Sunday, 24 May 2020

Gaucho - Steely Dan

Provenance: By the time I had purchased Gaucho I was deep into 'the Dan'. So, it was the purchase of a fan seeking to be a completist. About the only notable thing one could say is that I bought it in Kansas City. Fine BBQ out there, folks.

Review: The first time I slipped Gaucho into my stereo I frowned, wrinkled my nose and stashed it away for a few years. Something about it triggered an internal revolt. I struggled to square this with the questing solos of Countdown To Ecstasy or the deep jazz grooves of Aja.

I'd like to say that my innate natural curiosity and generous approach to reappraisal led me back, but the truth is I saw Steely Dan in concert and heard a few of the songs from Gaucho played live. They sounded great. I came home and put Gaucho on, and heard the same songs as I'd heard at Wembley Arena. They sounded great.

This would be the last album Steely Dan made before splitting in 1981 (they would reunite in 1993 and record two more platters) and it shows. Two years after Gaucho, Donald Fagen would unleash The Nightfly onto the world, and to say that these albums could be kissing cousins is an understatement. The production is similar, the arrangements have the same feel and even the synthesizer textures are alike. One crucial difference - I liked The Nightfly the instant I listened to it. I didn't need time to let it grow, or to witness the compositions in another context. So what's the difference?

For one, drugs. This is Steely Dan's drug album - or, more accurately, their cocaine album. It's not just the references in 'Hey Nineteen' and 'Time Out Of Mind', concealed with a gossamer-thin layer of metonym and allusion; it's also the backbone to the vignettes in 'Glamour Profession', which delineates a few of the characters involved in the coke trade game. Moreover, it's not only the subject matter at hand but even the very consistency of the sound you're hearing that screams Bolivian marching powder. Surfaces shine with a flat glossiness, rhythms snap with a jaw-grinding lockstep, synths gleam and shimmer with an antiseptic chemistry.

At first, this is what turned me off. Even when factoring in Becker and Fagen's notorious perfectionism, prior albums still had a human heartbeat and the odd ray of romanticism glinting through the carapace of cynicism, obscurantism and wisecracks. Gaucho, in comparison, felt tired, numbed, a kind of end-of-the-party sourness creeping in.

Well children, I started to buy the particular brand of weltschmerz the boys were selling. Leaning in, I found oodles to savour. The slickness combines nicely with the subjects - narcotics, ageing lotharios, Hollywood homosexuality scandals, possible PTSD - into a sickly brew of L.A.-flavoured sleaziness. As a downbeat chronicle of a gilded demimonde and the lowlifes slithering around in it, Gaucho remains unmatched.

So wallow in the reflective degeneracy of 'Babylon Sisters'; wince at rueful narrator of 'Hey Nineteen' determined not to act his age; and luxuriate in the frothing monument to perceived folly that is 'Gaucho' itself, a confection that starts off sounding like the theme to a low-budget breakfast chat show and builds to a mock-epic tower of grandeur, each jazzy augmentation of the usual rawk 'n' pop chord progression tugging you ever so slightly off centre. I've heard interpretations of the song talking about gauche (geddit?) roommates or friends, but to me I hear two film buffs ruminating upon the secret homosexual lives led by movie stars like Rock Hudson, or maybe some minor player like Perfecto Telles. The latter wouldn't surprise me.

There's great stuff all over - the bleak 'Third World Man', which hitches a mournful, swaying riff to harrowing tales of shellshock, is apparently one of Joni Mitchell's favourite Dan tracks; and 'My Rival' is possibly the most old skool track on this joint, which sounds like a larky, Sunshine Boys-inspired tale of two geezers with beef, but might also be about fatherhood. That their songs wind, twist, reflect and elide like MC Escher illustrations is just one of the buzzy little thrills afforded to the serious Dan fan.

Gaucho took its time to reveal its charms to me. At first, I didn't really understand it. Now, it's the Steely Dan album that most frequents my stereo. Funny how things shake out, isn't it?

Sunday, 17 May 2020

The Allman Brothers Band - The Allman Brothers Band

Provenance: I don't know when and where I got this. As with a few other bands I've reviewed on this blog, owning an Allmans platter or two feels a bit like the 'done thing' for anyone who wants to be considered a serious rock guy (which I assuredly do - almost as much as I'd like to one day be considered a 'football man').

A couple of clues though; thanks to an ex-girlfriend I have a Molly Hatchet 'best of', which contains the track 'Dreams'; plus somewhere in my dad's Zappa collection is a live rendition of 'Whipping Post'. My esteem for both of these recordings may very well have tipped the balance when it came to making a purchase.

Review: Approaching the Allman Brothers feels like more than just an appraisal of a single album. For many, they are totemic of a time and a place; a group whose craft and musicianship hauled southern rock - mixing together blues, boogie, soul and country - out of the juke joint and into the arena. The Allmans, more than anyone else, broke ground on a subgenre that would catapult the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, Black Oak Arkansas, .38 Special, Blackfoot, the Marshall Tucker Band and the rest into the rock-buying public's consciousness. Despite those they dragged in their wake, the Allmans were also sumthin' else - nobody played a sweeter slide than Duane Allman, or jammed out harder (witness Eat a Peach); and, save for the notable exception of Skynyrd, nobody rivalled the Allmans for the twin tragedies of early deaths and substance abuse.

So, to their debut - and it's easy to hear why they cast such a long shadow. Almost every ingredient that would season the successes of other southern rock acts is present - some took one or two elements, others would port the template across wholesale. There's the gospel organ, swallow-dive guitar runs, white soul vocals and a bedrock of blooze upon which the confection sits. In fact, about the only influence that isn't discernible in these boys from Macon, Georgia, is an overt country influence; certainly not when stacked up against a barroom weepy like Skynyrd's 'Tuesday's Gone', or the backwoods zen of Black Oak Arkansas's 'High 'N' Dry'.

In fact, on opening instrumental 'Don't Want You No More', 'Every Hungry Woman' and 'Black Hearted Woman', there's another flavour that seems incongruous; perhaps my ears are playing up, but I hear a lot of early Santana in The Allman Brothers Band. These songs are essentially interchangeable with cuts from the first two Santana albums, their self-titled debut and Abraxas; both 'Evil Ways' and 'Hope You're Feelin' Better' could grace this album without seeming out of place. You wouldn't blink at a touch of Latin rock or a smattering of congas (indeed, the latter are present on 'Every Hungry Woman'). This certainly sounds more like Abraxas than, say, Strikes or High on the Hog.

Is it good though? Ain't that the point of a review? Yeah, it's good. But fifty years of chesty white guys pumping the blues at megawatt volumes and spooging all over their fretboards has, alas, diluted the impact a little. Greg Allman is a fine vocalist, and his organ work really does take some of these tracks to church in an appealing way. Rhythmically it's all pretty interesting too, a jazz influence discernible in the drumming (the finest example can be found on 'Dreams') and nimble interplay between percussionists Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks (which doesn't always pay off). Nonetheless, of everything on here, it's the approach taken on 'Trouble No More' which has proved the most enduring - a big ol' sledgehammer that works well enough here but has spawned a thousand more workmanlike, leaden imitators.

At  least the juddery rhythms and soaring glories of 'Whipping Post' are still worth the price of admission alone. Yes, yet another song of a woman who dun him wrong (like, half the tracks here, goddamn - you'd think that stadium rockers playing to full houses of adoring fans never had any luck!) but it's a good'un. Better - it's a reet belter. Overall, worth a look - especially if you like Santana.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Angry Machines - Dio

Provenance: This one's a bit weird.

A few of my colleagues at work know I'm a bit of a metalhead; nonetheless I was surprised when a pal in another department emailed me to ask if I wanted eight Dio albums for free. Of course I did.

According to the people in that office, a ratty old carrier bag had been left lying around containing eight Dio albums for about six months. Nobody knows from whence they came or who might have owned them. I'm thrilled that a Dio fanatic may have been moving quietly amongst their ranks this whole time.

Anyway, my theory is that the late Ronnie James Dio sent them through a timewarp from an alternate dimension to round out my Dio collection. These holes in the space-time continuum are a bit fuzzy and offworld-RJD probably didn't realise I had four of those albums already (since palmed off to my brother), leaving me to enjoy the span of Dream Evil to Angry Machines releases, generally considered a fallow period.

And so boys, girls and friends beyond the binary, here it is - 1996's Angry Machines.

Review: My word, those machines do look rather peeved!

The whole deal with robots turning on their creators is not only bound up with their conception - the word, of Czech origin, was introduced into English via a play by Karel Capek called Rossum's Universal Robots, which ends when the robots, er, turn on their creators. This is a very cool and heavy metal thing to do, as some rockin' tunes have come out from this ceaseless conflict - Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man', Judas Priest's 'Metal Gods', a bunch of Clutch stuff, UDO's 'Man and Machine':

Dio - the man - is not usually associated with this kind of jazz. Or, more accurately, he's very closely associated with a particular strain of lyricism - magic, wizards, dragons, rainbows and such. This is also pretty metal, but also absolute nerd shit, so Angry Machines is a welcome swerve into unfamiliar territory. He does this with a slightly rag-tag band, borrowing bits of Dokken and Love/Hate alongside hard rock's very own Zelig, Vinny Appice, the Man of a Thousand Projects.

All the stars are here...Jeff Pilson...Vinny Appice...Tracy G...
But enough crap about robots and personnel, what's the muzak actually like? Long-time readers might be surprised that I listen to my albums more than once (or even at all), and I had Twitter opinions on Angry Machines over a year ago:

Yeah, I quite liked it. And I quite like it now. Listen up Jack, it's no Holy Diver (what is?), and it's not even in the same tier as Dream Evil (because that's got 'Sunset Superman', which rules) but Angry Machines is a perfectly decent metal album, albeit replete with the pinched harmonic guitar sounds that seemed to riddle the genre at the end of the last millennium (NB: this tended to be something 'legacy' artists adopted to sound legit, when they weren't doing shamelessly chasing the nu-metal bandwagon).

As with most Dio cuts it starts off on a plodder, but 'Don't Tell the Kids' is the most bitchin' tune about divorce (lol) I've yet to hear; the next track after that, 'Black', is even better, with a nagging vocal hook and pounding lockstep riffing. Really - as per my tweet - this is all pretty solid, even if the lyrics reach a new zenith in gibberish. I have listened to 'Double Monday' (huh?) more than most humans and I still haven't the first idea what it's about. Meanwhile, 'Big Sister' is a slapdash appropriation of Orwell's Big Brother, except the gender has been changed from male to female and...that's it. It doesn't go anywhere or explore any interesting potentialities that could occur from framing this universal overseer into a maternal figure.

Besides, who's listening to Dio for lyrics? You're in the game for natural minor riffs and that gigantic, operatic, hammy bellow that was RJD's unique instrument. I can even look past the fact that there aren't that many angry machines actually depicted in the lyrics. What fucking sucks, though, is the last track, 'This Is Your Life'. Ronnie can really deliver on a rock ballad when the fancy takes him - 'As Long As It's Not About Love' from Magica is superlative, whilst one of his efforts in Rainbow, 'Rainbow Eyes', stands as one of the greatest examples of the form. 'This Is Your Life', on the other hand, is garbage.

The production on Angry Machines isn't too bad - a little dry, as was the fashion, but not anything radically different from any other Dio release until that point. Odd, then, that 'This Is Your Life', a piece for voice, piano and baby's first Casio keyboard, sets my teeth on edge. For obscure reasons it sounds really clangy and even out of tune - as if close-miking Mrs Mill's beer-slopped old upright was exactly what the closer to Angry Machines needed. To compound matters further, Dio - man capable of great subtlety when required (seriously, check out 'Rainbow Eyes') - positively moos all over this shit. He sounds like a bison with a headache, and drags the song into fresh realms of atrociousness.

Yes, there are missteps - two(!) songs introduced by nursery rhymes, a breakdown in 'Stay Out of My Mind' that sounds like a Looney Tunes cartoon - but these are venial sins in the grand scheme of it all. 'This Is Your Life', however, is a real dud, even more soporific and tiresome than Michael Aspel ambushing some c-list 'sleb with a poxy red book. Put it in the bin. Still, Angry Machines is worth a listen, though keep that finger at the ready to stop the show after track nine. Why ruin a good time?

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Eskimo - The Residents

Provenance: My first exposure to the Residents came through the written word. I did not hear anything of theirs - consciously at least - until I was pushing copies of Commercial Album, Third Reich and Roll and Eskimo into my CD player. It's all quite shocking, and I recommend it.

What drew me to the Residents was their impishness, their experimentation, their readiness to subvert accepted conventions of recorded music, and not least of all, their anonymity (I am a sucker for artists who conceal their real identities, even if in one or two cases they have a very good reason to do so).

Another experience, quite apart from music or even music journalism, drew me towards Eskimo. A few winters ago I had the privilege of spending some time in Chicago, and looking for indoor activities my partner and I went to the Field Museum, a mega-sized cross-pollination of London's very own Natural History Museum and British Museum. One of the more striking rooms was the Native North American Hall, which contained fascinating exhibits of, amongst other things, peoples living in the Arctic north of the continent. Of these artefacts, it was the ceremonial masks that stayed with me - haunting, terrible, funny, grotesque, conveying more even within the stasis of a glass box than words could. When used within the context of ritual - combined with music and movement - these masks must have projected a rare kind of power.

Review: This is almost impossible to review as music. In some ways, I long for the simple certainties of Status Quo or Riot, for as unadventurous as they are, they exist in a recognisable template of blues-based western rock music. I've mentioned before now my struggles with writing about jazz, despite listening to a fair amount (and having Professor of Jazz as an in-law - embarrassing!). This is an entirely different kettle of fish - or should I say, putrefied walrus? Eskimo is nothing less than an attempt to tell stories of these Indigenous Peoples via the medium of sound effects, music concrete and garbled speech. Imagine, if you will, an attempt to take you through the One Thousand and One  Nights stories solely using the soundboard from The Sims games, and...well, you're not close to getting it, but marginally closer to where you were.

Not only was I not prepared for all the above, I also found I was supposed to do some fucking reading in order to benefit fully from the Eskimo experience. The liner notes point towards the Residents website - what, I wonder, were audiences doing in 1979? - and suggest "for maximum enjoyment, this album should be listened to with headphones while reading the literal accounts of what you hear. Eskimo should be played in its entirety. A relaxed state of mind is essential. Warm clothing or a blanket should be within easy reach." Hard agreement with everything there, including the seemingly tongue-in-cheek throwaway last sentence.

There's nothing quite like Eskimo in my album collection. Even Gryphon's weird attempt to portray a chess match via instrumental prog doesn't come close to the immersion that Eskimo engenders. Through little more than textures, rhythmic drumming and treated chanting the listener is thrust into the icy polar midnight of the far north. Great swirls of white noise are used as a backdrop to the action, an unceasing howl at the core of the narrative. Not a single instrument possesses any notional quality of warmth. Some of the effects are harrowing - the whirring of the harpoon in 'The Walrus Hunt', and especially the cracking of the ice by the water spout, brought into existence through magic by a vengeful shaman on 'The Angry Angakok', are thrilling.

Most of the stories told through Eskimo are bleak, or contain threat. 'Birth' involves a perilous journey to an ice cave and an uncertain fate for the new-born; 'Arctic Hysteria' portrays the looming madness of lives lived within white-out bleakness; and 'A Spirit Steals a Child' is plainly terrifying, riven with the cries of infants and dogs barking into the night. My nodding acquaintance with the Residents had given me a false notion that there would be some levity in Eskimo, but this is as flat-out nightmarish as anything I've ever heard. It is only at the end of 'The Festival of Death' that anything like music breaks out - a last glimpse of something hopeful, bespeaking perhaps renewal or resurrection, to punctuate this astonishing litany of menace.

A curious thing, then. One could almost make a case for Eskimo's inclusion into the 'World Music' genre (the most idiotic and patronising genre yet conceived), although it stands for almost the opposite of the po-faced WOMAD-approved definition. Eskimo also makes a mockery of a raft of black metallers before that genre even came into being; their LARPing around in Scandinavian forests hissing about pagan deities comes across as cartoonish when met with the unyielding terror of the Residents' own images of the north.

Once, in Iceland, I ate hakarl, rotting shark essentially - not too dissimilar to some of the food that the Indigenous Peoples of the north would've eaten (and may still do). It was disgusting, easily the worst thing I've ever tried to eat. But it was fun, right? I was in the comfy confines of a Reykjavik cafe, and the next day I was heading to a thermal spring to wallow around in. It's fun to pretend you're doing something daring, when in reality you're as far away from grim reality as one could be. Remarkable, then, that a pranksterish surrealist art collective from Louisiana can take you, over the course of thirty-nine minutes, one or two steps closer.