, it sounds like it was rather inspired by John and Yoko's Two Virgins than anything Cage-ian or Stockhausen-style in origin). Yet it also has ʽMillionen­spielʼ, a fast, tight, choppy R&B instrumental with a fascinatingly grim bassline (I think it has pretty much the same chords as Metallica's thunder-riff for ʽFor Whom The Bell Tollsʼ), flute and sax interludes, a whole bunch of different acoustic and electric guitar tones, and, on the whole, sounds not unlike something that Booker T. & The MG's would be quite willing to play. There's also two massive jams, the vocal-accompanied ʽWaiting For The Streetcarʼ and the wordless ʽGraublauʼ, that are every bit as good as anything on Monster Movie (ʽGraublauʼ is actually noisier and heavier than almost anything from that period — there's few tracks on which you will hear Schmidt torturing his keyboards Keith Emerson-style. Maybe they did not officially release it because they did not want people confusing them with The Nice).

 

(B) 1970-1973, the Suzuki years. There's actually almost nothing from 1970-71, for some reason, except for a somewhat disappointing ʽOn The Way To Mother Skyʼ — perhaps the title means that it was the first part of the jam that eventually resulted in ʽMother Skyʼ, but although the track features frantic tribal drumming from Jaki and a great guitar solo from Karoli, it is too hysterical and does not have the calculated coolness of ʽMother Skyʼ proper. The bulk of the material comes from 1972, and includes probably the highest point of the collection — a magnificent 16-minute long live rendition of ʽSpoonʼ, which begins with a rather loyal reproduction of the single (unlike the highly mutated version on Live 1971-1977) and then is transformed into a super-tight jam that simply becomes more and more aggressive and intense with every minute. Another highlight is ʽDead Pigeon Suiteʼ, which incorporates soft «folk-prog» passages, with gentle piano, chimes, and jangly guitars, only to blow 'em up around the 6:30 mark by suddenly turning into a James Brown parody, and then into the polyrhythmic groove that would eventually separate itself from the rest of the track and become ʽVitamin Cʼ on Ege Bamyasi. Come to think of it, had they included the entire suite on that album, it might have done wonders for its diversity factor.

 

(C) 1974-1977, the post-Suzuki years. This is the smallest, but not the most insignificant part of the collection, as long as we agree to not discriminate against the «silver age of Can».There's at least one mega-monstrous jam here that sometimes, in terms of volume and production, reaches almost orchestral proportions (ʽNetworks Of Foamsʼ); much of its quieter section is wrapped around the interplay between Karoli's wah-wah guitar and Schmidt's «bubbling» keyboards, creating the effect of taking place underwater, so that it is easy to visualize the entire suite as the brief life, underwater exploits, and eventual catastrophe of a brave little submarine, or something like that. The chronologically final track, ʽBarnaclesʼ (from 1977), is a dark funky jam that would have easily fit on Saw Delight, but they may not have found it atmospheric or catchy enough.

 

The important things to remember are this — the collection is diverse, the collection is well re­presentative of most of Can's sub-styles, the tracks are marvelously mastered for a bunch of tapes that spent more than thirty years gathering dust, and the whole thing is clearly a must-have if you know and love your classic Can. Yet, on the other hand, it opens no additional universes (not surprising — the tracks weren't, after all, left in the cabinets just because somebody forgot where he put them), it's got some real filler (especially some of the shorter ditties and links that I was too lazy to mention), and the entire package may not be worth all that money if you buy it at the regular price. Then again, I suppose that the grumbling is just the usual kind of grumbling that I grumble out against 90% of archival releases — but the appraisal, on the other hand, is the unexpected and unpredictable part, and the highest compliment that The Lost Tapes could tech­nically get from me is that I sat through all of them twice, without interruption (that's more than 3 hours of music, to be sure), and, except for occasional brief bits and ʽBlind Mirror Surfʼ, honestly enjoyed all of it.

 

So, obviously a thumbs up, although I am not sure I will be so pleased when The Lost Tapes Vol. 2, comprised of leftovers, or, God forbid, The Complete Lost Tapes (Deluxe Expanded Special Edition), con­taining all 30 hours, will end up on the market — which is probably inevitable in the long run.


CANNED HEAT


CANNED HEAT (1967)

 

1) Rollin' And Tumblin'; 2) Bullfrog Blues; 3) Evil Is Going On; 4) Goin' Down Slow; 5) Catfish Blues; 6) Dust My Broom; 7) Help Me; 8) Big Road Blues; 9) The Story Of My Life; 10) The Road Song; 11) Rich Woman.

 

It is interesting that, despite all the creativity going on in late '66 / early '67, it was precisely that time that also saw the last big wave of «blues purists» before Electric Blues Revival finally gave way to Semi-Original Blues Rock once and for all. In the UK, this period brought about such big figures as Ten Years After and Fleetwood Mac; and on the other side of the Atlantic, arguably the biggest figure to appear on the scene were Canned Heat, the proud Topanga Canyon follow-up to Chicago's Paul Butterfield Blues Band — a bunch of young white amateurs and blues collectors, who'd spent the early Sixties soaking up influences and eventually grew up into admiring imitators, rather organically at that.

 

The band's first recordings were produced (by Johnny Otis) already in 1966, but they didn't get to release a proper album until they'd met their lucky star at the Monterey Pop Festival and were hailed by some critics as one of the finest blues-based performers of the entire event. Sticking to their guns, they went into the studio to record (or re-record) much of their current repertoire — all covers of blues classics, sometimes reshuffled and spliced together from different ones in the good old folk-blues tradition. A few of the tracks were credited to Canned Heat, but do not be­lieve that for a second — every bit of lyrics and/or melody here is pilfered from them black guys (most of them dead, so they won't need the cash anyway; the ones that were still alive, like Willie Dixon, are properly credited — then again, take pity on starving white kids, too, as they obviously needed themselves some pocket money).

 

Anyway, Canned Heat's debut is a pretty decent collection of electric blues tunes, but hardly amazing even for the still not-too-demanding standards of early '67. The biggest flaw, which would be diminished, but not eliminated on subsequent albums, is a painful lack of personality: all the members of the band are competent, yet they lack that particular single spark that could set them aside from all the rest. The greatest blues purists of the time had star figures as frontmen or sidemen, people who made it clear that their interpretation carried more significance than the source material itself — Mike Bloomfield in the Butterfield Blues Band, Alvin Lee in Ten Years After, Peter Green in Fleetwood Mac — but Canned Heat, at least in their earliest days, were a pure blues democracy with everyone sitting at the same trench level.

 

Thus, the band's primary vocalist Bob Hite ("The Bear"), the proud owner of a rough, rowdy voice and a «300 pounds of joy»-type body, is a competent blueswailer, but his limited range and inability to come up with a fresh style of singing leaves no chance for «competence» to cross over into the realm of «awesomeness». Rhythm guitar player Alan Wilson ("The Owl") has not yet begun to mature as a songwriter, and his main talent on this album lies in his harmonica playing: he blows a very mean, dry, creaky harp on ʽGoin' Down Slowʼ and a few other tunes — also, his oddly childish, high and shaky singing (ʽHelp Meʼ) makes a nice contrast with Hite's far more powerful, but far less subtle vocalizing. And lead guitarist Henry Vestine can play some sharp solos every now and then, understanding the value of a good juicy guitar tone and all, but, well, he ain't no (insert the name of your favorite mid-Sixties blues guitarist here, like Clapton or Bloomfield): I really like the things he's doing on ʽThe Story Of My Lifeʼ, but Freddie King could do all of that with his eyes closed — and with even more power.

 

Because of all that, Canned Heat's self-titled debut is more of a historical curio, just so that you could see how it all started, and check out the many ways in which it is possible to recombine Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, and a half-dozen other blues greats and adapt them for... one's pleasure, really: there's no silly talk here about «making black Chicago blues accessible for white auditories», because those particular auditories for whom Canned Heat were playing were perfectly capable of accessing the original stuff them­selves. No, it's all just for the fun of it — and also for the improved mix and production, because, at the very least, Canned Heat has a far more «modern» sound.

 

Although Canned Heat were already positioning themselves as a jam band at the time, the debut album is quite cautious in that respect: only ʽCatfish Bluesʼ is stretched out to nearly seven minutes — a mistaken decision, I'd say, because they entrust the entire instrumental section to Vestine, and he delivers a rather disjointed, absent-minded solo without any interesting build-ups or climactic peaks (not to mention that Hite's overdoing his Muddy impersonation). Everything else is thankfully kept in the 3-4 minute ballpark, and I by far prefer the brief, tasteful, polished bottleneck solos on ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ and ʽDust My Broomʼ than the meandering dryness and distortion of the ʽCatfish Bluesʼ jam.

 

One thing I do not quite understand is the intentional mix-up: for instance, ʽRich Womanʼ, originally credited to Canned Heat and then later re-credited to Dorothy LaBostrie and McKinley Millet, is really ʽI Wish You Wouldʼ by Billy Boy Arnold; and ʽThe Road Songʼ, also credited Canned Heat and then later re-credited to Floyd Jones, is really ʽSmokestack Lightningʼ. Either there must have been some mix-up at the record plant, or they were generously trying to feed some unjustly forgotten blues heroes at the expense of those who'd already gotten their dues. In any case, the titles of these two songs are quite strangely matched to their contents (Side A, on the contrary, seems fixed up fairly well).

 

Anyway, on the whole I have about as much use for this album as I do for Fleetwood Mac's self-titled debut — maybe even a little less, because Peter Green at least tried from the very begin­ning to use the classic blues idiom to placate his own demons, whereas Canned Heat just sounds like a simple blues party thrown on at a moment's notice by sincere blues aficionados. If they had not gone on to slightly more ambitious projects, the record would probably have sunk beyond any possibility of redeem or recovery. 

 

BOOGIE WITH CANNED HEAT (1968)

 

1) Evil Woman; 2) My Crime; 3) On The Road Again; 4) World In A Jug; 5) Turpentine Moan; 6) Whiskey Headed Woman No. 2; 7) Amphetamine Annie; 8) An Owl Song; 9) Marie Laveau; 10) Fried Hockey Boogie.

 

Unlike Ten Years After or Fleetwood Mac, or even their American predecessors, the Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat were unable — or unwilling — to properly cross the line from imita­tion to originality. But at least they got tougher, and, second time around, the music has enough power, menace, and mystique to hold the listener's attention. Songwriting is pretty much non-existent — just about anything that is not properly credited to somebody else is still based on classic blues patterns. Thus, ʽMy Crimeʼ is really ʽHoochie Coochie Manʼ; ʽAmphetamine Annieʼ is ʽThe Hunterʼ; and ʽTurpentine Moanʼ is something by Elmore James that is not quite ʽDust My Broomʼ, but close. These things do not bother the big boys one bit, as they diligently supply their own lyrics, and by doing that, loyally imitate the behaviour of their own Afro-American idols, so to hell with anachronistic copyright prejudices.

 

The good news: the sound gets real fat. Thick, distorted basslines, gritty distorted guitars, and an uneasy premonition in the air — this is the coalesced Canned Heat, and they're ready to do it right this time. Actually, they are so smart now they don't even need to get all that heavy to generate uneasy premonition — cue the band's first big hit, ʽOn The Road Againʼ, where they take the standard John Lee Hooker ʽBoogie Chillenʼ line and use it as the foundation for a truly hypnotic groove — there's something about that combination of monotonous bass, trebly E/G/A guitar riff, soft, «lulling» harmonica, Wilson's trembling, childish falsetto, and buzzing tambura in the back­ground for extra psychedelic effect. Each single ingredient is simple as heck, but together they create a truly sinister sonic mix, as if old man Hooker were caught up in a real bad trip.

 

That said, normally the band goes for a heavier sound, and if you really want to catch them at the peak of their game, head straight for the last two tracks — the instrumental 12-bar blues ʽMarie Laveauʼ, five minutes of grinning distorted soloing from Vestine with Dr. John lending a major hand on the piano and throwing on some New Orleanian brass for support; and then the lengthy jam ʽFried Hockey Boogieʼ, which gives you even more of the ʽBoogie Chillenʼ riff, this time under a real heavy sauce, and then goes on to showcase the individual talents of the players with funny introductions from The Bear. Nothing too special, no, but there's something untangibly tasteful about the way they kick your ass all over the place with this stuff.

 

Surprisingly, I find myself enamored with the band's lengthy jams more than I find myself appre­ciating their shorter songs. With the exception of the haunting trance of ʽOn The Road Againʼ, and the acceptable humor of ʽAmphetamine Annieʼ ("this is a song with a MESSAGE!", The Bear announces at the beginning, and yes, the message is that "SPEED KILLS!", says lead singer in a band where two principal members would die from overdosing, including himself), every other non-jam tune is just okay: Larry Weiss' ʽEvil Womanʼ, for instance, would be very soon available in a ripping monster version from Spooky Tooth that would completely obliterate the Canned Heat cover, and then there's a bunch of other blues-rock tunes that come around, sound nice, and go away without regrets.

 

But the jams — oh boy, the jams, and it's all about the combinations: Vestine's sizzling guitar tone works delightfully well together with Dr. John's piano on ʽMarie Laveauʼ, and before there ever was ZZ Top, Larry Taylor and Alan Wilson were doing the ʽBoogie Chillen / La Grangeʼ groove with as much passion and verve as any Texan for miles around. They just seem to find that perfect balance between «letting their hair down», not being afraid of feedback, volume, and (occasionally) primal chaos, but at the same time also caring about sheer professionalism and musicality — this makes their jams more rock-'n'-roll-style-exciting than those of their psyche­delic contemporaries, but also more intelligent and restrained than the Blue Cheer / Vanilla Fudge / Cactus-style heavy bands. Only thing I can say is that having John Lee Hooker among your top influences really helps with the vibe (and I'm sure Billy Gibbons would agree as well) — oh yes, and even despite its more boring moments, the album still gets an enthusiastic thumbs up.

 

LIVING THE BLUES (1968)

 

1) Pony Blues; 2) My Mistake; 3) Sandy's Blues; 4) Going Up The Country; 5) Walking By Myself; 6) Boogie Music; 7) One Kind Favor; 8) Parthenogenesis; 9) Refried Boogie.

 

Everybody knows ʽGoing Up The Countryʼ, right? Everybody who is somebody saw the Wood­stock movie, and it's up there — the studio, rather than the live, version, the perfect soundtrack to the sights of Children of Nature gathering for their peaceful-harmless rituals in the back of the woods to the peaceful-harmless sweet sweet sound of Jim Horn's flute (yes, that is the famous Jim Horn himself — unfortunately, nobody in Canned Heat itself could actually play the flute; there's a couple videos where they're lip-synching and The Bear is imitating actual flute-playing, but he can't even hold the instrument properly). Be sure to check out Henry Thomas' original version, called ʽBulldoze Bluesʼ and recorded way back in 1928 with a wonderful quills solo of his own, but the Canned Heat version does have the added benefit of the band's tight rhythm section, and then there's Alan Wilson with his childlike voice that is such a perfect match for the flute, all of this is like Paradise Found in the flesh.

 

Other than that, though, there are no major stunners on the first side of this album — just more of the band's generally enjoyable, occasionally boring, occasionally ass-kicking blues rock. Best of the lot is probably ʽBoogie Musicʼ, credited to a mysterious «L. T. Tatman III» (probably a local fantasy born out of one too many Budweisers) and featuring the always-welcome Dr. John on piano — it's a rich, fat, groovy piece of funky New Orleanian R&B with great brass / guitar inter­play and an inobtrusive lecture on the essence of boogie in the coda. Other than that, Charlie Patton's ʽPony Bluesʼ is unrecognizable, but features some really whiny lead guitar licks from Vestine; and ʽSandy's Bluesʼ is a seven minute long super-slow blues-de-luxe, a genre that any band that does not have B. B. King in it should probably avoid.

 

But anyway, Living The Blues in general is not about the short songs — it is the band's most experimental album, with most of Side B given over to the ʽParthenogenesisʼ (ʽBirth Of The Maidenʼ) suite. Here we have psychedelic posturing (Alan Wilson's fuzzy Jew's harp solo in the intro), harmonica-driven boogie, honky tonk piano boogie, drum solo, feedback-drenched noise rock, swampy harmonica mixed with Indian raga, and a fiery blues-rock jam — all rolled in one. Honestly, none of it makes sense, and if you want to look for any thematic connections between all these pieces, be my guest. Yet somehow, the suite manages to be fun: no particular part sticks around for too long, and the guys are clearly enjoying all this absurdity. If anything, it's just a harmless celebration of the many different kinds of music that folks produce around the world, and I like this freedom of imagination and appreciate that the track still has plenty of entertain­ment value. It's not really trying to make some major philosophical point, despite the Greek title; it might even be a parody of suites trying to make a major philosophical point. In any case, it's quite a fun listen, despite the 20-minute running time.

 

What makes things more complicated is that it ain't over yet: here comes a whole second LP, and it only has one track, split in half — ʽRefried Boogieʼ, whose title indicates it is an «update» of ʽFried Hockey Boogieʼ from the previous album, is a 40-minute long jam, and this time, it actually is a real live jam, based on the exact same ʽBoogie Childrenʼ line as always, and with even more of those bass, guitar, and drum solos. As much as I like the band's jam power, I am not sure why they do not want us to believe that they already were at their best with ʽFried Hockey Boogieʼ, and insist on extending it to more than twice its original length for our pleasure. On a good day, I really do not mind, because a good take on John Lee Hooker can really work wonders and induce trances, and the boys were on fire all right; but on a bad day, I'd at least need a version of this that cuts out Larry Taylor's and Adolfo de la Parra's solos. That said, I do believe it is a record of sorts — I don't think anybody in 1968 (at least, outside of jazz) put out 40-minute long live tracks, so if they just wanted their bit of Guinness, I can understand that.

 

In any case, tedious or not, ʽRefried Boogieʼ does not stop the record from getting a deserved thumbs up. Everything that is here is at least not bad, and no record with ʽGoing Up The Countryʼ on it can be slandered — on the whole, Canned Heat were clearly peaking here, and if anything, the album gets by on raw enthusiasm and the fun quotient alone. They weren't talented songwriters, but they were happy to be involved in The Thing while it was Happening, and that happiness kind of trickles over from the speakers while the music is playing. So join in all the fun, and don't forget to boogie!

 

HALLELUJAH (1969)

 

1) Same All Over; 2) Change My Ways; 3) Canned Heat; 4) Sic 'Em Pigs; 5) I'm Her Man; 6) Time Was; 7) Do Not Enter; 8) Big Fat; 9) Huautla; 10) Get Off My Back; 11) Down In The Gutter, But Free.

 

Not necessarily what we're looking for. The last studio album by the original classic Canned Heat, released just prior to Henry Vestine leaving the band and being replaced by Harvey Mandel, sud­denly sees them stepping away from the world of lengthy improvised boogie sagas and again restricting themselves to relatively short, concise, and surprisingly mild blues-rock numbers. For whatever reason, not only are there no more 20-minute tributes to John Lee Hooker (in fact, there ain't even a single track here reprising the bass line of ʽBoogie Chillen!ʼ), but there are no more attempts at crazyass experimentation like ʽParthenogenesisʼ, either. Perhaps they thought they were really no good at such experimentation, or perhaps they viewed it as a phase that naturally came and went for good, but the fact remains that Hallelujah is straightahead blues-rock, a bit heavier and wilder than their disappointing self-titled debut, but, in my personal opinion, a seri­ous letdown after the relative wildness of the previous two records.

 

Nor does it have even one short song with magical qualities, be it the bubbling menace of ʽOn The Road Againʼ or the pastoral bliss of ʽGoing Up The Countryʼ. «Blind Owl» Wilson, in parti­cular, is a big disappointment: all four of his pseudo-originals are merely passable this time, no matter how nice or weird his childlike falsetto still sounds. ʽChange My Waysʼ is just a fast-paced 12-bar blues with no haunting sonic combinations (there's an interesting echoey flute solo in the middle, but it's so short you barely notice it anyway); the country blues ʽTime Wasʼ tries to use a solo bass break gimmick between verses to give you the impression that it is at least slightly above generic level, but the best thing about the song is still a bit of fiery soloing from Vestine; and ʽGet Off My Backʼ is a decent back-and-forth alternation of simple boogie with psychoblues soloing in the vein of Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, but, again, nothing to speak of in terms of song­writing. It's almost as if the guy hit total writer's block; pretty sad considering how little time he had left on this planet.

 

Fortunately, the band still has a few funny gimmicks in store to keep the listener's interest at some level. ʽSic 'Em Pigsʼ, for instance, is a hilarious reinvention of Bukka White's ʽSic 'Em Dogsʼ in the form of probably the most vicious (downright mean, in fact) anti-cop musical statement of the year — culminating in a mock-advertisement voiceover ("if you're big, strong, and stupid, we want you... remedial courses are available for the culturally deprived") that might have earned them some broken ribs, were police officers a little better informed of the very existence of this band. Elsewhere, they finally get to the stage of covering the Tommy Johnson tune that gave the band its name (ʽCanned Heatʼ), even though the ancient original, all crackles and pops included, would still be preferable to this decent, but rather lazy-sounding electric revival. Bob Hite's ʽI'm Her Manʼ has what might be Wilson's finest, wildest, tightest harmonica solo in the opening and closing bars (everything else about the song is completely forgettable, though). And on the last number, another super-slow blues-de-luxe called ʽDown In The Gutter, But Freeʼ, they conduct an «experiment in freedom» by switching around and getting Vestine to play the bass (not a very generous decision) and Taylor to play the lead guitar (surprisingly Vestine-like!).

 

So it's not a total waste — in fact, as long as you are able to just lay back and enjoy some unpre­tentious blues-rock, it's hardly a waste at all — but for an album released in 1969, and following up on a clear artistic progression over three LPs in a row, Hallelujah is clearly a disappointment on both counts. It did not hurt the band's reputation: they were still invited to Woodstock, where they got to play ʽGoing Up The Countryʼ and strut their stuff and all, but it did make clear that, unless some things were to drastically change, the name Canned Heat would pretty soon be wiped off the roster to make way for artists more daring and less formulaic. Well, actually, some things did change pretty soon, and quite drastically, too... but not necessarily in a way that could be beneficial to the band's fame, fortune, and even physical health. To put it mildly.

 

FUTURE BLUES (1970)

 

1) Sugar Bee; 2) Shake It And Break It; 3) That's All Right, Mama; 4) My Time Ain't Long; 5) Skat; 6) Let's Work Together; 7) London Blues; 8) So Sad (The World's In A Tangle); 9) Future Blues.

 

The first significant change to affect the band was the departure of Henry Vestine, who apparent­ly had a falling out with Larry Taylor and, for that reason, missed the chance to appear at Wood­stock. His replacement was Harvey Mandel, "The Snake", who had previously made his name by appearing on Charley Musselwhite's Stand Back! album in 1966 and, for a few years, enjoyed the fame of one of America's best-kept secrets in the sphere of wonder guitar playing (for that matter, he was also the only member of the band in the Woodstock movie who did not look like a bum picked fresh off the street — probably didn't have enough time to assimilate). And while I would not necessarily call Harvey a better player than Henry, one thing's for sure: a bit of fresh blood, for a short while at least, helped get the band on the right track, and produce an album that was at least more... interesting than the steamless Hallelujah.

 

Although they do not reintroduce any 40-minute jams here, they get close enough with ʽSo Sad (The World's In A Tangle)ʼ, a 7-minute blues boogie that is not ʽBoogie Chillenʼ, but has the same grim, kill-'em-all attitude. Lyrically, they are concerned with the sad state of the modern world, so thoroughly deprived of brotherly love and stuff (this was, after all, recorded already in the wake of Altamont rather than Woodstock), but essentially, the words are just a front for two excellent solos — I'd imagine the first one, consisting of almost nothing but wobbling arpeggios, like a musical equivalent of an unexperienced tight-rope walker, is played by Wilson (who was never a technically endowed lead guitarist, but would always try out bizarre sound combinations when soloing), and then the second one (and the third one after the last verse) is Mandel, culmi­nating in a very different set of distorted psychedelic arpeggios, very different from your average blues soloing. The song is a guitar lover's paradise, far more interesting than the generic 12-bar ʽLondon Bluesʼ, although that one, too, has some incendiary Mandel solos and an always wel­come falsetto vocal from Wilson (the lyrics are total tripe, though, probably improvised on the spot, about some unhappy experiences the band had in London Town).

 

The short songs, this time around, tend to be diverse and marginally inventive or at least gim­micky: ʽShake It And Break Itʼ is a complete reconstruction of the old Charley Patton tune in the form of (another) light boogie, but preserving the playfulness of the original (and it's a good thing that they didn't have The Bear singing on it to crash it to the ground); ʽSkatʼ, with Dr. John-ar­ranged horns, is a bit of silly New Orleanian fun with Wilson trying himself in the role of Ella Fitzgerald (somehow, it's endearing rather than embarrassing); Wilbert Harrison's ʽLet's Work Togetherʼ (the same song that is otherwise known as ʽLet's Stick Togetherʼ, but with a different set of lyrics) makes great use of «distorted woman tone» from Mandel and is precisely the kind of material that The Bear was born to sing (half-drunk rousing anthems); and the guitar overdubs on ʽMy Time Ain't Longʼ sound like a pack of ghosts looking for fresh meat, because, well, his time ain't long and all that.

 

There's not a lot of interesting stuff going here, but you can clearly see the rejuvenated band trying to make almost every single number sound slightly more interesting than just playing it by the book — which is why this is Future Blues, after all: even the title track attempts to be inven­tive by playing around with a stop-and-start structure. It doesn't really work (there's no point in cutting off the rhythm section after each line, because there's no true suspense in that), but it's still better than nothing. And when it does work, it is far more satisfying than the technically more expert, but substantially much less interesting modern school of electric blues that, for the most part, does not care about innovation and development at all. So, thumbs up.

 

VINTAGE (1970)

 

1) Spoonful; 2) Big Road Blues; 3) Rollin' And Tumblin'; 4) Got My Mojo Working; 5) Pretty Thing; 6) Louise; 7) Dimples; 8) Can't Hold On Much Longer; 9) Straight Ahead; 10) Rollin' And Tumblin' (with harmonica).

 

Just as the band seemed to be getting its shit back together (Mandel and Taylor quit, but Ves­tine returned, and the new reinvigorated band guest-starred on the double album Hooker 'n' Heat, backing their primary guru and idol, without whose ʽBoogie Chillenʼ they wouldn't have been able to handle their 40-minute long jams), anyway, just as things were beginning to get back to right, all of a sudden they went as wrong as they could ever go: Alan Wilson died on September 3, 1970, from a barbiturate overdose. Just to clarify things: this was about two weeks before Jimi and a whole month before Janis, but yes, the man was 27 years old at the time, and his death did set up a regular string of Woodstock hero deaths, so...

 

...anyway, I'm not altogether sure if this Vintage album was released before Wilson's death, as a separate vault-cleaning activity, or after, which would make more sense — as a hastily assembled tribute from all his friends in the band. Because, honestly, this is not a good album. What we have here is a set of predictable blues and R&B covers, all recorded way back in 1966, unimaginative, poorly produced, and played with as much energy, technique, and interest as you'd expect from any band of total beginners. Although, apparently, Wilson and Vestine are already handling all the guitar duties themselves, at this point they seem to be simply emulating their Chicago heroes, with the guitars simply reproducing all the licks from those old Fifties' records rather than trying to update them to newer standards. (Clearly, this is a sound of a band that had yet to witness God... uh, I mean, Jimi, in action. Come to think of it, in 1966 they probably hadn't yet had the chance to hear the original God, i.e. Eric, either).

 

Really, all the material is quite weak, «and such small portions», to quote Woody — the whole thing is over in less than 25 minutes, including two early versions of ʽBig Road Bluesʼ (one of them surreptitiously retitled ʽStraight Aheadʼ), and two versions of ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ (with and without harmonica). And no, they don't do this stuff better than Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Bo Diddley, and John Lee Hooker. But, once again, as a quick on-the-spot memo­rial to Alan Wilson, I guess it sort of works. The record still gets a thumbs down, though, be­cause, as sorry as I am for the early death of Mr. Wilson, I don't think any of these tracks could hold a particularly sentimental value to anybody other than the actual band members.

 

LIVE IN EUROPE (1970)

 

1) That's All Right Mama; 2) Bring It On Home; 3) Pulling Hair Blues; 4) Medley: Back Out On The Road / On The Road Again; 5) London Blues; 6) Let's Work Together; 7) Goodbye For Now.

 

I have learned not to trust any datings for Canned Heat albums past 1969 (due to the band's con­voluted history combined with their relatively «minor» status, they tend to be quite contradic­tory), but it does look like this concert record was indeed released in 1970, though it is not quite clear if that was still before or already after Wilson's death. Regardless, he is definitely here on the album, along with Harvey Mandel, and some sources state that it was largely recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in April 1970 (more likely, in January 1970, because from The Bear's announcements at the end it ensues that they were headlining after Deep Purple and Renaissance, and Deep Purple only played the RAH in January), along with other venues (not sure which ones), so I suppose that, un­like the next live album, this one was probably at least in the plans before Wilson's passing.

 

What was also in the plans, I guess, was to present the band as one with the audience: a pretty good chunk of the record is taken over by Hite's and the other members' friendly chat with front row enthusiasts, sometimes in a manner as innocent as The Bear asking "you got any acid?", or proposing to do his Jim Morrison impression (hard to tell from the level of laughter if the impres­sion really made much of an impression or not), and sometimes while bringing strange guests up on stage (no idea whatsoever who "The Rag Queen" is, appearing right before the final number), you know, just to show that it's more than just about the music and the band and all.

 

But while I do appreciate the brotherly spirit (a glimpse of which you can actually catch in the Woodstock movie, when a fan climbs up on stage in the middle of the performance and nabs a pack of cigarettes right from The Bear's front pocket — not something that either Keith Richards or Pete Townshend would tolerate, I guess), the music still means more to me, and this particular bunch of performances is not that great, unfortunately, even by the band's own modest standards. Mandel, in particular, seems relatively tame throughout, digging his slow-burning psychedelic tones but almost never stepping out in front; and Wilson is brought to the forefront only on two generic 12-bar blues numbers, which does not allow him to make great use of his voice.

 

It does not help matters much, either, that ʽPulling Hair Bluesʼ is a nine-minute drag where the only instruments are Larry Taylor's bass and Wilson's harmonica (perhaps John Entwistle could hold your attention with nine minutes of pure bass guitar, but Larry Taylor is just not that good); that ʽOn The Road Againʼ is recast here as a rather wimpy funk jam with none of the ominous rattle and hum of the studio original; or that their brave take on Sonny Boy Williamson's ʽBring It On Homeʼ may feel far more loyal to the original than Zeppelin's version, but is far less deserving of a special memory cell. In the end, strange enough, the best performance on the entire album turns out to be the show-ending rendition of ʽLet's Work Togetherʼ, elongated in comparison to the studio version with some extra and far more badass soloes — Wilson plays a beautiful slide part, Mandel counterattacks with nasty distorted electric stuff, and the whole thing plays out its part to perfection as a final anthem to complete the unification process between audience and band, without forgetting the individual talents of the band's members either.

 

Other than that, it's all perfectly listenable, but somehow the level of energy is simply not the same as it used to be with Vestine — I'd take a single 40-minute ʽRefried Boogieʼ over this album in its entirety, easily. It is also hardly coincidental that their next live release, despite being clearly pulled from the archives, would turn out to be far superior. It is also ironic that at that date, they could still be the headliners in a show that included Deep Purple as an opening act — a situ­ation that would be reversed very, very soon...

 

LIVE AT TOPANGA CORRAL (1971)

 

1) Bullfrog Blues; 2) Sweet Sixteen; 3) I'd Rather Be The Devil; 4) Dust My Broom; 5) Wish You Would; 6) When Things Go Wrong.

 

Another weird discography adventure here. Apparently, Canned Heat still wanted to release a live album that had both Wilson and Vestine on it, and they had the tapes to do it, but there was a catch: after the commercial failure of the previous live album, their label (Liberty Records) had no wish to issue another one, so they took the tapes and claimed that they were from their live shows at Topanga Corral in 1966 and 1967, when they were not yet under contract — when, in fact, the recordings were really made at a 1969 show at the Kaleidoscope in Hollywood. This allowed them to release the album on a different label (Wand Records), at the expense of a little bit of dishonesty, perhaps — but every bit worth the ruse.

 

The thing is: maybe Harvey Mandel is the better known and the more inventive one of the two guitarists, but Vestine actually belonged in Canned Heat: a straightforward blues guitarist with a rocking heart — with very few special tricks, yet an ability to get to the heart of the matter where Mandel would more often get stuck in a psychedelic haze. You get this exactly one and a half minute into the record, when Vestine takes over from The Bear on ʽBullfrog Bluesʼ and strikes out a solo almost on the same level of fire-and-brimstone as Clapton on the famous Cream ver­sion of ʽCrossroadsʼ — too bad the rhythm section is nowhere near Cream in terms of intensity, because Henry is totally in the zone here: fast, fluent, precise, ecstatic, everything you'd need from a generic, but heartfelt fast-paced blues-rocker. Later on, Wilson comes in with his usual «I'm gonna play some simple, pretty, slow riffs and we'll call that a guitar solo, okay?» approach, and Vestine waits with impatience to break out from under The Owl's lead and kick some more ass, and it's really more fun to observe the contrast between Wilson and Vestine than between Wilson and Mandel.

 

Unfortunately, the album never quite lives up to that explosive start. The old blues covers are either way too predictable (ʽDust My Broomʼ? Not again!), or way too ambitious — it's one thing when they update really old acoustic classics, but the attempt to outdo B. B. King on ʽSweet Six­teenʼ is certainly misguided: Vestine does a good job, yet he cannot even begin to hope to capture all of King's subtle overtones, and it is hard to think of the track as completely detached from its King association. ʽI Wish You Wouldʼ is rather poorly mixed, with the repetitive riff groove ri­sing way over everything else, so, even if there's some nice harmonica playing and another ex­cellent solo from Henry with a razor-sharp tone, eight minutes of constant "cham-CHOOM-cham, cham-cha-CHOOM-cham" is a bit too much (at least the ʽBoogie Chillenʼ riff is aggressive, whereas this one is just nagging). On the other hand, Elmore James' ʽIt Hurts Me Tooʼ (here renamed ʽWhen Things Go Wrongʼ, but nobody's fooling anybody), suddenly recorded with plenty of echo, unexpectedly becomes a feast of plaintive, lyrical solos that take the song way beyond the scope of the original — I think that Wilson is responsive for the weeping, whereas Vestine delivers the angrier solos, and in between the two (and the odd echo that seems to feed Wilson back all of his complaints in a very psychedelic manner), they generate a great feel.

 

So, kick-ass start, mind-blowing finish, and some nice, unexceptional blueswailing in between — the record pretty much lets you see everything that made Canned Heat so cool in their heyday, and everything that prevented them from becoming a first-rate act both in the short and the long run; in particular, the work of the rhythm section here is fairly pedestrian, and, with all due re­spect for The Bear, he never ever was that great a singer: he just honestly does his job, but most of the time I just wait for him to move over and let Jimi, uh, I mean, Henry, take over. Still, the highs are high, and the lows are in the middle, so it all works out to a thumbs up in the end.

 

HISTORICAL FIGURES AND ANCIENT HEADS (1972)

 

1) Sneakin' Around; 2) Hill's Stomp; 3) Rockin' With The King; 4) I Don't Care What You Tell Me; 5) Long Way From L. A.; 6) Cherokee Dance; 7) That's All Right; 8) Utah.

 

Canned Heat's first album without Wilson was, by all means, a disaster — a band that struggled plenty while its top songwriter and (arguably) most charismatic member was alive had little choice but to flounder when he was dead. The man's original replacement was Joel Scott Hill, a decent guitar player (he is immiediately given a chance to shine in that capacity on the fast boo­gie piece ʽHill's Stompʼ), but a very ordinary blues singer — his whiteboy soul-blues deliveries on ʽSneakin' Aroundʼ and ʽThat's All Rightʼ sound like pale parodies on pre-war urban blues and jump blues, and you could easily get vocals like these in ten thousand random barrooms and saloons all across the USA.

 

Worse than that, the album is simply filled from top to bottom with bad or poorly executed ideas, little sparks that fail to light any reliable fires. Even the «gruff blues» formula that used to work so well for them is now wasted on ʽUtahʼ, eight minutes of the generic ʽMannish Boyʼ groove, for some reason, recorded in a lo-fi standard, with lots of reverb on The Bear's vocals (did he have laryngitis or something?) and a lengthy, chaotic, meandering, and just plain boring solo from Vestine (or is that Hill?) that tries to set a personal record for the number of trill sequences one can squeeze out of the guitar in five minutes.

 

The one track that will probably draw the most attention is a guest spot by none other than Little Richard, who, coming totally out of the blue, graces the band with his presence, bringing along a new song and an old sax player (Clifford Solomon) — and although he does duet with The Bear, this is essentially just Little Richard, backed by Canned Heat, doing an impersonation of Little Richard that does not work one bit, because Canned Heat are too stiff to be doing breakneck maniacal rock'n'roll, and because Little Richard is too out of place and time to recapture the genuine youthful flame of the Fifties anyway. Not to mention that, in the context of the time, singing a merry happy ditty about "the king of rock'n'roll" just when none of the band members could genuinely synthesize merriment and goofiness in their hearts was probably not the right choice — and where «authentic» Little Richard performances make you want to drop everything and headbang like crazy, this whole experience just feels fake from the start.

 

In the end, the only tracks that make sense on the album are the aforementioned ʽHill's Stompʼ (not very imaginative, but incendiary guitar playing for three minutes, in a style reminiscent of Albert Collins) and yet another instrumental, provided by a much more suitable guest star than Little Richard — famous flute (and sax) player Charles Lloyd, whose perfectly composed melody gives a weird pastoral feel (with a touch of psychedelia) to the blues groove. In comparison, all the vocal-based numbers are downers: The Bear is clearly in no shape to contribute anything worthwhile, Hill is mediocre, and... well, bottomline is, they should have really taken a much longer holiday to get in shape. As the matter stands, Historical Figures And Ancient Heads really does turn Canned Heat into what it states it is — an unhappy, but probably inevitable de­velopment. Get the Charles Lloyd track for a good experience, and thumbs down for the rest.

 

THE NEW AGE (1973)

 

1) Keep It Clean; 2) Harley Davidson Blues; 3) Don't Deceive Me; 4) You Can Run, But You Sure Can't Hide; 5) Lookin' For My Rainbow; 6) Rock & Roll Music; 7) Framed; 8) Election Blues; 9) So Long Wrong.

 

The only reason why this album remained in history was that, apparently, this was the album that finally got Lester Bangs fired from Rolling Stone after he had allegedly written a review of it that was «disrespectful» to the musicians, in Jann Wenner's opinion. Well then — here's another re­view of the same album that will strive to be as disrespectful as possible, even if there's hardly any hope that it will dare match the original, and I also share the advantage of not working for Rolling Stone, either. Plus, at least Lester Bangs wrote his review when the record had just come out, and now that it's more than forty years old, who really gives a damn about the fact that it fuckin' sucks? Not even Jann Wenner, that's who.

 

Anyway, by 1973 guitarist Joe Scott Hill of ʽHill's Stompʼ fame was out, and in his place we had James Shane on guitar and Ed Beyer on piano. Nobody knows them, and nobody should; there's absolutely nothing special about the playing of either, yet, for some mysterious reason, they are credited for five out of nine songs on the album — the other three credits going to Hite and one more to Leiber/Stoller (but we do know that «Hite songwriting» usually consists of setting stolen melodies to different lyrics — ʽRock And Roll Musicʼ, for instance, is... no, not an appropriated Chuck Berry cover: rather, it is an appropriated cover of ʽLawdy Miss Clawdyʼ with new lyrics about the niceties of rock and roll music).

 

The direction in which Shane and Beyer are pushing the struggling band is clear enough: it is roots-rock with a strongly pronounced country-rock and «The-Band-rock» flavor. Instead of John Lee Hooker, Canned Heat now go after Robbie Robertson — a real disaster, considering that none of the group members are even remotely as talented as the average member of The Band, and where The Band, at their best, win the listener over with clever melodic moves and subtle per­forming nuances, Canned Heat just sound like bland, humorless hillbillies.

 

Seriously now, I have no need whatsoever for something like the generic country waltz ʽYou Can Run, But You Sure Can't Hideʼ, with ugly, directionless guitar soloing and silly spoken voice­overs from The Bear; or the barroom shuffle ʽHarley Davidson Bluesʼ that has not a single moment that would make it worth your while. The cover of Leiber & Stoller's ʽFramedʼ, expan­ded with some new verses that add a «moral» part to the original tragicomical tale, would be mildly entertaining if not for the fact that just a year before, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band had their version out which literally wipes the floor with Canned Heat's rendition — heavier, glammier, funnier, and with the musicians giving it their all. Beyer's ʽElection Bluesʼ is a very boring six-minute exercise in slow acoustic blues, largely just a pretext to throw in some political lyrics; and Shane's ʽSo Long Wrongʼ is a somewhat heavy blues-rocker, the likes of which had been produced hundreds of times before.

 

Unfortunately, of the two main remaining band members, neither is at his best here — The Bear seems to have been having health issues, as he almost never sounds imposing and massive on anything he sings; and Henry Vestine seems to have been succumbing to drugs or something, because there is not a single example of a really stunning guitar solo anywhere in sight (okay, maybe ʽFramedʼ could be an exception: with a thick, crunchy guitar tone, Vestine tries his best to kick ass on the solo break, but it still comes out fairly generic, and not free of some mistakes and "not-really-sure-where-to-go-from-here" moments). Essentially, this leaves Shane and Beyer in command, and with that move, the band just plain ceases to be Canned Heat — they seem to have forgotten about everything that was at least remotely good about this band in the first place, and are going somewhere where I flat out refuse to follow. Thumbs down, in loving memory of Mr. Lester Bangs.

 

ONE MORE RIVER TO CROSS (1973)

 

1) One More River To Cross; 2) L. A. Town; 3) I Need Someone; 4) Bagful Of Boogie; 5) I'm A Hog For You, Baby; 6) You Are What You Am; 7) Shake, Rattle And Roll; 8) Bright Times Are Comin'; 9) Highway 401; 10) We Remember Fats.

 

A marginal improvement here, but one that probably came too late: this was Canned Heat's one and only album recorded for Atlantic, before the industry people took a good look at the awful state in which the band had put itself with too many drugs and way too much personal discord and disarray for such a quintessential peace-and-love outfit, and dissolved the contract in horror. But they did have enough time to produce this record, for which purpose they moved from Cali­fornia to Alabama and were rewarded with some precious studio time at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio — sure enough, with the Muscle Shoal Horns for comfort and assistance.

 

The shift in sound is immediately obvious: instead of sounding like a third-rate clone of The Band, the title track makes them sound like a B-grade contemporary R&B outfit, with a strong, assured groove, uplifting brass fanfare, and focused piano and guitar parts that almost seem to be suggesting, in the wake of the New Age disaster, that we have cleaned up our act, toughened our defenses, and ready to make a brand new start here at Atlantic. So the country-rock sound didn't work out — well, life is not always a rose garden, but now, with the generous support of our friends in the R&B business, here we are now, in the passenger seat of The Soul Train (sorry we couldn't afford 1st class, though), making a hot, sweaty dance number out of this Daniel Moore song. Hey, life is good if you really really make yourself believe in it!

 

On the whole, the record still retains the laid back, lazy-friendly atmosphere of The New Age: the only time it goes for something a lil' more snappy is on James Shane's ʽYou Am What You Amʼ (yes, a good eight years before Zappa's You Are What You Is — an earlier chapter of the miserable adventures of the verb ʽto beʼ in popular music) — a mid-tempo funk rocker with echoes of Funkadelic, with perfect coordination between bass, drums, guitar, piano, and horns, and I mean it: I have no idea if all the resident band members are actually involved in the groove, but it totally gets you going. Four minutes of total precision and friendly aggression, and although you can still sense a bit of stiffness compared to how any true giants of funk would have done it, I am still honestly amazed at how well they managed to pull it off, given that Canned Heat and funk music seemed to be incompatible entities all that time, due to their preference for Hooker-style boogie and rigid Chicago blues.

 

Most of the other tracks are merely okay, saved by an honorable level of diversity (slow soulful blues on ʽI Need Someoneʼ, a revisiting of rockabilly on ʽShake, Rattle And Rollʼ, a fast-tempo boogie with hysterical electric guitar soloing on ʽHighway 401ʼ) and a higher level of energy than last time around, although it is still quite a shame to see Henry Vestine, once a beacon of hope for Canned Heat's average instrumental powers, now largely reduced to the part of a bit player — I guess the drug issue affected him as much as everybody else. Still, it all goes smooth enough until they get to the last track, which is where the Shitwave of Cheap Embarrassment finally reaches the shore: ʽWe Remember Fatsʼ is a stupid-beyond-belief medley of most of the major hits of Fats Domino, one verse or so at a time, lumped in a five-minute cornball with the intended (actually, explicitly stated in the intro) goal of making all the fans of Chuck Berry and Little Richard remember Fats Domino as well.

 

I mean, you'd think, from that introduction, or that title, or the "goodbye fat man..." outro at the end, that Fats were dead or something — when, in fact, he is still alive and kicking well into 2016 (well, not sure about kicking, but still, he's in a better state, I guess, than most of the original members of Canned Heat, and that says a lot). Nor does it make that much sense to say he was not remembered by anybody outside of Canned Heat or the Muscle Shoal Studios in 1973; and to actually think that somebody's effective introduction to the sound of Fats Domino could be via a five-minute medley by a barely functional, minimally popular Canned Heat would be sort of pre­posterous. So, blame it on substance abuse and that annoying «educationalist» mentality that often accompanies B-level bands who think that if they cannot be geniuses, they can at least stake their claim as schoolteachers.

 

Still, at least the revitalized sound of the band on the title track and their totally unexpected mastery of the funk idiom on ʽYou Am What I Amʼ could perhaps have pointed out a way to a better future — if only they'd succeeded in overcoming their problems, getting their heads pro­perly re-screwed on their shoulders, and concentrating on all their primary strengths. Unfortuna­tely, adaptation to new rules of life past the Flower Power age proved impossible in the end; after a failed attempt to produce a second album for Atlantic, they found themselves without a record contract, and then, after one particularly scandalous gig in 1974, where The Bear is said to have gone crazy on the crowd — without half of the band's members. Accordingly, 1974-75 should have been the end of the road for Canned Heat; surprisingly, it was only one more catastrophe over the course of a long, strange, endless journey, so read on.

 

HUMAN CONDITION (1978)

 

1) Strut My Stuff; 2) Hot Money; 3) House Of Blue Lights; 4) Just Got To Be There; 5) You Just Got To Rock; 6) Human Condition; 7) She's Looking Good; 8) Open Up Your Back Door; 9) Wrapped Up.

 

In between 1973 and 1978, there were about fifty thousand lineup changes in Canned Heat, so, God willing, we will skip most of these and fast forward to the peak of the disco era, by which time the band miraculously still had two of its original members — The Bear on vocals and Fito De La Parra on drums — plus younger bear Richard Hite on bass, Chris Morgan on guitar, Mark Skyer on second guitar, and then in walked Harvey Mandel for a spell, providing some fuel for the studio recordings as a guest star. Somehow this ragged outfit managed to get itself a record contract with the Takoma label, and proceeded to make some more music that not a single soul probably cared about in 1978.

 

Yet in retrospect you just gotta admire those valiant, prematurely aging hippies — apart from some production effects on the guitars (which, unfortunately, detract from the overall raw sound of the band), there is not a single sign of their having paid even the slightest bit of attention to the big musical changes that were going around at the time. What we have here is nine tracks of blunt, straightforward, brawny boogie-rock — picking up right where One More River To Cross left off, but even less diverse, with no incursions into funk territory (and since most of the old school funk had mutated into disco by that time anyway, they could hardly be blamed). Boogie, blues, and bluesy boogie with a barroom breath; there's not even much of that Woodstock flavor left, because very little, if anything, here has to do with peace, love, and moralizing — almost every­thing that is left is the smell of beer dregs on The Bear's T-shirt.

 

And it's okay, really. It's nothing great or particularly endearing in any subtle way, but it's thirty-plus minutes of thick, honest, energetic entertainment — the new guitarists select grumbly guitar tones (which always shine through even the craziest phasing effects that they decide to throw in the pot), The Chambers Brothers provide cheerful backing vocals, and even The Bear seems to be in grizzlier shape than he was last time around. It's practically impossible to resist headbanging along to ʽThe House Of Blue Lightsʼ, or feeling some sexy satisfaction from the ol'-time party spirit of ʽStrut My Stuffʼ, and even the totally formulaic Chicago blues of ʽOpen Up Your Back Doorʼ is delivered with such amazing instrumental precision (is that Mandel blazing away on the electric slide? sounds like him, anyway) that you can't help but suspect that, perhaps, the band's troubles of the time were somewhat exaggerated: as a cohesive musical outfit, this lineup shows nothing but the finest form throughout the sessions.

 

The alleged «gem» of the album is the title track — an old Alan Wilson-era outtake that they unearthed and resuscitated for the record, sounding not unlike a sped-up, extra-syncopated ver­sion of ʽOn The Road Againʼ or at least sharing the same slightly paranoid atmosphere, only this time in boogie rather than blues format. The Bear does a decent job softening and «murmur-izing» his voice to resemble Wilson's, and even if the glossy production does not quite allow you to mistake this for a 1969 recording, the overall gesture is still nice. However, «gem» is, of course, an exaggeration: in the context of all these other pieces of boogie, ʽHuman Conditionʼ hardly has any hidden nuance, hint, or threat to it. The original version (available on various compilations), with Wilson actually on vocals, is actually worth locating — the band seems to be going for a CCR-type sound on that one, and Larry Taylor's bass playing is far more phenomenal than Richard Hite's on the re-recording.

 

On the whole, the album is so unremarkable that it cannot possibly be recommended to anybody (in terms of preferences, you would not only have to make a detailed analysis of the entire Little Feat catalog before making such a recommendation, but you'd probably also have to plow through the entire Doobie Brothers discography). But it is far from being a bad album — in all honesty, they hadn't sounded that energized and ready for a fight since at least Future Blues, and I did have fun listening to all those boogie romps.

 

KINGS OF THE BOOGIE (1981)

 

1) Kings Of The Boogie; 2) Stoned Bad Street Fighting Man; 3) So Fine; 4) You Can't Get Close To Me; 5) Hell's Just On Down The Road; 6) I Was Wrong; 7) Little Crystal; 8) Dog House Blues; 9) Sleepy Hollow Baby; 10) Chicken Shack.

 

Still more lineup changes; by the time they got around to recording this one, The Bear and Fito were still in, and the lead guitar position once again miraculously shifted from Harvey Mandel to The Amazing Disappearing (And Reappearing At Will) Henry Vestine. Unfortunately, an even more serious problem than a quantum-state lead guitar sound struck them this time: before the album was completed, Bob Hite happened to miscalculate his heroin dosage (allegedly, they say he mistook cocaine for heroin), collapsed on stage, and died on April 6, 1981, somewhere in Hollywood; I think he was the last of the Woodstock heroes to have the hand of fate catch up with him in such an ironic manner.

 

Somehow the band still carried on, though, and the album was completed with three of the recent members contributing vocals where necessary: Ernie Rodriguez on bass, Rick Kellog on harp, and Mike Halby on guitar. There are still plenty of Hite-sung vocal tracks, though, so do not believe them who say that Human Condition was the last Hite-led Canned Heat album: if you have enough love/respect for him as a lead figure, be sure to check out Kings Of The Boogie, because he actually sounds a little more loose here (or maybe it's just better production).

 

The overall style is not that far removed from Human Condition's, though: basic fast-tempo boogie and generic, but mean-wishing blues-rock constitutes the bulk of it, and where there are exceptions, I'd rather there wasn't any — for instance, the band's cover of Johnny Otis' ʽSo Fineʼ is amazingly stiff and sung without the slightest bit of emotion. Technically, ʽDog House Bluesʼ is also an exception, because it is credited to two members of Devo (and no, it has nothing to do with the Devo outtake ʽDoghouse Doghouseʼ that would surface later from the archives); how­ever, it fits in so naturally with the other blues-rock tracks here that you could never suspect foul play without checking the credits.

 

Anyway, the best tracks on the album are the fast-paced ones: they close the record with a merry revival of the old Amos Milburn jump blues classic ʽChicken Shackʼ, energized harmonica and guitar solos and all, and open it with their own modern day take on jump blues — the title track probably has the best guitar riff of 'em all, with a nice mix of syncopation and sustain, and the rhythm section is so tight that even if you still wish to deny them the title of Kings of the Boogie (or, at least, continue to insist that they lost that title a decade ago), it would be unfair to strip them of a lifetime board membership at least.

 

Guitarist Mike Halby contributes much of the original songwriting where it is present, and turns out to be a modestly competent riffmeister with a knack for a decent variation: I think that ʽLittle Crystalʼ reuses and embellishes the more Spartan riff pattern of CCR's ʽBootlegʼ, and although ʽStone Bad Street Fighting Manʼ has nothing to do with the melody of Stones' ʽStreet Fighting Manʼ, the title of the song is amusingly delivered in the same melodic way as it was done by Mick — coincidence?.. Little things like these add a much-needed pinch of amusement to what otherwise would be a completely unremarkable set of barroom tunes. Well, frankly speaking, it is still a fairly unremarkable set of barroom tunes, but then, it hardly aspires to any higher status. The whole thing, bar the totally out-of-place Otis cover, is fully adequate to the purpose, and I might even consider recommending it with a thumbs up, if not for the production, which might on the whole be even worse than Human Condition's — almost lo-fi in places (and I am not sure if it is just my copy, but you can actually sense the engineer adjusting the volume level right in the middle of the title track... what the heck???).

 

If there's any place left for real amazement, it has to be outside the music — with the death of The Bear, you'd think the team should have finally thought about calling it a day: what is the sense of retaining a mediocre brand name anyway, after two of the band's chief symbols had left this world, and the only original member left was the drummer? But then again, never underesti­mate the drummer (even if his name happens to be Phil Collins) — especially in the case of Canned Heat, where, somehow, the drummer eventually managed to make a difference.

 

REHEATED (1988)

 

1) Looking For The Party; 2) Drifting; 3) I'm Watching You; 4) Bullfrog Blues; 5) Hucklebuck; 6) Mercury Blues; 7) Gunstreet Girl; 8) I Love To Rock & Roll; 9) So Fine (Betty Jean); 10) Take Me To The River; 11) Red Headed Woman; 12) Built For Comfort.

 

Yes, that is just the way it is: this late Eighties version of Canned Heat, much like Fleetwood Mac, retains only the rhythm section from its original incarnation — Fito de la Parra is on drums, and Larry Taylor is on bass. Completing the lineup is James Thornbury on slide guitar and harmonica, and, most importantly, Junior Watson on lead guitar. In case you don't know who that is, Junior is a professional «jump blues» guitarist — his preferred stylistics seems to be the early electric playing style of guys like T-Bone Walker, or, at best, the early white rock'n'roll entertainers like Bill Haley's Franny Beecher. Consequently, it is no surprise that most of this album sounds like one large 1940s / 1950s revival, strange as that might seem coming from 1988, and coming from a band that still willed to be billed as «Canned Heat».

 

With all objective reservations made, though, Reheated sounds cool. Like the late period Hite albums, this music is no longer trying to prove anything — all it does is provide you with a bit of retro-sounding entertainment. But it has a nice balance between clean, steady production and rawness / edginess of sound — you can tell that the production is sufficiently perfected for this music to have been recorded as early as it tries to sound, but there are no diagnostic features of the Eighties whatsoever — and both Thornbury and Watson know their idioms to perfection. Even if this is only a tribute to an epoch long gone by, it still makes sense to listen to such covers as Eddie Boyd's ʽDriftingʼ and re-recordings of ʽBullfrog Bluesʼ just to learn how it is possible to reintegrate the spirit of early electric blues into a modern blues record without it sounding too glossy, too serious, and too boring.

 

It does help that Junior Watson is an excellent guitarist, as seen best on the long, but all-the-way mesmerizing instrumental ʽHucklebuckʼ, where he entertains us with a seemingly endless barrage of jazz / blues / country / folk licks, pilfering from all over the place and sewing it all together quite seamlessly. I am a big fan of the T-Bone Walker style of soloing — a meticulous, accurate, and always humor-ful style of stringing notes together — and this is a cool modern way of up­grading it by speeding things up just a bit and diversifying the phrasing assortiment, without losing (well, maybe just a bit) the humor that goes along with it. It's not always that fun and lively on the vocal tracks (most of the vocals, by the way, are handled by Thornbury, who has a fairly neutral bluesy voice), but it's consistently listenable and enjoyable.

 

Not everything works: for instance, their rendition of Al Green's ʽTake Me To The Riverʼ is pointless — the song is primarily a vocal soul number, and Thornbury has neither the sinful se­ductiveness of Al himself, nor the paranoia quotient of a David Byrne; their stripping the song down to bare essentials only draws the attention ever closer to the vocals, and there it is quickly dissipated. The idea to take ʽGun Street Girlʼ from Tom Waits' Rain Dogs and trace it back to its boogie-woogie roots would be fun if its boogie-woogie roots weren't so obvious on the original: it was Tom's innovative approach to textures and melodic flow that made the song special, so it's a bit... banal, I guess, to make it un-special again. But still curious to a degree.

 

And I do have to admit that at least on the fast numbers, the Taylor / de la Parra rhythm section sounds very cool — Taylor has never been a genuine bass wizard, but the few styles of holding down the instrument that he does know, he masters to perfection, and something like ʽMercury Bluesʼ really gets all your inner rhythms going (I also love his «velvety» bass tone on the song, no idea how he gets it, though). I may not know what I'm talking about here, but it still seems as if the two were all set to prove that they could still carry the Canned Heat logo loud and proud, and now that they were no longer in the shadow of Wilson, Vestine, and Hite, they did their best to stress that they were Canned Heat, and as good as Junior Watson might be, he is still just passing through on this long, strange journey during which an old bassist and an old drummer encounter every second guitar player in the world for a one-night stand.

 

So it's not so much Reheated as Retrofitted, but that's okay — I'm not sure if «reheating» what­ever was left of the old band was at all possible, so retrofitting was probably the best solution there was. ʽHucklebuckʼ gets my thumbs up; the rest of the album does not (it probably makes more sense to just seek out the solo albums of Junior Watson if one is truly interested in his playing style), but, you know, for an album produced by two of the least remembered members of one of the least remembered Woodstock bands, this one's nearly a sudden masterpiece of an unexpected surprise.

 

INTERNAL COMBUSTION (1994)

 

1) I Used To Be Bad; 2) John Lee Hooker Boogie; 3) Remember Woodstock; 4) (You'll Have To) Come And Get It; 5) The Heat In Me Is Up; 6) It's Hot; 7) Vision Of You; 8) Nothing At All; 9) 24 Hours; 10) Gamblin' Woman; 11) I Might Be Tempted.

 

It's nothing short of amazing that this LP sounds like a fairly cohesive piece of blues-rock product, considering that it is apparently spliced together from at least three different sessions — four tracks still feature Junior Watson on lead guitar, but two feature Vestine, and four more feature Harvey Mandel (and, as far as I remember, Mandel and Vestine never really work together). The rhythm section remains the same (although on a few of the tracks Larry Taylor is replaced by Ron Shumake for some reason), and James Thornbury is still in place as the new band's chief singer, harmonica, and rhythm guitar player. Additionally, Ira Ingber is playing second (third?) guitar through­out, and Ronnie Baron is credited for some piano on the opening tracks... whew. And who of them exactly was formally a member of Canned Heat at the time when the new album came out in 1994? That's, like, a good billion dollar question.

 

But the music here is mostly good, if unexceptional. With Junior Watson's presence much re­duced and new guitarist Ira Ingber's much increased, the sound is no longer as defiantly retro as it was on Reheated — this here sounds like Chicago blues and Chicago-blues-derived blues-rock in the modern era, with a more polished guitar sound and an overall glossier style of production. This does not outcancel the good-time vibe and the occasional attempt to throw in an original riff or two, and Ira Ingber turns out to be a talented songwriter — at least two out of three songs that he co-writes here with Gary Tigerman are relative standouts (ʽVision Of Youʼ is a funky-swampy rocker with some subtle menace to it, and ʽI Might Be Temptedʼ has a snake-like little riff con­necting its simple boogie verses that simply refuses to go away). On my personal scale of expe­rience, this is all slightly above the average «modern blues-rock record» — there's a bit of the old nostalgic Heat vibe, a bit of modern talent, a bit of diversity, but not enough by way of any inter­esting new collective personality for the band.

 

The nostalgia vibe is pumped to the max on ʽRemember Woodstockʼ, a track that diligently mimicks the original atmosphere of ʽOn The Road Againʼ, right down to featuring the drummer on vocals — and, surprise surprise, he seems to be sporting the same kiddie falsetto as the late Alan Wilson! But it almost works, unless you begin to pay serious attention to the worthlessly predictable lyrics ("Remember Woodstock, it made history as we know..." etc.): at least that atmosphere is recaptured flawlessly, and Vestine gets in the best solo on the album. And then, of course, Fito contributes ʽJohn Lee Hooker Boogieʼ, with a bit of Hooker himself sampled on the opening segment, and yes, you asked for it — the ʽBoogie Chillunʼ line is back, after all these years, although it's been slightly straightened out and masked with a scraping, broken-up riff. Again, Vestine takes the lead here, and for a short while, it's like we're really all the way back in 1968 (except that Mr. Thornbury on vocals ain't no Bob Hite).

 

As for the generic stuff (lots and lots of melodically predictable Chicago blues covers and re­writes), it's okay — they still have some humor and irreverence to go along with it, so it doesn't sound nearly as bad as when a Sheryl Crow or a Robert Cray take over the blueskeeping duties. Nothing to write home about, but the rhythm section is sufficiently sharp and forceful to get you toe-tappin', and that's about as much as you could ask at the moment. I am a little disappointed in the quality of Mandel's soloing — technically impeccable as usual, and he still has a good selec­tion of nasty guitar tones at his disposal, but never even once does he properly go crazy on the instrumental breaks; I'd say Vestine, who only has two leads on the record, has him solidly beat quality-wise, if not quantity-wise. Then again, Vestine had always been the true soul of the band (along with Wilson), so that should hardly be a surprise.

 

BLUES BAND (1997)

 

1) Stranger; 2) Quiet Woman; 3) Iron Horse; 4) Jr.'s Shuffle; 5) Creole Queen; 6) Keep It To Yourself; 7) Boogie Music; 8) Goin' Up The Country; 9) See These Tears; 10) One Kind Favour; 11) Oh Baby; 12) Gorgo Boogie.

 

We're going to speed up a bit with these ever-closer-to-our-days reviews, considering that with each new album, there's less and less Canned Heat and more and more stereotypical modern blues rock playing — the kind that sounds great together with some pulled pork and gumbo in B. B. King's Blues Club on a relaxed New York weekend, but has little use in anybody's record col­lection, apart from the most diligent blues aficionados. And I'm just saying that only because I have seen a few positively glowing accounts of these post-Canned Heat incarnations — as if, you know, these guys not merely managed to pull it together, but actually succeeded in putting a new, outstanding angle on traditional material. Well — no, not that I've really noticed.

 

On this 1997 Europe-only release, the band's triple guitar lineup consists of Vestine, Junior Watson, and relative newcomer Robert Lucas, who seemingly takes over the duties of James Thornbury, including lead vocals (which are quite similar to Thornbury's) and some of the song­writing, uh, I mean, song-doctoring (as usual, the «originals» are just slight melodic and lyrical modifications of traditional blues numbers). Larry Taylor remains attached to acoustic bass, and Gregg Kage replaces Ron Shumake on electric.

 

Again, the main lowlights are those cases where they try to re-record old Heat classics — in this instance, ʽBoogie Musicʼ, done very closely, but predictably inferior-ly, to the original, and, in a moment of bizarre, totally uncalled for blasphemy, a version of ʽGoin' Up The Countryʼ done as a generic acoustic blues with gruff vocals. The only two reasons why anybody paid any attention to the song in the first place were Alan Wilson's falsetto and the flute playing, and now that both of these are gone, it's a good exercise in humility — that is, making something very ordinary out of something quite extraordinary.

 

Other than that, the rocking numbers are predictably pulled off without a hitch: I think that ʽStrangerʼ, opening the album on a riff copped from ʽI Wish You Wouldʼ, features all three lead guitarists, with Lucas playing the slide, Junior Watson playing the first, «softer», solo, and Vestine on the second, «harsher» one, but I may be totally wrong about that — in any case, the track alternates between three very different styles of playing, two bluesier ones and one rockier one, and that makes it a standout. Unfortunately, the only other standout is the final instrumental ʽGorgo Boogieʼ, an overdriven fuzzy vamp with minimal rhythm support — spotlighting Robert Lucas doing flamenco hand-picks in a rather unique style and making that guitar sound like a highly drunk police siren taking on a life of its own.

 

Actually, Robert Lucas is a very good guitarist — not that Canned Heat ever hired any bad ones — and if you manage to let down your «who the hell listens to generic blues-rock in the 1990s, let alone the 2010s?» safeguard, every track here is nice and cool. But if you don't, you don't, and that's okay, too. The saddest news of all is that this happened to be the last album to feature any­thing by Henry Vestine — the last really-mattering musician of the classic Heat lineup passed away on October 20, 1997. Said to be heart failure, but I'm pretty sure drugs must have had something to do with this, too. Every member of Canned Heat is supposed to die from drugs, it's, like, in the Scriptures out there somewhere.

 

BOOGIE 2000 (2000)

 

1) Wait And See; 2) Last Man; 3) World Of Make Believe; 4) Dark Clouds; 5) Searchin' For My Baby; 6) I Got Loaded; 7) Too Much Giddyup; 8) She Split; 9) 2000 Reasons (Y2K Blues); 10) Road To Rio; 11) Can I Come Home?; 12) I'm So Tired.

 

If you only want one reliable taster of what it was like to call yourself «Canned Heat» after every­body who ever made a difference in the original band had passed away, you might just as well go along with Boogie 2000. It's just such a nice little record — nothing particularly special, nothing whatsoever to make you raise an eyebrow, but it's just done so damn well, I couldn't really think of where to begin to voice any specific complaints.

 

Sure, just as always, it's just straightahead blues and blues-rock, with not a single original melody in sight. They can write «Music by A. de la Parra and friends» for all they like, but we know, don't we, that ʽLast Manʼ is simply ʽLet's Work Togetherʼ with new lyrics, and that ʽToo Much Giddyupʼ rides the blues train of ʽMilk Cow Bluesʼ, and that ʽ2000 Reasons (Y2K Blues)ʼ is just a mix of ʽSweet Home Chicagoʼ with ʽDust My Broomʼ, and the list goes on. There's no new music written here — period, end of story. But above and beyond that, this particular lineup of late period Canned Heat, reduced to a hardcore quartet of de la Parra, Taylor, Kage on bass and Lucas on guitar, gives arguably the tightest, leanest, and most energetic show of blues-rock fun, grit, and (a little) nostalgia that could ever be expected.

 

There's just something about the way they crash-boom-bang into the album with ʽWait And Seeʼ, a Fats Domino number with a guest flautist and a guest saxophonist, the former bringing on inescapable echoes of ʽGoing Up The Countryʼ and the latter laying on a good New Orleanian vibe. The rhythm section is tight as a tick, Lucas gives a soulfully humorous vocal performance, and Skip Taylor's production delineates and emphasizes each instrument to perfection. It's like a textbook case of how to treat a cover song if you lack imagination, but compensate for this with verve and dedication. The only thing that is missing is a great lead guitar part — but this comes with the next track, where, on ʽLast Manʼ, Lucas throws his slide playing talents into the pot: the solos here are even more fluent, ecstatic, and note-perfect than on the previous album, putting the man (almost) on the level of... Dickey Betts, for instance — he'd be a good competitive addition to The Great Southern at least, if not necessarily to the Allmans.

 

Another bit of saving grace is the ongoing diversity. They have a bit of comic blues (Har­rison Nelson's ʽI Got Loadedʼ), a bit of real old school jump blues (ʽShe Splitʼ), a soul cover (ʽSear­chin' For My Babyʼ), an odd jump into Latin territory (ʽWorld Of Make Believeʼ), and at least one track with more of a ZZ Top-style Texan rock sound (ʽRoad To Rioʼ, where you almost expect Billy Gibbons to crop up at any moment). No, no baroque pop or death metal, but let us not be pushing it — these guys would be the first to admit they're happy with clinging to a for­mula, yet even within that formula, there's plenty of ground to cover, and they are not interested in merely doing one stereotypical 12-bar tune after another. Instead, they're laying down all the stereotypes, and having their way with each of them.

 

I guess the record peters out a little near the end: instead of the slow, harmonica-heavy ʽI'm So Tiredʼ, they should have had another kick-ass rocker to wind things down on the same exuberant note on which they started it (and ʽI'm So Tiredʼ doesn't even sound all that tired!). Also, I am not at all fond of Greg Kage's singing voice — next to Lucas', it's kinda colorless in comparison, and detracts from the overall enjoyment of such powerful tunes as ʽToo Much Giddyupʼ (which is still heavily recommendable because of more top-notch sliding from Lucas). But there can only be so much nitpicking about an honest, no-bull record like this, one that essentially hits all the right spots. It might not be raising any false illusions about the future vitality of blues-rock, but it does make a good case for why people are still making blues-rock records after all these years. So, a modest, but honest thumbs up here.

FRIENDS IN THE CAN (2003)

 

1) Same Old Games; 2) Bad Trouble; 3) Black Coffee; 4) Getaway; 5) It Don't Matter; 6) Let's Work Together; 7) 1,2,3 Here We Go Again; 8) That Fat Cat; 9) Home To You; 10) Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive; 11) Little Wheel.

 

Okay, let's see who these guys were in 2003... Fito on drums, ensuring the «right» to be called Canned Heat; Greg Kage still on bass, as well as lead vocals and songwriting for one track (ʽThat Fat Catʼ — an anti-capitalist rant that does not work too well when the proletarian protagonist introduces himself as "a fine-lovin' bitch-chasin' hound dog"); Dallas Hodge and John Paulus on guitars; Stanley Behrens on wind instruments and harmonica. Any of these names ring a bell? Only to remind us that Robert Lucas is out of the band, and since he was pretty much the best thing to happen to the post-Wilson, post-Hite Heat ever, this means that we're quite inevitably back to square one. In fact, you can tell that from the title: the minute you begin subscribing to the «...And Friends» ideology, it's as if you've officially put yourself on the barroom circuit, re­gardless of whether you have already been cruising it surreptitiously or not.

 

And who are the friends, by the way? The eerie thing about the list on the back cover is that some of these people were already dead in 2003 — like John Lee Hooker (died 2001), or Heat's own Henry Vestine (died 1997). Others are not so much friends as legitimate past members (Harvey Mandel on a re-recording of ʽLet's Work Togetherʼ; Robert Lucas on... another re-recording of ʽLet's Work Togetherʼ, appended as a bonus track — was this a sort of «let's get all of Canned Heat's guitarists to re-record one song for us» game?), and a few members of John Lee Hooker's band. This is sort of ridiculous — surely they still had at least one or two friends left in the big leagues? Where's Eric Clapton with ʽFurther On Down The Roadʼ? Where's Buddy Guy with ʽMary Had A Little Lambʼ? This is more like Old Ghosts And Sidemen In The Can.

 

Anyway, musically this is indeed a big letdown from the tightness of Boogie 2000: a mish-mash selection from several different sessions that had no reason to be released, since most of it con­sists of very basic, very perfunctory blues-rock — professional, but never exciting. Only three tracks stand out: the aforementioned ʽThat Fat Catʼ, mainly because of the hilariously bad lyrics; ʽNever Get Out Of These Blues Aliveʼ, with Taj Mahal on guitar (the coolest moment comes at the end, when the band stays around to jam a little bit and they overdub a piece of an interview with John Lee Hooker where he uses his deepest bass rumble to share a few memories about how great it was for him to be backed by Canned Heat in the old days — a bit creepy); and ʽLittle Wheelʼ, from an older session with John Lee Hooker himself on vocals and Henry Vestine on lead guitar — rougher sounding, almost lo-fi quality, but ten times as passionate as almost everything on the rest of the album (I think it was 1989, when Hooker was making his own «...and friends» album, The Healer).

 

Of course, one or two tracks are hardly enough to make a recommendation, so just stay away unless only for completism' sake — focus your efforts on locating Boogie 2000 instead, if you want decent proof of blues-rock not yet being completely dead at the turn of the millennium. These Friends In The Can are quite a sorry lot in comparison: not exactly thumbs-down worthy, since everything is kept clean and professional, but instantly forgettable.

 

 

CHRISTMAS ALBUM (2007)

 

1) Deck The Halls; 2) The Christmas Song; 3) Christmas Blues; 4) Santa Claus Is Coming To Town; 5) I Won't Be Home For Christmas; 6) Christmas Boogie; 7) Santa Claus Is Back In Town; 8) Jingle Bells; 9) Christmas Blues; 10) Boogie Boy (Little Drummer Boy); 11) Christmas Blues (live).

 

And so we end (or at least I really hope so) this long, strange journey — on our strangest note yet, as the final flourish of Canned Heat in the recording business seems to have been this special Christmas album, just exactly the kind of thing that billions of Canned Heat fans around the world had been fighting for ever since, way back when, Bob Hite did a joint number with Alvin and the Chipmunks that forever changed the course of humanity. That number (ʽThe Christmas Songʼ), already available as a bonus track on the CD release of Future Blues, is reproduced here in all its glory, as well as an old version of ʽChristmas Bluesʼ from around the same time, mixed in with a bunch of completely new recordings so that you all may see Canned Heat just the way they are: «protecting the old ways from being abused».

 

At least they have Robert Lucas back in the band, playing, singing, and having one last good time before expiring from a drug overdose about one year later — another solid Canned Heat tradition, you might say, but the irony is certainly mixed with sadness, since of all things that happened to this headless band since 1980, Robert Lucas was arguably the very best one. It is only because of him that one or two tracks on this Christmas Album approach the overall fun level of Boogie 2000, even if in terms of singing Christmas carols he isn't exactly a prime time Santa Claus; but in terms of playing, he can effortlessly transform ʽDeck The Hallsʼ and ʽJingle Bellsʼ into up­lifting jazz-blues grooves that replace the generic party spirit with genuine appreciation of a good musical spirit.

 

I mean, what could be the point of a classic blues-rock band doing a Christmas album? Only if the Christmas songs suit the tastes of a seasoned blues-rocker, and I'm pretty sure that seasoned blues-rockers with wide-reaching tastes will be all too happy to have a record like this for a sound­track to their Christmas dinner. Be it the completely instrumental ʽSanta Claus Is Coming To Townʼ, with a pretty-clean guitar solo (one third jazz, one third folk, and one third... surf?), or the reworking of the classic Heat / Hooker / ZZ Top ʽBoogie Chillenʼ line as ʽChristmas Boogieʼ (which almost explicitly suggests that Christmas might be the best time of the year for some wild carnal fantasies and Holy Spirit-assisted procreation activities), or the album-closing third version of ʽChristmas Bluesʼ, recorded in front of a live audience with special guest Eric Clapton on guitar, it's all part of a harmless fun send-up of the predictable Christmas spirit.

 

One lonesome odd surprise on the record is the band's reinterpretation of ʽLittle Drummer Boyʼ: although the song is retitled as ʽBoogie Boyʼ, it is not at all a boogie, but rather an «art-folk» mood piece with echo-laden guitars and a «deep rumble» effect on vocals that preach the virtues and efficiencies of The Boogie. It's a mildly hypnotic piece that contrasts sharply with the general upbeat tone of the record and, in the light of both Lucas' death the following year and the fact that we have not seen a new Canned Heat album since then, could be interpreted as an unintentional musical testament to the greatest force that kept the band afloat and kicking for such a ridiculous­ly long time — indeed, you could say that all this time they were the dutiful keepers of the boogie flame, and if there was one thing at which they truly excelled on the precious A-level, it was how to generate genuine sonic heat around that bearly one-chord vamp. And even if this record is merely a last minute curio / trifle, it is still somewhat reassuring to see them loyally sticking to that spirit even at Christmastime — with The Bear himself rising out of the grave to join his younger colleagues in one last celebration of The Boogie...


CAPTAIN BEEFHEART


SAFE AS MILK (1967)

 

1) Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do; 2) Zig Zag Wanderer; 3) Call On Me; 4) Dropout Boogie; 5) I'm Glad; 6) Electricity; 7) Yellow Brick Road; 8) Abba Zaba; 9) Plastic Factory; 10) Where There's Woman; 11) Grown So Ugly; 12) Au­tumn's Child.

 

Don Van Vliet has always been mad, he knows he's been mad, like the most of us are, but it always takes time to properly assess your madness, and sometimes you have to earn the right to becoming truly mad — you really have to work for it, you know. Thus, if you take the very first single by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, a cover of Bo Diddley's ʽDiddy Wah Diddyʼ, what you will find will simply be a garage amplification of a classic blues-rock number (no wonder it ended up on the Nuggets boxset), with some great fuzz bass and a raspy black man's voice, which, upon close scrutiny, turns out to be white, but you'd need a band photo to certify that anyway. But already the second single, ʽMoonchildʼ (ironically, written by David Gates, soon to be of Bread fame and as far removed from Beefheart weirdism as possible), is garage rock with psychedelic rather than bluesy overtones, reveling in blasts of conjoint fuzz bass, scree­chy slide guitar, piercing harmonica, and wild echo. Still relatively normal, though, at least, by the common standards of psychedelic experiments circa 1966.

 

By the time The Magic Band recorded enough demos for a complete album, though, it became clear that «garage rock» and «psychedelia» were mere stepping stones for Don Van Vliet — trai­ning material upon which he could cut his formative teeth as he prepared to launch a musical genre that would be his and his only. The general motto of beefheart-rock as we know it would be something like «Acknowledge authority only to challenge it», and Safe As Milk is the best place to perceive it, because on subsequent records, the huge influence of various respectable predeces­sors on Van Vliet would already be much less discernible (though no less important). Safe As Milk, however, could probably be called by some a «formative» record, one that still sounds like a cross between the traditional-conventional and the crazy-innovative — although I would rather reserve that word for the early singles, because as far as I'm concerned, Beefheart never really made an unequivocally better record than Safe As Milk. More challenging and stupefying, for sure; more influential, without a doubt; but more «meaningful» or «emotionally stunning» — well, I am not too sure about that.

 

Let us begin by stating that Safe As Milk is wonderfully eclectic, reflecting The Magic Band's healthy mastery of just about every style of American popular music in existence. Chicago blues (ʽSure 'Nuffʼ), Detroit-ish garage-rock (ʽZig Zag Wandererʼ), deep southern soul and R&B (ʽCall On Meʼ, ʽWhere There's Womanʼ), Nashville country (ʽYellow Brick Roadʼ), folky psychedelia à la Jefferson Airplane (ʽAutumn Childʼ) — they have it all worked out, but they are never content to merely offer passable imitations of all these genres. High above the solid musicianship (not exceptional, but always competent, which is really something when you think about how many different styles they have to master), including, for the record, the slide guitar talents of a very young Ry Cooder, reigns supreme the personality of the Captain, which, at this time, consists of three magic strands: (a) a highly flexible voice that can go from Howlin' Wolf to Wilson Pickett and back at a moment's notice; (b) totally crazy lyrics that can have a strong foundation in tradi­tional blues and R&B clichés and then shoot away from them twice as fast as in the hands of Robert Zimmerman; (c) a splice-and-deliver vision that can, within the same song, take you in a completely unpredictable direction at any given moment.

 

In the future, point (a) is the only one of the three upon which the man couldn't possibly outdo himself — his singing, snarling, crooning, raving, ranting, and panting on this record is as far out as it gets — whereas the lyrics would certainly get crazier, and the melodies would get so com­plex that this initial set would, in comparison, look like Doris Day. Yet it is a level with which I am perfectly comfortable, and so, no doubt, would be any general fan of the «golden middle», not spoiled and misled by the constant heralding of Trout Mask Replica as the Captain Beefheart album par excellence — a trick that, as I suspect, has caused more people in history to turn away from the artist in horror rather than embrace him. The thing is, Safe As Milk is already a record that gives you a totally unique musical vision. Where Dylan showed how traditional musical forms may be revived and modernized with words, tones, and arrangements that are relevant to the 20th century, Beefheart goes one step further — he shows how they can all be driven to heights of insanity. If it's blues, it's got to be hellfire-demonic. If it's soulful pleading, it's got to be pleaded from a straitjacket. If it's nasty garage-rock, it's got to be nauseatingly nasty garage-rock, the musical equivalent of pulling your pants down and delivering a steamy one right in front of the old lady. Even if it's country, you still gotta giddy up, horsey.

 

On the very first track, the dashing Captain tells us that he "was born in the desert, came on up from New Orleans... came up on a tornado sunlight in the sky" (I'm pretty sure he used to tell things like that to interviewers, too — Dylan's bizarre nonsense that he spouted at press conferen­ces in 1965-66 is the acumen of truth compared to some of the things Don Van Vliet told jour­nalists, and, creepiest thing of all, it is never known how much of that stuff he actually believed himself at the time of telling). He does it to the tune of ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ, and, of course, the tradition of inventing one's own epic mythology is a long-standing one in the blues world — but "I went around all day with the moon sticking in my eye" may be a bit too much even for Muddy Waters. (Ultimately, it proved a bit too much even for Ry Cooder, who here is perfectly happy to carry across the slide guitar melody with plenty of color, taste, and fluency — but apparently the poor guy never truly understood what exactly it was that he was stepping into, thinking that this was going to be some sort of post-Paul Butterfield thing...).

 

Then there's ʽZig Zag Wandererʼ, which rolls along like one of those sexually charged, arrogant garage-rock nuggets, but instead of featuring a snotty, sneery, finger-giving teenager, it gives you an R&B-influenced howler, sounding like a man driven to paranoid insanity by the world closing in on him: "You can huff, you can puff, you'll never blow my house down..." ...because I'm loaded with dynamite and I'll take you and everybody else with me as I go. Musically, this track is very close to Zappa's style on Freak Out!, but where Zappa was all about sarcasm and satire, Beefheart takes this image very seriously — there's relatively little humor on Safe As Milk, as could probably be expected from the difference between a man who liked to feign and dissect insanity (Frank) and a man who was quite genuinely insane (Don).

 

Yet for a genuinely insane man, he does offer a staggering lot of psychologically and emotional­ly different insights and perspectives. There's the cocky, braggy, blues-influenced posturing of ʽSure 'Nuffʼ; the paranoid hysteria of ʽZig Zag Wandererʼ; the almost cartoonish cruelty and mockery of ʽDropout Boogieʼ, which is like a lyrical sequel to Dylan's "get born, keep warm, short pants, romance", only this time set to a ʽLouie Louieʼ-like riff-hammering for a stronger effect; the mystical appraisal of ʽElectricityʼ, done Howlin' Wolf style and combining both poetic admira­tion and deep fear of that supreme force of life (the way he carefully drawls out those syllables in the classic «sandpaper» style — "eeeh-laaae-ktreeee-citeeee..." — sounds like an evil magician casting a spell all by itself). There's some place for love in all of this, too, although good luck finding yourself a lady with a song like ʽWhere There's Womanʼ: Beefheart's howling delivery offers exquisite praise for the female sex ("where there's woman, honey wine, where there's woman, lovin' time"), but the psychological instability of the howling character is so well on display that you never really know in what way he truly sees the female ideal. It might be in the form of a beautiful wedding and living happily ever after, or it might be in the form of keeping her severed head locked up in the freezer — for the sake of eternal worship. (Fortunately, as it so happened, Don and his wife Janet spent 40 years happily married, but as far as I'm concerned, that was just a lucky coin toss).

 

It is important, though, that Safe As Milk is never as far removed from reality as we could think upon first hearing it. Most of the lyrics make some sort of sense — there's plenty of social com­mentary around, be it on the teenage state of mind (ʽDropout Boogieʼ can easily be pictured on a single concept album with Alice Cooper's ʽI'm Eighteenʼ), or on, ahem, the working class con­ditions (ʽPlastic Factoryʼ, with one of the most convincing "boss man let me be!"'s you'll ever hear), and even a piece of jungle-boogie nonsense such as ʽAbba Zabaʼ makes more sense when you learn that Abba Zaba is the name of a real Californian candy bar — apparently, here it is used more as a metaphor for drug-addled vision, but blame it on the manufacturers who gave that kind of name to a candy bar. (And, for the record, it has never been clinically proven that Beefheart never took drugs — he said that he didn't, but then he also said that he went a year and a half without sleeping, so...). The issues that are tackled and the answers that are given are always am­biguous and clouded, of course, but that's just the trademark of a good work of art — feet on the earth, head in the clouds — and that's the way I personally prefer it, rather than having to admire the consequences of a complete blast-off.

 

The only criticism one could make of the album is that it is nowhere near as musically inventive as Beefheart's future endeavors. The base melodies are often either «primitive» (ʽDropout Boo­gieʼ) or directly lifted from traditional sources (ʽSure 'Nuffʼ), and composition as such seems to have been far from Beefheart's first worry here — at best, he delights in splicing together various dissimilar melodies to form a progressive mini-suite like ʽAutumn's Childʼ, but there are still very few signs of the evilly twisted time signatures and head-bursting dissonances that would make him the cherished darling of the avantgarde movement. Naturally, this makes Safe As Milk less interesting for musicologists and daring musicians; but, sure 'nuff, this makes it easier for simpler people to assimilate and empathize. At least in terms of grabbing my attention and lifting up (and shaking out) my spirit, Safe As Milk is as good as it gets, and gets as high a thumbs up rating as is technically possible for a Captain Beefheart record.

 

STRICTLY PERSONAL (1968)

 

1) Ah Feel Like Ahcid; 2) Safe As Milk; 3) Trust Us; 4) Son Of Mirror Man - Mere Man; 5) On Tomorrow; 6) Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones; 7) Gimme Dat Harp Boy; 8) Kandy Korn.

 

Only The Magic Band's second album, and things are already beginning to fall apart. The original plan was to push forward by entering full-on psycho-jam mode, and record an album titled It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper, but apparently the results were seen as way over the top by even the progressive dudes at Buddah Records, who declined to release them (although they still laid contractual claim to them, and, once Beefheart's reputation was firmly established, eventually released some of the sessions as Mirror Man in 1971). The only person to remain loyally impressed was producer Bob Krasnow, who took this as an excuse to break away from Buddah, found his own label (Blue Thumb) and get Beefheart to re-record a large part of the sessions for the new label.

 

On the positive side, breaking away from Buddah did permit the brave Captain to retain his artistic integrity and pursue the «never compromise» agenda — but there were negative sides, too. The most frequent complaint about Strictly Personal has an aura of objectivity, considering that it was shared by the artist himself: apparently, Krasnow got too heavily involved in the produc­tion, and «spoiled» the submitted tapes with all sorts of psychedelic effects, including echo, re­verb, phasing, reversing the tapes, etc., so that Beefheart's original vision of the album got cor­rupted and trivialized — like Zappa, Beefheart obviously viewed his art as transcending the hippie conventions of the late Sixties, aiming for a very different kind of weirdness from abusing trendy studio technology. Another problem might be the departure of Ry Cooder, replaced by the somewhat less dazzling Jeff Cotton; however, that lineup change may have been necessary in order to steer the band away from the more conventional blues idiom, to which Cooder strongly subscribed at the time, and into the realms of the avantgarde, so not a problem, really.

 

Personally, I would suggest that the main issue with Strictly Personal is not the post-production effects: had the material been great from the start, a few stretches of phased tapes wouldn't do all that much harm, and besides, it's not like the entire album is corrupted that way — there's plenty of passages that have a completely live, un-manipulated feel to them. Much worse, I believe, is the situation where Beefheart actually had to return to a project that, in his own view, should have already been completed and done with. The Captain's mind, see, is one of acute restlessness, and the Captain does not much like to polish the unpolishable... which is why the original Mirror Man sessions, even despite the crazy length of those jams, have always sounded more energetic, sharp, and altogether inspired to me.

 

But in 1968, the public at large was hardly aware of all these happenings in between Beefheart's first and second albums, and we, too, have to remember the correct chronology and take Strictly Personal as a direct sequel to Safe As Milk — whose title track, by the way, ultimately ended up on the second album, in one of those strange, but not unprecedented, historical accidents. Funny enough, the album starts out fairly innocently, as if it were going to be Safe As Milk Vol. 2: dis­carding the frigged-up title ʽAh Feel Like Ahcidʼ, those first three minutes are the same moder­nized Muddy Waters as ʽSure 'Nuff 'N' Yes I Doʼ — choppy syncopated slide guitars, harmonica blasts, and a bluesy guy raving and ranting over the minimalistic arrangement. There is, however, a difference: this time, there's no true sense of structure, as the guitar melody comes in and goes away whenever it pleases the players, and the lyrical flow shows no signs of being arranged into neat verse structures, not to mention the lyrics themselves, which have more in common with beat poetry than with ye olde blueswailing.

 

The problem is, there's no sign here of the players and the singer actually understanding what it is they are trying to do — okay, so they are obviously deconstructing a blues pattern, but why? It's not nearly as weird as it would need to be to truly shake up one's foundations, nor is it particularly funny or entertaining, and it does not showcase the honed musical talents of The Magic Band, either. Even the Captain sounds like he's groping around, sacrificing his mind to delirium in search of divine inspiration but not properly finding it. This is particularly evident on the inter­minable ʽTrust Usʼ, probably the weakest thing on the album — a series of bluesy/jazzy patterns with psychedelic overtones (this is also one of the most heavily Krasnow-treated tracks) and an overall muddy sound that never really goes anywhere: slow, prodding, low on energy, and hardly standing any competition with the typical psychedelic sounds of 1968's America — such as the Grateful Dead — and the biggest mistake is that it even begins to compete on that turf, because that just ain't Beefheart's turf anyhow.

 

Another particular lowlight for me is ʽBeatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stonesʼ; the track is already a spi­ritual predecessor to the style of Trout Mask Replica, but, again, suffers from a really sluggish flow, lack of interesting musical lines (there's one regular electric riff and one slide counterpart running through it, and both sound as if they are played by a couple guys whose amphetamines had just worn off), and a really silly vocal hook — the Captain insists on signing off each «verse» with a triumphantly whiney "...strawberry fields forever!" as if this were some sort of meaningful response to the Beatles, which it is not.

 

When the band sticks closer to its original blues guns, the results are notably better: ʽGimme Dat Harp Boyʼ is a relatively ferocious jam, seemingly growing out of the basic chord sequence for ʽSpoonful Bluesʼ and then taking on a life of its own — but even so, a brief comparison with the as-of-yet-unreleased Mirror Man version makes this one sound as if the entire band were sleep­walking through the process of re-recording. Maybe this is all Krasnow's fault, but surely it was not Krasnow who pretty much deprived the re-recording of a proper «bottom» — the bass on the Mirror Man is ferocious, and here I can't even properly hear it. Same goes for ʽKandy Kornʼ, which is here presented as a barely listenable murky mess.

 

Overall, unless you are a really big fan, I would strongly suggest ignoring Strictly Personal as a misfire, reflecting some poor production decisions and a lack of proper interest on Van Vliet's own side, and getting Mirror Man Sessions instead — the true «lost link» between Safe As Milk and Trout Mask Replica; in all honesty, Strictly Personal hardly deserves more than the status of a bonus disc, tacked on to some limited-edition special release of Mirror Man as an act of historical mercy. And yes, you guessed it already — thumbs down, because even certified musical madmen are not fully exempt from inducing boredom.

 

TROUT MASK REPLICA (1969)

 

1) Frownland; 2) The Dust Blows Forward 'N The Dust Blows Back; 3) Dachau Blues; 4) Ella Guru; 5) Hair Pie: Bake 1; 6) Moonlight On Vermont; 7) Pachuco Cadaver; 8) Bills Corpse; 9) Sweet Sweet Bulbs; 10) Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish; 11) China Pig; 12) My Human Gets Me Blues; 13) Dali's Car; 14) Hair Pie: Bake 2; 15) Pena; 16) Well; 17) When Big Joan Sets Up; 18) Fallin' Ditch; 19) Sugar 'N Spikes; 20) Ant Man Bee; 21) Orange Claw Hammer; 22) Wild Life; 23) She's Too Much For My Mirror; 24) Hobo Chang Ba; 25) The Blimp (Mousetrap­replica); 26) Steal Softly Thru Snow; 27) Old Fart At Play; 28) Veteran's Day Poppy.

 

Trout. Was there ever anybody out there before who'd thought of using the word «trout» for the title of an LP or any significantly large musical composition (bar Schubert, perhaps, and even then he was not the inventor of the title)? The word has an odd flavor all by itself, and if you have a personage named Captain Beefheart who has an album with the word «trout» in it, that's odd­ness squared. But wait, we're not over yet — apparently, there's a «trout mask». So the guy's name is Beefheart, and he is impersonating a trout. Or is it a trout that is impersonating a guy called Beefheart? And who'd wear a trout mask, anyway, and for what symbolic purposes? And now comes the deadliest part — it's not even an actual mask, it's a replica of a mask. A fake image of a fake disguise of a guy called Captain Beefheart as a trout. That's at least three different layers of self-containing, straightforward, unfunny and un-ironic nonsense staring us right in the face, and we haven't even begun listening to the music yet.

 

The story of Trout Mask Replica has long since passed into legend and is easily discoverable in zillions of books and Web resources, although, as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to verify which parts of it are documentally true and which ones are not — for instance, I have always been fascinated by stories of how Beefheart allegedly acted as a tyrannical guru for the members of his band, bordering on hypnotism as he «subdued them to his will», locking them up in his house until they'd learned to reproduce his crazy musical ideas on their instruments. Appa­rently, though, they were convinced that he was a musical genius, and were willing to endure this physical and emotional torture just to add their names to the roster of heroes who would change the musical world forever — without much hope of any financial gain in the process. But, again, just how many of the particular anecdotes about The Magic Band in mid-'69 are documentally true and how many are due to the legend feeding off itself, remains unclear.

 

What is perfectly clear is that, whatever charm and fascination the music of Trout Mask Replica may have in store for humanity, nobody ever has managed to be perfectly clear about explaining it. If you are a neophyte, have just taken your first swipe at this thing, and are running around the Internet, trying to find explanations, suggestions, and medical support, you are most likely to end up frustrated, because the typical amateur review of TMR goes like this: «Oh, I really hated this at first. It made me sick and disgusted. But then I wanted to experience the sickness and disgust some more, and I listened to it again, and again and again... and upon the n-th listen, it really clicked. Now I think it's just great. Such a great album. So weird, so unlike everything else, so great. Great, great, great. It has completely changed my life. Beefheart forever! Such a great masterpiece. I even threw all my other records away, because I can't listen to them anymore without getting bored. Give it a try... heck, give it five, six, sixty tries, eventually you'll realize it's the greatest of the greatest just like I did. Fast and bulbous — that's the key!»

 

So, for a change, it might interest you to read a few words from a guy who actually gave TMR quite a bit of a fair chance — been revisiting it occasionally, once a year or so, over the past 15 years of my life — and whose life, believe it or not, still remains to be changed by the experience. In my original review, I gave it an 11/15 rating, which, I now realize, was sort of an insult: TMR just cannot be considered a «middle ground» rating. You either love this record or you hate it; you either respect it with admiration or despise it with the utmost contempt. My attitude is one of admirable respect — yet at the same time I still «hate» it in that I have never, ever experienced the slightest emotional attachment to it, and blame that quite explicitly on the boldness of the Captain's musical decisions.

 

Indeed, TMR marks the peak of Beefheart's adventurousness. A very telling fact is that, although the record is a double LP, the length is achieved not through long-winded jamming improvisa­tions (which would be the obvious thing to expect from 1969), but through an overabundant ex­cess of individual musical ideas — the longest track on the album barely runs over five minutes, and, on the average, few tracks cross the 2:00 – 2:30 mark. The man's creative juices were over­flowing, as he wrote a ton of new poems / lyrics and set each one to a distinct «melody» that seemed to challenge every conventional standard ever made. Of course, he didn't go as far as in­vent all the new rules completely from scratch, but he did «deconstruct» and completely subvert the harmonic structure of pop, folk, blues, and even jazz idioms in ways that made even Zappa sound like a teen pop idol in comparison. It is not for nothing, of course, that the man put ʽFrown­landʼ as the first track: "My smile is stuck / I cannot go back t' yer Frownland... / I want my own land / Take my hand 'n come with me / It's not too late for you / It is not too late for me". Well, it might be too late for me, after all, but that does not mean I have to so thoroughly refuse to take the brave Captain's hand for a brief while, anyway.

 

If there is one thing that could be considered disappointing, it is how predictable the record eventually turns out to be in its unpredictability. As ʽFrownlandʼ begins, we witness the major secret of TMR unveiled: each of the players is playing a slightly — or seriously — different melody that is slightly — or seriously — out of key with every other one. The trick is in not making the final result sound like a complete cacophony, and indeed, the tracks have some sort of weird logic of their own: always on the brink of falling apart, yet in reality held together quite tightly by hours and hours and hours of thorough rehearsals (as most of you probably already know, nothing here is said to be improvised — all of these parts were diligently learnt by the musicians in advance). Enjoying this music, though, is a feat for true weirdos of the Beefheart order, because, let's face it, as decent as those musicians were, they had too much trouble lear­ning to play the odd parts and keep in relative sync with each other to actually invest much feeling into these parts. Every time I listen to any of these songs, I can almost feel the tremendous strain on everybody's brains, ears, eyes, and hands — I can't say that those guys were having as much fun recording this stuff as, say, some of the better improvisational free-form jazz artists, or even King Crimson, for that matter. They get the machine going, and it goes on without stalling or falling apart — that's more or less enough for them.

 

Something like the instrumental ʽHair Pieʼ (both of its «bakes»), as complex as it is, essentially follows the formula of «take a straightforward blues jam, and make it slanted on all sides». The results are easy to admire — it takes a lot of work to play everything slightly out of tune, slightly discordant, slightly un-harmonic, and keep that steady wobble up for several minutes — but dif­ficult to interpret in an emotional / spiritual dimension. So yes, they do everything a little bit wrong, and they do it on purpose, and they practice for this, and it takes time and effort, and... what for? Merely to show us how it can be done, to shatter the walls of the conventional? But if anything, this shattering proves that the «conventional walls» weren't established by some evil tyrant to bind and rob us of our creativity — they were established based on certain natural laws, just like our human bodies. (This reasoning has made me, more than once, dream of an experi­ment in which a newly born child, for the first several years of his/her life, would be continuous­ly exposed to nothing but Trout Mask Replica — although I sure hope no parent would ever be that cruel in real life. But if you do happen to have a toddler, you can probably at least check out the toddler's reaction to ʽDachau Bluesʼ. Would the toddler be willing to prance around to the happy sounds of that, or any of the other, tracks on here?).

 

On the other hand, if we do accept this for an answer — yes, they are just doing that to shatter the formalities and the foundations — it is at least a legit excuse for the existence of TMR. For one thing, it is impossible to deny the influence of this platter. Numerous avantgarde and semi-avant­garde bands took the album as their banner in order to produce music that was, perhaps, some­what less arrogant and more conventional, but could actually be enjoyed on a subconscious level, and, most importantly, it showed the world that you could stay in a «pop» format and be vastly experimental without having to embrace the droning, Eastern-influenced psychedelic trappings of contemporary bands. Instead of going around looking for different sets of rules, you could stay with the ones you already had, but just tweak them around a bit — and see what happens. The only catch was that, in order for it all to look legit, you'd have to have a madman in charge: Van Vliet fully qualified, but many of his successors in the field were not.

 

And speaking of madmen, it's a whole different thing when the Captain actually establishes his presence on these songs. ʽHair Pieʼ-like instrumentals are one thing, but otherwise, you can just treat the backing tracks as a sort of white noise accompaniment for a beat poetry recital (not too far from the truth, considering that Beefheart actually heard very little of the music while over­dubbing his vocals). Sometimes, the poetry is sheer surrealist nonsense, but otherwise, it makes plenty of sense, beginning with the individualistic manifesto of ʽFrownlandʼ and all the way to the metaphoric loneliness of the ending ʽVeteran Day's Poppyʼ. ʽDachau Bluesʼ is an almost too straightforward tirade against World War III (although anti-Zionists might have a field day with the song, too, if they offer a personal interpretation of the line "those poor Jews... still cryin' 'bout the burnin' back in world war two..."); ʽMy Human Gets Me Bluesʼ is the madman's equivalent of a heartfelt serenade to a loved one ("You look dandy in the sky but you don't scare me / Cause I got you here in my eye"); ʽElla Guruʼ is the madman's take on the «put down a female socialite» garage genre; and all over, all over the place you get clear signs of a deeply felt frustration and desperation at the sorry state of humanity, perhaps best summarized in one line from ʽSteal Softly Thru Snowʼ — "man's lived a million years 'n still he kills".

 

As a result, one thing I can feel on the record — against all of its quasi-musical noise, rather than aided by it — is the big, beefy heart of the brave Cap'n. Even if he is being hysterical all the time, and making very little use of God's greatest physical gift to him (that four-and-a-half-octave range), I have no reason to doubt the sincerity and honest motivation of that hysteria; if there is one thing TMR does exactly right, it is presenting Don Van Vliet as a sensitive, humanistic human being whose surrealistic manners are not just masking his lack of substance — in that respect, it is a very clear advance on the two previous albums, where music took clear precedence over the lyrical and personal content (and, at least in the case of Strictly Personal, a very poor precedence it was). Even something like "I don't wanna kill my china pig", despite being rather, um, allegorical, still sounds like a fairly benevolent statement.

 

Perhaps the biggest support in favor of the argument that I am putting here comes from Beef­heart's subsequent career itself. With the possible exception of Lick My Decals Off, not a single one of his future albums would even dare come close to the craziness of the musical structures of TMR — the lyrics of his subsequent albums, though, as well as the vocal moods into which he prodded himself during the sessions, would often remain similar. Which, in a sense, makes TMR an intellectually fascinating musical dead end: a collection of «anti-tune-like tunes» for those who'd like to experience, if only for a brief while, what it is like to step out of the spaceship without a spacesuit on. To that end, it remains a unique curiosity; but I still hesitate to call it «great», if only because using such a lazy, trivial term for such an arduous, non-trivial record would be an insult by itself. I do suppose that everybody — yes, even including Britney Spears fans — could find it useful to sit through this record at least once. But anybody who honestly finds him­self addicted to this record (and I do mean honestly, rather than merely doing the cool thing to do) is probably in serious need of psychiatric help. And no, that's not a condescending remark or anything — after all, wasn't the record itself created by one of the biggest madmen in the business? Fast and bulbous, man. Fast and bulbous. Thumbs... oh wait, I do believe that my thumbs are stuck, I cannot go back t' yer Thumbland.

 

LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY (1970)

 

1) Lick My Decals Off, Baby; 2) Doctor Dark; 3) I Love You, You Big Dummy; 4) Peon; 5) Bellerin' Plain; 6) Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop; 7) Japan In A Dishpan; 8) I Wanna Find A Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go; 9) Petrified Forest; 10) One Red Rose That I Mean; 11) The Buggy Boogie Woogie; 12) The Smithsonian Institute Blues (Or The Big Dip); 13) Space-Age Couple; 14) The Clouds Are Full Of Wine (Not Whiskey Or Rye); 15) Flash Gordon's Ape.

 

This relatively short album, whose public fate also happened to be somewhat undermined by a very long period of being unavailable on CD (due to technical legal issues), is actually every bit as essential for the Captain as Trout Mask Replica — yet even today, judging by such telling observations as the ratio of amateur reviews on various websites, it regularly continues to be snubbed in favor of TMR. Even Beefheart himself admitted that Lick My Decals came much closer to realizing his true vision, but with the mainstream critical consensus on TMR as the re­presentation of his artistic peak, its fate was sealed. 90% of the people who learn the name «Beef­heart» head straight for Trout Mask Replica, and since 90% of these 90% never want to hear another Beefheart album for as long as they live, its equally important follow-up does not stand a chance — not until the time comes when we all begin wearing trout masks to work because of a strict dress code requirement.

 

Anyway, in many ways Lick My Decals Off is simply a shorter sequel to its more expansive and ambitious elder brother. Once again, we have a set of short tunes based on bizarro time changes, avantgarde chord sequences, discordant musical parts, and evil-grinning half-spoken lyrical reci­tals with no mercy for the common music listener. In certain other ways, however, it is signifi­cantly different from TMR. For one thing, it seems more influenced by contemporary avantgarde jazz and even modern classical — which may have to do with such personnel change as the de­parture of guitarist Jeff Cotton (who originally joined the band to substitute for the bluesy talents of Ry Cooder) and the arrival of percussionist Art Tripp, a former member of the progressive Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as a full-time member of The Magic Band. This makes some of the music even more complex and challenging, as you'd expect from any band where at least one of the members holds an actual Bachelor of Music degree.

 

But what seems to me even more important is that at the same time, there is a rather conscious effort on Beefheart's part to return to his blues roots — if not always in form, then at least in spi­rit. The record is far more seriously loaded with dark sexual overtones, Howlin' Wolf- and John Lee Hooker-style, than TMR, where the surrealism was more of the psychedelic / absurdist type, and Beefheart's lyrics are full of salacious innuendos, even if they are still heavily «modernized»: the very title of the album, in fact, comes across as a salacious innuendo — although Beefheart him­self explained it as a general call to «get rid of labels», for some reason, the image of Captain's baby licking his decals off seems a bit dirtier than that. Especially when the composition is so thoroughly soaked in dirty blues riffs and dirty blues vocals. There are other lyrical themes here as well, of course — some of the songs, like ʽPetrified Forestʼ, tangentially deal with environ­mentalism, for instance — but the overall impression is that on Lick My Decals, Beefheart is really embracing the image of an avantgarde Howlin' Wolf, as if Chester Burnett himself got tired of all the conventional ways to express his essence, and switched to all the unconventional ones. I mean, "Mama, mama, here comes Doctor Dark!" — isn't that the kind of lyrical line that a Willie Dixon would always have been on the brink of coming up with?

 

Some of the tracks are, in fact, very light deconstructions of traditional blues patterns — ʽI Love You, Big Dummyʼ, for instance, with its harmonica blasts and all-pervasive signature blues riff, almost verges on the fully conventional (predicting some of the stylistic «regression» on The Spotlight Kid). Most of the time, however, the deconstruction process goes all the way, with basic meters sometimes shifting every several bars, instruments playing in different signatures and tempos at the same time, percussion and bass going in opposite directions, etc. etc., which is cool, but will not be appreciated by just about anybody: in particular, I feel that the atmosphere of extra «darkness» and «sexuality» gets disrupted by the experimental approach more often than it gets assisted by it — and, even worse, that the musicians get too concentrated on getting those harmonic shifts and overdub coordinations right to equally concentrate on making the riffs sound powerful, energetic, and properly insinuating.

 

There are a couple very interesting instrumental tracks on here — I would definitely recommend the flowery-titled interludes ʽPeonʼ and ʽOne Rose That I Meanʼ higher than ʽHair Pieʼ. The two bakes of the latter were rather messy avant-blues jams; these two are more in the avant-folk terri­tory, consisting of two overlaid guitar parts, playing complex sequences in unison (acoustic guitar and bass on ʽPeonʼ, acoustic and electric on ʽRoseʼ) that sound like a folk troubadour desperately banging upon the doors of perception. Whether he succeeds in smashing them open or not is up to you to decide, but I somehow feel that it is because of the stripped nature of these instrumentals that they somehow show more poignancy and individuality than the rest — just a subjective im­pression, of course, but how could one ever retain the chance of warming up to a record like this without resorting to subjective impressions even of the silliest kind?

 

The closest this album gets in spirit to free-form jazz is on the tracks where Beefheart himself plays the brass instruments — he is credited for both clarinet and tenor/soprano saxes, and they are all over the last and longest track on the record, ʽFlash Gordon's Apeʼ, winding things up with a mighty ruckus, although, to be honest, I am not sure why anybody who is already a fan of Eric Dolphy or, say, Alexander von Schlippenbach (to make things a bit more esoteric) should be in­terested in the same kind of music spiced up with the Captain's evil-bluesy vocal declamations. Still, I guess we can say he at least passes the test — to my ears, these chaotic spasms of windy ugliness are no better and no worse than the average free-form jazz composition.

 

Yet both the avant-folk and the avant-jazz experiments are still subdued to the main task of the mission — avant-blues — and that may be a good thing, because deep down at heart, the blues is the core of Captain Beefheart, ever the yearning, dissatisfied searcher for peace, love, and under­standing, even if this comprises finding a woman who will hold his big toe until he has to go (and he does proclaim it with such conviction that you begin to wonder if he wasn't secretly in love with a female podiatrist). If you manage to enjoy the things his musicians do to the blues here — then it's great, because you may have just upgraded your conscience to the «post-Howlin' Wolf» level. I, unfortunately, do not: as is the case with TMR, I respect and endorse the effort, but am incapable of listening to this stuff «for fun».

 

One thing, however, is certain: any person who owns and claims to like Trout Mask Replica, but has no knowledge whatsoever of Lick My Decals Off, is a rotten poseur, and unless proper atonement has been made, will have to suffer the punishment of listening to nothing but the Backstreet Boys and One Direction for one hundred thousand years. Because if you really enjoy TMR on a level where you seriously begin empathizing with the Captain and entertaining the fast and bulbous way of thinking, then not finishing the experience with Lick My Decals Off will be like prematurely pulling out, if you pardon my metaphor. Safe, perhaps, but... no fun.

 

MIRROR MAN (1971)

 

1) Tarotplane; 2) Kandy Korn; 3) 25th Century Quaker; 4) Mirror Man; 5*) Trust Us; 6*) Safe As Milk; 7*) Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones; 8*) Moody Liz; 9*) Gimme Dat Harp Boy.

 

Well, here go the magic words: This is the album that Strictly Personal should have been three years earlier. These are the original tracks that were recorded in late 1967 for Buddah Records and went down together with the band's respect for Buddah Records. Yet for all their displeasure with the results, Buddah executives did not erase the tapes or anything, and after the Captain got all solidified in his status of a living legend, they ultimately went ahead and released some of them in 1971 as Mirror Man; the entire package did not, however, see the light of day until well into the CD age — although bootleg versions probably circulated around, it was only in 1999 that the world got to properly experience the Captain's «original vision» for It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper, this time entitled Mirror Man Sessions and containing enough material for a bona fide double LP.

 

Not that it comes loaded with a double-LP-quota of great musical ideas, mind you. On the cont­rary, it is the direct opposite of Trout Mask Replica: instead of dozens of short, carefully pre­constructed tunes, Mirror Man consists of a small handful of super-long bluesy jams that act as an arrogant challenge to contemporary Cream and Grateful Dead — ʽTarotplaneʼ alone, opening the album, clocks in at over 19 minutes, and the other three jams from the 1971 record collective­ly occupy another 33 minutes (bonus tracks on the 1999 release are generally shorter). And this is not some kind of over-the-top avantgarde jamming, either: this is relatively standard blues-rock jamming, without any psychedelic overtones. Even Ry Cooder could have joined in the fun, had he not already had his full share of the Captain's antics and left the band in favor of Jeff Cotton.

 

So why do I find it, despite all these hideous time lengths, every bit as engaging as TMR and maybe even more so? Part of the issue is contextual: after the (largely meaningless) excesses of the Captain's 1969-70 period, almost anything more «normal» sounds like a relief. But another part is that I really, really like whatever it is that Beefheart is doing in this genre — he is for Chicago blues what Bob Dylan was for folk music in 1964, a respectful adept intent on catapul­ting tradition into the future, and here he finds himself untampered with time limitations, free to carry on a particular idea or groove for as long as he thinks necessary, even if occasionally he tends to overthink it. But this kind of modernist shamanism does look more logical when it comes in the form of ritualistic, groove-based improvisation than when it comes in the form of brief chunks of inverted and distorted chord sequences — in other words, I can let myself go and float on the rough, but natural current of Mirror Man, whereas Trout Mask Replica is more of a con­voluted labyrinth where you have to stay alert and watch your step every minute, unless you wanna end up with a bloody nose and stubbed toes in a matter of minutes.

 

As I already said, the sheer strength of these grooves totally trumps the much less inspired re-recordings on Strictly Personal — not to mention the awful production of the latter, with its poor mixing that somehow manages to downplay the role of every player, and its psychedelic effects that try to amplify the already present weirdness of the tracks but instead detract from it. Here, the bass and the interplay between Cotton's and St. Clair's guitars are perfectly audible, and you can actually groove to the funky sounds of ʽMirror Manʼ rather than just sit there and try to make sense of what is going on. Beefheart himself, with his sandpaper-voice declamations and swamp harmonica playing, is an integral part of the sessions, but there are long periods of time when he almost disappears from sight, letting the musicians carry on without his participation, and so he seems more of a general conductor and overseeing spirit rather than the be-all-end-all motor of the sessions, and that's okay by me, especially on tracks like ʽKandy Kornʼ where there's more of an overall structure to the proceedings, and the musicians alternate between two distinctly dif­ferent melodies (the «bluesy suspense» and the «pop resolution»).

 

ʽTarotplaneʼ may be harder to tolerate due to the ridiculous length, but it is also the roughest track on the album, closer in spirit to pre-war Son House-style blues rituals than anything else, and there are patches of sensual delight when the straightahead electric guitar, the slide guitar, and the Captain's swampy harmonica weave their magic together. Another track that has no equivalent on Strictly Personal is ʽ25th Century Quakerʼ, compiled around a strange musical figure that is alternately played by the slide guitar and the bass and sounds like an African-Indian hybrid, part time blues riff and part time sitar drone — like one of the great blind bluesmen offered to write a soundtrack for a snake charmer. Call me too conservative (and I wouldn't even deny the charges), but somehow most of these melodic themes seem to make much more sense (and generate much more fun) for me than almost any of the twisted themes on the 1969-70 albums.

 

I will not pretend that the long jams justify their existence through players exploring all possible corners and branching out in all possible directions — they most certainly do not, and if you have a tendency to be bored by any theme that goes on longer than five minutes, the brevity of TMR will probably have more appeal to you. But when all has been said and done, and when all the praise has been lavished, I stick to the simple statement that behind all the madness, the Captain had always been a great bluesman at heart — and that Mirror Man is the one record in his cata­log where he is more than happy to both acknowledge and deconstruct all the clichés and forma­lities of the genre. In fact, while I have no evidence to properly suggest this, I wouldn't be in the least surprised to learn that it was this chance to reacquaint himself with his own legacy and re­freshen that blues sound in his mind, upon the (unauthorized?) release of Mirror Man in 1971 that ultimately led to the «re-blues-ification» of his music on The Spotlight Kid a year later, and, personally, if that were so, I'd consider that a healthy stimulus. Thumbs up.

 

THE SPOTLIGHT KID (1972)

 

1) I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby; 2) White Jam; 3) Blabber 'n' Smoke; 4) When It Blows Its Stacks; 5) Alice In Blunderland; 6) The Spotlight Kid; 7) Click Clack; 8) Grow Fins; 9) There Ain't No Santa Claus On The Evenin' Stage; 10) Glider.

 

By all accounts, The Spotlight Kid marks the beginning of the era of Artistic Compromise for the Captain — his «going commercial», allegedly in order to at least somewhat alleviate the dire straits in which he and his Magic Band found themselves at the beginning of the new decade. Of course, the word «commercial» cannot be referred to here unless in the most ironic of all possible senses: compared to the real commercial music of 1972, such as Harry Nilsson and T. Rex and The Carpenters, The Spotlight Kid could hardly be believed to attract fresh new crowds of easy-going music listeners. In fact, although I lack any precise figures, I'm pretty sure it could not have sold a significantly larger number of copies than any of its predecessors — even in an era when Close To The Edge and Thick As A Brick could become megahits.

 

Essentially, what happens here is that the Captain takes one step back, into the era of Mirror Man, when the Magic Band still worked in a more overtly blues-based paradigm. The rhythmic grooves are normalized, returning to more traditional forms and with notably fewer unexpected shifts throughout the song — but the gruffness, darkness, and «avant-sexuality» of Lick My Decals Off are all retained, so, if anything, the results now sound closer to Howlin' Wolf than they ever did before. The only area in which there is very little compromise involved are the lyrics, but as long as the Captain keeps using that spooky tone, it hardly matters what he sings anyway (and besides, if Jon Anderson was able to sell plenty of records with his cosmic gobble­dy­gook, why shouldn't the Captain with his bluesnik fantasies?).

 

Coming off the uninhibited sonic escapades of 1969-70, the record was clearly a disappointment for the hardcore fans operating on the principle of «the weirder, the better», but as far as I'm con­cerned, it returned Beefheart to the golden middle standard — as the songs become overall more comprehensible, yet still totally far out if compared to either classic electric blues or contempo­rary blues-rock. Sure, Zoot Horn Rollo would later state that he hated what they did on that re­cord; but he sure as hell does not sound disinterested or uninspired on the guitar tracks of ʽI'm Gonna Booglarize You Babyʼ — as the Magic Band discovers the joys of funk, the guitarist is not content to simply play the same syncopated lines all over; instead, he begins by having one funky part in the right channel, then supplements it with a slide lead part in the left channel, then has the left lead part gradually taking over the funky rhythm duty while the right part gradually evolves into a trance-inducing grumbly buzz, hovering over your head like one big fat bumblebee with a particularly nasty hangover. Over this exciting cloud of noise (that honestly gets me going far quicker than anything on Trout Mask Replica), the Captain keeps mumbling how "if you keep beatin' around the bush, you'll lose your push!" — an aphorism worthy of either a sexual and a spiritual interpretation, but we will settle for nothing less than both.

 

The track forms a terrific opening; the problem is that few of the remaining performances match its gruff force, inventiveness, and humor. A few walks down the line, we find ʽWhen It Blows Its Stacksʼ — slow and ominous rather than fast and bulbous, but a great showcase for the Captain in ultimatum-delivering Old Testament mad prophet mode, announcing the coming of a modern age Messiah: "better watch out, there's a man eater around". Again, Zoot Horn Rollo spins angry rings around the rhythm (I really have no idea how he could have hated his work on these tracks), while Art Tripp is fighting to enlighten the atmosphere with playful marimba interludes. Still later, they return to scary-swampland atmosphere again with ʽThere Ain't No Santa Claus On The Evening Stageʼ, but it is even slower, and the «transform your guitar from rhythm to noise» trick does not work as efficiently the third time around.

 

Of the remaining tracks, the one closest in spirit to TMR is the instrumental ʽAlice In Blunder­landʼ — starting out with some tricky interplay between drums, marimbas, and guitars, with expected signature changes and all sorts of «blunders» involved; however, one minute into the song the rhythm becomes streamlined, and the composition turns into a normalized jam, with the guitarist stuck somewhere in between Clapton mode and Hendrix mode, something that would have never happened on TMR. Nevertheless, the combination of psychedelic guitars and marim­bas is fun (not unlike something you'd easily encounter on a classic Zappa record), and just about satisfies my personal «weirdness quota».

 

Some of the material is oddly lightweight, bordering on what might be called «schizophrenic vaudeville» — the title track is an absurdist narrative set to a poppy marimba rhythm, and the whole thing is so carnivalesque, you'd almost expect Alice Cooper in his top hat jump out of the bushes at any moment and do a little tap dance with the Captain. ʽClick Clackʼ, with its train whistle-imitating harmonica and blues-rock riffage, reminds me of next year's ʽSilver Trainʼ by the Stones — but completely unfocused, starting out as an experiment in non-trivial time signa­tures and ending as a half-assed attempt to ignite jam mode. And on songs like ʽWhite Jamʼ and ʽBlabber 'n' Smokeʼ the Captain just sounds sick — confused and whiny instead of being The Wolfman — hardly top pick material, but it is interesting to hear him in such a «vulnerable» state of mind all the same.

 

Perhaps I used to overrate this album a bit, just because it made me so happy to hear Beefheart return to more sense-making middle ground — in retrospect, The Spotlight Kid suffers from quite a bit of meandering filler, as if the group «got it» that it was supposed to play slightly more acceptable chord sequences, but did not really get what it was supposed to do with them. Clearly, there was no intention whatsoever to do a «normal» blues-rock record, but in this middle-of-the-road mode, for certain winners like ʽI'm Gonna Booglarize Youʼ you get a monotonous, repetitive correlate like ʽGliderʼ. Still, I insist that the band here is more often on fire than on autopilot, and they would do even better next time in the same mode. To me, this record makes sense, and that's reason enough to give it a thumbs up.

 

CLEAR SPOT (1972)

 

1) Low Yo Yo Stuff; 2) Nowadays A Woman's Gotta Hit A Man; 3) Too Much Time; 4) Circumstances; 5) My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains; 6) Sun Zoom Spark; 7) Clear Spot; 8) Crazy Little Thing; 9) Long Neck Bottles; 10) Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles; 11) Big Eyed Beans From Venus; 12) Golden Birdies.

 

This follow-up to The Spotlight Kid, which it ends up somehow resembling even in name (and for a long time now, both albums have been available commercially on a single CD), represents the Captain's next step in marrying weirdness with accessibility — now with the aid of producer Ted Templeman, who'd previously worked not only with Van Morrison (who might have some common artistic and spiritual ground with Beefheart), but also with the Doobie Brothers (who probably don't have any). The band's lineup remains the same (plus the brief addition of Zappa veteran Roy Estrada on bass), but there's an additional brass section appearing from time to time, and even, oh God help us, some backup female singers («The Blackberries») as if we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a true soul-searching session.

 

Regardless, the songs are still strange and curious, and the mix of old and new influences works well — also, there is a bit more speed, power, and heaviness to the material, so that, unlike Spot­light Kid, it never really gets a chance to sag. Honestly, it is like an attempt to re-do Spotlight Kid, correcting some of its mistakes, but also clinging to the formula where it worked — and so ʽLow Yo Yo Stuffʼ establishes almost the same vibe as ʽI'm Gonna Booglarize You Babyʼ: another funky beat, another Howlin' Wolf-style vocal perfor­mance, another pair of sick-twisted blues riffs attacking the listener from both channels, only the Captain sings in a higher range this time around, choosing an active-aggressive rather than pas­sive-aggressive strategy, but he' pretty scary both ways. Musically, these guitar parts aren't quite as uniquely mesmerizing as the dialog between his two inner halves that Zoot Horn Rollo conducted on ʽBooglarizeʼ, but the sexually charged voodoo ritual atmosphere is still generated perfectly.

 

Perhaps, with the onslaught of the loud glam-rock sound in 1971-1972, the introduction of brass support was no coincidence — but the Captain had his own interpretation of glam-rock anyway, best illustrated on the second track, ʽNowadays A Woman's Gotta Hit A Manʼ, which charges on with the energy and drunk fervor of a Slade or a T. Rex track, but still has all the instruments playing in slight dissonance with each other, so the track couldn't be called «catchy» unless all the different zones of your brain were functioning like arpeggiated chords. Its fascination is more of a chameleonesque one — starts out as a swampy blues-rocker, then goes on to wobble between T. Rex-like glam, Otis Redding-style soul groove, and more swampy blues-rock (when that stin­ging guitar break comes along). And it's got a pro-feminist stance, too! Good old progressive Captain with his progressive spirit.

 

Actually, while we're on the women issue, this record has arguably the best sentimental love ballad that Beef­heart ever had the bravery of recording — ʽHer Eyes Are A Blue Million Milesʼ is an awesome chunk of psychedelic blues-pop (okay, I just googled it and people have occa­sionally used such a noun phrase before, so I'm cool) whose guitar melody actively suggests both loving admiration and panicky tension, just the kind of mixture you'd probably expect to get from Don Van Vliet when he really fell in love (which he didn't do too often, by the way, at least not since marrying Janet Van Vliet at the end of 1969). I even think that the guitar guy intentionally throws in a bit of Lennon-esque phrasing in the bridge section, to reflect that they also go for the same mix of roughness and tenderness that should characterize the most honest and psychologi­cally convincing ballads — but then again, I also have a nasty tendency to overthink things.

 

Not every song has its own individuality, and a few might be on the filler side, but I'm sure that no two people would completely agree on what constitutes the highlights and the lowlights here. For instance, I am no big fan of ʽToo Much Timeʼ, which takes us a little too close to comfort into «sunshine soul» territory (and those backing vocals border on corniness), but others might like its relaxed and friendly nature as a bit of relief from the overall harshness. On the other hand, I seriously dig the funk groove of ʽCrazy Little Thingʼ, but others might grumble that it is merely a half-assed attempt to cop the sound of James Brown and the like — and I wouldn't really know what to answer if it seemed like a problem.

 

I'm almost sure that most Beefheart fans would at least agree on ʽBig Eyed Beans From Venusʼ as a major highlight — a song that takes Fleetwood Mac's ʽOh Wellʼ as a starting point and then turns blues into raga, raga into psychedelic noise, and noise back into blues without blinking. "Mister Zoot Horn Rollo! Hit that long lunar note, and let it float!" commands the Captain one minute and a half into the song, confusing himself with Kirk for a while, but Mister Zoot Horn Rollo had had plenty of obedience training to do exactly what was required, and throws extra fuel on Beefheart's last psychedelic masterpiece in a long, long while. Overall, the guitar work on that track, combining the finest traditions of the Grateful Dead, Cream, and the Velvet Underground all at once, seems far more emotionally charged and stunning to me than anything on TMR or Lick My Decals Off. Maybe that is what they mean by «going commercial»?

 

Because they clearly cannot mean sales: Clear Spot charted and sold much lower than The Spot­light Kid, probably because there was even less promotion and because it had no particular soft selling spot like ʽI'm Gonna Booglarize Youʼ — not a happy piece of news for the Magic Band, who were beginning to feel angry at having to compromise the «purity» of their artistic vision without even being financially rewarded for it. But, once again, do not get it wrong: almost every­thing on Clear Spot remains «experimental» to some degree, and every single track totally retains the Beefheart spirit. I used to think of it as a slight stepdown from The Spotlight Kid, but not any more — it's really got more highlights and more diversity to it, so here's another well-earned thumbs up, concluding the Captain's second mini-period of creative bliss.

 

UNCONDITIONALLY GUARANTEED (1974)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

BLUEJEANS & MOONBEAMS (1974)

 

1) Party Of Special Things To Do; 2) Same Old Blues; 3) Observatory Crest; 4) Pompadour Swamp; 5) Captain's Holiday; 6) Rock'n'Roll's Evil Doll; 7) Further Than We've Gone; 8) Twist Ah Luck; 9) Bluejeans And Moonbeams.

 

Maybe I'm going too soft or too crazy, but I see more signs of life on Beefheart's second «faux-commercial» album of 1974 than on the first one — even though, by that time, the entire Magic Band had deserted him and was replaced by a bunch of really obscure musicians (Dean Smith on guitar, Micheal /sic/ Smotherman on keyboards, Ty Grimes on drums, Ira Ingber on bass, if you like names and all that), earning the popular moniker of «Captain Beefheart's Tragic Band». But... despite that, or because of that? In a way, replacing your loyal apostles, trained in the ways of the avantgarde, with a bunch of nobodies might have been the right way to go if you truly wanted to make a conventional record — at least, that way you would reduce tension in the studio.

 

And as a conventional record, Bluejeans is better than its predecessor because it does not sound so painful — not only is Beefheart in healthier vocal form throughout, but fewer songs sound like misguided, clumsy attempts of a deranged innovator to change his train at the speed of 200mph. Case in point: there's a cover of J. J. Cale's ʽSame Old Bluesʼ, and it's a good one — a normal dark blues song, done by the Captain with his usual growl and every bit as convincing as the ori­ginal, though, perhaps, not very necessary. But there's some confidence here, and a suggestion that, perhaps, Beefheart would have fared better at the time if he had simply switched to standard blues or blues-rock. Something like an album of Howlin' Wolf covers, for instance.

 

As usual, he insists upon starting the record with an evil-grin of a nasty funk-rocker, and as usual, the opening number is one of the best things here — ʽParty Of Special Things To Doʼ holds its own against not only ʽUpon The My-Oh-Myʼ, but against ʽI'm Gonna Booglarize Youʼ and ʽLow Yo-Yo Stuffʼ as well. Surrealist lyrics ("the camel wore a nightie"), evil cackle, nasty riff, what's not to like? I do miss the fascinating guitar interplay between left and right channel, but if you can cope with the simplified approach, it's a good, reliable groove — unfortunately, the only one of its kind on the entire record.

 

The Captain also gets more sentimental than he's ever been, with three surprisingly decent tracks. ʽObservatory Crestʼ has a certain meditative aura about it — a song about really doing nothing except watching the city from an observatory crest, to the sound of quasi-psychedelic chimes and relaxing slide guitar phrases; ʽFurther Than We've Goneʼ suffers from an unfortunately hysterical vocal delivery (dear Captain, if you're trying to be soulful and sentimental, please do not scream about it on one of those laryngitis-stricken days!), but makes up for it with a surprisingly good extended guitar solo; and best of the three is the title track, melodically and emotionally stuck in somewhere be­tween James Taylor and Blood On The Tracks-era Bob Dylan, but with an excep­tional vocal performance this time — in fact, this is a tune that would not have sounded out of place on the funeral day for the Captain, what with its peacefulness and a feeling of finally accep­ting life as it is ("I'm tryin' in all ways and learnin' in between"). Yes, it's fairly generic mid-1970s soft rock, but it does work, together with the supporting guitar work and almost Emersonian Moog synth solo from the keyboard man.

 

On the down side, ʽRock'n'Roll's Evil Dollʼ is a fairly lame attempt at learning the «dance-rock» moves of the day (the Captain treading on Bee Gees territory? certainly not the right thing for him), and then there is what might be the total nadir for Beefheart — the incredibly lame, New-Orleans-meets-German-cabaret, nearly instrumental ʽCaptain's Holidayʼ, which might have been the perfect welcoming music for a whorehouse if the Captain ever bothered setting one up ("ooh captain captain, lay your burden down"). It is a fairly tight groove, but one that sounds sleazy, pimp-wise, without being intelligent, and it has been rumored that Beefheart does not even play his own harmonica on that one, so it remains to be understood if he has any relation to the track whatsoever, or whether it was just a stupid joke played on him by «The Tragic Band». Not that he'd noticed — apparently, he was in such a daze at the time that they could have invited Neil Diamond to guest on a couple of tracks and he'd probably be all right with that.

 

Regardless, the record is not a total waste — it's just that there is no reason whatsoever to go for it if you are interested specifically in Captain Beefheart, rather than just a few examples of decent, emotionally resonant mid-Seventies soft-rock that could just as well have been delivered by Jack­son Browne or somebody even less individualistic. And, objectively, it does mark a particularly low point in the man's artistic career, because he'd pretty much stopped being Captain Beefheart: in all actuality, this record should really have been credited to «Don Van Vliet & The Tragic Band». It's no big crime to dissolve your artistic identity — it might even be a useful exercise in humility — but it's no good, either, if you don't stand to gain anything in return, and this album flopped even worse than Unconditionally Guaranteed. Still, yet another curious chapter in the Captain's history, there's no denying at least that.

 

SHINY BEAST (BAT CHAIN PULLER) (1978)

 

1) The Floppy Boot Stomp; 2) Tropical Hot Dog Night; 3) Ice Rose; 4) Harry Irene; 5) You Know You're A Man; 6) Bat Chain Puller; 7) When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy; 8) Owed T'Alex; 9) Candle Mambo; 10) Love Lies; 11) Suction Prints; 12) Apes-Ma.

 

By late 1974, I think, music lovers worldwide must have given up on the Captain, who'd seemed to guide his ship into the rocks — losing his loyal Magic Band, his artistic integrity, and any signs of respect from the formerly receptive critical base. The only reason for optimism was that, even at his least adventurous, Beefheart had always followed his own muse and nobody else's: «simplistic» and «commercial» as they might be, even the 1974 records sound like they could not have been produced by anybody else. Of course, the man had his original set of influences, all the way from Chicago blues to free jazz, yet once his musical vision had solidified, he seemed to pay very little attention to whatever else was going on in the musical world around him — interested in doing his own thing and nobody else's, and even if he was going to «sell out», he'd still do it the Beefheart way, rather than take a cue from The Doobie Brothers.

 

A good boost of confidence came from Frank Zappa, with whom Beefheart spent a lot of time together in 1975-76 (including an appearance as vocalist and occasional songwriter on Bongo Fury from 1975), and by 1976, the Captain felt resuscitated enough to put together a properly assembled new Magic Band and begin recording again — the result was Bat Chain Puller, an album of completely new material that was to see the light of day in 1976, yet ended up on inde­finite hold after a conflict between Zappa and his manager Herb Cohen resulted in all sorts of legal difficulties. Fortunately, this did not suffice to destroy the good spirits of the Captain once again, and by 1978, he was back on his feet, with a new deal with Warner Bros. (you know, the most avantgardist record label in the world) and a new album, consisting partly of re-recorded songs from Bat Chain Puller (hence the double title) and partly of completely new material.

 

And it is like 1974 never existed. No, scratch that — it is as if the Seventies never existed as a decade altogether: Shiny Beast picks up precisely where Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals left off, and feels like a superb reboot of the Captain Beefheart franchise. Basically, Beef­heart returns to the idea of «continuing to make weird music, but making it more accessible»; however, instead of steering his musicians towards more blues, more funk, and (ultimately) more pop, he remains more closely attached to the original idiom of TMR, except that certain angles get smoothed — less tricky time signatures, musicians seemingly playing more in tune with each other, grooves that take sufficient time to develop and sink in the mind: often catchy without ever sounding simplistic, and fairly adventurous without ever sounding irritating and pointless. Not to discriminate against The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, but this is probably the kind of sound that the Captain should have had going for himself in 1972 — although, this being 2017 and all, who really should care about a decade-long delay now? Particularly since the Captain always preferred to live in his own time anyway.

 

From the most basic point of view, we have our Captain back showcasing his insanity, paranoia, otherworldly creepiness, and, occasionally, «alternate sentimentality». The very first song, subtly hinting at the dawn of the computer age as Beefheart happily exploits the many meanings of the word ʽbootʼ, is a post-modern cartoonish apocalyptic vision in its own rights: with the Captain's new guitarists, Jeff Morris Tepper and Richard Redus, playing bluesy rings around each other and drummer Robert Williams playing complex polyrhythms with the verve of a good Keith Moon disciple, ʽThe Floppy Boot Stompʼ is not one of the album's most melodically memorable num­bers, but it is all that it takes to immediately ascertain — yes, the Captain is back, and it looks like he hasn't been that excited about being back since ʽFrownlandʼ, gleefully painting meltdownish pictures of how "the sky turned white in the middle of the night" and "hell was just an ice cube melting off on the ground". (Essentially, it's about a battle of characters between The Farmer and The Devil... spoiler: The Farmer won. But that shouldn't be a surprise; after all, Don Van Vliet is a plain old God-fearin' man at heart).

 

From then on, the record never lets go, and each new song is brimming with ideas. If it is a Latin-style dance number (ʽTropical Hot Dog Nightʼ), it will come equipped with a slightly dissonant trombone lead part (courtesy of Bruce Fowler), an overloud marimba part (courtesy of Art Tripp III, the only member from the old band who came back for these sessions), and a message that the Captain is "playin' this song for all the young girls to come out to meet the monster tonight" — sure, what else? It wouldn't be fun any other way. ʽBat Chain Pullerʼ rides a groove that actually gives the impression of somebody or something (a bat?) being rhythmically pulled by its chain, apparently with great difficulty, and the song keeps adding more and more layers as it goes on, descending into an ocean of controlled psychedelic chaos at the end. And as silly as a title like ʽWhen I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummyʼ might sound, musically the song sounds like a cross between a New Orleans funeral march, a Black Sabbath riff-rocker, and a free jazz impro­visation — but with a basic groove to which you could toe-tap if you wanted to, and with a couple of highly melodic riffs that you could whistle if you needed to. As for the title, well, it is not the first time that the Captain sings to us about his inborn fear of women; personally, I think that whoever «Mommy» is, she should be proud of causing such a complex bunch of emotions to be encoded in such a bizarre musical synthesis.

 

Somewhat simpler pieces also rule — ʽCandle Mamboʼ is indeed the Captain's personal interpre­tation of what a proper Latin dance number should sound like (and the solution is: more marim­bas!); ʽLove Liesʼ has distant melodic ties to Ray Charles' ʽI Believe To My Soulʼ (and, transi­tively, to Dylan's ʽBallad Of A Thin Manʼ as well), but the Captain's take on melancholic soul-blues has to have much more Mardi Gras-style brass in it; and just for diversity's sake, ʽHarry Ireneʼ is an almost completely normal music hall number that sounds more Ray Davies than Captain Beefheart, but it is a totally charming interlude, a well-placed moment of sad sentimen­tal calm in between all the madness. Predictably, there are a few instrumentals as well, and they all rule: ʽIce Roseʼ may be a little too derivative of Zappa (I think everybody can hear echoes of ʽPeaches En Regaliaʼ in there), but ʽSuction Printsʼ is totally Beefheart, a crazy blues-rocker that actually manages to rock in between all the complex rhythmic patterns.

 

I should probably mention as well that production values for the record are much higher than they used to be — despite the near-cacophonous melange of instruments on most of the tracks, every single guitar, every brass part, each puncturing of the marimbas remains perfectly distinct, and there's tons of replay value here as you can trace all the cool flourishes of one guitar, then con­cen­trate on the one in the other speaker, then try to assimilate the marimba melody... somehow, these songs turn me on in ways that Trout Mask Replica never could, and as unqualified as I am to discuss the musicological aspects of both records, I will just have to ascribe the difference to a smart type of compromise that Beefheart achieves here, as well as the dense nature of the arran­ge­ments — who knows, perhaps what TMR really needed for success was more horns, marimbas, and a cleaner mix.

 

Then again, no: it may well be possible that it simply had to take Beefheart several more years to understand properly how that ideally-visualized, but not ideally-reproduced alternate musical world of his could come to emotional life. And I wish I could ascribe his success to the dawning of a new musi­cal age — but the fact is, Shiny Beast sounds absolutely nothing like any New Wave record at the time, and thus, remains absolutely timeless. It ends on a depressing note (the forty-seconds long ʽApes-Maʼ is one of Beefheart's most pessimistic bits of declamation, espe­cially if he is referring to himself, which I think he is), but then, it's not as if the entire record were contrastively uplifting: there's plenty of melancholy and desperation hiding in these grooves, they are just not openly «whiny» or «hysterical», and that's a good thing, because in order to suc­ceed, Shiny Beast had to show some teeth, first and foremost — otherwise, people would just say «oh, he's bitching about being down on his luck and out of talent». Nope: Shiny Beast is all set to kick your ass, then give you a friendly pat on the head, then kick your ass some more, and only then retreat in the corner and let out a few hard-to-hold-back sighs... "Apes-Ma, Apes-Ma, you're eating too much and going to the bathroom too much... and Apes-Ma, your cage isn't getting any bigger, Apes-Ma". Don't we all feel like that sometimes? Thumbs up.

 


Part 4. The Age Of Excess (1970-1976)

 

CAMEL


CAMEL (1973)

 

1) Slow Yourself Down; 2) Mystic Queen; 3) Six Ate; 4) Separation; 5) Never Let Go; 6) Curiosity; 7) Arubaluba.

 

There is, and would always be, a lot of Pink Floyd influence in the music of Camel — but it is still instructive that their first album was recorded in August '72, that is, well before the release of Dark Side Of The Moon, so at least you couldn't accuse them of merely jumping on the nearest and most obvious bandwagon. Besides, minor keys and gloomy moods are not all it takes to count as a Pink Floyd rip-off.

 

Stemming from Surrey (every once in a while, you may see Camel listed as representatives of the «Canterbury school» of rock, which couldn't be farther from the truth — at least, not until Dave Sinclair joined the band, but that would be much later), Camel was largely the brainchild of gui­tarist Andy Latimer and keyboardist Peter Bardens, who are responsible for most of the song­writing and singing (although bassist Doug Ferguson takes a couple lead vocals, and drummer Andy Ward is co-credited for writing the first song).

 

Although all four members were honing their musical talents already circa 1969-70, they only gelled together in late 1971 and got a re­cording contract with MCA in 1972, so they have to count as «second generation prog», a tough fate for all those who followed in the footsteps of Floyd, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Yes, and ELP. As much as Latimer and Bardens loved all that music, they would never truly be capable of forging their own unmistakable and unmimickable persona­lity — while both of them are excellent musicians, and Latimer has a very nice singing voice, their styles are simply too derivative of earlier heroes.

 

That said, as long as the band hits the energy pedal, all of Camel music is eminently likeable. Although the seven compositions on this album present no real breakthroughs, they are amazing­ly adequate — not too complex, not too simplistic, not too pretentious, not too humble, a sort of middle-of-the-road combination that manages to please rather than bore. They share the overall humanistic-but-pessimistic musical philosophy/vibe of Floyd — most of the songs are mournful or melancholic — but they have plenty of chops and musical ideas to make you believe that they are not here just to rip off a vibe or two. Above everything else, they have style, which is the one thing, probably, that makes them so attractive for me where bands like Kansas or Styx sound so irritating most of the time.

 

If you are not new to progressive rock, but new to Camel, I would suggest beginning with the last track here — the instrumental ʻArubalubaʼ is the easiest one to swallow, featuring the record's most instantly memorable doubled guitar-organ riff as the main theme, and rocking all the way to the bank, faster, tighter, and sweatier than anything in the Floyd catalog. The guitar and keyboard solos of Latimer and Bardens are not exceptional, but they succeed in maintaining tension all the way without resorting to excessive gimmicks, and last just enough to make you long for the re­turn of the main theme, which dutifully kicks back in with a vengeance. Note, though, that this is rather an atypical composition for Camel (the album) and Camel the band in general — typically, their instrumentals tend to be softer and subtler, like ʻSix Ateʼ, which begins in waltz tempo, then slows down even further before becoming a quieter version of King Crimson's ʻMirrorsʼ for a few bars and then finally settling down into a steady mid-tempo guitar/keyboard jam. Again, no great shakes, but a little bit of magical mystery atmosphere is still present.

 

One reason why Camel, provided they were spotted by prog-hating critics in the first place, still largely avoided their venomous spit, is that they kept the «lost in fantasy land» thing to a mini­mum — like everybody else, they loved their Tolkien and shit, but were cool-headed enough not to try and make their albums sound like bona fide Lord Of The Rings soundtracks. Here, for in­stance, there's only one suspicious track (ʻMystic Queenʼ), and they immediately shoot the fan­tasy interpretation in the back by singing "have you seen the Mystic Queen / riding in her limou­sine", although if you don't pay sufficient attention to the lyrics, the song may still come across as a hymn to the Lady of the Lake or any such character — no matter, really, because it is made by carefully constructed Latimer and Bardens solos (the lyrics are minimal), slow, dreamy, a little bit psychedelic, and humbly restrained.

 

The best known songs from the album are arguably the opening number ʻSlow Yourself Downʼ and the single ʻNever Let Goʼ. The former is a grim blues-rocker that establishes Camel's vibe from the start — quiet, compact, concise music made by loners for loners, sung by Latimer in his lowest range and including a fast mid-section that, too, seems strangely intro- rather than extra­vert: if there is at all such a thing as «Anti-Arena Rock», this song, and Camel in general, is it. As for ʻNever Let Goʼ, which went on to become a permanent stage favorite, this is probably the album's most pretentious moment ("crazy preachers of our doom / telling us there is no room" — hmm, isn't that a kind of line that Ozzy would be supposed to sing?), but, again, leave it to Camel to deliver a pretentious message to humanity as if they were all standing with their noses in a corner. Do not, however, forget to turn the volume up really loud for the last minute — Latimer plays a killer solo, but with such a thin tone and buried so deeply in the mix that you really have to make yourself notice it. Didn't Mark Knopfler take a few hints from that guy?

 

On the whole, although Camel never achieved proper critical/commercial success until their third album, this debut is by no means «tentative» or «formative» — if you do not like it (and it is theo­retically quite easy to perceive it as too cold, too sterile, or too limp), you will probably not get easily warmed up to the band in general... granted, «warmed up» is probably not the right word, seeing as how their music is always so cold. It is definitely lacking in flashiness, but it is moody and tasteful, even if it hardly sounds like anything a truly intelligent camel would have written. Well, maybe only a very Sufi camel. Thumbs up.

 

MIRAGE (1974)

 

1) Freefall; 2) Supertwister; 3) Nimrodel; 4) Earthrise; 5) Lady Fantasy.

 

I have never really been satisfied with Camel's second album. Prog fans tend to praise it, but it seems to me that most of the praise is for reasons that are all too obvious — the songs get longer, the solo/jam passages more technically challenging, and there is at least one Tolkien-inspired tune (maybe more, because even though ʻLady Fantasyʼ does not drop any direct references, it works well in tandem with ʻNimrodelʼ).

 

The problem is that such an approach by itself could hardly surprise anybody in 1974 (not to mention today) — the question is not whether Mirage is more «complicated» than Camel, but whether it manages to preserve and develop the band's own identity, to have a face of its own that would distinguish it from all the other faces. And from that point of view, too much on Mirage sounds like rather unconvincing imitations of Yes, Genesis, ELP, and even some of their more ancient predecessors (for instance, the first keyboard solo on ʻLady Fantasyʼ is uncannily remi­niscent of the Doors' ʻLight My Fireʼ).

 

Most importantly, a crucial vibe is missing here — the melancholic mood, that quiet desperation which is so much the English way, has dissipated, as the band embark on a flight of colorful fan­tasy. There's nothing wrong with flights of colorful fantasy in general, of course, but for Camel, this is a somewhat uncomfortable detour: epic songs about wizards and love ballads to mystical fantasy ladies is not something for which they have any special knack. The two long suites sound tasteful enough, but there is not a single melodic line or twist there that would really capture my attention. Signature changes, polished guitar solos, pretty harmonies, alternations between loud and quiet; only the «magical», echoey slide solo at the end of ʻNimrodelʼ really sounds like no­thing we'd previously heard before — good find, that; not enough to grant masterpiece status to the entire song, though.

 

Of the shorter tracks, Bardens' ʻFreefallʼ is quite an energetic opener, but, again, just seems way too much like an inferior Yes tribute; the instrumental ʻSupertwisterʼ is a cute little waltz with some flute work from Latimer; and the other instrumental, ʻEarthriseʼ, exists somewhere on the border between classically influenced prog and jazz-fusion, without properly making its mind about which side of the border it wants to stake a real claim on. Honestly, I do not know what to say about them. They rock, but not too hard; they're pretty, but not beautiful; they have well thought out melodies, but they're not catchy. Generic second generation prog, in short.

 

Consequently, I am one of the few who feels tempted to dub this a «sophomore slump» — a half-decent, but misguided and forgettable attempt at aping the founding fathers of the progressive genre without adding even a drop of their own personality. Had they persisted in this direction, the world might have already forgotten all about Camel; fortunately, the mistake would not be repeated again, at least, not on the scale of an entire album.

 

THE SNOW GOOSE (1975)

 

1) The Great Marsh; 2) Rhayader; 3) Rhayader Goes To Town; 4) Sanctuary; 5) Fritha; 6) The Snow Goose; 7) Friendship; 8) Migration; 9) Rhayader Alone; 10) Flight Of The Snow Goose; 11) Preparation; 12) Dunkirk; 13) Epitaph; 14) Fritha Alone; 15) La Princesse Perdue; 16) The Great Marsh.

 

I confess that I have not read anything by Paul Gallico — I also confess that the basic plotline of The Snow Goose does not impress me nearly enough to seek it out, nor do the occasional critical slashes at the sixty-four page novella that accuse it of excessive sentimentality. Nevertheless, I would also think that a profound acquaintance with this literary work is not totally necessary in order to enjoy Camel's third album for what it is: the quintessential, if maybe not the best, Camel album that only Camel could have made.

 

Ironically, it was the success of the lengthy suites on Mirage that led the band to considering making a record that would be fully based on a piece of literature; but that piece of literature was not a Tolkien epic, but a modern time fairy tale with a sad ending, sort of a cross between Hans Christian Andersen and Erich Maria Remarque. The fairy tale has three characters — the loner Rhayader, the innocent girl Fritha, and the symbolic Snow Goose — who are so self-sufficient, it seems, that the entire world, from the marshlands of Essex to the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940, just acts as a canvas for their triangularity. That was exactly what Latimer and Bardens needed to set them back on the right track and recreate the atmosphere of dark-beautiful loneliness that they originally generated on Camel, but sort of dissipated on Mirage.

 

The album is completely instrumental, and its full title is, in fact, Music Inspired By The Snow Goose; both of these things are due to Gallico's disapproval of the project and the necessity to avoid copyright infringement lawsuits. The lack of vocals does make the experience a bit more demanding: the tunes are generally very similar in mood, and the emphasis is on texture rather than flashy, distinctive hooks. But The Snow Goose really has to be assimilated as one 43-minute suite with a bunch of separate movements, even though some of the songs had to be pulled out as singles; in concert, they tended to play it complete whenever possible, and even the titles clearly hint that they're all part of a whole — I mean, ʻFlight Of The Snow Gooseʼ, when issued as a single, probably made people not-in-the-know think it was a parody on ʻFlight Of The Bumblebeeʼ or something.

 

The music in general is fairly typical for Camel, incorporating elements of jazz fusion, folk, «art-pop» hearkening back to Sixties' psychedelia, and first generation symph-prog. Everything is handled very delicately: despite the sentimental potential, this is not really the kind of music that will tear and rip you apart with sonic passion — most of the themes are played quietly, without rising to breathtaking heights or plunging to abysmal depths. For instance, ʻRhayaderʼjust hops along at a moderately fast tempo, with pretty flute and keyboard melodies creating a cheerful atmosphere (too cheerful, I'd say, for a loner like the title character); ʻRhayader Goes To Townʼ slightly increases tempo and fuss, throws in some shrill guitar solos, then becomes a blues jam for a few minutes, then just sort of fizzles away. Always pleasant to hear, rarely memorable.

 

In my opinion, this «pleasantness» only becomes to gradually evolve into something grander with ʻFlight Of The Snow Gooseʼ — all those short bits when Rhayader and Fritha save the bird and help it to convalesce are cute, but it is only when the main theme of ʻFlightʼ emerges out of the synth bubbles that the album starts building a bit of epic muscle. ʻDunkirkʼ is the second big success, though probably not as big as it could have been: the jazz-rock interpretation of the big event is quite furious for Camel, but surely Yes or ELP would have raised even more tension. And then there is the stately finale of ʻLa Princesse Perdueʼ, built around a simple, but beautiful «friendly-sad» guitar figure from Latimer, reminiscent of either Harrison or Gilmour, depending on your immediate associations. The musical ideas contained in these three tracks are like pillars on which everything else is resting.

 

That said, I would not have given the album a thumbs up for just three tracks. In reality, it is the kind of record that I like more when I am not listening to it too closely. When I try to do that, I usually get bored quickly; but if I do not, eventually it grows into something bigger and more mysterious than simple background music. Believe it or not, it does feel like some strange and sentimental happening, taking place somewhere in a far away marshland: lonely place, lonely people, spiritual isolation, the works. You might have to wait a little for the humble magic to start happening, but eventually it will, maybe with a little active help from the imagination. And may­be it is a good thing that this album was not made by the likes of Yes or ELP, because they would have made it all on a grand grand scale, which would be all right for ʻDunkirkʼ but certainly not for any other tracks. The subject, the atmosphere, the vision — this all perfectly suits the talents and characters of Bardens and Latimer.

 

MOONMADNESS (1976)

 

1) Aristillus; 2) Song Within A Song; 3) Chord Change; 4) Spirit Of The Water; 5) Another Night; 6) Air Born; 7) Lunar Sea.

 

The last album to be produced by the original lineup, Moonmadness does bring on some lunar associations, but not much by way of madness, which is just not a state of mind that comes natu­rally to Camel music; Moonsadness or Moonmelancholia would have been a far more apt de­scription. In many ways, this is a return to the stylistics of Mirage, but it sounds more original and «Camel-native» than Mirage, without so many blatant Yes-isms or Crimson-isms and, for­tunately, without such an explicitly stated Tolkien influence. If anything, it represents the sym­phonic progressive ambitions of Mirage tempered with the «secluded loner vibe» of Snow Goose, so that some of the tunes come across as bold and humble at the same time.

 

Most of the record is taken over by five multi-part compositions, with the vocals making a slight, not triumphant, return — the focus remains on instrumental passages and their capacity of being woven into dynamic suites with constantly, though not too quickly, changing keys, tempos, and vibes of whose nature the band members themselves are often not too sure, so they just name the songs ʻSong Within A Songʼ and ʻChord Changeʼ to avoid a painful search for verbal interpre­tation of their own musical ideas. And indeed, how would one describe the seven minutes of ʻSong Within A Songʼ, other than «tastefully pleasant»? It goes through a slow nocturnal-pasto­ral section, with moody keyboard and flute solos, then through a «solemn» transitional phase with a repetitive guitar riff that never seems to find a proper resolution, and finally through a fast blues-rock, almost boogie, section with «astral» synth solos all over the place. It's a nice thing to have, and it is all much more restrained and less «rockish» than any given instrumental passage by Yes, but this also means that it does not affect the senses too heavily.

 

Things get quirkier and/or more focused later on, though. ʻChord Changeʼ is one of their best efforts in the jazz-fusion sphere, with some terrific guitar work from Latimer, sometimes playing «spiraling» descending scales that turn him into a less flashy Santana. ʻAnother Nightʼ employs grimly distorted power chords and psychedelic pedal effects to convey the feel of panicky despe­ration creeping up on you in the night — a well-known feel, for sure, but somehow they manage to transmit it by means of arena-rock tricks without making it sound like cheap arena-rock, if you follow me at all. ʻAir Bornʼ, for a change, has a really dainty vocal melody that agrees well with the synthesized string background. And ʻLunar Seaʼ, as follows from its title, sets itself the chal­lenge of combining «maritime» and «astral» atmospheres — and then rises up to the challenge by squeezing everything that is possible from Bardens' synthesizers, although I am not quite as sure if the song's sped-up, jazzier, more tempestuous passages truly evoke the feeling of a storm taking place in the middle of a «lunar sea».

 

Anyway, choosing between Mirage and Moonmadness to answer the question «which one of Camel's albums from the symph-prog shelf should be our first pick?» is very much a question of subtle and fickle taste; I vote for Moonmadness because my personal intuition detects faint traces of gentle sorrow and intelligent gloominess, many of them «felt» rather than properly «heard», which were sacrificed on Mirage to make way for a little more rockin' energy so that the guys could classify as true prog-rockers, with emphasis on the second part. On the other hand, it's not as if this here was some particularly breathtaking collection of superior prog rock melo­dies, either — too few of the themes rise above «nice» as far as their ability to rattle one's nerve strings is concerned. Thumbs up it is, after some deliberation, but still a small step down from the vibe of Snow Goose — although without Snow Goose in between, this would probably have been Mirage Vol. 2, so here's to maturity and continuous self-discovery.

 

RAIN DANCES (1977)

 

1) First Light; 2) Metrognome; 3) Tell Me; 4) Highways Of The Sun; 5) Unevensong; 6) One Of These Early Days I'll Get An Early Night; 7) Elke; 8) Skylines; 9) Rain Dances.

 

At this point, members of the Progressive Club usually begin having reservations about Camel's alleged loyalty. Not only does this period initiate the break-up of the original band, as Doug Ferguson is replaced on bass by Richard Sinclair (formerly of Caravan) and ex-King Crimsonian Mel Collins is added on sax, but it also initiates the drift towards a more commercial sound, as experienced, first and foremost, on the lead single ʻHighways Of The Sunʼ — with its straight­forward rhythmic punch, anthemic catchy vocal, and joyful-optimistic atmosphere. Actually, there is little to distinguish the song from contemporary arena-ready soft-rock; it could have been produced by anybody from Chicago to Styx, and it sure as hell did not need to be produced by Camel, a band to which sunny optimism comes as naturally as reggae comes to AC/DC.

 

However, outside of the radio-oriented single (which did not seriously chart anyway), Rain Dances is actually not that much of a sellout. More accurately, it is a somewhat blander, limper companion to the atmospheric soundscapes of Moonmadness, with a similar mix of symph-prog, pop, jazz-fusion, and ambience, only more flaccid hooks and an even stronger promise to never erupt from the cozy comfy background. Not even Brian Eno, when invited to contribute on the most ambient of the tracks, ʻElkeʼ, can do much to break the quiet, uninvolving pleasantness: he may have been concocting mindblowing sonic panoramas for Bowie at the same time, but for Latimer, he just dishes out a standard synth canvas that merely serves as support for Andy's lazy, pretty, unmemorable flute solo. Did they really need Brian for that one? Gee, I hope he at least got underpaid for this hackjob.

 

I think the only track here that consistently gets respect from «serious» fans is ʻUnevensongʼ, be­cause it, like, shifts keys and gears several times from beginning to end. But it sounds too fragile and fluffy for me to like it because of its energy, and too unfocused in any of its sections to like it because of its beauty or melodicity. Too much sunshine and not enough rain — too much tender­ness that is not properly supported by outstanding hooks, and the dynamics is wasted, too, be­cause the tricky time signature section in the middle, which the syncopated bass and the grumbly synthesizers would probably want to present as a disturbing counterpoint, is not played with enough feeling. In fact, very little on the album is played with enough feeling — you almost get the impression that the entire band was suffering from a severe vitamin deficit at the time.

 

The entire band shares credits on ʻOne Of These Early Daysʼ, a funky fusion track, almost bor­dering on disco in spots — with a series of keyboard, sax, and guitar solos that should qualify as «easy listening» (Latimer goes for a Santana kind of sound... but why?). Again, it is the kind of music that would be perfect as the theme for a mid-Seventies TV talk show, but it is pretty hard to acknowledge it as an actual work of art... and since pretty much the same goes for everything else here, I would like to just cut the review short and say that, of all Camel albums in the 1970s, this one is arguably the least essential — although the Progressive Club predictably rates it higher than Breathless, I profoundly disagree, because I by far prefer this band abandoning all progres­sive ambitions and going all-out pop than hanging in between, loosening and softening the complexity and energy of their music, but still refusing to make it catchy. Therefore, feel free to just skip Puddle Dances as a misguided transitional album, and see them reinvent themselves with a vengeance on whatever followed.

 

BREATHLESS (1978)

 

1) Breathless; 2) Echoes; 3) Wing And A Prayer; 4) Down On The Farm; 5) Starlight Ride; 6) Summer Lightning; 7) You Make Me Smile; 8) Sleeper; 9) Rainbow's End.

 

Finally, a certified sellout! With the same lineup as on Rain Dances, Latimer and Bardens take Camel on a relaxed journey that combines traces of their «progressive» past with pure pop, simple balladry, and even a few escapades into the corny world of contemporary dance music (ʻSummer Lightningʼ borders on disco). With so much evidence in hand to make a perfectly winnable case, prog fans usually say that this is the point at which Camel finally sheds its hump and ceases to exist as a means of transporting the listener to magical musical worlds.

 

Despite this, and despite the even more suspicious fact that Breathless is also a fairly «happy» record for Camel, I have always felt attracted to it — perhaps because the songs harbor some sort of bright collective innocence. Even the two syrupy ballads, ʻYou Make Me Smileʼ and ʻRain­bow's Endʼ, which usually receive the lion's share of hatred, are well-written and lack some of the cheesier trappings typically associated with such material — ʻYou Make Me Smileʼ may be riding a simplistic danceable bassline, but Latimer's tender vocal delivery still wins over with its quiet humility; the intonations and hooks put it closer to contemporary pop material by the Kinks and Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie rather than Styx or Foreigner or Chicago. And even if the falsetto vocal harmonies on ʻRainbow's Endʼ are a cringeworthy misstep, overdone to irritating point, the basic vocal melody itself is quite nicely modulated.

 

There's some really odd stuff, too, like Richard Sinclair's ʻDown On The Farmʼ, which begins quite deceptively with some huge power chords, like a monster Boston-style arena rocker — then, in one single whiff, turns into a quiet rural Brit-pop ditty that would not feel completely out of place on The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles & Fripp (a bit of extra humor and absurdity wouldn't hurt, though). ʻStarlight Rideʼ, with its smoothly sustained keyboard parts and gentle harmonies, sounds like London Town-era (i. e. contemporary) Paul McCartney with an extra baroque touch. And ʻSummer Lightningʼ basically just commits the crime of employing a dance signature, otherwise fully preserving Camel's aesthetics of quiet, unassuming, melancholic jazz-pop (it also features Latimer's most energetic-aggressive solo on the entire album).

 

The conservative spirit rules on two «prog leftovers», the seven-minute semi-epics ʻEchoesʼ (no relation to Floyd) and ʻSleeperʼ, of which the former has a pretty main theme in the guise of a psychedelic waltz, and the latter is an unremarkable exercise in fusion, truly the «sleeper» of the album. Essentially, it is as if you had a choice here — do you want the old Camel with its tired prog vibe, or the new Camel with its fresh ideas? The new Camel may go disco on your ass, but at least it's got the benefit of unpredictability. The old Camel will not betray its sense of taste and dignity, but it's never going to expand on Snow Goose and Moonmadness. Now it is all up to you, music lovers with an interest in the year nineteen hundred and seventy eight.

 

Personally, I think that Breathless is one of the better executed «compromises» of the time, and at the very least I'd definitely take it over stuff like Yes' Tormato or Genesis' And Then There Were Three: when Latimer and Bardens go pop, they are brave enough to go all the way that it takes to reach a proper hook, selling out for an actual purpose rather than just selling out and making music that is unsatisfactory from all points of view (not catchy enough to constitute good pop, not complex enough to make up for decent prog). As a result, we have this oddly optimistic record, full of good, friendly vibes presented without too much sentimentalism and without any unwarranted pathos whatsoever; a record that I not only find impossible to hate, but endorse with all the strength of a firmly fixed thumbs up rating.

 

A LIVE RECORD (1978)

 

1) Never Let Go; 2) Song Within A Song; 3) Lunar Sea; 4) Skylines; 5) Ligging At Louis'; 6) Lady Fantasy; 7) The Great Marsh; 8) Rhayader; 9) Rhayader Goes To Town; 10) Sanctuary; 11) Fritha; 12) The Snow Goose; 13) Friendship; 14) Migration; 15) Rhayader Alone; 16) Flight Of The Snow Goose; 17) Preparation; 18) Dunkirk; 19) Epitaph; 20) Fritha Alone; 21) La Princesse Perdue; 22) The Great Marsh.

 

This is quite a long album, but the review will be very short. Instead of concentrating on a single show, the band took a selection of recordings from various points in their career, spanning the 1974-77, interval, and capped it off with a complete live recording of The Snow Goose at the Royal Albert Hall in October 1975, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra (which must have been on a real tight budget that year). Only one of the tracks, Bardens' instrumental ʻLigging At Louis'ʼ, was previously unreleased; everything else is quite familiar... and played almost note-for-note the same way as it was in the studio.

 

Not that this is somehow atypical of prog bands, but it does place Camel in the category of those of them who were usually happy just reproducing the complexity and the atmospheres of studio material (like Yes or Genesis) rather than those that used the stage as a pretext to fire up some improvisational creativity (like King Crimson, or even ELP on a good day). And it pretty much renders any «review» of such a live album pointless once the reviewer has stated the obvious — yes, they do a very good job reproducing it all on stage. Even the lonely melancholy of Snow Goose is carried over so flawlessly that it almost feels weird to hear the occasional round of ap­plause — like, you're not saying there are actually people out there to witness the proceedings?

 

Serious Camel fans will, of course, notice minor differences and maybe even take delight in savoring some of them (like, there's a short extra bass solo on ʻNever Let Goʼ, and Latimer's guitar solo is more distorted and fusion-esque), but then they might also get mad at some of the others (like, the synthesized string tone on ʻSong Within A Songʼ is so much cheesier than the melodeon-like tone of the original), ultimately spending a lot of time and emotions on mutually outcanceling flaws and advantages. Even the addition of the orchestra for Snow Goose — on one hand, it's a nice distinctive touch, on the other, they pretty much shush it much of the time so that it doesn't overshadow the band. So why bother in the first place?

 

If you do wish to bother, know that the 2002 reissue of the album has made it even huger, adding about 6-7 additional tunes (mostly from Moonmadness) to completely pad out the storage capa­city of 2 CDs; I have not heard that one, but I have no high hopes for pleasant surprises. Not that it hurts or anything to hear Snow Goose one more time, but ultimately, this is just more proof that classic progressive rock rarely makes for treasurable live records.

 

I CAN SEE YOUR HOUSE FROM HERE (1979)

 

1) Wait; 2) Your Love Is Stranger Than Mine; 3) Eye Of The Storm; 4) Who We Are; 5) Survival; 6) Hymn To Her; 7) Neon Magic; 8) Remote Romance; 9) Ice.

 

Just by glancing at the album cover and title, you'd think that Camel's last album of the decade would be some sort of sci-fi extravaganza — maybe a Gargantuan tribute to the lonesome genius of ʻSpace Oddityʼ, or a Tangerine Dream-influenced escapade into cosmic ambience. Turns out that nothing could be further from the truth: the whole setup probably owes more to marketing strategies and Star Wars-era futurism-in-the-past than actual musical content. Instead, what you really get here is Camel's most mainstream and poppy piece of product so far, an album even more «commercial» in nature than Breathless, but hopefully we are all sufficiently grown-up here to not let this detract us from an objective and adequate assessment.

 

The sessions marked what was probably the single most significant line-up change in Camel history: the departure of Pete Bardens, temporarily replaced by not one, but two keyboardists: Jan Schelhaas, formerly of Caravan, and Kit Watkins, formerly of Happy The Man (so third-genera­tion prog they even named themselves after a Genesis song!). In addition to that, Richard Sinclair also left, replaced by Colin Bass on, appropriately, bass; and, although Mel Collins still blows his sax on a few of these tunes, he'd also quit soon after the sessions. And, as if that weren't enough, rumor has it that Phil Collins himself adds his percussion skills somewhere, but I could not locate any individual song credits, and I am too unworthy to take a guess.

 

Anyway, with all these major changes we might expect major musical twists as well, but, as it happens, the transition between Breathless and its follow-up is fairly smooth — probably be­cause already the former was largely dominated by Latimer, and it was that dominance that ulti­mately caused Bardens to throw in the towel. Here, too, almost all the songs are either written exclusively or co-written by Latimer; the only exception is the instrumental ʻEye Of The Stormʼ that Watkins brought over with him from Happy The Man, a moody, leisurely stroll that slowly takes on a bolero-like form while not producing much of anything, except for the intertwining crawling patterns of two synthesizers — "eye of the storm" indeed.

 

As you can understand, this is the most «progressive» bit on the album, although it is seriously challenged by the final track, ʻIceʼ, which is even slower, features just as many vocal bits (none), and is really used as a simple trampoline from which Latimer unleashes an epic guitar solo, again showing us how well he can challenge Dave Gilmour at romantic bluesy desperation (actually, I'd say that the typical romantic bluesy desperate Latimer guitar solo from the 1970s sounds like a later, rather than earlier, Gilmour solo — think Division Bell era or something like that). The mechanics of that emotional manipulation are well understood, but Andrew still manages to stay on the other side of cheesiness, with what I'd call «realistic» tunings and tones as opposed to extra-flash-and-pomp you'd encounter on, say, a Gary Moore record. Simply put, I'll never be capable of crying my heart out to the sounds of that solo — but I'd gladly recognize anybody else's right to do that.

 

Most of the other material is poppy, ranging from the opening Seventies-style hello-sunshine upbeatness of ʻWaitʼ and ʻYour Love Is Stranger Than Mineʼ to the more contemporary, New Wave-influenced ʻRemote Romanceʼ that sounds like 10cc trying to write a Cars song (granted, I probably made it sound more interesting than it actually is). Oh, and how could we forget ʻNeon Magicʼ, the very title of which probably dates the song to a specific period? Featuring probably the very worst vocal delivery on any Camel album ever, it's not a disco song, but still one of those dance numbers that supposedly sound like parodies of dance numbers and end up being... just dance numbers. It's one of those pitfalls that are so very hard to avoid when you're trying to carry out an intelligent, critically appreciated sellout.

 

There's even a sentimental pop song here disguised as a prog epic due to its length — 7:51 for ʻWho We Areʼ is overkill, possibly inherited from Caravan, who had also by that time completed the transgression to pop, but sometimes allocated unreasonable spans to their ballad material. The good news is that all this soft-rock stuff is quite catchy, and most of the songs breathe with a very natural gentleness, never spoiled by excessive operatic oversinging, abuse of orchestration or synthesizers, or any uncomfortably cloying moves. There might be a bit too many falsetto vocal harmonies, and, most importantly, there might be an overdose of sweetness, but even something as simple as "we were meant for each other, we will love one another" can be forgivable if it is arranged as a captivating earworm.

 

On the whole, the album is a bit of a letdown after Breathless: the band takes fewer chances and goes for a generally more cohesive and monotonous approach, making even their «proggier» titles more poppy and accessible. But from a purely melodic point of view, it actually shows Latimer becoming a certified master of the form — and for doing that with very few lapses of taste (ʻNeon Magicʼ notwithstanding), the record certainly deserves a thumbs up.

 

NUDE (1981)

 

1) City Life; 2) Nude; 3) Drafted; 4) Docks; 5) Beached; 6) Landscapes; 7) Changing Places; 8) Pomp & Circum­stance; 9) Please Come Home; 10) Reflections; 11) Captured; 12) The Homecoming; 13) Lies; 14) The Birthday Cake; 15) Nude's Return.

 

A curious and almost brave move here: just as Camel's transformation into a «pop» band was nearly complete, Latimer suddenly rebounded and came out with his second «tone poem» (I'd hesitate to use the term «rock opera»: unlike Snow Goose, Nude does have several sung parts, but there's certainly not enough of them to qualify) — and, once again, the subject is loneliness and seclusion in the face of war, the whole thing being a musical retelling of the story of Hiroo Onoda, stranded in the Philippine jungle for thirty years after the end of World War II, refusing to believe that the fighting has ended.

 

Admittedly, the suite never gets the same kind of respect from fans as Snow Goose, largely for the reason that it shares quite a few simplified pop values with its two predecessors, and is on the whole far less adventurous and «progressive». This may be true, but it's not as if Snow Goose was a genuine prog monster, either — except for occasional heavier emphasis on jazz-fusion elements, it seems that its main advantage was the lack of vocals, which always makes any musi­cal work seem superficially more «serious». Nude, on the contrary, opens with ʻCity Lifeʼ, a bona fide soft-pop song bordering on adult contemporary — and even if its tone and message fits in very well with the rest of the album, by way of a happy-sad introspective look back at one's «odd» past from the point of view of the «normal» present, it can certainly warp the general perspective, because, you know, first impressions do matter.

 

However, on the whole Nude is a success, because for the first time in years Latimer finds him­self fully immersed in his most natural state — melancholic introspection. Most of the tracks, bar story-demanded interludes like the triumphant-martial ʻHomecomingʼ, set the same autumnal mood that, as some listeners have cleverly stated, sounds like post-Waters era Floyd before post-Waters Floyd was even invented — but without the same kind of emphatic wallowing in one's own misery that often irks people away from A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. Besides, some of the mood-shifting interludes are actually quite good, like the «action-packed» ʻDocks/Beachedʼ, illustrating Nude's arrival and combat action in the Philippines — the former with its scary, echo-laden thunder-and-lightning slide guitar lines, and the latter being the only trace on the album of the band's former jazzy glories.

 

More typically, the instrumental pieces shift between minimalistic New Agey ambience (ʻLand­scapesʼ, ʻReflectionsʼ), obligatory tribal beats representing Nude's «exotic» surroundings (ʻChan­ging Placesʼ), and occasional outbursts of retro-progressive activity to illustrate shifts of circum­stances (ʻCapturedʼ, whose melodic shifts might remind you of Gabriel-era Genesis). No indivi­dual piece is remarkable on its own, but in between all of them they certainly tell a coherent and interesting story, albeit probably not the kind of story that Onoda himself would have told (and, for that matter, even though Latimer is credited for playing koto on at least a few of the tracks, I did not specifically notice any Japanese motifs — not that it's a crime or anything).

 

Only one track in particular has always stood out for me, and struck a far more aching chord than just about any other Camel song in existence — ʻLiesʼ, representing Onoda's initial exhausted and heartbroken reaction to his return to society ("Tell me no lies, has peace arrived, or is this some kind of joke?"). It's not too complex, and its main active weapon, Latimer's angry-depressed Gilmour-style guitar work, may seem all too predictable, but there is still something special about its bluesy ambience. It just sums up so well everything that must be going on in the soul of some­body whose whole world has just crashed and crumbled around him and who has to gather all his remaining strength to start anew, yet is unsure if he can make it. It's honestly one of the most depressed tracks I've ever heard — and I've heard quite a few — although it probably works better in the context of the album than all by itself.

 

The record still cops out with a «Hollywoodish» happy ending — ʻNude's Returnʼ, where sad­ness and exhaustion are ultimately shown as trumped by optimism and hope in the future, a quietly rejoicing finale that may be true to real life (seeing as how the real Onoda did not commit suicide or anything, but lived to the ripe age of 91) but is less loyal to great art; my response to this is that I usually stop the album right at the abrupt ending of ʻLiesʼ and imagine that the protagonist takes his own life at this precise moment. That way, Nude becomes a slow-paced, quietly-intensifying atmospheric masterpiece for me, and even if many of its individual ingredients may suffer from limping, there's no other Camel album that would steadily and inevitably lead the way to such a snappy coda.

 

Although the record was recorded in 1981, this is the one that truly puts a stop to «Seventies' Camel» — not only would The Single Factor herald the departure of the last original member of the band, bar Latimer, but it would also signify Camel's transition into the new reality of the new decade. And, oddly enough, if there is one other album in the band's catalog that could be seen as a spiritual companion to Nude, it is the first one, the self-titled one — they have really gone full circle with their brooding, starting out with almost a manifesto of lonerism and eventually ending up with Hiroo Onoda as an even more authentic mascot for lonerism than Philip Rhayader (who at least had Fritha and the goose to keep him company). And no matter how much criticism people may fling at the «softness», «simplicity», or «boredom» of these individual bits and pieces, on the whole I really enjoy the way Nude reaches out to the sad loner in all (or at least most) of us, if you're ready to connect, so — thumbs up, most definitely.

 

THE SINGLE FACTOR (1982)

 

1) No Easy Answer; 2) You Are The One; 3) Heroes; 4) Selva; 5) Lullabye; 6) Sasquatch; 7) Manic; 8) Camelogue; 9) Today's Goodbye; 10) Heart's Desire; 11) End Peace.

 

Existence of this record is often attributed to pure contractual obligation: by 1982, Camel were pretty much defunct as a band, with the next-to-last remaining founding member, Andy Ward, leaving Latimer's company due to personal problems, yet Decca still expected Andrew to fulfill the contract and hand them another LP — and, moreover, a «commercial» one, rather than yet another morose semi-instrumental suite about some crazy Japanese soldier. With no place left to run, Latimer concurred, and, allegedly unwillingly, produced the next «Camel» album all on his own, deserted, disillusioned, and dissatisfied.

 

Actually, not nearly on his own — as a matter of fact, The Single Factor «boasts» the single largest number of guest musicians on a Camel album so far. Out of the old friends, Bardens makes a brief appearance on the instrumental ʽSasquatchʼ, and keyboardist Duncan Mackay, who played on Nude, reprises his duties on another instrumental, ʽSelvaʼ. Elsewhere, you get to feel the vibe of such diverse talents as former Genesis member Anthony Phillips (here mostly playing keyboards rather than guitar, despite being much better known as a guitarist), Fairport Conven­tion drummer Dave Mattacks (one track), Pilot's and Alan Parsons' bass player David Paton, and about half a dozen other less well-known musicians.

 

With a chaotic soup like this replacing a virtually defunct band, and with industry demands spiling the joy of artistic creation, and the overall times not being particularly auspicious for old school progressive rock, it is, in fact, amazing that The Single Factor is not such a complete dis­aster as could be predicted. It is fairly bland, unadventurous, unfocused, and self-plagiarizing, yes, but things could be much worse — it would be all too easy to see Latimer plunge into synth-pop or electrofunk, for instance, conforming to popular demand and embarrassing himself to no ends. This he does not do, even if the songs are mostly «pop», and there's quite a few synthesizers on them. Nor does he go all cheerful and life-asserting on our asses, betraying his natural melan­choly — which ends up showing even on the «positive» songs like ʽYou Are The Oneʼ.

 

The problem with Single Factor is that, despite all the various guests, it sounds very mono­tonous and mono-mood-like. Layers of acoustic and electronic keyboards, sometimes merging into one with Latimer's guitar parts, all give a constant feel of something very smooth, pretty, sad, and utterly uneventful, no matter how involved the rhythm section is or at what tempo they play the song. ʽSasquatchʼ is a rare exception, distinguished by a well-composed Latimer lead melody and benefiting very much from Phillips' 12-string guitar part and Bardens' mini-Moog solo — and some of the guitar overdubs give a really weird psychedelic effect, too. But stuff like ʽSelvaʼ and ʽEnd Peaceʼ has little to distinguish it from a thousand contemporary or later New Age instru­mentals, unless you find yourself specifically moved by Latimer's minimalistic bluesy solo on the former (I cannot say that I am, because he is trying to hit us in the soft spot that's already been occupied by the likes of Santana).

 

Of the superficially catchy pop songs, there is not one that actively irritates me (although the fast tempo and overall tempest-in-a-teacup attitude of ʽManicʼ comes close), but not a single one that would beg for replay value, either. It is bizarre that the verse melody of ʽCamelogueʼ begins exactly the same way as AC/DC's ʽLet Me Put My Love Into Youʼ (should that be interpreted as proof of Latimer being a closet fan of Back In Black?), but that's about the most profound ob­servation I could make about this bunch, alternating between odes of admiration and nostalgic laments but never reaching any solid musical heights. There's even a song called ʽHeroesʼ, but David Bowie has nothing to be afraid of — it's slow, instrumentally hookless, and completely dependent on its whiny plea of "heroes, I call for you!" that no hero could take seriously, unless it would be to promptly arrive on the scene and put the pleader out of his misery.

 

In short, I am quite tempted to give the record a thumbs down — it is truly the first Camel album that has nothing new or interesting to say — but as long as Latimer maintains that low profile and that humble façade and does not pretend to be a master of musical forms that he does not under­stand or love, there's nothing discretely «bad» about this music, and it can work okay as a back­ground mood setter. However, in terms of the overall trajectory, it is a fairly mean blow to be presented with something like this right after the relative artistic triumph of Nude.

 

STATIONARY TRAVELLER (1984)

 

1) Pressure Points; 2) Refugee; 3) Vopos; 4) Cloak And Dagger Man; 5) Stationary Traveller; 6) West Berlin; 7) Fingertips; 8) Missing; 9) After Words; 10) Long Goodbyes.

 

I imagine that after the blatant «sellout» of Single Factor, this was Latimer's attempt at repen­tance — another concept album on the issue of feeling lonely, oppressed, and rejected in a hostile world, only this time neither rooted in fantasy, as Snow Goose, nor in exotic reality, like Nude: Stationary Traveller deals with the everyday routine and escapist dreams of East Berliners, just five years before the demolition of The Wall, but still in a period when most people could hardly even dream about this event. A pretty decent topic for a Camel album, for sure, but the lineup assembled by Latimer for the sessions is questionable from the beginning — Ton Scherpenzeel on keyboards, a Dutch player who was the founding member of the occasionally pretty, but often bland and boring «soft-prog» band Kayak; and drummer Paul Burgess, whose main claim to fame was playing for the Godley-less and Creme-free version of 10cc.

 

Not that we should exclusively blame the keyboardist and the drummer for the fact that Statio­nary Traveller, for the most part, is a tedious, lifeless bore — a record that, dare I say it, is much worse than The Single Factor, because it pretends to a higher level of spirituality and a deeper level of, uh, depth, while at the same time fully embracing the safe, predictable, and sonically limp values of «adult contemporary». The sound has been compressed into a single monotonous texture of plastic synthesizers and Latimer's out-of-new-ideas weepy guitar solos, and all the songs produce absolutely the same emotional effect. Unfortunately, I just can't take any of this seriously — certainly not when even a Mel Collins guest spot on ʽFingertipsʼ takes on the charac­teristics of jazz muzak à la Kenny G.

 

What really kills the album is that its ultra-serious tone came at a very inopportune time. Take a song like ʽVoposʼ, which is supposed to brew up an atmosphere of fear, nay, dread at the per­spec­tive of being taken at night by the Volkspolizei — the atmosphere in question being repre­sented by a dark synth-bass line, a couple simple overdubbed synth loops, and a distorted power metal riff added in climactic moments. Not only do all those tones sound plastic and dated in the modern age, but the effort seems lazy and amateurish compared to emotionally similar work from, say, The Cure: Latimer is simply incapable of handling all that technology without making it obvious that he is doing it just for the sake of trendiness. Or ʽCloak And Dagger Manʼ — that's a classic example of «dinosaur prog gone pop», a steroid-muscular rocker that sounds more like post-Howe Asia than anything truly respectable... and, by the way, why is it trying to be so furious when it's about secret KGB agents?

 

It gets no better with the instrumentals, which uniformly lack memorable themes and just feature one dull keyboard or guitar solo after another. ʽPressure Pointsʼ is arguably the most interesting of these, compositionally, with Latimer taking after Mike Oldfield and delivering a strongly Celtic-influenced rather than blues-based passage — but the effect is still almost nullified by the awful backing synthesizers. As for stuff like the title track, it's largely conventional blues balla­deering (ʽHotel Californiaʼ style) with equally awful arrangements.

 

By the time we get to the grand finale of ʽLong Goodbyesʼ, your main concern might very likely be about how to make the actual goodbye shorter — at any cost possible. You were supposed to be drawn into a realistic atmosphere of fear, depression, and solitude, but the means chosen to express it all were so inept that, of all Westerners alive, I can only think of Barclay James Harvest as an even worse speaker for the freedom and happiness of German people. I have no idea of how well the album did on Western German charts at the time, but I do know that Decca never expressed any desire to go on with Camel's contract after it was released, and for once, I couldn't really blame them; so here we go, with the first definitive thumbs down in Camel history.

 

DUST AND DREAMS (1991)

 

1) Dust Bowl; 2) Go West; 3) Dusted Out; 4) Mother Road; 5) Needles; 6) Rose Of Sharon; 7) Milk 'n' Honey; 8) End Of The Line; 9) Storm Clouds; 10) Cotton Camp; 11) Broken Banks; 12) Sheet Rain; 13) Whispers; 14) Little Rivers And Little Rose; 15) Hopeless Anger; 16) Whispers In The Rain.

 

Isn't it a bit too predictable that, upon moving to California in the late Eighties, Latimer got the idea to make his new album into a conceptual suite based on The Grapes Of Wrath? Maybe he, too, liked to imagine himself as an outcast, broken down by the capitalist system (as personified by Decca Records) and further battered by unfavorable circumstances? Oh well, at any rate he must have been well off enough so as not to resort to baling cotton or picking peaches — instead, inspired by his new beginnings and supported by his wife, Susan Hoover (who wrote a large part of the lyrics), he set up his own minor label (Camel Productions), got the Stationary Traveller band back together, and besieged his muse for comfort.

 

Theoretically, a Camel-style musical / rock opera / oratorio / whatever, based on The Grapes Of Wrath, could have been a humble masterpiece — had it been recorded an era ago. The problem with Dust And Dreams, though, is that in terms of overall sound it is exactly like Stationary Tra­veller. The two main ingredients are still Scherpenzeel's «adult-approved» synthesizers and Latimer's clean, tasteful, and all-too-polite electric guitar; in between the two, they keep on generating the exact same soft-pretty-melancholic mood on every single track, and the result is yet another record whose appeal will largely be restricted to fans of post-Waters era Pink Floyd and very late Alan Parsons Project.

 

It might seem like a very good idea that most of the tracks are instrumental: the first two thirds of the album shift between vocal and instrumental compositions, and the final third, beginning with ʽStorm Cloudsʼ, is a completely instrumental suite, with several movements illustrating different moments from Tom Joad's timeline. After all, Camel's best albums had always been associated with instrumental music, and the vocals were one of the major reasons why Stationary Traveller had that safe-and-bland adult contemporary look. Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. While the final suite does sound unmistkably «Camelish», the instrumentation is too monotonous, and the melodic themes are too unimaginative, for it to even begin to match the peaks of Snow Goose or even Nude.

 

The most bold and «progressive» part of the suite is ʽHopeless Angerʼ, which does try to be louder, more dynamic and, indeed, angry than the rest of the compositions — and even goes as far as to incorporate some non-standard time signatures and multiple theme changes. But every­thing is just way too predictable — the big drum sound, the synth textures, the melodic guitar solos that always stop right on the brink of becoming exciting. There's no true memorability to these themes, and there's almost no personality; in fact, I think I'd easily pick contemporary Rush product over this, because at least Rush have always had the advantage of technically more im­pressive musicianship (well, Latimer might probably hold his own against Alex Lifeson, but the rhythm section on Dust And Dreams is not even worth talking about).

 

As for the vocal songs, well... I guess the only true low point is ʽRose Of Sharonʼ, which sounds like a cross between an ABBA ballad (courtesy of guest vocalist Mae McKenna, who is some­times compared with Enya but here sometimes dips into Frida's style) and a Disney musical number, but I am not really impressed with stuff like ʽMother Roadʼ (a MOR rocker with the usual boring pop metal rhythm guitars) or even with potentially poignant lyrical tracks like ʽGo Westʼ that seem to be trying way too hard to woo the listener with their «deep» sentimentality. Too clean, too polished, too Spiritual for a band that did not even have the budget to hire a proper orchestra, and had to model all of its Spirituality on awful plastic keyboards. (Okay, so one can­not really blame them for lack of budget — but, I dunno, one single classically trained cellist could have made more of a contribution than Tom Scherpenzeel and his array of electronics).

 

Overall, this is not a disaster — there's enough intelligent guitar playing here, and enough of reasonable musical ideas to at least let you know that this is no contract obligation we're talking about. But in terms of general sound, this record was frickin' dated before its time: production values are totally hickey for the likes of 1991 — more like 1987, when even Bruce Springsteen succumbed to such cheesiness on Tunnel Of Love. If Stationary Traveller was an odd concep­tual idea degraded to the level of total embarrassment, then Dust And Dreams is an improve­ment, as it's a fine conceptual idea degarded to the level of passable mediocrity. But that, unfor­tunately, is still not much of a recommendation.

 

HARBOUR OF TEARS (1996)

 

1) Irish Air; 2) Irish Air (instrumental reprise); 3) Harbour Of Tears; 4) Cybh; 5) Send Home The Slates; 6) Under The Moon; 7) Watching The Bobbins; 8) Generations; 9) Eyes Of Ireland; 10) Running From Paradise; 11) End Of The Day; 12) Coming Of Age; 13) The Hour Candle.

 

Honestly, there's not much to say about Harbour Of Tears after what has been said about Dust And Dreams. Here is another concept album about people going out West — this time, not from the Dust Bowl to California, though, but from the coasts of Ireland to the American shores: a voyage more remote in time and more extensive in space, and thus, liable for a bit more grave­ness and epicness. Expectedly, we add some Celtic overtones here, most noticeable on the ope­ning ʽIrish Airʼ — a theme first sung accappella by Mae McKenna, then performed by Andy on the flute, and finally, with a mighty opening howl, reproduced by him on electric guitar. It's a nice gradual transition from tender prettiness to wailing desperation, but it doesn't seem to have much of an original melody, and so, from the very start, you have everything that is right and everything that is wrong about this record in its first three minutes.

 

Right: the whole thing is permeated with quintessential Camel gloom, expressed in guitar tones, keyboard tones, chord sequences, build-ups, guitar solos, and vocals that sing about little other than toil, trouble, and grief caused by family separation rather than joy at the perspective of finding better life in a faraway country. Particularly good is that the sound is dominated by Lati­mer's acoustic/electric guitar and flute rather than keyboards (although Andy's new keyboardist, Mickey Sim­monds, is not much of a step up from Scherpenzeel).

 

Wrong: the overall level of energy seems just as low as on the previous few albums, and the monotonous mood leaves little space for surprises. The Celtic flavour is a nice touch, but you will hardly surprise anyone with a traditional Irish air in 1996, and besides, the flavour itself is really limited to only a few tracks — in addition to ʽIrish Airʼ, there's ʽEyes Of Irelandʼ, a stereotypical waltz that could just as well have been Lennon's ʽWorking Class Heroʼ, and a few brief instrumentals that are really more New Age than Celtic folk. The rest is standard fare late Camel dirge-rock. The most «progressive» of the tracks is arguably ʽComing Of Ageʼ, a multi-section composition with some tricky time signatures, but even that one culminates in a «Camel wail», with a howling two-chord riff as its culmination.

 

The biggest problem is that the album presents itself as a gut-wrenching emotional journey, but by that time, it had become such a typical routine for Latimer that you'd have to forget everything you ever knew about Camel to have your guts truly wrenched out. Burn down all context, and you might actually want to shed some tears in the harbour. Put all the context back, and you might feel yourself too jaded and weathered to spare even a single drop of salt water, because everything here is so strictly formulaic and predictable — predictable to the point that even after three listens, I cannot single out a single song in my memory. Okay, I guess ʽWatching The Bob­binsʼ has that suspenseful pause before the final line in each verse, that sort of makes it a little special. What else is new? Nothing.

 

Granted, if you are a big fan of Latimer's guitar playing, ʽThe Hour Candleʼ and a few other in­strumentals here are a must-have. I'm not sure how many chord sequences he uses that have not appeared on earlier Camel songs, but the blues soloing on ʽHour Candleʼ is tasteful and wonder­fully showcases his skill with sustained notes. Still not a match for ʽLiesʼ, though: too anthemic and pompous to really cut to the bone, if you ask me.

 

RAJAZ (1999)

 

1) Three Wishes; 2) Lost And Found; 3) The Final Encore; 4) Rajaz; 5) Shout; 6) Straight To My Heart; 7) Sahara; 8) Lawrence.

 

Rajaz is an Arabic poetry meter that has traditionally been associated with the slow, regular pace of camel hooves across the desert — meaning that, all of a sudden, Latimer must have woken up from a prolonged dreaming period and thought, «Hey! Last time we actually justified the band's name was on the album cover for Mirage! Why do I keep calling this outfit Camel if all I do is sing about the Berlin Wall, the Dust Bowl, and Irish immigration?» And there you have it — after years, if not decades, of detours, Rajaz is a conscious attempt to (a) explain why the band was originally named Camel after all and (b) get back to its (Camel's) original roots, or at least pro­vide some reasonable facsimile.

 

Of course, this is not really a nostalgic revisit of the styles and sounds of Mirage or any of those early records. Once the initial positive reaction of the «wow! finally something different and attention-grabbing!» is over, you begin to realize that this is still very much a solo Latimer album, and that he is still relying on the same chords and moods, and that Ton Scherpenzeel is back on keyboards, and that Latimer's wife is still writing the lyrics, and that the best tracks are all grouped in the record's first half, and that it still tends to slip back into moody, draggy, Harbour Of Tears-like inoffensiveness every now and then, and...

 

...and none of it really matters when the album opens with ʽThree Wishesʼ, a multi-part instru­mental that employs complex and frequent tempo changes, for once, and even incorporates ele­ments of jazz fusion — first time in how many years? Even the keyboards, which had been Camel's weakest link ever since Bardens' departure, have been diversified, with Scherpenzeel using a whole array of organs and synthesizers instead of stubbornly sticking to the plastic string-imitating tones of yesterday. The track has a nice buildup, gradually evolving from a desert-like atmosphere of solitary blueswailing lines over a dusty synth horizon to a pretty art-pop gallop through said desert and then to bits of tricky jazzy time signatures and, eventually, even a mysti­cally-magically distorted pseudo-Eastern guitar solo which is probably the closest Latimer ever came close to sounding like Steve Vai in his entire career.

 

That is just to give you the general idea that things are on the move — like I said, do not expect too much change, but expect just enough to feel a new surge of life after the seemingly endless rut of the past fifteen years. When the vocals enter the picture on ʽLost And Foundʼ, the impres­sion is disappointing — the same kind of tender hookless ballad that we already know so well — but once they go away, it's back to jerky-jazzy signatures and tonal diversity, with no less than three different approaches to guitar soloing, the last of which, heavy on sustained notes, seems to be taking a serious (and efficient) lesson from Robert Fripp. More stellar guitar work awaits on ʽThe Final Encoreʼ, and then, of course, there is the title track — yes, the one allegedly composed «on the camel meter», and while it does not exactly conjure visions of camels all by itself (pro­bably because it shows no Eastern influence whatsoever in the melody), it's still a good example of «sick and tired blues», culminating in a drawn-out slide solo that helps make the accompany­ing four-note «camel riff» even more hypnotic.

 

As we get to the second half, things begin to get less and less exciting, with more languid ballad­ry like ʽStraight To My Heartʼ and fewer of these exciting jazzy interludes. Still, ʽSaharaʼ is largely similar in structure to ʽThree Wishesʼ (same mish-mash of New Agey ambience, happy art-pop, and Eastern overtones), and if only the grand finale of ʽLawrenceʼ weren't so stretched out — Andy, come back to your senses, you're no David Lean! — it would have made for a more convincing conceptual conclusion; but it's a little too slow, too repetitive, and too scarce on ideas that weren't already musicalized on the first three tracks. In other words, sixty minutes of music is overkill: by all means, Latimer should have restricted himself to the usual running length of the LP era. We know he's a first-rate guitar player already.

 

Still, there is no denying it: Rajaz is the best Camel record since Nude, and although I am sure it could have been even better (if, for instance, Latimer had bothered bringing in a more refined keyboard player, or if he'd made it completely instrumental), it's one of those reassuring moments when you know that you have not waited around for nothing — the moment when cobwebs are shaken off, the sleeping giant awakens (or at least bats an eye), and suddenly you distinctly re­member why you used to single out the band in the first place. A definite thumbs up.

 

A NOD AND A WINK (2002)

 

1) A Nod And A Wink; 2) Simple Pleasures; 3) A Boy's Life; 4) Fox Hill; 5) The Miller's Tale; 6) Squigely Fair; 7) For Today; 8*) After All These Years.

 

Apparently, the idea of once again writing pretty, life-breathing music stuck with Latimer for a while, because this slightly belated, but logically continuous sequel to Rajaz (formally dedicated to the memory of Peter Bardens, who had died in early 2012) sounds every bit as lively as its predecessor, and sometimes even livelier. Again consisting of a few lengthy «progressive» tracks rather than a big bunch of short pop ones, A Nod And A Wink features two new band members (Guy LeBlanc on keyboards and Denis Clement on drums), plenty of musical ideas, and all of that uniquely Camel-esque melancholic atmosphere provided by a variety of Latimer guitar tones (rather than a single howl-at-the-moon one), flutes, acoustic and electronic keyboards.

 

The biggest difference from Rajaz is that this record is much more noticeably «English» in nature — where Rajaz took its inspiration from Arabian deserts, A Nod And A Wink has a sub­set of tunes very specifically loaded with British imagery, such as ʽFox Hillʼ (which wouldn't sound completely out of place on a classic early Genesis album like Nursery Cryme or, for that matter, Foxtrot) and ʽSquigely Fairʼ, a near-instrumental with alternating folksy / Elizabethan themes and even a very Jethro Tull-ian flute solo in the middle. This is not necessarily a good thing (immersing himself in Irish motifs did not help save Harbour Of Tears from being boring), but with the entire positive retro vibe going on, these influences are not ruined by stuffy produc­tion or too much dull instrumentation, so it's okay.

 

Like on Rajaz, the individual tunes do not seem to be too memorable; it is more important that they keep mutating, never letting a particular mediocre groove overstay its welcome before re­placing it with an aggressive guitar solo or a pensive acoustic part or a jazzy interlude or some­thing else — and that the tones, tempos, and moods constantly shift between tunes as well. ʽA Boy's Lifeʼ alone goes through an acoustic introduction, a heavenly anthemic theme with Andy on rainbow slide guitar, a gentle folksy waltz section, and a grand climax with a thick, juicy psychedelic solo: a prog lover's dream come true once more, in other words. The only bad news is that the band does not use enough tricky time signatures — but then again, think back on the old times: Camel were never really that big on 15/8 or 21/4, preferring to leave that side of the business to King Crimson, Genesis, and Gentle Giant.

 

As it is, it's fairly hard to explain why A Nod And A Wink sounds so good — its compositions do not linger too long in memory, its innovative potential is close to zero, and it does not even have a proper concept, let alone all the fox-hunting and village market references that are only valid for parts of the record. But somehow it just does. Even the slow, ponderous, anthemic ʽFor Todayʼ that ends the album with a choral sermon of "never give a day away / always live for to­day", somewhat echoing the old "never let go, never let go", sounds good, with Andy's «Gilmour-lite» bluesy soloing beginning in deeply tragic mode and then merging with the regal choir in an oddly uplifting-depressing symphonic sound, leaving us somewhat confused as to whether that admonition about never giving a day away is to be understood sincerely or ironically.

 

Still, if I truly had to single out one track, it would be ʽFox Hillʼ, for its ability to take the Camel sound and drag it out of its typically sluggish shell — the song is quite an agitated, spirited romp through several distinct musical parts, culminating in one of the most fabulous slide guitar solos I've ever had the pleasure of hearing from Latimer: catchy, yes, but most importantly, almost fox-like sly in execution. It is the kind of epic that was so sorely lacking for the previous twenty years, flexing a little muscle and sporting a bit of an ironic smile; essentially, there's always hope for any artist who, in the twilight years of his career, is still able to put out something like that.

 

Naturally, the album as a whole gets another thumbs up, and it is quite regrettable that Camel were not able to continue this winning streak — largely due to Latimer's own health problems, as he found himself battling bone marrow cancer and only managed to somewhat recover in the early 2010s. (The latest official «new» Camel release is a 2013 studio re-recording of the entire Snow Goose, which I have not heard and have very little intent to do so). And although this long break may be fatal, A Nod And A Wink definitely does not sound like a proper swan song re­cord may be expected to sound — because, of course, it was never meant to be Camel's last album, and we might yet get to hear another report on another day in dromedary life, provided there's any audience left in the 2010s to want to hear it.


CANDI STATON


I'M JUST A PRISONER (1970)

 

1) Someone You Use; 2) I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart; 3) You Don't Love Me No More; 4) Evidence; 5) Sweet Feeling; 6) Do Your Duty; 7) That's How Strong My Love Is; 8) I'm Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin'); 9) Another Man's Woman, Another Woman's Man; 10) Get It When I Want It.

 

The «First Lady of Southern Soul» (for about a few days in the early 1970s) was first discovered by the notorious soulster Clarence Carter, for whom she was first his backing vocalist, and then his wife, for about three years. In personal terms, that was improvement over her first husband, who beat her up — the second one merely cheated, which meant that the marriage also did not last long. But at least in professional terms Carter did good for her: recognizing that she had what it takes to step out as a solo artist, he set her up as such, getting her to Fame Studios at Muscle Shoals and even writing some songs for her.

 

Although there is nothing particularly original or unusual about this debut record (not to mention how small it is — ten short songs that are over in a jiffy), Clarence's instincts did not fail him: I'm Just A Prisoner is required listening for any serious fan of old school soul music. The songs have mostly been written specially for the artist (Carter is joined by other established songwriters such as George Jackson and Ronnie Shannon, and Staton herself gets at least one co-credit); the arrangements, given that we find ourselves in Muscle Shoals, are sonically impeccable; the backing band is tough and knows how to set itself on fire at all the right moments. But most im­portantly, right from the get-go Ms. Staton establishes an awesome presence and keeps it up right until the end.

 

Her earliest experience was gospel singing, which explains why it looks like she's taking Aretha Franklin as her role model — the power, the passion, the self-assertion, the fight for your right. She cannot scale the same heights as Aretha, yet, on the other hand, there is a gritty "bad bitch" vibe to her singing that you cannot find in Aretha's singing, either, and the whole slant of the album is on aggressive resistance — just look at these song titles: there are, at best, one or two songs with sentimental values, and even these are delivered with a flaming sword (ʽSweet Feelingʼ is a song of rescue and loyalty rather than one of tender love). Much more often it's about infidelity and treachery, though: the very first song states that "I'm just someone you run to, I'm just someone you use", even if it is set to an R&B-pop hybrid melody that one usually asso­ciates with chivalrous serenades from the likes of Sam Cooke.

 

The best effect is reached, how­ever, when gritty words rub against gritty music — ʽEvidenceʼ sets up a cool mid-tempo funky groove as a foundation for two and a half minutes of fervent rants and verbal slapping in such a pissed-off way as you'd rarely, if ever, get a chance to hear on an Aretha album. Where Franklin fights for the right to earn "respect when I come home", Staton makes accusations instead of demands, with little in the way of reconciliation. It's a hot, infuria­ting, involving performance, and the only problem is that the song fades out just as it begins to hit its stride — which, by the way, is a common problem with most of the material on here (each of the songs could have benefited from a little extra jam power). The most extreme case is probably ʽI'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheartʼ, rolling on a bit faster and explaining how stability in life is more important than getting it on with young men who'd all rather "do the camel walk", so, Romeo, take a hike. In theory, this point is debatable on several levels, but Candi's delivery is so tense, fast, fluent, and powerful that you barely have the opportunity to retort — she emerges here as a true master of «artistic flooding».

 

Accordingly, there's this real powerful gospel take here on ʽThat's How Strong My Love Isʼ, for some reason featuring a completely new set of lyrics (compared to the classic Otis Redding ver­sion) and a completely new attitude — one of iron-willed loyalty rather than insane devotion, all the more ironic seeing as how the song is surrounded on all sides with tunes complaining about mistreatment and deception. But the irony does not really matter as long as everything is delive­red with credibility — and it is, enough for the lady to have placed three singles from here in the lower ranges of the US pop charts and in the higher ranges of the R&B ones. (The biggest R&B chart success was ʽSweet Feelingʼ, a song melodically reminiscent of Aretha's ʽI Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)ʼ, but more rhythmically conventional). Were this released on the Atlantic label, we'd probably be hearing much more about it than we usually do — but a techni­cal inconvenience like that should never stand in the way of a well-earned thumbs up.

 

STAND BY YOUR MAN (1971)

 

1) Stand By Your Man; 2) How Can I Put Out The Flame?; 3) I'm Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin'); 4) Mr. And Mrs. Untrue; 5) Too Hurt To Cry; 6) He Called Me Baby; 7) Sweet Feeling; 8) To Hear You Say You're Mine; 9) What Would Become Of Me; 10) Freedom Is Just Beyond The Door.

 

You just gotta love the irony in a record that begins with "But if you love him, you'll forgive him... cause after all, he's just a man" — and then, less than half an hour later, still ends in "But oh, I'm leaving you for good, baby, and I'm never comin' back no more". What can be said? Guess that Tammy Wynette recipe just doesn't work that well, after all, with a fiery black lady from the same Deep South. Of course, Candi Staton still had her several seconds of fame with the cover of ʽStand By Your Manʼ and not with ʽFreedom Is Just Beyond The Doorʼ — but that just goes to show what sort of material was still seen as preferable to male record-buying audiences (black and white alike, I'm sure) in 1971, because in retrospect, ʽFreedomʼ is clearly the superior number here, with a stern bass groove and a defiant, in-yer-face vocal delivery that is not afraid to offend and disturb if it sees itself in the right.

 

On the whole, though, the album is a bit of a step down, and not just because they seem stumped for new material (there's this dirty trick of mixing two previously released songs with ten new ones, in the hope that nobody would notice), but precisely because, with the Wynette cover and a few other songs, the record dips a bit towards the sentimental side, downplaying the raw anger of the vast majority of the material on I'm Just A Prisoner. Most of the new songs are either simple love declarations, or broken-hearted confessions (ʽToo Hurt To Cryʼ, ʽMr. And Mrs. Untrueʼ); ʽFreedomʼ is the only red-hot statement of self-assertion, and it comes in just a little too late to dissipate the odd feeling that, perhaps, Stanton's spirit was broken and subdued to the standards of polite inoffensiveness.

 

Still, even so, there is no denying that the regular levels of songwriting, musicianship, and vocal aptitude have all been kept up — because of that, there is not one unpleasant second on the album, and even when she is calling upon ladies to "stand by your man, give him two arms to cling to", she manages to come across as totally believable; there's no attempt whatsoever to show irony or ambiguity (although she does amend the line "keep givin' all the love you can" to "he's giving you all the love you can", to make it seem less of a one-sided commitment), and she gets away with it by putting on that old gospel air and pretending that standing by your man is not that spiritually different from standing by your God. The problem is, with an approach like that, there are virtual­ly no standout tracks on the record — just one lazy, lush, longing R&B ba