Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Chinese Democracy - Guns N' Roses

Provenance: Ahh, Chinese Democracy - the great white whale of the butt rock scene. I'm aghast at the realisation that I've spent something in the region of 18 years lurking and posting on an old-skool music message board, and for almost half that time the main scuttlebutt was about Chinese freaking Democracy.

When was it coming out? Who's on it? Why is it taking so long? Did Slash sneak in at midnight to record some solos? Did Brian May overdub them? Will this actually be worth it? Has Axl Rose gone mad?

Sifting through the misinformation and gossip that took up most of the discussion, one thing became apparent - this was going to be an expensive album. And so it came to pass - by around 2005, it was revealed that the production of Chinese Democracy hovered around the $13 million mark. Yet it still wasn't ready.

Then, in 2008, news flew up and down the forum, like Paul Revere announcing the imminent arrival of the British. Chinese Democracy was coming! It was going to be released in time for Christmas! Fifteen years after the underwhelming Spaghetti Incident, the band that called itself Guns N' Roses was about to launch its meisterwerk into the world and we, the grateful, desperate idiots that we were, were in raptures. Fifteen years and tens of millions of dollars in the making - this was going to sound like music of the goddamn future!

Review: I saw Guns N' Roses play a headline set at Sweden Rock Festival once. It was truly dreadful. This was the same year as the previously discussed Billy Idol performance, which was very bad. However, in comparison to Rose and his ragtag band of mercs, Idol's set was an exemplar of song selection, pacing and competence. Having missed their stage time by about an hour, GNR finally emerged all cannons blazing with the title track from Chinese Democracy -  and it sounded simply incredible. That is, until Rose started singing in a voice best described as a halfway decent impersonation of a geriatric Mickey Mouse. About seven songs in I gave up and headed back to my tent, arriving at roughly the same time as the other folk camping nearby, all equally disgusted. I say 'seven songs'; ultimately I heard a couple more Chinese Democracy cuts done badly, one track from Appetite for Destruction and, oddly, a brace of instrumental solos, one of which was Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme.

But hey, 'Chinese Democracy' (the song) sounded good live! And here, on Chinese Democracy, with the luxury of a studio at his disposal, Axl hits the mark too, the track sounding like the Scorpions' 'Rock You Like a Hurricane' on anabolic steroids, featuring a truly startling guitar solo from Buckethead. However, even in this - probably the best overall cut to grace the album - the seeds of what makes Chinese Democracy somewhat irksome can be detected. One song with a distant, echoing introduction that suddenly slams into sharp focus is cool, especially out the traps; but the trick is then repeated on 'Riad N' the Bedouins', track nine. (Also, 'bedouin' is the correct plural but I'm not sure too many Guns N' Roses fans are particularly fussed.)

As Alice Cooper once said, it's the little things that drive you wild. At times you can hear a touch of technological 'assistance' in the vocal tracks (though for the most egregious uses of this wizardry, I'd point the reader towards Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook series - unlistenable shite), and some of the production choices already sound dated. Despite it being the older album, you simply can't say that about Appetite for Destruction - yes, you can place it at a certain juncture in time, but it still sounds vital and snappy. The dead hand of digital is all over Chinese Democracy, combined with some synthesiser flourishes that come straight off Billie Piper's debut. What in the everlasting fuck is that weak drum loop on 'There Was a Time' all about anyway? At least it blossoms into a pretty engaging mid-paced epic, as opposed to preceding number 'If The World'; that whole mess sounds like an abandoned Kula Shaker/Babylon Zoo collaboration.

Another thing I've got against Chinese Democracy is that, at 14 tracks and seventy-odd minutes, it's too flabby. Ditch the ballads. Guns N' Roses were never any good at them. You know why Appetite... was so fun? No ballads. Why are both (whew!) Use Your Illusions so exhausting and cringingly self-indulgent? Unspeakably bad content like 'Don't Cry', the endless 'November Rain', 'Civil War' (which also features whistling, by personal bugbear), nine-minutes-and-change of 'Estranged' and a completely unnecessary version of 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door'. Hateful, all of it. Yet here comes Axl with his Baby Grand and delusions of being, seemingly, the next Richard Marx on pap like 'This I Love'.

Whilst we're on the subject of writing, 'Prostitute' and 'Catcher in the Rye' are embarrassing. The latter especially so, with Axl crooning his trademark strangulated 'ooos' around the song's title to arse-clenching effect. It's also a bit reminiscent of Pilot, albeit the wimp-rock quotient is considerably beefed up.

But, listen you, I don't hate it at all! The really primo stuff absolutely glitters - 'Chinese Democracy', 'Better', 'Scraped' and 'I.R.S.' all land knockout punches. They are, by and large, brash and uncomplicated, with guitars to the fore (which prompts another issue; so much six-string talent to hand, so poorly utilised). When Axl and chums try to be cute, they get bogged down in the weeds far too often. And at times there's simply just too much of too much, lending Chinese Democracy a slightly oppressive, suffocated quality. One feels that much of the material began lean and sharp, but was gussied up so much between hither and thither that in the end it hits with the impact of a marshmallow.

For any other band I'd consider a release like Chinese Democracy to be a near miss, an ambitious stab that falls short. I've mentioned before that I find this quality much more endearing than diminishing returns that stick to a formula. However, I can't quite conceive of this as a win for Guns N' Roses - so much time, effort and cash was plowed into its gestation, yet it feels as if mistakes from the past are doubled down upon, but this time accompanied by a few mid-00s beats in a quixotic attempt to appear contemporary. Next time, eh, lads?

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Mojo Working: the Best of Ace Blues - Various Artists

Provenance: Learning how to play guitar, blues was almost one of the first things I gravitated towards. The songs largely stuck to a formula I could follow, it gave me the foundations upon which to fumble around with the minor pentatonic, plus it sounded really cool.

I think I picked this little doozy up in my late teens. I definitely had it before university, because I used Little Willie Littlefield's 'Happy Pay Day' on a video project.

Review: Twenty tracks and not a duff amongst them. I must have picked this up because I recognised a few of the names - BB King, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins - but it's the lesser lights who make this interesting. For a genre that is sometimes dismissed as too simplistic for true sophisticates, it also runs the gamut, from the minimalist vamping of Hooker on the immortal 'Boogie Chillen' via the skronkin' sax-fest of Littlefield's jubilant 'Happy Pay Day' to the lamplit comedown blues of Johnny 'Guitar' Watson's wonderful, idiosyncratic 'Three Hours Past Midnight'. The vast majority of this stuff comes from the 1950s but still packs a right ol' wallop in the speaker department, and makes a lot of what was on the pop charts at the time sound insipid and neutered.

Honestly, this collection probably came along at just the right time. Having (somewhat) shaken off my thraldom to Stevie Ray Vaughan, I was dangerously close to becoming that most dreaded specie amongst blues fans, the Purist. Any taint of commerciality, any hint that the guy I was listening to hadn't flogged his soul at the crossroads, and I wasn't interested. For me, half the excitement was the mystery, the notion of singular men "emerging fully-formed from the Delta", as Elijah Wald has it in Escaping the Delta, his excellent deconstruction of the mythology and assumptions made about Robert Johnson, probably the blues' most totemic figure (a book that also ably demonstrates that Johnson was every bit as swayed by his peers, and contemporary tastes, as any other artist). So, for me, the perfect blues artist had an unknown birthdate, a sketchy recording history, and an early, hopefully disputed, and perhaps grisly, death. Oh, and they played solo.

The archetype, then, was someone like Blind Willie Johnson and his 'Cold Was the Night, Dark Was the Ground'; a piece of music so powerful that it was blasted into the galaxy for space aliens to enjoy, performed by an artist who met a suitably gothic demise. Not quite as tragic, but even more haunting was Skip James' breathtaking 'Devil Got My Woman', used to such good effect in the underrated movie Ghost World. You see, it all resonated with that key watchword for me - authenticity.

So, thank goodness for Mojo Working, with its stylistic breadth and judicious choice of cuts. Yes, it still had those choons that got me all shivering and misty-eyed about southron twilights - the spare, sinister 'Lonesome Dog Blues' from Lightnin' Hopkins chief amongst them - but it also opened my ears to the richness and variety not just of the sonic template of the blues, but also its moods. I've already mentioned the knockabout 'Happy Pay Day', but there's also the sly insinuations of Arthur Gunter's chooglin' acoustic number 'Baby Let's Play House' and the more forthright swamp-braggadocio of Slim Harpo's 'I'm a King Bee' (which features a sound used to create the instrumental hook - I'm not even sure whether it's a bass or harmonica - that I'm yet to hear anywhere else).

Mojo Working basically became by blues primer, the springboard for exploration which has led me to buying albums of at least half of the artists that feature on the compilation. Hell, I've even reviewed a couple of them! But the one I want to dwell on just for a moment is an artist who first tasted success with rhythm and blues in the 1950s, and then again during the 1970s. I am, of course, talking about Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. I am actually more familiar with his hepcat funkster output, but the 1956 joint that appears on Mojo Working sounds astonishingly modern. 'Three Hours Past Midnight' is remarkable not only for its pin-sharp production but the tone Watson coaxes out of his guitar. On an album full of distinctive guitar work (from Elmore James's slashing slide playing to Little Johnny Taylor's busy, jazzy runs up and down the fretboard), Watson's lead sounds like it was beamed in from another galaxy. It's utterly strange! A kind of clucking, quacking noise that's accentuated by Watson's staccato attack (apparently using his thumb alone, which boggles my noggin), but something I can't imagine all the available ProTools plugins could ever replicate.

They might get close, but they'll never quite make it. And what is that unassailable quality that cannot quite be replicated, if it isn't that magic notion, authenticity?

Of the hundreds of albums I own, few have burnt themselves into the memory quite like Mojo Working. Every track appears in the mind's eye as distinct and as whole as entire universes. When I give this a spin, I can convince myself that this is the alpha and omega; no other music exists. And for the span of an hour, perhaps, it doesn't.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Heavn - Jamila Woods

Provenance: My partner went to a Jamila Woods show and bought a copy of Heavn. They said that "I might like it", and it's ended up in our shared, monolithic CD collection (only Blue Oyster Cult and Michael Jackson are kept reverentially separate), so here goes.

Review: I'm really not qualified to talk about Heavn at all.

Now, regular readers of this benighted blog will no doubt be wondering why I've only awoken to my almost crippling limitations this far down the line. And it's fair, I don't consider myself a Robert Christgau (nice website mate) or anything of that calibre. I poke and pry, and sometimes alight on the odd insight or two; I tend to be more at home with metal than other genres; heaven forfend that I try and step up to the plate with a jazz review. I would suggest, humbly, that one of my strengths is that I know what I know, and correspondingly I have a fair idea of what I don't know.

So, I know that I don't know enough to appraise Jamila Woods' full-length solo debut Heavn in anything other than the most superficial aesthetic terms. Why? Because unlike the person I am sharing a life with, I have no idea what it's like to be raised as a black woman in America, and this notion of the beating heart of the song cycle. Okay, you might counter, what could I possibly share with the guys in Motley Crue or ZZ Top, or with Tom Waits? My answer - lots of cultural touchstones, a collective musical inheritance (which ironically appropriates tons from black-origin forms) and a society that is happy to propagate the notion that the least amongst us white folk is still better than someone else. And in the USA, that's black people, Latinx, indigenous peoples, queer folk - and good fucking luck if you intersect across any of these designations.

Here goes, then - this is pretty damn great. The production is whipsmart, all wobbly electro-dreamscapes and snappy beats. Woods is a rather lovely singer - sweet and mellifluous, which honeys some incredibly stark messages. Eric Garner's choking at the hands of the police is referenced in 'Vry Blck', a track that sounds like a playground chant, and I'm sure that the dazzling, swirling 'Heavn' slips in a reference to the slave trade with the same sly, allusory quality employed by Randy Newman on 'Sail Away'.

I like the way that Heavn swings between moods; at times it exhibits a playful, wilful strain of juvenilia that's also present on cuts by Tank and the Bangas; at others, there's a dense, layered jazz-tinged soul-pop sound that resembles KING's first album, which I properly loved. Collaborations are judicious, which makes a change; Chance the Rapper, to take one instance, shifts the pace nicely in 'LSD' with a dense, push-pull verse that abuts Woods' sleeker versifying very effectively.

Perhaps even more than the black female experience, however, is how strikingly personal Heavn is. Little nuggets of a life zoomed in at microscopic level shine through every now and again, to the extent that a line like "I be in my nightgown, chicken wings ready" feels both utterly humdrum and utterly voyeuristic. This intimacy is heightened by the spoken-word interludes studded throughout Heavn, which are made to sound as if Woods is talking down a phone line. It genuinely feels like engaging in a conversation, listening to Woods' joy at unexpectedly being able to bond with other black women through shared schoolyard games, or sharing the story of how she got her name, or musing about living a life true to oneself. It's all apiece conceptually with everything else on Heavn, and it's wonderful.

I'm very sorry if I've blundered through the album, missing any number of references that Woods has painstakingly woven into the tapestry of Heavn. For what it's worth, I'm smitten with this cerebral, passionate, reflective, sumptuously crafted offering. It feels apt that Heavn finishes up on a reprise of the most affirming track, 'Holy' - "woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me / I'm not lonely, I'm alone / And I'm holy by my own" - a message of self-love that everybody could do with, from time to time.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Red Queen To Gryphon Three - Gryphon

Provenance: A few years ago at work, we were idling away the hours on the taxpayer's dime chatting about striking examples of cover sleeve artwork. I recalled an album my dad still owns, Raindance, by today's subjects Gryphon. In the course of searching for the cover art online, I discovered that Gryphon had also produced a work called Red Queen To Gryphon Three, a concept album that's based on a game of chess and features a krumhorn. Armed with that knowledge, what do you think I did next?

Review: You know when people take that "none more black" line from This Is Spinal Tap and apply it to some other scenario, and it's never funny? Well, I'm not about to break the mould here, but in all human endeavour, there is none more prog than Red Queen To Gryphon Three. It takes two of the nerdiest things in existence - prog and chess - and fuses them together via the medium of medieval instrumentation. I imagine this as the product of only the most ascetic of proggers, denying themselves all pleasures of the flesh (most definitely women, although one suspects that wasn't difficult) to come up with this shining anthracite bolus of musical antimatter. So dimly, horrifyingly black that it sucks all pretenders into the gaping maw of its prog-rock singularity. Friends, this is geekery on a colossal scale.

We've got four lengthy tracks called 'Opening Move', 'Second Spasm' (lol), 'Lament' and 'Checkmate'. None of this makes any sense whatsoever, because this is prog so pure that it's entirely instrumental. Why besmirch this magical extravaganza with such earth-bound discordance as the English language? This is the music of the spheres! The universal resonance! I will concede that, possibly, the only thing more progressive would be to either make up your own language or perform your horrible compositions on ice.

I'm not sure I even need to tell you that Red Queen To Gryphon Three begins with a keyboard fanfare, as anyone with a passing knowledge of the genre could've guessed that already. 'Opening Move' is ambitious, in the sense that it takes the listener through a variety of moods - one moment jaunty, the next foreboding - none of which that I've ever experienced when playing chess. The performances are almost virtuoso, and it must be admitted that the quieter, piano-led moments are quite affecting. 'Second Spasm' (still laughing) starts off altogether rather 'hey nonny-nonny', but again, shifts about in timing and atmosphere; however, it retains a cheerfully martial feeling throughout, which gives it a good sense of cohesion, and the main theme (played on a variety of instruments) manages to be both knotty and catchy at the same time. Erk! I'm starting to enjoy this!

Ah, but now we're onto 'Lament', which is very sad and makes me cry. Kidding! Yeah, it's a bit more mournful than the preceding material, and the bassoon (a glum instrument) gets a decent workout, but any true emotion gets sucked out of proceedings by mere dint of it being a fucking prog track. Can you sob in 13/7 time? These guys seem to think you can. Weirdly for a track called 'Lament', there are a couple of brief movements that are frantic and upbeat, all crazy woodwind and Afrobeat guitar sounds. By this point I felt that I'd been listening to RQTGT for about a day, and so these moments of elation mirrored my notion that it was all soon to be over. A glimpse at the stereo revealed I was only just over halfway through.

Ahhhhh, but I can't quite hate it! The music is so guileless, so questing and brimming with ideas that cynicism feels churlish. It's not as if anything hangs around too long, either - Gryphon's modus operandi on RQTGT seems to be "getting bored of this twiddly bit? Don't worry, another will be along soon enough."

However, once you're halfway through 'Checkmate', exhaustion has almost settled in. Despite noble attempts to cut through all the jibjab by establishing a theme for each track, it's all starting to blur together. The jazz guitars! The clavinets! The bassoons! The krumhorns! (Reader, I have discovered that there are two krumhorn players on this album.) In summation, Red Queen To Gryphon Three certainly takes the listener on a journey - one where the destination can, at times, be obscure - but it's a quixotic undertaking. How anyone can conjure up a game of chess whilst being bombarded by this folk-prog maelstrom is beyond me.

At core, though, this is the most potently distilled prog in my collection, and so I shall cherish it forever. I'll probably listen sparingly, because I don't want to actually turn into a wizard, but listen again I shall.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Aqualung - Jethro Tull

Provenance: I guess at one time I decided that should get into Jethro Tull. Anyway, I purchased this album before I went to university because it formed part of the meagre collection of burnt CD-Rs that accompanied me to halls of residence. I blasted the shit out of this thing during my first year.

Review: Some artists or albums are hardy perennials - they can be played almost any time of year and slot right in. For some reason, Jethro Tull are a seasonal band; I couldn't imagine spinning Heavy Horses or Songs From the Wood whilst the sun is shining. Very particularly, Aqualung is a winter album. Perhaps it's due to to the imagery of the title track, with its ice and 'December's foggy freeze'. It may be due to the seam of religion that runs throughout, which for some reason I've long associated with a dank coldness (the interiors of churches and cathedrals, perhaps?).

Or it might be that Aqualung goes well with the most deathly season because it sounds pretty goddamn deceased itself. I've got plenty of albums from eras where recording technology was still quite rudimentary, others whereby some creative studio trickery dates the music badly. I've even got a couple made by a sex offender in his basement. Whatever their flaws, none of them sound as dead as Aqualung. There are grime tracks recorded on mobile phones with more presence. The cardboard guitar in the video to Judas Priest's 'Breaking the Law' has better tonality than Martin Barre achieves. There are uncontacted tribes deep within the Amazon who have opinions about the production on Aqualung.

Let's be charitable. It was one of the first albums recorded at Island Record's Basing Street studios. Teething issues, an' all that. It's not as if any other album, being recorded at the exact same time at the exact same facility, sounds any good.

I've got more beef with Aqualung. About the only moment of human warmth and empathy on the entire collection comes early on, in the acoustic mid-section of 'Aqualung', where we are invited to feel sorry for the subject of the track, the titular tramp. For the rest of the album, Ian Anderson's lyrics are by turns arch and sneering, as if he's just that wee bit more clever than the listener. It's particularly insufferable on 'My God' and 'Hymn 43', which come across as 1971's equivalent of watching a YouTube atheist channel. (NB - please don't watch any atheist-themed YouTube content - it almost drove me, a staunch non-believer, to the seminary.)

Take, for example, Sparks - a band who are undoubtedly arch and oh-so-smart, but who wear their erudition lightly, and deploy a winking charm to make their references to Shakespeare, the Rockefellers and the human reproduction cycle slide down easily. Jethro Tull, alas, come across as dour as any carping Presbyter or dorm-room Maoist in their attempts to enlighten.

It's a shame, because putting aside the hectoring and shit production, Aqualung possesses the kernel of a prog classic. The electric guitar riff to 'Aqualung' is a blooter, and is rightly smashed out by greenhorns in guitar shops up and down the country. 'Cross-Eyed Mary' has some wonderfully angular guitar work, and is probably the leanest, dirtiest thing on the platter. 'Locomotive Breath' is another corker, an indomitable chugger that is nevertheless not as heavy as the version that plays in my head. It also sounds like a rubber band is part of the instrumentation. Ah, fuck it, 'Locomotive Breath' properly smokes.

Even 'Hymn 43' doesn't sound so bad, if you ignore the lyrics. In fact, it would have fit in very nicely on Atomic Rooster's Death Walks Behind You, an album that I like very much.  Pick of the bunch for me is 'Mother Goose', not only for its delightfully absurd lyrics, but because it best resembles the twisted folk that would appear on my favourite Tull joint, Songs From the Wood. Hey, maybe I'm being tough on Aqualung because it's not Songs From the Wood! Maybe!

Look, I can take the sermonising if the music sounded immaculate, and it doesn't. I still like this weird, somewhat cerebral little beast but it could certainly do with someone like Steve Wilson to give this a bit of remastering spit and polish. Oh, and I was wrong earlier on - contrary to my claims that Aqualung was altogether bloodless, 'Wond'ring Aloud' possesses a lot of heart. It's rather beautiful, in fact.

NB - my CD version of Aqualung contains a rather interesting interview with Ian Anderson about Aqualung. In the interests of fairness, it's not just me who thinks the album doesn't quite sound right; Anderson uses a portion of the conversation to bemoan the production, and the difficulties of getting decent performances on tape in the particular studio Jethro Tull were assigned.