Thursday, 28 June 2018

Pretzel Logic - Steely Dan

Provenance: I became familiar with two Steely Dan songs right around the same time - 'Do It Again' from Can't Buy a Thrill and 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number' from this bad boy, and I bought both albums close together.

Review: I struggle, sometimes. The easiest reviews to write, or so it seems, are those where I find some little scab to pick at, such as an undertow of misogyny; and goodness knows I enjoy giving a band a good shoeing every now and again. The tough ones are when I'm confronted with something I unabashedly love and, furthermore, take seriously. Case in point - Pretzel Logic.

I remember reading stories about how Persian carpet makers would deliberately introduce a single flaw into their otherwise expert designs. This was done to assert that only God's creations could be considered perfect, and that no man should get ideas about his station in life. Well, if there's a Persian Flaw in Pretzel Logic I'll be damned trying to find it. The first two Steely Dan albums were - are - superb, but here they shift gears into another realm altogether. Everything here is fine-tooled, finessed, wrought so delicately that the music itself seems to glint and gleam in a kind of audio pearlescence.

Attempting to play advocatus diaboli for a moment here, I'll try to level a charge or two against the album whilst giving it a listen. For one, it doesn't exactly throb with a primal swamp rhythm. It's certainly not shack-shaking primitivism of the stripe one would encounter with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard or even Motorhead. This is music that wipes it feet before entering, for sure. It's an accusation heard often against Steely Dan - that in attempting to achieve technical ecstasy the finished product ends up rather bloodless. I get it. I'm not going to psyche myself up before playing sport by blasting 'Any Major Dude Will Tell You'. Of course not.

And hey, some people just plain don't like the Dan. And those people are wrong.

I'm not going to talk about key changes or thirteenth chords, though as my music professor father-in-law would assert, those things are totally legit to consider when unpacking why Steely Dan (and Pretzel Logic in particular) are so good. I will say that having so many jazz elements bubbling away underneath the surface of eminently hummable and hooky pop songs is a tough thing to pull off, however. And I guess this is why I take Steely Dan seriously, because hearing such consideration and sophistication in popular music is rare (and, I would argue, increasingly so).

Take, for example, the wonderfully kinetic 'Parker's Band'. As a tribute to Bird it's a canny and multifaceted little gem, one in which we don't even hear a snippet of Parker-inspired music until the cavalcade of horns ushering in the end of the track. The lyrics, meanwhile, begin on the same declarative note as music labels adopted to advertise their wares at the time - "Savoy Sides presents a new saxophone sensation!" Just how immersive is that! It's a small detail, no doubt, but exactly the kind of thing that Becker and Fagen agonised over to ensure that their music hit all the marks. Plus the middle eight is perfect:

We will spend a dizzy weekend
Smacked into a trance
Me and you will listen to
A little bit of what made preacher dance

In four lines we get a nod to Dizzy Gillespie, a nod to nodding out and the merest equation of jazz as a surrogate spiritualism. It's true that Steely Dan's lyrics can often seem elliptical to the point of opacity, but my counter to that would be what's the problem? Does everything need to be so literal? Is it not metonym, metaphor, allusion and the rest that work as the very stuff of poetry? Don't get me wrong, I'm not ordaining Steely fucking Dan as the inheritors of James Joyce's mantle. What I'm groping towards is that sometimes the hazy, ill-defined mirages conjured up on Pretzel Logic are perhaps more effective than a more prolix versifying at creating mood. It asks the listener to bring something to the game. I'm pretty sure Edgar Allan Poe was thinking of 'Charlie Freak' when he wrote "music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry."

(I should add, for the uninitiated, that Steely Dan is anything but hard to get into. Even the most teasingly obscure lyrics are wrapped up in the chewiest, sweetest jazz-rock you're likely to hear. Plus, if you watch movies there's always an olive branch to grab hold of - "If the dawn patrol gotta tell you twice / They're gonna do it with a shotgun" crops up in the flinty 'Night By Night', for example. I've mentioned before now the massive influence of cinema I have perceived in Fagen's songwriting.)

As someone who grew up away from American classic rock radio I don't have the ubiquity of Steely Dan to process. When I first became conscious of the fact I was listening to Steely Dan I was already (in law, if not in spirit) an adult. Thus, to a guy who had gorged on all the lumpen blooz-rock the 1970s had to offer, Steely Dan sounded fresh, curious and fizzing with musical ideas. A few years on, and now as the owner of their entire discography, nothing's changed. To me, Steely Dan represent the apogee of what popular music can be, which is a technicolour meld of virtuosity, wit and a blue flame of emotion. The only thing left to add is that, despite lacking the Persian Flaw, I don't even regard Pretzel Logic as their best work. That's for another day...

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Scorpion Child - Scorpion Child

Provenance: Another overheated review by Classic Rock magazine led me to making this purchase.

Review: There's a reason why, when my Classic Rock subscription lapsed last month, I haven't exactly jumped to renew. Whilst the featured articles are pretty good (when they're not 'listicles' - do I really give a fig about the '50 greatest guitar solos in rock history'? The answer is no I don't) the reviews section is full of shit. True, if it weren't for glowing write-ups of early Ultravox or Robin Trower's Go My Way I probably wouldn't have rolled the bones, but for every Ha! Ha! Ha! there's been a We're Here Because We're Here (NB: this corpulent monstrosity of an album garnered a '9/10' review from the pie-dribbler on prog duty that month).

Yet here I am again, failing to learn my lesson. I'm worse than those Sonic the Hedgehog man-children whose entire lives are spent whining about bad computer games on YouTube. At least those fellows possess some kind of fealty, albeit to anthropomorphic road-kill. I have no excuse, my ambivalence towards Classic Rock's reviews section was crystallised many moons ago and yet I still return to drink from the well. And thus, Scorpion Child.

Let's start with their name, as it sets the tone for everything else. Like everything else associated with this band it feels derivative, like a muffled echo of something infinitely better. You can imagine a band called Scorpion Child playing gigs at the local rugby club, and they'll even throw in a Bon Jovi cover just to keep everyone happy. And the songs? They've got names like 'Salvation Slave', 'Liquor', 'In the Arms of Ecstasy', 'Paradigm' and, er, 'Polygon of Eyes'. Aside from that last one (what the hell?) they must've taken all of two freaking minutes to come up with. 'Salvation Slave'?? Puhhh-leazzze. Utterly cringeworthy.

Still, you'll be relieved to know that Scorpion Child, at least on the basis of this self-titled nugget (of what, you may ask) do indeed sound like a competent bar band who have struck upon the idea of "playing badass hard rock, like Led Zep or Deep Purple, but with a modern twist", the latter meaning that the production is loud and clippy. Scorpion Child is a bunch of riffs bolted together underneath the interminable wailing of a guy who, one suspects, imagines himself to be a latter day Glenn Hughes, albeit if the Voice of Rock possessed an irritating Roger Chapman bleat to his vibrato and also sucked a bit.

Don't misunderstand me, these guys can play. They're perfectly adept at playing riffy heavy rock, and I'm sure they'd be fine as the backdrop to a few cold ones. A bit sluggish, a tad pedestrian in places, rather too familiar overall, but it's fine. It's fine. And that's the problem. Nothing grates on me more, musically speaking, than bang average. I've got time for virtuosity, I love a glorious failure, god knows I love a trier; and by all means, do something creepy and weird in your basement, I'll lap it up. But if there's no craft, no spark, no inspiration (in whatever form that might take) then I struggle to maintain interest. The guys in Scorpion Child are no doubt committed and passionate about what they do, yet I can't help but feel that instead of a fire-breathing demon of an album, they've created a facsimile of one.

Stale, predictable and one-pace - all words you can use to describe my blog, but applicable to this album too. And yet whilst I struggle to delineate any real plus points (I guess the Geddy Lee impression on 'Antioch' is pretty good), there are others who really dig what Scorpion Child are serving up. Like, really dig it. Good for them, but not really my cup o' char, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Taj Mahal - Taj Mahal

Provenance: From the moment I picked up a guitar I was interested in the blues. When it came to learning riffs or copping licks, the pentatonic scale seemed to be all-pervasive, looming as it does to this day over a century's worth of popular music. For a while, I was just all about cats like Stevie Ray Vaughan, guys who could shift around the fretboard. Yet even then I was dimly aware of names like BB King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson. These days each one, coming from different times, places and styles of the blues as they do, sound utterly distinctive - but at the time they were old blues guys.

So whilst learning 'Pride and Joy' and 'Crossfire', I was delving backwards and finding some awesome, overpowering stuff. Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Willie McTell became favourites, as did Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown (whose birthday, I distinctly recall, was marked on a Simpsons calendar our family once had), Son House, Fred McDowell, Pinetop Perkins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and of course the incredible Lightnin' Hopkins. Man, you can put 'Lonesome Dog Blues' on right now and I'll still reflexively crack a grin at Lightnin's "po' dog" aside during the first verse.

Later on at university my housemate Ben and I devoured the Martin Scorsese-produced series of documentaries on blues music and that's when I first encountered Taj Mahal. Later, for my birthday, Ben bought me the Taj Mahal 'best of' that accompanied the series and I was away. That was it - I was a Taj Mahal guy from then on.

Now, my partner credits me with hepping my father-in-law to Taj Mahal - which is cool, because if I did, I'm indirectly response for the fact that he's now writing a biography of the man. Coming full circle, it was thanks to him that I was able to go backstage after Taj's show in London last year. He's a man who, I suspect, meets scores of people every night on the road, but he took one look at me and already knew my name, who I was and my backstory. I, a fairly insignificant cog in the grand scheme of things, was impressed, surprised and humbled. We had a good chat, incidentally, about Cool John Ferguson, who is another guy you need to check out. Oh, and at the same time I also met a true broadcasting hero of mine, Dotun Adebayo (he was a prince, by the way, making a mockery of the adage that one should never meet one's idols).

Review: This is where it all began - almost. Here is Taj Mahal, taking his first solo strides after playing with the Rising Sons (who also featured Ry Cooder and future Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy), with a self-titled straight shot of the blues. At a shade over half an hour it's a tight little collection but across the eight tracks Mahal roams around the blues landscape, executing everything from electrified rock to gutbucket country. With a crack band featuring his erstwhile Rising Sons colleagues, it's every bit as impressive as it is eclectic.

Dig this, too - the opening harmonica trill on 'Leaving Trunk' is lodged firmly in my top five ways to start an album. It's startling and joyous, acting almost as a heraldic fanfare or a clarion call to arms, before locking in with a funky, choppy rhythm that causes one's thighs to twitch involuntarily. All this and Mahal hasn't even started shouting the blues in a voice that contains all the grime and passion you could ask for. Yes, yes, yes.

One thing that I have omitted to suggest so far is this album's importance. I genuinely think that without Taj Mahal and a few other American electric blues releases of the era, the renaissance the genre enjoyed in the 1980s wouldn't have happened. Here was an African-American artist contemporaneous with the Rolling Stones, Canned Heat and the rest, creating music at once so recognisable yet so vital as to be quietly revolutionary. Despite the fact that almost every song is a cover Mahal's arrangements sound fresh, injecting fire into the veins of hoary old favourites such as 'Dust My Broom' and 'Statesboro Blues' (NB: the latter is excellent but, alas, my third-favourite rendition of the song; the best being by Blind Willie McTell and the runner-up emanating from the Rising Sons, whose clattery breakneck version is a revelation).

I suppose that's the genius of Taj Mahal - it straddles old and new without ever seeming to compromise or accommodate. There are no swirling Hammond organs or phased drums here - you've got drums, bass, guitar, harmonica, piano; we could be talking the same kind of setup that Muddy Waters was using when storming the clubs and cutting heads in Chicago a decade or more before. The closest Taj Mahal comes to anything that has an obvious genesis in the 1960s is 'E Z Rider', which has a couple of chord changes in the turnaround that Jimmy Rodgers probably wouldn't have put together; and the Sleepy John Estes number 'Diving Duck' gets the same hard-hitting, funky treatment that would come to characterise the best-known version of Albert King's seminal 'Born Under a Bad Sign'.

There's space for one more, and perhaps the most important, song on the album. Mahal stretches out 'The Celebrated Walkin' Blues' to almost nine minutes long, building a slow song slowly. In doing so, room is provided for some dirty slide guitar, keening harmonica and a mandolin counterpoint that serves to remind the listener that blues may live in the city but was born in the country. It lollops along methodically, hypnotically, voice and instruments weaving in and out of the unceasing plod of the bass and drums. It's masterful in its simplicity and stateliness, and served notice on all the British guys trying to sound like Jeff Beck or Alvin Lee. It says: this is the blues served neat, and you boys aren't getting close. I love it.

Later on the scholar and restless spirit that is Taj Mahal would seek out common threads between African-American folk cultures and those of both sub-Saharan Africa and Hawaii, recording some of the most startling collaborations I've been privileged to hear. And it's all there - even when he's rocking out in Zanzibar or Honolulu, that blues root that is so firmly delineated on Taj Mahal is always pulsing away in the background. To the novice Taj Mahal listener: start here, push forward and, as the man himself does, keep pushing - you'll be rewarded.