Strait to the Point: JAPAN – Adolescent Sex (1978)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 3.5/5
As if ye needed any more proof that the 80s started in ’78…

Japan may have never associated themselves with the New Romantics, but you can certainly see why they were lumped in with the movement. The New Romantic bands were a twinkle in Steve Strange’s eye in 1978, but Japan bore many of the style’s hallmarks already, and I’m not just referring to the makeup. Basslines borrowed from funk and disco? Check. Spacey, futuristic synths? Check. An effeminate, silken set of lead vocals? Well, OK – not yet. That’d come later. David Sylvian, at this point, sounded as if he’d just eaten a bowl of small round pebbles for breakfast. He doesn’t sound macho, but he certainly does sound rough, and he’s got one volume: loud. It gets a little grating after a while, I guess – would it kill him to stop shouting for one minute? Then again, it’s not as if the music here ever quietens down much either. No ballads here, that’s for sure – just a bunch of blazin’ loud funk-rockers.

The monotony is a bit of a flaw, and it’s not the only one. Sylvian’s not a great hookster, either; most of his hooks on this album are fairly anemic and underwritten, although he manages to pull a couple of them off anyway thanks to sheer vocal charisma. “Lovers On Main Street”‘s hook barely counts as a hook at all – it’s just the titular phrase being near-tunelessly sung once – but the way Sylvian sardonically transforms the word “Street” into “Strrrrrrraaaaaaaaeeeeeeeeeeet” salvages the whole thing. Then there’s “Wish You Were Black”, which has this pre-chorus segment that feels like it’s building up to a hook before suddenly diving away at the last moment, and it sounds cool enough to make up for the fact that, really, it’s the sound of Sylvian himself diving away from having to write a proper hook at all. S’all good, though, and there are a couple of legitimately good hooks here too if you look. “Communist China” has the best, with its steadily building hook culminating in a grandiose guitar riff, and the title track’s hook isn’t bad either (though the little mid-verse mini-hooks in that song are better). Elsewhere, though, the hooks are barely present at all. Is that a problem? Eh, sorta – some more hooks woulda been nice, for sure, but the album’s got enough riffs and basslines to get by.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but Mick Karn is a really good bassist. He’s not actually at his best on this album, in that he is merely playing really good funk basslines rather than breaking new ground and innovating his own style like he’d do later in Japan’s career, but I’ve no problem with that – all these songs feel super movable and danceable thanks to him. Well, OK, not JUST him – the drumming (courtesy of Steve Jansen) is pretty great too, and there’s always a great guitar riff (presumably contributed by Rob Dean, though possibly also by Sylvian himself sometimes) to complete the groove. Dean’s a pretty good guitarist, but I gotta say most of his solos leave me cold; he gets three big ones here, and two of them – on “Transmission” and “Television” – are fairly boring strings of shredding clichés. The solo he gets on “Suburban Love”, though, is full of enough unexpected twists and tonal experiments to hold my interest the whole way through, and it’s paired with a couple of great synth & electric piano solos. I mean, you could say the entire track is just one big wank-off, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a pretty great wank-off, so who cares? 

I’ve got less to say about the rest, though. “Don’t Rain On My Parade” is a cover (you can tell because it’s got a better hook than Sylvian was capable of writing at this time!), and it sounds pretty much like the rest of the stuff here except with some cool, future-computer synth sounds bubbling away underneath; “Performance” is kinda fun, in that it’s basically a straight-up funk song with 90s alt-rock vocals; “Transmission” has a very nice riff and a nice sense of bitterness… y’know, it’s all pretty good, but at the same time none of it strikes me as remotely essential. Still, I shouldn’t complain too hard. It’s good fun, the guitar tone is pretty consistently nice, and none of the songs are bad; the fact that none of them are really all that good isn’t enough to rain on my parade. I gotta say one thing, though: what was it with the late 70s/early 80s and fascism? Sylvian here sing about “Fascist graffiti” on “Performance”, ABC sang about democracy and fascism on “Many Happy Returns”, Heaven 17 had “Fascist Groove Thang”… I mean, I approve of the sentiment, but why then? It’d been a full 30 years since the vanquishing of fascism in Europe and another full 30 until it’d reappear in bulk. Why can’t we have this sort of anti-fascist music now? Lawd knows we need it…

TYRANNOSAURUS REX – Unicorn (1969)

Review by: Andreas Georgi

Album assigned by: Ali Ghoneim

In the USA, where I grew up and live, T-Rex is known for the one song that was a hit on American rock radio, correctly named “Get It On”, but euphemistically renamed “Bang a Gong”. This is a damn shame because they (he – Marc Bolan, actually) made a bunch of really great and unique albums. I do not know the two albums before this one, but this one is generally considered a step up. “Unicorn” is their 3rd album, and the last featuring percussionist Steve Peregrine Took. Bolan fired him later that year for a variety of issues – drug habits, attitude, etc. In a sense it’s a shame because, even though Marc Bolan was always the driving force of T-Rex – really he WAS T-Rex, Took was actually quite a talented guy. This is the last album before a transition to electric rock and glam stardom over the next 3 albums. Listeners who are only familiar with “Get It On” or with the “Electric Warrior” albums will be quite surprised by this album. This album is still almost entirely acoustic, with Bolan playing acoustic guitar & vocals, and Took on various percussion, harmony vocals and other assorted instruments. There are a number of elements which were definitely played down on T-Rex’s later glam stuff, namely a fair amount of surrealist weirdness and dissonant vocals (“bleating” (as George S put it) and “Punch and Judy” have been used as descriptions) which might be an acquired taste for some. If I had to describe the music, picture a cross of Donovan, Syd Barrett, and themes from Tolkien and William Blake. It’s very much of its time (1969), but does not fare worse for it at all. It’s not dated – it’s timeless! I won’t give a song by song description, but it’s a solid album. The last song features a poem narrated by John Peele.

I would recommend the version of the album with the extra tracks. Most of them are alternate takes of songs on the album and are fine, but no great revelations. There are, however, two versions each of the A and B sides of the single following this album, which still featured Took, “King of the Rumbling Spires” / “Do You Remember?”, both of which are great. The A side is the first Tyrannosaurus Rex song to feature an overtly hard, electric sound, along with a wonderfully dissonant melotron at the end, and is one of their highlights, I think. The B side is great too. The single version features Bolan on lead vocals and Took harmonizing, while the alternate take reverses the roles, with Steve Peregrine Took on lead vocals, and Bolan accompanying. It’s revelatory how good Took is, actually (in both roles). Alas, only room for one ego in the band. Of course the first T-Rex album you should get is “Electric Warrior”, but do not neglect this one or several others which are great. All the albums from this one through “Tanx” in 1973 are must-haves for fans of T-Rex. 

Five stars – Thumbs Up!

This review is also on Amazon here.

PAUL SIMON – The Paul Simon Songbook (1965)

Review by: Charly Saenz

Album assigned by: Ifran Hidayatullah

After recording Simon & Garfunkel’s first album, Paul Simon decided to take a trip through Europe, playing in clubs here and there (sometimes with Artie), to find his own inspiration and in the process also finding his first muse, Mary Chitty (whom we’ll know as “Kathy”), a sweet and shy seventeen year old girl he fell in love with. 

It was 1965 and he recorded this solo album where Kathy even appears in the cover, including some songs that later would become part of the S&G repertoire. 

So this is it, a bohemian solo album of self-discovery and young love. There we find the gorgeous ballads, the most interesting probably being “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall” (highly enhanced by the duo’s version a year later) “Leaves that are green”, about the passage of time from the view of an old man aged 22 and the S&G classics, “April Come She Will” (where I probably miss Art Garfunkel a bit) and of course, “Kathy’s Song”: Mary should be proud.

The two great classics for the duo, next year’s “I Am A Rock” and “Sound Of Silence” in these naked performances add another dimension to the folk rock versions we know so well. The first one sounds more defiant every second as Paul reaches the conclusion and “Sound Of Silence” (in singular) becomes a protest song instead of a lament over miscommunication. In the same lyrical line, there’s “A Most Peculiar Man” (it will work better in my opinion in the “Sounds Of Silence” album, also after the great “Richard Cory”, the tracklist order matters, you know). 

“Side Of The Hill” is probably the jewel of the collection; a fantastic song on its own right, would later become the “Canticle”, somehow lost in the beauty of the classic “Scarborough Fair”. That song and the fantastic “Patterns” would be part of “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” in 1966. I think the “political” songs work better here than in S&G’s first album, where the production didn’t really help, and no production is better than inadequate production. “He was my brother”, specially has a perfect tone. “A Simple Desultory Philippic” sounds like a live recording, and that does work for the acid and informal tone of the song (a sincere attempt at a Dylan style, who’s even mentioned in the song). So this album, in songwriting terms, would be the base for the real success of Paul and Artie next year. All of the songs were here. Just needed that “folk rock” blessing (thank you, Byrds) and a witty producer. Kathy would not sit well with fame and would leave the boat, but the songs will stay forever and the mindless promise of love and only love… 

“And so you see I have come to doubt 
All that I once held as true 
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.”

BILL NELSON – The Love That Whirls (Diary of a Thinking Heart) (1982)

Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Album assigned by: Michael Strait

This was completely new to me, but because of Bill’s involvement with Be-bop deluxe (which I still plan to get into, after hearing it’s a mix of glam and prog, with rock overtones), I was very interested. Bill Nelson solo is very different. Upon first listening I thought this to be a mix between Ultravox/Eurythmics (somewhat intelligent synth pop) and David Sylvian (vocal stylings and overall ambitious epicness). As I’d never heard of him before, you can safely assume that he was not extremely successful in the 80’s and / or that this type of music completely passed me by at the time (35 years ago…). After further listening I can confirm both those assumptions AND explain them.

On the one hand, it IS definitely synth pop, not my favourite type of pop music, which in turn is hardly my favourite musical genre. Especially the drum (computer) sound annoys, and his voice has this quality that I always associate with Talking Heads and the Cure: slightly mechanical, trying to communicate as little emotions as possible, apart from depressed nervousness and general anxiety. In some songs his voice jumps an octave mid-sentence (or mid-syllable), also very much of its time. This sort of explained why it escaped my attention upon release.

However, explaining why it never made it big is actually the total opposite: if you allow for the drum sound and the vocals, this is actually highly intelligent music. There are soaring melodies, reaching almost prog rock epicness. There are weird guitar sounds, suggesting mastery of the instrument, there are nice solos over synth ‘vamps’, there are interesting vibes (still synths, I gather), instrumental breaks that (somewhat) take away the poppy element, a few nice instrumentals and most importantly, there is a level of sophistication that completely elevates it from your general synth pop record. 

In quite a few ways this album for me resembles David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down (and predates it by five years). Now that’s not Bowie’s best album by a long shot, but Never Let Me Down does what it sets out to do as magnificently as 1. Outside. Same here, I feel. Right at the beginning of one of the worst decades for music, with all the silly fashionable synthesizer sounds, synthetic drums and weird vocal stylings, Bill Nelson produces (out of nowhere, perhaps, I don’t know) a highly entertaining pop record. I think his career deserves to be thoroughly researched…

ARIANA GRANDE – Dangerous Woman (2016)

Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Album assigned by: Michael Strait

Ariana Grande is 23 years old and American, from Boca Raton, Florida. She’s mainly a singer, but plays some keyboard apparently. The first song, Moonlight, starts promising. Somewhat girly, for all those adolescents and paedophiles out there. I do not like the song, but I have to admire her voice, even if she overdoes the girly mannerisms constantly. A little bit like Whitney Houston, albeit a little lower. The second song, Dangerous Woman, suggests she wants to assert herself. It turns into a powerful ballad. Very well produced, but somewhat slick.

The third song, Be Alright, is rather pathetic, your typical American dance number, 1980’s Madonna, with 2010’s production values. 

Into You starts somewhat promising, with a nice bass line. But again the finger clicks join the conversation. The speeded up section sounds a little contrived, but again, I somehow have to respect her vocal chords, no matter how Madonna-y they sound to me. But it’s generic pop.

Side To Side is a duet with Nicki Minaj. It does not add a whole lot to differentiate it from the rest.

It is immediately followed by Let Me Love You, which is a duet with Lil Wayne, obviously a man. Greedy is the worst so far. The ingredients may not be too bad, a 1970’s Chic bass line, some 1980’s Prince hand claps, some 90’s synthesized horns, but the end result is the worst of all possible worlds. Leave Me Lonely, again a duet, this time with Macy Gray, sounds like a 007 song, somewhere between Adele and Shirley Bassey. 

I progressively lose interest. While listening to the rest, I’ll stop giving song-by-song comments. It may be perfect pop, but then I’m no perfect audience for pop. I get the strange feeling that I’m listening to this not to please Michael Strait, but to understand him. Yes, she can sing. Yes, this is (probably) good pop music. It serves a purpose: entertaining the young of heart and mind, getting people to dance, and spreading a message of love, or so I assume. But in what way could this possibly bring music as an art form, or as a way of expressing yourself, forward? 

This is work, this is business (and successful at that), but it has no redeeming value at all. It feels synthetic, loveless, run of the mill girl pop. In retrospect, one could undoubtedly say the same of the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Ronettes and a bunch of other ones in the 60’s, but no matter how formulaic, they were like 50 years earlier and revolutionized the music world in more ways than one!

Imagine an updated Volkswagen New Beetle, in shape and form, to target the same market segment, half a century after the original. If VW does it, it’s charming, innocent nostalgia, building on an archetype. If Toyota would build it, it would look like a silly cash grab. That’s how I feel about Ariana Grande. No doubt, she’s as capable as Toyota, but what’s the deal? I do not feel the need to ever hear this kind of music again; I must be a dad-rocker…

Verdict: she can definitely sing. Her chosen style is rather monotonous and silly; it will get out of fashion pretty soon I guess. I suggest she tries some other things. A bit like Lady Gaga singing with Tony Bennett, but different. For instance a power ballad with Alice Cooper to convince me of her talent in an interesting way.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: SPLIT ENZ – Time and Tide (1982)

Review by: Nina A


Split Enz are one of my most favourite bands ever but for the uninitiated they seem to be perceived as what Neil Finn was doing before he got himself a new band, wrote “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and thereby reserved an eternal spot on vh1’s So 80’s or One Hit Wonders playlists for himself. By the way, Split Enz also had a hit in the US with “I Got You” from the 1980 album True Colours (another Neil-penned track), and although it only reached #53 it went to #1 in both their native New Zealand and current residence of Australia and made them known to the world as this poppy new wave band. Need I say, they were saaaw maaahch moaar!!!!
By the time Time and Tide arrived in 1982, the band had arguably reached their creative peak (or at least their post-1977 lineup had): in a year or two, frontman Tim Finn would become enamoured with his solo projects and disinterested with the band’s career enough to effectively break it up but for now he had a lot to say because he was going through a rough patch of his life. How do I know? Well…
Split Enz had always had “quirky” written on their business card, and the whimsical stage performances and elaborate costumes and stage make-up (courtesy to percussionist Noel Crombie) was what stood out about them but deep down they had enough charming personality to attract a devout fanbase – one that formed as an official fan club way back in 1976 and to this day spends time reminiscing about events, posting pictures and documenting every single detail of the band’s career online. It is obvious that to them (and me) every Split Enz album is special in a different way but the real question here is, if you are not really invested in Tim Finn’s nervous breakdown, or the story of Neil Finn meeting Sandy Allen (“the world’s tallest woman”, as the next line of the song proclaims likely because they had no Wikipedia back then) in New York, or how Noel took on the daunting drumming responsibilities after former drummer Mal Green left the band, does this album have anything to offer to you, listener, and is it really all that good?
In my opinion it is as good as the Enz (yes, fans and press really called them that) get. A significant chunk of the weirdness is gone here, and even the costumes and weird make up are severely toned down, consisting of fitting the subject naval attire, to make way for a somewhat more honest emotional journey. It is really the emotional arc of the three main compositions here – opener “Dirty Creature”, the epic of “Pioneer/Six Months in a Leaky Boat”, which is the centerpiece of this more or less conceptual album with a strong nautical undercurrent (he-he, puns), and Tim’s own autobiography in song format “Haul Away” – that makes the strongest case for this record. The main songwriters of the band post the major lineup overhaul of 1977 have been Tim and Neil, of course, with occasional sweeping instrumental contributions by keyboardist Eddie Rayner but this album is all about Tim and his emotional journey, so much so that it was called “Tim and Tide” by critics at the time. (Neil gets the spotlight on the next one, as fate would have it, but with the very different narrative of loving your wife and bringing a new life into this wide and imperfect world, which would probably be better appreciated by people aware of the joys of family life.)
Another thing this album has going for it is the tight playing on it – Noel Crombie, following his promotion to a drummer, brings a lot of taste and cymbal action to his energetic but steady druming and with Nigel Griggs’ super solid pulsating bass remaining a staple of the band’s sound, the rhythm section carry this album on its naval journey across the seas (more puns!). While Neil still hasn’t developed his trademark sensitive new-romantic vocal modulation that you can hear all over the Crowded House catalogue and his singing can get a bit flat at times, Tim does a fair bit of chewing the scenery on here and balances intimate and theatrical in a very entertaining way. Another good thing about Time and Tide is that despite this being the 80s and keyboard-wiz Eddie Rayner being still very much at the heart of the Enz’s wall-of-soundy sound, the record doesn’t sound dated or cheesy at all. The production and more specifically the arrangements bring out the best in each tune and succeeds in emphasizing the nautical theme – somehow achieving the sound of the sunset-lit sea on the cover. The final strength I wish to address is the pop sensibility, for despite the energy and wit and unconventional arrangements (well, for the world of pop) these are deep down straightforward catchy pop numbers.
“Dirty Creature” opens here with its driving rhythm and a world of metaphors about er… um… psychological struggle? Panic attacks, to be more specific, which are personified by the mythical Māori beast Taniwha. Binding and gagging Tim’s wits and doing other scary stuff. Next up is the gentler “Giant Heartbeat”, which was written on top of a bass line that Nigel Griggs had come up with, and I think it is here where Neil starts really developing his vague lyrical approach about whatever that somehow so sums up the human condition. Anyway, the song builds nicely and ends on a cool held vocal, leaving the floor for “Hello Sandy Allen”, a song about how we’re all really beautiful or appearance doesn’t really matter all that much or something that gets a pass here because it was written before this trope became widely abused, and also Neil seems to have been sincerely impressed by meeting Ms. Sandy Allen and really digested the event and come up with this conclusion on his own. Also, who cares, the song is so catchy and infectiously happy.
“Never Ceases to Amaze Me” is, on the other hand, super camp, and the video has become somewhat notorious with Tim wearing afro wig and the rest of the band dressed in Star Trek suits materialising in this… zoo… in which he apparently works and examining… these strange hu-man ways… yeah, I think the band have since said that this clip is somewhat embarrasing and they shouldn’t have done it. Despite all this however, the track is not a waste at all with some over the top vocal delivery, energetic drums and ascending bass lines. The following track “Lost for Words”, as well as the album closer “Make Sense of It” are a good use of your Tim Finn and his energetic and frantic stage persona, while the more basic Green Aesop midtempo “Small World” is brought to life by the really effective contrast of driving rhythm and shimmery synths and guitars.
This is followed “Take a Walk” – my favourite number on the album – which also rides an energy wave and delivers a coolish piano solo right after Neil shouts “Run. Boy. Forever AND EVEEEEEER”. Now, I think this song is somewhat prone to word salad moments such as “Funny when we move ahead // Never worry what we leave behind // Remember what a friend of mine said // You gotta be kiiiiind”. And have courage perhaps, then? Is your friend really Cinderella’s mom?
Slowly but surely we have made our way to the sweeping “Pioneer” – Eddie Rayner’s only contribution on this album – which does its best to evoke the ocean at night and with its final elated chord even flash a lighthouse’s welcoming flash of light. And then…
This has to be indeed the centrepiece of this album, not only in its emotional sincerity and a strong motif of overcoming but also because it approaches musical epicness with the glorious introduction of “Pioneer” and the wonderfully trailing coda (not to mention a small sailor song-like break in the middle). Apart from resolving to conquer and set free, the song also explores somewhat remoteness and isolation of the antipodean lands, namedropping the history book on Australia “The Tyranny of Distance” as a way to illustrate psychological isolation, I am sure. An interesting fact is that “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” was banned during the Falklands war in the UK because talk of leaky boats was concerning.
This epic is immediately followed by “Haul Away” in which Tim visits chapters of his life while the instrumentation builds from verse to verse. As an additional nice touch, right after he sings “ambition has lost me friends and time” there is a quick sample from “Split Ends” – one of the bands very first songs from way back when a bunch of friends in a quirky acoustic combo were trying to win some New Zealand tv contest for exposure.
A turn to the darker follows on the penultimate “Log Cabin Fever” by Neil, in which a claustrophobic menacing atmosphere builds up until it is released with the line “Time to break away from my condition // Rejoin the human race, see what I’m missing”. And then the song proceeds to rock out.
It is left to the jangly guitars and somewhat drunk bass on “Make Sense of It” to conclude this album.
As for our conclusion, Time and Tide may not be a milestone in any sense of musical development but it is one of those complete package albums. The sound of it is as delightful as the cover art. It is fun and quirky but also resonates emotionally, and not one second of it is filler or boring. With themes of overcoming obstacles and asserting yourself, and some nice nods to seafaring and adventure, all brought out to shine with some tasteful arrangements, I’d say the record even verges on timeless. While Split Enz’s debut Mental Notes is an exhibition artful quirk and offbeat music hall extravaganza, and the hit album True Colours brings you catchy shiny polished new wave, it is Time and Tide, in my opinion, that is the most complete offering in the Split Enz catalogue. But more than that, as I said in the beginning, the real charm of the Enz that won them over their cult following is perhaps not the whimsical presentation of their early days that must have so impressed people. No, I think the reason people still spin these songs and talk about the band fondly is that the Enz are deep down these straightforward kiwi lads, and while earlier albums painted them into this misfit deadpan snarker role, on Time and Tide they look much more like the protagonists of children novels who may have grown up a bit but still have not lost their thirst for adventure. And this is why I’d always recommend this album.

АКВАРИУМ (AQUARIUM) – Навигатор (Navigator) (1995)

Review by: Nina A

Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Am I always glad to spend some more time in the philosophical company of the only Russian musician we have heard of on this blog – namely the great otherworldly bearded bardic guru Boris Borisovich Grebenshchikov. He certainly wasn’t always bearded though and while I have no idea what the progress of his facial hair was by 1995, which is when Navigator got released, what I do know is that after the fall of the Berlin wall, Mr. Grebenshchikov had also already tried to use this new opportunity to export his creative efforts to the West. Here, Wikipedia tells us that he didn’t quite make it and this could be partly attributed to the fact that Russian song tradition emphasizes lyrical complexity over hook and drive, which in the West earned him comparisons to Dylan and not much chart success, and I think it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that his music was considered for one of the two primordial categories (has hooks: “ooh, Beatle-esque pop!!” vs. has an emphasis on lyrical content: “ooh, Dylan!!!”), as you do, in musical critique, with anything that is new.
Saddened with this new development, Mr. Grebenshchikov decided to go full-on Russian apparently and released the so-called Russian Album, a beautiful acoustic folk-rock affair that relies even more on Russian songwriting tradition, and later, in 1995 came Navigator, which continued in this unmistakably Russian bardic vein with some French chanson flavour and bluesy touches (fourth track “Не коси”’s blues guitar contributed by Mick Taylor stands out here) for good measure. The album was recorded in London, so it also featured contributions by Dave Pegg on the double bass and Dave Mattacks on drums. And since it made use of a bunch of additional instruments: strings, flute, recorder, harpsicord, accordion, mandolin, Tibetan drums, I was curious to look to a previous eclectic Aquarium effort, and nothing spells eclecticism quite like a Russian album named Radio Africa with some Chinese characters plastered on top of a photo taken at the Gulf of Finland, for comparison. While on 1988’s Radio Africa the creative use of the additional instruments to drive the beat or make the texture of the music more complex can rock your socks off with delight, here on Navigator these instruments serve more of a background atmosphere role because it is the bardic narration that takes the front and centre. This is especially so on the title track “Навигатор”, which can really be used as a textbook example of a touching bardic ballad. Well, if you are touched by this type of thing, anyway.
And for all the talk of Dylan, I think that namedropping Mark Knopfler would also not be too out of reach here because didn’t Mr. Knopfler also have a reputation for being a young man who writes good music for old people? (at around 40 at the time of Navigator’s release, Mr. Grebenshchikov was not even eligible for a midlife crisis yet). But more importantly, I feel that both Mr. Knopfler and Mr. Grebenshchikov have been able to pull of songs that are pretty much driven by a lyrical narration and have a comforting melancholy sound with remarkable ease. However, while the majority of Mark Knopfler’s narrations are concerned with ordinary life drama, with most of Boris Grebenshchikov’s composition aspire to levels of Byronic spleen and irony paired with incredible erudition, a combination that has over the years become somewhat of a staple for the model tortured soviet artist (and while soviet times are safely behind us, such artistic types still hang around, inexplicably, mostly in the sphere of fine arts and film education, proudly passing this refined tradition onto their students). Still, Boris Grebenshchikov was made to pull this archetype off and make it very likeable: let’s not forget his friendly melancholy voice of ancient wisdom, talent for lyrical detail and the aforementioned erudition that allows him to slip in the occasional religious or mythological detail for full impact. It is really comforting in a sense when he tackles this aesthetic in his music, and whatever the wry commentary in a particular song might be, you’d accept it with the “I know what you’re talking about” reserved for your closest friends with which you’ve suffered the blows of fate together for God knows how long… yeah, the 90s weren’t the most cheerful of eras in Eastern Europe.
Anyway, Navigator is a fine record put together with loving care and intelligence, featuring no less than two accordion-driven waltzy numbers, two bluesy tracks, a rousing folk epic (track 3 – “Кладбище”) and a whole lot of gentle intimate singing in the finest Russian bardic tradition. The reaction it got out of me was “aww, how cute and so very admirably authentic” but it might get some even more cathartic reactions from other listeners and truly cement Boris Borisovich Grebenshchikov’s status of everyone’s favourite great otherworldly bearded bardic guru.